Labor is front and center in this issue of Catalyst. We start with Matt Huber making the case that for the Left to make any headway in confronting the ecological crisis, it’s going to have to shift gears. The twin pillars of environmentalism today are individualistic lifestyle politics and a call for reducing consumption. But after fifty years of stagnant wages and declining standards of living, working people are unlikely to flock to a movement that is calling for more austerity. Without a firm base in the working class, the movement cannot hope to achieve its goals, all of which will require confronting the most powerful elements of the capitalist class. Huber traces the history of the environmental movement, sketching its capture by a professional and elite stratum, and then presents a strategy for a working-class ecological movement.
Of course, it will take a lot more than that to get labor going again. Two of the constraints on the labor movement relate to its capacity, and the alignment of its interests. Matt Dimick argues that one of the main liabilities of the American working class is its excessive reliance on the state. Instead of building its own organizational power and autonomy, it relies far too much on the state to advance its goals. He contrasts this with the orientation of the more successful labor institutions, with the Nordic example being primary, where unions have taken on employers on their own.
But even if this is a more attractive strategy in itself, many on the Left doubt if American labor is inclined to follow it at all. One of the venerable arguments in the Leninist tradition is that employers are able to buy off workers in the imperialist core, passing off some of their super-profits from foreign operations, hence aligning their workers’ interests with their own. Instead of organizing against their employers, workers settle comfortably into an alliance with them. Ramaa Vasudevan shows that this is a hugely mistaken conception of the political economy. If capitalist expansion is supposed to benefit the working class in core countries, there was no better time for it to have happened than the current era of globalization. But in fact, while profits from foreign operations have been rapidly expanding, they have all been going into the pockets of owners and managers. There is no imperial labor aristocracy. Instead, workers in the US have been caught in the same vortex of declining wages and working conditions as labor elsewhere. The only place where a labor aristocracy exists is in the minds of a cloistered Left.
While labor might not have an interest in imperialism, the American establishment certainly does. And this interest has often led it to craft elaborate fantasies of its own power, its ability to fashion the world around its desires. No initiative stands out more in both its criminality, and its imprint on the establishment minds, than Vietnam. In the wake of its most recent orgy of destruction — the Iraq invasion and all that followed — they have been embroiled in a vigorous debate on an appropriate imperial strategy for the future. John Roosa reviews two attempts to revisit Vietnam, by conservative analyst Max Boot and historian Brian VanDeMark. Roosa shows that even now, more than forty years after the American withdrawal, its historians cannot draw the essential lessons of the defeat. So much the worse for the American people.
The movement against the Vietnam War was important not just for its impact on the American state, but for its spirit of internationalism and the underlying concern for the Vietnamese. It is the same spirit that today motivates so many Americans to support the Palestinian movement for self-determination. That movement was supported for decades by a large and very active Arab left. We publish here a translation of an essay by the Lebanese intellectual Mahdi Amel. The essay, written in 1983, was one of several responses to Edward Said’s landmark book, Orientalism. While Orientalism is viewed almost universally today as a landmark in radical and anti-colonial scholarship, Mahdi was one of many intellectuals in the postcolonial world who criticized it for its conservatism, its promotion of an essentially tribal view of the world. We intend in future volumes to continue with an excavation of socialist writings from the Global South, now buried under the weight of currently fashionable nonsense.
And finally, we offer an interview by Noam Chomsky on the current scene, focusing particularly on the rise of the far right. With his customary clarity, Chomsky points out that, despite the presence of an energized Right, the political situation today is actually much better than it was even ten years ago. It just requires a renewed effort to organize working people around an agenda representing their interests. Which brings us back to the issue of labor.