Both Bernie Sanders and the national campaign to raise the minimum wage are sounding a wake-up call for all progressive Americans, especially those trying to save public education. Both are breaking out of the choke-hold the economic elite has on our country’s imagination. Bernie Sanders calls for free higher education. The minimum wage campaign calls for $15/hour, doubling the current federal minimum. They both brazenly demand the “unreasonable,” and thereby influence the public conversation.
We Americans could have gone on the offensive in 2009, when President Barack Obama wanted to be Franklin D. Roosevelt, but lacked the mass movements and the confident democratic left that would have made that possible. During his 2008 campaign, Obama even claimed that universal single payer health care, often called “Medicare for All,” is the correct system for the United States.
Obama also said in 2008 that the country should do with the Wall Street banks what the Swedes did to their irresponsible and failing banks. Back in the 1990s the Swedes refused to bail out their banks, but instead seized them, fired their top management, made sure their shareholders didn’t get a krona, and re-organized them while imposing stringent rules for future behavior.
Our policy-wonk president knew those two approaches (and other bold progressive policies) were right for the United States, but he also acknowledged during his 2008 candidacy that we would not get them during his administration. I admired his realism; he knew how constrained a U.S. president is when the power of the 1 percent is not challenged by mass action. In his statement, Obama explained the difference by referring to “Sweden’s political culture.” Interpretation: “Sweden has mass movements that powered through the policies that I know we need.”
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The Swedish labor movement and its allies, although not today the tigers that they were in the 1930s when they handed their 1 percent a huge defeat, are still a powerhouse. The Swedish political spectrum did shift to the left. In fact, their center/right had to move so far to the left by American standards that most of the Swedish right wing would be a happy home for U.S. liberal Democratic politicians.
Americans have largely forgotten what actually powered the leap forward in the Roosevelt era. Workers occupied factories, neighbors prevented foreclosures, students struck. The 1930s progressive movements in this country took their values and vision and went on the offensive.
In high school, my social studies teacher, told us that FDR often went to the Socialist Party led by Norman Thomas to borrow and implement pieces of their socialist vision. I now understand that Roosevelt did that in order to defend the capitalist order and try to reduce the militancy of the people. He had to stand up to his fellow people of wealth — most hated him — in order to handle the nonviolent insurgency of the working class and its allies.
In the 1960s, I actually got to meet and work with Thomas. He told me that in the 1930s, the movements were so strong, and the U.S. political spectrum was shifting so rapidly to the left, that the Republican Party came to him in desperation to ask him to run for Congress from New York on the Republican ticket.
In recent decades, I’ve listened to some Democratic friends complain that “our country is moving to the right.” Look again. The political class — the politicians and the electoral-industrial complex — has indeed moved to the right. Many polls tell a different story about the American people themselves. Polls report huge support for some values and policies of the left: Medicare for all, major steps to address climate change, governmental back-up so everyone has enough to eat and a place to sleep. A majority support paying higher taxes to fund public education.
The people have been there — what’s been missing is the leadership to start nonviolent direct action campaigns to energize, mobilize and win victories.
The right time to pick free higher education
This is the moment for everyone who makes higher education their issue to go on the offensive. A professor friend of mine recently attended an exclusive gathering paid for and hosted by Bill Gates. The weekend was subtly programmed, but by the end its goal was clear to her: to accelerate the de-funding of higher education.
We already see the devastating impact of the economic elite’s campaign to de-fund K-12 education. As I have pointed out before, the predictable strategy of the 1 percent is first to degrade something we care about, then to turn it over to private hands in order to gain possession of even more money from the people’s taxes.
We can therefore expect in non-elite higher education a series of heightened cutbacks in public funding. Further exploitation of adjunct teachers is predictable, increasing the number of disappointed students who can’t find their professor because the teacher is running from campus to campus trying to make a living. If tuition has reached its maximum, schools can put the lid on tuition, while allowing the student experience to suffer through larger classes, etc. Propaganda is ramping up, with media reports of the “luxurious provisions for today’s students.” The campaign all adds up to degrading the service.
Education activists have a choice: to go on the defensive to resist the economic elite’s higher education agenda, and lose ground for a couple of decades, or to go on the offensive and choose demands that are on the path of a living revolution.
When is a goal simply ‘reformist?’
Those working for social change need to debate whether achieving a proposed reform is likely to open the door to further change, or if it is instead a palliative that lessens the movement’s energy. Sanders’ demand attracts me because it brings up juicy questions relating to values and the big picture. I can illustrate from my own experience.
At age 21, I enrolled in the University of Oslo, Norway. My Norwegian wife told me that university was free there, but even so — after I paid my $14 matriculation fee — I double-checked to see if I had really paid in full. I turned to a couple of Oslo University students I was making friends with and asked them, “How does it make any sense that Norway offers free higher education?”
“Look,” he said, “wouldn’t you say that brains are an economic resource to a country?”
“Well, yes, of course,” I responded.
“Then, wouldn’t a country want to develop its resources fully instead of letting a barrier like family income get in the way?”
After that conversation I needed a long walk. “Why, indeed, doesn’t my country invest fully in economic development via free education?” I asked myself. “It is far wealthier than Norway is.” (This was before Norwegians found oil.)
My 21-year-old self was driven to further questioning:
“If my people knew university could be free, they would surely want that system. Who decides, then, that America’s vast wealth should not be used for free access to higher education? I’ve paid attention to many political debates and I never even heard the idea coming up! What does this mean about our political system? Are decisions like this made behind our backs? Who makes these decisions? And why don’t the mass media tell us about free educational access in other countries, as well as Norway? Aren’t our media curious about something that so many families discuss and worry about? Or maybe our mass media aren’t all that free after all?”
Some demands for reform stir up the big questions about systemic oppression. I find that discussion far more powerful than the complaining we can lapse into.
Juicy questions and self-respect
Many U.S. defenders of K-12 schools have gotten sucked into reacting to “blame the teachers” and “charter schools are better.” Instead, why not, take the offensive and have the discussions we want to have? Juicy questions will emerge in the public dialogue when we create positive and far-reaching demands that are at the same time common sense, like small classrooms and small schools that are also community centers. We can win the K-12 battle — the majority is on our side — if we frame the argument by using direct action campaigns that are dramatic, empowering, support an alliance of parents and teachers, and create a showdown.
To me the excitement of progressive Americans taking the offensive is not only chalking up more wins, but also increasing our self-respect. Defense of the status quo implies that human beings have no imagination, that we’re incapable of envisioning anything better than what we have. That view is profoundly untrue and disrespectful. We are bigger than that.
Activism in the 1960s was influenced by the “red-diaper” and “pink-diaper” babies, young activists born to parents who were themselves activists in the self-respecting left movements of the 1930s. Today we need to recover an attitude of deservingness.
I don’t mean entitlement — we don’t need to believe that someone should have been providing justice for us. It’s fine for us to do it ourselves. What’s wrong with playing a big game?
We need to remember that we deserve much better and should therefore fight — not to maintain an already-degraded America, but for visionary change — and go on the offensive to get it.