The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The 2010 Election: A Tea Party Tidal Wave or a Call to Action?

This is it, the biggest election in world history. The most percussive, profound, serious electoral battle in the last century. The people have spoken, America remains a center-right nation, the grassroots Tea Party movement has voiced its outrage with big government... or so the corporate rhetoric would have us believe.

The Republicans have swept the Democrats out of the House, leaving them barely clinging on to the Senate. From the ways some political pundits and commentators are talking, you would guess this was the final nail in the coffin for the Democratic party.

Let us not forget that just four years ago the Democrats easily wiped the floor with Republicans, taking control of Congress and, two years later, the Presidency.

It comes as no surprise that the mainstream media presents this as the downfall of the Democratic party, as a rejection of the purportedly "progressive" economic policies, of "social justice," which Glenn Beck so prodigiously despises. To the liberals, this election is a disaster, exaggerated and overplayed in its significance. Social networking websites Tuesday and Wednesday night were filled with the groans and moans of liberals complaining about Republican victories.

Rightfully so, perhaps. There is no doubt that the ideas, both social and economic, of the leaders of the Tea Party movement and right-wingers who captured so many seats and offices Tuesday evening are reprehensible. That does not, however, mean that the Democrats provided a viable alternative from the left. Instead, they pandered to the most reactionary, most conservative elements of their party in order to "reach across the aisle" and make "pragmatic concessions" to right-wing demands. 

Barack Obama, the night after the elections, played this tune as hard as ever:

"Over the last two years, we’ve made progress. But clearly, too many Americans haven’t felt that progress yet, and they told us that yesterday. And as president, I take responsibility for that. What yesterday also told us is that no one party will be able to dictate where we go from here, that we must find common ground in order to set—in order to make progress on some uncommonly difficult challenges."

With all this Democratic back peddling on even their extremely mild, timid legislative actions over the past two years, the question remains, was this election an issue of the American people coming back to their center-right roots? The statistics simply do not live up to the hype.

Approximately 82.5 million people voted, about one-third less than the 130 million that voted in the 2008 election, but slightly higher (about one million votes) than the number that voted in the 2006 midterm elections. This means voter turnout was well below 40%. A recent article in the Guardian outlines the changed electoral makeup:
1. The 2008 electorate was 74% white, plus 13% black and 9% Latino. The 2010 numbers were 78, 10 and 8. So it was a considerably whiter electorate.
2. In 2008, 18-to-29-year-olds made up 18% and those 65-plus made up 16%. Young people actually outvoted old people. This year, the young cohort was down to 11%, and the seniors were up to a whopping 23% of the electorate. That's a 24-point flip.
3. The liberal-moderate-conservative numbers in 2008 were 22%, 44% and 34%. Those numbers for yesterday were 20%, 39% and 41%. A big conservative jump, but in all likelihood because liberals didn't vote in big numbers.
The author of the article, a liberal, then goes on to explain that instead of "soul-searching," the Democrats should simply "invest $200 million" in "get out the vote" operations. The fundamental question, of why voter turnout was so low, is simply ignored. Apparently, the outrageous conclusion of an otherwise pertinent statistical analysis was that the Democrats simply did not spend enough money to get people out to the polls. There was no hint of irony in the article. Presumably, this is the essence of democracy.

To an extent, however, this disturbing analysis may be somewhat accurate. For instance, as John Nichols of The Nation recently explained on a DemocracyNow interview:

"This election will cost the better part of a billion dollars more than the presidential election. And there’s substantial evidence that this is going to be the most expensive election in American history. It could well get well above $4 billion. And the important thing to understand is that that money didn’t just play in the races that we all talk about. It didn’t just play in Senate races and in some congressional races. Karl Rove, in the final days, put a million dollars into California to beat an attorney general candidate who he thought was attractive as a future contender."

Obviously the influx of corporate money, which was given the greenlight after the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend as much as they want on election advertising, played a role in getting conservative voters to the polls. On top of this, a 24/7 blitz of right-wing media and radio certaintly played its part as well.

On the other hand, maybe some "soul-searching" could do the Democratic Party some good. This is evident in the fact that the the greatest loss in quantity came not from the more progressive sections of the Democratic party (with a few exceptions, like Russ Feingold), but from the conservative Blue Dog Democrats. As Juan Gonzalez, co-host of DemocracyNow! explains:

"The Blue Dog caucus was cut in half, going from fifty-four to twenty-six. At the same time, the seventy-nine-member Progressive Caucus lost about four members on Tuesday. This means progressives will make up a notably higher percentage of Democratic House members in the 112th Congress."

For the left, neither the fact that corporate money influenced elections or that progressives maintained their seats are entirely startling revelations. What is different this time around, however, is that this time the right-wing has an extremely vocal, populist front for their corporate policies and anti-democratic, anti-working class predilections. It is called the Tea Party.

There has been a tremendous debate on the left in recent months over how, exactly, to deal with the Tea Party movement. Is it a grassroots, reactionary movement fueled by a growing number of ordinary, disillusioned people harboring anti-democratic, anti-government, quasi-fascist tendencies similar to the Weimar Republic prior to a Nazi takeover, as Noam Chomsky argues? Or, perhaps, just a facade of activism put up by the corporate backers and right-wing media hosts that will, as Lance Selfa of SocialistWorker argues, lose its steam after the November elections?

Time will tell, and I am not entirely sure either side has the answer. Given the various statistical analysis of the electoral makeup, the influx of corporate advertising, and the significantly low voter turnout, I think there is more evidence to suggest that Selfa may be correct. That does not, however, mean that we should not take Chomsky's warnings seriously. It is conceivable that a  growing fascist movement could arise from the nascent Tea Party organizations. Let's not forget the corporate media and big business was just as important in fostering fascist growth in the Weimar republic, forming a base composed of primarily rural and middle-class components, as it is in funding reactionaries here in the United States.

Regardless, the Tea Party rhetoric has to be challenged. The question is, how do we on the left go about doing such a thing?

I think this is where the debate becomes far more complex. The left, and this includes the revolutionary left, despite our own rhetoric, is not entirely sure where or how to proceed.

There are three trends that we ought to consider exploring in more depth.

First and foremost, we need to consider running left wing, socialist alternatives in these elections on a more consistent basis. We should not expect to win, but we should expect to use them as tools in order to organize and mobilize our side, to get the chance to go out, door to door, and simply speak to people in "plain proletarian English" (or Spanish!), to quote Fred Hampton, what socialism really means.

Despite the gloomy results of these past elections in the broad sense, we have a very bright spot that should be a source of pride. Right here in Ohio, the so-called Heartland, we garnered 25,311 votes for socialism in the Senate race! 

I paid particular attention all night to the rising vote tally for the Senate candidate, Dan La Botz, partly because of my living in Ohio, but also because he was, to my knowledge, the only strong, socialist candidate to run for office on an explicitly socialist platform.

I do not want to overemphasize the importance of this election either. We on the left have a tendency to, sometimes, exaggerate even the mildest shifts in opinion, even the smallest struggles, as if they were the culmination of working class radicalization. To be fair, La Botz garnered the smallest amounts of votes in the Ohio Senate race, falling behind both the super reactionary Tea Party candidate and the right-wing Constitution Party candidate. Rob Portman, the mainstream Republican, won the race with two million votes, the Democrat coming in a far second with one and quarter million.

On the other hand, only three and a half million of Ohio's 8.2 million registered voters actually cast a ballot. As was the trend in the rest of the country, this electorate tended to be whiter, older, and more conservative than those who did not head to the polls. Had Ohio's entire electorate voted, it is possible to imagine our socialist candidate garnering far more than 25,000 votes.

Still, we need to consider continuing this trend of running strong socialist candidates in places where we have the organizational infrastructure to do so, or building it in places where we currently do not. In terms of organizing and educational value, I would argue Dan La Botz's campaign was at least a partial success that can, and should, be replicated.

Obviously, one could very well point out that we have nowhere near 25,000 active socialists here in Ohio and that passive votes for a candidate does not equate with activism. This is absolutely correct.

However, we should rejoice in the fact that we have an audience so large, so open to the idea of radical economic restructuring. This is something we cannot afford to waste. One could only imagine the possibilities, the potential, if we on the left could harness even 5% of that vote and convince them of the need to become dedicated, organized activists. Imagine 1,250 socialists activists in Ohio, something that must be at least five times the amount we have now. That would be a force to be reckoned with!

The second trend, developing a macroeconomic analysis and theoretical constructs in which we can explain the world, we are exceedingly brilliant at. Seriously, leftist newspapers, magazines, journals, online or print, provide percussive critiques of capitalism, of the economic system in its holistic form. The system is often accurately described and criticized in terms of its totality. This is a talent which, correctly, those on the left facilitate and cultivate.

The third and last trend, however, sometimes suffers at the hand of the second. Our immense focus upon the macroeconomic analysis, often impeccable and lucid, oftentimes does not allow for us to develop the sorts of microeconomic ideas, actions, and institutions which could, in my opinion, lead to a seriously quantitative and qualitative development of our force. We often hear rhetoric about "organizing a grassroots challenge to the right," or "building political alternatives," but when the extent of those political alternatives are simply selling papers at rallies and in universities, once in awhile building a demonstration or educational event, and reading Lenin and Trotsky on Thursday nights, we are in serious trouble. Those of us on the left often exist within an "intellectual ghetto," where we can discuss and debate the intricacies of Marxist theory, of the labor theory of value, or what Engels or Luxemburg meant when they wrote a certain word a certain way, etc., but those sorts of things, simply put, will not garner us any more supporters at the most basic level.

I know I run the risk of being attacked for downplaying theory, for not understanding the role that theory plays in the buzzword "praxis," for not having the correct political arguments... I've heard it all before, and I'm prepared to hear it again. Yet, I am not arguing that we should not study theory. On the contrary, we should absolutely study theory when it is appropriate to do so. But we should do two things. First, we need to open up the theorists we allow in what is, essentially, a very "closed" list of Marxist theorists who are, for the most part, white males who died a hundred or so years ago. By no means am I saying discard them, but I don't think its entirely practical for us to read and reread Engel's Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Nor do I find it particularly useful, despite how intellectually interesting we may find something personally, to argue over how and why dialectics applies to every aspect of nature. 

Thus, we need to develop serious microeconomic goals that can not only help us draw in those being opened up to socialism, but that can genuinely help the working class and poor in terms of material subsistence. Here, I think we can listen to the eloquent words of Boots Riley, from the Coup, who lucidly outlines this concept in his interview with Amy Goodman:

"Well, I think that [we're dealing with] the same issues that are important to organize around all over the world. What people are worried about is how are they going to have a roof over their heads? How are they going to put food on the table? And, you know, because of that, what wages are they getting paid? I think that a lot of the radical movements have left behind some of those regular, everyday things. You know, when I talk to people in Oakland—and throughout my time growing up in Oakland, people have said to me, you know, "What you’re talking about, this, you know, revolution, socialism, communism, all of that is great, but I’ve got to pay the bills." There was a time when that was one and the same thing. Right now there is a lot of focus on the macroeconomic problems and what’s left—who’s left to deal with the everyday nuts and bolts of people’s lives are not the radical element. And so, I think that we need to put some revolutionary politics onto some reform struggles that have to do with feeding people, have to do with people getting higher wages. Some militant union work, basically. Things like that."

As someone who has seen his father lose the factory job he has worked at for most of his life, and who has watched his family's home go into foreclosure, I understand that these sorts of things are needed now more than ever. I do not think my own father would be so averse to political organization if he felt that we were doing more than simply talking at him about how bad things were, about why he should buy a paper or read about how terrible things are.

I understand that the political model of the 1960's New Left failed. I understand that major flaws in Students for a Democratic Society, in the Black Panther Party, and other groups lead, simultaneously with the profoundly intense repression by the oppressive state apparatus, to their downfall and the right-wing, neoliberal resurgence of the 1970's onward. I do not, however, believe that we ought to reject all of their methods because of this. There is an emphasis within the radical left today not on the Black Panther Party's social service programs, for instance, which undoubtedly drew in a plethora of volunteers, activists, and radicals wanting to make a difference, but instead a focus on their newspaper as a pivotal organization point. No doubt, the paper as a means of agitation, organization, and education is important. Yet, I do not see why we must articulate some strict dichotomy between the two. Why does our focus tend towards words, and not action? That is, after all, what the paper primarily represented, analysis, not action. Action without theory is empty, we can be sure of that, but theory that pretends to be active, that purports to represent some sort of synthesis, some sort of praxis, may be even worse.

We should ask ourselves what draws people to religious organizations. This should be done not because we hope to aspire to become a religious organization in terms of ideological makeup or intellectual culture, but because their methods and tactics, of providing a sense of community and, in many instances, of providing material relief and support for those who need it, can, at the very least, prove to be valuable tools in taking steps toward socialism.

To be clear, I am not arguing that I have the answer, that my analysis is entirely correct or that flaws do not exist within it. I am, however, arguing that maybe we can at least entertain the idea, and perhaps act upon it experimentally, of taking a different path. Maybe we can consider other options. Perhaps the best way to end here is to say that we could learn a thing or two from Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, when he said the following:
People learn by example. I don't think anyone can argue with that. I believe when Huey P. Newton said, "People learn by observation and participation," I think that everybody caught on to that. So, what we saying here simply is, if people learn by observation and participation, then we need to do more acting than we need to writing, and I think the Black Panther Party is doing that. We didn't talk about a Breakfast For Children program, we got one.
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