Thursday, July 08, 2010
INITIAL POST: As someone who has abandoned the electoral process, I always respected Matt Gonzalez, the former chair of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. A Democrat who turned Green, he almost became the mayor, narrowly losing an election to Gavin Newsom in 2003 after the intervention of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. He was a rarity in American politics, someone who could translate global and national trends down to the community level, with an admirable record of progressive achievement. With the exception of the late Peter Camejo, no one had more integrity as a progressive political figure in California in the last 10 to 15 years.
In 2008, Gonzalez ran for Vice President on a ticket lead by (who else?) Ralph Nader. At the time, I told friends that I would have considered breaking my pledge of electoral non-participation if the ticket had been the other way round, with Gonzalez as the presidential candidate. But times have changed. With the collapse of the global economy, and the exposure of the speculative financial practices that caused it, Gonzalez has decided to go in a different direction. After maligning Wall Street for the excesses that generated the housing bubble, and the bailout that followed, he has acquiesced to the merciless process of sub-proletarianization under way around the world. Like the Marxist-Leninists of the global South in the 1990s that made their accomodation with IMF structural adjustment plans and the diversion of domestic resources for export lead economic development, Gonzalez has decided to participate in the impoverishment of American workers so as to increase the rate of primitive accumulation for transnational finance capitalists.
What, pray tell, has Gonzalez done to provoke such harsh criticism? He has decided to sponsor a measure for the San Francisco ballot, along with public defender Jeff Adachi, to require the public employees of the city and county of San Francisco to pay substantial increases in the amount that they pay towards their pensions and health benefits. It is, essentially, the same position that Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken in negotiations with state employee unions, with the back stage assistance of the Democratic majority in the legislature. Both Gonzalez and Adachi defend the measure as necessary to preserve public services provided by the city and county. Over the years, progressives have pushed several measures to require the financial district and its predominately commuter workforce to pay more towards covering the cost of local services. Now, Gonzalez has moved hard to the right, deciding that the burden should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the public sector employees, many of whom make far less than most San Franciscans. In other words, much as the American working class is supposed to subsidize finance capital, San Francisco public sector workers are supposed to subsidize the populace of one of the most affluent cities in the world.
Gonzalez has, after years of incisive criticism of neoliberalism, adopted one of its core principles, that global economic growth has stagnated because workers in the developed world make too much, not too little. Of course, besides being regressive, the measure is also bad economic policy because the removal of more money from the paychecks of these middle income and lower middle income workers will invariably be deflationary, putting more downward pressure on the city's budget deficit. Ironically, Gonzalez and Adachi find themselves looking to the city's downtown business interests, the ones that have opposed progressive policy measures for decades, to obtain the money necessary to qualify the measure for the ballot. One suspects that Gonzalez already has plans to exploit these new political relationships in the future.
Faced with a situation in which working class politics in the US is moribund, Gonzalez finally decided to throw in the towel, and seek to create a new, populist politics in support of public services at the expense of those who provide them. It is a sort of perverse left stance within an overall rightward movement towards the radical curtailment, if not elimination, of the public sector through financial starvation and privatization. One sees the same phenomenon in the California legislature, where Democratic leadership figures like Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg are attempting to lead the state employee unions, like lambs to the slaughter, into new adverse collective bargaining agreements on terms imposed by the Governor. Unlike Steinberg, Gonzalez sees a political benefit to personally leading the effort in a highly publicized manner. Last weekend, Gonzalez was scheduled to speak at the West Coast Socialism 2010 conference in honor of Camejo, who was apparently a close friend. Quite reasonably, the sponsors of the conference, the International Socialist Organization, disinvited him after he announced support for the Adachi measure. To have done anything otherwise would have been an insult to our memories of Peter Camejo.