Disdain: On Perry Anderson’s America

First published on ZNet on September 20, 2013. Academic leftism left can be fun and informative. In some of its professional practitioners’ hands, it can also seem alienating and dismissive towards working class people and progressive activists.

Take the eminent British half- or post-Marxist historian Perry Anderson’s [1] essay on the sorry state of U.S. politics, titled “Homeland.” Published last June in the Anderson-edited New Left Review, a leading organ of academic Marxism at its best, “Homeland” brings richly informed historical insights to the American political scene. With deft synthetic acumen and wit, Anderson situates that scene within the “parameters of four determinants”: (1) shifting developments in the capitalist “accumulation regime”; (2) the changing “sociology” and demographics of the U.S. electorate; (3) “cultural mutation in the value system at large within the society;” (4) “the aims of the active minorities in the voting base of each party.”[2]

How Little the Parameters Have Shifted

I cannot here delve into precisely how Anderson – an author of sweeping volumes on the rise of European feudalism and the absolutist state and much more – weaves these “four determinants” together to bring us to the Age of Obama. I would, however, like to register strong agreement with the following passage, which nicely captures key lines of corporate neoliberal and related militarist and repressive continuity between the administrations of Bush 43 and Obama 44 (whom Anderson cleverly calls America’s “first only half-white president”) – lines set down by elite “boundary-makers” in the previous century:

“How little the parameters of the political system had shifted with the reversion to Democratic tenure of the White House can be seen by the degree of continuity in the agendas of the Bush and Obama presidencies. Both rulers, like Reagan before them, took office in a recession and responded with tax-cuts to goose the economy. Both presided over weak measures to rein in financial excesses. Both extended health-care benefits to gain social support. Both increased federal funding on education. Both sought reform of immigration. Both hiked military spending, and curbed civil liberties. Both escalated the deficit. The principal difference has lain in the size and direction of the side-payments each partisan variant has made, within a framework set by the joint requirements of business confidence and voter appeasement, in conditions of deteriorating economic performance.” (Anderson, “Homeland,” section 7)

Anderson is quite right to note that “the scattered disbursements of the federal stimulus, often undercut by fiscal contraction at state level, have left most of their recipients cold.” He sharply observes that Obama’s health reform is a modest “extension of social benefits in exchange for a bonanza to the private health-care industry” (the big insurance and drug companies). He eloquently ads that “it is mainly an extension of Medicaid, but one that will still leave about 30 million Americans uninsured, and the rest bewildered in a system of yet more complexity and opacity than before—the bill enacting it is 900 pages long.”

Anderson correctly observes that Obama’s tax changes leave the nation’s excise system deeply regressive. He is dead on right to note that Obama’s record has far less in common with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal than it does with what he adroitly labels its more relevant “comparator….the callisthenic gauze of [John Kennedy’s] New Frontier.” (Anderson, sec. 7)

Identity Over Class

This is all very incisive and well-said. So is Anderson’s conclusion that demographic change in the electorate (the declining percentage of older married Christian white voters and the rising shares of younger, minority, female, gay, unmarried, and un-churched voters) and related “corset-loosening” culture shifts (“compatible, of course, with any amount of market-friendly conformism” – sec.6)) like the decline of marriage and church attendance and the rising presence of women in professions favor the Democrats’ continuing hold over the presidency. At the same time, Anderson neatly observes that the radical right business takeover of the Republican Party combines with the “deluge of [corporate and financial political] money”(Anderson observes that the costs of a successful challenge to a Congressional incumbent rose from $100,000 in the 1970s to $1.5 million by 2002 – sec.10) and continuing “disarray” in the regime of accumulation to mean that “the current neoliberal [U.S.] order has become a political no-man’s land in which no organic formulae of rule [Roosevelt’s New Deal or Reagan’s ‘free market’ revolution] is now in sight.” (Anderson, sec.11)

Anderson is quite right to note that American political development across the long neoliberal era has seen the “replace[ment of] what was once something like class politics with what is now closer to identity politics as the basis of coalition-forming and electoral mobilization” (sec. 6) in the U.S.. The hold of that identity politics (emphasizing race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural identity over class) in the Age of Obama (and into a likely Hillary Clinton administration) is not without irony, for, as Anderson notes, “Under Obama, [America’s already stupendous class] inequality has continued to grow” (sec.8) – to truly obscene levels.

“Mass Apathy”

All of this and more in Anderson’s essay alone makes last June’s NLR almost worth its newsstand price. Speaking of fun, Anderson likes readers to know that he knows not just more languages then they do, but more English words as well. He always sends readers to the dictionary to learn new words. “Homeland” did not disappoint, turning me to Webster’s to brush up on “regalian,” “scansions,” and “palimpsest” while learning for the first time of “coruscating” and “adumbrate.”

The problem with Anderson’s analysis comes with his cold take on the majority working class populace that lives under the United States’ rotten, neoliberal political order, shaped by what he calls “the all-capitalist ideological universe – a mental firmament in which the sanctity of private property and superiority of private enterprise are truths taken for granted by all forces in the political arena.” (sec.9) Anderson is clearly unimpressed with the U.S. citizenry. “So far,” he writes, “there has been little popular protest.” Further:

“The one attempt to arouse it, the Occupy movement, failed to ignite any mass response. Even when its slogans were—all too easily—rendered down into Presidential boiler-plate, they still had only a limited take-up. A campaign highlighting the arrogance and egoism of the rich, personified by his billionaire opponent, kept Obama in office. But it galvanized no popular upsurge. Fewer bothered to vote than in 2008; the incumbent lost some four million supporters; his adversary gained half a million. Like his predecessors, the President returned to the White House with the assent of roughly a quarter of the adult population. The predominant mood continues to be not indignation, or enthusiasm; it remains a depoliticized quietism….Just this underlying environment of mass apathy is what lends active minorities a power in the political system beyond their numbers. The polarization of outlooks that is now regularly held to be its greatest bane is their affair. In the vacuum created by the many—an unorganized, passive citizenry dispersed across a vast continent—the passions of the few, those with the will and means to mobilize, take on a peculiar intensity, little affected by the surrounding numbness” (bridging sections 8 and 9, emphasis added).

Protests Beyond Occupy, 2009 to Present

I am hardly one to argue that popular resistance to the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money is highly advanced – much less where it should ideally be from a radical left perspective – in the U.S. today. If I had my druthers, the U.S. today would be a seething cauldron of anti-capitalist agitation and mass mobilization on the verge of a revolutionary general strike. That is quite obviously far from the current American reality. Still, Occupy is hardly the only attempt to arouse popular U.S. protest to have emerged during the Obama years. Leaving aside the right wing, corporate-funded “Tea Party” explosion of 2009 and 2010 – an Astroturf, fake-grassroots pseudo-movement[3] that (nonetheless) captured no small amount of genuine popular indignation – progressive activists affiliated with the Connecticut Working Families Party protested Wall Street bonuses and bailouts at the homes of American Insurance Group (A.I.G) executives and at an A.I.G. office in Connecticut in March of 2009.[4] That same year saw the emergence of significant large-scale student and faculty protests against budget cuts and tuition hikes across the sprawling University of California system. A Time dispatch from California in March of 2009 includes some remarkable reporting from Perry Anderson’s own campus of UCLA:

‘During two days of protests at UCLA, where the UC regents met to vote on the fee increase, about 2,000 students from the 10-campus system confronted riot police, shouted slogans and blocked building exits. Like a scene out of the angry 1960s, students surged against barricades and briefly seized a building near the main campus quad; police used taser guns on several protesters, and arrested nearly 20. All the while, police helicopters hovered overhead, TV vans with high antennas stood ready and students played drums and strummed guitars.’

‘At a sit-down strike that blocked vehicles from leaving, UCLA student leader Michael Hawley spoke through his bullhorn, “We want one regent to come out to speak to us about why the world’s richest country will be denying some students higher education next quarter.” Police responded by telling demonstrators they had three minutes to leave before being arrested. Then, forming a flying wedge, police led a small group of regents to another building.’

‘Addressing 100 students blocking a parking garage driveway defended by eight visored police with billy clubs, UCLA Sophomore Chiemela Okwandu told the crowd, “This is our university. We can sleep here if we want.”…In addition to the mass protest at UCLA, students at UC Davis, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz occupied buildings to signal their displeasure with the fee increase. At UC Davis, more than 50 people were arrested Thursday on misdemeanor trespassing charges for refusing to leave Mrak Hall. At UC Berkeley, students took control of the second floor of Wheeler Hall on Friday before campus police arrested three students and at UC Santa Cruz protesters occupied a building and issued a list of demands to the campus administration.’[5]

In April of the following year, CNN reported thousands of protesters organized by the AFL-CIO “rallied in downtown New York City Thursday to voice their anger over what they perceive as the roles Wall Street and big banks played in America’s economic crisis. Marching from City Hall to Wall Street, the protesters chanted ‘good jobs for all,’ and held signs with messages including ‘Hold banks accountable,’ ‘Make Wall Street Pay,’ and ‘Reclaim America.’”[6]

An epic, massive, multi-week firestorm of remarkable and creative, pro-labor popular protest (including the occupation of a state capitol building) against the anti-union policies and austerity agenda of Wisconsin’s corporate-funded Teapublican governor Scott Walker captured national and global attention in February and March of 2011. The Wisconsin uprising garnered visiting supporters from all over the country. It spread to state capitols in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.[7] “Madison” helped inspired Bloombergville, a campsite formed to protest fiscal austerity in New York City that provided a bridge between the Wisconsin struggle and Occupy Wall Street.[8]

Along the way we’ve also seen: the rise of nationwide movements against senseless neoliberal school closings and related “high-stakes” public schools testing[9]; a successful longshoremen’s strike mobilization[10]; a massive turnout of marchers and activists to oppose military imperialism and corporate globalization at the combined meetings of NATO and the G8 (despite an incredible demonstration of massive, high-tech repressive power by the militarized, multi-jurisdictional national and local police state and its private/corporate security allies) in Chicago (Obama had to move the second meeting to Camp David because of his reasonable fear of mass protest in May of 2012)[11]; a national movement against bank foreclosures of lower and working class homes[12]; major protests (involving tens of thousands of marchers across the country, including 50,000 marchers in Los Angeles alone, on May 1, 2010) against Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070[13];a large number of protests against the low and negative tax burdens and other protections enjoyed by leading banks and corporations like Well Fargo and General Electric in numerous locales in early 2011[14]; protests against police brutality and racial profiling in California (including riots in Anaheim after police shootings of Latino youth last year[15]) and New York City’s (site of a large silent march against the city’s racist “stop and frisk” policy in the spring of 2012[16]; a “growing movement of people speaking out and standing up to protest the use of drones by the United States in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as at home in the United States”[17]; prisoner work and hunger strikes in Georgia [18] and California [19]; giant marches and demonstrations against the racist killing of Trayvon Martin and the jury verdict that exonerated Martin’s killer[20]; and significant protests around climate change and the eco-cidal Keystone XL Pipeline, including a sizeable (50,000) march on the White House last March.[21]

We’ve seen “the emergence of CORE [the ultimately victorious progressive faction within the Chicago Teacher’s Union – CTU] and the increased militancy of the CTU in waging a fight-back against school closures, privatization and austerity has produced new labor-community alliance that offer more promise than anything we’ve seen in this town in decades” (Chicago activist Richard Reilly). Last fall, on the eve of the presidential election, the progressive CTU used the poplar power it developed through those alliances to win significant concessions from the city’s neoliberal mayor and former Obama chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel. The 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike focused to a remarkable degree on the business elite’s campaign to advance authoritarian “skill and drill” standardized testing as the main criteria for assessing teachers, students, schools and education in general.[22]

Over the past three years, hundreds of workers at the notoriously anti-union retail giant Wall-Mart have conducted one-day strikes, including one last year on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. [23]At demonstrations held across 15 U.S. cities two weeks ago, worker and activists affiliated with OUR Wal-Mart promised to mount the biggest strike ever against Wal-Mart on one Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) this year..[24] Also beginning before Anderson’s essay was published and continuing through the summer of 2013, the “Fight for 15” has emerged, with many thousands of fast food and retail workers this summer demanding a doubling of their minimal minimum wage, pegged well below livable compensation. [25] Thousands of fast-food workers have taken part in a nationwide walkout as part of a growing grassroots movement that has drawn energy from the example of Occupy As New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse noted after one such walkout last July:

“From New York to several Midwestern cities, thousands of fast-food workers have been holding one-day strikes during peak mealtimes, quickly drawing national attention to their demands for much higher wages….What began in Manhattan eight months ago first spread to Chicago and Washington and this week has hit St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Mich. On Wednesday alone, workers picketed McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Popeye’s and Long John Silver’s restaurants in those cities with an ambitious agenda: pay of $15 an hour, twice what many now earn….These strikes…carry the flavor of Occupy Wall Street protests and are far different from traditional unionization efforts that generally focus on a single workplace …[since they] aim…to mobilize workers — all at once — in numerous cities at hundreds of restaurants from two dozen chains.”[26]

New York City fast food worker activist Jonathan Westin also sees a connection to the Occupy Movement. He tells the Guardian that “Occupy helped raise the issue of inequality and inspired a whole movement for protest. But this is a more direct action approach. We’re taking these strikes all over the country. People have to take to the streets to be heard. That’s what we see and that’s why this is going all over the country.”[27]

And just now, this late August and early September, Obama has confronted significant majority public opposition to his plans – currently on hold – to attack Syria with cruise missiles and bombs. Millions of Americans left, right, and center have contacted their congressional representatives and the White House to voice their dissent against war. A new antiwar movement awakened in response to the president’s latest military chest-pounding.[28] The liberal antiwar Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) recently and quite reasonably called the temporary blocking of a U.S. military intervention in Syria the biggest victory for the peace movement since the end of the Vietnam War.[29]

Strange Chronology and Deletions

But back to Occupy itself. Did it really “fail to ignite a mass response”? Anderson approaches the question of Occupy’s significance with an odd, highly defective timeline. After claiming that Occupy sparked no popular upsurge, he finds it curious that Obama’s appropriation of some its popular terminology in a pseudo-populist presidential campaign against Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney brought little popular take up of its slogans and “galvanized no popular upsurge.” He also mentions low turnout in the 2012 presidential election as a sign of popular apathy.

This strange chronology leaves out two basic realities. First, it omits the tens of thousands of citizens and activists who set up sympathetic and imitative Occupy encampments in droves of towns and cities across the United States once the story broke about activists’ successful take over of Zucotti Park. As the black radical commentator Glen Ford noted in early October of 2011, “Like a political Andromeda Strain, the anti-Wall Street phenomenon has replicated itself in a thousand locations, a pattern of leftish activism resembling a new and successful cell-phone service map; everyone seems, potentially, connected.”[30]

Second, Anderson curiously deletes the often quite brutal repression of Occupy that preceded its replacement by the coming major party-big money-candidate-centered and highly “personalized quadrennial electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky[31]) as the nation’s leading media story in late 2011. There is no telling how Occupy might have developed further but for the federally coordinated police state repression it faced across the nation, facilitated by no small degree of federal coordination.[32] State authorities used a number of by now standard “command and control” tactics to manage and marginalize the anti-plutocracy protestors: “frequent and often mass arrests, surveillance, the use of barricades and kettling, and infiltration” As progressive economist Jeff Madrick noted in Harper’s earlier this year, writing only of the New York City chapter:

“it has become increasingly clear that OWS didn’t fizzle because its objectives were muddled or its talk too abstract or its organization too chaotic. In fact, the movement was undone by a concerted [multi-jurisdictional] government effort to undo it….Taken together, the coordinated and disproportionate actions of the NYPD, the FBI, and Homeland Security represent a campaign of suppression without which Occupy might well have evolved into something more formidable, even in the cold of New York City’s winter.[33]

In reality, there were multiple causes of Occupy’s decline, including problems within Occupy. Still, the prolific left U.S. journalist and author Chris Hedges is right to note “that whatever the internal faults of the Occupy movement – and they were there – the Occupy movement was destroyed. The state was quite rattled by the Occupy movement and is determined not to allow a movement, a mass movement like that to rise up again.”[34] And what was true in New York City was both relevant for, and true in relation to, what happened across the nation.

Anderson’s two deletions are intimately related: why would government authorities have felt compelled to crush a popular movement that had failed to ignite any mass support and response?

At the same time, the popular significance of Occupy is not measured only by the numbers of people who joined or visited its camps and assemblies. Madrick notes that the Occupy movement “did achieve its broader purpose: to raise awareness of the injustice of inequality in this nation. ‘We are the 99 percent’ will remain with us as a political slogan every bit as galvanizing for the moment as ‘Hell no, we won’t go’ was for the draft protestors of the 1960s.” Furthermore, “offshoots of Occupy remain active in many areas”– resisting foreclosures, challenging the Supreme Court’s plutocratic Citizens United ruling, and providing relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy (“Occupy Sandy”), among other things.[35]

Another key thing missing from Anderson’s analysis is any reasonable sense of the difference and indeed the conflict between social movements on one hand and U.S. electoral politics on the other. Why is Anderson mystified or disappointed by the failure of Obama’s appropriation of (some of) Occupy’s rhetoric to “galvanize a popular upsurge”? Consistent with the longstanding relationship between rank and file social movements and the Democratic Party in U.S. history[36], the discursive appropriation was meant precisely to co-opt, capture, and marginalize popular protest – that is, to channel popular anger into the narrow choices offered by the elite-controlled and corporate-managed U.S. party and electoral system [37] that Anderson rightly (in my opinion) disdains.

It’s nothing new. A shining example of that channeling process was the admittedly all too unchallenged way that labor and other Democratic elites dismantled the rank and file Wisconsin struggle as a social movement, turning the significant popular protest unleashed in early 2011 into a predictably unsuccessful electoral effort to recall Scott Walker and replace him in the governor’s office with an uninspiring centrist Democrat (Tommy Barrett). The point of the Obama re-election campaign’s attempted co-optation of Occupy rhetoric and slogans (“the 1%” v. “the 99%) in the fall and winter of 2011 and 2012 was to take those slogans off the streets and put to them to fake-populist work in the next “quadrennial extravaganza,” not to form a protest The appropriation mostly followed significant state suppression, including federal (Obama administration) repression of the protest movement. Such repression had not been requited in Wisconsin, where, sadly protesters pretty much followed their liberal “leaders” into electoral oblivion.[38]

As for U.S. low voter participation in the 2012 election, why or how is it proof of the absence of protest or indignation in the U.S? “Homeland” give an erudite dissection of (among other things) just how painfully limited the choices really are between the two major neoliberal U.S. political organization and their respective plutocratic candidates. Anderson seems fully aware that Obama’s claim to represent the 99% and against the 1% was mendacious campaign boilerplate, consistent with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ onetime description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”[39] Why then does Anderson see an American’s failure to vote for the fake-progressive Brand Obama in 2012 as a sign of their passivity and quiescence? I know more than a few Americans who find the choices on offer from the corporate- and Wall Street-captive major party candidates as far too narrow to merit a vote. They register a protest of sorts by not voting or by voting or for officially un-electable third or fourth party candidates.

But then Anderson does not seem to fully appreciate just how flawed the U.S. electoral system really is when it comes to representing citizen views. At one point in “Homeland,” Anderson attributes Bush 43’s success in the 2000 presidential election to stay on the safe side of the electorate’s changing demographics by keeping “moderate in tone” and avoiding “an overt appeal to religious zeal.” By Anderson’s account, “capture of independent voters, not turn-out of the already committed, gave him the White House.” (Anderson, sec.5) There are some rather key deletions here are of course the racial-ethnic cleansing of voter rolls by Republican operatives in Florida, the related voter and vote-count suppression activities of Florida Governor Jeb Bush and other Republican officials throughout the state, and ultimately the cold authoritarian and partisan intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally and literally “gave him [Bush 43] the White House.” [39A] 

“The Problem With These Fucking ‘Leftists’”

When I asked my disproportionately leftist and activist cohort of Facebook “friends” to respond to Anderson’s judgment on Occupy and the state of U.S. popular protest, one commenter responded with withering scorn. He noted Occupy’s role in capturing and spreading widespread populist sentiments. He also denounced the self-fulfilling, mandarin-like alienation of armchair left academicians who contribute to popular powerlessness by failing to serve protest and then writing off the significant protest that does occur without their assistance:

“I promise you 100% that the [academic] hasn’t been doing any ‘Marxist’ political work himself. That Occupy and the wave of global uprisings is viewed as ‘whatever’ is exactly the problem with these fucking ‘leftists.’ They don’t listen. They don’t act. They judge and moan and demand the rest of us wallow in their self-marginalization. They don’t join or build. They ‘analyze’ using a ‘Marxist discourse’ and then bemoan that their weird (non-materialist, non-Marxist) moralism blame the people instead of serving them. I have never seen anything even remotely as effective as Occupy. It galvanized a new consensus which is now called the 99%. It affected the masses of people far more than their would-be condescending saviors and demanded activity by people instead of demands on their behalf.”

That was very well if roughly and bitterly said. Same for the following reflection from a different commenter, who wondered why government officials felt compelled to violently repress a movement that “failed to ignite any mass response.” The significant popular response that Occupy sparked and might have further elicited, the second commenter wrote, “is exactly why the state was basically called upon to crush it by force in the nationwide coordinated crackdown…. Such a harsh response to the movement would not have been necessary were it merely a ‘ghost dance.’”

“To Bring People Together”

It’s not all or just about protests or even about organization and political resistance. Across the country, Americans are involved in efforts to build democratic community and culture from the bottom up in the soulless, vacuum of finance-led neoliberal abandonment. A recent report from savagely de- industrialized, fiscally bankrupt Detroit tells a curious story of hidden, grassroots social and economic successes beneath that city’s official narrative of failure:

“Believe it or not, the worst of times is well on its way to becoming something truly inspiring. The very isolation of Detroit has created the conditions for… a new paradigm of economic activity….It is single moms stretching dollars from government programs for the poor as creatively and as far as they can. It is back alley auto repair shops and church’s selling dinners on the street. It is off the books home child care. It is what African-Americans have had to do for many generations to make a way out of no way…

It is also scrappers who are repurposing the copper, weathered wood and other valuable products left by the abandonment of homes, stores and factories….”

“Necessity truly is the mother of invention and in that spirit, Detroiters are also developing a remarkable highly intentional economy. That economy includes increasingly sophisticated urban agriculture and a growing network of alternative schools. It is neighborhood based conflict resolution; do-it-yourself solar street lighting; community based manufacturing using the newest fab lab technology and alternative transportation systems. It is new art and new music and new media. It is time-banking, co-ops and other forms of creative finance. It is Skype conferences and face to face meetings with partners all over the world to re-imagine work, finance and democracy. It is the creative use of social services and churches to create maker spaces and entrepreneurial opportunities for returning citizens. It is the hard below the radar work of the Detroit Roundtable and others facilitating healing and practical new alliances between the city and the suburbs.”

“The living, breathing Detroit new economy movement taps into Detroit’s deep political traditions of advocacy for economic and social justice. It is especially dependent on the decades long visionary analysis and activism of the late James Boggs and 98 year old Grace Lee Boggs.”[40]

This is consistent with and perhaps partly inspired by Occupy, whose many sites across the country were noble if brief demonstrations of people’s ability to govern themselves. 

Noam Chomsky has noted that one of Occupy’s most significant successes was to “to bring people together to form functioning, supportive, free, democratic communities – everything from kitchens to libraries to health centers to free general assemblies, where people talk freely and debate. It’s created bonds and associations,” Chomsky observed in January 2012, “that, if they last and they expand, could make a big difference.”[41]

Anger and Indignation Rife

The biggest problem with Anderson’s essay isn’t its underestimation and dismissal of popular protest and/or intentional community-building, its underestimation and ignoring of government repression, or its odd failure to understand the anti-mobilizing function of U.S. elections and campaign rhetoric. The main failure in “Homeland” is Anderson’s claim of “mass apathy” and absent “indignation.” Poll after poll has for many years and indeed decades registered widespread popular anger, indignation, and disgust with the sorry state and direction of U.S. society and politics. The survey data is regularly reflected in daily U.S. life and conversation, rife with irritation, resentment, exasperation, rage, and infuriation over the way that elites have destroyed democracy and run the country into the ground, etc.

The mass indignation is largely progressive in its broad outlines. Most U.S. citizens reject corporate and financial dominance, harsh socioeconomic disparity, and the ruination of social and ecological health in service to the rich and powerful. The vast majority do not accept “plutonomy” and plutocracy. They prefer a roughly egalitarian society where wealth and power are well distributed and the government is run by and for the populace in pursuit of the common good. “Taken literally,” the Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels notes in his important book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2009), the survey data illustrating these and other progressive majority views imply “an astonishing level of public support for what would have to be a very radical program of social transformation,” including the outlawing of inherited wealth and of social and economic advantages based race, gender, ethnicity, and intelligence.[42]

One big and deadly problem is that we currently have no real organized institutional Left to capture those majority progressive sentiments in the U.S. Another is that much of the citizenry has lacked the time and energy to act on those sentiments in a meaningful way thanks to the long neoliberal assault on their time, energy, and income over the last three plus decades. As the perceptive radical economist Richard Wolff notes, “The last three decades of U.S politics did not see a change of political opinion from more left to more right. Rather, what happened was a relative withdrawal from politics on the part of those social groups that favored social-welfare and income-redistribution policies (the New Deal ‘legacy’) and a relative increase in the participation of business and the rich, who used their money to shift the tone and content of US politics [to the right].” Working and lower class participation in politics, already constricted by the 1970s, declined significantly under the pressure of stagnant wages, rising working hours, and increased levels of household debt. These burdens “all combined to leave working families with less time and energy to devote to politics – or indeed to social activities and organizations in general.”[43] This decline in popular engagement occurred as U.S. labor unions’ long and steep decline of membership and effectiveness accelerated under employer assault while soaring profits and wealth gave the rich massive resources to pour into shaping the nation’s politics and political culture. And the richer they got, the more the wealthy corporate and financial few were incentivized to influence politics and policy (so as to more effectively protect their fortunes from the egalitarian pressures and envy of “the 99 percent”)[44]– something that only fuels popular disengagement from public affairs. 

This is critical context for the terrible U.S. political situation that Perry Anderson understandably deplores. Anderson is right to bemoan the problem of an (excessively) “unorganized citizenry,” but he is wrong to root the “quietism” he deplores in “mass apathy” and an absence of indignation on the part of the populace. The real problem is the absence of a serious and substantive Left to capture and channel existing widespread popular and progressive anger and passion, something that gives the deadly proto-fascistic fake-populist FOX News talk radio right far too much opportunity for the misdirection of legitimate popular rage. That problem is only worsened by arrogant ivory tower dismissal of the citizenry on the part of avowed Marxist intellectuals. The thing for serious radicals to do is hardly to write scared, depressed, hassled, burned-out, angry, and all too isolated and divided working people off as indifferent and lazy and passive and apathetic. It is rather to help those people form organizations, solidarity, demands, and vision for a decent, just, and democratic society. That means coming down from the academic perch and stepping into the streets, schools, kitchens, porches, workplaces, parks and other real life-worlds where working class people struggle with life under the vicious neoliberal regime of American state capitalism.

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, forthcoming in January 2014).


 1. Louis Proyect, “Perry Anderson’s Weberian Turn,” The Unrepentant Marxist (March 6, 2010),http://louisproyect.org/2010/03/06/perry-andersons-weberian-turn/.

 2. Perry Anderson, “Homeland,” New Left Review 81 (May-June 2013), http://newleftreview.org/II/81/perry-anderson-homeland .In this essay I will be citing the Internet print version of “Homeland,” which is broken into 11 sections. After all quotes from Anderson’s “Homeland,” I’ll mention the section in which that quote appears parentheses directly after the quote in the text of my essay.

 3. Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics(Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2011).

 4. M. Fernandez, “Drive-By A.I.G. Protest on Fairfield’’s Elite Streets,” New York Times, March 21, 2009,http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/nyregion/22working.html

5. Kevin O’Leary, “Tuition Hikes: Protests in California and Elsewhere,” Times, November 21, 2009,http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1942041,00.html.

 6. Protestors Descend on Wall Street, New York City Banks,” CNN (April 30, 2010),http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/04/29/banks.protests/index.html

 7. Vivien Labaton, “Why Movements Matter,” American Prospect (May 11, 2011),

http://prospect.org/article/why-movements-matter; Paul Street and Janet Raz, “It’s Not About $, Its About Rights,” ZNet (February 24, 2011) http://mobile.zcommunications.org/it-s-not-about-it-s-about-rights-by-paul-street; Paul Street, “The Meaning of Madison,” Z Magazine (June, 2011); Paul Street, “North American Report: The Madison Rebellion and its Limits in Global Perspective,” May Day International (May 1, 2011)www.newleftproject.org/index.php/mayday/article/report_from_north_america_the_wisconsin_rebellion_and_its_limits_in_a_

8. Matt Sledge, “Reawakening the Radical Imagination: The Origins of Occupy Wall Street,” Huffington Post, November 10, 2011m http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/10/occupy-wall-street-origins_n_1083977.html; David Graeber, “On Playing by the Rules: The Strange Success of Occupy Wall Street,” Naked Capitalism, October 19, 2011,http://sagemagazine.org/?p=921

9. See Movement of Rank and File Educators, “Protest School Closings” (March 10, 2013),http://morecaucusnyc.org/2013/03/10/protest-school-closings/; Real News Network. “Growing National Movement Against ‘High Stakes’ Public Schools Testing” (June 19, 2012), http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=8496

10. Sam Hananel, “Longshoremen, Ports, Reach Deal,” Huffington Post (February 2, 2013),http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/02/longshoremen-strike_n_2606146.html

11. Paul Street, “Imagine a People’s Media in Chicago,” ZNet (May 24, 2013),http://www.zcommunications.org/imagine-a-people-s-media-in-chicago-by-paul-street.html; Paul Street, “The New Military Urbanism in Chicago,” ZNet (May 17, 2013), http://www.zcommunications.org/the-new-military-urbanism-in-nato-occupied-chicago-by-paul-street.html

12. “United Action Can Stop Foreclosures, Evictions: The Growing Movement to Occupy Homes, Making Housing a Right,” Liberation (February 1, 2013),


13. Labaton, “Why Movements Matter.” For a thorough, well-documented account of the many protests on this, see, Wikipedia, “Arizona SB 1070,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arizona_SB_1070#Protests (last modified September 17, 2013).. By Wiki’s account: “Tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the law in over 70 U.S. cities on May 1, 2010, a day traditionally used around the world to assert workers’ rights A rally in Los Angeles, attended by Cardinal Mahoney, attracted between 50,000 and 60,000 people, with protesters waving Mexican flags and chanting “Sí se puede“.The city had become the national epicenter of protests against the Arizona law.[round 25,000 people were at a protest in Dallas, and more than 5,000 were in Chicago and Milwaukee, while rallies in other cities generally attracted around a thousand people or so. Democratic U.S. Congressman from Illinois Luis Gutiérrez was part of a 35-person group arrested in front of the White House in a planned act of civil disobedience that was also urging President Obama to push for comprehensive immigration reform. There and in some other locations, demonstrators expressed frustration with what they saw as the administration’s lack of action on immigration reform, with signs holding messages such as “Hey Obama! Don’t deport my mama.”

Protests both for and against the Act took place over Memorial Day Weekend in Phoenix and commanded thousands of people. Those opposing it, mostly consisting of Latinos, marched five miles to the State Capitol in high heat, while those supporting it met in a stadium in an event arranged by elements of the Tea Party movement.” (emphasis added).

14. Labaton, “Why Movements Matter.” For a long list of actions and protests against corporate and financial tax cheats in early 2011, see http://usuncut.org/press

15. Janell Ross, “Anaheim Riots Sparked by Power Imbalance, Police Shootings in Time-Tested Formula, “Huffington Post (July 28, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/28/anaheim-riots-police-shootings_n_1712105.html; Associated Press, “Anaheim Police Shooting: Officers Fire at Suspected Burglars,” Huffington Post (July 27, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/27/anaheim-police-shooting_n_1710181.html. See multiple images at https://www.google.com/search?q=anaheim+riots+2013&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=hag4UsbcG6LV2AW-k4DACQ&ved=0CD8QsAQ&biw=1920&bih=960&dpr=1

16. John Leland and Colin Moynihan, “Thousands March to Protest Stop and Frisk Policies,” New York Times, June 17, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/18/nyregion/thousands-march-silently-to-protest-stop-and-frisk-policies.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

17. Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, “anti-Drone Movement Grows,” Truthout (April 24, 2013), http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/15959-anti-drone-movement-grows-ethics-legality-and-effectiveness-of-drone-killings-doubted

18. Sara Wheaton, “Prisoners Strike in Georgia,” New York Times, December 12, 2010; Bruce Dixon, “George Prison Strike Continues,” Black Agenda Report (July 18, 2012), http://blackagendareport.com/?q=taxonomy/term/1840/0; “Prisoner Advocate Elaine Brown On Georgia Prison Strike,” Democracy Now! (December 14, 2010),http://www.democracynow.org/2010/12/14/prisoner_advocate_elaine_brown_on_georgia

19. Paige St. John, “Inmates End California Prison Hunger Strike,” Los Angeles Times, September 5, 2013,http://articles.latimes.com/2013/sep/05/local/la-me-ff-prison-strike-20130906

20. Jennifer Preston and Colin Moynihan, “Death of Florida Teen Spurs Outcry and Action,” New York Times, March 21, 2012, http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/death-of-florida-teen-spurs-national-outrage-and-action/?ref=trayvonmartin; Jennifer Preston, “Uproar Over Shooting of Teen Spreads Online and in Streets,” New York Times (March 23, 2012), http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/23/uproar-over-shooting-of-teenager-spreads-online-and-in-the-streets/?ref=trayvonmartin; Channing Joseph and Ravi Somaiya, “Demonstrations Across the County Commemorate Trayvon Martin,” New York Times, July 20, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/us/demonstrations-across-the-country-commemorate-trayvon-martin.html?ref=trayvonmartin&_r=0

21. Talia Buford, “Thousands Rally in Washington to Protest Keystone Pipeline,” Politico (February 17, 2013),

http://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/thousands-rally-in-washington-to-protest-keystone-pipeline-87745.htmlThe story reveals that the headline might better have read “Tens of Thousands Rally.”

22. Lee Sustar, Striking Back in Chicago: How Teachers Took on City Hall and Pushed Back Education ‘Reform’ (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013); Paul Street, “Striking Neoliberalism in Chicago,” Truthout (September 17, 2012), http://truth-out.org/news/item/11590-striking-neoliberalism-in-chicago

23. Jenny Brown, “After a Pause Walmart Strikes Back,” Labor Notes (July 23, 2013),http://www.labornotes.org/2013/07/after-pause-walmart-strikes-back-0

24. Josh Eidelson, “Walmart Workers Plan ‘Widespread, Massive Strikes and Protests’ for Black Friday, 2013,” The Nation Blog (September 6, 2013), http://www.thenation.com/blog/176054/walmart-workers-plan-widespread-massive-strikes-and-protests-black-friday-2013#; Karen McVeigh, “Walmart Workers Protest Over Minimum Wage in 15 Cities,”The Guardian , September 5, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/sep/05/walmart-workers-strike-us-thursday “A Strike at Wal-Mart,” Democracy Now! (June 11, 2013),http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2013/6/11/a_strike_at_walmart_josh_eidelson_on_growing_worker_movement_at_worlds_largest_retailer;

25. Adam Gabbatt, “US Fast Food Workers Walk Out in Organized Strike Against Low Wages,” The Guardian, July 29, 2013), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/29/fast-food-workers-strike-wages?INTCMP=SRCH; Kim Bellware, “Fast food Workers Protest in Chicago For Living Wages, Better Treatment Amid Nationwide Strikes,” Huffington Post(August 29, 2013), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/29/fast-food-protest-chicago_n_3837419.html; Tiffany Hsu and Alana Semuels, “Fast Food Workers Protest for Higher Wages in Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-fast-food-protests-hit-los-angeles-thursday-20130829,0,7294893.story; Karen McVeigh, “Fast Food Workers Continue Fight Against Low Wages,” The Guardian, August 29, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/29/fast-food-workers-low-pay-nationwide-walkout; Atossa Abrahamian, “U.S. Fast-food Workers Plan Nationwide Strikes Over Minimum Wage,” Chicago Tribune (August 28, 2013), http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-08-28/news/sns-rt-us-usa-restaurants-strike-20130828_1_minimum-fast-food-companies-jobs;. The Los Angeles Times piece cited above includes links to video of fast food worker protests in four different cities last August.

26. Steven Greenhouse, “A Day’s Strike to Raise Fast-Food Pay,” New York Times, July 31, 2013,http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/business/strike-for-day-seeks-to-raise-fast-food-pay.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

27. Edward Helmore, “US Fast-Food Workers in Vanguard of Growing Protests at ‘Starvation Wages,” The Guardian, August 10, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/10/us-fast-food-protests-wages

28. Zachary Goldfarb and Juliet Ellperin, “Syria Situation Further Strains Obama’s Relationship With the Antiwar Movement,” Washington Post, September 13, 2013, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-09-13/politics/42032137_1_president-obama-syria-situation-barack-obama . According to Goldfarb and Ellperin,“The debate over whether to intervene militarily in Syria is the final break in a long-splintering relationship between President Obama and the antiwar movement. Antiwar activists played an important role in the president’s 2008 campaign, helping Obama defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries and Republican nominee John McCain in the general election….But five years later, a broad coalition of liberal groups that make up the antiwar movement is more likely to oppose the president on foreign policy. And on Syria, the groups successfully pressured Democrats on Capitol Hill to defy Obama, weakening him in the process….Antiwar activists have run television and print ads, held rallies, organized petitions and blanketed congressional switchboards — all with messages of opposition to the president. ‘This moment around Syria is a high-water mark for progressives speaking out on military policy or foreign policy under Obama,’ said Anna Galland, the executive director of MoveOn.org. ‘We strongly and publicly broke with the president on foreign policy for the first time.’…The Syria experience suggests that Obama would face not only skepticism from Republicans, who have attacked him for his handling of the situation, but also strong opposition from the left. It comes as part of a growing list of grievances among liberals about Obama’s national security policy… Initially, the left complained that Obama was too slow to withdraw troops from Iraq and wrong to increase the troop presence in Afghanistan. They were frustrated by his failure to persuade Congress to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And more recently, they have protested his expansive use of drone warfare and his strong support for surveillance programs. ‘He does things that would be unthinkable from a antiwar perspective,’ said Tom Hayden, a longtime activist who created an organization to marshal liberals in support of Obama in 2008. ‘I think a lot of people thought he would do a better job for us.’ …Progressive groups rapidly mobilized opposition to Obama’s Syria plans with calls, e-mails and demonstrations. MoveOn.org said it gathered 210,000 votes and petition signatures, generated 46,000 calls to Capitol Hill and staged 220 vigils across the nation with 7,000 attendees. Nearly 20,000 members of the left-leaning group CREDO Mobile have reported on their calls to Congress…VoteVets played a key role in helping persuade war veterans such as Reps. Tulsi Gabbard. (Hawaii)Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Tim Walz (Minn.) to oppose a strike. The group was also instrumental in swaying other moderate Democrats.”

29. Cole Stangler, “Will Syria Re-Energize the Anti-Drone Movement?” In These Times (September 16, 2013),http://inthesetimes.com/article/15627/will_syria_re_energize_the_anti_drone_movement/

30. Glen Ford, “Operation Cooptation: The Dems Try to Seduce The Occupation Movement,” Black Agenda Report(October 12, 2011), http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/operation-cooptation-dems-try-seduce-occupation-movement

31. Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007), 97.

32. Yves Smith, “Police State: #OWS, Other Crackdowns Part of National, Coordinated Effort,” Naked Capitalism (November 15, 2011) http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/11/police-state-ows-other-crackdowns-part-of-national-coordinated-effort-bloomberg-defies-court-order-to-let-protestors-back-into-zuccotti-park.html ; Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, FBI Documents Reveal Secret Nationwide Occupy Monitoring, (December 22, 2012),www.jusiceoneline.org/commentary/fbi-files-ows.html?; Naomi Wolf, “Revealed : How the FBI Coordinated the Crackdown on Occupy,” The Guardian (December 29, 2012), http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/29/fbi-coordinated-crackdown-occupy; “The FBI vs. Occupy: Secret Docs Reveal ‘Counterterrorism’ Monitoring of OWS from Its Earliest Days,” Democracy Now! (air date December 27, 2012) at www.democracynow.org/2012/12/27/the_fbi_vs_occupy_secret_docs 

33. Jeff Madrick, “The Fall and Rise of Occupy Wall Street,” Harper’s (March 2013), 10.

34. Chris Hedges, “America is a Tinderbox,” The Real News Network (July 24,2013), http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=10461 For post-OWS episodes indicating the police state’s determination that nothing like Occupy ever emerge again in New York City, see David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (New York: Speigel & Grau, 2012), xi-xii, and Hedges’ account (in “America is a Tinderbox”) of military veterans’ attempt to assemble at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New York City in October of 2012. “Look, we’re vets, we don’t want to arrest you,” NYPD officers told the protestors, “but the Occupy movement messed it up for you because we can’t allow another one.”

35. Madrick, “The Fall and Rise,” 10.

36. Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2008); Paul Street, “Hope-Killers,” ZNet(June 8, 2009), http://www.zcommunications.org/hope-killers-by-paul-street.html

37. Lance Selfa “From Hope to Hopeless: The Democrats in the Obama Era,” International Socialist Review Issue 85 (September 2012), http://isreview.org/issue/85/hope-hopeless’ Ford, “Operation Cooptation”;  Paul Street, “Real Populism Vs. Fake,” Z Magazine (December 2011). http://www.zcommunications.org/real-populism-vs-fake-by-paul-street.html

38. Street, “North American Report;” Paul Street, “Wisconsin Lessons,” ZNet (June 8, 2011),http://www.zcommunications.org/wisconsin-lessons-by-paul-street.html

39. Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso Books, 2000), 17–18.

39A. Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Pluto, 2003), chapter 1: “Jim Crow in Cyberspace”; Vincent Bugliosi, The Betrayal of America: How The Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2001).

40. Frank Joyce, “The Rea Story of Detroit’s Economy,” Salon (September 3, 2013)http://www.salon.com/2013/09/03/the_real_story_of_detroits_economy_partner/

41. Noam Chomsky, Power Systems (New York: Metropolitan Boos, 2013), 67.

42. Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 130-31. For more survey data citations, see Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, “Building a Better America One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2010; Katherine Adams and Charles Derber, The New Feminized Majority, Paradigm, 2008); Paul Street, “To Save the Capitalist System: Reflections on Orin Kramer’s Understanding of Barack Obama’s Duty to America,” Z Magazine (December 2009),http://www.zcommunications.org/to-save-the-capitalist-system-by-paul-street

43. Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 95-96.

44. “Rising economic inequalities are always a concern to those at the top because of the risks of envy, resentment, and opposition. There is always the possibility that the economically disadvantaged will seek to use political means to recoup their losses in the economy. The 99 percent might turn to politics to negate the economic gains of the 1 percent. Thus it became – and remains – more important than ever for the 1 percent to use their money to shape and control politics.” Wolff, Democracy at Work , 96.

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By | 2013-10-03T11:01:20+00:00 October 3rd, 2013|Articles|