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Jackson Vs. Technocracy

Michael Albert


What should we make of the fact that so many progressives think Jesse Jackson is too ambitious and too willing to preach rather than teach? First, working for Jackson isn't the same as saying he is the second coming of Malcolm X, Emma Goldman, and Che Guevara. Jackson is imperfect. Big surprise.

Second, what other candidate has discussed the class, race, gender, and political factors causing contemporary oppressions? As president, a Babbitt or a Simon would achieve less than a quack applying Band-Aids to cancers. However pleasant Simon and the other simpletons might seem, the rich bastards who buy and sell these opportunists prefer that they enlarge income inequality, nourish the Cold War, promote Third World interventions, impede social justice, and despoil the ecology. The result: in the U.S. the homeless must subsist on food from garbage cans eaten with cats and rats as dinner partners. Abroad: far worse. Does anyone think Lee lacocca cares?

Perhaps when leftists were worried about Reagan's rule, there was a plausible argument for aiding decrepit liberals. But with Reagan not only brain-dead but almost off the public stage, it is time to get back to basics. Okay, you say, so we shouldn't support a stretch limo point-man like the Duke. Why should we support Jackson, and how much?

To answer, we must recognize that Jesse Jackson's politics and position derive from decades of civil rights, antiwar, gay rights, feminist, labor, and populist movement activism. True, he was not hand-picked by a fair ballot of all members of any mass movement. True, members of these movements have preferences Jackson doesn't meet. True, the electoral process provides an inhospitable haven for seekers of social change and tends to warp them to its image. But because of Jackson's roots, the constituencies he serves, the hopes he arouses, and especially his links to activism, in 1988 the Jackson campaign has a potential to expand consciousness, promote alliances, and alter institutions. Hell, it is already doing it.

Moreover, though the importance of Jackson's campaign for galvanizing the Black community is substantial, the campaign's power extends farther. The poor whites Jackson addresses have many class insights but lack clear consciousness about racism, the Cold War, sexism, and capitalism. By aligning a part of white working-class America with people of color and challenging everyone in the coalition to develop deeper understanding, Jackson can help reverse these problems and wreak radical havoc with the political status quo.

Jesse Jackson is not an electoral Dr. Huxtable. The Reverend doesn't cross over by leaving his culture behind. Whites want Jackson to out-think, not out-joke, other candidates. Jackson's campaign can align a true rainbow electorate against racism, foreign intervention, sexism, homophobia, and multinational greed. Ambitious? Absolutely.

So when supposed radicals say they would like to support the Rainbow but dislike its candidate, they ought to be told that no one is asking them to love Jesse Jackson nor electoral politics. We merely want them to see that increased success for Jackson's campaign can enhance the security and fulfillment of people all over the world precisely because Jackson's campaign threatens the system the Tweedle-Dum & Tweedle-Dee candidates legitimate. Indeed, if Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Black South Africans, South Korean workers, Filipino peasants, or any others who will be most affected by the election's outcome could vote, does anyone think they would weigh Jackson's purported personality flaws against his progressive policies for more than a millisecond? For that matter, if the media communicated honestly regarding likely outcomes from a Gore or a Jackson presidency, does anybody think the focus of concern inside the U.S. would long remain bedroom banter?


Challenging Jesse Jackson

Adviser one, an old-line DSA member, tells Jackson, "Obviously, you must oppose the contras, but your method must be to argue that supporting the contras hurts `U.S. interests.' Wear your patriotism openly. Don't get moralistic. Talk realpolitik."

Adviser two, a radical economics professor, smoothly tells Jackson, "When you propose anti-poverty programs, you must show how your policies are `good economics.' To be taken seriously, highlight technical efficiency."

Adviser three, an aspiring campaign official, intones, "Yes, of course, but keep it all compartmentalized. It's fine to attend gay rallies and antiwar marches and to address farmers, but it will only lose support to mention gay issues to farmers, or economic issues to gays."

Finally, adviser four, a Rainbow Coalition grassroots activist, wonders, "Since we want humane international policies that always benefit recipients, why not say so? Since we want economic efficiency only to facilitate humane ends, why not put the ends first? Since we support comprehensive Rainbow politics, shouldn't we speak about AIDS to farmers, about farm foreclosures to gays, and about anti-interventionism to both?"

Even if Jackson's campaign would propose the same policies whichever adviser wins, their differences mark the difference between "okay" and "historic" for his campaign. For if Jackson's rhetoric promotes "U.S. interests" and "efficient economics," then by their implicit assumptions, debates about what does and what doesn't fulfill "U.S. interests" or what does and what doesn't attain "economic efficiency" will only ratify reality-as-it-now-is. On TV, McNeils, McLaughlins, and McSnoozles will nit-pick about the extent to which this or that policy can attain pre-established, system-supporting ends. In boardrooms, corporate CEOs and elite politicians will celebrate that the campaign's logic ratifies status quo goals. In yuppie clubs, Ivy League academics may even break out the coke and party since their credentialed opinion still matters most. Throughout suburbia, listening to the familiar "national interests" and "economic efficiency" sub-text, lawyers may be a little less horrified by Jackson's Black power and doctors a little less prone to want to amputate his head. But downtown, the rest of us who might have been moved to political passion by a focus on meaningful goals will only become bored.

Of course, if Jackson instead heeds adviser four, choosing to emphasize goals that benefit underclasses everywhere while fostering evaluation of the ethics of programs rather then merely their technical merits, yuppies may scream that the campaign is too moralistic. However, the rest of us will become incorporated into the heart of the debate, where we belong.

Indeed, to stimulate profound passions, Jackson should not only highlight ethics and goals, align with activists at every opportunity, and strive for solidarity among diverse constituencies, he should also criticize this society's monopolization of expertise. For example, he might militantly attack the arrogance of those who close off higher education by gutting lower education. He could denounce news coverage not only of the campaign, but of world and domestic events and show what an alternative would be like. He might address the dearth of public education and skills training for adults. He could propose plans for democratizing schooling and for democratically re-conceptualizing access to new technologies and information. He could elevate not only having a fair income, but also having a balanced set of work-day responsibilities and opportunities as valid aims for economic policy. In short, Jackson ought to address what the rest of us don't like about lawyers, doctors, managers, engineers, and bureaucrats. He ought to propose changes to undo the overly hierarchical centralization of specialized knowledge, to reduce the undue authority and wealth accorded it, and to reduce the pressures that cause people who have expertise to act so high-and-mighty.

If Jackson were to eloquently set such a context for his policies—celebrating knowledge but attacking its monopolization, celebrating intellectual work but attacking the fact that so few are permitted to do it—wouldn't the farmers and industrial workers who are beginning to respect Jackson surface their class antagonism toward their immediate bosses and caretakers? If so, not only would this highlight an important class struggle, wouldn't it also advance the trust factor of Jackson's campaign, reduce the credibility of his media detractors, and make every proposal he offers more powerfully felt? Media hostility would intensify, perhaps inhibiting short-term convention vote-snatching, but those who hear Jackson's message first-hand or via honest reporting would be more deeply moved and provide a far more motivated constituency.

In recent history, the only major public figures to address role-related tensions between professionals, managers, intellectuals, and the rest of us have been Nixon and Agnew seeking to arouse hatred for innovative ideas, not for unjust social divisions. Why leave the attack on intellectual bigotry to right-wing bigots? And why try to balance ethical consistency against sucking up to Gail Sheehy, much less NBC? Better to embrace morality and speak the unadorned truth to media lies. And anyhow, who knows how many honest intellectuals and journalists will emerge from the pressures of their competitive surroundings to actively support such an unusual effort.

In short, to decide the degree of aid and energy to provide for Jackson, progressives ought to ask: To what degree does the Jackson campaign focus on peace, disarmament, ending apartheid, withdrawing support from tyrants and redistributing international and domestic resources and opportunities, versus only buying into "Cold War" and "U.S. interests" rhetoric? To what extent does it elevate the enlightened moral opinions of black, brown, red, and white working-class communities, versus appealing to the monopolized expertise of well-placed experts? To what extent is each constituency Jackson addresses challenged to add compassion for AIDS victims and respect for gays to hostility to racism and sexism and anger about foreclosures and unemployment? To what extent does the Jackson campaign incorporate the otherwise disenfranchised into goal-determination, while relegating experts to providing advice but never consent? To what extent does the Jackson campaign ratify activism, recognizing that progressive elected officials, including even a President Jackson, can only deliver on their promises if militant movements prod their vision and propel their programs?

Jackson needs to coerce media respect by amassing unprecedented grass-roots support and by simultaneously reaching out to media progressives, lending to however many of them will accept it a helping hand in their uphill struggles to deliver honest news and serious analysis. But under no circumstances should Jackson try to seduce the media or academia by playing to elite prejudices, whatever his advisers may suggest.

Let's face facts. It was on the shoals of trying to win over myopic experts by being single-issue that the Freeze withered away, fumbling massive national concern about the dangers of war. It was by substituting starring on the seven o'clock news in photogenic pre-arranged dinner-jacket civil disobedience for creating sustained community-based opposition that the early anti-apartheid movement temporarily dissipated its own potentials. And it was (and is) in pursuit of media respectability that countless social-democratic electoral campaigns sacrifice worker participation and grassroots excitement to coordinator administration. A simple rule emerges: Political excitement and integrity dissipate proportionately to efforts to coax a blessing from mainstream media and academics.

Perhaps the most overlooked insight about the left in the U.S. is not that it has suffered from racism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism—which it certainly has—but that in the last few decades, though there have been numerous national movements rooted in Black culture, women's culture, Latin culture, Native American culture, and gay culture, there have been none rooted in white working-class culture. Whether we are talking about struggles around contracts for particular industries, or around issues like unemployment, foreign policy, investment, or ecology, as local insurgencies have enlarged, all those that could have elevated white working-class values, aims, culture, and leadership before a national audience have instead been taken over by or catered to professionals.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of seeing that comprehensive politics and pro-worker culture and goals can eventually transcend the anger they arouse in "experts" and media. But part of it is also that too many Freeze strategists, too many disarmament funders, too many union bureaucrats, too many democratic socialists, and too many campaign officials are themselves ignorant of or even disdainful of working-class culture and wish themselves and their projects to be media-beloved, even at the expense of truth and political integrity. That Bruce Springsteen, a rock-'n'-roll singer-songwriter, is the nearest thing to a white leader speaking to a mass white working-class audience in a respectful but challenging way and, in turn, expressing and advocating their sentiments publicly is a staggering truth, which we ignore at our peril.

In addition to doing better than other candidates on critically important gender, sex, culture, and political issues, the Jackson campaign can also do better on class. Let's push hard to help ensure that it does.