On the U.S. Left (II)

Julio Huato juliohuato at hotmail.com
Tue Nov 11 17:50:22 MST 2003


I said in the previous posting that, in contrast to the extreme right, the
Left lacks tactical and strategic discipline.

Again, there's a fragment of the radical Left, with tight but tiny
organizations, who seems to be expecting an economic or military catastrophe
to radicalize people in the U.S.  Only then (mutually excluding one another)
their small groups are supposed to emulate the Bolsheviks in 1917 and
rapidly rise to power.  Their discipline tends to be more of the
organizational type, loyalty-to-the-group kind of discipline.  Other
radicals, some of whom have had traumatic experiences in these political
groups, are more free form, "anti-sectarian"; but, they throw a piece of the
baby with the dirty water by rejecting basic discipline in the struggle
and/or they also -- by default -- wait for chance to help them.

Neither of these approaches is satisfactory.  We are in a class struggle
and, in a struggle, you wage battles that you win or you lose.  Unless we
believe in the Providence, we cannot dispense with strategic and tactical
considerations.  Chance is never a reliable ally.

When I talk about lack of tactical and strategic discipline, I'm not only
talking about radicals picking on Paul Krugman because of his views about
the past administration or calling the "liberals" all sorts of names.  It's
much broader than this.  It reaches beyond the confines of the Left.  It is,
in fact, part of the hidden assumptions that the media pushes on people.

To illustrate my point, consider the recent scandal in the media about
Howard Dean's statement that the Democratic Party needs to attract white
voters in the Republican hinterland -- as they are.  "As they are" means
here with their racial prejudices, slavery nostalgia, and/or any other
defects -- real or imagined.

Other DP candidates and the media focused on the form of his statement but,
for the most part, ignored the content.  Paul Krugman in the NYT was an
exception (note his latest piece trying to drive a wedge between the
military and the administration -- right on!).  But it seems clear that the
basis for successfully organizing southern white workers (as they are) and
breaking the political grip of the extreme right is... concrete economic
needs and interests.

Using racial attitudes as a "basis of unity" is, in fact, using them as a
basis of dis-unity!  The scandal on "racial insensitivity" by Dean is a
decoy.  We must organize working people with a relentless focus on their
direct economic needs: jobs, decent public services, full rights to all
workers, decent wages, better working conditions, better living conditions
for working families, etc.

More generally, "race," "gender," "sexual preference," etc. are issues that
play in the hands of the status quo.  Let me give another example.  Recently
Robert Barro wrote in the BusinessWeek an article citing an NBER econometric
study on how job applicants' names -- clearly correlated with race -- have a
negligible effect on the screening by employers once you control for
socio-economic conditions.  Names are signals of socio-economic status.

The study (by Levitt and Fryer) that Barro cited uses fairly standard
statistical techniques to isolate the effects.  Barro was immediately
accused of racism -- an accusation that may or may not stand per se, but
that misses the point.  It's the economic needs, stupid!  Barro is implying
that the main issue is not the name/race of the applicants or the racist
attitudes of employers, but the socio-economic disparities signaled in a
name!  Since it is Robert Barro speaking -- a Harvard economist who will
never disagree with Bush's economic policies and will never find real flaws
in capitalism -- then by the ad-hominem principle of logic everything he
says must be garbage, right?

Consider a recent scandal in New Jersey, where allegedly foster parents
starved a kid.  The scandal has centered on two points.  Overtly, on the
administrative flaws of the state agencies in charge of placing children in
foster care.  More insidiously, a disgusting subtext on the race of the
parents (they are black).  Nothing about the broader conditions (poverty,
joblessness, financial crisis of the state, the erosion of social life in
poor urban areas, etc.) that underlie these phenomena.  Ignoring the racist
hints, the explanation is always de-contextualized "evil" or the "system"
(that is, local child and family services).

Mainstream media gladly use "race" as a cloak to hide the key issues of
economic inequality and poverty from view.  The problem is the names of
black and Latino children or the racial prejudices of the employers.
Racism?  What can it be done about it but legislate against abuses from
those who wield power and let the rest to the evolution in morality
standards?  Well, I'd rather have poor blacks and Latino workers increase
their wages than the capitalists (TV networks and the press included)
increase their "racial sensitivity."

I don't mean to say that people should not resist racism (much worse against
blacks than against Latinos and Asians) everywhere it pops out its head, but
in a great deal of instances, racism goes along with particular forms of
social, political, and economic abuse.  IMO, those forms of abuse are the
natural targets of the struggle, the ones that may be more effective in
turning things around.

The usual objection to this is that race (or nationality) can strengthen
unity in the struggle.  That works fine when we are talking about the race
(or nationality) of the majority of workers in a society.  But, in countries
where the victims of racism or xenophobia are minorities, playing race or
nationality is the right strategy... for the oppressors (divide and
conquer).  To be successful, the struggle against racism and for the
national rights of minorities has to approach the enemy from the unprotected
flanks.

IMO, there's some valid analogy between racism proper and religious beliefs.
  (An analogy we should not stretch as religious beliefs need not be
socially harmful or directly anti-human while racism always is.)  It's a
long process of struggle against ignorance, prejudice, and obscurantism.
The point here is that the struggle against racism doesn't stand alone.  It
is part and parcel of a broader struggle that needs priorities, strategy,
and tactics.  Otherwise we are not as effective.  Dispersed light doesn't
burn.

Julio Huato

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