Veteran activist Van Jones' appointment by Barack Obama raises old questions about working inside the system, says Todd Chretien.
March 25, 2009 | Issue 693
VAN JONES, one of the Bay Area's most important activist leaders and a well-known progressive voice nationally, has been appointed to serve in the Obama administration as "green jobs czar," charged with developing policies for federal investment in environmentally sustainable economic projects.
While many have hailed Jones' appointment as good news for environmental policy, it poses an old question for the left--about the role of activism, and the relationship between social movements and state power.
Jones himself raised this concern in a March 16 interview with GreenBiz.com in which he said, "When Nelson Mandela came out and the ANC took over, people left the townships and went into parliament, and the movement politics and the township politics really suffered. I think that it had a negative impact."
Jones went on to say that he was "not concerned" about something similar happening as a result of his own appointment because the movement was "growing" and he could be replaced.
But, of course, any serious comparison of the strength of the South African freedom movement and the state of the American grassroots left makes it clear that if South Africa's social movements could be drained of their strength in the townships by joining the government, that danger is only greater here because the movement is weaker organizationally.
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IN A March 11 interview with Cy Musiker on KQED radio, Jones said, "What's good for the environment is a job. Solar panels don't put themselves up, and wind turbines don't manufacture themselves."
Jones popularized these ideas in his best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. The book is filled with ideas for reforming the economy in order to maximize job creation, especially for inner cities devastated by unemployment and racism, and reduce the free market's destruction of the environment. It has won praise from many quarters, including activists like Winona LaDuke, and it even boasts an introduction by Al Gore.
The fact that Barack Obama chose Jones to work in his administration is a welcome sign of his break with the know-nothing, oil-drenched policies of his predecessor.
Like the appointment of Hilda Solis as labor secretary, Jones' selection partially reflects Obama's belief in the need to restore labor to having some voice in government and to address the escalating environmental crisis--as well as a basic recognition that he owes his victory to pro-labor, pro-environment voters.
This, of course, has provoked the ranting of crackpot right-wing talk show hosts like Michael Savage, who called Jones a "thug from the gutters of the Bay Area," appointed by "Barack Hussein Obama" to create a "personal army of, not Brown shirts, but Green shirts."
This type of racist blather, no less dangerous for its delusional paranoia, must be squarely denounced and Jones, not to mention Obama, should be forthrightly defended from these forces.
But that doesn't change the fact that Jones' appointment raises another set of questions which the left must consider carefully.
In the same KQED interview, Musiker asked Jones, "You've always been a critic from outside the system. I wonder if you've thought about what happens if the president or people close to the president ask you to endorse policies you're not completely behind."
Jones replied, "Well, that's the part of what it means to work in an administration when you're not the president. I will argue vigorously for the right answer as I see it behind the closed door, but obviously you can't have an administration that gets anything done if people take those fights outside."
This response raises the question of what is the most effective way to fight for and win thoroughgoing, systemic change: working outside or inside the power structure--i.e., the state and the Democratic Party.
In fact, Jones himself raised these same questions in a May 1992 essay written in the days after the rioting and protests that followed the acquittal of the Los Angeles cops who beat Rodney King. The article, titled "Notes Under Curfew: West Coast Riots Indict both Left and Right," was republished in May 2007 on HuffingtonPost.com in order, in Jones' words, to provide "aid and comfort to a new generation of racial justice activists." Here are Jones' conclusions in 1992:
These riots were not revolution; without revolutionary values and revolutionary organization, they were merely sharp outcroppings of the systemic chaos that social injustice breeds. But flashpoints of rage can never substitute for radical social vision or grassroots coordination...
Here, I am not speaking only of our political defeats, but also of our ideological surrenders. We no longer feel comfortable saying, "Feed the children because they're neat little people who deserve to eat." Instead, we say, "Feed them because it's an investment in the country's future economic competitiveness."
But when we base our arguments for social change on profit-mongering and American nationalism, we have already admitted defeat. By conceding the very terms of the debate, we may get a policy initiative pushed through here or there. But we leave dominant values unchallenged, and dominant institutions intact.
Thus, we have no real answers when racist juries acquit racist cops. Because we have already accepted the system that makes racism and police abuse necessary and inevitable.
And, having abandoned socialism as unworkable (or at least unfashionable), we no longer have a credible, well-developed, counter-view of how we would like to see wealth created and distributed...We must recognize that our opposition has become ideologically, tactically and morally bankrupt.
As we rebuild [Los Angeles], let us also build a radically feminist, antiracist, green and humanitarian people's movement--complete with a revolutionary theory that will both describe our dilemma AND point a way out...Let us build a real Opposition that can take down their paper tiger, once and for all.
Among other observations, Jones hits on three central questions here:
1. What is the role of the free market, and can we win social justice playing by its rules?
2. Do we need systemic, revolutionary change?
3. If so, how do we organize so our "radical social vision" can win?
These questions remain as legitimate today as they were back then, and Jones' political trajectory in the meantime provides a very good opportunity for examining them.
Here, the important issue to bear in mind isn't Jones' ideas "then and now," but rather the question of reforming the system from within versus revolutionary change as strategies for social transformation. From that point of view, let's examine Jones' 1992 conclusions in the light of 2009 reality.
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FIRST, CAN we rely on the free market to solve our economic and social crises? Given the financial collapse and escalating unemployment, it would seem that this hardly needs much argument today. However, while President Obama has initiated an impressive array of social spending (including billions of dollars for green jobs), he has spent 10 or 20 times as much money trying to rescue the profit-driven, private, market-oriented banks and credit institutions.
At base, the reliance on the free market holds humanity's well-being hostage to the narrow, individual, competitive interests of big business.
In 1992, Jones' argued that "we have already admitted defeat" when we base the fight for social justice on "profit-mongering and American nationalism." However, today, he seems to have largely conceded to this point of view, arguing on March 11:
You just can't imagine the U.S. economy recovering in the long term if we don't have more energy independence, more clean energy, a smarter grid, a better-trained green workforce.
What's good for the environment is a job. Solar panels don't put themselves up, and wind turbines don't manufacture themselves. We're maturing as a country. We're getting comfortable with all classes and all colors and all kinds of people.
Of course, clean energy and a smarter (that is, more efficient) electricity grid are perfectly good ideas. But "energy independence" is normal Washington-speak for the whole line of argument about national security (American nationalism) being undermined by dependence on "foreign oil."
Green jobs manufacturing and installing solar panels are also wonderful ideas, but if "getting comfortable with all classes of people" means relying on big business (which building solar panels will inevitably become if we leave the market to determine our horizons), then rather than creating high-paying, union jobs with real benefits, workplace rights and job security, we will see the new "Green Economy" go exactly the way of all other industrial sectors based on the profit motive.
Second, can we change the world if, in Jones' words in 1992, "we have already accepted the system that makes racism and police abuse necessary and inevitable"?
Jones has a well-deserved reputation as an insightful and creative organizer against police brutality, the mass incarceration of California youth and the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
He rightly argued that these problems were not disassociated phenomena that simply "happened" to be occurring at the same time; rather, they were part of a system that had to be critiqued and challenged as a whole in order not to excuse one atrocity in the interest of organizing to stop a different one.
Yet today, as President Obama increases bombing attacks and special forces raids into Pakistan, sends another 17,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan, plans to leave some 50,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, and continues to give Israel a blank check, Jones is--in his words--caught "behind the closed door."
Instead of adding his powerful voice to building a serious antiwar movement--one that prevents the Pentagon from preying on precisely those inner-city youth Jones wants to target for green jobs--he must remain silent.
Worse, he must support the president's foreign policy in public. What is this teaching a "new generation of racial justice activists?"
Jones is making the calculation that he can do more good "inside" than "outside." Many honorable and dedicated people have made this choice with the best of motives. But there is a price to pay--accepting the totality of the system and working inside the boundaries it has developed to protect itself over the last 200 years.
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THIRD, IF we decide that we can't rely on the free market, and we recognize that the changes the system will permit from the inside are severely limited, is it possible to organize a grassroots "real Opposition" that can win?
If that project is impossible--if transforming the system and eliminating the profit motive as the basis for our economy is a utopia--then we should accept working within the system as the only meaningful political strategy.
Such a conclusion would mean relying on the same economic forces that have led us to the current global meltdown to somehow chart a path for eliminating global hunger, saving the environment and providing future generations with fulfilling lives. If ever a political strategy could be called utopian, this would be it.
But is there an alternative? As Jones wrote in 1992, we need "a radically feminist, antiracist, green and humanitarian people's movement--complete with a revolutionary theory that will both describe our dilemma AND point a way out."
In my opinion, such a movement must be based on the ability of the vast majority of ordinary working-class people to participate meaningfully in the economic, social and political decisions that shape their lives.
It means mobilizing millions in new unions through organizing drives, protests and strikes. It means building a determined opposition within the military, among rank-and-file soldiers, to new deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. It means organizing and educating a new generation of student activists who will seize their campuses in opposition to budget cuts. It means developing community organizations that will speak out and march against police brutality.
It means returning to the lessons we learned from the great leaders and thinkers in our history, like Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And it means beginning a serious discussion of whether any of this is possible without challenging the basic notions of capitalism itself.
As the historian Howard Zinn once said, "What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--marching outside the White House, pushing for change."
Jones seems to distance himself from this point of view in his March 11 interview:
I just want to serve. I think we've got a president who is committed to a green America that is green and just and inclusive. My big hope is that I can make it possible for some people who might be poor, might not have the educational opportunities right now, to participate to get in on the ground floor of this green revolution, which will be the cornerstone of the next American economy.
Despite using the word "revolution," Jones' emphasis is on the changes that President Obama intends to deliver to people and what Jones can do to support those efforts--in place of what demands ordinary people will fight for on their own behalf.
Again, good people can believe that this is a realistic and worthwhile strategy. But it leaves unanswered the question of whether we can truly transform the world, or we are condemned to merely make changes around the edges. It means leaving aside a "radical social vision" of a "real Opposition that can take down the Paper Tiger once and for all."
People on the left can come down on opposite sides of this issue and still find many areas within which to work in common. But this is a debate that must not be ignored.