Monday, February 28, 2011

This Is What Class Warfare Looks Like


Everyone should know by now that the American super rich have been gobbling up a larger and larger piece of the American pie since around 1980, as shown by the first chart above. One of the ways they've been able to do this is by crushing the labor movement in the private sector, as shown in the second chart. Power has been consolidated in the hands of upper management, and wealth has been consolidated in the bank accounts of the richest of the rich.

But the logic of modern hypercapitalism is that enough is never enough. So now the right wing--the corporate elite, their puppet Republican Party, and their duped working class foot soldiers who make up the Tea Party--have set their sights on one of the last vestiges of organization and power left in the working class: public employee unions.

This has nothing to do with budget deficits. That's just the PR strategy from the right. In Wisconsin, the forefront of the battle right now, the unions have agreed to all of the financial cuts that the Republican governor has asked for. But he's not to content simply to strip away union benefits. He wants to dismantle the unions themselves.

Public employee unions are the obvious and logical next target for the right wing and the so-called conservative movement. Union density is still fairly high (36%) in the public sector. That's roughly the union density we had in the private sector in the 1950s when America was a much more middle-class nation. By crushing public employee unions, the right wing crushes one of the last pillars of the once great American middle class and they get an even bigger piece of the pie of our national wealth. The fat cats are never full.

La Femme Follette had an excellent post a couple of days ago that lamented how even many seemingly progressive "hipsters" view unions as "a quaint...relic whose time has passed." If the right wing is able to destroy public employee unions the way they have private sector unions, that's how we'll be describing the middle class pretty soon.

The glimmer of hope I see in all of this is the militant response by the labor movement--public and private sectors--in Wisconsin and the solidarity rallies all across the country this past week. Here, locally in DC, I can tell you that the assault on Wisconsin unions has ignited a broad coalition of progressive groups centered around the labor movement. Even though I believe the right has been planning this assault on public employee unions for a long time now (more on that later), I still believe they've been surprised by the forceful reaction from the left. But rallies and marches are one thing, organizing the unorganized is another. What we saw in the auto industry of the 1930s with the great sit-down strikes, we need to see today in the retail and fast-food industries. Bosses everywhere need to fear that their workers are talking about a union. That is where the progressive/labor movement can actually begin to turn the tide and once again build power and economic justice for working people.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An Injury To One Is An Injury To All

In case anyone thought Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's "Budget Repair Bill" was actually about the budget, think gain. The state's public employee unions have agreed to the wage and benefit cuts asked for by the governor. But Governor Walker will not budge on his true priorities in the bill--dismantling the unions by stripping away collective bargaining rights and the ability to negotiate benefits and working conditions.

This should come as a surprise to no one. The right wing has made no secret that public employee unions are their next target. After destroying the labor movement in the private sector over the last 30 years, the public sector is the logical next step. But keep in mind, this assault on unions has almost nothing to do with state budget deficits and everything to do with destroying the last bits of organization and power in the working class.

What may have surprised a lot of people is how hard the workers have fought back. The pushback against union-busting Republican governors is spreading to other states in the Midwest, and solidarity rallies in support of the Wisconsin workers are taking place all over the country. There should be no doubt that the fight taking place in Wisconsin is not merely a Wisconsin issue. It really is about whether there will continue to be a middle class in this country or whether the right will mop up the last organized resistance to plutocracy.

Today, I will be at a solidarity march and rally in downtown DC. (Here it is on Facebook.) We are meeting outside the DC offices of Koch Industries. The Koch brothers are the right-wing billionaires who backed Gov. Walker's campaign, funded "Americans for Prosperity," and the Tea Party in general. We'll then march over to the Wisconsin Governor's DC office.

If you're in the area, come on down. If not, you can follow me on Twitter, where I'll be posting live updates.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Let's Get Over "Stability"

Listening to analysts and news people discuss the uprisings across the Muslim World, you hear the word "stability" come up a lot. As in, "It is in the United States' interest that there be stability in the Middle East." Or, "Now that Mubarak has stepped down, the priority for Egypt should be a return to stability."

I call poppycock on this. The focus on stability comes from an imperial mindset in the US foreign policy community. If you're the one holding the gun and standing on a pile of treasure, you want everyone else to just simmer down and not make any sudden movements. This has basically been the US position in regard to the various uprisings.

On Egypt, where Mubarak was a US-friendly dictator, the message at first was that Mubarak is not a dictator, the government of Egypt is stable, the government should pursue "reforms," blah blah blah. Only when it became clear that the protesters in Tahrir had the momentum did the tune begin to change.

On Bahrain, where King Hamad is a staunch US ally and where the US Fifth Fleet is based, there is either the normal language about respect for human rights or there is silence. Today, Bahrain's military began the crackdown on protesters. I'm guessing there will be only vague language about "restraint" from the US State Department.

But on Iran, where the theocracy opposes US power in the region, the US government has come down unequivocally on the side of the protesters.

The United States generally supports democratic movements abroad only when they are seen as boosting US power and/or undermining US enemies. I think the American people want a more principled foreign policy than that.

Some have argued that the US can't simply turn its back on allies like Mubarak and that we need to work closely with some dictators in order to fight terrorism. But let's not set up a false choice. That is after all what dictators like Mubarak said, "You either get me or you get terrorism and chaos in my place." We can and should ally with dictators in order to take on other evils, like Al Qaeda, but this temporary alliance should not be a general endorsement of the dictator. Let's work with dictators on A, B, and C, but also make it clear that we support the democratic forces in their countries and that when a democratic uprising comes, make no mistake that we stand with the people. Would that mean dictators like Mubarak would not work with us in the first place? If so, so be it. If any country can afford to take a principled stand that does not serve our own bottom line in the power equation, it's us.

So in this dream world I am imagining, the State Department would come out right now and say something like this:
"The United States of America stands squarely with the people who are protesting in Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt for democracy, human rights, and social justice. It is time for the authoritarian governments of these nations to step aside and for the people to take power through free and fair elections."
I mentioned above how the world looks through the eyes of the person who holds the gun and guards his treasure. For the person who can't get up out of the dirt because there's a boot on his throat, "stability" is the last thing he wants to hear about. "No justice, no peace," is more like it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What To Do After Pharaoh Falls

Mubarak's resignation caught me by surprise, big time. Egypt's revolution moved farther, faster, and more peacefully than I would have predicted. I thought Mubarak was digging in. Up until yesterday, I thought one of the major lessons from the protests was that big crowds are not enough. I thought the protesters were going to have to start dismantling the government piece by piece--shut off State TV, capture the Interior Ministry headquarters, and so on. But then, less than 24 hours after offering up some more fake concessions, Mubarak quit in a two-sentence statement read by the Vice President. So maybe a major lesson is: When you think the people's movement is losing steam and the autocrat is digging in, you may be on the verge of victory.

I will have more to say about all this, and things are probably going to continue changing rapidly. For now, here are what I think are the next steps for the democracy movement in Egypt.

1. Prevent an immediate counterrevolution. Counterrevolution could of course come in different forms. One of the Mubarak's deputies, including one of the generals, could force himself into leadership, put the brakes on the democratic reforms and begin a crackdown. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who supposedly has power now during a transitional period, could simply drag its feet forever. This would mean that Mubarak was simply replaced by a handful of his old trusted generals--not much of a change. Less likely would be an outside group, like the Muslim Brotherhood, grabbing power for itself at the expense of everyone else.

To prevent these scenarios, people are going to have to be ready to return to the streets if need be. They will have to keep pressure on the military. The military needs to feel like its interests (which include lots of business connections for top officers) are safest by moving toward a civilian democratic government. The military needs to fear continued revolutionary activity.

It will help for the international attention and pressure to continue. The military will be less likely to drag feet or crack down if it sees that the whole world including its sponsor, the U.S. government, is watching.

2. Build the structures of democracy. The transitional government will have to immediately repeal Egypt's Emergency Law, which is like the Patriot Act on steroids, and other anti-democratic laws. Activists will then have to start building the networks that make up a civil society. Independent trade unions, new political parties, new civic groups, neighborhood councils, all that. The people's movement will have to put down more roots quickly, so that there is a permanent, structural resistance to the drift back toward authoritarianism.

3. Hold free and fair elections. No need to fear groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, if the elections are free and fair. They may end up being anywhere from 10 to 30% of a new parliament. But the best thing that can be done to a sorta scary group is to make it just one more political party with all the rest.

4. Repeat. It would be a mistake to think that the switch from a 30-year tyrant to a parliamentary democracy can be achieved overnight. Mubarak's resignation should be celebrated. But the point of that celebration should be to fuel more demands, more changes, and more activism from the democratic movement. The most powerful force in all of this is going to be the Egyptian people's raised expectations of what is possible. The longer they are willing to work for it, and organize, and turn out in the streets, the better things are going to be.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why 52% of Americans Know "Little or Nothing" About Egypt's Revolution

Wow, where to begin with the protests in Egypt? I began writing posts two or three times over the last couple of weeks, only to see the momentum shift on the ground in Cairo and the story change, making my day-old posts hopelessly outdated. I most recently started a post titled "Mubarak's Crackdown Finally Comes," on the day when plainclothes police and government-sponsored goon squads, some of them riding horses and camels (?!), attacked the peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square. It looked like the state's terror apparatus was about to stamp out the mass movement, but by the end of the day the pro-democracy protesters had defeated the regime's thugs in pitched street battles and even advanced their "front lines" further out from their stronghold in Tahrir Square.

So rather than bringing you the latest play-by play, let's step back and look at some of the broad outlines of what's going on in Egypt.

First of all, I think these protests are the best and most hopeful political news to come out of the Middle East in years. Here we have the largest country in the Middle East, the leader of the Arab world, in the middle of a homegrown democratic revolution. This is something people everywhere should be excited about. All across the Middle East, people are asking themselves, "If it can happen in Egypt, why not here?" There are the beginnings of new protests, new movements, and a number of dictators are offering up preemptive concessions in an attempt to stop movements before they start. And a new spotlight is cast upon Western governments' support for the very authoritarian regimes that help fuel radical Islamic terrorism.

So why have more than half of US citizens (52%) heard "little or nothing" about the events in Egypt?

One reason may be that the story does not fit easily into the mold of our normal back and forth arguments about right vs. left, Republicans vs. Democrats. I saw Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly discussing Egypt the other day on Fox News, and it was clear they had no idea what to think, but they were pretty sure we should be scared. First, O'Reilly gave a dissertation in False History with a completely backward analogy between the Egyptian protests and the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran. Then Beck offered a tour of Crazyville as he blamed America's support of dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak (kudos to him for even acknowledging it) on "the progressive movement in America." Finally, both of these conservative torchbearers closed by agreeing that most of the protesters in Egypt were probably terrorists and communists. So the message Fox viewers got was that something vaguely frightening is happening in the Middle East and we should blame terrorists/communists/progressives. In other words, nothing new.

Another reason I think a lot of Americans don't know anything about Egypt's revolution is that the facts run counter to at least a couple of very important tenets of the American government's foreign policy and worldview. I don't mean Democratic or Republican foreign policy; I mean the foundational assumptions of foreign policy that are accepted by leaders of both parties and rarely if ever questioned.

The first tenet is the notion that Arabs or Muslims are crazy and distinctly dangerous. Of course it’s never put so plainly. But this is part of the unspoken justification for America’s heavy hand in the Middle East. It’s why it seems perfectly natural to many Americans that our government props up oppressive authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world for the sake of “stability.” And with this notion in the back of the mind, Americans see pictures of Arabs in the streets and think it must be something bad going on.

The second tenet is that it’s America’s unique position to export democracy to the Middle East and the developing world. This was of course one of the many offered justifications for invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. “We just want to share our freedom.” So with this notion built into the American worldview, if there’s a democratic uprising somewhere and it didn’t come from us, it must not be democratic--and it's probably “terrorists and communists.”

It’s no coincidence that both of these tenets are used to prop up an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. Every global power in history has tried to justify its dominance of other nations. “We must bring civilization to the barbarians.” “We must bring Christianity to the pagans.” “We must bring socialism to the prisoners of capitalism.” “We must spread our pure race across the Earth.” And so on.

And then Egypt happens. Millions of people in the streets, who are supposed to be crazy and dangerous, are building democracy in the very heart of a region where that’s supposed to require America’s gentle guiding hand. It will be an historic victory if the Egyptian people shed off the Mubarak regime and build a more democratic government. It will be another historic victory if the American people shed off a foreign policy in which democracy overseas counts less than “stability” and American power.


Still to discuss in upcoming Egypt posts:

  • The Obama Administration’s handling of events.
  • Who’s afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood?
  • Al Qaeda’s conspicuous silence on Egypt.
  • Strengths/weaknesses of the movement and where it goes from here.