Saturday, November 29, 2014

Six Years a Slave

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

America’s 2014 election results proved disastrous for democracy. Republican gains at the national and state levels do not bode well for an underperforming economy, commitments to equality and social justice, a decaying, even dying infrastructure, investment in education, urgent environmental aspirations, and the very idea of representation. The GOP has had one overriding goal for six years: oppose President Barack Obama, defeat his policy initiatives (unless it relates to presidential war or national security powers), and destroy him politically. The GOP’s plan was to render Obama a one-term president, but in 2012, as in 2008, it pursued an agenda and selected a candidate incapable of making it happen. 

In the aftermath of the midterm elections, expert opinion tried to decipher the results—with limited success. If a generalized anger at Washington rooted in economic concerns tended to govern the outcome, it’s not immediately clear how the Republicans did so well. They remain the party of the 1% who desire to slash budgets, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, reduce, privatize, and jeopardize what remains of the social safety net, and gut the regulatory state, thereby rendering citizens even more vulnerable to economic contingency and environmental degradation. It’s a know-nothing party that would be comical in its ideology and ignorance if it weren’t in power and thus so dangerous.

The usual explanations (Obama’s approval ratings hit historic lows; the party in power is the inevitable target of wrath; Republicans had gerrymandered the results in the House following the 2010 census; Democrats had an unusual number of Senate seats up for reelection, especially in parts of the country where they do not perform well, etc.) seem insufficient. With the exception of The New York Times’ Charles M. Blow, major media outlets generally refused to discuss a critical factor since 2008: race. Race is not just the obsession at the heart of the contemporary Republican Party. It can swing independent and undecided voters who profess anger at both parties but somehow take it out on Democrats. How dare Obama, a black man, possess the White House, winning not only election but reelection? From the beginning Republicans have deemed it necessary to put Obama in his place. For them it remains an urgent task.

Not surprisingly, Karl Rove disclosed more than he intended when pontificating on the midterm results: “The American people voted to rein in President Obama…” Rove’s image of choice, featuring a device associated with animals and employed by slave owners, is ugly, offensive, violent, and racist. Reining in Obama has informed Republican conduct for years, even though Obama is a much better Republican than any major figure in the party. He understands the limits of the market system and the support mechanisms, the checks and balances that need to be in place for it to work on its own terms rather than destroy itself. Even the reviled Affordable Care Act is a market-based solution to a social problem that benefits corporate interests, rendering the insurance industry and government partners in billion dollar revenue streams. Still, the GOP’s rallying cry to would-be voters, apparently straightforward, was coded: “If you’re not a voter, you can’t stop Obama.”

At one level the campaign message seems to refer to Administration policies despised by the GOP: financial regulations, government subsidized health care, pollution controls, consumer protection, unemployment support, social investment, and the like. At another level, however, it treats Obama as the official manifestation of a reborn country Republicans cannot abide, that is, a world in transition, a world where they no longer enjoy (or not for much longer) place of white privilege, a world of color, of plurality, of difference. Republicans would deport undocumented immigrants. They oppose same-sex marriage. They don’t think climate change is a serious problem. They believe race relations have gotten worse. Who’s responsible? Barack Obama. Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chair, states the problem and delineates the appropriate (fantasy) response in a juridical-penal language Karl Rove could endorse: “Barack Obama has our country in a ditch…The punishment is going to be broad, and it’s going to be pretty serious.”

Democrats were so fearful of any association with Obama that they not only refused to have him campaign with them. They refused to defend those of his policies that were successful. Under no circumstances would most of them be seen with the president. Thus, when Obama had the audacity to state the obvious, that while he wasn’t on the ballot all of his policies were, the GOP exploded with delight. The advertisements that followed paired Obama with Democratic candidates for maximum visual effect. The states where control of the Senate would be decided were southern and rural, most with a brutal history and legacy of institutional racism. Make Obama the issue, the (black) figure whose unpopularity exceeds any rational or self-interested explanation of it.

Democratic defeat, ironically, has emboldened a president not known for love of contestation. Republicans have been predictably furious. Obama’s executive action on immigration puts the Republicans right where they belong: having to defend a xenophobia that violates American political ideals and threatens their political future. Do they have the political courage of their regressive convictions? No. The alternative: unleash and cultivate rhetorical rage at Obama. John Boehner, presuming a political potency he does not possess, complained bitterly that Obama had destroyed any chance of a bipartisan agreement. Boehner, who had previously demanded that Obama change his attitude when dealing with the Republican-led House of Representatives, also professed concern for the integrity of the Constitution, a laughably selective concern given the Administration’s extralegal assassination of American citizens, its relentless efforts to surveil global communications, its persecution of whistle-blowers and reporters, its criminalization of investigative journalism, its torturous force-feeding of Guantanamo prisoners resisting American captivity, and its unauthorized war making in Libya and Syria (among other places).

Representative Mo Rogers of Alabama gave voice to the Republican id by proclaiming that Obama warrants not only impeachment but courts prison time if he proceeds with immigration reform through executive action. Despite initial GOP calls for restraint (do not threaten to shut down the government, e.g., a position quickly abandoned anyway), Rogers could not refuse the beautiful image of Obama behind bars, no doubt influenced by the wildly disproportionate number of blacks in America’s racial gulag.

The more Obama asserts himself—especially after an election in which he was supposedly humbled—the more impotent Republicans noticeably feel. They have no constructive initiatives to offer and Obama taunts them for it: “Pass a bill,” he tells them, if you can pass a bill I won’t veto (his not-so-subtle subtext). Senator Rob Portman of Ohio insisted the election sent a message to Washington: end the dysfunction. Well, the dysfunction, the inability to perform, plagues the Republican Party. They made it a point of pride and principle to derail Obama’s presidency, which has led to self-inflicted social and political castration. They have done nothing for years—except reduce their status and standing in American public opinion, worsening the sense of humiliation they nurture. The country has paid the price, but as Obama continued to press for bipartisanship he showed remarkable patience and resilience. He had the strength to wait for them despite their persistent irrational rejections. He’s been precisely the kind of collaborationist leader for which David Brooks absurdly calls—absurdly because Brooks can’t see what’s been in front of him all along (assuming his good faith), perhaps because he can’t see past Obama’s skin color either. Obama’s patriotic convictions enabled him to endure a politics that has centered on him for six years—and will for two more years thanks to a racially-obsessed GOP. But he knows it shouldn’t. It’s not about him. And so Obama now acts without Congress, whether on immigration reform or global climate change or domestic ozone levels or…

The Republicans think they have retaken Washington. Unfortunately for them, no one told Obama.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Anthropocene, Obama, and the Politics of Swarming

William E. Connolly
Author, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Process, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism

We are bound to the era of the Anthropocene, the roughly two hundred year period during which human extractive, productive and consumption practices have exerted so much impact upon climate that it deserves to be distinguished from the Holocene, a much longer, partially self-amplifying system of climate warming. “The Great Acceleration” started in 1950 and continues today, with exponential increases in CO2 emissions accompanied by dramatic changes in ocean and terrestrial ecosystems, the amount of land for farming, drought, increased storm intensity, great use of pesticides and fertilizers, reductions in biodiversity, and global temperature increases. 

The new announcement of a Climate Deal between China and the United States is promising. It at least takes away the argument of climate deniers that the U.S cannot act because China won’t. It can be seen, in the U.S., as an Executive response to rising domestic pressure, particularly from younger and minority constituencies a future Democratic coalition will need. 
In China, it may reflect a response to the pervasive air pollution that threatens the health of the populace. Nonetheless, this notable agreement still falls far short, especially when you realize how Anthropocene concentrations of C02 and methane gases are both accumulating rapidly and deplete at slow rates. The most promising aspect of the agreement, perhaps, is that it places debates about climate on the front burner again.
The Anthropocene shows how natural changes can occur fast periodically and then persist for millennia. Until the 1980’s most biologists, geologists and paleontologists accepted the story of natural gradualism advanced by Charles Lyell and Darwin. But then the huge asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs and many other species sixty five million years ago was identified. This meant that the study of species evolution could no longer be seen as an internal enterprise. Shortly after that other mass extinction events were tracked, including one 250 million years ago that wiped out 90% of life on earth-- perhaps triggered by a series of huge methane bursts, another 450 million years ago and another yet 200 million years ago. Each time the recovery of life, following very different tracks than before, took millions of years. Not only that, there have also been rapid shifts in climate prior to the Anthropocene, several during the last 35000 years.

These periodic punctuations may encourage us to challenge alike variants of theo-providentialism, secular notions of human mastery of nature, and gradualism in geology, paleontology and geology. They may press us to confront the fragility of things for the human estate in its multiple entanglements with other species and climate processes, calling upon us to overcome drives to cultural internalism in the humanities, sociocentrism in the human sciences, and anxious tendencies to studied indifference in the populace at large. All three express an ethos of climate evasion that lends unconscious support to climate skeptics.
The Anthropocene, then, is that period during which a radical increase in industrial pollution and CO2 emissions enters into conjunction with numerous other nonhuman, self-organizing processes already in play which, even now, we do not understand that well. We are triggering a new era of climate warming with self-amplifying powers of its own that will continue to flood numerous low lying populated areas, increase drought and other weather extremes, weaken the capacity to produce food for 7 billion people, encourage migration attempts from low lying zones, spawn reactive pressures in extractive, military states to repress those who try to immigrate, and punish third world countries that press for radical changes in our modes of production and consumption to mitigate the effects of the Anthropocene.
It is wise to remember how Obama’s executive orders can be challenged in the courts or overturned by a Republican victory in 2016. So, how to energize climate politics under these conditions? The most promising way, out of a bad lot, is to multiply sites and scales of political action through swarming movements, moving back and forth between climate centered actions in churches, work, household consumption, locality, teaching and the like, organization of new worker collectives, participation in larger climate movements, and consolidation of cross-state citizen movements. Role adjustments in the domains of church life, vehicle purchase, farm to table practices, solar panels, readjustment of retirement funds, and blog activity make a cumulative difference on their own. Even more important, though, they also prime us existentially to participate in larger collective activities. 
What else, then? If and as relays between different scales of action accumulate a new event will surely erupt, such as a devastating hurricane, a severe drought, a crisis in water supply, a series of wild fires, radical protests in third world countries against the entitlements of rich countries that produce the most carbon emissions, a radical acceleration of glacier flows, vigilante violence from the right against peaceful protesters, a dangerous deceleration of the ocean conveyor system, or a marvelous new invention that enables the rapid advance of sustainable energy to dismantle an extractionist culture. Now, to the extent movements back and forth between actions at different scales have already been in play, the stage may be set to mobilize a Cross-Country Citizen Strike. However, if swarming critical movements have not crystallized, such an event could generate proto-fascist responses in several countries. The United States is particularly susceptible. So the stakes of a swarming approach are high. 
The task is to forge a militant pluralist assemblage across countries and regions in which a future disturbing event activates large minorities in a variety of subject positions (e.g., class, age, gender, ethnicity, religious faith) to organize a Cross-Country General Strike. A bracing event is probably needed to bump the abstract belief that climate change is real into such a live intensity of action. 
Such a strike will involve withdrawal from work and travel, joined to reductions of consumption above levels needed for subsistence. The action could be enacted for, say, a four day period on the first occasion, combined with a promise to renew it if states, churches, localities, corporations, universities, banks, international agencies and other institutions do not initiate a specified series of interim actions. The responses demanded could include rapid shifts in the eco-priorities of numerous non-state institutions, the introduction of massive state and local projects to redefine the power grid, a radical reorientation of state subsidies in the infrastructure of consumption, public support for worker collectives, and media publicity to help reorient the public ethos of investment and consumption. A Cross-Country General Strike thus draws upon the momentum of swarming movements to press states, corporations and numerous other institutions to redefine their priorities more rapidly and radically. It can draw selective inspiration from creative movements in the past such as that for women’s suffrage in the 1920s, the 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan that helped to consolidate the American labor movement, Tiannamen Square, several instantiations of the civil rights movement, multi-role experiments and institutional pressures emanating from the LGBT movement, the cross-country divestment movement against apartheid, the Gandhian drive to free India, the widespread student and faculty strikes after the Kent State shootings in May, 1970, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement. 
Multi-modal preparations, a dramatic event, a Cross-Country Citizen Strike, stringent interim demands. In the spring of 1972, 1300 students and faculty in western Massachusetts enacted an illegal sit down strike at Westover Air force base to protest a new escalation of the Vietnam War by Richard Nixon. Most participants had actively protested the war earlier, but the escalation inflamed us as it did numerous other constituencies inside and outside the United States. The question now was not whether to escalate our action but whether we were wise enough to do so in ways that would not backfire. The militant actions taken there and elsewhere rattled authorities and helped to turn the tide of public opinion against the war. 
With respect to the Anthropocene, such a strike will involve a host of loosely coordinated constituencies acting in several countries at the same time. If the combination of massive publicity about climate volatility, an escalation of social movements already underway, and a new event coalesce to set the stage, such loosely coordinated actions could hold considerable promise. If major states face critical action both inside and outside their borders that will help to weaken their punitive drives. The idea is to mobilize millions of people so that employers and states will have to think twice or three times before firing or imprisoning strikers. Work in advance to publicize how our side will avoid violence, remembering how many on the other side are eager to accuse you of violence to demoralize, isolate, arrest, beat or kill you. They have the guns, media, military, judges, and many university presidents to draw upon to defeat and demoralize you if your numbers are small and your strategy is unwise. Macho tactics are thus not the thing here, but concerted, inspired action to dramatize the issue, to press multiple institutions, and to move the undecided.
Let us agree in advance that a Cross-Country Strike is, well, improbable. The odds are low that a sufficient number of strategically located constituencies, institutions and individuals will heed the call in time. Nonetheless, it is wise to bypass crackpot realism on such a critical issue. The most pertinent question is whether a strike can become a live possibility that speaks to an urgent need of the time. The fact is that the need is sharp, time is short, and powerful drives to delay and deny are built into regular political processes. The task is thus to help people heed the danger, hear the call, and intensify ties to the future. If a swarming approach promotes the needed actions without a strike so much the better. But don’t bet too much on that.
 One problem with a multi-state, pluralizing, swarming approach is that it may take too long to issue in a General Strike. That is a severe danger in a world of tragic possibility in which nature is not providential and there is no guarantee that the need for action will be met in time. Moreover, if or when a Strike does become timely uncertainty will still remain high. Such uncertainty is essentially embedded in the nature of democratic tipping points, as the examples listed earlier indicate. Nonetheless, even those dangers and uncertainties are not as severe as the slow burn of unattended climate change, with its differential acceleration of suffering, forced migrations, border panic, and escalations of military violence. To paraphrase a great thinker, the task of life is to become worthy of the events we encounter. Ours is the Anthropocene.

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