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

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Farewell, Peter Camejo 

Green Party activist and candidate Peter Camejo died last Saturday at the age of 68. His involvement in left politics went all the way back to the Free Speech Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. It was commonly known that his health had been poor for quite some time. I attempted, without success, to schedule a phone interview with him about a year ago to question him about the deteriorating economic and financial conditions that had already emerged in relation to the housing bubble and ensuing credit crunch. In other words, a concise, compelling critique of neoliberalism as manifested within the global financial system.

Few people on the left possessed his knowledge and insight when it came to financial issues, so I was disappointed when I never heard back from him. I had looked forward to hearing him explain how the easy extension of credit, and its securitization, along with an increasing emphasis upon services and the disempowerment of people in the workplace, had laid the groundwork for the current crisis. I'm certain that he would have been presicent about what has subsequently transpired. Alas, it was not to be.

Camejo's background in finance, and his willingness to incorporate that experience within a social activist perspective, was somewhat of a rarity. Over the years, I have encountered many leftists with roots in movements associated with civil rights, resistance to globalization on terms imposed by finance capital, anti-imperialism, the necessity for affordable housing, and peace. But, generally, they were unaware of Chomsky's purported comment about the importance of reading the business section in the newspaper, because there, unlike in the news and commentary sections, you discovered what the capitalists really thought.

I follow this dictum, whether real of manufactured, and it has worked well for me. For example, during the period prior to congressional approval of NAFTA, the political coverage was mild and evasive, while business articles were shockingly candid as to why corporations strongly supported it. A news reporter may well have been fired for writing what a business one filed with his editor without a second thought.

In any event, I have met many activists with just a muddled liberal perspective on economic issues (sometimes, even conservative to libertarian ones), and few that understood their importance to left activism as Peter Camejo did. No doubt this phenomenom mirrors the transition away from evaluating society in terms of explicit class conflict, and the marginalization of anarchism, Marxism and even Keynesianism as a means of understanding economic relationships between people, institutions and countries.

To his credit, Peter Camejo resisted it to the end. Having worked for Merrill Lynch and, later, as an independent investment advisor, he was able to strongly advocate for universal health care, the living wage and farmworker rights within the framework of his financial expertise. He rightly condemned California Governor Grey Davis for entering into ridiculously expensive long term contracts for electrical power during the blackouts of late 2000 and early 2001, arguing that the bubble would soon burst, and that power would be available much more cheaply on the open spot market.

My local municipal electrical utility, the Sacramento Metropolitan Utilities District, followed his advice, which was proven correct, while the state did not, saddling consumers with costs for power that were wholly unnecessary. As a consequence, I voted for Camejo for governor twice, first in the fall election of 2002, when Davis was running for reelection against Bill Simon, and then, again, in the recall of 2003. I was also impressed by his clarity and candor in expressing his political views, his ability to compare and contrast himself to others, especially during debates, without demeaning his opponents.

Camejo's conduct during the 2003 recall was in marked contrast to the deviousness of the so-called progressive candidate, Arianna Huffington. One was required to vote on two questions in regard to the recall, one as to whether Davis should be recalled, and the other one as to what individual should replace him. While Camejo emphasized his leftist stance on the issues, Huffington ran interference for Schwarzenegger, condemning the mainstream Democratic candidate on the ballot, Cruz Bustamonte, for taking large amounts of tribal donations, thus playing not one, but two, race cards against him, by frightening the public about the prospect of a Latino governor funded by Native American casino operators. At the last minute, when feminists freaked out over the realization that Schwarzenegger was really going to become governor, she crudely attacked him for a number of alleged groping incidents, knowing full well that it was too late to change the outcome.

But that was back when I was more naive, and actually believed that the electoral process could really bring about fundamental change in this country. Camejo never lost that naivete. For a positive personal recollection of Camejo, please read this one by the As'ad Abukhalil, the Angry Arab. Turns out that Camejo had the intelligence and integrity to solicit Abukhalil as a candidate to run against Diane Feinstein for the Senate.

Abukhalil appreciated the offer, but being an anarchist, declined. His explanation resonates with my current attitude about the political process: Furthermore, I do not, as an anarchist, believe in the American political and electoral systems, and thus do not harbor hopes, or illusions, of change "from within" so to say, although I remain optimistic of the prospects for progressive change on a global scale, affecting us here in the US. For this reason, and others, I will kindly decline the offer but hope that we manage to maintain contact and dialogue, and to cooperate on future projects.

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