parting thought

by: Sam Webb
December 31 2010

tags: taxes, politics, obama, congress, economy

With the end of the year fast approaching, I decided to join the
pundits and leave one parting thought. So here goes!

The battle over taxes was a teachable moment. But left and progressive
people missed the boat. An opportunity to teach millions about the
realities of class power, politics, and tactics went by the board. Let
me explain:

The compromise met nearly universal opposition from progressive and
left people. I don’t know if anyone called it a “sellout,” but they
might as well have. One writer said in the aftermath of the
legislative compromise that we won the battle in 2008 and lost the war
in 2010.

The question is: is this criticism warranted? In my view the answer is
unequivocally – No. What was the president’s alternative given the
balance of class and social forces in the capital and across the
country at that time and later when the new Congress convenes in
January? What was the policy option given the right-wing Republican
comeback, the political confusion of the American people and the
weaknesses of the left and broader movement that the election results

To stand down Mitch McConnell and his gang as his critics suggested
would have been feasible, but only if a legislative alternative was
available and only if millions of ordinary people, many of whom just
voted for Republicans in the midterm elections, could be rallied to
compel congressional Republicans to support that alternative – and
let’s not forget that all the while this is going on working people’s
paychecks are shrinking and their unemployment benefits are

Finding an alternative legislative package, say one that sunset the
Bush tax cuts and expanded spending for the jobs and the unemployed,
would be easy enough to come by.

But setting millions into motion in an organized fashion is a
different kettle of fish. A snap of the fingers won’t do it. Nor will
a good slogan. Not even a presidential address. Indeed, it would
depend in the end on the political and organizational capacity of the
leaders of the main social organizations (labor in the first place),
liberals, progressives, left thinking people, and so forth to activate
millions – including again many who turned the election map red on
election night this past November.

I’m not suggesting that we enter only those battles that we are sure
that we can win, but we should have some confidence that in the
battles in which we engage, we can make a respectable fight of it and
stand some chance of winning – provided, of course, that we exploit
every division among our opponents, look for allies – reliable and
unreliable – and fill the streets and the corridors of Congress with
an army of outraged people.

We don’t need moral victories at this moment, but real ones. And that
is particularly the case for the unemployed who in this instance would
have  lost their benefits.

While we don’t set moral claims aside, it is imperative to take into
account the balance of class and social forces at any given moment,
our capacity to bring into motion masses of people, and our best guess
of what can be realistically won.

Critics of the president say that the tax/unemployment extension
compromise was demoralizing and unnecessary, but I would argue that
walking into the jaws of a hungry lion with barely a weapon in hand
can be far more demoralizing, even near deadly, which is what I think
would have been the political residue in this instance if no
compromise had been reached.

Obviously, I have a different estimate of our fighting capacity and
public opinion (that by the way overwhelmingly supported the
compromise) than the president’s critics. If the last two years have
revealed anything to me, it is this – our ability to influence and
bring into the streets millions in any sort of sustained way is
limited and the political consciousness of the American people (as a
whole) is contradictory and confused.

I wish that were not the case, but I’m afraid this is the reality.
Some blame the president for this situation, others the Democrats, but
this is too easy an answer. The president should take some
responsibility, as should his party, for the present political mess to
be sure, but shouldn’t we as well? Doesn’t it say something about our
politics (which lean in the direction of narrowness), mass connections
(not enough to the main mass social organizations), organizing skill
set (not enough emphasis on broad unity), and ability to shape mass
thinking (speak too much to ourselves and in a language that only we
understand – the new buzzword is “Empire.”)

Over the past two years, don’t we have to admit that the tea party has
better communicated its message to millions, united its supporters,
and expanded its bases of power than our side has?

For too long we have assumed that the American people are ready to
wholeheartedly embrace left solutions. If we, and especially
Democrats, project them, "the people will come." Tell that to Russ

This is wishful thinking. Notwithstanding the awful mess we are in, I
don't see the system breaking down or people spontaneously rising up.
In my view, the path to a progressive, and socialist, future will take
long persistent work, flexible and broad tactics, and a sound
strategic policy.

Supposedly, a deep and protracted economic crisis is the triggering
mechanism for a lurch to the left, but in the current situation it is
being resolved to the advantage of capital. This contrasts with the
1930s. During that decade, a broad upheaval and openings from above,
thanks to President Roosevelt and congressional New Dealers, resulted
in the New Deal. The current ruling class and especially its most
reactionary sectors (politically represented by right-wing extremism
that now controls the Republican Party) prefer a “raw deal” for the
American people. Their aim is not only to multiply their wealth at the
expense of working people, minorities, women, youth, seniors, and
other social groupings, but also to crush any organized opposition.

It's amazing, isn’t it, how little reform transnational and finance
capital will tolerate! In this latest battle over tax cuts, right-wing
Republicans acting on their behalf drove a tough bargain – a hostage
deal, the president correctly called it – on behalf of their clients
who operate globally. And earlier this year it only took some very
modest financial and health care reforms for the corporate elite, and
finance capital in particular, to go apoplectic and beat up on the

Which brings me back to the overriding necessity to significantly
enlarge the political and organizing capacity of the working class and
people’s movement. It’s the linchpin of progressive change at this

Moreover, the starting point – not the ending point – for such an
effort is not some long-range vision or a full blooded left, or even
progressive, program of action. They have a place for sure. Ground
zero, however, is the immediate struggles for relief that are stirring
millions and the overarching task of decisively defeating right- wing
Republicanism in 2012 – something we didn’t do four years earlier.

White House photo

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