Thursday, February 28, 2008

 

Truth of the Day: On social change

... social change in America emerges from movements — labor, civil rights, feminist — rather than from third parties. Movements transcend parties; third parties divide movements. —Harold Meyerson writing in "Winter of the Patriarchs"

Meyerson's column compares and contrasts Fidel Castro with Ralph Nader for no better reason than a contemporaneity of events: The day Raúl Castro was elected President of Cuba was the very day Ralph Nader announced his candidacy to be President of the United States. Oh well.

But it would have been more interesting if Meyerson had examined what happened to the American movements he proclaims. Labor is at its nadir, schools are resegregated, prime black borrowers receive subprime loans if they can get them,1 and feminists have reason to fear that reproductive rights will not survive infancy. Meyerson turns a blind eye to the forces of counterrevolution—a mistake that Castro did not make.

There has indeed been a movement in recent times in America that in political terms must be dated from the election of Ronald Reagan, and it has certainly transcended the political parties. One of its odder features is that it has no name, or at least no name that refers to its content. Instead we call it "the Reagan Revolution."

Some time back I wrote that—

When it comes to government overthrow, left-wing revolutions tend to be more physically violent. They are, after all, "bottom-up" affairs, since rulers do not readily give up power through the democratic—or any other—process.

But right-wing revolutions are top-down matters—one oligarchy pitted against another. They can be subtle, even "democratic"—as was the case with Hitler—or minimally violent, as with the coup, where instead of blood in the streets we see blood in the palace followed by a massive crack-down on dissent.

We are in the midst of a right-wing revolution. Make no mistake about it. In fact, to say that we are "in the midst" is too mild; we are in the end-stage of that revolution.

The conditions would appear to be ripe for another revolution of sorts. The country has been driven into a ditch by the ideological successors to the Reagan Revolution, and the public is beginning to feel the effects—and only the first of those effects. Demand for change is in the air.

But what sort of change? The public is so politically naïve and hornswoggled that the notion of a "people's movement" now appears distasteful, as the oligarchs prefer. A leader will have to emerge.

Who might that be? Meyerson sees hope in Barack Obama—

In 2008, though, the race already has its movement builder: Barack Obama, the onetime community organizer whose ground campaign has roots in the teachings of legendary organizer Saul Alinsky.

That would be a treat. Alinsky wrote—

There's another reason for working inside the system. Dostoevsky said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and change the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 per cent of American families - more than seventy million people - whose income range from $5,000 to $10,000 a year [in 1971]. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. They will not continue to be relatively passive and slightly challenging. If we fail to communicate with them, if we don't encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let's not let it happen by default.."2

That Barack Obama is a "movement builder" is beyond dispute. His campaign is proof. But what the content of that movement is—aside from the election of Barack Obama—is anybody's guess.

The conditions of the early 70s when Alinsky wrote his formula for revolution have changed markedly and not for the better. Even if we assume that Obama once in office will cast off his Wall Street supporters, the "Reagan Revolution" has accomplished many changes in law and practice to guarantee the revolution against popular overthrow. And the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, always international, is now more global than ever.

Related posts
Gasp! Socialists in the press (2/2/05)
The Second American Revolution goes nuclear (5/16/05)
Sad Tune of the Day (12/9/06)

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Footnotes

1As remarked by Katrina vanden Heuvel,

In 2005 and 2006, over 50% of all loans made to African-Americans, and over 40% to Latinos, were subprime - compared to only 19% of white borrowers. Martin Gruenberg, vice chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), said at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition's Wall Street Economic Summit in January, "Only one-sixth of this differential could be accounted for by the ability of the borrower." Analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data shows that African-Americans and Latinos in New York City, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and other cities were two to three times more likely to have subprime, high-cost loans than white borrowers with similar incomes and loan amounts.

The New York Times has reported on two neighborhoods in the Detroit area - one 97 percent white with a median income of $51,000, another 97 percent African-American with a median income of $49,000. In 2006, 17 percent of the loans made in the white neighborhood were subprime, compared to 70 percent of the loans in the predominately African-American neighborhood. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently pointed out on National Public Radio, "…An African-American earning more than $100,000 was more likely than a white person who earned less than $35,000 to be put in a high-cost, [subprime] loan…. Clearly there is discrimination going on."

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2In the midst of the various "social" movements of identity politics blue collar workers were very much abandoned. And Alinsky's warning, unheeded, became reality. The wine-sipping, brie-slathering image of well-heeled "liberal" Democrats—indifferent to poverty and the working class—that was purveyed by the Right had a great deal of truth to it, notwithstanding that they were sipping the same wine and eating the same brie. [back]

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