Archive for the ‘national politics’ Category

Let’s Get It Together: A Memo to Socialist Alternative, the ISO, the Green Party, and Everyone Else about Bernie Sanders

Posted on 2015-07-14 by COMMUNIQUENEWENGLAND

[This is a bit wordy and dense but well worth the time it takes to read it.    Dear Fellow Greens, let us seriously consider taking the strategic suggestions to heart and offering a sanctuary for all the soon-to-be-disenchanted left-leaning Democrats out there—B.]

If we quit the Race to the Correct Position, cool off and shut up a little bit, we might actually get something done
By Jay Monaco
(Author’s Note: I am a dues-paying member of Socialist Alternative in good standing, but the following represents my own views, and my own views alone. It should not be interpreted to reflect the opinion of any SA branch, nor CAJE, nor the other members of the Communique Collective. It is not intended to be a challenge to democratic centralism or even to indicate the beginnings of a military coup. It has not been vetted, edited, or endorsed by anyone, which is how I prefer it.)
There is a prevailing notion on the Left today that a substantive intramural debate is underway between the parties and factions as to how best to deal with the frustrating Bernie Sanders campaign and how to address the swelling ranks of his supporters. This is, at best, an illusion. At worst, it’s a self-deception. The truth is, nobody is talking in any practical way about how to deal with the Sanders campaign or how to address his supporters.
Are we going to get serious? Do we want to?
What’s actually the plan? Does anybody know?
On one end of the spectrum, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have joined the bandwagon wholesale. Their general position seems to be that there are some positive things about the Sanders campaign, some positive things are better than no positive things (the usual), so let’s chalk it up to a win. We deserve to feel good sometimes. Don’t fight it. We’re gonna realign it all, man! Feel the Bern!
I mean, okay. It’s certainly tempting, but at the end of the day, the Power of Positive Thinking isn’t usually considered a legitimate political outlook or strategy.
The parties further to the left have primarily taken an absolutist approach of opposition. The campaign is bourgeois sheepdogging, Bernie’s an imperialist capitalist shill, elections suck, and Bernie’s supporters are a bunch of idiots, PERIOD. End of discussion, we win the socialism.
On closer examination, pretty much everybody agrees about the sheepdogging aspect, and most of us also agree that Bernie is a – de facto if not de jure – imperialist capitalist shill. The rest of the Leftist Champion approach actually boils down to the antithesis of strategy, a hollow declaration of dialectical superiority and a return to normal operations, whatever those might (or might not) be. This approach could even be made more palatable were it coupled with an alternative path forward rather than an embrace of crypto-elite obscurity, but it never is.
Somewhere tumbling about in the middle lie Socialist Alternative (SA), the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and the Greens. For those keeping score, that’s the two big Trotskyist groups aligned with the Green Party, a confusing, occasionally anti-capitalist party whose organizational acumen grants them name recognition even if nobody comprehends what exactly they’re all about.
All three of these groups should be commended for the adoption of nuanced positions on the Sanders campaign. After all, like most political matters that involve breathing people rather than mere ideas, this is a nuanced issue. There’s a lot of gray here. Any practical strategy that is to lead to tangible long-term results requires grappling with that nuance. Nuance on the left is usually a sign we are doing something right.
What has thus far proven difficult for each of these three groups is defining this middle ground, carving and claiming a particular slice of it. It started on May 5, with the ISO’s Ashley Smith penning “The Problem with Bernie Sanders.” The piece represents a concise, compelling, and effective summary of Sanders’ deficiencies, his betrayal of the version of left-wing politics that he himself espoused for decades, and makes the case that some of the end results of this campaign could be very damaging to the broader left if not mitigated. Her position (and by extension that of the ISO) differs from the dismissive purists in the sense that there is an acknowledgement that the electoral arena must not be abandoned, a recognition that some form of positive alternative strategy is needed, and no counterproductive desire to scorn Sanders’ supporters as feeble lost lambs.
This was followed, on May 9, by the Socialist Alternative position, delivered via Philip Locker, which was met with much more criticism than the ISO’s – even, in some cases, from SA members themselves. With no disrespect intended toward Comrade Locker, the critics can perhaps be forgiven for finding it confusing; the piece begins with effusive praise for many of Sanders’ policies, lightly criticizes others, denounces Sanders’ run as a Democrat while expressing a bizarre hope that he will change his mind about running as an independent after dropping out of the primary. After noting that Sanders is, theoretically at least, the furthest to the left of any national politician in at least a couple of generations, there’s a bit of a tenuous jump ostensibly connecting this notion with the importance of building mass movements, then suggesting that, for some reason, as long as Bernie isn’t going to win the nomination, he should be supported.
Yeah, there’s no two ways about it – it’s confusing. The party members’ complaint about the statement’s lack of clarity is justified. That said, the distillation of his view by those outside the party as an echoing of the DSA’s position is unfair. While it’s true that he does at times paint a rosy picture of the Senator from Vermont, the position he states is far from unqualified support. In character, it would not be properly described as blindly optimistic so much as cautiously, strategically aspirational. This aspect is most effectively stated in the statement’s final section, in which Locker calls attention to the fact that there is much opportunity in the present moment, opportunity which should not be wasted, and we should take advantage of the positive aspects of the campaign, mitigating the negative through sympathetic engagement with Sanders supporters.
You’re not alone if you detect a difference in tone but not much of one in substance. To satiate the masses demanding more of this (no), Locker and Todd Cretien of the ISO issued new dueling statements together. This serves to clarify the primary difference between the two parties as one of approach. The ISO adopts a negative (insofar as it is primarily denunciatory) focus on Bernie’s politics, the futile, dangerous, traitorous endeavor that is running within the Democratic Party, and they want to talk with Sanders supporters. SA, in contrast, adopts a positive approach focusing on Sanders’ best policy proposals, while also rejecting his politics, and they want to talk with Sanders supporters.
There’s a joke out there among the socialists that the difference between the two is actually that SA’s statement ends in a semi-colon and the ISO’s ends in a period. Sure, leftists aren’t known for making great jokes, but it’s not all that far off. One thing both have in common? Neither of them proposes anything more specific than “engaging with the Sanders people.”
Here’s the kicker – nobody actually cares about any of this. Yes, we care. I guess it’s cool that somebody does. But as virtually all the different parties to this “debate” have pointed out in one context or another, the left is tiny and weak. I would respectfully posit that we will remain so if we use ourselves as a barometer for the things the working class cares about or, even worse, if we insist on berating ordinary people for caring about the wrong things.
I mean, come on, how is this a debate? The only leftist actors actually attempting to answer the question at all are the Trots and Greens in the middle. But not only do these groups not truly seem to disagree on any major points, so much as tone, one more cheerful than the other, but there seems to be some hesitation in terms of moving on from the tonal discussion to anything specific. There are no real tactics being defined here, and surely no strategy.
This fact is underscored by the two most recent salvos in this riveting contest: the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins’ “Bernie Sanders is no Eugene Debs” on May 26 (appearing in the Socialist Worker, an ISO publication), followed after a bit of a delay by SA’s Bryan Koulouris on July 7 (“A Response to Howie Hawkins: How to Win Sanders Supporters to Independent Working Class Politics”). Both pieces are, in fairness, at least attempts at clearly-defined proposals, even if both fall short.
Both devote the vast majority of their collective many thousands of words to subjects on which they entirely agree, whether they’ll admit it or not. At times, it seems unclear as to whether they even realize this is the case. Each of the writers uses an ostensibly competing aspect of the early 20th-century Socialist Party USA, of which Eugene Debs was a member, to illustrate, as though in unison, the agreed-upon importance of an independent workers’ party. Both of them, vehemently and enthusiastically, consider the Democratic Party to be the graveyard of social movements. Both agree that there needs to be a “Plan B” for when Bernie drops out of the race. Both agree that Jill Stein, the Green Party’s nominee for president, has a major role to play in all of this. Both agree that the approach toward Sanders supporters should avoid condescension. Both agree that the present moment is an important opportunity for the left to seize.
Perhaps the most significant development to be found here is the fact that both, each after their own fashion, seem to agree that we need to be organized, politically realistic, and even (gasp) politically savvy.
If you searches hard enough, of course, you can discover a few emergent differences worth noting, although a few of them might actually be based in misunderstanding rather than legitimate disagreement. When Hawkins writes, “Unfortunately, too many self-professed socialists in the U.S. have abandoned the socialist principle of independent political action. They argue instead that whether or not to support a Democrat or an independent candidate is a question of tactics, not principle,” he sounds as though he is arguing with the DSA, despite calling out Socialist Alternative by name. Whatever the deficiencies in the SA position’s clarity, it is sufficiently clear that they have indicated no such thing.
From here, Hawkins launches into an exploration of the heroic Debs and his maintenance of principles rooted in strategy throughout his participation in electoral politics. Debs’ denunciations of the major parties sound nearly identical to our “two wings of a single Corporate Party” mantra, and his approach by running with the Socialist Party was sound and admirable. To this point, however, Koulouris points out that the SPUSA of Debs’ era was itself the kind of inconsistently leftist party prone to damaging compromise that Hawkins decries. So is, it’s worth noting, Hawkins’ own Green Party. In fact, the SPUSA was something of a left-leaning umbrella sheltering everyone from left-liberals to ultra-leftists. Many people held dual membership in SPUSA and either more radical parties or even, yes, the Democratic Party.
LetsGetittogether2
Koulouris does not suggest, as DSA members might, that the Democratic Party can itself be transformed into such a wide left-leaning canopy, but he does effectively demonstrate that Debs’ independent party membership is itself more of a gray area than some of us would like to admit. He points out that the “party also did not emerge ‘fully-formed’ as a working-class organization…it came about through splits in populist and progressive movements that consisted of farmers and small business owners alongside working-class people.” It is here, in particular, that Koulouris and SA have the edge and perhaps come closest to the heart of the matter. Their focus on Bernie’s best policies, the things even more of us agree upon, enables greater flexibility to “address consciousness as it actually exists rather than as we wish it would be.”
As I previously stated, both pieces are strongest in the sense that they aspire toward actually playing the game of politics. Things like analysis, intentional planning, competent organization, and even something as lowly as cleverness are required, not merely for victory, nor even merely for our advance, but perhaps it is required if we are to have so much as any hope of avoiding outright extinction.
Their mutual recognition that the current position of the left is one of marginalization, weakness, and diminutive numbers does not lead them fully to the question nobody is answering. That’s why, at long last, this is still not a debate. Posed seriously, the question is: What must we do to become less marginalized, more strong, and greater in number? The follow-up: How do we do those things?
Both Hawkins and Koulouris dance around the problem. While others outside of this exchange have suggested Bernie’s claim to be a socialist to be an important step toward normalizing the word in our cultural discourse, Hawkins is correct from a political perspective in recognizing the flip side, the harm inherent to confusing people as to what socialism truly is. He is practical about this, putting it forward as a necessary key component in any interaction with supporters who might be confused about the word’s meaning.
He is also correct, from the position of political reality, to scoff at the insistence held by Koulouris and others at SA that Bernie could be persuaded to run as an independent after the primary. “How can it be ruled out that if Sanders comes under intense pressure from his supporters he could be pushed further than he currently intends?” Koulouris asks. As though anticipating the question, Hawkins had previously written, “By trying to get Democratic politicians to say and do what the left wants them to say and do, the left has been engaged in a pathetic and hopeless attempt at political ventriloquism.”
With more refreshing political realism, Hawkins goes on to point out that such an independent campaign is not even logistically possible. Several states ban candidates from appearing on the ballot as an independent after running in the primary of a major party. In the states that remain, an effort would need to be started now to ensure a ballot line. No one is doing this, Sanders least of all. Hawkins here presents his party’s candidate, Jill Stein, as a central component of the political path forward, pointing out that efforts based exclusively around someone running in the democratic party might be hindering Stein – who is actually going to run as an independent candidate in this universe – in her efforts to marshal volunteers to gather the signatures required to get on the ballot.
Koulouris counters with tepid support for Stein’s candidacy, but a disinclination toward diverting time and resources to the Greens’ ballot drive when the Sanders campaign is garnering so much more attention than Stein and the Greens can hope for. Here, finally, we arrive at the closest thing to a brass tacks discussion. Here at last is a political disagreement. In dispute is which has greater strategic value, a ballot line for the kind of independent left party that both claim to be of central importance, or communicating with people where they are – in this case, as distasteful as it may seem, around a democratic primary campaign.
Getittogether1
The possibility explored by neither as they talk past one another is that both might be important, and with the right plan and effective implementation, both might be doable.
Further along these lines, Hawkins teeters between the brilliant and the obtuse:
“Some argue that we should just build movements outside the electoral arena for now, and that when they get big enough, an independent left party will emerge from them. Social movements making demands on the system are simply lobbying the Democrats in the absence of an independent left electoral alternative. An independent left party is needed so the Democrats are forced to respond to movement demands or lose votes to the left. Movements ebb and flow. A party is needed to keep activists organized and engaged during the downturns in social movements and provide organized support and perspectives when movements expand.”
Not only is no one arguing any such thing, but we have again the mistaken assumption of a zero-sum situation. Building non-electoral movements – recent examples being the nationwide minimum wage fight, Black Lives Matter, even Occupy to a certain degree – have, at this point, sufficiently demonstrated themselves to work a tremendous effect. Those socialists, in SA or otherwise, who advocate for issue-based mobilization, are not doing so instead of trying to form a party, or because they don’t want to form a party.
Sometimes, to be honest, I think it’s because they don’t know how. Hawkins, to be sure, has more electoral experience than virtually anyone on the Left besides Stein. He has undoubtedly been exposed to the finer points of the broader politics game, but little of this is apparent from the argument presented in his piece. I do look forward to hearing more from him on the subject.
Both Koulouris and Hawkins wrote at length about the SPUSA of a hundred years ago, but neither gets into the weeds of how we might replicate that relative success. The fact is, if we quit the Race for the Correct Position, maybe cool off and shut up a little, maybe even kinda get our act together, we can effectively reach out to Sanders supporters, lay the preliminary foundation for the long process of building that party we all say we want, get Jill Stein on all 50 state ballots so the Left is at least tacitly represented in the Big Vote, and maintain our ideological purity.
In other words, we’d better be careful or we might risk actually being able to get something done. And while I, sadly, have no magical formula to hawk here today, I do have some specific strategic and tactical proposals I would present for consideration and (actual) debate.
Selectiveness, Precision, and Clarity in Communication

Everyone participating in the discussion so far agrees that we should be attending Sanders events and talking with supporters. But what is our overall objective? If we’re serious about this, we shouldn’t be trying to convert the hopeful enthusiasts of relatively compassionate Keynesian capitalism into born-again Marxists. Not overnight, at least.
What I mean to say is, do we want people to listen to what we are saying? Do we want our words to be heard, much less considered? If so, we need to be deliberate. Hawkins and the ISO folks provide few specifics in this regard beyond the need to tell people that the democratic party is bad for the working class. Koulouris, on the other hand, wants to talk to them about a $15 minimum wage, a “massive jobs program”, socialized medicine, and rejecting austerity, with simultaneously presented demands that Bernie be better about police brutality and Israel and refuse to endorse Hillary.
Neither approach is sufficient. The SA approach guarantees that the audience will be confused, while the Green/ISO approach guarantees the audience will be bummed out. We’ve got to do better than that. And if it seems like I’m sounding an awful lot like mainstream political strategists with regard to “messaging,” that’s because I am. I don’t apologize. There are plenty of political tactics and methods which are inherently immoral or unjust, but most are simply tools, neutral but for the hand that wieldeth them.
I’m not talking about deceiving anyone. It’s just a matter of identifying the best way for our message to be heard and to have maximum impact. Since people don’t like to feel stupid or condescended to, we must not take a dismissive approach to their enthusiasm for Sanders. Since people don’t like it when their bubbles get popped, we can’t show up shouting about how evil the Democratic Party is or rail about how Bernie supports Israeli apartheid. Personally, these facts are of crucial importance, but it’s not about me. Our audience will hear these words and promptly tune out the rest.
In fact, because people tend to resent the feeling of being told what to do, we shouldn’t even be shaming people who want to vote for a Democrat in November ’16. “Vote your conscience,” we should tell them. “Only you can decide what’s right in the ballot booth. Just remember that real power, real democracy, and real freedom can only come from the people and the streets.”
Again, I’m not suggesting we obscure or withhold information – far from it. Whenever we encounter responsive people, we will be asked questions, and we will answer them simply and honestly – about Bernie’s foreign policy, the evil democrats, Marxism, whatever. We just have to see this more as relationship-building and less as preaching a sermon.
“Bernie’s a great guy,” should be our approach. “Aren’t we all grateful we have someone running in the primary to say all these wonderful things and advocate for all these popular social programs and key society-transforming reforms? It’s too bad he’s not going to win, though, and the other democrats are just going to preserve the status quo. We don’t want all this to die, though, right? We need a real, lasting movement to carry this on. Isn’t that what you want?”
It’s not a sales pitch for Sham-Wow or anything, nor is it a script to be copied verbatim, but it’s the kind of communicative attitude that will make people like us without realizing it – and consequently interested in what we have to say. Koulouris is right to suggest we need to discuss specific policy movements and working class causes, but we can’t rattle off 27 of them and expect anyone to walk away remembering any of it. Let’s pick three. Minimum wage is pretty good, an especially strong choice due to the recent successes in cities and states nationwide. Universal Basic Income might be an even better choice, given that it’s a more radical and destabilizing reform – and also because it is actually a much more popular notion than many people realize. What about talking to them about a support system for workers who don’t have the benefit of unions – which is most of them – a system that leads toward more easy unionization and democratization of the workplace? Rent control? Public internet? Child allowances?
We can legitimately argue what our talking points should ultimately be. In fact, that’s precisely the kind of debate I wish we were already having. It doesn’t ultimately matter which of our awesome policy proposals we choose, nor are we bound by those that Sanders is supporting. The key is to pick a small number of easily digestible concepts and present them simply, as though each were common sense (which they are, more or less).
We can’t try to be the evangelists of socialist conversion, and that’s an approach that rarely works in the long run, anyway. What we want to be is the people they remember when they’re in despair because the ride is over and Bernie’s with Hillary and the world is crashing down.
Maybe We Can Cooperate

Seriously, SA, the ISO, and the Greens should work together during this election cycle. We all agree that the Sanders campaign is an opportunity to reach more people than would otherwise be possible, and we also agree that Jill Stein’s candidacy is a net positive and should be supported. Working together, in whatever fashion or form that takes, we can track Sanders campaign events, ensure there is representation from the true left, and we can collectively determine where greater focus must be allocated toward pushing Stein’s line on the ballot.
Ideally, we’d go even further than this and embark upon some actual collaboration, where we meet together, plan together, form committees together, and resemble something of a unified effort. Maybe that’s too much of a stretch. Cooperation, however, manifested in a looser affiliation, affinity, affection, and broadly common goal, should be feasible.
If even this basic level of unity is not possible or desirable, at the very least we should coordinate with one another, communicate regularly, keep all the sister parties generally informed of one another’s activities and endeavors.
How else can a true independent workers’ party begin? Surely, we all realize that there are national media cameras at these things. If we put on a good enough show, they’re gonna eventually have to talk about us, which will boost our collective position considerably.
Get Their Names!

It’s important to recognize that party-building and political organization goes well beyond the warm and fuzzies of speaking truth to fellow people into the much less sexy realm of data collection. Besides straight cash, the biggest operational advantage the major parties have on us is their voter databases. They know who everyone is, where they are, how they vote, and how to get hold of them. Just as we lack access to their millions (billions, really), we cannot expect such a resource to fall into our laps any time in the foreseeable future.
One advantage of being in our insignificant little position politically is that we’re not even trying to reach the broad voting population. That’s years away. What we need to do is figure out who our people are, the ones who are sympathetic but don’t know it or haven’t yet made the leap or, maybe, nobody’s talked to them yet. For the next six months, all of our people will be at Sanders rallies.
It’s important to maintain perspective with regard to Sanders supporters and their willingness to leave the two-party system. I would estimate, optimistically, that 75% of Bernie supporters will happily, or at least quite willingly, vote for whomever the democratic nominee turns out to be. But the other 25%? Those are our people. We need to go and meet them, we need their names, email addresses, contact info, etc. I’m not talking about recruiting people into one party or another. If any of us find new members organically at Sanders events, that’s great, but if we’re showing up just to try to swell the ranks of our particular sect, we’re wasting our time.
It is here, as many other areas, in which cooperation becomes especially important. Let’s worry about who wins which recruits further down the line. For now, let’s share the contact info we get. Let’s experiment with ways we can communicate with the people we identify, be it through a Facebook group or an email list or some other more effective medium.
When the day comes, and it will, when our people experience crisis as Bernie drops out, we not only want the disappointed masses to know how to find us, we want to know how to find them.
Party building. It’s worth a shot
Tangible Resources

No, I don’t mean pamphlets about the dangers of the two-party system. I mean cash money, I mean people, and I mean food and supplies. I’m not trying to be flippant. We’re all limited on the Left, and I know that, but I also know neither SA, nor ISO, nor especially the Greens, are broke. Everybody has some money, it’s just a matter of it being spent where it can do the most good. Funds for printing original, creative, carefully-worded and visually appealing literature – preferably kept to one page – would go a long way if executed properly. Cash can do many things, of course, whether it’s purchasing food or coffee for groups of people we wish to reach, social media advertising, even to seed the kind of grass roots local initiatives that are likely to boost our credibility while at the same time, perhaps, likely to outlast the Sanders campaign and provide us a bridge to our post-crisis efforts.
All three parties have people, and we need them – dedicated, committed people who will sign up to cover events and follow through so that we have a substantial and noticeable presence, especially the larger ones. One of the strengths of the Left is precisely this relatively high level of commitment among party members. Between our organizations, we can find plenty of people willing to do the work. We just have to be organized and aware enough to get people where they are most needed.
Perhaps I’m biased, but New Hampshire itself provides the perfect example. Because of the first in the nation primary, a substantial percentage of the events Sanders holds in the entirety of his campaign will be held here. The state is geographically small and easy to cover, especially considering the fact that most of the events are held in the southern part of the state. Get up here. Get the money here. Everybody – SA, ISO, Greens, and anybody else who wants in.
* * *
Everything we seek to accomplish, from educating working people, to building the strength of organized labor, to running independent campaigns, to taking advantage of the campaigns of others depends upon action. We need not hesitate. Yes, we will screw up. Mistakes encountered through tangible efforts are inevitable – but preferable to paralytic inaction without missteps. This will be a learning process for all of us, but it’s a process that can’t begin until we stop talking and actually try things. We definitely don’t have anything to lose.
Few things, after all, are as likely to draw people into a movement, to gain their confidence and enthusiasm, than seeing that movement do things. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to be that movement, the one that does things – or, at the very least, tries.

Is Populism Making a Comeback

Several years ago I started writing this blog and decided to call it The Populist Farmer in honor of a movement from over a century ago that I thought had a lot of things right.   They were against big monopolies and for the small farmer.   A stance that I spend a lot of  time in Augusta supporting.  They were among the first national movements to recognize the leadership and contributions of women.   Definitely ahead of their time.

Well it seems that the big pols have figured out that this is a good frame on which to hang all their garbage.  In an attempt to once again bamboozle the electorate.   Don’t be fooled folks,  the closest thing we have to a populist in the race for the White House right  now is Bernie Sanders.   But stay tuned, Jill Stein is about to throw her hat in the ring.

In the meantime read this nice little piece that appeared in YES! Magazine recently.

Is Populism Making a Comeback? What You Need to Know About Its History—And Its Future

  
The 19th century populists gave us co-ops and workers’ rights. Here’s how we can build on their work to solve 21st century problems.

Fran Korten posted June 02, 2015

You may have noticed. In our political discourse, suddenly the term “populism” is everywhere.

In April, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid joined 5,000 other political leaders in a call to make “big, bold, economic-populist ideas” the center of the 2016 presidential campaign. Outlets as disparate as The New York Times, The Nation, Time, and Fox News apply the label to politicians across the political spectrum.

Elizabeth Warren, known for her fiery critiques of Wall Street, is termed a populist. Hillary Clinton has a new-found interest in economic populism; Bernie Sanders has long worn the label. Even right-wing firebrand Ted Cruz gets the label, and Bobby Jindal applies it to himself. As Robert Borosage, head of the Campaign for America’s Future, put it, “We live in a populist moment.”

The term populist harkens back to the movement that formed in the 1880s in response to the extremes of wealth and power in the Gilded Age. As Lawrence Goodwyn describes in his book The Populist Moment, farmers found themselves in perpetual debt at the hands of local merchants and corporate monopolies. Many lost their land. They decried the concentrated wealth of the banks and big business and advocated policies that favored working people over the elites. Millions were attracted by the idea of forming cooperatives where they could buy goods and sell their produce at fair prices.

By 1892, the movement had broadened to include urban workers and became the People’s Party. At their founding convention, they enthusiastically embraced a platform that included a progressive income tax, the secret ballot, direct election of senators, the right of citizens to create initiatives and referenda, shorter hours for workers, antitrust legislation, postal savings banks, and shifting the power to create money from bankers to government.
  
In the 1896 presidential race, the People’s Party made common cause with William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee. Bryan was defeated, and it looked like the populists had lost.

In fact, their ideas were only beginning to take hold. The next three decades saw much of their 1892 platform enacted. Their hope for cooperatives flowered in much of the Midwest. But they didn’t get everything they hoped for and they didn’t break the bankers’ hold on creating money.

Since the heyday of populism, many of its policies have been watered down and the flood of money in politics has eviscerated the effects of others. Now, the concentration of wealth and power is much like that of the Gilded Age. Americans are again awash in debt.

So we should not be surprised that populist ideas are making a comeback. We hear those ideas in the Occupy movement’s demands to rein in Wall Street and rectify our country’s extreme inequality. We see them in the grassroots opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows corporations to spend at will on our political process. And they are echoed by the millions mobilizing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The dangers of concentrated wealth and power have once again captured the public imagination.

The prospect of enacting a populist agenda is daunting. The power of Wall Street banks, giant oil companies, big pharma, and big ag seems overwhelming.

But the original populists also faced daunting challenges—cotton monopolies, Standard Oil, the railroads, and a financial system rigged against them. They came together, learned the issues, and shaped the nation. Now it is our turn to advance the populist call for economic fairness, real democracy, and a dignified life for all.

Fran Korten wrote this article for Make It Right, the Summer 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Fran is publisher of YES! Magazine.

Big White Envelope

A big white envelope arrived in my mailbox this week. I have yet to open it. Just waiting for the right time. The little logo on the outside says “Agriculture Counts.” Too true. Inside is the USDA’s annual Organic Farming Survey for 2014.

Now, I am a very little farm, microscopic almost but I got on this mailing list a few years ago because I felt strongly that organic agriculture in the US was being woefully under-counted. I wanted to do my, albeit small, part to reverse that trend. On the fancy postcard they sent me a few weeks ago it says this: “Total organic sales by farms in the US increased by 83 percent between 2007 and 2012.” Well I would say that their counting of it increased, more likely.

As you, faithful reader, well know I am not a huge fan of the USDA. I am not a fan of their burdensome, one-size-fits-all regulatory structure that is for sure. But if they want to count and tout organic farming I am more than willing to help them out with that. To contribute my small bit to the growing pile of data about caring for the land and feeding the people in a safe, sustainable way.

Anyhow, here is what the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has to say about it:

“IMPORTANT ORGANIC SURVEY HITS FARM GATES
January 9, 2015

On January 5, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) mailed the much anticipated 2014 Organic Survey to organic farmers all across the country. This survey is a follow-on to the 2012 Census of Agriculture and focuses exclusively on issues and trends facing organic producers. This survey was mandated by a provision of the Fiscal Year 2014 omnibus funding bill that NSAC advocated for and supported, and continues the data collection efforts on the organic sector that began with the first-ever national organic survey conducted over six years ago.

This survey is critical to organic farmers and the organic industry as a whole, because it will provide important trend data on the growth, trends, challenges, and opportunities facing the organic industry within the United States. The last time this survey was conducted was 2008, and by conducting the survey again with the same list of questions, NASS, policymakers and other data users (including farmers themselves) will be able to better identify developments and opportunities for growth in organic production.

To read more about the importance of data to the organic sector, check out our previous blog post.

The types of questions asked by the 2014 Organic Survey include:

How much land is currently transitioning into organic production;
Information on specific production practices organic farmers are implementing on their farms to control pest, weeds, soil fertility, conserve water and manage livestock;
Primary production challenges facing organic farmers; and
Value and price data on organically produced crops and livestock products.
This information not only helps the organic industry identify trends that will inform planting and other decisions, but it also helps researchers and organizations representing organic producers identify where additional resources and research are needed. Without this important data, organic producers are at a disadvantage compared with their conventional counterparts.

The data collected by this survey will also help USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) as it seeks to develop more organic prices elections for federal crop insurance policies. Organic price elections on additional crops will allow organic producers to insure their crops at the full organic price, which is often well above the conventional price. RMA also needs organic production data in order to establish new crop insurance products that are specifically tailored to organic farmers.

The survey has been sent to all known organic producers, exempt organic producers and those transitioning to organic.

Farms are required by law to complete the survey and can either complete and return the paper version they will receive in the mail or they can fill out an online version using the ID number on the mailing label. If utilizing the paper version, producers must return the survey to NASS by February 13, 2015. Producers have until April 3, 2015 to complete the online version of the survey.

The results of the 2014 Organic Survey will be available in August 2015.

NSAC encourages organic producers to participate by filling out the survey or by responding through NASS’s online survey portal, to ensure that farmers, policymakers, and other organic stakeholders have access to the most comprehensive and timely information on the current state of our country’s organic sector.”

So, if you farm organically, even just a little bit, I urge you to add your voice to the growing chorus of farming the way it should be!

The Green Shadow Cabinet Would Veto the Farm Bill

As President Obama signs the Farm Bill into law I am sharing this analysis of why it is not a great bill from the Green Shadow Cabinet.

The Farm Bill is the federal blueprint for the American food system. Due to pass into law as soon as this Friday, the bill does little to address poor nutrition, GMO and other unsustainable practices, and dangerous corporate control over the U.S. and global food supply.

The Green Shadow Cabinet have analysed the bill, and have reached the conclusion that it should be vetoed and replaced by new legislation with the wellbeing of farmers, consumers and the land -rather than corporate interests, at its heart.

The Farm Bill that President Obama signed into law will result in a very high level of hunger in the world’s richest country. It continues to promote a diet of overly processed food (or food substitutes) high in fat, sugar and salt that leads to health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. It provides massive tax subsidies to corporate agribusiness and wealthy investors rather than supporting family farmers. It promotes promote unhealthy food, monoculture and genetically engineered crops as well as confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) rather than sustainable agriculture. It slashes funding for conservation measures needed to reduce the pollution of our waters from these large scale, factory farming operations.

The power of corporate interest in Washington is evident throughout this legislation. For example, Dow has successfully lobbied to have a one-paragraph provision added to the Farm Bill that will reverse the EPA’s proposed decision to prohibit the use of sulfuryl fluoride. This is despite the 2011 EPA proposal to phase-out the use of sulfuryl fluoride as a food fumigant which was based on the science – and agreed with all of the objections brought forward in the complaint.

The push to level the playing field for smaller livestock processors and farmers slid backwards. There are only a handful of beef packers, hog processors and poultry integrators. Farmers and ranchers often have little alternative but to accept the terms and prices offered by the few, large firms that dominate the industry – terms that are often unfair and abusive (to both the farmers and animals).

SNAP (food stamp) benefits were cut to an estimated 850,000 households – mainly public housing residents – by an average of $90 a month ($8.6 billion over 10 years). This was on top of the $5 billion SNAP cuts agreed to three years ago (when the Democrats were in the majority in both houses) but which took effect on Nov. 1. More than half of those receiving food stamps have a job but their pay is too low to feed their families. Anti-hunger advocates had wanted to increase food stamp benefits by at least 30%; right now they provide less than $1.40 per meal per person.

Demand at emergency food providers around the country has skyrocketed since the Great Recession started in 2007, more than doubling in many communities. Much of the rise in hunger has been due to the sharp spike in unemployment – and under the meager so-called recovery, middle class jobs have been replaced by those paying less than a poverty wage. The Republican response to joblessness has been to cut food benefits (they will be more desperate for work if they are starving) and to cut unemployment benefits.

Many groups have expressed relief in the passage of the farm bill, noting that it could have been far worse. There are some modest reforms in the present bill. The Farm Bill does relink conservation requirements to the receipt of crop insurance premium subsidies. A number of good programs that were cut out a year ago when the farm bill was extended were restored – Beginning and Disadvantaged farmers, farmers markets, community food projects, support for local food systems, etc. But they amount to a few million dollars here and there in a bill that spends around $100 billion annually. Pocket change, not game changers.

The last time the Farm Bill passed in 2008, House Speaker leader Nancy Pelosi publicly promised the American people that Congress would never pass such a bad farm bill again, after a spirited struggle to reign in corporate subsidies failed. Pass it now, we’ll do better next time, she said. That promise was not kept.

President Bush vetoed that 2008 Farm Bill because it “continues subsidies for the wealthy.” President Obama lacks the courage to do so. This time around, the minor reforms to curb such subsidies were jettisoned in the closing hours of negotiations.  Instead of a $50,000 annual limit on the primary payments (or double that for married couples), Congress approved a $125,000 limit (again, doubled for married couples).  They also decided not to adopt the House and Senate-passed provisions to close the loopholes that currently allow large, wealthy farms to collect many multiples of the nominal payment limit.

Yes, the system of direct payments for commodities was largely eliminated (largely due to record high prices) but environmental and taxpayer groups claim that the new insurance “reforms” are largely a bait-and-switch effort that will continue giveaways to agribusiness and wealthy investors. Though there were some limited reforms to aid both organic and diversified farm operations, the crop insurance program is designed to protect, at taxpayer expense, the profits of large farms that produce commodity crops. It does little to protect small integrated farmers that actually grow food,

A proposal to cap (not eliminate) the profits of the ten largest farm insurance providers in order to free up funds to eliminate the cuts to the SNAP program was defeated 2 to 1 in the Senate – which meant that 2 dozen Democrats voted against it. Taxpayers take the risk under the farm insurance program while the insurance companies pocket the profits.

This Farm Bill highlights all that is wrong with our political and economic system. It continues the destructive and inequitable status quo. The debate was not over what was good for America, but between the needs of plain farmers in the mid-West (corn, soy, wheat) vs. Southern farmers (rice, cotton, peanuts). The well-being of the vast majority of Americans wasn’t a factor. Campaign contributions and special interests determined the decisions.

For all of these reasons, the Green Shadow Cabinet cannot support the Farm Bill, and maintain our call for full restoration of SNAP, A global moratorium on genetically engineered foods and crops, organic production targets and a fair-trade model for the U.S. food supply.

~ The Green Shadow Cabinet includes nearly 100 prominent scientists, community and labor leaders, physicians, cultural workers, veterans, and more, and provides an ongoing opposition and alternative voice to the dysfunctional government in Washington D.C..

New Farm Bill, Can You Say “Finally”

A pie about the Farm Bill circa 2014.

The House-Senate Conference Committee has approved the new farm bill.   This synopsis was obviously written by a Republican but read it anyhow.   This one’s good for five years.   We’ll see what it does and doesn’t do for us.  After two years of wrangling about it you would think it would be a monument to statesmanship, compromise and progress.   It most likely is not.   And no matter what it actually contains the proof of what it will actually do for us will be in the rule making and enforcement.

Here is the Associated Press synopsis, I have highlighted the parts I like:

— Test programs in 10 states that would allow new work requirements for food stamp recipients.

— A prohibition on lottery winners, convicted sex offenders and murderers from receiving food stamps.

— The end of so-called direct payments, government subsidies paid to farmers whether they farm or not. The payments now cost around $4.5 billion a year.

— A new revenue insurance subsidy that would pay farmers in the event of “shallow losses,” or revenue losses incurred before their paid crop insurance kicks in. That program might kick in sooner than previously thought as some crop prices have dropped in recent months.

— A separate subsidy program would trigger payments when crop prices drop. This is similar to current subsidies, though the new programs would kick in sooner, especially for rice and peanut producers. Producers would have to choose between these subsidies or the revenue insurance.

Stricter limits on how much money an individual farmer can receive — $125,000 annually on all payments and loans, when some were previously unrestricted. The agreement is less strict than either the House or Senate bills, which had put limits on how much a farmer could receive from individual programs. Language that would limit how many people in a farm operation may receive such payments was also passed by both chambers but taken out of the compromise bill, which would kick the issue to the Agriculture Department.

— An additional $5.7 billion for government-subsidized crop insurance programs. A Senate amendment that would have lowered crop insurance payouts for the wealthiest farmers was struck from the final version.

— A new dairy program that would do away with current price supports and allow farmers to purchase a new kind of insurance that pays out when the gap between the price they receive for milk and their feed costs narrows. The program is designed to help dairy farmers survive price collapses like they have seen in recent years. But it would not include a so-called stabilization program that would have dictated production cuts when oversupply drives down prices. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called that “Soviet-style” and pressured negotiators to take it out. He was backed by large food companies which said the program could raise the price they pay for milk.  (ed. note: but they didn’t, hurrah for them!)

— A new insurance program for cotton growers designed to bring the U.S. industry into compliance with the World Trade Organization. The WTO said in 2009 that Brazil could raise the tariffs on American goods because the United States had failed to get rid of subsidies the WTO said are illegal.

A test program that would allow 10 states to grow industrial hemp. Those 10 states have legalized cultivation but are unable to produce because of current federal law.

— Land payments to Western states. The bill gives the government authority to make payments of $425 million to states which lose tax money because of federal lands, mostly in the West. That funding had expired at the end of last year.

And then there were the real “down in the weeds” bits.  According to the WaPo “Page 881 of the farm bill outlines “Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling of Beef, Pork, Lamb, Chicken, Goat Meat, Wild and Farm-raised Fish and Shellfish, Perishable Agricultural Commodities, Peanuts, Pecans, Ginseng and Macadamia Nuts.”   You really will get to know where your food is coming from.   And that is a good thing.  And “A big deal for the Whole Foods crowd. According to the bill, “The term ‘farm-raised fish’ means any aquatic species that is propagated and reared in a controlled environment.”

But if you just want to read the whole 1000 pages for yourself.   Go for it.

The FSMA is Coming, the FSMA is coming!!!!

The deadline for commenting on the Food Safety and Modernization act is fast approaching (November 15th) and a lot of people on the interwebs telling you why you should care.    One of the best, most cogent arguments is made by Brian Snyder on his blog Write to Farm.    Here is the link.   Brian is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) and the FoodRoutes Network, with my home and office in Centre County, PA. I am also current president of the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations, which represents the entire agricultural community in the state.

But the main reason for this post is to remind folks to send in their comments to the FDA about the proposed rule making.   Do it!

 

Farm Bill, What Farm Bill?

 

So, as I’m sure you’ve already heard, Congress failed to pass the Farm Bill yesterday.    No surprise from this “Do Nothing” legislative body.    The Grumpy Old Plutocrats have issued press releases claiming that their only reason for failing to vote for this, usual slam-dunk, bill is to save the American people from the spendthrift ways of the government.    Here are just a few quotes from Rep. Steve King’s  (boy it must really piss Stephen King, the famous left-wing author, off to share a name with this right-wing dweeb)  press release:

 

‘A major point that is seldom highlighted is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or what is known as food stamps, operates like an entitlement program.  This means it continues on unless Congress acts to change it or improve it. “  and this is a bad thing, why????   And, can I say, I hate the phrase “entitlement program”  it activates the frame of lazy people (read:  Welfare Queens) feeling like the world owes them a living, or feeling “entitled.”

“Although some argue that SNAP should be removed from the farm bill and considered separately, the more compelling argument is that the farm bill, which has an expiration date, allows lawmakers to implement reforms to SNAP every five years.  Otherwise, SNAP functions like other entitlement programs where there are many complaints about their cost and drag on the budget, but action is left to academics and pundits to study and discuss on cable news shows.”   In my blog post “The 1949 Farm Bill Has No SNAP”  I explain why it is important to keep SNAP in the Farm Bill.   There really are a lot of urban people out there who do not get the truth of “No Farms, No Food.”   They see the farm bill as just a handout to rich farmers, which it is in many ways, but it is also the safety net a lot of small farmers need to keep farming.  The “specialty” farmers that produce the fruits and vegetables we all love to eat.

Here is an explanation of the differences between the original Senate and House bills.    Good luck figuring this all out.    I think about all this a fair amount and still find myself confused at times.

And in honor of “World War Z” being released to coincide with this continuing fiasco I refer you to an article in Grist that tries to explain this mess.   He talks about the SNAP cuts that the Repugnants want and the Demobrat’s issues with the majority of subsidies go to already wealthy farmers.

Here in Maine food pantries and dairy farmers are concerned with the continued delays of this bill.   If SNAP gets cut then the food pantries, already strained, will be faced with trying to feed even more people.   The Maine dairy industry may be in a slightly better place because they are making plans to go around the farm bill to help dairy farmers have a more stable pricing structure.

All in all this bill is a cluster f*ck and everyone knows it.    But we also, sadly, have come to expect and accept nothing less from our elected officials in DC.

Home rule is seeming more and more to me to be the only way to go.   Walk away, do our own thing, feed our own people and expect very little from our government, bureaucrats or elected officials.