Saturday, November 21, 2009

DOING PROGRESSIVE POLITICS IN THE AGE OF CHAOS

Harry Targ

The world is a mess. Progressive movements for change are frantically trying to beat back reaction and offering anything from patchwork to global solutions to our problems. I think we need to stop, take a deep breath, and reflect on the political, economic, cultural, and technological context in which we live. We need to reflect because we now find ourselves in a new age, the Age of Chaos

What elements constitute “the Age of Chaos?” Here is a short list for starters.

First, we are barraged with and respond to a whole array of problems which have the potential for exacerbating hunger, disease, violence and war. We organize around military spending, stopping the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ending Israeli violence and exploitation of the Palestinian people. Domestically, we mobilize around health care, jobs, the struggle for immigrant rights, an end to racism, and justice for women. We are being dragged into the twenty-first century by our friends in the environmental movement because they compelling argue that fixing the planet requires major change and fast.

Second, we have too many groups that are part of the progressive majority. Years ago, Mike Davis wrote that the virtue of progressive politics in the United States (as opposed to Europe at that time) was that it was distributed in a whole array of single issue groups. He was reacting, I think, to some of the rigidities of old left politics. Now, I believe, we have too many single issue groups, each with the ownership of the most important problem Americans face.

Third, the confusion is multiplied by the profusion of demands, positions, lobbying campaigns, and iconic spokespersons’ declarations. And since most of us are tiptoeing in a relatively new twenty-first century political terrain, each position is potentially useful.

Fourth, we live in an age where the fundamental contradictions in the political economy have surfaced in their unbridled brutality. Just looking back to the onset of the “neo-liberal” age in the late Carter and Reagan period we see massive cuts in government programs; deregulations of banks and corporations; ruthless efforts to destroy unions; and huge tax breaks for the rich. Government policies rewarded shifting corporate investments overseas and shifting from an economy based on the production of goods and services to one based on financial speculation. And to protect the ruling class from growing reactions of outrage, the U.S. government launched more wars, covert interventions, and police violence at home.

The short of the story here is that the political and economic system in which we live does not work. And proposed programs and visions of something better, as suggested above, are in their infancy.

Finally, the morass of issues, groups, proposals for change, and the fundamental contradictions of capitalism have been aggravated by qualitative technological and cultural changes. Of course, the computer age is central to this point. As writers such as David Harvey, the Marxist geographer, have pointed out, globalization means the declining salience of time and space. With instantaneous communication across the vast worldwide landscape, consciousness of time, as ordering human experience and particularly regulating work, has changed. The capacity to communicate immediately without reflection changes how all of us behave. Also, the diminution of space means the loss of community, a sense of place, a consciousness of doing politics with like-minded others who we may know and share common experiences with, such as our fellow workers.

Further, our new sources of information provide instant information of all kinds. We can watch, hear, and read “stuff’ about the world 24/7. In fact we are barraged with information, including information we can add to the vast cyber pool of stuff for any and all to see (such as this blog entry).

At least two consequences flow from this new technological age. The media that control our lives on the one hand are as consolidated as ever in history such that ten media corporations control about half of all that we read, see, and hear. And they enter our lives in all our spaces, from offices to homes. Our world experience is shaped for us by a handful of multinational corporations. However, and in contradiction to the monopoly of culture, the new technology affords the greatest possibility of mass participation in global dialogue in human history (at least so far). Paradoxically we suffer from too much control of information and too much democracy at the same time. In the end, we have much too much media “stuff” to process, use and discard.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the new technology and culture is what Fredric Jameson alerted us to: the institution of a post modern culture. This post modern culture, the 24/7 culture, the culture with little or no use for time and space, is anti-historical. It is a political culture without any historical referents, any sense of the connection between people’s work lives and struggle in the past and their experiences today, and no sense of what might be useful to know today about how mass movements were build in the past for today

Where do we as progressives go from here? I am not sure. But it may be that all these aspects of the Age of Chaos are direct results of our lack of a theory that can be used to make sense to us and to others we wish to reach about why the world is the way it is. This theory would provide a compelling, historical explanation of the basics of capitalism, how it works and in the end cannot work, and who and what can bring about its transformation. This theory needs to be historical, analytical, able to incorporate in its analyses contradictory forces, and convincingly explains how economics is indelibly interconnected with politics, society, culture, and the environment. And this theory needs to give some direction for our work that links the past to the present and to the future. Ultimately it is concrete political activism that changes the world but an activism that is guided by coherent explanations of the inter-connectedness of our world. Building this theory is essential for replacing the Age of Chaos with an Age of Justice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

ROGUES AND CENTRISTS: HOW MEDIA FRAME THE WORLD

Harry Targ

“Moderate Republicans-yes, they are not extinct, though most are in hiding-scoff at Sarah Palin and wish she would go away.”

“Reagan piously gave lip service to the right-wing social agenda while doing nothing to further it by legislation.”

“The ‘Gipper’ talked tough about the Russians-while doing more that any other president to foster détente.”

“But it’s no coincidence the Eisenhower ‘50s and Reagan ‘80s were periods of unusual peace and prosperity.”

(Evan Thomas, “Gone Rogue,” Newsweek, November 23, 2009).

“Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc.” (from Karl Marx, ‘Preface,’ The German Ideology)

Insights from Social Science

A long time ago the eminent political scientist Murray Edelman wrote a book entitled The Symbolic Uses of Politics. In it he postulated that most people experience the political world not through concrete reality but through emotional symbols. For example, the classic way in which people relate to their political institutions is through the flag of their nation. Americans viewing the flag see images of men in combat fighting for freedom or men and women standing in line waiting to vote for their preferred political candidates. A colorful cloth with stars and stripes gets transformed in our consciousness into a rich, glamorized history even when the emotive images are in direct contradiction with people’s lives.

In addition, Edelman suggests the ways in which the emotional symbols get embedded and reinforced in the consciousness of peoples by borrowing from anthropological writings on myth and ritual. Myths are networks of emotional symbols that collectively tell a story that explains “reality.” Rituals reinforce in behavior the mythology of public life. We need only reflect on the pledge to the flag that opens elementary and secondary school class sessions in rich and poor communities alike or regular meetings of AFL-CIO labor councils.

Edelman pointed out that emotional symbols (he called them “condensational”) provide the primary way people connect with the world beyond immediate experience. The extraordinary complexity of the modern world is reduced to a series of powerful symbols such as the threats of “international communism” or “terrorism.”

Media analyst Todd Gitlin, wrote about “media frames;” that is the ways in which media construct the symbols and myths that shape information about the world. Print media shapes what we read, who are regarded as authoritative spokespersons, and what visual images shape our thinking about countries, issues such as war and peace, trade, investment, and the global climate. Television emphasizes visual images rather than words. Whatever the media form, points of view are embedded in the words and images communicated.

Writers such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, and Robert McChesney accept implicitly Edelman’s counsel that people experience the world indirectly and usually in emotional form. They also assume, as does Gitlin, that what we read, see, and hear about the world is framed for us. They go further to suggest that what Marx called the “false conceptions about ourselves” in symbols, myths, rituals, and frames are usually the product of ruling class interests.

Enter Rogues and Centrists

The Newsweek article cited above was selected not because it was unique but rather because it was representative of ongoing and dominant media discourse. Sarah Palin, while popular with an undetermined but substantial segment of the U.S. population, is presented as an extremist. The article hastens to add that a similar collection of “Democrats can be just as rigidly partisan on the left.” The article suggests that these extremes represent big problems for the political parties in which they operate and most importantly this “polarization” is a threat to the wellbeing of the United States itself.

The article then refers to the “two greatest postwar presidents,” Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. They were great in part because they presided over two periods, the 50s and the 80s, “of unusual peace and prosperity.” Reagan was the president who did the most to stimulate détente with the former Soviet Union.

In addition to this curious revisionism about “peace and prosperity,” the author claimed that while these two presidents were products of conservatism in their respective Republican parties, they ruled from the center.

To generalize from this extraordinary historical rendition, therefore, contemporary politicians must learn that “populism” from the left or right must be avoided if American society is to survive and thrive.

Further, the article says that the Eisenhower and Reagan years symbolize peace. The collapse of the former Soviet Union occurred because of the policies of the latter. And, despite an enormous array of data and human experiences to the contrary, the 50s and 80s were years of prosperity as well as peace. One can conclude from the description that history is myth, symbol, and ritual and it is packaged and provided to us in media form as frames.

Perhaps the most potent assumption embedded in this mystification is the proposition that only centrist politics can work.

What role for the Rogues?

It is clear that the centrist agenda could not be defended on its own terms. It is an agenda that supports militarism, financial speculation, deindustrialization, and globalization. The byproducts of these processes are experienced directly by working people throughout the country as joblessness, declining real wages, inadequate access to health care, education, and transportation, and forms of pollution that can be seen from many people’s bedroom windows. But if Americans can see “extremism” from the “left and right,” often shown on the screen as screaming protestors, then the centrist logic becomes more compelling even though people know that centrism means a weak public option in health care and Wall Streeters regulating themselves.

And which political extremist today can better promote the symbols, myths and centrist media frame than Sarah Palin. So while journalists and their bosses have nothing but scorn for her, she is trumpeted on every news and talk show on television.

The analysis above is not too surprising but what remains more difficult is figuring out a progressive agenda for recapturing the production of symbols and myths and establishing a space to provide more effectively alternative media frames. While alternative media and advocacy groups exist the need to develop a national and global progressive media agenda still is required.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

HISTORY AS POLITICS, POLITICS AS HISTORY: REMEMBERING THE BERLIN WALL

Harry Targ


“…you are Americans and are meant to carry liberty and justice and the principles of humanity wherever you go, go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America.” (Woodrow Wilson shortly after the Russian Revolution quoted in L.S. Stavrianos, Global Rift, 1981, 492.)

“there are two great evils at work in the world today, Absolutism, the power of which is waning, Bolshevism, the power of which is increasing. We have seen the hideous consequences of Bolshevik rule in Russia, and we know that the doctrine is spreading westward. The possibility of proletarian despotism over Central Europe is terrible to contemplate.”(Secretary of State Robert Lansing shortly after the Russian Revolution in Stavrianos, 494).

“ Daniel Barenboim, who was in town the night the Berlin Wall came down in 1989,” …said that “the fall of the wall ‘has changed so much of Europe for the better,’ Barenboim said in an interview at the Berlin Staatsoper, where he is chief conductor. ‘It has given so many thousands, probably millions of people, a better existence’” (Catherine Hickley, Washington Post, November 8, 2009)

Debasing the Socialist Vision

Reflections on the anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 should stimulate a reexamination of the pain and suffering of the twentieth century. It was a century in which over 100 million died in wars all around the globe (60 million alone in the two World Wars). Nazis killed six million Jews and six million others in Europe: liberals, communists, gays, opponents of genocide of every persuasion. And, during the Cold War years (1945 to 1991) approximately six million Vietnamese and Korean peoples died in wars and hundreds of thousands in Central Europe, Latin American, and South Asia.

The great revolutions of the twentieth century promised a different outcome for humankind: peace, justice, and democracy. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, the gap between the dream and the practice, resulted from the failures of the former Soviet Union. Masses of its citizens died in campaigns to collectivize agriculture and the purge of dissidents. The regime developed an omnipresent dictatorship and following the revelations about Stalinism evolved into an autocratic state driven by top down bureaucracy. In addition, the Soviet Union would not tolerate political independence from the Socialist states of Eastern Europe, invading both Hungary and Czechoslovakia to crush reform movements. So from this vantage point, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall was cause for celebration.

But History is Complicated

However, as the sentiments of President Wilson and his Secretary of State suggest, the United States as superpower emerged from World War I to embark on a global campaign to crush the new Soviet Union economically. As we know, the United States, along with a dozen other nations sent troops into the Soviet Union to help counter-revolutionaries overthrow the new Bolshevik regime.

In subsequent years, until 1933, the United States refused to recognize the Soviet Union. Western powers watched as Germany rearmed and expanded its control across the heartland of Europe. Italian fascist armies and German airpower were used to destroy democratic Spain, again with the United States and the British on the sidelines.

After the war, the Truman Administration launched a “cold war,” against the Soviet Union. It transferred resources to Western Europe to rebuild the capitalist part of it. It unleashed covert operators to infiltrate trade unions and political parties in Europe and Latin America and began beaming propaganda and sending operatives into Eastern Europe to undermine Soviet influence.

Germany was the centerpiece of this new global struggle. As the source of military forces that killed 27 million Soviet citizens in World War II, the status of Germany became most critical to the Soviets. And for the United States a reindustrialized, remilitarized Germany would constitute the centerpiece of the campaign to fight Communism and promote capitalism on the world stage. Ironically, the Cold War started over Germany and could have ended there with a mutually derived agreement to create a neutralized and united Germany (much as was agreed to in Austria). But western diplomats ignored Soviet offers to negotiate the creation of such a Germany.

Without revisiting all the critical points of contestation between the East and the West, it is important to make clear that the Soviet Union, the weaker of the two “superpowers,” was targeted for challenge and defeat by every United States administration from 1917 to 1991. This cost both countries and their allies trillions of dollars in military spending and millions of lives.

The Soviet Union Had Something to Do with Social Change

There were some positive developments during the Cold War years for which the Soviet Union may have made a contribution.

In 1945 most of Africa was still living under the yoke of colonialism. The British, French, Dutch and others still controlled territories and peoples in Asia. The Chinese were mired in a violent civil war. And all of Latin America was “in the backyard” of the United States. Within thirty years all this had changed. Africa achieved its independence, the Communist movement came to power in China, Indochina was freed from French and then American colonialism, and the Cuban revolution provided a beacon of hope for peoples living in the Western Hemisphere.

The Soviet Union provided arms, economic assistance, technical assistance, and inspiration for those seeking independence and economic development. Further, and this may be the most important point, the Soviet Union served as a check on the unbridled expansion of military and economic power of the United States and the Western alliance.

What if the Soviet Union had not collapsed?

Of course, we can never know what might have happened since 1991 if the Soviet Union, after its Eastern European allies, had not collapsed. But we do know what has happened. And we can make educated guesses about what might have happened in a world in which a power competitive in military, economic, and ideological resources with the West still existed.

First, the Gulf War might not have occurred in the way it did, (While the Soviet Union did collaborate with President George Herbert Walker Bush in the fall, 1990, on Gulf War policy, the collaboration was from a position of considerable marginalization). For sure, the Soviet Union would have waged a propaganda war against the U.S. military operation and the economic embargo of Iraq and bombing campaigns that continued throughout the 1990s and, particularly, the second war on Iraq in 2003.

Probably, in the bipolar world of the Cold War, the United States would not have been able to launch a war on Afghanistan and continue it for eight years.

And what about the global economy? Neo-liberal globalization, initiated in the 1980s but expanded to every corner of the globe in the 1990s, would have been checked by Soviet influence and arguments about overweening reliance on the “free market.” The mal-distribution of wealth and income might not have been as grotesque as it has become if there had been a Soviet Union critiquing International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies.

Without exaggerating the influence or good intentions of a surviving Soviet Union, I would argue that the world since 1991 might have been different; particularly given the hundreds of thousands who have died in war since 1991 and the devastating impacts of growing economic inequality.

And Back to Germany

Bruni de la Motte in the Guardian (November, 8, 2009) reported that the collapse of the former German Democratic Republic and its integration into West Germany led to social breakdown of society, widespread unemployment, “crass materialism,” the privatization of public enterprises, farms and forests, and two million lost homes. Hundreds of thousands of professional workers including teachers and professors lost their jobs and were blacklisted because they had been credentialed in the old regime.

There is no question, as one U.S. trade unionist once said to me, the former Soviet Union and the GDR were not “workers’ paradises” but they provided basic economic security to workers. That has long since been lost most places around the world.

And About History

It is a common place now to repeat the old adage: “history is written by the winners.” Old adage or not, the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall is being orchestrated by the same kinds of imperial voices that have been raised for almost one hundred years now.

As contentious as it might be, it is time for progressives to revisit the history of the Cold War in a way that is not chauvinistic and self-serving and does not justify current and future wars.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

LEGITIMACY CRISIS, VIETNAM SYNDROME RETURN: WHAT'S DIFFERENT THIS TIME?

Harry Targ

I teach a course on United States foreign policy. I was just finishing up a discussion of foreign policy in the Nixon/Ford (and Kissinger) period, 1968 to 1976. As I talked about how the consciousness of most Americans in the 1970s changed, I emphasized the rising crisis of legitimacy of American political institutions and opposition to presidents sending troops into foreign lands, the so-called “Vietnam syndrome.” As I lectured on to a large group of students who may have been thinking, “What the hell is he talking about?” I began to reflect on what might be instructive about the mid-1970s for analysis and activism today.

Richard Nixon won the presidential election in 1968, promising that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. As the subsequent years unfolded the secret plan became clear: pulling most U.S. troops out of Vietnam while launching a massive bombing campaign targeting virtually every conceivable site in North and South Vietnam, and invading Cambodia.

The U.S. led war expanded in the most brutal way, at the same time that ground troops returned home. To undermine growing opposition to the war he initiated carrot and stick policies, ending the draft and launching a nationwide program of counter-intelligence and police violence against anti-war and anti-racist activists. The drive to repress dissent spread to opponents of the war in the Democratic Party including against the 1972 anti-war candidate Senator George McGovern. The Nixon team, from the White House to small time burglars, engaged in covert programs to disrupt the McGovern campaign. Thus the seeds were planted for the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon to resign his presidency.

Because of the war overseas, repression at home, and rising economic crisis brought on by war in the Middle East, dramatic increases in the price of oil, declining relative competitiveness of the United States economy, the American people began to turn against their government. Enter “legitimacy crisis” and “Vietnam Syndrome.”

What is a Legitimacy Crisis?

Theorists as varied as Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and a variety of American political scientists have written in their own ways about “legitimacy” of political institutions and how degrees of it affect stability and change. We can say that a “legitimacy crisis” exists when there is a substantial decline in the level of support for particular regimes, governmental institutions and/or the political leadership of a country.

Polling data from 1964 (when Lyndon Johnson won a huge election victory over conservative opponent Senator Barry Goldwater) until 1976 (at the end of the eight-year period of the Nixon/Ford administration) indicate a dramatic decline in the trust that the American people had in the government. In 1964 seventy-five percent of the people said they trusted their government “always or most of the time.” That declined to thirty percent in 1976. The slide continued until 1980. By 1984 President Reagan’s popularity boosted trust to over forty percent. Then a decline followed bottoming out at twenty percent during the mid-1990s. Trust in government increased after 9/11 in 2002 but by 2007 had declined again to 26 percent. While we can quibble over the meaning of numbers, methodologies, and questions asked, the general thrust of the data indicates a substantial decline in support for government and its leaders since the 1960s spurred by Vietnam, Watergate, and economic crisis at home. As popular as Ronald Reagan was, he never reached the level of support held by Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson.

The Vietnam Syndrome

As to foreign policy, polling data, protest activity, and pressure from influential and grassroots lobbying groups led politicians “inside the beltway” to conclude that the American people did not want their country to engage in another long, unwinnable, and controversial war again, such as Vietnam. Thus every presidential administration from Jimmy Carter on regarded with scorn the constraint that the “Vietnam Syndrome” placed on their capacity to act in an overt and massive military way overseas. President George Herbert Walker Bush confirmed this perceived constraint when he announced at the press conference ending the first Gulf War: “At last we have licked the Vietnam Syndrome!” He probably was premature in his exuberance.

More recently, political scientist John Mueller refined the idea of the “Vietnam Syndrome” by studying polling data from U.S. participation in three wars, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. He found a common trend in declining support for these wars. Namely duration and casualties (particularly number killed) are correlated with the systematic decline in support for the wars in question. When a president sends troops into combat, temporarily, the people “rally round the flag.” But as wars continue support declines.

Meanings of the Past

What is relevant about all this for today? Are there enough similarities between now and the 1970s to learn from the past? What is different today from the 1970s? Is there anything to be gleaned about the “consciousness of the American people” at various points in time that bear on the question of how to build a progressive majority and against more war and for social justice?

The 1976 candidate for president, Jimmy Carter, ran on a program, he hoped, to bring the disenchanted anti-war activists back into the mainstream political process. He said he would “learn the lessons of Vietnam,” cut military spending, and most importantly use human rights as the primary criteria for foreign policy. He also pledged to continue the policies of “détente” that his predecessor had initiated with the Soviet Union.

The anti-war movements and social justice movements of the mid-1970s, never well-organized or interconnected continued to disintegrate. After two years of modest efforts as promised, the Carter Administration tilted back toward the Cold War policies of its predecessors, spurred on by the trauma the collapse of the Shah of Iran created in the foreign policy establishment. The Iranian revolution was followed by revolutionary change in Grenada, Nicaragua, and reformism on the horizon in El Salvador. In the summer, 1979, Carter signed a secret directive authorizing covert assistance to anti-Soviet rebels who were launching a war against the secular, Marxist regime that had come to power in Afghanistan.

In other words, as the social movements of the 1960s and 70s dissolved, American foreign policy returned to its historic struggle against revolutionary ferment, albeit in a more covert way. It was candidate Reagan who took the struggle for legitimacy further by promising a more aggressive foreign policy that would lead to victory against the Soviet Union, “the evil empire.” Even so, Reagan had to gradually bring the American people along to military intervention by invading and winning a one-week war in Grenada, and developing a covert strategy to fight communism in Central America, Southern Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast and South Asia called “low intensity conflict.” U.S. military intervention was “low intensity” for Americans while it was “high intensity” for peoples of the Global South.

Relevance for Today

Where is the consciousness of the American people in 2009? First, the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, the illegal and immoral incarcerations and torture of suspected “terrorists,” egregious shifting of government funds to contractors tied to the administration, media manipulation and an host of other unethical and criminal acts stimulated a substantial decline in legitimacy of government in the years of the Bush presidency. The campaign of Barack Obama, by contrast, mobilized masses of people to the political process in the hope that government could be made to work for the American people. His first six months in office, however, have raised some questions about the new administration's ability to deliver on the hope.

In general, I believe we can conclude that despite ups and downs in levels of support for government since the end of World War II, there has been a substantial downward trajectory in support for government institutions and personnel. The American people are suspicious of their government and distrust their leaders. Many believe that government has been an impediment to the health and happiness of the people. Episodes of scandal, from Watergate, to Iran Contra, to Monicagate, reinforce the skepticism about government.

As to foreign policy, initial support for the invasion of Afghanistan and suspension of disbelief about the initiation of the war in Iraq has been superseded by the twenty-first century variant of the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Duration and growing casualties in both wars have led to growing anti-war sentiment.

In the 1970s, mass movements were dissipating. Today such movements, initiated over the last eight years, continue to grow. They are reinforced by the most significant economic crisis since the 1930s. Without mass movements, the twin consciousnesses of the America people as to legitimacy and foreign policy provide little hope for building a progressive majority. In fact, the legitimacy crisis, if not addressed with a progressive alternative vision of what government can be, can lead to massive alienation, right-wing populism, and violence.

Building a progressive majority, at this time, should include making our peace and justice organizations strong, presenting compelling images of what government can and should do, and strategizing about how the mass movements can demand participation in government. As to foreign policy, our campaigns should emphasize the length of our wars and the casualties resulting to Americans and victims in host countries, along with our arguments about the imperial underpinnings of such wars.

Even though the present and the future do not merely repeat the past, the past can inform what we do today,