By Dee Knight
This is Chapter 14 of My Whirlwind Lives — my favorite in some ways. I especially love the visionary graphics by illustrator Molly Crabapple of The Intercept, who graciously granted permission to use them!
Messages from the Future
How could things turn out if the Green New Deal were to succeed? To help imagine it, in mid-April 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez teamed up with Naomi Klein, illustrator Molly Crabapple and The Intercept to present a futuristic cartoon-art video scenario.
They realized, Klein wrote, that “the biggest obstacle to the kind of transformative change the Green New Deal envisions is overcoming the skepticism that humanity could ever pull off something at this scale and speed… The idea that societies could collectively decide to embrace rapid foundational changes to transportation, housing, energy, agriculture, forestry, and more — precisely what is needed to avert climate breakdown — is not something for which most of us have any living reference. We have grown up bombarded with the message that there is no alternative to the crappy system that is destabilizing the planet and hoarding vast wealth at the top.” [Emphasis added.]
AOC says the first big step is “just closing our eyes and imagining it… We can be whatever we have the courage to see,” adding that the Green New Deal “is our plan for a future worth fighting for.” It reminds me of another message from the future, John Lennon’s Imagine, released in 1988:
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.
What if we imagine we can change everything? Imagine no more prisons – it isn’t hard to do. Imagine all the people living life in peace! Imagine free medical care, free 24-hour child care, free tuition for as long as you want to study. Free transportation. Free time! (like “Somewhere” from Westside Story) Imagine good housing for everyone.
Imagine lots of interesting and challenging work to do – jobs converting homes, schools and businesses for solar energy. Engineers and construction workers would be in high demand for all types of conversion work – building the new super-grid to carry wind, water, thermal and solar power across the country and around the world. We’ll need to upgrade thousands of miles of rail for new bullet trains. Many more teachers will be needed, since we could reduce class sizes by a lot. Imagine favorite things and “least favorites” – much better food available at affordable prices; many fewer cops, judges, courts and jails. On and on.
In the video AOC says, looking back from the future, “People were scared. They said it was too big, too fast, not practical. I think that’s because they just couldn’t picture it yet.” It recalls FDR declaring “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
People are afraid, of course – of cops bashing their heads, killing or kidnapping their children and throwing them in jail, of losing their jobs and their homes, whatever scraps and leftovers they have held onto while losing continuously. Many also fear to dream of new possibilities. They have heard repeatedly that “socialism can never work.” This fear can be paralyzing.
Breaking through the fear has happened before. The civil rights and antiwar movements did exactly that. Instead of worrying about what would happen to them, millions of people decided to march together, fearlessly demanding peace and freedom – just like the Black Lives Matter protesters.
Occupy Wall Street did the same. So did the 1934 long-shore workers’ general strike in San Francisco, and the 1937 sit-down strikes in the auto industry.
All these victorious upsurges shared a common characteristic: a determination that if we dare to fight, we can win!
But they didn’t go far enough. The beauty of the Green New Deal is its resolution to change everything. There’s a recognition that to transform our economy to renewable energy we must harness and mobilize people power, and demobilize corporate power. There’s a fearless determination to transform government itself, by having working people take over.
AOC looks back on a victory for government-funded elections – no more corporate money to rig elections and buy votes in Congress. She doesn’t mention changing the Constitution, but we can imagine that protecting private property interests will no longer be the top priority.
“Twelve years to change everything,” AOC says. “How we got around, how we fed ourselves, how we made our stuff, how we lived and worked — everything. The only way to do it was to transform our economy, which we already knew was broken.”
Some of us have been working for this future for decades. Five decades may seem like a long time, but it has passed in a blur for me. Like many of my generation, who were jolted awake by the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement, I thought change would come sooner and be easier. We didn’t fully understand the tenacity of the system. We didn’t pay much attention to what Marx advised 150 years ago: capitalism is resilient, and will hang on until all its possibilities are exhausted; capitalists and their politicians will blush at nothing to keep their power intact.
In 1969 Nixon escalated COINTELPRO (first used in the witch hunt of the 1950s) to crush the Black liberation movement. Legality was not an issue in this massive terror campaign in the name of “law and order,” designed to wipe out the Black Panther Party and all other outcroppings of revolutionary Black leadership. Then Reagan launched the drug war, which was really a renewal of the Jim Crow system that had operated for most of the century to keep African-American people “in their place.” Now, after about four decades of mass incarceration, the drug war has lost credibility. But its brutal toll continues.
Police kill Black people simply for “walking while Black.” At least 2.2 million people are currently held in U.S. federal, state and local jails. About 465,000 are in “pre-trial detention.” This last category would logically be considered very short-term, but in fact holding times often stretch out for years, exposing prisoners to extremely brutal, even fatal conditions. Another 840,000 people are on parole, and a staggering 3.7 million people are on probation. Marked as pariahs, they effectively are imprisoned on the street. The prison population shot up by more than 900 percent from 1980 to 2018.
But as the saying goes, you can jail or kill revolutionaries, but you really can’t stop revolution. It’s the force of life itself. The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged and surged in response to all the police killings and mass incarceration. And it is linking with such movements as Fight for 15 – a movement for a new minimum wage – sanctuary for immigrants, and others. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual (LGBTQ) liberation movement is also a key factor. All oppressed people naturally fight for their rights and freedom. Those who have been oppressed the longest generally fight the hardest. And, of course, the more freedom we fight for, the more we will win.
Most of this was not obvious to me in 1968. It took five decades of living struggle and learning to “get it.” There is still much to learn. In a sense, the resilience of capitalism and the reactionaries forces us to learn more. Take Cuba for example. In the early days of the revolution, the old traditional patriarchal patterns remained more or less intact. But over the years the Cuban leadership came to understand that gay liberation was part of the revolution. In recent years, educational campaigns on LGBTQ issues have been implemented under the leadership of Mariela Castro, Raúl’s daughter. This has helped the LGBTQ movement in the U.S. and worldwide start to realize that socialism and liberation really go together.
Today’s movement remains focused on resistance – just as I was 50 years ago. But I think the direction is clear. Once you start resisting, you end up going for revolution. Now, with the Green New Deal resolution mushrooming into a massive and urgent movement, and Black Lives Matter refusing to step back, revolution can become the order of the day.
The extreme inequality in U.S. society, and the brutality waged constantly against people of color and immigrants, as well as the threat that reckless capitalism might actually destroy the planet – all of these outrages create a buildup of pressure that will explode eventually. Over the past two decades there have been hints, like when Trump and Sessions began grabbing small children from their parents and throwing both the kids and the parents in separate jails, millions of people protested in a variety of ways. The government was forced to pull back, at least briefly. White supremacists who in August 2017 had staged an openly fascist rally in Charlottesville, VA, killing one anti-fascist and injuring many others, were stopped in their tracks a year later when they tried to mobilize again. That’s a sign of growing strength on “our side.”
In recent years I have focused on the issues of affordable housing and homelessness. In the richest country on the planet nearly half of renters can’t afford rent, and millions are homeless. Rent hikes and reduced household income are major causes of homelessness, along with falling wages. Tenant harassment by profit-gouging landlords is a key factor. A fashionable solution is to provide a percentage of “affordable” rental units in new market-rate (ie, luxury) buildings. Imagine instead a massive construction drive to build good, clean, affordable and sustainable housing for everyone.
Housing is not considered a right in the USA, in spite of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25). The only guaranteed right, in terms of housing, is payment of rent or mortgage. If you fall behind you’re out on the street. Detroit enjoyed decades of boom when the “big three” auto makers reigned supreme globally, but then lost a million residents between 1970 and 2010, shrinking from about 1.7 million people to about 700,000. Most of the displaced people were African-American workers and their families, who had migrated from the South to take jobs in the auto industry. A huge number of these people lost their homes to foreclosure when they couldn’t meet their mortgage payments during the crash of 2008.
Healthcare is also not considered a right in the USA – the only industrialized country without universal healthcare. Profit-oriented medicine is a national disaster, but the drug and insurance companies – and the politicians they fund – refuse to have it any other way. Meanwhile more people die each year from opioid overdoses (75,000) than from auto accidents. This epidemic seems largely to be about depression from job losses and despair. Overall, the suicide rate has increased by over 50 percent since 1980. Suicides among military veterans averaged 20 per day between 1979 and 2014. The COVID19 crisis has made the private health care system not merely a disaster, but an obvious crime against humanity.
Add these disasters to the utter failure of U.S. education – a virtual apartheid system – in which a large percentage of students finish primary and secondary school unable to read or write, and an ever larger share of college graduates cannot find jobs while finding themselves saddled with a lifetime of debt.
The explosive pressure is intensifying. Today more people in the USA favor socialism than capitalism according to polls. No wonder! It gets easier and easier to hate capitalism. Right-wingers denounce universal healthcare and other basic rights as “creeping socialism.” But now people are saying, “If that’s socialism, that’s what I want!”
Women were especially strong against Trump from inauguration day onward. Their role in opposing the outrageous nomination of sex offender Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was especially significant. I believe we have only seen the beginning. Women have historically been decisive in successful revolutions. They started it in Russia in February 1917; they were crucial participants in Vietnam’s liberation, and in China’s transformation. The #MeToo! movement has brought disgrace on and ruined the careers of significant numbers of top executives. Take AOC herself, and the new generation of insurgents in Congress. They’re signs of the times, and there will surely be others who will win in other states and cities around the country.
We can’t topple the system through elections alone, but it’s a start. These victories definitely weaken the corrupt, bureaucratic, patriarchal power structure. And they are a harbinger of the future.
In 2010, the Occupy Wall Street movement seemed to emerge out of nowhere, and electrified the country by denouncing the savage inequality of capitalism. No permanent damage, perhaps, but on the west coast some occupiers aligned themselves with the militant International Longshore Union, shutting down shipping from Seattle to San Diego for several days. Again, no permanent damage, but a clear signal: united we can shut down this monstrous system.
This is a miracle that could happen – it just takes a little longer than merely running for socialism in elections. Electing some socialists will help, but we’ll need more, which brings us back to the GI resistance. As John Catalinotto explains in his excellent book, Turn the Guns Around, there is direct linkage historically between mutinies, soldier revolts, and revolutions.
If the soldiers refuse to fight but keep their weapons, that could put the government in a bind. If other sectors of society rebel at the same time, we could have a situation of “dual power” – people’s power vs the power of the state. At that point revolution could be the solution, especially if the economy is in crisis and the government has lost wars around the world and credibility at home. At that point it becomes a question of revolutionary leadership, unity and determination.
Trump is gone now, but his foreign policy lives on: sanctions against any country that wants its own path. U.S. foreign policy is like a gigantic game of “chicken” – counting on the other guys to chicken out first. “The other guys” currently include many of the traditional allies of the USA, other imperialist countries that have been reliable partners in exploiting and confronting the rest of the world. Canadians and Europeans are not so anxious to go along with sanctions against Iran, or to stop trading with China. In fact they depend on China to help shore up their shaky economies. How ironic! The power of China’s mixed economy – which is anchored by strong central planning and a very strong centralized banking system – is emerging as a kind of “savior” for capitalist economies across the globe. Its Belt and Road initiative has received a warm welcome far and wide, despite U.S. denunciations. In Africa, China presents an alternate development model that is vastly more attractive than the debt trap imposed by the U.S.-sponsored World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
China and Russia have forged strong economic ties with Iran and Venezuela, frustrating U.S. efforts to isolate, strangle or invade them. Sanctions – i.e., economic siege warfare – and military threats are the current U.S. weapons of choice to isolate and bludgeon such countries. And there is always the danger that the U.S. will lash out in anger and frustration, launching a desperate hot war against any or all of these countries. But the U.S. military is so bogged down in central Asia and the Middle East that it looks more and more like a helpless giant.
The USA has been waging war against China ever since the revolution of 1949 – either openly or by proxy. The so-called “UN police action” in Korea reached the Chinese border in 1952, and was pushed back decisively by Chinese Red Army forces. Even the U.S. war against Vietnam can be seen as a brazen threat to China. But the U.S. was defeated by the Vietnamese liberation forces, with support from both China and the USSR.
One legacy of the massive resistance to the U.S. war against Vietnam is that the U.S. has had to use military contractors with thousands of expensive mercenaries (instead of conscripted soldiers) to wage endless and unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The main reason young people in this country don a military uniform today is to have a job. But they come home disillusioned, at best. The government can’t really get recruits to actually believe in their imperialist mission. And military resistance continues and grows. (See Appendix 7.)
I’m reminded of an old slogan: What if they held a war and nobody came? The Green New Deal could even make that happen. Eliminate the need for oil and a major cause of war disappears. If there are lots of jobs for young people, they won’t want to choose the military, which will have to shrink drastically anyway. The only “war” to fight will be against die-hard capitalists desperately determined to hold on to their old system. This will surely be rough at first. But massive, large-scale mobilization to convert the economy and change society can literally change everything – including the death grip of the old system on the minds of people.
Overcoming fear can happen. AOC suggests that people’s confidence will build as new things happen. Small victories will pile on each other to generate a crescendo of new possibilities. We have to get organized, and start the process.
People will feel the need to fight back, but will need help and leadership to mobilize effectively. We can thank Bernie Sanders, AOC, and others for inspiring today’s surge toward socialism. But we must hope and struggle for a serious commitment to unification within the progressive movement. My hope and vision is that popular movements will force this unification, as they start to merge into larger coalitions of resistance. But I worry. Can we do it fast enough to forestall the emergence of fascist forces that know how to take advantage of the situation?
In the coming years we need a gigantic people’s movement, organized at every level: in neighborhoods, work places, and councils of many kinds. We need transition councils where delegates from neighborhoods and workplaces deliberate about how to organize recovery from the pandemic, and how to take over metropolitan and regional power authorities. They could institute monitoring operations to call out corruption and police brutality; launch cooperative ventures for home building and conversion, as well as innovative food distribution. These cooperatives could then demand funding for local conversion efforts, instead of waiting for the government or the private sector to deliver renewable power.
People’s councils could become incubators of a new people’s democracy. Local, regional, sectoral and national people’s councils might function as a new power, gradually growing strong enough either to challenge or to check the power of traditional representative bodies.
These are just possibilities. Ideas to imagine. The main thing is to imagine that the people – that is, the working people – can take on the job of running the country. There will surely be mistakes and failed experiments. But one thing seems certain. We can do it better than the current gang of robbers and opportunists. We just need the courage and organization to go for it.