Saturday, February 6, 2016

SEIZE THE MOMENT: BERNIE SANDERS AND BUILDING THE PROGRESSIVE MAJORITY



Harry Targ

The multiracial working class in alliance with trade unions, women, African Americans, Latinos and other people of color, youth, and progressive sectors of business now form the promising components of the progressive majority. The profound challenge before the working class and its allies is to organize this majority into a coherent force capable of responding to the various issues it confronts. (“Goals and Principles,” Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, adopted at its 6th National Convention, July, 2009, www.cc-ds.org).

Protest Movements in the United States

            In addition to anecdotal evidence, aggregate data confirms the continuation and expansion of activist groups and protest activities all across the face of the globe. For example in the United States, Mark Solomon in an important essay “Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the ‘Unthinkable’” (March 6, 2013, www.portside.org)  discusses the long history of socialism in the United States, the brutal repression against it, damaging sectarian battles on the left, the miniscule size of socialist organizations today and yet paradoxically the growing sympathy for the idea of socialism among Americans, particularly young people. He calls for “the convergence of socialist organizations committed to non-sectarian democratic struggle, engagement with mass movements, and open debate in search of effective responses to present crises and to projecting a socialist future.”  The Solomon article does not conceptualize “left unity” and “building the progressive majority” as separate and distinct projects but as fundamentally interconnected. For him, and many others, the role of the left in the labor movement and other mass movements gave shape, direction, and theoretical cohesion to the battles that won worker rights in the 1930s.

            Solomon’s call has stimulated debate among activists around the idea of “left unity.” The appeal for left unity is made more powerful by socialism’s appeal, the current global crises of capitalism, rising mobilizations around the world, and living experiments with small-scale socialism such as the construction of a variety of workers’ cooperatives.

            Effective campaigns around “left unity” in recent years have prioritized “revolutionary education,” drawing upon the tools of the internet to construct an accessible body of theory and debate about strategy and tactics that could solidify left forces and move the progressive majority into a socialist direction. The emerging Online University of the Left (OUL), an electronic source for classical and modern theoretical literature about Marxism, contemporary debates about strategy and tactics, videos, reading lists, and course syllabi, constitute one example of left unity. The OUL serves as one of many resources for study groups, formal coursework, and discussions among socialists and progressives. Those who advocate for “left unity” or left “convergence” celebrate these many developments, from workers cooperatives to popular education, as they advocate for the construction of a unified socialist left.

            A second manifestation of political activism, the Occupy Movement, first surfacing in the media in September, 2011, initiated and renewed traditions of organized and spontaneous mass movements around issues that affect peoples’ immediate lives such as housing foreclosure, debt, jobs, wages, the environment, and the negative role of money in U.S. politics. Perhaps the four most significant contributions of the Occupy Movement have been:

            1.Introducing grassroots processes of decision-making.

            2.Conceptualizing modern battles for social and economic justice as between the one percent (the holders of most wealth and power in society) versus the 99 percent (weak, economically marginalized, and dispossessed, including the “precariat”). 

            3.Insisting that struggles for radical change be spontaneous, often eschewing traditional political processes.

            4.Linking struggles locally, nationally, and globally.

            During the height of its visibility some 500 cities and towns experienced Occupy mobilizations around social justice issues. While less frequent, Occupy campaigns still exist, particularly in cities where larger progressive communities reside. Calls for left unity correctly ground their claims in a long and rich history of organized struggle while “occupiers” and other activists today have been inspired by the bottom-up and spontaneous uprisings of 2011 (both international and within the United States).

            A third, and not opposed, approach to political change at this time has been labeled “building a progressive majority.” This approach assumes that large segments of the U.S. population agree on a variety of issues. Some are activists in electoral politics, others in trade unions, and more in single issue groups. In addition, many who share common views of worker rights, the environment, health care, undue influence of money in politics, immigrant rights etc. are not active politically. The progressive majority perspective argues that the project for the short-term is to mobilize the millions of people who share common views on the need for significant if not fundamental change in economics and politics. 

            Often organizers conceptualize the progressive majority as the broad mass of people who share views on politics and economics that are ‘centrist” or “left.” Consequently, over the long run, “left” participants see their task as three-fold. First, they must work on the issues that concern majorities of those at the local and national level. Second, they struggle to convince their political associates that the problems most people face have common causes (particularly capitalism). Third, “left” participants see the need to link issues so that class, race, gender, and the environment, for example, are understood as part of the common problem that people face.

            A 2005-2007 data set called “Start” (startguide.org) showed that there were some “500 leading organizations in the United States working for progressive change on a national level.” START divided these 500 organizations into twelve categories based on their main activities. These included progressive electoral, peace and foreign policy, economic justice, civil liberties, health advocacy, labor, women’s and environmental organizations.  Of course, their membership, geographic presence, financial resources, and strategic and tactical vision varied widely. And, many of the variety of progressive organizations at the national level were reproduced at the local and state levels as well.

            In sum, when looking at contemporary social change in the United States at least three tendencies have been articulated: left unity, the Occupy Movement, and building a progressive majority. Each highlights its own priorities as to vision, strategy, tactics, and political contexts. In addition, the relative appeal of each may be affected by age, class, gender, race, and issue prioritization as well. However, these approaches need not be seen as contradictory. Rather the activism borne of each approach may parallel the others. (the discussion of the three tendencies of activism appeared in Harry Targ, “The Fusion Politics Response to 21st Century Imperialism From Arab Spring to Moral Mondays,” ouleft.org, and was presented at the “Moving Beyond Capitalism” Conference, Center for Global Justice, San Miguel de Allende Mexico, July 29-August 5, 2014). 

Building the Progressive Majority in 2016

The statement above from CCDS was published in 2009 and the description of the three political tendencies in the United States was presented in 2014. Since then, the Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina captured national attention and stimulated a growing campaign around Reverend William Barber’s narrative of United States history referring to the “three reconstructions” and the articulation of his theory of “fusion politics.”

The egregious police violence against African Americans, particularly young men and women of color, has sparked a vibrant Black Lives Matter campaign that has caused a renewed interest in understanding the functions the police serve, the role of white supremacy, rightwing populism, and Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow” in America.

Militant workers in growing sectors of the economy are rising up. Fast food workers are organizing around the “Fight for 15.” Health and home care, and other service sector workers are demanding the right to have their unions recognized. And teachers, transportation workers, and state employees have hit the streets and legislative assemblies to demand worker rights.

The peace movement has begun to resuscitate itself challenging a new cold war with Russia, boots on the ground and drones in the air to fight ISIS, and the unbridled growth of the military/industrial complex.

Finally, environmentalists have made a convincing case that the connection between neoliberal global capitalism and environmental catastrophe “changes everything.”

The three tendencies presented above—left unity, the Occupy Movement,  and building a progressive majority—continue to be reflected in different kinds of organizing around the country based on the issues, levels of organization, predominant ideological manifestations, local political cultures, and the composition of movements in different places based upon class, race, gender, sexual identity, religious affiliation and issue orientation. And all these tendencies are worthy of attention and support, particularly in the 21st century “time of chaos.”

But a new campaign (potentially a movement) has emerged since the summer, 2015. Bernie Sanders, an aging left-oriented Senator from Vermont began his long uphill march to secure the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. A sixties activist on civil rights and peace, a populist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, a Congressman and Senator from that state, Sanders, since his early days of political activism,  has articulated an anti-Wall Street, anti-finance capital mantra that has its roots in various progressive currents in United States history, These include the populist campaigns of the 1890s,  the militant workers struggles of the  Wobblies during the Progressive era, the popular electoral campaigns of five-time Socialist Party candidate for President, Eugene V. Debs from 1900 to 1920; the industrial union movement of  the 1930s which built the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and support for the New Deal legislation that provided some measure of economic security to many workers; to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and beyond.

Sanders has proceeded to excoriate finance capital and to link the enormous accumulation of wealth and income at one pole of American society and the maintenance and growth of the misery of the masses on the other. He has advanced his narrative by linking class, to race, to gender issues, and has begun to incorporate the apocalyptic possibilities of a future without addressing climate change. In a word, he has articulated a program that the CCDS program defined as the vision of “the progressive majority.”

The vision of a progressive majority is one that emphasizes the systematic articulation of the causes of human misery and what needs to be done to overcome them and the belief that the vision already exists among the majority of the American people. So far, the popularity of the Sanders campaign, the particular enthusiasm it is generating at the grassroots, including from youth, labor, feminist, anti-racist, and environmental organizations, and the demographics reflected in the Iowa caucus turnout and polling data, suggest that activists from the three tendencies identified above should direct their energies to supporting the Sanders presidential run. Most importantly, the Sanders campaign has inspired the possibility of building a long-standing progressive movement that will survive and grow until the November, 2016 election and beyond.





Sunday, January 24, 2016

BREAK UP THE BANKS AND BREAK UP THE MILITARY/INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!



Harry Targ

Hillary Clinton recently declared that she was the only candidate who had the knowledge and experience to preserve the national security of the United States. However, Senator and Secretary of State Clinton, voted for Iraq war authorization, advocated war on Libya, warned against significantly improving relations with Iran, and recommended establishing a so-called” no-fly zone” in Syria. She initiated and supported the “Asian Pivot;” developing a greater political, economic, and military presence in Asia. In addition, during her term as Secretary of State, Clinton defended the overthrow of the elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, in 2009 and challenged other Latin American leaders to support a new election that would give legitimacy to his ouster.

In a 2014 review of Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, Clinton mused about the many problems the world faced, including Russia’s presence in Ukraine, extremism in Syria and Iraq, and “escalating tensions in the East and South China Seas.” She said that while she occasionally differed with his policies, she believed that former Secretary of State Kissinger played a significant role in making the world a better place. According to her, during the Cold War there existed a bipartisan commitment to promote freedom, market economies, and cooperation among nations. And, she declared, it worked.

“This system, advanced by U.S. military and diplomatic power and our alliances with like-minded nations, helped us defeat fascism and communism and brought enormous benefits to Americans and billions of others. Nonetheless, many people around the world today--especially millions of young people--don’t know these success stories, so it becomes our responsibility to show as well as tell what American leadership looks like.” (“Hillary Clinton Reviews Henry Kissinger’s ‘World Order,’” The Washington Post, September 4, 2014).

In the review, Hillary Clinton elaborated on the U.S. commitment to human rights and democratic values, declaring that the U.S stood for more than just military power and political influence around the world. Indeed, she wrote, “…the United States is uniquely positioned to lead in the 21st century” to help build “…a future in which the forces of freedom and cooperation prevail over those of division, dictatorship and destruction.”

Secretaries Kissinger and Clinton did not initiate the American hegemonic economic and military institutions that have dominated the world since World War II but they have participated in its perpetuation. Data on military adventures, casualties and deaths, and the magnitude of expenditures for war and subversion suggest a different United States role in the world than the one Clinton wrote about in her book review and has spoken of in her more recent campaign for the presidency.

Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree, report in their new book, The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits from Global Violence and War, Monthly Review, 2015, that between the Second World War and 2008, the United States participated in 390 military interventions involving 20 million deaths. In 2014, the United States had military personnel in 130 countries and over 900 overseas bases. In the first decade of the 21st century the United States spent over seven trillion dollars on the military.

The Council on Foreign Relations recently issued a report by resident scholar Micah Zenko, indicating that the United States in 2015 dropped 23,144 bombs on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The largest number of bombs were dropped over Iraq and Syria (22,110), followed by Afghanistan (947), and Yemen (58). Ironically, Defense Department reports indicated that only six civilians died in all this bombing. Adam Johnson (“U.S. Dropped 23,144 Bombs on Muslim-Majority Countries in 2015,” Alternet, January 8, 2016) points out that despite the bombing of Afghanistan, the Taliban control more territory in that country today than at any time since the war started in 2001. The spread of ISIS across the Middle East and North Africa also has occurred during the period of escalated U.S. bombing. 

 There are other indicators to suggest that the instrumentalities of what Secretary Clinton calls “American leadership” is more about militarism than statesmanship and humanitarianism. David Isenberg (“Private Military Contractors and U.S. Grand Strategy,” PRIO, Oslo, 2009) refers to “...the U.S. government’s huge and growing reliance on private contractors [which] constitutes an attempt to circumvent or evade public skepticism about the United States’ self-appointed role as global policemen.” 

Washington Post investigators compiled a data base, “Top Secret America,” that found 1,931 intelligence contracting firms doing top secret work for 1,271 government organizations at over 10,000 sites. TSA indicates that 90 percent of the intelligence work is done by 110 contractors. Defense Department spokespersons and legislators claimed that the United States needs to continue allocating billions of dollars to private contractors to maintain military performance levels that are minimally acceptable.

Nick Turse (The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives) described the introduction of unmanned aerial weapons in the 1990s and their current weaponry of choice for the White House and others who prefer antiseptic and bloodless (on the U.S. side) technologies to eliminate enemies. New predator drones can be programmed to fly over distant lands and target enemies for air strikes. Drones have been increasingly popular as weapons in fighting enemies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

Connecting drone strikes to assassination teams and other war-making techniques, Shane, Mazzetti, and Worth, (“Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” The New York Times, August 16, 2010) refer to shadow wars against terrorist targets. “In roughly a dozen countries -- from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife -- the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.”

The United States has initiated campaigns to identify and assassinate presumed enemies. CIA operatives and private contractors join teams of army specialists under the Joint Special Operations Command (13,000 assassination commandos around the world) to kill foreigners alleged to be affiliated with terrorist groups. These targets also can include U.S. citizens living abroad who have been defined as terrorist collaborators. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States, through Latin American military personnel trained at the School of the Americas, has long supported assassination programs that now seem to be “globalized,” that is administered everywhere.

A careful reading of the United States global military presence suggests the enormity of its violence which explains the growing resistance to the American presence from the Middle East and Persian Gulf to Asia and African to Latin America. Contrary to the pontification of Secretaries of State Kissinger and Clinton, the U.S. role in the world has been an imperial one. And along with the pursuit of power and resources, global militarization is intimately connected to what President Eisenhower called the Military/Industrial Complex.  Over one-half of federal government expenditures each year are for current or past military operations. And as Seymour Melman demonstrated years ago in Pentagon Capitalism  and Nick Turse has found in recent years, military contracts permeate the investments in virtually every large United States corporation. Therefore global violence becomes the rationale for bloated military expenditures.

Jonathan Turley recently wrote:

“While few politicians are willing to admit it, we don't just endure wars we seem to need war-at least for some people. A study showed that roughly 75 percent of the fallen in these wars come from working class families. They do not need war. They pay the cost of the war. Eisenhower would likely be appalled by the size of the industrial and governmental workforce committed to war or counter-terrorism activities. Military and homeland budgets now support millions of people in an otherwise declining economy. Hundreds of billions of dollars flow each year from the public coffers to agencies and contractors who have an incentive to keep the country on a war-footing-and footing the bill for war.” (Jonathan Turley, “Big Money Behind War: The Military-Industrial Complex,” Aljazeera, January 11, 2014).  

As the political rhetoric escalates during the 2016 election season, a comprehensive debate on the role of the United States in the world is necessary. This requires a structural critique of United States foreign policy just as radical as has been raised about domestic policy. A discussion that appropriately condemns the inordinate wealth and power of finance capital at the expense of the health and well-being of the many should also condemn the combination of corporations, banks, and military institutions which rob from people at home and kill and maim people overseas.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Reposted

03 January 2011

Harry Targ : Words Still Matter


Dwight D. Eisenhower. Photo by George Skadding / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images.

Words still matter:
Speeches that speak to our times


By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / January 3, 2011
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes...

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research... a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity...

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific/technological elite.

-- Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961

Words still matter

We have become so drugged by politicians that we often fail to reflect on the power of their words. Seeing books on library shelves with titles like “Speeches of Great Americans” culls up in our minds Readers Digest, the History Channel, Sunday morning sermons, and all the crap that passes for political discourse in the 21st century. Even profound speeches, and the lives of profound political actors, are transformed, debased and normalized, such that the power of words or deeds becomes acceptable to ruling classes and even made to have commercial value.

Every once in a while though a politician or activist says something that is rich with theoretical insight and inspiration and begs for action. The power of the words cannot be demeaned, delegitimized, or made palatable to all. And, it behooves progressives to revisit those words and use them for practical political work.


The Military/Industrial Complex

When President Eisenhower gave his final address to the nation on January 17, 1961, 50 years ago, he warned of “the acquisition of unwarranted influence” of a military/industrial complex. He originally included the word “academic” but later eliminated it, probably for reasons of length. He was alerting Americans to the breadth and scope of military power over the world and American society.

The President’s words constituted a shocking challenge to the soon-to-be Kennedy era defense intellectuals who criticized the outgoing president’s reluctance to spend even more than the $40 billion he invested on the military. Even his direct orders to subordinates to overthrow Guatemala’s President Jacob Arbenz and Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and his declaration of the Middle East as a free-world sanctuary was not enough for the 1960s theorists and practitioners of “modernization,” “development,” and “democracy.”

Although Eisenhower warned us of the impacts of the military/industrial complex, he could not foresee the magnitude of the controls on America’s public life that soon resulted.

First, he only dimly saw the changes that would occur in the techniques of empire. CIA money ensured election outcomes in other countries. American intelligence and military forces engineered brutal military coups. Military advisors revamped armies and repressive police forces in countries threatened by revolutionary change. The United States used “low intensity conflict” to train anti-government reactionaries.

And then to mollify domestic critics, the U.S. initiated the privatization and outsourcing of the military as an adjunct to the over 700 U.S. military bases in more than 40 countries. Most recently, high tech weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, are used to kill people without endangering U.S. soldiers. Technological advances and the globalization of U.S. violence continue.

Eisenhower was inalterably opposed to the militarization of the U.S. economy. While he was willing to allot $40 billion in 1950s currency, he resisted the demands from Beltway liberals and defense contractors to double military spending. By the 1960s, half of the federal budget began to go to the military and one in 10 workers derived wages from defense contracts. And that continues, but with less public criticism.

Finally, Eisenhower spoke to the militarization of American culture. The university became a research arm of the complex. Students were taught about the virtues of military “readiness,” “the communist threat,” the problem of “human nature” and perpetual war, and, more recently, the endless danger of “terrorism.”

Virtually every large corporation, producing such products as toothpaste, toys, breakfast cereal, medications, automobiles, electronics, or energy, is steeped in military contracts. The public airwaves, the internet, movies, and sports are laced with war, violence, killing, and competition. As Eisenhower put it: “Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved: so is the very structure of our society.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Image from Dr. Martin Luther King.net.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken

-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967

Making war overseas and advancing hunger at home


In April, 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at Riverside Church in New York City and made it crystal clear that wars elsewhere not only kill the designated enemies, but impoverish poor working people at home. Dr. King made a critical contribution to the discussion of the link between war and foreign policy and people’s lives. Killing in other lands is an immoral abomination. While that needs to be critically understood, the unequal distribution of wealth and income within the United States is stark and is intimately connected to foreign adventures. And, in fact, the more resources that are allocated for killing others, the less there are to serve the needs of those at home.

President Lyndon Johnson, who increased the U.S. troop commitment from 16,000 in 1963 to 540,000 in 1968 and who launched daily bombing of targets in North and South Vietnam in 1965 that went unabated until 1968 tried to create a “war” on poverty at home. Dr. King knew that this country could not do both: that there was an inverse relationship between war-making and domestic prosperity. As he put it: “I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

And as the years unfolded and the United States shifted from a military draft to a volunteer army, there was an increase in the percentage of those who could not find jobs and earn a decent income and became the foot soldiers for future wars.

Jimmy Carter. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
-- Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979


Corporate/financial elites and the creation of self-indulgence

Perhaps the least known of the prophetic speeches cited here is the one presented on television in July, 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. He was called to speak about the growing energy crisis, dramatic increases in the price of oil, growing dependency on foreign oil, concentrated economic power in Washington, and the celebration of a culture of self-indulgence, consumerism, materialism, and competition.

While this speech did not address foreign and military policy as directly as the other two, it warned the American people about the dangers of war, foreign dependency on oil, and an international system driven by oil giants and oil-rich countries. He linked these to a domestic culture that defined its success on the basis of how much it could consume.

President Carter challenged the basic precept of the corporate culture that evolved out of industrial and monopoly capitalism in the twentieth century; its basic paucity of meaning and purpose. “But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”


What can we learn from these famous speeches?

We should bring to our political work the idea that words still matter. In addition, we must reflect upon the possibility that mainstream politicians, presidents for example, may say things that should and could be appropriated to build a progressive agenda. And, perhaps more difficult, we need to cut through the propaganda which often leads political figures to be lionized and thus transformed into everyday icons.

Dr. King was a radical, against racism, sexism, and classism. He opposed war. He saw the vital interconnections between massive governmental waste and human suffering. And he saw that the direction U.S. society was heading in was pure “madness.”

Substantively, we should revisit these speeches to raise again our opposition to war and empire and military spending. We need to stand with our brothers and sisters who are demanding jobs and justice. And we must stand with those, whether secular or religious, who argue against a self-indulgent, consumption-based and competitive society.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

The Rag Blog

Monday, January 11, 2016

IMPACTS OF THE PRIVATIZATION OF PUBLIC EDUCATION



Harry Targ

The political economy of public sector failure is wholly ignored when schools are declared failing and threatened with closure. Further, parents, guardians, community members, educators, and youth are systematically excluded from decisions to close schools and plans to redesign their replacements. The cover story about saving communities from educational crisis grows a bit suspect when the very communities presumably being saved are kept out of the process--and their children are often denied admission to the replacement schools. (Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine, Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, 2012, p. 98. These comments were made about New York but are relevant almost everywhere. ht).

In a prior essay, I discussed the connections between the neoliberal agenda characteristic of the changing political economy since the 1980s, the move toward privatization of public institutions, and the threat to public schools. www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com/2015/11/neoliberalism-privatization-and-crisis.html

In this essay I discuss some impacts of these policy changes in the United States and proposals for mobilizing for policy change in Indiana. 

First, the shift of scarce state budget funds from public to charter schools has meant a significant decline in resources to maintain and improve public schools. If funds for new charter schools and increased money for vouchers are transferred from adequately performing public schools to under-performing charter or religious schools the changes in educational policy would lead to a decline in the quality of education provided to all students. For example, in the 2014-2015 Indiana budget, $115 million was diverted by the state legislature from public education to the growing voucher program.

Therefore, as money is withdrawn from K-12 public education the traditional schools have reduced resources with which to do their job. This leads to declining performance. Then privatization advocates call for further reduction as well as school closings, rather than increasing resource allocation to public schools. 

Second, a high percentage of school closings occur in poor and Black communities. These closings create what the Journey for Justice Alliance calls “education deserts.” Parents have to find adequate, affordable schools elsewhere in the cities in which they live. Oftentimes charter schools refuse to admit particular students because of biased estimates of their probability of success, disabilities they may have, insufficient English language proficiency or other reasons. “Charter schools use a variety of selective admissions techniques, such as targeted marketing strategies, burdensome application processes, imposing academic prerequisites, and the active discouragement of less-desirable candidates.” (Journey for Justice Alliance, Death By a Thousand Cuts, May, 2014, pp.11-12). In some cases parents cannot find adequate schools for their children anywhere near their community. 

The closing of schools, the struggle for admission to new schools, the increased class sizes of new schools, the adjustment to a new school culture, along with the inexperience of new teachers, all impact in negative ways on the educational experience of children. Education writer, Scott Elliott reported that of the 18 charter schools operating in Indianapolis in 2015, half of them had test scores in 2014 that registered a “fail” in state examination of their children. The failing charter schools served children from poorer backgrounds and/or were children with special needs such as language training. Several of these failing charter schools had been operating for several years and some had been part of national charter networks.

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability summed up studies of the impacts of voucher programs on educational performance: ‘None of the independent studies performed of the most lauded and long standing voucher programs extant in the U.S.--Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.--found any statistical evidence that children who utilized vouchers performed better than children who did not and remained in public schools.”

Third, as parent and student protests in Chicago, in various cities and towns in Indiana, and elsewhere suggest, there is an inverse relationship between the spread of charter schools and voucher systems and citizen input into educational policy-making. Historically, while many parents chose not to participate in school board decision- making, the prerogative existed for parents, and even students, to provide input into educational policy. It was assumed that members of communities had the right and the responsibility to communicate their concerns to school administrators, elected school boards, and teachers. Most school districts have active parent organizations. 

The documentary Education Inc. demonstrated cases in which the frequency of public school board hearings was reduced and meetings were summarily adjourned to avoid debate on controversial issues. And legislatures, such as in Indiana, have prohibited state executive or legislative bodies from regulating the “curriculum content” of private schools that accept vouchers.

Fourth, the neoliberal design referred to in the prior essay is based upon the proposition that institutional and policy success is best measured by the profit accrued to the corporate bodies involved. In the field of education, neoliberal policies seek to shift accountability from the public to the private sector; from professional skills to market skills; and from participation by the professional and union organizations of teachers, parent groups, and engaged students to corporate executives of private corporations. The neoliberal design regards educational professionalism and training and teachers advocacy associations as impediments. 

Therefore the full force of state educational policy includes transferring status, respect, adequate remuneration from long time public school teachers to marginalized, under-trained new workers in charter schools. Also the charter school movement is avowedly an anti-teachers union movement. 

Documentaries on education such as Rise Above the Mark and Education Inc. illustrate that career teachers find demoralizing the repeated and dysfunctional testing of children, declining resources for their schools, and repeated public statements devaluing and demeaning teachers. Educational spokespersons in these films speak in the most glowing terms about the passion to teach, commitment to children, and talent of staffs under their leadership. School superintendents in these documentaries also speak about the contributions which teachers unions make to the enhancement of school performance.   

The sum total of the thirty year effort to transform the educational system under the guise of “reform” are the following: the tradition of public education is being destroyed; access to quality education is becoming more difficult and more unequal; transparency and parent input into policy making is becoming more difficult; and the attack on professionalism and teachers unions is making it more difficult to teach.

How to respond?

The November 14, 2015 essay and this one only begin to tell the story about the attacks on the educational process and quality education. Other issues need to be discussed including testing, evaluations based on dubious metrics, charging parents for text books, inequitable access to school supplies by district and by public versus private schools, inadequate funding, the development of curricula appropriate for a twenty-first century educational agenda, and the need to combat the “school to prison pipeline” that seems to undergird much of urban education. Responses to protect and enhance the quality of educational life for children require the following:

Creating an educational movement in the state of Indiana that says “enough is enough” to those advocates of so-called education “reform.” That means developing inside strategies that include running and electing legislators and executives who believe in public education. It means lobbying at the State House during the legislative season. It means launching litigation when politicians and educational privateers violate the Indiana constitution’s guarantee that all children have a right to a quality education.

The educational movement must also embrace an outside strategy, building a social movement. It should include education, agitation, and organization. Pamphlets, speakers, videos, and other public fora need to be organized all around the state. Educators and their supporters need to rally and protest so that the issue of quality education is discussed in communities and the media.

And organizationally, an educational movement should draw upon the militancy, passion, and expertise of educational organizations around the state that are already engaged in this work. Strengthening the movement for quality education is more about bringing existing groups together than creating new ones. That is the vision of Indiana Moral Mondays and the idea of “fusion politics.” Assemble those who share common values and a vision and build a mass movement such that as the old slogan says: “The People United Shall Never Be Defeated.” 

What Specific Policies and Programs to Support?

1.Increasing, not decreasing, federal, state, and local funding of public education.

2.Prioritizing the funding of traditionally under-funded schools in economically disadvantaged communities. Resources should include salaries to encourage experienced teachers to remain in disadvantaged communities. Funds should provide equal technologies, including libraries, computers, and other tools, for schools in lower income communities equal to those provided for wealthier communities. Resources should provide for language training, math education, and programs in the arts.

3.Policy-making bodies in all branches of government should be open and transparent so that parents, teachers, and students can observe and participate in decision-making.
4.In school districts where teachers choose to form unions or other professional associations these organizations should be recognized partners in the policy-making process.

5.Assessments of school performance should be determined by teachers, school administrators, and parents, not politicians or educational corporations. Teachers should not be forced to “teach to the tests.”

6.The goal of the educational process should be the full development of the potential of each and every student irrespective of race, gender, class or other forms of discrimination.