On October 15, 2009 at an event sponsored by the Left Forum titled, “Debating Capitalists’ Power in the Age of Obama, Strategies for a U.S. Left” Stanley Aronowitz debated Tom Hayden and Cindy Milstein. It took place in New York City on October 15, 2009.
In this excerpt Stanley Aronowitz speaks first, Tom Hayden follows with a brief comment about the Port Huron Statement. We will publish more audio, transcripts, and photographs remembering Stanley Aronowitz another time.
(Maurice Pinzon was at the event for New York News Network and recorded it. Transcript by New York News Network)
Stanley Aronowitz: I made my first street corner speech at the age of 17 and I guess I was good enough that I was then known as somebody who was a good warmup speaker. So, I think I should be understood tonight as a warmup speaker, for the other two who are, who are here. But I will have a few things to say for myself.
In the last year, we have witnessed something that might be described as a coup, in the United States. The financial sector, the leading banks, have combined with the military, who were there already, to essentially hijack a very, very large piece of our public legacy.
They managed to get $700 billion from the Bush administration and they matched that with the same amount from the Obama administration, and the Obama administration dutifully, dutifully appointed one of them, Timothy Geithner, who the AP has just reported, based on his voicemail, regularly has daily conversations with the CEO of Goldman Sachs, of Citibank, and JP Morgan Chase, who are really his closest advisers.
We have a Chair of the Council of Economic Economic Council, Larry Summers, who never had an original idea in his life, but managed to become the president of Harvard University, which, by the way, is no commentary on anything.
And what we have to understand is that these institutions have not only robbed us of our money, taxpayers’ money, and are getting ready to pay each other billions upon billions of dollars. But they’ve also managed, miraculously, to set an agenda for the national debate, which virtually excludes what at one time would have been the center of the conversation. That 15% of Americans are out of work, that the official figures absolutely understate what’s going on, that the economy is in a tailspin. That the chances of recovery in terms of jobs and income are virtually nil. And yet they are declaring a recovery. And now they’re using a term, which I was one of the people who coined, the jobless recovery, as if we should be happy.
This is a moment, at the same time when we stand at the precipice of what Pete Seeger once described as the big muddy. In Afghanistan, just as we’ve been in Iraq.
The bad news is that the displacement of these questions of the public commonweal has taken the form of one of the great phony health care proposals that has come out of Congress. It purports to be a universal health care program, but it’s essentially a massive giveaway to the insurance companies.
Now, why am, am I mentioning this. You all know this. Why I’m mentioning it is because the problem is that while there are significant assaults on us, on working people, on Blacks and Latinos, on the poor, on the Afghans, on people in the Middle East. While there are significant assaults, the response not just in the United States, but in most of the advanced capitalist countries to this multiple crisis has been at best tepid.
And the question that we have to ask ourselves, the most important question, it seems to be, is not that it is happening. Nobody in this room believes that this administration is doing anything, but essentially surrendering to the top of the, of the, socioeconomic order.
But why is it that we see the virtual collapse of the Left? That’s really the question. The virtual collapse. And I’m not just talking about the United States, where radicalism has been relatively weak for a long period of time.
I’m talking about Western Europe as well. There are exceptions, of course, in the Left Party, Linkspartei in Germany may be a major exception. Although, I think it’s really basically a left Social Democratic Party. It’s better than nothing.
But the difficulty is more complicated than that. We are in a period – and I’m saying this to be a little bit moderate. Where we need to question whether the politics of protest and resistance, the politics of reform on the other side, are any longer adequate to the situation within which we live. That maybe the time has come to build an anti-capitalist front. That maybe the time has come to do what Tom Hayden did 47, 49 years ago, with many of his friends, with a little help from his friend.
Which is to exercise the radical imagination.
The SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] did not come out of the liberal – it came out of the rebellion against liberal assumptions. It was a group of young people who had no hope of changing the world. Just as we may feel that we have no hope of changing the world. But what they did is that they set up, they set themselves up as a movement that actually proposed a new America. It wasn’t an anti-capitalist movement, but it, for that time, it was a movement of change.
And it was a movement of opposition. And we sat together, Tom and I, and others, we sat together. I wasn’t in SDS I was old. I was about four years older than they were. So liberals kept saying you can’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t do that. March on Washington? Against the war in Vietnam? Absolutely not. We’re going to hurt the Johnson administration.
Now, I have good news.
On the day after the president of the United States says he going to stop don’t – he’s going to rescind Don’t ask, don’t tell, tens of thousands of gays and lesbians showed up in Washington and said, put your money where your mouth is.
That even the somnambulant AFL-CIO has said, without a public option they’re not going to support the health care bill. And that today, there are health care people, single-payer supporters, who are engaged in civil disobedience. But they’re not only doing civil disobedience. They have said that without socialized medicine – let’s call it what it is, I mean it’s single payer, you know. Without socialized medicine, we do not have universal health care. And that really means Medicare for All.
And it means that we have to do something fairly radical in terms of the current debate. But we got to take direct action. Our situation is one in which without the direct intervention of people like us, as weak as we have been, and without the projection, not just of an anti-capitalist front, but a set of alternatives that will make life better for all of our people, as well as not only in the United States, but everywhere, without a militant anti-imperialist program, without a militant anti – saying yes, we want you to get the fuck out of Afghanistan. Just as we say get out of Iraq. Without the marches and the protests and the proposals and the activity, without that happening for people like the people of this room, we are in desperate trouble.
And I want to just suggest to conclude that one of the reasons that that is the case is that we have taken so many defeats since the nefarious Clinton administration. And I say the nefarious Clinton administration because he did the worst of any of them. Obama, in my view, is just a continuation, but he doesn’t even compare to Clinton. Anybody who would pass the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 ought to be brought before The Hague.
But since the Clinton administration, we have allowed ourselves to engage in one illusion after the other. The illusion that Obama would make a difference, for example, is not the only illusion.
But we have to strike out independently. Form our own political, political organizations. We have to become something of a, of a pain in the ass to the system that exists right now. And we have to begin to inspire people that there is a real chance that this system under which we live that everybody knows is rotten, can be changed, and we can change it by acting as well as organizing.
And I think I’m finished.
Tom Hayden: I want to be brief. We started late. I have to be somewhere by ten. You have to go home.
But I have to tell you, the famous Port Huron Statement of SDS was written under Stanley’s supervision in a railroad apartment here in New York City when I was about 21 years old, and even then, I was under pressure from the left.
In the first draft of the document, we did come out for a participatory democratic control of the engines of the economy, and all that. But the sentence that I put in, that was the subject of a lot of dispute, was one that endorsed the idea of free enterprise and locally owned business on a small scale.
Stanley remembers it well, still bruised feelings here, apparently.
But at the Port Huron convention, Robb Burlage from Texas, who lives here in New York and may be here tonight, for all I know, working on health care. We broke down into subcommittees on sections of this long document. The committees would work it over and then recommend amendments. And you’d vote yes, or no, on the amendments. This would go on for days and days and days. And we came to the economic section and Burlage gets up and says, we now have a new economic report, drafted by brother Hayden and amended by brother Karl Marx, and they eliminated the sentence about free enterprise.