Saturday, April 27, 2013

San Francisco Pride's Jingoistic Insult to Bradley Manning

Yesterday San Francisco Pride, the organization responsible for organizing the yearly San Francisco Pride Parade, released this statement on its Facebook page:
SF Pride Statement about Bradley Manning 
26 April 2013: Bradley Manning will not be a grand marshal in this year's San Francisco Pride celebration. His nomination was a mistake and should never have been allowed to happen. A staff person at SF Pride, acting under his own initiative, prematurely contacted Bradley Manning based on internal conversations within the SF Pride organization. That was an error and that person has been disciplined. He does not now, nor did he at that time, speak for SF Pride.
Bradley Manning is facing the military justice system of this country. We all await the decision of that system. However, until that time, even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms (sic) way the lives of our men and women in uniform -- and countless others, military and civilian alike -- will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride. It is, and would be, an insult to every one, gay and straight, who has ever served in the military of this country. There are many, gay and straight, military and non-military, who believe Bradley Manning to be innocent. There are many who feel differently. Under the US Constitution, they have a first amendment right to show up, participate and voice their opinions at Pride this year.
Specifically, what these events have revealed is a system whereby a less-than-handful of people may decide who represents the LGBT community's highest aspirations as grand marshals for SF Pride. This is a systemic failure that now has become apparent and will be rectified. In point of fact, less than 15 people actually cast votes for Bradley Manning. These 15 people are part of what is called the SF Pride Electoral College, comprised of former SF Pride Grand Marshals. However, as an organization with a responsibility to serve the broader community, SF Pride repudiates this vote. The Board of Directors for SF Pride never voted to support this nomination. Bradley Manning will have his day in court, but will not serve as an official participant in the SF Pride Parade.
-- Lisa L. Williams, SF Pride Board President
I can't comment on the internal politics of SF Pride because I am not a party to them.  I do, however, want to focus on the ideology of this statement from the group whose mission it is to "educate the world, commemorate our heritage, celebrate our culture, and liberate our people."

First of all, there is a factually false suggestion in this statement: Bradley Manning never "placed in harm's way the lives of our men and women in uniform."  This claim is contradicted by the US military:

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell has said previously that there was no evidence that anyone had been killed because of the leaks. Sunday, another Pentagon official told McClatchy that the military still has no evidence that the leaks have led to any deaths. The official didn't want to be named because of the issue's sensitivity.

Read more here:
Other US officials characterized the cables as "Embarrassing, but not damaging" to US interests.  Former CIA director Robert Gates measured the impact as "fairly modest."

Secondly, for SF Pride to be consistent, I would hope that SF Pride does not associate with anyone that "placed in harm's way the lives of our men and women in uniform."  This would include all political leaders who have ordered the US military into war or similar military action which, plainly, puts soldiers at bodily risk.  However, I am not aware of any statement from SF Pride denouncing this class of people.

Thirdly, saying that associating with a whistleblower that leaked secret documents to the press is "an insult to everyone, gay and straight, who has ever served in the military of this country" is highly dubious.  There are many current and former members of the military that no doubt feel quite differently.  

There is a larger question of why the preferences of military members (assuming, for the sake of argument, as the statement seems to, that all of them oppose Manning's actions, which is plainly false) should be privileged over the preferences of anyone else in society.  There is a wide spectrum of opinion on Manning's actions and current predicament among the US public.  Many who value government transparency, peace and scholarship are quite indebted to Manning's actions.

But the answer is all too plain: this is politics over principle.  Kevin Gosztola reveals that the statement's author, Lisa Williams, has deep ties to the Democratic Party machine.  That is, of course, the same party whose "commander in chief" has Manning in military custody.

SF Pride's statement on Manning is a spineless, cowardly and jingoistic missive that from an organization that claims to want to "liberate" Manning. 

I encourage anyone interested in Manning's plight to support the Bradley Manning Support Network.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book Review: What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz

There are deep problems in the American socio-economic environment that are currently going unaddressed by the political system.  Any astute observer of current events is very familiar with them: corporate control of the political system, increasing economic inequality, environmental degradation, stagnating or declining real wages for the majority of the population, unsustainable increases in personal debt and working hours and health care costs, growing individual alienation, etc.  How can progressives stop and, indeed, reverse these negative trends?

Gar Alperovitz casts his hat into this ring with his new, short (less than 200 pages) book What Then Must We Do?  Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution.  This work follows in the tradition of his previous efforts, as he notes in the Afterword, such as America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy.  What follows in the next several paragraphs is a summary of the book's main argument.

The two eras of modern progressive change in America were the post-Great Depression New Deal age and the post-World War II welfare reformism age.  Neither of these, Alperovitz contends, is similar to our present historical moment.  

First of all, a Depression-style economic collapse is unlikely for several reasons.  The size of government spending is 30-35% of GDP, as opposed to many times less before the Depression (which is less prone to dramatic fluctuation); stabilizers such as food stamps provide a floor for many individuals; there exists more contemporary knowledge about how economics works; the population now holds government accountable for a well-performing economy; and most importantly, political leaders (as they did in 2008) will act to avoid a catastrophic economic collapse.  It seems much more likely that the economy will continue to limp along in an Endless Crisis style stagnation of mature capitalism, punctuated by crises.

Secondly, a post-World War II style situation is also unlikely because the advent of nuclear weapons makes large-scale state conflict unlikely.  That, in turn, means that the large-scale economic stimulus and social changes (black population migration and employment, increasing numbers of women in industry, welfare and economic and technological programs that grew out of wartime arrangements -- GI Bill, etc.) are also unlikely.  Military spending is currently 5% of GDP and declining.  

Large progressive Keynesian spending outside of a military context seems implausible given the stranglehold of corporate America, which has little short-term interest in such spending, on the political system.  Tax-and-redistribute strategies also seem set up for failure: "Tax-raising strategies have also often been self-limiting, and they tend to help groups trying to bolster the status quo drum up taxpayer anger to support their side."

Furthermore, both of these progressive historical periods exhibited strong labor union activity.  In other countries where within-the-system change is possible, too, unionization rates are much higher.  In America, however, unionization rates are low and declining.  Therefore the reformist route to progressive change does not seem promising.  Besides, reformist changes to programs that recently have been "won" are usually slight modifications to long-established systems -- "Obamacare" being a case in point.

"The old way of proceeding is now coming slowly but steadily to an end," Alperovitz proclaims -- an alternative strategy must be found.  So, what then must we do?

Alperovitz notes that "For the most part political-economic systems are largely defined by the way property is owned and controlled... It tends to produce political as well as economic power."  Logically, he reasons that a future system must democratize ownership of various parts of the society in order to exhibit democratic political tendencies.

Alperovitz advocates a heterogeneous approach to socio-economic transformation.  He identifies "evolutionary reconstruction," "checkerboard strategies" and "crisis transformations" as the means to achieve the eventual a vision, a "pluralist commonwealth."

By "evolutionary reconstruction," Alperovitz means rebuilding the existing institutions of society along more democratic lines.  He notes that many such structures already exist -- credit unions, co-ops, land trusts, public utilities, etc. -- and will increasingly be welcomed as options as the existing ways of doing business continue to fail the American public.  Alperovitz writes, "I have termed change of this kind evolutionary reconstruction to distinguish it from reform, on the one hand, and revolution on the other."

Checkerboard strategies mean, in Alperovitz's words, "The game of politics out there is not monolithic.  It actually involves lots of different squares on the board -- some of which are blocked but others of which... may be open for doing something interesting.  It also suggests that there may be a longer-term strategic option on the board."  He cites many examples of policies (too many to list here), such as using the purchasing power of local schools and hospitals to stabilize local economies.

"Crisis transformations" refers to using a reverse Shock Doctrine strategy to assert public control over important sectors of the economy when their flagship institutions fail spectacularly.  Alperovitz cites banking and health care as two verticals that seem ripe for this strategy in the not too distant future.  He observes that the national takeover of General Motors is a precedent (although flawed) for such an event.  Alperovitz emphasizes that a strategic outlook is key: "Evolutionary reconstructive change... and temporary and occasional crisis transformations... might become strategic political ideas rather than random developments and events."

Alperovitz is careful to lace qualifiers throughout the book that the comprehensive vision he is offering is preliminary: "Many of the big issues... can't be handled in any other way than what is best termed informed speculation."  Nevertheless, he does see inevitable change on the horizon: "I am cautious about predictions of inevitability -- including the assumed inevitability, dictated from on high, that nothing fundamental can ever change."

Personally, I find Alperovitz's framing of the present historical moment compelling, and his explanation of why other routes to change will fail convincing, but I remain a bit skeptical about his prescriptions for progressive transformation.  

First of all, it seems that corporations are increasingly looking to more local governments in order to assert their authority.  Noam Chomsky has expressed a concern that weakening the power of the federal government plays into the hands of corporations, who find it much easier to bully smaller state and local administrations.  In this light, increasing decentralization as a strategy seems questionable.

Second, Alperovitz proposes crisis transformations as a means of democratizing firms and industries that happen to be in crisis, but what about the commanding heights of industry that are about to imminently fail; how is the public to assert control over those (telecommunications, energy extraction, etc.)?  The less of a strategy that the public has to seize these means of production, the more that a movement based around co-ops will become, in Rosa Luxemburg's words, an attack on "twigs of the capitalist tree."

Third, some passages in the book raise the question of what transformation, exactly, Alperovitz has in mind.  In one passage he remarks, "Small local businesses and many medium-sized firms, especially high-tech businesses, are critical to the future of any serious economy."  So, for instance, are Silicon Valley startups part of this transformation process?  What role will they play?

Alperovitz will be appearing to present his book at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley on Thursday, April 25th at 7:30pm.

Update I had the chance to ask Gar some questions at the above-mentioned appearance (albeit in the brief, imperfect, and indirect way that a moderated Q+A and book signing provides).  With regard to the commanding heights criticism, he remarked that "You wouldn't want to get to the commanding heights if you didn't know what to do with them."  He emphasized that the democratic transformation of the economy would be bottom up, with the major industries the last to go.  With regard to Silicon Valley, he opined that the technology industry in the Bay Area would probably be the last to go co-op since capitalism is working out so (relatively) well for those companies.  The democratic transformation Gar proposes is being embraced by communities who really see no other way out of their economic plight -- that is, they are the communities which capitalism has failed.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Review: The Democracy Project by David Graeber

David Graeber has been writing about the Occupy Wall Street movement ever since he played a role in birthing it, but he pulls together his most comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon to date in his latest book The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement.

The book is a collection of several essays relating to Occupy.  The first, after the short introduction, “The Beginning is Near,” is a firsthand account of the genesis of Occupy in New York.  Graeber takes the reader through the many meetings, discussions, rivalries and confusions through which Occupy emerged.  Graeber ends with a play-by-play recollection of the first day of Occupy.  

The second chapter, “Why did it work?”, attempts to answer the question of why Occupy succeeded where other social movements failed to get any traction.  The chapter is structured as answers to several sub-questions -- for instance, “Why was the US media coverage of OWS so different from virtually all previous coverage of left-wing protest movements since the 1960s?” and “Why did the movement refuse to make demands of or engage with the existing political system?”

The third chapter, “The Mob Begin to Think and to Reason” doesn’t address Occupy directly, but rather is a discussion of “The Covert History of Democracy.”  The chapter hammers home the oft-misunderstood point that the framers of America actually hated democracy, and the American political system only began to be misleadingly called “democracy” decades after the Constitution was written.  The chapter’s purview is broader than the American experience, however, and touches on different systems of elections, such as sortition in Florence.

In the fourth chapter, “How Change Happens,” Graeber observers “It would be impossible to write a how-to guide for nonviolent uprisings, a modern day Rules for Radicals.”  Instead, he concentrates on a “series of practical ideas and suggestions” germane to social movements, addressing consensus, direct action, civil disobedience, camping and police.

The fifth and final chapter, “Breaking the Spell” is a slightly modified version of the Baffler essay A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse.  Graeber asks the “much vexed question: What is a revolution?”  He muses on the question a bit before examining a “number of pieces of conventional wisdom that surely need challenging if we are to create any sort of viable free society” regarding work, employment, bureaucracy and communism.  Graeber ends the book on a hopeful note:

As the events of 2011 reveal, the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.

For close followers of Graeber, the themes and even the content of the book will be familiar;  Graeber cribs liberally from past works.  For instance, his discussion of police behavior echoes his sentiments in his previous essay On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets and his discussion of “western civilization” seems to be a quick overview of his There Never Was a West.

Graeber is at his best when he is exploding conventional wisdom.  In the introduction he argues that “middle class” has never been an economic category and instead has been about “that feeling of stability and security that comes from being able to simply assume that... everyday institutions like the police... are basically on your side.”  He writes of the suggestion that Occupy issue a list of demands: “If one were compiling a scrapbook of worst advice ever given, this sort of thing might well merit an honorable place.”

Everyone interested in public affairs and American politics will find something to like in this book.  Those unacquainted with the philosophy of Occupy will appreciate the Occupy-for-Dummies style FAQs about the movement.  Hardcore activists can gain insight from the de-fetishization of the consensus process in chapter four.  Anyone that likes a thrilling story will enjoy the descriptions of machinations and manoeuvres of various political groups (“In the spectrum of activists, the [Workers World Party] is probably on the opposite pole from anarchists, but the [International Socialist Organization] is annoyingly in the middle: as close as you can get to a horizontal group while still not actually being one.”) in the days leading up to the occupation.  

Different retellings of Occupy history have been and will be written, and Graeber’s opinions about why the movement succeeded deserve to be debated and challenged.  Regardless, the book is a worthy entry into the pantheon of Occupy-related literature from an individual who was a key player in the movement’s crystallization.