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Radical Vision and Elbow Grease

Michael Schwalbe

An unfortunate side effect of the election of Barack Obama has been to fuel the American tendency to reduce politics to personality. The obvious contrast between the young, charismatic, articulate, black Barack Obama and his just-the-opposite opponent affirmed the idea that these individual differences are of great political import.

The same reductionist tendency can be seen in a flood of post-election commentary on Obama's "mindset" -- commentary intended, at least in progressive circles, to offer insight into prospects for change and whether Obama will deliver it. But dwelling on the president's intentions and attributes sheds little light on our current political situation.

Yes, it matters who controls the means of administration. There is enough leeway in the system for a president to make marginal changes. But the point of making these minor adjustments is to ensure that basic political and economic arrangements remain intact. The job of president is better understood as one of forestalling, not delivering, change.

By definition, then, focusing on a president's intentions or style or qualities of mind is conservatizing. It keeps us from seeing how the problems we face are not solvable through administrative tweaking but are rooted in the basic social arrangements that administrative tweaking aims to preserve.

Obama's symbolic value aside, consider what has not changed since November 2008.

Wealth is still grossly maldistributed. The richest 1% own about 34% of the family wealth in this country, and over 40% of the financial wealth. This is the wealth that undergirds the political power of the rich. Political power is thus no less concentrated today than eight months ago.

The laws that allow corporations to interfere in the democratic process, to evade public accountability, to fire employees who try to exercise their democratic rights at work, to externalize the costs of environmental destruction, and to move factories out of the United States are still in place. The legal framework that sustains capitalist relations of production faces no threat.

What is usually called the military-industrial complex is as deeply woven into the fabric of our economy as ever. Thousands of businesses and millions of jobs depend on military spending, creating a nearly irresistible incentive for Congress to increase this spending. None of this has changed since last fall.

We are still saddled with a two-party winner-take-all electoral system. Nothing has changed to give third-party candidates a better chance to win state or national offices. The dynamics of campaign financing are still such that only candidates who are acceptable to economic elites will attract the funding, and hence the media attention, to compete effectively.

The level of oppositional political organization is still today about what it has been for a long time: abysmally low. Decades of battering by capitalists and their minions in government have left unions weak. There is no labor party. Nor is there a strong anti-war movement.

Consider, too, that oil remains the energy bedrock of our society. Without it, we would collapse -- as would every other industrialized nation. The developing economies of China, India, and other southeast Asian countries need to import the same energy resources we do, and these resources are finite. We are thus now locked in a global competition for the earth's remaining fossil fuels and for control of energy markets. This situation has not changed; in fact, the competition has intensified, and will continue to do so.

These things that haven't changed since November 2008 are what members of my academic tribe (sociologists) would call "structural conditions." It is in these conditions, not in good or bad presidential intentions, that our problems are rooted. Which means that to solve our problems the conditions that generate them must be changed.

The antidote to reductionist, cult-of-personality thinking about politics is to think more radically. This does not mean indulging in utopian dreams. It means not losing sight of the need for structural change, and thinking seriously about how to achieve it.

It's not that we lack radical visions in this country. There are plenty of radical analysts and visionaries -- people who understand the need for structural change and approach it in a serious way. The problem is that radical analysis has been pushed to the margins of progressive discourse.

This has happened in part because progressives, along with most Americans, have been pulled to the right over the last thirty years. Ideas once seen as centrist or liberal (e.g., a guaranteed national income, full employment, taxing capital gains at the same rate as wages) are today seen as "far left." The other problem, as noted earlier, is that many progressives have been seduced by the idea that our recent presidential swap is a step toward significant change.

Radical thinking is a necessary corrective. It can help us avoid being uplifted by a rhetoric of change right into a cloudbank of empty promises. The paradox is that our current situation can be seen realistically only by assessing it more radically.

A radical perspective helps us see, for example, that capitalism inherently generates the inequalities in wealth and power that in turn create most of the problems progressives want to solve. If social and economic justice are the goals, then it's important to understand the extent to which these goals can and cannot be achieved within a capitalist framework.

Radical vision helps us see why capitalism is not ecologically sustainable. It's not because middle-class people in industrial nations buy bottled water or fail to recycle. It's because the system compels capitalists -- if they wish to survive as capitalists -- to focus on short-term profits, to aggressively promote wasteful consumption, and to exploit the planet, heedless of long-term consequences, as a resource cache and a waste dump.

Radical vision also helps us see why U.S. imperialism is not a matter of presidential discretion. The capitalist drive for profit -- that is, profit based on production and sale of real goods, and not on speculative bubbles -- impels a constant search for cheaper labor, energy, and raw materials, and for new markets. Dominant capitalist nations, if they wish to remain dominant, cannot allow national borders to get in the way of satisfying these economic imperatives. Again, the problem lies in how the system works, not in badly intentioned individuals.

Thinking radically implies aiming for more than a slightly larger slice of the economic pie, or using regulation to force capitalists to be less rapacious. It implies aiming for a thoroughgoing democratic transformation of society. The prize is economic democracy, not simply a softening of capitalism's hard edges.

Radical thinking is often disparaged as ignoring the need to alleviate suffering through short-term reforms. But this need not be the case. There is no necessary contradiction between seeking reform today and striving for structural change in the long run.

Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, for example, would be a useful reform. Making it easier for workers to organize and represent their interests collectively would put more money in workers' pockets and give them more clout on the job. Such gains are worthwhile and needed, here and now.

But if the longer-term goal is to overcome the problems that are inevitable within a capitalist system -- lack of meaningful work for everyone, unequal opportunity, destruction of the environment, concentrated political power -- then we should pursue the kinds of reforms that have system-changing potential.

One example is to require capitalists who want to sell or move a factory to give employees the first option of buying it and operating it cooperatively. Such purchases would need to be publicly financed. By doing so -- instead of using our common wealth to bail out failed capitalists -- we could dispel the illusion that bosses are necessary and start building a democratic economy. What we can't do is to expect a president to initiate this kind of change.

Folk wisdom says that we get more conservative as we get older. We supposedly abandon our youthful naiveté about the ease of revolution and also come to appreciate the value of social stability and tradition. Indeed it's good to shed illusions and be able to discern those traditions that are worth saving from those that are not.

At the same time, the wisdom of age should lead us to recognize when an economic system is no longer viable and to find the foresight and courage to start building anew. This is the heart of the progressive project. To carry it on requires shedding illusions about presidents and other political messiahs, and then joining a radical vision with a ton of elbow grease.

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Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at

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