Socialism 2013

I just wanted to make a quick pitch for this summer’s Socialism 2013 conference taking place June 27 – 30 in Chicago.

This year’s conference will feature hundred of workshops, discussions, and debates spanning topics like revolutionary history, to Black liberation, feminism, the labor movement, and more.  Speakers will include people like Glenn Greenwald, China Mieville, Sherry Wolf, Barbara Ransby, Richard Seymour, Jeremy Scahill, Sarah Jaffe, and others.

Plus, I’ll be speaking at it, too, in a panel on prefigurative politics.

Find out more at www.socialismconference.org.  Early bird registration’s been extended to May 29th, so save a couple bucks and register today!

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May I rant about how fucking racist Barack and Michelle Obama’s commencement speeches were?

Barack Obama

UPDATE: Comments for this post have been closed.

Over the past several days President Barack and Michelle Obama delivered commencement speeches at two historically black universities.  At both they gave the same condescending lecture to Black students about dismissing racism and embracing personal responsibility.  For instance, here’s what President Obama’s had to say to Morehouse’s class of 2013:

“Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing…Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.”

And Michelle Obama’s speech at Bowie State wasn’t any better.  She told her audience that the problem with Black youth is that they are “sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV….fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”

This is far from the first time Obama’s came down on a Black audience.  Rather, this is virtually his  only message to predominantly Black audiences.

During his re-election campaign, for instance, the solution he offered to Chicago’s recent spike in murders was for Black people to  “provide stronger role models than the gang-banger on the corner.”  Nevermind keeping Black kids schools open or providing young Black people with jobs.  Those are just the things their teachers recommended. And what the fuck do they know?

One would be hard pressed to imagine President Obama ever taking such a tone with predatory lenders or police officers who systematically discriminate against and terrorize Black people.

But, as Leola Johnson, a professor at Macalester College, pointed out in the Washington Post, the these speeches aren’t meant for the Black audience in the first place.  They’re meant for white people, especially liberals. “It’s the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” she said, “and that whole group of white liberals who want to say it’s not just about structural problems that black people aren’t doing well, it’s about their own values.”

Indeed, consistent with Johnson’s argument, NPR was gleeful with Obama’s paternalistic finger-wagging. The tone of condescension and self-satisfaction is enough to make you cringe.  “President Obama…delivered a rare, very personal commencement address,” they wrote.  “It was a short speech, but Obama did not shy away from the subjects of race and responsibility…here are two excerpts you should read.”

Time and again Obama and other politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, treat Black audiences like punching bags.  How often do we hear politicians or talking heads chastising Black viewers over not taking enough “personal responsibility.”  Whenever politicians have anything to say about race it’s usually an endless litany of stereotypes characterizing Black people as irresponsible or criminal.  The message is clear.  Racism, at least structural racism, is extinct.  If Black people in America face any crisis at all it’s their own fault.

Never do you hear any reference to the systemic crises facing Black people in America.  For everything you hear about Black youth, never do you hear the names of Alan Bluford, Ramarley Graham, Kimani Gray, Aiyana Jones, or any of the other countless Black teens shot dead by the police.  They never say anything about the range of inequality experienced by Black people in America.  By almost every standard of measurement imaginable, Black people are held at the bottom of American society.  In homelessness, unemployment, poverty, access to education, access to food, access to healthcare, and on.

To refer to this reality is not making “excuses” for Black people, as Barack Obama would have it.  And to suggest so is nothing less than outright racism.  By deflecting responsibility for racial inequality from the state and this society on to individuals, it is Obama who is making excuses for the racist system of oppression he oversees.

By employing such rhetorical tactics, Obama is paving the path for the further racial discrimination.  The criminalization of Black people, for instance, or the dismantling of public assistance programs relied upon by many poor Black people, is repeatedly justified by the kind of racial stereotypes referenced by Barack and Michelle Obama in their speeches.  Consider the NYPD’s outrageous stop-and-frisk program which has subjected 685,724 people in 2011 to random frisking, almost all of them Black or Latino.  The program is continuously defended by Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelley by deploying these kind of stereotypes.

The myth of the “welfare queen” was used to clear the way for virtually every form of social assistance, and really, for the stripping down of any kind of public program.  By emphasizing personal, rather than social responsibility, the state itself became less of an administrative body, and more of a collective disciplinarian.  Rather than electing politicians who decided how and when to use public resources, people began electing nagging parental units to tell us how awful we’ve gotten.

Indeed, Obama’s re-election campaign used these same arguments when he attacked Mitt Romney for supposedly creating programs that helped poor people get cars during his time as governor of Massachusetts.  As one author for Jacobin commented, it was as if Obama was channeling Reagan’s ghost.

It is for this reason precisely that so many of us on the Left argued against the pervasive “lesser evilism” of the election season.  Obama’s racist commentary offer a perfect example of how the “lesser evil” often serves as the “more effective evil.”  Coming from a liberal Black president, he’s less likely to be criticized when he does or says racist things–even though the outcome is the same, and the politics continues to shift toward the right. By harping on racist stereotypes, the President is providing a justification for even more economic, political, and social discrimination.

This is precisely why anti-racists and those on the Left cannot rely upon the lesser evil to defend against the (and there is no disputing this) far more bigoted, rabid, and vicious racists on the right.  The argument is not at all that both Democrats and Republicans are exactly the same on matters of race.  The argument by those who reject “lesser evilism” is that both feed into each other–one beats the path for the other, and emboldens the other to go even further.

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Hold your burgers! Hold your fries! We want our wages super-sized!

My latest for Socialist Worker is now online. It’s a report from the recent fast food workers strikes that took place in Detroit.

DSC_0123THE STRIKES in Detroit, backed by a coalition that includes the Service Employees International Union and other labor organizations, comes at a moment of existential crisis for organized labor in Michigan….

The potential, however, for actions by low-wage workers fighting for justice to galvanize the labor movement was well illustrated at the strike’s closing rally at the headquarters of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT). The DFT was hit hard when former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm put the Detroit Public Schools under emergency management in 2009. As a result, the DFT headquarters is largely abandoned and is up for sale.

But on May 10, the energy of the hundreds of low-wage, unorganized fast-food workers and their supporters, marching and protesting after a long day of historic strike action, provided a hopeful contrast to the large, yellow “For Sale” sign hanging from the façade of the DFT headquarters.

Read the rest here.

There were plenty of inspiring stories that I didn’t share in this article for the sake of space. Maybe I’ll write more here soon.

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Carl Sagan on materialism

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

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The Last White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy: The Meaning of the Meme

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The White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy (WEDG) meme has turned into the quintessential Frankenstein’s Monster.  What began as a cathartic venting mechanism for Detroiter’s anger and frustration has been inverted into a self-congratulatory “dialogue” rehabilitating the image of the city’s entrepreneurial clique.

The meme mocked Jason Lorimer, the self-described “nonconformist” and co-founder of Dandelion, a consulting firm for social entrepreneurs and investors.  It was sparked by this self-aggrandizing article written by Lorimer for Model D, and gained a significant following and press attention.

The message from bloggers like Aaron Foley, of the Gawker media affiliated blog Jalopnik, and Jeff Wattrick at Deadline Detroit appears to be “We had some laughs, but it’s all good now.”

Foley and Wattrick are quick to apologize, in part because they completely misplaced the meaning behind the meme.  Foley, for instance, explained that the real problem lies with the local press who gives undue attention to Detroit’s white entrepreneurs at the expense of Black businesses.  Wattrick similarly blamed the “rhetoric bubble” exposed by Lorimer’s loathsome, jargon-laden writing style that forces one to picture themselves at the end of a Human Centipede made of corporate hacks.

Two of the most vocal bloggers about this controversy, therefore, dumbfoundly concluded that the White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy meme had nothing in particular to do with white entrepreneurial Detroit guys.

Of course, nobody can conclude with hard, scientific precision exactly what made the meme so explosive.  Nevertheless, one can make the case–as Wattrick and Foley have–for how one should read the meme and for what it can tell us.

One thing it tells us is that there is at least a significant–if not large–audience of people in Detroit who have lost patience for complacent social entrepreneurial wonkery and bullshit.

And why shouldn’t they have?  The vast majority of the city’s residents continue to suffer under deplorable living conditions that should be considered criminal in a country as wealthy and affluent as the United States.  The people who continue to write self-congratulatory pablum about the growing community of young entrepreneurs rebuilding Detroit over-and-over again would be embarrassed for themselves if they had one scrap of shame or humanity in them.

Such a contradiction, however, is the inevitable result of decades of neoliberal urban policy, which has succeeded in its push to wholly restructure the city in favor of attracting private investment.  “Neoliberal urban policy,” which has become standard in the post-civil rights era, explains the Marxist geography David Harvey in his book Rebel Cities,

concluded that redistributing wealth to less advantaged neighborhoods, cities, and regions was futile, and that resources should instead be channeled to dynamic “entrepreneurial” growth poles.  A spatial vision of “trickle-down” would then, in the proverbial long run (which never comes), take care of all those pesky regional, spatial, and urban inequalities.  Turning the city over to the developers and speculative financiers redounds the benefit of all!…The idea that a city can do well (in terms of capital accumulation) while its people (apart from a privileged class) and the environment do badly, is never examined.

One can easily see this reflected in a recent Financial Times article by Richard Florida, where he celebrates Detroit’s “turnaround” led by “a coalition of profit-led entrepreneurs, philanthropic foundations and grassroots groups unhindered by city government.”

The fact is that, whatever good intentions the newly arrived entrepreneurs might claim they have, the needs of the vast majority of Detroits residents do not square with their business interests.  Firms like Dandelion, for instance (which, as many have noted, is the flowering part of a weed–and a weed of course being an undesirable thing that chokes the life out of those nearby), shamelessly adopt pleasant phrases like “social entrepreneurship” to advance the myth that entrepreneurial interests can be seamlessly aligned with those of the poor.  That this is essentially just a recycled, less fowl smelling form of Reaganomics is never acknowledged.

The kind of entrepreneurial renaissance being promoted by people like Lorimer and Florida requires the taming, slashing, and burning of the public programs that poor people depend upon, in order to make the city more attractive to wealthy investors–especially the creditors that often provide start-up capital to new businesses and construction.  This is precisely the agenda the city’s recently appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is charged with administering.  But it goes far beyond our Honorable corporate overlord.  Long before Kevyn Orr’s rise to power, for instance, Detroit’s brand new Whole Foods was handed $4.2 million in incentives.  So while Detroit foodies can celebrate new access to healthy and organic food, $683 million was just cut last month from Michigan’s food assistance program (meanwhile, Whole Foods’ CEO claims he’s”going after racism“).

Demographic and population shifts are also required in order to meet the needs of new investors.  Programs like public housing, in other words, are not only inconvenient expenditures that could otherwise go toward posh grocers.  The very existence of public housing and the poor acts as a physical barrier to urban renewal.

While the New York Times can celebrate the renewal of downtown Detroit (again and again), therefore, nearly 200 senior citizens are being evicted from their Section 8 apartment building to clear the path for development.  Not too far away on Henry Street almost another 100 occupants of the Cass Corridor are being evicted.  Additionally, the Free Press recently reported that there have been over 4,100 foreclosures in Wayne County since January 2013 (that’s down 46% from 2012’s first quarter of over 7,700 foreclosures).  And it’s a widely known fact that Detroit lost over 237,00 residents over the past decade.

Meanwhile, however, “thousands of residents, including designers, techies and music makers,” have moved into the cities central neighborhoods, as Florida put it.  We’re constantly told about the wave of young professionals and neo-urbanites moving into neighborhoods like Downtown, Corktown, Woodbridge, Midtown, Hubbard Farms, Lafayette Park, the Villages, etc.  The readily deployed phrase “urban pioneer” aptly describes the scenario–evoking the history of the pioneers that cleared the old West of its native population in order to make way for new development.  Put in this context, expressions like, “Get your ass to Detroit,” as Lorimer exclaimed, or “Outsource to Detroit” become far more suspicious.

Writers like Florida that favor the neoliberal policies plaguing Detroit’s poor frankly acknowledge the consequences of their proposals.  “A cynic might say business interests and corporate urban pioneers are merely colonising the one economically viable district,” writes Florida,

“leaving those in distressed areas to the mercy of its broke, powerless government…Nonetheless, if it can be sustained, the downtown revival will be a first step to creating the jobs, economic activity and tax revenues needed to underwrite broader recovery.”

Florida not only plainly favors the entrepreneurial and business interests over people, therefore, but seems not the least bit ashamed that his proposal could be so easily compared to colonization–which, one might recall, was once also justified with the claim that it was good for the indigenous population.

Frustrations shouldn’t be aimed at “outsiders,” however, as the Huffington Post and others would have it.  Such answers completely miss the point. People should move wherever they want to.  The fact is that in a city home to enormous corporations like General Motors–which just posted $1.8 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2013–nobody should have to be evicted from their home to make room for others.  No one should have to be unemployed, or starve, in order to employ or feed others.  People’s anger and frustration should take aim at the familiar claim that there is no way out for Detroit other than by attracting youthful profiteers at the expense of Detroit’s poor.  The lackeys that advance this banal refrain–Florida, Lorimer, The Times, and others–are the real cynics.

The fact that social entrepreneurs and jargon laden consulting firms cannot address the vast and complex needs of Detroit’s residents does not need to foredoom the city.  But it needs to be acknowledged that there can be no resolving the crisis so long as we’re constrained by the narrow interests of business and profit.  The needs of the city’s poor residents need to be placed first, and not mediated or reduced to some pro-business policy gimmick or sleight of hand.  Such a change will require a political solution outside of city hall, or any legislative or business body–it will have to come from the people in the streets.  Luckily, Detroit has a long and proud history of such struggle from which to take guidance and inspiration.

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The role of the revolutionary press

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Note: This post is based on the transcript of a talk I gave at a recent branch meeting of the International Socialist Organization in Detroit.

In December 1964, Malcolm X gave a speech at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom.  In one of his most famous statements, he told his audience,

If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing…[The oppressor] fighting you in the morning, fighting you in the noon, fighting you at night and fighting you all in between, and you still think it’s wrong to fight him back. Why? The press. The newspapers make you look wrong. As long as you take a beating, you’re all right. That’s the press. That’s the image-making press. That thing is dangerous if you don’t guard yourself against it.

I open with this quote because I feel like it’s the most eloquent and straightforward argument for revolutionaries to control their own press.

I’m going to spend my time in this talk trying to broadly outline the case for a revolutionary newspaper, to describe its role and its close relationship with the task of building a mass, revolutionary socialist party.  In particular, I want to highlight some notable past examples of revolutionary newspapers, and outline the three elements of the revolutionary socialist press–that is, the newspaper as a collective propagandist, agitator, and organizer.

HISTORICAL REVOLUTIONARY NEWSPAPERS

There’s a long tradition of revolutionary movements creating their own presses through which to spread their ideas and organize their movement.  During the French Revolution of 1789-1799, Jean-Paul Marat, a famous supporter of the Jacobin Club, founded the paper the L’Ami du peuple (“The Friend of the People”) to argue in favor of continuing the revolutionary struggle.  It quickly became the best selling paper in Paris.

Leading figures of the revolutionary socialist tradition have always had a close relationship with the revolutionary press, beginning with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  Together they the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (“The New Rhenish Newspaper”), to argue in defense of the German revolutionary movement of 1848.  The German revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht founded the paper Die Rote Fahne (“The Red Flag”) during the height of the German Revolution in 1918 as the organ of the Spartacus League, which later became the Communist Party of Germany.  Lenin co-founded the paper Iskra (or “The Spark”) and later Pravda (“The Truth) to lay the political and organization foundations for the Russian revolutionary movement.  The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci founded the paper L’Ordine Nuovo (“The New order”) in 1919 with union support, and became the organ of the 1920 strike wave and factory occupation movement in the auto-factory town of Turin.  New Order eventually became the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, and was later shut down by Mussolini.

blackpantherThe United States also has its own history of revolutionary newspapers.  William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator, for instance, explicitly called for the abolition of slavery.  In 1851, the former slave Frederick Douglass began publishing The North Star, an abolitionist paper that not only pursued the rights of Blacks, but also the rights of women, carrying the motto: “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”

In 1967 the Black Panther Party started their newspaper The Black Panther.  By 1969 the Party grew to over 10,000 members.  Every member of the organization was expected to read the paper, and sell it at demonstrations, schools, colleges, etc.  Every paper was printed along with the party program, which called for–among other things–free healthcare, free housing, free food, free education, and the exemption of every Black male from service in the U.S. military.  It had a nationwide paper circulation of 250,000 a week.

Following Detroit’s Great Rebellion of June 1967, a group of Black militants in Detroit began printing Inner City Voice.  The masthead dubbed the paper, “The voice of the revolution,” and “Detroit’s Black community newspaper.”  The founders of the paper had an explicit strategy for using the paper to “articulate what was already in the streets” and act as “a vehicle for political organization, education, and change.”  The paper sought to be a “positive response to the Great Rebellion”–what they referred to as the “general strike of ‘67”–and to “report what was already in the streets.”  They focused heavily on the intersections of racism and class struggle.  Consider this June 1968 front page story:

“Black workers are tied day in and day out, 8-12 hours a day, to a massive assembly line, an assembly line that one never sees the end or the beginning of but merely fits into a slot and stays there…[T]he white racist and bigoted foremen…[and] the double-faced, back stabbing of the UAW have driven black workers to a near uprising state…In the wildcat strikes the black workers on the lines do not even address themselves to the UAW’s Grievance Procedure.  They realize that their only method of pressing for their demands is to strike and to negotiate at the gates of industry.”

The ICV had a difficult time finding a willing printer in Detroit, and had to have the paper printed and shipped from Chicago.  But in 1968, supporters of the paper took over the editorial staff of Wayne State University’s student newspaper, The South End.  Supported by public subsidies to the university, The South End was transformed from a normal student paper–reporting the latest details of college sports and Greek life–into an explicitly revolutionary organ.  Two black panthers were placed on the masthead, and the official motto of the paper became, “One Class-Conscious Worker Is Worth 100 Students.”  They did this with a taxpayer subsidized printing budget of over half a million dollars (in today’s US dollar), and an annual salary for the editor-in-chief of over $16,000.

Far from being a relic of the past, made obsolete by the internet, the tradition of radical, activist journalism continues today. When the Occupy movement broke out, activists quickly organized popular print papers such as the Occupied Wall Street Journal, Occupied Chicago Tribune, Boston Occupier, Occupied Oakland Tribune, and others.

WHY DO WE NEED A REVOLUTIONARY PRESS?

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In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argued that the prevailing ideas in every society are the ideas of the ruling class.  Today this might seem really apparent.  All around us we see apologism for poverty and unemployment, alongside rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, and jingoism–all advanced by the ruling class’s media, press, schools, churches, etc.  But does this that hope for the revolution is doomed?

Consciousness is not a static, frozen thing.  People have a mixed consciousness, shaped on the one hand by tools of the ruling class, but by people’s concrete experiences on the other.  For the mass of exploited and oppressed people, it is these experiences that give them the potential to develop a revolutionary class consciousness that can prepare them to struggle for their own emancipation and rebuild and lead a new society.  It is because of this potential that we have seen a gradual upsurge in struggle over the past couple of years that is pushing forward people’s class consciousness.

But this doesn’t at all guarantee that revolution is inevitable–the spontaneous, rebellious energy of exploited and oppressed people does not automatically lead to revolution.  If that were true then we would already be living under socialism.  Occupy would have grown into a massive revolutionary movement, etc.

Because consciousness isn’t fixed and static, the ruling class is constantly in a battle for the hearts and minds of the working class and oppressed.  If revolutionaries aren’t organized to fight for their ideas, than other people’s ideas will win out and contain the struggle.  Whose ideas?  The Democrats, the conservative trade union bureaucrats, non-profits married to the Democratic Party, etc.

Spontaneous energy creates the potential for revolutionary consciousness, therefore, but those revolutionary elements have to be organized into a cohesive force that successfully compete with other forces, and bring all the more timid elements forward.  Those revolutionary forces have to organize wider and broader sections of society in order to match and overcome the power of the ruling class.

This isn’t just a task for future generations of revolutionary activists, but the task immediately facing us today, with real stakes in today’s struggles.

Consider, for instance, if we had an organization of 50 or 100 socialists, rooted in struggle, active during the protests against right-to-work.  Recall the anger on display at the protests as union members confronted police, and right wing counter protestors.  There was real potential for a far more militant confrontation than what the conservative union bureaucrats were willing to commit themselves to.  With a stronger, more organized network of revolutionaries, things could have been very different, but without that kind of organization, influence over the protest was maintained by the union leadership and the protests and anger were contained into voting for Democrats again in 2014.

We can think of plenty of other instances, too.  Consider if we had 50 or 100 militants organized during the beginning of the local Occupy movement, or during the protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin, etc., etc.

So it’s clear that the work we do has a real impact in the here-and-now, and the task of building a revolutionary organization is immediately on the agenda.

In order to build that kind of organization, revolutionaries have to connect their ideas with the experience of that militant layer of the oppressed and exploited people–what we can call a vanguard element. As we know, this is a layer that is now starting to grow.  The experiences of the past several years: the economic crisis, austerity, the resurgence of protests and strikes, disappointment with the Democrats, etc., have created a whole new layer of people looking for a new direction.  There are lots of different places to meet these folks: on the street or at a demonstration.

The paper is a tool for connecting our ideas with these militants’ experiences.  Marxism the theory of working class self emancipation.  It is a scientific theory rooted in the experience of the working class and oppressed.  Because of that it is much more capable of explaining working class people’s experience than that of the liberal and bourgeois presses.  Therefore, the revolutionary press must be rooted in Marxist theory.

How we connect our ideas to people’s experiences will be different at different times–depending on a number of factors: the balance of class forces, the level of organization, whether working-class and oppressed people are on the defensive, or on the offensive, etc.  (There is a whole lot of history and theory behind revolutionary journalism that is incredibly fascinating, but falls out of the range of this particular discussion.)

It is not enough for the paper to simply explain the world. It must also be a guide to action.  The paper should intervene in the debates facing the movements of the day, and this is why the paper has to be more than simply observations from the sideline.  Contributors to the paper should be activists in the struggle, commenting on the movement’s developments, and arguing for the way forward.

Finally, we want to do more than just win people over to the idea of socialism, or to more militant activism.  The revolutionary press needs to be a tool for organizing the readership into a political force that can have an impact on today’s struggles, take them forward, and build a revolutionary movement.  This is why Lenin called the revolutionary press not just a “collective propagandist and a collective agitator,” but also a “collective organizer.”  As Lenin put it,

“In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding around a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour.”

In other words, the paper not only brings developing militants into the organized socialist movement, but also develops those who are already cadre by giving them a whole view of the organization and the movements on the ground, so they can assess the work, develop their own ideas and project arguments for how to take the movement forward.

The revolutionary press provides a consistent flow of communication between militants separated geographically, helps them to generalize the different experiences of those militants, and also provides a consistent outlet for militants to go out and engage their audience outside–to find out what people are thinking and saying on the street: are they open to socialist ideas? Are they hostile to them? What kind of questions do they have? Are they for “bread-and-butter issues,” but hesitant to fight against racism or sexism?, etc.  This is why regular public sales of the paper are critical for socialists.  The paper is not simply a propaganda tool, like “We have the answers that you ‘the masses’ need to hear.”  We actually want (and need!) to have a dialogue with people–both those who agree with our ideas, and those who disagree.

So we see that there’s a synthesis of three different aspects of the paper, all in a close interrelation between each other, and with the revolutionary socialist organization: it is a collective propagandist–that is, it puts forward revolutionary ideas; it is a collective agitator–it puts forward concrete action to take those ideas into practice; and it is a collective organizer–it is a tool of organizing and coordinating that action into a coherent force.  It’s the synthesis of all these different elements that makes a paper like Socialist Worker distinct from other good and even Marxist publications such as Jacobin, for instance.

This is why, even in the worst of times, the paper is crucial for maintaining an active network of revolutionary cadre and carrying them through.

THE REVOLUTIONARY NEWSPAPER IN THE INFORMATION AGE

A frequent criticism of the revolutionary newspaper goes something like, “Well, maybe that was good for Lenin’s time but today news travels at the speed of light now and print is dead.”  There’s a couple of responses to this.

I think the internet has caused a real crisis for the capitalist press and their print media.  But I think for us, it’s a bit different, because we see the paper as a tool for organizing and movement building.  Blogs, social media, etc., are excellent tools for communicating our ideas, and aren’t in competition with our print publications.  We should use every weapon at our disposal in the battle of ideas with the ruling class.

But I don’t think it’s true that people don’t want print media, I think this depends a lot on the political moment and climate.  We already mentioned how local Occupy movements rapidly began producing their own print media to communicate their ideas with those outside the movement.  But even still, it wasn’t just the Occupied Wall Street Journal that was circulating around the encampment in Zucotti Park.  Other print papers, including Socialist Worker were incredibly popular during the peak of the Occupy movement.

I think there’s a couple of reasons for this.  The paper is not just a collection of isolated articles, but actually puts forward a whole worldview, from our analysis to of different current events and questions facing the movement, to harder political analysis, arguments for revolutionary organization, etc.  Which is communicated much more clearly in a print newspaper than in a web browser, or in individually isolated articles printed up and handed out to people.

Additionally, I think there is something important about the concrete connection made between people in a conversation over the paper.  Lenin once remarked somewhere that the newspaper wouldn’t overthrow the Tsar, and the same is true today for the battle we face.  The paper is a tool for building a real organization, a movement–which has to get outside of the realm of the website, comment threads, and Facebook debates.

But we’ve seen that ruling class won’t guarantee access to the internet or to cell phones.  In the midst of the Arab Spring, for instance, the Egyptian dictatorship shut down the internet.   The Chinese government is notorious for censoring the internet.  Here in the U.S., we’re not at quite the stage of needing to worry about Socialist Worker being shut down–but the state is clearly willing to censor the Internet and it wouldn’t be the first time that they used their power to try to shut down revolutionaries from communicating their message.

CONCLUSION

To wrap it up: Revolution is not guaranteed.  Different forces compete for influence over the ideas of the working class.  In order to build a successful revolutionary movement, revolutionaries need to be organized in order to put their ideas out there, and organize people into a coherent political force.  The paper is a tool for both projecting those ideas, spurring action, and organizing that action into a force.

The way the paper looks, how its written, how the ideas are reads, what kind of reception it receives, etc., will change and be different over time.  There is not one way to produce a paper for all moments, etc.  The paper itself will look and be read differently depending on the political moment we’re in.

Nevertheless, the paper itself is a critical tool for the building of such a mass, revolutionary political organization–a formation that is crucially needed to put an end to everything from the destruction of the planet, to the march to war, to grueling exploitation, and oppression.  Building the foundations of such an organization starts today.

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Detroit: The Athens of the Midwest

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Detroit was once called the “Paris of the Midwest,” but following yesterday’s announcement by Republican Governor Rick Snyder that Detroit will run by an emergency manager, Detroit may be more accurately compared to Athens.

In 2009, the troika–a political body made up of Europe’s most powerful financial institutions–demanded that the Greek government pass a series of harsh austerity measures.  When George Papandreou, acting as Prime Minister at the time, put the measures up for to a popular vote, the troika simply removed him and replaced him with a banking executive.  Following the removal of Papandreou, the BBC commented that, “for whatever reasons, George Papandreou was standing up for democracy.”

While it’s an admittedly weak analogy–maybe putting style ahead of substance–the imposition of an emergency manager to oversee Detroit is not totally dissimilar from the troika‘s takeover of Greece.  Austerity measures have been imposed on a crisis laden government without the slightest illusion of democracy in the name of averting further crises.  In Greece, as in Detroit, unemployment and poverty levels have skyrocketed to jawdropping levels, and yet further sacrifices are demanded from the poor and working class populations who benefit the most from the programs being cut.

Michigan’s emergency manager law is likely the most extreme austerity measure in the United States.  The original law was enacted in 1988 during the administration of Democrat James Blanchard to allow for state intervention in local governments facing bankruptcy. The law was expanded in 1990 to encompass school districts.  Emergency managers were rare, however, until the administration of Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm.  Under Granholm, it was used to take over the cities of Highland Park, Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Pontiac, as well as the Detroit Public School system (all majority Black cities or districts).  Granholm’s ready use of emergency managers beat the path for Governor Snyder’s expansion of the law after he was elected in 2010.  Since then Snyder has used emergency manager law to take over the cities of Flint, Allen Park, and the Muskegon Heights and the Highland Park school system (which were both handed over to private charter school operators last year).

In November 2012, Michigan residents voted in favor of a ballot referendum that would eliminate the emergency manager law altogether.  That December, however, state legislators voted to enact a new emergency manager law, in spite of the electorate’s efforts.

Under an emergency manager, the power of local elected officials is suspended after the governor declares a city to be in a financial emergency.  The manager than takes control of the municipality’s finances and resources.

According to the Detroit Free Press when asked if local elections for city council and mayor would continue under an emergency manager the paper responded that “Detroiters will have a primary in August and a general election in November. What powers those elected officials will have — and their salaries — ultimately will be up to the EFM.” [Emphasis mine.]

In addition to overriding local democratic institutions, the emergency manager will have the power to restructure or eliminate city services and departments, impose new labor terms, sell and privatize public assets, institute layoffs, and declare bankruptcy (thereby taking the city out of its obligation to retirees).

With Detroit under an emergency manager, over half of the state’s Black population will have no say in local government–objectively rendering their votes meaningless.  The law relies racist dog whistles that appear colorblind, but fall into the tradition of racist stereotypes of Black people, e.g. “financial irresponsibility,” combating “entitlements,” etc.  The emergency manager law, therefore, has specifically targeted majority Black cities in the state.  The only majority white city to be under an emergency manager, Allen Park, asked for an emergency manager.

Of course, while there can be no doubt that city of Detroit is clearly in a state of crisis, and has been for decades–over half the city is unemployed, and nearly 40% of the city lives below the poverty line–the city’s financial problems have been wildly misrepresented in the mainstream press.  The city’s monumental debt is not the result of overspending or even financial “mismanagement” per se, but the result of tax-free interest bearing debt owed to bond holders–banks like UBS, for instance, which was implicated in last years Libor scandal.  Furthermore, during periods of economic crisis, its expected that municipal governments will run into a deficit.  But both of these things have already been acknowledged in both the mainstream press and even by Governor Snyder’s own appointees–yet both the local press and the administration continue to clamor for emergency management.

The fact is that this has never had anything to do with fiscal “mismangement.”  Rather, it is part of the general trend of deflecting responsibility for the economic crisis onto the backs of the most vulnerable in our society–something which cannot be left up to democracy, since rarely do people ever vote to slit their own throats.

Detroit’s Democratic Mayor Dave Bing put it plainly when he insisted that he does, in fact, have a plan for restructuring the city, and that therefore no emergency manager is needed.  The only problem, he said, is that he’s “hindered by several factors, including the City Charter, labor agreements, litigation, [and] governmental structure.”

Put another way, in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Harvey argues that democracy is a luxury for the few in an age of neoliberalism.  He sums up the ideological foundation for the emergency manager law when he says that democracy is reserved only for,

conditions of relative affluence coupled with a strong middle-class presence to guarantee political stability. Neoliberals therefore tend to favour governance by experts and elites. A strong preference exists for government by executive order and by judicial decision rather than democratic and parliamentary decision-making.

While this is a crisis for democracy, the emergency manager law has to be seen in the context of the more general (and global) crisis of austerity.  This is perhaps best illustrated that, only hours after Governor Rick Snyder announced his plan to appoint an emergency manager over Detroit, President Obama signed the order to begin cutting $85 billion dollars from the federal budget–the so-called “sequester.”

This points us toward the need to not only oppose the emergency manager, but to fight against the austerity agenda in general, no matter who is cramming it down our throats,  whether it be the democratically elected city council cutting their staff’s pay, or an emergency manager privatizing city services.  The 1% can abide democracy as long as it works in their favor–what they cannot accept is a barrier to their profit.  Unwavering opposition to austerity has to be central to our campaign.

In Greece, austerity has been met with a heroic struggle in the streets: since the crisis hit almost 20 general strikes have been called, the old government of pro-austerity social democrats has been tossed into the dustbin of history, a new coalition of radical Leftists and revolutionaries has surged in the polls, and broad alliances of Greek and immigrant workers have been formed to combat the rising specter of extreme right-wing racism and xenophobia.

We in Detroit are a far way away from that level of resistance. However, there are lessons we can take.  Voting for Democrats cannot be a solution to this crisis since they set the stage for this crisis.  They are just as willing to use emergency management to dissect public education or privatize public services as the Republicans are.  Neither is the ballot a solution: the government doesn’t even pretend to respect our vote, as we saw in December.

Our fight back in Detroit has to be rooted in the streets–and cannot be limited to the narrow scope of lawsuits, referenda, or elections.  The only fight that can restore democracy is a broad, mass struggle aimed at smashing austerity using every means at our disposal. In short: Greek-style austerity must be met with a Greek-style fightback.

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