On Contact: Resistance & the left with Paul Street
Journalist Chris Hedges talks to author and political commentator Paul Street about the failure of the American left, new forms of resistance, democracy, and the deep roots of America’s ruling oligarchy.
Please note: This interview was taped in June 2018.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the collapse of the American Left and to quote Lenin, "What must be done," with author Paul Street.
Paul Street: The Democratic Party at the end of the day, it's not--it's not so much feckless or stupid. It's not that it doesn't know how to win. It's corrupt. It's owned by a small--it's owned by a small cadre of campaign donors by the unelected dictatorship of money, which runs both parties in this country and it has a business model. They're full grown adults. They know what they're doing. They know what they're about. And they would rather lose to the right wing. Even a neo-fascistic Christian eco-apocalyptic right wing dedicated to burning every last possible fuel on this planet I guess which will bring us closer to the Christian Armageddon and we'll find out who's saved and who's the damned. They'd rally--they'd rather give up the--lose to that horrific hyper-dangerous right-wing Republican Party than lose even to a mildly progressive social Democratic Left within their own party.
CH: The Trump administration did not rise prima facie like Venus on a half-shell from the sea. Donald Trump is the result of a long process, political, and cultural, and social decay. He's a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, the Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an abhorrent deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurdle towards tyranny. The problem is not Trump. It is a political system dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties in which we don't count. We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience like that demonstrated by teachers around the country this year. If we do not push back by building a militant and radical left, we will enter a new dark age, one that will end in ecocide and the extinction of the human species. With me to discuss the imperative of new forms of resistance is Paul Street. He is the author of numerous books including "Radical Oppression in the Global Metropolis," "The Empire's New Clothes, Barack Obama in the Real World of Power," and "They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy." Paul. So let's talk about the failure of the left which you've written I think quite presciently about. How would you describe the bankruptcy of the American Left?
PS: Well, you know, there's the question of whether there really is a left in the United States of America right now. That phrase is thrown out--thrown around with incredible looseness and I never know entirely what it means. In the official dominant media politics culture, it's--it refers, I suppose, to the Democratic Party. And as I said at the Left Forum the other day, calling the Democratic Party the left is like calling the Pork Producers Association a vegan lobbying organization. You know, the Democratic Party has been openly subservient and subordinate to the corporate elite and it has been for decades. I've been hearing all my life, and I really mean that, since the 1960s, so we're talking about for five decades, I've been hearing about the Democratic Party needs to get its stuff together and really do progressive things and run progressive candidates. And then everything will be okay and get back to the business of winning politics.
CH: Right, but the left falls for it. Election cycle…
CH: …after election cycle after election cycle, the self-identified left.
PS: Again and again and again, even some of our foremost left intellectuals predictably like clockwork. Once every four years, even though they know better, traipse out the standard lesser evilest lecture that if--that if you--if you don't vote for this party to block the worst party then it's going to be a disaster.
CH: Well, that's the whole Democratic Party strategy vis-a-vis Trump. They're not proposing anything substantial, they're just hoping that Trump being Trump will implode, which may not work. I'm not convinced it's going to work.
PS: Oh, I think there's a distinct possibility now that Trump's going to get a--that he can very possibly get a second term and that whether liberals and progressives and the so-called left like to admit it or not, Trump is a very powerful force somehow. It's disgusting to all of us and we ought to be disgusted by it. He has a beastly, amoral kleptocratic malignantly narcissistic Twitter ad and we all know that. The Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schumer style Democrats remind us of that every day how awful it is. Somehow that doesn't seem to stop the Democrats from voting this horrible malignant narcissist unlimited Pentagon funds, unlimited defense authorizations, unlimited surveillance powers. It's really strange. I don't know how they main that--maintain that schizophrenia.
CH: But what Trump does, which solidifies his base, is he expresses a legitimate rage at a system that has betrayed most Americans. And however crude and infantile he is, at least he expresses a hatred for a system that has thrust a knife in the back of working men and women.
PS: Well, I think that's exactly right. And, you know, 2016 was an anti-establishment election. There were three viable candidates, I suppose two viable and one semi-viable candidate, named Bernie Sanders. Two of them were technically could be called anti-establishment candidates of the sort. There's limits in both the cases of Sanders and Trump with regard to that but they ran rather aggressively and rather explicitly as anti-establishment candidates telling people they were getting shafted as most working people know they are in this country. This is a country after all where the top tenth of the upper one percent has as much wealth as the bottom ninety percent of the country. Was it--we heard the other day at the Left Forum that three people now are wealthy enough that they own as much money as much net worth as the bottom half of the population. Wages have been stagnating, not just since the Great Recession but really across the entire long neoliberal era. Unions have been knocked down to six percent of the workforce. I was born into a country where it was 35% of the workforce and you can go on and on with these sort of savage disparities, both class disparities and racial disparities, and people are getting absolutely screwed. Hillary Clinton wouldn't--didn't have the common decency to say that. Bernie Sanders at least pointed out with all his limits, ran consistently against plutocracy and against the billionaire class and against the one percent and told overflowing audiences, particularly when he was running for himself he had overflowing audiences. And then when he was sheepdog in front of Hillary Clinton, he had audiences about third--a third the size, but he said consistently you're being screwed over by the capitalist elite. They didn't quite use that language but that's what the one percent really is. Donald Trump's told people they were being shafted and he blamed as does the right wing and Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe right now, he blamed immigrants. He placed a heavy emphasis on racialized, ethnicized evil others…
CH: But he…
PS: ..from outside, but he at least told people they were being shafted. He was channeling anger.
CH: He did blame Wall Street. I mean, he did blame Goldman Sachs by name.
PS: And he threw in a significant amount of populist anger and I thought actually quite cleverly under the influence of Bannon played class too. Played class anger and made this promise to make America great again which really, in essence, was an appeal to the flyover zones, the deindustrialized regions of this country, the regions that went through farm crisis. Basically it was a promise to magically, and it--and Trump is very much about magical thinking.
CH: All totalitarian demagoguery about magical thinking.
PS: Absolutely. But the magical thinking related to a socioeconomic reality which is in essence--which was essentially deindustrialization and neoliberal globalization. Not just globalization but globalization under the--under the command of capital, which has destroyed employment in the farm and equipment industry.
CH: And you live--you live in Iowa, so you see ot.
PS: Yeah. Waterloo in Iowa where people used to be able to go to high school and go straight into the John Deere or the International Harvester Plant and make a decent living. Same thing in the Quad Cities. Janesville, Wisconsin, you know, General Motors, you can just--you can go down the list. And what Trump--what Trump was really saying in essence is that he was going to magically recreate the lost golden age of American mass production industrial supremacy which, of course, is a completely fantastic thing to promise and absolutely it's not going to happen because the whole winds of the world capitalist system have shifted and they've shifted a long time ago but that resonated and it was smart. Trump was not a complete idiot. Between that and playing the evangelical Right which had all kinds of reasons to be scared of him, but he cut a deal with them and it was pretty clever. He gave them the vice presidency and he basically gave them veto power over the reconstitution of the…
CH: Well, he…
PS: …of the federal bench.
CH: Well, he also allows the federal society and…
PS: The federal society…
CH: [INDISTINCT] stack the course.
CH: I mean, not just the Supreme Court but…
PS: Right. And the--and the amazing thing in the 2016 Election is Donald Trump, the reality television character and the real estate magnate who's kind of like a bumbling billionaire Archie Bunker, talked more about policy. This has been documented in numerous political science studies. He actually discussed policy maybe in a hand-fisted way about five times as often as did the Yale law graduate and policy wonk Hillary Clinton.
CH: She almost never talked about policy.
PS: Who almost never talked about policy as Bernie Sanders confidentially told one of his supporters in Iowa City a week before the election, he said, "She's not talking about policy." She's just running on Trump is terrible, Trump is terrible. He's bad. He's mean and he's--and he's not qualified to be the President.
CH: But one--and…
PS: She ran on candidate character and she had a horrible candidate character herself. Right.
CH: And I think she was actually considering the slogan, "Because it's her turn." I mean, can you imagine seriously? Am I correct about that? I think that's correct.
PS: Which resonates with absolutely nobody outside of some, you know…
CH: By the [INDISTINCT] Foundation. Right.
PS: campus town highlights, and campus town highly identity politicized feminist academicians might've fallen through that but, you know, I mean…
CH: I want to go back to the left.
CH: Because everything, of course, you say is true. And yet the left seems utterly in a--unable to see it or accept it emotionally or what--and I think you're right to even question whether there is a left in the United States. But let's go back to profile what the self-identified left is and what's happened to it.
PS: Well, there's many lefts. I don't think we really have a left and it's hard to get a handle on it. I mean, you know, if you listen to some of my relatives at family gatherings, it's anybody who isn't a Republican. I mean, it's literally anybody who doesn't like Trump, anyone that doesn't like the right wing agenda so that's the Democrats and that's just absolutely farcical and preposterous because we know about their policy record over the last few decades. The left refers to that primarily in the mainstream discourse, there is a--there is a unofficially sort of Marxist or Marxist-Leninist, sometimes Trotskyist Left that you can look up the names of their organizations on Wikipedia, you know, and it runs 15 to 20 deep and they seem more involved in sectarian squabbling with each other than actually doing anything to fight capital or fight capitals. I have to be careful about that. I know some good people in Socialist Alternative. I know some good people in ISO. None of them have any particular kind of, you know, mass membership at all. There's a number of--there's the Sanders progressives within the Democratic Party who just unfortunately sort of worship this supposedly independent political candidate from Vermont who's really actually been a de facto Democrat since the 1990s and actually cut a deal with the mainstream Democratic Party up there to squelch independent third-party politics.
CH: And in return, they would not mount a serious challenge to a Senator.
PS: Exactly. And he's a curious leftist who repeatedly cites Scandinavia as his social Democratic role model and never once likes to mention that they spend three to four percent of their national budgets in Norway and Sweden and Denmark on the military whereas the United States spends 57% of its discretionary budget on the military, which completely cancels out the progressive domestic agenda that he claims he's for. So you have the Sandernistas. Now many of those have gotten many of his younger followers are starting to get a clue and angry about that betrayal. In fact, they were angry about it at the time. You just spoke to somebody who led a walkout at the Democratic National Convention and that's very help and need to see. Some of them are going into burgeoning new chapters of the Democratic socialists of America, which still seems attached to a working from within. They're having debates about this. I think DSA is something I tell leftists, "You ought to go into and see what's going on. It's fluid." It's not necessarily…
CH: But in the organization, many people may not…
PS: Well, it's--there was the old DSA, which was run by Michael Harrington and a sort of a bunch of sort of…
CH: You're talking about Democratic Socialists of America?
PS: …Cold War leftists. DSA, Democratic Socialists of America.
CH: I've been to meetings where…
PS: You have. Uh-hmm.
CH: …half of the room was empty and it's not a big room.
PS: And it's not--well, I hear different things from different chapters, but at the end of the day, they seem to be--they're ready to knock on doors for some damn neoliberal in a congressional midterm in 2018. Yeah.
CH: We're going to come back to that.
CH: When we return, we'll continue our conversation about the ruling elite and resistance with Paul Street. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation with Paul Street. I see the left a kind of political immaturity within the left, do you?
PS: I've seen a fair amount of political immaturity on the left, yeah. There's a--there's an ignorance about the history of the Democratic Party. People--young people sometimes look at me sort of cluelessly when I say I've been hearing this about how you're going to return the Democratic Party back to its Franklin Delano Roosevelt origins and fight the good fight for the--for the working man or the working people. I've been hearing that all my life and I don't see that happening this time. I try and tell them the Democratic Party, at the end of the day, it's not--it's not so much feckless or stupid. It's not that it doesn't know how to win, it's corrupt. It's owned by a small--it's owned by a small cadre of campaign donors by the unelected dictatorship of money, which runs both parties in this country and it has a business model. They're full grown adults. They know what they're doing. They know what they're about. And they would rather lose to the right wing, even a neo-fascistic, Christian, eco-apocalyptic right wing dedicated to burning every last fossil fuel on this planet I guess which will bring us closer to the Christian Armageddon and we'll find out who's saved and who's the damned. They'd rally--they'd rather give up the--lose to that horrific hyper dangerous right wing Republican Party than lose even to a mildly progressive social democratic left within their own party. And they've shown this consistently again and yet people still cling to the notion that they can do that. There are other parts of the left that worship violence and destruction of property and all the kinds of things that I could tell you stories of incidents of that kind of activities.
CH: They talk about antifa black bloc.
PS: That just ends up--yeah. And that just ends up feeding the right. That just ends up creating sort of Facebook advertisement clip for…
CH: Well, half of them--half of them are cops anyway, so. Let's go back…
PS: There--certainly, there is that, yeah.
CH: Let's go back to that issue you just spoke about with the Democratic Party. Why would they rather lose?
PS: Well, because at the end of the day, it's really about rotating out of your two or three years in Congress and starting to make real money in a lobbying firm on K Street or maybe even directly in finance capital. Because there's a--there's this whole series and set of class associations and oligarchic connections beneath and behind the superficial surface state drama of electoral competition. There's really a class system beneath and behind that. And you can't make real money. You can't really set your own children up for a success in this increasingly hyper inegalitarian, oligarchic society by fighting the good fight. That's not what it's about.
CH: We know Barney Frank's working for a bank.
PS: Well there you go, yeah.
CH: He'd have kids, but…
CH: He's working for a bank.
PS: Right. And it could--the corporate elite does not just control the political process in this country through campaign contributions alone. Probably the revolving door and the rotating out of political office into working for banks or for lobbying firms is more relevant than that. There's all kinds of ways that the capital runs the show, the staffing of administrations, the threat to go on capital strike if a policymaker gets in and does things the capital doesn't like. You know, it's entirely conceivable that had the Clintonites not been able to fully rig the Democratic Party. And to prevent Sanders who really went incredibly far in the primaries with almost no campaign finance support at all from business on the basis of small donations. It's entirely possible that Bernie Sanders could have defeated Donald Trump in the 2016 election, but could he really have done anything?
CH: No, he would have been utterly paralyzed.
PS: Much of anything? He would have been utterly paralyzed. He would have--demonized in the media. Wall Street would've had a very negative investment response. He would've been blamed for that response. If anything, it might very well have been a fiasco which would then be taken to prove that the progressive agenda is an absolute disaster for the--for the country. So, in a sense, we may have almost dodged a bullet for Sanders not getting in.
CH: Lenin, what must be done?
PS: Right. Well, you know, Lenin, "What must be done?" I've always, for many years, loved and attended numerous Noam Chomsky lectures about the 85 different forms of imperialist evil. And actually, Noam talks a great deal about domestic evil, too. I've always wondered could you give Noam particularly since wherever you go you can draw an audience of 10,000 people. Or if you go to Noam Chomsky lecture, there's lines around the block, could you give the last 10 minutes of it to what needs to be done? And Noam's answer has always been that that's almost an inherently authoritarian…
CH: Yeah, although he just…
PS: …and an inherently Leninist question. And it isn't.
CH: But he has addressed the issue. I mean, he--it's not that he's ignored it, but go ahead.
PS: Well, he's certainly advanced. He's declared himself a left and then I have some of those same sympathies for myself and he's pointed out that a lot of the people that tell us--we are habitually, on the left, told that we have no solution whatsoever, that we're just nattering nabobs of negativity and that we're just antis. We're not for anything. And there's a great line in one of Chomsky's books and it's called failed states in '06, which is there's a translation for that charge. You have alternatives and we don't like them, you know? And we have a list of policy measures that is, you know, 40 pages long that had--that's been round on the left forever. We do have all kinds of progressive things. We want a financial transaction tax. We want single-payer health insurance. We want to re-legalize union organizing in this country, want major green jobs programs. We want to slash the Pentagon budget and redirect those resources to a real welfare state and to environmental rebuilding and remake, all of that. You go through the list.
CH: Nationalizing the banks?
PS: Glen Ford's issue that he brought up so wonderfully and eloquently at the Left Forum, nationalize the banks which, as he pointed out, everybody hates in this country. Everybody hates the banks. That list is long. We also have visions of an alternative society beyond the inherent sociopathic…
CH: Which brings me to left because we do have the vision right but Lenin points out what we don't have.
CH: When--and what a lot of people don't know is that that Lenin's "What Is to be Done." And you don't have to be a Leninist to value this question, it's not--it's not about what the reform proposals are, it's not about a vision of alternative society, it's about actually the main thing that's missing in the United States right now, which is an organized, through thick and thin, durable institutionalized left, an actual organization that's there. You know, back in the day, you just have a mimeograph that's--a lot of us hate to admit it, but back in the day that was the Communist Party. You know, when the cops came to a Victor family in the black ghetto in Chicago on the south side, someone will come out and run and say, "Quick, run and get the Reds." And then people knew where to go, and they knew to get over to 47th and Wabash and knock on the door and find some sparkplug militants, some effective organizers. A lot of--a lot of the rank-and-file organizers in the Communist Party didn't give a damn about the Stalinist politics of the party headquarters in New York City. They would have been anarchists or syndicalist if that had been the main organization on the left. And these great organizers come over and organize popular rebellions and put all the furniture that the cops had taken out of the apartment and they put it right back in. We don't have anything like that anymore, you know? We're like the Black Panther Party which was an attempt to provide direct service with education programs and free breakfast programs and all of that. We don't have that. Those--particularly the Communist Party was there through thick and thin. It wasn't just episodic, we're gonna have a march against the WTO or against NATO and then, you know, really ever since the McCarthy era, I'm afraid, we've kind of had this episodic…
CH: Oh, wait, wait, what…
PS: …movement, you know, demonstration addicted kind of left, yeah.
CH: But we lost historical--and it seems, we've lost the historical knowledge of how to organize, haven't we? The old CIO model.
PS: Oh, I think that's true, right, where you start with issues that really matter to real people, to working people.
CH: Let's start…
PS: And then you build from there. Yeah.
CH: I don't want to keep interrupting but the…
CH: …which means don't demonize Trump supporters. Don't write them off as racist yahoos.
PS: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, Trump supporters are responding to a kind of vacuum, you know, a vacuum of basic sort of left organizing, certainly a vacuum of union organizing and certainly, you know, the disappearing--I would sort of nominate the disappearance of the labor movement. And maybe that's a bit strong but the decimation of the labor movement is one of the most underestimated factors in American political life. That is a really big deal that we've gone from…
CH: Because they had knowledge. I mean, you can go back and look at some of those old manuals in the '30s, they'd lace it out.
PS: Right. Right. And that made a case to white working-class people. I don't like the phrase white working-class, but there is a good component of the working class that is Caucasian, that too much of the left spends time demonizing and calling inherently privileged just because they're white. Even though white working-class lifespans are now falling which is something we've never seen. Even though many of them have less than $500 worth of savings and are living from paycheck to paycheck worrying about whether they can meet a mortgage payment or rent payment. It's less time--you know, that the old organizers knew that you had to have conversations with them, not about their privilege and how well-off they were but about their self-interest in reaching out across racial and ethnic lines and forming solidarity associations, and with people who that they couldn't advance their own interests unless they were allied with and instead we have a kind of hyper identicized political left which tends to give people lectures about things like intersectionality which is sort of a term that nobody outside of academia really understands, foundations like it and all of that. What was wrong with solidarity? I mean that's tricky because the workplaces that used to exist that made a evident logic of solidarity between workers of different races have gone away to. I think deindustrialization is part of that.
CH: Well--and you have organizations like Walmart that have structured workplace to essentially make any kind of organizing impossible.
PS: Oh, absolutely.
CH: You know, they've instituted systems by which at the first sign of any kind of organizing, those who are doing that organizing are immediately eradicated and we've just watched an assault on public sector unions which is…
PS: The last…
CH: It's almost the last read-out.
PS: The last outpost of the American labor movement, that's why it's being so specifically targeted state-by-state, and at the state level which is very underestimated level of American politics. Absolutely. There's a good book to be written by somebody with a title like the war on solidarity, about all the various new and different kinds of ways in which anything even smacking of solidarity is nipped in the bud in advanced because it can even happen. Even to down to the level of how workplaces are structured and how the work process is structured. I used to teach in Industrial Relations Institute. I was like the one token Marxist and I'd interesting conversations with other professors there whose whole mission in life was union avoidance and union destruction. They literally were trying to cubicleize, you know, they're advancing theories about how to cubicleize the workforce as much possible, and take away the instinct towards solidarity that happens when you have whole groups of people doing the same job and how can we get it, as how can we make as many jobs just one person doing that job. So now that garbage trucks that go around and pick up the trash and the recycling in towns and cities, all over the country are just one person with an electronic arm and all of that. So, yeah.
CH: Great. All right. Thanks, Paul. That was author Paul Street. Thank you for watching.
PS: Thank you very much, Chris.
CH: Great. Thanks.
PS: That was fun.