Why we need rebels

September 2, 2009

California has resolved its budget crisis--for now--with devastating results for the poor and working people. The agreement reached in late July between Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic Party-controlled state legislature, cut $15.5 billion from children's health care, home visits for the elderly, public education, welfare and more.

At the Socialism 2009 conference in San Francisco, two of California's best-known radicals, Mike Davis and David Bacon, led a discussion about the causes of the crisis and the struggle ahead. Here, we publish the presentation and concluding statement of Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, a brilliant social history of Los Angeles, and more recently, the essay collection In Praise of Barbarians.

I TOOK my 15-year-old son last night to the movies in Berkeley to see the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. I kept thinking: is this set in Sacramento?

Here you have the governor and his gang of Republicans, and they're holding the people captive and threatening to shoot them one by one unless their demands for budget cuts and a new stage in the Republican fiscal revolution occurs. And then on the other hand, you have the leadership of the Democratic Party in Sacramento, Karen Bass and Darrell Steinberg, and they're saying "Oh, no, no, no, don't shoot all the passengers, just shoot half the passengers."

If you compare--as the California Budget Project has--the governor's proposals for destroying what remains of the social safety net in this state with the Democratic-dominated Budget Conference Committee in the legislature, you come up with the following proposals: the governor wants to eliminate CalWORKS [the state's version of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families], home support services, healthy families, maternal and child health, domestic violence, rural migrant clinics and poison control.

Marching against cuts to the California state budget
Marching against cuts to the California state budget (Steve Rhodes)

If these programs are just shut down completely, it would affect a million poor kids, half a million poor families, and doom as many as 400,000 people to the possibility of early death from disease for the lack of access to medical services or home care.

The Democratic response to this has been to say, "Oh no, don't do that--cut these programs by margins of 20 percent to 60 percent."

The Democratic Party has agreed with the governor to huge cuts in state mental health screening, children's dental disease services, regional health clinics and, of course, the reduction of the school year. Further, the Democrats have agreed to cut $1 billion out of community college budgets and $1 billion out of California State University budgets.

And on its own initiative, without prompting from Schwarzenegger and the Republican Party, the Democrats have proposed to eliminate extended day care and transfer most, if not all, of the affordable housing money--dedicated in redevelopment projects across the state--to make up a little bit of the huge cuts in education.

The Democrats also managed to sneak into the budget bill last fall and into negotiations in February tax cuts that will confer about $9 billion to the largest corporations in California in the next seven years. This wasn't authored by the Republicans, this came from the Democratic assemblyman from Burbank, mainly to benefit the Disney Corporation. The Democrats, of course, have also supported the 1 percent increase in sales tax, which is a regressive tax.

WHAT WE'RE confronted with, in this so-called budget crisis, is something that's really quite extraordinary. In the middle of a new depression, when the federal government and the Obama administration are supposedly trying to stimulate the economy, California, which has a 21st century high-tech economy, has regressed to a Mississippi-level of social programs and safety net. It proposes to slam on the brakes and drastically reduce social spending and public employment in-state.

And it has given to a minority Republican Party the advantage of not simply dictating the agenda, but actually consolidating yet another stage in the disruption of what was once the finest public education system in the United States, and what remains a simple elemental unit of humanity in our public sector.

And it does all this while Washington watches and grins at a distance. California now has one of the most powerful state congressional delegations in American history--at least in the last century of American history. Democrats hold power in the Senate and the House. Yet while the Obama administration has conducted every heroic measure necessary to save the banking system, the White House is fiddling until California burns--and, of course, these cuts will far exceed any of the stimulus provided to California.

The response of the Democrats--including Karen Bass, the speaker of the assembly, someone I knew and admired in LA in the late 1980s and 1990s--is "Well, we have no choice." Even the Service Employees International Union, on its new television ads, is talking about balanced cuts with tax increases--half and half.

But half and half aren't equal in a situation where you're removing the lifeline, and even existence itself, from people with AIDS and HIV, when you're kicking a million children off access to health care, when you're wrecking the whole home care system for elders in this country, when you're closing down rural medical clinics.

So one of the things I'd like to talk about tonight, and hear your opinions of, is in what possible sense can those of us who consider ourselves progressives any longer watch the back of Barack Obama or the California Democratic Party, which believes that killing half the passengers is the moderate, reasonable solution in a state that has been hijacked by an onerous and inhumane program.

Democrats for the last few years have been hallucinating that Arnie is going be their own personal celebrity--imagining him to be a liberal Democrat now, when in fact he's proposing maybe the single most destructive package of legislation in California history.

I'll bore you some more later with the question: To what extent is this an unavoidable structural dilemma? Isn't the state in the midst of depression? Aren't we too poor to afford such social programs? And I'll attempt to make the case not simply against cuts, but the case for dramatically increasing social spending.

I'm really delighted tonight to be speaking with somebody who in my mind is kind of the Walker Evans and John Reed combined of the contemporary border and the contemporary Southwest--really one of the finest comrades and finest documentarists around, David Bacon.

From Davis' concluding statement: At the end of the day there's no way that some of the largest science-based corporations in the world are going allow a bunch of hick-town, conservative Republican, anti-abortionists to dictate the future of California.

So some kind of constitutional reform is going to happen. I just don't believe that it's likely to happen on the terms of the left wing--if there is such a thing--of the Democratic Party or the California labor movement.

I think what you're going to see is probably an unprecedented mobilization of Silicon Valley and California's advanced industries to try to deal with the central contradictions that such industries cannot coexist with a society reduced to Third World, or Mississippi levels, of social welfare and education.

But I think the deal that will be eventually be cut will offer very little in the way of ameliorating inequality or injustice in California. In my mind, there's very little reason to believe that either the Democrats or labor leaders have the ability to broker this account at all.

If you can't resist these cuts and you can't resist Schwarzenegger, when he should be actually an impotent and easy target, there's no way you're going to engineer a process like the progressive movement did in 1910 and carry on a constitutional revolution in California.

It's not going to happen unless you change the chemistry of the state and change the balance of social forces. That involves uniting and coordinating resistance across the state in high schools, in forgotten suburban communities, in plants full of workers about to be downsized. Until that happens, we can't conceive of any kind of leadership from the Democrats for a larger reorganization or re-modernization of California's political economy or state system.

The same thing, of course, applies on a national scale. I set out the position in an article that I wrote a few months ago that the Obama administration more than anything else is a project for the re-modernization of the role of the state and the corporate economy on the basis of the needs of the most advanced corporations.

I don't know if it's possible or not. I don't know if it can happen at the same time that every resource has been put into saving Wall Street. But it's certainly not a process driven by the needs for immigration reform, for labor reform or for other interests, even though they may be personally embraced by President Obama and his wife. That's irrelevant when there's no pressure from the base--when there's no pressure from the left.

Here I disagree--I'm sure David won't mind--with him and many people in the audience. I think that we have been misled by a belief that movements as movements can self-organize themselves.

Even if you say that the whole legacy of Leninism was a historical disaster, you're still faced with exactly the same questions posed in Lenin's What Is To Be Done. That is, the need to create some organization of organizers that provides a framework for young people willing to make extraordinary sacrifices and dedicate their lives solely to the fight of the poor and the working class. The need organize a cadre of people able to exchange and generalize and coordinate experiences across the struggle so that some kind of genuinely left agenda--which means a pro-working class agenda--becomes possible.

The Bolshevik Party may not be the only route to this. The anarchists in Barcelona did a pretty good job in a different way of bringing together and coordinating a relentless struggle for their principles and the principles of the working class.

But the question is inescapable. You have to talk about this question. You have to talk about the creation of organizations. I'm not arguing to revive the little red book or the thoughts of Leon Trotsky, but we need organizations that can allow such dedication to exist.

Such organizations always existed in some critical tension with the inherent possibilities of sectarianism, dogmatism, the lack of democracy. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Bay Area attracted an enormous number of people--at least by my reference point of San Diego--who dedicated themselves to the left. There was an enormous amount of hard work, and they had very bruising, and sometimes shattering, experiences.

I'm not saying that they should abandon common sense or try to reinvent models that were demonstrably wrong. But you still cannot escape the sociological necessity of the need for what we used to call a cadre organization--I'll prefer the euphemism tonight of an organization of organizers--trying to operate democratically internally in relationship to other forces, but able to allow people to live these lives of struggle.

I will say that for your generation, the task is easier now because my generation has completely screwed up your future and left you with so little options. Why the hell not join such an organization?

The final point is that it's not only necessary to build organizations based on principle and program. The left needs to sociologically more resemble that portion of the American working class which demonstrates the greatest militancy and possibility for changing history.

I sit on my porch in San Diego, and it's just extraordinary to me to see the drama that's happening right now on the border. Both the kind of nightmarish aspects of the tens of thousands of people losing their jobs, as the economy has plunged into chaos, but also just the recognition of the possibilities.

This generation will fight. It will change history. We need to speed history up. Much of the left--particularly old farts like me--is used to moving at a glacial pace, talking for 25 years about regrouping the far left. The younger people in the room need to push us out of the way, and begin to act with the urgency that's truly required in this situation.

Transcription by Matt Korn and Matthew Beamesderfer.

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