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Friday, July 27, 2018

Back to Basics

Spence and I are taking a summer institute at Montgomery College entitled Political Philosophy and Democracy.  A good refresher in these Dark Times

The readings for the first day are from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, and Giles of Rome. My mentor Hannah Arendt in her political thinking referred often to these works to comment on the problems of our own American democracy. The main problem is the collapsing and disordering of private and public realms, i.e. the economy and politics. Other problems that follow this one are truth in politics, politics and violence, politics and culture (including art and religion), politics and labor, and politics and democracy.

The ancients were using observation, thinking, and dialogue or reason in their own historical situation or context, but still have important lessons for us moderns.  They certainly influenced the European Renaissance, the resulting Enlightenment, into modern life, culture, and the political economy. Here are some excerpts from the Politics of Aristotle that are most relevant in our Dark Times.

The city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and man is by nature a political animal.
The household is the community constituted by nature for the needs of daily life.
The first community arising from several households and for the sake of non-daily needs is the village. By nature the village seems to be above all an extension of the household.
The complete community arising from several villages, is the city. It reaches a level of full self-sufficiency, so to speak; and while coming into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well.
The city is thus prior by nature to the household and to each of us. For the whole must of necessity be prior to the part.
All communities aim at some good, and that the community that is most authoritative of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political community.

Polis is the Greek name for city, state, political community. It is the place where a human person can achieve and exercise the highest of values: power or, as Arendt defines it, "the ability to act in concert." It is also where a person can pursue and realize the greatest of happiness: public happiness. That is the top rung of Aristotle's and Arendt's hierarchy of needs (pace Mazlow). Mine too.

Economia or economy is the Greek name for household. It is the place where humans secure their basic needs to live. It is the place of private ownership, i.e. property for shelter, security, health, and the production of goods to consume and to market.  It is the place for the management and exchange of goods for life. It is also the place for having and raising children for the continuation of the family and the species. 

Two realms: private and public, each required by the other. Reduce one and reduce the other. The purpose of economy is living and so fulfilling the needs of the organism. It is the realm of necessity.  The purpose of politics is living well and so fulfilling the highest desires of the soul, wisdom, respect, meaning. It is the realm of freedom. In my parlance, "liberty" is the freeing from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. 

Of course, in ancient Greece and Rome and carried down into modern times, barbarians, slaves, women, and children belonged to the household concerned only with the needs of living. Only the freemen, their needs taken care of, could enjoy the public space where the decisions about the city were made, its boundaries, its protection, its monuments, its academies, and its markets. 

According to Aristotle, this distinction of household and city is based on nature in the human capacity to speak, or in modern scientific terms, in the evolution of the organism for symbolic communication and collaboration. This is what defines the human species, unlike all other known species, as a political animal. This distinction and maintaining the priority of polis over household, politics over economy is fundamental. It underlies the problem of our dark times where political freedom is subordinate to economic desires, public welfare to the wealth of the few. 

Next:  How this disorder can be rectified.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Democratic Socialism

Lately we hear candidates within the Democratic Party claiming to be “democratic socialists.” Because of the failure of Communism and the national and international Communist Party which claimed to be socialist, fear is being spread by some Republicans, Democrats, and their pundits that the defeat of oligarchic and plutocratic capitalism by democratic socialism (or “progressives”) would plunge America and the World into Stalinism or Fascism (remember that Nazis were “national socialists”). 

I have always been an admirer of Michael Harrington and read almost all his books. He founded the Democratic Socialists of America as a non-profit, non-governmental, non-party association of people striving for a more social justice-oriented America. You can check the DSA website to understand what they mean by democratic socialism.  But I consider myself a democratic socialist (at least in the economic realm) and will say what I mean as I am growing in my understanding. 

Primarily, I believe that a democratic socialist is a person who advocates and practices the politics of a democratic republic, a politics which promotes its principles and goals for society including the economy and its institutions.  These goals our American democratic republic has named “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “liberty and justice for all.”

Democratic socialism is not anti-business, anti-trade, or anti-corporation. Businesses and corporations are great inventions of humankind to grow the economy of the nations of the world, to create what is needed for the increase in the quantity and quality of life for all people. But for that they must be subservient to the principles, values, and rules of the democratic republic. Democratic socialism does NOT mean that government should administer, rule, manage, or own the means of production--except when necessary to ensure that the means of production, including finance, is working for the good of all persons and society as a whole. 

Politics is not to be identified with government. Just as businesses and corporations are the primary institutions of the private sector, government and its agencies are the primary institutions of the public sector. Government in a democratic republic ensures that democratic mechanisms are in place to safeguard not only profits for workers and investors, but also responsibility to society and ecological sustainability. 

Democratic government supports and protects privacy, including personal bodies, property, health and private rights of individuals to pursue personal happiness.  Democratic government protects and supports the public realm, the commons, the open, inclusive spaces where citizens gather, debate, and act in order to pursue public happiness. The public establishes the rules of democratic government to set the limits and boundaries of private, corporate, and governmental institutions so they do not infringe on others and on the rights and happiness of the public.

Democratic politics needs to ensure that all institutions, public and private, are run equitably and fairly for all and promote the public good. There are many strategies, programs, mechanisms, platforms to achieve the correct relationships of public and private, of government and corporation, and of politics with the economy and culture. 

In democratic socialism there is no overarching socialist program, no revelation of the perfect society, no system of ideas (ideology) that is absolute, inevitable, or even correct for all times and places. The overall strategy of the democratic socialist movement is through popular politics (voluntary organizations of residents and workers) to remove structural economic, cultural, and political obstacles to, and guarantee the possibilities for, a social order in which every person has the ability to achieve personal and public happiness. Democratic socialism is not compatible with plutocracy, oligarchy, and authoritarianism.  Nor is it compatible with violence, cruelty, and oppression which turns persons into commodities.

Democratic socialists are progressives in that they recognize that, while no human society has rid itself of all the obstacles and created the means for a totally just society, it is a work in progress. Progress is not guaranteed by History, Science, or God. It is only furthered by the speech and actions of human beings in history, through critical thinking, with values and beliefs that give meaning to their personal and public existence.

And so, we start where and when we are here and now.  We engage others, neighbors and strangers. We feel when and where they are suffering. We work with them to remove the causes of our suffering (especially cruelty, violence, oppression) and create the means for personal and public happiness. No grand plan, no conclusive theory, no enduring ideology—even those are works in progress.

Democratic socialism is a commitment to the future of human beings individually and socially.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Organizing is disorganizing

"All organizing is disorganizing," Alinsky told his young organizers and their community leaders.

If you are in a neighborhood or a city or a country where the order of relationships among residents or citizens is such that some can have life, liberty, and can pursue personal and public happiness and some can not, then the way that community, city, country is ordered needs to be changed. The "cannots" have to organize themselves and change the order of things so that they can be "cans." In organizing themselves, the "cannots" welcome assistance from some of the "cans" who identify with them and their suffering, but the "cannots" themselves need to do it and lead it.

I remember in Chicago living and working in black ghettos becoming slums (first in public housing and then in private housing). And I only began to understand why after many months of talking with residents and with others who helped me understand how the social order of Chicago worked for a few but not for many--both black and white.  That order of things ("res" in Latin) had to be changed radically, i.e. at its institutional roots. How?  By building a public, a res publica, an open place where all could see the hidden patterns of behavior and what they were doing to people.

Only through speech and action in public did the stories of the people and the policies and practices of the social order come to light. By organizing the "cannots"into action the hidden, private behaviors of institutions and the people who headed them became public along with the laws that legitimized them and the religions that blessed them. The studies and experts helped--but it was the people going public that changed the game and its rules.

In following up the footnote to my last post, I want to thank Mr. Trump and his loyal acolytes. In trying to understand how this "wreck of a man," as staunch conservative George Will called him, became President, we have been forced to uncover the habitual patterns of thinking and behavior, supported by Republican and Democratic Parties, that made him possible.

I thank Mr Trump for calling attention to the BLOB (look it up!) who have committed us to neoconservative foreign policy from Yale and neoliberal economic policy from U of Chicago. Even though he is not changing but reenforcing those policies.

I am grateful to realize that I myself am among the "cannots" who feel so powerless in this national and world order today.

But now that we can see the hidden patterns of our rulers and their results, perhaps we "cannots" will organize ourselves as "yes, we cans" and reorganize ourselves to Lincoln's new birth of freedom. It will take a lot of organizing and a lot of action, much tension and conflict probably extending way beyond my death. The oligarchs running the new world order won't go softly into the night. But I take solace in seeing some light.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

What! Is Trump right about Putin?

I've been reading a series of interviews of Paul Jay with Professor Alexandr Buzgalin who teaches political economy and is Director of the Center for Modern Marxist Studies at Moscow State University. 

What I have been learning is the role that the US under the influence of American and European capitalists and the new world order intelligentsia won the Cold War with the Soviet Union as its brand of bureaucratic anti-democratic one-party controlling state-socialism collapsed under its own internal contradictions. 

These contradictions came to a head under Gorbachov's reforms and led to mass dissent and disorder. Yeltsin, the chair of the Russian republic, took the reins of power with the support by the leaders of the industries and resources previously owned by the state. They bought and privatized the previous state-owned industries for a dime to a dollar (financed by Western banks) and became billionaires overnight. They are the famed Russian oligarchs who took over before the American oligarchs got there to act fire the spoils. 

Professor Buzgalin said that the oligarchs smartly developed agreements among themselves like barons of a feudal system and chose a king to enforce their rules. Putin, hired by Yeltsin, is not so much a Czar, but a feudal king who administers a plutocracy with the trappings of a democratic socialist state. This system has led to an increased standard of living for the general populace as measured by the enhanced ability to consume.  More consumer products are available in supermarkets, car and TV stores, and vodka shops. 

This is not to say that Putin has no power.  He has tremendous power. But it is based on the oligarchs and his ability to manage them and for them. Like a good executive director, he is also the avenue to the oligarchs, who, like the American oligarchs, want stability and profit in the new order. 

Trump, who is a wannabe oligarch and who has been trying to get into the world system of oligarchs, is right to make nice to Putin. He now finds himself in a great position to do so. And to whose profit?

Both the people of the US and of Russia, of course!! We will do so much better, when the oligarchs of both countries and their international financial institutions do better. 


A postscript in line with my previous posts:  Is this moment of focus on Putin and Trump and the "new world order," facilitated by both Republic and Democratic Party foreign and domestic policy to save capitalism, an opportunity for us grunts in the work force and welfare system to understand what is really going on and make some different choices? 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Israel is no longer a democracy

The Knesset just passed a bill with constitutional weight that revokes Israel's status as a democratic republic.

Many nations, including our own American, affirm the basic principles of a democratic republic, yet life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are aspirational at most.  But yet they are aspirational at least. One of those principles, according to Jefferson and the other founders, is freedom of and from religion. All men are created equal despite their belief systems and should be afforded the full rights of humanity. The republic is not founded on culture, religion, ethnicity, race, but on the free right to assemble, speak, and act to govern themselves in a way that affords all persons that right. A citizen is a resident who affirms and exercises that right.

The US negated itself as a democratic republic by the Naturalization Act that restricted the vote to white men and then most dramatically by the Dred Scott decision.  These acts denied not only the reality, but also the aspiration for being a democratic republic. The aspiration of government of, by, and for the people was restored by Lincoln's Republican government and then slowly began to be realized by the Abolition, the Women's, the Labor, and the Civil Rights Movements.

The Knesset just passed the Nationality Act making Israel a Jewish State--defined by ethnicity, culture, and religion. This is similar to Ferdinand and Isabella declaring Spain a Roman Catholic State and enforcing it through the Inquisition. Muslims and Jews, no matter their contribution to the nation, must either leave or become Catholic Christians. All in contrast to the Protestant enlightened Nordic nations which were taking then first steps to becoming democratic republics and to which fled the Jewish people who could.

I know so many Jews and Jewish organizations who oppose this horrible Israeli Act. I commiserate with them. Like the Dred Scott decision in the US, it violates the very principles on which the State of Israel was created by their idealistic socialist founders. The Nationality Act, besides adopting the menorah as the state symbol, Hebrew as the official language, and the right of Jews from the Diaspora to settle there, proclaims that Israel will govern itself as a democracy. However, it negates itself as a democracy in the very act.

Some white supremacists linked to Christian evangelicals are now urging that the US declare itself a Christian country. The Trump administration besides restricting new immigrants are deporting naturalized immigrants. Americans, Jews and Gentiles, should condemn these acts in the US and in Israel.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Liberal or progressive?

What’s in a Name?

Words are ambiguous and ambivalent. That’s their nature as symbols and as figures of speech for thoughts which are essentially analogies. The same word often has many different meanings that become clearer when we consider the word in context and from the point of view of the speaker or many of them. This is why we often disparage semantic discussions as “splitting hairs.” 

A recent article in the WP by Greg Weiner, a professor of political science who distinguishes “liberals” from “progressives,” seems to be splitting hairs.  Yet I find that the discussion may be illustrative to clarify one’s position in or towards politics. It may even get us to avoid using names for people as though that the name says it all when we really don’t know what we are talking about. 

The professor wants to support liberals over progressives. I am just the contrary.  But if we were to discuss it, we might find that we have different usages for those words based on different life experiences and conversations.  

The same I suggest is true for many of the names we call each other that often abstract us from a conversation about who we are, what we want, and how we might work together. To me, for instance, “radical” is a good word, better than progressive, except when it means extreme, e.g. “going too far” or sacrificing persons for principles. “Conservative” to me is a good word meaning learning from the past, conservation of nature, and defending institutions of personal and social growth (like democracy). But not when it means refusal to listen, to question, or to change. Not when it means using status or class, culture and economics, to judge and segregate persons. And not when it means reactionary intolerance.

That points to another strange thing about names. They reveal and conceal at the same time. When we call persons or things names we put them into categories that make them similar without attending to difference and uniqueness. That’s why we need to keep speaking without pretending that we know or have the truth, with faith that we can converge upon knowing and truth in our speaking, listening, and acting together. And that's what I call real politics.

Professor Weiner teaches that progressives are liberals who have gone too far. He accuses them of adhering to the ideology of progressivism that states that everything, persons, the world, the universe, history itself is and will inevitably advance. I am reminded of the slogan of the Detroit Edison Company when I was a boy after World War II: “Every day in every way we get better and better.”

“Liberal” in a social context in America today means someone who wants to help others and especially those who have been left out of the development of the potentials of their full humanity.  They are called enablers or “do-gooders” by self-labeled conservatives. I remember my mentor Saul Alinsky disdaining liberals as good talkers for social justice without doing anything substantive about it. They saved people from drowning in the river without going upstream to stop who or what was throwing them in. And they left people powerless to take responsibility for themselves.

“Liberal” in an economic context means a completely free market. A market where goods are made, priced, sold, and consumed without any interference—especially by government dominated by “liberals.” They argue for free and open competition through which the invisible hand will do its magic neglecting that the wealthiest through wit, luck, or inheritance dominate the market and its rules. 

Social and economic liberalism came together in the two major American parties where there was a firm commitment to representative democracy and moderately regulated capitalism under FDR and carried forward through Nixon. But that alliance has been breaking down since Reagan who opted for unrestricting corporations and restricting welfare. In general, especially after Nixon’s Southern strategy, Democrats became the party of social liberals focusing on inclusion of those being “left out” because of their identity (racial, cultural, sexual, immigrant) and wealth. Republicans have been the party of economic liberals claiming that all persons will prosper when wealth multiplies wealth even if there is greater divergence in wealth. 

I rather call myself progressive, than liberal, because of my work with Alinskyites and also because conservatives, which I am when it comes to democratic institutions and civil society, have so tainted the word—remember GHW Bush’s sarcasm towards the “L-word.” And there is the Tea Party and their demonization of liberals.

To be a progressive is to cut across the conservative-liberal, left-right split. While progressives espouse liberal education which embraces science, free-thinking, art, and the questioning of all belief systems, they also believe that through an examined life and concerted action they can make the world and humanity better. And they take on the responsibility to do just that.

Progressives today (unlike some ideological progressives earlier) do not believe in inevitability. I cringe when I hear people say "being on the right side of history.”  Only old predestination Calvinists, Marx-misunderstanding communists, deterministic faux scientists, apocalyptic evangelicals, free market ideologues, and maybe some depressed Taoists keep the remnants of that disempowering rhetoric. Not today's progressives. 

Naming, shaming, and blaming in Twitter sized blasts is the opposite of civility, makes public service a scam, and impedes citizen action. That is the antitheses of citizenship and civil society. It induces the fear and hate of the other through which violence springs. Whatever you call yourself or label me, may I, by listening to your story, discover your visions, dreams, and ideals and with you find and expand the hidden power in us? 

We have a future together. Not alone. Not in enmity. That's the belief of a progressive person or nation. Yes, we must rid ourselves of the obstacles that hold us back--that's the meaning of liberty.
But we must also engage with each other to create a space for all of us--that's the meaning of freedom. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

DeNaturalizing Trump

Trump Administration Is Forming a Denaturalization Task Force With the Power to Repeal Citizenship

By WNYC 05 July 18

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is creating a new task force. Its goal: to examine what they say are bad naturalization cases, according to Director L. Francis Cissna’s June announcement.

As a result, the organization expects to hire dozens of lawyers and immigration officers in the coming weeks to find U.S. citizens they say should not have been naturalized, to revoke their citizenship, and then eventually deport them.


I have argued before that the marks of the citizen (L. civis) are 1) civil language and behavior in public 2) civil service, e.g. helping out your neighbors in need, and 3) civil i.e. speech and action in concert for a better society.

By all these measures, many so-called illegals are citizens. By all these measures, Trump should lose his citizenship.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Spirituality and Politics (once more)

In our search to understand what has been happening in America in the Trumpian dark age and how to combat it personally and collectively, our book club decided to read Bob Kuttner's Book, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism. I went to hear him discuss his book a few days ago. Of all I've read and heard, his is the clearest explanation of how we got here and the challenge we have to mend the torn social fabric that Trumpism represents and rouses but has not caused. 

Here are some of my takeaways which I reported to my book club:

1) The answer to the question of Kuttner's book is “no.” The economy must be subject to the rules of democracy. No to the globalization of capitalism. Yes, to world community and trade treaties of nation states. But trade treaties that support democratic goals of equality. 

2) The social contract created after WW2 (New Deal, Bretton Woods) gradually broken starting in the 70s can be restored in the 20s.  Kuttner is generally optimistic that the circumstances are becoming right for a new taking of power by people to restore the rules that puts democratic governance over economic development. 

3) Trump and far-right parties are using the results of the breakdown of social contract (freedom of banks and corporations) to foster in workers, who are losing in an economy rigged for capital controllers, resentment against immigrants, welfare, the poor, and themselves. 

4) Labor is reorganizing and key to making change. Obviously we need a new progressive president (Bernie, Warren, Sherrod) with a strongly progressive party which means new progressives must take over the Democratic Party locally and he sees this happening. 

5) Civil society organizing (e.g. community organizing) is limited because although they talk power, they don’t aggregate power.  He thinks CO’s fragment because they go after the same funders and institutions and have to prove that they are better than each other. 

6) Kuttner believes that we have our priorities wrong when lifting up cultural identity issues (e.g. abortion, homosexuality, race, religion) before economic bread and butter issues. "If people feel they are getting a fair shake and have some hope in the rules of the economic system, they will cut you some slack on the cultural issues."

7) Kuttner articulates the problem and solution primarily in terms of political power. Those left out needf Through solidarity and organizing. I totally agree.  The how (strategy) depends on time, place, circumstances, the accidents of history

Democratic governance (e.g. liberty and justice for all) should direct the economy and culture. The public realm over the private realm, as Arendt said. Distinct yet entangled--because you can't have one without the other. The public good is the greater good. Politics is both an extension and a higher realm than ethics

I am also considering another level of analysis—e.g. spiritual, i.e. soul, shared humanity in process, recognition of human dignity in all. Shared suffering, as Rorty and John of the Cross say, is the basis of solidarity. Especially among the working poor and disrespected (whether by economic class or cultural status). Empathy/compassion with others, feeling their pain, is at the same time a recognition of union and incites the ability to speak and act together.  Whatever you call it: soul, humanity, spark of divine, dignity. 

I do believe we are entering a dark night of the American soul and perhaps of the soul of humanity. The economic path we now take is leading to ecological ruin, the inundation of many populated lands and the destruction of millions of people. It is restricting the greatest capacity of humanity for self-government, collaborative survival, and social justice. Most of us know better but are blinded by the fear of others and appeals to self-aggrandizement.

We humans, once we attained the ability to think, have been between the demons and the angels within us. And we have experienced both the fall and the rise of human progress. But now in the Trumpian Age we are slipping into the dark age where might is right, wealth rules, and the many have become irrelevant--used by the mighty and the wealthy for their purposes. 

The dark night for John of the Cross is an opportunity to pass to a new level of insight and action. It humbles and humanizes by casting us to the ground, the humus, where we realize that we cannot thrive, much less survive, alone. Like Alcoholics Anonymous counsels the addicted who have reached the bottom, we are directed to reach up to a higher power. As a humanist and community organizer, I call this higher power the public, we the people, those who gather to speak and act to generate a space of freedom.  In religious language that space of freedom is the “people of God,” people who gather and act in hope for the future of all humankind.

The spiritual dimension of politics is the hope that transcends us from the fear and hatred of neighbors and strangers. It radicalizes our politics by uprooting the structures, values, and habits of American global capitalism that put us in darkness. As my radical friends always sign off: “keep the faith” and “keep up the struggle.”