30 April 2012

Greg Moses : Occupy May Day: Life, Labor, and Liberty

Occupy posters by Eric Drooker.

Life, labor, and liberty:
May Day then and now

By Greg Moses / The Rag Blog / May 1, 20112

Counting in reverse through the great Theses on Feuerbach, we pass by the iconic eleventh, which demands that we quit describing the world and start changing it, in order to re-visit the lesser-known tenth.

"The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society;" says the Smith-Cuckson translation of the tenth thesis, "the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity." In plain English we recognize the warning already sounded in 1845 that normalized uses of "civil society" bring with them bureaucratic retinues, orders of articulation, credentials, and border-sweeping technologies of lethal effect.

In the author's German original, the term for the old society is not "civil" but "burgerliche," which is usually translated into "English" as bourgeoise. Therefore on this May Day 2012 we ask how far from a bourgeoise society have we traveled and what are the prospects of ever realizing our "social humanity" (oder die gesellschaftliche Menschheit)?

This May Day question is born from the robust and passionate vision expressed by the twenty-something German author when he dashed off the tenth thesis as a prelude to his life's work. It reminds me of a slightly older Thoreau, who wrote in his great "Civil Disobedience" of 1849 that "when men (sic) are prepared for it" they will be governed by no government at all.

Together these authors sing lyrical sentiments worthy of May Day, a calendar occasion for marking human celebrations of life, labor, and liberty.

As Rosa Luxembourg tells the modern history of May Day, it was born in Australia by workers -- the stonemasons of Melbourne University, says Wikipedia -- who in 1856 won their struggle for an eight-hour work-day. In the radical Republican aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, the eight-hour day was adopted for federal employees and proclaimed as a presidential principle by Ulysses S. Grant.

Deploying the eight-hour policy into "private" employment became a bloody struggle for several decades more, validating the sorts of things that Marx liked to write about revolution, and solidifying the modern association between May Day and labor struggle.

And still, the story of May Day goes back into archaic traditions of human responses to springtime. Dancing around maypoles, people enact a sense of participation in the joys of natural renewal and growth won back from winter's death. Even in the "Official Eight Hour Song," we hear a human demand to experience the things of spring. "We want to feel the sunshine, and we want to smell the flowers, for surely God has willed it and we mean to have it ours."

In the accumulated history of factory work, the cruelty of long hours would become ever more unbearable in proportion to April's lengthening light.

"Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" asked Emerson, anonymously, in his essay "Nature" of 1836. "Our hands and hearts are weary and our homes are heavy with dole," rejoined the singers of the eight-hour song, "if our lives are filled with drudgery, what need of a human soul?"

In some parts of Texas especially this year spring has gushed from the soil like a trillion geysers of greening promises. Landscapes that last year groaned under dehydrations the color of burnt toast this year have sprung into unbelievable thickness of life. Just add water, and up from underground it comes dressed for dancing in the sun.

"All social life is practical," declares thesis number eight, as our countdown continues. "All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice."

May Day 2012 promises to revive the greening energies of general strike, when people declare for themselves a day to stand apart from everything they do in the name of "civil society" and posit the experience of a more social humanity.

The global Occupy movement inspired by Tahrir Square is this spring beginning to makeover vacant lots and abandoned bookstores into gardens and museums. People are seeking new ways to practice their social humanity. Dead spaces, dehydrated by a "capital strike" are being renewed through social labor, which is the only source that capital can come from in the first place. People are exploring human practices and comprehending possibilities in the best ways they know how.

"There is no doubt," wrote the wise Jane Addams, "that the great difficulty we experience in reducing to action our imperfect code of social ethics arises from the fact that we have not yet learned to act together, and find it far from easy even to fuse our principles and aims into a satisfactory statement."

There is no royal road to the new, but that has never stopped life from moving forward. We don't have to live out other people's gridlock as our own.

So when I hear that San Francisco activists have ploughed under idle land the better to grow their own food, or that people in East Lansing have transformed an abandoned book store into a museum, I think of Henry George scanning his beloved bay area and recognizing the absurd contradiction of a system that would enforce monopoly over idle property even as it grinds out longer lines of joblessness and poverty.

Throw property open to anyone weary of idle hands, and you practically eliminate idleness altogether. "It is not the relations of capital and labor," said George, "not the pressure of population against subsistence, that explains the unequal development of society." No. "The great cause of inequality in the distribution of wealth is inequality in the ownership of land."

We don't know if Henry George was right. In the end it will be a practical question answered in practice, not theory alone. But we do have some acquaintance with the practical absurdity of "civil society" reacting with brutality to the social, human occupations of idle spaces. Pardon us please if we are well reminded of Hawthorne's immortal account of what happened to Thomas Morton.

A general strike would at least emphasize an insight that unifies both ancient and modern histories of May Day. It is through our sheer participation in life itself that we find any shred of value whatsoever. By dedicating a day each year to the dancing practices of our social humanity and their comprehensions, we remind ourselves of a proper standard for evaluating everything in between.

[Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His entries on King and Racism appear in the Encyclopedia of Global Justice. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com. Read more articles by Greg Moses on The Rag Blog.]

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CARTOON / Joshua Brown : Life During Wartime: Things to Look Forward To

Political cartoon by Joshua Brown / The Rag Blog / April 30, 2012.

[Joshua Brown is the executive director of the Center for Media and Learning/American Social History Project, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York and is a professor of history at CUNY. Find more political cartoons by Joshua Brown on
The Rag Blog.]

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26 April 2012

INTERVIEW / Jonah Raskin : Gerald Nicosia on Kerouac and the Beats

Visions of Kerouac: Gerald Nicosia. Photo illustration by James Retherford / The Rag Blog.

Beats are back bigger than before:
A Rag Blog interview with
Kerouac scholar Gerald Nicosia

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / April 16, 2012

For decades, the Illinois-born writer, Gerald Nicosia, has made it his business to follow the fortunes and misfortunes of the spunky writers of the Beat Generation. This year with three new Beat movies -- Kill Your Darlings, Big Sur, and On the Road -- he’s as vigilant and as outspoken as ever.

He’s also waiting impatiently for the films to arrive at his neighborhood theater. Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame stars as Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings. Walter Salles, the director of The Motorcycle Diaries, directs the movie version of Kerouac’s novel, On the Road. An adviser on Salles’s film, Nicosia played a big behind-the-scenes role, and he’s betting that it will help spread the rebellious spirit of the Beats.

The author of a hefty biography of Jack Kerouac entitled Memory Babe, and a poet in his own right, Nicosia carries on the cultural and spiritual legacy of his literary heroes. For him, American literature is the literature of protest and rebellion that goes back to Henry David Thoreau and that includes Jack London, the socialist adventurer, and the tribe of Chicago writers such as Nelson Algren, author of A Walk on the Wild Side.

Though he lives in bucolic Marin County, California, he walks and talks with the gusto of Chicago and its rough-and-tumble novelists and poets. I’ve known Nicosia for 30 years; we first met after a poetry reading that Allen Ginsberg gave at College of Marin.

In 2005, we launched a 50th anniversary celebration for Howl at the San Francisco Public Library with crowds standing in the aisles and at the back of the theater. In 2007, we produced a 50th anniversary celebration for On the Road at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, with more than 600 people in the audience.

When I heard that three new movies about the Beats were on the way to movie screens around the world I thought it was time to talk to Nicosia again and find out what he was thinking about Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and their friends and lovers.

On the Road director Walter Salles and Gerald Nicosia. Photos courtesy of Gerald Nicosia.

Jonah Raskin: With new movies about the Beats coming to theaters, what would you hope Americans learn about Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, and their wives and girlfriends?

Gerald Nicosia: That they were responding to an urgency in America, a wrong direction taken, a loss of community, a loss of brotherly love, a loss of a moral center.

You worked as an adviser to the film version of On the Road. What suggestions did you make to the actors and the director?

I told the actors not to worry about getting the exact details of the lives they were portraying. I told them that what was important was to give people a taste of what the love of these people was all about. With the director, Walter Salles, I got into things more deeply. He wanted to talk about the main characters’ search for identity and for the father.

I told him I thought the brother relationship between Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac was at the heart of the novel -- these two outcasts, misfits, learning to care about and take care of each other, breaking down the walls of isolation that were being so rapidly erected in postwar World War II America.

Why do you think there are three Beats movies coming out now? Is 2012 like the 1950s when their books were first published?

The cash-in on the Beats began several years ago. Now, you have three estates, those of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, discovering that there is unlimited money to be made in marketing these properties in electronic media and film.

Will any of the new movies do justice to the Beats?

I have the highest hopes for the movie of On The Road, because it was made outside the Hollywood system, financed by a small European company, MK2, and made by people who genuinely care about Jack’s message, beginning with the director Walter Salles. I don’t think he was put under the same pressure to make a “hit” that American moviemakers are under.

When and where and how did you first become interested in Kerouac?

I was at the University of Illinois in Chicago, getting my master’s. My officemate was a hip kid from Harvard who kept dropping Kerouac’s name because he knew I hadn’t read him. This was 1972 -- three years after Jack died. The Dharma Bums and On The Road were the only two Kerouac books in print. I was blown away by Kerouac’s compassion for the down-and-out, the working class, those on the wrong side of American capitalism.

On what side of capitalism were you raised?

My family was working class -- my dad a mailman, his father a construction worker and chimney sweep; my mom’s father a barrel maker, my mom’s mom ran a grocery store, my mom a secretary all her life.

How do you explain the Beats? Kerouac came from a Catholic working class family. Ginsberg was from a Jewish left-wing family and William Burroughs was white Anglo Saxon protestant. What did they have in common?

Amiri Baraka says they all came from minorities not yet fully assimilated into the American capitalist dream. I would say they were individuals who, by birth, temperament, political persuasion, and economic status, did not fit in with materialistic, chauvinistic, and belligerent American society. They were trying to find a way they felt had existed during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

You spent years doing research about Jack Kerouac. What would you say was the biggest surprise?

Kerouac’s books portray a hero and narrator free and easy, confident, sure of his rebellion against the American system. In reality, Jack was torn between Catholicism, Buddhism, and his own demon-driven pursuit of kicks, between spirit and flesh, between mom’s house and the Beat coffeehouse, patriotism and subversion, men and women, society and solitude, carousing and meditation, sacred and profane, secular and divine. It’s a miracle he survived as long as he did.

For years the Sampas family controlled the Kerouac estate? For those who don’t know, who are they and what damage did they do?

Sam Sampas was Jack’s first friend who gave him the courage to be a poet despite the jeers of his working class community. Late in life, when Jack’s mom had a stroke and refused to go into a nursing home he married Stella Sampas, Sam’s older sister, to take care of his mother. The marriage was a disaster, and Jack was about to divorce her when he died of liver disease from drinking at 47.

What happened with the will of Jack’s mother?

Stella forged Gabrielle Kerouac’s signature, thus stealing the estate from her grandchildren: Jack’s daughter, Jan Kerouac, and Jack’s nephew, Paul Blake, Jr. The damage they did was to sell Kerouac’s archive into private hands. Not one of the 9 or 10 manuscripts Jack wrote on long rolls of paper is now in a library where it can be studied.

I’ve heard it said that if it weren’t for Ginsberg and his savvy with promotion and public relations there would be no Beat Generation. How important was he in the marketing of his friends and their books?

He was very important -- both in terms of things he wrote, and in schmoozing people in positions of power who could help the Beats get recognized. His thousands of readings carried the Beat message to millions of people.

Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Cassady knew one another from New York in the 1940s. How was that time and place significant for their development?

I think for all of them the key was to break out of the conformity, narrow-mindedness, and materialism that New York represented. Neal Cassady with his visions of Western individualism provided a way out for Ginsberg and Kerouac; for Burroughs the way out was through Tangier, Paris, and London, and finding more freedom in older cultures.

On the Road: From left, Garrett Hedlund, Gerald Nicosia, Sam Riley, who plays Sal Paradise, and Kristen Stewart, who plays Mary Lou.

If they were alive today -- the major figures of the Beat Generation -- what do you think they would be doing now?

Kerouac would be writing. Cassady would be taking Viagra and chasing women. Ginsberg would be teaching. Burroughs would be taking his daily Methadone and plotting his next novel. They were driven people, on a mission, and only death could stop them.

We know now that there were women of the Beat Generation and that they wrote books. What do their books add to those written by their lovers, husbands, and boyfriends?

There was a heavy price to be paid for that male-led revolution. Somebody had to support it by hard work and carrying the daily load, the family load, that those male revolutionaries didn’t have time or inclination for.

In what ways do you think the Beats led to the rebellion and the protests of the 1960s?

They absolutely made the crack in Fifties consciousness, through which the counterculture of the Sixties poured. It couldn’t have entered without that wedge driven into the concrete wall of Eisenhower-McCarthy-Billy Graham America.

The Beats became a global phenomenon. What is it about them that appealed to citizens of the world?

They are citizens of the world; they speak as citizens of the world. It was a rare American ecumenical movement -- even more so than the Transcendentalists, who were also reading Asian and Indian texts. The Beats actually went to those places, mingled with people, shared their writings, and learned from other cultures. I think people in other countries see this as a rare phenomenon among Americans.

The Beats didn’t do anything in moderation. If you knew them back in the day would you have cautioned them not to be as intense as they were?

No, you can’t slow down intense people. They have to burn at their own rate. People on a mission are unstoppable. God bless them for it. It would be a poorer, more miserable world without them.

For someone nineteenth or twenty years old now what Beat books would you recommend they read?

On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels by Kerouac. Howl, Kaddish, and The Fall of America by Ginsberg. Most of Burroughs is going to go over their heads, unless they’re lit majors. Gregory Corso’s poems, “Marriage” and “Bomb.” Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, Ted Joans’s Teducation, Bob Kaufman’s Cranial Guitar, Jack Micheline’s River of Red Wine, and Ray Bremser’s Poems of Madness and Cherub.

[Jonah Raskin is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation and a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]

Gerald Nicosia with Garrett Hedlund who plays Dean Moriarty in On the Road.

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Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers : Why We Oppose NATO

Graphic from Left Turn :: Virage a Gauche.

Why we oppose NATO!
The new NATO is a secretive and costly instrument of war and aggression. It makes its own rules and confirms its own authority.
By Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers / The Rag Blog / April 26, 2012

The day after the 9/11 attacks the Bush administration took dozens of extreme, transformative actions, including invoking Article 5, the right to collective self defense, of NATO’s founding charter -- a first in NATO’s 50-year history.

This marked the fateful expansion of NATO’s mission into new geographical regions (such as Afghanistan) and novel functions, such as the initiation and rationalization of the use of preemptive attacks on sovereign states.

All of this was codified and consolidated over the next months in support of the U.S. “war on terror," crimes committed by non-nation state actors were reframed as “acts of war,” and NATO nations were now expected to join together and respond in kind, opening a door onto war without end, worldwide conflict, and the “long war.”

This is why groups of citizens in virtually every NATO nation have come together to press their governments to leave this deadly enterprise.

NATO has become part of the background noise that over time and with repetition we simply take for granted, an unexamined but passively accepted part of the given world: “NATO forces...” “NATO bombings...” “NATO casualties...” NATO becomes a familiar and entirely opaque presence in our lives. In reality NATO is anything but benign, and exposing the reality behind the mask is an urgent responsibility.

NATO is not a mutual self-defense organization; it is now plainly a global military alliance designed to engage in aggressive invasions and preemptive wars. A 2004 communiqué declared that “Defense against terrorism may include activities by NATO’s military forces, based on decisions by the North Atlantic Council [not the UN Security Council] to deter, disrupt, defend and protect against terrorist attacks, or threat of attacks, directed from abroad, against populations, territory, infrastructure and forces of any member state, including by acting against these terrorists and those who harbour them.”

NATO has collaborated with the U.S. CIA in a wide range of illegal activities, including detainee transfer operations called “renditions,” blanket over-flight clearances, and access to airfields for CIA operations -- in effect acting as partners in torture, abduction, and indefinite detention. Under cover of NATO, the U.S. has created an entirely unaccountable framework that enables it to evade both national and international law.

NATO has refused to address civilian casualties resulting from NATO bombings and drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya. The U.S. continues to dominate NATO military strategy and weaponry, accounting for virtually all of the 7,700 bombs and missiles dropped or fired on Libya.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 prohibits nuclear weapon states from transferring nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states, and conversely prohibits non-nuclear states from receiving nuclear weapons from nuclear states. All NATO members are parties to the NPT. The five non-nuclear countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) that maintain U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory, and the U.S. itself, are all in violation of the NPT.

The new NATO is a secretive and costly instrument of war and aggression. It makes its own rules and confirms its own authority. As a tool of global intervention NATO undermines democracy and constricts citizen participation on issues of war and peace. It has no place in a democracy, and an authentic democracy should have no business with NATO.

[William Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Bernardine Dohrn is Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Director and founder of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University. Both Ayers and Dohrn were leaders in SDS and the New Left, and were founders of Weatherman and the Weather Underground. Find more articles by and about Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn on The Rag Blog.]

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IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Ways to Say 'Should'

Image from Bite Size Buzz.

Ways to say 'should'
It behooves us to choose wisely what duties and rules to live by. And the way to choose wisely is by considering the effects of our choices.
By Bill Meacham / The Rag Blog / April 26, 2012

Since I advocate strongly for the Goodness paradigm over the Rightness paradigm when we think about how to conduct our lives(1), it seems appropriate to investigate more fully what I rail against. By “Rightness paradigm” I mean a set of concepts revolving around moral rules and duties. What is morally right, in this view, is what conforms to moral rules, and we have a duty to obey those rules. This way of thinking is called “deontological,” from a Greek word, deon, that means “duty.”

According to this approach, an action is justified, regardless of its consequences, on the basis of a quality or characteristic of the act itself, its conformance to a rule. Morality is concerned with identifying and obeying moral rules. It is right -- indeed, it is mandatory -- to obey the rules and wrong to disobey them. Any particular act can be judged right or wrong according to whether and to what extent it conforms to the moral rules. A central concern, then, is to identify the rules so you can make sure you obey them.

The problem, of course, is how to determine what those moral rules are. I’ll return to that issue shortly.

It is undeniable that we have moral intuitions, that we have a sense of right and wrong. Lots of psychological research demonstrates it(2) and we each know these intuitions first-hand: we feel self-righteous when we do something right, guilt when we do something wrong, and indignation when others transgress.

There are good reasons to believe that these instincts are built into our brains and minds at birth, ready to be channeled by culture into particular forms. We evolved this way because humans have to live with other humans in order to survive, and moral rules regulate how we get along together. A shared sense of morals makes for group cohesion, and those who are members of cohesive groups survive and reproduce better than those who aren’t.

Moral norms have two functions according to Duke professor David Wong, interpersonal and intrapersonal: “The interpersonal function is to promote and regulate social cooperation. The intrapersonal function is to foster a degree of ordering among potentially conflicting motivational propensities, including self- and other-regarding motivations. This ordering serves to encourage people to become constructive participants in the cooperative life...”(3)

In order to understand these functions, it is helpful to take a closer look at the various types of moral judgements and what they entail for our behavior. In this I am indebted to professor Margaret Little of Georgetown University, who has come up with what we might call a taxonomy of moral concepts. Here is an illustration:(4)

Moral concept taxonomy

Moral and ethical judgements are all ways of saying “should”: telling someone what he or she should do (or refrain from doing) or should have done, or telling ourselves the same.(5) Moral rules are in the branch labeled “deontic.” But the deontic is not the only type of “should”; another type is prudential. In deontic cases the “should” is a prescription or even a command. In the prudential case it is a recommendation. The force of our prescription or recommendation depends on the category in which the “should” is presented.

The first category is moral law (Deontic/Moral in the illustration). An example is “Thou Shalt Not Steal” (“should” being stated in its strongest form, “shall”). In this case we feel justified in demanding that someone obey the “should” and blaming them if they don’t. The imperative provokes in us feelings of moral righteousness and indignation. And the imperative has a sense of universality, that it applies to everyone. This is the domain of what I call the Rightness paradigm.

The second category is legal law (Deontic/Legal in the illustration), such as defining misdemeanor or felony theft. In this case we feel justified in demanding that someone obey and not only blaming but punishing them if they don’t. The imperative has force, however, only within the context of the laws of a given political community.

The third category is social convention (Deontic/Social). An example is the rule that if one attends a wedding, one should bring a gift. In this case we may not demand obedience (you can’t demand a gift) but we do feel justified in blaming failure, if not to the offender’s face then in gossiping to others. This is clearly a matter of social agreement, not universal law, and applies only within a given community.

The fourth category is prudential evaluation (Prudential/Commendatory), for example that for good health one should eat lots of vegetables. In this case we may not demand but may certainly advise adherence to such a “should.” And we may not blame or punish failure to comply but may say the choice is foolish.

This kind of judgement is in the Goodness paradigm, one of the features of which is that such judgements are objectively verifiable. We can do studies of the effects of diet on health, studies that provide factual evidence, so the recommendation is not just someone’s opinion. The scope of applicability is interesting. Potentially such a judgement could be universal, but in practice it depends on context.

Perhaps for a malnourished vegan eating lots of vegetables would not be good, and instead he or she should try some meat. I claim that there is nothing that is good in itself . When you are speaking about goodness, always ask, “Good for whom? Good for what and under what circumstances?” if you want to avoid confusion.

This taxonomy gives us some insights into the nature of rights and duties, the objects of moral judgement. There is a quite a large body of literature on the ontological status of moral entities, meaning the manner of their existence. They seem to be real, in that many people recognize them, but they can’t be touched or felt or measured as physical objects can.

Do they exist objectively, independent of our perception of them, as physical reality does? Are they merely social conventions? Are they somewhere in between?

There is good reason to believe that moral entities do not exist objectively, because it is a matter of empirical fact that people disagree about them in a way that they do not disagree about physical reality.

A study asked respondents in the United States and in India whether it would be morally wrong to steal a train ticket in order to attend a best friend’s wedding. People in the U.S. said it would be wrong to steal; people in India said it would be wrong not to steal, if that were the only way you could get to the wedding!(6)

This disagreement is clearly in a completely different category from, say, whether water always boils at the same temperature regardless of atmospheric pressure. You can observe and measure water boiling and come to a decisive answer, regardless of where you live. Cultural differences play no role at all in your answer about physical reality, but they do in your answer about moral reality.

This leads some to deny any reality to moral entities at all, and to label all moral judgements as false because they refer to fictional entities. This position, known as “moral error theory,” goes a bit too far, I think, as it ignores our indubitable intuitions of right and wrong. (Not that the content of such intuitions is indubitable, but that we do have them is not to be doubted at all.)

We could say that moral entities are just social conventions, but that is not strong enough. We do not get together and decide what we shall regard as right and wrong as we do in deciding when to have tea every day. We really do seem to recognize something that exists independently of whether or not we agree that it exists.

My take on it is this: Moral entities are realities that are intersubjectively constituted within a community of practice, a social group, a culture or a society. By that I mean that within such a community or society, everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. So, for members of such a community they are real.

The term “constitute” comes from the phenomenological insight, verified by cognitive psychology, that in large part our minds concoct what we perceive. We don’t just see physical things; we make up what we see, based on sensory input that we do not make up. There is a large cognitive component in our experience, which we mostly overlook, but which sometimes becomes startlingly obvious.

Here is an example: A woman I know was walking across her ranch one day and stepped over a hose. Then she thought, “That’s odd. What is a hose doing here?” She turned and looked and saw that it was a snake. (Fortunately, she was wearing boots.) Before she recognized that it was a snake, she had constituted it as a hose. Was it really a hose? No. Did she really see a hose the first time? Yes, she did.

Similarly, we really do intuit that some things are right and others wrong, that some deeds are obligatory and others forbidden, that some actions can be demanded of us and others cannot, that some behavior is blameworthy, some praiseworthy and some neither. And considering the effects of honoring those intuitions or not -- namely, the reactions of others in the community -- their objects really do have reality.

Does that mean we are stuck with the morals our society constitutes for us? Not at all. Now that we recognize the true nature of moral entities, we can choose what to do about them.

But how shall we choose? This actually presents a bit of a conundrum. Rationally, the sense of what is right and wrong, of what is our duty, loses its obligatory force. Constructed socially, moral entities are real but do not constrain our actions as physical reality does.

When we recognize this state of affairs a sort of spell is broken, and we do not see our world the same way as before; we are no longer taken in by moral reality. We are able to choose, within the constraints of our emotional and social conditioning, which duties to obey, or even whether to obey any at all. And we have this freedom even if we would rather not have it. You can’t go back; you can’t undo a realization about how the world works. As the existentialists say, we are condemned to be free.(7)

Second-order mentation, our ability to consider in thought and imagination not just the world around us but ourselves as well, can seem like a burden because emotionally we still feel the force of these moral intuitions. We may know intellectually that it is not always wrong to steal a train ticket, but we still cringe at the thought of doing so. We seek a way to reconcile the antinomy of freedom and facticity.

Here is where the Goodness paradigm becomes useful. Since sensitivity to moral concerns is a part of our biological inheritance it is difficult to imagine that we could ever get rid of it even if we wanted to. And we might not want to; moral intuitions enable us to live with others without having to think what to do all the time. So it behooves us to choose wisely what duties and rules to live by. And the way to choose wisely is by considering the effects of our choices.

Consider the injunction against stealing. Even though there could be some short-term gain for the thief, it is in a person’s long-term interest to live in a society where people are honest. And being honest produces in us a greater internal harmony of feeling than being dishonest. There are benefits to playing by the rules. An honest person will be better off in the long run, even though in certain instances it might seem disadvantageous.

So if you are wise you will notice the moral urge to be honest, the call of conscience, and decide to accept it. Even though it is a triggered response, you will let that response happen. You will adopt a policy of accepting such responses, of refraining from taking what is not yours even if the opportunity arises, and you will enjoy a happier life as a result.

Recall the function of moral norms: to promote social cooperation and well-being. Moral rules that promote well-being are worth following; moral rules that don’t, aren’t.

And if you feel the need for an overarching duty, a sort of highest principle, let me suggest this: The best duty is the commitment to find ways to live that promote the well-being of yourself, your community and your environment. The highest and noblest endeavor, which we are free to regard as a duty if we wish, is to work for the good in all things.

[Bill Meacham is an independent scholar in philosophy. A former staffer at Austin's 60s underground paper, The Rag, Bill received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Meacham spent many years working as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and project manager. He posts at Philosophy for Real Life, where this article also appears. Read more articles by Bill Meacham on The Rag Blog.]

(1) See my paper on “The Good and the Right.” On-line publication, URL = http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.
(2) See, for instance, the works of Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker and Marc Hauser, among others.
(3) Wong, “Making An Effort To Understand,” p. 13.
(4) Adapted from Little, Margaret, “The Moral Right to do Wrong.” Little’s examination shows the strength of analytic philosophy: by clarifying conceptually what we are talking about, we can avoid confusion and make progress toward insight.
(5) I do not distinguish between “moral” and “ethical,” although some philosophers do, reserving the former for the Rightness paradigm of rights and obligations, and the latter for any situation in which advice or command is appropriate.
(6) Wong, “Making An Effort To Understand,” p. 12.
(7) Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”

Haidt, Jonathan, and Graham, Jesse. “Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality.” On-line publication, URL = http://ssrn.com/abstract=980844 as of 12 April 2012.
Haidt, Jonathan. “On the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.” On-line, URL = http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html as of 12 April 2012.
Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.
Little, Margaret. “The Moral Right to do Wrong.” Lecture presented at the 2012 Royal Ethics Conference, University of Texas at Austin, 25 February 2012.
Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct”. On-line publication, URL = http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html as of 12 January 2008.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” On-line publication, URL = http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm as of 17 September 2011.
Wikipedia. “Moral skepticism.” On-line publication, URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_skepticism as of 12 April 2012.
Wong, David. “Making An Effort To Understand.” Philosophy Now Magazine, Issue 82 (January/February 2011), pp. 10 – 13. London: Anya Publications, 2011. Also on-line publication, URL = http://www.philosophynow.org/issues/82/Making_An_Effort_To_Understand as of 12 April 2012.

The Rag Blog

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RAG RADIO / Thorne Dreyer : David P. Hamilton and Philip L. Russell on the French and Mexican Elections

Philip L. Russell, left, and David P. Hamilton at the KOOP studios in Austin Friday, March 30, 2012. Photo by Tracey Schulz / Rag Radio.

Rag Radio:
Writers David P. Hamilton and Philip L. Russell
discuss the French and Mexican elections

By Rag Radio / The Rag Blog / April 26, 2012

David P. Hamilton and Philip L. Russell were Thorne Dreyer's guests on Rag Radio, Friday, April 20, 2012, on Austin community radio station KOOP 91-7-FM, and streamed live on the Internet.

Hamilton and Russell are long-time Austin-based writers and activists who have recently written comprehensive analytical articles about the upcoming presidential elections in France and Mexico, respectively, for The Rag Blog.

They discussed those elections, the issues involved, and the potential political ramifications. They also talked about the recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, and especially issues related to the drug war and drug legalization that are currently being discussed by Latin Americaan leaders.

You can listen to the show here.

Unabashed Francophile David Hamilton is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin in history and government. He spends part of each year in France and writes about France and politics (and French politics) for The Rag Blog. A retired teacher, David was active with SDS and the movement against the War in Vietnam and wrote for The Rag, Austin’s legendary Sixties underground newspaper.

Read his article, here.

Philip Russell has written six books on Latin America. His latest is The History of Mexico: From Pre-Conquest to Present (Routledge). His writings on Mexico have appeared in sources ranging from the Austin Chronicle to The New York Times. He is an explorer and an environmental activist with the Sierra Club, has been an interpreter for National Science Foundation expeditions in Mexico, and has served as an official presidential election observer in Mexico.

Read Philip's Rag Blog article on the Mexican elections here.

Rag Radio, which has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM, a cooperatively-run all-volunteer community radio station in Austin, Texas, features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history.

Hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor and long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer, a pioneer of the Sixties underground press movement, Rag Radio is broadcast every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP and streamed live on the web. Rag Radio is also rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (EST) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA.

Rag Radio is produced in the KOOP studios, in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Tracey Schulz is the show's engineer and co-producer.

After broadcast, all episodes are posted as podcasts and can be downloaded at the Internet Archive.

Coming up on Rag Radio: THIS FRIDAY, April 27, 2012: Theologian and Social Ethicist Gary Dorrien.
May 4, 2012: Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science, and Reality.

The Rag Blog

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25 April 2012

BOOKS / Ron Jacobs : Two on Working Class Rabble-Rousing

Two books on workers and rabble-rousing:
Kick some ass with the working class

By Ron Jacobs / The Rag Blog / April 25, 2012

[Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream, by Greg Shotwell (2012: Haymarket Books); Paperback; 200 pp.; $17.00
Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, edited by Michael D. Yates (2012: Monthly Review Press); Paperback; 288 pp.; $18.95.]

Damn. That’s the word I kept repeating as I read Gregg Shotwell’s recently published book Autoworkers Under the Gun.

The ugly side of being a factory worker in the U.S. auto industry is all here. Sociopathic CEOs, their lawyers, and the acquiescence of the UAW leadership, it’s all there.

This collection of newsletters written by a United Auto Workers activist documents the purposeful destruction of a union, an industry, and a way of life by bankers, corporate raiders and supplicant union bosses. The tale told here is about the daily fight on the shop floor.

Shotwell’s writing is humorous, acerbic, and to the point. As part of a democratic movement in the UAW, he was one of many that fought hard to prevent the tidal wave of layoffs, plant closings, and destruction of benefits the union leadership not only allowed but seemed to encourage.

The missives published in this book are the textual equivalent of the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) Mr. Block cartoons. For those who aren’t aware of Mr. Block, let me quote IWW agitator Walker C. Smith:
Mr. Block is legion. He is representative of that host of slaves who think in terms of their masters. Mr. Block owns nothing, yet he speaks from the standpoint of the millionaire; he is patriotic without patrimony; he is a law-abiding outlaw... [who] licks the hand that smites him and kisses the boot that kicks him... the personification of all that a worker should not be.
In other words, Mr. Block was a satirical character created to call attention to workers and union bosses who identified with the owners and management at the expense of their fellow workers.

Autoworkers Under the Gun makes it very clear how the auto industry's exorbitant payments to its executives and management combined with a penchant for bankruptcy destroyed it. Calling globalization a “four bit word for sweatshop,” Shotwell points out how CEOs and their co-conspirators control the discussion about the economy by blaming the workers for wanting to earn a living and pension.

As most readers know, the other part of this scenario involves those executives purposely downsizing the corporation by moving jobs offshore. His biting commentary reminds the reader how intentional this entire process is.

Unlike most mainstream reporting on the demise of the auto industry, Shotwell gives the reader the view from the shop floor. It’s not just the harassment from management he describes, he also tells stories about workers using their power to fight back.

After one particular attack on management’s machinations to undermine the workers and their union that drew a strong reaction from the bosses, Shotwell arrived for his shift to find his machine taken apart in a show of solidarity. Without that machine, the line was shut down for the entire shift.

Questioning the value of strikes that are not industry wide because of the International’s cowardice or because of the law, Shotwell urges workers to consider alternatives like occupations and working to rule. The point of the former is to prevent management from closing factories. After all, they can’t close a building if people are inside it.

Working to rule, meanwhile, has multiple effects. It slows down the speedups imposed by management to increase production while also preventing shop closures. In addition, working to rule can create overtime or, even better, the necessity to hire more people. The underlying point of both tactics is to emphasize that it is the workers who run the factory, not the CEOs and their minions.

It was more than a year ago that thousands of Wisconsin workers and supporters occupied the Capitol building in the city of Madison. The reason for the occupation was to try and prevent the anti-worker governor and legislature from passing legislation that would end collective bargaining for all state employees except firefighters and state police, end dues check-off from paychecks, and force unions to re-certify every year.

Under the guise of solving a budget crisis (that was created by giving mammoth tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy in Wisconsin), this bill was forced through the legislature despite the protests. Nonetheless, the protests were a welcome reaction to the never-ending attacks on working people in the United States.

Naturally, a few books have been published about this event, now known as the Wisconsin Uprising. Of those texts that wrote favorably, most have done a fairly decent job of describing the flow of the protests, the workers culture that was celebrated, and the intense feeling of solidarity felt by the participants.

Not all have done as good of a job analyzing why the protests failed and what they mean for the future of workers’ movements in the United States.

There is one entry; however, that does broach both of these subjects with some depth. Titled Wisconsin Uprising, this book, edited by labor writer Michael Yates, provides a genuinely left analysis. The collection of essays is divided into two main sections. One discusses the protests, their background and their organization and the other discusses the future of workplace organizing in the wake of the legislation’s success and the concomitant attacks on working people around the world.

The first section takes its subject and looks at the international aspects of the protest (austerity protests in Greece, Britain, etc.), its roots in capitalist crisis, and the lack of resistance experience among protesters. It was this latter element that gave the protesters false hope regarding the role police play, as well as the role unions play.

Indeed, much like the points made in Shotwell’s text, union leadership often concedes benefits, condition, and wages just to keep union dues structure intact and their paychecks coming in. This strategy eventually backfires because it weakens the unions in the eyes of the workers. Seeing this, corporations and governments attack unions, hoping to further weaken their standing in the eyes of members.

Once the union has been defanged, as occurred in Wisconsin after the aforementioned legislation was rammed through in the middle of the night, the rank and file often stop paying dues out of fear or after drawing the conclusion that the union has no power.

Like Shotwell emphasizes in his book, the best response to the attacks on workers and their unions is simple: more actions, more solidarity, and less complacency. The most positive conclusion to be drawn from the Wisconsin uprising is that there is an understanding in the United States that workers not only are being screwed, but that they will fight back.

The narrative here echoes the hope found in other books about the uprising in Wisconsin and the occupy movement that followed. However it tempers that hope with an understanding of what labor is up against in this latest battle with capital. It is an understanding that comes from the years of experience between the collection of contributors and their leftist comprehension of how monopoly capitalism works.

Shotwell explains why Wisconsin happened in a piece discussing concessions when he writes:
The nation that kicked off the struggle for the eight hour day is logging more hours than any modern industrialized nation on earth. Every household needs two wage slaves and every wage slave needs a vehicle to keep them on the treadmill. The turmoil is designed to foil collective action. The degradation of workers is not natural, accidental or unavoidable. It is a plan. Put the jigsaw pieces together and the picture is clear as glass and sharp as pain.
The complementary reason to Shotwell’s concise explanation of neoliberal capital’s plan for the world is that workers ignored the writing on the wall as long as it happened to someone else, while those that were unionized saw themselves as clients of the union when they needed to be fighters in solidarity with those that were the “someone else.”

Check out these books for their analysis, their insight, and their rabble rousing. Then go do some rabble-rousing of your own.

[Rag Blog contributor Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. He recently released a collection of essays and musings titled Tripping Through the American Night. His latest novel, The Co-Conspirator's Tale, is published by Fomite. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. Ron Jacobs can be reached at ronj1955@gmail.com. Find more articles by Ron Jacobs on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Robert Jensen : There Are Marxists in India?

Prabhat Patnaik. Image from The Bruce Initiative on Rethinking Capitalism.

'There are Marxists in India?'
Economist Prabhat Patnaik on the global crisis

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / April 25, 2012

After an engaging half-hour interview with India’s pre-eminent Marxist economist during a conference at New York University, I told a friend about my one-on-one time with Prabhat Patnaik.

“There are Marxists in India?” came the bemused response. “I thought India was the heart of the new capitalism.”

Indeed, we hear about India mostly as a rising economic power that is challenging the United States. While there certainly are no shortages of capitalists, there are still lots of Marxists in India, as well as communist parties that have won state elections.

Patnaik represents the best thinking and practice of those left traditions -- both the academic Marxism that provides a framework for critique of economics, and the political Marxism that proposes public policies -- which is why I was so excited to talk with him about lessons to be learned from the current economic crisis.

In the interview, conducted during a break in the NYU Institute for Public Knowledge’s “Futures of Finance” conference, I asked Patnaik two main questions: First, is there a “golden age” of capitalism to which we can return? Second, can we ever expect ethical practices from the financial sector of the global capitalist economy?

Before explaining why his answer to both questions is “no,” some background.

Prabhat Patnaik started his academic career in the UK, earning his doctoral degree at Oxford University and then teaching at the University of Cambridge. He returned to India in 1974 to teach at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi until his retirement in 2010.

He’s the author of several influential books, including The Value of Money, published in 2008. Patnaik-the-politician served as Vice-Chairman of the Planning Board of the state of Kerala from 2006-2011 and is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He regularly writes on economic issues in the Party’s journal and addresses trade union meetings.

In the United States, where people believe Marxism was buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall and communism can only mean Soviet-style totalitarianism, his political affiliations would guarantee a life on the margins. But India’s political spectrum is considerably wider, and left ideas have a place in the national political discourse there.

On the world stage, Patnaik brings an unusual perspective: An experienced economist with a history of political organizing; an Indian who is engaged in the political debates of the West; a leftist who is not afraid to critique the weaknesses of the left tradition.

The quixotic quest for a 'golden age'

Ever since the financial meltdown of 2008, there’s been more and more nostalgia in the United States -- especially among liberals -- for the immediate post-WWII period, the so-called “golden age” of capitalism during which profits and wages rose, and unemployment was low.

This was the achievement of Keynesianism, the philosophy that unwanted market outcomes can be corrected through monetary and fiscal policy designed to stabilize an otherwise unstable business cycle. Primarily through “military Keynesianism” -- massive spending on wars and a permanent warfare state -- the U.S. government helped stimulate the economy when it went into inevitable periods of stagnation.

That worked until about the mid-1970s, when growth started to slow.

Whether or not that system was good for everyone (lots of people in the Third World, for example, were not particularly happy with it), the question remains: Can we go back to that strategy? Patnaik says that golden age was necessarily short-lived, as the pressure for global investment pushed nations to give up the ability to impose controls on capital. This globalization of finance made national Keynesian policies less relevant. At about the same time, steep increases in the price of petroleum generated even more capital in the oil states, which went looking for investment opportunities around the world.

Globalization -- this concentration of capital moving freely around the world -- meant that no single nation-state could go up against international finance. And with the global flow of goods, the large “reserve army of labor” (the unemployed and under-employed) in places like China and India meant that workers in the advanced industrial countries had less leverage. So, productivity continued to rise, but wages stagnated.

Patnaik said it’s important to see the contemporary crisis in that historical context.

“The collapse of the housing bubble in the United States is certainly part of the problem but not the root cause of the problem today,” he said. “The immediate crisis it touched off helps make the underlying problem visible.”

If this financialization of the global economy, which has put so much power in so few hands, is at the heart of the problem, the question is clear: In the absence of a global state, who is going to control international finance capital?

If capital is going to be concentrated, can we at least make it behave?

If the power of finance capital can’t be diminished, is there a way to at least make it follow some sane rules to prevent the worst from happening again? Short answer: No.

“It’s important to understand that capitalism is a spontaneous system, not something that is always necessarily planned or controlled,” Patnaik said. Because the reward for ignoring, evading, or getting around rules is so powerful, the attempts to make capitalism follow ethical norms are bound to fail.

“Keynesianism worked in a specific time and place, but capitalism escaped Keynesianism,” he said. New rules will suffer a similar fate, absent a force as strong as international finance capital to enforce the rules.

Although Patnaik often talks in detail about the complex workings of the global economy, he also articulates simple truths when that kind of straightforward analysis is needed. In doing so, he often draws on aspects of Marx’s analysis that the world tends to forget.

To make the point about the futility of talking about ethical norms in capitalism, Patnaik pointed to Marx’s insight that a capitalist is “capital personified.” Here’s the relevant passage from the first volume of Marx’s Capital:
[T]he possessor of money becomes a capitalist. … [A]nd it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.
What Marx described as “the restless never-ending process of profit-making” and “boundless greed after riches” reminds us that as actors on the economic stage we are less moral agents and more “capital personified,” relentless in our restlessness and bound to believe in an illusory boundlessness.

Society might be able make some moral claims on people with wealth if they were merely working in capitalism, but it’s more difficult to find common moral ground with “capital personified.”

What should people fight for?

If we can’t go back to business as usual, and there’s no reason to expect that new rules will solve our problems, what kinds of solutions are possible? Patnaik said that neither of the two most obvious responses to the financial crisis -- creating a surrogate global state to impose controls on finance, or “delinking” a nation’s economy from the global finance system -- are in the cards now. Even though capitalism is in deep crisis, resistance to capitalism is not nearly strong enough to produce movements that could make that possible.

Given his intellectual roots and political affiliation, it may seem surprising that Patnaik argues for organizing to bring back the liberal welfare-state policies that developed in the advanced industrial countries during the postwar period when Keynesian economics ruled.

“That is not about going back, which is impossible,” Patnaik said. “We have to go forward with new ideas.” The call for a more robust social safety net (protecting workers’ rights, unemployment insurance, social security, health insurance, etc.) isn’t new, but such policies can be a step toward new ideas, a transitional measure, he explained.

Rather than making those policies the final goal, as part of a more-or-less permanent accommodation with capitalism, they should be seen as a stepping stone toward radical change.

“We can work toward a reassertion of welfare state policies, not as an end but as a vehicle toward greater justice, as a way of making visible the inherent limitations of capitalism,” he said.

In addition to the limitations of capitalism, there also are ecological limitations we can’t ignore, he said, which means the goal can’t be raising India and China to material standards of the United States. Patnaik recognizes the need to adjust older socialist goals to new realities.

“The world simply has to be refashioned,” both in the Third World and in advanced capitalist countries, and specifically in the United States, Patnaik said, which means experiments in alternative ways of living that are not based on material measures.

“This really is a spiritual/cultural question, about what it means to live a good life,” he said, which should not be seen as foreign to socialism. “Marxism shouldn’t be reduced to productionism. The goal of socialism has always been human freedom, which is about much more than material wealth.”

“Gandhi talked about the ethical demands of nature, but I don’t like that phrase, being a socialist and anthropocentric,” Patnaik said with the hint of a grin. “But we do have to live within the limits of nature.”

The role of Marxism

It is easy to misjudge Patnaik from first impressions. Unlike many intellectuals, Patnaik does not immediately thrust himself into a discussion, and he’s soft-spoken both in conversation and from the podium. But when he does speak, his passion for justice comes through loud and clear. And, while Patnaik identifies very much as a communist, he also is quick to poke at some of the tradition’s platitudes.

“I just came from the (Communist) Party Congress, and I keep reminding everyone that they have to give up notions of a one-party State, of democratic centralism (the Leninist notion that party members are free to debate policy but must support the final decision of the party),” Patnaik said. “Democratic centralism always leads to centralism.”

If leftists reject the current dominance of finance in the world, Patnaik said it’s important to reject any suggestion that a single perspective or party should dominate.

“The hegemony of finance throttles democracy. The hegemony of finance beats you into shape,” he said. If the goal is to resist that kind of hegemony, then the approach of the old communist movement simply isn’t relevant, Patnaik said, but socialist principles are more relevant than ever.

“Any resistance has to be about opening up alternatives, opening up critical thinking to imagine those alternatives,” he said. “The only way to challenge that global regime is mass mobilization.”

Patnaik has no off-the-shelf solutions to offer, and it’s difficult to reduce his thinking to slogans. At the age of 66, when many people hold on tightly to what they believe will work, Patnaik doesn’t hesitate to say, “It’s time to invent.”

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses in media law, ethics, and politics -- and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His books include All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. His writing is published extensively in mainstream and alternative media. Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Harry Targ : Take a Deep Breath!

Image from The Blog of Progress.

Take a deep breath:
How do we build our movements?
The response of 2011 was spontaneous, passionate, daring, and electric in its transformational possibilities.
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / April 25, 2012

Over the last 14 months we have observed Arab Spring, the Wisconsin uprising, labor ferment throughout the American Heartland, and the formation of Dream coalitions. In addition Occupy movements last fall spread like wildfire all across the country and with the arrival of spring are resuming.

Most recently anti-racist mobilizations have occurred in response to the execution of Troy Davis and the murder of Trayvon Martin.

In response, socialist and progressive organizations, single issue groups, political party activists, and visible pundits have called for or organized rallies, marches, conferences, and other mobilizations in Washington D.C., Chicago, New York, and elsewhere.

Grassroots activists, motivated by a passion for change, and sometimes a sense of desperation, are on the move.

While these are exciting times for progressives and lifetime organizers, it makes sense to take a deep breath, reflect on the concrete situations of struggle we face, and ask ourselves how best to channel (and preserve) our energies and resources.

Particularly, three questions need to be addressed and readdressed as political contexts change:
  • How do we build our movements?
  • What do we want to achieve?
  • How do we decide what to do?

Building our movements

It still is the case that movements are built out of a complicated array of forms of activism. Obviously there are no easy answers or mathematical formulae but several tools are regularly used in our work.

First, education, propaganda, calls to action, and programmatic visions are communicated through the innovative use of various media. Print publications such as newspapers, pamphlets, books, and flyers have been staples of organizers since the printing press was invented. There are some communities, including my own, in which progressive newspapers are printed regularly and distributed.

Various progressive presses, such as Changemaker, have published books and edited materials not readily available to the left reading public. In some communities alternative radio and television programs tell the story of activism on a regular basis. I know of regular progressive radio shows in West Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Texas, and Oregon.

And, of course, 21st century electronics have added a broad array of blogs, listservs, Facebook and websites to the tool kit of radical communication. For all its flaws, and there are many, the Internet has dramatically democratized and made cheaper the ability to communicate messages near and far.

Second, political events provide a way of communicating to and educating audiences of potential activists. In virtually every community where progressive politics is alive and well, groups sponsor public lectures, films, concerts, and picnics and other social gatherings. The idea is to bring people together to listen and talk about key issues, hoping that such activities will recruit new members

Third, activists organize rallies, marches, sit-ins, leafleting campaigns, petition drives, and other public actions that are designed to educate and mobilize activists at the same time. These actions can make the movements more visible, if they receive media attention, and, at least, catch the eye of passersby who are concerned about the issues raised and have not yet committed to organized work to bring about change.

Fourth, organizers generally believe that the most effective but yet the most demanding work involves interpersonal interactions: door to door campaigns, tabling at public events, organizing study groups, and holding meetings that address substantive issues as well as organizational business.

Obviously, each of these forms of activism is vital to the construction of progressive groups and mass movements and if we reflect on the work that we do, all of the four forms are used. In addition, the first three forms can occur at regional or national levels as well as in local communities. The fourth, however, requires work in face-to-face communities, or in what we call the grassroots.

What do we want to achieve?

Most progressive movements are motivated by a variety of goals. Of necessity, most of the goals are short or medium range, while in the end most progressives and/or socialists are committed to the construction of a humane, democratic, and socialist society; one in which the basic needs and wants of every person are met.

Progressives want to educate. That is, they want to communicate and convince a large group of people that particular policies and the general vision of a more humane society are desirable and achievable.

Education involves presenting a compelling analysis of the nature and reasons societies are failing to meet the needs of the people, presenting an alternative vision of society that can meet peoples’ needs, and offering some explanation as to how we can move from here to there.

Progressives want to mobilize large numbers of people to their cause. The forces of reaction have vast economic resources, are positioned in the apex of powerful political and economic institutions, and oftentimes have access to the repressive apparatuses of the state. Social movements throughout history have been effective to the extent that they have been able to assemble their one potential resource, large numbers of people.

While “people power” is a slogan, it also is a fact. Again, from Tahrir Square, to Madison, Wisconsin, to Occupy Wall Street, it has been large numbers of loud, militant, and angry people who have forced their resistance on the public stage.

Progressives want to use people power to deliver demands to those who administer the state. The wealthy and powerful can communicate their wishes to policymakers in the corridors of power. The people can communicate primarily by delivering demands.

While small groups of progressives have been able to make their demands visible through bold actions that find their way sometimes into the media, we have learned over and over again that masses of people, delivering demands, have a greater likelihood of being heard and mobilizing others to the cause.

Many progressives believe that electoral work remains a powerful tool for educating, mobilizing, delivering demands and, on occasion, successfully transforming their passions into policies. In a society like our own in which “politics” is defined by most people as elections, progressives need to engage in that arena (along with other venues).

It is because of elections that activists can knock on doors, talk about single payer health care, convince people that wars in Afghanistan and other places are ill-advised, and communicate to people that the rights of workers, women, and people of color must be protected.

All of these goals require raising money and signing up new members. Organization building is both a goal and a means to achieve other goals. One of the enduring dilemmas for today’s progressives is that on the one hand vast majorities of people support progressive change when asked but only tiny minorities step forward to work to create that change.

Further, there are traditions among political activists that claim that organization-building is antithetical to political change. And, many of those who are readily available to protest, sit-in, and generally raise hell are resistant to attending meetings, debating strategy and tactics, entering names of new members on computer lists, and all the other necessities of organization building that are frankly boring.

In certain circumstances, progressives feel a need to bring institutions to a halt. Tactics such as the strike, the occupation, and the work slowdown take on a life of their own as activists seek to bring the institutions of oppression and exploitation to a halt, at least for a time.

Such actions are themselves a goal and a tool for achieving other goals. In each of the path-breaking campaigns listed at the outset, dramatic actions stimulated the creation of mass movements. Oftentimes the actions themselves spark the construction of movements for fundamental change.

Finally, some progressives have acted on the belief that alternative institutions can and should be built within the old order. Progressives learn by doing, engage in trial and error institution-building, and provide visible models for those who have not yet joined the movement. Sometimes the alternative institutions fulfill a need irrespective of the effectiveness the alternatives served in building a mass movement.

Deciding what to do

This is the perhaps the most difficult issue to address. The year 2011 was an extraordinary time in social movement history. After a long drought in America (and perhaps around the world) masses of workers, women, people of color, youth, the elderly, and people from faith communities stood up and said “no” to dictatorship, attacks on workers’ rights, the war on women, violent racism, and further destruction of the air, water, and natural landscape.

The magnitude of the uprisings probably matches the thirties or the sixties in the United States. Paradoxically, despite the long years of grassroots activism and important work done by national organizations, progressives were caught by surprise.

As a result of the shock waves of 2011 we should reflect upon the issues that need to be addressed, prioritizing work on them based on available resources. Progressives should make decisions about prioritizing short and/or long term policy and structural changes and the question of the location of venues for action at given times.

For some (I am one) politics begins at the base; that is in the communities in which activists are located. For others, coalition building at the national level must be prioritized.

What seems clear is that the forces of reaction in the United States and elsewhere are organized. They have enormous resources. They have been planning for a long time to reconstruct economic and political institutions to shift power and wealth back to the few.

Since the 1980s at least ruling elites have sought to return America to the “gilded age,” the post-civil war era when bankers and speculators ruled America without cumbersome government provisions of some rights and resources to the vast majority of people.

The response of 2011 was spontaneous, passionate, daring, and electric in its transformational possibilities. But now, progressives need to reflect on where we are, what our resources are, how to use them effectively, what priorities in action need to be developed, and how we might most effectively empower people.

Spontaneity and reflection represent two dimensions of a successful social movement. One alone will not create the kind of humane society most of us are working to achieve.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical -- and that's also the name of his new book which can be found at Lulu.com. Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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24 April 2012

David Bacon : How the Anti-Immigrant Tide Was Turned in Mississippi

Members of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance at a rally at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Jan. 12, 2011. Photo by Rogelio V. Solis / AP.

How Mississippi's black/brown strategy
beat the South's anti-immigrant wave

By David Bacon / The Rag Blog / April 24, 2012
"We worked on the conscience of people night and day, and built coalition after coalition. Over time, people have come around. The way people think about immigration in Mississippi today is nothing like the way they thought when we started." -- Mississippi State Rep. Jim Evans
JACKSON, Mississippi -- In early April, an anti-immigrant bill like those that swept through legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina was stopped cold in Mississippi. That wasn't supposed to happen.
Tea Party Republicans were confident they'd roll over any opposition. They'd brought Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who co-authored Arizona's SB 1070, into Jackson, to push for the Mississippi bill. He was seen huddled with the state representative from Brookhaven, Becky Currie, who introduced it.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, which designs and introduces similar bills into legislatures across the country, had its agents on the scene.

Their timing seemed unbeatable. Last November Republicans took control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction. Mississippi was one of the last Southern states in which Democrats controlled the legislature, and the turnover was a final triumph for Reagan and Nixon's Southern Strategy.

And the Republicans who took power weren't just any Republicans. Haley Barbour, now ironically considered a "moderate Republican," had stepped down as governor. Voters replaced him with an anti-immigrant successor, Phil Bryant, whose venom toward the foreign-born rivals Lou Dobbs.

Yet the seemingly inevitable didn't happen.

Instead, from the opening of the legislative session just after New Years, the state's Legislative Black Caucus fought a dogged rearguard war in the House. Over the last decade the caucus acquired a hard-won expertise on immigration, defeating over 200 anti-immigrant measures. After New Year's, though, they lost the crucial committee chairmanships that made it possible for them to kill those earlier bills. But they did not lose their voice.

"We forced a great debate in the House, until 1:30 in the morning," says State Representative Jim Evans, caucus leader and AFL-CIO staff member in Mississippi. "When you have a prolonged debate like that, it shows the widespread concern and disagreement. People began to see the ugliness in this measure."

Like all of Kobach's and ALEC's bills, HB 488 stated its intent in its first section: "to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state agencies and local governments." In other words, to make life so difficult and unpleasant for undocumented people that they'd leave the state.

And to that end, it said people without papers wouldn't be able to get as much as a bicycle license or library card, and that schools had to inform on the immigration status of their students. It mandated that police verify the immigration status of anyone they arrest, an open invitation to racial profiling.

"The night HB 488 came to the floor, many black legislators spoke against it," reports Bill Chandler, director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, "including some who'd never spoken out on immigration before. One objected to the use of the term 'illegal alien' in its language, while others said it justified breaking up families and ethnic cleansing." Even many white legislators were inspired to speak against it.

Nevertheless, the bill was rammed through the House. Then it reached the Senate, controlled by Republicans for some years, and presided over by a more moderate Republican, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves. Reeves could see the widespread opposition to the bill, even among employers, and was less in lock step with the Tea Party's anti-immigrant agenda than other Republicans.

Although Democrats had just lost all their committee chairmanships in the house, Reeves appointed a rural Democrat to chair one of the Senate's two judiciary committees. He then sent that bill to that committee, chaired by Hob Bryan. And Bryan killed it.

On the surface, it appears that fissures inside the Republican Party facilitated the bill's defeat. But they were not that defeat's cause. As the debate and maneuvering played out in the capitol building, its halls were filled with angry protests, while noisy demonstrations went on for days until the bill's final hour.

That grassroots upsurge produced political alliances that cut deeply into the bill's support, including calls for rejection by the state's sheriffs' and county supervisors associations, the Mississippi Economic Council (its chamber of commerce), and employer groups from farms to poultry packers.

That upsurge was not spontaneous, nor the last minute product of emergency mobilizations. "We wouldn't have had a chance against this without 12 years of organizing work," Evans explains.

"We worked on the conscience of people night and day, and built coalition after coalition. Over time, people have come around. The way people think about immigration in Mississippi today is nothing like the way they thought when we started."

Evans, Chandler, attorney Patricia Ice, Father Jerry Tobin, activist Kathy Sykes, union organizer Frank Curiel, and other veterans of Mississippi's social movements came together at the end of the 1990s not to stop a bill 12 years later but to build political power. Their vehicle was the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, and a partnership with the Legislative Black Caucus and other coalitions fighting on most of the progressive issues facing the state.

Their strategy has been based on the state's changing demographics. Over the last two decades, the percentage of African-Americans in Mississippi's population has been rising. Black families driven from jobs by factory closings and unemployment in the north have been moving back south, reversing the movement of the decades of the Great Migration. Today at least 37 percent of Mississippi's people are African-Americans, the highest percentage of any state in the country.

Then, starting with the boom in casino construction in the early 1990s, immigrants from Mexico and Central America, displaced by NAFTA and CAFTA, began migrating into the state as well. Poultry plants, farms, and factories hired them. Guest workers were brought to work in Gulf Coast reconstruction and shipyards. "Today we have established Latino communities," Chandler explains. "The children of the first immigrants are now arriving at voting age."

In MIRA's political calculation, blacks and immigrants, plus unions, are the potential pillars of a powerful political coalition. HB 488's intent to drive immigrants from Mississippi is an effort to make that coalition impossible.

MIRA is not just focused on defeating bad bills, however. It built a grassroots base by fighting immigration raids at the Howard Industries plant in Laurel in 2008, and in other worksites as well. Its activist staff helped families survive sweeps in apartment houses and trailer parks. They brought together black workers suspicious of the Latino influx, and immigrant families worried about settling in a hostile community. Political unity, based in neighborhoods, protects both groups, they said.

For unions organizing poultry plants, factories, and casinos MIRA became a resource helping to win over immigrant workers. It brought labor violation cases against Gulf employers in the wake of Katrina. Yet despite being on opposing sides, employers and MIRA recognized they had a mutual interest in fighting HB 488. Both opposed workplace immigration raids and enforcement, which are based on the same "attrition through enforcement" idea.

Since 1986 U.S. immigration law has forbidden undocumented people from working by making it illegal for employers to hire them. Called "employer sanctions," the enforcement of this law (part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), especially under the Bush and Obama administrations, has caused the firing of thousands of workers.

Yet over the last decade, Congressional proposals for comprehensive immigration reform have called for strengthening sanctions, and increasing raids and firings. "That's why we didn't support those bills," Chandler says.

"They violate the human rights of working people to feed their families. For employers, that opposition was a meeting point. They didn't like workplace enforcement either. All their associations claimed they didn't hire undocumented workers, but we all know who's working in the plants. We want people to stay as much as the employers do. Forcing people from their jobs forces them to leave -- an ethnic cleansing tactic."

During the protests Ice, Sykes, and others underlined the point by handing legislators sweet potatoes with labels saying, "I was picked by immigrant workers who together contribute $82 million to the state's economy."

MIRA, however, also fought guest worker programs used by Mississippi casinos and shipyards to recruit workers with few labor rights. "When it came to HB 488 employers were tactical allies," Chandler cautions. Unions, on the other hand, are members of the MIRA coalition.

While MIRA and employers saw a mutual interest in opposing the bill, MIRA helps unions when they try to organize the workers of those same employers, and helps workers defend themselves when employers violate their rights. MIRA, in fact, was started by activists like Chandler, Evans, and Curiel, who all have a long history of labor activity in Mississippi.

When HB 488 hit, busses brought in members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529 from poultry plants in Scott County, Laborers from Laurel, Retail, Wholesale union members from Carthage. Black catfish workers from Indianola, and electrical union members from Crystal Spring. The black labor mobilization was largely organized by new pro-immigrant leadership of the state chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the AFL-CIO constituency group for black union members.

Catholic congregations, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutherans, Muslims, and Jews also brought people to protest HB 488, as did the Mississippi Human Services Coalition -- a result of a long history working on immigrant issues.

And groups around MIRA and the Black Caucus not only fought that bill, but others introduced by Tea Party Republicans as well. One would ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected. Another promotes charter schools. A third would restrict access to workers compensation benefits, while another would strip civil service protection from state employees.

Dr. Ivory Phillips, a MIRA director and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Jackson Public Schools, explains that charter school proposals, voter ID bills, and anti-immigrant measures are all linked. "Because white supremacists fear losing their status as the dominant group in this country, there is a war against brown people today, just as there has long been a war against black people," he says.

"In all three cases -- charter schools, 'immigration reform' and voter ID -- what we are witnessing is an anti-democratic surge, a rise in overt racism, and a refusal to provide opportunities to all."

Tea Party supporters also saw these issues linked together. In the wake of the charter school debate during the same period the immigration bill was defeated, a crowd gathered around Representative Reecy Dickson, a leading Black Caucus member, in which she was shoved and called racist epithets.

"Because of our history we had a relationship with our allies," Chandler concludes. "We need political alliances that mean something in the long term -- permanent alliances, and a strategy for winning political power. That includes targeted voter registration that focuses on specific towns, neighborhoods, and precincts."

Despite the national importance of stopping the Southern march of the anti-immigrant bills, however, the resources for the effort were almost all local. MIRA emptied its bank account fighting HB 488. Additional money came mostly from local units of organizations like the UAW, UNITE HERE, and the Muslim Association.

"The resources of the national immigrant rights movement should prioritize preventing bills from passing as much as fighting them after the fact," Chandler warns.

On the surface, the fight in Jackson was a defensive battle waged in the wake of the Republican legislative takeover of the legislature. And the Tea Party still threatens to bring HB 488 back until it passes.

Yet Evans, who also chairs MIRA's board, believes that time is on the side of social change. "These Republicans still have tricks up their sleeves," he cautions. "We're worried about redistricting, and a Texas-style stacking of the deck. But in the end, we still believe our same strategy will build power in Mississippi. We don't see last November as a defeat but as the last stand of the Confederacy."

[David Bacon is a California-based writer and photographer. His latest book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, was published by Beacon Press. His photographs and stories can be found at dbacon.igc.org. This article was published at web edition of The Nation and was crossposted to The Rag Blog. Read more of David Bacon's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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