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Eli Zaretsky
Eli Zaretsky
Eli Zaretsky, a professor of history at Eugene Lang College, writes and teaches about twentieth-century cultural history, the theory and history of capitalism (especially its social and cultural dimensions), and the history of the family.

Why There Will Be No Great Debate


by: on September 11th, 2012 | 7 Comments »

The Democratic Convention speakers did an excellent job of convincing the country that this is a “choice” election, pitting two rival philosophies of government against each other. And they are right in principle: the country does need to choose between conservatives who distrust government and put their faith in markets, and liberals who believe that government is a necessary counterweight to business. Rhetoric aside, however, we will have no such debate. To understand why, we have to look at the recent history of the Democratic Party, and especially at the Clinton Presidency.

The Democratic Presidents of the sixties, such as Kennedy and Johnson, were the children of the New Deal. Similarly, the conservative Republicans who came to power in the 1980 election of Reagan were opponents of the New Deal. Faced with a strong challenge from the right during the seventies and eighties, Democrats could have forthrightly defended progressive principles, albeit revised for changing times. After all, these principles had defeated fascism, created the modern middle class, ushered in forty years of prosperity and sparked the civil rights and feminist revolutions. However, the Democrats made no such arguments.

Under Bill Clinton’s leadership, first as head of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and then as president, they advocated and enacted a “third way.” This meant that they became pro-business, promising to shrink government, deregulate the economy, and attack “dependency.” Most importantly, they accepted the Republican idea that balancing the budget had to be at the center of the national agenda, abandoning their earlier view of the budget as a tool of national planning. The result was an effective fund-raising and election-winning strategy, but one that had two disastrous consequences from the point of view of a national debate.


Color War and Obama’s “Wink” Strategy


by: on August 29th, 2012 | Comments Off

When I was a child at camp, one of the summer highlights was “color war.” The entire camp, including counselors and staff, would be arbitrarily divided into two teams — “red” and “white” and then for a week would engage in athletic and other contests to build up points for a final victory. I particularly remember the intense discussions around the “bunk,” of how disgusting our opponents were — fellow campers who had been our friends yesterday!

Now I am not saying that the present stand off between Democrats and Republicans is exactly the same as color war. I recognize that there are differences between the parties, and like everyone else I know, I plan to vote for Obama. But I must say that the way in which my progressive and leftist friends are focused on how terrible the Republicans are does remind me of Junior High School. Having been in New York after 9/11 I know what it feels like to be in a panicky environment in which loyalty is everything, and I don’t like it.

What I am talking about is the need to think independently of Obama, even as we vote for him. An example of what I mean is the discussion of his now-famous remark about who built America. The Republicans made “We built it” the slogan for their first night, and the New York Times took them up on it, calling Obama’s remark “poorly phrased” and “deliberately taken out of context.” According to the Times, “President Obama was making the obvious point that all businesses rely to some extent on the work and services of government. But Mr. Romney has twisted it to suggest that Mr. Obama believes all businesses are creatures of the government, and so the convention had to parrot the line.”


Why Romney’s Choice of Ryan was an Inspired One for the Right


by: on August 14th, 2012 | 19 Comments »

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Credit: Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore.

In 2008 progressives and leftists swarmed to support Obama even though his program came down to platitudes like “Change.” After Obama became president and ignored the opportunity to lead the country in a new direction, leftists insisted that it was necessary to continue to support him. Now leftists are exploding with joy at Romney’s supposed mistake in choosing the easily attacked Ryan as his running mate. Perhaps leftists might reconsider their own credibility as political analysts in evaluating the Republican strategy.

Let us begin with the obvious. Obama cannot run on his record, since it is a record of failure. Therefore, he was always going to run a scare campaign, explaining how bad the Republicans are. In choosing Ryan, Romney has not made this easier for Obama — it was always easy. Rather, he showed that he is not afraid of Obama’s scare tactics, and of the Democrat’s ad hominem attacks on him — rich, unfeeling, out of touch, and all the rest.


The Secret to Understanding the Democratic Party


by: on August 9th, 2012 | 5 Comments »


Credit: Creative Commons/dbking.

A striking fact of contemporary politics is the emotional difference between the two parties. The Republicans seem to believe the ideas they advocate, for example, unleash business, lower taxes, roll back government. Even though these ideas are sort of nutty, they are nonetheless convictions. The Democrats, by contrast, lack core principles. They talk about “fairness” but they vote for the banks. Obama as a typical Democrat exemplifies this difference. He insists that the Republicans are irrational fanatics, and that the Democrats are willing to compromise, for example to cut benefits. Of course, there are Democrats like Bernie Sanders who are people of principle, just as the Republicans are full of hypocrites, especially around such issues as homosexuality and “family values.” Nonetheless, there is a difference that needs to be explained.


Thinking About the Election


by: on August 7th, 2012 | 4 Comments »

1. Fool Me Once: As the expression goes, “Fool Me Once: Shame on You. Fool Me Twice: Shame on Me.” In 2008, Barack Obama had a world-historical opportunity to turn the country in a new direction. Bush’s policies had led the country into a disastrous situation and everyone knew it. In the primaries, Obama showed that he understood this fact. He beat Hillary because she refused to apologize for her vote supporting Bush on the Iraq war. He argued that we needed a new mindset, not just new policies. When he came to office though, he continued all of Bush’s policies, sometimes even worsening their effects, as in the realm of civil liberties. Now he is running as a left-winger again. I don’t know how many leftists will be fooled a second time, but if they are: shame on them.


What’s Next for Occupy Wall Street?


by: on February 13th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Since its appearance on September 17, 2011 Occupy Wall Street has transformed the surface of political discourse in America. Few can argue that its all-too-telling slogans, dramatizing the contradiction between the interests of the 99%, and those of the 1%, have given an essentially rudderless president the overall approach likely to lead him to an important victory in 2012. The pertinence of class division, an idea essentially banished from American thought since the 1970s, has returned to a central place. The union movement has breathed new life, and a host of original issues, such as student loans, have moved to the center of our consciousness.


Police dismantle the Occupy encampment in downtown D.C. on February 4, 2012. With so many encampments broken up, what should be the movement's next steps? Credit: Creative Commons/thisisbossi.

So welcome has Occupy Wall Street been that some now argue that its task is complete, the message has been heard, and that it is time to return to the norms of everyday electoral politics. In fact, this would be a drastic error. What now needs to happen is that Occupy Wall Street has to mutate into a permanent, radical presence in American life. It needs a long-term perspective, not centered on the next election, nor on the economic crisis alone, but on turning the country in a new and progressive direction.

It is not often recognized that the country had similar movements from the time of the revolution until the 1970s. While such an independent left, radical, or progressive presence has sometimes been marginal to everyday politics, and has often been stigmatized in states of emergency, it has made its crucial contribution during long-term crises when the country needs to move in a genuinely new direction. There have been three such crises: the slavery crisis, the crisis over industrialization and the present crisis, which began in the 1960s. And in each case the country produced a vibrant left — the abolitionists, the socialists and communists, and the New Left, without which the country could never have successfully addressed its problems. These three lefts constitute a tradition, and Occupy Wall Street is the reawakening of that tradition. With that view in mind, I would propose two immediate steps for Occupy Wall Street and its supporters. In both, I build on the idea that we need to continue to occupy not just physical spaces like parks and public areas, but political and cultural spaces as well.


The Egyptian Revolution


by: on February 11th, 2011 | 38 Comments »

(a new People's History poster by Tim Simons)

The Egyptian Revolution is the latest, and most important of a new type of revolution that originated in the 1960s: spontaneous, bottom-up, decentralized, youth-dominated, non-ideological, non-violent, fueled by new media, and profoundly generative of dignity, media, social theory, and new moral practices. Predecessors include the French May of 1968, the Philippine Revolution of 1986, the East European and Chinese Revolutions of 1989, the Palestinian intifada of 2000 and the Tunisian Revolution of 2011. Unlike previous revolutions, made by parties and states, no one owns this new type of revolution, which is anti-authoritarian, anti-patriarchal, and even anti-organizational, at root.

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 was another example of this new, post-Marxist revolutionary wave. It seemed to come from nowhere, to be coordinated in new, polymorphous ways, and to represent the deepest instincts of youth. The median age in the Middle East is 22; overwhelmingly, most people in the world are young. Added to that, most are people of color. Given Obama’s place as the anti-war candidate, the person who called not just for a changed policy but a changed mind-set, those who supported Obama hoped that he represented this coming wave in global politics. No one could have predicted the wonderful news from Egypt but anyone who traveled and read and followed the media must have known that this sort of shift was in the works, and it remains in the works, for the rest of the Middle East, for Iran, for Thailand, for Burma, for Mexico, for Colombia and elsewhere.


The Obama Effect in Egypt


by: on February 8th, 2011 | 6 Comments »

All one need do to understand the Obama effect is to imagine that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney are still running the country.

Egypt, the oldest continuous civilization in the world, mounts one of the largest and most amazing outbursts of democracy that the world has ever seen. The United States — which has supported a police state and a military dictatorship in Egypt since the late nineteen seventies, to the tune of about one and a half billion dollars a year — hijacks the revolution by bonding with the dictator, his chief henchman, and both the police and the military. The usual means of dealing with revolutions are mobilized. For a few days there are gangs of thugs, a few leaders are jailed for a while, but mostly just stall them off, buy out a few leaders, talk a good line about reform, count on the inertia and fear and daily pressure that people face — half the country makes under two dollars a day — and just wait them out.

Do you think that American leftists and progressives would allow Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld to so obviously deny a popular and inspiring revolution in one of the most important spots in the world? Or would they not recognize that what Bush and his gang were doing was nothing more than continuing America’s disgusting, anti-democratic support for police regimes? Would they not call the former president out?


How Stupid does Obama think the Egyptian People Are?


by: on February 2nd, 2011 | 36 Comments »

Let me tell you a story from the 1960s. As so often happened in those fabled times, students at a major university occupied the university President’s office to protest a war-research laboratory. After a few hours, the President appeared and said “Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. You have really performed a public service. This is what democracy is about. I am going to study this question now. Certainly, there will be reforms.” The students stood up and began to disperse. Then one of them confronted the President: “How stupid do you think we are?” he asked. The sit-in continued. I actually don’t know what happened to the lab.

When will Americans stand up and say to Obama, “How stupid do you think we are?” From the first moment that the demonstrations appeared, everyone knew that everything rode on the attitude taken by the American administration. Every word spoken by Obama, Biden, Clinton and others would be scrutinized as to how much of a revolution the Americans would allow. Of course, the administration has constantly revised its position so as to stay ahead of the demonstrations, and to give the appearance of supporting the aspirations for democracy and freedom that are so palpable and moving in Tahrir Square, but anyone who thinks that that public face represents the actual American maneuvering does not understand history.


The Wrong Side of History


by: on February 1st, 2011 | 6 Comments »

Fair comment today on Al Jazeera

Fair comment today on Al Jazeera

I feel as if I know the young people who organized the demonstrations in Egypt. I am a Professor of History at the New School for Social Research, which has been connected to the forces of protest and revolt for almost a century. Begun by figures who were fired for speaking out against World War One, it welcomed refugee Jews from Germany in the thirties, sixties refugees and survivors, Samizdat East Europeans and Russians and intellectual avant-gardes. Today it has many politically-oriented students from Latin America, Japan, China and the Middle East. There is no litmus test, but the overall culture is on the left. Arendt, Foucault, Marx, Habermas, feminism supply the normal coin of the realm.

Last month I visited Ecuador. The occasion was a government-sponsored conference entitled “New Directions for the Left.” I had the honor of meeting many figures in the government. They reminded me of my students: young, smart, political, savvy. They are trying to build a government based on social justice, economic redistribution, recognition of indigenous rights, feminism and ecology. They identify themselves as a “new left.” In Egypt, of course, the mix would be somewhat different, with a strong dose of social conservatism at least, and a place for Islamism.

In 2008 I along with many other Americans hoped we were electing a President who could see the winds of change, and recognize that a new generation was coming into its own all over the world. At that point it was very hard to imagine that a young, educated African-American with a Muslim name could be anything but sympathetic to the aspirations one sees among youth everywhere in the non-Western world. That Barack Obama chose to identify himself with everything reactionary in American life, with the banks and the military, with the very forces that had put people like Mubarak in power and kept them in power for decades, this was a tragedy.