Whole New Worlds of Turmoil

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

The Editors

THIS ISSUE OF Against the Current marks a milestone for us: one hundred issues since the magazine was re-launched in 1986 with a merger of three previous publications.  For the world, of course, this month marks the one-year anniversary of the shattering events of September 11, 2001.

Elsewhere in this issue, Christopher Phelps presents a capsule history of ATC from 1986.  Here we will reflect briefly on the multiple ways our world has shifted since the date of our first issue—to say nothing of the last year alone.  On many levels it has been an astounding transformation.

Think first about world political economy.  In the mid-1980s we were only a few years away from the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the global ascendancy of the unchallenged capitalist “free market.”

The 1990s saw the wave of neoliberal deregulation and the apparently unstoppable rise of a trade-and-dot.com-driven boom. That was the appearance; in reality, much of the Clinton-era boom was built on the combined use of market and state force to drive down wages, destroy welfare and impose a regime of global “lean production.”

Those countries and regions that failed to share in the prosperity—Japan, post-Soviet Russia, Africa—were branded as international losers due to their own “crony capitalism,” corruption and failure to join the privatization revolution.

By the summer of 2001 there were warning signs of a bursting bubble.  Then came September 11, a market crash, a recovery followed by new signs of weakness, and finally the sudden revelations that the royalty of Corporate America—from Enron to Worldcom—actually represented the most cooked-book “crony capitalism” in the known universe.  (See Robert Brenner’s dissection of this phenomenon elsewhere in this issue.)

The wealthy countries today are confronting economic turmoil on a scale not seen since the 1970s, and quite possibly even worse—while Argentina’s meltdown threatens to bring down the economies of Uruguay, Brazil and beyond.

In 1986, the international struggle that consumed many of us was in Central America, with the Reagan administration’s vicious contra operations in Nicaragua and genocidal dirty wars against the popular revolutionary movements of Guatemala and El Salvador.  Yet it was also a time of profound hopes, in Central America and internationally, inspired by those struggles.

Reagan’s own credibility was ruined by the revelation of the Iran-contra scandal—in case you may have forgotten, this centered on secret arms sales to Iran and drug-running into African-American communities organized by the CIA, Oliver North and probably by then-Vice President George Bush Sr., in order to illegally finance the murderers of the Nicaraguan people—and Reagan himself was quietly shuffled to a back office while the remainder of his term was filled in practice by Chief of Staff Howard Baker.

The bloodiest inter-state war since the 1940s was raging in the Persian Gulf, with the United States (notwithstanding those arms sales to Iran) firmly on the side of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.  And further east the Soviet Union was bleeding to death, in a brutal intervention in Afghanistan, at the hands of tribal and international Islamist holy warriors, assembled and funded by the United States in collaboration with Saudi Arabia, with implications for Washington and Moscow alike that few could have foretold.

What have we seen since?  First and foremost of course was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, under the weight of its own economic collapse and the popular upheavals of Eastern Europe.  This earthquake in world politics had a wildly mixed bag of consequences.

The end of the Cold War helped set in motion the fall of South African apartheid and the Mobutu (Congo/Zaire) and Suharto (Indonesia) dictatorships.  It also raised the United States to the absolute height of unchallenged military-political imperial power, with results that included the Gulf War of 1991, ostensibly humanitarian interventions in Somalia and the Balkans, and the breakdown of arms control treaties that had regulated “superpower rivalry” since the early 1970s.

Today, in place of a frightening confrontation between more-or-less stable blocs, armed with nukes capable of obliterating the planet a few dozen times over—the “exterminist complex,” as the late E.P. Thompson called it—but not really intending to use them, we see something if possible more ghastly.

Within the next year, driven by a combination of classic naked imperial interest (oil), squalid domestic political advantage and quasi-fundamentalist ideology, the U.S. administration intends to use its full military power to unilaterally conquer Iraq—and quite possibly remake the state structure of the Middle East. Under the pretext of the “war on terrorism,” this war is now also the Bush administration’s “solution” to the crisis of the stock market.

Is this war inevitable?  On one level, like a lightning strike, war is never “inevitable” until it strikes or until the first Cruise missile is fired.  But the looming U.S. war on Iraq appears as certain as it can be, barring very unlikely developments—the sudden fall of Saddam, a revolutionary explosion in the Arab world or some global economic catastrophe that raises the risks of war beyond what the capitalist class can accept.

Global Justice, Race, Labor

If this roughly sums up the road we have travelled in the broad areas of world economy and politics, what about the movements that represent the hope for a new world?

The phrase “Global Justice” attained wide currency in the past few years, notably after the Battle of Seattle (1999) and the Washington, D.C. confrontations around the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (April 2000).

At its best this struggle draws together a number of themes that have emerged over the course of a decade.  It responds to the struggles that popular movements in the global South, led by people of color and often by women, have been waging—against the ravages of indigenous agriculture by global “free trade,” the destruction of farmland by giant dams, the destruction of whole national economies under the weight of foreign debt.

Global Justice responds to the loss of jobs for workers at home along with the rise of sweatshop labor in the Third World, not with sterile protectionism but with a demand for “solidarity without borders.”  It responds to the uprising of the Zapatistas in the Lacandon forest of southern Mexico on New Years Day 1994, the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect.

Global Justice continues the work of the Central America and southern Africa solidarity movements of the 1970s and 1980s, which themselves stood in the proud tradition of anti-imperialist resistance in the United States going back to the likes of Daniel de Leon, Mark Twain, Randolph Bourne, W.E.B. du Bois and Eugene V. Debs.

The issue of race was central in U.S. life in 1986 and of course has remained so. Some issues persist across decades, notably police brutality, from Rodney King to Johnny Gammage to Abner Louima to the latest videotaped outrage in Los Angeles.  The growth of a strong Black middle class, accompanied by a deepening income and social gap within the African-American community, has also continued.

Other issues have emerged, sometimes reflecting progress and other times the reverse: The passing of Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court appointment of Clarence Thomas.  The slow, steady attrition of affirmative action and the rise of a substantial movement demanding reparations for the enslavement of Africans.  The resurfacing of the crudest prejudices of pseudo-scientific racism in The Bell Curve, and the important (albeit contradictory) development of “Afro-centrism” as a vehicle for imparting Black pride and a corrective to the ambient assumptions of European superiority.

In the arena of insurgent politics, 1986 was the midpoint between Jesse Jackson’s two Rainbow Coalition presidential campaigns within the Democratic Party.  In the wake of those failed efforts came the decisive takeover of the Democratic Party by the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council—the faction that propelled Bill Clinton to the presidency and set in motion the destruction of welfare and the obscenities of the Effective Death Penalty Act.

These developments in turn set the stage for the two recent independent/Green campaigns of Ralph Nader.  In 1996 Nader barely appeared on the radar screen; by 2000 he gained enough support to be vilified by the sad-sack liberal wing of the Democratic Party as a “spoiler” of their rotten system.  Slowly, unevenly yet surely, a Green Party presence is beginning to be felt in a number of state political fights.

The U.S. labor movement was in visible crisis in 1986; this has only deepened in the intervening time. The crushing of PATCO (air traffic controllers’ union) at the onset of the Reagan administration had ushered in an era of “permanent replacement workers,” in which every strike must be fought as an all-out war of survival for the union.  The proportion of private-sector organized workers has dropped to less than ten percent.

Partial changes at the AFL-CIO leadership level saw the replacement of the old Meany-Kirkland faction with a more organizing-oriented leadership under John Sweeney, with certain important successes (e.g.  organizing Latino workers especially in California).

Certainly the face of the unions today tends to be far more multiracial and multi-gendered than a half-generation ago. And Seattle represented at least brief signs of a labor opening to the Global Justice struggle.

Yet the defeats have been severe.  In the mid-1980s, a growing rank-and-file-based Teamster reform movement was nipping at the heels of the corrupt and mob-infested Teamster Old Guard.  The high point of union reform came in 1991, with the election of reformer Ron Carey, and the advances in democracy and militancy that were effected by Teamster activists in the following years.

The tragic self-destruction of the Carey administration, brought on by his decision to bring in political “professionals” to run his reelection campaign—operatives who turned out to be sleazeball financial scam artists—led to the federal government’s overturn of his 1996 reelection, Carey’s removal from office and the union, and the re-ascendance of a slightly deodorized Old Guard under James Hoffa Jr. It was an historic opportunity sacrificed on the altar of short-term expediency.

Here in Detroit where Against the Current is based, organized labor suffered one of its worst defeats of the 1990s in the Detroit Newspaper strike.  The heroic activism of hundreds of strikers who put their lives and futures on the line, and an impressive mobilization of community support, could not break through the blatant bias of the courts, the violence of professional strikebreaking goons, and worst of all, the astonishing bureaucratic complacency and incompetence of the local union leaderships.

Part of this story has been told in ATC coverage since 1995, but the definitive account remains to be written.  Elsewhere in “labor’s war zone” were similar setbacks: Hormel, John Deere, Staley.

For feminists in the Reagan era, all the gains in the struggle for reproductive rights since Roe v. Wade seemed at risk. The intervening years have seen erosions and restrictions of choice, forcing reproductive rights activists to defend hard-won ground rather than moving forward.  At the same time, U.S. political elites (to the disgust of the Patricks Robertson and Buchanan) have declined to join the religious right in a politically risky frontal assault.

Perhaps the most profound development internationally in this period is the explosive growth of “trafficking in women” for a globalized sex trade.  Nearly two million women and girls are involved, according to one estimate—more than half to the United States.  Areas of economic turmoil, including Russia and Eastern Europe where the economic status of women has sharply declined, are particularly affected.

In the words of one Filipina activist, “It is hooked to tourism, to airlines, to international hotel chains and so forth, to resorts, everything.  After the traffic in arms and drugs, the traffic in women is now the third most profitable in the world.”

Two crises have assumed universal global dimensions.  We cannot claim that ATC has been on the leading edge of discussing these issues, but they are the subject of a growing vibrant body of analysis that must be integrated into the life of the magazine (and the socialist movement at large).

First, the mysterious epidemic of AIDS, which in 1986 was becoming identified as a viral disease, has progressed from a primarily “gay disease”—a serious enough crisis in its own right—to a threat to the very survival of whole African nations and a deadly menace to the health of Russia and China.

Second, the multiple manifestations of human-caused global climate change and environmental degradation are now showing up directly in our lives—catastrophic declines in global fishing stocks, melting of the Arctic permafrost, weird weather—warning us that another few decades of unsustainable practices will bring on a massive decline in every measure of human life and civilization.

Looking Forward

Against the Current in short has been witness to whole new worlds of turmoil.  Our goal from the beginning has been “to promote dialogue among the activists, organizers and serious scholars of the left (and to) promote the vision of socialism from below, of a revolutionary, working-class, multinational and multiracial, feminist and anti-bureaucratic socialist movement.”

With all the changes that have occurred since 1986, we can say today that the need for a socialist movement has never been greater.  Our coverage of crises and struggles is explicitly geared to contribute, however modestly, toward building that movement.

We urge our many loyal subscribers to recruit new ones. And we urge all our readers, whether this is your first issue or your hundredth, to become an active participant in the great struggle for a world of freedom from exploitation: No Global Justice, No Peace.

ATC 100, September-October 2002