Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.
— Hebert Marcuse1
[A potential solution to the financial crisis is] a global neo-Keynesianism… to save capitalism from itself and from potential radical challenges from below.
— William I. Robinson2
Ice Cream and Social Change
In the midst of the slow-down of the Occupy movement in the early months of 2012, a strange creation emerged from its dense horizontal network of assemblies, spokes-councils, and working groups. Dubbed the Movement Resource Group (MRG), its nature drew controversy – and for many, condemnation – from the movement that it claimed to represent. It appeared as a vertical blip on the flat radar screen, an image of wealth operating in a space where class and rampant material accumulation were adamantly questioned.
The MRG’s aim was to act as a conduit for funding for the movement, seeking to ease Occupy “as it transitions from being a series of spontaneous actions to a more strategic national movement.”3 It was first launched by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of the progressive-minded Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. They were quickly joined by other high profile left-wing millionaires and figureheads: Anna Burger of the SEIU labor union, entertainment moguls Danny Goldberg and Richard Foos, and others. Maybe it was because Ben and Jerry’s parent company, Unilever, is a member of the much maligned American Legislative Exchange Council. Or maybe it is because the image of money cozying up to Occupy reeks of the age-old tradition of progressive co-option – a threat very real to all that seek real change. Regardless, MRG did not seem to make much headway, and attention has shifted in both the Occupy movement and the media at large to a new grassroots movement sporting the same rhetoric and tactics of its predecessor – the 99% Spring.
The brainchild of the professional left, the 99% Spring is a joint project of a myriad of organizations, ranging from the Rainforest Action Network to the Institute for Policy Studies to 350.org, all taking part in helping push their agenda far beyond Occupy, transforming its energy and ethos into a structured complex. MRG members don’t seem to be very far from the action, with Anna Burger’s SEIU and Ben Cohen’s USAction adding their support for the 99% Spring.
Critics, rightfully skeptical of power of the professional left (particularly in light of the never ending cascade of letdowns and broken promises from President Barack Obama) have repeatedly drawn attention to the pro-Democratic Party attitudes of so many in the 99% Spring Coalition. These analyses have been published in many well-known and well-read publications such as Truth-Out, CounterPunch, and others. Yet an immediate backlash against these viewpoints has come in torrents. One article put forth byPRWatch quotes one 99% Spring affiliate as saying that the criticisms are “misplaced,” while another dismisses critiques of the professional left as being akin to a “Glenn Beck rant.” 4
Individuals who are pointing out the obvious and glaring correlations between the promoters of this new “grassroots” movement are being labeled as conspiracy theorists or cranks, bent on seeing patterns that aren’t there and avoiding to contribute meaningfully in the push to the fix the nation and the world. Never mind that Coffee Party, a 99% Springer, was founded by an organizer from United for Obama; or that the founder of Code Pink, another coalition member, garnered between $50,000 and $100,000 for the president’s 2008 campaign. Never mind that their partner, the Working Families Party, has been a longtime endorser of Obama, even hosting an image on their website informing visitors that “voting for Obama is good.”
This article will not attempt to summarize all of the data collected by the various detractors of the 99% Spring, though I’ve compiled links to various articles below in the notes.5 However, it will attempt to refute the ideas that there is no ideological link between the 99% Spring and the Democratic Party and that this sudden mobilization has nothing to do with the impending round of elections. In order to do that, primarily two organizations backing the 99% Spring will be looked at: MoveOn and the AFL-CIO; their history and their extended ties will be summarized, albeit in an extremely abridged fashion. Following this, the rhetoric and mentality of the 99% Spring and their backers will be examined and placed into a wider theoretical perspective on the nature of the current capitalist epoch.
From MoveOn to Big Labor to the American Dream
At the center of the controversy surrounding the 99% Spring is the question of MoveOn’s allegiance – the “conspiracy theorists” charge that MoveOn is an unofficial astroturfing organization that acts on behalf of the Democratic Party, while other critics maintain that there has been an important “cross pollination” of ideas and rhetoric between the organization and the more radically-inclined left. These critics, however, are framing their debate strictly around the currently unfolding events, ignoring the history of MoveOn and its ongoing ties to the Democratic establishment. However, these simplistic diversionary tactics, when placed into an overarching context, fall short of proper analysis and largely negate one of the central visions of the Occupy movement; namely, that “another world is possible.”
If one doubts MoveOn’s current affiliations with Democratic politics, one needs to look no further than one of the email blasts that was sent out on April 17th by their campaign director Steven Biel. Titled “Republican Political Suicide,” it carefully navigates around outright support for President Obama, though it makes it clear that MoveOn is preparing to once again act as the grassroots wings of the upcoming reelection campaign. “In 2008, young people voted in record numbers and went for President Obama over John McCain by more than 2-to-1,” the email reads, before stating that because of Congressional gridlock and the student debt crisis, “Republicans have handed us a golden opportunity to fire up young people to vote in 2012.” Biel then unveils his organization’s plan: “To make sure young people know what’s happening, we’re launching one of the largest online ad campaigns in MoveOn history.” MoveOn then asks for $5 donations to help with their emergent strategy – one that is rooted directly in electoral politics consumed in the divisive two-party paradigm that so many in the Occupy movement have spoken out against. Yet this is not the first time, and certainly not the last, that MoveOn has worked in tandem with the Democratic Party.
Perhaps the most notable example of MoveOn’s relationship with the liberal political party was its role as a coalition member of the Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI), which had begun its life as an anti-war lobby in 2007. It became rapidly apparent, however, that the AAEI was closely connected to the Democratic Party – for example, it was staffed by members of the public relations firm Hildebrand Tewes Consulting, which at the same time was working with the Obama presidential campaign. One of the firm’s founders, Steve Hildebrand, had served as the director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, while his partner, Paul Tewes, would go on to serve as then-Senator Obama’s Iowa campaign manager. Likewise, AAEI staffer Brad Woodhouse went on to act as a director of communications at the Democratic National Committee.
With the slew of connections forming to what would eventually become an extremely successful campaign for the Oval Office, eyebrows were certainly raised — grassroots protestors, working in alignment with figures from a party that had thrown its support behind the opposition’s war efforts. Despite these lingering questions raised by skeptics, the AAEI went on to rally massive support for Obama in the anti-war movement – yet in the aftermath, the president of hope and change rapidly descended into what could only be described as business as usual.
In further considering MoveOn’s ongoing ties to the Democratic Party, the best place to begin is with the long biography of Tom Matzzie, the organization’s former Washington director and perhaps one of its most important members. Matziee had been the leader of the AAEI, and is of immediate interest to the 99% Spring, as he is currently an online strategist for the New Organizing Institute (NOI). The NOI is closely connected to MoveOn, with many of MoveOn’s executives and founders operating on its advisory board. Furthermore, NOI’s Joy Cushman, who worked as the director of the Obama campaign in Georgia, is credited with having “full-time on the 99% Spring plan.”6
Matzzie’s skills with online organizing date back to his pre-MoveOn days, when he worked as a director for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign in 2004. Two years later, when he was officially affiliated with MoveOn, he was working in Washington politics again by running the Campaign to Defend America, a spin-off outfit from the AAEI that ran anti-Republican ads in the build-up to the 2008 election cycle. Matzzie was joined at the Campaign by MoveOn founder Wes Boyd and Jeff Blum, the executive director of Ben Cohen’s USAction. The Campaign’s pro-Democrat media blitz was heavily subsidized by the heavyweights of “progressive liberalism,” including SEIU leader and future MRG member Anna Burger; Mother Jones’ director Robert McKay; Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta ; and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Burger, McKay, and Soros went on to act as leaders in the Democracy Alliance (a coalition of centrist philanthropists), while Podesta headed up the Obama-Biden Transition Team and runs a lobbying organization that represents megacorporations like Wal-Mart on Capital Hill.7
Matzzie has also served on the board of directors of Progressive Majority, a network of Democratic operators that seeks to “elect progressive champions” by “identifying and recruiting the best progressive leaders to run for office; coaching and supporting their candidacies by providing strategic message, campaign, and technical support.”8 While the mission statement touts their commitment to electing “people of color” and propelling new faces into Washington, the majority of Progressive Majority’s directors are directly linked to either the Democratic Party or the AFL-CIO labor union – the importance of which will be summarized momentarily. For now, however, a cursory mention of some of Matzzie’s cohorts in Progressive Majority is in order:
Karen Ackerman, a political director for the AFL-CIO.
Ellen Golombek, a former political director for the AFL-CIO, now affiliated with the SEIU.
William Lux, one of the AFL-CIO’s in the early 1990s. Following this, he served as President Clinton’s Special Assistant for Public Liaison before becoming in 1996 the Vice Chair for the Democratic National Business Council. Later, he was the co-founder of the Progressive Donor Network, a fundraising body for Democrat candidates.
Terry Liarman, elected as the chair of the Maryland Democratic Party in 2004. Prior to this he served as the National Finance Chair for Howard Dean’s 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. It should be noted that prior to his loss to John Kerry, Dean was financially backed by many of the major centrist moneymen – including the aforementioned McKay, Podesta, and Soros.9
Clearly, Matzzie – as well as MoveOn – has historically operated in a close-knit sphere of Democratic Party organizers and operators; specifically, the people who build up campaigns by selecting the politicians, financing them, raising awareness for them, and, in short, helping them secure the White House. They are the unseen players who keep the political machine oiled and running. It is interesting to note the prominence of the AFL-CIO in this network, as big labor has been quite often viewed as an autonomous unit from Washington politics since the collapse of the New Deal politics of yesteryear. Thus, it is notable that Matzzie himself helps to bridge the gap between labor and Democrats, as he worked for the AFL-CIO in the early part of the 2000s, incorporating online activism as part of their movement building program. It might also be worthwhile to consider that MoveOn and the AFL-CIO share the same PR firm, Fenton Communications, which also represents Soros’ Open Society Institute and Ben & Jerry’s.
The AFL-CIO has been a major supporter of the 99% Spring – the name of the union’s current president, Richard Trumka, can be found on the list of signatories of the letter that initially launched the movement. But even after the AFL-CIO declared its support for this grassroots mobilization that is allegedly outside of the Democratic Party, the website OpenSecrets revealed that the union’s political action committee was working hard to raise money for Democrat candidates.10 A month earlier Trumka announced that the union was formally endorsing Barack Obama, commending him for his progressive rhetoric and passing the $800 billion stimulus package.11 But rhetoric falls short without real change; as many left-wing commentators have noted countless times, Obama’s so-called reforms – the so-called “ObamaCare” and his attitude towards Wall Street – have been empty promises, nothing more than populist imagery hiding pro-business agendas. Regardless, the AFL-CIO plans on launching a strategy of “door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and registration drives to help President Barack Obama and other Democrats.”
The AFL-CIO has been no stranger to Washington; for the entire duration of its existence it has operated closely with big politics and big business in curbing radical grassroots demands for structural change. When it was simply the American Federation of Labor (it merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO in 1955), it was led by Samuel Gompers. During this time Gompers was also serving as vice-president of the National Civic Federation (NCF), a pro-collective bargaining organization that was led primarily by representatives from leading industrial and financial firms. Gompers’ boss at the NCF, the mining magnate and Republican “king-maker” Mark Hanna, had viewed the promotion of “conservative trade unions” such as the AFL as beneficial to capitalism, noting that they would “play a constructive role in reducing labor strife and in helping American business sell its products overseas.”12 While Republican benevolence to collective bargaining certainly seems an oddity in the modern post-Reagan world, sociologist G. William Domhoff writes that the NCF’s stance “involved a narrowing of worker demands to a manageable level.” Continuing on, he charges that collective bargaining “contained the potential for satisfying most workers at the expense of the socialists among them, meaning that it removed the possibility of a challenge to the capitalist system itself…”
In the decade following the AFL-CIO merger, the union, working in conjunction with the Kennedy administration, began to export this moderate unionism overseas through the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). Funded by USAID and operating closely with the CIA, the AIFLD adopted a militantly anti-Communist perspective and assisted in a series of US-backed interventions across Latin America, including the infamous coup against Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende.13 Later the AIFLD underwent a transformation into the Solidarity Center, a subsidiary organization of the US government’s primary vehicle for “democracy promotion” abroad, the National Endowment for Democracy. Importantly, Trumka has served as the head of the Solidarity Center’s board of trustees – making him a de facto member of the US foreign policy establishment.
If all of these connections and ties isn’t convincing enough that the 99% Spring doesn’t bare the hallmarks of Beltway wheeling and dealing, there is the upcoming “Take Back the American Dream” conference, which is being put together by Progressive Majority and Rebuild the Dream – the latter of which is one of the key 99% Spring planners. The conference is being hosted by the Campaign for America’s Future, (CAF) which counts both Richard Trumka and his predecessor, John Sweeney, on its board of directors. Eli Pariser, MoveOn’s chairman of the board, is also an official at CAF. This is not the organization’s only tie to MoveOn; CAF is a coalition member of Healthcare for America Now, a lobbying organization for Obama’s health care plan, alongside MoveOn, Podesta’s Center for American Progress, and Ben Cohen’s USAction.
Another CAF leader, Robert Borosage, is married to Barbara Shailor, the director of the AFL-CIO’s international affairs division. He also serves alongside Tom Matzzie on the board of Progressive Majority, while an organization that he is a former director of, the Institute for Policy Studies, is part of the 99% Spring movement. He still maintains close ties with the Institute: he is currently on the board of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation, right alongside Wes Boyd and Joan Blades from MoveOn and the NOI, and Bill Fletcher, a high-ranking official in the AFL-CIO. Fletcher is the current co-chair of United for Peace and Justice – yet another 99% Spring coalition member.
While Borosage, who incidentally is one of the keynote speakers at the Take Back the American Dream conference (along with Howard Dean and Rebuild the Dream founder Van Jones)14 has been critical of Obama’s willingness to bend to corporate America’s demands, Campaign for America’s Future has not minced words about electoral agenda: “Just five months before what could be the most important set of elections in our lifetimes, thousands of progressives will convene in the nation’s capital to energize the movement to Take Back the American Dream.”
Disruption and Redirection (or the End of Neoliberalism)
Borosage’s anti-corporatist tone leads us to one of the major criticisms that defenders of the 99% Spring have of its detractors. MoveOn and its adjunct organizations such as the AFL-CIO and Rebuild the Dream have led activists to protest the corruption surrounding mega corporations, including GE and Bank of America. How can something that does try to bring these abusers of democracy to justice be a negative factor in the activist landscape? The answer to this question is more complicated, yet it is something vital to be discussed in today’s world of the perpetually evolving “flexible capitalism.”
First off, it is important to take note that MoveOn and the extended progressive network does not necessarily practice what it preaches. For example, MoveOn’s “brand-based imagery” for the 99% Spring was crafted with help from Berlinrosen, a “communications consultancy” that operates out of D.C. and New York City.15 The firm, whose Washington director is a former communications director for Obama’s 2008 campaign, lists on its website MoveOn Political Action (MoveOn’s political fundraising arm), SEIU, Healthcare for Americans Now, and Brookfield Properties as clients. Brookfield, incidentally, is the owner of the now-famous Zucotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street set up camp before its eviction in mid-November, 2011. Brookfield Properties, later revealed to be in contact with Federal agencies just prior to a raid, is in turn owned by Brookfield Asset Management – an Ontario based corporation that counts George Soros as a shareholder and is represented in Washington by a member of the Podesta family.16 If these people – all tied in one way or another to the 99% Spring – are against corporate malfeasance and are truly in solidarity with the Occupy movement, one would certainly think that they would cut monetary ties with outfits like Brookfield.
Aside from that puzzling detour, the relationship between the “professional left” and capitalism is important to look at. Recent and influential treaties, such as The Shock Doctrine and The Corporation, or the articles published in progressive magazines such as The Nation and Mother Jones, have raised awareness about the destructive tendencies of neoliberalism, showing how they dissolve national boundaries, exploit poor and undeveloped countries, and curtail representative democratic practices by buying off politicians. Yet these publications, for the most part, tend to equate capitalism with its current neoliberal incarnation, and also serve to position corporations – not the underlying structures of the capitalist mode of production – as the problem. While all these works play a critically important role, they simply do not go far enough – overall, their analysis is unfortunately superficial.
This framework – where corporations, not market economies dictated by uneven wealth distribution, finds its physical expression in the works of moderate liberal economists such as Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz. While their individual approaches may differ, all of these individuals maintain a pro-market rhetoric that avoids undermining the ultimate Washington consensus that reasons that private enterprise and individual greed is the cornerstone of equality. Stiglitz himself appeared at an Occupy Wall Street rally and told protests “The fact is that the system is not working right… Our financial markets have an important role to play. They’re supposed to allocate capital, manage risks. We are bearing the costs of their misdeeds.” 17 But as the Monthly Review’s Michael Yates retorts, Stiglitz is wrong: the system is working correctly. “It is working exactly as capitalist systems work. They have always been marked by poles of wealth and poverty, periods of speculative bubbles followed by recessions or depressions, overworked employees and reserve armies of labor, a few winners and many losers, alienating workplaces, the theft of peasant lands, despoiled environments, in a word, the rule of capital.” What Yates is expressing here is a clear and undeniable truth. We cannot attack corporations solely, because they are not the cause of the problem. They are only the symptom of it.
The AFL-CIO and SEIU are also indicative of this mentality, with their perpetual protest slogan of “protect the middle class.” Such a phrase or symbol it represents clashes directly with anti-capitalist sentiments; it’s rooted in the inner-workings of the classist system and is generated solely by workplace hierarchies and capital flows that trickle down ever so slowly. It is true that the world of globalized neoliberalism is dissolving the middle class; this is the result of the breakdown of the social contracts of the Keynesian era, which allowed unionism to flourish and mild redistributive policies to take place. But look at the unofficial label given to the heyday of Keynesianism – “the Golden Age of Capitalism”. 18 It was the time when the American Dream in all of its illusionary splendor was at its peak; is it any wonder why one of the 99% Spring’s most prominent backers is Rebuild the Dream, or the Campaign for America’s Future’s upcoming conference is called “Take Back the American Dream”? It is as French economist Guy Sorman argued: “I think that the liberal society needs a welfare state… people will accept the capitalist adventure if there is an indispensible amount of social security.”19
World systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein once said that “we’ve been living in the wake of 1968 ever since, everywhere.” What Wallerstein was alluding to was the dramatic upheaval that happened across the globe in that year, with a surge of left-wing consciousness and revolutionary mobilization from America to Germany to France and beyond. For a brief moment – particularly as France was paralyzed by widespread wildcat strikes – it looked as if a victory was at hand, but it was not.
Within a handful of years the neoliberal project had begun, and capitalism was launched into its current flexible stage. As deregulation became central legislative policy and free trade agreements interconnected the globe in a myriad of ways, the newly unleashed capitalism also took on a rather curious, almost human appearance. For every public asset auctioned off, more and more “socially aware companies” spring up, for every worker protection removed, a corporation unveils an environmentally sustainable plan of action. For every transnational behemoth, there is a corporation that reworks its caste system into networks of interlocking team members. Slavoj Zizek has written about this phenomenon at length, identifying it as a capitalism tailor-made for the post-’68 world:
The new spirit of capitalism triumphantly recuperated the egalitarian and anti-hierarchical rhetoric of 1968, presenting itself as a successful liberation revolt against the oppressive social organizations characteristic of both corporate capitalism and Really Existing Socialism – a new libertarian spirit epitomized by dressed-down “cool” capitalists such as Bill Gates and the founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. (emphasis in original)20
French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have tackled this problem, drawing directly from the malaise that settled in their country after the revolt of ’68 lost its power. Writing in highly verbose theory-talk, they explain it by appropriating terminology from anthropology – capitalism’s power results in deterritorialization, but this is quickly reterritorialized before the process is complete. 21 What this means is that capitalism is destructive in an absolute sense, gobbling up and breaking down nation states, cultures, religion, social structures – all things that result in discontents or other internal tensions that threaten to undermine its functionality. But through “reterritorialization” these tensions are acknowledged and measures are taken to smooth them out, to fix them in way that surplus value can still be extracted from the dominated labor force.
Antonio Gramsci called this the “Passive Revolution”: in order to protect themselves in the long run, the capitalist elite (or certain sectors of the elite, depending on which time of business interests are threatened) bend to measures that seem contrary to their short-term benefits of the system. This is precisely what gives rise to things such as corporate philanthropy or socially aware business models and practices – and this in turn, to put it in Zizek’s words, separates the “basic ideological dispositif of capitalism” (individual greed) from “its concrete socio-economic condition.” 22 No longer is capitalism bad; it is the people running the corporations that are bad. Capitalism, when purged of those who exploit it, can work for the betterment of all. This paradigm is reiterated by Drummond Pike, the founder and head of the Tides Foundation (a progressive philanthropy that funds many of the 99% Spring organizations), who rebuked charges that he and his colleagues were socialists by saying “Tides may be progressive, but we are enthusiastically American. Were it not for the capitalist system, not a dollar would flow through Tides.” 23
Of course, the debate being covered here – whether or not the 99% Spring is connected with the Democratic Party – is simply a microcosm of this wider, more theoretical and abstract meditations on the shifting nuances of capitalism. These avenues of analysis do, however, provide important insight into the nature of this latest clash between the haves and have-nots.
Is it undeniable that MoveOn and its cohorts are intricately bound to a specific aspect of the political machine – the “underbelly” where PR firms, communication consultants, and brand imagery collide to build campaigns. Conducting this kind of business requires a widespread manipulation of people’s emotions by crafting images that play on people’s hopes and desires, their fear and distrust. In short, it is a sphere of politics that is based entirely in propaganda of action, aiming to mobilize mass groups across the nation into a voter base. If MoveOn and other promoters of the 99% Spring are connected to this world, immediate suspicion must be cast on their true aspirations.
The question still lingers on their anti-corporatist rhetoric, but as noted above, this does not necessarily contradict the “reterritorializations” of capitalism. During Keynesianism, the state more or less acted as a limiting agent for capital flow; it was antagonist towards capitalism for the benefit of capitalism. The state was subsequently “deterrioralized” through neoliberalism, and now we’re seeing a sort of “return of the state”. It first occurred with the outright rejection of neoliberalism with the slew of bail-outs, and now that a grassroots movement has arisen challenging these perspectives from a leftist point of view, another movement has risen to re-inject the state itself (through its emphasis on electoral politics) into a dialogue that up to this point has been driven instead by classist dispute.
With the demands of anti-corporate, localized capitalism, what is being posed is the idea of the state acting as an arbiter to limit the exponential growth of the neoliberal project. This is not a new idea – limits to capitalist growth was posed in the 1970s by the Club of Rome, a little know yet influential technocratic organization that counted some of the leading financiers and industrialists of its day as members.24 More recently the Club has made some rather interesting recommendations for the future of capitalism, going beyond the idea of limiting growth: “…capitalism needs a reliable frame. It means that the trend since the late 1970s of weakening the state must come to an end and should be reversed.” 25 Intriguingly, some of the founding members of the Club were leaders from the United Auto Workers union, which today is one of the backers of the 99% Spring.
So what happens now? Capitalism, in its neoliberalism form, is broken. The ongoing global financial crises reflect the inherent instability and structural defects of the transnational trade system. A return to Keynesianism and the state power may be a temporary solution, but economic legislation ebbs and flows with the changing of administrations. Keynesianism tomorrow could bring a new stability, but it will be most likely repealed at some point again and neoliberalism will return. There is also no guarantee that Democrats will ever hold to their campaign promise of economic justice; those that were roped into voting for Obama under MoveOn’s image of the senator as the anti-war candidate will tell you that words without action are nothing.
What it boils down to is simply that the question is not over whether to side with the 99% Spring or not, whether to allow co-option to take root and proliferate. The question, in actuality, concerns what kind of change we truly want to see. Is it the world of limited growth capitalism, managed by the state through representative candidates, or is it a brand new world where real democracy is realized, where power is returned to the people and the capitalist system is finally overturned?