Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Right Turn for the Obama Administration in a Fast Moving Crisis

by Norman Markowitz

Jim Genova's fine blog and online article on the Geithner plan got me to thinking about its possible ramifications. First, the plan reflects(and this should not be any great surprise) the Obama administration's attempt to save the system by saving the top and having the benefits "trickle down" to the masses of people. This, given the institutional weakness of labor and the left and the ideological baggage of thirty years of rightwing hegemony which followed thirty five years of cold war reaction (which marginalized the CPUSA, which played the essential role in building the industrial labor movement and coordinating it with other peoples movements out of the great depression and also fragmented the broad left, leading rightwing social democrats to become mindless Sancho Panzas following cold war Democrats tilting at Soviet windmills and those to the left of the Communists to move in cultural and intellectual anarchist directions ) is unremarkable. Although this is only the administration's beginning, the left is not yet even close to being there to seriously influence an administration whose electoral victory was based on a clear repudiation of the Bush policies and also the rightwing ideological hegemony of the last thirty years, which Obama rejected in his campaign speeches. He clearly then used the economic crisis as proof of the failure of rightwing "neo liberal" economic policy.

As an historian who has compared Obama both before and after his election with Franklin Roosevelt and the rise of the New Deal in the midst of a much greater economic crisis that had been in existence for four years, let me make a few new comparisons at this moment. First, Roosevelt's early policies were based on saving the system by saving the top(NRA, AAA, a large increase in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation) policies of "planned scarcity" which sought to fix prices and "manage production" so as to stimulate revival (even though there was a major expansion of relief and a presidential commitment to support labor and consumer rights, which the corporation's cavalierly avoided, as the banks and corporations are avoiding any real accountability today). The failure of the socialists and others on the left to mobilize the people to advance an alternative program and the relative success of the Communists through the unemployed councils, the organizing of strikes and the building of community support for strikes (culminating in the San Francisco General Strike of 1934) led Roosevelt and his administration to move to the left in its third year, not because the depression was getting worse (it was getting significantly better) but because organized social struggles and protests, particularly trade union organizing struggles, had become much larger, better organized and focused, alienating even those sectors of the capitalist class who had supported the administration to save _save themselves_ but now feared that its rhetoric and some of its policies had awakened workers(whose political support for the administration and the Democratic party was also growing) to challenge the capitalist system.

It took two years for these policies to develop In that period, there was both criticism from the Communist left against the administration's overall capitalist commitment and its specific failings, but, at the grass roots, an understanding that workers viewed the administration and particularly both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt(who shocked the establishment press by visiting coal miners, unemployed youth, African Americans, going to their venues and expressing sympathy and support for their aspirations) very differently than they did previous administrations. Workers were taking the promises of the administration to carry out reforms in their interest seriously, making those promises a goad to militant action, a way to build confidence, just as millions over the last year looked to the Obama campaign and to Obama himself in a similar light.

There is however a nagging and very negative difference, at least at this point. Roosevelt had different and much better people who represented new politics in his administration at the beginning as officials and advisers--Harry Hopkins, Rex Tugwell, Frances Perkins, Henry Wallace, to name some of the major ones. Geithner, Bernanke, Larry Summers, no one in the administration accept perhaps Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor really comes close to those figures in that they in no way are independent progressives with a long history of opposing right-wing pro business policies. These are the sorts of people Obama needs inside the administration, not only outside it in mass organizations. People like progressive economist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman. People with activist backgrounds in organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility to develop health care policy, activists with backgrounds in groups like Citizen Action, "Think Tanks" like the Institute for Policy Studies, to balance the establishment" process liberals," who are so conspicuous now in the administration, but whose MO is always to hew to the center and take the right much more seriously than the left(the broad progressive left) because they see the right as having institutional wealth and a history of holding power and the left as scattered in protest groups for whom they offer sympathy in exchange for support.

What should we say about the administration's most recent proposal.

The Geithner plan is a bad plan and it is a continuation inadequate policy that are becoming associated with Geithner. The plan has little to do with "markets" since the problem is that the banks will not sell these "toxic assets" at the low "market" prices that they would have to without the Geithner plan. Private investors are given a large incentive to drive up the price of these "assets" and profit from them at the expense of public funding. The banks will get these "assets" off their books (and their corrupt speculative actions created the crisis to begin with) without really giving the government and the people much of anything. There is no regulatory reform of the banking system involved and the plan is essentially being sold as an expensive fix, a substitute for reform

This is why Wall Street and the banks are happy with it. They have every reason to be. This is why we must make it clear that we cannot support it in its present form. We also must make it clear that Geithner, Summers, et al, must come up with serious policies in the interest of the workers and employees, not primarily owners and investors, to contain this economic crisis if they are to keep their jobs in Washington.

The Geithner plan in its present form is an economic error by the Obama administration as policy to contain the economic crisis. It is a political right turn that will not win support from its core constituencies. We should forcefully oppose it and work to develop the strength that will lead the administration to abandon it.