In Defense of Bosnia

— The Editors

THE NEW POLITICAL dispensation following the November 1992 election marks, in the first place, the end of an era, and good riddance to it. Not only is the Reagan-Bush administration "history," but--at least temporarily--the ascendance of the fanatical religious right in political influence and social policy has been checked. It is perfectly understandable that, at the moment of the electoral result, so much of the country and particularly the left felt that a gigantic weight had been removed from our necks.

Some on the left, to be sure, were more euphoric than others, as evidenced by the prominent left-wing social-democratic weekly paper which festooned the cover of its "sixteenth anniversary issue" with banners of Bill Clinton. Yet even for those clearer-headed socialists and radicals for whom "relief" is not and never was spelled c-l-i-n-t-o-n, the passage of Bush & Co. into political oblivion is cause for celebration. It is tempered only by regret that they can never be tried for their crimes against humanity in Central America and Panama, the Persian Gulf--to say nothing of the looting of the S&Ls and the rich folks' orgy in the midst of a horrifying social crisis at home.

In the second place, however, that crisis continues unabated by the reshuffling of power within capitalist political elites. It is a crisis yawningly disproportionate to the timid, constrained plans for economic recovery and social reform contemplated in the upper circles of the Clinton transition team. An elementary understanding of why an incoming Democratic administration, in the midst of a long severe recession, is so cautious and conservative goes a long way toward explaining the real limits of "democracy" in the USA.

It is quite possible (though hardly guaranteed) that the Clinton administration may act quickly to remove the crudest and most vicious executive policies of the Reagan-Bush era. Such reforms can be enacted, after all, without spending any money and, therefore, without encountering corporate resistance. The infamous gag order preventing personnel at family planning clinics from discussing abortion can and must be lifted by simple executive order--although that is not the same as guaranteed access to legal abortion. Gays and lesbians should be admitted to military service; that represents a real democratic victory for the lesbian/gay movement, though it will not in itself protect them from violence and discrimination in society, much less change the imperialist role of the armed forces.

Economic prospects are even more constrained. If the Clinton administration enjoys remarkable good luck--that is, if the anticipated mild fiscal stimulus (investment incentives for high-tech industry, capital gains tax reduction, $20 billion or so for infrastructure rebuilding, a possible small surcharge on upper-income taxes) coincide with a normal upturn to produce an economic recovery, then quite likely there will be a period of partial political stabilization and popularity for the Democrats. If on the other hand Clinton's efforts fail to produce recovery, then a new political crisis and polarization can be expected, including a nasty revival of the right with all its false promises.

Should economic recovery stall again, it is theoretically possible (though hardly likely) that a Democratic administration might turn toward some New Deal-like measures. But the obvious question is, why not a New Deal right now, when the need is so transparent? There are, right now, millions of unemployed construction and manufacturing workers at a time when bridges, roads, railways and mass transit are in desperate need of rebuilding; teachers without jobs in a society of overcrowded and collapsing school systems; a crisis in the health-care system, ranging from AIDS to the explosive increase in drug-resistant tuberculosis in New York City and the absence of substance-abuse treatment facilities. It is hard to imagine a situation in which the need to revive the economy so closely coincides with an emergency in meeting basic human needs.

At least to those whose wisdom derives from the conventional economic experts, the answer is even more obvious than the question. "Too great" stimulus would provoke the financial markets to raise interest rates, choking off investment while simultaneously raising the debt burden on government borrowing. This could strangle a recovery before it could begin and cause the dreaded deficit to rise even higher. Any day of the week, whether in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times or on pseudo-liberal National Public Radio, you can be properly educated by solemn pronouncements that the bond and currency markets offer "disciplinary restraint" on "irresponsible" excesses in government spending.

Such "restraint" need not be a "conspiracy" of capital, of course, but part of its normal working. Stimulus means borrowing; borrowing at a time of already high deficits brings the fear of inflation, hence rising interest rates to guard against the threat of loaned-out money losing its value. So much for democracy in the age of deficits. You may elect at your pleasure a Republican or a Democrat, but the crucial decisions of economic policy are taken within limits established by unelected bankers, money managers and bond speculators.

Indeed, interest rates are liable to rise if Clinton so much as appoints a Secretary of the Treasury who does not enjoy the confidence of these elites, whose effective veto is accepted without question as if it were some kind of natural law. There can be no discussion of why the deficits have expanded and persisted: the failure to cut military spending, and the acceptance by the Democrats and especially Clinton that taxes must not be seriously raised on corporate and personal wealth to pay for the '80s binge.

At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, the demilitarization that takes place under Clinton is likely to be more cosmetic than substantive. Mike Zielinski's analysis elsewhere in this issue explores some of the details. In summary, while the torture of Central America will be practiced by less flamboyant means, at least allowing a grateful liberal public opinion to more easily ignore it, and while Clinton's promises to the right-wing Cuban exile leadership in Miami may have only been electoral rhetoric, the fundamental issues remain.

The workers and peasants of the global South remain the pack animals for multinational corporate capital; under hemispheric free trade Mexico's workers will be consolidated in the status of low-wage producers for U.S. corporations. As for the Palestinians, who confront the consolidation of a fully-developed Israeli apartheid system in the Occupied Territories, they can expect less than nothing from a Clinton Middle East policy.

Openings and Possibilities

The gap between the high expectations of the tens of millions who poured out to vote Bush out of office and the low probable performance of his Democratic successor is likely to be profound. It is precisely this gap that opens up possible prospects for the left, not in the corridors of power but in the wider battle for public consciousness. The collapse of a Republican administration due to economic failure--less than two years after the sky-high popularity of Operation Desert Slaughter!--means that the role of the state in the economy is opened for debate. The blind faith that private enterprise by itself is the guarantor of prosperity was finally discredited by the Reagan-Bush debacle.

If nothing else it is now legitimate for the working class and the communities of oppressed people of color to formulate their agendas as demands on the state. The victims of the operations of the market need to stop accepting the market's rules, the rules under which General Motors is closing or trying to sell plants, under which the right to health care and, increasingly, basic education depends on the ability to pay, under which not only all political decisions but even thought is controlled by the sanctity of profit.

We are not suggesting that the left promote some nationalistic notion that a liberal-Keynesian stimulus policy could make U.S. capitalism truly viable or "competitive." Rather, the left's most basic responsibility is to help rebuild mass social movements through programs and demands arising from the movements' own struggles. There are numerous examples, among which a few of the most immediate are these:

* National health insurance must be fought for from the grassroots, against the opposition of the existing private insurance lobby. It must be comprehensive, universal and guaranteed to provide primary and preventive as well as curative medical treatment. The single-payer system, the most "radical" of the currently respectable ideas, is a bare down payment on what is needed.

* Restoration of workers' rights requires at the minimum immediate outlawing of permanent replacement of strikers, reversal of the policies of the Reagan-appointed NLRB and restoring the resources and enforcement powers of OSHA to what they were under that radical left-wing tool of big labor, Richard Nixon. This would create a semblance of a level playing field for the union movement (if pressured from within its own ranks) to launch a wave of new mass organizing.

* Rebuilding the cities must begin from, and expand upon, the kind of program for the reconstruction of Los Angeles that was first formulated by the Crips and Bloods in the wake of the South Central explosion. Such a program is an essential component--though far from the only one--of a successful resumption of the struggle against racism, which also requires at the governmental level a massive increase in resources devoted to education for African-American and Latino people in particular and for working people in general. Only in this context can grassroots anti-racist organizing achieve real and lasting gains.

* Reproductive rights demands the immediate promulgation of a Freedom of Choice Act without loopholes, qualifications, waiting periods, parental consent or any such garbage. Given the near-certainty of blocking actions and filibusters, the movement for abortion rights must mobilize for such federal legislation, while demanding the outlawing of coercive sterilization and similar rampant abuses.

* Lesbian and gay rights must be protected by including them in all federal civil rights legislation, to say nothing of proper enforcement of such laws.

The movements' horizons of hope must not be lowered by the years of Reagan-Bush to the point where a few gestures from Clinton make us feel obliged to be grateful or to defend him. That would indeed be a tragedy, if only because the probable weakness of an economic recovery is likely to bring back the right with a vengeance. When that occurs, defending our rights will be no part of Bill Clinton's agenda; only our movements can defend us and each other. There is, today, an opening for debate, organizing and struggle, and it must not be missed.

January-February 1992, ATC 42