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  For Flacks' essay, "Reflections on Strategy in a Dark Time," click here.

Your Father's Oldsmobile

Robert J.S. Ross

Dick Flacks' "Dark Times Manifesto" is a timely and worthwhile attempt to move past the current fear and loathing on the left. The recognition of global capitalism as the controlling environment in which progressives must rethink their outlook and agenda is particularly important. Were one to take global capitalism seriously, however, how well would Flacks' ideas stand up?

Global capitalism gives investors increased discretion to evade regulation of labor, social welfare, and the environment. Shared poverty was symbolic of the perceived failure of Cold War communism (as well as Third World socialism), and now visionaries without concrete arguments about economic growth, capital investment, and the social control of capital have found their appeals falling on deaf ears. Flacks' program for social wage increase, aggressive unionization, and mass protest techniques must honestly confront the problem of maintaining decent living standards in the face of the threat of capital flight. In the long run a labor-rights-oriented trade policy and aid to labor organizers around the world help the world level-up rather than join in a global race to the bottom. But a progressive agenda must persuade mass publics that capital strike can be countered -- just as any organizer must persuade her constituents that she will be able to defend their interests when the going gets tough. This is the "secret behind the secret" of conservative success: as employers threaten workers with job flight, the current conservatives make a political virtue of what we all sense to be a real danger -- the choice between giving up and getting poor.

This suggests a political paradox in the Flacks discussion which should not go unnoticed. Despite his claim to recognition of the global context, Flacks repeats the local control mantra of the 60s. This is the left version of process liberalism -- a new procedure will get you a new result. But how can devolution of authority to local communities be a solution to the job blackmail of mobile capital? Won't such devolution become an even more frantic version of what we now have -- 50 states and 250-odd metro areas all bidding for the favors of investors? The result: we get personal seat licenses to watch a game of musical chairs in which the winners get low wage jobs and the losers get nothing. The emphasis on localism gives this essay a quaint, even antique atmosphere. The victories of environmentalism or civil rights may indeed have come from grassroots organizing: but the policies which have made a difference are national laws and regulations.

Despite its recognition of the formative reality of global capitalism, the program is a laundry list of current practice on the White left. This is a new left that really is your father's Oldsmobile. Not that the program is wrong or bad -- but the list does date from the late 70s. Flacks' claim that the organizations which should coalesce around it have not done so because they are guarding bureaucratic turf is probably inaccurate. Most of the groups which he lists as part of a prospective Grand Alliance did support single payer health insurance; do support campaign finance reform, etc. They fail because the public is convinced that capital can leave them high and dry.

Thus, rather than joining the right in a self-defeating rhetoric race debunking government and the state, the left would do well to emphasize the ways in which state action can and has improved the lives of ordinary people. If this means bragging about liberal programs we formerly thought too pallid . . . well, change or die.

While others will criticize Flacks for his lack of major attention to issues of race and gender per se, I will not. His programs would in fact address central problems of minority communities and gender inequality. To the extent that these ideas seek solutions which cut across race and gender they point the way to a politics of unity rather than division. The "Dark Times Manifesto" is a positive step in the development of the next left -- and by the way: I drive my father's Oldsmobile.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review

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