Wednesday, February 29, 2012

SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: FIGHTBACKS AND VISIONS

Harry Targ

“Of course, Big Labor's coercion of employees into paying union dues to subsidize its political agenda isn't new, since this practice is as old as the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). But with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney beating his chest about the Federation's political spending, the coercion of workers to fund the AFL-CIO's political operations became news.” (National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Inc, September 9, 1997)

“A source with direct knowledge of decision-making at Komen's headquarters in Dallas said the grant-making criteria were adopted with the deliberate intention of targeting Planned Parenthood. The criteria's impact on Planned Parenthood and its status as the focus of government investigations were highlighted in a memo distributed to Komen affiliates in December.” (Associated Press, February 7, 2012)

WHEREAS, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was founded in 1970 with the mission of increasing voter participation, delivering services to inner-city neighborhoods, community organizing, and carrying out issue campaigns; (followed by a list of financial and other transgressions)

THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that ALEC calls on all states to immediately end support for ACORN and groups linked to ACORN. (From the website of the American Legislative Executive Council)

Academics define social movements in different ways and believe they arise for a variety of reasons. They can come from groups that already exist, a growing availability of resources, the rise of crises of one sort or another, and/or from specific issues. Such movements may take a long time to gestate and grow, or emerge in moments of spontaneity, sometimes rising from inspirational examples. Often they have their roots in the need to react to powerful and negative initiatives by opposing political or economic groups.

The forces of reaction may have as their project immediate efforts to destroy existing rights or prerogatives embedded in public policies. In addition they may see in the policies and groups they oppose the seeds of new ideas that could lead to fundamental social changes that must be challenged.

While reactionary forces may arise to oppose specific changes in policy, their most important legacy is the long-term efforts they employ to crush organizations of people that could see the need for fundamental social change. Therefore, as in the cases of labor, women’s rights, and people’s movements, reactionary forces are fundamentally committed to long-term organizing, rolling back the very forces that have provided some services to those not part of the ruling class.

We can see examples of the rise of social movements out of reactionary programs in the recent battles over “Right-to-Work for less” legislation in the state of Indiana and the spreading campaigns to bring similar legislation to states throughout the industrial heartland. Right-to-Work campaigns have followed on efforts to diminish worker power to destroy rights of public employees to organize and to make difficult worker organizing in any venue.

The data comparing the conditions of workers in Right-to-Work states with others clearly shows that the former experience lower wages, health benefits, shop-floor safety and their families fewer rights to health care and retirement security.

More generally, in a thorough recent report on the role of unions in American life, the authors of a Center for American Progress Action Fund study (David Madland and Nick Bunker) point out that virtually every positive social change in the United States has received strong support from organized labor. Historically, during periods of high union density (high percentages of workers in unions), all American workers have benefited in terms of wages, benefits, and workplace rights.

In addition, organized labor has been among the strongest institutional supporters of the Democratic Party, and on occasion, some trade unionists have supported progressive third party campaigns (from the Henry Wallace campaign for president in 1948 to Green Party campaigns by candidate Ralph Nader).

Further, the existence of a vibrant labor movement is vital for workers everywhere. Those who oppose organized labor, such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation quoted above, do so for reasons of short term gain. Right-to-Work laws may weaken unions, lead to declining wages, and create larger profits.

But more importantly, destroying the labor movement and the very idea that workers have rights and those rights have the potential of being realized in strong organizations of their making seems vital to economic and political elites who are always striving to create a society dominated even more by industrial and finance capital. Trade unions, while driven by the defense of basic interests today, imply the possibility of creating a society that privilege worker rights and democracy. This remains the ultimate danger from the standpoint of big capital that must be stamped out.

Just as trade unions embody the possibility of real democracy for workers, women’s rights to make choices about their own bodies constitute the same kind of immediate and long-term reality. The signature target of the reactionary right is Planned Parenthood of America. Planned Parenthood provides a broad array of reproductive health services for women, particularly poor women. Only a small percentage of their resources are allocated for abortions.

In addition the mission of Planned Parenthood is to create the conditions in which each individual can manage his/her own fertility, what they refer to as “reproductive self-determination.” To achieve this goal Planned Parenthood works to provide reproductive and comprehensive health care, including advocating public policies to achieve the mission.

Reactionary forces, from the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) to various national anti-abortion groups, and most recently Susan Komen for the Cure (ostensibly apolitical) have mobilized not only to shrink Planned Parenthood services to women but to eliminate the organization itself. For some, abortion is an anathema for theological reasons. But for most, Planned Parenthood represents institutionally the basic rights of women to control their own bodies and by implication the provision of accessible and comprehensive health care.

The rising of the poor, women and men, black and white, employed and unemployed, the young and old, constitute another fundamental challenge to the economic and political power of reactionary forces in America. Organizations such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), until it was destroyed by an orchestrated campaign of lies in 2010, received public funding to support programs for low and moderate income families. It promoted voter registration in communities, and advocated for health care reform, public housing, and living wage legislation.

From the vantage point of economic and political elites, power and privilege could be challenged in cities and towns across America if community organizations such as ACORN developed programs of action and service.

These three organizations together represent labor, women, and grassroots poor people’s campaigns. They are the embodiment of popular forces which seek to end exploitation, sexism, and racism. Implicitly they stand for the construction of a different kind of society in which these pathologies do not exist. That is why all three—organized labor, Planned Parenthood, and ACORN--have been and continue to be under assault. And that is why progressive campaigns need to be organized around the fundamental connections between class, gender, and race and to defend labor, women’s, and community organizations.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

NARRATIVES AND ELECTIONS: THE BIG QUESTIONS

Harry Targ

Last week a group of Hoosier Occupiers met in a “teach-in” format to discuss how movements for change can and should relate to the labor movement and the working class at large. The event, hosted by Occupy Purdue, was held in a community center in West Lafayette, Indiana. An extended panel included a faculty member from African American Studies on campus, a Unite-Here organizer, an activist from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and representatives from the International Socialist Organization and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

The panel moderator skillfully questioned panelists and encouraged what became rich and thorough discussion and debate with attendees who were not designated panel speakers but shared the interest and much of the experience of those who were the panelists.

Virtually everyone recognized the problems and strengths of the movements that sprung up last summer, saw the necessity to move ahead with new ideas about organizing and educating many publics, and believed in the necessity of building a broad working class movement. Most felt that the working class constitutes the vast majority of people, whether they are in unions or not.

The knowledge, experience, and passion of all who attended this event were palpable and gave reason to be hopeful about the possibilities for progressive change in the months and years ahead. While teach-in participants agreed on most things, tensions were noted in at least three areas that so often surface as progressive movements are launched. While these tensions may not be easily resolvable, they need to be part of the consciousness of participants as they develop their day-to-day programs.

The first issue has to do with historical narratives. Many participants told historical stories that justified advocacy for particular strategies for building a mass movement. These narratives were stories about the origins of political movements, their participants, the issues they engaged in, the outcomes of their activities, and their connection to the projects that contemporary activists are pursuing.

Teach-in narratives addressed class, race, and gender. Some emphasized workers and class struggle, others talked about labor militancy and the construction of labor unions, and still others emphasized the deleterious consequences of racism and sexism in the labor movement. There was also a current among the story-tellers about how organized labor had betrayed the working class with the implication that the movements of the twenty-first century must distinguish between workers in general and workers in unions.

One narrative addressed the issue of race and the organized labor movement in the United States. Historical examples of organized labor’s racist practices included reference to exclusionary clauses requiring that Black and white union locals be segregated or that only limited numbers of African-Americans ever became labor movement leaders. Beginning a narrative of class and race by identifying certain key dates, for example, the founding of the American Federation of Labor, the rejection by white workers of integrated unions in the packinghouses of Chicago in 1919, or the racism that impaired the campaign to organize the South in “Operation Dixie,” can make this point.

On the other hand, if the class and race narrative begins with the anti-racism of the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1880s, or the struggles around slogans of “Black-White Unite and Fight” in CIO organizing drives of industrial workers in the 1930s, or left unions going South after World War II to organize integrated unions, or the significant support given the foundation of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) by the United Auto Workers and the United Packinghouse Workers of America (both affiliated with the new AFL-CIO), then the story is different.

The point here is that the adoption of one or another narrative of the past has consequences for political activism today and tomorrow. Activists today do not need to accept one narrative over another. They just must recognize that each narrative tells part of the story that is critical for today’s work. To some degree the discussion on race and class at the teach-in reflected the recognition that in this case, there are different narratives about class, race, and labor. Maybe in the end activists are best served by learning the lessons from very different narratives.

A second issue that inevitably comes up at every movement-building discussion has to do with relations between the left and elections. On the one hand, electoral work is taxing, absorbing time and money. Passions are energized by electoral work and oftentimes the candidates selected only minimally satisfy the goals electoral activists are seeking. Sometimes compromises are carried out by candidates progressives support that are on balance net losses for the people.

In the history of the two-party system of the United States, there usually has been limited ability for progressive voices to be heard. Progressives are mired in the classic “lesser of two evils,” conundrum. This problem is exacerbated by the transformation of the electoral system into a sports contest. The media identifies certain “stars” who become the subject of 24/7 news coverage as personalities with little or no attention to political issues.

However, elections, at state and local as well as national levels, do matter to large portions of the working class. For example, as a result of the 2010 elections, union rights have been reduced through passage of Right-to-Work and anti-collective bargaining laws. The loss of Medicaid coverage for women who seek reproductive health services from Planned Parenthood will have disastrous consequences for large numbers of customers. Defunding of public institutions and services--education, libraries, transportation--hit working people the hardest. And elected officials get to appoint full-time judges from district courts to the Supreme Court. It is clear that one of the least observed outcomes of the “Reagan Revolution” is the life-time appointments of federal judges that have ruled in ways that have destroyed worker, citizen, and women’s rights. The criminal “justice” system has qualitatively advanced the prison-industrial complex during the last decade.

The contradictory character of elections suggests that the left may need a variegated strategy that addresses participation or non-participation at state and local levels as well as at the national level; that works for and against key critical candidates; that campaigns around issues relevant to class, race, and gender; and that uses the electoral arena to politicize and mobilize the vast majority. Of course, in certain political and geographic spaces, organizing third parties might serve many of these purposes.

The final issue that activists struggle over has to do with who they are. It is often the case that activists have developed an intellectual pedigree. They have read theory and history, and many come out of movements that provide important experiences.

At the same time, there are much larger numbers of workers and others who share the basic values of the most active and who have an experiential pedigree. For a variety of reasons, large numbers of politically alert and conscious workers have not engaged in political struggles on a regular basis. But many of these workers are members of organizations that in the main have articulated progressive agendas: from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, to the National Organization of Women, to the Sierra Club.

In the end activists, who are the most committed in the sense of time and resources, should be sympathetic to the existing mass organizations. In other words, activists need to work with their brothers and sisters in a whole array of organizational contexts to build networks and break down barriers between different political voices. Activists need to shed their own sense of superiority while they work with non-movement activists to reduce broad stereotypes and forms of suspiciousness among those in the popular organizations.

So this wonderful encounter in West Lafayette, Indiana brought together activists from around the state; people of different ages and backgrounds; reflected class, race and gender; and raised directly and by inattention issues critical to building a progressive future. It was clear from the dialogue that narratives, elections, and political identities, in one way or another, constitute continuing hurdles which may be difficult to resolve but should be critically examined.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

ON PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY

Harry Targ

I teach about United States foreign policy from the 1940s until the Obama Administration. I do briefly discuss the emergence of the United States as a world power in the 1890s, the so-called Spanish American War and the crushing of liberation forces in both Cuba and the Philippines, and date the onset of the Cold War with the Russian Revolution and Western intervention of military forces to overthrow the new Bolshevik regime in 1917. But my narrative is largely about the period of the Cold War and its implications for United States foreign policy since 1991.

This week I just began to discuss the foreign policy of the Eisenhower Administration. I tell the students that the trajectory of United States policy throughout much of its history is imperial but that within that general characterization different administrations have varied in their approach to the world.

What is interesting about the Eisenhower era is that the president projected competing images of imperial America. He did say upon assuming office that “every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies…a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” This speech made in the spring of 1953, included a plea for East-West dialogue and a diminution of the escalating tensions between the two powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. Of course, many of us remember with fondness Eisenhower’s “farewell address” warning of the encroachment of a “military-industrial complex” on American life.

But as historian Blanche Wiesen Cook pointed out in her important book, The Declassified Eisenhower, 1984, the president, while passionate about avoiding a third world war, articulated and authorized very contradictory policies. Wiesen Cook reports on a document, National Security Council Document 5412, that led to policies the president adopted (they were foreshadowed by the interventionism and covert operations launched by the Truman administration in the late 1940s). The language of NSC 5412 is as contemporary as today’s news.

NSC 5412 recommended that the Eisenhower Administration continue its “overt” diplomacy, including calls for peace with the former Soviet Union. In addition, however, diplomacy should be supplemented, it suggested, by “covert operations.” Central Intelligence Agency activities should be authorized to “create and exploit troublesome problems for International Communism.” Activities should be approved to further induce suspicion and conflict between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, exacerbate tensions inside Eastern Europe, and impair the image of the Soviet Union and “International Communism” every place in the world, including inside non-Communist nations where left political movements may hold some legitimacy.

In short every effort should be made to “develop underground resistance and facilitate covert and guerrilla operations and ensure availability of those forces in the event of war.” Specifically NSC 5412 asserted such operations should include “…propaganda, political action; economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition; escape and evasion and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states or groups including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, support of indigenous and anti-Communist elements ….and deception plans and operations.” (Wiesen Cook, 183).

As I was lecturing on this material, I was most taken by the recommendation that U.S. covert operations should be carried out in such a way that “U.S. government responsibility for them is not evident and if uncovered the U.S. government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.”

At the time that NSC 5412 was still secret, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles was proclaiming a policy of “liberation” which promised to “rollback” Communist regimes we abhorred. In addition, he made it clear that we might use “massive retaliation,” or nuclear weapons, to defend against the scourge of “International Communism.”

The rest of my course will describe United States policies in Iran, Guatemala, Hungary, and Cuba in the 1950s; the continuation of militarism on the Korean Peninsula, the escalating war in Vietnam, and U.S. policies toward Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Chile. When we get to the 1980s and beyond materials will be presented about Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and in our own day ongoing support for repression of the Palestinian people, a NATO war on Libya, and claims about Iran producing nuclear weapons. Attention will be given to the U.S. global presence reflected in 700 bases in 38 countries supplemented by private contract armies everywhere and a military budget that is half that of the world.

In a recent example of media complicity with government distortion, Howard Kurtz, a television pundit who moderates a show critiquing the media, reported that a West Coast radio station played a narrative by a man claiming to have been a soldier in Iraq who killed numerous innocent civilians. The soldier’s background was checked with the Pentagon. The Army declared it had no record that a person with the soldier’s name had been in Iraq. For Kurtz, the case was closed. If the Pentagon declares it has no record of the soldier in question, the media report of atrocities committed by the soldier must have been false.

So I have to conclude from my own lectures that the historical record of United States foreign policy is defended by repeated lies; for example about who we were protecting in Korea and if two U.S. vessels in Vietnamese waters were attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats. In addition, the foreign policy establishment, both government and media, claimed that Juan Bosch and Salvador Allende were agents of International Communism, that Palestinians had no claim to the land from which they were ejected, and anti-government rebels in Afghanistan were freedom fighters. Both government spokespersons and the media communicated uncritically the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. To assist misrepresentations organizations funded by the National Endowment for Democracy proclaim that they in fact represent the interests of the people in countries in which they covertly operate.

Therefore, ever since the onset of the Cold War, as NSC 5412 codified in 1954, United States foreign policy decision-makers authorized covert operations, which if uncovered would allow them to “plausibly disclaim any responsibility.” The Kurtz example suggests that the media will
readily collaborate with such government misrepresentations.

Documents such as NSC 5412, the historical record of United States foreign policy, and news information about it, leaves little reason to believe what the American people are told by their government about its role in the world.