Thursday, May 19, 2016


Harry Targ

Political activists bring frames of reference to political conversations. These frames are shaped by competing visions of the nature of politics and what proper individual and state behavior should be.

Neoliberals celebrate the long-term performance of the capitalist economic system and urge that state regulations of economic activity be very limited. Neoliberal ideology is supplemented by one of two outlooks on how the United States should behave in the world. Neoconservatives argue that as the world’s dominant power, mostly military, it should use that power to remake other countries in its own image. With power come opportunities and obligations they say. Humanitarian interventionists suggest that the United States role in the world, economically and militarily, should be measured and limited. As “the indispensable nation,” United States power should be used selectively when there are clear humanitarian reasons for doing so. Decisions about when to intervene, of course, are to be determined by the United States itself.

New Deal Liberals, in the tradition of British economist John Maynard Keynes and descendants of sectors of the Democratic Party, see government as a potential positive force to modulate and limit the negative consequences of unbridled capitalism. The historic model is the evolving policy agenda of the Roosevelt Administration which included increased regulation of finance capital, workplace conditions, and worker rights. The transfer of funds to stimulate economic activity was vital.

Economic nationalists are not opposed to a government role in the economy but view it as a tool for protecting domestic manufacturing and finance from the international economy. The promotion of domestic capital and protection from global penetration are hallmarks of this outlook. Economic nationalists are more comfortable with isolationism in foreign affairs and visions of racial supremacy at home (including “American exceptionalism”), although racism has been embedded in all of United States history.

Capitalist critics take the view that the problems of the concentration of capital, income and wealth inequality, racism, patriarchy, and environmental devastation are inevitable byproducts of the workings of the capitalist system. According to this view, in addition to the domestic problems that the vast majority of people face, capitalism is intimately connected to war and imperialism. 

Of course, in the world of real politics discourse involves synthetic and sometimes contradictory elements of these four perspectives. Ordinarily politicians articulate perspectives that fit more than one of these frames or “theories” of the policy process. Oftentimes they proclaim positions that are designed to appeal to particular audiences. 

But there is another way to think about the political process. This way, the bottom line for most progressive activists, emphasizes core values or basic principles. In fact, for most of these activists it is basic principles that inspire people to involve themselves in politics in the first place. These include opposition to:

Killing. Most activists find mass slaughter, over 100 million died in the two World Wars of the twentieth century, despicable. They are aware that millions of Asians were killed by two atomic bombs, wars in Korea and Vietnam and covert operations in Indonesia and the Philippines. Killing today--drones and bombings, coups and terrorist acts against other countries and peoples are paralleled by police shootings and gun violence at home. Culturally violence is celebrated in film, television, and the internet. 

The shift of wealth from its producers to the tiny ruling class. Much of human history since the rise of capitalism as a world system has involved the expropriation of wealth from the many to the few. Capital accumulation has led to monstrous consolidations of wealth and power to a mere several hundred corporations and banks while fifteen to twenty percent of humankind lives in abject poverty and another thirty percent barely earns enough to survive from day to day.

Starvation and inadequate housing, health care, education, and security in old age. On a worldwide basis one or more of these basic needs are not met by up to a third of the human race. And the lack of security against precariousness is characteristic of a large percentage of the United States population impacting particularly on women, people of color, and youth.

Destruction of the environment.  Every day people around the world experience toxicity in air and water, rising water levels, extreme weather patterns, and the transformation of natural landscapes into bricks and mortar, asphalt, holes in the ground, and leveled mountains. 

Lying. Governments lie. Corporate spokespersons lie. Politicians lie. Religious leaders lie. Educators lie. Journalists lie. The perpetuation of economic and political institutions has become the determining motivation for organizational behavior; the pursuit of profit basic. In such an environment populations get angry, cynical, or feel powerless. 

Dehumanization and objectification of human beings. To defuse growing opposition to the spread of human misery and systems of exploitation based on class, race, and gender elites have divided people into categories; pitting one against another. To do so, the complexity of human potentialities has been reduced to stick figures, stereotypes of kinds of people. Given the power of economic, social, and political institutions, the stereotypes of others and ourselves become broadly repeated in the media, cultural institutions, and educational systems. 

These objections to ongoing injustice become, for many, the basis for the development of a progressive political consciousness. People who oppose killing; shifting wealth and income from the many to the few; starvation, and inadequate health care, housing, education, and security in old age; destruction of the environment; lying; and dehumanization and objectification of human beings begin to rise up angry. 

But in addition to anger, progressives can look to the frames of reference, the narratives, the ideologies that pervade political discourse. They can ask which of these adequately address the objections raised. During election seasons, people can ask which, if any, of the candidates, adequately reflect what greater numbers of progressive people are opposing. 

When the basic principles are placed alongside the economic and political institutions that dominate our lives, the ideologies that are used to justify the status quo, and the candidates who are seeking support, what needs to be done, what kinds of organizations must be created to create a better world, and which individuals and groups are most likely to provide leadership and support for building a just society become clear.