I don't pay much attention to politics these days, but I heard an interview with Michael Moore on Democracy Now last week that got me to thinking more deeply about some things. For all of the faults one can find with his movies - they tend to be rants that lack sustained coherence -he's such a sharp guy and a real hero, in my opinion. I have nothing but respect for him. Listening to him discuss the implications of the midterm elections was fascinating and steered my mind back into areas I've avoided for quite some time now. My thoughts are still pretty rough, and none of them are especially original, but the big question for me is how we've gotten to the political juncture we're at today in the US. How is it that corporate money has so completely corrupted both political parties? Why is it that President Obama seems to care so much about appeasing the right when he could not have been elected without an energized progressive coalition? The cynical answer - and, by the way, the largely correct answer - is that he's banking on progressives having nowhere else to turn when we get to the 2012 re-election campaign. But this begs another question: Why is there no real progressive alternative to the triangulations of the Democratic party? This is a variation on the question Werner Sombart posed more than 100 years ago in his classic, Why is there No Socialism in the United States? He pointed to a number of historical conditions as proximate causes - the absence of a feudal past and thus the weakness of class consciousness in American history; the availability of land on the western frontier, which turned would-be workers into independent proprietors with a stake in markets and capitalism; the divisive effects of slavery and its aftermath within the ranks of American workers; ethnic and national divisions due to the the absorption of immigrants from Europe; and so on and so forth. Sombart constructs a perfect storm in terms of the making of a relatively conservative working class. All of which is well and good, but the U.S. has nevertheless had periods of genuinely progressive upheaval in the face of crises and unsustainable social conditions. How did the Progressive Era occur starting at the end of the 19th Century as a response to the staggering inequities of the Gilded Age? How did the New Deal happen in response to the Great Depression? And if these progressive periods could occur in an American historical context that would otherwise seem to militate against them, what is preventing a similar progressive period from happening today? The conditions are certainly in place, are they not? The economy has crashed and is likely to stagnate indefinitely. Unemployment is high and showing no signs of coming back to earth. America is stuck in two unwinnable wars. Many of the largest states and municipalities in the country are more or less bankrupt. A quasi-authoritarian movement is ascendant in the form of the Tea Party. The concentration of wealth at the very top is becoming more obscene, and levels of inequality today have not been seen since the 1920s... If ever there was a time for progressives to be fired up about making fundamental societal changes, it should be right now. And yet, the left is completely disorganized and dispirited, while the right is talking about more of the same laissez faire tax cuts and deregulation that caused all the problems we face today. I've had my head in the sand for months now because looking at newspapers and watching the news on TV is just too damn depressing and scary. The level of debate and conversation is utterly infantile. It upsets me. I can't take it. I'd rather drink some wine, smoke a little doobie wah, and pretend like it's not happening. But it is happening, and it'll only get worse if people like me - educated, concerned, humane people - don't get involved. But how does one get involved? What does one do? I can't face the prospect of phone banking for MoveOn or of holding some kind of potluck at my house to raise money. I don't want those fucking people in my house, freaking out my cats, tracking their dirt all over my nice hardwood floors. Isn't there something else I can do that doesn't involve spending lots of money and/or interacting with the public? I guess there isn't, really. Maybe I'm not the right person for the job. I'd rather think in broad generalities and report my brilliance here on my blog, even though nobody reads it... So getting back to the initial question, what is missing today that existed at the turn of the 20th Century and again in the 1930s? The only answer that makes any sense to me is a strong union movement. A quick check of the facts reveals the following: In 1953, more than one-third of the American workforce (35.7%) was unionized. In 2008, only a little more than one in ten American workers were unionized. Between 1983 and 2008, the level of workforce unionization in the U.S. dropped from about 20% to 12%. There's no organized political force in place to pressure the Democratic party and hold Obama's feet to the fire. In order for anything drastic to happen, someone or something will have to encourage and facilitate unionization. I don't know who or what it will be - maybe another even more cataclysmic crash? - but it's the only way I can see things really changing in a meaningful way. ...When I was a graduate student I read a great essay by Claus Offe about one of the fundamental structural differences between capitalists and workers. Capitalists, Offe argues, have a built in means of coherent organization simply by virtue of being capitalists and being governed by nothing other than profits. The profit motive places them fundamentally at odds with workers. Workers don't have this built-in structural advantage. Their interests are at odds with those of their employers, but only to a certain degree because if capitalists don't achieve profits they shed workers. So from the point of view of the worker, which is it? Should they be anti-capitalist? Should they be pro-capitalist Or should they somehow straddle the divide? The ambiguity of working class interests necessitates voluntary organization and political struggle within the class itself. The intra-class struggle within the class struggle, as my dissertation advisor used to call it. Unions have traditionally been the organizations carrying out this dual struggle. Without unions, workers don't know what their interests are beyond doing what their told to do and keeping their jobs. This to me is the situation we find ourselves in today. There is no coherent working class in America. The political landscape, along with the culture and all other aspects of the public sphere, are completely and totally dominated by the corporations. To the extent that workers even reflect on their interests, they assume them to be identical to corporate interests. And as they become increasingly exploited and alienated and scared, there's no organization in place to help them both articulate and understand why their lives are so fucking hard. They have no real way of developing class based solidarity with other workers So they find answers to their questions in a media edifice that presents the corporate point of view as self-evident, and they find a modicum of self-esteem in religious fairy tales, gun ownership, and feelings of superiority over the Other. ...There are those who will say that voting is the way to make change, and if you don't vote you can't complain. This line of reasoning was always simplistic, but it's never been a more asinine thing to say than it is today. Voting really doesn't matter much when the choice is between two parties completely beholden to the corporations. Of course Obama has moved to the right. Should we really be surprised? There's nothing pulling him in the other direction. Voting will only matter when the workers in this country begin to get organized again, and who knows whether, when or how that will happen?