clarification

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Tue Jan 7 13:08:06 MST 2003


Someone drew my attention to your great leader's typically
tendentious and selective excerpt of a piece I wrote, accompanied by
a typically malicious and dishonest headnote. Here's the full piece.
Judge for yourself if this is an embrace of the Democrats - though I
doubt there will be any public comments here, since anything but
nodding in agreement with The Master is forbidden on this list.

It's not enough that I have to put up with Proyect's lying about me -
I've got to endure him lying about my wife, Liza Featherstone, as
well. Both Liza and I are completely opposed to war on Iraq, and have
nothing in common with the Corn/Cooper position. Subscribers are
invited to read her full articles in The Nation and on the Nation's
website; don't trust the moderator's devious excerpting and summary
style.

I'm signing off after I send this, so bye!

Doug

----

The mess we're in
[by Doug Henwood, from LBO #103]

After the Newtmaniac Republican sweep of 1994, LBO quoted Murray
Kempton's observation that it probably meant the demise of the
Democrats, since they had nothing to their name but incumbency.
Clinton's re-election two years later, and his subsequent high
approval ratings, made Kempton's prognosis look excessively gloomy.
But after last month's election, it looks once again that Kempton had
a serious point.

It's easy to dis the Dems for their lack of spine, but that character
critique overlooks the party's structural role as an institution
loyal to capital that sometimes has to pretend otherwise to appeal to
its base. That's not to say the parties are identical  -  two cheeks
of the same derriere, Christopher Hitchens, George Bush's latest fan,
put it a few years ago  -  they're not. Democrats in Congress are
more likely to support unions and reproductive freedom and to oppose
free-trade deals and reactionary judicial nominees than Republicans.
Clinton appointed far more tolerable people to the NLRB than Bush has
and will. But Clinton also got NAFTA through, ruined prospects for a
sensible public health care financing system, had his Treasury
secretaries roam the world prying open capital markets, and presided
over one of the great profit and asset inflations in world history.
And if they're doomed to fade, as Kempton argued, what then?

Which is where the argument for independent politics comes in. But it
seems harder than ever now. Most third party enthusiasts want to
efface the difference between D and R, arguing either that there's
none at all or none that matters. Speaking of Western Europe as well
as the U.S., cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek argues that the best time
to make the argument that there's no difference between the two major
parties is when the more liberal party is in power, because when the
rightwingers are in charge, it's too obviously untrue. Zizek may be
right. The Republican party is frightening. Trent Lott's mistake in
praising Strom Thurmond was his honesty; he revealed what Zizek has
called the "hidden underside" of his ideology. Nods, winks, and code
words are fine, but letting the cat all the way out causes
difficulties. Though there are principled antiracists on the right,
the Republican party as an organization depends on covert racist
appeals, and much of the anti-Lott bleating is designed to shroud the
rudely exposed underside, not exorcise it. As obnoxious as the
Democrats can be, they're not that obnoxious.

Post-Nader. Those of us who supported Nader in 2000, including this
mighty page, have to do some rethinking. That's not to concede that
Nader's candidacy drew away enough votes to elect Bush  -  that's not
true (and not merely because Gore won the popular vote). The number
of Democrats who voted for Bush was far greater than Nader's vote,
and Gore's dismal campaign blew what should have been a Democratic
landslide. The rethinking is more about long-term political strategy,
something about which the Nader campaign bothered little.

Where is Ralph? The theory of his candidacy  -  not his own, since
he's allergic to theory, but one offered by many of his supporters  -
was that it was part of the effort to build the Green Party, and an
alternative political movement larger than electoral politics. Little
of this has happened. Though there are some bright spots  here and
there, the Green Party is mostly an embarrassment, having failed even
to keep ballot status in New York and nominated a ludicrous candidate
in the Minnesota Senate race. The national Green Party platform has
its moments, but it's a frequently embarrassing document, a laundry
list with little sense of coherence or priority. It's not been going
well.

But it's not just in the U.S.: it's also disturbing to watch Lula's
government taking shape in Brazil. Unlike Nader and the Greens,
Lula's victory came from a long organizing campaign by the Workers
Party. It was a movement, not a letterhead or an ad hoc coalition. He
was elected as a repudiation of the neoliberal economics that has
left Brazil (and most of its neighbors) with lots of debt and no sign
of the promised prosperity. But the government he's forming is almost
thoroughly orthodox. His finance minister-designate promises a fiscal
policy that's "the most austere possible." The head of the central
bank last worked for a U.S. bank. The nominee at the agriculture
ministry has defended the right of landowners to take up arms against
landless squatters.

Is it right to scream "sellout"? Or is it better to look at
structural reasons for rightward turns (and not just in Brazil  -
the ANC in South Africa and the German Greens come to mind too)?
Clearly there's something about taking power itself that turns former
radicals into conservatives  -  pressures from domestic and foreign
capital markets, of allaying the suspicious fears of the middle
classes, of managing the technostructure to assure the electricity
keeps running.

American independent politicians seem to focus on purity of
intention: the right people with the right platform can do the job,
with little sense of how conservatizing proximity to power can be. As
one skeptic puts it, would a Green in Congress behave all that
differently from Nancy Pelosi?

Way out? But surely this is all too pessimistic. Radical change has
happened in the past, and no doubt it will again in the future. One
hope would be concentrating on building independent institutions who
weren't slavish subsidiaries of "the more liberal party" rather  than
running chimerical campaigns.

Existing Naderite politics  -  which has a lot in common with
mainstream American Lone Ranger individualism  -  thinks differently.
As Thomas Burke, author of Lawyers, Lawsuits, and Legal Rights,
argues, Nader prefers litigation to regulation because regulation
creates bureaucracies that can be captured by the industries they
regulate, while litigations involve juries, entities that dissolve
upon delivering the verdict and which are made up of ordinary people
with no vested interest in the outcome. It's conceptually strange
that social policy should be set by people with no interest in
outcomes; isn't politics all about struggle among interested parties?
Policy by litigation is scattershot  -  the U.S. judicial system is
massively fragmented by geography and jurisdiction, and only a small
minority of injured parties ever sue  -  and leaves no institutional
residue. But that's fine with Ralph (and to lots of mainly youthful
protesters), to whom bureaucracy is an abomination, and which never
can be domesticated or democratized. And so too with his chimerical
campaign, which has left no institutional residue either.

Some institutions have to be bureaucratic  -  it'd be impossible to
run an industrial economy or anything larger than a block association
without one. But not all. The protests that now accompany every elite
convention have spawned all kinds of institutions and networks, which
helped a pretty healthy antiwar movement grow quickly. We urgently
need more of this  -  institutions that live apart from the
temptations and constraints of state power, that can scare the bad
guys and make the good ones a bit more faithful to their promises on
the rare occasion they win office.

Yes, but... This would be the place for the rousing finale, the call
to action, and the hopeful prognosis. But that would be a forced
conclusion. Sure all these independent institutions and flexible
networks of rebellion are essential and inspiring. But what about
state power? Are the corruptions of power too dangerous even to flirt
with it? Is it a mistake to run for office and try to govern? Should
we follow the model of the Zapatistas, don skimasks, and forswear the
state? Or is radical social change impossible without capturing the
state? Not sure, really.	o




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