Thursday, January 24, 2013

Liberalism (American style), neoliberalism and Barack Obama's second term

Several of the writers I follow on social media seem to be praising the online Jacobin magazine lately. It hasn't made such a strong impression on me yet.

But this article by Josh Eidelson, Obama to America: Work Harder 01/23/2013, makes an intriguing point about unions not being a strong feature of the liberal/progressive vision Obama displayed in his Second Inaugural Address on Monday.

Some writers, generally of a more conservative (or liberal concern-troll) perspective, like to contrast the "social" liberalism of defending civil rights, LGBT rights and women's rights over against workers' rights. Most progressives don't see it that way, because they (we) see those matters as intricately connected.

There is a legacy, still much in the living memory of many, of the leadership of organized labor putting itself into political opposition of the peace movement and, in some cases, to the civil rights and women's rights movements. AFL-CIO President George Meany notoriously persuaded the labor federation to withhold its endorsement for Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972. And though Meany didn't formally endorse Richard Nixon, he certainly publicly conveyed a preference for him over the Democratic candidate.

However, this did not very well represent the position of union members and often other union leadership. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union was famously critical of the Vietnam War, for instance. And labor was generally sympathetic to the civil rights movement, with definite exceptions. Certainly, Martin Luther King, Jr. was very much antiwar and pro-labor.

Having said that, there is reason to worry that Obama is, in his own second term strategy, attempting to balance public support for women's rights, LGBT rights and immigrant rights against a continuation of the basic neoliberal thrust of his first term's economic policies. That is, antilabor among other things. Eidelson observes:

Obama's speech celebrated feminist activism, civil rights activism, and LGBT activism, but didn't mention labor activism. That’s a noteworthy omission, not an accident of alliteration.

Consider the ways the president does and doesn’t talk about labor. In last year's State of the Union, Obama twice alluded to unions: He touted support for paying teachers better, while making it easier for schools to fire them. And he praised a CEO who decided, given rising costs abroad and rising productivity at home, to bring jobs back to a unionized factory in the United States. (Obama's first term record on labor is decidedly mixed.)

In Monday’s speech, Obama said that "America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship." (This line appeared some union press releases praising the speech.) But he didn't celebrate workplace activism to secure those wages. After declaring that "a little girl born into the bleakest poverty" must be "free" and "equal" in the eyes of Americans’, Obama said, "We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach harder."

Set aside for a moment that "education reform" here includes attacking collective bargaining. Consider that, at a moment when productivity gains are flowing overwhelmingly to the wealthiest, the president of the United States is calling upon the country to empower workers to work harder. (Never mind that, as liberal economists have observed, what's lacking is demand, not skills, and the multi-decade decline in good jobs has hit the "skilled" workforce as well.) [my emphasis]
Eidelson is adding a useful note of caution to any premature progressive optimism about the second term:

That's where the limits of this inaugural's liberalism lie. Rooting out prejudicial treatment among workers isn't enough to end exploitation. And a call to arms against racism, sexism, and homophobia that treads lightly around the workplace has a very circumscribed form of social transformation in sight.

Obama’s speech was a far cry from the message of the modern Republican Party. But much of it would fit snugly in a handbook from Human Resources: Discrimination will not be tolerated. Active citizenship is everyone’s responsibility. Work harder.
Jeff Faux cautioned last spring about the bipartisan neoliberal consensus actually means for most American workers if it continues to dominate (Who Will Save the Middle Class? The American Prospect 05/23/2013):

Nor have the trade policies that have systematically undermined American competitiveness since the 1980s changed. Just as Bill Clinton drove the Reagan/George H.W. Bush trade agenda through Congress, so Obama collaborated with Republicans to pass George W. Bush’s trade deals with Korea, Panama, and Colombia and is now promoting a similar pact with at least eight more nations of the Pacific Rim. After each trade agreement, imports have risen faster than exports, cutting jobs and putting downward pressure on wages. First the lower-paid work — clothing, shoes, and toys — was offshored. Then the high-paid factory jobs — autos, steel, electronics. Then the call centers and computerized services jobs. Then engineering and systems design. Now accountant, research, and legal work are moving out. In response, for all but the most talented and well-connected, workers at virtually every level are taking lower salaries and accepting less job security and deteriorated working conditions.

Not to worry, replies the governing class. We are, it is claimed, on the cusp of a revival in American manufacturing. General Electric, for example, recently brought back the production of a water heater from China to a facility in Kentucky. Missing from the press release is the fact that the GE workers who used to make $22 an hour now make $13 an hour. American workers have only one option for meeting the competition: reduced wages.
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