I gave the remarks below at a recent forum celebrating the 10th anniversary of the invaluable New Labor Forum journal. The organizers asked the panelists, including Bill Fletcher, Jr., Juan Gonzalez, Mae Ngai, and Ed Ott to “examine the question of whether or not we are facing a watershed moment in American political history.”


Is This a Watershed Moment?
10th anniversary celebration of New Labor Forum
New York City, March 14, 2008

I’d like to think we’re at a watershed moment in American political history. We have war, economic collapse and the political implosion of the Republican party–and the end of the conservative ascendancy. But who can predict? There’s certainly enough discontent with our current politics, and enough resistance from those who now profit from the status quo, that I can see both fundamental change and the more familiar alternative: unrelieved growth in inequality and ever more degradation of our democracy.

To acknowledge that we can’t predict the future is not to say that we’re powerless to change it. Indeed, I think it’s perfectly rational to think that we could change this country fundamentally for the better, and relatively quickly. I think that demands the statement of a clear alternative to what we presently have.

Much depends not on what the old order does on its own behalf but on how the gathering forces of opposition respond to the system’s crisis. Everyone in this room understands that real change demands organizing and mobilizing by social movements, new and old– and the building of a clear programmatic alternative. After all, the civilizing advances of this nation have come not from pulling a lever in a voting booth but from movements; From the streets not the suites. Real change today will come from progressives building independent capacity. Real change will come from building locally-based political organizations–as many groups are already doing. Real change will come from identifying, training and running progressives for local elected office. And real change will come from developing a coordinating infrastructure to leverage the power of progressives both inside and outside the Democratic party.

One thing we know: Progressives have driven bolder positions against the war, for universal health care, for investment in new energy, for reducing inequality, for a new trade agenda into the current political debate and Presidential election. Yet, what we also know is that the Democratic party is still defined by free-market and free trade ideology and by the assumption that the US is the indispensable superpower–a 21st century Sparta, not Athens.

What can be seen, however, is that motivating and spurring our discussion about a turning point, a “watershed” –and giving it political traction– is real economic and political discontent. What the scientists of history liked to call “the material conditions” are broadly coming into place.

The economy has not performed well for most people for at least a generation, and we’re now heading into what are likely to be some very tough times. The bursting of the double-bubble in property and credit is more than double-trouble for the economy. Homebuilding and consumer spending account for nearly 80 percent of our GDP. That’s many times the roughly 10 percent of GDP in business capital spending that was savaged by the bursting of the dot.com bubble. Recovery from this recession is also likely to be even slower than the essentially jobless recovery from the last. The traditional means of jump-starting the economy — dropping interest rates, or boosting consumer spending — have been substantially exhausted, and their pell-mell unregulated pursuit is a large part of what got us into our current mess. We have also only begun to see the full effects of internationalization on our labor markets. You can’t double the world labor force and equip it with advanced technology under conditions where 40 percent of the planet lives on less than $2 a day, and not expect substantial downward pressure on American wage growth for at least a generation. For all these reasons, I think people will be more open to a different way of organizing our economy–more open to an activist government, more open to re-regulation of arcane and predatory financial instruments.

The political discontent is obvious. Americans are fed up with government’s failure to do anything much for them, or much of anything that they’re proud of. People would very much like a more honest politics that delivered some semblance of shared prosperity, shared sacrifice, common purpose, and common sense. I think Obama’s campaign — a campaign based on anti-politics, turning the page on old politics, which stresses these basic themes — shows that yearning. But while the Right’s relentless attacks have done real damage to citizen confidence in government, perhaps the bigger source of citizen doubt is that government has in fact done little recently to measurably improve their lives and give them a sense of national purpose. Former President Bill Clinton, long considered the master politician of his age, was basically in the business of lowering expectations of government even faster than they were disappointed.

We need to restore the idea that government can be an active force for making peoples’ lives better; that an active, purposeful and pragmatic government has a role to play in promoting the common good.

After many years, I believe that electoral politics–specifically Barack Obama’s campaign– is again a vehicle for raising expectations, not tamping them down, and for spreading hope instead of cynicism and despair. The Nation endorsed Obama in part because we believe that the new energy he is calling into electoral politics will push the limits of his politics. We welcome his commitment to grassroots organizing and mobilization, for unleashing this new energy. But we also know that our task–and the task of activists and others across the country–will demand pushing beyond the limits that he or any candidate for President would define.

Back to the landscape in which we toil: I believe free market fundamentalism is in its last throes, in fact, in a dying mode– and that people want a different model. Yet, we’ve got to be clear on the alternative we’re talking about.

We essentially have to raise the adult social wage (health, training, retirement) since private wages will not be increasing and the employer-based welfare state is dead. We need to invest in productive public goods — advanced physical infrastructure of all kinds (in transportation, energy, and communications), education at all levels, and basic research. We need to give explicit attention to the real bases of our economy, our metropolitan regions, which we’ve stupidly neglected. We need to waste less (starting with energy) and export more. (Here, by the way, the environmental crisis provides labor with an opportunity to become the advocate for all those who would gain from a new social economy. There’s the Apollo Alliance –a coalition of environmental, labor, state and local government leaders; there is real work on green- collar jobs –green pathways out of poverty –and workers and communities tamping these jobs down here at home.) We need to run the economy as close to full employment as possible, rewarding employment, and increasing working people’s welfare through better work, more freedom at work, and the more abundant public goods just described. In essence, we should invest in our own country.

Internationally, we should collectivize our legitimate security burdens and move the focus of our international economic policy from a Washington Consensus-style forced integration of economies to a focus on sustainable human development, and national autonomy. Fair trade is important here, though probably less important than capital flows and the ability of poor nations to stimulate their own economies, an ability constrained by the current rules of international monetary order.

The basic political problem with this alternative program, apart from nostalgia for empire, is that it will cost some money. By the way, here again I’m kind of optimistic. I think fewer Americans are attached to the idea of beating up on other people than their support for those who love that idea might suggest. And though Hillary Clinton has tried to use the fear card and McCain will and must, I think the politics of fear, as New Labor Forum’s Steve Fraser argued in a smart analysis of campaign 08, “may now be operating in reverse.” And after the disaster of Iraq–even though too many still argue that the strategic failure of the war and occupation was a result of incompetence and not a fundamental political, moral and strategic blunder–there is an opening for a new security frame–one that includes attention to ending global poverty and inequality, combating pandemics, resource and energy shortages, fighting for energy independence, and reducing nuclear proliferation. These challenges cannot be countered through military force.

Iraq has exposed the limits of military force; and the GOP candidates, especially McCain, seem to promise little other than endless war for purposes few understand or are ready to salute. But if we are to see a watershed moment, and define ourselves as a democracy and not an empire, a central part of the peace and justice movement’s work will involve–as it has in these last decades, though Iraq has demanded so many resources — fighting the broader and deeper militarism that’s choking our democracy. Why do we need 760 bases ringing the planet? The fight we need is one that would redirect the billions we have squandered in Iraq into vital public investments at home. As economist Robert Pollin argues in The Nation‘s recent “Costs of War” issue every $1 billion that is spent on a combination of education, health care, energy conservation and infrastructure investments creates between 50 and 100 percent more jobs than the same money going to Iraq.

So, how much money do we need for a real investment agenda? Well, we spend less than 30 percent of our GDP on public goods of all kinds, with more of those being military than other nations. The rest of the OECD spends just under 40 percent; OECD Europe spends a bit over 40 percent. So, on present terms, we’re talking about roughly $2 trillion annually. That’s got to come from people who have it, which requires that people who don’t have the power to take it from them.

In the campaign underway, you do hear traces of an investment agenda — equal starts with children, quality education and health care through adulthood, connections to labor market opportunities here, investments in our communities to secure that opportunity.

And while it’s true that none of the leading Presidential candidates (neither Clinton nor Obama–not even Edwards) has talked about the taxes that will be required for this agenda–I think that’s forgivable. The bigger problem is this program of popular reconstruction will be fiercely opposed by those of wealth and privilege. My worry is that we may be getting ready for a replay of 1992, when the same sort of invest in America agenda was put on the table, and then jettisoned before the newly elected President Clinton took office, because of concern for, of all things, the American bond market! The test of a new President Obama or Clinton is the old test. Whether they’re prepared to stand up to private capital — whose legitimacy I think has indeed been shattered — to author a broad common sense program of social investment, and insist on the reforms in our process of representation and administration, that would make that investment both possible and intelligently made (e.g., by separate our capital and operating accounts nationally, insisting on performance metrics, throughout.).

If Obama or Clinton win, we’ll–and that’s a broad we–get maybe 15 percent of what we want..We should be able to win important fights like the crucial priority of the labor movement–the Employment Free Choice Act (EFCA). However, winning more will require massive organizing and mobilized pressure from our end on other issues. It will require us to be more strategic in what we choose to fight on. And it will demand that we get strategic across sector–developing our alternative program, using smart inside-outside strategies, tapping into the new movements emerging, strengthening those which need strength, building alliances with electeds who undertand change comes from below–for example, most of the 74 member Congressional Progressive Caucus.

It’s not going to be an easy transition from the policies of the past but our values and national interests demand that we seize the challenge. And, as we all know, it’s not only changing faces in high places. It’s about saving our country from greed and loss of vision.The status quo is exhausted, bankrupt. Yet, as good historians like Steve Fraser remind us, “an exhausted political order does not collapse and leave the scene by virtue of its own downward momentum and stupidity.” But we have an opening. Let’s turn this moment, this race ahead-and beyond–into a great moment of discussion, focusing on alternatives that counter our downsized politics of excluded alternatives.