Jobs or Income Now!: JOIN and White Working Class Leadership

belafonteatjoin

Sixth in the Series: Organize the White Working Class!

Yes, that is Harry Belafonte visiting JOIN in 1965. Peggy Terry is on far right.

JOIN and Emergence of White Working Class Leadership.

Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) was a Chicago community organization started as the brainchild of the SDS’s Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). In their view, poverty was not the result of individual failing but of political inequality. Since poverty was political, JOIN had to confront the Democratic Party political machines that controlled Chicago.

In their day-to-day work, JOIN came to follow the example of the Black Panthers by combining a service model with consciousness raising. They provided direct assistance to the community on basic issues such as education, health, and housing while teaching about racism, class exploitation and war.

Hillbilly Nationalists tells the story of JOIN through the life of Peggy Terry, its most visionary leader. Terry was a poor southern white woman who had been drawn into the civil rights movement as a volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Terry’s motivations were noble but at first were limited to moral politics. She viewed her work as a sacrifice to “help black folks get their freedom.”1 Terry thought she had to give up her own interests to help and could see no good from organizing poor whites.

Terry’s transition to working class hero began at the urging of civil rights leaders. When she met Martin Luther King, he asked her about her own exploitation as a poor white woman and how other poor whites might be organized into the civil rights movement. These were things she had not considered. Monroe Sharp, Terry’s comrade in CORE, marched her into the JOIN office. “This is where you belong….You have to know who you are before you ever know who we are,” Sharp said. And so with the guidance of African American leaders, Terry turned to her own community.2

Terry already lived in a working-class neighborhood sometimes called “Hillbilly Harlem.” With JOIN, Terry made the fusion of anti-racism and class interest her work.

JOIN learned that people found the promise of jobs or income too utopian, so they began instead by listening to community members about what they saw as their most pressing needs. Imagine that! What they found led to activism around police brutality, welfare rights, tenants unions, and rent strikes. As they confronted the power of landlords and politicians, they began coalition work with black and latino groups. They offered public education about the ruthless Daly machine that ran Chicago. JOIN used their newspaper to address issues of international importance, including national liberation movements, the anti-war movement, and movements for women’s rights and civil rights.

As elements of the civil rights movement evolved into black power, these white workers found that “organizing your own” made sense. In fact, JOIN was one of the few organization in the U.S. already heading down that path.

By 1967, local leaders asked SDS members and other outside volunteers to leave JOIN. “We believe the time has come for us to turn to our own people, poor and working-class whites, for direction, support, and inspiration, to organize around our own identity, our own interests.”3

But unlike the degraded forms of identity politics now used by the Democratic Party to protect the existing power structure, JOIN’s identity politics — like that of other social movements of the period — was rooted in participatory democracy and an organizing method designed to empower people and challenge power.

In the tradition of Saul Alinsky and Ella Baker, Terry wrote,

“No matter what background a person comes from…the role of the organizer, their primary job is to find people to whom they can pass on their abilities, their skills. The job of an organizer is to organize themselves out of a job.”4

The self-determination and self interest of these poor white people did not imply separatism or racist white nationalism, but just the opposite. JOIN members attended the Poor People’s March and went on to claim a role for working class whites in the struggle against racism and economic exploitation.

Terry addressed a crowd of 50,000 at the June 19, 1968, Solidarity Day rally.

“We, the poor whites of the Unites States, today demand an end to racism, for our own self interest and well being, as well as for the well being of black, brown, and red Americans, who, I repeat, are our natural allies in the struggle for real freedom and real democracy in these, OUR, Unites States of America.”5

Our common cause is freedom, and Terry showed us how to make it real.

Peggy Terry for Vice President

The final episode in the remarkable history of JOIN was its support for the candidacy of Peggy Terry to run as Vice President on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968. With Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver as Presidential candidate, they sought to take on Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.

But for Terry, the real work was to contest the candidacy of George Wallace, the segregationist and loud-mouthed racist running for President as an independent. Terry’s audience was the working class whites that Wallace appealed to with a potent mix of economic resentment and racial hatred.  In words that could have been spoken today Terry went after Wallace:

“His “little man” appeal has won over many white workers who are tired of their union’s cooperation with big corporations. But Wallace is not the answer to their problems. He is just another kind of boss.”6

Wallace, who went on to win five southern states, had tapped into the toxic blend of racism and economic misery that has long been part of American history and American demagoguery. It is the same seam of bigotry and resentment that Trump attempted to mine.

The Peace and Freedom Party may not have had the funds, staff, or media coverage necessary to win, but they discovered a truth we dare not ignore. Unless the labor and social movements can create a compelling alternative to racist resentment and class exploitation, the Trumps and Wallaces of the world will find a base among the white working class. JOIN took up the long hard struggle that awaits anyone willing to change the world.

Decades later, JOIN’s history is still a useful and usable past. Organizers with the courage and stamina to engage the white working class should consider the basic insights underlying JOIN’s work as a guide to action.

  • Racism is against the self-interest of the white working class.
  • People of color are natural allies in the struggle for freedom and for economic democracy.
  • The important task of “organizing your own,” should be guided by the ideals of participatory democracy and self-determination.
  • Serve the people.
  • Let the people decide what should be done and at what pace.
  • Organizers can be indispensable as catalysts and facilitators but the people must provide the leadership.

  1. All citations from Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power.  p 20

2. 20

3. 56

4. 56

5. 59

6.62

Posted in American Culture, Martin Luther King, Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, Uncategorized, White Privilege, White Supremacy | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sanders Campaign, Greater Appalachia and Young Workers

This article also appeared in CounterPunch.

Tenth in the Series: Organize the White Working Class!

The white working class is ready. Are you?

The 2016 Democratic primary gives us a way of assessing the potential for organizing among white workers. This may sound surprising since the corporate media created a narrative about how white workers supported Trump in the general election. But clear-eyed observers such as Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, Mike Davis, Bill Fletcher, Jeffrey St.Clair and Jake Johnston have countered that story.

It was the Democrats that abandoned the working class with Trump merely holding on to the Romney electorate as Clinton underperformed Obama in almost every demographic including white workers. The corporate story about white workers in the general election obscures a far more important story for activists and organizers. In order to reverse the drift toward war and corporate rule, we will have to launch bold and aggressive campaigns that replace the discredited corporate forms of identity politics and meritocratic thinking typical of the Democrats.

The Clinton machine tried to assemble an unconvincing coalition, bringing working people and urban professionals together to support a fundamentally corporate and imperial agenda. This project failed, and will fail again, but that failure can open the door to grassroots democracy. The Sanders campaign strongly suggests that victory is possible. If activists and dissident political movements can offer visionary leadership and mount determined organizing drives then millions of white workers will join the movements for social justice and economic democracy.

Greater Appalachia

While an overall analysis of the primary or general election is beyond the scope of this article, we can learn a good bit by looking at “Greater Appalachia.” By this I mean the region of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to northern Alabama. I realize this is not the typical way of describing Appalachia.[1]

Greater Appalachia is however appropriate for assessing the political potential of the white working class because this region is demographically far whiter than the rest of the country, solidly working class, and ethnically more Scots-Irish.

Southern Appalachia is a region of stubborn poverty. Central Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and New England, outside of the metropolitan areas, have, like the rest of the country, never recovered from the 2008 crisis. These areas are also distant from the urban political machines which have long histories of producing votes for machine politicians.

map-icon-democrat

The electoral map of the 2016 Primary in the New York Times captures the general trends. From northern Alabama to Maine, it shows that Sanders was very competitive where he did not win outright. Where Clinton did win, it was by narrow margins. It is reasonable to assume that had the DNC not rigged the primary for Clinton or the media not presented Clinton as the “presumptive nominee” or elevated Trump with billions in free publicity, Sanders would have done far better.  Sanders voters in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York voted later in the primary season persisting in their dissent  long after the narratives of Clinton’s “inevitably” were widely circulated by party elites and corporate media.

Clinton did worse and Sanders better in the Appalachian region of every state.

The Daily Kos, a news outlet friendly to Clinton, offered the following analysis.

“The Democratic primary exhibited an even starker division between each state’s Appalachian and non-Appalachian regions. While Clinton won every state except West Virginia, she performed worse in every state’s Appalachian region and Sanders easily won Appalachian Kentucky and North Carolina. Sanders also came very close to victory in Appalachian Maryland, Ohio, and Virginia despite Clinton easily winning the remainders of those states. Clinton won by a comfortable margin in southern Appalachia outside of North Carolina, but still performed dramatically worse than in the rest of those states.”

If we move north, we see support for Sanders in the rural upland regions of Central Pennsylvania and Upstate New York.

While the definition of Appalachian Pennsylvania is unclear, the core of the majority white working class mountain region that follows the ridges of the Appalachian chain in central Pennsylvania voted for Sanders.[2] In three of the central state mountain counties where Clinton does win – Fulton, Bedford and Union – the machine wins by razor thin majorities. “Sanders, for his part, performed strongly in the rural parts of the state, winning rural voters 50-48 and carrying Central Pennsylvania 50-49.

In upstate New York, Sanders wins all but three counties. In the Catskills, just outside of suburban NYC, Sanders wins Sullivan Country 56.1 to 43.9, Ulster County 62.6 to 37.4 and Dutchess County 51.5 to 48.4.

As a general indication of class consciousness, in NY, “Clinton won voters who said Wall Street does more to help the economy, Sanders won among those who said it hurts the economy.

It is interesting to note that many counties in New York flipped from voting for Obama in the 2008 general to Trump in 2016. Fourteen NY state counties flipped from voting for Obama twice to voting for Trump. Was this a sign of bigotry unleashed by Trump? Or was it the deep disappointment in Clinton, who, as former Senator from New York, had failed to keep her promise of jobs and economic development? Or both? We need more evidence.

Sanders went from strength to strength in New England, where he took three of four counties in Western Massachusetts and won all of Vermont, all of New Hampshire, and all of Maine.

The story is not just that Bernie would have won, although all the polls agree. The story is that win or lose, the Sanders campaign shows us what might be. And that assessment is positive enough to encourage anti-racist, union, community organizing, anti-war and environmental movement building among the white working class.

Young Workers of America Unite!

Young workers face the economic crisis head on. If the Sanders campaign is any measure, then young white workers and young workers from all backgrounds are fired up and ready for change.

Organizers, listen up!

In the 20 states for which we have data, nearly 2 million young people have voted for Senator Sanders, almost three times more youth votes than any other candidate in either party….More youth have voted for Senator Sanders than for Clinton and Trump combined.

Since I am using electoral data as a general indicator of what is possible, the white working class, the young white working class in particular, is ready for change.

The corporate order — in all of its extremism and excess — is in decline and disarray whether managed by an Obama, a Clinton or a Trump. Corporate politics can only offer more of the same: perpetual war and global empire, mass incarceration and mass surveillance and the hollowing out of all of our once democratic institutions from elections, to unions, to the Bill of Rights, to education.  The crazy corporate crusade to pillage the planet and impose inequality and austerity cannot be sustained.

Things fall apart; the extreme center cannot hold.[3]

As the white working class — and the whole working class — becomes increasingly unmoored from its tethers, some will soar and some will crash.  But as the great organizer Ella Baker said: “Give light and the people will find a way.”


  1. I make no pretense at offering a comprehensive analysis of the complex historical trends, cultural characteristics, and demographics that make up the either the traditional core of Appalachia, lying south of the Mason-Dixon line, or the northern upland regions of Pennsylvania, New York, and New England.
  2. The Daily Kos article cited above uses a broader definition of Appalachian Pennsylvania much more favorable to Clinton.
  3. Apologies to Yeats, The Second Coming
Posted in American Culture, Electoral Strategy for 2016, Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, Racism, Strategy, Uncategorized, White Privilege, White Supremacy | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Empire Abroad. Empire at Home.

images-5

This article also appeared in CounterPunch.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Americans are taught to revel in our power and supremacy. Over 650 major military bases span the whole world.  We wage endless wars. American corporations are the most powerful economic organizations in history. The fusion of economic and military power makes our empire unlike any the world has ever seen.

We may be “#1” but it is to this great empire that we have lost our souls and our democracy with it.[1]

The New Paradigm

No great wall separates U.S. foreign policy from domestic policy. The Manhattan Institute is an influential think tank founded in 1978 by William Casey, former head of all U.S. intelligence and Director of the CIA. In a 2006 report “Merging Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism Strategies,” they describe “The New Paradigm:”

We know too that globalization is a permanent fact. The international economy is the engine of our nation and the source of our wealth. It means that all the physical and conceptual walls associated with the modern, sovereign state—the walls that divide domestic from international, the police from the military, intelligence from law enforcement, war from peace, and crime from war—are coming down.

The institutions and ideas U.S. elites used to project “full spectrum dominance” onto the global stage have eventually become part of the political order in the U.S. The “full spectrum” includes us. 

It is empire — most of all — that dooms democracy and constitutional republics. As corporations have an insatiable drive for profit, empires have an insatiable drive for power. And that makes imperial actors hostile to the limits on authority, checks and balances, separation of powers and basic rights that the U.S. republic at least aspired to. As the institutions of representative democracy become weaker and weaker — devoted only to serving the corporate power and global empire — the need for social control of  the people becomes greater and greater.

Targeting Dissent in the USA

The “McCarthyism” of the 1950s was the first modern wave of coordinated social control. Truman stoked the fear and hatred of communism to serve foreign policy, but soon, in the hands of the FBI and unscrupulous politicians, it was turned against domestic dissent. The establishment decided that some ideas were so dangerous that American citizens did not have the right or capacity to think through them for themselves. The government would do the thinking for us.[2]

Dissent was equated with treason, and it was not until the hard fought battles of the civil rights movement that dissent was once again seen as legitimate. It’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King was widely accused of being a communist.

Starting in the mid-50s, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program attacked dissenters. While the civil rights and black power movements were the primary targets of violent repression, almost all social movements were surveilled and disrupted. Today, protestors face escalating penalties, police violence, surveillance, and intimidation. Particularly since Trump’s election there have been a host of proposed laws that aim to criminalize first amendment rights of free speech and assembly.

Nixon turned to the “War on Drugs” to create the domestic equivalent of war and suppress the political movements. The War on Drugs — waged by Democrats and Republicans alike — went after hippies, the young and the black community as a way of penalizing the populations on which the movements depended.

 Now we know the outcome of the War on Drugs.

Over the past few decades the American people have created a vast militarized penal system that is now the most powerful institutionalized racism in the US. And like the forms of institutionalized racism that preceded it, the penal system functions as an effective form of social control. Discriminatory and militarized policing, on-the-spot executions, slave-like prison labor, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, restriction of trial by jury, lengthy and mandatory sentencing, predatory fine, fee and debt traps, and its gigantic sweep and size constitutes nothing short of a preemptive war against the most potentially rebellious parts of the population: the young, people of color, the poor.[3]

Mandatory sentencing laws passed by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton shifted the power from judges to prosecutors. By tilting power away from the judiciary and toward the executive, a highly “efficient” system of incarceration took shape.

Police often get military training appropriate to an occupation force.  Training that emphasizing weapons rather than conflict resolution. The “oil cops” at Standing Rock were employees of a private firm with ties to Blackwater, the corporation that provided the mercenaries used by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The use of facial recognition software, the recording and monitoring of electronic and phone communications and the commercialization of internet browsing data — all without consent or indictments — are part of the most sophisticated system of electronic surveillance ever created. Mass surveillance is a profound attack on the First Amendment. Knowing big brother is always listening chills free speech, dissent and free association.

The penal system chipped away other key provisions of the Bill of Rights including the protection from unwarranted search and seizure, the right to a trial, and the most fundamental rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

With 2 million behind bars, a million of which slave away for big corporations and the military, the penal system is the main example of how the empire’s increasing reliance on force and violence to solve political problems turned inward toward the American people.

But, as intimidating and brutal as the penal system is — it also a last resort. The use of force is evidence that the empire is losing control over the hearts and minds of increasing numbers of its subjects.

The NDAA on the Homefront

The line between empire abroad and empire at home was further eroded by provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The 1990 NDAA, passed by Congress and signed by President and former director of the CIA George Bush, allowed for the transfer of military weapons to domestic police forces accelerating the militarization of the penal system.

President Obama signed the 2012 NDAA which extended the rules of war worldwide — in effect making the US. homeland a theatre of war — by allowing indefinite detention without trial or justification, in violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right of Habeas Corpus.

The NDAA also included provisions that allowed the “US government to broadcast American produced foreign propaganda in the U.S.”  And that is a lot of propaganda.  In 2009, $580 million was spend in Iraq and Afghanistan on the information war.  Another $500 million was spent by the Pentagon to produce fake Al-Qaeda videos. The NDAA essentially legalized the propaganda efforts of the CIA that were revealed as far back as 1975.

The first amendment is precise and sweeping: ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”  The Bill of Rights is designed to protect the people from the power of government not to protect government from the people.

In the last weeks of his term, Obama signed off on a bi-partisan effort to amend the 2016 NDAA and establish a “counter-propaganda” program, once again placing government in a position to determine what is propaganda and what is not. In a free country, that is the job of the people.

The chilling logic behind Obama’s record prosecution of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act and the intense Russian-baiting unleashed by the Clinton machine was taken to it’s extreme conclusion when Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo targeted Wikileaks as “a non-state, hostile intelligence service,” in a direct threat to free speech, free press and public access to information.  Yet, in the last days of his term Obama insured that the 17 secret police forces would be able to freely share raw data and information gathered on millions of American citizens.

They can know all about us but we cannot know about them.

If the elites trusted the old forms of social order and enculturation— the media, educational system, family, military, church, or even the Constitution itself — to maintain order, would they need to create a system of mass surveillance, incarceration, and propaganda?

What a strange moment we live in!

The revolutionary vision of the Declaration of Independence, the checks on tyranny that structure the U.S. Constitution and the limits on government power listed in the Bill of Rights — though they be flawed, two and a half centuries old and obstructed direct democracy— are far more advanced than the form of government we now have.  There is no democratic representation in the U.S. today   We, the unrepresented people, are taxed and the represented corporations rule us.  The U.S. empire and the corporate power have done what the old British empire could not.

Only massive and disruptive social movements can unmask the abuses of power to truly test the limits of our rights.  The most important question: how do we organize the social movements necessary to restore democracy?  

Next: As corrosive as empire is to democracy, another set of institutions joined the  assault on republican forms of representation: the Corporate Power.

  1. See the work of The American Empire Project, “Empire, long considered an offense against America’s democratic heritage, now threatens to define the relationship between our country and the rest of the world. The American Empire Project publishes books that question this development, examine the origins of U.S. imperial aspirations, analyze their ramifications at home and abroad, and discuss alternatives to this dangerous trend.”  Also see Andrew Bacevich many articles and books such as  The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.
  2. Ellen Schrecker, Many Are The Crimes: McCarthyism in America
  3. https://befreedom.co/2017/03/04/organize-the-white-working-class/
Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Radical White Workers During the Last Revolution

11036817

Fifth in the series: Organize the White Working Class!

White Working Class Organizing in the ‘60s and ‘70s

“Poor whites are here today…to make ourselves visible to a society whose continued existence depends on the denial of our existence. We are here today united with other races of poor people, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, Indians, and Black people in a common cause. That common cause is Freedom!”

Peggy Terry, The Poor People’s Convention June 1968

Yes, our common cause is freedom. The question is: how do we make that real? We will never know until we know our history. The long-lost story of anti-racist, radical white working class activism has been restored by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy in their invaluable book: Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. Get it and read it now. The articles that follow are deeply indebted to their work.

During the 1960s and 1970s, radical activists set out to organize the white working class. They linked the pursuit of working class interest and economic democracy with anti-racist organizing. They discovered, and helped others realize, that white supremacy and racism are not a friend to white people but one of the main obstacles to fulfilling our own destiny as a free people.

The context was the last revolution. The civil rights, black power, feminist, student movements and community organizing set the stage for working class whites to make important contributions to the democracy movements of the time. While these efforts were initiated by various groups, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), radicalized working class youth, and the Black Panthers, they all eventually depended on the leadership of working class communities.

The organizers had been deeply radicalized by the social upheavals of the time. Yet, their own working class backgrounds often placed them on the margins of the New Left. But the activists knew the white working class had enormous untapped potential. The movement to stop the War in Vietnam, fight the bosses, and win the battle against racism needed the hard work and political vision that everyday working people could help provide. The organizers were radicals, many were communists, but virtually all were inspired by third world nationalism abroad and the Black Panthers at home.

The Emergence of White Working Class Radicalism Fits Recurring Patterns in the Social Movements of the 60’s. 

“Black Power” emerged out of the civil rights campaign as an attempt to found an independent, self-reliant movement with its own sources of power, leadership, and inspiration. Black power aimed to create a mass base mobilized around a growing consciousness of African-American identity and history. To do this black power advocates first suggested, then demanded, that white activists leave what had been a multi-racial civil rights movement. The white activists, despite their best intentions, brought with them subtle forms of white supremacy that inhibited the emergence of black leadership. Black Power advocates like Stokely Carmichael wanted white radicals to “organize their own” in a strategic division of labor much in the same way Black Power was trying to organize their own people. 1

Women active in the civil rights and student movements followed a similar path. Deeply troubled by the sexism and male domination of the movements they devoted their lives to, women struck out on their own to start the modern women’s movement. They went massive by focusing on consciousness-raising efforts. In millions of conversations with each other, women discovered that the everyday personal problems they experienced were rooted in institutionalized forms of oppression they identified as patriarchy and paternalism. The personal became deeply political.

The other pattern, set by the Black Panthers, was an attempt to solve one of the enduring problems of organizing. How do organizers that aim at fundamental social change engage everyday people? Their answer was to create self-reliant, community controlled service programs. This approach became known as “Serve the People” but was more tellingly called “Survival Pending Revolution” by the Panthers themselves. Best known for their free breakfast program for school kids, they also provided educational programs, legal and health services, programs for senior citizens, and free food for the poor of their community. And they became infamous for community self-defense against police brutality.2

The Panthers initiated an intermediate program that took evolutionary steps toward a vision of revolutionary change. The service programs were one part of bridging the gap. The other was bringing revolutionary politics within reach. One way the Panthers did this was by emphasizing universal values. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.” Such values need little explanation, are not open to endless debate, and are self-evident.

The Panthers also drew their revolutionary ideals closer to the people by merging staunch anti-capitalism with a transformed version of American traditions. Beneath the glamour of the black beret and intense drama of asserting their 2nd amendment rights, the Black Panthers were studied revolutionaries. Huey Newton’s book, Revolutionary Suicide remains a classic, tragic, part of American revolutionary thought.

The Panthers learned from revolutionary efforts around the world but also laid claim to the ideals of the original American revolutionary colonists applying them to the black colony oppressed within the modern American empire. The last and longest part of the Black Panthers’ 10 Point Program: What We Want/What We Believe — their “major political objective” — called for black self-determination by quoting, at length, the words of the American Declaration of Independence.

However history may judge the outcome, this model was widely influential for community organizing of the period and still shines a light we can follow if we dare.

And so it was, and so it is, with radical white working class organizing.

In Chicago, the SDS sent college students, armed with anti-imperialist ideas and marxist theory, into poor communities. The working class owes these students an enormous debt. The SDS provided the spark and the broader domestic and international context to the problem that workers faced. But, like women and the black power activists before them, white workers chafed under the often unconscious but still stifling cultural biases and assumptions of the student movement. The classism of affluent students limited the full potential of white working class communities. The students had the skills, education, resources, and upbringing that allowed them to take leadership roles. Like women and black power activists, white workers eventually asked the students to stand down and set out on their own to form organizations based on their own culture and political agenda.

Next: Community organizing by Chicago’s Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) set the standard for white working-class activism.


  1. Hillbilly Nationalists p 27
  2. Hillbilly Nationalists, p 68-69
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trump, Empire and Our Long Retreat to Tyranny

17795908_10154510807068435_4851061455666077963_n

This article also appeared in Counterpunch.

There has been a lot of worry about the Constitution and basic democratic rights since Trump’s election. And worry we should. But, Trump did not fall from the sky, he is a product of our history.

Over the long course of human history, there has been nothing more hostile to democracies and constitutional republics than empire. Empires destroys republics from the inside out.[1]

And, empires demand and create enemies. In the opening act of our empire we fought our race enemy: the natives we tried to assimilate or eliminate. In the climactic scene of empire building after WWII we fought another “red menace:” the Soviet Union and communism.

But the American people were deeply tired of war. President Truman was convinced that  he would have to “scare hell” out of the people to commit the US to Cold War and global empire.   So evil was the Soviet Union, so alien was their way of life, that the red scare summoned up its opposite: American identity as innocent, good, chosen and exceptional.

Our new enemy was made out to be an existential threat even though Russia had just lost 20 million people fighting — as our ally — against Nazi Germany. Our global superiority was based largely on the fact that World War II had wrecked every major competitor. The US stood astride the world without equal.

But under the cover of Cold War the US empire all but disappeared from public view. We were not, according to the official story, an empire at all but the world’s greatest democracy defending the free world. We were not to blame for the costs of empire building: it was the Russian’s fault or the Chinese or the Vietnamese or the international communist conspiracy. The tyranny to come for America was sold with carrot and stick. Fear was the opener while pride in our might and exceptional character closed the deal. Today we still cloak empire with wars fought for “humanitarian” reasons, out of a “duty to protect.”

But no justification could hide the fact that empire changed America forever. A new form of government called the “national security state” now referred to as the “deep state,” emerged to manage our far-flung domain. The changes were stunning and decisively tipped constitutional “checks and balances.” Soon the executive branch exercised sweeping powers far beyond what the US Constitution allowed for.

The Imperial Presidency

The US president has war powers that would make a king jealous. The Constitution is crystal clear: only Congress has the right to declare war. The emergence of an executive that could unilaterally declare war and make continuous war preparations overcame the “separation of powers,” and undermined the rule of law.[2]

Tyranny was sure to follow.  It was after all an old story.

In 1793, James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, reflected on just how important it was to “disarm” the presidency of its “propensity to war.”

In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department….

The trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man….War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement…. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace….

The executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war: hence it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence. [emphasis added]

“In proportion as they are free.” For Madison, the executive’s capacity to declare war has a direct and inverse relationship to freedom.

Not only does this mean that every war since WWII has been illegal — by our own highest law of the land — but that the system of check and balances, so carefully crafted by the framers has been tilted toward tyranny.

Executive power has grown persistently since WWII and every President, Congress and Supreme Court has added and abetting its growth. Only the anti-war movement of the Vietnam Era marshaled popular resistance to slow, for a time, the empire.

After the US lost the Vietnam War the liberal project of “nation-building” could never be fully revived. Nation-building was our illusion and our conceit: we were not aggressors but engaged in the godly task of helping oppressed people build stable democracies and resist communism.

But by the first phase of US war in Afghanistan (1978-1992) the current pattern of disorder and decline emerged. US elites opted for the chaos of weak or failed states. US sponsorship of the Mujahideen gave birth to modern armed “islamic fundamentalism.” The US would come to rely more and more on shifting coalitions of unstable militias prone to terrorism and internecine warfare.  To hide the war and dampen military and civilian dissent the elites grew dependent on corporate mercenaries.  And for cover, Bill Clinton sold us  “humanitarian war:” noble war, not driven by interest or advantage but for human rights or to end suffering.  It is a paternalistic version of nation-building that harkens back to White Man’s Burden.

If this is our history then Trump is very much our President. Trump is an imperial president well suited to a system that values power and authority over democracy and thrives on crisis, chaos and war. And the corporate media agrees that  Trump’s wars are full of “heart” and humanitarianism.

Militarism

Before the Korean War the US regularly maintained only a small army and officer corp.  In time of war armies were raised by mass conscription and the citizen-solders were sent home when the fighting stopped. There was no military-industrial complex. Auto and airplane factories were converted to wartime use and converted back. There were war profiteers, yes, but never a powerful and permanent war industry directly linked to government. American has a violent past, true, but we were not militarists.

President Eisenhower was so disturbed by what he saw that he chose his farewell address to give the country serious warnings about the military-industrial complex.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implication. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted, only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.…We should take nothing for granted.” Today war is big business  and we cannot take democracy for granted.

Secret Police Forces

Alcohol prohibition gave us the FBI, the first national secret police force in the US. But, it was after WWII that the secret police grew and became independent actors in both domestic and international affairs. Starting with the 1948 Italian elections, the CIA quickly developed a global network based on intervention in elections, the overthrow of governments, and assassination. Secrecy, deception and covert activities beyond the rule of law was standard operating procedure from the beginning.

Truman, one of the chief architects of US empire and the Cold war created the CIA . These new institutions were such a troubling departure from US politics that even he feared that the CIA had gone rouge.

Truman shared his concerns in a public letter:

For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government….I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue….

Now we have 17 secret police forces and they have become a “policy making arm of government.” They are real players in the domestic politics of the US, intervening in our own elections,  and suppressing free speech and dissent by spying routinely on millions of Americans.

The imperial presidency, militarism and secret police forces have hollowed out the US Constitution and left our democracy in tatters. Tyranny is the price of empire. The struggle against war and empire is essential to the struggle for democracy. We cannot have one without the other. Real resistance to Trump will be made by those willing to confront the history which made Trump possible.

Empire means more than foreign policy. It did not take long after WWII for the same institutions and the very same culture of war and dominance to fundamentally alter politics at home by creating new forms of social control in America.

Next: The War at Home. The Empire Within.

 

  1. For more on US empire see the work of Chalmers Johnson, especially, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. Andrew Bacevich also presents many well-documented and argued accounts. For example see The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.
  2. Ryan Alford, Permanent State of Emergency: Unchecked Executive Power and the Demise of the Rule of Law.
Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Reclaim the Discourse on White Privilege

15380314_362445897443609_5958308610986601530_n

Fourth in the series: Organize the White Working Class!

Reclaim The Discourse on White Privilege

White privilege, an indispensable tool for teaching white people how we had been blinded and bribed into becoming the tools and fools of the elites, got converted into a way to demand obedience to the machine — the Democratic Party in particular — and silence working class discontent and resistance. The not very hidden message is that the corporate order is working for white workers. Period. Try organizing with that rap. How do we talk to white people about white privilege? Start by reclaiming the discourse.

Start with the fact that the white working class is in fact ruthlessly exploited  but by virtue of our class — or even our gender, age, sexuality or military status — but not because of our race.  And that class exploitation is made possible because the working class is divided: white privilege is the wedge.

White privilege discourse was misappropriated from the social movements to undercut support for Sanders and the Green Party in the 2016 election. Dissenters were widely attacked as privileged.  The twisted logic of this argument:  only the privileged can afford to revolt and the truly oppressed will just have to take what is handed out and be content with more of the same. In this upside-down privilege, dissent is rooted in privilege and obedience in oppression.

Progressive writers responded to the Democrats in a number of insightful articles.  Take a look at articles by Patrick Barrett and Deepa Kumar, Kate McMahon, Morgana Visser and Danielle Decourcey.   Perhaps the most useful outcome of this debate was Rashna Batliwala Singh’s and Peter Matthews Wright‘s argument about “Imperial Privilege.”

Indeed, so pervasive is this particular form of privilege that it is not limited to the “usual suspects,” e.g., militarists or right-wing politicians. Imperial privilege makes it possible for even the liberally-inclined to turn a blind eye to the toxic footprint of U.S. militarism at home and abroad; to fall silent at any mention of the homicidal decisions of an American President; to exclude such matters from public political discussion and to prevent them from influencing their voting patterns in any way.

Imperial privilege is the hidden model for the Democratic Party’s attempt to discipline dissenter by demanding we “check our privilege” by endorsing the status quo as a “humanitarian” gesture and a “duty to protect” the less fortunate.1 They act as if they know what the people they are “protecting” want for themselves. It’s a lot to presume.

At what point in the future would this duty to protect allow for risk, struggle, and revolution? Never. Instead liberal privilege is a study in safe logic. For the Democrats, privilege became yet another social control discourse with the same aim as the “lesser of two evils.”

Privilege discourse is further weakened by confusing power with privilege. We all commonly refer to the Koch brothers, George Soros, Bill Gates, or the Clintons and Trumps as privileged. But that is not quite right. They have real power and real wealth. They do not need or have privilege. Privilege is a means of dividing the people, it is the payoff poor whites or poor men or everyday people earn in return for our identification with and support for the powerful.

Are Privileges Earned or Unearned?

The liberal or Democratic Party version define privilege as unearned benefits or unfair advantages, but its logic only holds within the meritocratic view of our economy that is so central to maintaining order. The idea of merit teaches us that people get what they deserve and work for. “What you earn is what you learn,” Bill Clinton claimed, and the “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” Democrats still insist it’s true.

White men can pull themselves up better because we are born to boots and bootstraps. There is truth to that of course, but it is a less than useful reference point for organizers aiming at social transformation. Faith in merit smuggles into privilege discourse some of the basic cultural assumptions that rationalize the existing order.

The true nature of the corporate economy is to distribute wealth according to political power not individual merit. Meritocracy and the ideas of Social Darwinism that came before it tells us that the world is a true and transparent regulator of merit.  The good and worthy rise; the weak and stupid fall as competition sorts thing out. But given an equal chance, the argument goes, people of color, women, or working class people can rise through the ranks to claim their individual success. If enough individuals earn enough wealth then the problems of race, class, gender or sexuality can be solved. Can they not?  We are treated to a parade of celebrities, athletes, and politicians, to prove the point.

Faith in merit disappears class struggle by suggesting we are all just individuals performing in some magical free market. This is total bullshit.

Meritocratic beliefs make it easy to view the white working class as lazy deplorable failures. After all, we are white. With that privilege in hand, what could stand in our way? Class? What is that?

From an organizing perspective, it is precisely our privileges that stand in our way.

While there is nothing wrong with a little utopian thinking of a visionary kind, merit and the free market is the corporate utopia and should not be the basis of our strategy. Real benefits for the people are won in struggle not earned by hard work. And it is white privilege that disrupts our ability to organize effectively because it routinely recreates racist ideas and divides us from our allies: Blacks and natives are poor, we are told,  because they deserve it and deserve our contempt as well.

These ideas of merit and hard work are also part of the “protestant work ethic” and are an essential element of the American mythology of exceptionalism. Unlike every other country in the world where someone’s fate is largely determined by the accidents of birth — their race, class, sexuality or gender — America is a land of opportunity outside the normal course of history.  The white working class tends to be either invisible or unworthy to those confident that the US is exceptional because we fly in the face of the cherished myth.

The liberal version of white privilege appears to take on racism but fails because it props up the existing order by limiting our understanding of the deeply historical and systematic nature of racism and white supremacy.

If instead we look at the past to see how power works, history reveals a far more devastating critique of privilege than simple unearned benefits. Whites do in fact earn their privileges and in the worst possible way. We earn privilege by the betrayal of fellow workers and fellow humans. The soldiers and veterans we send into dubious battle, we stab in the back. We betray our true fellow Americans. By our disloyalty, we forfeit our place among “we the people.”

And betrayal is far harder work than we dare admit to ourselves. High stake betrayal wounds even the perpetrator. Betrayal deeply and grotesquely deforms our spirits. The blind spots, denials, and airs of moral superiority we adopt to cover the wound have become the basis of a white character willing to strike again. This is in all of us. It makes us weak. And then we pass our deformed humanity to our children in silent acts of acquiescence to the established order even if not in overt racism. At the end of the day, we have betrayed ourselves and our own.

Privilege is for Pawns

My purpose is not to shame and blame but to reveal a liberating truth: white supremacy and white privilege hurts white people. It undermines our capacity to fight for democracy. It undercuts our economic power. Racism diminishes our own spirits and humanity. Racism must be fought for our own good. White privilege makes us pawns in their game.

White privilege is chump change. Don’t be a chump.

We can return our 30 pieces of silver as Judas returned the price of his kiss. And with all of our blind spots and flaws, we can start working with white people to oppose racism. Let’s start by listening carefully to white workers and fighting for our needs and interests. We do not have to be perfect; we just have to be activists.

If we bring patient listening skills and anti-racist perspective to all of our struggles, we can help white people discover that racism is against their interests. If we do this, we can earn a distinction the future will thank us for. Perhaps we can stop being white all the time and through and through. Maybe we can become European-Americans and take our rightful place as revolutionaries and equals among the rising ranks of “we the people”.


  1. I use “duty to protect’ and “humanitarian”  to highlight the underlying similarity between Democratic party uses of privilege, and their justification for war and empire.
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

On Leverage*

Revolt Against Plutocracy

#leverage

Revolt Against Plutocracy’s trans-partisan, inside/outside strategy of electoral revolt against the establishment will remain active to let Democrats know in all national elections, we are #ProgressiveOrBust. Party affiliation is of secondary consideration, a tactic to deploy until a third party can successfully challenge Democrats in elections. Half of the traditionally Democrat Party progressive base should be enough to provide the leverage needed. It’s not hard work; we’re just changing parties to either compel reform of the Wall Street-backed neoliberals or escort them to the dustbin of history. With the selection of Clinton-supporting and Obama White House recommended Tom Perez as the Party Chairman, the establishment retains control of the Democrats.

So why bother supporting progressive candidates running as Democrats? It depends on the congressional district. If a popular progressive is running either as an independent or progressive party candidate against the establishment Democrat, “or bust” messaging on social media…

View original post 1,084 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment