Saturday, June 27, 2009

TIME TO CHALLENGE THE DISCOURSE

Harry Targ

Social scientists and literary theorists in recent years have used the term “discourse” to suggest a way of thinking and talking about a subject. For some, a “discourse” sets the boundaries around which acceptable communications can occur. Some subjects can be part of the “discourse” and others not. Subjects which are excluded get excluded for a variety of reasons, but politics and social control reasons are primary. In short, people can talk about some subjects and not others.

We can say that what we can legitimately talk about is shaped by the distribution of political power in society, so class, race, and gender are important. Also, powerful institutions, such as governments, churches, corporations, and media, through their exercise of power in society, can determine what is talked about.

With the onset of the Cold War whole bodies of thought, sets of ideas, policy proposals were defined as beyond the discourse because they were “communist” or “socialist.” Policy recommendations that might redistribute the wealth could not be discussed for example.

With the political and cultural ferment of the 1960s, the boundaries of legitimate discourse broadened and young people demanded that we discuss the hitherto undiscussable-US imperialism, the military-industrial complex, building community, participatory democracy etc.

The Reagan revolution clamped down on the broadening discourses of the 60s. In fact, discussions about politics, economics, and culture were reconceptualized in such a way as to assume the primacy of the individual, the sanctity of private property, the hegemony of religiosity, the particular virtue of profit making, and the diabolical role of government. Discourses concerning public problems narrowed dramatically. Today we live with the consequences of the narrowing discourse of thirty years of the Reagan revolution.

No question our problems today concern political economy and the struggle for power. But our problems also reflect our inability to engage in broad-ranging discourses about public problems. We need to learn to think and talk again about alternative ways of organizing society. Many of these were commonly discussed in the 1960s but were purged from the Reagan era discourses.

For starters can we discuss and debate the following:

-a guaranteed annual income for all who engage in productive labor
-decentralization of political institutions based on principles of participatory democracy
-urban, city, and neighborhood planning
-creating public spaces for socializing, performances, artistic display
-free schools for all who want to teach and learn subjects
-community medicine (and single payer health care)
-redesigned communities that maximize the sharing of conveniences (from televisions, to washing machines, to garden tools, to vehicles)
-creating bicycling communities and cultures
-building urban gardens
-prioritizing creating equality among all peoples

These are just modest ideas derived from 1960s discourses (and some of these ideas have become policy in various places already). We demanded that they be talked about. We didn’t let corporate media, politicians, and ruling elites tell us what we could talk about and what visions for a new society were legitimate or not.

It is time to revisit these discourses. It is time to “think outside the box.”

Friday, June 19, 2009

MILITARISM IMPACTS ON OUR COMMUNITIES

Harry Targ

Congress on Thursday, June 18 voted to authorize a $106 billion military supplemental appropriation, largely for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is in addition to a 2009 defense budget already in excess of $500 billion.

This supplemental is just the latest way in which the “permanent war economy” is being perpetuated. The PWE has its roots in the World War II plans to keep alive the partnership of corporations, the government, and the military in the post-war world. The PWE was the way to maintain demand for goods and services that would continue economic growth, capital accumulation, and enormous profits for the biggest corporations in the world.

The PWE required demonic enemies, “threats to national security,” to justify the expenditure over the next forty to fifty years of three trillion dollars. The “communist threat,” “the war on drugs,” the threat of “terrorism” and the mystical Al-Qaeda, has kept a pliant public in a state of fear ever since. By the time of the Korean War, the U.S. government, as a national security state, was premised on the prioritization of military spending over spending on any other public issue.

Along with the security threat, Americans have been told that there is a connection between continuous military spending and a robust high job, high wage economy. By the 1960s, one in ten jobs was directly or indirectly connected to military spending. The economies of whole communities were based on corporations engaged in the arms industry. Further, economic recoveries from recessions in the early 1960s and 1980s were largely the resultant of huge boosts in military spending and adventurism abroad.

In the end, United States foreign policy has been significantly driven by this PWE. The impacts on people everywhere has been horrific. At least 100,000 U.S. soldiers have died in military actions since the end of World War II and three or more times that figure disabled from participation in war. Almost ten million citizens from countries in which the U.S. had some military operations died, from the Greek civil war in the 1940s, to Korea, Vietnam, to Guatemala, and Iran in the 1950s and 1960s, to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, and Cambodia and Afghanistan in the 1980s, to Serbia, Somalia in the 1990s, to Afghanistan and Iraq in this century.

Along with the death and destruction and perpetual fear, the PWE has failed in its promise of economic growth. A whole array of studies have shown that public and private investments for non-military purposes, education, health care, transportation, consumer goods, and environmental protection for example, would have led to more secure jobs, research and development, and improved quality of life than investment in war. Looking at the history of the last several decades bursts in military spending used to have short term economic stimulation. That no longer is the case.

The National Priorities Project, http://nationalpriorities.org,
provides data on the costs of military spending for wars on Iraq and Afghanistan by nation, state, and congressional district. In addition, they estimate what non-military comparable funding would provide for such political units.

For example, residents of the Fourth Congressional District of Indiana (represented by war-hawk Steven Buyer), paid $1.7 billion for wars on Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. This money could have provided residents of the district the following instead of investment in the PWE:

496,529 people with health care for one year
1,593,167 homes with renewable electricity for one year
26,094 music and arts teachers for one year
224,694 scholarships for university students for one year
17,550 affordable housing units
250,705 head start places for children for one year
29,362 elementary school teachers for one year

And, of course, the transfer of some of this money from the military to these other programs would mean much less unemployment than the 9.2 per cent currently experienced by residents of Lafayette, Indiana, the largest city in the district.

The War Resisters League has a sensible list of demands that would reduce the threat to national security, help overcome the current economic crisis, and begin the process of environmental rejuvenation. Their list includes:

-Slash the military budget
-End the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
-Close foreign bases and bring troops home
-Dismantle nuclear weapons and related systems
-Adopt a foreign policy based on multilateral negotiation and not military might”

In sum, thinking about the PWE necessitates thinking about the fundamental interconnections of military and foreign policy issues with those involving education, health care, the environment, transportation, and economic growth. Also, thinking about the PWE involves thinking about the fundamental connections between global, national, and community policies. Progressives must begin to make the connections between policies and issues, and between problems in different geographic spaces.

These connections are clear in ethical terms as well. As Dr. Martin Luther King suggested: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

PITTSBURGH, AMERICA

Harry Targ

I recently attended the Working Class Studies Association national meeting at the University of Pittsburgh. Along with the usual array of academic panels and plenary lectures, the conference program included a history of Pittsburgh in words and music and short excerpts from plays about the Sago mine disaster and Thomas Bell’s classic novel, Out of This Furnace, about the steel town Braddock Pennsylvania. The playlets were accompanied by inspiring labor folksinger Anne Feeney and a group of her musical friends. In addition conferees had the option of viewing a powerful documentary of the life of socialist/feminist worker, writer, and teacher, Tillie Olsen, Tillie Olsen-A Heart in Action. Finally, along with drama, music, and film, conference attendees were offered tours of significant historic sites pertaining to workers. I took the tour to Homestead and Braddock, Pennsylvania.

These various experiences underscored for me in an emotional way a variety of impressions I had about capital and labor in conflict and profit and power versus humanity only as a series of abstractions. First, the iron law of capital accumulation involved killing, enslaving, and exploiting whatever population was needed to achieve ever greater rates of profit. Original inhabitants of Western Pennsylvania were tricked, used, and killed to create a new land made ready for the industrial revolution. The trees were cut, the land was plowed, and the beauty of the landscape destroyed for the construction of factories. For much of the twentieth century the community of Homestead was shaped and shrunk to accommodate the huge steel works; three miles long, 300 acres, and over the century employing over 160,000 workers. After the steel mill closed, the land lay unused for a decade before a huge shopping mall was built. It surrounded 12 smoke stacks which remained to provide a meager clue as to what the land had been used for during the prior century.

During much of the 100 year domination by big steel of the Greater Pittsburgh region, workers engaged in dangerous backbreaking work while inhaling smoke and soot-filled air every day of their lives. The mighty steel craft union of the nineteenth century was busted in 1892 and workers did not win the right to form unions until the United Steel Workers of America (CIO) was formed in the late 1930s. From the shop floor to the streets life was hard for the many so the few could accumulate more wealth.

Second, the working class, despite leading lives of near desperation felt pride in their work, shared a sense of community with neighbors on the shop floor and in the streets, and celebrated their lives, their families, religions, and their country as best they could. It was clear from the plays, the music, the tour guides, and the scholars and trade unionists from the area that people had powerful attachments to their history and the place that was theirs: Homestead, Pittsburgh, Braddock.

Third, despite the brutality of capitalism, the magnitude of exploitation, the defilement of the environment, and the sheer power represented by militias, the Pinkertons, the police, the National Guard, class consciousness survived. It is a consciousness about the capitalist system, the solidarity of the working class, and at the same time a consciousness about place.

My experiences at this conference reminded me of the need to understand at the most human level what capitalism means to communities of people; how it shapes people’s work and leisure lives; how it creates physical space and affects the natural environment; and how workers have responded and continue to respond to the circumstances that have shaped their lives.

In the end, our political analyses have to include political economy, environment, geography and space, and consciousness. Practical political work in our communities must be based on our understanding of the ways in which the general features of economic, political, and social life intersect with particular structures, spaces, and local histories.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"ECONOMIC CRISIS, THE CHANGING WORKING CLASS, AND PRAXIS": A Panel Introduction

(This statement was prepared as an introduction to a panel at the Working Class Studies Association Conference, June 5, 2009, Pittsburgh)

Harry Targ

The thirty year trajectory of growing income and wealth inequality, stagnant real wages, and job loss have been exacerbated by the deep economic crisis of 2007 and beyond. Literally millions of jobs are being lost in manufacturing and service while formerly so-called “middle class” workers, salaried employees, are experiencing an economic marginalization historically reserved for workers on the shop floor, the restaurant, or the health care facility. The effects of job and income loss are spilling over to destroy entire communities. Youth and people of color, as always, experience economic crisis two or three times the magnitude of others. All but the ruling class is becoming “proletarianized.”

This panel will address the depths of the economic crisis and what it means for class in the United States in the twenty-first century. It will particularly address the connections between economic crisis, the changing nature of class, and political practice: campaigning, mobilizing, consciousness raising, building a progressive majority, and envisioning socialist alternatives.

As we address the context in which mobilization may lead to reforms, worker consciousness raised, and class conflict becomes class struggle, I wish to raise a few points at the outset of our panel.

First, the 2008 presidential campaign mobilized a broad array of people, many of whom never participated in any political activity before. New generations of party activists, particularly youth, and trade unions were mobilized. Scores of issue-oriented groups such as those concerning the environment, health care, anti-racism struggles, and gay rights worked alone and in concert with others to defeat right-wing forces who had dominated the political system since the 1980s.

Second, out of the campaign a number of activists, and their organizations, vowed to continue their work, mostly at the grassroots level, to promote a progressive agenda. They took the new president at his word when he invited citizens to pressure him to demand significant policy changes. In the months since his inauguration, it has become clear that President Obama has embraced a “pragmatic” decision-making style, avoiding taking clear and progressive positions on issues, while waiting to see how the constellation of contending political forces mobilize to demand change. Groups as varied as the Progressive Democrats of America, Move On. Org, various Obama groups, and a variety of single-issue groups networking with others have emerged or been reenergized; groups such as The Apollo Project, the Blue-Green Alliance, and United for Peace and Justice. This time has become a “teachable moment” and an “actionable moment.”

Third, groups on the left who come out of various Socialist and other Left traditions have been engaged in reevaluating their political visions and their relationships with the swirl of political activism that has emerged over the last 18 months. The Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, for example, is holding its national convention this summer to address both participating in Building a Progressive Majority and envisioning Socialism.

Fourth, perhaps three material conditions most dramatically underlay this new 21st century context; depression, environmental devastation, and war. Each leads to organizational needs. The response to depression requires building new working class movements that begin with the revitalization of the trade union movement. The response to environmental devastation demands a radical transformation of the political economy away from unbridled, unplanned growth to an economy that creates life-sustaining work and human development. Finally, the response to war requires a mobilization against the “permanent war economy,” an economy that depends on war to sustain imperialism abroad and aggregate demand at home.

Fifth, progressives need to incorporate in their theory and practice an understanding of the three ways in which people have been organized, stratified, and segmented in modern times. These include understanding class, race, and gender.

Finally, before we despair about the depths of the economic crisis, the potential for destruction of life on earth as we know it, and the continuing legacy of war and violence, we need to remember how far progressive forces have come over the last 18 months. For example, there is evidence of a changing consciousness among the American people. A recent document presented by the Campaign for America’s Future, “America: A Center-Left Nation,” reports that majorities of American’s favor significant changes in public policy on a variety of issues. Respondents to a national survey indicate that government action is required because of growing economic problems; business needs to be more regulated; too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies; corporate influence over government should decline; health care should be a government responsibility (54% for single payer); and gays should have equal rights.

As Eric Lotke wrote summarizing the findings:

“The media still calls America a “center-right” nation, but ‘center-left” is closer to the truth. On issues ranging from health care to energy, the public is more progressive than people think.”

“This report should give people the courage to push ahead. The danger is not going too far, too fast, too overreaching. The danger is in not doing enough. The American people want to achieve the promise in Obama’s great speeches, not the compromise forced by conservatives in both parties.”

The task before progressives is clear; working with growing majorities of people to make this new political consciousness into an effective political force to change the United States.















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