What next for struggle in the Obama era?

November 5, 2008

Millions of people have been waiting for Election Day 2008, when the Bush regime would finally fall. The book is about to shut--or slam, more like it--on eight terrible years of Republican rule in the White House.

As people on the left celebrate the end of a rotten regime, it’s also time to ask: What kind of change will an Obama administration bring? SocialistWorker.org brings together a roundtable of activists and writers on the left to discuss what new openings they see with an Obama administration in power--and what challenges still lie ahead for social justice movements.

Howard Zinn

Historian and veteran activist Howard Zinn is the author of the classic book A People's History of the United States.

I CONFESS I am excited by the thought of Obama becoming president, even though I am painfully aware of his limitations--his smooth, articulate intelligence covering up a quite traditional approach to domestic and foreign policy, aided and abetted by a group of advisers recycled from the Clinton administration and other parts of the Establishment.

Does he really think Robert Rubin will come up with a bold approach to the economy? Or that Madeleine Albright will carve a new path in foreign policy? (It was she who ran around the country in 1998 to defend Clinton's bombing of Iraq, warning of "weapons of mass destruction.")

If Richard Hofstadter were adding to his book The American Political Tradition, in which he found both "conservative" and "liberal" presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, maintaining for dear life the two critical characteristics of the American system, nationalism and capitalism, Obama would fit the pattern.

His obsequious joining with McCain in approving the $700 billion "bailout" for the financial giants is a sad sign. See my article (I say arrogantly) in a recent issue of the Nation about the bailout, as a futile "trickle-down" act, instead of using the money directly for the people Obama claims to represent.

So it will take a revivified social movement to do for Obama what the strikers and tenant organizers and unemployed councils and agitators of the early 1930s did for FDR, pushing him into new paths, so angering the superrich that FDR, in one of his best moments, said, "They hate me, and I welcome their hatred!"

Obama needs such fire. It is up to us, the citizenry--and non-citizens too!--to ignite it.

Mike Davis

Writer, historian and socialist activist Mike Davis is the author of several books, including Planet of Slums, In Praise of Barbarians and City of Quartz.

FORTY YEARS ago this week, the Democratic Party (the party of Jim Crow and the Cold War, as well as the New Deal) shipwrecked itself on the shoals of an unpopular war in Vietnam and a white backlash against racial equality.

The "emerging Republican majority," as Nixon's Machiavelli, Kevin Phillips, famously branded it, was always episodic and often paper-thin in national elections, but it was galvanized by impressive ideological and religious fervor, as well as lavishly subsidized by an employer class everywhere on the offensive against New Deal unions and social programs.

Republicans, although more often than not the minority party in Congress, dominated agendas (the New Cold War, the tax revolt, war on drugs and so on) and led the restructuring of government functions (abolition of direct federal aid to cities, deliberate use of debt to forestall social spending and so).

The Democratic response to the Reagan revolution from 1981 was not principled resistance but craven adaptation. The "New Democrats" under Bill Clinton (whose personal model was Richard Nixon) not only institutionalized Nixon-Reagan economic policies, but sometimes surpassed Republicans in their zeal to enforce neoliberal doctrine, as with Clinton's crusades to "reform" welfare (in fact to create more poverty), reduce the deficit and implement NAFTA without labor rights.

Although the New Deal working-class core continued to supply 60 percent of the Democratic vote, party policy was largely driven by the Clintons' infatuation with "new economy" elites, entertainment industry moguls, affluent suburbanites, yuppie gentrifiers and, of course, the world according to Goldman Sachs.

Crucial defections by Democratic voters to Bush in 2000 and 2004 had less to due with Republican manipulation of "family values" than with Gore's and Kerry's embrace of a globalization that had devastated mill towns and industrial valleys.

This week's election paradoxically augurs both fundamental realignment and fundamental continuity.

The Republicans now know what 1968 was like for the Democrats. Blue victories in formerly bedrock Red suburbs are stunning invasions of the enemy's electoral heartland, comparable to George Wallace's and Richard Nixon's victories more than a generation ago in Northern ethnic-white, CIO neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the desperate marriage-in-hell of Palin and McCain warns of the imminent divorce of mega-church faithful and the country-club sinners. The Bush coalition built by Karl Rove's thuggish genius is breaking up.

More importantly, tens of millions of voters have reversed the verdict of 1968: this time choosing economic solidarity over racial division. Indeed, this election has been a virtual plebiscite on the future of class-consciousness in the United States, and the vote--thanks especially to working women--is an extraordinary vindication of progressive hopes.

But not the Democratic candidate, about whom we should not harbor any illusions. Although the economic crisis as well as the particular dynamics of campaigning in industrial swing states finally drove Obama to emphasize jobs, his "socialism" has been far too polite to acknowledge vast public anger about the criminal bailout or even to criticize big oil (as has off-and-on populist McCain).

In policy terms, what would have been the difference if Hillary Clinton had won instead? Perhaps a marginally better health care plan, but otherwise the result is virtually the same. Indeed it might be argued that Obama is more a prisoner of the Clinton legacy than the Clintons themselves.

Waiting in the wings to define his first 100 days is a team of Wall Street statesmen, "humanitarian" imperialists, ice-blooded political operatives and recycled Republican "realists," which will thrill hearts from the Council on Foreign Relations to the International Monetary Fund. Despite the fantasies of "hope" and "change" projected onto the handsome mask of the new president, his administration will be dominated by well-known, pre-programmed zombies of the center-right. Clinton 2.0.

Confronted with the Great Depression of globalization, of course, the American ship of state, whatever the crew, would probably sail off the edge of the known world.

Only three things, in my opinion, are highly likely:

First, there is no hope whatsoever of the spontaneous generation of a new New Deal (or for that matter, of Rooseveltian liberals) without the combustion of massive social struggles.

Second, after the brief Woodstock of an Obama inauguration, millions of hearts will be broken by the administration's inability to manage mass bankruptcy and unemployment, as well as end the wars in the Middle East.

Third, the Bushites may be dead, but the hate-spewing nativist Right (particularly the Lou Dobbs wing) is well-positioned for a dramatic revival as neoliberal solutions fail.

The great challenge to small bands of the left is to anticipate this mass disillusionment, understanding that our task is not "how to move Obama leftward," but to salvage and reorganize shattered hopes. The transitional program must be socialism itself.

Sharon Smith

Sharon Smith is the author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States and Women and Socialism.

IT IS worth remembering that only 50 years ago, African Americans were denied the right to even cast a vote in presidential elections, much less run for office. These rights were won only after the massive struggles of the civil rights movement finally broke the Democratic Party from its segregationist legacy.

Obama's victory marks a blow against racism of similarly historic proportion. Despite McCain's and Palin's best efforts to whip up racial animosity toward Obama, they failed to garner a majority of voters for their hate-filled campaign. To be sure, the changing demographics of the U.S. voting population has reduced the relative importance of the white vote, while boosting that of Blacks, Latinos and other immigrants.

But contrary to pundits' claims, many white workers enthusiastically voted for the Black candidate in the 2008 election. Obama's victory would have been impossible without them.

Racism--stoked and enforced from above--has held a chokehold over the U.S. labor movement since its inception, as evidenced by the failure of unions to gain a foothold in the South. As long as white workers mistakenly believe that they share more in common with their white exploiters than with their Black or immigrant fellow workers, labor loses. At long last, the working-class movement is poised to begin moving forward after decades of decline.

Obama's election does not mean that racism has disappeared overnight. On the contrary, McCain/Palin rallies have drawn racists by the thousands, who were then emboldened by the vitriol emanating from the stage. Police brutality, racial disparities in jobs and education, and housing segregation will all continue as before, no matter who is in the White House, until there is a renewed struggle explicitly against racism.

But Obama's victory also represents a surge in class consciousness and a decisive rejection of neoliberal policies that have lowered working-class living standards around the world for more than three decades. Opinion polls have shown popular sentiment shifting leftward on nearly every social issue, from the Iraq war to same-sex marriage in recent years.

If there is a historic parallel for the class dynamics at work in the 2008 election, it would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt's victory in 1932. Roosevelt's win, like Obama's, was the product of mass class anger in an era of unfettered corporate greed that discredited the free market.

Although Roosevelt vaguely promised voters a "New Deal," it took pressure from below to determine the content of presidential policy during the Depression era. The scale of the class struggle was such that workers not only won the legal right to unionize and other working-class reforms, but also tipped the balance of class forces in favor of workers for decades to come.

We have not seen a rise in class struggle for more than three decades in the U.S. But the class anger on display in this election could well be a prelude to such a rise in coming years. Obama has promised "change," but the scale of change that is needed requires mass struggle from below.

Tariq Ali

Historian and novelist Tariq Ali is a veteran activist of the social movements of the 1960s and '70s. His books include The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power and Pirates of the Caribbean.

THE FORMER head of British intelligence recently stated that in her view, the whole concept of a "war on terror" was misguided from the beginning--that it is an overreaction to a terrorist attack.

If this view is shared by her colleagues in the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, then we could begin to see some changes in U.S. foreign policy under an Obama administration--in particular, a reversion to the tried-and-tested way of defending U.S. interests by relying on local relays.

This would entail using the Pakistani government to look after Afghanistan, and a post-Ahmadinejad Iran to do the same for Iraq. The reason for this is that both the wars have been a disaster.

Obama's views about Afghanistan/Pakistan are seriously misguided, to put it mildly. The fact that the U.S. is engaged (and has been for some time) in direct talks with the neo-Taliban resistance is a serious indication that they regard the war as lost.

The neo-Taliban have told Washington's emissaries that they will not enter any coalition as long as there are foreign troops on Afghan soil. Afterward, they are open to offers. Surely Obama knew this was going on. Expanding the war to Pakistan would destabilize that country even further. How does that help anyone?

In Latin America, U.S. foreign policy is characterized by a great deal of confusion. Under discussion are plans to repeat Nixon's trip to Beijing with an Obama flight to Havana. The problem here would be that preaching the virtues of neoliberal capitalism will sound a bit hollow after the capitalist debacle in the West.

To continue the Cheney line on Venezuela and Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay, would be totally counterproductive, since what has failed already will not succeed even with a more human face at the helm. Even the pro-U.S. states like Chile and Brazil are opposed to any new U.S. adventures.

From day one of the Obama victory, which will unleash a wave of high expectations on the domestic and global fronts, activist pressure is crucial to achieve anything. I think antiwar activists should turn up in large numbers to the inauguration with banners reading, "Congrats Barack, now out of Kabul and Iraq!"

Ken Riley

Ken Riley is president of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C.

ELECTION DAY has been phenomenal in South Carolina. Among young African Americans, the idea of not voting is unpopular and uncool.

I was in line to vote early on Election Day and saw a lot of young people I knew--I couldn't believe they were 18 already. I gave one young man who just turned 18 a ride to vote, and he couldn't have been more proud. That's the kind of energy and excitement we have in the African American community in Charleston. We expect 2,000 people at the union hall tonight.

These are very difficult times, and a complicated economy. Some of the factors affecting our economy we have never faced before. For us in organized labor in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, one of the most important things about an Obama administration is whether we get the Employee Free Choice Act [proposed legislation that would make it easier to join unions]. We hope that it would also have an impact on the anti-union laws in the public sector here.

The election shows that trickle-down economics just doesn't cut it. I think the Obama victory is going to help people become organized in general and more involved. You do not get this excited and optimistic about the future just because the first African American is elected president--you want to see this administration succeed.

Therefore, you won't see people cast a vote and back off. There will be significant organizing. If there is such a thing as trickle-down, that is what's going to trickle down.

Donna Smith

Health care activist Donna Smith, who was featured in the movie Sicko, is the national coordinator of American Patients United.

I THINK most of us are walking around with a little bit of knot in our stomachs, almost afraid to really hope that this will come out a win. It's a scary time, but at the same time, assuming Obama wins this election, and they get a few more progressive members in the House, I think our work is just only begun.

I think there is so much that is fundamentally wrong with the way we've been running our government for the last several years. And I'm not talking about just the last eight years. We had some years running up to those eight years that were not necessarily the most hopeful for people who were working, and middle class and lower class. It's been a difficult 30 years.

There's a lot of tough work ahead of us, and all of us are going to be required to work together in ways we maybe have not in the past.

So I think the gift that has been given to us by the Obama campaign beyond ending the reign of Bush and Cheney is that we know that if we organize together, we can change things.

It's going to be tough. I think the fight is going to be as tough, if not tougher, going into the next few months for single-payer. We are going to be clearer than we've been in the past about single-payer being the right way to go.

I think we're going to see lots of moves by lots of people to quickly do some reform that isn't necessarily going to fix the system. It may expand coverage options for some Americans, but may not fix what is broken in the system, which is the middleman in health care, the for-profit health care industry and what they're doing to our ability to access health care.

So I think in the effort to do something quickly, we might not do what's smart. I think those of us who support single-payer are going to have to be very directed and very clear, and are going to make ourselves very organized to accomplish our goal.

What we have to bear in mind always is that electing one individual cannot possibly fix all the systems that we need fixed. It's only a step toward perhaps a more open government. I think this is the hope we all have. But to think the election of Obama or a more progressive Congress is going to immediately launch us into a new dawn is just not realistic.

It's going to take continued, hard and focused work to clean up the mess that's been in place since the Reagan revolution. The full impact on working people of the Reagan revolution has taken a while to play out in its full flavor, as far as I'm concerned. And I feel like it will take us a little time to clean it up.

And in the process, people are going to suffer while we try to clean it up. My hope and concern is that we find ways to help one another move things along, and help a new president and Congress make this a better country.

Camilo Mejía

Camilo Mejía was the first active-duty soldier to go public with his decision to refuse redeployment to Iraq and is the chair of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

During the final presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) requested that moderator Bob Schieffer allow them to ask each candidate a question.

The question for Sen. McCain was about veterans' benefits since, being a war veteran and former POW himself, he should have a better voting record when it comes to veterans' well-being. The question for Sen. Obama, who voted against the invasion of Iraq and called the invasion illegal at one point, focused on whether he would be willing to support soldiers who wanted to become conscientious objectors.

Not only was IVAW not able to ask the questions, but we were attacked by the Hempstead mounted police. Ten of our members, along with some civilian activists, were arrested, and two of our members were injured, one suffering a broken cheekbone. Neither candidate mentioned either Iraq or Afghanistan during the entire 90-minute debate.

The promise of a better nation, one whose resources are dedicated to improving social conditions and where wealth is distributed to lift up the working ranks of society, rings hollow when military veterans can't ask a question without being violently repressed. All this is to say that regardless of who gets elected, the work of building a better world remains in the hands of the people and rests on our ability to assert ourselves as the true architects of our future.

Obama is regarded as the antiwar candidate for having voted against the invasion of Iraq and for promising a progressive withdrawal of troops from that country, and both he and McCain have spoken about the success of the troop "surge" in Iraq.

But to seriously address the situation in Iraq and the eventual withdrawal from it would require Obama to address the 180,000 private contractors in Iraq, the permanent military bases, and the diplomatic and corporate complex from which the U.S. government intends to run the country. And of course, the "success" of the surge fails to recognize that more than half of the population of Iraq is either displaced, in need of emergency aid or dead.

The "global war on terror," the name given by the past and now present administrations to justify profit-driven invasions and occupations, needs a new centerpiece. The Iraq war has become too unpopular to continue justifying the U.S. imperial agenda.

We cannot allow any president to shift focus to Afghanistan in order to continue American warmongering. President Obama has promised to continue pouring troops into that country and to see the war spill into Pakistan if he deems it necessary.

The antiwar movement has to realize the need to continue the struggle for peace and justice, a struggle that starts at home where, in opposing costly and illegal wars of aggression, we wage battles against poverty, racism and exploitation of the working class by the ruling elite.

Only by building a true grassroots movement to combat a corporate-controlled government will we be able to create a world where peace, justice and social equality can prevail. This is the work of the people, not of the politicians, regardless of who is president. It has been going on, it continues, it can never stop, not for one minute.

Anthony Arnove

Anthony Arnove is the author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal and is also on the board of Haymarket Books.

THE FIRST thing to say is that there should be no honeymoon. The Democrats have held a majority in the House and Senate for two years, yet have continued to fund the occupation of Iraq, to allow warrantless wiretaps, to expand the military budget.

But the Democrats can no longer use the excuse of Bush and the need to win the White House to continue to defy the widespread desire for change. That means we need to challenge Obama from the first day he takes office, with public protest and mobilization.

Second, we have to insist that Obama's "let's not and say we did" position on withdrawal from Iraq is unacceptable. Withdrawal means withdrawal, not redeployment of some troops to Afghanistan while leaving tens of thousands of troops for "counter-insurgency," maintaining long-term bases, establishing the largest foreign Central Intelligence Agency station and U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and allowing mercenaries to remain.

We can't let Iraq slip into the background, out of the headlines, and accept a repacking of the occupation as a solution.

Third, we need to be clear that the problem with the so-called Bush Doctrine of preventive war is not that it was misapplied, but that it is wrong on principle. We must pressure Obama to renounce--which so far he has shown no signs of doing--regime change in Iran and the right to strike countries like Syria and Somalia at will.

That applies to U.S. allies such as Israel as well, to which this obscene power has long been extended (along with the right to maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons, like other U.S. allies that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India and Pakistan, in contrast to Iran).

Last, we need to say to Obama that we want an end to the ideological war on Arabs and Muslims, on immigrants, and the outrageous powers according to the executive to detain and torture, to use secret evidence, to hold people in Guantánamo Bay or prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq. Guantánamo should be closed immediately and the territory completely returned to Cuba.

Renditions and torture should be renounced without qualification. The United States should end its defiance of the international convention on violence against children (protecting the right to execute minors) and on the use of land mines and cluster munitions, as well as nuclear weapons (the new generation of so-called mini-nukes).

Now is not a time for "bipartisanship." We have seen all too much of that. Bipartisanship has led to all the problems we presently confront, with the complicity and, in many cases, full-throated support of the Democrats. Now is time for a radical break.

But we should not for a moment hold our breath or expect Obama to deliver this of his own initiative. Nothing in his career or policy statements--or in the lessons of our history--should lead us to expect that.

If anything, we should anticipate Obama will govern to the right of his campaign promises, not the left. Last century, we saw two presidents legislate to the left of the policies they advocated as candidates: Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. The reason was not to be explained by their personal characteristics, but the fact that both were confronted by massive social movements that disrupted business as usual and forced unexpected democratic changes from below.


KT and Billy are coeditors of SleptOn.com, an independent, online journal established to promote awareness and facilitate discussion and organization by providing commentary on politics, entertainment and culture.

IN AN Obama administration, the American political left will have to readjust to the political reality. An honest assessment of our situation will uncover much work to be done in terms of political education, organizing, activism and outreach to those newly engaged by Obama's candidacy--which may be extremely difficult given the degree of stargazing that abounds.

Obama's ascendance to the highest office in the land will prove to be primarily symbolic, as most lefties should know when they're honest about it, thus requiring direct challenge and confrontation over those things that we value--justice, peace, solidarity and equality--taken broadly.

Lefties will have to fight for renewed political relevance--largely absent in the current state--in the form of such things as livable wages, the right to organize, form unions and bargain collectively, abolishing the death penalty, ending the murderous and brutal war and occupation, releasing political prisoners, acquiring single-payer universal health care coverage--among too many others to mention at this time.

These are the kinds of reforms needed in the near term as we work for more fundamental structural changes, so that people will one day own and control the institutions that govern their lives in terms of their workplaces and governing bodies.

With the advent of an Obama administration, lefties should recognize that we will be organizing and pushing for these initiatives among many optimists satisfied with seeing the end of the terrible Bush era.

Lefties must raise the expectations of those engaged--indeed, even their own. Our role is to empower people with the information and organization for support and work so that the country is unmoved--in fact indignant--about corporate-owned politicians and their vague promises for "change" on their behalf.

Rosi Carrasco

Rosi Carrasco is an immigrant rights activist in Chicago and organizer with the Latino Organization of the Southwest.

I THINK that the election is historic, and it is great moment to be here in Chicago, because for the first time, we have a president who is against all the politics the Bush administration has been practicing over the last eight years. I think there is hope not only for the immigrant rights movement, but for the people against the war, and all of the progressive movements.

There will be an open space for continuing the fight for immigrants, against the war and for many issues affecting our communities. It's not that with the election, everything is going to change magically, but that we have the opportunity to change things in America.

Immigration legislation was defeated last year because of racism. The main targets of the racists were immigrants without documents. Having an African American president is historic. It is going to make racism harder. That is what I think we should celebrate.

We need to continue organizing our communities, because this is the only way we can change anything here--without fighting, there won't be change.

It also means the politics of Bush are being rejected by a lot of people in this country, but also around the world--the war in Iraq, invading other countries, against the rights of immigrants. The policies of this government have been terrible for people in Latin America. The government has been focused on helping only the richest people.

I am very surprised to see how active the youth are and the hope they have for change. I think this is going to be a new moment in which we have the opportunity to open new spaces for our issues. The immigrant rights movement became demoralized last year, but now, we are getting ready to start to fighting again. We'll have a new government and a new direction in this country.

The new government needs to assure us that they will stop raids and deportations. This is a demand everyone supports. We need to demand immigration reform. It's not clear what sort of reform the government will be willing to offer, because up until now, the Democrats have not had very clear policies in favor of immigration.

We need to keep very clear that our fight is for civil and human rights. We have to be mature enough to understand that we need to work together with many different people, with different points of view.

I think we need a very open and wide movement that includes every single person that believes in human and civil rights.

Workers are being fired because of no-match letters, they are not receiving good salaries because they are undocumented, their rights are not being respected because of their situation. So we have to keep organizing people in their workplaces and their communities. If we forget that part, we will not have the kind of movement that can put forward a strong proposal and defend people. Everyone agrees we need to march.

On May 1, we need to take to the streets again, but we also need to organize people in their workplaces and communities so they know their rights and can defend themselves.

The election is a historical moment and a great opportunity to challenge and change politics in this country. It's a great opportunity for us to organize ourselves, but it is just an opportunity. We have to work very hard to organize our communities. Otherwise, we will miss this opportunity.

I think people are ready to fight--look at how many people are involved in the antiwar movement, the immigrant rights movement, for housing, for health care insurance, for good salaries, for workers' rights, for many things. Now, I hope we can these change things.

I'm really excited about this election. I'm really excited about having Obama as president. I hope we can celebrate this historical moment. This will change politics fundamentally, but it won't happen by itself. We have to have people organizing and ready to take advantage of this new opening.

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