Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The 48th SWP Convention

There's nothing like a March blizzard (more than a foot of snow on my doorstep) to make time to complete an unfinished post. I owe my former comrades in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) some comments on their 48th National Convention, held January 14-16 in New York. The report, by Naomi Craine and John Studer (C&S), lacks some vital statistics, like attendance, etc., but has political substance.

The bottom line is this:
Convention delegates adopted the three reports and summaries, the introduction to the Clintons’ Anti-Working-Class Record, Jack Barnes’ letter to Raúl Castro, and other motions on the party’s political course. They elected a National Committee to lead the implementation of convention decisions.
The Introduction to the Clinton book was written by Steve Clark, and can be found here. The Letter to Raúl is reprinted here. The names of the fifteen National Committee members (along with eight alternates) are posted alongside C&S's article.

I'll reduce the whole thing to bullet points, expressed in my own words.
  • The world is going to hell in a handbasket.
  • Fidel is a saint.
  • The sole alternative to the Democrat and Republican parties is the SWP.
Is the world really going to hell? It can certainly seem that way. The Introduction describes refugee flows, wars, and new diseases. C&S agree with Trump that the country has descended into "carnage," evidenced by "a decline in the size of the working class as jobs disappear, falling real wages, cop brutality, attacks on women’s right to choose abortion, multiple deployments for workers in uniform sent to fight and die in Washington’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and more." The SWP attributes all of this to a "crisis" in capitalism.

They're wrong, and so is Donald Trump. Most of the increased "carnage" is just an illusion, brought on by the rise of social media. That turns everybody into a reporter, meaning that events that never used to catch the public eye now become headlines. Newsfeed from Twitter. Martin Gurri, in his sweet little book The Revolt of the Public, describes this phenomenon very well.

Technology has improved in other ways as well. Disease has always been with us, but today we can identify it in very specific terms, e.g., the scary Zika virus. The proliferation of labels makes it look like disease has gotten worse, which it definitely hasn't. So this, too, is an illusion. Likewise, while wars are more destructive than they used to be, they're hardly more common.

Coincidentally, I am just starting to read Tyler Cowen's latest book, The Complacent Class (I'll likely review it here when I'm finished). His argument is that, far from there being more turmoil, there is in fact much less. Americans are moving less, switching jobs less, going out less, etc. Mr. Cowen promises actual data to back up his case, which whether you agree with him or not, makes for a better argument than the Party's method of piling on cherry-picked anecdotes.

The Party describes all of this as a crisis of capitalism, due to the fact that the ruling class requires ever increasing profits. Accordingly, the rulers are all trying to reduce our standard of living so they can have more for themselves.

This makes no sense. No capitalist can earn a profit unless somebody buys their products. The goal of capitalism, therefore, is to increase consumption, i.e., to make everybody richer. If capitalism has a problem it's not that we're too rich, but rather that we're too poor. The ruling class has absolutely no desire whatsoever to lower our standard of living--quite the contrary. They've lent us money to beat the band, and then convinced us (as if we needed convincing) to lend ourselves even more and more money. The result is that current entitlements are unsustainable, and the world has an incipient debt crisis on its hands.

That may be a crisis, but it's definitely not the one the Party describes. The imminent impoverishment of the world's working class is not in the cards.

Is Fidel a saint? Of course not. Mr. Barnes, in his letter, simply argues by assertion. Any criticism of Fidel is a "slander." What's left are only compliments. So of course he appears rather saintly.

The letter elevates Lenin and Fidel as the two most important figures in 20th Century history. Without them, the only two successful Communist revolutions would never have occurred. Much of this is semantics--it depends on how you define "success", "communism", and "revolution." Deviate from Mr. Barnes' orthodoxy in any way and you'll come to a different conclusion.

For me, it stretches credulity to label either the 1917 or the 1961 revolutions as "successful." The former led directly to Stalin, purges, famine, exile, poverty, and mass murder. Fidel's 1961 version was not quite so disastrous, but has destroyed Cuba's economy, her links with the outside world, and decimated her population. The brightest and most ambitious Cubans now live in Miami, where they are doing very well. They will never go back to Cuba in large numbers. In that sense the Cuban revolution was successful for the United States--we got highly-skilled immigrants.

Both revolutions have left their respective countries far worse off than they were before. That's not a success. Mr. Barnes closes his letter with a quote from Fidel: "There will be a victorious revolution in the United States before a victorious counterrevolution in Cuba." Fat chance.

The SWP, like all the other vanguard grouplets, believes that it and it alone can successfully lead a revolution in the US. Taken seriously (which is hard to do), this means that the future of our country is in the hands of the 15 people elected to the National Committee. These include, among others, Jacob Perasso, whose claim to fame is that his apartment was once burglarized. I've never quite understood how this list is put together--I think Jack Barnes just makes it up. I don't know why Brian Williams isn't on it--he's clearly one of their best people.

And then there's the list of eight alternates, ranked by number, like in a jury. Does the Party really expect that eight of their National Committee members will expire in the next two years? Of course not. This is just a way of passing around extra bennies. Brian Williams isn't on that list, either. Got me hanging.

The Party has about 100 members. If past procedure is still followed, the convention is delegated--one delegate for every five comrades or major fraction thereof--for which alternates are also chosen. So perhaps 40 comrades had some official obligation at the convention. Those delegates elect the National Committee, albeit from a slate proposed by the Political Committee, which itself is a subset of the National Committee.

That's an awful lot of bureaucracy for 100 comrades! The whole thing is silly, and ultimately undemocratic because the entrenched leadership can put its thumb on the scale every step of the way. Not that that matters, because unlike in Cuba or the Soviet Union comrades can quit the organization without being shot.

Further Reading: