Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Year in Review

What a year: 2008 will certainly be remembered as a significant moment in American history, but the exact meaning and significance of this last year's events is far from clear.

On January 2, the price of a barrell of petroleum hit $100. Oil remained a key political issue. Republicans notoriously chanted "Drill, Baby, Drill" along with "USA" at rallies, and the high price of gas created more public interest in renewable and green energy sources. With the deepening of the recession, gas prices have collapsed dramatically, despite attempts by OPEC to stabilize prices. Whether the era of three dollar gas created any sustained interest in promoting a more energy-efficient and less fossil fuel dependent economy remains to be seen. The Obama Administration has promised to make "green collar jobs" a major part of its jobs program; what political and substantial viability these proposals hold will be seen in the coming year.

On January 23 Palestinian militants blew a hole in the wall separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt. This event marked a shift in focus of the Palestine-Israel conflict to Gaza from the West Bank, and also a debilitating division amongst Palestinians, with Mahmoud Abbas leading the greatly weakened PLO and the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and a resurgent Hamas in power in the Gaza. After Hamas won elections in 2006, the United States and the European Union instituted an embargo against the Palestinian Authority, with no more effect than to prove that the United States only accepts democracy when its results are favorable the the foreign policy goals of the State Department, and to further undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab client states that have gone along with the United States or remained silent. The internal civil war between Hamas and the PLO has emboldened Israel to unilaterally push for a "two state" solution that would amount to apartheid like oppression for the Palestinian people. We also learned this year that Israel's conservative Likudd would not support forcing its Arab citizens to leave after the creation of an Palestinian state. As the year closes, we witness a sickening sequel to the barbaric Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006. Beginning on December 27th, Israel launched an all out offensive against Hamas in the Gaza strip in a war that only forces Israel evermore into the status of an international pariah. Where are the Israelis who can defeat these bellicose regimes? What happened to the principles of the Israeli center and left? As the death toll mounts, we can only conclude that the Bush administration has left the Middle East peace process in utter shambles, with any possible progress completely obliterated.

After Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses, and John Edwards took second, the inevitability of Hillary Clinton's nomination began to look less certain. On Febraury 5th, the so called "Super Tuesday," left John McCain as the clear front-runner for the Republican ticket, while the Democratic race was left a virtual tie between Clinton and Obama. Obama was able to survive a divisive primary battle with Clinton that turned particularly nasty with the attacks on Obama's association with Reverend Wright. Although Obama's handling of the situation probably showed more shrewd political calculation than principled defense of his past, he was able to survive a remarkable challenge, and in some ways, the early focus on Wright made it a non-issue in the general election cycle, with McCain forced to resort to Obama's alleged connection to William Ayers, and even for a moment, to Columbia's own Rashid Khalidi.

After long illness, in February Fidel Castro resigned from the Presidency of Cuba. Whatever one's position on the Cuban revolution, Castro's death marks an impending struggle over Cuba's destiny. Neo-liberal free marketeers will be eager for a crushing session of "shock therapy" to awaken the Cuban people to the great gifts of the free market. If the future of the Cuban revolution is left to the Cuban people themselves, it will be in good hands and the gains of the socialist revolution can be preserved. If the traitors in Miami succeed in dictating Cuba's future, we may soon witness the punishing end of an attempt by a desperately poor and and threatened people to provide a humane and equitable existence for all its members. If Cuba was never a socialist paradise, it at least was an important reminder that human beings have real choices about the type of society they live in. Despite his many shortcomings, and the many failures of his regime, Castro will ultimately be remembered as a great champion of human liberation and equality.

August saw war between Russia and Georgia over the break-away Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Russia had unilaterally recognized. Both Russia and Georgia recognized that in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, force was back on the table in pursuing foreign policy goals. Seen in Russia and Georgia, and even more so in Israel, the Bush doctrine of unilateral invasion has destabilized and fundamentally weakened the basic assumptions of international law and diplomacy. Around the world, the disastrous effects of the invasion and occupation of Iraq continued. A world in which force and violence are seen as acceptable means of achieving goals for powerful states is one of the longest lasting gifts of the Bush Administration and a Democratic Party that had to be dragged into an even modestly oppositional stance.

In September, the world began to see the full scope of a major economic crisis. Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse, after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were given federal support. Merrill Lynch was absorbed by Bank of America, and AIG received a massive support loan from the Treasury. Washington Mutual was taken over by JP Morgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs and and Morgan Stanley ended their status as investment banks and became bank holding companies, subject to more strict regulation but with greater access to federal support. This has marked a major restructuring of Wall Street, and perhaps a major development in the structure of advanced capitalism. The state was forced to step in and administer capitalism for the very survival of the capitalist system itself in a way not seen since the great depression. Although the American people now essentially own the banks and the financial industry, all have stressed the temporary and emergency nature of these interventions, and how much of a break with free market ideology will emerge from the crisis remains unclear. While the financial crisis has created great challenges for the incoming Obama administration, these challenges at the same time mark opportunities to make major shifts in the economic and system and the political climate in the United States. Even some of the most trenchant free marketeers have confessed their sins, but the die-hard defenders of the Chicago school remain unchastened, if slightly uncomfortable with their new situation in which their ideas are debated and criticized, and no longer accepted as gospel truth. If the cracks in the neo-liberal mythology are signs of hope, it is certainly disappointing to see how few within American political discourse have raised big questions about the fairness, viability, justice, and premises of the American economic system. Barely a whisper of real anti-capitalist rebellion has been heard, and proposals for moving forward have remained securely center-left. This seems like a moment when Americans would be open to radical challenges to corporate authority. The initial rejection of the financial bailout was a wonderfully healthy democratic impulse. Commonsense anger at the Banker's Bailout and the CEO's and fatcats of Wall Street was impressive in its power, but the technocratic administrators eventually pushed through the bail out despite the healthy democratic rebellion. These broader impulses rejecting the current political economy have remained largely subterranean, undirected, and sporadic.

Finally, the election of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States was a remarkable event. The election of a black president has restored many Americans' and much the the world's faith in the American political system. How much will substantially change remains to be seen. Obama's cabinet appointee's reflect a tendency towards a so called "pragmatism" that is moderately center left and purports to be "non-ideological." The business community has already made its peace with much of Obama's program, with the striking exception of the "Employee Free Choice Act," which would allow card check union authorization and thus eliminate the ability of employers to intimidate workers while the delay NLRB elections. Whether Obama fights for and wins a card check unionization bill will be a major test, and the revitalization of the American labor movement could be a major step of transformation with lasting consequences. Also critical will be the substance of any health care reform; "universal healthcare" could mean nothing more than a universal subsidy to the insurance companies. These companies are universally unpopular, and the institution of real, single-payer health care is a remote, if real possibility in the coming years. Fighting for workers rights to join a union and for real health care for all will be major battles. Also critical will be making sure Obama follows through on his pledge to end the war in Iraq. Directing troops into Afghanistan is not a solution either. We must end ALL occupations, not get bogged down in Afghanistan and increasingly Pakistan, where the political situation will only be worsened by further American involvement. Fighting for a real end to the war and ending all occupations in the middle east will be critical. Liberals who benefited from anti-war outrage will be less likely to listen to less popular (at least at this point) critiques of further involvement in Afghanistan.

There is little doubt that in ways 2008 was a pivotal year. What will come can only be speculated at, but activists can have an important role in shaping the future. Those on the left will face inner divisions, as moderate play defense for the centrist policies of the government, others engage in constructive criticism in an attempt to move the administration to the left, while others are left with the difficult task of mobilizing for more radical visions of justice, equality, peace and freedom. Having the center left in power is always difficult, fraught with both possibilities for meaningful transformation but more frequently, giving us little but empty rhetoric and betrayals to the corporate interests that will continue to dominate politics. An election will not bring change. will not bring us democracy. The Democratic party remains at the very best an ambiguous vehicle for meaning social transformation. The coming year will offer challenges rooted in the past eight years, but at the same time we face a radically changed terrain of political strategy and conflict. Bush was an easy target to unify disparate elements, as was the Iraq war by 2006. The left now faces the challenges of defining itself in positive terms, rather than "Anybody but Bush." It can only be taken as heartening that a black man, who expressed his desire to "spread the wealth around," whose middle name is Hussein and last name is Obama, and who was ruthlessly blasted for being a Socialist, a Muslim and an associate of terrorists was elected President of the United States. The symbolism is striking; the substance is now the terrain of political battle against the arrayed corporate interests. Let the lines be drawn and the struggle continue.

-Rudi Batzell, December 31, 2008

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