What Can We Learn from 1967’s Summer of Love to Help Us Through Our Current Political Nightmare?

ACTIVISM
Danny Goldberg discusses his new book about a magical and often misunderstood era in U.S. history.

Photo Credit: Radharani / Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: Danny Goldberg is the modern version of the Renaissance man. He has a long and colorful history as an activist, author and influential music executive. Goldberg came of age at the height of the hippie era in 1967, experiencing the powerful and haunting mix of excitement, hope, experimentation and despair. He captures it all in vibrant detail and political nuance in his newest book, In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books). AlterNet’s executive editor Don Hazen interviewed Goldberg in his offices at Gold Village Entertainment on July 12.

Don Hazen: Let’s start by addressing what lessons we can learn from 1967. In the book, ‘In Search of the Lost Chord,’ there is a lot about that classic split between the hippies and the radicals. And is that a Bernie/Hillary split? Is that split still with us? How do you look back 50 years and apply it today?

Danny Goldberg: Well, there are things to learn to do, and things to learn not to do, from the ’60s. A major feature of the Be-In, in January 1967 that led to event of the Summer of Love, was that it was a “gathering of the tribes” to try to address that split.

There were also serious divides within the civil rights movement. Stokely Carmichael and Adam Clayton Powell sometimes mocked Martin Luther King publicly and questioned his non-violent strategy. On the other hand, when Martin King came out against the war, the NAACP board voted 60-0 to condemn him for that position because they feared pissing off President Johnson.

There were splits in the peace movement between the pacifists and non-pacifists; among those who focused on replacing LBJ with an anti-war Democrat there was bitter resentment between many of those who preferred Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy supporters.

DH: And the Digger critique of Abbie Hoffman was what?He was not ‘lefty enough’?

DG: It was that the Diggers were committed to anonymity and Abbie was the opposite of that. There’s no question Abbie Hoffman was a self-promoter, but on the other hand he had the ability to popularize radical ideas in a way no one else could. The Diggers saw themselves as the conscience of all these movements.

DH: And Peter Coyote was a Digger, right?

DG: Yes, Coyote was one of the thought leaders. The Diggers organized the free concerts near Haight-Ashbury. They made and gave free meals to hundreds of people. They ran a “free store.” They came from the experimental theater world and did a lot public displays that challenged conventional thinking.

They had a mimeograph machine, and distributed circulars in the neighborhood, and when the Black Panthers started in Oakland, the Diggers lent them the machine for the first three issues of their newspaper.

But they also had a self-righteousness that judged almost everyone else in the counterculture adversely. They had a commitment to ideals that were distinct from people that were more commercially minded, so hip capitalism was one of their targets. They also had a jaundiced view of Tim Leary. They were often confrontational with radical political groups that they felt were too mired in old ideology. In some ways, they were the forerunner of the most intolerant anarchists of the Occupy period. But they also had the creativity to create some of the purest expressions of countercultural idealism.

DH: Let’s step back for a second and ask you to explain how people should really understand the hippie idea, and what if any of it could be applied to solving the problems we are confronting today.

DG: The question I ask myself a lot, as I’ve been talking about the book, is: What difference does something that happened 50 years ago matter? Other than nostalgia (which I don’t think is a completely bad thing) the relevance depends on the extent that there are values that are not driven by the 24-hour news cycle or by who’s president, but endure from generation to generation, basic concepts about what it is to be a human being. To me, the hippie idea was a spiritual movement at its core, even though the word hippie and the external symbols like tie dye or long hair or hip language like “groovy” or “far out” or “cool, man,” soon became passé.

DH: Don’t forget the peace sign.

DG: Yes, the peace sign, too—all of these things were quickly drained of meaning because of commercialization, the media magnifying glass, predators, etc. I understand why the punk generation that came along 10 or 15 years later had contempt for it, because they weren’t reacting to the experience I had; they were reacting to the cartoon version of it. I’m sure if I were of that generation, I would have been a punk also, because it was all about trying to seek integrity, authenticity, and meaning.

But to me, the hippie moment was a critique of materialism. Ayn Rand’s philosophy was just as pernicious in the ’60s as it is today, or maybe the way to say it’s just as pernicious today as it was then.

DH: Is there any model of a counterculture theme or anti-materialistic vision that’s applicable today, anything like ‘back to the land’? Because the country is so split. The differences are just enormous. Even the way of thinking.

DG: The thing I keep hoping is that the meeting place is spirituality, because I do think that most people who identify as Christians are sincere about it. Even though many of the right-wing American leaders who exploit them seem quite removed from the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Pope Francis is a compelling and powerful moral and spiritual voice who, to me, evokes counterculture values as much as he does Catholic tradition. Some of the attitudes of conservative evangelicals are primarily tribal. But I think that the words of Jesus Christ are so powerful that they can have unintended effects; the idea of loving thy neighbor as thyself is essentially the same as hippie idea.

In researching 1967, one thing that blew my mind was reading some of the speeches of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, neither of whom, as far as I know, ever took LSD. They both wore suits and had short hair and didn’t identify as hippies in any way.

DH: No dashikis for Martin Luther King.

DG: And no love beads for Bobby Kennedy… But they came to the same meeting place in terms of the ideal that there’s more to life than just money. Kennedy gave this great speech about how the gross national product measures everything except the things that are most important in life. And King, in sermon after sermon, talked about the inner world, of man as a spirit and as a soul. Of course he coupled this with an ethical code which required activism in an immoral world.

So it is my hope is that there is a critical mass of people who see themselves as being in different tribes, but who in their souls share some values that could create some kind of a moral clarity in the country.

The other big thing, I think, in terms of changing the politics of the country now, is to focus on young people, because that’s also a similarity with the ’60s. You’ve got this gigantic generation, the biggest generation since the Baby Boom generation, and more progressive. Those of us who were against the war were never a majority until way later when the whole country turned against the war by the mid-’70s. But the proportion of younger people who voted for Bernie, the proportion of younger people who vote Democrat, is very, very high.

DH: Let’s go back to the spiritual theme. The heroes of your book are really Ram Dass and Allen Ginsberg. I’m interested in how you think that Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass were able to carry that message, and whether it’s succeeded in beginning inside the culture, or the culture just went all materialist.

DG: I think it’s a mixed bag. One of the things about being older is knowing that I have more life behind me than in front of me, and it’s quite clear that the odds of all the problems of America or the Western world being solved in my lifetime is extremely low. The rapid success of the civil rights movement on certain issues and the explosive spread of hip images and rock and roll, I created a set of expectations regarding timing that were not realistic. But the fact that everything’s not perfect or close to perfect doesn’t mean that all the efforts to advance the species are a failure; it means that history is to be looked at in terms of hundreds or thousands of years, not just one generation.

In terms of the individual lives, I think Ram Dass is exemplary. He’s been committed to service. The money from Be Here Now went to his foundation that he and Wavy Gravy among others set up that has helped cure blindness in millions of people in third-world countries.

DH: I read a review of your book on the Be Here Now network. I never knew that existed.

DG: It’s a podcast network that is a spin-off that is associated with the foundation that is built up around Ram Dass and run by Raghu Markus. I do a podcast on it called Rock and Roles.

DH: Let’s talk about the riots, and segue from Martin Luther King to Detroit and to Newark and what a huge impact the uprisings had on the black community. We do not seem to have made much progress on race in this country. The riots of 1967 seem to have been a product of somewhat raised expectations from civil rights and the poverty program. Today, the black community has very little expectations. That might be a reason why white males are dying at a much higher rate than blacks and Latinomen,because their reality is more accepted.

DG: The scale dwarfs anything that’s happened since. In Detroit there were 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. And much havoc in other cities as well.

Not everyone called them riots—they were called rebellions, revolts. They were usually triggered by police violence. But the tinder box of frustration, poverty, oppression was so great, and the raised expectations were followed by only marginal improvement especially in the North where the problems was “de facto” segregation that wasn’t fixed by the civil rights bill. Before he was killed, King had become a much more radical and complicated thinker as the years went by and he saw the complexity of the legacy of racism.

DH: What else from the ’60s is applicable in the Trump era?

DG: Number one, ease up on tribalism on our side.

DH: Yeah, well, tribalism’s natural for corruption. And also for loyalty and protection.

DG: True. It’s incredibly seductive, because it feels good. It’s why people join gangs.

DH: Nepotism is one of the most powerful forces in the world. Taking care of your own, your family. Everyone protects their family, or else they’re thought of as having bad character.

DG: Taking care of your own family isn’t the problem. Doing it in a way that hurts other people’s families is what is immoral. The Mafia will claim you have no choice. The Mafia is the ultimate Ayn Rand entity.

DH: So, 1967 is the year that you picked, but ’68, ’69 and ’70 also were huge years for me: 1969 was Woodstock, of course. 1970 was Kent State and Cambodia and the biggest student rebellion ever. It seems to me that the reverberations of 1967 just kept rolling along in different ways. And ofcoursethere’s Altamont versus Woodstock.

DG: Well, I think it’s about the balance, and that’s the conceit of the title, In Search of the Lost Chord, that there were these different notes and relationship to them, and it’s about the balance of the energies. Things got darker in ’68 with the assassinations of King and Kennedy. Another inflection point was the decline of Haight-Ashbury. There was a community in ’65 and ’66 and the beginning of ’67, it was a model of an alternative lifestyle that couldn’t survive the glare of the media. The media definitely killed it. There was actually a formal ceremony in Haight-Ashbury called Death of the Hippie in October ’67. And the drugs got worse very quickly.

DH: The brown acid.

DG: Yes, some of the LSD sold by less than idealistic dealers was mixed with speed. Pure speed, then as now, brought out the worst in people. Heroin, then as now, destroyed lives. So even though shards of countercultural idealism cropped up in places well into the ’70s, the peak was already in the rearview mirror. Even the purest kind of LSD had limits in its value to people.

I’m someone who is very happy with my memories of LSD trips. I’ve never had a bad trip, thank god, but it became like seeing the same movie too many times. It’s been decades and I have no plans to take it again.

DH: Yeah, it doesn’t tell you how to figure things out.

DG: Yeah, at the end of the book, I quote Peter Coyote saying that LSD is like a helicopter that takes you to the top of the mountain, but then it brings you back down again, so if you actually want to live on the top of the mountain, it’s a lifetime of work to get up there, not a helicopter ride.

DH: But the hippie period triggered a lot of things such as the back-to-the-land movement and the Grateful Dead, right?

DG: Absolutely. There are still reverberations from that period that continue to this day. Environmentalism had antecedents with people like Thoreau, but its explosion as a mass movement was the direct outgrowth of hippie culture. Many of the creators of a lot of the internet in the ’90s, including Steve Jobs, took psychedelics. On the political side, there is a direct line from the civil rights and anti-war movements to feminism, the gay rights movement, CodePink, Occupy Wall Street, and many aspects of the Sanders campaign.

In the spiritual realm, in 1967, Richard Alpert, the fired Harvard professor who was Tim Leary’s protégé in popularizing LSD, went to India, met his guru Neem Karoli Baba, was renamed Ram Dass, wrote the book Be Here Now, a major catalyst of the New Age movement. And in 1967 the Beatles, who were the most famous musicians in the world, were introduced to meditation, which overnight went from being a word known primarily in monasteries and theology departments to being part of the language of pop culture.

DH: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, right?

DG: Yeah, the Maharishi was the first one that became a public figure when they visited him, but almost immediately afterwards, George Harrison and John Lennon became interested in the so-called Hare Krishna guru, Swami Bhaktivedanta.

And all this opened up a wellspring of a zillion different spiritual paths explored by people in the mass culture, some of the bogus but some real. The I Chingwent from selling a couple of thousand copies a year to 50,000-100,000 a year, and was quoted in numerous rock lyrics. A lot of younger people were relieved that you don’t have to choose between the religion you were born into or purely secular materialism. There were lanes you could go down to try to integrate the idea of identifying yourself as a spirit without having to be enmeshed in the hierarchy of rules and structures that seemed irrelevant to a modern life. Some people found transcendence in mainstream religions, but a lot of us didn’t find it there.

DH: Is there something that you want the world to know about this book that you’re not getting out there?

DG: Well, the main thing about the book is its complexity. There were so many things happening all at the same time. It’s a mosaic of a couple hundred pieces, and there were another couple of thousand that I couldn’t deal with because I didn’t have the time or the wisdom to do it. I feel guilty dumbing it down sometimes.

DH: Somebody in the book said that New York was always two years later, but you said by ’67 it had caught up. Is that really true?

DG: Ken Kesey said that to Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

There was this sense of you had this magical thing that no one else had. When it was the province of universities and psychiatrists and people that were authorized to experiment with it, it was very limited. But once it was illegal in late 1966, it became easy to get. High school in New York kids couldn’t get acid in 1964, but could in ’67.

DH: They had no Summer of Love in New York.

DG: I don’t know, man. It was nice to be young there then. That’s the year I graduated from high school.

There was a Be-In in Easter of ’67. There were these things that Bob Fass would organize, this Fly-In and sweeping up streets on the Lower East Side. It was a bit darker than the Bay Area, but we had the peace and love thing going too for a minute.

DH: I was both a hippie and a radical and most of my hippie friends were not so political, and most of my radical friends had disdain for drugs. And then there was, within SDS, the progressive labor faction, the ones that cut their hair off and went to the factories and worked.

DG: But there were people who struggled to bridge the divide. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner—all had dual citizenship.

DH: Abbie Hoffman was one of our best political strategists. I traveled to Nicaragua with him and then I spent some time with him in Zihuatanejo. But I saw his dark side, too, which obviously led to his death. He was amazing. He was a manic depressive, yeah. And when he was manic, there was just no one, no one, who could compete with him as a speaker, as a thinker, a strategist, a performer.

DG: I think he’s a little underrated by history because the depression became more part of the story. Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and of course Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison had tragically premature deaths. On the other hand, the people I dedicated the book to—Paul Krassner, Wavy Gravy and Ram Dass—didn’t self-destruct, and continued to live righteous lives with real consistency about who they said they were as younger people, as did Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Peter Coyote and many others who are not famous, but who are worthy role models.

So overall, it certainly is a mixed bag. I have a romantic view of it, but hopefully not a delusional view of it.

DH: Well, that’s a good way to stop: A romantic but not delusional view.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Danny Goldberg is the author of In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books) and is the president of Gold Village Entertainment, whose clients include Steve Earle, Against Me!, and Peaches.

http://www.alternet.org/activism/danny-goldberg-hippie-trump-interview?akid=15966.265072.Fwt3cL&rd=1&src=newsletter1080924&t=4

Obama: a Hollow Man Filled With Ruling Class Ideas


A “Hollow” Man Who Was “Unwilling to Fight the Good Fight”

What on Earth motivated the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and law professor David J. Garrow to write an incredibly detailed 1078-page (1460 pages with endnotes and index included) biography of Barack Obama from conception through election to the White House? Not any great personal affinity for Obama on Garrow’s part, that’s for sure. Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama is no hagiography. On the last page of this remarkable tome, Garrow describes Obama at the end of his distinctly non-transformative and “failed presidency” as a man who had long ago had become a “vessel [that] was hollow at its core.”

Near the conclusion, Garrow notes how disappointed and betrayed many of Obama’s former friends felt by a president who “doesn’t feel indebted to people” (in the words of a former close assistant) and who spent inordinate time on the golf course and “celebrity hobnobbing” (1067). Garrow quotes one of Obama’s “long-time Hyde Park [Chicago] friend[s],” who offered a stark judgement: “Barack is a tragic figure: so much potential, such critical times, but such a failure to perform…like he is an empty shell…Maybe the flaw is hubris, deep and abiding hubris….” (1065). Garrow quotes the onetime and short-lived Obama backer Dr. Cornel West on how Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be a counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a national security presidency…a brown-faced Clinton: another opportunist.”

The subject of Garrow’s meticulous history is a single-minded climber ready to toss others (including family members, lovers, and close friends) aside in service to an all-consuming quest for political power fueled by a belief in his own special “destiny.” (It is clear from Rising Star that Obama was set on a run for the presidency by age twenty-five.) Dozens of former Obama associates interviewed by Garrow report having been impressed, even blown away by the future president as a young man. But many others were put off by Obama’s sense of superiority and arrogance (“full of himself” by the recollection of one Harvard Law classmate [p. 337]) and by his often lecturing, professorial “know it all” presentation – and by his transparent hyper-ambition.

During his time at Harvard Law, fellow students invented “the Obamanometer” – a numerical measure of how long Obama would spend taking up class time with long-winded dialogue with the professor, often while claiming to speak on behalf of his fellow students.

Obama struck many on his way up as far too impressed with his own awesomeness. As one of his fellow black Illinois state senators commented to another veteran legislator as Obama began his eight-year career in the Illinois Senate in 1996, “Can you believe this guy’s some thirty years old [and] he’s already written a book about himself?” (p.600)

Progressives lobbyists found Obama “a disappointing legislator” during his time in the Illinois Senate.  According to Al Sharp, executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, state senator Obama was “so very pragmatic” that “he,” in Garrow’s words, “was unwilling to fight to the good fight.” By Garrow’s account. “Legal aid veteran Linda Mills recalled that [state senator] Barack ‘sponsored a number of bills I wrote,’ but ‘I stopped seeking him out as a chief sponsor early on’ because Barack was ‘disengaged’ rather than actively pushing the bills. ‘He was never involved in the legislation,’ and on many days Barack was simply ‘unavailable. Golfing, playing basketball.  He was just out to lunch so often’” (p.731)

An Ugly Offer: Money for Silence

I find a different story related in Rising Star just as disturbing. It comes from April of 2008, when then presidential candidate Obama was being compelled by the Hillary Clinton campaign to throw his onetime South Side Chicago “spiritual mentor” Reverend Jeremiah Wright under the bus because Obama’s association with the fiery Black and left-leaning pulpit master was costing him too many white votes. On April 12, 2008, Obama visited Wright, asking him not to do “any more public speaking until after the November election.” Wright refused. “Barack left empty-handed but before long Wright received an e-mail from Barack’s close friend Eric Whitaker, also a Trinity [church] member, offering Wright $150,000 ‘not to preach at all’ in the months ahead.” (p.1044). Wright refused.

How was that for progressive hope and change?

“A Work of Historical Fiction”

Young Obama tried to beat historians to the punch by writing a deceptive, self-serving account of his own first three and half decades gracing the planet with his “special qualities.” Garrow, to his credit, doesn’t fall for it. Rising Star takes the future president’s 1995 book Dreams From My FatherDreams and some of Obama’s later autobiographical reflections to task for: inventing a deep racial identity drama that never occurred during Obama’s early years in Hawaii, Indonesia, and Occidental College; incorrectly portraying Obama as a “difference-maker” on his high school basketball team; deceptively claiming that Obama had been an angry “thug” during high school; deleting the Community Party background of the Black “old poet” (“Frank,” as in longtime Communist Party activist Frank Davis) who gave Obama advice as a teenager in Honolulu; inaccurately claiming that Obama have received a “full scholarship” to Occidental; misrepresenting himself as a leader in the movement against South African apartheid at Occidental; exaggerating Obama’s involvement in anti-apartheid activism at Columbia University; covering up  evidence of Obama’s enrollment in a Columbia course taught by a Marxist academic; absurdly mispresenting the nature of Obama’s work for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) at the City University of New York; concocting a mythical and supposedly life-changing dialogue with a  “black security guard” on Obama’s first trip from New York City to begin community organizing work on the far South Side of Chicago;  falsely claiming that Obama  converted to Christianity during his early years in Chicago; largely writing Obama’s white mother out of his autobiography, which spilled far more ink on a father (Barack Obama. Sr.) who played little role in his life; painting a “decidedly uncharitable portrait” of Obama’s loving white maternal grandfather (Stanley Dunham) who did so much to raise him; suggesting that Obama’s maternal white grandmother was a racist; unduly downplaying Obama’s supreme enjoyment of his years at Harvard Law School; and coldly condensing his three top pre-marital girlfriends (more on them below) “into a single woman whose appearance in the book was fleeting indeed.” Garrow judges Dreams “a work of historical fiction,” not a serious autobiography or memoir.

The Revenge of Sheila Jager: “His Deep-Seated Need to be Loved and Admired”

Rising Star might almost deserve the sub-title “The Revenge of Sheila Jager.” Like Garrow’s giant and classic 1986 biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rising Star gets very, very personal. Garrow reports the complaints of Obama’s three former girlfriends – Alex McNair, Genevieve Cook, and Sheila Jager. Each one recalls an Obama that was ultimately inaccessible and hopelessly self-involved.  Ms. Jager, a partly white Asian-American University of Chicago anthropology graduate student when she met Obama, garners singular attention. She fell into a prolonged and ardent affair with then community organizer Obama during the late 1980s. But her long and tumultuous relationship with him was doomed by the color of her skin. Obama shared the passion but decided he could not marry her because his political ambitions in Chicago required a Black spouse.

Garrow recounts an ugly scene in the summer of 1987. A loud and long dispute developed one day at the Wisconsin summer home of a friend. From the morning onwards, a witness recalled, “they were back and forth, having sex, screaming yelling, having sex, screaming yelling.… That whole afternoon, they went back and forth between having sex and fighting,” with Jager yelling: “That’s wrong! That’s wrong! That’s not a reason.”

Near the end of his colossal volume, Garrow says that “no one alive brought deeper insight into the tragedy of Barack Obama than Sheila Jager.” He reproduces numerous quotations from Jager, now an Oberlin College anthropology professor.  As a young woman, she was frustrated by young Obama’s lack of “courage.” Writing to Garrow in August of 2013, Jager saw that cowardice in his excessively “pragmatic,” disengaged, and “compromising” presidency:

“the seeds of his future failings were always present in Chicago.  He made a series of calculated decisions when he began to map out his political life at the time and they involved some deep compromises.  There is a familiar echo in the language he uses now to talk about the compromises he’s always forced to make and the way he explained his future to me back then, saying in effect I ‘wish’ I could do this, but ‘pragmatism and the reality of the world has forced me to do that.’  From the bailout out to NSA to Egypt, it is always the same. The problem is that ‘pragmatism’ can very much look like what works best for the moment.  Hence, the constant criticism that there is no strategic vision behind his decisions. Perhaps this pragmatism and need to just ‘get along in the world’ (by accepting the world as it is instead of trying to change it) stems from his deep-seated need to be loved and admired which has ultimately led him on the path to conformism and not down the path of greatness which I had hoped for him.” (1065)

The italics are Garrow’s.  He added emphasis to the entire passage.

Or Maybe He Really Believed All that “Vacuous to Repressive Neoliberal” and “Pragmatism” Stuff

Garrow’s mammoth biography is a tour de force when it comes to personal critique, professional appraisal, and epic research and documentation. His mastery of the smallest details in Obama’s life and career and his ability to place those facts within a narrative that keeps the reader’s attention (no small feat at 1078 pages!) is remarkable.  Rising Star falls short, however, on ideological appraisal. In early 1996, the brilliant left Black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. captured the stark moral and political limits of what would become the state and then national Obama phenomenon and indeed the Obama presidency.  Writing of an unnamed Obama, Reed observed that:

“In Chicago…we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.”

Garrow very incompletely quotes Reed’s reflection only to dismiss it as “an academic’s way of calling Barack an Uncle Tom.”  That is an unfortunate judgement. Reed’s assessment was richly born-out by Obama’s subsequent political career.  Like his politcio-ideological soul-brothers Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (and perhaps now Emmanuel Macron), Obama’s public life has been a wretched monument to the dark power of the neoliberal corporate-financial and imperial agendas behind the progressive pretense of façade of telegenic and silver-tongued professional class politicos.

Reed’s prescient verdict more than 12 years before Obama became president brings more insight to the Obama tragedy than Jager’s reflection five years into Obama’s presidency. Obama’s nauseating taste for supposedly (and deceptively) non-ideological “get things done” “pragmatism,” “compromise,” and “playing it safe” – for “accepting the world as it is instead of trying to change it” (Jager) – was not simply or merely a personality quirk or psychological flaw. It was also and far more significantly a longstanding way for “liberal” Democratic presidents and other politicos to appear “tough-minded” and stoutly determined to “getting things done” while they subordinate the fake-populist and progressive-sounding values they mouth to get elected to the harsh “deep state” facts of U.S. ruling class, imperial, and “national security” power. A “pragmatic,” supposedly non-ideological concern for policy effectiveness – “what can be accomplished in the real world” – has long given “liberal” presidents a manly way to justify governing in accord with the wishes of the nation’s ruling class and power elite.

Garrow and Jager might want to look at a forgotten political science classic, Bruce Miroff’s  Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy [1976].) After detailing the supposedly progressive Kennedy’s cool-headed, Harvard-minted, and “best and brightest” service to the nation’s reigning corporate, imperial, and racial hierarchies, Miroff explained that:

“Most modern presidents have claimed the title of ‘pragmatist’ for themselves.  Richard Nixon was just as concerned as John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to announce that he was not wedded to dogma, and that his administration would follow a realistic and flexible course. It has chiefly been the liberal presidents, however, who have captured the pragmatic label…For liberal presidents – and for those who have advised them – the essential mark of pragmatism is its ‘tough-mindedness.’ Pragmatism is equated with strength and intellectual and moral strength that can accept a world stripped of illusions and can take the facts unadorned.  Committed to liberal objectives, yet free from liberal sentimentality, the pragmatic liberal sees himself as grappling with brute and unpleasant facts of political reality in order to humanize and soften those facts…The great enemy for pragmatic liberals is ideology…An illusory objectivity is one of the pillars of pragmatic ‘tough-mindedness.’ The second pillar is readiness for power.  Pragmatists are interested in what works; their prime criterion of value is success…[and] as a believer in concrete results, the pragmatist is ineluctably drawn to power.  For it is power that gets things done most easily, that makes things work most successfully.” (Pragmatic Illusions, 283-84, emphasis added).

The classic neoliberal Bill Clinton embraced the pragmatic and non-ideological “get things done” façade for state capitalist and imperialist policy. So did the pioneering neoliberal Jimmy Carter and the great corporate liberals Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kenney and Franklin Roosevelt. Was this really or mainly because they were psychologically wounded?  The deeper and more relevant reality is that they functioned atop a Superpower nation-state rule by unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, and white supremacism. They were educated, socialized, seduced and indoctrinated – to understand in their bones that those de facto dictatorships must remain intact (Roosevelt boasted of having saved the profits system) and that liberal “reform” must always bend to the will of reigning institutions and doctrines of concentrated wealth, class, race, and power. Some or all of them may well have to believe and internalize the purportedly non-ideological ideology of wealth- and power-serving pragmatism. And Obama was either a true believer or one who cynically chose to impersonate one as the ticket to power quite early on.

A Fully Minted Neoliberal Early On

The irony here is that one can consult Rising Star to determine the basic underlying accuracy of Reed’s acerbic description. My foremost revelation from Rising Star is that Obama was fully formed as a fake-progressive neoliberal-capitalist actor well before he ever received his first big money campaign contribution.  He’s headed down the same ideological path as the Clintons even before Bill Clinton walks into the Oval Office.  Obama’s years in the corporate-funded foundation world, the great ruling and professional class finishing schools Columbia University Harvard Law, and the great neoliberal University of Chicago’s elite Law School were more than sufficient to mint him as a brilliant if “vacuous to repressive neoliberal.”

During his years at Harvard Law, Garrow notes, Obama took said the following at a Turner Broadcasting African American Summit for the 1990s:

“Whenever we blame society for everything, or blame white racism for everything, then inevitably we’re giving away our own power…if we can get start getting beyond some of these old divisions [of race, place, and class] and look at the possibilities of crafting pragmatic, practical strategies that are going to focus on what’s  going to make it work and less about whether it fits into one ideological mold or another.”

These were classic neoliberal and ruling class themes.

Along with a healthy dose of market economics, this was the heavily ideological if nominally anti-ideological essence of much of Obama’s intellectual work at Harvard Law, where he and his good friend the former economist Rob Fisher were drawn to the courses of a libertarian professor and wrote oxymoronically about the progressive and democratic potential of “market forces.”  Like other ruling class and professional class educational and ideological institutions of “higher education,” Harvard Law was and remains a great schoolhouse of precisely the kind of “pragmatism” which knows that no policies and visions can work that don’t bow to the holy power of the finance-led corporate and imperial state, ruling in the name of the market among other things.

Again, and again across Garrow’s many hundreds of pages on Obama’s community organizing and legislative career one hears about the future president’s classically neoliberal efforts to address poverty and joblessness by increasing the market value of poor and jobless folks’ “human capital” and “skill sets.”  Never does one learn of any serious call on his part for the radical and democratic redistribution of wealth and power and the advance of a people’s political economy based on solidarity and the common good, not the profits of the investor class.

The main things Obama needed to add on to fulfill his “destiny” after Harvard Law were a political career in elected office, a great moment of national celebrity (his spectacular Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention in August of 2004), elite financial sponsorship (including record-setting Wall Street backing in 2007 and 2008), and proper appreciation and articulation of U.S.-imperial Council on Foreign Relations ideology.  All of this and more, including no small good fortune (including the awfulness of the George W. Bush administration and the 2007-08 Hillary Clinton campaign), followed and brought us to the great neoliberal “disappointment” that was the Obama presidency.

Curious Deletions: MacFaquhar, Marxists, and the Ruling Class Sponsors

There are some interesting deletions in Rising Star. It is odd that the meticulous Garrow never quotes a remarkable essay published by The New Yorker in the spring of 2007. In early May of that year, six months after Obama had declared his candidacy for the White House, the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar penned a memorable portrait of Obama titled “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with the candidate, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good” (emphasis added).

MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.”

So what if large popular majorities in the U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?

Was this personal weakness and cowardice? The deeper reality is that Obama’s “deeply conservative” beliefs reflected an either calculated or heartfelt allegiance to neoliberal “free market” ideals and related pragmatic and “realistic” ruling- and elite professional-class values inculcated and absorbed at Harvard Law, in the corporate-captive foundation world, and through his many contacts in the elite business sector and the foreign policy establishment as he rose in the American System. Along with a bottomless commitment to the long American imperial project, those power-serving beliefs were written all over Obama’s conservative late 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope (Obama’s second book and his second book mainly about himself – see my critical review of it on Black Agenda Report in early 2007  here), whose right-wing and imperial content Garrow ignores.  They also raised their head in the famous 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address (see my critical reflection on that oration at the time here) that did so much to make Obama an overnight national and even global celebrity – another document whose right-leaning ideological nature escapes Garrow’s attention.

Like Obama’s neoliberal and imperial ideology, the many left activists and writers (this reviewer included) who saw through Obama’s progressive pretense and warned others about it early on are basically missing in Rising Star.  The list of Left commentators left out is long.  It includes Bruce Dixon, Glen Ford, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky. Alexander Cockburn, Margaret Kimberly, Jeffrey St. Clair, Roger Hodge, Pam Martens, Ajamu Baraka, Doug Henwood, Juan Santos, Marc Lamont Hill, John R. MacArthur, and a host of others (Please see the sub-section titled “Insistent Left Warnings” on pages 176-177 in the sixth chapter, titled “We Were Warned,” of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power [Paradigm, 2014], my second carefully researched Obama book not to make it into Garrow’s endnotes or bibliography).

Also largely missing – the other side of the coin of omission, so to speak – in Garrow’s sprawling acount is the elite corporate and financial class that made record-setting contributions to Obama’s rise with an understanding that Obama was very much on their side. How write a 1000-page plus account of Obama’s rise to power without at least once mentioning that august and unparalleled ruling class figure Robert Rubin, whose nod of approval was critical to Obama’s ascendancy? As Greg Palast noted, Rubin “opened the doors to finance industry vaults for Obama. Extraordinarily for a Democrat, Obama in 2008 raised three times as much from bankers as his Republican opponent.”

Rubin would also serve as a top informal Obama adviser and placed a number of his protégés in high-ranking positions in the Obama administration. Rubin’s Obama appointees included Timothy Geithner (Obama’s first treasury secretary), Peter Orszag (Obama’s first Office of Management and Budget director), and Larry Summers (first chief economic adviser).

Just as odd as his ignoring of MacFarquhar’s May 2007 essay is Garrow’s inattention to a remarkable report from Ken Silverstein’s six months before. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” in November of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’” Obama’s allegiance to the American business elite was evident from the get go. It was well understood by the K Street insiders that Silverstein interviewed in the fall of 2006.

His “dollar value” to Wall Street would become abundantly clear in early 2009, when he told a frightened group of Wall Street executives that “I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Garrow’s fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Sukind wrote, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

On Love and Admiration

As noted above, professor Jager told Garrow that the limits of Obama’s presidency stemmed from his longstanding “need to be loved and admired.” But surely that need would have been met to no small degree had Obama (like Roosevelt in 1935 and 1936) governed in at least partial accord with the progressive-sounding rhetoric he campaigned on in 2007 and 2008. Beyond the social, democratic, security and environmental benefits that would have been experienced by millions of Americans and world citizens under an actually progressive Obama presidency, such policy would have been good politics for both Obama and the Democratic Party. It might well have pre-empted the Tea Party rebellion and kept the orange-haired beast Donald Trump – a dodgy neo-fascistic legacy of Obama and the Clintons’ ruling- and professional-class Ivy League elitism – out of the White House.  The bigger problem here was Obama’s love and admiration for the nation’s reigning wealth and power elite – or, perhaps, his reasonable calculation that the powers that be held a monopoly on the means of bestowing public love and admiration. Non-conformism to the ruling class carries no small cost in a media and politics culture owned by that class.

The Biggest Omission: Empire

The most glaring thing missing in Rising Star is any understanding of U.S, Senator and presidential candidate Obama’s imperial world view. His brazenly “American exceptionalist” and imperial mindset, straight out of the Council on Foreign Relations, was written all over Obama’s foreign policy speeches and writings (including large sections of The Audacity of Hope) in 2006, 2007, and 2008. I wrote about this at length in the fourth chapter (titled “How Antiwar? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire”) in my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.

This significant omission but it is unsurprising given Garrow’s own apparent enmeshment in the American imperial mindset.  Rising Star’s long epilogue includes John McCain-like criticisms of Obama for failing to launch military strikes on Syria and for being too allergic to “the use, or even the threat of force” in global affairs. Garrow even offers a lengthy critical quote on the need for “the next president” to be more “resolute” from the former leading imperialist defense secretary Robert Gates, who Garrow strangely describes as “the weightiest and most widely respected voice of all.”

“Problems Out There with the Situation of African-Americans in Society”

Obama first became something of a celebrity when he became the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review in February of 1990.  “I wouldn’t want people to see my election,” Obama told the Associated Press, “as a symbol that there aren’t problems out there with the situation of African-Americans in society” (Garrow, Rising Star, p. 392). Note the carefully calibrated nature of Obama’s public commentary already at the age of 28: “problems out there with the situation of African-Americans in society” could just as easily refer to alleged Black personal and cultural failure (a persistent white-pleasing theme in the rising star’s political rhetoric) as it could to cultural and/or institutional and societal racism.  Note also that while Obama’s election and re-election to the U.S. presidency brought few if any tangible material and policy gains to Black America (whose already terrible economic situation deteriorated significantly during his time in office), it functioned as something like the last nail in the coffin of many whites’ stark reluctance to acknowledge that the nation’s still deeply embedded racism any longer poses real barriers to Black advancement and equality in the U.S. “Are you kidding me?” I’ve heard countless whites say, “we elected a Black president! Stop talking about racism!” Never mind the persistence of deeply embedded racial inequality and oppression at the heart of the nation’s labor and housing markets, credit and investment systems, legal and criminal justice systems, its military and police state, and its educational and media systems – and the dogged tenacity of personal and cultural race prejudice among a considerable part of the white populace.  In that and other ways, the tragedy of the Obama years has been greatest of all for those at the bottom of the nation’s steep social and economic wells.

King v. Obama

If I could ask Garrow one question beyond the personal matter of why my own heavily researched and annotated study of (and Left warning on) “rising star” Obama (Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics [Paradigm-Routledge, 2008]) is so egregiously missing in his bibliography and endnotes, it is this: what does Garrow think his previous epic biography subject Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. (who politely refused progressives’ effort to enlist him as a presidential candidate and whose bust sat behind Obama in the Oval Office), would have thought of the career of Garrow’s new epic biography subject, Barack Obama?

As Garrow knows, King in his final years inveighed eloquently against what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated,” essentially capitalism, racism, and militarism-imperialism. King came to the end of his martyred life with the belief that the real faults in American life lay not so much in “men” as in the oppressive institutions and social structures that reigned over them.  He wrote that “the radical reconstruction of society itself” was “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters. He had no interest, of course, in running for the White House of all things.

Obama took a very different path, one that enlisted him in service both to narcissistic self and to each of the very triple evils (and other ones as well) that King dedicated his life to resisting.

The Obama-King contrast continues into Obama’s post-presidential years.  As Garrow showed in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King. Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (William Morrow, 1986), the great Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. King sternly refused to cash in on his fame.  Now that he out of the White House, Obama, by contrast, is cashing in. He’s raking in millions from the publishing industry and Wall Street and he’s back to his old “hobnobbing” ways with the rich and famous.

The reverend would be 88 years old if he had been blessed with longevity.  My guess is that he would be less than pleased at the life and career of the nation’s first technically Black president.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/06/02/obama-a-hollow-man-filled-with-ruling-class-ideas/

Confronting the Great Mass Addiction of Our Era

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This examination of today’s tech-zombie epidemic is worth putting your phone down for – at least for a while.

Photo Credit: Federico Morando / Flickr

Are you addicted to technology? I’m certainly not. In my first sitting reading Adam Alter’s Irresistible, an investigation into why we can’t stop scrolling and clicking and surfing online, I only paused to check my phone four times. Because someone might have emailed me. Or texted me. One time I stopped to download an app Alter mentioned (research) and the final time I had to check the shares on my play brokerage app, Best Brokers (let’s call this one “business”).

Half the developed world is addicted to something, and Alter, a professor at New York University, informs us that, increasingly, that something isn’t drugs or alcohol, but behaviour. Recent studies suggest the most compulsive behaviour we engage in has to do with cyber connectivity; 40% of us have some sort of internet-based addiction – whether it’s checking your email (on average workers check it 36 times an hour), mindlessly scrolling through other people’s breakfasts on Instagram or gambling online.

Facebook was fun three years ago, Alter warns. Now it’s addictive. This tech zombie epidemic is not entirely our fault. Technology is designed to hook us, and to keep us locked in a refresh/reload cycle so that we don’t miss any news, cat memes or status updates from our friends. Tristan Harris, a “design ethicist” (whatever that is) tells the author that it’s not a question of willpower when “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have”. After all, Steve Jobs gave the world the iPad, but made very sure his kids never got near one. Brain patterns of heroin users just after a hit and World of Warcraft addicts starting up a new game are nearly identical. The tech innovators behind our favourite products and apps understood that they were offering us endless portals to addiction. We’re the only ones late to the party.

Addiction isn’t inherent or genetic incertain people, as was previously thought. Rather, it is largely a function of environment and circumstance. Everyone is vulnerable; we’re all just a product or substance away from an uncomfortable attachment of some kind. And the internet, Alter writes, with its unpredictable but continuous loop of positive feedback, simulation of connectivity and culture of comparison, is “ripe for abuse”.

For one thing, it’s impossible to avoid; a recovering alcoholic can re-enter the slipstream of his life with more ease than someone addicted to online gaming – the alcoholic can avoid bars while the gaming addict still has to use a computer at work, to stay in touch with family, to be included in his micro-society.

Secondly, it’s bottomless. Everything is possible in the ideology of the internet – need a car in the middle of the night? Here you go. Want to borrow a stranger’s dog to play with for an hour, with no long-term responsibility for the animal? Sure, there’s an app for that. Want to send someone a message and see when it reaches their phone, when they read it and whether they like it? Even BlackBerry could do that.

Thirdly, it’s immersive – and even worse, it’s mobile. You can carry your addiction around with you. Everywhere. You don’t need to be locked in an airless room or unemployed in order to spend hours online. Moment, an app designed to track how often you pick up and look at your phone, estimates that the average smartphone user spends two to three hours on his or her mobile daily.

I downloaded Moment (the research I mentioned earlier) and uninstalled it after it informed me that, by noon, I had already fiddled away an hour of my time on the phone.

Though the age of mobile tech has only just begun, Alter believes that signs point to a crisis. In 2000, Microsoft Canada found that our average attention span was 12 seconds long. By 2013, it was eight seconds long. Goldfish, by comparison, can go nine seconds. Our ability to empathise, a slow-burning skill that requires immediate feedback on how our actions affect others, suffers the more we disconnect from real-life interaction in favour of virtual interfacing. Recent studies found that this decline in compassion was more pronounced among young girls. One in three teenage girls say their peers are cruel online (only one in 11 boys agree).

Sure, communication technology has its positives. It’s efficient and cheap, and has the ability to teach creatively, raise money for worldwide philanthropic causes and to disseminate news under and over the reach of censors, but the corrosive culture of online celebrity, fake news and trolling must have a downside, too – namely that we can’t seem to get away from it.

There is a tinge of first world problems in Irresistible. World of Warcraft support groups; a product Alter writes about called Realism (a plastic frame resembling a screenless smartphone, which you can hold to temper your raging internet addiction, but can’t actually use); a spike in girl gaming addicts fuelled by Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood app – it’s difficult to see why these things should elicit much sympathy while one in 10 people worldwide still lack access to clean drinking water. This very western focus on desire and goal orientation is one that eastern thinkers might consider a wrong view of the world and its material attachments, but Alter’s pop-scientific approach still makes for an entertaining break away from one’s phone.

Irresistible is published by Bodley Head.

Homeless and Unemployed in an Economy We’re Supposed to Think Is Liberating

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In Ilana Gershon’s new book “Down and Out in the New Economy,” the employer power dynamic is called into question.

Beggar and a rich young woman with shopping bags
Photo Credit: Lisa S.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today by Ilana Gershon (University of Chicago Press, April 2017):

Chris, an independent contractor in his midfifties, knows a lot about what it means to deal with an unstable job market, especially during those moments when you are between gigs and don’t know when you are going to get the next one. There was a period in 2012 where he hadn’t had a contracting job for a while, and he had no idea how he was going to pay his rent. He realized he might be able to make his rent for another month, but if he didn’t get a job soon, he might be homeless. He decided that he needed to get his body ready for this very likely possibility. “I started to sleep on the floor a few hours each night, as long as I could take it, so I could get used to sleeping on a sidewalk or on the dirt. That’s how bad it looked. It just seemed hopeless,” Chris said. Out of the blue, a staffing agency based in India contacted him and offered him a contract in the Midwest, giving him enough money to make it through this bad patch. But this stark moment, in which he saw homelessness around the corner, is part and parcel of the downside of careers made up of temporary jobs. Chris responded to this possibility in the way that you are supposed to if you are constantly enhancing yourself. He began to train his body for living on the streets, realizing that he needed to learn how to sleep without a bed. He was determined to be flexible and to adapt to potential new circumstances. Seeing the self as a bundle of skills, in practice, means that for some people enhancing your skills involves training yourself to survive being homeless. This too is a logical outcome of our contemporary employment model.

I have studied how people are responding to this new way of thinking about work and what it means to be a worker. In the United States, people are moving away from thinking that when they enter into an employment contract, they are metaphorically renting their capacities to an employer for a bounded period of time. Many people are no longer using a notion of the self-as-rented-property as an underlying metaphor and are starting to think of themselves as though they are a business, although not everyone likes this new metaphor or accepts all its implications. When you switch to thinking about the employment contract as a business-to-business relationship, much changes—how you present yourself as a desirable employee, what it means to be a good employer, what your relationships with your coworkers should be like, the relationship between a job and a career, and how you prepare yourself for the future.

The self-as-business metaphor makes a virtue of flexibility as well as the practical ways people might respond in their daily lives to conditions of instability and insecurity. As Gina Neff points out in Venture Labor, the model encourages people to embrace risk as a positive, even sought-out, element of how they individually should craft a career. Each time you switch jobs, you risk. You don’t know the amount of time you will have at a job before having to find a new one, and you risk how lucky you will be at getting that job and the next job. And with every job transition, you risk the salary that you might make. If there is a gap between jobs, then some people will find that they no longer experience a reliable, steady, upward trajectory in their salaries as they navigate the contemporary job market. Yet this is what you are now supposed to embrace as liberating.

Chris’s experiences cycling between employment and increasing periods of unemployment was a familiar story for me. I interviewed so many people in their late forties to early sixties who had a few permanent jobs early in their careers. But as companies increasingly focused on having a more transient workforce, these white-collar workers found their career trajectories veering from what they first thought their working life would look like. They thought that they might climb the organizational ladder in one or maybe even three companies over the course of their lifetime. Instead, they found that at some point in their mid to late forties, they started having shorter and shorter stints at different companies. The jobs, some would say, would last as long as a project. And as they grew older, the gaps between permanent jobs could start growing longer and longer. They struggled to make do, often using up their savings or selling their homes as they hoped to get the next job. Some started to find consulting jobs in order to make ends meet before landing the hoped-for permanent job, and then found themselves trapped on the consulting track—living only in the gig economy. True, not everyone felt like contracting was plan B, the option they had to take because of bad luck. In their book about contractors, Steve Barley and Gideon Kunda talk about the people they interviewed who actively chose this life. I met these people too, but they weren’t the majority of the job seekers I interviewed. Because I was studying people looking for a wide range of types of jobs, instead of studying people who already had good relationships with staffing agencies that provided consultants, I tended to meet people who felt their bad luck had backed them into becoming permanent freelancers. These were people who encountered the self-as-business metaphor as a relatively new model, one they felt they actively had to learn in order to survive in today’s workplace, as opposed to the younger people I interviewed, many of whom had grown up with the self-as-business model as their primary way to understand employment.

When you think of the employment contract in a new way, you often have to revisit what counts as moral behavior, since older frameworks offer substantively different answers to questions of moral business practice. People have to decide what it means for a company to behave well under this new framework. Consider the self-as-business model. What does a good company do to help its workers enhance themselves as allied businesses? What are the limits in what a company should do? What counts as exploitation under this new model? Can businesses do things that count as exploitation or bad practices now that might not have been considered problems earlier, or not considered problems for the same reasons (and thus are regulated or resolved differently)? Businesses are certainly deeply concerned that workers’ actions both at work and outside of work could threaten the company’s brand, a new worry—but this is the tip of the iceberg. And the moral behavior of companies isn’t the only issue. Can workers exploit the companies they align with now or behave badly toward them in new ways?

Yet while these two metaphors—the self-as-property and the self-as-business—encourage people to think about employment in different ways, there are still similarities in how the metaphors ask people to think about getting hired. In both cases, the metaphors are focusing on market choices and asking people to operate by a market logic. Deciding whether to rent your capacities is a slightly different question than deciding whether to enter into a business alliance with someone, but in both instances you are expected to make a decision based on the costs and benefits involved in the decision. In addition, both metaphorical contracts presume that people enter into these contracts as equals, and yet this equality doesn’t last in practice once you are hired. In most jobs, the moment you are hired, you are in a hierarchical relationship; you are taking orders from a boss. Some aspects of working have changed because of this shift in frameworks, but many aspects have stayed the same.

Avoiding Corporate Nostalgia

I talked to people who were thoughtfully ambivalent about this transition in the metaphors underlying employment. They didn’t like their current insecurity, but they pointed out that earlier workplaces weren’t ideal either. Before, people often felt trapped in jobs they disliked and confronted with office politics that were alienating and demoralizing. Like many people today, they dealt with companies in which they were constantly encountering sexism and racism. Not everyone had equal opportunities to move into the jobs they wanted or to be promoted or acknowledged for the work that they did well.

However, as anthropologist Karen Ho points out, when you have a corporate ladder that excludes certain groups of people, you also have a structure that you can potentially reform so that these groups will in the future have equal opportunities. When you have no corporate ladder—when all you have is the uncertainty of moving between companies or between freelance jobs—you no longer have a clear structure to target if you want to make a workplace a fairer environment. If there is more gender equality in the US workplace these days than there was thirty years ago, it is in part because corporate structures were stable enough and reformers stayed at companies long enough that specific business practices could be effectively targeted and reformed. Part of what has changed about workplaces today is that there has been a transformation in the kinds of solutions available to solve workplace problems.

I see what people said to me about their preference for the kinds of guarantees and rights people used to have at work as a form of critique, not a form of nostalgia. People didn’t necessarily want to return to the way things used to be. When people talked to me nostalgically about how workplaces used to function, it was often because they valued the protections they used to be able to rely on and a system they knew well enough to be able to imagine how to change it for the better.

Many people I spoke to were very unhappy with the contemporary workplace’s increasing instability. They worried a great deal about making it financially through the longer and longer dry spells of unemployment between jobs. I talked to a man who was doing reasonably well that year as a consultant, and he began reflecting on what the future would hold for his children. He didn’t want them to follow in his footsteps and become a computer programmer, because too many people like him were contingent workers. He wanted them to have their own families and reasoned: “If everybody thinks they can be laid-off in two weeks, how would they feel confident enough to be a parent and know that they’ve got twenty-one years of consistent investment?”

It is not that the people I spoke to necessarily wanted older forms of work. What many wanted was stability. No matter how many times people are told to embrace being flexible, to embrace risk, in practice many of the people I spoke to did not actually want to live with the downsides of this riskier life. The United States does not have enough safety nets in place to protect you during the moments when life doesn’t work out. Because you are supposed to be looking for a new job regularly over the course of a lifetime, the opportunities when you might become dramatically downwardly mobile increase. There are more possible moments in which you have to enhance your skills at surviving on much less money or even living rough.

Changing Notions of What Counts as a Good Employment Relationship

When people are thought of as businesses, significant aspects of the employment relationship change. The genre repertoire you use to get a job alters to reflect this understanding as you use resumes, interview answers, and other genres to represent yourself as a bundle of business solutions that can address the hiring company’s market-specific temporary needs. Networking has changed—what it means to manage your social relationships so that you can stay employed has shifted. Some people I met are now arguing that you treat the companies you are considering joining in the same way you would treat any other business investment: in terms of the financial and career risk involved in being allied with this company.

It is not just that you evaluate jobs differently when you know that your job is temporary—deciding you can put up with some kinds of inconveniences but not others. Instead, you see the job as a short-term investment of time and labor, and the job had better pay off—perhaps by providing you with new skills, new networks, or a new way of framing your work experiences that makes you potentially more desirable for the next job. What if this new framework allows workers to have new expectations of their employers, or can safeguard workers’ interests in new ways? If you have this perspective, what are the new kinds of demands that employees could potentially make of employers?

For Tom, this new vision of self-as-business was definitely guiding how he was judging the ways companies treated him and what was appropriate behavior. I first contacted Tom because I heard through the grapevine that he refused to use LinkedIn. I was curious, as I had been doing research for seven months by that point and only came across one other person who was not using LinkedIn (and has since rejoined). We talked about his refusal, and he explained to me that LinkedIn didn’t seem to offer enough in return for his data. He clearly saw himself in an exchange relationship with LinkedIn, providing data for it to use and in return having access to the platform. Fair enough, I thought: as far as I can tell, the data scientists at LinkedIn and Facebook whom I have met see the exchange relationship in similar ways. Yet Tom decided that what LinkedIn offered wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t worth providing the company with his personal data. So I asked him about various other sites that he might use in which the exchange might be more equitable, and he lit up talking about these other sites. For Tom, because he saw himself as a business, and viewed his data as part of his assets, he was ready to see LinkedIn as offering a bad business arrangement, one he didn’t want to accept. The self-as-business framework allowed him to see the use of certain platforms as instances of participating in business alliances. Some alliances he was willing to enter into, but not all.

This wasn’t his only encounter with a potentially exploitative business arrangement. He typically worked as an independent contractor, and a company asked him to come in for a job interview. When he got there, his interviewer explained that the position was a sweat equity job—Tom wouldn’t get a salary, but rather he would get equity in the company in exchange for his labor. “Okay” he replied. “So what is your business model?” His interviewer was surprised and discomforted to be asked this. He refused to answer; employees don’t need to know the details of the company’s business model, he said. Tom felt that this was wrong; because he was being asked to be an investor in the company—admittedly with his labor instead of with money—he felt should be given the same financial details that any other investor in a company would expect before signing on. It sounded to me like Tom’s interviewer was caught between two models: wanting the possible labor arrangements now available but unwilling to adjust whom he told what. The interviewer was not willing to follow through on the implications of this new model of employment, and as a result, Tom wasn’t willing to take the job. This is one way in which the self-as-business model offers a new way to talk about what counts as exploitation and as inappropriate behavior—behavior that might not have been an issue decades ago, or would have been a problem for different reasons (perhaps because a couple of decades ago, few people found sweat equity an acceptable arrangement).

But this new model also opens up the possibility that companies can have obligations to their employees that they did not have in the same way before. Since companies often don’t offer stable employment, they now provide a temporary venue for people to express their passion and to enhance themselves. Can this look like an obligation that businesses have to their workers? Perhaps—businesses could take seriously what it means to provide workers with the opportunities to enhance themselves. Michael Feher argues that if people are now supposed to see themselves as human capital, there should be a renewed focus on what good investment in people looks like—regardless of whether workers stay at a single company.

Should companies now help provide training for an employee’s next job? Throughout the twentieth century, companies understood that they had to provide their workers training in order for them to do their job at the company to their best of their ability. Internal training made sense both for the company’s immediate interests and for the company’s ability to retain a supply of properly trained workers over the life of the company. Now that jobs are so temporary, who is responsible for training workers is a bit more up in the air. Yet some companies are beginning to offer support for workers to train, not for the benefit of the company, but so that workers can pursue their passion, should they discover that working at that company is not their passion. Amazon, for example, in 2012 began to provide training for employees who potentially want radically different jobs. Jeff Bezos explained in his 2014 letter to shareholders: “We pre-pay 95% of tuition for our employees to take courses for in-demand fields, such as airplane mechanic or nursing, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon. The goal is to enable choice.” It makes sense for a company to support its workers learning skills for a completely different career only under the contemporary perspective that people are businesses following their passions in temporary alliances with companies.

This model of self-as-business might give workers some new language to protest business practices that keep them from enhancing themselves or entering into as many business alliances as they would like. For example, just-in-time scheduling in practice is currently preventing retail workers from getting enough hours so that they can earn as much as they would like to in a week. This type of scheduling means that workers only find out that week how many hours they are working and when. They can’t expect to have certain hours reliably free, and they need to be available whenever their employer would like them to work. Marc Doussard has found that good workers are rewarded with more hours at work. While white-collar workers might get better pay in end-of-the-year bonuses for seeming passionate, retail workers get more hours in the week. If workers make special requests to have certain hours, Doussard discovered, their managers will often punish them in response, by either giving them fewer hours to work or only assigning them to shifts they find undesirable. In practice, this means that workers have trouble holding two jobs or taking classes to improve themselves, as unpredictable shifts will inevitably conflict with each other or class times. Predictable work hours, in short, are essential for being able to plan for the future—either to make sure you are working enough hours in the week to support yourself or to educate yourself for other types of jobs. Since companies are now insisting that people imagine themselves as businesses, what would happen if workers protested when companies don’t allow them to “invest” in themselves or when they are thwarted from having as many business partnerships (that is, jobs) as possible? Perhaps employees should now be able to criticize and change employers’ practices when they are prevented from being the best businesses they can be because of their employers’ workplace strategies.

This has been an adapted excerpt from the new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today by Ilana Gershon (University of Chicago Press, April 2017).

America Is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People

BOOKS
A new book reveals that the U.S. is becoming two distinct countries, with separate economies, politics and opportunities.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

You’ve probably heard the news that the celebrated post-WW II beating heart of America known as the middle class has gone from “burdened,” to “squeezed” to “dying.” But you might have heard less about what exactly is emerging in its place.

In a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, draws a portrait of the new reality in a way that is frighteningly, indelibly clear: America is not one country anymore. It is becoming two, each with vastly different resources, expectations and fates.

Two roads diverged

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

The two sectors, notes Temin, have entirely distinct financial systems, residential situations and educational opportunities. Quite different things happen when they get sick or when they interact with the law. They move independently of each other. Only one path exists by which the citizens of the low-wage country can enter the affluent one, and that path is fraught with obstacles. Most have no way out.

The richest large economy in the world, says Temin, is coming to have an economic and political structure more like a developing nation. We have entered a phase of regression and one of the easiest ways to see it is in our infrastructure: our roads and bridges look more like those in Thailand or Venezuela than the Netherlands or Japan. But it goes far deeper than that, which is why Temin uses a famous economic model created to understand developing nations to describe how far inequality has progressed in the United States. The model is the work of West Indian economist W. Arthur Lewis, the only person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize in economics. For the first time, this model is applied with systematic precision to the U.S.

The result is profoundly disturbing.

In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration: check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.

In the developing countries Lewis studied, people try to move from the low-wage sector to the affluent sector by transplanting from rural areas to the city to get a job. Occasionally it works; often it doesn’t. Temin says that today in the U.S., the ticket out is education, which is difficult for two reasons: you have to spend money over a long period of time, and the FTE sector is making those expenditures more and more costly by defunding public schools and making policies that increase student debt burdens.

Getting a good education, Temin observes, isn’t just about a college degree. It has to begin in early childhood, and you need parents who can afford to spend time and resources all along the long journey. If you aspire to college and your family can’t make transfers of money to you on the way, well, good luck to you. Even with a diploma, you will likely find that high-paying jobs come from networks of peers and relatives. Social capital, as well as economic capital, is critical, but because of America’s long history of racism and the obstacles it has created for accumulating both kinds of capital, black graduates often can only find jobs in education, social work, and government instead of higher-paying professional jobs like technology or finance— something most white people are not really aware of. Women are also held back by a long history of sexism and the burdens — made increasingly heavy — of making greater contributions to the unpaid care economy and lack of access to crucial healthcare.

How did we get this way?

What happened to America’s middle class, which rose triumphantly in the post-World War II years, buoyed by the GI bill, the victories of labor unions and programs that gave the great mass of workers and their families health and pension benefits that provided security?

The dual economy didn’t happen overnight, says Temin. The story started just a couple of years after the ’67 Summer of Love. Around 1970, the productivity of workers began to get divided from their wages. Corporate attorney and later Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell galvanized the business community to lobby vigorously for its interests. Johnson’s war on poverty was replaced by Nixon’s war on drugs, which sectioned off many members of the low-wage sector, disproportionately black, into prisons. Politicians increasingly influenced by the FTE sector turned from public-spirited universalism to free-market individualism. As money-driven politics accelerated (a phenomenon explained by the Investment Theory of Politics), leaders of the FTE sector became increasingly emboldened to ignore the needs of members of the low-wage sector, or even to actively work against them.

America’s underlying racism has a continuing distorting impact. A majority of the low-wage sector is white, with blacks and Latinos making up the other part, but politicians learned to talk as if the low-wage sector is mostly black because it allowed them to appeal to racial prejudice, which is useful in maintaining support for the structure of the dual economy — and hurting everyone in the low-wage sector. Temin notes that “the desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks has motivated policies against all members of the low-wage sector.”

Temin points out that the presidential race of 2016 both revealed and amplified the anger of the low-wage sector at this increasing imbalance. Low-wage whites who had been largely invisible in public policy until recently came out of their quiet despair to be heard. Unfortunately, present trends are not only continuing, but also accelerating their problems, freezing the dual economy into place.

What can we do?

We’ve been digging ourselves into a hole for over 40 years, but Temin says we know how to stop digging. If we spent more on domestic rather than military activities, then the middle class would not vanish as quickly. The effects of technological change and globalization could be altered by political actions. We could restore and expand education, shifting resources from policies like mass incarceration to improving the human and social capital of all Americans. We could upgrade infrastructure, forgive mortgage and educational debt in the low-wage sector, reject the notion that private entities should replace democratic government in directing society, and focus on embracing an integrated American population. We could tax not only the income of the rich, but also their capital.

The cost of not doing these things, Temin warns, is incalculably high, and even the rich will end up paying for it.

“Look at the movie Hidden Figures,” he says. “It recounts a very dramatic story about three African-American women condemned to have a life of not being paid very well teaching in black colleges, and yet their fates changed when they were tapped by NASA to contribute to space exploration. Today we are losing the ability to find people like that. We have a structure that predetermines winners and losers. We are not getting the benefits of all the people who could contribute to the growth of the economy, to advances in medicine or science which could improve the quality of life for everyone — including some of the rich people.”

Along with Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the Twenty-First Century examines historical and modern inequality, Temin’s book has provided a giant red flag, illustrating a trajectory that will continue to accelerate as long as the 20 percent in the FTE sector are permitted to operate a country within America’s borders solely for themselves at the expense of the majority. Without a robust middle class, America is not only reverting to developing-country status, it is increasingly ripe for serious social turmoil that has not been seen in generations.

A dual economy has separated America from the idea of what most of us thought the country was meant to be.

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham’s Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore. 

http://www.alternet.org/books/america-regressing-developing-nation-most-people?akid=15455.265072.jP3WSU&rd=1&src=newsletter1075889&t=8

New Behind-the-Scenes Book Brutalizes the Clinton Campaign

‘Shattered,’ a campaign tell-all fueled by anonymous sources, outlines a generational political disaster

A new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes examines what went wrong during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Justin Sullivan/Getty

There is a critical scene in Shattered, the new behind-the-scenes campaign diary by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, in which staffers in the Hillary Clinton campaign begin to bicker with one another.  At the end of Chapter One, which is entirely about that campaign’s exhausting and fruitless search for a plausible explanation for why Hillary was running, writers Allen and Parnes talk about the infighting problem.

“All of the jockeying might have been all right, but for a root problem that confounded everyone on the campaign and outside it,” they wrote. “Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.”

Allen and Parnes here quoted a Clinton aide who jokingly summed up Clinton’s real motivation:

“I would have had a reason for running,” one of her top aides said, “or I wouldn’t have run.”

The beleaguered Clinton staff spent the better part of two years trying to roll this insane tautology – “I have a reason for running because no one runs without a reason” – into the White House. It was a Beltway take on the classic Descartes formulation: “I seek re-election, therefore I am… seeking re-election.”

Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for?

If you’re wondering what might be the point of rehashing this now, the responsibility for opposing Donald Trump going forward still rests with the (mostly anonymous) voices described in this book.

What Allen and Parnes captured in Shattered was a far more revealing portrait of the Democratic Party intelligentsia than, say, the WikiLeaks dumps. And while the book is profoundly unflattering to Hillary Clinton, the problem it describes really has nothing to do with Secretary Clinton.

The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.

In fact, it shines through in the book that the voters’ need to understand why this or that person is running for office is viewed in Washington as little more than an annoying problem.

In the Clinton run, that problem became such a millstone around the neck of the campaign that staffers began to flirt with the idea of sharing the uninspiring truth with voters. Stumped for months by how to explain why their candidate wanted to be president, Clinton staffers began toying with the idea of seeing how “Because it’s her turn” might fly as a public rallying cry.

This passage describes the mood inside the campaign early in the Iowa race (emphasis mine):

“There wasn’t a real clear sense of why she was in it. Minus that, people want to assign their own motivations – at the very best, a politician who thinks it’s her turn,” one campaign staffer said. “It was true and earnest, but also received well. We were talking to Democrats, who largely didn’t think she was evil.”

Our own voters “largely” don’t think your real reason for running for president is evil qualified as good news in this book. The book is filled with similar scenes of brutal unintentional comedy.

In May of 2015, as Hillary was planning her first major TV interview – an address the campaign hoped would put to rest criticism Hillary was avoiding the press over the burgeoning email scandal – communications chief Jennifer Palmieri asked Huma Abedin to ask Hillary who she wanted to conduct the interview. (There are a lot of these games of “telephone” in the book, as only a tiny group of people had access to the increasingly secretive candidate.)

The answer that came back was that Hillary wanted to do the interview with “Brianna.” Palmieri took this to mean CNN’s Brianna Keilar, and worked to set up the interview, which aired on July 7th of that year.

Unfortunately, Keilar was not particularly gentle in her conduct of the interview. Among other things, she asked Hillary questions like, “Would you vote for someone you didn’t trust?” An aide describes Hillary as “staring daggers” at Keilar. Internally, the interview was viewed as a disaster.

It turns out now it was all a mistake. Hillary had not wanted Brianna Keilar as an interviewer, but Bianna Golodryga of Yahoo! News, an excellent interviewer in her own right, but also one who happens to be the spouse of longtime Clinton administration aide Peter Orszag.

This “I said lunch, not launch!” slapstick mishap underscored for the Clinton campaign the hazards of venturing one millimeter outside the circle of trust. In one early conference call with speechwriters, Clinton sounded reserved:

“Though she was speaking with a small group made up mostly of intimates, she sounded like she was addressing a roomful of supporters – inhibited by the concern that whatever she said might be leaked to the press.”

This traced back to 2008, a failed run that the Clintons had concluded was due to the disloyalty and treachery of staff and other Democrats. After that race, Hillary had aides create “loyalty scores” (from one for most loyal, to seven for most treacherous) for members of Congress. Bill Clinton since 2008 had “campaigned against some of the sevens” to “help knock them out of office,” apparently to purify the Dem ranks heading into 2016.

Beyond that, Hillary after 2008 conducted a unique autopsy of her failed campaign. This reportedly included personally going back and reading through the email messages of her staffers:

“She instructed a trusted aide to access the campaign’s server and download the messages sent and received by top staffers. … She believed her campaign had failed her – not the other way around – and she wanted ‘to see who was talking to who, who was leaking to who,’ said a source familiar with the operation.”

Some will say this Nixonesque prying into her staff’s communications will make complaints about leaked emails ring a little hollow.

Who knows about that. Reading your employees’ emails isn’t nearly the same as having an outsider leak them all over the world. Still, such a criticism would miss the point, which is that Hillary was looking in the wrong place for a reason for her 2008 loss. That she was convinced her staff was at fault makes sense, as Washington politicians tend to view everything through an insider lens.

Most don’t see elections as organic movements within populations of millions, but as dueling contests of “whip-smart” organizers who know how to get the cattle to vote the right way. If someone wins an election, the inevitable Beltway conclusion is that the winner had better puppeteers.

The Clinton campaign in 2016, for instance, never saw the Bernie Sanders campaign as being driven by millions of people who over the course of decades had become dissatisfied with the party. They instead saw one cheap stunt pulled by an illegitimate back-bencher, foolishness that would be ended if Sanders himself could somehow be removed.

“Bill and Hillary had wanted to put [Sanders] down like a junkyard dog early on,” Allen and Parnes wrote. The only reason they didn’t, they explained, was an irritating chance problem: Sanders “was liked,” which meant going negative would backfire.

Hillary had had the same problem with Barack Obama, with whom she and her husband had elected to go heavily negative in 2008, only to see that strategy go very wrong. “It boomeranged,” as it’s put in Shattered.

The Clinton campaign was convinced that Obama won in 2008 not because he was a better candidate, or buoyed by an electorate that was disgusted with the Iraq War. Obama won, they believed, because he had a better campaign operation – i.e., better Washingtonian puppeteers. In The Right Stuff terms, Obama’s Germans were better than Hillary’s Germans.

They were determined not to make the same mistake in 2016. Here, the thought process of campaign chief Robby Mook is described:

“Mook knew that Hillary viewed almost every early decision through a 2008 lens: she thought almost everything her own campaign had done was flawed and everything Obama’s had done was pristine.”

Since Obama had spent efficiently and Hillary in 2008 had not, this led to spending cutbacks in the 2016 race in crucial areas, including the hiring of outreach staff in states like Michigan. This led to a string of similarly insane self-defeating decisions. As the book puts it, the “obsession with efficiency had come at the cost of broad voter contact in states that would become important battlegrounds.”

If the ending to this story were anything other than Donald Trump being elected president, Shattered would be an awesome comedy, like a Kafka novel – a lunatic bureaucracy devouring itself. But since the ending is the opposite of funny, it will likely be consumed as a cautionary tale.

Shattered is what happens when political parties become too disconnected from their voters. Even if you think the election was stolen, any Democrat who reads this book will come away believing he or she belongs to a party stuck in a profound identity crisis. Trump or no Trump, the Democrats need therapy – and soon.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/taibbi-on-the-new-book-that-brutalizes-the-clinton-campaign-w477978

It’s the 50th Anniversary of the Black Power Movement

The year 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Black Power, one of the least understood and most criminalized and vilified movements in American history.

The raised fist symbolizes revolution and defiance, it is used by various movements including black power and occupy.
Photo Credit: Stefanina Hill

The following is an excerpt from the new book Black Power 50 edited by Sylviane A. Diouf & Komozi Woodward (The New Press, 2016): 

June 1966, Greenwood, Mississippi: Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) introduced “Black Power” as a slogan. His fellow SNCC organizer, Willie Ricks, had tested the phrase at rallies earlier. Like no other ideology before, the heterogeneous and ideologically diverse movement that gave the powerful rallying cry its strength and depth shaped black consciousness and built an immense legacy that continues to resonate in the contemporary American landscape. If the exact chronology of the movement is controversial, it is clear that a decade of struggle, including the ferocious repression against it, has had a tremendous impact on issues of not only race and citizenship in the United States but also identity, politics, criminal justice, culture, art, and education globally. Indeed, Black Power’s successes and weaknesses have largely molded the past half century.

The defense campaign became increasingly important as the FBI and local police sought to destroy the Black Panther Party. Rallies to free all political prisoners mobilized large crowds. Oakland.1968 © Stephen Shames.

The year 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Black Power, one of the least understood and most criminalized and vilified movements in American history. Too often presented or remembered primarily as the violent, villainous urban northern counterpoint to the nonviolent, virtuous rural southern civil rights movement, the Black Power movement has been eclipsed in the general public’s memory. That blinding binary is an obstacle to our understanding of a more complicated past. Recent scholarship suggests that the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow North preceded the one in the Jim Crow South; and that Black Power emerged in the Jim Crow South simultaneously with its ascent in the Jim Crow North and the Jim Crow West. But everywhere, young adults and teenagers led the Black Power movement. Whether they were in Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles the activists were often the sons and daughters of southern migrants or Caribbean immigrants. Between 1966 and 1976, they developed countless cultural, political, social, and economic programs under the banner of the Black Power ideology. Those programs and organizations, and the art, literature, drama, and music they created, galvanized millions of people in the broadest movement in African American history.

This new generation had become impatient with the civil rights’ leadership and limited goals. They were suspicious of official declarations and legislation that suggested an official end to segregation, when they could see that the walls of employment, housing, and school segregation were becoming newly fortified from New York to California. Indeed, the 1964 Civil Rights Act specifically excluded any attack of segregation in the Jim Crow North. Thus, a heated debate developed in the civil rights movement between leaders who declared the struggle for desegregation was over and those who argued it had to continue. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was attacked by the more conservative leadership, including Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who insisted the time for protest was over after the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Kathleen Cleaver and fellow Black Panthers sporting Afros. Oakland. 1968 © Stephen Shames.

Of course, the movement, just like the concept of Black Power itself, was never monolithic. Black Power was heterogeneous, fusing together a number of ideologies and programs, including not only cultural nationalism, socialism, Marxism, and Islam, but also revolutionary nationalism, welfare rights, tenant rights, student voices, revolutionary union movements, Pan-Africanism and so forth—not to mention the rise of black elected officials. The crowded field of organizations included a bewildering spectrum of groups as diverse as SNCC, the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the National Welfare  Rights Organization (NWRO), the Black Panther Party (BPP), the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC), Us Organization, the Congress of African People (CAP), Third World Women Alliance (TWWA), the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), the Young Lords Organization (YLO), the Black Students Unions (BSU), and the Black Arts Movement (BAM). All of those voices came under the Black Power umbrella.

If Black Power was heterogeneous, it was also fluid. Some activists moved from one organization to the other or belonged to several at the same time. Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown were members of SNCC before joining the Panthers. Carmichael then moved on to the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, influenced by Kwame Nkrumah, the deposed former president of Ghana. Muhammad Ahmad, a co-founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement, was also a founder of the African Liberation Support Committee and the African Peoples Party (APP). Robert Williams, formerly of the NAACP, and Queen Mother Moore, once a Communist Party member, were leaders of the Republic of New Afrika and RAM. Some activists belonged to the BPP and the Young Lords. Japanese American Richard Aoki, a field marshal for the BPP, was also the spokesperson for the Asian American Political Alliance (though recent evidence suggests he might have worked for the FBI).

Despite their diversity and, for some, antagonism, all Black Power organizations shared a few fundamental features: they saw themselves as heirs of Malcolm X, defined Black America as an internal colony of the United States, and demanded self-determination.

The awareness of forming a “black nationality,” a nation within a nation, and of being subjected to systemic racism, became central to the vibrant, self-confident expression of the new black urban experience that marked the era.

While the movement organized countless peaceful demonstrations, the exacerbation of racial conflicts and police brutality led also to increasingly violent confrontations. In the early 1960s, over 320 major rebellions erupted in 257 cities. Following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, 200 uprisings shook 172 cities. A year later, 500 racial clashes electrified young people, reshaping black consciousness and reinforcing the quest for autonomy.

In line with Malcolm X’s emphasis on the model of the 1955 Bandung Conference that united African and Asian newly independent countries, Black Power also inspired a “Bandung West” of antiracist movements organized by communities of Puerto Ricans, American Indians, Chicanos, Asian Americans, and impoverished working-class whites. Coalitions beyond race, ethnicity, geography, and social origin emerged to fight injustice, discrimination, and economic inequality. Organizations supported each other’s struggles, and together their members and sympathizers attended rallies to demand the release of political prisoners. In Chicago, under the leadership of Illinois Black Panther Party deputy chairman Fred Hampton, black, Puerto Rican, and white activists founded the Rainbow Coalition. The 1970 Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention organized by the BPP in Philadelphia gathered ten thousand to fifteen thousand people with, among others, delegates from the American Indian Movement, the Chicano Brown Berets, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Asian American I Wor Kuen, and the mostly white Students for a Democratic Society. Similarly, in the Newark Black Power experiment, the United Brothers—who wanted to achieve Black Power through the electoral process—and the Young Lords signed a mutual defense pact against white terror. They joined together in the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention, running candidates on a Rainbow political slate. Los Angeles SNCC’s Ralph Featherstone and Us’s Maulana Karenga established an alliance at the Alianzasummit in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with Chicano leader Reies Lopez Tijerina and Hopi chief Tomas Ben Yacya.

In addition to unifying various segments of the American population, the Black Power movement also resonated abroad. Black Power became a global phenomenon, capturing the imagination of anticolonial and other freedom struggles. From Great Britain to the Caribbean and from India to Israel, colonized or marginalized young people rallied around slogans fashioned after “Black Power,” and organizations were modeled or named after the Black Panther Party. Young Samoans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, and Maoris founded the Polynesian Panther Movement in New Zealand in 1971, which later became the Polynesian Panther Party. In Israel, Mizrahi, mostly immigrant Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, called themselves Black Panthers and demanded equality with the European Jews. Dalits, who belong to the lower echelon of society and are outside of the rigid Indian caste system, formed the Dalit Panthers in Bombay. Globally, where youth were denied full citizenship or where governments questioned their very humanity, activists claimed the language of Black Power in the fight for their human rights. Ironically, this suggests the rarely understood paradox that ultimately Black Power was not racial but rather a movementagainst racism.

The radicals in the Black Power movement believed that their antiwar, anticolonial, anti-imperialist, revolutionary stance made the movement a natural ally of the countries that were part of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War: Cuba, Vietnam, China, Ghana, North Korea, Algeria, Tanzania, and Guinea; and of the liberation movements of the Portuguese colonies of Africa as well as of South-West Africa (Namibia) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Whereas few African Americans had actively supported or even been aware of the decolonization movement in Africa in the early 1960s, by 1970 the efforts by Black Power nationalists to support  African liberation reflected the sentiments of millions of African Americans.

Copyright © 2016 by The Schomburg Cernter for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. This excerpt originally appeared in Black Power 50 by Sylviane A. Diouf and Komozi Woodard, published by The New Press Reprinted here with permission.

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