RED ALERT! Determined to summon the better angels of our nature, clockwise from top left: Bill de Blasio, alleged socialist as mayor-elect of New York City; Kshama Sawant, proudly socialist city councilwoman-elect of Seattle, by way of Mumbai; Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Christian trouble-maker, aka Pope Francis of Rome; Bernie Sanders, beloved socialist U.S. senator from Vermont, probable presidential candidate in 2016; Ty Moore, socialist trouble-maker of Minneapolis; and ‘Reverend Billy’ of the “Church of Stop Shopping.”
At the vanguard of times a-changin’ in America
by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2013 – Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK, near America
Across the fruited plains and up and down the purple mountains majesty of the continental United States, heads are exploding nowadays among the Republican Tea Party boobocracy, along with their corporate hegemonist puppet masters. For it seems we ordinary Americans are once again receptive to leftish economic notions—even the specter of socialism, à la Jesus Christ.
In light of certain dangerous people and the horrid events they inspired during the prior month, what are our poor plutocrats and oligarchs to think? To wit:
• Bill de Blasio, who as a young idealist labored in the vineyards of Daniel Ortega’s social democratic government in Nicaragua in the 1980s, was elected mayor of New York, capital of finance in America and, arguably, the world. This despite the calculation of his Republican Tea Party opponent that a hoary American pejorative—He’s a dirty, rotten socialist!—would surely stampede the comfortable, and the irreparably stupid, to win the day for the “virtue of selfishness.” A dead fascist hack called Ayn Rand (1905-1982) coined that locution to glorify laissez-faire capitalism, a philosophy popular with downmarket suckers who reliably revere the wealthy as “job creators.”
And this despite the loathsome Richard Cohen, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, inexplicably based at the Washington Post, who wrote of Mr. de Blasio and his family, “People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect—a white man married to a black woman, and with two bi-racial children.”
Nonetheless, New York voters decided that a mayoral candidate agitated by the rich-versus-the-rest-of-us Zeitgeist of his city—a candidate who vowed to levy additional taxes on the wealthy (Heaven forfend!) in order to improve educational opportunity for poor children, who promised to build hundreds of thousands of homes for low- and moderate-income families, who vows to end police harassment of black and Latino men—was the right man for an awful time. The contest was not close: Mr. de Blasio won three out of every four votes, racking up pluralities in virtually every demographic segment in all five boroughs of the city.
• In Seattle, outspoken left-winger Kshama Sawant won an upset victory in municipal elections, while voters approved the highest minimum wage in the nation—an hourly $15 (€11.07). An economics professor and émigré from Mumbai, India, Ms. Sawant championed the minimum wage hike and defeated a veteran city councilman—as a candidate of the new and growing Socialist Alternative Party. At her victory rally, she told supporters, “We’ve shown that it’s possible to succeed in an openly socialist campaign, not taking any money from big business, not currying favor from the establishment, and openly rejecting business as usual.”
• In Minneapolis, the Socialist Alternative candidate for city council was Ty Moore, an activist in the national “Occupy Homes” movement, which stages sit-ins to prevent banks from seizing foreclosed residential properties. Mr. Moore almost won, and will surely live to fight another day.
In a website message, he wrote, “We came just 229 votes short, a painfully small margin. But even before election day, we had already won a tremendous victory…[W]e demonstrated that it’s possible to stand up and win broad support for an independent left challenge to…the domination of the two corporate parties [Democratic and Republican]. We popularized bold socialist demands—issues normally shut out of mainstream political discourse.”
Following his electoral loss, Mr. Moore resumed his place at a sit-in outside the home of a Minneapolis resident under threat of eviction.
• Here in New York, police arrested “Reverend Billy” of the seriocomic “Church of Stop Shopping” as he made an anti-capitalist rant inside a branch of JPMorgan Chase Bank. The charge was trespassing on private property while armed with a megaphone. The clergyman—real name: Billy Talen, originally of San Francisco—was cuffed by the cops after sneaking into the bank’s lobby to protest JPMorgan’s role in capitalizing pollutant-spewing fossil fuel enterprises.
“We’re in the midst of mass extinction at this time,” the Reverend Billy boomed, via illegal amplification. “I’m worried about the kind of world my daughter will inherit. Please, protect life—protect the Earth. Take your money out of JPMorgan Chase, or work inside the bank to change the value system…It is the largest bank in the United States [and] also the top bank in the world for financing industrial projects which poison the atmosphere…Rise up against the corporations that are poisoning the atmosphere!”
Shortly after his bank lobby bust, Reverend Billy and his megaphone were safely back on the public sidewalks of Times Square, which New Yorkers irked by tourist hordes have renamed Square Times. Billy was at his post: adjacent to a garish display window of the Disney Store, an emporium of cartoon-themed tchotchkes manufactured in the slave-wage “re-education” camps of China, avatar of state capitalism. As usual, the Rev asked shoppers to cease shopping—a request that strikes rudely at the heart of mindless American consumerism.
• Social media popular with racial minorities, Democrats, and young voters were abuzz in November with startling news contained in a study by the Pew Research Center: Socialism, long maligned and largely misunderstood in the U.S., is now viewed favorably by fifty-five percent of African-Americans, forty-four percent of Latinos, forty-nine percent in the 18-29 age category, and fifty-nine percent of self-identified liberal Democrats.
• Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont announced that he would likely run for president in 2016. He has long held public office in Vermont, as an avowed socialist: he began as mayor of Burlington, principal city of his largely rural state, then was elected to terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Mr. Sanders told the Burlington Free Press newspaper that his independent presidential candidacy, should he decide that way, would serve as a left-wing alternative to the presumptive Democratic standard-bearer—Wall Street’s favorite Democrat, Hillary Clinton.
In an email message to his national audience, the socialist senator wrote, “The greatest crisis facing our country today is the obscene level of wealth and economic inequality. This is a moral issue…While the rich get richer, the middle class continues to disappear, and we now have more people living in poverty than ever before…In recent years, with ninety-five percent of all new income going to the top one percent, we have seen a huge increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires. One family—the Walton family of WalMart—now owns more wealth than the bottom forty percent of Americans. Meanwhile, we continue to have, by far, the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world.”
He added, “But a new and important ally has arisen in the struggle against unfettered capitalism and wealth and income inequality.”
By which Mr. Sanders means the shepherd of America’s largest Christian community, 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known as Pope Francis, bishop of Rome.
“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, any problems…[We must help] those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth…
“Some people continue to defend ‘trickle-down’ theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
Thus spake the Pontiff in Evangelii Gaudium, his unambiguous Vatican statement—“to the bishops, clergy, consecrated persons, and the lay faithful on the proclamation of the Gospel” according to Jesus Christ—regarding the threat that unregulated capitalism poses to democracy. Pope Francis is widely celebrated by Americans of the Roman Catholic persuasion—some 78.2 million of us in a nation of 313.9 million, according to the federal Census Bureau—as refreshing improvement over the dour Pope Benedict XVI.
A contributor to the U.S. website DailyKos, reacted to Francis’ statement: “I am particularly fond of his choice of ‘crude’ and ‘naïve’ to describe the character of those who contrive to turn niggardliness into a virtue. Describing corporate leaders who sit on a trillion dollars rather than invest in the society that allowed them to make that money as ‘job creators’ is the obvious example of the crudity to which the Pope refers. Those who fall for such propaganda and pass it on as gospel truth are the most obvious example of the naiveté.”
The Vatican message went on to excoriate a “globalization of indifference” to the suffering of the poor, and to damn material consumerism. “We are thrilled if ‘the market’ offers us something new to purchase,” Francis wrote. “In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
This could just as well be the thunder of Kshama Sawant, who told me in a telephone interview, “All the tremendous natural and technological resources we have should be harnessed for social good, not for the profit of a small élite.”
In the historical context of social struggle, she added, “When victory was gained, it was through fighting against the capitalist system, not with it. Of course, we have to fight for reforms within capitalism, but it’s not enough. We have to find an alternative to capitalism itself. So we’re fighting for democratic socialism. We are socialists because we reject that the only possible economic system is capitalism. Liberal Democrats accept capitalism; even if they don’t want to, they end up accepting the logic of big business and the super wealthy.”
The party represented by Ms. Sawant and Mr. Moore—Socialist Alternative—is the newest in a continuum of left-wing American political history, begun with utopian villages of the early nineteenth century. Later, in 1876, European immigrants established the Socialist Labor Party; for the organization’s first three years, German as the official language. The S.L.P. still exists.
In quadrennial presidential elections from 1900 through 1920, Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) ran under the banner of the Socialist Party of America. Candidate Debs—founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as the Wobblies—won nearly a million votes in 1912, and again in 1920 when he campaigned from a federal prison, where he was serving a ten-year sentence on conviction under the contentious Espionage Act of 1917. (His sin was opposition to U.S. entry into World War I. In 1921, then President Warren G. Harding commuted the balance of Mr. Debs’ term to time served.)
My own beloved Great-grandfather Benjamin Gedney (1880-1964), a ship’s carpenter, cast his first presidential vote in 1904—for Mr. Debs. Later, in 1928, he voted for Norman Thomas, the socialist successor to Mr. Debs.
By 1932, with the Great Depression raging, Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt and the nation were open to socialist causes—labor union rights, immigrant rights, old-age financial security, bank regulation—and Ben Gedney’s loyalties pivoted to electoral practicality. But he never lost his socialist sympathies, or his scornful view of fellow working-class Americans: as he once told me, “Unfortunately, boy, our people are mostly docile and obedient—even the smart ones.”
The political fortunes of American socialism decreased dramatically during the Roosevelt era, and went practically kaput during the Cold War (1947-1991) when the ideology came to be demonized as unpatriotic—as it still is, per the fear-and-smear ethos of the Republican Tea Party. The Great Recession—instigated by Wall Street shysters in 2007, and said to be over in ’09 by they politicians they own—has lifted a good deal of political smog. As Bob Dylan presciently sang:
The line is drawn, the curse is cast;
the slow one now will be the fast.
As the present now will later be past;
the order is rapidly fadin’
and the first one now will later be last,
for the times—they are a-changin’
A powerful actor for change—as envisioned by Mr. Dylan back in the 1960s, and promised today by the dangerous likes of Ms. Sawant and Messrs. Moore, Sanders, and de Blasio—now comes by way of a gentle old fellow in Rome, who further declared in his Vatican apostolic exhortation:
“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills…Today, everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.
“…We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money, and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose…In [an economic system that] tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market…”
Ben Gedney was not known as a religious man, nor am I. But were he with us today to read the words of Pope Francis, I know what Great-grandfather would say, as I do now: Amen.
Thomas Adcock is American correspondent for CulturMag.