Thursday, December 31, 2015

What to Make of the Elections--and What We Should Do Next (reposted)

Oftentimes bloggers and other pundits write stuff that if reexamined turns out to be ill-conceived and just plain wrong. However, looking at the essay below written after the 2014 election, I think it remains relevant to the struggles of 2016. Therefore I am reposting it. Harry Targ

What to make of the elections – and what we should do next
Progressives must engage in education, agitation, and organization around social and economic justice issues while fighting the politics of fear.

By Harry Targ | The Rag Blog | November 5, 2014

I am looking at exit poll data and, as in prior election seasons, more Democratic votes came from the young, women, African Americans, Latinos, voters with post-graduate degrees and educational levels at or below high school, and low income citizens. This national polling data comports with results from many individual Congressional and state races. These groups of voters (or comparable groups of non-voters) will stay the same or increase as a percentage of potential voters in 2016 and beyond.

This data speaks to the necessary expansion of electoral and “street heat” strategies that prioritize several issues. Progressives need to continue to combat racism and sexism in all its forms. This translates into reversing voter suppression laws and other tactics to stifle voting, renewing the Voting Rights Act, pursuing equal pay for equal work legislation, opening the doors for citizenship to all migrants to the United States.

In addition, support for an expanded economic populist agenda is central to any progressive historical change. Candidates for public office should be pressured to support living wage legislation at the national and state levels, expand on worker rights to form unions, a green jobs agenda, revising the Affordable Care Act into a single payer system, and federal legislation (paralleling the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights) guaranteeing every worker the right to a job.

A program of social and economic justice should be basic to every candidacy in 2016.

This program of social and economic justice should be basic to every candidacy at the federal and state levels in 2016. To advocate for such programs, movements inside and outside the electoral arena should spend the next two years engaging in education, agitation, and organization.

In addition to struggles over concrete policies, progressives should engage more vigorously in ideological struggle. In general, this means addressing racism as a central undercurrent in American political culture: research and education that documents the centrality of the racialization of the 2014 election would inform discussion in the weeks ahead.

Also, a centerpiece of American political history, paralleling and sometimes overlapping with racism, is the politics of fear. The sources of fear in the past have included racial and ethnic others, foreigners, and communists. This election season fear was generated by half-truths about terrorists, particularly from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an invasion of Central American children, and a mysterious contagious disease traveling from Africa to the United States.

The politics of fear must be challenged, not accommodated.

The politics of fear must be challenged, not accommodated, introducing a politics of reason. That is progressives should demand that candidates address real issues rationally, demonstrate arguments using data, and to the contrary avoid simplistic sound bites. The people who need to be motivated should be treated with respect, including assuming that they understand their self-interest and can be convinced by compelling arguments.

Finally, campaigns opposing big money in politics need to continue. This includes the only short-term challenge to big money that has any chance of electoral success; that is organizing masses of people. In addition to increasing the struggles to build multi-issue mass campaigns, progressives can avail themselves of a multitude of media projects: alternative radio and television, free distribution newspapers, blogs, websites, and Facebook networks, as well as organizing study circles on college campuses, in senior centers, community centers, and public libraries.

I feel this morning the way I felt the day after Ronald Reagan was elected president. While the Reagan presidency institutionalized a neoliberal economic agenda that has shaped the national and global economy ever since, we also witnessed in the subsequent years the largest rally in United States history against nuclear weapons, a vibrant Central America solidarity movement, an anti-NAFTA campaign that almost defeated the passage of the treaty in Congress, various huge mobilizations against wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the election of the first African-American president in United States history.

Joe Hill was correct when he urged his comrades, “don’t mourn, organize.”

Posted by Thorne Dreyer, The Rag Blog.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. ]

Friday, December 25, 2015

IN TIMES LIKE THESE (revised version)

By Harry Targ /The Rag Blog /original December 19, 2012

Thinking about 2015 and the year ahead, I remembered Arlo Guthrie’s poignant song and what I previously had written about it.

-- Arlo Guthrie, “In Times Like These.”

In times like these when night surrounds me
And I am weary and my heart is worn
When the songs they’re singing don’t mean nothing
Just cheap refrains play on and on...

When leaders profit from deep divisions
When the tears of friends remain unsung
In times like these it’s good to remember
These times will go in times to come

I see the storm clouds rise above me
The sky is dark and the night has come
I walk alone along this highway
Where friends have gathered one by one

I know the storm will soon be over
The howling winds will cease to be
I walk with friends from every nation
On freedom’s highway in times like these.

All year (written in 2012) we have been celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie. “This Land is Your Land” has become the new national anthem, particularly for the 98 per cent of the population, mostly the American working class.

Singers now sing the forbidden verses challenging the rights of private property and choruses of cheering people, young and old, black and white, straight and gay, join in. It is a song of struggle, pride, and recognition that this world belongs to everybody.

Although the song has inspired us all as we sing it, sometimes we forget that the trajectory toward progressive change is not smooth. Guthrie’s friend and voice of our times, Pete Seeger, reminds us that “it is darkest before the dawn.”

Perhaps the anthem of these times, after hundreds of domestic instances of violence from Columbine to Newtown, from Trayvon Martin to Jordan Davis, to the streets of Chicago, is most poignantly articulated by Arlo Guthrie. And it is an anthem that activists should sing as we struggle against bombings, drones, economic blockades, covert interventions, assassination lists, killer teams, police violence, wars on drugs, huge appropriations of human resources to kill, violent video games, war toys, endless television shows and films that portray and normalize killings, as well as the tragedies such as at Newtown (and New York, Ferguson, Chicago, Charleston, San Bernardino and on and on).

Major targets of violence and murder are educational institutions and particularly young people, Black and white, men and women, and gay and straight, often students. It is ironic that it is in these institutions and among young people in general that some of the most creative debates ensue around direct physical violence and structural violence, economic, sexual, and racial.

Therefore, in the midst of our deep sorrow, we remember Arlo Guthrie’s words. “In times like these,” despite the emotional energy and time spent achieving some electoral, labor and Occupy victories, we get weary and our “heart is worn.” While we see the “storm clouds rise above,” we should remember that “the storm will soon be over.” Why?  Because “I walk with friends from every nation, on freedom’s highway in times like these.”

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at
Diary of a Heartland Radical -- and that's also the name of his book from Changemaker Press which can be found at Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Harry Targ

But the story of 21st century resistance is not just about countries, alliances, new economic institutions that mimic the old. Grassroots social movements have been spreading like wild fire all across the face of the globe. The story can begin in many places and at various times: the new social movements of the 1980s; the Zapatistas of the 1990s; the anti-globalization/anti-IMF campaigns going back to the 1960s and continuing off and on until the new century; or repeated mass mobilizations against a Free Trade Agreement for the Americas. (Harry Targ, “The Empire in Disarray: Global Challenges to the International Order,” The Rag Blog, April 10, 2013).

On Imperialism and Resistance

Theories of imperialism emphasize the role of capital accumulation, the drive for ever larger profits, the exploitation of workers and peasants, and the expropriation of land. The needs of the economic system are typically served by military force when profits cannot be gained through other means. Also social control in poor countries is achieved by building alliances between ruling classes in rich and poor countries.

This story of imperialism explains much of human history. But the pursuit of profit, the capacity to exploit, the conquest of land, and the institutionalization of policies that maximize the interests of the powerful generate resistance. That too is part of the story. In the twenty-first century, countries such as China, India, and Brazil are demanding that some of the rules of economic exchange be rewritten. Groups of marginalized nation-states have joined together to form political and economic organizations on every continent. Most importantly, social movements have emerged all across the globe around critical issues. And because of new technologies, movements in one geographic space are now visible to all.

Latin American Resistance and Counter-Resistance

Perhaps the most interesting and inspiring forms of resistance over the last 25 years have been observed in Latin America. Cuba, the long-isolated nation which has inspired revolutionary ferment in the Global South, has been joined by political regimes throughout the continent. In this century resistance has come from grassroots organizing and electoral processes. These have led many countries in the region to adopt radical reforms, economic populism, and visions of twenty-first century socialism. The Bolivarian Revolution, so named by Hugo Chavez, spread from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, to Nicaragua. Modest adaptations of radical reform surfaced in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and for a time Paraguay and Honduras. These countries embraced some or all of the following:

--the construction of socialist parties to run candidates for local and national office.

--cooperation in the establishment of regional international organizations such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), The Bank of the South, The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), The Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR), and various bilateral agreements including Cuba’s exchange of medical practitioners for Venezuelan oil.

--the articulation of common Latin American responses to traditional United States and European global hegemony. This includes demands for change in European and North American control of voting power in international organizations such as the IMF, opposition to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas proposed by the United States, and demands that the United States normalize relations with Cuba.

--the establishment of alternative forms of local political power.

--the construction of agricultural and industrial cooperatives.

--the emergence of grassroots organizations.

--the recognition of indigenous rights.

--the realization that the distribution of wealth and power between and within countries needs to be changed.

In sum, theories of imperialism, hegemony, dependency need to be complemented by an understanding of the theory and practice of resistance. Mobilizations as varied as the thousands of groups attending the World Social Fora to the politics of the Bolivarian Revolution, to Arab Spring, to Occupy are all part of the story of the twenty-first century. However, narratives of imperialism and resistance must also be sensitive to “counter-resistance.” History does not move in a steady course. Conflict and struggle are experienced all along the way. And therefore theorists and advocates of twenty-first century socialism must be cognizant of and be prepared for counter-resistance and reversals in the progressive flow of history.

Counter-Resistance and Defeat in Venezuela

Recently peoples’ movements suffered defeats in elections in two countries: Argentina and Venezuela. In Argentina, a neoliberal opposition party candidate, Mauricio Macri, defeated the hand-picked choice of incumbent president Christina Kirchner in October.  And, in parliamentary elections in Venezuela on December 6, the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD) won two-thirds of the legislative seats over the incumbent Chavista party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). This latter defeat in particular will have significant consequences in the near-term future for policies, programs, and left movements throughout the region.

Why did the PSUV incur this first major loss since the rise to power of Hugo Chavez in 1998? The answer to the question involves both external and internal causes. Externally, the loss was influenced by United States programs initiated years ago to intervene in the internal affairs of Venezuela. The United States trained and funded opposition political forces, encouraged a military coup to oust Chavez from power, and gave support to the wealthy class, to do whatever would bring down the Bolivarian Revolution.

In addition, U.S. policy has pressured Latin American governments to resist collaboration with its Venezuelan nemesis. Its policy tilted more toward Venezuela’s historic adversary, Colombia. In 2010 the U.S. constructed seven new military bases in Colombia to exacerbate tensions between those two countries.

Finally, the price of oil on the world market has dropped precipitously over the last four years, thus depriving the Venezuelan economy of its most lucrative export-earning commodity. 
Along with the 17-year United States campaign to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution throughout the region, internal forces impacted significantly on the December 6 election defeat of the PSUV. Although the Chavez/Maduro regimes have prioritized new grassroots political institutions and have encouraged the expansion of cooperatives, particularly in the rural areas, Venezuelans in some communities were frustrated by bureaucratic stifling of local initiatives and political corruption. Also, while there has been a radical redistribution of the right to healthcare and food, in recent years these benefits have become scarce and accessing them has become more time consuming. Finally, as a result of economic crises, inflation has skyrocketed and basic consumer goods have become unavailable or unaffordable. Venezuelan voters were frustrated by current economic crises even though the 17 years of Chavista rule has led to substantial declines in poverty and the Cuban doctors have made health care readily available to those who formerly  did not have access to it. 

Finally, PSUV victories and the passion for Venezuela’s peaceful revolution drew substantial support from its charismatic leader, Hugo Chavez. With his death, a less appealing Nicholas Maduro was not able to maintain the authority of his predecessor.

Lessons Learned

What are some of the lessons to be drawn from the defeats in Latin America, particularly in Venezuela?

First, history reveals that successful resistance over imperialism and domination often leads to reaction, or what might be called “counter-resistance.” Activists should be aware that reversals in the face of organized reaction are likely and they therefore should not despair.

Second, progressives in the United States should continue to oppose militarism, subversion, and economic strangulation targeted against regimes that challenge traditional hegemony. In addition they might more effectively explain how communities and nations in Latin America are constructing alternative institutions such as workplace and agricultural cooperatives and alternative organizations of peoples’ power.

Third, the consequences of the election for Venezuela itself are unclear. But it can be assumed that MUD will use its two-thirds majority in the parliament to reverse the policies of economic populism, political change, and Venezuela’s positive relationships with other countries, particularly Cuba. Maduro, however, is still president and he will resist efforts to reverse the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Fourth, ultimately the future course of the country will be determined by the grassroots formations already created by the Bolivarian Revolution. If the people stand up to protect their cooperatives, their alternative local decision-making bodies, their new lives, then MUD (a fractious coalition of center-right and right-wing forces) will have limited powers to reverse the last seventeen years of the construction of twenty-first century socialism. And the level of intensity of the defense of the Bolivarian Revolution is relevant to observe throughout Latin America as well.

Fifth, MUD will probably prioritize a reversal of Venezuelan/Cuban relations and the other agreements Venezuela has made to provide oil for resource poor nations. The ramifications for the economies of these countries might be large, as would the loss of Cuban doctors to the Venezuelan people.

Sixth, and of more long-term consequence, poor countries have to figure out ways to construct  vibrant and diverse economies that do not depend on a single temporarily valuable natural resource for export.  History is replete with accounts of countries which gained temporary wealth because of gold, silver, nickel, or singular agricultural commodities such as sugar or tobacco. They then became victims of conquest and vulnerable to declines in global demand. In the case of oil, extraction means environmental devastation. In countries such as Ecuador and Brazil oil exploration, even if the profits derived from it are shared with the population at large, generates justifiable anger among indigenous people who object to policies that destroy local communities and their ecology.

Finally, most regimes that have come to power through struggle have gained legitimacy from charismatic figures. In Latin America, Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and most recently Hugo Chavez, for example, have excited the imagination and enthusiasm of their people. Charismatic authority has been both a blessing and a curse as people struggle to build a better future. Twenty-first century socialism will be built on passion and enthusiasm but it is more likely to endure if that passion and enthusiasm is based on all those who construct it, not a small number of  leaders.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Harry Targ

When we humans see instances of violence, we are often quick to respond, sometimes with efforts to assist the victims, often with efforts to punish the perpetrators. It is important that we are able to feel the pain of each individual case. It is equally important to find out why there are so many cases. For this to take place it is important to examine what common underlying levers are causing the human family to engage in such protracted and recurrent violence. (Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree, The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits from Global Violence and War, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2015, 11).  

Peace research, education, and activism have been animated by concern about violence. For centuries, scholars, theologians, philosophers and activists have studied the meaning and causes of violence in human affairs, primarily motivated by a desire to reduce or eliminate it. 

Some have pointed out that, for the most part, human beings have engaged in cooperative forms of behavior. The vast majority of human interactions are designed to sustain life, maintain communities, and support individual development. But, it is true that the dark side of history manifests massive slaughter, starvation, enslavement, and destruction of natural environments.

Contemporary theorists identify three kinds of violence; each separate but all three inextricably interconnected. Direct violence refers to the immediacy of killing, maiming, bombing, gassing. It is the physical form of human interaction we usually associate with war, murder, rape, and terrorist acts. Structural violence refers to those forms of violence that are institutionalized--embedded in economic, political, and social systems--and destroy life gradually. Class exploitation, racism, sexism, homophobia, and environmental destruction are examples of these slow, steady, and historical forms of violence. Cultural violence refers to the patterns of habits, beliefs, states of consciousness, forms of intellectual justification for cut-throat competition, demonization of others, normalizing hate, and killing. It is the intellectual glue that gives legitimacy to direct and structural violence and is the byproduct of killing and the structures that crush human potential.

The disaggregation of the concept of violence is vital to understanding killing today. While most discussions of violence would not challenge this trifold definition, conventional scholarly or journalistic methods of study of violence are limited in their efforts to understand its occurrence or how to address solutions. These methods, often based on narrow statistical or anecdotal conceptions of cause and effect, tend to ignore the historical and current context of violence. For example, Facebook and twitter communications are analyzed more carefully than history and context.

However, if the reality of killing in the twenty-first century is to be addressed, history and context become profoundly important. Such an examination requires a frank evaluation of human history, the brutality of contemporary economics and politics, international relations and how they help to understand individual acts of brutality.

The historical context in which direct, structural, and cultural violence arises begins at various times and places. In the United States case, it is critical to be aware of the slaughter of ten million Native Americans who lived on the land expropriated by Europeans and their descendants from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. In addition, slavery and racism established the structures and consciousness that made the capitalist economic system flower and grow. Along with the slaughter and kidnapping to plant the seeds of a capitalist system, European settlers began the process of clear-cutting the natural environment that was the North American continent. Violence against nature paralleled the violence against humans.

Therefore history is a necessary template for reflecting on violence, the institutionalization of oppression and exploitation, and the justification for the development of a culture of manifest destiny, racial superiority, and the normalization of killing.

Part of the context of American economic and political life today involves the inculcation in the popular consciousness the idea that society is a collection of atomized individuals, each in competition with others. Sometimes groups of people with socially constructed identities--physical, cultural, religious-- are defined as in competition with other such groups. Other times it is individuals and/or families that exist in stark struggle against all others. In a world of individuals, not communities, security is bolstered by accumulating enormous wealth, building fences and walls, and stock-piling arms. Governments are collective manifestations of potential enemies. The only positive function government can play, according to this popular rendition of cultural violence, is when it kills others (preferably peremptorily) who might be a challenge.

Since human societies historically have required cooperation, sharing, and acts of altruism, a culture in the service of direct and structural violence must be created to destroy the “natural” propensities of human sociability. In modern United States history, the great social movements around class, race, and gender solidarity and their connectivity have been challenged by economic and political ruling classes. The solidarity that emerged during the Great Depression was opposed by corporate and financial elites, particularly after World War II, who sought to instill in education and popular culture a demonic view of collective action and solidarity. They called it “communism.” They promoted educational curricula that celebrated markets, individualism, competition, and the value of a society of winners and losers. Deeply embedded in such narratives were racism, sexism, and homophobia. And they were instrumental in promoting a foreign policy that saw threats to this vision in the international system.

The promotion of the economic underpinning of a competitive global economy helped create and reinforce the construction of a military/industrial/educational complex that created a permanent war economy. In the twenty-first century threats to United States economic hegemony and the legitimacy of the war system itself provoked wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the spread of a United States military presence to over 700 military bases around the world and thousands of drone attacks. As some predicted, United States global violence and its permanent war economy inspired and expanded movements of direct, structural, and cultural violence in response. Enemies from the past to the present have rationales for their own promotion of violence.

None of the discussion above can “explain” the mass murders in Charleston, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino or the 350 other places were such direct violence has occurred over the last year in the United States; nor does the discussion of structural and cultural violence lead logically to policy fixes. But it does help us understand the depths of the problems of violence, historically and contextually. And it does suggest that the most comprehensive way to address killing in the twenty-first century is to begin the long process of radical structural change and the development of a new economics, politics, and culture that celebrates human community.