Monday, September 21, 2009

No Short Cuts to the Top: Lessons on Building the Progressive Majority from the Resignation of Van Jones

By Keith Joseph

Van Jones’ resignation as an environmental advisor to the Obama administration is further evidence that associations with the far Left are a political liability for Democratic Party politicians. The first thing that revolutionary democrats, socialists and communists have to figure out is how to change this fact of political life in the United States -- so that it is not a liability but a necessity for liberal and progressive politicians to have strong, active and mutually beneficial alliances with those of us firmly (and far) to the left of the Democratic Party.

Throughout Obama’s candidacy, and now during his presidency, the Right has tried to make his real and imagined associations with the Left a burden – Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers, come quickly to mind—and now Van Jones. Associating with the far left was not always political suicide for a mainstream politician.

McCarthyism’s primary objective, indeed, was not to simply attack Communists as such but to break the Progressive alliance—the coalition of Communists and Liberals that made the New Deal possible and provided support and often leadership to the developing modern Civil Rights Movement. Assassins were summoned when the alliance appeared to be re-forming in the late 1960’s around Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Building a progressive majority is the process of rebuilding the coalition between socialists, communists, and liberals, and progressives. This is the coalition that defeated Nazism in World War 2.

Answering the proverbial question “What is to be done?” is difficult in the United States because the electoral and governing processes are mystified by the two-party-system. In a parliamentary system the party that wins the most seats in the election is obliged to build a “governing coalition” that includes other political parties. A parliamentary system is far more democratic as it allows for proportional representation. It also allows us to see the political process in clear terms. In a parliamentary system a government can “fall” if it is no longer capable of keeping together a majority of the representatives in the parliament. The parliamentarians represent definite class forces and each successive government is a different configuration of these class forces.

In the U.S. the “governing coalition” is usually formed during the electoral process and the coalition is not a multi-party coalition like in Europe—in the U.S. the coalition is actually inside the party structures. Ronald Reagan built a coalition of free marketers, and cold warriors, with racist white workers (known in the mainstream press as “Reagan Democrats”) and right-wing Christians as the ground troops. Reagan’s coalition brought the Republican Party nearly 30 years of uninterrupted rule (if it weren’t for Ross Perot taking 15% of Bush Sr.’s vote in 1992 Clinton would not have won the election. And Clinton was never able to build a stable governing majority so he was forced to adopt much of the Republican free-market agenda and his presidency was seen even by his liberal supporters as a disappointment wracked by scandals).

The Democratic Party with Obama at its helm has finally cobbled together a majority coalition. The Democratic Party’s traditional coalition includes organized labor, women, Afro-Americans, Latinos, queers, and other oppressed peoples, as well as urban professionals. Both parties have large corporate presences but after eight years of Bush, big capital got behind Obama and the Democrats.. The Republicans lacked a leader that could keep together the Regan coalition and unite right wing Christians (represented in the primaries by Huckabee), Libertarians (represented in the primary by Ron Paul), free marketers (Mitt Romney) and national security hawks (McCain and Ghouiani). But here is the problem: Although Obama and the Democrats have a governing majority, it is a precarious majority and it is certainly not a progressive majority.

The majority coalition that Obama has built includes the odious and hegemonic presence of Financial Capital –Wall St. and the Insurance industry (by “hegemonic” I mean to say that Wall St is not only present in the coalition they are in charge of it). So, for instance, while a clear majority of the U.S. population favors a “public option” if not single payer healthcare, Obama does not have a majority in his governing coalition that will support it.

Radical democrats, socialists, communists and other left- progressive forces must organize to change the balance of power in the country, to re-order Obama’s majority coalition –growing it to the Left—so we can end the subservience to the interests of financial capital and still be a majority. That is what building a progressive majority entails. Making more friends and isolating our enemies so we can drive our enemies from power.

Signs of our success at the national level would be the resignation of the investment banker Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s chief of Staff, the resignation of Tim Geithner from the Treasury, and the resignation of Ben Bernackie as chair of the Federal Reserve, etc. and their replacement with people who are not creatures of Wall St.

Obama has been flirting with the left and the liberal/left coalition for years. Unfortunately revolutionaries have not been very useful coalition partners. Unlike Martin Luther King who brought not only moral authority but a mass movement to the table, today’s revolutionaries, I am sorry to say, bring practically nothing to the table. Indeed, we are simply a liability.

So even though under certain circumstances – a very unpopular President (Bush 2) launching an unpopular war (Iraq) —we can mobilize millions for a protest those millions remain unorganized and not only “outside” of the coalition but irrelevant to it. 30 years of essentially a Republican majority has pushed us so far back on our heels that our vision has narrowed and we only know the politics of protest. In order to build the progressive majority we must criticize and abandon the politics of protest, or “protest mode” and instead make protests and demonstrations an occasional and minor tactic in a much vaster arsenal. We must recall that the question of revolution is the question of power. Power can be had by those who organize to take it and it can be used to expand organization. We must organize to take power wherever we can put our hands on it – school boards, city councils, mayors, student governments, public library boards, local democratic party organizations, Parent Teacher Associations, municipal recreation programs, unions, corporate boards, etc.

The resignation of Van Jones reveals the bankruptcy of his organizational model. It is a variation of protest mode best described as “lobby mode.” The left lobbyist thinks protest are too radical and don’t accomplish much. So instead they lobby the powerful. Instead of making “demands” on power they “ask” power and they do it politely while wearing a suit.

Instead of demanding or asking power, we must organize to take power.

I saw Van Jones speak about the U.S. prison system at the annual “Left Forum” in New York City a few years ago around the time he was transitioning from an advocate for prison reform to an advocate for the green economy. During the Q & A I asked him how we can link a program that calls for prison abolition to the real concerns of working people about crime in their neighborhoods. I spoke briefly about my own experiences organizing against police brutality in neighborhoods were drug fiends roam the streets and were “crack-heads” have taken over houses. Working class people in my experience were more interested in getting the fiends off their block then abolishing prison. So this was a real practical and theoretical problem. Van Jones, to my surprise, responded “I don’t get involved in neighborhood politics.” At the time, although I was less than impressed, I didn’t think much of it. When I learned that Van Jones had moved on from prison reform to the “green economy” and had been appointed to Obama’s administration I celebrated it as a victory. I figured having someone from the left (whatever I thought of their particular shortcomings) was a good thing. But because Jones didn’t involve himself in “neighborhood politics” he had no real base of support. Van Jones did not arrive at his position as the result of mass struggle and so he had to rely on the good will of liberals instead of the power of an organized movement.

We must learn the lesson that the resignation of Van Jones teaches—neighborhood politics are the basis of national politics. Without organized neighborhoods, organized communities, organized cities, organized workplaces we will not be able to implement any of our “minimum program” (healthcare is a case in point) much less build an organized movement struggling to overthrow the domination of capital.

The progressive majority – the coalition between revolutionaries: socialists, communists, radical democrats, progressives and liberals – must be built from the bottom up. Block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, shop by shop, there is no short cut.

A radical democratic movement and organization is developing in New Brunswick NJ and we are building this coalition—the coalition we want nationally-- at the local level. We are in the midst of campaign to change the form of local government (changing the form of government is what revolution is about). The current government is made up of a city council elected at-large. We petitioned to place a question on November’s ballot to change the way that council people are elected. From an at-large system to a “ward” based system. In a ward system council people would be elected from each of the city’s major neighborhoods. With a ward based system working people could start to run for elected office in the city. We will have a base area and a model of the kind of politics that we need in cities across the country.

We need help. We are fighting a political machine bank-rolled at the end of the day by Johnson & Johnson the multi-national pharmaceutical firm that has its world headquarters in town. They have the power of money or dead labor on their side and we have living labor on our side. But we could definitely use financial assistance. And if you are available on election-day or the weeks before we could use your living labor too. You can donate or contact the campaign at our website: Empower Our Neighborhoods.

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