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Politics

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La gauche américaine à l’aube d’un renouveau?

by Christophe Deroubaix

The American Left at the Dawn of Renewal?

Translated Wednesday 11 April 2012, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Bill Scoble

An exceptional harvest at the Left Forum, held at Pace University in New York, 16-18 March. It was exceptional by virtue of the special context in which was held this traditional rendez-vous of the intellectual Left, those from universities, and sections of the unionized Left and of the organized Left.

Launched six months ago by the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York, the Occupy Wall Street movement has modified the tenor of public debate in the United States. The question of inequalities is henceforth posed. Almost simultaneously, in Wisconsin, the Republicans, who wanted to put an end to the right to work, had to back down in the face of a massive counter-attack by the union movement. Will the junction of these two movements become a reality? Will the year 2012 see the "springtime" of progressive ideas?

Michael Moore, John Nichols, and Michael Zweig join in the debate. [1]


- by Michael Moore, film-maker

With Occupy Wall Street, we have won the battle of ideas with astonishing rapidity.

Occupy Wall Street. We have never seen a political or social movement in the United States catch fire so rapidly. It took only a few weeks for the polls to show a majority support by Americans [for the movement]. Already in October, 72% of those interviewed said that income taxes should be increased for the rich. Frankly, I never thought such a majority would be possible. I thought that Americans shared the Horatio Alger [2] theory, according to which everyone in the country could some day succeed and become rich. And I believed even less that such a majority could be possible in only a few weeks. What other broad political movement in the United States has received the support of a majority of Americans in only six weeks? None.

In September 2011, for the first time, a majority (54%) said they were in favor of gay marriage. Forty-two years after the Stonewall riots [3] Forty-two years. Where was the civil rights movement six weeks after the Montgomery bus boycott? And do you remember how long it took for a majority to oppose the war on Vietnam?

We know that the most arduous part of any political combat is not to organize the actions and the demonstrations. No, it is to obtain majority support. With Occupy Wall Street we had no need to argue for years in order to convince the American public that the banks ruin our lives, that the private insurance companies put profits ahead of human lives.

Here we are. We have accomplished the most difficult part of the work: to be a majority of minds. Tens of millions of Americans are with us. And it is these tens of millions of Americans, becoming conscious, that is sending shivers up backs at Goldman-Sachs and JP Morgan, not just our backs — the handful of militants that we are.

Already in October, 72% of those interviewed said that income taxes should be increased for the rich.

An anecdote: I was recently invited to a talk-show, and I criticized capitalism. The guy said to me, "You mean insider capitalism [4]?" "No," I said, "You don’t have to say the same thing twice. I’m simply talking about capitalism. No matter what it might have been a hundred years ago, what it means today is this: it’s a rotten system."

OK, so what are we going to do now with our majority for these ideas. We are not accustomed to posing that sort of question; we’ve always been in the minority. We have so little experience in managing a majority, so we’re going to have to learn mighty quick.

What I do know is what we shouldn’t do. We should not transform Occupy into a new hierarchical bureaucracy. The force of the movement lies in this. When a policeman came to ask "Who is the spokesperson here?", everyone raised their hand. It is a movement where decisions are made by all, and by each. In fact, if there was someone who organized Occupy Wall Street, it was Goldman Sachs (laughter). If you decide to occupy Boise Idaho, you don’t have to contact the headquarters for approval: just go ahead. There are more than a thousand cities in the United States with an Occupy movement.

It is a movement initiated by youth. So don’t try to do things our way, we baby-boomers, even if we think that the way they are doing it is such and such. What I know is that, more generally, in this younger generation, racism, sexism, and homophobia are almost non-existent. We should let Occupy follow its natural course.

But if I may offer one bit of advice: certain of you should seriously consider becoming candidates for election, as governor, as congressman, as senator of a state, as mayor, as member of a board of education. This will only make our struggle stonger. What do we risk? We don’t accept money from Wall Street for our campaigns, right? We are not open to being bought, right? So, go ahead, and seek out, at the same time, those ways to organize the tens of millions of Americans who are henceforth in agreement with us.


- by John Nichols, political journalist for the progressive magazine, The Nation.

Engage in Politics Without Following the Politicians’ Rules

Rick Santorum [5] is right. This character occupies the center of the political stage with one argument, just one: Mitt Romney defends more or less the same policies as Barack Obama. And he is right. And Repubican voters answer "Yes, and that’s OK with us." There are, in fact, fundamental similarities. Mitt Romney put in place, while he was governor of Massachusetts, a reform of health insurance dominated by the financial markets. Barack Obama, also.

How is this possible? I’m not so much saying that Mitt Romney resembles Barack Obama, but the inverse: how can a Democrat propose the same measures as a Republican? It’s not the first time. There is a long list of Democratic presidents for whom the primary mission seems to be to make one miss the preceding Democratic president. With Obama you can surprise us by missing Clinton, whereas the latter already made us miss Carter. Jimmy Carter, who deregulated air transport, and attacked the unions!

As for Obama, one anecdote is very revealing. A few months ago, he offered an interview to the New York Times. Answering a question, he made it clear that he was not a socialist. Ten minutes after the interview, the president called the journalist back, something he absolutely never does, to really underline that he was absolutely not socialist. Imagine that you ask a Republican candidate if he is a libertarian. Will he put such energy into denying it?

Two years ago, the Republicans and Democrats converged toward the politics of austerity

This underlines the weakness of the American Left. This weakness is due, in my opinion, to the fact that we do not have enough groups to apply pressure both within and outside the Democratic Party. Without effective groups, the demands have less effect.

This said, we spend too much time talking about elections, not enough about politics. My British friend Tony Benn said to me, some ten years ago, "I’m finally going to get into politics: I’m quitting parliament." Since that time, he has been more influential than ever, starting at the base, to influence politics.

And then, we can rely on this history that is being written in the United States. Two years ago, the Republicans and Democrats converged toward a poitics of austerity. In Wisconsin, the Republican governor Scott Walker launched, in February 2011, his austerity policy, and placed in question the right to collective bargaining by unions in the public sector. Some weeks later there was a demonstration massing several tens of thousands of persons in front of the state capitol in Madison. The Democratic legislators left the capitol and joined the demonstration. This step was the recognition that the power was no longer in the interior of the seat of state assembly, but was outside. In Ohio, the mobilization led to a referendum in which 61% of voters rejected the anti-union laws of the Republican governor. And now, in Wisconsin, there are enough signatures to proceed to a vote, next June, to repeal the election of the governor.

Don’t wait for the next election to change the direction things take, to create mass movements. If one can sum up the way to do politics on the Left, it would be this: Do politics without following the rules of the politicians.


- by Michael Zweig, Director of the Center for Studies of the Working Class, at the University of Stony Brook (New York)

We Will Only Make Our Way Out By Opposing the System on the Basis of a Class Strategy

The "1%" against the "99%" brought into the public debate by Occupy Wall Street has captured the imagination of the Americans. This is surely a metaphor of which everyone speaks, but which can be somewhat misleading. But the important thing is that it sheds light on class structure in American society.

Let’s start with this metaphor. The dividing line at 1%, in terms of income, sits at 500,000 dollars per year per household. In New York, a doctor or a lawyer would be in this group. And these people are not enemies. If you look only at revenue, you make a big mistake. Using a tripartite formulation of "upper/middle/lower" classes, the capitalist class and the working class disappear. When one speaks of classes, one speaks not initially in terms of income, but of power. Class is a social relation of power and subordination.

The members of the working class do not have authority within the context of their workplace. This is the case not only for workers in industry, and in construction, but also in the service sector. And even so for office employees, as in banks. On the whole, we arrive at a total of 63% of the active population, which makes up the working class. We do not live in a middle-class society. This is a crucial consideration, if you are interested in politics.

At the other end of the scale, you find the capitalist class. All those who possess capital, and thus have power and authority over their employees, are, quite literally, part of this class. But I’m not sure that this helps a lot to say that a guy who has a little enterprise delivering fuel, with one or two trucks and a wife who does the accounting, is a capitalist. Such a businessman should surely be considered to be in the middle class. For me, this middle class consists, not of persons who have incomes in the middle range, even though this may generally be the case, but those who find themselves in the middle of the chart measuring the exercise of power. We have the small businessmen, the liberal professions, the managers and shop superintendents. This class reacted passively to the blows received by the working class in recent decades. But these two classes share common interests. When a big capitalist group decides to relocate in another country, not only the workers but the boss of the enterprise pay the price.

By now, the American public is rather well informed concerning the fundamental changes in the distribution of revenues and wealth these recent decades. One hears more and more often, "The rich become richer and the poor become poorer." This is true, but it’s no help unless you shed some light on the class dynamics.

The dominant class have made the poor, "the class of the poor", play a political rôle. This has allowed them to reassure the middle class concerning their condition, and to designate a scape-goat for the anger of that same middle class when their living conditions degraded. That’s the force of the system: to cover their tracks. After Clinton’s reforms of social protection, the poor could no longer be counted upon to play this rôle. They were replaced by the immigrants.

In 1971, a memorandum by Lewis Powell was titled: "Attack the American system of free enterprise." Its analysis was that the world of major corporations was under attack on all fronts: by the universities, in the streets, and in court."We should reply to all this," it said, in substance. "We should develop a strategic program for decades, to counter-attack wherever we are attacked. We must reply at the level of the system." And that’s what they have been doing for forty years.

The lesson we must draw from this is that we will not come out on top, proceeding factory by factory, faculty by faculty. We will win only by attacking the system, because this is a systemic crisis, and on the basis of a class strategy.

[1Unfortunately, no links to the original French documents seem to be available on the site of l’Humanité. This translation is based on the paper version, published in l’Humanité for 6-7-8 April, pages 14-15.

[2Editor’s note: A 19th century American author

[3Editor’s note: The beginning of the gay and lesbian movement, after a violent descent by the police on a bar in New York.

[4Editor’s note: Crony capitalism, term defining a system that makes things easy for the privileged.

[5Editor’s note: Fundamentalist Christian candidate running (translator’s note: until quite recently) for president under the Repubican Party


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