Friday, September 26, 2008

A Three Alarm Crisis

Certainly the term “crisis” is overworked. Sometimes this suits the interests of the ruling rich, as Naomi Klein has ably demonstrated in such works as The Shock Doctrine, The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism. There are many serious problems confronting the working class that are chronic, endemic to Free Enterprise, requiring systemic change.

But, while resisting panic from cynical wolf-criers, we need to recognize that there are at times crisis situations that demand urgent action. I believe we can identify three of those today:

* Financial/Credit
The housing bubble, which created artificial, unsustainable high real estate values, is only part of the larger credit disaster. Many now owe far more than they can ever repay–not just on mortgages but for their transportation, health care, and college education. The current bailout effort in the USA holds the very flow of money hostage to an enormous transfer of wealth from the tax-paying working class to pay the rich part of this uncollectible debt. Whether the bailout is approved, or in its absence day to day credit dries up, it’s a lose-lose situation for American workers.

* Fuel
Soaring costs and spot shortages of fuel have adversely impacted every sector of the world economy and there’s no end in sight.

* Climate
Above all, the global warming crisis, threatening the very existence of human life as we know it, is advancing much faster than even the most pessimistic recent projections. With melting polar and Greenland ice, and warming ocean temperatures, we will soon see rising sea levels threatening the homes of hundreds of millions. We are approaching the point of no return. Yet greenhouse emissions are still on the rise, massive offshore drilling and shale extraction will soon be authorized by Congress, and 28 new coal fired powerplants are under construction, with permits approved for 20 more, just in the USA. Even former Vice-President Al Gore has called on young people to use civil disobedience to stop the growth of destructive coal.

But Gore is the partial exception that proves the rule. The corporate and political Establishment has no acceptable solutions to any of these challenges. And, most of our union and mainstream environmental leaders defer to the Establishment. That makes them part of the problem, not the solution.

Initiatives from below are clearly needed to work both through existing organizations, such as our unions and environmental groups, and to draw in the unorganized in to ad hoc formations, to discuss a program and strategy for confronting this three-alarm crisis.

In my opinion, such discussion should be geared to planning a far-reaching emergency response. Earlier this week, in writing about the inadequate party platforms in the current Canadian election campaign, Ian Angus wrote,

“A government that really wanted to deal with climate change would declare a Climate Emergency. It would learn from the experience of World War II, when Ottawa forced through a radical transformation of the entire economy in a few months, with no lost jobs or pay cuts.”

Of course, this is also apropos to the USA, which had an even more impressive economic mobilization during that war--in fact what finally pulled the country out of the Great Depression. It’s an example that many of us have raised in the effort to unite labor and environmentalists in the U.S. In taking such bold steps on the climate crisis we would also take care of the other two as well.

But we can improve on the war time experiences. Instead of guaranteeing profits on top of costs for corporations we could and should nationalize the financial, energy, and transportation sectors–whose owners are responsible for the emergency. With the resources of public investments, we should bring labor, environmental, and scientific representatives in to the actual planning and management of those sectors.

We could bolster those public resources by ending the current wars, which serve only the interests of global capital, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, while we’re at it, pull the plug on the insane building of more nuclear weapons.

All of this emergency reorganization of the economy should follow the principle of Just Transition–guaranteeing worker living standards as they are retrained and placed in different jobs in a green, peaceful economy.

I don’t offer any blueprint for change. I propose opening discussion to formulate an action plan. A logical place to begin is among those already engaged in trying to transform the labor movement–such as the Labor Notes network and Center for Labor Renewal. Some left groups, such as
Aaron Bass's excellent analysis of the financial crisis in Socialist Action, seem interested in a nonsectarian dialogue.

But I stress the goal should be an action plan. We could talk about problems until the cows come home. We won’t solve everything right away. But the planet is on fire, the economy is crumbling–and like it or not, we’re the First Responders.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Peter Camejo, 1939-2008

Peter Camejo, one of the most prominent left leaders to emerge from the Sixties radicalization in the USA, lost a second bout with lymphoma Saturday, September 13. He was 68.

Camejo was born in to a wealthy Venezuelan family. His mother, Elvia, who had family and friend ties in the USA, and was concerned about health care in Venezuela at the time, chose to have Peter in a hospital in the Bronx. As a result Camejo began life as a dual citizen of the USA and Venezuela. Peter spent his earliest days in Venezuela. When Elvia divorced his father, Daniel, when Peter was seven, he relocated with his mother to the U.S. where he resided the rest of his life.

Peter was an exceptional student in high school and achieved a perfect SAT score in math. He went on to attend the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology for three years. But soon interest in the civil rights movement, and later radical politics, began to distract him from academic pursuits.

He became involved in the newly formed Young Socialist Alliance, an independent formation that evolved in to the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party. I first met Peter in 1963, when he came to Chicago to speak for the YSA. He was already well on his way to becoming, in my opinion, the best agitational speaker our generation produced.

He put these speaking skills at work in many venues. He became a well-known student leader at UC Berkeley–where he was enrolled from 1965 to his expulsion, ordered by Governor Ronald Reagan, in 1967 for “unauthorized use of a microphone.” Reagan listed him as one of the “ten most dangerous Californians.” The only evidence cited for this remarkable assertion was that he was “present at all antiwar demonstrations.”

The height of Camejo’s speaking abilities was reached during his 1976 campaign as the SWP’s presidential candidate. He traveled 150,000 miles, speaking at dozens of campaign events. He even managed to get the last word in on William F Buckley’s television talk show. With no funds available for television or direct mail advertising, and only able to get on the ballot in eighteen states, Camejo racked up an impressive vote total of over 90,000.

Camejo also produced some serious writing, such as Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877: The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction; Liberalism, Ultraleftism or Mass Action; Who Killed Jim Crow: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement and It's Lessons for Today; and How to Make a Revolution in the United States.

Years later, after Peter applied his mathematical prowess as a stock broker, first with traditional Wall Street firms, later with his own enterprise, he wrote, The SRI Advantage: Why Socially Responsible Investing Has Outperformed Financially.

For reasons not clear to party members at the time, Camejo parted company from the central leadership of the SWP in 1980. He eventually became a leader in California’s Green Party, describing himself as a watermelon–green on the outside, red on the inside. He made three campaigns for Governor as a Green and in 2004 was Ralph Nader’s vice-presidential pick.

I certainly had my differences with parts of Peter’s evolution from socialist agitator to watermelon. But the contributions he made to building social movements and the socialist movement for decades are enduring and, to the end, he was still working to do the right thing. He will be missed. Our sympathy goes out to his family, friends, and comrades.

Bill Onasch

Monday, September 8, 2008

Celia Hart SantamarĂ­a (1962 – 2008)

Celia Hart, and her brother Abel, were killed in a car wreck in Havana on Sunday, September 7. Funeral arrangements were hurriedly made, racing against the approach of devastating hurricane Ike–which roughly followed the route taken by the victorious guerilla forces of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara marching to Havana a half-century ago.

Celia and Abel’s mother, Haydee Santamaria, had been part of those revolutionary forces, going back to her participation with Fidel in his earliest battle against Batista–the 1953 assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago. Her life ended in 1980.

Their father, Armando Hart, was one of the main organizers of the revolutionary movement in the cities. He was selected to be the revolutionary government’s first Minister of Education and later, from 1976-97 served as Minister of Culture. He continues to actively follow political events at the age of 78.

Celia did not initially choose to follow the highly political path of her prominent parents. Instead, she pursued a study of physics. She did her graduate work at the University of Dresden, becoming the first non-German female graduate from their prestigious physics school.

But the differences she saw between her native Cuba and the Stalinist dictatorship in East Germany deeply troubled her. She later wrote,

“In 1985 I returned to Cuba on holidays and confessed to my father my feelings of utter desperation. In response, my father opened a cupboard and got out four books: the three-volume Life of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher and Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. I devoured these books, but until a few months ago had no opportunity of reading the rest of Trotsky’s works.”

Celia, while remaining loyal to the Cuban revolution and regime, began writing and speaking extensively, independent of Communist Party venues. She was particularly interested in the working class upsurge in Latin America, especially Venezuela. She established relations with Trotsky’s grand-son, Esteban Volkov in Mexico and took part in introducing Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed at a book fair in Havana several years ago.

Some thought Celia was “asking for trouble” in advancing such views. My good friend Jeff Mackler, who is helping to edit and introduce a soon to be published collection of Celia’s articles and speeches, writes,

“Celia was proud to tell us that her defense of Trotskyist ideas had not gone unnoticed by the Fidel Castro she loved, admired and knew since her childhood. A letter from Fidel to Celia not long ago conveyed his appreciation of Celia's writings and concluded with the assertion that Celia was not to be discouraged from expressing her views. ‘No one will hurt a single hair on your beautiful head,’ said Fidel, a delighted Celia told us.”

More recently, she began to collaborate with socialists in North America. She, of course, was banned from visiting the USA and travel by Americans to Cuba is made extremely difficult by the U.S. government. I was fortunate to meet and spend some time with her at a conference in Toronto a few months ago.

I was already impressed by her fresh analytic application of classic socialist views in her writings. I was pleased to experience first hand her dynamic energy, sense of humor–and our shared passion for baseball. One could not long remain gloomy or lethargic in her presence.

Her tragic demise is a set back, for sure, for the working people of this hemisphere as well as a deeply felt personal loss for those who knew her. Our sympathy goes out to her father.

But Celia certainly would not want her friends and comrades to mope. She would expect us to carry on her efforts to liberate working people from exploitation and ignorance.

Bill Onasch

Friday, September 5, 2008

What’s Within Bounds Regarding Sarah Palin

The distractions from the real world by the seemingly endless election campaign became more skewed than ever as both boss parties reacted to the surprise selection of Governor Palin to be a heart beat away from the presidency.

How many children Sarah Palin decides to have is her business–and no body else’s.

Sarah Palin’s proposal to use big government to deny the rest of us family planning options is our business.

Sarah Palin is entitled under freedom of religion to embrace her Pentecostal faith.

When she proposes to use the power of big government to advance this faith’s view of the universe, in opposition to the teachings of science in schools, she tramples on freedom of religion and seeks to keep our children in ignorance.

Sarah Palin was entitled to pray for God’s assistance to U.S. forces in the war in Iraq.

She and her party were not entitled to direct the police state tactics used against many thousands protesting that war outside the convention–events largely ignored by the “liberal” media.

Since the other party also tries to be “faith based,” and wants to expand the War On Terrorism front in Afghanistan, it is unlikely they will give these issues much play.

We’ve got sixty-one more days to go of this malarkey–unless, of course, there are more hanging chads.

Bill Onasch