Sunday, April 26, 2009


Harry Targ

Social movements are defined in several ways; their leadership, their membership, their vision, their strategies, their resources, and their successes and failures. We often forget, however, that each of these elements are woven together by a culture. This culture can be poetic, dramatic, pictorial, or musical, or some of each. The culture provides a way for people in all different places, engaged in all different parts of the mass movement, to experience a common sense of themselves and what they share with others. It may be the case that a movement without a culture is a movement without a sense of vision, of shared purpose, of passion.

It is these thoughts that come to mind this week as we gear up to celebrate the 90th birthday of Pete Seeger, a man who has brought song to our hearts and minds for 70 years. Pete and those musicians who were inspired by him helped influence many of us to join the great twentieth century movements for social change: labor, civil rights, feminist, ecology. It was through his practice, getting sometimes thousands of fans to sing together in unison about building a better world, that people learned that working together is how change occurs.

And when progressives look back at the twentieth century and see a very mixed record of successes and failures, glorious victories and tragic defeats, it is the culture that reminds people of the nobility of the goals that social movements pursued and what still needs to be achieved. And no greater symbol of redemption of twentieth century progressive movements and cultures was evidenced than Pete’s leading 500,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial two days before the inauguration of President Barack Obama in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Pete included the verses that delegitimized private property and celebrated the continued struggle for fundamental social change.

That performance reminded older people of the fundamental justice of the old movements and the need to create new movements with new cultures in the 21st century. Vital to that brief sing out also was the message that the old political culture should not be forgotten even as new politics and culture is created. The old and the new are like links in a chain.

Let’s all celebrate the life and work of Pete Seeger as he turns 90 and celebrate ourselves as well.

A few additional words:

Paul Robeson: Continued study and research into the origins of the folk music of various peoples in many parts of the world revealed that there is a world body-a universal body-of folk music based upon a universal pentatonic (five tone) scale. Interested as I am in the universality of (hu)mankind-in the fundamental relationship of all peoples to one another-this idea of a universal body of music intrigued me, and I pursued it along many fascinating paths.

Woody Guthrie: I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood….

Pete Seeger: Imagine a big see-saw, with a basketful of rocks sitting on one end. That end is down on the ground. At the other end, up in the air, is a basket half full of sand. Some of us are trying to fill it, using teaspoons. Most folks laugh at us: “Don’t you know the sand is leaking out even as you put it in?” We say that’s true, but we’re getting more people with more teaspoons all the time. One of these days that basket of sand will be full and you’ll see this whole see-saw just tip the opposite way. People will say, “Gee how did it happen so suddenly?” Us, and our goddam teaspoons.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Harry Targ

Developing a progressive political agenda often requires historical reflection. This should be true of our assessments of the consequences of the recently completed G20 summit in London.

Thirty years before the summit, 1979, US imperial policy experienced multiple challenges, challenges so dramatic that the Carter administration began a shift in overall economic and military policy back toward a global cold war. The new cold war reignited by Carter was fully expanded and institutionalized by Reagan, two Bushes, and Clinton (even with the cold war enemy gone).

In January, 1979, to the surprise of friend and foe alike the brutal Iranian dictatorship of the Shah was overthrown by a mass movement of workers, religious followers, students, and bourgeois nationalists. The impregnable Iranian regime, with the fifth largest military in the world and the keeper of the flow of Persian Gulf oil, was no more. The ouster of the Shah so shocked Washington that for a time some Carter aides advocated a US military operation to save this most critical of allies from revolution.

Later, the US empire was shaken by revolutionary ferment in the Western Hemisphere: the seizure of power of the New Jewel movement in Grenada, the Sandinista triumphant march into Managua, Nicaragua and a reform coup in El Salvador. In November, 1979, 55 US hostages were taken by students in Tehran (and held for 441 days) and the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan to save a beleaguered ally from internal revolt. (Subsequently, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted that the Carter administration began funding Islamic rebels fighting against the Kabul government before the Soviet Union sent troops to save it.).

Paralleling geopolitical and military crisis in 1979, the US was mired in a recession, including both high unemployment and inflation (a combination that mainstream economists said could not happen at the same time). Analysts wrote about a US economy plagued with overproduction, underconsumption, declining rates of profit, and a state fiscal crisis.

The seeds were planted for the full flowering of new economic and military policies by the Reagan administration to stem the crises. “Neoliberalism” refers to the set of economic policies the new administration (through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the G7 countries, and private banks) imposed on virtually every country in the world. These policies required that every country shift from state directed to “market” approaches to economic growth. Countries were forced to downsize, privatize, and deregulate their economies and to shift from the production of goods and services for domestic consumption to exports. First poor countries, then socialist countries, then European social democracies, and the United States itself were subjected to neoliberalism. And, of course, from Chile to Mexico to Eastern Europe, to many Asian countries, the policies generated growing economic inequalities, declining rates of growth, and increasing indebtedness to foreign banks. In Latin America, the 1980s became known as “the lost decade.”

Beginning with President Carter’s 1980 State of the Union address and dramatically expanded in the 1980s, and refined to a brutal art in the new century, president after president embraced a political/military policy referred to as “neoconservatism.” Neoconservative military doctrine, commonly associated with the Project for a New American Century, a group of political influentials assembled in the 1990s, was proclaimed earlier as the Reagan Doctrine which called for global domination (even before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc). Neoconservatism referred to the proposition that the United States was the last great hope for humankind, the city on the hill. As strategic doctrine neoconservatism evolved after the collapse of the Soviet Union asserting that nations that had military power should use it any time and any place to impose on peoples the “right” course for their development. Might makes right. The United States is the hegemon, neoconservatism proclaimed. The United States should use all its resources to dominate the world because it is the “last remaining superpower.”

Why go into all this? Because the character of President Obama’s participation at the G20 Summit three weeks ago suggested that modest changes in United States foreign policy, particularly in reference to neoliberalism and neoconservatism, had begun. Also President Obama’s words and actions at the Summit about new directions in US policy were enthusiastically endorsed all around the world. The new rhetoric has led to changed expectations which may translate into new demands (from governments and peoples) for change in the years ahead.

As to neoliberalism, it is clear to all that reliance on “the magic of the marketplace” has been and would continue to be a disaster for the global economy. A global economic stimulus package, for all its flaws, has replaced demands for government austerity programs characteristic of the era of neoliberalism. In addition, while the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank remain the primary agents of global economic policy, influential G20 countries have made it clear that these two international financial institutions must be reformed such that vast majorities of humankind have some formal representation in their decisionmaking.

As to neoconservatism, President Obama at G20 and elsewhere on his travels has articulated the very modest proposition that the United States is not perfect, that it cannot act without others, and that diplomacy (the rudimentary tool of international relations since the foundation of the state system) will play a significant role in United States interactions with the world. Since G20 Obama has mentioned dialogue with Iran and Cuba, and was photographed shaking hands with Hugo Chavez at the meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders in Trinidad.

These modest and largely symbolic gestures by the new President do not constitute an end to the US pursuit of empire. However, they do recognize the rise of resistance to forty years of US driven neoliberal economic policies and neoconservative military policies. As so often has happened in US politics the gap between rhetoric and reality still remain large. But signs of G20 rejections of forty years of neoliberalism and neoconservatism can serve as a basis for progressives to insist that rhetoric become reality.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Harry Targ

In February, 2008 I sent an e-mail to some old high school friends declaring boldly that this was going to be my year: Obama would be elected president, Socialism would come to America, and the Cubs would win the world series. One dear friend responded by saying he hoped my nurse would be able to adjust my medication.

In years prior to my bold declaration, I would tell my students that Socialism would come to America before the Cubs would win the world series. Since they were on an awesome pace throughout the 2008 season I was sure we would achieve Socialism soon because the Cubs were going all the way in 2008. Alas my team was summarily eliminated from post-season competition by pitifully losing every playoff game.

The impact on my psyche was profound. Not only would I not be able to celebrate with those Cub fan survivors of 100 years of solitude but I would have to return to political activism to achieve Socialism because I could not count on the Cubs to get us over the hump. Even my wife, a heretofore Cub fan, said Basta! “60 Years is Enough.” When I asked her a week ago about going to the world series this year to root for the Cubs all she said was she would give me money for a hot dog.

I began writing this column Tuesday morning, just hours after the Cubs with smooth pitching from Carlos Zambrano and an Alfonso Soriano lead off home run defeated the Houston Astros. I even began to fantasize about a long winning streak, even 162 victories. Unfortunately, I did not finish the article before the Cubs lost game two in the tenth inning. There goes the perfect season.

What is behind my pathology. After all Ronald Reagan used to broadcast Cubs games, off of ticker tape reports so he had to make up stories about the game. Right-winger, George Will is one of the most famous Cub fans. And until quite recently the Cubs only played day baseball, thus prohibiting the attendance of most working people.

But there is another element, a kind of spiritual connection between the Cubs, working class Chicago, and all the down and out men and women who have struggled to survive and in the face of economic catastrophe continue to struggle to achieve wellbeing for themselves and their loved ones. Progressive Chicago cultural icons have had a soft spot in their hearts for the Cubs: for example newspaper columnist Mike Royko and folksinger Steve Goodman who wrote a song pleading to be buried in Wrigley Field.

In the end, when Ernie Banks, the Cubs Hall of Fame shortstop, says “wait ‘til next year” he is reflecting that hope and passion for victory that is the essence of all Cubs fans. Activists in the struggle for a new humane, really democratic socialist society also bear down, continue to organize and with full confidence say also “wait ‘til next year.”

Friday, April 3, 2009

Workers Built the Modern World

Harry Targ

The Grohmann Museum, a modern building with a cylindrical entrance way reaching up to the fourth floor, is nestled among a variety of interesting and renovated older buildings in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The museum is a block from an old Blatz brewery building that looks like it has been converted into high income condominiums.

Inside the Museum is an extraordinary collection of paintings, over 700, covering 400 years of artistry, all about work and workers. An additional visiting exhibit, “Cradle of Industry,” added paintings of German industrialization from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1960s and some recent documentary photos.

The paintings together illustrated the evolution of work, from agriculture, to crafts people (cobblers, blacksmiths, cork makers, glass blowers, and taxidermists), to miners and forgers, bridge builders, and steel makers. Additional paintings presented women picking hops for beer making, a seventeenth century accountant pouring over his books, and a surgeon opening up a patient’s head. Some of the paintings portrayed twentieth century factory work and a few documentary photos showed workers amassing in strikes against their bosses.

The paintings were collected by Dr. Eckhart Grohmann, a local entrepreneur who acquired and expanded a local aluminum casting and engineering company in Milwaukee. Grohmann reported that as a child he visited his grandfather’s marble processing company in Poland where he watched stonecutters and sculptors engaging in their craft. It was there, he reported, that he grew to appreciate hard work not as “an idealized concept but a principle of life.” Grohmann’s goal was to present in these paintings “a clear image of the honor of work.”

Viewing these many images of work, the viewer develops a profound appreciation of the centrality of human labor to the evolution of civilization. The paintings suggested how classical economists like Karl Marx could develop theories based on the idea that the value of all commodities came from the amount of work time that went into their production. In short, labor was the basis of all value.

Unfortunately, while the paintings powerfully underscore the basic Marxian idea about the value of work. contemporary politicians see work and workers as disposable. If they are organized in their work places they are impediments to human progress.

So goes the recent hint by the Obama administration that it will force General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy court. The New York Times wrote on April 1 what the consequences of this might be for workers: “In bankruptcy, companies can seek to persuade a judge to set aside labor contracts and terminate pension plans, by making a case that they are too expensive, forcing workers to rely on smaller government-provided retirement checks.”

In addition, Republicans, so-called moderate Democrats, Bank of America, Starbucks, Costco, the Chamber of Commerce and other representatives of big capital are marshaling resources to forestall the Employee Free Choice Act from becoming law. EFCA would make it easier, in the face of company pressures, for workers to form unions. If workers have a realistic chance of voting in unions they will do so. If they do have unions, wages and benefits will rise and workers’ basic quality of life and sense of security will rise. Finally, increasing numbers of workers with jobs at livable wages could stimulate economic growth.

Visiting the Grohmann Museum suggests the profound gap between the history of human civilization, built on the skills and energies of workers, and the way in which the contemporary political economy denigrates, marginalizes, and humiliates workers. Empowering and rewarding the working class must be central to progressive change in the days, weeks, and years ahead.