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New Ground 79

November - December, 2001


  • National Youth and Student Peace Coalition by Bob Roman
  • DuPage Civic Faire by Gene Birmingham
  • Other News complied by Bob Roman
  • Praxis Makes Perfect by Rev. Gene Birmingham
  • Waiting for the Jedi by Will Kelley
  • Letters

  • National Youth and Student Peace Coalition

    By Bob Roman

    A new national coalition against the war has been formed with the participation of the Young Democratic Socialists. As its first action the coalition called for a national day of action on November 15 to oppose the war, oppose racial profiling, and halt the assault on civil liberties. The coalition left it to its various local groups to demonstrate support for peace by organizing a march, teach-in, demonstration, vigil or some other creative action on campus or in community.

    The coalition adopted the following principles of unity:

    1. We support the victims and condemn the attacks of September 11.

    2. We are opposed to a military response to September 11.

    3. We believe that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere are the root causes of the conflict. We believe we must address the root causes. We support an international response to the 9/11 attacks, holding the U.S. government accountable to this response.

    4. We oppose attempts to pass opportunistic legislation sacrificing civil rights, democratic principles, and domestic needs in the name of "anti-terrorism" or "home safety." This includes: threats to civil liberties, institutionalized racial profiling, anti-immigrant policy, increased military spending, decreased education and social spending, fast track trade negotiating authority for the executive branch, and any steps toward the militarization of outer space. We are opposed to an open ended war on terrorism.

    5. Since we are youth and students, we will be especially vigilant about any attempts at high school and college campuses to deny civil liberties and we oppose disproportionate military recruiting of youth of color and working class youth.

    The National Youth and Student Peace Coalition organizational members include: 180/Movement for Democracy and Education, Black Radical Congress-Youth Division, Campus Greens, JustAct, Muslim Students Association, National Youth Action Coalition, "Not With Our Money" (project of the Prison Moratorium Project), Student Environmental Action Coalition, Student Peace Action Network, Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations, United Students Against Sweatshops, United States Student Association, Young Democratic Socialists.

    DuPage Civic Faire

    By Gene Birmingham

    Chicago DSA participated in the third annual Civic Fair of the Citizen Advocacy Center, on October 13, 2001 at Harper Junior College in Palatine. The Citizen Advocacy Center, a child of Ralph Nader's desire to activate citizens in their own communities, is located in Elmhurst, Illinois.

    The keynote speaker was Jim Hightower, radio voice of the Left, located in Texas. His down home language expresses a biting satirical commentary on the Right. Two of his best known books are: If the Gods Had Meant Us To Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates and There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road But Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. About 150 people heard his address, a call to action for progressives of all stripes. He believes the country is ready to hear a different message.

    More important than his speech was his invitation to people to join him afterward to talk about his plans for getting a progressive movement under way. About 50 people joined him to hear a proposal for meetings in four or five major cities, each one focusing on a different issue. He described his vision of those meetings to be something like the old fashioned Chatauqua or County Fair, where people gathered to hear speeches, get acquainted, and have a good time. This time they would also deal with current issues.

    He asked those gathered to volunteer to be part of a planning committee for an event in Chicago in April, 2002. The issue would be Food and Farming, with people invited from the Midwest region. There was considerable doubt about focusing on that issue in Chicago. His response was that food and farming are central to the Midwest, and that they are tied to other issues of concern, such as environmental issues, labor issues for farm workers, even prison issues for people dealing with the quality of our food and agribusiness. How many signed up is not known, but enough did to give his program a start. Chicago DSA will stay tuned.

    Other News

    Compiled by Bob Roman


    Federal Plaza

    One of the casualties of September 11 is the use of the Federal Plaza at Adams and Dearborn in Chicago for any public function. For the a period after the attack, there was a certain sense to this prohibition as no one had any idea of the nature of the threat to public safety. But as time goes by, this restriction seems more like bureaucratic ass covering or panic or maybe a deliberate attempt to stifle dissent. Not that it matters: farmers, merchants or demonstrators are all out of luck.

    The October 22nd Coalition has been holding its demonstrations against police brutality and the death penalty in the plaza for the past several years. By September 11, they had already made a major investment in publicity and work around that venue. By the time October 22ndapproached, the restriction seemed less and less reasonable. The October 22nd Coalition decided to challenge the restriction in court. Chicago DSA contributed $300 toward the $2000 legal bill for this effort.

    It was no great surprise when the court refused to grant an emergency injunction to allow the use of the plaza. But in the grand old tradition of lefties everywhere, the October 22nd Coalition decided to have its demonstration in the plaza anyway. Some 200 to 300 people participated, perhaps a third to a half of the number who would have participated otherwise. The police were generally polite and cooperative. The press was favorable. Why is the plaza still off limits?

    Bob Roman


    Joe Powers, Sr.

    The activist movement has lost a great friend. Joe Powers of Oak Park was a long-time member of DSA as well as numerous other progressive organizations. He died of a heart attack following his daily jog. Joe was a marathon runner until the end. I had dinner with Joe the week before. He had been planning to attend the protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Joe was as close to a flawless character as anyone I ever knew. He will be missed greatly. In lieu of flowers, donations to Heifer Project International or Veterans for Peace are appreciated.

    Harold Taggart


    DSA National Convention

    The DSA National Convention was held in Philadelphia over the Veterans' Day weekend. Somewhat fewer than 100 delegates attended. The two most contentious items of business were the Convention's resolution on the War and on some structural changes to the National Political Committee. The text of the War resolution should be available soonest at the DSA web site. Interestingly, the debate apparently catalyzed the formation of a Women's Caucus. This promises to bring renewed activity to the Feminist Commission. DSA has always had its own affirmative action plan built into the NPC whereby half its members had to be women and a quarter had to be minorities. The revised structure cuts the size of the NPC nearly in half and makes the half and the quarter proportions minimums rather than givens.

    Bob Roman


    How the Left Can Win Arguments and Influence People:

    A Tactical Manual for Pragmatic Progressives

    On Sunday, December 2, 2001 from 5:00 to 7:00 P.M. at the New World Resource Center, 2600 W. Fullerton, Chicago, John K. Wilson will talk about his provocative new book, just published by New York University Press. The sometime Chicago journalist, author and scholar starts by saying, "Socialism is dead," and says that, "Instead of fighting to repair the tattered remnants of socialism as a marketing slogan, the left needs to address the core issues of social justice." He proceeds to discuss his views on many social issues and how they should be presented. Bill Pelz of the Chicago Socialist Party will offer a critique of John's talk and a lively question and answer period should follow. Co-sponsored by Open University of the Left, Chicago Democratic Socialists of America and the Chicago Socialist Party.

    Mark Weinberg

    Praxis Makes Perfect

    By Rev. Gene Birmingham

    The Subversive Gospel, A New Testament Commentary on Liberation by Tom Hanks, translated from the Spanish by John P. Doner. The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, OH, 2000, 224 pp $27.00

    The author, who is not the actor of the same name, is Adjunct Professor of Bible at Latin American Biblical University, San Jose, Costa Rica. He comments on each of the 27 books of the Christian scriptures, calling attention to much that is overlooked in them by other biblical scholars. Two major emphases mark his commentary.

    The first is the use of the word "praxis" as the basic theoretical word which informs his thought. He defines it as follows:


    "Praxis. Greek word used in the title for the "Acts" of the Apostles, and common in German (i.e., for designated hours of work: "praxis" of a physician), whence developed as the central concept in Marxist philosophy (free human activity to change the world) and later in Latin American liberation theologies (which rejected traditional notions of theory interminably debated and eventually applied to practice). Latin American thinkers insist that theology take praxis as the starting point, with theology functioning as the posterior critical reflection on praxis;" Glossary, p. xix


    What this means for Hanks' interpretation of the New Testament leads to his second emphasis. It is to begin with stories and references to people in all kinds of situations and needs, as opposed to looking for texts which prove one's theological concepts. He points out the references to marginalized groups in all the writings: the poor, women, sexual minorities (single people, sex workers), the sick, and physically challenged. There is very little indication in the young churches of the New Testament era of nuclear families, married couples with children, which is the standard for families proclaimed in the U.S. today. Men worked in pairs to proclaim the Christian message. Women played important roles in the new churches. The community cared for its own.

    Much of the membership was made up from the slave population. The early church did not mount a campaign for equal rights. Instead it practiced equality within its communities. Free men and women, married but more often not, slaves and the marginalized of society, partook together of baptism and holy communion without reference to their social status.

    Hanks insists that the practice of early Christians reveals their true beliefs. They sought to deal with the issues of their lives in ways that affirmed one another. Their theology developed out of their practice. Theory or theology gained first place over praxis as the church found approval by the empire, beginning especially with Constantine, whose conversion to Christianity married church and empire. Since that time Christians have argued and fought over theory with less emphasis on ministry to those in need. The days of a democratically structured group of small communities gave way to medieval practice of power.

    Religious socialists will find his emphasis on praxis before theory to be a connecting point for Christianity with socialism. Hank writes from the point of view of liberation theology that was developed in Latin America during Christian / Marxist dialogues. The praxis has to do with caring for humanity while making theological issues a reflection on that practice. One does not get the impression that Hanks is imposing his views on the scriptures. Rather he is uncovering what has always been there but overlooked by theological debated.

    Mainline Christians do not want to identify with any political position though taking liberal positions on specific issues. The blatantly political stance of the Christian right should be a challenge to liberal Christian mainliners. Otherwise their liberal theory easily becomes idealism. Finding a basis for the practice of care and concern for the marginalized of society in their own scriptures provides a basis for political action. Indeed, it calls for it. That is the challenge and the opportunity for socialism for the religious. As a member of the DSA Commission on Religion and Socialism, I recommend this fresh reading of the Christian scriptures.

    Waiting for the Jedi

    By Will Kelley

    Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000, 504 pp $36.95 cloth, $18.95 paper

    In the mid-1990s a woman in Hyde Park found scrawled on a bus stop, "Welcome to the New Antiquity." She took that to mean that the world we live in now has in some way lost some of its links to the modern world of the early 20th century, and has come to adopt some of the characteristics of the Classical world of Greece and Rome. Get ready for new forms of bondage, new struggles for wealth and citizenship, permanent Patrician families using their insider status to struggle for control of the state, new spectaculars of power designed to let us know, as Margaret Thatcher put it, There Is No Alternative, and new forms of insurgent rebellion among those rendered powerless. To her the prospect was frightening. I've been haunted by it myself. Now we have a book to tell us that it has, indeed, come to pass, and how it happened.

    Hardt and Negri have brought the last twenty-five years' of leftist intellectual thought to bear in trying to explain why very little has gone the way leftists thought it would. Instead of third-world revolutions of national liberation leading to self-determination, peace, and prosperity for the inhabitants of these states, they work in pathetic conditions for low wages to assemble clothing sold in department stores in Europe, Japan, and North America. Their governments line up for admission to international trade bodies. The United States is the sole global hegemon. And the American "war machine," far from being dismantled, is a bigger brawler than ever. What on earth happened? This book tries to explain to other leftist intellectuals, in broad strokes and in terms they can understand, our recent historical transformations, how to identify contemporary sites of oppression, and what to do about it. It is a bold, integrative, attempt, one that is needed and should be applauded for that reason. I bring you both bad news and good news about it.

    First the bad news. The last quarter century of leftist writing has become encrusted with methods of phrasing that do not add much to what is being said, but serve to communicate the perspective of the writer. Empire uses all of them and as a result is so overwritten that it approaches the rococo. The only people who will find this book easy to read are those who are already familiar with the background material the authors draw on. Frighteningly enough, that would include me; but then too many years in graduate school will do that. It's still the case that people who might be interested in the topic but haven't acquired the jargon of the academic left will find every paragraph full of one verbal obstacle after another.

    One other piece of bad news. Once the encrustations of perspective-invoking terminology are removed, there is much less original analysis in the book than would appear from its heft. Empire could easily be half its length with no loss of substance.

    Beyond that, though, the good news begins. There is something in here of value for the reader that could serve, more or less, as a guide for the perplexed, meaning those who see what looks like exploitation all around them but are having trouble finding a place to stand that could provide leverage for effective social change.

    Hardt and Negri argue that we are living in a global empire whose constitution is strongly reminiscent of the Roman empire. (If anyone is to notice the applicability of the concept of Empire, perhaps a former revolutionary locked up in a prison in Rome would be the one to do it.) The point of Empire is that it claims universal dominion on the basis of universal rights. Good-bye sovereign nation-state; hello transnational organizations bearing state powers backed by armed might understood not as armies in the service of the interests of the state but as police powers serving the interests of good government. World government, that is.

    After introducing their perspectives and concepts in Part 1, Part 2 is taken up by a simplified history of the emergence of the modern West, one that crosscuts between political philosophy, political economy, and the politics of constitutions. This history is written from a perspective designed to account for the emergence of Empire, and to do this they rely heavily on a notion of American exceptionalism, a fundamental break between the European tradition and the constitution of the Unites States. They describe the emergence of "modern sovereignty" in Europe as the progressive absorption of competing impulses. One is an "immanent sovereignty" that arises from the "multitude" (that is, all the humans who are governed by a state), and the other is a "transcendent sovereignty" that imposes order and limits on those governed by the state. The fusion of the two is ultimately stabilized by European imperialism. European imperialism, they argue, is quite different from the Empire that grew out of the constitution of the United States. The United States is based on "network power" in which "immanent sovereignty" governs itself. This network power is expansive, absorbing everything in its path so as to bring it into the constitutional regime, thus creating an "Imperial sovereignty" that is, in principle, universal.

    The development of "network power" in the United States, more commonly known as a system of checks and balances at the governmental level combined with rights and responsibilities at the individual level, may very well have been something new in the world. Still, this is strange writing. It is rather like a standard liberal-pluralist history book rewritten so as to make it intelligible to those so soaked in Marxian perspectives that they can't understand something unless it's phrased in a very particular way. Adopting phrasings like "network power" also obscures how close the lines of development they describe are to those found in standard histories. College history texts, such as Palmer's A History of the Modern World, from 1956, say very nearly the same thing and in more accessible language.

    What's more, in a certain sense their argument is just wrong. The American system of constitutionalism is just a new development within the trajectory of the modern concept of sovereignty, not a fundamental break with it. They claim that, while "modern sovereignty" was based on the creation of clear boundaries and an expansionist domination of all "Others" who fell outside the boundaries, "imperial sovereignty" is based on an unbounded expansiveness that admits everything into the Empire.

    Try telling that to the Native Americans who were chased the length of North America as the United States expanded. Go read the pillars on the banks of the Ohio River that to this day still trumpet the triumph of the forces of civilization over the savage red man. This was really an intensification of European imperialism, one in which all "Others," meaning all Them who decline to become one of US, are refused recognition and simply expelled. Those outside the boundary are even more radically "Other" than in European imperialism. It was citizens of the United States who attempted the mass extermination of the native population through famine, disease, and even "hunting parties," not British or French imperialists in their colonies. The modern system of constitutionalism pioneered by the U.S. is possible only when the prior moment, that of the construction and maintenance of boundaries, can be taken as a given. Oddly enough, Hardt and Negri mention the fate of Native Americans but fail to draw the obvious conclusion.

    They make a similar mistake when they talk about the development of a transnational regulatory system. They first make an excellent argument that Empire, rather than being a direct extension of European imperialism, has emerged as an extension and transformation of a system of institutional checks and balances, beginning with Woodrow Wilson and his vision of the League of Nations, then continuing after World War II with the creation of the U.N. and other international regulatory bodies. But they write that the emergence of Empire really got underway after the United States lost the Vietnam War (a loss they date from the Tet offensive of February, 1968). This culminates in the recasting of armies as police forces, which they claim "decisively" dates from the Gulf War of 1991.

    Oddly enough, they have absolutely no treatment of the Korean Police Action. Have we all forgotten? Because the Soviet member of the Security Council wasn't at the meeting when the rest of the quorum was, the Korean conflict of the early 1950s was a U.N. sponsored police action of exactly the sort they're analyzing. How they could have missed that is a puzzle, but it serves to point out that their chronology is highly problematic. Actually, the rise of transnational regulatory bodies could be pushed back at least to the creation of the International Telegraphic Union in the 1860s, setting standards and guaranteeing stable access to telecommunications. Later renamed the International Telecommunications Union, this body is still in Switzerland, still setting standards for cell phones, modems, computers, and myriad other telecommunications devices and systems. So, although their argument about the rise of Empire from an American model of government is probably correct, the details of how it came about are open to a great deal of debate.

    Just as Part 2 recasts world history within their particular perspective, Part 3 takes on the Marxian critique of political economy and recasts it to make it compatible with their point of view. Hardt and Negri wish to make clear to traditional Marxists that, in many ways, the constitutional system that joins institutional checks and balances with individual rights and responsibilities is a better way of living than its several alternatives. This has let the American form of capitalism recruit the support of the multitude and given it more staying power than leftists expected it to have. They take pains to point out the ways in which older critiques of capital have been both accurate to a particular time yet limited by the way in which capitalism has transformed itself. Their points are good, but are mainly aimed at arguments within the factional left that don't need to be taken up here.

    This, then, is the central virtue of the book. Hardt and Negri have been able to incorporate arguments most often found among advocates for the globalization of capital and recast them within a leftist perspective in such a way that readers can understand why globalization has taken the form it has through both its appeal and its negative aspects. Put simply, a loosely constitutional system providing "capitalist sovereignty" over institutions and individuals, supported by an ideology of universal rights and responsibilities, provides the basis for global administration and control.

    Now about the negative aspects of Empire. As Hardt and Negri weave through the various critiques of different stages of the capitalist political economy the central question that animated earlier critics remains a bright thread: when it comes to the production of our lives the question is still, as Humpty Dumpty said, "Who is to be master?" In their argument Imperial sovereignty still favors some over others, and does so in a way that does violence to the multitude. This differentiates them from naive advocates of globalization, and pushes them into Part 4.

    Part 4 takes up the problem of the multitude of those who must now live within the global Empire. The problem is that, as the need for capital to continue to sustain its profitability is made more and more difficult in a globalized economy, people are increasingly losing control of the production of their lives. You know, losing control of simple things like the ability to be confident that one's baby will be born with a brain, something the residents of the maquiladora along the Rio Grande cannot take for granted because of the lack of uncontaminated drinking water.

    The authors recommend not an external force to try to topple the global Empire from the outside, but a movement within Empire to demand an expansion of constitutionally guaranteed rights to all. To this end they ultimately advocate what amounts to a moderate policy of social democracy, but extended to the whole world: (1) global citizenship, together with the right to control one's own movement; (2) a social wage; and (3) guaranteed access to information, knowledge, and all the other symbolic media that have become central to a world where the production of signs and symbols has become as important as every other moment of production. Such simple demands. But think what will be required to have them come to pass.

    Once one wades through the phraseology, then, it is clear that there is a great deal of good sense in this book. As part of their attempt to come to terms with history as it actually happened Hardt and Negri have thought through and successfully synthesized a great deal. As part of their synthesis they neatly give the comeuppance to sorry, delineate the contours of the exteriority of the extension of a number of leftist intellectuals whose work, while valuable, has limits that have not been articulated from within a left perspective. Had these same critiques been delivered by people who did not self-consciously position themselves within the tradition of leftist intellectual thought, they would probably be ignored. Empire, then, provides a useful service for those already of the left who could use a good talking to.

    As for the rest of us, until someone boils the argument of the book down to an article in the Atlantic Monthly, we could just go watch that recent movie about Jamaica. Life and Debt, I think it's called.


    Dear Editor:

    It has been about 12 years since market socialism became a subject of discussion on the left and of a serious attempt to put it into effect in the crumbling Soviet Union.

    Since that time, it almost disappeared. Why? I see it to be, in the broad historical sense, a casualty of the roaring capitalist triumph of the 1990s. But in the narrower sense of interest within the left, it is a part of the retreat by socialism into reformist social democracy. That's understandable in an atmosphere of defeat and loss of faith that we can hope for anything in the foreseeable future.

    But now, a new and unforeseen phenomena has appeared on the world scene: radical Islamic fundamentalism. That in turn grew out of the failure of Third World socialism in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The world's class struggle has re-appeared as a mass movement of poor people in poor countries, battling not only U.S. Imperialism but also their own ruling classes.

    This is certainly not what Marx or Michael Harrington predicted. But is it not conceivable that this billion strong mass could so upset U.S. control and globalism generally that the whole relationship of forces worldwide could be undermined? Seems fantastic, but apparently Bush takes it seriously.

    Now, combine that with something I'm almost afraid to think about since I've been thinking about it for 60 years: a deep depression in the capitalist West. It may be here. Wall Street is very worried.

    So combine Third World turbulence with First World Hooverism and we may see market socialism back on the front burner.

    Am I crazy?

    In solidarity,

    Perry Cartwright

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