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Bolshiness is back
The similarities to the world that produced the Russian revolution are too close for comfort, argues Adrian Wooldridge


This is a period of miserable centenaries. First, in 2014 1914, came that of the outbreak of the first world war, which destroyed the liberal order. Then, in 2016 1916, that of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest conflicts in military history. In 2017 it will be 100 years since Lenin seized power in Russia. Lenin’s putsch led to a succession of tragedies: Stalin’s rise to power; the death of more than 20m people as a result of the collectivisation of agriculture and forced industrialisation; and, partly in reaction to communism, the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

From the dying days of the second world war onwards, Western policy was dedicated to making sure that the problems that had produced authoritarianism, both left and right, could not occur again. The Allies created a triad of global institutions—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations—that were supposed to stabilise the global economy and prevent conflict. Most countries built (or reinforced) welfare states to provide safety nets and ladders of opportunity. America led a policy of containment that first limited the expansion of the Soviet Union and then led to its collapse.

Yet this golden age is coming to an end. This time the first shots are being fired by the right rather than the left, by the Brexiteers in Britain and Donald Trump in America. But the similarities between the collapse of the liberal order in 1917 and today are stark. They start with the fin de siècle atmosphere. The 40 years before the Russian revolution were years of liberal triumphalism. Free trade (led by the British) brought the world together. Liberal democracy triumphed in Britain and America and looked like the coming thing elsewhere. The years from 1980 were a similar period of triumphalism. Globalisation (led by America) advanced relentlessly. The number of countries that qualified as democracies multiplied. Politicians of the right and left competed to demonstrate their fealty to the “Washington consensus”.

The world has thankfully been spared another total war (though parts of the Middle East are in flames). But other parallels are striking. In America Mr Trump promises to take a pitchfork to the entire liberal order: not just to free trade and liberal values but also to global alliances against rogue regimes. In Britain Theresa May, the prime minister, is trying to extricate her country from the European Union. Mr Trump’s victory will embolden other Western authoritarians, such as Marine Le Pen and strengthen anti-Western authoritarians, notably Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin is much more the embodiment of the spirit of his age than is the outgoing American president, Barack Obama.

Who’s guilty and what is to be done?

Some of the blame for this lies with happenstance. The Democrats might not have lost the election if they hadn’t nominated Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of a decaying establishment, and Britain would not be preparing to leave the EU if David Cameron had not taken the fateful decision to experiment with direct democracy. But the liberal order itself is also to blame.

The global economy has delivered too many of its benefits to the richest: in America, the proportion of after-tax income going to the top 1% doubled from 8% in 1979 to 17% in 2007. And in many ways the future looks worse. Productivity growth has slowed. Unless this can be changed, politics will inevitably become a struggle over dividing up the pie. Tech giants such as Google and Amazon enjoy market shares not seen since the late 19th century, the era of the robber barons.

How can liberals save what is left of the liberal order? Part of the solution lies in being more vigorous in its defence—for example, pointing out that globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty and that reversing it will make today’s economic woes much worse. Part of the solution lies in exposing liberalism’s enemies as the paper tigers that they are: Mr Putin, in particular, presides, by fear and fraud, over a country whose economic power is stalling and whose people are plagued by poverty and illness. Other strongmen around the world are far less tough than they claim.

But liberalism’s champions must do more than just repeat tired mantras. They need to take worries about immigration more seriously and check their instinct to ride roughshod over minorities such as evangelical Christians. They also need to redouble their efforts to fix capitalism’s most obvious problems. High levels of inequality are threatening stability. Economic concentration is allowing companies to extract record profits. Overregulation is driving businesspeople to distraction. The revival of bolshiness has already taken a terrible toll. Liberals need to think more clearly, and act more forcefully, to stop the rot.

Bolshiness is back

Our Alternative
We need a socialist politics that challenges the Democratic Party’s leadership, not just the Right.

Among this audience, there is little reason to recite the litany of Trump’s crimes, what his administration means, and how dire the situation is. It’s very, very bad. It’s our duty and mission to defeat the Right and build a majority around a different set of politics.

In order to figure out how best to do that, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind. First, Trump doesn’t have a mandate. That’s not to say that he isn’t dangerous — he has power. But that does mean that the political situation is very much up in the air.

There are huge opportunities for left advance, and we should be wary of thinking that we need to save the liberal center before we create the conditions for us to build a socialist left alternative. That doesn’t mean that we should throw out the best aspects of liberalism, or vulgarize our politics into a crude populism. But it’s key that even though the people in charge of the bourgeois state at any moment (then Obama, now Trump) are our main enemies, much of our political activity should be challenging (broadly conceived) the political center. By this, I don’t mean individual liberals, but the centrist leadership of the Democratic Party at every layer, and the caste leading liberal reform groups in this country.

Many of us thought that their combined efforts would be enough to defeat Trump — even though we know that it in the long run they would struggle to challenge Trumpism. It turns out that we were wrong: they could do neither. And while they are weak and on their heels, we need to make sure they’re dislodged as much as possible from political leadership to prevent this from happening again.

They’ll blame Russia, they’ll blame the racism and sexism of white workers, they’ll blame Jill Stein, they’ll blame whomever. We have to say “no” and say clearly that Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and the rest of the adherents to Third Way, centrist liberal politics are responsible for Donald Trump.

If we don’t make ground against the center then we’ll be doomed to the continued rise of the populist right. We’ll see the polarization of our politics increasingly between drawn between a respectable center — one committed to the marriage of social inclusion with neoliberal economics, a free press, supporting the CIA, and whatever else — and a somewhat erratic populist and seemingly “anti-establishment” right.

Trump doesn’t have a mandate now, but Trumpism may develop one in the future. We should be very afraid when Sean McGarvey, the president of the Building Trades Unions umbrella group, calls the meeting he had with Trump on Monday the best of his life. This is a moment when we should be leaning on the labor movement — one of the last bastions of working-class politics in this country — but instead we have key sectors of it potentially building support and legitimacy for Trump. But our conclusion then shouldn’t be to rally behind just any sort of anti-Trump politics, but rather to redouble our efforts to support rank-and-file struggle against a union bureaucracy that will sell out the entire working class for even the smallest of concessions.

The movement and mobilization against Trump so far has been impressive. It absolutely must be a broad resistance. We need to win over individual liberals and we need to create a broader climate where liberal organizations at least rhetorically move left.

But unless we, within this broad front, offer up a consistent and foregrounded critique of the dominant policies of the Democratic mainstream and their allies, unless we inject that ideology into the movement, we’re going to see a political rehabilitation of Clintonism.

We need to be clear that only a movement led and inspired from the left can challenge Trump — otherwise we’re just going to elect a bunch of Democrats in 2018 and resurrect the worst experiences of the 2000s antiwar movement.

Bernie Sanders and the movement still around him in various forms is key to this effort.

For years, many of us have posed a divide in the Democratic Party that seemingly existed only notionally: a gap between social-democratic demands at the base of the party and technocratic neoliberalism at the top of it. The Sanders campaign made that divide more real and tangible: it stirred a rabid opposition to Clinton and Clintonism among millions of people, many of them politicized for the first time. And more importantly, it presented an alternative politics.

I have no interests in using the limited time and resources of socialists in doing things like supporting Keith Ellison for DNC chair, and I don’t think that the Democratic Party can be transformed into an effective vehicle of working-class politics. But I do believe that Sanders and others are engaged in a process that, at its best, creatively produces divisions and polarizations within the party that complement the activity that we’re doing outside of it.

We have to judge the actions of Sanders Democrats concretely, not snipe at them from afar or say that they’re wasting their time. I have no doubt that these forces will stand with us in social movements, in electoral efforts, in workplace actions.

The broad sketches of our politics in the Trump era are emerging. Socialists will continue to do their part building and working to be the leaders of social movements organized around social-democratic demands — not encouraging people to follow the lead of liberals and settle for “winnable” half measures, but intransigently fighting for what we want — to expand the base for our politics, while using elections as vehicles to communicate our ideas to millions.

Both of these things will put us into direct conflict with centrist politics. That’s exactly what we want.

At the moment, we can’t build a party. Seth Ackerman’s recent Jacobin piece offers an important account of the structural problems that would confront us in such an effort. Where practical, we should run as independents. But in certain circumstances, running in Democratic primaries makes sense.

What’s key is that these candidates run as open and committed socialists, with a clear and explicit platform, with their own network of funding and support that can hold them accountable. This is not about capturing the Democratic machine, it’s about having the tactical flexibility to use whatever tools possible to advance working-class politics.

Our immediate step must be to continue building the majoritarian left alternative we saw emerge with the Sanders campaign, while pushing polarization and conflict — against Chuck Schumer (who should have to deal with protests when he tries to show up at anti-Trump rallies), against Hillary Clinton, against Cory Booker, against all of them — while also shielding against the reactionary policies of Trumpism.

Adapted from remarks at “Building a Socialist Left Under Trump,” hosted by Solidarity, the Democratic Socialists of America NYC, and the International Socialist Organization.

Our Alternative

At Some Point We'll Have To Stop Playing This Stupid Game With These Stupid Rectangles
We're all playing a made-up game called money, and the stakes are life or death.

There was a little girl in my neighborhood called Posie McPrissyPantsPoser (not her real name) who was a bit of a bully. She wouldn’t play with us so much as make us play for her. For her sadistic pleasure if I'm to be more precise. One of her favorite games was lining us up to run barefoot down the very stoney, prickly driveway that lined one side of her house. She would sit up high and watch each of us run individually, scrutinizing our faces and our gait, and give us scores based on how swift we were combined with how visible our pain was as we ran.

It was a bizarre, pointless game, and one which she never partook in. She was always the judge, never the judged.

I never won, of course. My ever-expressive face betrayed me every time. It was relentless, difficult, and not fun. But I kept lining up with the other kids and doing it anyway. Never once did it occur to me that I could just not play. That was the game, they were the rules; it was stupid but we kept playing it. At no point did anyone throw their hands up and say “Why the hell are we doing this? What are we trying to prove here?”

That memory keeps coming back to me lately. It seems like a good metaphor for where we’re at with this strange money game we’ve been born into. The survival of our organism relies on these weird green rectangular pieces of paper that we have to follow all these convoluted rules to procure.

There’s a thousand different ways that you can lose the money game — bad health, bad luck, bad parents, bad attitude? Sorry, no more rectangles for you, you die. Bad schooling, bad gender, bad disability, bad skin color? Sorry, no rectangles, you die.

It’s that weird, but it’s that serious too. Millions of Americans live on the knife’s edge of homelessness, just one illness or accident away from being without health coverage and without a home. All because of the green rectangle game. Not because of anything real. There’s plenty of food, plenty of houses, plenty of carers for everyone — but if you don’t have enough rectangles, you die.

And we could change the rules of the rectangle game at any time. Just like Posie, someone a little sadistic and a little bit mad made the rules up a long time ago and we keep agreeing to them. They’re not wise, they don’t make sense and people die because of them, but we keep right on playing like it’s real life and not some dumb game where we can flip the board in a huff.

There are so many games we play that are killing us, and so many ways that rules are being changed to kill more and more of us every day. In a great post on Alida Vienna Orzechowski’s Facebook, she draws our attention to the link between the water battles in Flint and in California.

What is causing both those catastrophes? Well, the short answer is Nestlé, but the more longform answer is elected officials changing the rules of the game in order to let Nestlé make rectangles out of other people’s resources.

And they made a lotta rectangles. Nestlé posted a profit of $ 14.4 billion in 2014, due in part to government-granted permits. They got the rules changed so they could steal something of actual value from the people living there — water — and use it to make some more rectangles so that their rectangle portfolio had a lot of very long and impressive looking digits in it.

See, digits are very important in the rectangle game. Much more important than people living or dying. You might think that keeping people alive would be more important than digits but that’s one of the many rules of the game that will get you killed if you don’t understand it properly.

Here are some other interesting digits that Alida found out about Nestlé:

36 million: The number of gallons per year Nestlé are pumping from the San Bernardino National Forest, CA and reselling in private sales to the public in plastic bottles.

$ 524: the cost Nestlé pays annually to pump that water. And yes, you read that right – five hundred and twenty four dollars.

200: the number of gallons of per minute that Nestlé are allowed to pump from the Great Lakes Basin in Michigan.

$ 0: the amount of money Nestlé pays for Great Lakes Basin water, which is repackaged and sold as Ice Mountain to residents of MI, including Flint.

$ 140: the average monthly bill paid by Flint residents for their still-poisoned tap water that they can’t use.

Now, really, $ 140 rectangles? For water that makes you sick?

But if you’re making up the rules you can make it so you pay zero rectangles? For 200 gallons per minute of the freshest, purest water there is? That you will resell back to Flint residents for three rectangles a bottle?

The rules to this dumb game aren’t even fair anymore. The more rectangles you get, the more you can change the rules to get more rectangles. It’s so unfair now that even Posie McPrissyPantsPoser would blush.

It’s high time that as a species we stand up, throw the board in the air and let all the rectangles rain down like so much landfill and scream at the top of our lungs “Why the hell are we doing this? What are we trying to prove here?”

It’s a good question, humanity. Why the hell are we doing this? And if we can’t find an answer to it, we should stop.

At Some Point We'll Have To Stop Playing This Stupid Game With These Stupid Rectangles

Source: ONTD_Political

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