What’s Needed for Change at This Political Moment? 5 Well-Known Progressives, 5 Strong Opinions
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At the Working-Class Studies conference last weekend, I heard an amazing dialogue about class, race and movement-building by five progressive journalists and activist scholars: Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now!, Frances Fox Piven, Bill Fletcher Jr. of Blackcommentator.com, and former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert of Demos, with conference organizer Michael Zweig, author of The Working Class Majority moderating.
I was struck by how openly they disagreed with each other in front of us 200 listeners, by how passionate all five of them are about creating a more just society, and by what vast depth of experience they brought to the panel. Here are some highlights:
Juan Gonzalez: We have to start saying “working class” again. When politicians say “the middle class,” their purpose is to exclude poor and immigrant labor from the American people. The key responsibility of progressives is to reject this concept of the middle class.
Frances Fox Piven: The Citizens United Supreme Court decision (allowing corporate personhood and unlimited secret spending on elections) raises the problem of propaganda in the US. We’ve always had corporate and elite propaganda, but now the problem is much worse. The complexity of the financial crisis makes populist organizing difficult. The Citizens United decision is responsible for the defeat of the Wisconsin recall vote (to remove anti-union Governor Scott Walker); we are watching the downfall of representative democracy. A disruptive movement is needed.
Bill Fletcher: Just as in the movie When Worlds Collide, in which only a few people can escape a collision of planets, the capitalist class senses an impending disaster – and the disaster is all of us! They learned from Obama’s election and the Wisconsin recall (47% is a lot of people) that they can no longer rule through electoral politics, and they are debating among themselves what other means they should turn to. That’s the implication of the Citizens United ruling. The chickens are coming home to roost on unions’ failure to educate their own members.
Bob Herbert: The US is in much worse shape than the media reveal. My next book is called The Wounded Colossus. 100 million people are poor or near poor, one-third of the US population. Even the solidly middle class are in deep trouble, heading towards poverty, with the cost of college,homes under water, debt, health care costs and no job security. We already were not a functioning democracy before Citizens United. President Obama won’t even say the word “poor,” only “the middle class.” There’s no way to replace 14 million lost jobs.
Frances Fox Piven: To revive working-class movements, don’t start with existing unions.
Juan Gonzalez: Latin America has broken free of the US and gone in a different direction; so have parts of the Arab world, charting their own course. US capitalists are desperate and are turning to re-conquering Europe by taking away its social progress. Immigrants are the most progressive portion of the US working class. Think about the Republic Windows and Doors occupation!
Bill Fletcher: Economically precarious white people must come to see that Mitt Romney is not their champion. How can that happen? The difficulty in building working-class solidarity is race. Saying “middle class” symbolizes escape from the bottom, from poverty. It’s not about tactics; first we have to re-shape the concept of unions by re-defining class.
Bob Herbert: There’s no coherent message, no definition of “working-class.” The one unifying issue is employment. If you don’t address race you’re lost from the jump. If people aren’t educated about divide and conquer tactics, about how their interests coincide, about the common interests of all who work, we won’t be able to fight back against divide-and-conquer.