The Five Borough Report


Five Borough Report   June 2003


The View from Ground Zero:

Resisting the Permanent War Economy,

Reclaiming Our New Deal Heritage


Sumner Rosen

New York City after 9/11 has become a special place nationally and internationally. It is emblematic of the struggle being waged across the globe against the imperial military and economic excesses of the United States. This city was already in economic difficulty, and the effects of 9/11 intensified those problems. The permanent war declared by the Bush Administration means there will be little left to meet the needs of this city, or any of our cities, many of which are also in fiscal crisis. The greatest resource for our cities, the federal government, has been taken away. And the failure of the federal government is leading state and local governments to turn fiscally and economically against their people.

The right wing wants to put to rest, finally, the heritage of the New Deal, of government as the institution that protects the vulnerable and the weak, regulates the excesses of corporations, protects consumers, and ensures that labor has the right to organize. In fact, government is the only institution that can provide the basis for a broad-based social wage and improved quality of life. These were some of the key innovations that the New Deal put in place and that became consolidated in the 40s and 50s.

What we have seen now is a war that energizes a longstanding right-wing agenda for remaking the domestic map. The right has failed to address, much less solve, the fundamental problems, not only of fairness and justice, but of economic growth and employment as well. Numerous economists and others have provided answers to these problems, but they don't have the amplification of the media enjoyed by the right-wing ideologues.

We have the record of concrete ways to solve these problems in the social democratic nations of Europe, especially Scandinavia, which for decades have operated a competitive economy whose capitalists were taught by social democrats to play by new rules, to ensure that there was social protection, good health care, cradle to grave social security. In New York, as Joshua Freeman has shown in Working Class New York, labor and its allies created the equivalent of the social democratic welfare state with the best schools, excellent health care, and strong infrastructure. This was a system that made it possible for people to support themselves.

What ended it was the Red Scare that marginalized the progressive elements of New York labor, along with the deterioration that followed the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Today’s labor movement still runs scared, is fragmented, self-protective, and business-union-like. It has yet to identify and take possession of its progressive heritage. Recent changes in the labor movement give some reason for optimism, but the revival of labor's progressive advocacy role is a slow process.

Towards a Cities-Labor Coalition

What we lack now is a countervailing force to the controlling corporate forces. Whether we talk about politics in New York, in the country, or in the world, in the last analysis what matters is the balance of contending social forces. The ultimate test is whether the people have organized and applied themselves, and that happens at all levels. And so the bottom line is giving people the right and the ability to organize.

Emancipation begins with the right to organize, particularly among workers. I would emphasize labor rights, the right to organize to protect their interests, and those of all working peoples. In the workplace is the real heart of serious politics and the struggle for liberation. Workers struggle every day to win and protect their rights. The successful economies, in my view, are ones where a vigorous capitalism has been combined with effective labor organizing. In the post-Cold War era, capitalism is essentially the global economic order now, in one form or another, but there are new voices in labor, many people of color, women, and immigrants, and they offer great hope for the future.

Full employment is not only the right of every working person, but it is the solution to many of our most pressing social problems and the basis for empowering the working class as a whole. The high tech permanent war economy will not generate the high level and broad range of jobs such as were created in World War II, so those who are in the lower tiers, marginalized and in part-time work, will not find real work in this economy without new public programs that ensure jobs at a living wage.

There will always be much work to be done. Think about the deficiencies in our society: uncovered health care and public health needs; real homeland security; schools that have to be replaced; children who should be taught in smaller classrooms by qualified and well-paid teachers; older people, the chronically ill, and people with severe disabilities who need companionship and care; all who work in the arts and music. Some of this is evoked by Mike Wallace, who portrays what the New Deal meant for New York City and evokes a vision of what could be created by and for the people of this city.

Preparing to Create Change

The current dominance of market capitalism is not a law of nature that can't be changed by human and political action. The Iraq war evoked a level of organized opposition that is without precedent anywhere or anytime, but it has not acquired political shape and form. Working people can take control of their own lives in a serious and comprehensive way. I have seen enough examples in different parts of the world to know that it can be done. People need not only the power but the information and the institutions to decide their own fate. They will then make intelligent decisions. We are not well-prepared, but E. F. Schumacher said, "You never know when the winds of change will blow, but when they do, be sure that your sails are at the ready." Our task today is not only to resist politically the currently dominant globally-militarized political economy but to prepare for that change.

June 2003

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