Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Fletcher Rallies Progressive Crowd to Fight the Right
Says Right-Wing Populists Will Win Unless Progressives Organize Now
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The leaflet advertising Bill Fletcher’s talk, “Corporate Capitalism: Our Challenges and Opportunities,” at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park September 13 promised a much more optimistic, upbeat speech than the one he actually gave. “For the first time in a generation, millions of Americans have lost faith in capitalism and are open to political alternatives,” said the leaflet produced by the talk’s presenters, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization and the San Diego Socialist Unity Network. But Fletcher, who lives in Washington, D.C., came to San Diego a day after hundreds of thousands of Right-wing activists had flooded the nation’s capital in a march aimed at confronting President Obama’s allegedly “socialist” policies — and he warned his San Diego audience that unless America’s Leftists mobilize quickly and effectively, the Right-wing populist ideology behind that march, the “teabag” protests and the disruptions of Congressional town-hall meetings will take control of American politics.
“No matter what we on the Left think of Obama, you have to put that aside and realize that to the Right-wing populists, Obama is the new socialist Satan,” Fletcher, veteran radical activist, author and former education director for the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) and the AFL-CIO, told an audience of about 60 veteran Left activists in San Diego. “The slogan, ‘No, keep the change,’ is appropriate. These folks are upset that there’s a Black president. They don’t want health care reform or changes in America’s foreign policy, and they’re scared to death of the demographic changes in the U.S.” (He meant the increase in the percentage of Americans who are people of color.) “They cling to the past and don’t want any change from what makes ‘us’ feel comfortable. There’s a deathly fear that things are slipping away from white people.”
Though Fletcher dates the existence of Right-wing populism as early as the presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 1830’s, he said its current popularity has its roots in the early 1970’s, when the real wages and living standards of working-class Americans started to decline. Ever since, he explained, “they’ve been trying to accommodate this but also to explain it.” Rather than believe there was something wrong with the society, the class structure or anything about the country and the capitalist system they’d been brought up to revere, Fletcher added, “People assumed the problem was them not working hard enough.” That meant they felt they had to deal with the situation as individuals — and many of them did so by taking on more and more consumer debt.
“When the housing bubble emerged, that was a vehicle for people to go into even deeper debt,” Fletcher said. “They were told home values would never come down, and they believed it. But they also had to rationalize it. Whites generally have been told that the ravages of capitalism aren’t supposed to hit them. There’s supposed to be a cushion, and from the mid-1970’s they felt the cushion starting to fade and they asked who was responsible.”
Right-wing populism provided them an answer, Fletcher said: their troubles were the fault of “others,” people who weren’t like them racially, economically or culturally. The basis of Right-wing populism, Fletcher explained, “is that there are the ‘good people,’ and there are the ‘other’ — and the ‘other’ is always a threat. Right-wing populism feeds on people’s fears, and if we on the Left don’t have real answers to offer people, Right-wing populism offers amazing answers. The Right, unlike the Left, is not constrained by the truth. It taps into deep-seated prejudices. Glenn Beck’s focus on Obama as a ‘racist’ who hates white people is absurd. But it doesn’t matter what the truth is; it’s focusing on the anxieties people have.”
Fletcher described the “funny predicament” America’s Left has been put into both by Obama’s election and the hysterical Right-wing reaction to it. “Obama is not only not a socialist, he’s not even a progressive,” Fletcher said. “He’s a liberal, and many of us have differences with him on foreign policy and on the economy — particularly the focus on the financial sector and not Main Street. But the Right has targeted Obama and moved to demonize him, and the rhetoric of Right-wing populism continues to escalate in ways we should notice.” Fletcher cited the example of one demonstrator at the big September 12 march in Washington, D.C. who told a reporter, “We came from Utah and Montana unarmed … this time.”
The very fact that some Right-wing protesters are being allowed into the president’s vicinity with loaded guns astonishes Fletcher, who can remember all too well that during the George W. Bush administration people were ushered out of his events, and sometimes even arrested, just for wearing anti-Bush or anti-war T-shirts. “If I had shown up at a Bush rally with an AR-15, I’d have been on my way to Guantánamo,” Fletcher said. “Yet we have these Right-wing nutcases running around Obama with guns, and no one seems to mind. I get e-mails from Right-wingers who say that they’re preparing for war.”
What is the Right fighting against? Not “socialism,” at least as any real socialist or progressive would define the term, Fletcher said. Not even “big government,” since “if the Right hated ‘big government’ they would have ousted Bush,” Fletcher commented ruefully. What they’re against, he explained, is “any attempt by government to address the social needs of the population. They’re not concerned about the growth of the military, prisons or the police. They’re against … the idea of government as a distributionist force.” Fletcher argued that, like Franklin Roosevelt, Obama understands that a capitalist democracy cannot survive if the gaps in wealth and income between the top and bottom of the population get too large — and that, like Roosevelt’s opponents, Obama’s don’t understand what a “destabilizing factor” a vast inequality of wealth and income can be to a capitalist republic.
Fletcher said that, while Obama is only “slightly to the Left of Bill Clinton” in terms of his actual policies, the Left must nonetheless “figure out how to respond” to the vicious Right-wing attacks on him. “We have three options,” he said. “One is to say nothing and let him be attacked. One is to criticize him ourselves because people think he is the enemy. Both these approaches are wrong. We need to build a progressive movement that deals with Obama from the Left and is independent. This approach is important if we want a movement that can contest for power. … Part of our task is to win the battle for democracy, to fight to improve people’s living standards, all as part of a project that recognizes that nothing will change fundamentally as long as capitalism exists.”
Recalling a prediction he made during the campaign that if Obama were elected “we would see a resurgence of Right-wing populism,” Fletcher said that the American Left must confront the resurgent Right while simultaneously making our own criticisms of Obama — not for taking his “distributionist tendencies” too far, which is what the Right attacks him for, but for not taking them far enough. “If we don’t respond to the slowness of the economic stimulus or the escalation in Afghanistan, the Right will,” Fletcher said. “Now is the time for those of us who favor single-payer health care to be visible, to be out there. The administration needs to understand that there are millions of people who support Medicare for all. We need to be at the health care town halls.”
Fletcher repeated over and over again that if we don’t act now to confront the threat of the Right, it will be too late. “The Right has a vast mass base, and we have to take it seriously, destabilize it and make it an historical relic. We cannot sit back and let Congress or the courts take care of it. If you don’t smash the Right, it grows. It has no sympathy for us. It takes no prisoners. It cuts our throats. Its objective is the complete annihilation of people like us. They are not playing a game; they’re playing for keeps. The question is, are we?”
In calling for an aggressive organizing strategy, Fletcher was withering in his scorn for the excuses fellow Leftists have come up with for not pursuing one. He recalled being on an interview show with one person who said his objective was not to contest for power, but simply to control the amount of damage the American empire does in the world. “This guy is saying we have no hope of really winning, short of the Big Revolution some far-off day in the future,” Fletcher said. He also attacked the people on the Left who think we should give Obama “more time” instead of taking him on directly, and was particularly scornful of people who think the Internet has eliminated the need for face-to-face organizing.
“We need to be building organizations and real-world projects,” Fletcher said. “The Right understands the tactics of the Left better than we do. During the Obama campaign people thought that all they had to do was send e-mails and Facebook posts. The Right understands that organizing has to be face-to-face, and electronics can only reinforce the basic contact between two people. The Right understands that people need to be mobilized into organizations. The Right knows that people need to be given projects to do. When Congressmembers get e-mails, they don’t pay much attention because they’re used to it. When people show up at their district offices, they take notice.”
Fletcher also ridiculed the fashionable notion that what the Left needs is better wording, pithier slogans, better “framing” — to use the term of art for honing one’s ability to communicate a message. According to Fletcher, we need to challenge the right not only on the basis of sloganeering, language or “framing,” but in terms of the basic narrative of U.S. history and culture. In particular, he said, we have to take on the Right’s beloved myth of “rugged individualism,” the idea that America is a country of people who made it on their own, with little or no help from government or each other.
“The problem is more complicated than language,” Fletcher explained. “We have never been in power. For 300 years this society has promoted a mythology it calls history, and the whole idea of ‘rugged individualism’ is very powerful. Part of our challenge is we have a counter-narrative, an alternative to the myth. We’re saying the myth is flawed and there’s actually a different history” — though Fletcher seemed to assume everyone in his Leftist audience knew what that “different history” was and therefore he didn’t feel he needed to explain it.
One tactic Fletcher said he uses when people start railing against “big government” to his face is to remind them of all the positive things government does that people tend to take for granted. “When they attack ‘big government,’ do they mean student loans?” he said. “Do they mean the Veterans’ Administration? Probably not. Is ‘big government’ the prison-industrial complex, or is it something else? People will use certain words as if there’s a common understanding of what they mean, and we need to confront them on that.”
“In the absence of us coming up with credible means of answering people’s basic questions about why their lives are going to hell and their kids will have a lower standard of living than they do, someone will,” Fletcher said. “If the Right-wing populists’ answers bond with people’s prejudices, there will be consequences. Passivity is criminal. We have a lot to do and we’d better do it.”
Many of the questions Fletcher got after his speech had to deal with the answers he wasn’t supplying. How do you get the fractious world of Left-wing grouplets to bond together and pursue a unified strategy capable of challenging the Right? How does the Left overcome the enormous financial advantages of the Right, and particularly the reach and power of Right-wing media propaganda outlets like talk radio and Fox News? Should we emulate the highly confrontational behavior of Right-wing activists in public meetings and elsewhere — and if so, how much?
Asked about the absence of a Left-wing political infrastructure today as compared to the one in the 1930’s, and also about the role of the labor movement, Fletcher noted that he’d co-written an entire book, Solidarity Divided, about how the labor movement has failed to connect the economic needs of working people with overall issues of social justice. (Fletcher’s last appearance in San Diego, on October 24, 2008, was specifically designed to promote Solidarity Divided. His co-author, UCLA professor Fernando Gapasin, had originally been scheduled to speak with Fletcher last October but had to cancel at the last minute because he was busy fighting an employer’s attempt to get their workers to vote to “decertify” — get rid of — their union.)
“My frustration is hearing people say we don’t have organizations,” Fletcher said. “Then what are we doing to form organizations? There need to be organizations; the question is what each of you are doing, and if you’re not doing anything, you’re part of the problem. I think we have got into a sense that relates to despair, and also we’re victims of the environment that’s created by electronic communities, which can conceal the fact that we’re getting our asses kicked, because on the Internet we can create our own communities. We’ve fallen into a certain kind of self-deluding environment.”
As for the labor movement, Fletcher recalled the anecdote with which he began Solidarity Divided: a meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa in June 2001 between representatives of SEIU and South Africa’s largest labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The SEIU people said that the job of a labor union is to represent its members. No, said the South African unionists; the role of a union is to represent the working class as a whole — even when that conflicts with the interests of a particular union or the workforce from which it draws its members.
Fletcher went on to say that labor leaders need to realize that, just as the radical populist Right is committed to the utter destruction of Leftists, progressives and liberals as political forces in the U.S., so the capitalist class is committed to the destruction of organized labor as an institution and the whole idea that workers have any rights beyond those the bosses give them. “The problem is that most of the union movement still believes there is a peace with capitalism, and they can regain what they had between the 1950’s and 1970’s,” he said. “What they don’t realize is that there’s a deep-seated hostility within the capitalist class to workers in general and organized labor in particular. As a result, we need a new kind of labor movement that represents the entire working class, not just its own members.”
As he had in his book, Fletcher also strongly advocated that labor unions work beyond their traditional role of organizing workers and representing them in collective bargaining. He supports the so-called “workers’ centers” a few unions tried to organize in individual cities over the last 20 years — indeed, in the book he says the unions should have been more committed to these instead of trying to do them on the cheap and abandoning them before they had a chance to grow — and he also backs the idea of a “social wage” union that organizes workers as workers, regardless of where they work or what they do on the job. “There needs to be a fusion of the social wage movement and organized labor,” Fletcher said. “The social wage movement has a lot of energy, but not much capital.”
At least two audience members used the world “fascism” to describe the possible future direction of the Right-wing populist movement in the U.S. One of them cited author Sara Robinson’s recent posts on the www.ourfuture.org blog to the effect that America is already on the path towards fascism and that the corporate ruling class is supporting and aligning itself with the radical populist Right, as it did in Italy in the 1920’s and Germany in the 1930’s. Fletcher drew back from the F-word, saying that fascism “was a social movement that developed at a particular time” and represents only one form of Right-wing populism.
Fletcher also questioned Robinson’s argument that the corporate and the populist Right are joining forces. “The Right is not monolithic,” he said. “We often think the ruling class treats these Right-wing thugs as instruments they can turn on and off at will. Fascism is a radical movement aimed at clearing out the brush of democracy so a new form of accumulation can emerge, often with a new ruling group. The fascist movements are now out of power, though some elements of the Republican Party are looking opportunistically at these movements. This section of the Right is prepared to engaged in armed as well as unarmed activities, and they don’t expect the Left to stand up to them.”
One point Fletcher made was that on at least one major issue — the government bailout of the financial system that began under the Bush administration and has continued under Obama — the corporate ruling class and the Right-wing populists are on totally opposite sides. For the corporate elite, this was a bottom-line pocketbook issue on which they were not prepared to compromise. For the Right-wing populists, a government bailout of the financial system was as beyond the political and ideological pale as government intervention in health care. Indeed, at some of the town-hall meetings this summer Republican Congressmembers who had voted for the financial bailout were getting the same vicious shout-down treatment as their Democratic colleagues pushing health insurance reform.
Answering an audience member who saw confronting the Right as futile “because there are so many of them, and they have guns,” Fletcher said, “When you see those people at the town halls yelling about ‘death panels’ and they go unanswered, public opinion is affected. When we don’t have the march for national health care as a response to the teabaggers, people will start to listen to the teabaggers even if they’re wrong. The flat tax is so appealing even my mother was trying to convince me that it made sense. There were a lot of things she wasn’t thinking of. None of us have the resources to build an alternative to Fox News. But we can find other means to communicate. We need to re-tool Pacifica Radio. We need to find new ways of using the Web. We have to take these guys on. I’m not talking about bringing weapons to events, but there are ways to confront the Right that are very empowering for us.”
Fletcher summed up his message in answer to a question from San Diego Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chair Herb Shore on the clash between single-issue organizing and trying to build actual socialist organizations. Fletcher said bluntly that an exclusive focus on single-issue campaigns is defeatist. “We don’t think strategically,” he said. “We’re not willing to throw the dice in terms of what it would take us to grow, and how much we can do to promote visibility. We’re reactive; we respond to what the enemy does to us instead of pursuing our own ideas and goals. I’m tired of losing. I want to win. I feel we have to fight for power. I believe we have no choice. You can be the strongest boxer in the world, but if you remain on the defensive, you will lose. We’re very courageous and have great activists, but we’ve been fighting so many resistance battles, we’ve forgotten how to organize to win.”