Monday, October 3, 2011

#OccupyWallStreet - Remembering the Port Huron Statement

On June 15th, 1962, a group of 45 students under the banner of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) released the The Port Huron Statement, named for the town in Michigan where it was completed.  The key figures in the creation of the Port Huron Statement was political activist and politician Tom Hayden.  Continued below the fold...
The Port Huron Statement, a manifesto for a generation of activists, outlined the challenges facing the nation at the time, many of which are still will us or have returned.  War, poverty, racism, social justice and inequality were all addressed in the Statement.  The goal was to effect a re-alignment of the Democratic party into a new Progressive party.

I think it's useful to reflect on the work of the SDS as we see the growing Occupy movement and how we, as a nation, might learn from the work that has gone on before.  Until the Reagan Regression of the early 1980s, the SDS vision was extraordinarily successful at setting the national agenda to relieve countless social ills.  The civil rights movement, the war on poverty and the protests against the war were all influenced by the SDS manifesto.

Here, then, are some highlights from the 1962 document that seem to resonate strongly with America in 2011.  I urge anyone interested in the history of radical progressive politics to read the entire document.
In a participatory democracy, the political life would be based in several root principles:
  • that decision-making of basic social consequence be carried on by public groupings;
  • that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations;
  • that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life;
  • that the political order should serve to clarify problems in a way instrumental to their solution; it should provide outlets for the expression of personal grievance and aspiration; opposing views should be organized so as to illuminate choices and facilities the attainment of goals; channels should be commonly available to related men to knowledge and to power so that private problems -- from bad recreation facilities to personal alienation -- are formulated as general issues.
The economic sphere would have as its basis the principles:
  • that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; selfdirect, not manipulated, encouraging independence; a respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibility, since it is this experience that has crucial influence on habits, perceptions and individual ethics;
  • that the economic experience is so personally decisive that the individual must share in its full determination;
  • that the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation.
  • Like the political and economic ones, major social institutions -- cultural, education, rehabilitative, and others -- should be generally organized with the well-being and dignity of man as the essential measure of success.
Economic life is, principally, a social life.  Economic interactions are predicated on social interactions, or they should be.  In the modern world, increasing stratification between the classes is making mobility and the opportunity for interclass interaction less and less realizable.  Therefore the modes of discourse between socioeconomic classes take on the characteristic of "class warfare."
The Society Beyond [the Academy]

The desperation of people threatened by forces about which they know little and of which they can say less; the cheerful emptiness of people "giving up" all hope of changing things; the faceless ones polled by Gallup who listed "international affairs" fourteenth on their list of "problems" but who also expected thermonuclear war in the next few years: in these and other forms, Americans are in withdrawal from public life, from any collective effort at directing their own affairs.

The apathy here is, first subjective -- the felt powerlessness of ordinary people, the resignation before the enormity of events. But subjective apathy is encouraged by the objective American situation -- the actual structural separation of people from power, from relevant knowledge, from pinnacles of decision-making. Just as the university influences the student way of life, so do major social institutions create the circumstances in which the isolated citizen will try hopelessly to understand his world and himself.
American's today sit at home and enjoy their bread and circuses (McDonalds and Fox News), oblivious or at least unconcerned about the world around them.  Am I being too cynical? I don't think so.  I think most Americans feel helpless as forces they do not understand and can certainly not control drive the nation to the brink of a New Depression.  What's can the average American do?  Do they even recognize the precipice from which the nation hangs? Do they even care?
The very isolation of the individual -- from power and community and ability to aspire -- means the rise of a democracy without publics. With the great mass of people structurally remote and psychologically hesitant with respect to democratic institutions, those institutions themselves attenuate and become, in the fashion of the vicious circle, progressively less accessible to those few who aspire to serious participation in social affairs. The vital democratic connection between community and leadership, between the mass and the several elites, has been so wrenched and perverted that disastrous policies go unchallenged time and again.
Disastrous policies are what characterize American democracy since 1980 when Ronald Reagan took office.  Without exception, our nation has pursued policies which have ensured that the rich benefit from the growth of national GDP while the great masses of Americans see their incomes stagnate.  As if to add insult to injury, Americans see large corporations and banks saved from failure by the Federal Government while they themselves are cast into the street as homes across the nation are eaten up by predatory banks in a foreclosure crisis we cannot comprehend.
Politics without Publics

The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.

Within existing arrangements, the American business community cannot be said to encourage a democratic process nationally. Economic minorities not responsible to a public in any democratic fashion make decisions of a more profound importance than even those made by Congress. Such a claim is usually dismissed by respectful and knowing citations of the ways in which government asserts itself as keeper of the public interest at times of business irresponsibility.

In short, the theory of government "countervailing" business neglects the extent to which government influence is marginal to the basic production decisions, the basic decision-making environment of society, the basic structure or distribution and allocation which is still determined by major corporations with power and wealth concentrated among the few. A conscious conspiracy -- as in the case of pricerigging in the electrical industry -- is by no means generally or continuously operative but power undeniably does rest in comparative insulation from the public and its political representatives.
This next section on anti-communism is especially poignant when you think of it in terms of anti-terrorism / Muslim hating.  Many, if not all of the attributes of the rabid anti-communist are found again, reborn in the virulent anti-Islamicist.  These are the same dark forces at work in America.

An unreasoning anti-communism has become a major social problem for those who want to construct a more democratic America. McCarthyism and other forms of exaggerated and conservative anti-communism seriously weaken democratic institutions and spawn movements contrary to the interests of basic freedoms and peace. In such an atmosphere even the most intelligent of Americans fear to join political organizations, sign petitions, speak out on serious issues. Militaristic policies are easily "sold" to a public fearful of a democratic enemy. Political debate is restricted, thought is standardized, action is inhibited by the demands of "unity" and "oneness" in the face of the declared danger. Even many liberals and socialists share static and repititious participation in the anti-communist crusade and often discourage tentative, inquiring discussion about "the Russian question" within their ranks -- often by employing "stalinist", "stalinoid", trotskyite" and other epithets in an oversimplifying way to discredit opposition.

Thus much of the American anti-communism takes on the characteristics of paranoia. Not only does it lead to the perversion of democracy and to the political stagnation of a warfare society, but it also has the unintended consequence of preventing an honest and effective approach to the issues. Such an approach would require public analysis and debate of world politics. But almost nowhere in politics is such a rational analysis possible to make.
Finally, the authors recognize the critical need to tame unrestrained capitalism.  The enterprise must be brought to heel and made socially responsible.  The inequality of power mirrors the inequality of wealth and income in America.  The SDS wanted to remedy that.
Corporations must be made publicly responsible. It is not possible to believe that true democracy can exist where a minority utterly controls enormous wealth and power. The influence of corporate elites on foreign policy is neither reliable nor democratic; a way must be found to be subordinate private American foreign investment to a democratically-constructed foreign policy. The influence of the same giants on domestic life is intolerable as well; a way must be found to direct our economic resources to genuine human needs, not the private needs of corporations nor the rigged needs of maneuvered citizenry.

We can no longer rely on competition of the many to insure that business enterprise is responsive to social needs. The many have become the few. Nor can we trust the corporate bureaucracy to be socially responsible or to develop a "corporate conscience" that is democratic. The community of interest of corporations, the anarchic actions of industrial leaders, should become structurally responsible to the people -- and truly to the people rather than to an ill-defined and questionable "national interest". Labor and government as presently constituted are not sufficient to "regulate" corporations. A new re-ordering, a new calling of responsibility is necessary: more than changing "work rules" we must consider changes in the rules of society by challenging the unchallenged politics of American corporations. Before the government can really begin to control business in a "public interest", the public must gain more substantial control of government: this demands a movement for political as well as economic realignments. We are aware that simple government "regulation", if achieved, would be inadequate without increased worker participation in management decision-making, strengthened and independent regulatory power, balances of partial and/or complete public ownership, various means of humanizing the conditions and types of work itself, sweeping welfare programs and regional public government authorities. These are examples of measures to re-balance the economy toward public -- and individual -- control.
A system, like that found in Germany, where the law requires labor participation in corporate governance, would go a long way towards making capitalism more democratically accountable.

Over time, the SDS became increasingly radical and by 1968 they had become engaged in violent struggles against the forces of reactionary capitalism.  But in 1962, they were still the wild-eyed optimists who didn't know that they couldn't change the world that America needed to lead the way.  I can only hope that the activists working in the national Occupy movement will take that view too, that anything is possible for them (and us) and recognize that a society in crisis is ripe for change.  We're just waiting to be led.  To forge a new way Forward for America.

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