Bob Fitch on Left v. Right

I’m not the biggest fan of Bob Fitch’s work, but this passage from an essay he wrote in New Politics—which Bhaskar Sunkara just forwarded me—is just splendid.

The aim of the Right is always to restrict the scope of class conflict — to bring it down to as low a level as possible. The smaller and more local the political unit, the easier it is to run it oligarchically. Frank Capra’s picture in A Wonderful Life of Bedford Falls under the domination of Mr. Potter illustrates the way small town politics usually works. The aim of conservative urban politics is to create small towns in the big city: the local patronage machines run by the Floyd Flakes and the Pedro Espadas.

The genuine Left, of course, seeks exactly the opposite. Not to democratize the machines from within but to defeat them by extending scope of conflict: breaking down local boundaries; nationalizing and even internationalizing class action and union representation. As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider wrote a generation ago: “The scope of labor conflict is close to the essence of the controversy.” What were the battles about industrial and craft unionism; industry wide bargaining sympathy strikes, he asked, but efforts to determine “Who can get into the fight and who is excluded?”


  1. jonst June 14, 2013 at 11:03 am | #

    and exactly who–how many–are left in the “Genuine Left”….in a position of even relative power…local or otherwise? What are we talking about here?

  2. edward scott June 14, 2013 at 12:32 pm | #

    I’m not convinced that’s true – anymore. The right has a firm grasp on macro levels, as well as low.
    The beauty of a federal government was no local tyranny could dominate other local tyrannies, so National laws tended towards the general good; that is till interests corrupted the National level and even the world level , as is the present reality, evidenced by the transubstantiating of corporations to super people having more tax, investing, capital and government support than real people while enjoying less responsibility.
    This is the primary issue of our day. I can’t agree that the right wishes only to restrict the scope of class conflict; rather the right wishes to characterize class conflict as non-applicable prejudice.

  3. William Neil June 14, 2013 at 12:44 pm | #

    I would think what was just posted would intrigue Gar Alperovitz and what he has laid out for us in “What Then Must We Do?”

    It’s a book well worth a read, about what the “high ground” of strategy and tactics ought to be for the American left at this moment when the traditional means of the left of “inside/outside” pressure and politics don’t seem to have worked.

    Alperovitz does seem to lean to the quiet transformation strategy of worker controlled businesses, co-operatives, transformation of some “commanding heights” nexuses, like banking and power, but he doesn’t rule out taking what he sees as slowly building up from the local and state levels and giving it a push with new national policies.

    I hope to do a more formal review sometime soon, but for now, I have to wonder, prodded by this posting (and I haven’t seen E.E. Schattschneider’s name appear in many years, decades even) about the following:

    History doesn’t seem to be much of a guide for Alperovitz, not the Agrarian revolt, the Progressive era, the New Deal or the War on Poverty. All aimed too low or were the result of immediate economic crises in capitalism which passed; none dared a core transformation of the relation of workers to owners and capital…interestingly enough, he does not discuss those programs – agrarian and from formal labor in the 1939-1941 period which actually went the furthest in his directions…but did not gain traction….despite arguably more favorable ideological winds.

    Are his suggestions too passive for the level of pain which he says will drive the slow transformations? I know a lot of democrats sitting comfortably in office who would rather deal with Alperowitz than a new Walter Reuter which of course we don’t have…

    I still can’t help but think that at least part of the strategic and tactical “high ground” will remain pushing for a genuine living wage of, using Dean Baker’s courageous work – of between 16-21 dollars per hour, coupled with a full employment program – is a campaign which, succeed or not – will illuminate what the Center stands for (much more of the Right’s program than we would like to think) and what the system will simply not countenance.

    And Corey, thinking about your recent work, I also have a hard time imagining that the American Right sits still if Gar’s strategy catches on: the Right is too tactically astute and “take no ideological prisoners” oriented not to see a core threat to capitalism in Gar’s sketch of what he’d like to see unfold. To put it more bluntly, would the business organizations we now see around us sit by passively as a co-operative banking and power movement spread?

    But no question, Gar’s got the right question in the title, and the book demands deeper and broader consideration than its now getting.

  4. William Neil June 14, 2013 at 1:23 pm | #

    Let me add a few more observations upon both Bob Fitch’s paragraph and Alperovitz’s book, on the topic of local vs. national.

    I grew up in New Jersey, a state of 566 local jurisdictions which have land-use powers (the power to literally create wealth by zoning for various uses), a notorious “home rule” state. It was the state also, historically, of powerful and corrupt urban machines: in Jersey City and Hudson County (Democratic) and Atlantic City (Republican). I believe there is a correlation between these local powers – given the state’s tiny size and 566 “fiefdoms” – I’ve made the analogy to German in the late Middle Ages – and the fact that the state lies between two enormous real estate drivers, NY and Phila – land and values to be created by what can be built have driven the history of municipal corruption in the state – and it’s a very rich history.

    Therefore, the reform tradition in NJ, in land use as in many other matters, does not flow from the local but from periodic reformers seizing the governorship, Woodrow Wilson being the prime example. In environmental matters, it was not the local governments in the Pinelands that saved pine forests and wetlands over the vast aquifer of fresh water, it was the state actions under Gov. Brendan Byrne and federal under Jimmy Carter which did in the late 1970’s. Governor Christie is reversing this tradition by smashing the state’s good environmental history. (and the Jersey office of Governor has some impressive powers built up over the years to get things done over the blocking powers of those 566 fiefdoms.)

    There is also a broader statement of the themes introduced by Mr. Fitch and I believe Schattschneider may also have stated it this way: the level of democratic participation, at least in the 20th and 21st century, varies inversely with the level of government: lowest at the muni level and county level, growing with state wide races and reaching a pitch at the national level.

    That’s another headwind of history that Gar A. must face, but then again, he seems to share a taste for the irrelevance of history along with William Greider in guiding us through our present troubles. We’ll invent something new to face new problems; after all, we’re Americans and no damn history is going to guide us – or hold us back.

  5. Marshall June 14, 2013 at 1:31 pm | #

    What he’s overlooking is that in local community there is the possibility of confronting the oligarchs. Most people don’t/won’t, but that’s a different problem that just gets worse with scale. When you enlarge the scope to trans-personal “class conflict”, it’s all about politics: coalition building, back scratching, demagoguery. Defeat the machine by building a bigger machine??

  6. Robbie Nelson June 14, 2013 at 2:24 pm | #

    I think Bob Fitch’s thought is in many ways right on the money, except I’d add a layer of complication. A good way to frame that is by using the conclusory ideas from Jefferson Cowie’s “Capital Moves,” where he lays out a central paradox of large-scale worker organization: Localities and communities can produce thick webs of solidarity for local struggles, but those local boundaries “serve as the outer limits of workers’ geography of social action.”

    We need international, large-scale organization and coalition building, but the history of social movements and labor struggle teach us that this is precisely the hardest thing to to.

    One of the things I find most refreshing about Corey’s work is how it de-fetishizes a tendency on the left to unequivocally celebrate the local while ignoring small-scale private hierarchies of power, but I think the conclusion to draw from that very Foucaltian idea is not to abandon local-based organizing, but figuring out better ways to hitch that power to larger coalition forces.

    • William Neil June 14, 2013 at 2:48 pm | #

      Good points Robbie; I like Jefferson Cowie’s work as well.

      It is certainly within the technological grasp of the left to come up with the means of computing, for each nation, a truly living minimum wage in the way Dean Baker has done for the US. Since the reason the US can’t have one (9-10 dollars an hour drops the whole discussion of missing productivity gains – labor’s share of them) is that the we now have an “international” labor market with billions of hungry grateful Asians keeping wages low is what is advanced, along with the game of pitting the middle class against workers ( a higher retail minimum wage for example, will raise the price of everyone’s good’s/cost of living – as would a rise in Asian wages) only serves to point out the eye-opening potential of this needed large debate. Win or lose them, it certainly clarifies the stakes… I think these are national and international level discussions, but who knows where they lead at the more localized level. The mobility of capital, so important in Cowie’s work, calls for a debate about trade rules, banking and finance, tax havens and sheltering….are these pathways at odds with developing the type of co-operatives Alperovitz cites in Cleveland, born of the city’s de-industrialization and abandonment by modern economic forces, leaving locals to a sink-or-swim desperate attempts to cobble together their own economy…very hard work, does it lead to turning away from what I’ve just sketched out?

  7. William Dueck June 14, 2013 at 6:47 pm | #

    How rich and interesting. So in order to be approved by Messrs Fitch and Robin, we must be “genuine”. And please tell us, what is “genuine” here? Who defines it? Surely not someone who wrote a whole book about “reactionaries” in which he never once dared to understand what makes someone see the world differently than himself. Surely not someone whose quoted text above shows instant left-elevation and right-denigration, all pregnant with insecurity, tribalism, and other distractions from social aggregation and the impulse to get along with one’s neighbors.

    No, instead, let’s just identify everyone who isn’t “genuine left,” and then round them up for imprisonment and/or extermination. When we feel really, truly generous, we can install a “correctional curriculum” in the prison system, and force-feed “genuine left” dogma and require an oath of obeisance to avoid the death sentence being carried out.

    I think that sounds a treat. A quick shorthand would be, if you’re not teaching at some 4th tier college and self-identifying as not-reactionary, you’re not “genuine left.”

    The irony of being a full-on reactionary yourself, while pretending to criticize those whom you’ve labelled as “reactionary,” that’s fine comedy — though, I’m sure, unintentional.

    • Everythings Jake June 14, 2013 at 9:29 pm | #

      Hmmm, Ian Welsh was right. “Shoo.”

      • William Dueck June 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm | #

        Ian Welsh? Correct?

        I’m not sure what he’s correct about, Mister Bacharach. And I doubt you’ll share, being as smug and confident in that smugness’s rectitude as you are.

        Upon independent examination, I discover things pointing to an obvious conclusion here: Ian Welsh gets one thing correctly, and that’s the auto-dating of his blog posts. The software correctly applies the proper date. So count that in his favor.

        But “shoo”? Really? That’s the reasoned, defensible, intellectually airtight couter?

        I guess if someone says something that Crosses The Party Boundary, he must be “shoo”-ed off, since there is little self-confidence in the Party Rhetoric or the Party Collective Mind and any questions must be treated as mortal threats to the Party’s very existence. Yes, that’s quite clear. Thank you.

        And thank you, Mister Robin, for your part in this smug wagon-circling and own-back-patting. I remain impressed by the durability of your self-imposed intellectual blindness. It’s quite stunning. Remarkable. Perhaps you’ll spawn some followers among the mushminded adolescents who take your classes!

  8. BillR June 14, 2013 at 8:00 pm | #

    The French philosopher and commentator Gilles Deleuze reduced the issue of “what it means to be Left” and “not Left” to a matter of “perception”.

  9. debmeier June 14, 2013 at 8:57 pm | #

    I think it’s useful to have this argument laid out, so we can carefully examine this theory–is it right, wrong or sometimes yes and sometimes no? I fear a world where most decisions that affect my life are made by people with little investment in the local world they are “representing”.

    • William Neil June 19, 2013 at 12:47 pm | #

      Hi Deb, if you are the well know educational reformer, whom I met many, many years ago at a New Year’s eve gathering in NY City.

      This local/national tension is a big important question and I think the drift on the left is towards the local, reinforced by all the environmental/ecological thinking that bends, rightly or wrongly towards the local.

      But as we are “celebrating” the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in just a week or so, let’s remember what came after the Union’s victory and the freeing of the slaves. A failed reconstruction of the South; the triumph of the Civil Rights movement many decades later is inconceivable without the powerful role of the federal government, not to take anything away from the southern roots, the indigenous courage of the black church and civil rights organizations of the South.

      Let me also summon up some of my other experiences of the local/national from New Jersey history, something Gar. A does by pointing out the success of a community group in trying to hold the world of Newark, NJ together in the wake of the riots and de-industrialization. Newark has some other well known non-profit community groups, and I knew one in Trenton, NJ – Isles – which got started with community gardens and housing rehabilitation. Books have been written, many volumes, about successful community organizations (let me also cite the People’s Independent Coaltion from the 1970’s in New Brunswick, NJ, one of the savviest I’ve ever known, and very political engaged.

      Now I had this conversation with the head of Isles when I was an environmental leader in NJ in the 1990’s: and thinking of all these fine organizations with multiple goals, not always in the same policy areas, but all striving to keep heads above the waters in America’s older urban places: they never came together in a broad national movement which could connect them to the broader forces in the economy and society…America never got the “urban Marshall program” that Henry Richmond of 1,000 Friends of Oregon was urging, and which I personally urged upon the Sect. of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, when I had the fleeting chance to catch his ear. I never got a reply…and the nation never rose to the occasion…

      So many fine people, so many fine local efforts, with much good done, but the overall state of older urban America…well, I don’t have to spell that out for this audience.

      Let’s fast forward to the mortgage crisis and the Wall Street powers, another way of looking at the local/national tension. When the Wall Street banks and the mortgage “originators” (like Angelo Mozilla) were at the peak of their came – the mortgages and all their flaws – became part of a great “assembly line” of financialization – and as they passed from hand to hand and turned in MBS’s and other exotic investment instruments, every time they changes hands – maybe six times – NY law required very exacting procedures to document the changing owners – and the county recording offices were supposed to collect fees…Now the great banks and others in this chain didn’t want this old colonial and local tradition to continue – they wanted a centralized electronic platform that they would control and they wanted to avoid the fees to local govts, and so they invented MERS – the Mortgage Electronic Registry System.

      They never got Congressional authorization or a new law except in one state – Minn. – and most folks – citizens and elected officials don’t know this happened. There has been no concerted effort to overturn this or roll it back: some legal pushback from CA, MA and NC…

      So I put this out: a failed Urban restoration program from the “left” and a successful economic and poltical coup from the Right…to consider in the great local vs. national power and effectiveness debate.

      • Marshall June 19, 2013 at 6:01 pm | #

        Let’s recall that the “Union Victory” was a Federal project that indeed failed to set the captives free. To the extent that that was ever a goal, evidently it was the wrong method.

        Your previous comment was that New Jersey is caught between New York and Philadelphia, and there’s the problem in a nutshell: how the local can be allowed to be local. Pine Barrens, good example. (If the slaves and the plantation owners could have been left to themselves, without the ability to rely on external supporting structures, perhaps a different solution would have emerged.)

  10. Blinkenlights der Gutenberg June 15, 2013 at 5:35 am | #

    The difficulty we have now is that worker organization even on the national level is not enough. Global capital pits nation-states against one another, forcing them to compete for investment. A truly _global_ labor movement is necessary.

    • William Neil June 16, 2013 at 10:08 am | #


      I agree, but to link that with some of the other comments on the broad theme here of local/vs. centralization, if you think about the old union movement in America, especially at its height, it was driven by powerful actors in central contracts in autos, steel, textiles, mining…and so forth…but their were always locals, and their independent wildcat strikes caused a lot a trouble; others says that right to strike, once ceded, was the beginning of the death knell for the autonomy and effectiveness of unions.

      Will there be a new “ideology,” to supply profound passion and drive and coherence, and will it be better than the older ones which supply today such a sense of caution on how we go about things?

      Let me add a personal note and a recent front page story in the NY Times this past week. A woman in Oregon, I believe, finally unpacked some Halloween decorations she had purchased from K-Mart in the fall of 2011. Inside she found a handwritten letter, a plea from help from someone forced to work inside one of China’s prison-re-education factories. The hope was that a consumer in the West would discover the letter and publicize it and the horrible conditions in the prison-labor system. Well, there’s so much in this story that can bear upon the universal and local, but I’ll let it rest to say that most of us are caught up now in a great chain of production/consumption, a vast arc from the factories in the East to the consumption in the West and it raises all the old questions from the 19th and earlier 20th century in a new context.

      It’s more than an interesting story for me; I work in one of the great retail chains, by necessity, and spent a good part of last fall unpacking just such Halloween decorations, and wondering whether the people that made them had any idea of that event here in the US and also wondering just what their lives were like.

      Michael Lewis – some might say “of all people” – who writes so well about Wall Street – recently reviewed a book about “the street” in London for the NYR of Books. He wondered aloud what might fill the huge ideological vacuum left between his unhappy description of where the last labor govt had left Great Britain just before Thatcher’s rise, and all the destructions, at many levels, not just material, that 30 years of “unleashed” market forces had wrought, bringing us up to the novel which sketched life in Britain today.

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