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January 14, 2009

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Jon, you need to be in Washington, where you can influence policy. Seriously.

Maybe the loss of strong local banks analogizes to other aspects of American life. There are few locally owned newspapers. Few if any local department stores. Few if any local hotels of the first rank. Very few locally-owned media like radio and TV stations. I'm sure I'm forgetting some other examples as I type this.

What does it mean when virtually everything in our economic life is national? There's the obvious loss of cultural identity and local color. But there's also something that you see in nature with the dramatic loss of species when natural or manmade catastrophes occur. Ecologies weaken from within when "garbage" species predominate. Maybe American - and global - civilization has entered its kudzu phase.

Our ability to withstand disease and external stresses depends on a wide web of mutual support. Is it possible that our too-big-to-fail institutions are not merely one consequence of a fraying web but also its causal factor? Given the logic of "creative destruction" in economics, the scale of our economy becomes potentially monstrous.

The antidote to this garantuan scale involves local economies, local food production and shorter distribution lines. But it's rather unlikely we'll reason our way to this result. What's so unsettling about the current meltdown is not that this is somehow happening to us now but that it was inevitable all along.

Consolidation is intrinsic to capitalism, especially over the long term, because as companies get larger, their increased resources and economies of scale allow them to undersell, overpromote, and buy-out their smaller competitors.

The corporate organism has long since surpassed the national stage: many of these firms are international in scope and influence the tax, trade, labor, and monetary policies of numerous countries. They lobby not for what is good for their workers, nor even for what is good for their nations (much less localities), but for what is good for the company, which is to say what is good for the company's owners.

Getting ahold of this hydra will take a concerted effort by international labor (and the movement must be international since the capital markets are) and by an international, progressive political movement that does not at present even exist.

These trends will not spontaneously reverse themselves, though they may be temporarily interrupted by economic disruptions; and to expect the very politicians whose campaign finances (and therefore careers) depend upon such benefactors, to bite the hand that feeds them, is unrealistic.

Most campaign finance funds come from wealthy corporations and individuals. Less than 10 percent of America's workforce is unionized, which should suggest the lack of equity in competition between capital and labor where political contributions (hence political clout) are concerned.

Labor law reform should be the number one priority for anyone who wants a progressive agenda enacted, because only when unions encompass a sufficiently large portion of the electorate, and (through dues) raise sufficient funds to compete with capital in the political marketplace, will politicians turn their heads to listen in a more than superficial, camera-ready way.

Big capital knows this, which is why the storm clouds are already brewing. Expect a big media effort to place stories, influence opinion-makers, and gull the public, as this issue approaches. Front organizations have already been created and heavily funded with the common goal of defeating card-check legislation.

Since the Democrats are the ones most likely to benefit from a large increase in unionization (say, a return to the 40 percent of workers seen in the heyday of unions in the 1950s) the Republican political apparatus will also be in full swing to stop this. But so will many Democrats in the pockets of Big Business. The leadership of the Democratic Party is far from its progressive wing in most cases. A review of President-elect Obama's recent cabinet choices and policy shifts should disabuse all but the most hopelessly ignorant of the ridiculous notion that he is "the most left-leaning presidential candidate in American history", or anything remotely approaching it.

"an international, progressive political movement that does not at present even exist."

Naive, yes I am, however...

Yesterday, I watched some of Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearings on CSPAN. There was some mention of the term "smart power" and that Joseph Nye and his "Soft Power" concept had been involved in discussions with Obama's team. A few years ago, I had occasion to read Mr. Nye's book. While not an ideology, couldn't "soft power" be a foundation for one? And therefore a framework within which to build a "progressive political movement?"

Joanna, thanks for this. I found the following on the Internet:

"Smart power is the ability to combine hard and soft power into a successful strategy. . .recently U.S. foreign policy has tended to over-rely on hard power. . .but there are limits to what hard power can achieve on its own. Promoting democracy, human rights and development of civil society are not best handled with the barrel of a gun."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-nye/smart-power_b_74725.html

This sounds reasonable. However, foreign policy, though highly important in the pursuance of an international brotherhood capable of bringing about progressive change, is almost a subsidiary issue. I'll attempt to show you why, then return to the question of "smart power" in foreign policy.

If you look at Mr. Talton's seven steps toward national recovery, as seen here:

http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2008/12/a-7-step-recovery-plan-economic-stimulus-we-can-believe-in/

You find listed such suggestions as empowering regulatory institutions; progressive taxation
which "reduces the burden on working people" (income redistribution) while closing loopholes and havens for the rich;
empowering labor (including making unionization easier); aggressive enforcement of anti-trust laws, possibly with some expansion of those laws; the addition and retrofitting of progressive forms of mass-transit nationwide; investing in public education and public scientific research and development (including "rebuilding the ladder for low-skilled workers to advance"); making smart, strategic advances in alternative energy, even if doing so is not profitable, especially over the short to middle term; rebuilding American manufacturing, "both through green technologies and finding a new trade paradigm that preserves and returns the building of real things to this nation"; accountability, transparency, and "a gimlet eye toward lobbyists and entrenched interests"; and (if I have interpreted him correctly) a new form of national accounting which takes both long-term public interests and intangible human benefits, and not merely the bottom line, into account.

Now, those are ALL HIGHLY LAUDABLE AND DESIRABLE progressive goals. The question is, how do you reach them? And the question that must precede that is, which social forces support, or can through education (propaganda, agitation) be made to see their sense; and which forces oppose these goals because the goals are in opposition to their own personal interests? And how do you adjust the balance of power between these two sets of forces so that the former becomes, and continues to be, the stronger?

Well, I think we can agree that those who can be convinced to support such policies belong mostly to the working and middle classes. Who controls the status quo and benefits from it? The wealthiest among us. The top of the upper class. Society's owners, if you will.

Who opposes strong regulatory agencies, progressive taxation and rigorous tax enforcement for the wealthy? Who opposes income redistribution, an empowered labor movement, and an aggressive anti-trust policy which attempts to prevent consolidation by oligarchs? The oligarchs. Who has no interest in using taxpayer funds (their funds) on a mass transit system which they will never use because they have fleets of chauffeured limos, private jets, and yachts? Who is opposed to anything interfering with cheap, exploitable, expendable labor that can be kept ignorant and in its place by authoritarian governments such as those in China? Who is opposed to energy sources (such as solar) that will eventually liberate mankind from private ownership and control of energy (for who can own the sun)? Who opposes that which interferes with the bottom line? Who opposes that which takes their money, and fails to use it to make them more money?

Of course, portions of the working classes can be quite reactionary: but this is because they have been conditioned and brainwashed. There is nothing intrinsic to their financial interests which NEED make them personally opposed to alternatives to the current system. Certain technocrats and other gatekeeper members of the middle classes who manage the current system on behalf of the owner class, do have some personal financial interest, in the form of stock ownership and so forth; but a well designed alternative system will retain both their perks and their importance as members of society -- it HAS to because they are the ones with the special skills needed to make any viable alternative system work efficiently.

The ones who are ineluctably opposed to such changes, are the oligarchs and their senior servants among the rich. They have nothing to gain, materially at any rate, and everything to lose by the kinds of reforms proposed.

So, ultimately, the basis for any progressive movement must be common class interests.

As for how to actually effect the proposed changes, there are three basic means for that (excluding violence, which I think plays into the hands of reactionaries and tends to advance ruthless opportunists to the fore of supposedly progressive movements). These are (a) communications; (b) political organizing; and (c) direct action (e.g., industrial strikes, protests, etc.).

At present, the oligarchs control the mass media, and, using this in conjunction with their inordinate influence over private campaign finance, they have a stranglehold over the political system, which is to say over which candidates and messages are politically viable -- which can reach a significant portion of the electorate, consistently and in a competitive manner, over the course of an entire campaign. The labor movement has been kneecapped and eviscerated.

So then, the first two foundational legs of any practical progressive movement must be the creation of progressively owned and controlled organs of mass communication (newspapers, radio and television programs, stations, and networks); and the creation of an empowered labor movement, not merely domestically, but internationally, since capital markets are themselves international. The members of these progressive organizations can create a domestic, then international, political movement designed to advance their goals through participation in legislative processes.

As for "smart power", as a foreign policy platform it would both help us to build international solidarity, and shift the use of economic resources away from the military-industrial complex and toward humane purposes. (The two goals are not as unassociated as some currently believe, and those who control the current system know this.)

Thank you Emil. The dialog and education, of the non-propaganda type, on this blog is invaluable.

Joanna, my use of terms like "propaganda" and "agitation" were calculated. I knew that they might compromise my message, but they are highly useful concepts when properly defined and understood.

Unfortunately, in American popular political discourse, "propaganda" has come to mean "manipulative lies told by our enemies".

However, the Oxford English Dictionary defines "propaganda" as "Any association, systematic scheme, or concerted movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine or practice".

The OED defines "agitation" as "The keeping of a political matter constantly before public attention" particularly with the intent of moving, stirring them into action.

Note that both of these forms of communications are ideal for the mass media organs of any political association dedicated to a cause. The content may be true and educational (in fact, it should be both), but no attempt is made to pretend impartiality. Also, there is the sense that propaganda and agitation are, not simplistic, but simpler, than a broad overview of political viewpoints undertaken by (ostensibly) unaffiliated and disinterested parties.

The point is to get one's message out in a clear manner, and in a straightforward manner, and in an effective manner, without compromising facts or pretending to be neutral. One's opponents, of course, have their own, competing propaganda, with their own interpretations of circumstances and facts. At present, there is a propaganda imbalance. That needs to be remedied.

Every newspaper must decide which sources to quote, which to give more space to, which to position as reliable and which as questionable, which aspects of a story to emphasize and which to underplay or ignore. The idea that newspapers are impartial observers of fact is a dangerous popular delusion. No newspaper that I know of presents all sides of an issue and all viewpoints equally. Is this even desirable? Who cares what the American Nazi Party has to say about the clash in Gaza, for example.

Still, there must be a marketplace of ideas in order for political thought to flourish and develop. At present, we have a more or less homogeneous soup, with some variation, but not nearly diverse enough. How often do you hear about political candidates openly advocating the redistribution of income, for example? Or single-payer health care? How often do you find stories written from the perspective of labor, or at least representing the voice and viewpoint of labor with more than a passing blurb? One would imagine that such ideas might be highly popular among a significant portion of society, but instead you find, in this case as in so many others, that the bounds of acceptable discourse are severely limited.

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