Neoliberalism: Free Market Fundamentalism or Corporate Power?

Also in CounterPunch.

I’ve been hearing about neoliberalism for a long time now and never could make much sense of it. It turns out the story we tell about neoliberalism is as contradictory as neoliberalism itself. Two currents within the critique of neoliberalism offer different analyses of the current economy and suggest different strategies for dealing with the gross exploitation, wealth inequality, climate destruction and dictatorial governance of the modern corporate order. 

These opposing currents are not just different schools of thought represented by divergent thinkers. Rather they appear as contradictions within the critiques of neoliberalism leveled by some of the most influential writers on the subject. These different interpretations are often the result of focus. Look at neoliberal doctrine and intellectuals and the free market comes to the fore. Look at the history and practice of the largest corporations and the most powerful political actors and corporate power takes center stage. 

The most influential strain of thought places “free market fundamentalism” (FMF) at the center of a critical analysis of neoliberalism. The term was coined by Nobel Prize winner and former chief economist of the World Bank itself –Joseph Stigliz. FMF is usually how neoliberalism is understood by progressives and conservatives alike. In this view, an unregulated free market is the culprit and the oft cited formula — de-regulation, austerity, privatization, tax cuts — is the means used to undermine the public commons.

David Harvey’s, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, is perhaps the single most influential book and the author begins with the free market. Harvey sets it up like this:

And it is with this doctrine…that I am here primarily concerned. Neoliberalism is…a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human wellbeing can be best advanced by liberating individual entreprenaurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create…an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. [1]

Not a mention of the massive modern corporation just those 19th century individuals and institutions that are the stock characters of FMF. But to be fair, Harvey moves on to the “paradox:” neoliberalism is a political project that needs state power.

This creates the paradox of intense state interventions and government by elites and ‘experts’ in a world where the state is supposed not to be interventionist.[2]

The idea that the “free market” is an accurate description of reality or a good basis for strategy has worn thin. What started as the less influential reading of the neoliberal critique is gaining ground. The market economy and the state changed over time into something quite different — something we might call Corporate Power. And that is a far cry from a fundamentalist return of the liberal free market of the 19th Century. 

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Instead, we confront a new form of capitalist order: the merger between the biggest corporations and the state. The corporate power dominates nations by hollowing out and commandeering the institutions that were supposed to represent people. Economic decisions are made behind closed doors at the Treasury Department or Federal Reserve where bankers rule and regular citizens dare not go. The same power operates on the global stage through international institutions and regulatory bodies that do not even pretend to be democratic such as WTO, IMF, and World Bank. Corporate power tends toward fascism by destroying democracy and imposing austerity — the very conditions that give fascism mass appeal.

The national and global institutions that have been so essential to the creation of the neoliberal order provide rich evidence that we can no longer tell where governments end and corporations begin.

The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein, remains very influential and delves deeply into both critiques. But the closer the author got to the military-industrial complex and war —the core functions of the state — the clearer the corporate power argument became.  

[T]he stories about corruption and revolving doors leave a false impression. They imply that there is still a clear line between the state and the complex, when in fact that line disappears long ago. The innovation the Bush years lies not in how quickly politicians move from one world to the other but in how many feel entitled to occupy worlds simultaneously ….They embody the ultimate fulfillment of the corporatist mission: a total merger of political and corporate elites in the name of security, with the state playing the role of chair of the business guild—as well as the largest source of business opportunities…[3] 

Exactly. But, FMF and “a total merger of political and corporate elites” are completely at odds with one another. Another widely read author puts it this way:

“There is a profound irony here: In that neoliberalism was supposed the get the state out of the way but it requires intense state involvement in order to function.” — George Monbiot

'Is it irony, parody, paradox, satire or what when we earn a profit despite our many plunders?'

If the contending ideas of FMF and corporate power were strictly academic it would not matter so much but we will not develop a successful strategy to counter corporate power without knowing what the actual material conditions are. While FMF obscures the current state of our economy, corporate power helps us to see through the seemingly ironic fact that the so-called free market relies upon regular government interventions and support.

We’re dealing with irony or paradox only in as much as we’re dealing with modern mythology. Myths endure because their stories resolve contradictions that logic, reason and facts cannot.

Let’s Stop Repeating the Bosses’ Propaganda.  

The emphasis on FMF has unwittingly contributed to the deeply rooted mythic aura of free markets. Adam Smith, the first philosopher of markets, had to resort to an unexplainable “Invisible Hand” to argue that capitalism was good for everyone. This faith lives on in the neoliberal portrayal of global markets as omnipotent, unknowable forces that work in mysterious ways. If that sounds like the god of capital — it is.

But we need to come to terms with the fact that the free markets’ mythical and mystical nature is precisely why it has such a grip on the popular imagination — and on our own. If we believe free markets actually exist then even our critiques are offerings to its god-like power. When we say “free market” it works like an incantation summoning a complete worldview into being. 

For example, critiques of the free market too often internalize the neoliberal claim that it’s the natural form of human exchange and production. According to this view, the market exists independently somewhere “out there” in human nature or society. Lack of regulation allows market freedom to run to its logical or natural conclusion even if it’s prone to excess and crisis. So the role of the regulatory state, in this argument, is to control the natural freedom and drive of the market actors.

But corporate power imposes its ideology by force and often violence. It exploits people in accordance with law. It plunders resources and poisons water without consequence. This is not freedom. It is dominance and supremacy which puts us on a path to environmental destruction, oligarchy — maybe even fascism. If your “freedom” is my exploitation then you are my master, I your slave, but neither of us are free. Corporate power is the opposite of freedom.

Market ideology has always hidden authority, power and responsibility behind a screen of individual freedom and anonymous actions. If the free market is the outcome of millions of interactions between free individuals, and no one is really in charge, well, what is wrong with that? Plenty, starting with the fact that this utopian ideal in no way describes the dominant form of capitalism in our time — if ever.

And if we believe there is a free market then how do we deal with the widely held belief in the morality of the market? Millions still believe the economy to be moral because it works like a true and transparent regulator of merit. The good rise, the weak fall. The Protestant Work Ethic remains the most powerful spiritual belief shoring up capitalism. If we accept the market as the actual basis of our economy then how can we oppose the idea that hard work is in fact justly rewarded?  

No wonder millions of American workers don’t embrace or cannot understand the neoliberal critique: who can really oppose nature — or society, or freedom, or morality? But unlike the “free market,” which everyday people often associate with small entrepreneurs and mom and pop shopkeepers, millions of people can oppose corporate power.

By shifting to the idea of corporate power we can make claims in keeping with day-to-day experience of the working class: work is not about freedom but instead compulsion and coercion; the economy is not based on merit but rigged to favor the powerful. The common understanding that the economy is rigged has outpaced the viewpoints offered and believed by many progressives. The people are leading, let’s catch up.

There is no market in pure or natural form. Instead market forces and political power interact to create the economy, in other words we have a political-economy. Corporations were born political actors. And the corporate power, not the free market, is the only form of capitalism worth overthrowing.   

Does History Matter?

The irony or paradox at the heart of the FMF critique is really a failure to give history its due.

When societies reach this kind of end stage, the language they use to describe their own economic and political and social and cultural reality bears no relation to that reality…. The language of free market laissez-faire capitalism is what they feed business students and the wider public but it is an ideology that bears absolutely no resemblance to that reality…..In a free market society all those companies like Goldman-Sachs would have gone into bankruptcy but we do not live in so-called free market….Chris Hedges 

So where did the free market go? The modern corporation itself overcame the many inefficiencies of 19th century free market capitalism; it replaced “cutthroat competition” with the coordination, cooperation and economies of scale to destroy smaller firms or consolidate them into monopolies. Over time competition evolved into monopoly power. Individual entrepreneurs were dwarfed by concentrated wealth’s immense power. The free market was replaced with a public/private mix where both public policy and market signals regulated and promoted economic activity. [4]  

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This long historical shift away from free markets and toward corporate power has left such a clear trail of evidence it’s a wonder it’s not self evident. How else can we interpret the corporatization of war and the military and the billions in direct and indirect subsidies to corporations? Government shelters banks, guaranteeing loans and mortgages while bailing out stupid investors.[5] Wealth is redistributed to the top though massive tax breaks and cuts to social programs. Legally enforced starvation wages push workers to public assistance ultimately subsidizing their bosses. Tax codes encourage the rich to shelter trillions in tax havens while the unrepresented masses make up the difference. Federal programs like “quantitative easing” pumps free money into the financial system. The risk and losses from environmental destruction are for us to reckon with while the rule of law has been suspended for corporate criminals of all kinds. Major economic decisions have largely migrated from national governments to even more dictatorial global bodies. The IMF, WTO and World Bank do the bidding of the largest corporations that are the foundation of the US imperial alliance.

But this history holds opportunity as well. This is what it’s come to:

[P]rivate forms of corporate ownership are “simply a legal fiction.”* The economic requirements of the modern corporation no longer justify its completely private control, for “when we see property as the creature of the state, the private sphere no longer looks so private.”**….In this regard, property reassumed the form it took at the dawn of the capitalist era when “the concept of property apart from government was meaningless.”*** [6]

By merging with the state the largest corporations have turned themselves into a new form of social and public property. It’s up to us to take what is ours.

Everything lives and everything dies. The most important lesson from the history of capitalism is this: It has sown the seeds of its own destruction. 

The critique of neoliberalism as FMF unconsciously promotes what it intends to criticize precisely because it imagines the current system as essentially the same system that existed in the 19th Century. This critique smuggles in the lack of historical thinking that is so essential to maintaining dominant culture in the US.  

FMF is a form of American exceptionalism. If the current economy is essentially the same as more than a century ago, then it is truly exceptional and outside of history — just like America itself. Isn’t it? Does capitalism have a history or doesn’t it? In general, the lack of historical consciousness lies at the heart of American exceptionalism. It hobbles our capacity to think and act. This denial of history is the masters’ mythology, not ours. Corporate power is not eternal but historical. It too shall pass — but only if we make it so.

 

[1]Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 2.

[2] Harvey, p.69 Over time Harvey has tended to highlight the political not doctrinal aspects. See  Neoliberalism as a Political Project

[3] Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine, p. 398-399.

[4] I borrow the idea of a public/private mix from the work of the underappreciated new left historian Martin Sklar see: United States as a Developing Country.  For more on Sklar look here or here.

[5] Nomi Prins All The Presidents Bankers, see p. 372-375 for an account of the so-called Mexican bailout and the role of former Goldman-Sachs executive Robert Rubin in saving the bankers.

[6] Richard Moser, Autoworkers at Lordstown: Workplace Democracy and American Citizenship” in The World the 60s Made, p. 307 *Bell, The Coming of Post-industrial Society, p. 294. **Jennifer Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism, p. 263. ***Arthur Porter, Job Property Rights, p. l.

Posted in American Culture, Capitalism, Corporate Power, electoral strategy, Empire, Green Party, History, Labor Movement, Martin Luther King, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Strategy, Prefigurative politics, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Socialism, War, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Propaganda Hall of Fame

The corporate media has been inducted into the Propaganda Hall of Fame. Their recent performances have far exceeded all international measures for lies, distortions and manipulations. After a rousing two year non-stop tour of blaming evil Russian meme-bombers for dividing us, suppressing the vote, promoting radical candidates and destroying this otherwise “great democracy,” this feisty band of corporate executives and secret police have stolen the hearts and minds of millions with the absolute minimum of actual evidence.  Kudos!

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Then in a dramatic turnabout they directed a simultaneous performance in defense of the many US-led regime change wars waged with real bombs, that killed hundreds of thousands of real people, scattered refugees to the wind, and have overthrown governments through the direct use of military violence. The stirring climax of this passion play has people believing that all these wars are not only necessary for our national security but are motivated by (drumroll) humanitarian compassion and the support of democracy! Bravo! All the while these gripping tales of good and evil cloak the true existential threat of climate destruction and war. This is propaganda to die for! Well done! Joe McCarthy, Joseph Goebbels, Edward Bernays — your students have outdone their masters.  

People who believe that continued US intervention in the Middle East will somehow solve anything “this time” or is anything other than a continuation of the long devastating history of western imperialism in the region, are not simply misguided, they are acting out deeply held beliefs. 

If you have any doubt that American mythology lives on you can rest those doubts. Our sense of ourselves as the chosen people, truly an exception to the long history of war and empire is just so much raw material for the cunning propagandist. All they have to do is to tell us how evil the enemy is for us to believe once again in our own exceptional greatness. Myths endure because they settle contradictions and paper over crisis that cannot be resolved by facts, reason or logic. But beneath this drama lies the true object of propaganda: distraction from the growing existential threats of climate change, corporate power and empire.

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Posted in American Culture, Empire, History, Red Scare, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Is the Green New Deal a “Revolutionary Reform?”

 

The movement around the Green New Deal is the ultimate testing ground for the kind of political skills and strategy needed to win the most important political battles of all. What do you think of the Green New Deal?  I think we might just have a workable “revolutionary reform.” The Green New Deal can help us focus our energy on a concrete set of proposals that provides a bridge to the fundamental social transformation necessary to preserve the planet and free the people. But first we need a winning strategy.

Being Green

Since the Green Party is a small political minority, narrow partisanship is just not going to cut it — unless the Green Party wants to remain a small political minority. We should hold ourselves to the highest standards of political conduct and learn to think and act like organizers. That means, first of all, adherence to and promotion of Green Party values and platform. These ideals are visionary, popular and our best foot forward. And, within that context we must ask ourselves: Do our words and actions engage and attract people to the Green Party or repel them?  Do our words and actions demonstrate that we truly believe in our ideals and platform?

We need millions more voters and members and our actions should always be evaluated in that light. The Green New Deal gives us a real chance to build our capacity by engaging millions of people. Fight for a Green New Deal with all our hearts and a better bigger Green Party will follow.   

Contradictions Everywhere

The political world is nothing if not contradictory and we will have to navigate confusing terrain and an array of powerful forces if we want to win. The relationship between the Green Party efforts to promote a Green New Deal and that of the reform Democrats is one of tension: both unity and struggle, both cooperation and opposition. 

The Green Party’s main reason for a tactical alliance with progressive Democrats is in making the Green New Deal an achievable political priority and a household word. It’s time to raise consciousness and fast. While the Green Party is largely censored from the corporate media, reform Democrats can attract far more attention and we should all support and promote the idea of the Green New Deal whenever the opportunity arises. 

We can spread the word on the Green New Deal by making it an absolute litmus test.  Those that oppose should be targeted — as the Sunrise Movement so brilliantly went after Pelosi. And those that agree should be thanked for agreeing and criticized for falling short of the full program —not simply because it falls short of Green Party standards but because only the full program will be able to slow climate destruction in any significant way. 

In addition to this really useful critique by Kali Akuno and Sarah Lazare a recent press release from the Green Party also strikes a pitch-perfect balance between encouraging the progressive Democrats to do the best they can and alerting them to the shortcomings of their current plans. 

AOC’s proposal recognizes that winning climate justice means also winning economic justice – a right to health care, housing, a living wage job, and education. Her proposal needs to be expanded, including an immediate halt to any new fossil fuel infrastructure, a focus on public ownership and democratic control of the energy systems, and paying for it by enacting a cut of 50% or more in the military budget,” said Mark Dunlea, the recent Green Party candidate for State Comptroller in NY. Dunlea helped initiate the GND as Hawkins’ campaign manager in 2010.

As 2020 approaches there is no better test for candidates  — from the local level to the Presidency — than their position on the Green New Deal. A “Climate Preservation or Bust” strategy will provide leverage pushing politicians toward action and punishing  those that refuse. We have the numbers.  

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The “Inside” Work Needs the “Outside” in Order to Work

The way that reform Democrats and the public intellectuals that support them have disappeared the Green Party’s role in developing and promoting the Green New Deal is a strategic lapse that weakens the tactical alliance we need to get things done.

The inside/outside strategy remains a valuable guide to action regardless of political position: learn from, coordinate with, and leverage those you do not fully agree with — even those that on a different day or on a different issue or election may be opposing you. And let’s not forget that its movements outside of the electoral arena that change the political climate and make better legislation possible in the first place.  

Otherwise we are stuck with the same failed approach typical of union officials that want to silence, ignore or control their most militant members rather than seeing them as important assets to force the bosses’ hand. 

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War is the Climate Killer

Also central to the success or failure of the Green New Deal are the questions of war and empire. The US military is the single largest consumer of fossil fuels. That alone is reason enough to wage peace. But, the military also helps the oil and gas industry to pirate and extract resources. As such, the military is perhaps the single largest public subsidy to the oil industry. And that is saying something given that big oil is one of the most subsidized industries in history.  Globally that’s 5.3 trillion a year plus some significant percentage of the US and NATO military budget.   

The women’s peace movement, About Face: Veterans Against the War and the Veterans for Peace can play a critical role knitting together the anti-war movement and the environmental movement. The veterans that camped at Standing Rock already started fighting in a do-or-die mission. There will be no effective response to climate change, no effective Green New Deal until the destructive interconnections between climate catastrophe and war are placed front and center. To stop climate destruction we must stop war.

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Get Out of the House and Tend to the Field Work

To do this the right way, our time and attention should not be exclusively focused on legislative efforts, and certainly not wasted obsessing on the role of politicians, but more productively spent joining forces with the new environmental movement.

There are many efforts like Extinction Rebellion that promise the kind of disruptive politics that is an indispensable part of the picture and the quiet revolution of local communes rebuilding our communities for the bottom-up.

But right now two trends seem to hold the greatest promise of reinvigorating the environmental struggle: young activists and the leadership of native communities.

By targeting the pro-war, pro-oil, corporate Democrats the Sunrise Movement created real leverage toward reform. Young people are and should be leading the battle against climate destruction. In fact, the Los Angeles Greens recently waged the two most successful campaigns for Congress in Green Party history and now they are jumping in to the struggle around the Green New Deal. It should be a model for Greens everywhere.

The native-lead movement that organized Standing Rock is the other key. Not only do indigenous communities have the experience and understanding necessary to protect Earths’ natural resources but the movement at Standing Rock had all the makings of a transformative social movement — exactly what we all need to learn. Winona LaDuke’s call for a native-led movement adds to the already existing efforts by native people in the wake of Standing Rock.

Our attitude toward our young leaders and indigenous protectors should be one of love and respect, support and learning. What good is a revolution that does not unleash the creative energies of millions of people? We need new ideas and new ways of organizing. Are we listening? What are we learning?

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A Revolutionary Reform?

The Green New Deal might just be the “revolutionary reform” we have been looking for. What issue is so universal, so necessary, so morally right, so reasonable, so self-evident that few can deny it?  How about saving our one and only home?

The climate crisis both includes and transcends all the vital issues of our time because it is the consequence, the sum total, of our relationships with each other and the planet. The climate crisis will not be solved by the very system that created it. Instead, effective action on climate destruction will force a head-to-head confrontation between corporate power and economic democracy, environmental racism and racial justice, patriarchy and eco-feminism, war and peace.

As the ultimate expression of everything that is wrong, the environmental crisis reveals the deepest contradictions of our times: all forms of dominion, greed and exploitation are related and reinforce each other. Yet, at the same time we can see a far more meaningful reality: that the entire planet is a single miraculous eco-system connecting everything in an interdependent web of life.

The Green New Deal might just move us toward the interwoven “movement of movements” that embraces the “interrelated structure of reality.” There is simply no denying the multiple and interconnected crises of the corporate order and our response must reflect all those intersections. We must learn to use all the means — and all the minds — at our disposal. This is not a matter of political correctness — it’s a matter of building the power to win. It is about our collective future and that is something that cannot be compromised.

In the end climate destruction can only be prevented by fundamentally transforming our economy and that is something global corporate elites cannot agree to without undermining their own hegemony. In the end it will be profits first or planet first. In the end the people will win or we let the corporate power destroy us. If that is not a revolutionary situation I don’t know what is.

 

Posted in Cooperation, Corporate Power, Empire, Green Party, History, Movement Culture, Organizing Strategy, Prefigurative politics, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Both The Commune And Revolution

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Also in Counterpunch

The environmental crisis grows ever more dire but we are no closer to a grand political solution because that requires nothing less than a revolution: we must replace corporate power with economic democracy and war with peace. In the US we are caught between the reckless climate denial of the Republican Party and the opiate incrementalism of the corporate Democrats.  One side denies that environmental destruction is real, the other denies that there is much we can do about it. Both serve the insatiable demand for war, power and profit that sends us hurtling toward the cliff.  While we must pursue every means we have to assert democratic control over government and capital we cannot wait for a new day to dawn. We must act in the here and now. Take climate destruction into your own hands; join the commune.

Many Roads to Revolution

The “commune” referred to in the title of this essay is short for prefigurative politics. Prefigurative projects attempt to create living examples of the social changes we aspire to for the whole society even while still inside of the corporate regime.  We need changes now and we need to experiment with projects that might be useful as models for the future.[1]

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Prefigurative politics try to restart the kind of communal life which was widely practiced by humans prior to rise of the patriarchal family, private property and the state back in the early days of so-called civilization. Sometimes we can glimpse the future by looking deeply into our past.

Indigenous people around the world still struggle to hold on to communal institutions — communal land most importantly — despite the colonial and corporate onslaught.

Prefigurative politics became part of the European tradition of resistance as far back as the English Civil War. Scores of utopian communes were established in the years before the U.S. Civil War and inaugurated an almost unbroken chain of cooperative experiments among everyday Americans. In 1871 the Parisian working-class made revolution by organizing a new kind of government they called “the democratic and social republic.” Known to the world as the “Paris Commune,” this brief experiment merged revolutionary upheaval with participatory democracy and workers’ control.

The struggle against the British Empire reintroduced prefigurative politics to the social change movements of the 20th century. A famous saying from that period, attributed to Gandhi, tells us: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Another strain of this tradition was articulated through Martin Luther King’s concept of the “beloved community.” For King, nonviolence was the revolutionary means and the beloved community, the revolutionary end. For King love and truth became a political force. The desire for “peace and love” touched millions of people around the world and was, in many regards, the brightest part of hippie culture and the new social movements. By fusing love and truth to power, King helped us reimagine what a revolution could look like.

Another strain of this tradition was initiated by organizers in the civil rights and student movements. They worked to create organizations that challenged hierarchical models of political action by practicing participatory democracy at the grassroots. Ella Baker, herself a veteran of the cooperative movement, was instrumental in creating modern organizing methods focused on the development of local leadership and local empowerment.

Ella Baker and many others went on to organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as the first youth-lead organization that consciously aimed at double-edged transformation. They argued that the movement to change themselves and change the world was the same inseparable process. SNCC focused on empowering working-class blacks rather than promoting themselves as leaders. This organizing approach reshaped political thinking and helped to birth other student and youth movements. When the Students for a Democratic Society wrote their founding document, the Port Huron Statement, participatory democracy was its strategic cornerstone.

The other essential strain of prefigurative politics is the centuries-old tradition of alternative economic projects. Community gardens, farmers’ markets, permaculture, worker-owned enterprises, individual and collective energy production, and alternative health care all contribute to improving life now.

The Democracy Colaborative is a think tank and information clearinghouse for the practice and theory of worker-owned enterprise. Cooperatives, communes, and collectives of all sorts show us how the future might look and feel.

Today there is a rising movement of city-centered communes.  One of the leading examples is Cooperation Jackson with its emerging network of democratic political institutions and cooperative economic projects.

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Organizer Larry Stafford sees the cooperative movements of Jackson Mississippi this way:

“Jackson Rising is important because it teaches us how to build and sustain community power; it does not just tell us what we should oppose.  It provides a microcosmic model of what community power should look like.”[2]

And, prefigurative projects do more than model the future. They begin the difficult work of setting up a dual power —  alternative institutions that can lay claim to peoples allegiances and ideals — within a world dominated by corporate power.

New World Growing Within the Old

We need something to which we can point and say: “This is what democracy looks like.” Part of Occupy’s global appeal was that people actually got to experience democracy first hand and often for the first time. I am not suggesting that prefigurative politics does not have shortcomings, but as the history of the civil rights movement demonstrates, prefigurative visions and methods can be fused with protest and organizing to create effective strategies rooted in day-to-day struggles.

Both in raw numbers and liberating potential, local efforts to establish community institutions are a social force changing our culture and civil society in potentially profound ways. This is a quiet revolution happening right under our noses. Prefigurative projects help us envision the positive and rethink what revolution could mean in our time.

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Reflecting on decades of experience and activism in Detroit, Grace Lee Boggs argues:

We are in the midst of a process that is nothing short of reinventing revolution. For much of the twentieth century the theory and practice of revolution have been dominated by overarching ideologies, purist paradigms and absolutist views of a static paradise; arguments over which class, race or gender was the main revolutionary social force; and binary opposites between Left and Right. Big victories have been prioritized over small collaborative actions that build communities and neighborhoods: the end has been valued over the means. We rarely stopped to wonder how much this view of revolution reflected the capitalist culture that was dehumanizing us.[3]

We need to reinvent revolution by making it more possible on a more human scale. While the old left culture of ideological struggle is deeply embedded, it makes less sense over time — at least as the dominant culture of progressives — and is often a time-wasting dead end.

Boggs draws our attention to the liberating potential of cooperation, community building and the power that comes from making our ends and means aim the same way.

We should stop wasting energy and losing allies by criticizing people that are pursuing “lifestyle” changes, prefigurative or seemingly utopian projects, or environmentally friendly consumer practices. Those of us committed to a social change model of activism aim for the big changes: large scale protest, sweeping legislative victories, transformative organizing projects, even revolution. But while we are working and waiting on those grand political projects, we should take heart in the real progress being made by this quiet revolution. All sorts of prefigurative activities should be seen as part of a broader inside/outside strategy.

Organizers and the Commune

We can adjust our vision by starting with Saul Alinsky’s classic insight: we engage the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.[4] Millions of people are already involved in alternative lifestyles and community-building projects. Should we ignore or demoralize them? Fatalism is already one of our greatest enemies: let’s not add to it.

The job of the organizer is to help people find the tasks and tactics that fit their capacity, interest, and understanding of the world — not necessarily ours. Let the people decide. Apparently millions of Americans have decided that prefigurative projects and lifestyle changes are an important place to start and a worthy end in themselves. Is it so hard for us to imagine how community gardens runs counter to the corporate control over food? It’s so easy in fact that people pursuing social change should consider making more environmentally friendly and anti-corporate consumer choices in our daily lives.

If union officials have big houses in elite suburbs, commute long distances in gas-guzzlers, vacation with the powerful at places like Martha’s Vineyard, and eat junk food, what message are they sending to working people? Of course, we might think they have simply sold their souls, but it also sets the example that labor and environmentalism are at odds.

Since social change activists usually think that numbers count, consider the possibility that if just 1% of the U.S. population made significant shifts in consumption and local production, that would translate into real impacts and actions taken by 3.5 million. Some observers estimate that up to 10 million Americans are already participants in local initiatives. When was the last time even 1% of the American people joined together in protest? This large body of Americans should be viewed as allies and potential activists in social change movements.

Part of the objection to lifestyle and prefigurative politics is that it’s too little, too late or too small to matter. But labor and the social movements have been similarly stuck with baby steps and small victories when not reeling from outright defeats. And as organizers know, relationship building is both means and ends, and that occurs as much in small-scale projects as it does in an organizing drive or protest movement.

We must believe in little things because we Americans are now all “little things.” Over the last half-century, corporations have successfully reduced 99% of the people to second-class citizen status, at least on the federal level – the arena in which big changes were often made. Our opinions and views have very little impact on national politics. Local and municipal action is a way to outflank the corporate enemy.

Prefigurative Projects are Cultural Revolution

The swaggering big shots of labor and the social movements are deep in the delusions of the “house servant.” Namely, that they have “access;” that they sit at the table as equals; that things aren’t really so bad; that there is an incremental solution to our problems. Denial.

We desperately need to get back to the fieldwork; that is where we belong. The soil for our struggles will yield so much more when we cross-fertilize our movements against empire, corporate power and injustice with the universal visions and homegrown supplies produced by the commune next door.

“Cultural revolutions typically precede political revolutions, as the former creates the social conditions for a critical mass of the people to embrace new social values that orient them toward the possibility of another world.” — Kali Akuno & Ajamu Nangwaya

John Adams saw the original American Revolution the same way.

“The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people…. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

Prefigurative projects give us one way to practice cultural revolution. There are many roads to revolution. Head down the one that starts at your door. What are we waiting for?

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[1] While communal practises have a very long history, the term “prefigurative” first entered radical vocabulary in an essay by Carl Boggs, “Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers’ Control. Boggs thought that, “[T]hose forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal,” should be “within the ongoing political practice of a movement.” Wini Breines continued to use this idea in, Community and Organization in the New Left 1962-1968: The Great Refusal.   “[T]he term prefigurative politics…maybe recognized in alternative institutions, demonstrations and the attempt to embody personal and anti-hierarchical values in politics…the crux of prefigurative politics imposes substantial tasks, the central one being to create and sustain within the live practice of the movement relationships and political forms that “prefigured” and embodied the desired society.”

[2] Quoted from Rukia Lumumba, Forward: All Roads lead to Jackson, in Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi

[3] Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution p. 47-48

[4] See this free copy of Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals.  It is a far more useful text for organizers than the more famous Rules for Radicals.

 

 

Posted in American Culture, Cooperation, History, Labor Movement, Martin Luther King, Movement Culture, organizing, Prefigurative politics, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, unions, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Bernie or Bust: Strategy, Sheepdogs and Synergy

Bernie Or Bust: Pioneers of Electoral Revolt

 

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This article also appeared in CounterPunch.

 

Both Intervention And Exit

A new book, Bernie or Bust, tells the story of a small group of electoral activists that made a big difference. They were motivated by the fall of democracy and the coming environmental catastrophe. But, the key to their success was that they actually had a political strategy not simply a moral or ideological position. Bernie or Bust was an attempt at power politics. They called the strategy “leverage.” Leverage came from the dual threat of both intervention and exit. Over a hundred thousand people made a demand on power by signing the Bernie or Bust Pledge: Gives us Bernie or we vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

The authors, Victory Tiffany for the Bernie or Bust committee and Patrick Walker, give us a blow-by-blow account of the project as it evolved over time.  

Bernie or Bust was an on-line campaign to form a voting bloc unified around an uncompromising demand on power. But the Clinton machine could not be deterred and the new voting bloc was not nearly large enough to enforce its demands. Bernie or Bust was, however, a dress rehearsal for the kind of full-scale electoral rebellion its going to take to restore democracy to electoral politics.

At first, “Bust” was a poorly conceived write-in campaign for Sanders that nonetheless worked as a footing for a sturdier bridge that radicalized Bernie supporters could cross. Bernie or Bust ended up helping tens of thousands of voters transition to the Green Party. That is no small accomplishment. What other group — outside of the Green Party itself — can make that claim? (see footnote)*  

I worked hard on the Sanders campaign going door-to-door and organizing phone banking. Then I did the same for Jill Stein. But most effective was the minor role I played in nudging the Bernie or Bust committee to move to “Jill or Bust.” They were already heading in that direction.

Sheep or Revolutionaries? That Is Up To Us.

Bernie or Bust is also a case study in the on-going claims regarding sheepdogging.  The story of Bernie or Bust helps restore struggle and human agency to that debate. Things are what we make of them. 

[S]heepdog or wolf, Bernie bayed out one tune that was absolute music to our movement-organizing ears: political revolution….That Democrats were willing to let outsider Bernie sing such an edgy, ambiguously worded tune — one so easily prone to subversive interpretations—was an index of their sheer desperation…[1]

So you want to talk revolution?  Ok, then let’s talk revolution. For Bernie or Bust the time had come for the people to reassert control over government and that would require a disruptive, forceful intervention.

The sheepdog criticism is itself part and parcel of the fantastical expectations we have about politicians and political leaders— attributing super-powers for good or evil to individuals. What Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez does is not that important — it’s what we do that matters. As a Green Party activist I find Bernie or Bust or the supporters of Ocasio-Cortez a much needed opposition movement inside the Democratic Party.[2]  We need all poles of opposition to win.

And our shared position of opposition is likely to get much clearer as the New Mccarthyism shifts toward attacks on reform Democrats as well as the Green Party. Many a good reform Democrat has already opposed Russia-gate hysteria and we need to stand together for self-defense.

In a bigger context we need such alliances to make social change. The 60’s revolution was a “movement of movements.” Do you think everyone agreed with each other? Hell no. But the movement invented the coalition: a political structure in which each organization retained its separate identity but worked on common issues. There was both unity and struggle. So make the best case for your position, then prepare to work with those who have other ideas. Politics is as much about negotiating disagreement as it is about finding agreement.   

Can we see the campaigns of reformers as an opportunity to organize an effective opposition? If not the fault lies with us. Bernie or Bust shows us that we can engage the contradictory world of politics and make still demands that speak power to power. When a door opens we walk through it, enlarge it, remodel it — not sit and protest that its not the door we always dreamed of.

In fact, no elected reform Democrat, radical independent, or Green will be able to change a system that has long been captive to corporate power and empire until we are many, many in number and backed by large disruptive social movements — or at least that is what the history of the New Deal strongly suggests. Can we rise above mere criticism and/or worship of individuals to make positive interventions from the bottom up? Bernie or Bust did just that.

Movement, Contradiction, Tension, Transition, Transformation

We will not make reform let alone revolution without a revolutionary method. Bernie or Bust is a study in how a dialectal approach might shape political action. Dialectical thinking was at the heart of Marx’s method but you do not have to be Marxist — and Bernie or Bust was not — to value this way of understanding the world. Martin Luther King used dialectical thinking and so should we. Marx wrote:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”[3]  

A dialectical vision recognizes actually existing conditions as the basis and context for change. Think on that contradiction awhile. Everything is shaped by its past but is also becoming something else. You can only see that if you focus on motion rather than fixed position.

Growing, dynamic political trends are in tension with one another because they are both opposed and connected. It’s a complicated web formed by both unity and struggle. Martin Luther King described it as “the interrelated structure of reality.”[4] Engage the perennial conflicts and contradictions of political life. Tension is where the action is.

Bernie or Bust saw the contradictions of Sander’s own inside/outside strategy and crafted a parallel inside/outside strategy on his populist flank. 

We feel that Bernie, in his utterly sincere opposition to domination of our nation by corporate…money (a sincerity vouch for by his refusal to take it) is sheer political dynamite. And we intend (whatever Bernie himself does) to exploit that dynamite in a revolutionary way: to blast open the very real fault lines between corporatists and populists in the Democratic Party. [5]

They positioned themselves on the radical edge of the Sander’s surge. Bernie or Bust never sought or received the endorsement of the Sanders campaign. Instead they staked out a position of “critical support” for Sanders seeing the contradictions in Sanders as the makings of an electoral revolt.[6] Sanders open hostility to the big money and naming climate change as our biggest threat bought him into direct conflict with the party bosses he had pledged to support as the price of running as a Democrat. Into that tension rushed Bernie or Bust.

The emphasis on movement not position also meant that Bernie or Bust was able to lead people through a transition process. Radicals often expect converts from our words — because, well, our words are so good. Instead people are much more likely to transition over time as they gain experience.

Bernie or Bust needs to go back to the drawing board on one major point. They tried to repurpose the spoiler smear used by the corporate media but got trapped by it instead. By embracing the spoiler mentality they slip back into conventional either/or thinking. They mistake tactic for strategy and strategy for goal — limiting the potential of their own work. Bernie or Bust is not an end in itself but a movement strategy to restore competition to an electoral system choked by the stranglehold of the corporate power.

This valuable report from Harvard Business School, of all places, proposes structural reforms and concludes that it is the two-party system that has spoiled American elections. And, they are right. The goal of any revolutionary electoral strategy should be to restore real representation by reforming the electoral process — including the creation of a multi-party democracy.  We need to unspoil it not spoil it.

The narrow negativity of the spoiler blinds us to the political terrain. Clinton’s need to blame everyone else for her loss inadvertently revealed that the Democrats lost for 50 different reasons –at least. One reason left out of spoiler claims is that 45% of eligible voters stayed home. The fact that 93 million people did not vote is proof positive that there are lots of votes to be had and no spoiler except the bankrupt system itself.

Victory will be the prize for those willing to organize the unorganized millions.

Overall however the story of Bernie or Bust is a good antidote to conventional left thinking. Typically radicals spend a lot of energy drawing distinctions between their positions and those of other radicals. But, the practice of organizing demands engagement with people you do not completely agree with — and that makes all the difference. This contradiction in our movement is not going away but we should recognize it and give play to both argument and organizing.

But perhaps most important, Bernie or Bust signaled the beginning of the end for the fearful lesser of two evils mindset that has undermined representative democracy in America. As long as voters fail in their duty to vote for candidates that actually represent their interests and values the people will never be represented. The major parties have counted on this fear for a long time but in our desperation we are finally finding courage. Climate disaster looms ahead, the war machine cranks on, the people get poorer and poorer. Representation is all but dead. Participation is all we have left. It’s time for bold action and creative organizing.


  • According to an internal poll done by Bernie of Bust the pledge takers reported the following: approximately 10% voted for Clinton, 70% Stein, 11% wrote in Sanders, 2% Johnson and 2% Trump.
  1. Bernie or Bust p.22
  2. See also former Green Party VP candidate Ajamu Baraka, Cultural and Ideological Struggle in the US: A Final Comment on Ocasio-Cortez.
  3. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
  4. Martin Luther King, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.’ See also “A Testament of Hope.”
  5. Bernie or Bust p.59
  6. Bernie or Bust p.55

 

 

Posted in American Culture, electoral strategy, Green Party, History, Martin Luther King, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Strategy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The People Made the First New Deal. Can the People Make Another?

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Also find this article at Counterpunch.

Massive Protest and Organizing Created the New Deal

The kind of electoral victories we need will take far more than standard electioneering and Facebook debates.  Let’s look at what it took to create the New Deal so we can see just how challenging the task ahead is. During the Great Depression massive organizing efforts and protest movements were necessary just to reform the two-party system. New Deal history strongly suggests that the current dementer v. demexit debate is largely a waste of time until we organize movements powerful enough to upset the existing order.

In our memory Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the standard bearer of the New Deal but it did not start that way.  FDR was a reluctant reformer pushed into progressive action because millions of people were willing to experiment with radical solutions.

Mass movements, third parties and revolutionary parties, labor upheaval, agrarian unrest, powerful populists, discontented veterans, and Democratic congressmen more radical than FDR pushed the New Deal into being. Setting aside for the moment the long-standing debates about the racial, class and other limitations of the New Deal — we can still learn about how the deep conservatism of a major party was partially overcome, for a time, by the forces of reform and revolution pushing from the bottom up.[1]

Workers, Farmers and Veterans 

Widespread labor upheavals changed the political climate. The mass production industries were organized for the first time as thousands of new leaders –including significant numbers of women and people of color — led the revolt from the shop floor. There were strikes waves that included sit-down strikes where workers actually occupied the workplace.  Autoworkers in Flint Michigan kicked off the wave of sit-down strikes that spread into all sorts of workplaces.

Strikes for better conditions and union recognition were massive. For example, in 1934 alone, there were 1,856 strikes waged by 1,470,000 workers.[2] Six million workers formed unions during the decade. Of the 38 new industrial unions, 18 were led by communists or other leftists until McCarthyism and the 1947 Taft-Hartly Act expelled them from the AFL-CIO. So furious was the class war that the New Deal was forced to recognize worker’s rights in an attempt to pacify labor relations.

Woolworth Workers Strike

Female employees of Woolworth’s holding a sign indicating they are striking for a 40 hour work week, New York, New York, 1937. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Agrarian unrest rocked the heartland. The Farm Holiday Movement claimed 30,000 members and led protests of thousands demanding a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures.  They blocked roads to disrupt markets and destroyed crops and products. In the 1933 the Wisconsin Milk Strike, lead by farmer cooperatives, destroyed milk products in an attempt to raise prices. Thousands of pounds of milk were trashed, creameries were bombed and protestors were shot by police.

Veterans were on the move.  In 1932 “The Bonus Army” marched over 40,000 people on Washington DC where they occupied a corner of the national mall to demand the early payment of a bonus they already had coming. The veterans’ tent city was attacked by the US Army under the command of Douglass MacArthur and George Patton. Two veterans were killed and over a thousand injured. The threat of another march was headed off by the offer of jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corp — a federal jobs program. But still no bonus — instead FDR actually reappointed MacArthur. When FDR vetoed legislation passed by Congress in 1936 to secure an early bonus the Congress returned the bill with a veto-proof majority.  The Bonus became law and the foundation was laid for the GI Bill.

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Unemployed workers formed Unemployed Councils and demanded jobs and reliefs. Unemployment grew to 25% at times and there was unrest and protest across the country. In March 1930, 500,000 people marched in 25 cities to demand relief. Many local demonstrations were brutally attacked by police. People died but we won unemployment insurance.  The Workers Alliance of America originally demanded “the abolition of the profit system” and claimed to represent 400,000 people. They pushed for legislative reforms and progressive candidates. The unemployed movement was lead by communists, socialists, and assorted radicals.

Populists Leaders Push 

Nationally known populist leaders also pushed FDR to the left for a while.  Huey Long is best know for his “Share the Wealth” program.  He proposed to cap personal wealth and personal income and inheritance for the rich. Long proposed a guaranteed income, thirty hour work week, four week vacation, old age pension, free college or vocational training. As Governor of Louisiana and then US Senator he used the resources of the state to build hospitals, schools and roads.  An estimated 20 Million listened to his radio broadcasts and he received 60,000 pieces of mail a week as a US Senator. Long tried to form an independent party to challenge the Democrats.

Robert Townsend was a doctor from California that proposed an old age pension. It generated extraordinary nationwide support and was part of the reason we have Social Security today. There were over 7,000 “Townsend Clubs” with over 2.2 million members and they called for the nationalization of banks. In 1936 Townsend was able to deliver petitions to Congress containing 10 million hard copy signatures in support of the Townsend Plan.

And when judging the movements of the 30’s, remember that the US population was only 130 million or so, less than a third of current levels.

Legislators on the Left

The grassroots rebellion reached into the halls of Congress. In the mid-term election of 1934 the Democrats won a super-majority but much more important — at least 35 Democrats stood to FDR’s left.  Pressure groups like the Washington Commonwealth Federation worked to elect progressive Democrats. Third parties helped push the New Deal as well.

  • The 73rd congress elected in 1932 had five members of Congress from the Farmer-Labor party, 313 Democrats, 117 Republicans.
  • The 74th Congress elected in 1934 had seven members from the newly founded Progressive Party (Wisconsin), three from the Farmer-Labor, 322 Democrats and 103 Republicans.
  • The 75th congress elected in 1936 had eight members from the Progressive Party, five from the Farmer Labor, 334 Democrats and 88 Republicans. Two senators were outside the major parties: Robert La Follette from the Wisconsin Progressive Party and George Norris a progressive Republican from Nebraska that left the party to run as an independent.

Here are the facts: as the number Democrats grew, the number of radical Democrats grew and the number of the third parties representatives grew. At the same time socialist and communist parties were polling about 5% combined. All progressives grew at the same time! What happened to the spoiler? The lesser of two evils?  Those arguments did not yet exist and only exist now to frighten and control the weak minded.

Imagine Bernie Sanders as president with 35 Democrats in the House to his left and 13 Green Party congress members to their left with significant electoral campaigns by self-styled revolutionary parties in the context of a vast popular rebellion — that might be what another New Deal would look like.

In periods of dramatic change old categories are transformed or reconstructed. Before  the New Deal, the Democrats had been the conservative party — during the New Deal they became the more progressive party.  The Republicans — the last successful revolutionary party, the last third party to become a major party — became the more conservative party. Mass political upheaval, third parties and revolutionary organizations fueled the flames of political change.

That Was Then. This Is Now.

You might dismiss this history by saying the conditions were so much worse back then. Maybe — maybe not. But, answer me this: are our conditions not bad enough for you? Inequality crushes millions. Most Americans cannot cover a minor emergency.  We have the greatest childhood poverty in the industrialized world and life-spans are decreasing. The corporate power has a monopoly over the political system and democracy is but a dim memory. Incarceration rates are without precedent and the Bill of Rights is in shambles. And we have existential problems never dreamed of in the Great Depression: endless war, the threat of nuclear war and impending environmental catastrophe. The empire is slowly collapsing. Will it take us all with it?

If we cannot make revolt out of this, then we are not revolutionaries.

The big difference between then and now is in our minds. There is little evidence that the ideas that control electoral activity in our time existed in any meaningful way during the New Deal. Controlling narratives like “incremental change” were not the watchword of the time. The guiding principle was a determined struggle over economic interests and political ideals — not surrender in the name of lesser of two evils. The principle was not the spoiler, not the dementer/demexit trap, not either/or thinking, not falsely checking privilege to support the machine.  The principle was fierce stormy struggle. That is what real change is. Change requires the both/and approach of the inside/outside strategy because it uses all the means at our disposal not allowing the bosses to divide and conquer or pick our tactics for us. The corporate power wins because it still controls our minds. And the best means we have to contest their control and raise consciousness is organizing and movement building.

In the tug of war to pull the New Deal toward the people all progressives pulled in the same direction if not from the same position. Some pulled from inside, some pulled from outside. Some were heavyweights, like the industrial unions, that provided a solid center of gravity, but some, like the radicals, had better rhythm knowing when to pull hard and when to dig in their heels. There were different players but all of them were necessary.

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The New Deal and the 60’s revolution that soon followed could well be taken as the minimum standard for the kind of popular unrest that will be required for transformational change. How can we approach the revolutionary threshold in our time? If we do not commit ourselves to organizing and movement building we will never find out.

 

[1] I relied on an excellent and detailed summary, by Puakev, “How Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal Were Pulled to the Left.”  See also Howard Zinn’s lost classic, New Deal Thought.

[2] Bert Cochran, “Labor and Communism: the Conflict that Shaped American Unions” cited in Sharon Smith, The 1930’s Turning Point for US Labor 

Posted in American Culture, electoral strategy, History, Labor Movement, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, union organzing, unions, War, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

The Betrayal of the American Man

Faludi-stiffed

Susan Faludi’s book “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man” takes a remarkably compassionate and revealing look at the crisis of modern masculinity from a feminist prospective. Faludi is an award-winning writer with the skills required to make a challenging topic easy reading. The book is based on years of fieldwork among men involved in various efforts to recreate some kind of a manly world for themselves. Using WWII as a starting point she goes on to shipyards, the space program, the Citadel, football fans, the New Left, Vietnam War, militias, Waco, gangsters, Promise Keepers, porn stars, the Gay liberation movement and more.

It’s all incredibly interesting and often surprising. Almost all of these attempts fail and far too many of these men pointed to feminism as the problem. The real causes of the crisis in masculinity lie in deeper personal and political changes far harder to understand or admit to.

For Faludi that crisis for male identity begins after WWII when an earlier masculinity grounded in being the family breadwinning, community service, useful work, care and nurturance was undermined. The rise of the new corporate consumer culture changed the way work was done and war’s were fought — sealing the fate of older masculine ideals.

This new economic regime undermined traditional masculinity by demanding obedience and passivity. In consumer culture, the pretty and ornamental were all that mattered. Mass media culture valued image over substance and celebrity over daily acts of service or useful work. Feelings mattered most while action was discouraged.

The only way for men to achieve recognition in consumer culture was for them to adopt the behaviors of a conventional femininity already widely critiqued and opposed by feminism. So whether men attempted to recreate conventional masculinity or adapt a more consumer-culture friendly version—based on image alone— they had a gnawing sense of failure. There was no longer a clear answer to the question: What does it mean to be a man? The search for masculinity lead to a dead end and we are still lost.

In the face of this dilemma the fathers of the 50’s and 60’s had little to pass on to their sons. Many of the men interviewed in this book experienced the crisis of masculinity as a heart-breaking and very personal failure. Those seeking masculine comforts in the projects and movements Faludi investigates did not have much of a relationship with their silent or absent fathers — who in the end were as overcome by the crisis in gender as they were.

Second Wave Feminism was triggered, in part, by mass resistance against the suffocating  expectations of gender roles. The author rightly asks why men did not revolt against their gender expectations as well since we were stuck in the same restricted gendered universe. Faludi answer is, of course, incomplete. But we should accept the evidence that existing strategies of social movements have proven incapable of launching a massive men’s movements based on challenging established gender roles.

And while the way forward remains unclear Faludi does give us two very helpful goal posts. The first suggests a transformative approach beyond masculinity.

“Because as men struggle to free themselves from their crisis their task is not …to figure out how to be masculine—rather, their masculinity lies in figuring out how to be human.”

Now that is useful work befitting a real man.

The second thing Faludi suggest is to focus on action; on doing. Quoting Sylvester Stallone, of all people, she wrote:

“So I’m going to put away this vanity and get on with my life. I don’t even think about what I look like. I think about what I have to do not what I look like when I’m doing.”

We can become better men not by chasing after some mystical male identity or gazing at our own reflections but by finding useful things to do. We are what we do — not an identity we claim to be.

So what should we do? I wish I knew. But If we take some cues from a similar struggle the road ahead might become just a little easier to see. I am thinking of the struggle against “whiteness” that white people must undertake. Since men and white people remain as two large buffer groups standing between the tiny elites and the discontented millions, freeing ourselves from this role may well be decisive. Since men and white people are the two largest categories of “house servants” — of everyday people that tend to identity with the powerful — maybe there are some hidden synergies we can learn from. Both are best addressed by doing and acting.

First things first, we should organize men to join the great struggles for freedom that lie ahead. And we must embrace a very simple compelling truth: there will be no freedom for any of us as long as patriarchy and male dominance holds down half the world. Those ideas are getting weaker by the year. It’s hard to miss the leading role of women and girls in the historic West Virginia teachers strike, in the youthful struggle against gun violence, in the new civil rights movement, and, of course, in #metoo.

We need to consider a less simple truth as well: masculinity and male privilege holds men down and keeps us in our places. Yes, we can lord it over those “below” us — but at a price: we agree not to rebel against those “above” us. But it is in that rebellion we can find ourselves, our freedom and take our rightful place in the world.

So men — help other men get active. Anyplace is a good place to start. When the day finally comes that our activism has changed us so deeply that white people no longer act white all the time and men no are longer obsessed with achieving masculine ideals that we will at long last discover our humanity and stand on the threshold of fundamental social change.

 

Posted in American Culture, Corporate Power, feminism, History, Labor Movement, Masculinity, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Strategy, Racism, Strategy, unions, War, White Supremacy, Working Class | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments