Neoliberalism Enables Fascism. It is not Fascism.

September 23, 2020

by Matt Stannard

Neoliberalism seeks to build normalcy by hiding and peripheralizing the violence of capitalism. Fascism builds on the glorification of violence in order to achieve widespread enforcement, compliance, and celebration of a mystical order that is really just capitalism.

The failure of neoliberalism to do what it promises to do calls fascism into its performative life.

The performativity of fascism matters. Jedd Legum reported a few weeks ago on the Trump campaign’s acceptance of “thousands in donations from a notorious neo-Nazi leader and other racist extremists.” The neo-Nazi leader is Morris Gulett, leader of the Aryan Nations. “The Trump campaign has repeatedly accepted cash from Gulett”, who preaches that “White, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and kindred peoples are the direct descentants of the Adamic man . . .” and has called for genocide against those of African descent, calls Jewish people children of Satan, and so on.

Gulett’s contributions were brought to the attention of the Trump campaign in July 2018 by The Forward. At the time, Gulett had donated to the Trump campaign three times for a total of $200. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Forward.

The Trump campaign also did not respond to a request for comment by Popular Information about Gulett’s continued donations.

Judd’s post at his really good Popular Information site lists a handful of additional donations–in the several thousands of dollars–Trump has accepted from other open racists and white nationalists. There’s no attempt to hide any of this. Nobody in Trump’s support base, which may total as much as 40 percent of the country, will walk back that support. The reason they won’t isn’t because they are fascists (politically active and committed white supremacists, to functionally describe what I mean by this) per se, but because they’ve accepted that the open celebration of white supremacy is an effective means of protecting and promoting their own perceived interests and values.

For U.S. politics, including for a socialist approach to politics, it matters that one side is doing this and the other side isn’t.

There are two things that make the Democratic Party’s difference from, in particular, the Trumpian Republican Party, matter strategically. One is the presence of social democrats and democratic socialists in the party. Their presence is not “cover” for neoliberal and right-wing Democrats, but rather is the result of factional political struggle and popular support for the left in the United States’ two-party system.

The second implication of the difference is the philosophical positioning of the Democratic Party as embodying the promise that capitalism can be made humane.

Strategically, these implications give socialists the opportunity to emphasize both neoliberal capitalism’s broken promises and the importance of electing and protecting left Democrats while building an independent infrastructure for both direct action and electoral anticapitalism–whatever forms those take in the coming months.

Trumpian fascism, like all fascism, begins with the premise that capitalism can’t and shouldn’t be made humane, but rather that its violences are its virtues, the desirability of a violent hierarchical system, a sadistic celebration of brutality and caste order.

Fascism exists because humane capitalism rests on a lie. Neoliberalism’s stability rests, in turn, on the always-looming threat of fascism. We should be pointing this out–not as a pretext for comparing candidates or making epistemically sloppy arguments about equivalencies or third parties, but for building socialism as mass movement in opposition to capitalism, neoliberalism, and fascism.

You can support Matt Stannard’s political writing by supporting Solidarity House Cooperative on Patreon.

Notes on the Current Fascism

September 7, 2020

by Matt Stannard

Several converging events summon these notes: a massive upsurge in right-wing violence encouraged by the Trump administration, the infusion of fascist ideology into the covid-19 pandemic crisis (particularly the often hidden argument that it’s okay for vulnerable people and the elderly to die), a concern with how socialists should approach the Republican and Democratic parties politically, and a friendly disagreement with Chris Richards of Political Hack & Slash, which we dig into on this episode of the Cowboys on the Commons podcast

Donald Trump has been an incipient fascist figurehead, and whether he’s done so consciously or not, members of his administration are conscious white nationalists with yearnings for the administration to possess absolute executive power, the ability to silence both governmental and media criticism, and a preference for visible brutality. The administration and its boss have encouraged the growth of far-right street and militia-sustained violence against minorities and the left. The administration is fiercely nationalist. All of these traits are fascist. Although a few initial assessments of Trump a few years ago concluded against the label, such as this not-very-prescient Vox piece that relied on extremely bourgeois opinions, the fact behind those assessments have rapidly changed, and many of their conclusions failed even to consider the evidence at hand at the time. 

But there’s a thread of thinking (which has been around at least since the term “liberal fascism” emerged in the 1980s from anarchist-punk discourse and then received a new iteration from the far right), that puts both neoliberal, centrist Democratic Party governance and far-right Republican governance on the same basic canvas and calls it “fascism.” Chris Richards’ use of this term to describe the entire spectrum ranging from Biden-Harris to Trump-Pence led me to invite him to a friendly debate on the podcast. I felt like it was important to distinguish the current administration as uniquely fascist, and I still do after listening to Chris, although I think he raised some important issues that problematize making that conclusion too soon. In the end, he feels he has empirical justification for his broader use of the term, and I feel I have arguments justifying the distinction, and we’ll each go our separate ways doing what we need to do (and we largely agree that there are important differences between Biden and Trump although they’re both awful), but I wanted to explain my distinctions in more detail.

The Historical and Marxist Definition of Fascism

Fascism plays a distinct role in brutal institutional countermovement against the democratization of economic and political life. Fascism is when capitalism has a temper tantrum, stripping back liberal reforms and the rule of law, punishing the humanitarian tendencies of liberalism, and doing direct violence against socialist and anti-capitalist movements, liberatory identity movements, and progressive public dissent. 

I don’t consider myself an orthodox Marxist, but the general definition of fascism at marxists.org contains what I think are the vital components of a definition of fascism: “Fascism is right-wing, fiercely nationalist, subjectivist in philosophy, and totalitarian in practice. It is an extreme reactionary form of capitalist government.” The definitional essay lists several “fundamental characteristics” including that fascism is right wing, nationalistic, hierarchical, anti-equality, religious, capitalist, warlike, voluntarist (in that it advances a particularly metaphysical view of “the will”) and anti-modern. 

Fascism is Performative

Moreover, although this is not explicit in the Marxist definition, these characteristics are performative as well as substantive. By this I mean that fascism celebrates nationalism, the fervor of its hierarchy, and its insistence on violence. Fascism isn’t just authoritarian nationalism in substance–it’s a violent and forceful public argument for authoritarian nationalism.

Although during our conversation on the Cowboys on the Commons podcast, Chris argued that fascism inherited its violent practices from, say, Italian politics or an American tradition of party-based violence that implicated the communists as much as the fascists, the communists did not celebrate their violence or make it party ideology, and by all accounts, fascist violence in Italy, Spain, and Germany far exceeded prior manifestations of political violence. Violence was often the sole argumentative tactic of fascists. The Italian fascists systematized and stepped up political violence. The Spanish fascists were unrelentingly abusive towards peasants and communists and used violence to demoralize republicans in the Civil War. And Kenneth Burke writes of Hitler’s early street-level political team deliberately antagonizing people at rallies in order to start fights that would become performative arguments for National Socialism: 

“Hitler also tells of his technique in speaking, once the Nazi party had been effectively organized, and had its army of guards, or bouncers, to maltreat hecklers and throw them from the hall. He would, he recounts, fill his speech with provocative remarks, whereat his bouncers would promptly swoop down in flying formation, with swinging fists, upon anyone whom these provocative remarks provoked to answer.”

. . . a tactic duplicated by the Trump campaign. 

So the difference between authoritarianism (which tolerates the liberal state) and Fascism (which doesn’t tolerate the liberal state) is obvious in the way the two forms of governance and political movement function. And there are other distinctions. Fascism flirts with a few revolutionary demands. It typically does this by promising a strong executive, a “strongman” who will bypass the democratic process to create special “exceptional” policies favoring some group or another and overriding procedural barriers to meeting their needs or demands. The Trump administration has done this, though the degree to which the administration has any legitimacy on this is determined by the outcome of internal cabinet struggle and placating big capital. 

Above all, fascist ideology glorifies violence, celebrates mythic strength, divides strong and weak. The Trump administration does this by encouraging interpersonal violence, police violence, right wing nationalist violence, the death of “weak” people vulnerable to disease, and the explicit celebration of immigrant detention (rather than Obama’s and presumably Biden’s, more humane-appearing and sugar-coated anti-immigrant violence, which also contains zones of exception and the space for change that explains why most immigration attorneys would undoubtedly prefer a Biden administration to a Trump one). 

Fascism is inseparable from white American nationalist and white Euronationalist ideology. Where nonwhite groups have exhibited fascist tendencies they have done so in the context of right-wing nationalism (e.g. Hindutva) or anti-Semitism and mysticism (Nation of Islam under Farrakhan). 

Fascism relies on the conscious, publicized creation of street-level gangs and, in the American context, right-wing militia. Fascism is not as contemptuous towards the managerial or liberal state, the military and the intelligence sector as it is to the far left–that is, fascists believe the far left must be eliminated first–but fascists do want to dismantle the liberal state and remake it as a totalitarian state based on mysticism and force. That this goal is ultimately unattainable* is not an immediate concern. 

The difference between the fascist state and the liberal state is that the liberal state tolerates judicial review, popular demands, local control and other checks on totalitarianism up to a point. Fascism can’t do that. Liberals form relationships with those protections, demands, and procedural checks that are very different from the bare, aggressive antagonisms of fascism. 

Errors from Misunderstanding fascism or Conflating it with General Authoritarianism: 

1. Misunderstanding the push-and-pull game of liberalism and fascism. Liberalism is based on the argument that the progressive liberal state can co-exist with capitalism. Fascism rejects that argument, sees liberal progressivism as a threat to capitalism (and to the white supremacist order behind it), and thus periodically destroys it. 

To some extent, the working class can demand and take advantage of the reformism of the liberal capitalist order. The socialist movement can use the tension between liberalism’s promises and failures to deliver them to open up wider political space. Fascism closes that potential and that space. Fascism doesn’t just function to reassert capitalism but also to reassert white supremacy and patriarchy and really the whole Kyriarchy, to borrow from the feminist term. Ultimately, just as the looming threat of communism has forced parliamentary democracies to enact social democratic reforms (like universal health care), the threat of fascism serves to close that reformist space. Thus, fascism and liberalism can never “be the same” functionally because to do so would undermine their ability to play off of each other in the service of capitalist white supremacy. 

2. Misunderstanding America First-ers’ & MAGA’s argument that Trump won’t start wars. This is a particularly frustrating public argument–that Trump will keep us out of war where liberal internationalists and neocons are more likely to start wars. It’s frustrating because there is a kernel of truth in fascism’s arguments against the interventionist and internationalist state, but we also know that nationalism, particularly non-liberatory nationalism, is an antecedent to the kind of unilateralism that, had things gone a little differently in Iraq and Iran earlier this year, undoubtedly would have taken us into an extremely destructive war. I can write more about this later, or talk about it on a podcast (mine or someone else’s) because I have limited time here and it is a complex discussion. Short version: Trump, like Hitler and Mussulini, would risk millions of lives if he believed it would advance his interests, including very immediate and very personal ones. We already know that he has no qualms about spending American lives in the service of illusory leadership. 

3. Misunderstanding other far right regimes like Putin’s Russia. 

4. Ceding political space to fascists by not forming critical/contingent electoral alliances with left liberals/left Democrats. There’s a great discussion about this on the vast majority podcast, and I would add that those who believe electoral politics are irredeemable need to answer a few questions: what’s your theory of the state? Are we cool ceding state power, the administrative and material power of various elected and appointed positions, to the far right? How far down the ballot is this true? Do you feel comfortable with the kind of oddsmaking that says we’ll be “worse off” or “just as bad off” regardless of who occupies those positions? 

5. In all of these errors, confusing bourgeois identity politics with demands for civil rights, equality under the law, and more radical anti-oppression work. Do we want to be the Socialist Workers Party or the Socialist Equality Party, the former praising the Bundy family and the white supremacist takeover of federal facilities, the latter mocking campaigns against sexual assault? I say that instead of this, we need to acknowledge that even though class and materiality contextualize struggles for equality under the law and equality in the anti-capitalist struggle, we still should support strong steps towards securing political and civil rights within the capitalist system. 

6. Sliding into accellerationism. This is where the rubber meets the road, as far as I’m concerned, about socialist praxis. Accellerationists, including people who don’t really know or admit that they’re advocating accellerationism, do this by rejecting reforms that socialists have traditionally led the way in demanding of the capitalist state, and by committing what I’ve come to call the “bare face” fallacy, assuming it’s preferable to have an open fascist in control of the state than a liberal. 

Conclusion

This kind of analysis will always feel futile and fleeting if we’re being honest with ourselves. Method and analysis can’t capture the dynamic, ever-changing clusters of material power and meaning-making around us. Nevertheless, in my own attempt to make sense of it, I find that the difference between liberal/neoliberal capitalism and fascistic neoliberal capitalism is that in the former, there is space to fight for, carve out, and demand non-systemic, but useful reforms; in the latter, there is a mad, overwhelming dash to end reforms, relief, and any checks possible against the self-directed excesses of capital. 

The liberal/neoliberal capitalist state is still brutal, often exporting or hiding or otherwise deferring the violence away from the political centers of its regime. But it is more likely to pay legal and rhetorical heed to political equality across identities, and more open to demands for relief and service as a function of democratic processes and public bureaucracy or coordination than the fascist state. In those instances where the fascistic capitalist state grants relief, it does so under the public warrant of strong executive power, so that all relief and reform depends on the will and the grace of the strong (and aspirationally unitary) executive. And the fascistic capitalist state is likely to continuously engage in the stripping of legal protections for minorities, as well as sanctioning rhetorical dehumanization of minorities.  

These distinctions are problematic; as my discussion with Chris revealed to me, the liberal/neoliberal capitalist state has broken down the distinction between legal and extralegal violence that used to enhance fascism’s reliance on street gangs and militias. But I think the distinctions still explain how liberalism creates the conditions for fascism, and in a sense relies on the looming threat of fascism to prevent the material delivery of socioeconomic rights, or sometimes weaken the enforcement of civil rights. 

The U.S. electoral system, particularly where presidential elections are concerned, is pretty much broken, and so I don’t think it’s constructive to get involved in the numerous debates about whether socialists should vote for the Biden-Harris ticket, abstain from voting for a presidential ticket, or vote for a third party. The system is soaked so full of voter suppression and electoral college distortion that one can’t confidently draw an arrow from one’s individual vote to a predictable outcome. What I can say is that a Biden-Harris presidency will raise extremely different needs and tasks for socialists, the anti-capitalist movement, and those concerned with cooperation and justice, than a Trump-Pence re-election–and that there are many people fighting on the front lines of labor, immigration, LGBTQAA+ and civil rights who note an exhausting, perpetually demoralizing, ship-always-sinking, fires-always-burning feeling from the Trump administration. Such an effect is intentional when an administration is full of open white nationalists, radical supply-siders, and advocates of unitary executive governance. There will not be fewer challenges presented by a Democratic administration, but the challenges are likely to manifest in a different, less exhausting and demoralizing way for many categories of progressive resistance. Although we should never pretend that’s good enough, I don’t think we should discourage people from preferring that outcome. It remains for us to educate people why it is, at best, necessary but not sufficient.

* Unattainable because the function of fascism is to beat back resistance to capitalism; when it fulfills that purpose it often (but not always) goes into retreat. Its remnants are assimilated into the liberal state, but that doesn’t make the liberal state a fascist state. The explicitly fascist traits are watered down, rehabilitated, and change rather drastically in form.  

Solidarity Collective Fights to Survive in 2020

We aren’t going down yet, but we haven’t achieved long-term viability

by Matt Stannard
May 22, 2020

Solidarity Collective’s landing at this space, with its large 1878 main house, and 3-acre estate full of other structures, pasture, and abandoned junkpiles, has always been a work in progress. It wasn’t some comfortable and ready-made space, although it has striking wonderfulness all over it. Making it work was going to take time and money. Making it work as an anti-capitalist commune was going to be even more challenging, because that meant we would not exploit each other or anyone else in the restorative process. At our approaching two-year mark, we’re running out of the resources–all the resources–to make it work.

We are still fulfilling our mission: we host (now virtually) political and social events and open our resources and spaces up for a wide range of socialist, left-wing, intentional community, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression and progressive causes. We give away and sell food. We produce podcasts with hundreds of downloads per month. In some instances, resource and labor shortages, and now the pandemic, have slowed our pace, and at our last annual retreat we lamented our failure to get more projects off the ground, particularly work in anti-racist education. But we are productive and values-aligned enough that our service and output is not the reason we’ve recently come so close to calling it quits.

I point out that we’re still living our values and fulfilling our mission because the consensus of the comrades, at least now, is firmly that deciding not to live that mission and those values would mean that the work we are putting into maintaining the space of the collective wasn’t really worth it. We’re not yet ready to concede we need some kind of Cuban “special period” of capitalism, and i suspect none of us could be capitalists even if we wanted to (capitalism means exploiting the labor of wage workers for profit; on the relationship of worker-owned cooperatives to anti-capitalist politics, see the work of Richard Wolf, among others). We also recognize the limits of the cooperative model.

Finding a way to make it work means finding a way to make all of it work: the finances, the values, our sustainable and nurturing treatment of each other. Our radical egalitarianism is non-negotiable. If we were to fold, it would be cooperatively, with the expectation that everyone will do everything they could to make sure each comrade finds a stable transition and destination.

We have some good things going for us: we’re bringing in 3 new members in the next three months, we’ve gotten additional inquiries beyond those, socialist and alternative economics are surging in popularity, including in Wyoming, and we are still full of energy and ideas to push forward.

But we have some bad things going against us too: Solidarity Collective isn’t presently financially viable in the long term. None of us are remotely well-off financially, and collective ownership was the only option for owning this space. Paying our mortgage, keeping the power and heat on, feeding ourselves and others, maintaining our main work and living spaces are our top priorities, and the lights aren’t going out, nobody’s hungry, we’re warm and safe, and won’t default on the mortgage. But repairs, taxes, and project financing have put us in a slowly growing hole, such that our long-term projections are not viable without increasing our prospective membership by around 50%. In the best case scenario, climbing out of the red won’t take as long as it took us to get there, but it’s not going to be easy or quick, and our current configuration doesn’t have the resources to do it.

We have viable, if modest, business models for the enterprises we run (again, if the point was to make huge profits, we would not be operating communally or within our values), and we are exploring ways to increase our Patreon support, produce more podcasts and grow our listenership, and expand our farming operations. But these take human labor and we’re all stretched very thin.

Partnerships may work for some of them. We’re meeting twice a week, painstakingly (and emotionally) considering possibilities and propositions. We can always re-prioritize our labor but we have no room to reprioritize our financial commitments. They have been massaged and scrutinized over and over again, and we’re at the part of that slide show which shows that we will not survive long-term.

Another important factor is that it’s hard to do what we’re doing. Material and cultural cooperation isn’t just learning the skills needed to share. It also proceeds from the same general principle as socialism: that a wide scaling of shared resources can serve everyone’s needs. “From each according to ability, to each according to need” can only really meet the diverse needs of a group of people if the gives-and-takes are sustainable. Our financial, physical, and emotional resources are stretched and often broken, week after week, month after month. There is no more “from each according to” to take.

We’ve also just had some bad luck. Some of us have lost work due to Covid-19; two comrades’ jobs have been eliminated. Another has had a string of tough health issues. Expected move-ins have been delayed by the pandemic and roadbumps in people’s lives. A guest who was temporarily staying with us seriously damaged an apartment and we don’t expect them to be in any position to fund the repairs we need. At the same time, we’re aware that some unexpected good luck could turn up, as it has before. In any event, we aren’t viable if we depend on good luck and dread the bad knowing we can’t absorb it. Viability under capitalism is nothing if not highly dependent on the ability to absorb bad luck.

I write this even though what sticks out in my reflection over the last two years has been the number of times each person here (and some who have left) have risen above and beyond what might be normally expected of people. Communal heroism has been on alternating display here, from those that live at the commune and those who actively support it from the outside (whose visits and constant help has been the stuff of legend). In other words, I say this feeling strongly that each person involved with this project has at one time or another been vital to our functioning.

That’s outstanding. It confirms, for me, a lot of my beliefs about the viability of solidarity–when people’s care for others is sustained by socialized, restorative systems. We don’t presently have enough people to create or sustain all the systems we need, but we’re trying to find a way.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we’ve always been transparent about our intentions and our resources.

Because if a strong part of you or someone you know tells you that you have been wanting to join an anti-capitalist commune and you like fighting good fights with long odds, this is your opportunity to do it–get in touch and help us soberly and objectively make our decision about the future.

Because if you are fascinated by processes and challenges like these, you are welcome to follow our saga through to whatever conclusion it reaches.

Because regardless of the outcome, we have hard work ahead (dissolving or rebuilding will both take tremendous amounts of work) and we need to maintain our connections to supportive and well-wishing friends: we need the love and connection of those who care about us and what we’re doing.

Because we have accomplished a whole lot here, and that won’t change even if we end this phase of our work, and you can help us celebrate that. We need celebration too.

You can support Solidarity Collective in many ways (contact members for more information) but one easy way is to subscribe to their Patreon at this link.

Broken Promises Threaten Lives of Greeley Meatpacking Workers

by Michael Yates
April 24, 2020

The largest employer in Greeley, Colorado is the food processor JBS USA Holdings Inc. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of JBS S.A., a Brazilian company and the largest processor of fresh beef and pork in the world. The plant in Greeley employs some 6,000 people, many of them immigrants. In Greeley, nearly 40 % of the population (which is about 107,000) is Hispanic, meaning that many of the workers are Hispanic as well.

Work in a meatpacking factory can best be described as laboring on a disassembly line, as animal carcasses are disassembled as the animal moves along a mechanized line. By all accounts, the work is intense and dangerous (see Roger Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight”: A Social History of Industrial Unionism, in Meatpacking, 1930-90, along with my review in the Oct. 1998 issue of Monthly Review). Animal blood everywhere. Knives flying, cuts omnipresent, as the line moves ever faster and the boss demands more and more production.

There was once a strong and radical union of packinghouse workers, but mechanization, globalization, and business consolidation, along with red-baiting, damaged the union beyond repair. Today, the much weaker and less radical United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) represents workers in some of the US plants, including the one in Greeley. Of course, just about any union is better than none, but the old union, the United Packinghouse Workers, won wages that were among the highest in the country. It also had an ingenious structure of shop stewards, who coordinated confrontations with management across plants nationwide. Today, wages are much lower and the union much less militant.

As essential labor, the operatives at the Greeley facility continued to work during the pandemic. The company did no testing, and the workers went without adequate personal protective equipment. As could have been predicted, employees soon became infected by the virus, and then they infected family members. Or they contracted the virus outside the plant, and then infected their coworkers. Hundreds were ill, and several died. The situation went national when Trump and Pence referenced it at a daily news conference. Pence promised that tests would be quickly made available, and the company also promised testing immediately. Not surprisingly, neither promise has been kept. A report from Contact 7 in Denver on April 22 states:

“Now less than a week from the scheduled reopening of the plant, promises from the White House and JBS management have not been kept. ‘We can only assume the reason they stopped testing is they don’t want the numbers to come out, it’s bad PR,’ said Sylvia Martinez, a spokesperson for Latinos Unidos of Greeley. Multiple informed sources confirmed to Contact7 Investigates that JBS management stopped testing shortly after it started doing so on April 11 and well before its promise to test its 6,000 employees. Insiders have told Contact7 Investigates that between 40% and 80% of managers/supervisors tested positive on the initial day of testing and those results prompted JBS to end the testing program. ‘I believe when it became apparent that most of the supervisors tested positive JBS abruptly stopped the testing,’ said JBS Union President Kim Cordova.”

Sadly, the plant reopens today, April 24. The UFCW national president, Anthony Perrone, warns that it is not safe to reopen the meatpacking plants that have been closed, including the one in Greeley. Stories out of the Smithfield plant is South Dakota are heartrending, with the same management lack of concern for the largely immigrant workforce. BBC News reports:

“But according to Smithfield employees, their union representatives, and advocates for the immigrant community in Sioux Falls, the outbreak that led to the plant closure was avoidable. They allege early requests for personal protective equipment were ignored, that sick workers were incentivised to continue working, and that information regarding the spread of the virus was kept from them, even when they were at risk of exposing family and the broader public.”

Today, governors in several states have begun “opening up” their economies, and many others are itching to do so. Let what is happening at these meatpacking plants, and many other “essential” workplaces serve as a warning as to what is likely to happen if we return to business as usual. We are in the midst of a horrible pandemic. Our “leaders” are advising tactics that will only worsen things, sickening and killing more people. Yesterday, Trump suggested that we could inject disinfectants to cleanse our bodies of the virus. Maybe that will be the salvation of the packinghouse workers, and all of us. Hitler, anyone?

Michael Yates is Editorial Director of the Monthly Review Press. He was a labor educator for more than three decades. He is the author of The Great Inequality, Why Unions Matter and Can the Working Class Change the World?

Old SDS, New DSA, and Trump vs Biden

From the Editor:  In this guest post by Participatory Economics innovator and longtime organizer Michael Albert, we open up space for a very contentious but important dialogue among the anti-capitalist left on questions of presidential politics, the dangers of fascism, and whether contingently “supporting” (mainly voting for) an extremely problematic Democratic nominee is a desirable position given the multiple stakes involved in removing the current administration. Last week, a group of 1960s members of Students for a Democratic Society signed a letter in The Nation calling for the left to support Joe Biden.  Daniel Finn responded to the letter at Jacobin, accusing the SDS emerita of “haranguing” socialists into supporting Biden. Other statements have been released as well. In the spirit of ecumenical left debate, we’ll publish future guest editorials on the question as long as there is interest. ~MJS

By Michael Albert
April 20, 2020

In a recent letter a group of old SDSers hoped to engage some young critics of the Democratic Party and Joe Biden. Those critics actually ought to be mightily commended for many of their analyses, insights, actions, intuitions, and feelings.

For example, the critics are correct that Biden is a tribune of power and wealth and of the current socio-economic system, not a friend of the poor, the disenfranchised, those doing rote and tedious work, those reviled and repressed by police, those living under occupations and bombs, those suffering the many diseases of our times.

The critics are also correct that Biden, Obama, the Clintons, and the establishment Democratic Party power brokers reject fundamental and even just substantial change and that many feared Sanders reducing their influence more than they feared Trump retaining the Presidency. Masters of war. Masters of impoverishment. Misanthropes of morality.

They are correct that U.S. elections don’t question underlying social and economic relations, and that the electoral college makes a mockery of democracy.

They are correct that even when rhetorically caring and humane, Democratic Party elites, like all the many TV ads now celebrating frontline workers to try to sell automobiles, are ultimately about business as usual.

The critics are also correct that as bad as Covid-19 is, multi-dimensional ecological collapse via global warming as well as death by starvation, inequality, and militarism are even greater threats to human survival. The young militant’s leadership on global warming and their observations that Biden and his overseers offer far, far less than we all ecologically need are also correct.

The critics would also be right if they pointed out that many old SDSers haven’t been very visibly active in a very long time, save for periodically supporting some Democratic candidate and that Old SDSers haven’t offered much inspiring vision and haven’t fully followed through on delivering a world worthy of young people’s on-going habitation.

Hell, the Biden critics would also be right to point out that Boomers writ large overwhelmingly exited “our generation” writ radical, and at a crucial historical moment became anything but Sanders supporters. They could reasonably ask those of us still radical why we didn’t do better reaching our own peers and how we could think we ever really knew much less that we still know how to reach out and organize? They could also reasonably wonder how come the old SDSers had barely a word to say about young leftists’ merits or about older leftists’ failings.

The young left has also been right that while Sanders didn’t voice all their desires and didn’t legitimate all their feelings, his was a brilliant campaign, program, and project that deserved their whole-hearted support. And they have been right to assert that the program, beliefs, and commitments of both DSA and the Green Party are monumentally superior to those of the mainstream Democratic Party.

Like the letter signers, I was in SDS and the broader left of the sixties but I don’t write this reply to the old SDSers based on my past membership. Like many of them, I have remained active since, in a myriad of ways, but I don’t write this based on that, either.

Like many of them, I have been and remain a militant advocate of fundamentally changing the racial, sexual, gender, political, economic, and ecological contours of contemporary life, right down to the roots, and I do hope that maybe that will weigh just a little bit positively on what follows, especially since what follows seeks to be heard not by old-timers like myself, but by young people looking around at crushing chaos and escalating pain and trying to find an effective path forward.

I write this seeing that because of their above views and many more besides young militants are the hope of the future. And because I want more than anything that they should have the room to pursue their own better world successfully.

But there is another dimension to address, because for all the many points that young radicals are rightly pursuing, one widely held stance many of them share is understandable but appears to me, as it did to the old SDSers, nonetheless ill-conceived.

And it isn’t that the young left are speaking from privilege because many aren’t in jail, or in detention camps, or looking up at drones, or starving…that is no more legitimate a criticism now than when my generation’s then elders, fifty years ago, threw such charges at us as we fought for civil rights and Black Power, for Women’s Liberation, for the Vietnamese, for the poor, dispossessed, shackled, and sickened in all lands. We old-timers should remember how we reacted hearing from older leftists – who did have insights worth hearing – that our form of militance was sometimes suicidal, that our analyses were sometimes misguided, that our anger and beliefs were sometimes the folly of immaturity? We wrote them off and didn’t look for the nuggets of wisdom they did indeed have to offer. And now, here we go again, except this time we are the old-timers undercutting our own chance to contribute usefully.

Here is the thing, young militants. I believe you are wrong about just one set of interrelated beliefs. And while in confused times like these that is a remarkably small debit, the problem is that that one set of interrelated beliefs matters a whole lot.

Trump winning in 2020 would not be less than a world historic disaster for all else you believe, feel, and think. Biden winning would be vastly better (albeit, of course, abysmally short of) all else you believe, feel, and think. Not voting or voting other than for Biden against Trump, at least in swing states, would not somehow strategically do more to uproot the two party system, to defend Democracy, to expand equity, to reverse racism, or to slay sexism, than would beating Trump while simultaneously working on all those and many other agendas as well. And finally, your choices in these regards do matter. Not only might the election hinge on fewer votes than you can swing, but who is better informed to talk successfully with working class Trump voters from 2016?

You have acknowledged Sanders’ intelligence, commitment, and courage. How comes it then that you so easily dismiss his choosing to keep fighting for his whole program, which is in large degree your current program, but also, and as part of that, to fight for Trump’s defeat via Biden’s election?

You believe in fundamental change. Me too. I have spent a lifetime trying to give it wings rooted in clarity. You passionately hate those who purvey business as usual over the bodies of countless corpses and uncountable diminished souls. Me too. “Hey hey LBJ?, how many kids did you kill today?”

You feel that supporting Biden against Trump is signing on to preserving the existing abominable system with, at most, some modest mitigating policies. And that feels to you like a direct route to being what you oppose. And I understand that feeling too. And to an extent, I think you are right. Slip sliding into being what we hate, or contributing to others doing so, is not only possible, it is oftentimes rather likely – unless we are very clear in our motives and actions.

But the good news is that the needed clarity is easily in everyone’s reach. Why not advocate voting for Biden in swing states where doing so could matter to beating Trump, on the undeniable grounds that Trump winning again also involves a slip slide – into hellish days well beyond those already endured, if not worse still. Do it not based on Biden’s non-existent merits but because Trump winning would accelerate the race to destroy the environment that sustains organized human life, maybe even reaching irreversible tipping points, with mounting and hideous catastrophes along the way primarily among the poor abroad and at home. Why not do it because Trump winning would increase the risk of terminal nuclear war, which is transparent, and because his winning would pack the judiciary with young ultra-right justices who, for at least a generation, would persevere to block any even mildly progressive legislation. And why not do it because Trump winning would mean further gutting the remaining structures of popular participation reducing democracy beneath even its current abysmal state. Of course this litany of reasons could go on, but let me just add why elderly passions are high, even as leftists who oppose supporting Biden and leftists who advocate supporting Biden in swing states agree on so much else.

As old as sixties SDSers are, we have elders too. And I hear them tell me how the Nazi plague engulfed Germany and ravaged the world in large part because the huge German Communist party refused to join with others to stop Hitler because they saw those others as “social fascists” and, they felt, Hitler wasn’t really all that bad a guy. And so when I and others my age hear them say they came into the world seeing that mistake wreak havoc, and they now fear leaving the world seeing that same mistake wreak havoc again, it adds to my sense of urgency. Do we really want to risk that for our kids, for the planet, for humanity, because we see Biden as bad to the bone and feel Trump isn’t really all that bad a guy?

So the SDS-ers’ point is, it is indeed possible to urge voting for Biden, and to do so in swing states, and to simultaneously retain radical commitments, beliefs, and integrity because we want to prevent the obvious known ills of Trumpism, not to mention the extrapolated even greater ills of resurgent fascism. It is possible to do it and not become what we hate. And not only will our doing it not contribute to solidifying existing social relations and not contribute to entrenching existing obstacles to change, it will help prevent those two dynamics and prepare for fighting on. Isn’t that what Sanders is doing? And if he can do it, can’t his supporters, and even people to his left also do it — without an iota of compromise, without an iota of hypocrisy?

But yes, I know some who reject voting for Biden will have followed this line of reasoning to this point but then decided that Sanders is selling out. He seemed good, great even, but he has shown himself a horrible shill for the mainstream power brokers.

I will admit I don’t know how to address those of you taking that path. Those decrying Sanders, and no doubt jettisoning the views of Chomsky, Ehrehreich and so many folks we have previously appreciated and perhaps even learned from, indeed perhaps even learned the views that we now think require us to reject voting for Biden – for example that the two parties are two wings of one corporate party.

But we know that Sanders, Chomsky, Ehrenreich and other such advocates of Biden over Trump — hell, of the nearest lamppost over Trump, if need be — including the old SDSers, are not dumb. We know their position isn’t due to their being unable to draw logical conclusions. But we also can’t shake nor should we shake that we feel it is transparently obvious that Biden favors system maintenance. For sure, he does, but the question is, does that recognition mean we can legitimately conclude that anyone smart and informed who favors voting for Biden must also be for system maintenance? That anyone who says we can be radical, revolutionary, and true to our values and aspirations, and simultaneously so realize the necessity to beat Trump that we advocate voting Biden – must want system maintenance? That people wanting Biden to beat Trump and willing to help in that task must actually like Biden’s beliefs and motives? That they must have sold out? Is it warranted for us to decide Sanders is a sellout, and so too for so many others?

Or, if we call those we disagree with our enemies rather than considering that they might be just as radical, just as revolutionary as they always were, and might differ from us because they see something we are missing, wouldn’t that be doing that which we would ordinarily ridicule and decry — being leftists who accuse everyone who disagrees with us of being an enemy of change despite the fully visible contrary evidence of the their words and deeds?

So if this debate has to happen — and I have seen it surging up online already — can we all, on every side, at the very least, agree to remove the personal denigrations, and agree to stick to the issues, so that the issues might be resolved and we might in the end agree on what is true and what is not true – on what is doable and what is not doable — and thus on where we can usefully act and where our actions, or lack thereof, may do irreparable harm even against our intentions.

Michael Albert, host of the Revolution Z: Life After Capitalism podcast, is an organizer, publisher, teacher, and author of over twenty books and hundreds of articles. He cofounded South End Press, Z Magazine, the Z Media Institute, ZNet, and various other projects, and works full time for Z Communications. He is the author, with Robin Hahnel, of the economic vision named participatory economics. He helped create the International Organization for a Participatory Society in 2012.

Image: Florida State University students marching for anti-war protest, courtesy of State Archives of Florida

Vigil for Peace in Yemen, a New Norm

by Kathy Kelly
March 27, 2020

 

For the past three years, several dozen New Yorkers have gathered each Saturday at Union Square, at 11:00 a.m. to vigil for peace in Yemen.

Now, however, due to the coronavirus, the vigil for peace is radically altered. Last week, in recognition of the city’s coming shelter in place program, participants were asked to hold individual vigils at their respective homes on the subsequent Saturday mornings. Normally, during the public vigils, one or more participants would provide updates on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the ongoing war, and U.S. complicity. As COVID-19 threatens to engulf war-torn Yemen, it is even more critical to raise awareness of how the war debilitates the country.

If the vigil for peace were to gather in Union Square this Saturday, activists most certainly would draw attention to how Turkish officials  indicted 20 Saudi nationals for the murder of the dissident writer, Jamal Khashoggi. Turkey’s investigation of the murder and dismemberment of Mr. Khashoggi indicts 18 people for committing the murder and names two officials for incitement to murder. One of them, General Ahmad Al-Asiri, a close associate of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was deputy chief of intelligence when Mr. Khashoggi was murdered.

Numerous news reports over the past five years establish a pattern of Mr. Al-Asiri responding to inquiries about Saudi-led coalition military attacks against Yemen civilians with misleading statements, outright denials and attempted cover-ups.

For example, On August 30th, 2015, according to Human Rights Watch, a Saudi coalition led airstrike attacked the Al-Sham Water Bottling Factory in the outskirts of Abs, in northern Yemen. The strike destroyed the factory and killed 14 workers, including three boys, and wounded 11 more.

Later on August 30, after the airstrike, Gen. Al-Asiri told Reuters that the plant was not a bottling factory, but rather a place where Houthis made explosive devices. However, all of the individuals Human Rights Watch interviewed concurred:

…that plant was being used to bottle water and was not used for any military purposes… A group of international journalists traveled to the site of the blast two days after it was hit and reported that they could not find evidence of any military targets in the area. They said that they carefully examined the site, and took photos and videos of piles of scorched plastic bottles melted together from the heat of the explosion. They could not find any evidence that the factory was being used for military purposes.

Meanwhile, Yemenis were desperately trying to contend with rising cases of cholera caused by shortages of clean water.

In October, 2015, when eyewitnesses declared a hospital in northern Yemen run by Doctors Without Borders was destroyed by Saudi-led coalition warplanes, Gen. Al-Asiri told Reuters coalition jets had been in action over Saada governorate but had not hit the hospital.

On August 15, 2016,  a Saudi-led bombing campaign again targeted a hospital in northern Yemen supported by Doctors Without Borders. 19 people were killed.

The Abs hospital was bombed two days after Saudi airstrikes attacked a school in northern Yemen, killing ten students and wounding dozens more.

Yet Saudi officials continued to insist they struck military targets only. Commenting on the August 13 school attack, Gen. Al-Asiri said the dead children were evidence the Houthis were recruiting children as guards and fighters.

“We would have hoped,” General Al-Asiri said, that Doctors Without Borders “would take measures to stop the recruitment of children to fight in wars instead of crying over them in the media.”

In one of the deadliest attacks of the war, on October 8, 2016, the Saudi-led military coalition’s fighter jets repeatedly bombed a hall filled with mourners during a funeral for an official in the capital city of Sana. At least 140 people were killed and 550 more were wounded.

General Al-Asiri, still a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, suggested there were other causes for the blast and later reported the coalition had not carried out any strikes near the hall. But outraged U.N. officials, backed up by videos on social media, insisted that airstrikes had massacred the mourners.

The United States has steadily sided with Saudi Arabia, including supplying it with weapons, training its armed forces and covering for it in the U.N. Security Council. But “Defense One,” a U.S. news agency intending to provide news and analysis for national security leaders and stakeholders, recently issued a stinging rebuke to the Kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. They denounced the “humanitarian abomination ushered by Riyadh’s war in Yemen,” and called his leadership “as destabilizing to the Middle East as its Iranian rival.” Defense One urged Washington to discontinue enabling “Riyadh’s most reckless behavior.”

Turkey’s indictment of 20 Saudi nationals for murder and their insistence that Mr. Al-Asiri bears responsibility may help move the court of public opinion to resist all support for the Kingdom’s ongoing war in Yemen.

Particularly now, with intense focus on U.S. health care, it’s timely to recognize that in the past five years U.S. supported Gulf Coalition airstrikes bombed Yemen’s health care facilities 83 times. As parents here care for children during school closures, they should be reminded that since December 13, 2018, eight Yemeni children have been killed or injured every single day. Most of the children killed were playing outdoors with their friends or were on their way to or from school. According to the Yemen Data Project, more than 18,400 civilians have been killed or injured by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies since the initial  bombing campaign in 2015.

U.S. national security leaders and stakeholders in war, as they shelter in place, have an extraordinary opportunity to set a new norm and link with the vigil for Peace in Yemen, virtually. And, some may even join Yale students on April 9, from sunrise to sunset, in their National Fast for Peace in Yemen. They invite us to pledge support for Doctors Without Borders and other relief groups in Yemen.

Photo credit: Bill Ofenloch: Activists practice “physical distancing” at a Saturday morning vigil for Peace in Yemen, Union Square, NYC

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org)

Working People Have No Country

by Matt Stannard
January 3, 2020

Try this early and often–in every conversation about the administration’s war-drive against Iran, every discussion online and offline. Say:

“You and I have more in common with an Iraqi or Iranian militia grunt than with Donald Trump.”

. . . and simply: “Working people have no country.”

If your concern is beating this administration, and thus restoring the legitimacy of things like U.S. military hegemony, then this strategy and this blog aren’t for you. If your concern is to use the present political moment as an opportunity to strike at one of the root causes of this administration’s existence, the kind of world where mobbed up landlords become world leaders, then understanding our commonalities with Iranians is more than just liberal cosmopolitanism.

The warrant for “working people have no country” as an anti-war slogan is that if we see ourselves as beings in a common material class, and have adopted cooperative economic praxis, it won’t make sense to go to war with one another–at least where the interests of the majority are concerned.

There’s a large body of work on this, and it would be counterproductive for me to recommend that one read too much of it before diving right into direct political engagement. In reviewing the topic, I wanted to center on a singular explanatory text, and not necessarily a “Marxist” one, explaining why Marx and Engels were concerned that working people struggling for socialism or communism would center the ruling class in their own countries as the first oppositional force needing overthrow, and would view the working class as an international class.

So I tracked down Evan Luard’s Basic Texts in International Relations, in which Luard devotes an informative overview, “Class Consciousness as a Restraint on War” to the issue of why shared working class consciousness rejects war between states.

Part of the working class’s motivation for rejecting their own governments’ war drives is that the aspiration of working class political power includes eliminating those drives. “Once they had acquired power,” Luard puts it, “they would cease to have any interest in a war against any other state where the people had taken power. War would then, like the state itself, wither away.” Wither away because “the state” is based on antagonisms, war is a flare-up of such antagonisms. Luard points out that 50 years after the Manifesto Karl Kautsky, in a more utopian tone, wrote that workers would recognize the interdependence of their needs and the common conditions of their existence. In one form or another, most socialists adhere to that belief.

But I think it’s obvious, and probably necessary, to point out that we don’t need to view these beliefs as subscriptions to inexorable, mystical axioms. There might still be conflict. There might still be bloodshed. You can think this because you think humans are just inherently that way, or you can predict that the antagonisms of previous orders take a long time to exorcise and may never completely go away, or whatever. You don’t have to accept these premises as anything other than general prediction of tendencies. And you don’t have to believe that overcoming class will cause all other differences to be erased, synthesized, dissipated, or otherwise minimized. You can simply believe, as more and more people do, that capitalism and material hierarchy make it much, much harder to solve the conflicts that accompany those differences and conditions.

Class politics– emphasizing our shared materiality and shared security needs, using that shared materiality as a way of faithfully and vulnerably working through and dwelling in our other differences–can inform our anti-war politics, and connect our opposition to war to our larger ecological and economic justice agenda.

And, in many ways, most of us already recognize that our ethical obligations to each other transcend national origin. If the breakdown of such consciousness today can be discerned by opposition to the current administration’s actually existing fascism on immigration. Granted, it’s not a magic 8-ball on working class internationalism, but most Americans want more immigration and diversity, not less. Recently, political researcher Stanley Greenburg described how this administration has hastened the crystalization of such attitudes:

Pew asked whether immigrants “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” or “are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” The proportion embracing immigration jumped from 53% in 2015 to 62% this year. Trump sent troops to the border, warned of an America exposed without a wall and ran ads showing illegal immigrants who murdered innocent Americans, and yes, he made immigration the most important reason to vote against the Democrats in the off-year elections. His party lost the House in a 53%-45% landslide last year and has lost the battle of public opinion on immigration by much more than that.

This is an example of the various accelerations we currently live, whether we want to admit it or not–and at least some of this consciousness will survive even if trumpism does not. On immigration, as on climate and healthcare and, I ultimately suspect, on warmaking, a large cross section of America is turning sharply socialist, almost leapfrogging over more moderate-liberal analogs, and while it’s not the same as storming the palace, it points to what could turn out to be a massive fucking anti-war movement, assuming the administration treats the current war drive as a traditional war drive.

At least as important as magnitude will be motivation. Mass movements don’t often stop wars from starting, but mass opposition to those wars energizes class politics. We have an opportunity to make the slogan “working people have no country,” and the careful and powerful analysis behind it, central to our argument against this war and all wars, and in so doing, invite more people into socialist politics.

Uttering and explaining the slogan will help win people over. It will cause some other people to yell back “yes we do have countries” and invoke their fatherland myths–and it’s useful to know who those people are too.

Matt Stannard is operations director of Solidarity House Cooperative and produces content on cooperative economics and law.

Obama is wrong: We shouldn’t “chill out” about the primaries

by Yana Ludwig

December 13, 2019

It’s been a couple weeks now, but I’m still thinking about Barack Obama’s request for everyone to “chill out” about differences between presidential candidates. It is just the latest in a long series of “Vote Blue No Matter Who” sentiments to get far more air time than Bernie Sanders record breaking 4 million donations. It’s not only annoying: I believe it is damaging our democracy. 

The better message would be: Vote smart in the primaries because that’s where we are deciding what really matters.

Both major political parties in the US are in epic battles for the souls of their party right now. Many people have deep frustrations with being told to be loyal to a party whose current leadership simply doesn’t share our values. It feels for many like the “choice” we have in November isn’t nearly as much of a choice as we want… or see the world needing. 

It’s easy to see that from the left, in part because only a thin slice of those currently holding office share our most core beliefs. We can see that the line should be drawn, not along formal party lines, but along economic analysis lines: not between Democrats and Republicans, but between neoliberal capitalism (AKA business as usual in the US) and eco-socialism (of which Bernie Sanders’ and AOC’s version of the Green New Deal is our closest example in national political dialogue right now). 

Neoliberal capitalism is maintains that everything should be privatized and that access to those private goods and services should be determined by your ability to compete well enough in a dog eat dog economy. It’s a “good fight” writ cruel and petty. Neoliberals are enthusiastic about everything from education and spirituality to technology and entertainment to (formerly) public lands and insulin all coming with price tags that only some can pay. 

Neoliberalism is built-in means testing for everything we need to survive. Poor people are consistently judged unworthy, complete with implied moral failings, because to be a successful economic producer is the primary indicator of being a good person. Except most of us are failing, and that should tell us more about the test itself than the people being tested.

Among neoliberalism’s tools that spill into politics is the practice of attaching status to your ability to acquire things. Both parties seem to crave wealthy people’s approval, attention and resources, and it is a rare candidate who resists this in a genuine way and centers their attention and policy proposals firmly on the masses.

Socialists resist the whole neoliberal paradigm. Socialism is about democratizing the economy; giving everyone not just “access” (which has become the buzzword among neoliberals who want to appear more left than they actually are on healthcare) but an economy structured around workers actually deriving full benefit from their own labor. It says that a public sector is good, not because of some excessive love of “big government” but because when we take cut-throat profiteering out of the equation, everyone has a genuinely fair shot at getting their needs met.

Socialism says that there should not be whole industries designed to be gatekeepers to Life (because healthcare is a right), Liberty (because freedom from unjust persecution and imprisonment is a right) and the Pursuit of Happiness (because education is also a right). Neoliberalism is fine with someone making money off of you and your “basic” rights. In that way, it fundamentally undermines those rights to the point that they are no longer basic in truth. Socialism demands that we de-privatize healthcare, the prison system and education (among other things) because without doing that, our American core values are just words on paper.

There was a fascinating recent article about my home, Wyoming, and the internal crackdown happening within the state’s Republican party. The far right has taken over state leadership in the party, rewritten the platform in the Trump’s and Cheney’s ugliest image, and is now punishing county party leadership who are not toeing the line strongly enough. It’s nasty and epic, and reading that article made it clear to me that Republicans are also struggling with what their party is all about. 

Obama is friendlier for sure, but he represents a similarly ugly push to get in line.

It’s important for Republicans right now to be asking if they prefer Trump’s world or, say, Romney’s, just as it is for Democrats to be paying close attention to the differences between a Sanders presidency and a Biden presidency. Unless we have a candidate who is not a neoliberal on the ballot in November, we are ceding critical ground to the economic paradigm that led us to this moment of resurgent fascism in America, and to the climate crisis that threatens us all. 

The differences are that big and that important.

So my exhortation here is simple: Do. Not. Chill. Out. The primaries are like the semi-finals of a national championship, and whether your team makes it to the finals and has a shot at some actual political power matters to the fate of our people and planet. We are writing the story right now. We have not two but four critical, and markedly different, options in front of us. Choose well.

Yana Ludwig is the author of Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption, a member of Solidarity Collective and Democratic Socialists of America, and a candidate for U.S. Senate from Wyoming.

The Slog Ahead for New Public Banks in California

100 years ago, socialists in North Dakota quickly created a public bank. Things will unfold more slowly in California.

by Matt Stannard
October 7, 2019

Last week I cautiously celebrated the final passage and signing of AB 857 in California allowing municipalities to apply for public banking charters. I cautioned that there were no guarantees that the California DBO would approve public banks at all and that the process would be political-but-unpoliticized: banking board or licensing commission criteria are ideologically laden and rhetorically de-politicized; in other words, these actors hide their market biases but would accuse public banking advocates of wanting to politicize banks. I had other concerns too, but since that post I’ve learned a few other details, thanks to Marc Armstrong and David Jette generously answering some questions I had.

When I asked David what charter applicants might expect from a private-biased DBO, he suggested that the most prudent initial applicants would specifically focus on fixing city debt, credit to government agencies, and possibly green energy banks.

Fiscal soundness would also be important, he said. In a deeper sense, what this means (and I don’t think anybody seriously denies this) is that the banks will be judged according to the very paradigm of fiscal scarcity that public banking advocates rebuke. Well, reformism isn’t easy. Unlike 1919 North Dakota, Californians haven’t formed an agrarian socialist party and won the governorship and legislature. I appreciate David’s candor. This will be a years-long journey, and it will be challenging to keep public demand steadily humming.

The most important accomplishment of 857 is, as Marc told me in an email, that “the taboo has been broken . . . permission has been given.” Marc told me that several NoCal cities are investigating using JPA (Joint Powers Authority) to create a bank or banks. Large cities will certainly be the first to apply for licenses. Smaller cities will follow suit if the big ones are successful.

From what everyone is telling me, I surmise it will take two years at a minimum before we see a public bank open in the best scenario, and five or more years, again best case, before we see a handful of them.

But this is in the best case scenario, where there aren’t mountains of objections and demands made by private banking interests who want to hold onto the private advantage even for those narrow functions David mentioned. On the subject of bias towards private banks, Bob Bows reminded me this morning that one strong manifestation of this–and a potential legal and policy challenge for municipalities as these banks get off the ground, is the neoliberal doctrines that form the basis of anti-competitiveness challenges under global trade agreements. Recall that the ongoing concern with TPP and other regimes was that public utilities would be attacked and potentially become tribunal targets. I put together several sources’ analysis on this question back in 2015 at the PBI blog. Imagine objections being made in the DBO application process, or after the fact via trade tribunals, that public banks will be able to perform financial services without a profit motive, thereby undermining competition in a sector–the financial sector–that trade-in-services advocates view as their market territory. The public is excluded from most of the negotiations that create these rules, negotiations that will undoubtedly be biased against public ownership as a whole and public financial ownership specifically.

A long-term strategy summit, led by the on-the-ground California public banking organizations and activists at the forefront of poor people’s, divestment, and climate justice movements–the people who made 857 happen–may well already be in the works, and certainly should be, and if that happens I would joyfully live blog it, because to overuse the already overused phrasing, the real work starts now.

I’m operations director at Solidarity House Cooperative. You can read a lot of my articles, including several individual pieces and a longer series on public banking, here at Occupy.

California’s New Public Banking Law: Joy and Cautious Optimism

by Matt Stannard
October 3, 2019

Good news this week: California municipalities may now apply to create public banks.

In my work with the Public Banking Institute, I spent many years writing arguments in favor of the social utility and justice-delivering potential of public banks. As a member of the Commonomics USA team I was fortunate to participate in some of the meetings and workshops that built the agendas and grassroots coalitions that culminated in the successful passage and signing into law of AB 857. More recently, I’ve assisted the Rocky Mountain Public Banking Institute in their education and legal efforts in Colorado. Getting public banking bills on the floor for consideration in the first place had proven next to impossible until this happened in California. Heck, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy campaigned on creating a public bank in the state and now the effort seems tabled. The only other bona fide public bank on U.S. land since the formation of the Bank of North Dakota by a socialist government in 1919 has been in American Samoa, and only via federal fiat, and only because there was an air-tight and purely non-ideological case for it.

So this is a big deal, and the bill’s sponsors have used the language of economic access: “communities and neighborhoods . . . use public dollars for their own public good . . . affordable housing . . . schools and parks . . . accessible loans for students and businesses” in justifying the law, which allows municipalities to apply for banking charters (the law itself doesn’t create or require the creation of any banks).

My own five great years in the thick of the movement were exhausting, and I learned a lot about how good ideas win and lose in political contexts. So I’m cautiously optimistic at the news, even though I take great joy in the movement getting this far. I also have no desire to second-guess the great activists, policy people, and communicators making it happen in California’s here and now. They know more than I do and you should direct your questions to them–and see how you can help, especially if you’re in California, because the battle isn’t over.

Reasons to be optimistic:

1. The law is clearly written to encourage local economic sustainability and push away bigger banks.

“It is the intent of the Legislature,” the Act reads, “that this act authorize the lending of public credit to public banks and authorize public ownership of public banks for the purpose of achieving cost savings, strengthening local economies, supporting community economic development, and addressing infrastructure and housing needs for localities. It is the intent of the Legislature that public banks shall partner with local financial institutions, such as credit unions and local community banks, and shall not compete with local financial institutions.”

So those are goods (and some not-bads) in themselves, steps in the right direction. Although private local bankers can just as likely be greedy little local viceroys as community-minded entrepreneurs or George Bailey-type stewards, local banks generally do better by local folks. It’s incumbent on those communities to demand the best from their local businesses, and a municipal bank can be a tool to do that.  And, of course, credit unions kick ass. They aren’t public banks, but they can do about as well as consumer co-op entities can do in a hierarchical market environment. Public banks will help those entities. And local financing of green energy, worker-owned cooperatives, and nonprofit services could be game changers. The right leaders could make much of these banks.

2. The law sends a message that a public economy, and public finance, exist. Privatized finance isn’t natural or optimal. We can debate about whether private entities can co-exist with public ones (the record of partnership isn’t good), but before we can have that conversation, we need to shift the presumption away from private ownership — particularly of finance. The debate needs to happen on a level, democratic, worker-and-stakeholder-oriented field.

Public banks change the conversation about scarcity and public goods. They inform a new discussion about sustainability and growth. In a sense, public banks do this just by existing. But their successful deployment in an egalitarian and ecologically-positive manner, sooner rather than later, will make California’s victory worth the effort.

Reasons to be cautious:

1. The charter process and other “safeguards” could become poison pills, circumventing or even undermining the success of public banks. The politics of the Commissioner of Business Oversight just became very, very important to California’s financial (and by extension material) future. One harsh criticism of public banks published during the California effort contained this kernel of truth that ought to be useful to the movement’s counter- and pre-emptive strategizing: “the State Department of Business Oversight must review applications for new banks,” the critic writes, “looking at capital, asset quality, management expertise, earning potential and sensitivity to market risk, and given the uncertainty of a public bank’s ability to meet these risk thresholds, it may be years before the DBO could approve a public bank.”

Politically, that’s both a threat and a promise. One might answer—as public banking advocates have effectively and correctly done—that private banks are riskier than public banks in all ways, particularly in the regulatory status quo. But the charter application process contains opportunities for insidious politicization, and very few people have discussed this during the excitement of this legislative push.

Business oversight and banking boards usually have sole or nearly-sole decisionmaking power and applicants have limited ability to seek review of their decisions. The last iteration of the Colorado Banking Board I researched in 2018 included five bank presidents or CEOs, an attorney for a private trust company, a bank V.P., and two members of the public. Courts routinely defer to the decisions of these boards even if they think their decisions were weak. The DBO’s current commissioner is unsurprisingly a veteran of the private financial industry, at Affirm Inc., specializing in high-interest short-term loans.

Activism will have to emerge around that decisionmaking process; it should be openly politicized — and stakeholders should understand that the process is already political; market tests, profitability, even safeguards are already politicized.

The new law also caps the number of public banks allowed in the state at ten, an arbitrary number with no real rationale except to appease the private banking industry, which fears the competition.

If the process of approving and creating public banks can become transparent and include community stakeholders as deciders, then many of my concerns around this would go away. The frustration of such review is that it is so often conducted by industry hacks who refuse to think outside of the box from which they’ve been feeding.

2. A public bank is only as good as the government that runs it–and North Dakota proves this.

Will public banks be chartered with social, economic, and ecological justice-oriented goals and safeguards? The inclusion of such standards was the common demand of every grassroots activist I ever encountered in California’s rapidly growing 2017-2019 public banking movement. Although those standards were not always of precisely defined importance to the PBI crowd that clustered around Ellen Brown between 2008 and now (and far from the concern of some, as I mention below), those concerns drove the motives and conversations of many of us, just as it motivated the original founders of BND in 1919 and in many of public banking’s movements and moments in history.

But such priorities have to be explicit. Otherwise, public banks can actually make fossil fuel consumption, police state violence, and unhinged development worse. California public banking activist David Jette’s insightful and inspiring diary of the origins and successes of California’s public banking fight explains that Wells Fargo helped finance the Dakota Access pipeline and the violent police actions that upheld it. But David doesn’t mention that North Dakota used its own public bank to provide emergency funding to the militarized cops suppressing the Standing Rock protesters. The Bank of North Dakota made fossil fuel fascism easier.

Governments aside, proponents of public banking aren’t all socialists or leftists or liberals or even moderates. Ellen Brown’s early supporters included right-wing anti-monetarists, fans of G. Edward Griffin, a John Birch Society member and co-facilitator of the infamous 2009 conference on Jekyll Island that helped renew the right-wing militia movement. A few somewhat influential contemporary public banking advocates are vocal Trumpians, with all the cheerleading of stormtroopers that entails. Imagine public bank-funded stormtroopers (North Dakota did it). Imagine Trump having a public bank to fund his militarized border wall, or the thousands of other machines of despotism and brutality he would most certainly bring into existence with what public banking’s less rigorous proponents call “free money.”

Obviously I think we should create public banks anyway, and fight the battle against fascism in the streets and the ballot box (although I have to admit that the presence, however minimal, of extreme right-wingers in the movement always made me feel icky). But the reason the California movement succeeded was not that it appeased conservatives—it succeeded because it built an unapologetically left-oriented, social/economic/ecological justice-focused movement inclusive of all the kinds of people and communities currently threatened by Trumpian fascism. California hasn’t always been a perfect bulwark against that threat, but this victory is another reason why it’s been a recently reliable one.

In fact, in the hands of California’s empowered progressive-left coalitions, with an engaged public forcing new paradigms onto old regulatory structures, public banks will do great things in the service of a new, green, egalitarian economy. I like the way David Jette put it:

Everything that a private bank does for local governments and businesses, a public bank can do.  And as these models prove themselves, lawmakers will see how crucial they can be to a thriving, independent economy, and they will expand.  Eventually, a parallel banking system will emerge, one that does not invest in private prisons or fossil fuel extraction, and does not ship profits to Panama or the Cayman Islands to be laundered. Consumers, governments, businesses, everyone will have the option to divest from the old economy and into a new one, one that works for everyone, including the Earth itself.

That’s a world worth fighting for, and the socialization of finance, even to the limited extent that a “public option” in banking manifests, is also worth fighting for.

By the way, the photo here of activists demanding a public bank comes from Kurtis Wu, @kurtis_wu , whose photo contribution has been widely used and deserves a lot of credit for capturing the moment.

Matt Stannard was a communications coordinator, researcher and board member of the Public Banking Institute, was policy director at Commonomics USA, and is operations director at Solidarity House Cooperative, which you can learn about and support here.