At the moment, there are growing protests on Wall Street in Manhattan, in Boston at the Bank of America, and in cities around the country. These embryonic and creative efforts are targeting the greed of the banks, the collusion of the corporate class with their corrupt elected officials, the high level of unemployment, the huge burden of student loans in a time of diminished opportunities, the increasing numbers of poor and hungry people, and much more. These protests, along with those earlier in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, are signs of revival of a long tradition of popular revolt against excesses of wealth and the corporate class.
The new protests come after a long dark period -- specifically the last 11 years of George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- during which time conservatives have gained more power and ability to control the national debate than they have in the past 75 years. The current right-wing power presence, spiked by the corporate media's obsession with Tea Party protests, came most immediately as a result of the Great Recession caused by the housing bubble and obscene corruption of the banks. This crisis was exacerbated by large-scale anger about the subsequent bank bailout, and corporate-backed attacks on the health care reform package passed by Congress. But that is just part of the latest political news.
The conservative ascendancy is hardly an overnight phenomenon. Rather, it represents a dynamic shift in American politics that has taken place over more than 40 years, beginning in the 1970s. During this time, conservative billionaire donors, corporations and the Chamber of Commerce, all invested in conservative think-tanks and communications infrastructure, while Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and a broad and deep media network of right-wing pundits have come to dominate the public discourse.
Subsequently, the liberal/progressive side of the political equation has lost much of its influence from the period of the 1970s and early '80s. How this has happened over time is little understood. In fact, the lack of protest and effective organizing against the right wing during the Tea Party ascension especially has been a mystery to many, and a source of great frustration.
Colin Greer, a transplanted Brit, has observed and engaged in every phase of progressive politics. Greer is the author of a number of books (with his best-known being The Great School Legend), has been a professor at Brooklyn College of CUNY, and for many years has served as president of the New World Foundation, known in the philanthropic world for its commitment to supporting grassroots organizing and providing seed money for many of the most effective progressive political efforts over the last decades. Over this long period, Greer has had a cat-seat view of all the forces that have shaped our last 40-plus years. He has a big-picture take on the turmoil and politics of this period, as major shifts -- globally, economically and culturally; the tectonic plates of change and reaction -- have reshaped our world in ways we have yet to fully understand. AlterNet sat down with Colin Greer in his office in New York in late September.
Don Hazen: Why have conservatives succeeded so dramatically in this period, and liberals and progressives are arguably the weakest in decades?
Colin Greer: There is no single causal factor. The shaping of these two divergent paths begins in the 1980s when you had the last flourish of an expansive society. But the last three years of the '70s were characterized by stagflation and disappointment and took a great toll, forfeiting a real sense that the constant growth of openness in American society and economy was endlessly sustainable. Fast-forward to the present and we have the twin dominance of austerity, i.e. eviscerating public spending as the solution to economic crises; and aristocracy, represented by the protected tax and profit oasis of the wealthiest 1 percent.
It’s instructive to note that events in the U.S. are not in isolation. Back in the '60s and '70s when progressive movements were in ascendency, the liberation themes of the time were part of a global anti-colonial uprising, and broad disgust at the war in Vietnam. Today, trade policies and globalization means that the other major economies of the world are also in the grips of a greed and hyper-profit which is in the process of discarding hard won values, rights and decent living conditions.
DH: That was Carter and also the hostage crisis too at the end of the '70s, yes?
CG: Yeah, it’s about how social and economic consciousness changed. Carter’s inability to act effectively in the hostage crisis or to defeat stagflation reinforced a national feeling of malaise and weakness. That’s why Reagan campaigned on "hope in America" versus Carter's kind of dismal, high-standing morality, an apparent inability to act from strength. It was the beginning of a long term of undermining the presumption of multi-dimensional social and economic expansion, which had flourished since World War II.
So in the 1980s you had Reagan, along with the last flourish of direct political action on the left and the last gasps of the global social change that characterized the 1960s and '70s; i.e. the fight against apartheid, which succeeded in turning the Reagan administration around to support the anti-apartheid/ divestment movement, and you had the Nuclear Freeze movement.
DH: These were the last grassroots successes of the left?
CG: Yes. Although one can never do a one to one equation, the Freeze was a factor in Reagan's shift in nuclear arms negotiations with the Russians and the anti-apartheid divestment strategies, fueled by a popular movement with strong student leadership, which created shantytowns on campuses throughout America, helped win that struggle.
But then there was a dramatic change in direction when the air traffic controllers went on strike. Reagan seized the moment, and fired the air traffic controllers, destroying PATCO, their union. That was the beginning of the end of the labor deal with capital; a deal that was carved out in the Cold War in which labor got negotiated settlements here at home for its support for the Cold War abroad. In a sense it was anti-red internationally and social democratic here in the United States. And that deal went through the beginning of the 1980s, until Reagan, responding to the conservative base, changed the ground rules. And with it, labor's guaranteed negotiating strength ended.
We have seen a diminishing power of labor since. And we've also seen a shrinking power of popular movements on the left as well, so that by the time we got to the invasion of Iraq, a million people in the street could be ignored. How different that was from the last gasps of enduring popular protest against Reagan’s contra-aid and its illegal processes.
DH: Those demonstrations against the Iraq invasion seemed like a big deal at the time, a major accomplishment, and around the world as well.
CG: Yeah, but for only one day. What is required is the ability to constantly bring people out and not end it when there’s no popular response. You need to get the news story, and push the politicians to shift. We're up against the kind of new politics in which they didn't shift and we didn't come out with continual resistance, and that inability to resist played out in the 1990s when you have a Democratic president who was disappointing over and over, with no popular mobilization against his deregulation of the finance industry or his welfare reform initiative.
DH: Is it possible to have a popular movement against a disappointing Democratic president?
CG: I think it was in 1992, but only theoretically; it didn't happen. By the 1990s, because progressives in a sense had been disciplined by the reduced power of labor, by the new power of the right, the visceral fear that Republicans would be worse, and the fact that a certain amount of administration figures came from progressive organizations and might still influence policy, all contributed to a lack of action against Clinton policies And there is another crucial point: by the time we get to late 1980s and 1990s, social movements on the left were essentially demobilized into NGOs and legislative agendas, so progressive politics became more about winning elections, seeking legislative reform, and building not-for-profit institutions that represented progressive vision and options. There no longer was a base beyond labor, which was itself shrinking.
DH: How sudden was this shift from more popular movements to foundation-funded projects?
CG: It happened over time. The trends were growing in the early '70s because progressives had control over a lot of federal spending, and a lot of activists had access to all the major agencies. There was a kind of flourish of success and even progress under Nixon. Legislative efforts were working. We especially got environmental legislation, and it looked like the courts were on our side. Meanwhile the right, in earnest, started building both its base and its options, with think tanks, organizations and communications capacity. But by 1990, the left so to speak, except for labor, had become almost entirely dependent on foundation support, which was based in the IRS 501 (c) (3) tax structure which required grant recipients to be non-partisan. But it was influential at the level of government and so it felt like it could deliver through the lobbying capacity of NGOs and by winning in the electoral, legislative and judicial spheres.
In the '80s, when they saw the right-wing agenda through Reagan taking serious root, many groups worked on voter registration to expand the electorate, but were constrained again by the IRS rules. It took a Jesse Jackson presidential campaign as a reminder that you need a popular base to move an agenda and to build a popular base to undercut the climate of low taxes, high profits, and the growing transfer of public assets into private control. Jackson created a social movement—he went to organized farmworkers, he worked with gay activists, he really did see that campaign as a progressive, social movement campaign.
But after Jackson (‘84 and ‘88) that kind of campaign mobilization didn't happen again until Obama. And Jackson did exactly what Obama did. He demobilized his campaign agency. He turned into a kind of not-for-profit organization, and Obama turned it into the Democratic Party. But they are two moments -- and it's interesting that both black figures produced the sense of a national movement. But the end of the Jackson campaign coincided with end of '80s, and that was where the Democratic Leadership Council, that Clinton led, emerged strongly and represented the shift to a "new progressive politics" where they made progressive mean something else. Imagine if the Jackson campaign had remained mobilized in relation to the Clinton administration and/or if the Obama campaign had remained live going into the 2010 elections when victories on the right were won by small margins.
DH: I assume when you say progressive came to mean something else, it meant moderate?
CG: In a sense once you had Murdoch and Fox and a growing conservative infrastructure, it labeled the DLC—transfused Democratic party—as the left. Any real left was marginalized into virtual invisibility and anonymity, the center was moved significantly to the right, and progressives increasingly pushed into protecting eroding rights and benefits, without a political infrastructure or national leadership of its own. In the electoral arena, in the media, and in the mainstream foundation world, moderate was called left or liberal, and leaders in pursuit of public office more and more have eschewed the liberal label by moving ever so profoundly to the right.
DH: So the middle became the left, and the conservatives keep moving successfully to the right -- a trend we have seen reach the present moment of the far, far right influencing the political process. And there has been no pendulum swinging back, that's for sure.
CG: Yes, and one of the critical ingredients in this huge shift rightward over the last few decades, as I inferred earlier, was the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a profound effect on two things: 1) the idea that there was a left alternative, and that there was a path to reform that had the best interest of the public at large as its highest priority, and had the "state" involved directly in business and the interest of public; and 2) the shift of states in the Soviet orbit to capitalism basically made capitalism the world model. So then it was a question of what you did in the framework of capitalism, not challenging its framework. That's been the umbrella for China, India, Brazil. All over, left groups moved into the electoral arena, and didn't challenge the capitalist model. As a result, we now have a global context that advances austerity and aristocracy in support of a global capitalism that has declared war on the social contract.
In the Scandinavian model, they're more responsive to public conditions, but not to challenging capitalism itself. I'm not arguing that we need a left to challenge capitalism because it isn't clear that we do have that option. But what we're faced with now is that any system that has monopoly status moves toward tyranny. So we're now seeing that 40 years of the rogue rise of the right has produced a tyrannical right. All of the conditions, the improvements around tolerance and cultural openness and responsibility for the poorest of the poor, the perspective that a healthy society is one that has a priority to care for all its people -- those standards have so diminished so that you have candidates now talking about the fact that people may have to starve. And that’s now a legitimate thing to say. Killing gets cheered by the GOP grassroots. The four Republican debates so far are really interesting because they indicate something really seriously bad.
DH: The rise of the Tea Party, aided by its intense promotion by the corporate media, has given the public the sense that there is a powerful angry grassroots movement underway. How does that play out?
CG: Tyranny grows first of all in the establishment of a legitimation of its point of view, even on the margins. You can see it in Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry, a war hero, and with Murdoch and Roger Ailes growing Fox. There is the constant testing of a model that is very similar in tone to the most successful moment of progressives in the 1960s. It reaches into high levels of rhetorical hysteria. When we were on the streets 40 years ago there was a kind of hysteria -- police were the enemy. There's a similar level of hysteria now. What that means is basically that on the road to power, most people committed to power will use the "crowd" -- they construct a crowd. You need the crowd, even if it's only a tiny fraction of the population. If the crowd is visible through spectacle then you start conditioning the public's readiness to act, and you encourage readiness of others not to act.
So in the present political reality, you have the convergence of the crowd's mentality, with the readiness to be tyrannical in leadership, with leaders in Congress like Jim DeMint, Eric Cantor, and of course funding for it all from the Kochs. This tyrannical style of leadership has grown through the Bush years to a dramatic level, and has not been effectively challenged by Obama. You have the growth of the crowd and the paralysis of public at large. When you look at poll data there is no way in which the public agrees with the Tea Party or with right-wing political figures, but it is paralyzed, and paralyzed serially over time.
A million people on the street didn't get listened to over the Iraq invasion, or the defeat of Kerry through usurping of the public stage by Swift Boat in 2000. Then the inability of Gore to fight for his election followed by the Supreme Court decision which gave us eight years of Bush. The choice to fight or not is rarely a popularly held prerogative until the public bursts forth as perhaps in the Arab Spring. Until such moments, leadership is top down, especially in the electoral arena, where money and incumbency determine authority and good judgment.
The Tea Party is the latest in a series of experiments -- remember the Promise Keepers and the Christian Coalition back in the '80s -- to advance right-wing politics from the margins to a new center. We've been holding them off time and time again but not by producing anything for the future. Instead we have benefitted from the cultural victories of the '70s and '80s that have become enshrined in entertainment conventions and interpersonal lifestyles. In both realms we have taken great strides to persuade Americans that young people should have the vote at 18, that women are equal, that abortion is pretty much something you can argue rhetorically but hard to lose practically, but now we're losing ground on everything. The death penalty for a while looked like we were humane, we don't just kill people -- we've lost ground on that. We didn't go to war casually -- we've lost ground on that pretty disastrously.
DH: Without tension of competing systems, is there an inevitable march to the extreme? Is there a theory that most extreme seems to always win out?
CG: The fact is, a society grows into tyranny over time as the most powerful cultivate extreme crowd behavior, which, unless resisted can have a contagion effect into the public at large, paralyzing resistance and recruiting frightened supporters. While clearly minority politics, the Tea Party zealots who cheered at death and execution in the Republican debates much as Sarah Palin once called on us to “Drill, baby, drill!”ought to be a reminder and a warning. But I don’t know any mainstream media that treated the cheers for the death penalty and barbarous inhumanity to the sick as a story truly worth engaging. The crowd is the critical thing that tyranny requires eventually -- the mobilization of the crowd. With recessions every 10 years, the circumstances periodically creates the possibility for angry people to be organized into a crowd. Progressives did that. The New Deal was about using the circumstance of the depression to organize a progressive crowd.
DH: Mostly organized by the Communist Party. But we have no capacity to do that now?
CG: and the Socialist party. But there was a plethora of organizations. And no, we have no apparent capacity do that now, although we desperately need it. New protests and organizing efforts are definitely sparks of hope. But that kind of action is primarily on the right.
DH: It's a resource question, too?
CG: Yes, and it's also a planning and leadership question. The Socialist party, Catholic Workers, Communists -- they were planners, they had an agenda not limited by electoral and legislative politics, and not dependent on foundation resources for scale. Forty years ago a dozen small progressive foundations could help support strong action and analysis. The big checks now come from professionalized, very mainstream foundations that do not, as was the case with the earlier funders, institutionally identify with a progressive world view.
DH: The Kochs write the big checks for the right today. So is the weakness primarily an issue of class -- resources staying in the educated class?
CG. No. It is that and it is something deeper, more psychological. When I was in England a bit ago, I was talking to a Syrian cab driver, this was in the middle of the Arab Spring. I said, why is it that you've got (this was before the riots) English kids protesting at Trafalgar Square against tuition increases? You've got women in Rome -- a million people -- protesting against Silvio Berlusconi. The next day they've all gone home, the kids have gone home. In America we had the resistance against the Iraq war, they went home. But in Egypt they came back every single day. In Yemen they come back every day. And he said, "Well, we in the West have freedom. They don't have the freedom."
So there is someway in which we have the consciousness here that we have something that could be lost that we don't want to risk. In the Middle East, there is nothing left to be lost.
DH: So fast-forward to the present. How has the right-wing philosophy which has dramatically increased its influence, changed the nature of government?
CG: What we are up against is the constant reduction of compassion as the highest priority in how you make public policy and deliver public goods. The right wants to take public space. They want to take public resources. In response, progressives get lost in the message of to trying to re-instill belief in government. With the government argument, I think we're missing the point, both in terms of compassion but also that it's not not about belief in government. It's about who owns government and what it's for. Despite the right's anti-government rhetoric, their practice is pro government. But it is government for them. So we must challenge the principle of who owns government. We are saying they've diminished the belief in government, but why does Rick Perry want to become president of the United States and, in effect, CEO of the nation’s investment engine, that is, government.
It's not because he doesn't believe in government, it's because he wants to control government. They want to control and privatize government resources. Capitalism is exhausted here. It needs more public money. It’s always needed public money, it needs more now. When you look at the growth of capitalism in America from railroads all the way to the computer, it's publicly funded. I say to people what do Velcro and GPS have in common? They were both created by the military. And who is making a profit from that? Does the public get any return for its investment?
But if we had a conception of government that was not only tax agent, service deliverer, but also an investor in the economy like a bank, and it was entitled to a return just the way a bank gets return, we'd have plenty money. But we don't treat ourselves as the investor. But every major technological growth has been publicly invested in. If we were a shareholder in Microsoft because we invented the computer, it would be a very different terrain. So the reinvention of capitalism is the issue, and the reinvention of government is what is happening. So capitalism is directly claiming public investment now.
DH: Can you provide a current example of the privatization impulse?
CG: Charter schools are a very good case study for the impulse. Forget anti-unionism; forget whether or not they work, because they don't. But even if they did they are not cheaper. Charter schools are simply the transfer of public money to profit-making activity. That's the system they are steadily building -- prisons, schools, public parks, there's a conversion of the whole system into an investment of capital which is a major extension of what's always been true.
It's a way of government supporting the expenditure of money, but it has been organized so that it stays in private control. And in private control it's become increasingly privileged in how the decisions are made. So you've got hedge fund people now funding charter schools -- they are the largest engine behind charter schools. And so they care about education. Some of them even believe public schools are so bad we need this alternative.
But there's not a lot of thinking about about whether profit is compatible with learning. If profit is the major goal and keeping costs down is the major goal, then how do you have learning be the major goal? That's exactly the contradiction. If you're going to have learning be the major goal, you have to invest in it like you would a war. You don't in a war say the major goal is how to make profit and we'll only fight the war according to the profit.
DH: With the enormous investment in military arms, and more recently mercenaries, it seems like we are headed there.
CH: Well, that is one reason we have more war. But in the end hopefully you can't sell to the public that the measure of our success here is profit. And in education, were saying basically you can trust profit. The market will give you better results. There's no reason to believe that. The public hasn't accepted it, although it's getting pushed on them because of the power that's established in the state houses. Also, what's not well understood, is there are three kinds of charters. So the privatization has three identities and they're being merged. One is public school experiments with the charter system. The second is not-for-profit charters run by not-for-profit organizations are closer to the base. The third is the for-profit charter.
The first two models are perfectly fine. We have private schools and parochial schools which have tax exemptions so they're only quasi private. Those two forms are part of the American education fabric, so having another thing called charters wouldn't be a problem. It's nice to experiment with different forms of government organization and curriculum. But the for-profit charter is a very different entity and to allow it to be conflated with the other two is basically to let the Trojan horse in.
DH: As a longtime foundation executive, how has philanthropy exacerbated the progressive weakness?
CG: Foundations mostly gave money according to sociology or class, so people gave money to organizations led by people most like them, or slowly there was entry of people who were not like them but were being identified by people like them, and also very little money when you think about it. If you take the most successful community based organization in philanthropy at community based building level, it's probably SCOPE in Los Angeles.
And they went from a $5,000 grant to its founder from New World Foundation to a $3 million, maybe a $4 million budget, which took 25 years to get to. We have a number of very strong local and state organizations that have built powerful bases to influence local politics, pioneering such inventions as “living wage,” and “community benefits.” But to date this is a record of policy reform and some electoral victories for local leaders, all of which is very important. It is, however, not yet a coherent, comprehensive and compelling base for challenging the structural realignment of capitalism in our time.
DH: What are the consequences of that lack of a base to challenge the excesses of capitalism?
CG: So middle-income workers and people in impoverished communities are all under serious attack by this realignment, and are not yet organized in an aggressive agenda of their own within a worldview they share. I think there’s a sense that we have more to lose than to gain in such action at this time, but time may be running out on that one. Most people do have a certain level of freedom, they have a lot of harassment -- but they have a certain level of freedom. And for the average African American who is now 25 -- they have family that experienced the change so they are freer than they were.
They don't get off the street curb when they're coming up to a white person. They can be on the street with a white date or partner. There have been significant changes, not necessarily lasting changes, but changes that make you feel you've got something. The real danger is now that the economy can't produce the benefits it was producing, and the greed in capitalism has gone to such an extreme, that the Captains of capitalism seem not to be concerned about the social order dangers that the extreme inequalities create, which opens the gates to fascism.
When you have the a tyrannical crowd, you have the tendency to tyranny, you have the crowd behaving the way they did in those four Republican debates. So while they're only a minority, they're setting a tone. In the first debate nobody was willing to say that a dying child, a very ill child, should get medical care. In the second debate you've got cheering for the death penalty. In the third debate you've got the call to kill, for a young man who's on life support. And in the fourth debate the gay soldier is booed. So you've got this extreme hysteria that is not being challenged.
DH: So you can imagine serious political repression here in the USA? Where is the hope?
CG: I think we know what’s going to come down. I think people know. People are afraid. There's an implicit fear. And also there are moments when spontaneity breaks out. Who knows, we may be lucky enough that spontaneity e.g. at Occupy Wall Street that will help produce a social movement. And all that's been funded and developed will be ready to move. We don't have that now. There was a kind of serial violence that you couldn't have predicted, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. The Nuclear Freeze movement was not predictable when it suddenly flourished. You can't predict them. But it's obvious why after they happen.
So we don't know that we don't have the ground for something major to happen. In almost every state, strong organizations have been developed that might well be the basis for movement capacity when forces outside of their own terrain call them to new and unified action. If one looked at the black churches before the Civil Rights Movement flourishes of the 1960s, they probably would not have looked as strong one by one as they did when called to unified action. So too with their leaders. Indeed, so too with the Tea Party and right-wing movements. The external call for the latter has been heavy duty private money and a driving corporate agenda that is committed to reversing the deals it made since the 1930’s.
But what’s observable is the right has established an ideology and a worldview, a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong that has captured enough of public to dominate news with visible activism, and to paralyze public at large. That doesn't mean they can hold onto it, but that’s the phenomenon were facing. The economy has no ability to buy the public back into the equation. This recent disaster relief controversy is an example. We are unable to buy back into the equation of what looked like we had won forever -- that is the public good. We've lost a major piece of the ideology that was built over 40 or 50 years -- that we care about people in pain. If we don't have the ideolology that we care about people in pain as your basic ethical compass, then you have the kill mentality. Because we're always balancing between compassion and fear. If compassion doesn't dominate and you don't have resources to feel you can be compassionate without paying a high price yourself, then you're going to turn to fear to protect what you've got, or reach your hand out for what you can get.
I think the health care debate is an interesting case to consider in all this. Obviously, the social benefit is intrinsic to a progressive perspective. The kind of health care reform we’ve received is, for a variety of reasons, insufficient and insecure. Foundation funding for advancing public education and lobbying ran to the millions of dollars but it was all silo policy oriented and for the most part, top down. If that kind of money could have been used to help build a comprehensive foundational commitment to social welfare and organizational capacity, a partial achievement might well have helped produce a powerful movement advance.
DH: Does that loss of the moral compass, along with the fear, have to translate into passivity? How do we combat that?
CG: Well, I don't know that were not doing some of what is necessary. We have to reinvest in the ideology… lots of organizations have gotten lost in the idea that you have to invest in resurrecting belief in government. This is about messages. Elections may be fought on messages. Social movements are about consciousness. We have still to invest psychically, financially and organizationally in rebuilding a shared consciousness for a threshold number of Americans that is characterized in the idea that we want a compassionate society and that government is the best vehicle to deliver that.
One thing I didn't mention about the '80s that the assault on government that Reagan led, the left created earlier. We talked about problems of welfare system, about the ineffectiveness of the education system -- that was us. Cloward and Piven, me, everybody. We undermined that system. We didn't have a sense, probably because we were young, that you win a victory and then you evolve the maturity of that victory. We wanted it to be correct, and the right will suffer the same hubris -- they're moving way beyond their ideological reach, beyond the ability to deliver it.
DH: So, what happens in the interim? What about political repression?
CG: As Eric Cantor said, "People could starve." He said, "If you haven't saved for a rainy day yourself, that's your responsibility."
That's the opposite of compassion; that generates fear. And if you have violence on the street, they will have their own excuse for political repression. If there is an excess of even the right-wing on the street you could have the excuse of police intervention that looks like it's in public interest. But we have work to do, not least is to protect the moment. By that I mean, we should give serious thought about the impact of colluding in the electoral defeat of this president by undermining him publicly and reducing his viability as a candidate. The alternative is truly dangerous.
At the same time, we must think of ourselves in a political era that calls for breaking from the conventions of recent political discourse that has narrowed our social and political vision. It’s time to name what is happening in our country without hysteria, but to be clear that the next elections are part of a struggle for a social and cultural threshold that will determine the quality of life and democracy in this country.
And we need to keep in mind what's always been true in the politics of social movements -- they are the province of the young. Just look for example at how the brave young people in the Dream Act campaigns have actually won victories against inhumane ICE practices. They took and they take risks. Now, as other young people are stepping up to make powerful statements, take risks, try new tactics, they need our support and understanding.