Chomsky and Hero Worship

Micah Timothy Holmquist micahth at
Sun Oct 11 10:57:35 PDT 1998

On Sat, 10 Oct 1998, Peter Kilander wrote:

> know whether to believe it. Ehrenreich has recently said that with the
> ending of welfare, the state no longer deserves any support.

When I first read this my reaction was that Ehrenreich's (could anybody tell me how to pronounce that?) argument was a bit different and was more along the lines of it was mistake to have been such staunch advocates of the government all along. Rereading the piece which she wrote for the NATION made it clear that she expressed some confusion on this point. Their is a degree of it was wrong to support the government so staunchly but there is also the idea that the government has changed dramatically in recent years. "While government does less and less for us, it does more and more to us" is a quote from the article which pretty much somes up the latter point.

I have pasted the NATION article for reference. In my mind it shows a great deal of the confusion currently being faced by the DSA scene. Oh it is from the November 17, 1997 issue.


When Government Gets Mean: Confessions of a Recovering Statist

By Barbara Ehrenreich

This essay continues our "First Principles" series, dedicated to thinking anew about fundamental beliefs that might build toward a progressive majority. Previously contributing were Jeff Faux and Paul Wellstone (April 14) and Ira Katznelson (July 14). Here, Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that the left "move beyond our emotional co-dependency on government," in part by creating a network of "alternative services" for the poor as the "cultural core" of a new political movement. --The Editors

Call this the confessions of a recovering statist--at least that's how the right will probably view it. In the past fifteen or so years, I've ended hundreds of speeches with the words "cut military spending and expand social spending," or some euphonious version thereof, implicitly identifying government as the only appropriate focus for activism. In these predilections I have hardly been alone: Progressivism is almost defined, in our times, by its advocacy of an "activist government."

A couple of decades ago, it made sense to pin our hopes on the federal government as a positive instrument for social change. In the sixties and seventies--pressured by the civil rights movement, the nascent feminist movement and a still-muscular labor movement--the federal government expanded both its economic protections and its guarantees of civil liberties. We gained, in little more than a decade, Medicare and Medicaid, workplace safety and environmental regulations, cost-of-living increases in Social Security and laws against race- and sex-based discrimination, as well as the right to birth control and abortion. To many of us who came together in the early eighties to form the Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, it seemed possible that we would achieve our goal of an economically socialist and socially libertarian society by building on the programs and guarantees already offered by the federal government. At the very least, that government seemed to embody, in however imperfect a form, some defense against corporate banditry.

So when a populist right emerged to challenge "big government" and the legitimacy of government-based reforms in general, we valiantly leapt to its defense. At the time, this seemed like the only reasonable and principled response: We knew the right was not so much "against government" as it was against the meager protections government provides for the low- and middle-income majority. But ineluctably we, the erstwhile radicals, became far better defenders of government than any of its elected functionaries. As the right escalated its attacks, we escalated our defense, to the point, all too often, of seeming to abandon our own antistatist tradition and critiques of existing government programs. I realized how much our image had changed--from "radical" to "defenders of government"--in discussions with some of the rural right-wingers I regularly talk to. To my surprise, they were surprised to discover that I share their outrage over random drug searches and similar intrusions: It was their impression that "liberals" thought the government could do no wrong!

I'm not sure whether we should have responded differently to the right's antigovernment rhetoric from the start. But surely today, after nearly two decades of conservative national governance, Reagan through Clinton, we can no longer let progressivism be understood as the defense of government--this government anyway--against the antigovernment forces of the right. The federal government of 1997 is a very different creature from that of, say, 1977--more egregiously corrupt and sycophantic toward wealth, more glaringly repressive and even less responsive to the needs of low- and middle-income people. By setting ourselves up as the defenders of government (or, colloquially speaking, "big government") against the neo-anarchists of the right, progressives have boxed themselves into a pragmatically and morally untenable position.

Pragmatically, the problem is that hardly anyone out there wants to hear about more government or bigger government. Even the constituency for better government is tepid: Witness the non-response to our current campaign finance scandals. It is, unfortunately, the federal government--long favored by the left because of its relative ability to rise above the racism and corporate caprices that typically dominate the statehouses--that has been the most thoroughly discredited as a potential agency of positive change. Maybe that will change--as, for example, people notice that it is the federal government and not the Chamber of Commerce that tends to organize disaster relief and that has brought us such innovations as the Internet. But for the time being, we're not going to get anywhere with a progressive agenda consisting of wonderful new government initiatives. Believe me, I have tried, and found again and again that the enthusiasm for, say, national health insurance or stricter environmental regulation quickly ebbs when I point out that the only source of such improvements is likely to be the federal government. Socialism is, of course, completely out of the question as long as it is conceived as a hypertrophied version of the government we now have, or, in the paranoid fantasy of the populist right, Hillary running everything.

Americans did not always hate their government. The proportion who say they "trust the government in Washington" only "some of the time" or "none of the time" has shot up only recently, rising from 30 percent to 70 percent just in the years between 1966 and 1992. We usually explain this shift in outlook as a brilliant propaganda coup for the right, which, by the mid-seventies, was raking in enough corporate money to create a lush intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and new media outlets. We understand that racism also played its part in the turn against government, helping foster the peculiar perception that people of color have been the chief, if not the sole, beneficiaries of government activism. But we also should understand that the discrediting of government was not accomplished solely through propaganda and prejudice: There are legitimate grounds for distrusting government, and these grounds have been expanding. Through its power over the government it professes to hate, the right has put itself in a position to create a government that is ever more deserving of hatred.

It is, first of all, a government that offers far too little to its average citizens. Thanks to the efforts of the right over the past several decades and especially the past decade and a half, we have a government that does not provide the kinds of services that, in other nations, have helped create a mass constituency for government activism--things like universal health insurance, child care, college tuition, paid parental leave and a reliable safety net. In fact, middle-class, non-elderly Americans encounter their government chiefly in the form of petty-minded bureaucracies like the I.R.S. and the D.M.V. Hence the vicious cycle that has been powering the rightward march of U.S. politics: The less the government does for us, the easier it is to believe the right's antigovernment propaganda; and the more we believe it, the less likely we are to vote for anyone who might use government to actually improve our lives.

The result has been a near-total ideological roadblock for the left. We say "Child care! Health care!" and all the rest, and they say, "Aha, you mean more government!" End of discussion. We have no trouble imagining the kind of polity and social protections we would like, but one of the most venerable instruments for achieving them--government--has been ruled out of order by the ideologues of the right. Now we could of course doggedly continue our defense of government activism against the celebrants of the "free market" economy--pointing out, for example, that government still offers some useful things like Medicare and Head Start, that taxes are actually quite low here compared with other nations, that it is still, despite the ever-tightening rule of wealth, in some vague sense "our" government.

But there is another reason we can no longer let progressivism be defined as the defense of government activism, and this is a moral one. While government does less and less for us, it does more and more to us. The right points to the appalling firebombing at Waco; we should be just as noisily indignant about the ongoing police war against low-income Americans of color, not to mention teenagers, immigrants and other designated misfits. If there is any handy measure of a government's repressiveness, it is the proportion of its citizenry who are incarcerated, and at least by this measure the United States leads the world. Furthermore, prison conditions in this country are steadily worsening: Children are incarcerated with adults; efforts at rehabilitation are being discarded as overly indulgent amenities; arbitrary brutality and systematic deprivation are common. We don't, in other words, have a soft, cuddly government of the kind that could be derided as a "nanny state." We have a huge and heavily armed cop.

So government has not been shrinking, as promised, on the Clinton-Gingrich watch. Only the helpful functions of government are shrinking, while the repressive ones are expanding without foreseeable limit and increasingly threaten all Americans. Clinton, in particular, has revealed a boundless appetite for surveillance in the name of the drug war and antiterrorism--proposing, at various times, drug tests for young people seeking driver's licenses, government-accessible "clipper chips" within our PCs and the examination of air travelers' life histories for "suspicious travel patterns." Anthony Lewis has concluded that Bill Clinton "has the worst civil liberties record of any President in at least 60 years." He also has the most flamboyant record--surpassing even Reagan's--for the destruction of government services.

We are not yet a police state, of course. You may disagree with me as to how far we have gone in that direction, but you will surely agree that there is some point when the ratio of the repressive to the helpful functions of government will become so top-heavy that it will be masochistic to regard government as a potential ally and friend. Maybe for you that will be when Social Security is abolished (or privatized) and when 10 million, instead of a mere 5 million, Americans are trapped in the criminal justice system. For me that point was passed with the repeal of welfare in 1996, after which I could no longer imagine that my federal taxes served any compassionate function--or, more generally, that the government plays any redistributive role other than to promote the ongoing upward redistribution of wealth.

Our entire outlook has to change. Most fundamentally, given the nature of our real and existing government, we can no longer allow ourselves to be seen as mere cheerleaders for government activism. The power to levy taxes, for example, is increasingly deployed to tithe low- and middle-income people to subsidize the state functions--such as corporate welfare and the military--favored by the corporate elite. Even the few remaining services for the poor are tainted by the repressive agenda of the right, which has budgeted funds for "chastity education" for welfare recipients and favors ever more intimate monitoring of the lifestyles of public housing occupants. When this government gets "active," it may very well act against us.

Yes, we should continue to defend the idea, meaning really the vision, of a truly progressive and robustly democratic form of governance. My point is that we can no longer advance that vision by acting as if the existing government prefigures it in any serious way. We can, of course, continue to try to reform the existing government: by electing progressives to office, for example, and by working to change the rules that make it almost impossible to do so. But these efforts have so far been both arduous and disappointing. Procedural tinkering, such as campaign finance reform and the New Party's unsuccessful effort to legalize fusion tickets, is usually too abstract and complex to generate much excitement. And progressive elected officials only rarely remain so, being quickly absorbed into an insiders' world of corruption and compromise.

In the meantime, though, the progressive agenda cannot be put on hold until we have a government that is worthy and capable of carrying it out. There are plenty of things we can do, right now and even with the existing rules and cast of miscreants. We have to begin, though, by acknowledging that the struggle for economic justice can no longer be conceived simply as a campaign to build support for our wish list of government services. We need a greater emphasis on strategies and approaches that do not depend on the existing government, that in fact bypass it as irrelevant or downright obstructionist.

Some of these approaches are obvious and uncontroversial. First, we can support efforts to organize the 90 percent of American workers who are unorganized, including, most urgently, the former recipients of welfare. Historically, there have been two approaches to economic justice: (1) demanding services and income support from government, and (2) directly confronting private capital by organizing unions. Since the first option has been foreclosed for the time being, there must be an all-out emphasis on the second. A major obstacle, sadly, is union leadership itself, which, even in its recently reinvigorated form, has insisted on funneling millions to Democratic candidates (or, worse, their own re-election campaigns) while strike funds go lacking. Fortunately, though, union organizing does not have to wait for the existing union leadership. The ongoing efforts to organize workfare recipients, for example, are being led by groups like ACORN and the recipients themselves; once the hard work of organizing has been accomplished, the unions will no doubt be happy to incorporate the new members.

Second, we can launch a citizen initiative against corporate crime. In the past couple of years, there have been dozens of demonstrations at the retail outlets of sweatshop-dependent corporations like Nike, Guess and Disney. In the absence of effective regulation against abusive corporations, we have no choice but to pressure them ourselves.

More controversially, I propose that we put greater emphasis on projects that both give people concrete assistance and serve as springboards for further political activism. Examples might include squats, cooperatives of various kinds, community currency projects and some of the less costly types of "alternative services," like those offering information, contacts, referrals and a place for people to gather. Such projects can't provide a substitute for government services since, numerically speaking, their impact is only a drop in the bucket, but they can serve as a "cultural core," in Frances Fox Piven's phrase, of a movement that may eventually be strong enough to win services that are tax-funded and distributed as a matter of right. The feminist health centers, for example, that flourished in the seventies and are still in operation in a number of cities around the country cannot make up for the lack of national health insurance. But they have given many thousands of women the subversive idea that low-cost, high-quality health care is a right--while at the same time serving as organizing centers for the defense of reproductive rights.

There are several reasons for an emphasis on projects that create alternatives. First, they may be necessary for organizing low-income workers, who are often dispersed among many small employment sites that are almost impossible to organize one by one. Such workers may be easier to reach through neighborhood-based centers offering, for example, employment counseling along with information on workers' rights and unions--as some organizers of workfare recipients are currently proposing. Second and more generally, bold and visible alternatives may help break through the hopelessness and passivity engendered by years of right-wing campaigning against public services. Successful projects might inspire the kind of can-do spirit that is so lacking today: If government won't do it, then let government get out of the way, because we're not waiting around!

But for me, the most powerful argument for projects that create alternatives is, ultimately, the scary fact that there is less and less for them to be alternative to. Consider the plight of the people who are being tossed off welfare. Do we simply wait around until the government changes its mind? Applaud the efforts of the Ford Foundation to track the fate of former welfare recipients as they stumble through low-wage jobs and perhaps into homelessness, all the while trying to publicize the horror stories as they unfold? Better to do something that actually helps a few people, or gets them started helping themselves--while at the same time dramatically underscoring the need for economic justice for all. And if our activism is bold and visible enough, it may help prod the existing government in a progressive direction: banning the products of sweatshops, for example, or replacing workfare with the option of adequately paid public-sector jobs.

But economic justice is not the only thing on our agenda. We have to be ready to defy a government that has become an active repressor, and this means putting a greater emphasis on civil libertarian issues. Some progressives have responded to the right's successes with a narrowing focus on economic justice, arguing that the "social issues"--like gay rights, abortion, drug-law reform, even police brutality--are just too divisive. True, most Americans are far more amenable to economic goals like national health insurance than to drug-law reform (which would empty out most of the prison cells overnight). Morally, though, we have no choice but to oppose the steady erosion of individual liberties and the growth of the punishment industry. It might even improve, or at least clarify, our image if we were more forthright and militant about our own brand of libertarianism.

Tragic realities impel us to move beyond our emotional co-dependency on government as the only available instrument for social change, but there are opportunities beckoning us in that direction; one is the need to develop a meaningful internationalism. Rhetorically, most progressives agree that it is the transnational corporations, far more than the nation-states, that rule the world, and that the future depends on our ability to build transnational forms of resistance. In practice, though, it's hard to do this when almost all our efforts are addressed to our own particular nation-state. We might free our imaginations to conceive of truly international strategies if our mission were no longer defined so provincially in terms of our immediate impact on the existing national government.

Finally, there is the opportunity to clarify to the American public what we stand for. We cannot let ourselves be defined or perceived as the defenders of a government that has become, under the tutelage of right-wing Republicans and Democrats alike, outrageously corrupt, loathsomely repressive and socially callous. Our goal is, as it has always been, full freedom and economic security for all. At one point it looked like our government might help us achieve this. But that government is no longer "ours," nor will it be anything we would want to claim as ours without a massive downward transfer of power. For now, it looks like we are on our own, although--if you count the world's oppressed and underpaid majority--we are hardly alone.

Barbara Ehrenreich's most recent book is Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (Metropolitan).

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