Syriza, Podemos & Outside Organizing

SYRIZA’s big victory in Greece this weekend is an exciting moment for left political activism. They are an anti-austerity party that has actively campaigned on a promise of leftist reforms and a rejection of Greece’s fealty to multi-national banks and the Troika of the ECB, IMF, and the European Commission. Syriza failed two seats short of an outright majority and chose to partner with a rightwing, anti-austerity party to form their government. The results are to be determined, but we should know relatively soon, as Greece’s loan comes due soon and they will presumably have to quickly renegotiate an extensions. Syriza, despite much hyperventilating to the contrary, does not seem intent on leaving the Eurozone, so they are likely to behave in a less radical fashion than a party with “radical” as part of their name might otherwise be expected to behave.

Taking a step back from the politics and the global economics of the situation, I want to flag something which strikes me as far more important beyond Greece. Prior to the Greek election Sebastian Budgen interviewed Stathis Kouvelakis, a Syriza committee member and professor at King’s College London, for Jacobin. It is a very long interview, with lots of internal history both of Syriza and the Greek left. But it touches on a point which I think is critical to the prospects for exporting whatever has made Syriza a success in Greece to points beyond.

Do you think that the social movement that we saw with the city square occupations in Greece is linked to Syriza’s advances at the ballot box?

Absolutely. Some people believed that these movements were not only spontaneous but even anti-political, that they stood outside and against politics. But while they did indeed reject the politics they saw in front of them, they were also looking for something different. The Podemos experience in Spain as well as Syriza in Greece shows that if the radical Left makes suitable proposals, then it can arrive at an understanding with these movements and provide a credible political “condensation” of their demands.

The idea of a merging or condensing of radical, in the streets activism that happened around the globe in 2010 and 2011, into functional political parties that win elections is tantalizing. What is key to me is that Kouvelakis doesn’t talk about coopting the energies of young people and workers in the streets for one party’s gains. He doesn’t talk about individual leaders stepping forth to harness these popular movements. He instead talks about the onus being on political parties to speak to the popular movements and be sufficiently responsive to be credible to the activists.

A different way to put this is that it’s not up to activists in the street to come up with a policy agenda that politicians respond to, but the other way around. It is up to politicians and political parties to listen to what people in the streets (or online, for that matter) are saying and respond with the knowledge and skills that they have with the machinations of governance, of regulation, of legislation to provide a political outlet to protest movements.

Also posted at Jacobin, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos has a speech in which he highlights the extent to which winning elections is not the same as governance. The close workings of Podemos and Syriza speak to the ways in which electing multiple left governments that reject austerity can build off of each other. Iglesias offers good reminders that if they win, they have to actually succeed at delivering what people are counting on their governments for. It’s insufficient that they are opposed by wealthy elites and banksters. He says, “a society [must] be able to provide the basic material conditions that make happiness and dignity possible.” And as he admits, this is not a radical idea. It’s only radical in the context of decades of ascendant neoliberal governance that have sought to do the opposite.

Aiming higher

From the President’s State of the Union speech:

Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way.

They were young and in love in America, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

“If only we had known,” Rebekah wrote to me last spring, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.”

As the crisis worsened, Ben’s business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time. Rebekah took out student loans, enrolled in community college, and retrained for a new career. They sacrificed for each other. And slowly, it paid off. They bought their first home. They had a second son, Henry. Rebekah got a better job, and then a raise. Ben is back in construction — and home for dinner every night.

“It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”

We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.

This touching story of survival in the face of economic adversity was probably the single dominant thread in the President’s speech. The President referred to the Erler’s as a narrative device multiple times in the speech, complete with numerous shots of Rebekah in the audience. It truly is an impressive, though presumably common, story of how Americans worked their way through the economic collapse of 2008, the collapse of housing bubble, and the rise of debt and joblessness that accompanied it all.

Of course, you can also look at this story and see a depiction of how the American government utterly failed this family.

They were the victim of the bets of Wall Street banks, given license to gamble by bipartisan deregulation. Houses were overvalued, loans were inflated beyond what borrowers could pay, and when no one was buying houses, no one was building them. Wall Street banks were let off the hook – allowed to continue to exist despite being insolvent, while insolvent homeowners were told to quietly surrender their homes to these very same bankers. When stimulus spending was passed, it was small and limited, lest the deficit scolds be given optical license to scold the President and his new majorities in Congress.

There was no way for this family to get higher education without debt, so debt they took on. The risk seems to be paying off and the economy is rebounding. Things seem bright for the Erlers and that’s to be celebrated.

But how would the last six plus years of their lives looked differently if the government had actually sought to help people impacted by the economic crisis, instead of waiting for them to gamely dig themselves out of trouble? What if there had been stimulus spending to keep construction jobs from contracting? What if there were free community college (as the President has now proposed to the Republican controlled Congress)? What if there was a minimum wage that was a living wage? Surely all of this would have helped this family, kept them afloat and maybe brought them what they themselves earned painstakingly a bit faster and with a bit less pain.

There are many ways in which government is not like a family. Just as a government doesn’t have to balance the checkbook the way a family does, the characteristics of grit through austerity do not hold from the family to the government. Maybe this family got through it all, but I think we must aim higher than that. Maybe our country is getting through it all – though this is a highly contentious claim in my view – but again, we must aim higher.

In fairness, the President did call for Congress to aim higher, though more in the spirit of cooperation and civic duty than in pursuit of any particular set of outcomes.

I’m left with a description of a family’s trials that, while admirable, is not one that I would hold up as anything other than an example of the ways in which the Democratic and Republican parties have failed poor, working and middle class Americans.

Racism & Economic Justice

Jesse Meyerson and Mychal Denzel Smith have an excellent piece at The Nation on the intersectionality between combating racism in America and economic justice. It offers a number of prescriptions for fighting racism via economic programs which would help Black Americans.

The key for me is the acknowledgement of this intersectionality of racism and economic inequality. We can’t solve for one in the absence of the other. White left activists, myself included, have historically been quite guilty of treating economic injustice as the formative issue in solving for other injustices. But economic inequality in America cannot be discussed in the absence of the acknowledgement of racism and centuries of white supremacy.

The lines from Rage Against the Machine’s “Ashes in the Fall” have always struck me as a pretty concise explanation of the marriage of racism, white supremacy and economic inequality:

Ain’t it funny how the factory doors close
Round the time that the school doors close
Round the time that a hundred thousand jail cells
Open up to greet you like the reaper

The question which Smith and Meyerson raise, really, is how much of the above is the consequence of historic racist economic and political policy choices. The short answer: pretty much all of it.

To solve for racial and economic inequality, Smith and Meyerson put forward a number of concrete ideas. The pursuit of full employment, including guaranteed employment and a minimum basic income, would reduce poverty and create the opportunity for increased political and economic power in racially marginalized communities. This would create hope, economic security and stability. They also propose an overhaul to the tax code and the creation of baby bonds, both policies which seek to increase wealth in the black community and would reduce inequality.

The piece is building around what demands for the anti-racism organizing taking place in Ferguson and with #BlackLivesMatter can be concretely asking for (beyond the obvious and sadly necessary policy shift of American police to stop murdering young Black Americans). Having concrete demands is certainly useful, but having large demands that adequately address the scale of our problems is even more useful. The perspective Meyerson and Smith bring allows for the wide and far enough view to put forward big ideas.

This is not to say that the solutions are exhaustive or curative. But they’re a start.

On the 2014 elections & ideas

The Democrats got beat pretty badly in the midterm elections. This is not a big surprise. But the losses have generated countless pieces about why they lost, how they could have avoided losing, what messaging would work better, how Democrats can better convince the citizenry to put their faith in them and so forth. To me, it’s a massively unsatisfying oeuvre.


I came to realize a number of years ago that by and large the people and centers of power in the Democratic Party don’t share my set of beliefs. There are no doubt some leftwing and populist politicians in the Democratic Party – obviously Elizabeth Warren tops the list – but they don’t run the party, they don’t run the party committees, they don’t drive the legislative agenda. Power in the Democratic Party is centered in individuals who are conservative, who hold neoliberal views of work and the economy, and have deep ties to finance capital. The majority of Democratic office holders and their supporting infrastructure falls into this latter category and spends an awful lot of time talking about how Democrats are wrong to use populist or anti-bank messaging.

This is a realization of fact. There is no normative quality to this, it’s simply the world we live in. And it’s a world where the existence of a Warren or a Sherrod Brown or a Mike Honda within the Democratic Party does not mean that it is in fact a populist or even a left political party.

Here are a few other somewhat disjointed, post-election thoughts…


A common thread in election epitaphs has been that Democrats aren’t conveying their ideas well. As a counter-point, Noam Scheiber describes the nature of Obama’s ideology:

How could these two legacies coexist in one presidency? They emanate from the worldview that Jarrett and Obama sharecall it “boardroom liberalism.” It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on highone that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.Is this not a perfect description of the Democratic Party today? Generally positive on social issues, but full-blooded in their support for corporations, for profits, for the 1% and the bottom line.

Notwithstanding his early career as a community organizer, Obama, like Jarrett, is fundamentally a man of the inside. It’s why he put a former Citigroup executive and Robert Rubin chief of staff named Michael Froman in charge of assembling his economic team in 2008, why he avoided a deep restructuring of Wall Street, why he abruptly junked the public option during the health care debate, why he so ruthlessly pursues leakers and the journalists who cultivate them. It explains why so many of his policy ideasfrom jobs for the long-term unemployed to mentoring minority youthrely on the largesse of corporations.

This doesn’t describe a problem of rhetoric. Plenty of Democrats ran and lost using populist messaging, just as plenty of conservative Democrats ran and lost using conservative, Republican Lite messaging. Focusing the debate on the impact of messaging not only ignores the fact that Democrats have a clear record while in varying degrees of power over the last six years, but has the unseemly quality of treating American voters like rubes to be moved by marketing campaigns.


Matt Stoller, in the course of a must-read book review of Al From’s The New Democrats and the Return to Power, makes a very strong case for the need for ideas. Opening on the occasion of the many hair-rending after action reports within Democratic circles as to what happened, Stoller writes:

Everything is put on the table, except the main course — policy. Did the Democrats run the government well? Are the lives of voters better? Are you as a political party credible when you say you’ll do something?

This question is never asked, because Democratic elites — ensconced in the law firms, foundations, banks, and media executive suites where the real decisions are made — basically agree with each other about organizing governance around the needs of high technology and high finance. The only time the question even comes up now is in an inverted corroded form, when a liberal activist gnashes his or her teeth and wonders — why can’t Democrats run elections around populist themes and policies? This is still the wrong question, because it assumes the wrong causality. Parties don’t poll for good ideas, run races on them, and then govern. They have ideas, poll to find out how to sell those ideas, and run races and recruit candidates based on the polling. It’s ideas first, then the sales pitch. If the sales pitch is bad, it’s often the best of what can be made of an unpopular stew of ideas.

Still, you’d think that someone, somewhere would have populist ideas. And a few — like Zephyr Teachout and Elizabeth Warren — do. But why does every other candidate not? I don’t actually know, but a book just came out that might answer this question. The theory in this book is simple. The current generation of Democratic policymakers were organized and put in power by people that don’t think that a renewed populist agenda centered on antagonism towards centralized economic power is a good idea.

Democrats writ large aren’t populists because they don’t believe in populists ideas. Expecting them to be a vehicle for ideas that they don’t hold isn’t a reasonable expectation.


Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor in New York, has a good op-ed in The Guardian that brings up a number of ideas that he sees as fertile ground for a resurgent American left, unserved by the Democratic Party.


Frankly I don’t care if the Democratic Party becomes a vehicle for leftwing ideas or if left movements emerge that can force policy action or if a left third party emerges that builds real, sustained political power. But I do hope there is a home for these ideas in this country.

There are potential sources for left ideas to be put forward and spread publicly. The ideas can be pushed for by left Democrats, by the Working Families Party, by #BlackLivesMatter, by Occupy, by labor, by environmentalists, by a new third party that represents workers, people of color, women, immigrants, youth… There’s a lot that can by done and is already being done. Like Stoller points out, it doesn’t really matter what we call it, as long as the issues that must be confronted are so confronted with good ideas, unbound to Democratic electoral frameworks.


There has been real energy come from youth and working people lead movements like Occupy Wall Street (and the notable mutual aid offshoots Occupy Sandy and Occupy Homes), the Dream Defenders, Moral Mondays, fast food worker organizing, direction action activists against the Keystone XL pipeline and quite powerfully, in the anti-racism, anti-police brutality protests surrounding the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and sadly many others.

But what needs to come first is the ideas, ideas that can weave these somewhat disparate but complimentary movements together. I’ve said for a long time there’s a potential political party/movement that aligns closely around the values of young people and people of color/immigrants. You end up going basically with Occupy + Millenials + Internet Freedom. Core issues, in no particular order, would include:
  • Anti-racism in general and anti-police brutality/profile in particular
  • Legalized marijuana, end the war on drugs
  • Marriage equality
  • High minimum wage
  • Student loan / debt reform
  • Workers rights on the job, particularly against fast food and app-based employers
  • Net neutrality
  • Regulation of financial markets
  • Spending for renewable energy development / ending fossil fuel state

These is a great list of issues that Democrats have thoroughly failed to serve their natural, historic constituencies on. Maybe there’s space for someone to bring forth ideas that address them. I don’t hold out hopes that this will happen within the Democratic Party, but I’ve been wrong before.

Guest Post: What Would Carl Oglesby Say About Bob Rubin?

My good family friend Avram Barlowe penned this thoughtful piece which I think merits wider reading. Avram is a teacher in the New York City public school system and a union shop steward.

What Would Carl Oglesby Say About Bob Rubin?
. . . and by extension, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?

Coming of age under the influence of the New Left, one of the political traits I developed was an enduring mistrust of powerful liberals and liberalism. There have surely been times in my life when that mistrust was misplaced and dogmatic. And decades of neoliberalism’s slow but steady erosion of the welfare state have certainly taught me the value of certain liberal reforms and the need, sometimes, to work within the system. However, I still believe in an aspect of the New Left’s critique, which suggests that liberalism is too often an accommodation masking capitalism’s injustice. I would also argue that social democracy as we have known it, with all of its considerable benefits, in both its European and American forms, is fundamentally a concession that capitalism is rejecting in the context’s of the left’s defeat. It should not be an end in itself. I understand that fatigue in the face of reaction at home, the failure of “really existing socialism” abroad, and a pragmatism born of conditions have narrowed the horizon for many decent, serious activists, but I think these people are engaged in denial to the extent that they accept the good intentions, if not the practices, of the “centrist” liberals who run the Democratic Party.

I’ve been stewing about this in recent weeks as I’ve perused assorted bits of news, which reveal the manner in which liberal Democrats have essentially conceded to the big banks the right of risky, financial speculation and the fiscal austerity/privatization that accompanies it. (If you doubt me on this one consider as examples the latest, paltry fines paid by UBS to settle [out of court] its “LIBOR” violations and by HSBC to resolve [out of court] its laundering of billions of dollars for Columbian and Mexican drug cartels, a clear violation of the Banking Secrets Act and the Trading With The Enemy Act. In each case, according to The New York Times, the government clearly “chose not to indict . . .for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and, in the process, endanger the financial system.) I’m reminded that so many of the current policy’s architects are liberal, east coast Democrats, products of prestigious educations, the best and brightest, just as were their 1960’s counterparts (except that this time several of the wise men — Jack Lew, Gene Sperling, David Plouffe, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel — are Jewish, as are their not-so-informal guru, Bob Rubin, and myself). And when one takes a closer look at their profiles, credentials, interests and political actions, the parallels to the 60’s are rather striking.

Yves Smith wrote a smart blog piece this week on Jack Lew, Obama’s Secretary of Treasury nominee, that examines Bob Rubin’s influence in the Obama Administration. (Lew, by the way, worked with Rubin in the Clinton Administration and later was one of a group of former Clintonites recruited by Rubin at Citigroup.) It includes a telling description of Rubin’s liberalism:

“Rubin was admired by everyone for his low-key personal style. Rubin always had a big heart and a gentle manner: He was a liberal Democrat who, as a young trader at Goldman Sachs, used to show up at New York community meetings on the inner-city poor. Later on he opposed Clinton’s welfare “workfare” reform—a much-criticized compromise with the GOP—as too harsh. . . .

In the year 2010, in an interview with me a decade after his star turn as Treasury secretary, as the floodwaters of the subprime disaster lapped at his executive suite in the Citigroup building on Manhattan’s East Side, Rubin mulled over the consequences of what he had wrought. ‘We have a market-based financial system, and yet we have a whole bunch of institutions that are too big or too interconnected to fail,’ Rubin said in puzzled tones. “Yet the market-based system is the way to go. How do you reconcile all that? The fundamental theory of the [market] case is premised on the notion that failure or success reaps their own rewards. But now that’s not happening.”

The quotation cited here is quite an admission. One wonders why someone capable of it and someone apparently concerned with the plight of marketplace “losers” doesn’t renounce the present system and call for or seek an alternative. The answer, of course, is that he and others like him are deeply vested in the system, ideologically, emotionally, and, perhaps most important, materially.

Now consider for a moment one of the New Left’s defining moments, the words spoken by SDS leader Carl Oglesby’s at the first national March on Washington protest against the Vietnam War:

“We are here again to protest a growing war. Since it is a very bad war, we acquire the habit of thinking it must be caused by very bad men. But we only conceal reality, I think, to denounce on such grounds the menacing coalition of industrial and military power, or the brutality of the blitzkrieg we are waging against Vietnam, or the ominous signs around us that heresy may soon no longer be permitted. We must simply observe, and quite plainly say, that this coalition, this blitzkrieg, and this demand for acquiescence are creatures, all of them, of a Government that since 1932 has considered itself to he fundamentally liberal.

The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.”

I know some will argue that it’s wrong to compare the horrors of Vietnam to our current economic problems. But substitute the casino economy and growing inequality for Vietnam and the liberals yesteryear for the liberal leaders of today and you have an analogy that fits. As Yves Smith notes, “we have created a free-market system dominated by institutions so huge and systemically important that they no longer have to play by free-market rules.” Bob Rubin and proteges such as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Peter Orszag and Jack Lew — honorable, liberal men all — have done as much as anyone to create that system. And the lives of ordinary people are being damaged and destroyed in order to preserve a power structure, just as they were in the Vietnam War.

To those who would deny this or question the wisdom of placing the system on trial even as we fight to defend and advance reforms, I would ask you to consider as well the closing of Oglesby’s speech in today’s light as well:

“Let me then speak directly to humanist liberals. If my facts are wrong, I will soon be corrected. But if they are right, then you may face a crisis of conscience. Corporatism or humanism: which? For it has come to that. Will you let your dreams be used? Will you be a grudging apologist for the corporate state? Or will you help try to change it – not in the name of this or that blueprint or ism, but in the name of simple human decency and democracy and the vision that wise and brave men saw in the time of our own Revolution?And if your commitment to human values is unconditional, then disabuse yourselves of the notion that statements will bring change, if only the right statements can be written, or that interviews with the mighty will bring change if only the mighty can be reached, or that marches will bring change if only we can make them massive enough, or that policy proposals will bring change if only we can make them responsible enough.

We are dealing now with a colossus that does not want to be changed. It will not change itself. It will not cooperate with those who want to change it. Those allies of ours in the Government – are they really our allies? If they are, then they don’t need advice, they need constituencies; they don’t need study groups, they need a movement. And it they are not, then all the more reason for building that movement with the most relentless conviction.

There are people in this country today who are trying to build that movement, who aim at nothing less than a humanist reformation. And the humanist liberals must understand that it is this movement with which their own best hopes are most in tune. We radicals know the same history that you liberals know, and we can understand your occasional cynicism, exasperation, and even distrust. But we ask you to put these aside and help us risk a leap. Help us find enough time for the enormous work that needs doing here. Help us build. Help us shape the future in the name of plain human hope.”

Carl’s words are hardly a program for working within and beyond the system today, but the approach and spirit they represent remain highly relevant. ‘Nuff said for now.

Econ4 on housing

Via Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.

Econ4 economists put out a statement on housing accompanying this video. It includes this passage, which I think is spot-on:

We oppose treating the nation’s housing as a bundle of assets to be sliced, diced, flipped, and bailed out in pursuit of inflated profits and bonuses.

We call for reality-based, ethically grounded housing policies that restore stability to families and sanity to markets.

We call for mandatory partial reductions of mortgage principal whenever this can keep a family in its home. We call for America’s best run housing non-profits to be paid to provide the counsel required to determine when such modifications will work. We call for civil and, when necessary, criminal sanctions on banks and loan-servicing companies whose employees intentionally obstruct implementation of mandated loan modifications.

We call for amending bankruptcy laws to restore pre-2005 rules that protected families and communities from bank depredations.

We call for immediate return to the rule of law by requiring those who seek to foreclose to demonstrate they have the proper title and rights to do so – with stiff legal penalties if they ignore the law.

In response to recent moves by the top 1% to buy distressed housing and convert it to rental stock as absentee landlords, we call for local, state and national standards to protect families from predatory rental practices.

We extend our support to all who are working in the private, non-profit, and public sectors to promote access to affordable and stable housing as a human right of families and an asset for communities.

Neil Barofsky for SEC Chair

Matt Stoller interviews Neil Barofsky, who says he’d be happy to serve as chairman of the SEC, if the President nominates him. He and Stoller talk about what he would do as SEC Chair and the important role the SEC has to play to regulate the banking system and make sure we don’t ever go through another collapse like 2008.

Barofsky would make a stellar pick for the SEC. Not that my opinion goes far, but still, he’d be a great choice.