A parting thought

With the end of the year fast approaching, I decided to join the pundits and leave one parting thought. So here goes!

The battle over taxes was a teachable moment. But left and progressive people missed the boat. An opportunity to teach millions about the realities of class power, politics, and tactics went by the board. Let me explain:

The compromise met nearly universal opposition from progressive and left people. I don’t know if anyone called it a “sellout,” but they might as well have. One writer said in the aftermath of the legislative compromise that we won the battle in 2008 and lost the war in 2010. 

The question is: is this criticism warranted? In my view the answer is unequivocally – No. What was the president’s alternative given the balance of class and social forces in the capital and across the country at that time and later when the new Congress convenes in January? What was the policy option given the right-wing Republican comeback, the political confusion of the American people and the weaknesses of the left and broader movement that the election results revealed?

To stand down Mitch McConnell and his gang as his critics suggested would have been feasible, but only if a legislative alternative was available and only if millions of ordinary people, many of whom just voted for Republicans in the midterm elections, could be rallied to compel congressional Republicans to support that alternative – and let’s not forget that all the while this is going on working people’s paychecks are shrinking and their unemployment benefits are evaporating.

Finding an alternative legislative package, say one that sunset the Bush tax cuts and expanded spending for the jobs and the unemployed, would be easy enough to come by. 

But setting millions into motion in an organized fashion is a different kettle of fish. A snap of the fingers won’t do it. Nor will a good slogan. Not even a presidential address. Indeed, it would depend in the end on the political and organizational capacity of the leaders of the main social organizations (labor in the first place), liberals, progressives, left thinking people, and so forth to activate millions – including again many who turned the election map red on election night this past November. 

I’m not suggesting that we enter only those battles that we are sure that we can win, but we should have some confidence that in the battles in which we engage, we can make a respectable fight of it and stand some chance of winning – provided, of course, that we exploit every division among our opponents, look for allies – reliable and unreliable – and fill the streets and the corridors of Congress with an army of outraged people.

We don’t need moral victories at this moment, but real ones. And that is particularly the case for the unemployed who in this instance would have  lost their benefits. 

While we don’t set moral claims aside, it is imperative to take into account the balance of class and social forces at any given moment, our capacity to bring into motion masses of people, and our best guess of what can be realistically won.  

Critics of the president say that the tax/unemployment extension compromise was demoralizing and unnecessary, but I would argue that walking into the jaws of a hungry lion with barely a weapon in hand can be far more demoralizing, even near deadly, which is what I think would have been the political residue in this instance if no compromise had been reached.

Obviously, I have a different estimate of our fighting capacity and public opinion (that by the way overwhelmingly supported the compromise) than the president’s critics. If the last two years have revealed anything to me, it is this – our ability to influence and bring into the streets millions in any sort of sustained way is limited and the political consciousness of the American people (as a whole) is contradictory and confused.

I wish that were not the case, but I’m afraid this is the reality. Some blame the president for this situation, others the Democrats, but this is too easy an answer. The president should take some responsibility, as should his party, for the present political mess to be sure, but shouldn’t we as well? Doesn’t it say something about our politics (which lean in the direction of narrowness), mass connections (not enough to the main mass social organizations), organizing skill set (not enough emphasis on broad unity), and ability to shape mass thinking (speak too much to ourselves and in a language that only we understand – the new buzzword is “Empire.”)

Over the past two years, don’t we have to admit that the tea party has better communicated its message to millions, united its supporters, and expanded its bases of power than our side has?

For too long we have assumed that the American people are ready to wholeheartedly embrace left solutions. If we, and especially Democrats, project them, “the people will come.” Tell that to Russ Feingold!

This is wishful thinking. Notwithstanding the awful mess we are in, I don’t see the system breaking down or people spontaneously rising up. In my view, the path to a progressive, and socialist, future will take long persistent work, flexible and broad tactics, and a sound strategic policy.

Supposedly, a deep and protracted economic crisis is the triggering mechanism for a lurch to the left, but in the current situation it is being resolved to the advantage of capital. This contrasts with the 1930s. During that decade, a broad upheaval and openings from above, thanks to President Roosevelt and congressional New Dealers, resulted in the New Deal. The current ruling class and especially its most reactionary sectors (politically represented by right-wing extremism that now controls the Republican Party) prefer a “raw deal” for the American people. Their aim is not only to multiply their wealth at the expense of working people, minorities, women, youth, seniors, and other social groupings, but also to crush any organized opposition.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how little reform transnational and finance capital will tolerate! In this latest battle over tax cuts, right-wing Republicans acting on their behalf drove a tough bargain – a hostage deal, the president correctly called it – on behalf of their clients who operate globally. And earlier this year it only took some very modest financial and health care reforms for the corporate elite, and finance capital in particular, to go apoplectic and beat up on the administration.

Which brings me back to the overriding necessity to significantly enlarge the political and organizing capacity of the working class and people’s movement. It’s the linchpin of progressive change at this moment.

Moreover, the starting point – not the ending point – for such an effort is not some long-range vision or a full blooded left, or even progressive, program of action. They have a place for sure. Ground zero, however, is the immediate struggles for relief that are stirring millions and the overarching task of decisively defeating right- wing Republicanism in 2012 – something we didn’t do four years earlier.

White House photo


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.