Immigration and the Left (University of Illinois at Chicago)
Jorge Mujica, Ralph Cintron, and Jacqueline Stevens
Platypus Review #93 | February 2017
On November 7, 2016, the eve of the U.S. presidential election, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion entitled “Immigration and the Left” at the University of Illinois at Chicago [UIC]. Moderated by Joseph Estes of Platypus, the event posed three questions to the panelists: How has the Left approached the question of immigration historically? What opportunities exist in the immigrants’ rights movement today for a renewed emancipatory politics? What role can left-wing civil and political organizations play in immigration politics? Three speakers addressed these questions: Jorge Mujica, seasoned activist and the Strategic Campaigns Organizer for Arise Chicago; Ralph Cintron, professor of English and Latino and Latin American Studies at UIC; and Jacqueline Stevens, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.
Neoliberalism, as the current organization of capitalism, promised to overcome the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist states through the attainment of a free, cosmopolitan society. Yet, the weight of national borders continues to be felt. While capital can easily move to a home where it is profitable, workers find their movement stifled. From Brexit to the U.S. presidential elections, immigration has become unavoidable in political discourse: Some politicians have promised comprehensive immigration reform, while others have considered the undocumented culpable for the decline of the nation’s economy and sovereignty. In each case, a crisis of neoliberalism is being registered—but what is the meaning of the question to the Left and its attempts to change the world?
Famously, the Communist Manifesto says, “The working men have no country.” The incessant drive to realize profit sends capital all over the world, uprooting established relations and dynamizing the global economy. Workers are forced to consider themselves internationally in the fight against capital. Further, immigration might even centralize the gravediggers of capitalism.
However, if this process is not grasped by the workers, it offers an opportunity for the capitalists to secure their reign. The precarity of immigrants can be exploited by the ruling class to split the proletariat and contain their political struggle—that is, unless there is a Left to lead.
Jorge Mujica: I do not want to talk too much about the debates and the election, but I will say that Donald Trump is not such a novelty. He reflects what this society is all about. We could already see racism and proto-fascism in rampant incarceration, for example, which the Democratic Party also played into: Under Obama’s administration, some three million people were deported in only eight years. Basically, Trump is threatening us with reality. He cannot do much more beyond what the Obama administration has already done.
Regarding the so-called immigration movement, first I would point out that it is dominated by huge organizations with a lot of money, even if they have “non-profit” status. They keep on the good side of the Democratic Party. This includes organizations like We Are America, FIRM, and the National Council of La Raza, whose two big contributors are the U.S. Army and the Chamber of Commerce. Obviously, there is no Left here.
Then there is another echelon with the local organizations. These are also part of the corporate non-profit machinery that, in the end, obeys the directives of the Democrats. In 2007, when the Democratic Party said, “Do not march,” these organizations followed and dutifully repeated, “Do not march.” When people came out in May of 2007, it was because of a raid on the discount mall in Little Village, Chicago, one week before May Day, which inspired people to act despite what the Democrats said.
Next there are the disgruntled activists. In this group I would place the Dreamers, the young people who started fighting in opposition both to the Democratic and the Republican Party. They even took legislative offices and picketed Luis Gutiérrez, who is supposed to be the champion of immigration in the House of Representatives. This is a faction of people who became incredibly disenchanted with the other structures and organizations in this so-called immigration movement.
Finally, we have small sub-groupings of left activists who try to present a different perspective. What might this perspective be? I would like to say: “Revolution, revolution, revolution!” But that is not true. Even on the Left, the discussion around immigration is about what kinds of legislative actions may be taken in order to solve administrative problems, things like increasing the number of visas given to international workers—I prefer the designation, “international workers,” instead of “immigrants,” or “undocumented workers.”
In 2006 when Congressman George Sensenbrenner’s legislation came out with the intent of criminalizing everybody, the popular slogan on the side of the marches was, “We are not criminals—we are workers!” It did not say, “We are students,” or, “We are fathers and mothers.” The slogan, which was not made up by the leadership, was, “We are not criminals. We are workers.” That is what I think the Left has tried to put at the center of the immigration debate.
At my job for a workers’ center, we are helping a group of workers who are being dismissed by a company in the middle of a union election, on the pretext that they lack the proper immigration papers. The elections are scheduled for November 18th; today the factory locked out nearly one hundred workers. What is the problem and what is the solution, here? Obviously, in the practical sense, people need papers. What people want is to be recognized as workers: “Let us work. We came to this country to work.” That is the end of it. If Hillary Clinton negotiated with the Tea Party just to give work papers to these people—not a “path to citizenship,” or anything like that, just permission to work—the majority of the immigrant community would be happy.
Now, at the same time, we assume that immigrants are international workers. Regardless of the status they have, or whether you have papers, you are a worker. Being a citizen does not make much difference when you are paid so little, or when your wages are stolen. Changing your name or your immigration status does not necessarily alter your working conditions. After the so-called “amnesty” of 1986, according to some studies, only 15 percent of the people who underwent legalization saw any improvements in their working conditions. Each person counts, of course, but that means 85 percent of the people who suddenly became legal permanent residents did not improve their living conditions. Papers do not mean increased wages, improvement in housing, better transportation, or good schools. The trends that affect every poor U.S. citizen, every worker in the United States, are conditions that affect immigrant workers, international workers.
That is more or less the perspective we uphold. First and foremost, international workers are exactly that: workers. Most of them would be satisfied if they obtained a paper that allows them to work in peace, to travel back and forth across the border, and that would be the end of it. Our role, as the Left, is to go beyond that and say, “Your citizenship status is not going to change these working conditions.”
Ralph Cintron: I do ethnographic fieldwork in and around Humboldt Park, primarily with Puerto Ricans, so I have spent a lot of time with undocumented workers. I began by studying the tensions between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in Chicago, though over time I became interested in topics like affordable housing, which seems to be an underpinning concern for nearly everyone. Even if these remarks offer some rather abstract readings of immigration, I want to stress the fact that they stem from my experiences doing fieldwork.
First, regarding how this event was framed, I am not too sure we really know what “neoliberalism” means. It is not a term I particularly want to mobilize. It seems to refer to a lot of things at once. There is some very good work that analyzes neoliberalism as a major factor in immigration issues regarding, for instance, trade agreements like NAFTA. In many other instances, however, I am not sure what a word like “neoliberalism” really offers.
I would frame the issue differently, based on the work of William Walters. Deportation and exile are ancient practices. They seem to be about the power and authority of the sovereign, whatever that might be. Is the sovereign a king? Is the sovereign the nation state? Is the sovereign the people? It does not make a damn bit of difference. Historically the sovereign, regardless of its form, is invested in things like deportation, exile, or population transfer. Let’s go to an interesting moment in English history: the 1662 Poor Laws. The problem there was labor crossing parish boundaries, not national borders. The question remains: What is being protected? The local labor force, the local economy, and the local elites. All of the practices we are now complaining about on a global level have a long human history. They existed before we came up with the term “neoliberalism.” There is something fundamental about the politics of movement. Any state, whether neoliberal or a Keynesian, will want to regulate labor, especially when it comes to immigration.
In Borneo, native populations customarily have owned forested lands. The state exerts its ownership because the native population does not have private property rights. In the case of Borneo, the state then began to lease or sell the land to Japanese lumber companies who are interested in making plywood, which means that the native people are being displaced. Their customary rights lose out to a world system of global property rights. This topic has really interested me lately. When we look at indigenous populations, to what extent is this shift from customary property rights to private property landholdings happening on the part of the state, first of all, but then also on the part of companies, and so on?
What I have described might be called “neoliberalism,” but then I would say that property rights are at the core of neoliberalism. So why not start there, with ownership and possession. Who is owning and who is possessing? On what basis do we consider these ownerships and possessions? On what basis does that become a right to expel populations? That is a large thesis, however, so I will end my remarks here.
Jacqueline Stevens: I share with Jorge the concern that the immigration movements we see right now are not very radical. I also agree with Ralph’s criticisms of the concept of neoliberalism. What I want to address is the question of what the Left has invested in the concept of neoliberalism. Why have we adopted that framework? What might an alternative framework look like?
The Left’s investment in the concept of “neoliberalism” comes from the Marxist idea that the basis of economic inequality is found in one’s relation to the means of production and the discourses that are generated therefrom. We are part of a society in which market values supposedly cloak everything; this explains why we are immobilized as a population and unable to challenge political institutions and change economic inequality. Marx has this perspective largely because he sees the development of capitalism as eclipsing the centrality of the state in the constitution of inequality. Under feudalism, the state is establishing the status relationships that denote ownership of land. Inequality thus comes from the king. With the development of new technologies, however, those kinds of prerogatives from political society are attenuated and then eclipsed by the market, by who owns the means of production.
But is Marx actually right about this? Even in the United States, one of the most mobile countries in the history of the world, it is still the case that 50 to 80 percent of inequality is based on intergenerational transmissions of wealth, not the accumulation of income over your life. According to Marx’s theory, wealth being maintained through families is what we should see in feudalism, not in capitalism, under which accumulation is supposed to be “virginal,” with each generation creating its own wealth. To the extent that our political institutions are still maintaining inequality based on familial transmissions of wealth, there is a disparity between what is actually happening and the claims put forth by a Marxist analysis of economic inequality. This does not mean that inequality is not based on capitalism, but that there are many sources of inequality, including sources that exist largely outside of one’s relation to the means of production. Within developing societies, inequality based on state-mediated transmission of wealth within family structures is even more dramatic. One economist at Berkeley estimates that 90 percent of inequality in the poorest countries stems from these transmissions. If this is an important source of inequality, then an analysis of capitalism in its “neoliberal” phase is not going to be very helpful.
What are the alternatives? In part, we need to be a little more case specific when we are talking about political inequality, and not just having these knee-jerk responses that pull concepts off the shelf. We need to have more granular and specific contextual analysis of power. Chicago has the highest sales tax in the country, and Illinois has the third-highest property tax in the country, yet the public services here suck. The transportation system is bad, the schools are terrible—what is going on here? It is not capitalism, really. Partly, it is just greed, but even more so, it is kleptocracy: the ability of certain families and individuals to use money and influence through a variety of networks, including even things like “non-profit” organizations, in order to affect the concentration of wealth.
The institution at which I work, Northwestern University, recently built a $150 million party house for its trustees on the shore of Lake Michigan, using a bond from the State of Illinois. What is impeding our ability as citizens to control that kind of wealth? It is not just capitalism. There is a lot of obscurantism surrounding these financial instruments. As activists, scholars, and citizens, we need to be more attentive to these abuses of power and more active in confronting them. A very broad discourse about neoliberalism is not going to be too helpful in that struggle.
JM: It is not only the relationship to the means of production, but also the relationship to the way wealth is accumulated and therefore distributed, or not distributed. I cannot avoid thinking about Lenin, here: The superior face of capitalism is colonialism. Everybody talks about the boom following the Second World War: the GI bill, owning houses, and having industrial jobs. Nobody remembers that this was the period during which Latin America was being spoiled, controlled, and dismantled by the United States. The wealth coming to the United States from Latin America was immense. The U.S. protected its access to this wealth by supporting the 1954 coup d’état against Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala and the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza García in Nicaragua.
The state protects wealth within certain national borders for its citizens. Those who want to come and share that wealth are barred from it, even when that wealth came from their country in the first place! Hence the regulation of the labor force, deportation, and fortification of the borders. The sovereign state means exactly that: “I am protecting my wealth, however I acquired it, for my own citizens.” That is the beginning of nations: “Only if you were born in the United States do you have the right to enjoy our public benefits.”
Our response has to address not only how that wealth was acquired, but also what we are going to do now, as Mexicanos, living in the United States. I blame the U.S. for impoverishing Mexico, for extracting the minerals and the natural resources. But I want a share of that; I am not going to immigrate to a poorer country. However, once I am in the U.S., what is my role? What am I doing here? I do not own the means of production; I just want to work. That is my role and I want certain rights while I work.
When workers think about money, they think about how many hours they will work. With employers, they think, “How am I going to extract another dollar from someone else?” That is the basic relationship. Workers know they are not going to be rich; they know there is no American Dream for international workers. They still want to work in peace and to be part of our big system of production. Whatever wealth comes their way, they are going to share, through remittances to Mexico, and they will continue being poor. What we try to stress with workers is that, regardless of your country, regardless of your immigration status, you are just pure working class. That is it. You have to unite and fight as part of the working class.
RC: I agree with what Jacqueline has said about inheritance, intergenerational accumulation, and transfer of wealth. Piketty makes similar arguments regarding France and England. This is why, for me, a term like “oligarchy” has resonance. (The manuscript that I am trying to finish right now has, as part of its title, the “Oligarchic Condition.”) Some places, such as Russia, have what we might call “purebred oligarchs,” but it seems that we have something like that in the U.S. We have oligarchic figures. Aren’t the Clintons such figures? Trump seems to be, as well. So what we really have is a face-off between two oligarchs, or two oligarchic families. The same could be said of the Bushes, as well. At a broader level, the more pernicious thing to figure out is the larger system linking together wealth and power. This is why I have moved away from “oligarchy,” as such, and try instead to consider this problem in terms of an “oligarchic condition.”
One of the things that I appreciate, from the fieldwork perspective, is that real people would never use the word “neoliberal.” There has to be a strategy, here: Start with what the workers are saying and doing, with how they conceive of their world, and work up from there. That is one of the reasons I do not like the overuse of the word “neoliberal.” It is coming from Harvey and other post-Marxists. It is coming from the top down. It would be better to dig in, to get underneath. In that spirit, I would be interested to hear from Jorge about the ejidos, lands used communally for farming in Mexico, and how an old model of peasant socialism changed in the wake of property appropriations and displacement. How did workers who moved here as a consequence view these disruptions?
JS: Related to this point is the fact that the Republican establishment and big business want open borders. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal in 1984 that proposed amending the United States Constitution by adding five words: “There shall be open borders.” The 1986 Amnesty Bill under the Reagan administration took up this demand. Its argument was in part economic, but it also put forward a liberal case against erecting a four hundred mile-long wall, which it characterized as the U.S. equivalent of the Berlin Wall.
In response to Ralph, what do you think about “kleptocracy” as a concept? “Oligarchy” seems to imply a legal aristocracy, in which wealth is protected through inheritance laws primarily in the service of certain families. Perhaps kleptocracy fits better for the Clintons—after all, these were the people using their non-profit foundation to hide illegal kickbacks given in exchange for privileged access to the State Department. The Crown family, which has substantial holdings in General Dynamics and was the 34th wealthiest family in the United States, lives in Chicago. Boeing and Caterpillar are based in Illinois. All of them get certain benefits, not because they are following the law, but because they are really good at breaking it.
JM: In Cook County alone, according to a study done at UIC, 1.1 million dollars are stolen every day from workers’ wages. At the national level, there is something like 330 billion dollars a year stolen from workers—and most of it from minimum wage workers! That is kleptocracy, quite clearly. The bottom line is not even at the bottom, it is three levels under. The economic crisis of 2008 revealed rampant kleptocracy. Some families were able to keep their business by stealing from the poorest of workers. That comes on top of the fact that, in the millions of jobs lost in the crisis, something like two-thirds paid significantly more than minimum wage. The new positions available in 2014 and 2015 mostly offer minimum wage. That is hardly a job “recovery.”
Ralph brings up an interesting topic with the ejido. After NAFTA, Mexico changed its constitution to allow for the sale of these lands. It could not be sold before; it belonged to agricultural communities. NAFTA turned these lands into private property, most of which came to be owned by large international corporations, particularly ones in the U.S. This led to the displacement of those who had communally owned and worked on the ejido. Before immigration to the U.S., however, there was a middle step: the maquila program. Most of the displaced agricultural workers in Mexico first ended up in the maquila—factories and plants close to the border. These had been around for some time, from the 1970s or the beginning of the 1980s. You pay workers six dollars an hour in the U.S., but if you move 200 yards south, you only have to pay 40 cents. After NAFTA, displaced farmers were absorbed in the maquilas, which became an even bigger labor market in Mexico. This drew people near the border, where they begin to see that in the maquiladora, life is not worth living—but 200 yards to the north, one could be making much more. People start crossing the border in increasing numbers, at which point President Clinton cracked down on border security with Operation Gatekeeper.
Hillary Clinton is paying for her deeds as Secretary of State. She supported the coup d’état in Honduras; six years down the road, fifty-thousand kids from Honduras and El Salvador show up at the border. These are the consequences of U.S. international policies, which are now a key part of the debate in immigration. It has become important for us to separate the two: Immigration is the natural movement of people looking for wealth and improvement of their conditions, while security depends on the international policies of the United States.
Q & A
Jorge, you evoked Lenin tonight, on the 99th anniversary of the Petrograd Soviet. Radicals of the Second International such as Lenin understood that working-class political organization constituted capitalism in a particular way. The political and organizational activity of the Left gives capitalism an acuity that it would not otherwise attain. Imperialism is the “highest” stage of capitalism precisely because there is a politically organized working class making demands upon it. I bring this up as a preface to saying that neoliberalism might be useful as a category, but only inasmuch as it provokes recognition of the decay and decline of the Left. In part, we might trace this decline in terms of how the problem of international immigration has been racialized in the United States. Latinos have become a race, and in some respects are treated as such, but in others are not. The Democratic Party certainly wants to racialize them; it wants to treat Latinos as a racial constituency and organize them on that basis. This kind of racialized, machine politics is very different from how the Left, historically, sought to organize and lead the working class. How do we understand the decay of politics along with changes in capitalism in the last half of the 20th century?
JM: Neoliberalism is not a different kind of production system. It is a set of policies regarding how you organize production worldwide. This oversimplifies things, but basically, instead of having an agricultural South and an industrial North, steel is going to be produced by Sweden and China, for instance, while the United States is going to develop as a service-based economy. That is what neoliberalism looks like, with many consequences following from this new world order, in which oligarchies of various kinds call the shots.
Outside the U.S., we are Mexicanos, Salvadoreños, Brasileños, Chicanos. There is no “Latino” outside of the United States. The famous theory of cultural interaction in the U.S. is the “melting pot”: Once you come to the United States, you become “American”—which is actually the name of two whole continents, of course—and you should forget about your language, your culture, and so on. Bullshit! Before Central American immigration to Chicago, the city was divided between Italians and Poles. Then the Irish came in large numbers and tried to get their share. That is the real history, but in popular culture it is all about “the melting pot.” I bring this up because the so-called immigration movement often wants to say, “Mexicans who come here are not Mexicans anymore.” They should forget about being Mexican; they need to integrate into the system and become Americans. We should fight that idea. It is more like a salad: All of us are in the same bowl, but we are not exactly the same. Some of us are carrots, some are lettuce; each one of us has our own national and cultural background.
RC: The issue of race is complicated. For instance, consider wealthy Mexicans. Talk about kleptocracy! Yet they are not racialized. They are cosmopolitan; it is the worker who is racialized. So what is “race” when it gets meshed with these class distinctions and other issues? We might also ask: Who are the Trump supporters? Why are they supporting an oligarch? Are they all workers? They fear neoliberalism. They reject it, in ways not completely unlike how the Left rejects it.
When we look at places that are deporting or expelling people, you see long racialized histories, but they are bound up with class. In the Dominican Republic, the elites and leaders think of themselves as European and see the Haitians as African. Brexit is interesting; it is being denounced as racist, but a major factor there was getting rid of (white) Hungarians, Poles, and Romanians. So I get all confused, to be honest, with the role that race plays. It hooks itself onto all kinds of things that were not previously or innately racialized. In the U.S. there is racialization of Mexicans, let’s say. Globally, you tend to see racialization of the poor, specifically, but not the wealthy.
JS: Following up on what Ralph said, in terms of how complicated these issues are: The deportation machine in this country would grind to a halt without native Spanish speakers. The people on the front lines, organizing the deportation, are native Spanish speakers. It would be a big problem if there were not truly bilingual people willing to police immigration. In terms of the concept of “neoliberalism,” the question seems to suggest it is helpful to the extent it identifies a pattern of capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st century. I feel like the Left is just waving a white flag: “Oh, it is all too confusing. They won. We do not know what to do.” Perhaps we should be seriously thinking about the resources that we still have within liberal institutions and seeing what the Left can do to mobilize them. This is not Russia or Egypt. We have elections. We have courts. There are creative ways to use them. If you just say, “Well everything is neoliberalism,” then it sounds like an unbeatable monopoly of the rich people. It is disempowering.
With the 2016 election we are seeing a renewed polarization of politics between the supposed “Left,” represented by Sanders, and the right, represented by Clinton. Trump obviously taps into people’s frustration with open borders. If we think seriously about it, though, Sanders does this too: A renewed emphasis on the welfare state and investment in public infrastructure would require a stronger state to function as a central planning agency, along the lines of what you had with the Keynesian or Fordist state. On the other hand, you have “neoliberalism”—for lack of a better term—seeking to dismantle the welfare state and its centralized apparatus. The thinkers associated with neoliberalism, Hayek and Friedman, considered themselves utopian with respect to what they saw as the “totalitarian state.” It appears today as though the “Left” wants stronger borders and a more centralized state, while the right wants to liberalize international mobility. What does that mean for us, politically, if the right is still invested in producing a world society, while the Left seems to have abandoned that project? Is Sanders therefore more right-wing than he appears—and has the Left given up on redeeming the utopian potentials of liberalism and capitalism?
JS: One response is that Sanders almost was the president because, presumably, if he had won the Democratic nomination, he would beat Trump. On the one hand, we feel as though we are on the precipice of something terrible, no matter what happens on Tuesday. Either Trump or Clinton will win. There is no good alternative, but it could have been really different. Obama won in 2008, but not as a neoliberal. He won on “change” and “hope.” He lied. It was a good bait and switch. Things may be really grim in our current moment, but that is just one cut at what is going on. I think we have to be open to the idea that there still are many different possibilities.
Ultimately, I endorse a real liberal agenda. If we want to have better public institutions and better politics, we need to think about cultivating the entire population as citizens, regardless of their legal status. Everybody is a citizen, which means, following Aristotle, that we all partake in the administration of justice. With public schools in Chicago, for instance, the problem is not just the existence of charter schools, but that some of the people appointed to run them have been convicted of embezzlement, receiving kick-backs, and so forth. The revolution could create new public institutions and put redistribution of wealth on the agenda, but how is it going to solve these problems of corruption? It seems like cultivating citizenship is a necessary bulwark against nepotism and kleptocracy.
JM: That is the most contentious point in the immigration movement. On the Left at least, we strongly believe that the path to citizenship is just a political trap. More than 80 percent of all immigrants who vote as naturalized citizens support the Democratic Party. When Democrats put forward an immigration proposal in which the “path to citizenship” is front and center, you are telling Republicans, “Let’s legalize 10 million people, 8.7 million of which are going to vote for me.” Obviously, the Republican’s response is, “Fuck you!” That is the response the Democrats knew they would get from the beginning, too, because then they get to accuse the Republicans of not getting on board with immigration reform. It is just a political game to both sides. Meanwhile, Obama keeps deporting people rapidly, even as his party keeps calling for a version of immigration reform that they know will not pass because it would be political suicide to the Republicans.
From the point of view of most immigrants in this country, citizenship is good in order to bring one’s family over here, and because it allows travel outside the U.S. for more than six months. But voting—between Republicans and Democrats? Are you crazy? It is the same thing we had for 80 years in Mexico, with the Revolutionary Institutional Party and the National Election Party representing the center and the right, respectively. Those were our options. We fought against that for decades. Now we are here and people tell us that we have to become citizens—so that we can vote for a Democrat or a Republican? Go to hell! We have been urging people to vote Green, but not because we believe in Jill Stein. We think that if the Green Party becomes an official registered party here, then there may be the chance for more electoral opportunities. We know that elections are not going to solve much of anything, but part of the political game on the ground is to participate in election processes and see if we can get some kind of advantage.
My prediction: Hillary Clinton is going to win with more than 300 electoral votes, and she is going to negotiate with the Republicans. It will be Bill Clinton all over again: Republicans deliver the platform and President Clinton signs off. That will be the case for healthcare too, by the way. Hillary Clinton would absolutely be willing to negotiate with the Republicans on Obamacare.
I want to go back to the question of neoliberalism and how we try to understand the present. Do we still live under capitalism? Or is it kleptocracy? How do those differ? The vast majority of people still have to sell their labor, to sell themselves as workers, in order to make a living. On the other hand, a lot of the things one would generally think of as being part of capitalism, or at least part of bourgeois society, or commercial society, do not exist, or no longer exist in the same way. Is it simply a result of political dysfunction? How do we account for this?
RC: There is a small working group I belong to, which includes a libertarian economist and three others, who lean more to the left. Among other things, we have been trying to figure out what an economy would look like that does not have the profile of capitalism as it does today. We cannot arrive at a consensus. I keep arguing for a deep sense of a commons, which is not derivable from the current left, which wants to believe in social action and social change. Maybe that sounds strange, but social action and social change imply that, while the marginalized might get something, somebody else has to give something up. That precludes the concept of the commons. For a truly radical left to have any traction you cannot divorce it from the current conditions and the resources we have available. We need to think about enormous climate change, refugees, and so on. At this basic level, in terms of natural resources, where is the world headed? Will various crises drive us to re-invent our economies? At the moment I do not see anything really emerging from the Left or from the right that really gets at this issue in a deep sense.
JS: Your question suggests that if we get the procedures and the institutions right, then our work is done, whereas I think that if the people running them operate in bad faith, it really does not matter what the rules are. That is why I turn to this idea of robust citizenship, so that the people who occupy whatever institutions we put up will bring with them a certain set of values and commitments, along with a level of integrity that we simply do not see right now. My research on misconduct by immigration judges has found that most of the misconduct is committed by a handful of bad immigration judges. It is similar in this respect to Chicago police misconduct. If it were the case that the procedures are terrible, the misconduct would be more evenly distributed. Maybe we have already had the revolution we need. Perhaps the existing rules are good enough, but we need to figure out how to change outcomes within the system already in place.
JM: I agree with Trump: The system is rigged. But it has been rigged from the Constitution. For 250 years the system has been rigged. It is not broken; the system is working as intended.
JS: But what is “the system?”
JM: There are meetings like this, but among people with billions of dollars, who are thinking about 2020 and beyond. They have the money and power to execute those plans.
JS: But don’t they lose a lot too? Don’t their plans fail?
JM: No doubt. But again, to take just one example, you have a system that says, every ten years you are going to remap the districts based on census data, but then they allow gerrymandering block by block, even house by house. It is by design. The gerrymandering is often “correct,” legally.
Jacqueline Stevens, in your notion of citizenship, who counts? The traditional Marxist conception tried to think of political organization in terms of world citizenship, international workers, and global society. Politically, if we grant the existence of some sort of system named capitalism, in which elites have power, doesn’t the working class have to find ways to have power itself? Is that a form of politics that you find valid? For all panelists: How do you think of politics with regard to capitalism today?
JS: Empowering citizens to be more active in controlling government is political. There are definitely groups who are well funded and making plans, but they do not always win. Moreover, the Internet has removed many barriers to communication and to the sharing of information, which really changes the playing field in terms of organizing among leftists. These changes provide some new possibilities.
RC: I think the trope of revolution has had its day, in terms of social change, and has been replaced by the trope of catastrophe. There is a sense that material resources and material conditions are completely driving things now. It is not that the wind behind the sails of revolution has entirely ended, but that we have very strong international political powers jostling to maintain the status quo. Of course, the French Revolution and the communist revolutions were driven by material changes as well. I suppose my point is that there tends to be an idealization of the trope of revolution, whereas perhaps we need to start thinking more about material conditions and what kinds of dramatic changes there will be in those conditions. I do believe in a global politics of some sort. In the long run, we have to rethink the nation state in terms of global politics.
JM: Let me talk about the role of the Left and its failure. Four years ago, I became involved with this workers’ rights center in Chicago. In those four years we have passed an ordinance that threatens wage thieves with loss of their business license. Another law denies tax breaks if you have a history of stolen wages. We passed a new minimum wage in the city of Chicago; it is still far too low, but today it is $10.50, whereas two years ago it was $8.25. We passed earned sick time in the city of Chicago. At the state level, we passed the domestic workers’ bill of rights, so these workers earn minimum wage, are entitled to overtime, and are entitled to weekly rest.
What is the problem with this picture? The Left does not figure into any of this in a public way. This is all the work of non-profits, of allies, of “community social justice” this and that, including my organization. But it is the Left that is behind all of these organizations and all of these initiatives. Yet, nobody ever says, “The Left raised the minimum wage, the Left proposed and fought for this legislation.” It is high time that the Left comes forward and boldly says, “I am a worker, an organizer—and I am a socialist. I am part of the Left. We are the ones really driving these reforms.” |P
Transcribed by Efraim Carlebach, Louis Sterrett, and Tamas Vilaghy