'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Now? 

Today, the AFL-CIO is lobbying the Senate against any amendment of the health care reconciliation bill to include a public option. It is working, of course, is to prevent any Democrat from even introducing one so as to enable Senators from having to vote on the record. With labor unions, pro-choice groups and progressive organizations overwhelmingly acting at the behest of the White House, having abandoned any pretense of independently representing their constituencies, the inescapable question is: What Now?

With the House passage of the health care bill, the pattern of the remainder of the Obama presidency has been set in stone. We will see a progression of moderate to conservative policies, with the same groups that supported the health care bill cheerleading for them against the interests of those whom they purport to represent. They will distract attention from it through various faux mobilization campaigns, urging their members to call their congressional representatives and participate in rallies, frequently directed towards various Republican scapegoats.

What should people do as the progressive and non-profit infrastructure facilitates more war and more subsidization of the financial sector at the expense of working Americans? Generally, the answer is simple: stop paying for it. If you are a member of an AFL-CIO or Change to Win affiliated union, and oppose the obsequiousness of the union leadership, that means no longer paying that portion of your dues that go towards their political campaigns and lobbying efforts. For example, in California, most of my non-affiliated union dues go towards my representation in the workplace, but a smaller amount goes towards its political efforts. It is this contribution that union members should suspend.

By doing this, members can then donate to political activities of the union that they believe are worthy of support. Furthermore, the time may have come for progressive union members to aggregate their monies and volunteer efforts based upon a shared purpose and not upon their union affiliation. US Labor Against the War is a partial example of this approach, as it includes both AFL-CIO and Change to Win affiliated locals. But members should go farther, and solicit support at the level of individual members and not locals. The objectives of this approach are self-evident: it empowers union members to advocate for what they really want, and exposes the lack of credibility of the leadership of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.

Longer term, the objective would be to substitute a politics by delegation, a politics that has failed so miserably, as here, with a politics in the first person, one in which people are not prevented from giving expression to their needs and desires through institutional structures that repress them. But this is a challenge that goes beyond the union movement. Many other pro-choice organizations and progressive groups have been captured by the neoliberal circle around Obama, and, as noted, will never escape their captors. Indeed, they have even less room for manuever that unions. Again, people should first withdraw their unconditional financial support, and demand that their contributions only go towards activities that they support. They should also consider, like union members, whether it is now time to create new organizations centered around an ideological program in which accountability is measured by the expression and fulfillment of the expectations of its participants.

firedoglake has been a good example of this sort of organization, but it is too dependent upon the financial resources and personal appeal of Jane Hamsher. In other words, it constitutes a laudable effort in the right direction, but it can be improved. It also relies upon the Internet, which can paradoxically engender both activity and passivity. To her credit, Hamsher is aware of these things, and firedoglake is an ongoing work in progress. But it is essential to recognize that we should not seek to create monolithic institutions that purportedly represent a coalition of large masses of people. Past efforts to do so, like the AFL-CIO, like Change to Win, like NOW, like MoveON.org, are partially responsible for our predicament, as they concentrated power in a small group of people who then spoke against the interests of the millions that they purportedly represent. Even worse, they have effectively alienated these people from the belief that they can collectively influence the governance of the country. As the CCP briefly said, before it understood the consequences, let a thousand flowers bloom.

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