Election 2012: An interview with Luis J. Rodriguez
Platypus Review 51 | November 2012
On September 11, 2012 the radio program Radical Minds on WHPK (88.5 FM) broadcast an interview with Luis J. Rodriguez. The interview was conducted by Edward Remus and Spencer A. Leonard of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Rodriguez has forty years of experience as an organizer among diverse communities and is the author of 15 books. He co-founded the Network for Revolutionary Change in October of 2011, and in July of 2012 he joined the Justice Party’s 2012 presidential campaign as Rocky Anderson’s running mate. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Edward Remus: What led to you to become the vice presidential candidate of the Justice Party? What do you intend to achieve by running for President this year, given that it is virtually impossible for you to win?
Luis J. Rodriguez: To me it was clear that someone had to speak on the issues that neither the Republicans nor Democrats are willing to talk about. It’s a rigged game: It takes many millions of dollars for someone to run on the two-party ticket. Plenty of people who have experience in politics and something to say cannot become involved. We want to speak about why the game is rigged, who’s behind it, and what we—the whole American populace—can do to make this a more democratic process. As things stand, it is all about money and not about the issues.
ER: What issues are central to the Justice Party’s platform? How would you contrast the Justice Party with the Republicans, Democrats, and Greens?
LR: One of the things that attracted me to the Justice Party was a desire for economic justice, real jobs, the end of poverty, no more tax cuts to the wealthy, compassionate and rational immigration for immigrants, free education for everyone—that kind of thing. Then there’s environmental justice: How can we cut back on the various toxic things we do to the environment? Finally, there is social and civic justice, which would entail Medicare for everyone, rather than a convoluted healthcare plan; marriage equality; and no more discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. That also includes the ending of patriarchy, which is undemocratic, and needs to be challenged everywhere. But I don’t think any of this is about competing with the Green Party or any other third party. There are close to 200 presidential candidates around the country. Most of them won’t be on the ballot. There are so many people who just want to be heard. I support any such efforts. When Rocky Anderson invited me to join the Justice Party as his vice-presidential candidate, I accepted it—not thinking of myself as a politician, not thinking that I want to win, but from the viewpoint that we all need stronger, clearer ways to raise awareness of what’s going on in this country and where we need to go.
ER: You are running on the principle that President Obama is worth defeating in November, but the only candidate who has a prospect of defeating Obama is Republican nominee Mitt Romney. What would be the effects of a Romney victory? Do you think it would at least have the virtue of registering the President’s grave shortcomings?
LR: It is not really about Obama as a person, but much more fundamentally about our two-party system, which means you just have two ends of the same stick, and most Americans’ voices are excluded. Democrats and Republicans try to pin responsibility for the economy on each other, but we all know they both are getting big corporate money. It does not matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in office when the big banks and corporations have all the power.
ER: But how, if at all, would a Romney victory change the Justice Party strategy for 2014 and 2016?
LR: Basically, no matter what, we need to keep organizing. If Romney wins, we keep organizing; if Obama wins, we keep organizing. I think the key question is the political maturity of activists and revolutionaries. We have to start thinking about how every one of these battles can be a living, teaching engagement for all Americans. The task now concerns the political maturity of individuals, raising awareness about the real issues and asking, Who is equipped to resolve them?
ER: You co-founded the Network for Revolutionary Change (NRC) in the fall of last year. On the NRC website, there is an article by Lenny Brody which says, “It is becoming clear that the mass movement and the struggles in the electoral arena are growing increasingly intertwined.” Have you adopted an orientation toward the Occupy movement? If so, have you been successful in channeling and redirecting the impulse behind Occupy into Justice Party electoral efforts?
LR: When the Occupy movement started in Zuccotti Park, I actually went there, and I felt that Occupy reflects the same struggles that motivate the Justice Party: The economy is completely derailed. The two mainstream parties aren’t working. The political process is completely closed off. I look at all of these movements as expressions of the same impulses: How are we going to achieve a truly democratic, free, and less impoverished world? I see Occupy as another new wave of ideas about what we can do to involve more people politically. One of the key things to ask with respect to something like Occupy is, What new forms of struggle and organizing are emerging? It is not going to follow the old forms.
ER: To take another statement from the NRC that, “revolutionaries always fight for immediate demands that can improve the conditions of the working class,” adding that these struggles “are waged within the context of a larger revolutionary process.” However, as Occupy showed, many activists are reluctant to formulate demands. Why do you think the Occupy movement was reluctant to formulate specific demands, and what obstacles does this reluctance present for the Justice Party?
LR: I see this as a reaction to what has happened in the past. Almost every movement eventually gets co-opted. The peace movement eventually became the other side of the coin, the war movement, and they were both being used by the same people. The same goes for almost every major struggle. If you make it hard for people to articulate your demands for you, then it is hard for the Democratic Party or any other organization to come in and say, “We’re the ones that are going to make it happen.” At the same time, some very clear, concise, strategic direction has to come of this. A lot of it is already formulated in what the economy and the politics of the world are giving us. Where do we go from here? Where is society pushing us? The future destination is clearer; now it is a matter of how we tie the threads from the future into what’s happening now.
Spencer A. Leonard: The Republicans are primarily running on the issue of the economy. President Obama, for his part, claims that his economic programs are a “difficult path” that is nonetheless capable of generating long-term economic recovery. How would the Justice Party be different? That is, does the Justice Party have a program or at least an approach that could genuinely affect the economic conditions people face today, both in terms of the immediate crisis as well as the background conditions that everyone now seems to take for granted—namely, endemic unemployment and underemployment, stagnant wages, etc.?
LR: Right now, the Justice Party is first and foremost addressing the issue of getting the corrupting influence of money out of politics. Part of what we can do is to have more voices involved in the answer. How do we resolve welfare reform? Get the welfare recipients right into the debate. What about the high rates of incarceration? Bring in the prisoners, the gang members, the mothers, and the families directly involved. That way, whatever solutions emerge will have more voices, more energy, and more experiences behind them, which you don’t get when a few bureaucrats try to figure everything out. In the short term we want to open up the political process and call for justice in all parts of it. In the long term, I think we have to build a bigger and broader movement, which would involve Democrats and Republicans along with Green Party people and others, in order to really open up democracy in the economy and in politics.
SL: But what do you mean in terms of democratizing the economy? What is politically possible right now to address the fact that so many people have no prospects for work?
LR: We have to change the structure of the economy and politics in order to involve as many people as possible. There are lots of skills and much talent and imagination not being used. Even college kids struggle to get jobs. Meanwhile rich people’s income has reached astronomical levels. Meeting the needs of the very poorest areas of the inner cities and the rural communities is going to require involving those communities in the political process.
ER: The NRC says that, for revolutionaries, the goal is for the working class to take political power. What do you envision with respect to politicizing the economy and the working class taking political power?
LR: For one thing, I am thinking about the large working class community I am managing in Los Santos, which is the second largest Mexican and Central American community in the whole country. It used to have a General Motors plant and a big foundry, but by the 1980s and ’90s, all these jobs disappeared. My approach to this problem is bottom-up: Go to these communities and ask, How would you re-imagine your space? How would you redistribute the goods of the community? Even the Justice Party should not think of itself as the agent that makes things better directly; rather, it is a vehicle to open up the political process. We have to put power in the hands of the very people who have been pushed out of the economy. There is no immediate way in their community for them to be brought back in, because now everything moves to whatever area has the best infrastructure for advanced technology. The question is, How do we align this technology to the needs and capacities of the people?
ER: The NRC also argues that the first step in the fight is to break the Democratic Party, but also claims that the fight for a third party might be a prelude to the formation of a working class party. How would such a working class party hope to address these issues of job flight and unemployment? Beyond bottom-up participation from various communities, what would become politically possible if the Justice Party, or a working class party that emerges from it, were actually in a position to implement policy?
LR: I don’t want to romanticize about a bunch of men and women who have oil and sweat on their brow, but nonetheless the working class is really the fulcrum of the whole society. They are the class that can make a difference. Rich people are becoming richer and more powerful, demanding ever more totalitarian control. The middle class, being composed of people on their way up or down, is fluid; it is not a permanent, stable class. The one class that makes sense as a basis for politics, the only class that can move things forward, is the class of people who can survive only by selling their labor. Yet, many in this class are no longer able even to do that, because out on the streets there is no potential for jobs. How does that class get the knowledge, experience, and politicization necessary to help move things forward? If we don’t confront that question, we leave things in the hands of rich people who maintain their power, year to year, and who really control this country regardless of who is President or which party has a majority in Congress.
SL: Many people who consider themselves leftists either vote for the Democrats or simply refuse to vote. What do you say to these people? Why are these two responses to American electoral democracy on the Left inadequate in 2012, specifically? Why the Justice Party, and why now?
LR: There has been a big shift in collective consciousness. I speak all over the country, and I often hear people saying really surprising stuff. They’re talking about class, about their interests, about how the economy is not going to get fixed and how they don’t feel involved in the Democratic or Republican parties. So you are seeing lots of fissures forming in the GOP and the Democrats, which is, I suppose, the first stages of things falling apart for them. Then you have the third parties. Some of them are more right-wing than left- wing, and vice versa. Really, the NRC is trying to bring together, as much as possible, those progressive revolutionary thinkers, activists, and leaders to start thinking about something that’s never been done in this country: How do we go from here to there? How do we bring in all of this energy that’s being generated around issues of the economy and focus it? Because right now, it’s scattered, it’s fragmented, sometimes it’s at cross-purposes. We need to be involved at all levels of society, which means engaging with different parties, churches, labor unions, non-labor unions.
ER: If revolutionaries, such as those involved in the NRC, successfully come together in the way you are describing, what do you expect to happen?
LR: In general, I think revolutionaries of all stripes would become more imaginative. And that means that many of these various organizations would seem to lose momentum, only to come alive again: The way the organization used to be would begin to look like a corpse that we were dragging along, and it would become clear that we need a new vision and new ways of thinking. Part of the challenge for revolutionaries is to know how to let go of certain formations and ideas that moments ago might have been necessary, but now hold us down.
SL: There have been attempts to form a left-wing party at the level of electoral politics in America: the Labor Party in the 1990s, various attempts in the 1970s, the Wallace campaign in 1948, the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs, arguably even the Republican Party in 1860. How do you see the problem presented by the electoral system in the United States in light of this history? What lessons, if any, should we draw from these past attempts to influence politics at that level?
LR: To my mind, this is where the Left is at right now: It either stays small or goes big. I’m approaching 60 years old, and I don’t have time to stay in a small group of like-minded people who aren’t part of anything bigger. I’m calling for the Left and for revolutionary people—anybody out there—to be part of something big. Let’s look at real strategies and, whether they involve new parties or old parties, ask, Where is it going? How can we orient them? How can we take them where they need to go? That, to me, is the essence of why the system is so hard to change: It keeps the people out of the process.
We can learn from the struggles to form a viable Labor Party in America. I think those past efforts were heroic, important, and meaningful. That they ultimately didn’t lead to very much poses the question, What did we learn? I’m not sure if those lessons have been properly studied and absorbed. I can’t tell you where the Justice Party’s going to end up in a few years, but I can say that it is really working to build a movement more than an organization. That’s what I’m interested in: A broader movement, involving more people, but without losing its revolutionary edge. More people are being pushed out, they are looking for answers, and we need to be there to fill that vacuum, putting forth real revolutionary thinking and ideals. You brought up the Green Party. I know Cheri Honkala very well, and I know Jill Stein’s work. I support what they are trying to do. This is not competitive; it is about how we begin to address the scattered, fragmented ways that people organize now. How do we pull together the Occupy movement as well as all these third party movements? Where is it going to finally gel?
SL: On the one hand, we’re in an environment where it has been over 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. China is essentially a capitalist country. The language of the Left is largely absent from culture or incomprehensible; today it is met with a kind of bemusement or even with open hostility. Occupy seemed interested in re-engagement with the question of democracy as such. How do you understand this re-engagement? Do you think this focus on democratic forms could facilitate a renewed involvement in the history of the Left, including a confrontation with the obstacles that the Left has struggled with in the past?
LR: In the past, many people saw the Soviet system and China as the beginnings of a new world. Now, almost all traces of that are simply gone or transformed completely. Their economies were based in the industrial system. Capitalism was the system best suited for that kind of world. When you look at technology today, it is putting forward the potential for something else: not industry, but the possibility of being connected in a way you never were before, of being creative in ways that didn’t exist before. There is the possibility that everyone could be their own source of labor and the site of great, inventive ideas. I think that’s what is causing everything to change. Technology—the productive forces—are driving everything to be questioned, including the relations of production. How do we change our language to align with the real content of our times? This is a challenge for everybody. When you say certain things, people’s eyes glaze over, because what you’ve said is expressive of an old way of thinking. But there are new seeds being planted for revolution. It’s already in the ground. How do we nurture it? The Justice Party and the NRC alike are tools. They are vehicles that can help push things forward, by bringing in revolutionaries from all walks of life together to make a difference in this country.
ER: You co-founded the NRC in Chicago in October of 2011. Many of its founding members more or less split from the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA), a tendency led by Nelson Peery that was forged during the late 1960s and became part of the New Communist Movement. Given your apparent sympathy with the LRNA’s theoretical emphasis on the epochal significance of industrial automation, what made, what made this group of veterans, including yourself, decide to leave the LRNA?
LR: I think the LRNA has a very important role to play. I’m not opposing, and I wouldn’t oppose, the NRC against any other Left formation, including the LRNA. The NRC, for its part, is trying to do something that nobody else is doing: pulling together real, objective, organized revolutionary activists and leaders, locally and across the country. I don’t have any hostility toward the League, nor toward most Left or revolutionary thinking in general. I’d like to see people get more engaged, to have them see how both teaching and action are necessary for the struggle. I do not want to splinter people but actually get them moving as one, because we have to deal with capitalism at a systematic level.
ER: But discussions over strategy and tactics tend to come to a head within any leftist organization. What were some of the arguments and deliberations within the LRNA over the past two years with respect to the Justice Party and third-party electoral involvement?
LR: I don’t think there was anything particular to the Justice Party; the LRNA was involved in the Labor Party and other third party formations, including the Green Party. Those weren’t the issues. For me, it was about not being schizophrenic about revolution. I think everyone has fractured around either becoming activists or becoming teachers. I don’t think we need to be divided that way. I’ve seen the Left isolate itself while right-wing groups—organized through churches and whatnot—begin to gather strength. The Left is becoming more fragmented, turning against itself. I say, let’s not be schizophrenic, let’s not break ourselves up. That’s where the NRC can play a specific role. How do we bring the leaders around to a whole new orientation that we haven’t had in this country, which has been rigged, politically, from the very beginning—from the anti-slavery battles to the labor battles? At the same time, people look at this country as having led some of the major labor struggles, from May Day to Civil Rights. Now we have to do it again. Where can we get together and become fully aligned, moving together, to make that happen?
SL: What do you see as the tasks of the 21st century, given that so many people look back nostalgically to the 20th century and, in particular, given that so many working and poor people, rightly or wrongly, look back to the welfare state as a model? You call for unity in the face of our present tasks, but is it really so clear what the political tasks of the present actually are, especially when the labor movement seems to be so politically weak? How do you address a context in which people are actively looking back to the past and how do you see the Justice Party candidacy, and your work, in terms of trying to turn a corner politically in this country?
LR: We’re at the end of something and everybody feels it. As you come to the end of a certain period, everything frays. Things become fragmented and confused. But it’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of a certain epoch, but also the beginning of something new. For as long as human beings have been (as it is called) “civilized” there has always been one class, one group of people, with power over another. We’re getting to a point where the imagination of “no more exploiters, no more oppressors” is becoming part of the consciousness of most people. There’s something already happening in reality that’s pushing us in that direction. To address that, we have to start looking at new ways of doing things, new organizations, and a new language even. I don’t think it is about returning to Marx and Engels any more than it is about creating the new Engels and the new Marx for our time. Without turning away from what they gave us, we need to figure out how to become real, engaged, meaningful revolutionaries for this time. Imagination is key. Imagination is not fantasy; it is dictated by what happens in reality, and reality is showing us the possibilities of a world in which we don’t need a new formation of the capitalist class, we don’t need another group of wealthy people and politicians controlling what we do, we don’t need people sitting in offices deciding the fate of the people on welfare. We have to put political power back into the hands of the people who work and the people who have lost their jobs. You have to align with the future. The things being done by the Republicans and Democrats are old, and they aren’t going to work. They speak in terms of the period that’s drawing to a close. They aren’t going anywhere. We’re stuck on this treadmill but there’s a whole new track opening up. How do we get on that new track instead of running in the same place, over and over again? |P
Transcribed with the assistance of Miguel Rodriguez
. Lenny Brody, “Strategy and Tactics for Revolutionaries,” Revolutionary Network: Official Newsletter of the Network for Revolutionary Change 2 (June–July 2012): 8. Available online at <http://networkforrevolutionarychange.org/documents.html>.