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The Social Welfare State, Not the Police State: Taking on Obama’s Center Right Budget Deal and Challenging “Entitlement Reform”

NoCutsAs I write, Barack Obama is in constant negotiations with John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives to discuss “the fiscal cliff” that we are about to be thrown over regardless of what deal they cut. He is not meeting with the Progressive Caucus of the Democrats--he has shown great disdain for their politics and their very existence, and anyway, he has their votes. It is essential that Democratic “progressives” vote down the deal that will cut social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and urgent social programs that the president is proposing—but they risk further isolation inside the Democratic Party and great punishment from the Democratic leadership. It will take a real profile in courage for any Congressperson or Senator to reject the Obama/Boehner deal that is in the works but that is what the Movement needs to demand. Let’s be clear. There is virtually no debate going on. The president is proposing that 90% of the alleged “deficit reduction plan” that is artificially created in the first place, would come from cuts in social programs, and 10% or so would come from “raising revenues” what he calls, “just a little bit more taxes” on the wealthy, specifically raising the maximum tax rate from 35% to 39% for the highest tax bracket. This is so little that with all their fraudulent and legal deductions they will not even notice the difference. By contrast, during World War II under Franklin Delano Roosevelt the top tax rate was 94% and stayed above 90% during the Republican Eisenhower administration from 1952-1960. Raising the maximum tax rate to the proposed 39 per cent is a joke, and in typical Beltway logic, Democratic insiders are talking about a compromise on the compromise to 37 percent.

But the Republicans are in full attack mode and we on the left must learn from them. We have to strengthen our understanding of “fight to win” as we are always playing with a far weaker hand than our adversaries and enemies but so are all social movements especially in the early stages. The behavior of the House Republicans is despicable and brilliant. They lost the presidential elections—big time, despite a four year racist, reactionary, and completely destructive attack on President Obama. And yet now they act as if they won—and in many ways they did. They staked out the boundaries of the debate—NO Taxes. They followed the advice of their tactical guru, Chester Norquist, who forced every Republican candidate to sign in blood a pledge to oppose any and all taxes, and to deliver those signed pledges to him, that he keeps in a locked safe—as Seth Meyers from SNL would say, “Really?” and the answer is, “Yes, really.”

So, remember, it is President Obama and the Democratic Majority that has put social security, Medicare, Medicade, and social programs on the chopping block in the name of “deficit reduction,” they who have to take them off. Dramatic reductions in military, police, and ICE budgets—the arms of the police state—are not on the table, so the Democrats and Republicans agree on “the police state not the social welfare state.” It is the Movement that has to demand “The social welfare state not the police state.” Leading Democrats tell the press that the president is willing to work with the Republicans on “entitlement reform” as long as they agree to some “revenue generation.” What does that mean? That if the Republicans agree to 37% (the great compromise) they can cut virtually every social program. And yet the hardliners in the Republican party are holding out for no tax increases. The president’s people say, “The president will not negotiate against himself” but that is exactly what is happening. And the public, according to many public opinion polls, blames both sides, correctly, because the Democrats are not fighting from any principled position and the whole thing looks like a bi-partisan farce, which it is.

There is a predetermined outcome in these “negotiations” and it won’t be good.

The latest contribution to the center-right, right-wing attack on social welfare is the concept of “entitlement reform.” Entitlement means any social program that helps working people. “Reform” which once meant something less than revolution, now means something less than full counter-revolution. Whoever wins the terms of the debate wins the battle and wins the war. Right now the Right is winning both.

That was not always the case and we on the left need to lead a counter-hegemonic war of ideas. I learned that from the Black Liberation Movement, the discourse of Frederick Douglass,”What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” calling the U.S. “marked with blood and stained with pollution” W.E. DuBois, “land of the thief and the home of the slave” Fannie Lou Hamer’s “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired” Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” and Martin Luther King’s “My own country is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (yes, he of the alliance with the racist, segregationist Dixiecrats) wanted to build a social welfare state for white people (and excluded domestic and farm workers from the National Labor Relations Act) he generated brilliant counter-hegemonic discourse. He took on “the economic royalists,” talked about government’s obligations for the “social welfare” of the people and its responsibility to take care of people’s basic needs from “the cradle to the grave.” In its philosophical frame this was a major and positive breakthrough, the idea that the government had the responsibility to prevent people from living live in squalor, hunger, and despair. These ideas were pushed by the growth of socialist and communist movements who drove the discourse even further to the left. They talked about “Jobs on income now” and argued that we had to go beyond restricting the economic royalists to ending the entire system of “wage slavery.” This lead to programs such as social security, food stamps, aid to families with dependent children. Thirty years later, the government’s short-term and half-hearted “War on Poverty” did make efforts to address race-based poverty and lead to far greater AFDC benefits, head start programs, SSI, and other urgently needed programs to save people from the ravages of the market system. Tens of millions of people of all races benefitted from that ideology and the social programs it generated.

But from the early 1960s forward, the White Backlash and the Backlash Against Women lead to racist and sexist attacks on the social welfare state. “Welfare” was transformed into a pejorative term for many white people because they rejected a Black leadership that dramatically expanded the social welfare state, and yes, tried to restrict the police state. And yes, even though it is proved time and time again that these programs help many white people as well, the material self-interest of some white people would not override the profound psychosis of racism—the racist whites would rather starve then see a Black family eating. So “welfare” has now become Black identified by the system as it should be--a great victory of Black leadership of the social justice movement reflected in Dr. King’s poor people’s movement. But the mainstream media and not just Right-wing discourse has tried to delegitimize “welfare.” Former Democratic liberals, who no longer use that word out of fear, call themselves “progressives” and will not defend “welfare” – for in fact, while Ronald Reagan began the counter-revolution against the New Deal and Great Society, it was center-right Bill Clinton of the Democratic Leadership Council who championed “welfare ‘reform’” and promised to “end welfare as we know it” –which he did.

So, as the Far Right and the Center Right fight over who can move further to the right, now it is social programs that are essential to people that have been called “entitlements” needing “reform.” The idea that people are “entitled” to certain basic needs being met is critical to any idea of social progress and socialism. The idea that people are on their own is critical to the ruthless exigencies of declining imperialism, so that the state can support corporate power, subsidize failing capitalism, and steal from the working class. So now “entitlement” is the new “welfare” or “civil rights” or as Mitt Romney explained, the 47% of the people who depend on social programs except for the 1% who grab the lion’s share of all government revenue. And as Manuel Criollo points out, even a program that working people directly pay into from their wages, that should be paid completely by corporations and the state, is now called an “entitlement”—reflecting the further deterioration of the debate.

So where does the Movement fit in? We have to try to impact the dirty deal that will cause greater pain and suffering for millions of Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander/Indigenous/ communities and working class white people. We have to intervene in the public debate as much as we can, put out leaflets, blogs, have long discussions with our members, pass emergency resolutions at union meetings, demonstrate, march, sit-in against the “deficit reduction” “entitlement reform” charade. We have to reach out to the “opinion leaders of the oppressed” to break down what seems like esoteric wrangling into a critical front of the class struggle. We have to call on President Obama, and Democratic members of the House and Senate to oppose any cuts in social programs and instead, propose dramatic increases in the tax rates for the wealthy beginning at 50% and major cuts In military, police, and immigration policing. If setting the terms of the debate is critical to winning the battle and winning the war, we have to bring this cause to the leaders of the social movements who in turn can multiply its impact. This commentary is a tactic in that larger process.

Eric Mann

Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers, where he spent ten years on auto assembly lines. He is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles and the author of Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer. He is the host of the radio show Voices from the Frontlines (KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles Pacifica. His radio show and blogs can be found at www.voicesfromfrontlines.com

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