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Using Veblen to explain the Obama's adminstration's hostility toward labor

by NBBooks Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 09:54:48 AM EST

The tubez in America this morning are filled with discussion of a "senior White House aide" attacking organized labor for labor's support of Bill Halter, who nearly unseated incumbent Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary yesterday.

Two weeks ago, I explored the problem of why President Obama's administration has so little concern for the problems of working Americans, in The Obama administration as "managed democracy".  I used Thorstein Veblen's insights into the Leisure Class  to extend Sheldon Wolin's analysis of "managed democracy" (a new form of authoritarianism developed in the past two or three decades, which most of us would also call corporatism). The fundamental point I was trying to make is that there is nothing in the education or life experiences of someone like Barack Obama or Larry Summers that would provide them an understanding of industrial economics or real (not politically expedient) empathy for the working class. (Let me qualify that, because I had hoped, and still cling to a hope, that Obama's experience as a community organizer might have given him a reservoir, not yet drawn upon, of support for industrial economics, or at least enmity for, or the very least suspicion of, financial economics.)

Forthwith, my post in full:

In his important 2008 book, Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Princeton professor emeritus of politics Sheldon S. Wolin has identified and dissected the emergence of a new type of authoritarian political system in the United States.

The new constitution conceives politics and governance as a strategy based upon the powers that technology and science (including psychology and the social sciences) have made possible. Exploitation of those powers enables their owners to redefine the citizenry as respondents rather than actors, as objects of manipulation rather than as autonomous.

This new political type has arisen as the revolving door between government and the private sector as spun faster and faster, infusing the government with the morals and social customs of the American managerial class, while suffocating the older, more noble idea of civic virtue. In short, American politics has been "managerialized." To fully understand this, Wolin first recounts the history of the concept of civic virtue and the emergence of  the polis:

Over the centuries politicians and political theorists-starting with

Plato's Republic have emphasized disinterestedness, not personal advantage, as the fundamental virtue required of those entrusted with state power. In recognition of the temptations of power and self-interest a variety of constraints -- legal, religious, customary, and moral -- were invoked or appealed to in the hope of limiting rulers or at least inhibiting them from doing harmful or evil acts. At the same time rulers were exhorted to protect and promote the common good of society and the well-being of all of their subjects. With the emergence of democratic ideas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it fell to the citizen to assume responsibility for taking care of political and social arrangements, not only operating institutions but "cultivating" them, caring for them, improving them, and, ultimately, defending them. Democracy presumed the presence of a "popular culture," not in the contemporary sense of packaged pleasures for a perpetually adolescent consumer, but culture in its original meaning: from the Latin  cultus = tilling, cultivating, tending. The ideal of a democratic political culture was about cooperating in the care of common arrangements, of practices in which, potentially, all could share in deciding the uses of power while bearing responsibility for their consequences. The assumption was that if decision-making institutions of a community were left untended, all or most might suffer.

Wolin does not get into enough details to actually name names, but the basic trajectory of America's descent is clear enough. In the era immediately after World War Two, the U.S. political establishment -- or at least, the foreign policy arm of it -- was dominated by an easily identfied group of patricians, beginning with Walter Isaacson's The Wise Men (Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, John McCloy Jr., Charles Bohlen, and Robert Lovett) who hand-crafted the post-war posture of the Cold War, and ending with David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest (Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Clark Clifford, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, William Bundy and others), who muddied the U.S. political establishment in the rice paddies of Vietnam.

Of these latter, Ford Motor Co. CEO McNamara stands out, for bringing modern business management theories and practices, including cost-benefit analysis, into the Pentagon, and the government generally. However, Wolin does not mention McNamara and his Whiz Kids (including Charlie "Tex" Thornton, founder of Litton Industries, America's first major corporate conglomerate since the Morgan trusts of the late 1800s and General Motors of the 1920s). Instead, Wolin fingers the Reagan administration as the first major example of business managers transforming American politics.

The examples of McNamara and Lovett show there have always been businessmen present in top levels of the U.S. government. This particular point -- of exactly when a business mentality gained ascendance in U.S. government -- is more than an interesting academic question. It brings us to an subject that Wolin fails to consider: just how American capitalism itself has been transformed. Simply stated, there has been a fundamental shift from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism, and it has huge implications for cultural and political norms of behavior, not just in government, but in the entire society. Basically, while it has become the dominant type of culture in the United States, business culture, as foreseen and explained by Thorstein Veblen, has degenerated to lower forms of barbarism, dragging the rest of society down with it. Veblen's understanding of the politico-sociological, as well as economic, differences between industrial producers, as distinct from financial predators, gives us a far more powerful means of socio-economic analysis than Marxism does, which fails to distinguish between productive and predatory economic and social behaviors. Marxism's obsession with ownership of the means of production blinds Marxists to the crucial differences and deadly conflict between real industry and predatory financial and monetary systems.

According to Wolin,

Corporate culture might be defined as the norms and practices operative at various levels of the corporate hierarchy that shape or influence the beliefs and behavior of those who work in a particular institutional context. Today corporate culture is not confined to the corporation. Managed democracy depends upon managers, and managers are the product and creators of corporate culture. The question is this: what are the characteristics of the culture that corporate managers bring to government? How are the corporatists likely to approach power and governance, and how does that approach differ from political conceptions?

Wolin's approach here is basically that of Veblen's institutional analysis. Wolin compares corporate culture to the civic culture he discussed above.

In contrast, the ethos of the twenty-first-century corporation is an antipolitical culture of competition rather than cooperation, of aggrandizement, of besting rivals, and of leaving behind disrupted careers and damaged communities. It is a culture for increase that cannot rest (= "stagnation") but must continuously innovate and expand. It accepts as axiomatic that top executives have to be, first and foremost, competition-oriented and profit-driven: the profitability of the corporate entity is more important than any commonality with the larger society. "The competitor is our friend," according to an Archer Daniels Midland internal memo," and the customer is our enemy." Enron had "visions and values" cubes on display; its chief financial officer's cube read, "When Enron says it will rip your face off, it will rip your face off."

The ADM internal memo exactly defines the political culture in the U.S. Congress, and its uneasy relationship with its citizen constituents. Remember how Joe Lieberman was welcomed back by his fellow Senators after running as an "independent" to beat back Ned Lamont's challenge. And "the customer is our enemy" mentality goes a long way in explaining Rahm Emanuel's notorious antipathy to political progressives.

A little later, Wolin writes,

The essential skill that a corporate executive brings to his firm and to a top-level governmental position is the skill of devising and implementing strategies of aggrandizement. . .

Here, Wolin's work would be made vastly more powerful if he incorporated Veblen's insight about the essential difference between "industry" and "business." As economist Douglas W. MacKenzie explains in a November 2007 paper, Veblen examined the functional and cultural differences between financial and industrial institutions, contrasting the profit-driven process of financial capitalism, to the workmanship and science-driven machine process of industry. In general, once an industrial firm falls under the sway of "business managers" and financiers, its focus becomes one "of acquisition, not of production; of exploitation, not of serviceability".

Moreover, unlike industrialists, business managers and financiers dislike the uncertainty and unpredictability created by technological innovation. American folklore is rife with stories and myths of breakthrough technologies that were suppressed by corporate behemoths.  Rather than creating wealth through increased and less imperfect production (here, think of the Japanese concept of kaizen), business managers and financiers instead seek to acquire wealth "by a shrewd restriction of output," causing privation and unemployment. This actually establishes and perpetuates a process of financial sabotage of industry. In the first chapter of Veblen's 1921 book, The Engineers and the Price System, he writes:

Without some salutary restraint in the way of sabotage on the productive use of the available industrial plant and workmen it is altogether unlikely that prices could be maintained at a reasonably profitable figure for any appreciable time. A businesslike control of the rate and volume of output is indispensable for keeping up a profitable market and a profitable market is the first and unremitting condition of prosperity in any community whose industry is owned and managed by business men. And the ways and means of this necessary control of the output of industry are always and necessarily something in the nature of sabotage: something in the way of retardation, restriction, withdrawal, unemployment of plant and workmen, whereby production is kept short of productive capacity. The mechanical industry of the new order is inordinately productive. So the rate and volume of output have to be regulated with a view to what the traffic will bear; that is to say, what will yield the largest net return in terms of price to the business men who manage the country's industrial system.

(To see how mainstream economics today veers far and violently away from Veblen's ideas, pick up any introductory economics textbook and read the first two or three paragraphs, which invariably describe economics as the study of "how society allocates scarce resources." Such a definition immediately launches the student away from any serious consideration of modern industry and its near-miraculous productive potentials, into pastures more congenial to the ever status-conscious "leisure class.")

The reality and effects of industrial sabotage by financiers and business managers is all too familiar to anyone who has examined the effects of the leveraged buy-out binge and corporate raiding of the 1980s, which mainstream economists have strived to hide from public view behind academic arguments that these predatory financial practices actually represented a "more efficient use of capital" that  "increased shareholder value" - a crime of active misinformation that the economics profession has yet to answer for. (Two excellent books that rip the economists' pretty façade to shreds are the 1992 series of investigative reports by Philadelphia Inquirer Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, America: What Went Wrong?; and the 1990 history by Max Holland of how one of America's largest machine tool companies was destroyed in a series of buyouts, When the Machine Stopped : A Cautionary Tale from Industrial America, which has been republished under the new title, From Industry to Alchemy: Burgmaster, A Machine Tool Company.)

In short, Veblen saw finance as an acquisitive process similar to the barbaric practices of leisure classes in earlier civilizations. (For further discussion of Veblen's views on this point, see this diary and its thread on EuroTrib: The Credit Bubble theory of the Business Cycle (I: Veblen) especially this comment.)

It is worth peering even deeper into the business manager's mindset, since it has come, since the 1980s, to so completely dominate America's political elites, and because it has absolutely crucial implications for the making and practice of national economic policies. James Crotty, a heterodox economist at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), has a July 2003 paper, The Neoliberal Paradox: The Impact of Destructive Product Market Competition and Impatient Finance on Nonfinancial Corporations in the Neoliberal Era in which he examines a number of negative effects on general economic performance by large U.S. non-financial corporations (NFCs) (not exactly industrial firms, but as close as we can hope to get, as we shall see as Crotty's analysis unfolds). Crotty stresses

two aspects of the changing relation between financial markets and large NFCs. The first is a shift in the beliefs of financial agents, from an implicit acceptance of the Chandlerian view of the large NFC as an integrated combination of illiquid real assets - that is, physical and organizational assets that cannot be sold for cash quickly and without a major loss in value - assembled to pursue long-term growth and innovation, to a "financial" conception in which the NFC is seen as a `portfolio' of liquid subunits that home-office management must continually restructure to maximize the stock price at every point in time. The second is a fundamental change in management's reward structure, from one that linked pay to the long-term success of the firm, to one that links it to short-term stock price movements.

The 1960s conglomerate merger movement initiated a change in the perception of the proper role of top management, from one in which managers were expected to be experts in the main business of the firm, to an evolving view of top executives as generalists who knew how to buy and sell subsidiaries as business conditions changed. This shift remained incomplete, however, until the hostile takeover movement of the 1980s, which forced NFC insiders to either divest units whose stock price fell below the level demanded by Wall Street or yield control of the firm to corporate raiders. Raiders relied primarily on debt to finance takeovers, while managers of targeted firms often defended their turf by loading the firm with debt-financed stock buybacks and special cash dividends to deter potential raiders. These developments pushed NFC debt burdens to historic highs. They also forced a change in managerial goals, from concern with the long-term success of the firm to a short-term obsession with keeping the stock price high enough to deter a hostile takeover.

NFC payments to financial markets.jpg

Crotty's phrase, "the Chandlerian view of the large NFC as an integrated combination of illiquid real assets" is extremely important because it points to something that very few economists ever consider: the immense difficulty and length of time required to assemble a well-functioning industrial enterprise. Consider that it takes at least ten years to train a competent tool-and-die maker. Or how long it takes to train a competent airline pilot. Why would any industrial enterprise want to invest in years of educating someone, if that industrial enterprise is likely to be sold off like a commodity in a few years?

In fact, as an industrial enterprise grows and matures, its trained and skilled employees make the surrounding community a pool of technical talent that is highly conducive to the creation of other industrial enterprises that use the same or similar skills. That's why certain towns and cities become known as centers for specific industrial products. Sheffield in England was known for its highly specialized alloy irons and steels. Delft in Holland is known world-wide for its blue pottery. The Hocking River valley in southern Ohio became known in the 1800s as a center of brick manufacture. The Connecticut River valley was known for almost a century as "Precision Valley" because it was a center of designing and making high-precision metal-working machine tools. Detroit became known for making automobiles. Today, almost every high-speed, high-volume printing press in the world comes from Heidelberg, Germany. The southern part of the San Francisco Bay area became known as Silicon Valley.

How much is it worth to have a locale or city renowned for the technical excellence of its local enterprises and workers? What value can be assigned to having a few hundred wizened old men around who can train entire generations of new, highly-skilled workers? Or who have a few different ideas than their boss, and decide to start up their own company? The value must be very high, because thousands of national, regional, and local governments around the world have spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the past two decades trying to create "incubators" of new technologies, new companies, and new "employment opportunities."  Such a great irony: finance capitalism is unleashed and destroys the social organizations of industrial enterprises in which technical excellence is revered and rewarded, and the public worldwide has been forced to pay billions of dollars to fund a poor replacement.

How is it possible that political elites would allow financiers and business managers to pillage and destroy industry, and then spend billions trying to repair the damage that could have been prevented in the first place by simply preserving the regulatory legacy of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal? Why did the Democratic Party turn its back on organized labor in the 1970s and 1980s, and embrace instead Friedman / Thatcher / Reagan policies of "free trade" and "free markets" that have destroyed the American working class?

"Destroyed the American working class" is not hyperbole. It is now widely known that Americans' earnings have stagnated for the past four decades. The December 2007 report Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?, by the Economic Mobility Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts showed conclusively that American men now have less income than their fathers' generation did at the same age. Even more troubling is that income mobility has been falling over the same period - meaning that it is less and less likely that a person born into a poor family will ever earn enough to also avoid being poor. (Trends in U.S. Family Income Mobility, 1967-2004, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper No. 09-7, September 2009.) Why is it that American political elites, including President Obama and his economics team, seem so unresponsive to this national calamity?

Here again, we can turn to Veblen for answers. Political elites are members of the Leisure Class or Predatory Class, along with financiers and business managers, according to Veblen. The Leisure Class sets themselves apart from the unwashed masses with a refusal to get their hands dirty doing the actual work of procuring and producing the necessities of everyday life.

The institution of a leisure class is found in its best development at the higher stages of the barbarian  culture; as, for instance, in feudal Europe or feudal Japan. In such communities the distinction between classes is very rigorously observed; and the feature of most striking economic significance in these class differences is the distinction maintained between the employments proper to the several classes. The upper classes are by custom exempt or excluded from industrial occupations. . . .

. . . . A distinction is still habitually made between industrial and non-industrial occupations; and this modern distinction is a transmuted form of the barbarian distinction between exploit and drudgery. . . .

During the predatory culture labour comes to be associated in men's habits of thought with weakness and subjection to a master. It is therefore a mark of inferiority, and therefore comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate. By virtue of this tradition labour is felt to be debasing, and this tradition has never died out. On the contrary, with the advance of social differentiation it has acquired the axiomatic force due to ancient and unquestioned prescription.

--The Theory of the Leisure Class, Chapter One - "Introductory." (The text of the book in full has been made available online by Project Gutenberg at www.gutenberg.org.)

What makes Veblen far superior to Marx is that Veblen recognizes that the essential characteristic of modern industrial societies is a culture of tools, workmanship, and machine processes.

In more than one respect the industrial system of today is notably different from anything that has gone before. It is eminently a system, self balanced and comprehensive; and it is a system of interlocking mechanical processes, rather than of skilful manipulation. It is mechanical rather than manual. It is an organization of mechanical powers and material resources, rather than of skilled craftsmen and tools; although the skilled workmen and tools, are also an indispensable part of its comprehensive mechanism. It is of an impersonal nature, after the fashion of the material sciences, on which it constantly draws. It runs to "quantity production" of specialized and standardized goods and services. For all these reasons it lends itself to systematic control under the direction of industrial experts, skilled technologists, who may be called " production engineers," for want of a better term.

This industrial system runs on as an inclusive organization of many and diverse interlocking mechanical processes, interdependent and balanced among themselves in such a way that the due working of any part of it is conditioned on the due working of all the rest. Therefore it will work at its best only on condition that these industrial experts, production engineers, will work together on a common understanding; and more particularly on condition that they must not work at cross purposes. These technological specialists whose constant supervision is indispensable to the due working of the industrial system constitute the general staff of industry, whose work it is to control the strategy of production at large and to keep an oversight of the tactics of production in detail.

Such is the nature of this industrial system on whose due working depends the material welfare of all the civilized peoples.

--The Engineers and the Price System, pp 52-53.

In his 1993 book Elegant Technology: Economic Prosperity from an Environmental Blueprint, Veblen scholar Jonathan Larson zeros in on the exact point of interface between human beings and the modern industrial system of mechanical processes:

Nothing can be manufactured without the use of tools. Hand-made is only a term to describe goods that are made with primitive tools. Some items, like sweaters and furniture, can be made with primitive tooling and still compete in the marketplace.

Most items can only be manufactured with advanced tooling. There are no primitive options for making a color picture tube . . . Understanding the levels of sophistication in tools is to comprehend a very great deal about industrialization.

. . . . Sophisticated products can only be made with sophisticated tools. A computer cannot be made with a stone axe. The primary producer motivation for increased sophistication in tools is to permit the production of sophisticated products. Peoples who can fabricate sophisticated tools usually dominate peoples who cannot.

. . . . The most interesting fact about tools is that it takes tools to make tools. Making primitive tools with sophisticated tools is a simple proposition. Making a pair of pliers is easy if there is a steel mill and a drop forge. Making sophisticated tools with simple tools is an extremely difficult proposition. The ability to go up the ladder of tool sophistication is the essential story of industrial development.

As we noted earlier, Veblen draws a distinct line between business and industry. So, a curious thing happens as societies progess industrially. In his 1904 book, The Theory of the Business Enterprise, Veblen observes

Conversely as regards the men in the pecuniary occupations, the business men. Their exemption from taking thought of mechanical facts and processes is likewise only relative. Even those business men whose business is in a peculiar degree remote from the handling of tools or goods and from the oversight of mechanical processes as for example bankers, lawyers, brokers, and the like have still at the best to take some cognizance of the mechanical apparatus of everyday life they are at least compelled to take some thought of what may be called the mechanics of consumption. . . Their exemption from mechanical thinking from thinking in terms of cause and effect is therefore materially qualified. But after all qualifications have been made the fact still is apparent that the everyday life of those classes which are engaged in business differs materially in the respect cited from the life of the classes engaged in industry proper. There is an appreciable and widening difference between the habits of life of the two classes and this carries with it a widening difference in the discipline to which the two classes are subjected. It induces a difference in the habits of thought and the habitual grounds and methods of reasoning resorted to by each class. There results a difference in the point of view in the facts dwelt upon in the methods of argument, in the grounds of validity appealed to, and this difference gains in magnitude and consistency as the differentiation of occupations goes on. So that the two classes come to have an increasing difficulty in understanding one another and appreciating one another's convictions ideals capacities and shortcomings. (pp 316-18)

Now, if Veblen is correct about 1) how the Predator Class abhors actually having to do real work, and in fact does not even like to think about it, and 2) political elites are part of the Predator Class and embody that class's ways of thinking and understanding the world, what would be the results as manifested in national economic policies? Would we expect to find any sympathy for the plea of industrialists to prevent Wall Street from forcing them to focus on quarterly and annual earnings gains? Would we expect to find any understanding of the opposition of industrialists to short selling of stocks or floating exchange rates and currency futures trading? Would we expect to find any consideration for industrialists' desire for low, fixed interest rates below the natural usury point? Would we expect to find any serious consideration of a coherent national industrial plan that would revive the nation's manufacturing base?  How much weight would we expect political elites to actually give to the views and concerns of trade unions of machinists, steelworkers, assembly line workers, maids, and bus drivers? Would we expect to find any real concern for a national employment picture where the unemployment rate in the working class is five times higher than in the Leisure Class?
unemployment by income

Earlier, I quoted Veblen on the origins of the Leisure Class. Veblen's reference to "barbarian" is crucial, because the more advanced a society becomes industrially, the more removed from real industry the elites become. In a very real sense, the elites become more barbaric. This devolution of business culture is clearly seen in how the meme of "ripping their faces off" has spread from the trading floors of Wall Street in the 1980s (as captured in Michael Lewis's first book, Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street), to the rest of the business world. As the elites drive the culture downward into ever more primitive barbarism (think of what modern art and modern architecture have become), the very idea of civic virtue comes under explicit attack. We see this in the assaults by "conservatives" on the idea of the common good being a "liberal codeword" for nazism or socialism, i.e., Glen Beck's recent warning to his followers about the dangers of their churches preaching the gospel of social justice.

Which brings us back to the theme Sheldon Wolin develops in Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Whether or not President Obama is a sell-out is not the real question we must face. The real question is: what are we going to do about the corporate culture that has come to dominate our politics?

Cross posted from Real Economics.

Excellent diary.

Frankly, Obama's experience gave him intense and sometimes painful experience with the importance African-American identity politics. (He wasn't 'African-American enough' at first, and needed to remedy that). This politics focuses on the black church and Chicago's old-fashioned ethnic group horse-trading. It's a politics that has been bad for the majority of African-Americans in Chicago.

So, there you go, labor doesn't organize by race or ethnicity (very behind the times(;->)), so I don't see Obama really having much experience with it. But he does know the inside of black (protestant) churches and their racially angry rhetoric, and he's talked to a lot of impoverished people in housing projects his friends would later tear down and/or privatize.


by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 11:07:24 AM EST
I couldn't disagree more.  Obama's background as an organizer came through the Saul Alinsky group called the Gamaliel Foundation (which was actually a largely catholic group at the time, not protestant, although Obama worked mainly with the protestant churches of  South Chicago community). Having gone through their basic training program myself several years ago, a training program that Obama would have himself taught numerous times, I can assure you that racial identity politics has nothing to do with it.  (Horse-trading,yes. Ethnic horse trading, no.)  Obama's group was based around organizing religious communities for political actions and training labor organizers. In fact, graduation from Gameliel's advanced training courses are the equivalent in the labor organizing field to a Wharton MBA for business leaders. So labor organizing and experience with labor life is a core part Obama's background.
by santiago on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 06:44:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Obama was hired to organize a dozen black churches. His techniques for doing so were Saul Alinsky's, but Obama was hired explicitly to apply them to organizing black churches on Chicago's south side. You can see in the following the Alinsky techniques and where it was applied:

The man who brought Obama to Chicago was a frumpy, soft-spoken New Yorker. Gerald Kellman hoped to organize churches to fight fallout from the rapid decline of the steel industry, the main economic engine for the South Side and south suburbs.

But Kellman and his organizer buddy Mike Kruglik were both white and Jewish, and some black church members couldn't warm up to them. So Kellman shifted Kruglik to the suburbs and found Obama to replace him. . . .

Kellman hired Obama on the spot for roughly $10,000 a year. He threw in an extra $2,000 so Obama could buy that beater of a Honda and get moved.

A month later he was at a South Side church being introduced to leaders of CCRC's Chicago branch, which soon would be spun off into the Developing Communities Project.

Obama immediately acknowledged his inexperience, recalled Dan Lee, a deacon at the now-defunct St. Catherine of Genoa Roman Catholic Church who became DCP's president.

. . . there was a lot to learn. On long walks through Montrose Park, Kellman filled in the basics. To the Alinsky school of organizing, power was a cherished concept. There were two sources of power in the world, organized money and organized people.

Organizers weren't supposed to set the agenda for their group. Their fundamental role was to probe and prod to find out what made individual members tick--unlock their self-interest in the jargon of the profession.

Obama was expected to conduct 20 to 30 in-depth interviews a week with community members. Organizers called the process "learning who's who in the zoo." In laymen's terms, he was networking.

Rev. Alvin Love, pastor of Lilydale First Baptist Church at 113th and Union Streets, was used to having strangers knock on the door and ask for handouts. When Love opened it one day in 1985, he assumed that's what the lanky young man was up to. "Who is this skinny guy and what does he want?" Love thought.

Obama was looking for Love's thoughts, though, not his money. "He asked what I wanted to see get done and what was important in this neighborhood," Love said.

Obama's interest impressed the 28-year-old minister, who had been looking for ways to connect his aging congregation with a surrounding neighborhood that was getting younger and rougher. He joined DCP and now serves as its president.

On a crisp spring afternoon not long after he arrived, Obama made another important contact. DCP members from St. Catherine's had decided to stage an old-fashioned street-corner meeting to lure people out of their homes and get them talking about neighborhood improvements.

They started outside the church and then headed a few blocks north to the corner of 114th and Lowe. By chance, that's where state Sen. Emil Jones lived, and he came out to see what the fuss was about. It was the start of a long relationship between Obama and Jones, who helped Obama's political rise. . . .

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-03-30/news/0703300121_1_community-organizer-south-side-commu nity-campaign-trail/3

By the way, one of the best articles on how Obama needed to transform his style (I don't think he's changed on the inside) is here:

How Obama learned to be a natural
Today he drips with charisma and inspires fawning admiration from all quarters. But Obama began his journey as a smug young man with little political future.
By Edward McClelland
Monday, Feb 12, 2007 05:47 ET

by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Thu Jun 10th, 2010 at 12:37:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You know, I've read both pieces, and as something of an Alinsky scholar (and admirer) I don't
think either of them do justice to who Alinsky really was, or who Barak Obama is. Mostly isn't.
I think a clearer view of Alinsky emerges from this book, "Let them call me Rebel" by Sanford Horwitt. Alinsky is written off among the "Serious People" as a minor figure, largely discredited along with all the other  accomplishments of the 60s radicals, and the book as Hagiography.

Obama is to Alinsky as Ronald Reagan was to George C. Scott.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sat Jun 12th, 2010 at 06:15:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have that book somewhere and likely will dig it up and read it. You're saying it is not hagiography?

I don't think I've read an accurate telling of who Obama is, and his years between graduating from Columbia and law school. How we read the propaganda and cryptic real info on those years, especially if we draw strong conclusions on what kind of man they tell us Obama is, has mostly to do with our own backgrounds and sensibilities.


by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Mon Jun 14th, 2010 at 02:24:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The feds have always, since 1630, been at war with labor. As you know, the Jamestown settlement was a chartered corporate venture.

Obama's experience as a community organizer might have given him a reservoir, not yet drawn upon, of support for industrial economics, or at least enmity for, or the very least suspicion of, financial economics.

Rather than evoke Veblen, why don't you suppose Mr Obama's three years as an employee of Trinity Church ( "community organizer," Developing Communities Project) and subsequent, post-grad years on the boards of Woods, Joyce, and Annenberg foundations, administering GOTV drives in predominantly AA districts reamed by asset-stripping shareholders? I should think, his abilities --here, I rephrase your points of interest-- to organize federal(ist) mediation of industrial labor relations and financial products marketing either within the statutory limits of the executive office or by legislated inventions, then are self-evident.

Consider the reservoir of support upon which Mr Obama has drawn to exculpate recent mandates and enforcement priorities during his administration: "base" or "grassroots" support is no longer skilled trade or unskilled --industrial-- union members. It's faith-group "social services" providers and sclerotic incumbents in Congress: Church and capital are the twin towers, ahem, of America's patrician patronage. For example, in a 1995 interview with Chicago Reader  the year Palmer announced she was running for Congress and intended to give up her state Senate seat, Mr Obama stated:

"The right wing talks about this but they keep appealing to that old individualistic bootstrap myth: get a job, get rich, and get out. Instead of investing in our neighborhoods, that's what has always happened. Our goal must be to help people get a sense of building something larger. The political debate is now so skewed, so limited, so distorted," said Obama. "People are hungry for community; they miss it. They are hungry for change... The right wing, the Christian right, has done a good job of building these organizations of accountability, much better than the left or progressive forces have. But it's always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and false nostalgia. And they also have hijacked the higher moral ground with this language of family values and moral responsibility."

"The only principle that came through was 'getting our fair share,' and this runs itself out rather quickly if you don't make it concrete. How do we rebuild our schools? How do we rebuild our communities? How do we create safer streets? What concretely can we do together to achieve these goals? When Harold died, everyone claimed the mantle of his vision and went off in different directions. All that power dissipated. ... It's time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces --the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies."

"What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer," he wondered, "as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community. We must form grass-root structures that would hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions."

"Once elected, once I'm known, I won't need that kind of money, just as Harold Washington, once he was elected and known, did not need to raise and spend money to get the black vote."

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.
by Cat on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 01:45:39 PM EST
Incidentally, Macaray finally submits an interesting piece to Counterpunch. It is interesting, because it is an interview with Bob Reich who, all other amusements considered, knows his labor history.

Given that union jobs offer better wages and benefits, why is there so much hostility toward organized labor in the Deep South? Not just from southern politicians, but from regular working folks, those who could benefit most?

Other than in mining states that border on the south, the south hasn't had a strong tradition of labor organizing.  Race has interfered.  In the 1930s through the 1950s, the peak years for the labor movement in the north [smoldering bed of skilled trade guild and unskilled manufacturing, "rustbelt" partisan competition], southern whites held back, worried that union organization would spread to blacks.  Note also that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act) did not cover agricultural or domestic workers.  That was no accident.  FDR didn't want to antagonize southern politicians, who at that time were mostly Democrats.


Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.
by Cat on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 02:08:35 PM EST
I hope to have more to say in response later in the day, but for now, this is a truly insightful post. One of the best analyses of our current politics I've read in a long time, especially regarding the relationship of corporations to government. It's not just that individuals are going back and forth, not just that corporate money influences decisions, but that there is a mentality fueled by financial capitalism that sees consumers and constituents as people to be exploited and disdained.

I really need to read Veblen.

And the world will live as one

by Montereyan (robert at calitics dot com) on Thu Jun 10th, 2010 at 02:34:51 PM EST
I think it was in the Nation that I read a review of Sheldon Wolin's new book. Though the reviewer had some quibbles, I decided to buy it, but changed my mind because the number of good books emerging these days (and the number already on my shelf) that illustrate the disintegration of the polity and the larger culture in the US, and how it has come about, is large, and infinitely depressing.
My metaphorical model of humans as multi-faceted jewels, each facet providing a different viewport into the well of human potential needs to be updated to incorporate(ahem) circumstances in which the whole device can be largely captured, encapsulated in a theocratic bubble leading to reality separation and umltimate destruction.
Sorry. Too grim.
Still, it's a wonderful post, NB.

Thirty years ago, my associates wondered such things as this:
-Is development outside the Western model even possible?

What they failed to realize (and would not hear) is that that was the wrong question. The real question should have been,

-Will the dominant corporate culture and it's innate mania for predation even allow development at all?

-What, exactly, IS development?
To a corporation? Successful predation, meaning wealth capture.
To a working citizen?
Once, a community, with a better quality of life.
 Now, --more stuff. Corporate capture of the definition of "Quality". See Piersig, for an almost insight.
How can these two universes coexist?
They can't.
The barbarians capture and eat the other. Or, perhaps, rip off it's face.
Jesus, shades of Toynbee.


Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sat Jun 12th, 2010 at 05:51:01 AM EST
A Chelsea Dagger drops point first  --  Stirling Newberry  Corrente

The fans, short on work and prospects, cheer one group of millionaires shooting an equivocal goal past another group of millionaires. And then complain that the millionaires should take pay cuts so that the would be billionaires that run the game can make even more money. The poor rooting for the rich, against the rising.

It's that politics that drives the "Third Way" politics, in the United States, and around the world. They why of Third Way takes a bit of history to explain, but the what of third way is pretty simple: let the rich run riot, but tax them just enough to prevent the lowest of the low from boiling over, and therefore providing a wedge. However, that's breaking down, and the Lincoln-Halter race in Arkansas, far from being a victory for the White House and its Third Way ideology, was a narrow scrape that has ripped a hole in the political game. Queue the music Jack - and let her rip.

Where to start? Let's pick up the pieces. The slanging match over the primary in Arkansas being spun as a victory, when it was not, and the heckling from her own of a Speaker are manifestations in the United States of a global reality. That global reality is visible when you step back, and see the forest that is hiding behind all the trees. Then you can understand what the score is.

The global reality is the crumbling of "Third Way" neo-liberalism under its own contradictions. To explain this requires explaining what neo-liberalism is, what the Third Way is, and why the dollar drought policy that it needs to stay in place, is in contradiction with the redistributive piece that it needs to stay in power.

Newberry argues that Obama is a Blue-Black politician, An alliance of Blue Dog Democrats and Blacks, that did not need labor to be ardent but may not survive labor being angry.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 01:39:45 AM EST
Read Sterling Newberry's entire post to get his point.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 01:40:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is public opinion research that gives some evidence for this coalition. It was undertaken by a coalition of community activists here in California and is proprietary, but hopefully it will see a wider release someday.

What they did was ask a series of question that get at the social values of Californians, and grouped the public based on these responses.

One of the key groups was people of color who define themselves as aspirational, upwardly mobile, wanting to participate in a middle-class American lifestyle. Bill Clinton was a key figure for them, indicating that there was a place for people of color in a neoliberal, corporate America. That they could be black but not of the ghetto, that they could be American but also African-American.

Their values are managerial in nature, even though most do not actually hold managerial positions of significant power or pay. Barack Obama is seen as a consolidation of their values and goals.

And, as Stirling gets at, for a long time these folks have been in alliance with the Blue Dogs. Southern Blue Dogs don't hold seats in spite of African-American voters; they often hold seats because of African-American voters. Some of these Blue Dogs forgot that fact, and when they voted against Obama, they were voting against the very identity of their base. Not because Obama is black, but because he has embraced the corporate America that these voters wish to join.

The social values of this group are, at best, moderate. It's voters in this group that were not supportive of same-sex marriage in California in 2008, and are not supportive of cannabis legalization here in 2010 (whose polling numbers bear very strong resemblance to same-sex marriage here in CA).

The rest of the polling and research analysis turned up all kinds of insights that were and remain compelling to me, including persistent evidence since at least 2007 that a rapidly growing number of people believe violence is an acceptable way to resolve a dispute. The ranks of the alienated underclass are growing, not just in terms of lack of income but in terms of attitude.

What all this means for labor is quite unclear. There's a growing labor/netroots alliance in California, but it's going to fail unless it figures out how do its own Obama-style organizing. Some unions had figured it out, including a health care union local in CA that was promptly crushed by the SEIU International. That knowledge is still out there and will eventually be mobilized for our purposes. So there is real hope, not the false Obama "hope."

And the world will live as one

by Montereyan (robert at calitics dot com) on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 03:53:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A Chelsea Dagger drops point first | Corrente
Since free capital movement was required to both exploit oil exploration, and to pay for oil, and an independent monetary policy became the focus of controlling the economy - because under an open currency economy monetary policy and fiscal policy amount to the same thing, only monetary policy produces more growth


by generic on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 08:32:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
under an open currency economy monetary policy and fiscal policy amount to the same thing, only monetary policy produces more growth

More growth in profit for the financial elite, I think he means. First, a more relaxed monetary policy facilitated massive tax relief for the wealthy:

It was, however, in the wake of inflation and a series of recessions that this was used as the basis for what we call "supply side economics" and it's child the "Laffer curve" - which is probably the most valuable cocktail napkin in history, because trillions in tax cuts have been handed out because of it.

But also, the process magnifies the ability of the financial sector to extract profits from flows of money. This way they could stay ahead of the middle east oil states:

But what was really going on was an arms race between those who sold oil and could keep their population poor, and the owning class of the West. In a closed economy, high taxes are not really a problem for the very wealthy, in that the money goes, sooner or later, back to other members of the same group. Filene commented "Why should I mind the American people getting half my money, I got it all from them." However, in an open currency world, where capital can move, this is no longer the case. There is a them.

The "solution" was the Red Queen's race, namely that unfettered consolidation, financial intermediation and securitization of economic activity would run ahead of the ability of the global resource wealthy to pile up money. As long as this was a relatively restrained set, it could look workable. As importantly, both the Democratic and Republican Party's accepted the new structure. The two seemed less and less different, other than moderate disagreements about race and social policy.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 11:53:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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