|FIVE YEARS ago, I wrote an essay about the political relationship
between the left in the U.S. and the Democratic Party
(www.swans.com/library/art11/jhuato01.html). I thought then
(as I still do) that the way for the U.S. left to mature politically
was through a prolonged and fierce fight for -- to use the cliché --
the "heart and soul" of the DP's main mass constituency: the U.S.
I didn't advocate for non-DP leftists to formally join the party. My
point was rather that, to the extent the DP, its candidates, its
congress people, etc. promoted measures that helped the cause of
workers, leftists -- wherever they were, inside or outside the DP --
should cooperate with those efforts. To that extent only.
I wrote that the political primacy was to be given to those struggles
that promised to spontaneously involve the collective participation of
regular working people. And, to the extent, people turned to the
electoral process to advance their interest, then participation in the
electoral process was required.
I still believe this fight will turn out to be the rite of passage for
the U.S. left. If it is to aspire to something grander in U.S.
history, it must go through it. But the real goal of the fight is not
to score this or that political point. Rather, it is to snatch people
in mass from the ideological and political grip of the DP apparatus,
which is -- in effect -- the grip of capital. What we need to
understand is that what happens at the visible political level -- the
reconfiguration of the political landscape -- is phenomenic. The
substance of the process has to do with the connection between the
U.S. left and working people for the long haul.
At the time, as it's clear in my piece, I expected that working people
in the U.S. would get increasingly discontent with the status quo.
Now, this was before the 2007 financial panic, so I was not counting
on a sudden, catastrophic deterioration of the living and working
conditions of working people as captured by a 10%+ unemployment rate.
I expected only a gradual, but sure deterioration.
In my mind back then, the main sources of intensified discontent were
the war in Iraq, health care, and -- again -- a gradual decline in the
economic security of working people. Then and in the subsequent years
(prior to 2007) my thoughts were that the U.S. hegemonic role in the
world was being eroded by the rise of China, India, Russia, and to a
lesser extent Latin America (Brazil and hopefully Venezuela), and
could fall down as a result of a sudden dollar devaluation.
Insofar as the political forms in which I expected working people to
move, I imagined that, at first, the eruptions would be individual or
local, carried out by small, disconnected groups, but that the
cheapness of today's communications would allow for these eruptions to
turn into mass motion without prior notice.
Under that scenario, the discontented masses would put tremendous
pressure on the DP to either shift to the left or split. I expected
to see this as we approached 2007. The left, both inside and outside
the DP, could join forces. If the leftists inside and outside the
party so did, they could acquire a protagonistic presence in these
events. Again, this was at the phenomenic level.
Obviously, the crisis first and Obama later altered the picture in my
head. I thought Obama, as beneficiary of the popular discontent
against the war, health care, and then the economic mess left by Bush,
could only -- during his campaign against such formidable opponents as
the Clintons and then the Republicans firmly based on the status quo
-- acquire a direct, first hand sense of the said mass discontent. It
was clear the extent to which financial interests gave money to his
campaign. But, there was grassroots involvement, and given his
background and rhetoric, etc., I thought he was well positioned to
understand that the energy to propel his reforms was ready, and that
it was within his reach to harness it. There was a precedent in U.S.
history: FDR -- and to a much lesser extent Kennedy and Johnson. I
admit that, with what we knew then, it wasn't very likely that he'd
begin by prompting people to rally behind his reforms, call his
opponents by name, and take what the media calls the "populist"
In retrospect, those leftists who opposed Obama in 2007-2008, can now
claim that they knew in advance the scenario I outlined above was
impossible. Of course, that did not happen. But it wasn't
What happened wasn't predetermined. At some point, only one of the
possible outcomes in a probability distribution gets realized. But
that doesn't mean that the outcome was predetermined or, more safely,
that the outcome was certain back then.
I still wonder why things turned out the way they did. There were
many factors. Some of them, indeed, had to do with Obama's
personality -- his background and political experience, as he has
digested them, his temperament, etc. I take it as a given that there
were strong structural restrictions conspiring against the scenario
above. McCrystal insubordination was a sign. Who knows what other
signs Obama picked up early on. During the first months of Obama's
administration, I would not have been surprised by attempts against
his life by -- e.g. -- Blackwater people. In spite of all that, the
crisis did give him the opportunity to break the political patterns.
There was a firm precedent: FDR and, to a much lesser extent, Kennedy
and Johnson. So, it was a probable path.
Now all that is history. Today, it seems to me that the popular
discontent continues to intensify. At this point, in my mind, the job
for leftists is not really to lead or stir a rebellion against the
apparatus of the DP, to concoct third parties, etc. Those should be
byproducts. The main task now is to address the working people of the
U.S. by any channel possible: union and non-union people, students,
people dealing with foreclosures, nurses and doctors, retired people
with melted savings; to focus on the needs and priorities of those
people, to surge the organizing and activism at that level, to provide
direct and impactful political expressions to their rage; to take that
rage to the banks, the insurers, the military industrial complex, and
the government; to do it in ways that are media savvy, etc.
At this point, I'm changing my usual tactical tune: The focus should
*not* be on the upcoming midterm electoral game. Unless the candidate
is clearly a leftist with a local mass constituency, I say ignore the
electoral game. Let the chips fall where they may. Our job now is to
go to the masses and help them express their feelings and needs as
loudly as possible.