Saturday, June 09, 2018

"Meanwhile capitalism does what it does — mostly unabated — and inequality once again becomes the scourge of our times."

The book is Radicals in America: The US Left Since the Second World War, by Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps. I have not read the book, although maybe there'll be time to do so soon, but the point of mentioning it, and excerpting the final section of Hartman's assessment, is to draw a line in the anchor crosswalks.

Hartman's essay is comprehensible to me. In short, I know what he's talking about, and referring to. If you're running for local office as a Democrat, and ask me for my vote, I'll be asking you to display a working knowledge of the history recounted by Hartman. It's as simple as that.

If you can't, then off my porch you'll be going.

It's not about expressing lockstep agreement; it's about being familiar with the material. If you're identifying as a Democrat, then I need to know where you stand in the context of what's being discussed in books like this.

As a Democratic candidate for office, if you can't comment sensibly about matters like this, you're wasting my time.

Got it?

Beyond the Whack-a-Mole Left, by Andrew Hartman (Jacobin)

Though often condemned to the fringes of American political life, the radical left has changed the course of US history.

 ... Brick and Phelps are not entirely without hope. They point to “green shoots,” including the millennial embrace of socialism, which since their book was published has gained political force through the Sanders campaign.

But grizzled historians that they are, Brick and Phelps remain skeptical that a movement capable of a mainstream left-wing revival is visible:

If new layers of youth had come to see capitalism as unstable, destructive, and inequitable, how to connect that observation to imaginative political practice, how to challenge the established order and offer plausible visions of a better future that popular movements can bring into being — in other words, how to move from margin to mainstream — remained opaque.

In spite of their pessimism, Radicals in America highlights some left-wing successes — with the qualification that “radicalism becomes invisible, paradoxically, in its victories.” One such invisible victory — the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects the rights of a previously excluded group of Americans — occurred due to radical organizing and protest.

But one of the reasons left-wing successes like the ADA feel so fleeting is because their effects seem far removed from the labor question that informed a more cohesive American left before 1945.

When it comes to the question of labor — or, more accurately, when it comes to class struggle — the Right is winning. The Left’s invisible victories need to be understood alongside this perplexing fact. As Brick and Phelps write in their shrewd conclusion:

Following the high point of the cascading radicalizations that ran from the 1950s through the 1970s, American political history shows two seemingly antithetical trends: one conservative, toward growing inequality, weakened unions, and an emphasis on private, market relations as a way of life; the other liberalizing, toward greater participation by women and people of color in most aspects of social, economic, and political leadership and a dramatic easing of sexual proscription to make gay and lesbian identities more legitimate.

There is an enormous difference between “liberalizing social relations,” which radicals can chalk up as a victory, and “democratizing and equalizing social relations,” which the Left has failed miserably at achieving. As Brick and Phelps rhetorically ask:

What does it mean that anyone of color can sit in the front of the bus, for example, or that it contains a wheelchair lift, if buses, heavily used by the working poor and elderly, now come with much less frequency and at greater cost to riders because of privatizations and cuts to public transit budgets?

Radicals in America offers a powerful history of how the Left has both succeeded and failed to bring its views into the center of American political life. The fight for gay marriage is a prime example of how once-radical ideas can become widely accepted.

But to make victories like these more substantive and widely shared, we need a broad socialist movement in the United States. Our task is to bring that marginalized idea into the mainstream.

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