In search of good old Seattle radical politics

The neo-liberal agenda, even in supposedly "liberal" Seattle, has devoured the old radical spirit. Here's a plea for reconnecting with the left's historic worker and lower middle class base.

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At the 1995 parade celebrating gay pride, members of the United Front Against Fascism marched. Has Seattle politics lost its historic radicalism?

The neo-liberal agenda, even in supposedly "liberal" Seattle, has devoured the old radical spirit. Here's a plea for reconnecting with the left's historic worker and lower middle class base.

It seems that I’m a member of an endangered species, nationally and even in Seattle.  Seattle has a glorious radical history, still extant in the 1960s. That history is gradually fading with the neo-liberal economic restructuring since the 1970s — notwithstanding the WTO Battle in Seattle blip. 

Seattle is viewed as "left coast liberal" by national standards, which shows how far right the country as a whole has moved. But our “liberal” is properly neo-liberal, fully committed to a post-industrial global service economy and accepting of extreme inequality, with scarcely a vestige of "radical."  Today’s liberal is eerily an echo of British liberalism, from the nineteenth century to the present and even lasting to the 1950s and 1960s Republican party — tolerant of social diversity, knowing full well that global capitalism underlies their success, members of sectors who do not make things but rather manage them, and amazingly ready to tell everyone how to live.

The contemporary Democratic party liberal is clueless about the rise of the populist right. I see this development as the inevitable consequence of the leftist party’s effective abandonment of the party’s historical worker and lower and middle class base in favor of the myth of having to save the finance and insurance behemoth that brought us the current disaster.

There is a huge risk that the Democrats will lose in 2010 and 2012, having squandered the historic opportunity ushered in by Obama’s 2008 victory, as they prove to be utterly incapable of addressing the de-industrialization (the forced dis-employment of their base) or the obscene levels of inequality last seen in the robber baron era before World War I. (Ironically the United States achieved its lowest degree of inequality in 1975 in the Gerald Ford administration, which was also likely the year of the best relative situation of the Black male, when there were still industrial jobs.)   Nor has the Democratic administrations, terrified at being labeled weak on defense, done anything to slow the march toward an over-militarized society and a vastly overextended imperial role of interventions and wars.

Well, some readers will counter, the new liberal here in progressive Seattle is improving society and saving the environment by our embrace of planning, smart growth, and the development of rail transit. Ha! the radical in me replies. Smart growth and rail transit may be the “right” thing to do, but they have been imposed by the educated and affluent elite  (we Crosscut readers?) on the poorer and less articulate, who are supposed to come to accept less, to live in dense urban villages, and to lose the freedom of their cars.

The city of Seattle may be the most “Democratic” but also the most ruthless at displacing the poor out of the city via gentrification. So this planning achievement is really yet another vast transfer of wealth to the elite class and a deepening of inequality.

So what might this dispossessed radical wish the Democrat party to have done? I’m a radical because I believe our society is broken and needs real, not cosmetic change. The radical of a century ago argued, and I agree, that the two most destructive forces in the world are unbridled global capital and fundamentalist religion. This is not to advocate widespread socialism, although more, as in the form of cooperatives, would be healthy, but to ensure that capital be responsible and creative, rather than irresponsible and destructive.

Many firms do have a fair balance of power between owners and workers, holding to a social contract of mutual respect and reward, as envisioned in capitalist theory. So the main problem of global capital today is utterly disproportionate and monopolistic power. This “market failure” could be addressed, as it has been off and on in our history by, for example, regulation of trade that violates minimal standards of fairness. I would also suggest a massive program of low-cost loans for entrepreneurs who would make things. A largely post-industrial economic structure is not only dangerous but impossible, since we have to pay for those trillions in imports, and globalization is rapidly out-sourcing those very service sectors.  

As obvious is restoration of progressive taxation like that in the prosperous 1950s Eisenhower years.  (Remember that liberal Washington is dead last, number 50, for the most regressive tax structure in the U.S.) And we need a civilized health system that serves people rather than insurance companies and hospitals.

As for religion, I do not condemn religion as such, but rather religion that privileges faith above reason and strives to impose narrow sectarian doctrines on everyone. I credit fundamentalist religion as the single greatest cause of the deterioration of education in the United States. 

The effect of the inability and unwillingness of higher and higher shares of the population to apply reason is, among other things, to meekly accept the degree of unequal power and rewards in society, or to cling to absurdities like creationism or the denial of global warming. I can imagine that for cultural or physiological reasons as many as 5 percent could deny the validity of evolution, but 40 percent?  Geography, history, government, objective news, who cares? This is truly a terrifying measure of educational failure, and along with the unaddressed rise in inequality, underscores the depth of the malaise of our society.

Oh then, vote Republican? I cannot conceive of such a "solution," despite my New England forebears, like obviously socialist Republican Justin Morrill of Vermont, who wrote the land grant college act.  The worker on minimum wage today can earn $19,000 a year. Her or his family will be deep in poverty. The average CEO of a Fortune 500 company earns that BEFORE LUNCH every day. That is not right or just and it is one of the factors that, to me, condemns the entire Republican agenda.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Morrill

Dick Morrill is emeritus professor of geography at the University of Washington and an expert in urban demography.