In 1967, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was a hugely successful political organization - with chapters in even some of the most conservative universities and a key role in a multi-racial diverse movement against the Vietnam war that united pacifists and veterans, labor unions, civil rights organizers, students, and teachers. Within two years the SDS had ceased to exist except as an often violent debate among tiny, widely hated, Marxist factions. Critics at the time said these groups had adopted the political program of Fight the People because of their attacks on everyone who didn't sign up to their "revolutionary" ideology - almost everyone in America. Bill Ayers (yes that same one) told a meeting of the Weather Underground (WU) faction in 1969 that Fight the People was a good strategy, that polarization would clarify the ideological differences between real revolutionaries and unprincipled compromising middle class reformers. If this sounds familiar, it's because the multi-racial diverse movement that elected a Democratic House in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2008 is now under siege by our own era's purists and jargon theorists. One of the founders of the Weather Underground looked back in 2009 and wrote:
By allowing our frustration and revolutionary airs to trump our political common sense, we disowned one of the ’60s-era organizers’ greatest contributions to leftist politics—the revival of what has been termed the “organizing tradition.” This was the tradition, focused on long-term change and bottom-up politics that animated the Civil Rights, Black Freedom, Women’s Liberation and antiwar movements. This organizing tradition, which the WU abandoned, has a developmental, long-haul perspective and an emphasis on building relationships that endure.[..] This conception of organizing goes beyond mobilizing, disdains vanguardism, requires patience and emphasizes the centrality of building new leadership. The organizing tradition was most fully embodied in the practice of early Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers, but also revivified in Women’s Liberation groups and even some SDS chapters. Out of sheer impatience and an inflated sense of vanguardism, the WU rejected this empowering tradition."Fight the people" has never gone out of style and "compromise" and "coalition", not to mention "organizing" are still dirty words among people who think that they can lay down opinions that must be obeyed simply, well - because. Because much of this is not about theories of how the world works, but about theories of who gets to be in charge. That's why we see the self-proclaimed revolutionary Marxist Cornel West nominate the free-trade champion Paul Krugman as his choice of who the President should have picked to advise on economics. For those who see themselves as the ideological leaders, the most important thing is who gets to pick the adviser, more than what is advised. That's why "access" is so often brought up as a criticism of President Obama - he's failing to accept his role as an obedient pupil of the ideological masters of impatience. Fortunately for us, the far right is in the grips of its own "vanguardism" - it is not for nothing that Right Wing Leader and Super Lobbyist Grover Norquist has a bust of Lenin in his office. As it becomes heresy on the right to dissent from the party line even when science proves otherwise or out of basic human decency the coalition that was built on the right fractures and we have a chance to build a coalition of Americans who want to live in a more humane, more prosperous, more democratic society where all people have opportunity. We have a chance to unite a majority of Americans around a very old political program that goes like this:
Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow.
The magic words of the zombie left are about exclusion. We're supposed to dislike and distrust our neighbors who don't fully sign up to the left's agenda. The big three keywords - oligarchs, plutocrats, and neoliberal - define us versus them. I can give you examples of each of people who fit each of these definitions, who are not simply "the enemy" despite differences. Jeffery Immelt, the CEO of General Electric is a definitely an oligarch. He's been responsible for a lot of terrible things: GE pays no taxes, it has shipped tens or even hundreds of thousands of jobs overseas, and GE Capital is a symptom of how corporate America went from making things to playing around with finance. But since 2008, Immelt has had a change of heart - or at least of strategy about outsourcing and the value of making things. There's no need to get dewy eyed about it - Immelt is not anywhere near ready to make GE a responsible member of society, but Immelt is part of a coalition of people who want to see US manufacturing recover, something that will bring good jobs back to the US. I don't need to agree with him on anything else to welcome his efforts - efforts that will bring other people into our coalition. Same with "plutocrat". Barton Biggs is like a plutocrat character out of a cartoon - down to his name ( does he have a friend named Richie Rich, I wonder?). He's a hedge fund manager, born rich, grossly wealthy, a guy whose whole career has been profiting from financial hocus-pocus and helping other grossly rich people get even more grossly rich. He thinks Ayn Rand was a genius and if you read his book you learn how down and out it is to ride commercial planes instead of at least a Gulf-Stream on a Net-Jets contract. But Biggs dismissed Bush's social-security "privatization" as a scam and has now strongly come out in support of increasing taxes on the wealthy, closing corporate tax loopholes, and making a huge public investment in fixing our infrastructure. Many Republicans and Independents who are reluctant to abandon long-held beliefs and be convinced by what the President says are finding it harder to reject the same message when Biggs brings it to them. The same goes for Larry Summers, the "neoliberal" that the left loves to hate. Summers is famous for being an arrogant jerk. He supported policies during the Clinton administration that I think were terrible - but since 2000, Summers has been calling wealth-inequality the number one problem in the US economy. Summers identifies failure to ensure shared prosperity as a threat to the social contract. For the left, it is sacrilege not to hiss when Summers name is mentioned - but Summers is impossible to dismiss for the people who run economics departments and business schools and who are teaching the next generation of managers. When Summers says that the orthodox economic theory fails to help assure minimal fairness it has an impact on a world that is not going to listen to Al Sharpton (although they should).
Max Sawicky, who is despite it all a pretty decent economist, told me on twitter that the President needs to explain what must be done and then "hammer" the Republicans for not doing it. How many times have we heard that "Obama must" take a path of confrontation. That's the counsel of impatience and vanguardism, not the counsel of organizing and democracy. Forty years of right wing organizing and media control have convinced many Americans that the policies of the New Deal were harmful to prosperity and freedom. And thirty years of shouting from the left have only served to reinforce that belief. If we are going to change America, we can't "hammer" our way there- we have to organize, and organizing means respecting coalitions, respecting difference, listening as well as talking, and embracing inclusion. The New Deal was not a perfect solution to America's social problems and the cut-and-paste programs of the "Left" are not either. Despite the complaints from the left, being pragmatic about means, being willing to listen, does not make someone unprincipled. And being dogmatic and ideologically purist doesn't make someone principled or effective - except possibly at self-promotion.