Posts tagged Social Security

Toward A Really Social Safety Net

These are consolidated from a pair of comments that I made in a thread back around last November on Thaddeus Russell’s Facebook wall. The thread was originally about some silly noise that comes up about once every four years, but it branched out into some interesting discussions about the left, individualist and libertarian perspectives, and so on. My interlocutor’s questions unfortunately seem to have disappeared from the thread, and I hate leaving writing locked up in a web silo, especially in the middle of a big, gradually composting discussion thread, so I’ve tried to condense it into a post here.

I’ve often been asked — by friendly-but-skeptical leftists, and even sometimes by fellow anti-capitalist anarchists — why market libertarians — who may be opposed to the government war machine, police, prisons, and all the other obviously destructive and repressive and regressive things done by the state, for fairly obvious reasons — are also so opposed to, and so hard on, social programs, like TANF, food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, Social Security, etcetera. (The question is usually posed in terms of contrasting government programs that hurt and kill people with government programs that, at least in principle, are supposed to be helping people.) And there are different ways to think about this. To a great extent, left-wing market anarchists don’t spend a lot of time focusing on social programs, and generally insist on prioritizing the core state violence and primary interventions of war, police, prisons, prohibitions, borders, and bail-outs as categorically more important than, say, opposing Medicaid or complaining about government spending on food stamps. And as a matter of strategic priorities, I agree — opposing the crowbars will always be more important to my idea of liberation than imposing the crutches. But I don’t think that means that there is nothing to say about problems that are inherent to the welfare state and government social programs, or that they ought to be considered as neutral or benign. Left-wing market anarchists have important reasons to oppose them — reasons to oppose governmental social programs, not from the economic Right, but from the radical Left.

So when I am asked, what I can say is that this doesn’t have all of the reasons, but it does have some of them:

. . . The key to an understanding of relief-giving is in the functions it serves for the larger economic and political order, for relief is a secondary and supportive institution. Historical evidence suggests that relief arrangements are initiated or expanded during the occasional outbreaks of civil disorder produced by mass unemployment, and are then abolished or contracted when political stability is restored. We shall argue that expansive relief policies are designed to mute civil disorder, and restrictive ones to reinforce work norms. In other words, relief policies are cyclical–liberal or restrictive depending on the problems of regulation in the larger society with which government must contend. Since this view clearly belies the popular supposition that government social policies, including relief policies, are becoming progressively more responsible, humane, and generous, a few words about this popular supposition and its applicability to relief are in order.

There is no gainsaying that the role of government has expanded in those domestic matters called social welfare. One has only to look at the steadily increasing expenditures by local, state, and national governments for programs in housing, health care, education, and the like. . . . But most such social welfare activity has not greatly aided the poor, precisely because the poor ordinarily have little influence on government. Indeed, social welfare programs designed for other groups frequently ride roughshod over the poor, as when New Deal agricultural subsidies resulted in the displacement of great numbers of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, or when urban renewal schemes deprived blacks of their urban neighborhoods. . . . As for relief programs themselves, the historical pattern is clearly not one of progressive liberalization; it is rather a record of periodically expanding and contracting relief rolls as the system performs its two main functions: maintaining civil order and enforcing work. . . . But much more should be understood of this mechanism than merely that it reinforces work norms. It also goes far toward defining and enforcing the terms on which different classes of people are made to do different kinds of work; relief arrangements, in other words, have a great deal to do with maintaining social and economic inequities. The indignities and cruelties of the dole are no deterrent to indolence among the rich; but for the poor person, the specter of ending up on the welfare or in the poorhouse makes any job at any wage a preferable alternative. And so the issue is not the relative merit of work itself; it is rather how some people are made to do the harshest work for the least reward.

–Francis Fox Piven & Richard A. Clower (1970)
Introduction to Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare

The left-wing market anarchist addition to this leftist analysis is, first, to point out the extent to which the forms of structural poverty, deprivation, marginalization, concentrations of wealth and ultimately the desperation and civil unrest that social programs are designed to mute, are not simple or inevitable offshoots of market profit-taking, but rather themselves manufactured by the political entrenchment of capitalism and constantly reinforced and sustained through precisely the core state violence and primary interventions — the war, police, prisons, prohibitions, borders, bail-outs, military-industrial complex, monopolies, and other regressive and repressive functions of government — that we prioritize. (On which, see Markets Not Capitalism, etc.) And, second, to insist on the essential importance of positive grassroots, community-based alternatives rather than trying to save or liberalize institutionalized government programs.

Social programs administered by government are a weak and alienating substitute for the grassroots, working-class institutions of mutual aid, labor solidarity and fighting unions that they were largely designed to crowd out, replace, or domesticate. Grassroots social movements aimed to provide relief and person-to-person solidarity by creating alternative institutions that would be in the hands of workers themselves, so that they could better take control of the conditions of their own lives and labor. Government social programs have systematically aimed to monopolize the relief while abandoning any effort at worker control, instead transferring power into the hands of a politically appointed bureaucracy, and largely leaving working folks’ interests at the mercy of party politics. See, for examples, David Beito’s From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State and Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business, or, more recently, scott crow’s Black Flags and Windmills or Occupy Sandy, etc.

So (as a left-wing market anarchist) I am all for social programs and a social safety net — but I should like them to be really genuinely social, rather than governmental. So in my view, a libertarian view on markets needn’t, and shouldn’t, have anything to do with economic Rightism or corporate power; it can just as easily mean advocating militant industrial unions, strikes, sit-ins, Food Not Bombs, neighborhood mutual aid, lodge practice contracts, Panther breakfasts, women’s self-help clinics, Common Ground, Occupy Sandy, etc. as models of grassroots social change. And — holding that these are models that are preferable to the politically-controlled, professional-class-dominated and highly paternalistic bureaucracies — OSHA, TANF, WIC, EEOC, Medicare, PPACA, FEMA, etc. — that political progressives are too often inclined to treat as the non-negotiable defining commitments of the economic Left.

* * *

In the original conversation that inspired this note, a friendly-but-skeptical progressive said that she appreciated the focus on grassroots, community-based forms of mutual aid, labor solidarity, and participatory safety nets; but wanted to know whether government programs might have a role to play given that grassroots organizing is always going to demand a very high level of social participation, and sometimes people might be looking for institutions that can handle some problems without everyone in the community constantly having to be constantly involved in everything that anyone might need. It was a good question, and I definitely understand the desire to be able to take a step back in some cases. (It’s certainly something I’ve often felt, as I’m sure anyone who’s ever done a lot of participating in a community effort or an activist project eventually does feel.) But what I’d want to say is that the important thing about grassroots, non-governmental group is not so much the fact of constant participation (I sure hope I don’t have to do that!) as the constant possibility of participation. And the possibility of withdrawal is if anything just as important (so if the local Food Not Bombs or Common Ground clinic becomes completely dysfunctional you can always leave and start devoting your efforts to something else more worthwhile. But if a county social-services office becomes completely dysfunctional, they typically stay paid regardless, since you don’t have any way to redirect how your personal tax dollars are allocated. That’s controlled by a political process and a fairly elaborate set of rules for evaluating civil-service performance, which are an awful lot of degrees removed from the people most aware of and directly affected by the dysfunction.)

In any case, as far as participation goes, sometimes you want to take a step back and let others do a lot of the work, and of course that can happen. (The lodges had officers and divided up organizational work among the members, Panther breakfasts and FNBs and free clinics served a lot of people in the community, some of whom volunteered to help out, lots of whom didn’t, and lots of whom would spend some time on and some time off.) But all of this is an important difference from the politically controlled programs, where there’s no opportunity to step up and take a participatory role, even if you want to; where if they are seriously underserving or misserving or treating their clients in manipulative or exploitative ways, there isn’t any real remedy because they hold all the power in the relationship and the only voice you have in the proceedings, if any at all, are the incredibly attenuated processes of trying to vote in different political parties, etc.

I don’t know how much that answered the question, in the end; but I hope it at least points in a fruitful direction for thinking about what an answer would look like.


A brief history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the “Friend of Labor”

Because of the late unpleasantness, there’s been a lot of debate among a certain kind of Leftist as to what attitude the Left ought to take towards the Democratic Party’s big win at the polls, and the grassroots efforts by eager young Obamarchists to help bring it about. In the name of critical support, many state Leftists — particularly those who fancy themselves Progressives — urge other Leftists to hop on board the Democratic Party train; those who are a bit more skeptical, point out that, for people seriously concerned with peace, civil liberties, labor radicalism, anti-racism, ending bail-out capitalism,and so on, an Obama Presidency is an extremely limited victory at best, and those who know a bit of history point out that the Democratic Party has been the graveyard of social movements for over a century now, with one movement after another being diverted from grassroots action on behalf of their primary goals into the secondary or tertiary goals of bureaucratic maneuvering, party politicking, canvassing, fund-raising, or shamelessly apologizing for Democratic Party politicians. And once they go in, movements more or less never come out.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the current economic crisis, in discussions like these a lot of electoralist Progressives very quickly dig up the decaying corpse of Franklin Roosevelt, apparently in order to demonstrate a case where so-called critical support from the Left worked — that is, it supposedly worked because it supposedly got us the New Deal, and the New Deal supposedly represents a series of victories that Leftists should feel good about. The problem is that this picture is false in just about every detail. The New Deal was achieved in spite of the grassroots efforts of the American Left, not because of them. It was, in fact, put through largely as a means to co-opt or stifle the American Left. And what was put through ought to be considered a travesty by anyone for whom economic Leftism is supposed to mean an increase in workers’ power to control the conditions of their own lives and labor, rather than an increase in government’s power to make businessmen do what politicians want them to do.

So here is a brief history, contributed by a member of the Movement for a Democratic Society listserv (in response to a series of uncritical critical support apologetics and name-drops to Roosevelt), of the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the friend of labor and patron saint of the American Progressive Left.

From: bob
To: MDS-Announce
Date: 5 November 2008 7:51 PM

Oct. 1933, 4 strikers killed in Pixley Ca. textile strike.

Early 1934, Roosevelt intervenes in the auto industry on behalf of company unions as opposed to worker organized unions.

In 1934, General Strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis began to threaten the capitalist order.

IN 1935, the Wagner Act was passed to regularize labor relations. The NLRB was set up to mediate between labor and capital ending the surge of general strikes.

In 1936-7, workers began to use the sit down strike to great advantage. In 1937, the Roosevelt appointed National Labor Relations Board declared them to be illegal. Later the Supreme Court in 1939, dominated by pro-Roosevelt judges, declared sit-down strikes to be illegal, taking the wind out of the sails of the labor movement.

When labor leaders tried to gain Roosevelt’s support in critiquing the killing of 18 peaceful workers in the steel strikes of ’37, Roosevelt refused, thus condoning the killings.

IN 1938 and 39 with rising unemployment, Roosevelt cut programs for the poor and unemployed.

The passing of the Social Security Act institutionalized the incredibly regressive payroll tax while postponing and benefits and establishing a retirement age beyond the life expectancy of workers so that payments would be minimal. Additionally, most women and Afro-Americans were purposefully not covered by the Act. At the time it was established the NAACP protested the racism inherent in the exclusions of most job categories employing blacks. The original act was also blamed for contributing to the economic downturn of 1937 because the government collected taxes from workers but paid no benefits to workers during this time period. Initially, no benefits whatsoever were to be paid until at least 1942. Amendments in 1939 changed that to 1940 but only encompassed a tiny minority.

Friend of Labor Roosevelt in 1940 signed the Smith Act which had been proposed by a Democrat and passed by a Democratic Congress. The first prosecutions were ordered by Roosevelt’s Attorney General Francis Biddle. Unfortunately, the split between the orthodox communists and the Trotskyists resulted in the persecution of the Trotskyists.

When the Federal Theater Project planned a musical production in 1937 attacking corporate greed, Roosevelt shut it down. He then had the theatre padlocked and surrounded by armed soldiers.

So much for the concept of political space under the Democrats.

One mistake rather consistently made by a good chunk of progressives is to frame an analysis based on the paranoia of the extreme right wing, taking their statements as if they were facts.

So if Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and their ilk criticize some facet of American life or history (for example FDR as being some sort of left enabler), the progressives then want to disagree completely with Hannity et al and thus accept whatever BS he put forward but take the opposite point of view on it. So we then have progressives defending Roosevelt’s supposed progressive leanings or opening political space for the left or whatever phrasing suits their purposes. It’s not helpful to let the extreme right thereby define the nature of political discourse. It leads to an incredibly false and warped view of society and history.

Rather than helping to create an opening for the left in the 1930s, Roosevelt did what he could to shut off all openings that had been created by the workers themselves. He ended the surge of general strikes, then he ended the surge of sit down strikes. He put a stop to progressive artists. Clamped down on the radicals of the time period. Condoned the police and national guard killing of protesting workers. Collected regressive taxes from workers while promising them pension benefits at a point in the future for those fortunate enough to survive their employment and avoid an early death.. He continued racist and sexist policies especially relating to employment, government sanctioned discrimination and unfair dispersal of social benefits.

The main thing I would want to add to the analysis is that, unfortunately, I don’t think that the veneration of St. Franklin is solely due to the rush to take an equal-but-opposite reaction to the vilification of Roosevelt by plutocratic Right-wing hacks like Limbaugh or Hannity. The attitude is much older than Right-wing hate radio, and I think it is deeply rooted in the historical narratives and the self-conception of the Progressive wing of the Left. At the time Roosevelt went on a full-bore attack against the radical Left but enjoyed the support of the professional-class Progressive Left — whose influence he dramatically increased, and whose fortunes he subsidized on the taxpayer’s dime, with his massive expansion of the civil service and government planning bureaucracy. And he is venerated today by so many on the Left because so many on the Left continue allow their message to be set by the agendas of the political parties and by the nostrums of mid-20th century vital center corporate liberal politics. The counter-historical hagiography isn’t just a way of reacting to the Right; it’s also a way that the Establishmentarian Left keeps the radical Left in line, diverts all too many of us into the failed strategy of increasing workers’ power by increasing government power, and blinds all too many to the fact that their efforts within or on behalf of the Democratic Party are failing repeatedly, or when they succeed, inevitably succeed in increasing the power of professional government planners, without any significant gains for ordinary workers.

So it is really refreshing, at this historical moment, to see some folks challenging St. Franklin from the Left. And it’s deeply unfortunate, but not surprising, that it is refreshing to see that. It ought to be easy and common to make the Leftist case against a millionaire dynastic politician who officially kicked off his administration with a series of massive bank bail-outs, systematically attacked labor radicals, created a bureaucratic apparatus intended to buy off and domesticate labor moderates and conservatives, while sidelining or criminalizing labor’s most effective tactics, and presided over repeated physical attacks on organized workers. A millionaire dynastic politician who, in 1936, ordered J. Edgar Hoover to ramp up federal surveillance of questionable domestic political groups, and who aggressively dispensed with traditional restraints on unilateral executive power in order to pack the courts in favor of his own policies and to elevate himself to President-for-Life. A President-for-Life who conscripted millions of workers in the United States’ first ever peacetime military draft, who then spent a couple years deliberately wangling his way into a position where he could throw his new conscript army into the largest and most destructive war in the history of the world, who then, using the exigencies of a global war on tyranny as his excuse, drove Congress to create the House Un-American Activities Committee, imprisoned war protesters and political opponents on sedition and espionage charges, extracted no-strike agreements from the now-politically-controlled labor unions, commandeered virtually every good and imposed massive rationing and government-mandated wage freezes on American workers, created the modern military-industrial complex, ordered the firebombing of hundreds of German and Japanese cities, and, with a series of unilateral executive orders and military proclamations, summarily seized the property of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans, imposed arbitrary curfews on them based solely on their nationality, and finally sent in the military to roust them out of their homes and march them into concentration camps scattered across the American West.

Unfortunately, that kind of talk doesn’t square with the preferred historical narrative of Democratic Party politicians, and (therefore) it doesn’t much suit those who have ambitions that depend on currying favor with Democratic Party politicians. So it’s not the sort of thing that you hear much about. But it is the sort of thing that we can remember, and that we can talk about, whether they want us to or not.

See also:

Sauce for the goose

In the federal government’s ongoing efforts to salvage COINTELPRO from the dustbin of history, the House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 1955, a bill that would, if it also passes the Senate, create a new National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism and a Center of Excellence for the Study of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism in the United States (sic!), which would study the social, criminal, political, psychological, and economic roots of violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism in the United States and methods that can be utilized by Federal, State, local, and tribal homeland security officials to mitigate violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism.

Here are the definitions for the unwieldy jargon used in the bill:

(2) VIOLENT RADICALIZATION–The term violent radicalization means the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change.

(3) HOMEGROWN TERRORISM–The term homegrown terrorism means the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual born, raised, or based and operating primarily within the United States or any possession of the United States to intimidate or coerce the United States government, the civilian population of the United States, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

(4) IDEOLOGICALLY BASED VIOLENCE–The term ideologically based violence means the use, planned use, or threatened use of force or violence by a group or individual to promote the group or individual’s political, religious, or social beliefs.

Well, O.K., fine. If that is what the Center for Excellence &c. is going to study, then they may as well start with the worst offenders. May I suggest that they begin with studying the social, criminal, political, psychological, and economic roots of the extremist propaganda coming out of Office of National Drug Control Policy, which promotes the use of force or violence by armed narcs to promote the Drug Warriors’ political and social beliefs against the will of the civilian population? Or perhaps the Internal Revenue Service, which routinely engages in the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence to intimidate or coerce the civilian population of the United States, in furtherance of the United States government’s political objectives with respect to the war on Iraq, Social Security, corporate welfare, government schooling, the drug war, etc.? Or perhaps the Department of Defense, which has used repeated, massive, and merciless ideologically-based violence in order to promote the federal government’s ideology with respect to parliamentary government, nuclear disarmament, etc., etc., etc., in countries all over the world?

I fully expect that they will get right on it. After all, you’d hardly expect a double-standard from the State when it comes to ideologically-based violence.

(Story thanks to Stephanie McMillan 2007-10-28.)