Who speaks for me?

Clinton will heed the demands of international business until the Left builds a unified, rational force. Domestic disarmament is a start.

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No, this column is not about the North American Free Trade Agreement, even though at first it may look as though it is. It’s not about NAFTA because NAFTA isn’t really about NAFTA. The question is not–as it was so frequently posed–whether the treaty will mean more or fewer jobs in the U.S. economy in the next few years: most econometric models put job loss versus gain as a virtual wash. The true issue is one of sovereignty. Just what will determine the shape of our future: the American political system or multinational capitalism? As has been the case with almost frightening frequency of late, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan were right for all the wrong reasons.

The final days of the NAFTA debate offered the gruesome spectacle of Bill Clinton leaning all of his six-foot-three, two-hundred-something-pound frame on members of his own party to convince them to support a treaty pushed primarily by foreign-paid lobbyists, multinational corporate moguls, and Republican reactionaries. In doing so, the president rewarded the political forces that have despised him and kicked the shins of his loyal supporters–thereby emulating the final, disastrous two years of his Democratic predecessor, James Earl “One-Term” Carter.

Politicians can be forgiven for doing what’s wrong for the sake of political expediency. After all, they are politicians; that’s their job. But Bill Clinton betrayed his electoral base for a political position that had all the attractiveness of a motorcycle jump over Snake River Canyon. Such is the persuasive power of Washington insiderdom over a new kid in town whose deepest inner yearning is to be voted best-liked boy in the class.

Liberals in the Clinton White House tried to make their case for the treaty by restricting debate exclusively to the merits of the deal itself. Before the vote, Senior Policy Adviser George Stephanopoulos told me, “NAFTA is the first trade agreement in history to include environmental standards. It will raise the costs of production in Mexico by improving environmental standards and requiring them to enforce their labor standards.” When I asked what good are promises to enforce labor and environmental laws if the Mexican government lacks both the power and the inclination to enforce them, Stephanopoulos replied, “Presently we have nothing. Without NAFTA, we’ll still have nothing.”

Special Assistant Michael Waldman followed up Stephanopoulos’s argument by adding, “Those who opposed NAFTA would be better served if they would push issues like health-care and public-finance reform.” A White House official who declined to be named argued that those opposing NAFTA “chose to wage a jihad on an issue of only symbolic importance.”

I beg to differ. White House officials do have a point, granted earlier: the trade agreement itself won’t make much difference with regard to job loss or gain. American jobs and capital would have been likely to fly away anyway, so they may as well go to Mexico, where they are desperately needed and will create a larger market for U.S. exports.

But if NAFTA really matters so little, then why did so many tens, and probably hundreds, of millions of dollars in pro-NAFTA fees fall into the pockets of Washington lobbyists during the past two years? That money wasn’t being thrown away on a treaty that is strictly in the interests of poor Mexicans. If a NAFTA trading regime will make so little difference, then why did the neoconservative editors of the New Republic argue, in boldface letters on the magazine’s cover, that NAFTA could “define America’s post-Cold War identity, [its] long-run economic health, its geopolitical reach, even its moral character”? Why, then, in defiance of all free-speech and First Amendment conventions, did the New York Times offer Mexico and the multinationals a seven-page special advertising section, while denying the treaty’s opponents the right to be heard in the same space?

The fight over NAFTA was really about something much larger than the treaty itself, which is why, explains author Bill Greider, the pro-NAFTA establishment decided they “didn’t care how many lies they were going to tell or how much money they were going to spend–they were going to win.” The corporate lobby has not fought so hard for anything since they won themselves Ronald Reagan’s trillion-dollar tax giveaway.

What lies behind NAFTA is not a series of minor tariff reductions between the United States and Mexico, but the right to define the future of the world’s political economy. The Bush-Clinton NAFTA vision is of a world of unfettered global capitalism. It is capitalism not merely without borders but without responsibility.

If workers at Neese Industries in Gonzales, Louisiana, don’t agree to have their pay and benefits cut, well, then, Neese will simply shut down and hop a plane south, where the Mexican government will use military force to crush the labor movement on behalf of multinational profits. If a community in upstate New York is unhappy that untreated industrial waste may be leaking into its water supply, their choice is: “Your water or your livelihoods.” The Mexican welcome mat is out, proclaiming “Muchas Gracias” to toxic polluters.

What forces Mexico, and virtually all Third World countries, to accept the poisoning of their people and the exploitation of their workforce is a global jobs crisis that dwarfs any problem American society has faced since the end of World War II. The International Labour Office estimates that seventy million people a year are entering the global workforce, and most of them are willing to work for a fraction of what Americans consider a decent working wage. The NAFTA regime will enshrine that world, give it the force of law, and shut the door forever on national and international mechanisms to force corporations to behave with consideration toward the communities whose futures they increasingly control.

But before any real action can be taken on behalf of an alternative vision, two things need to happen: First, progressives need to come up with an honest-to-god, alternative, post-Cold War vision. We are quite a ways from that. Second, and no less daunting, the current vision–the one that undergirds NAFTA, the New York Times, and the Clinton White House–must be overthrown. Somebody needs to throw a monkey wrench into the machine that has been reducing real wages, destroying jobs, and defunding pension plans in pursuit of “efficiency” and “rationalized” production.

As Ron Blackwell, one of the labor movement’s most thoughtful intellectuals, explains, “We need to show them that they can’t just jam this down the throats of the American people. We need to show that there’s enough vitality left in America to define the shape of our own social and economic policy.”

Part II. What Is to Be Done?

To speak glibly today in America of “progressive forces,” or even more grandly of “the Left,” is to engage simultaneously in wishful thinking and linguistic subterfuge. A new progressive vision must cut across class, race, and gender lines, and embrace rather than offend white middle-class America, its primary constituency. But as political semiotician Todd Gitlin notes, “The end of the Vietnam War left the Left in fragments. By defining cultural questions as central, they don’t need an establishment to divide and rule them; they self-divide and rule only themselves.” These fragments, located primarily in universities but also in civil rights, feminist, environmental, labor, gay and lesbian, and consumer organizations, are far smaller than the sum of their parts.

Similarly, the multiculturalist project, which seems to have dominated progressive energies since the end of the Cold War, turns out to be nothing more than a self-interested–though perhaps appropriate–manner to distribute the “goodies” of international capitalism. As political essayist David Rieff reveals: “Once you claim that multiculturalism is a manifestation of progressive thinking, then you are on very dangerous ground. Nothing in the multiculturalist ideal is incongruous with the best interests of globalized capitalism.” The “campus radicals” who have been enchanted with the demands of “diversity” and multiculturalism are simply following the lead of pop culture and international capital.

While so many progressive American intellectuals were speaking a derivative of conservative French intellectual discourse during the past two decades, the true problems demanding progressive reconstruction in this country have gone ignored. Of what possible value can it be to six-year-old black children to learn that the cultural treasures of classical antiquity may derive from Africa, when they have to dodge bullets and crack dealers on their way home from school?

Culture, I would be the first to argue, is more fun than economics. The problems of the poor, however, unfortunately, derive from the fact that they have hardly any money. The conditions that have caused murder rates to skyrocket in places like the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Anacostia are warping into hyperdrive while academics preoccupy themselves with ancient Athens. “We are,” explains World Policy Institute Director Sherle Schwenninger, “in a period of restructuring the American economy that is quite unfavorable both to redistribution and to the earning power of its bottom half.”

What is required, suggests labor historian Michael Kazin, “is the formulation of a politics that is more than fragmentary–larger than the sum of our particularistic demands.” Kazin suggests using Pat Robertson and the Christian Right as models; quietly and methodically, they have been taking over the Republican party at the grass-roots. Here, the struggle over NAFTA has many lessons to teach us. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the willingness of Mexican, Canadian, and U.S. labor, church, and environmental groups to work together and hammer out a common program–not a philosophy or even a critique, but a program–was nothing short of inspirational.

But before we can begin to outline a new critique, we must come to terms with some conditions that complicate a progressive vision. First is the erosion of the American tax base. A socioeconomic revolution has destroyed the social compact for the taxation of the American public. People are not merely unwilling to pay their taxes progressively; they are questioning the legitimacy of the taxation process itself. As Schwenninger points out, unless we figure out a way to restore the American tax base to provide tough-minded programs to improve people’s economic and educational opportunities, we will lack even the possibility of a social movement.

Second, we need to face up to the decay of our mediating institutions. Except for a handful of relatively small organizations, such as the Institute for Policy Studies (which celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last fall), Ralph Nader, and this magazine, it’s hard to name a single useful institution bequeathed to contemporary progressives by the New Left. America has the Western world’s weakest trade union movement and no working-people’s political party. The mainstream media have become, in thought and practice, an arm of the governing elite. Working-class culture has been transformed into a carnival of bizarre personal confession, sick sensationalism, and ugly nativism.

Moreover, Americans continue to suffer from a notoriously short attention span. They get mad as hell with reasonable frequency, but quickly return to their families and sitcoms. Meanwhile the corporate lobbies stay right where they are, outlasting all populist hysteria. Thus, the broad political consensus that frequently shows up in opinion surveys calling for a progressive reconstruction of our economy, our environment, and most particularly our political system is denied a seat at the table when the final deal is cut.

A third problem derives from the multinational roots of our quandary. Any solution to the tightening economic noose around our communities requires an internationalized response. But in the United States, populist reaction to our predicament has been almost exclusively nationalistic. Immigrants and welfare recipients become the focus of popular anger, allowing corporations to provoke a kind of class warfare between an insecure American working class and their foreign (and foreign-born) counterparts.

Almost as much as we need an answer to these three problems, we need a movement capable of galvanizing people and giving them a sense of solidarity and control over their collective destinies. The history of every popular American upheaval in the past century–from nineteenth-century populism through the civil rights demonstrations of the sixties–demonstrates the importance of what historian Lawrence Goodwyn calls “movement culture.” Before progressives can build and sustain the kinds of institutions necessary to do battle with multinational capitalism, we must overcome our generalized feelings of atomization and helplessness. The fight against NAFTA, while a beginning, was too complex to do the job. With the Cold War a memory, and everyone all over the map on Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia, so too is the peace issue. Women’s rights, minority rights, and gay and lesbian rights are all worthy causes, but they frequently serve to divide rather than to build coalitions.

What about domestic disarmament? suggests Garry Wills. It won’t address the larger issues of multinational capitalism, but it may inspire a movement that offers real hope of change and gives us time to think. Recent surveys indicate that crime and street violence now constitute Americans’ biggest fear. In Florida today, Wills informs me, a gun is bought and sold every eight minutes, twenty-four hours every day. Twenty-two thousand guns are confiscated each year in Chicago alone. There are guns in schools, guns in airports, guns on the freeway.

Street violence has a few remarkable qualities that make it a nearly ideal organizational tool for a rejuvenated progressive movement. The epidemic of inner-ciety murder is one that affects the poor and oppressed most powerfully but puts them, for once, on the same side of the fears and nightmares of middle-class Americans. Gun violence is a women’s issue, for the industry has recently targeted women for its despicable, hard-sell scare tactics. Guns are an organizing tool that would force Americans to overcome their individual isolation and reach a new understanding of the rights of a community.

Best of all, the issue is a political winner. Not since Bull Connor turned the dogs on Martin Luther King, Jr., has fate provided us with so unattractive an adversary. The National Rifle Association, lest we forget, is the focus of evil in the modern world. Under its radical new leadership, the organization has gone off into positions so extreme that even a large section of its own membership finds them abhorrent. Though nine out of ten Americans want to see stricter gun control, Gucci-shoed NRA lobbyists have terrorized our legislatures and undermined the sanctity of our communities.

Here’s something even more amazing: this problem has a solution! Ammunition lasts only a few years and is manufactured in bulk in only a few dozen factories. Let’s tax it out of existence, ban it, whatever. Pay off the workers’ pensions and let the sportsmen keep their buckshot, but that’s it. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has already raised this issue in the Senate, but without a movement to protect it from the claws of the NRA, it will die just as surely as the nine-year-old-girl shot down in Washington, D.C., last fall.

Such a movement is obviously not the answer to all of our problems. But more than any other solution, it does offer the potential to create a true progressive movement culture with a decidedly middle-class bent. History’s most inspirational Democrats–FDR and JFK–are remembered less for what they wished to do than for what was eventually forced upon them. Both men began as conservatives who inadvertently created a set of rising expectations, along with social movements, to transform them into irresistible demands. A movement that can actually make demands of Bill Clinton instead of entreaties to him is the last thing the White House wants to see today. But it is probably the only thing that can turn this great compromiser into a great president.


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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