Posts Tagged ‘United States’

I’ll admit I’m of two minds about all the positive references to European socialism these days. I’ve read enough police procedurals by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall to know all is not well in the kind of social democracy that many countries in Europe managed to build in the postwar period. More seriously, I think we’re setting our sights too low if our horizon is limited to what some sectors of some European countries have been able to achieve (and, of course, what they’ve left untouched)—not to mention the forms of austerity European socialists have been attempting to manage after the crash of 2007-08 and their unwillingness to deal with the current massive inflow of refugees.

On the other hand, there’s something useful in challenging the constraints imposed on discussions in the United States by referring to the kinds of life and work people have been able to create in Western Europe. Bernie Sanders, to take one prominent example, refers to universal healthcare, free public education, better childcare, and higher wages in Denmark and Sweden as examples Americans might emulate.

And then there’s Chantal Panozzo’s description [ht: sm] of the differences between working in the United States and in Switzerland.

A hiring manager at an American company who interviewed me recently for a permanent position asked me how much vacation I wanted. When I said four weeks, which is the legal Swiss minimum, she paused and said O.K., but then informed me that I would need to check my phone and email during this time.

I responded that checking my email on vacation wasn’t my definition of a vacation. She didn’t know what to say. Finally, she grudgingly said they could write it into my contract that I wouldn’t have to check my email during vacation. But the situation made me wonder, once again, if a country that bred this kind of culture was a place where I wanted to spend the rest of my working life.

Later, when I asked a different American company about the possibility of working part time, four days a week, they said they didn’t know how that would work. I tried to explain how I had successfully worked part time in several jobs overseas — even creating television commercials while doing so, but it was no use. I was fighting a culture that was not ready for my “radical” Swiss ideas. The fact that it was my own culture — supposedly so advanced and creative — only made things worse.

So, what role does European socialism play in our current debates about life and work? Well, it shows, in a very concrete way, that things in the United States don’t have to be the way they are. “Look,” we can say, “they manage to do it over there. And we’re an even richer country. Imagine what we could do here.”

But then we can also say, there are more far-reaching changes we can make to enhance the life and work of the majority of the population—even more than European socialism has thus far been able to achieve.


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As Thomas B. Edsall notes,

Democrats now depend as much on affluent voters as on low-income voters. . .The party and its candidates have come to rely on the elite 0.01 percent of the voting age population for a quarter of their financial backing and on large donors for another quarter.

the Democratic Party and its elected officials have come to resemble their Republican counterparts far more than the public focus on polarization would lead you to expect. The current popularity of Bernie Sanders and his presidential candidacy notwithstanding, the mainstream of the Democratic Party supports centrist positions ranging from expanded free trade to stricter control of the government budget to time limits on welfare for the poor. . .

The practical reality is that the Democratic Party is now structurally disengaged from class-based populism, especially a form of economically redistributive populism that low-to-moderate-income whites would find inviting.

That makes the Sanders campaign all that more noteworthy. His current momentum, even if he doesn’t in the end win the nomination, will be squandered unless and until a movement that builds on his successes emerges, either inside or outside the Democratic Party.


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I was honored, back in 2013, to be invited to screen and comment on an early cut of Grace Lee’s film about Grace Lee BoggsAmerican Revolutionary: the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. Here’s what I wrote:

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is a documentary about the long and rich life of an extraordinary American revolutionary. And for that we should be thankful, since we simply don’t have many cinematic examples of ordinary flesh-and-blood people who have struggled to locate themselves within, radically challenge, and creatively make history. All the while maintaining her humanity.

But this film is much, much more. It is both a document of people’s struggles over the course of the twentieth century—especially civil rights and black power, during the rise and fall of Detroit—and an invitation to engage in new conversations about the kind of American revolution needed today. Because, as Grace Lee Boggs says, “It’s obvious by looking at it, what was doesn’t work.”

American Revolutionary is also quite wonderful filmmaking—beautifully filmed and edited, with a lively, engaging score. And the filmmaker herself, Grace Lee, makes the life of a venerable and tough woman relevant to younger generations of potential activists and revolutionaries: first, by showing how Boggs found ways of rethinking and reinventing what her life, including her involvement in the people’s transformation of Detroit, might look like; and, second, by documenting Lee’s own struggles to make sense of and to connect with Boggs “the icon” and her confident and uncompromising spirit of revolutionary thinking and engagement.

Lee’s film represents an alternative, then, to the main kinds of messages being delivered to young people today, of either insipid inspirational self-improvement or the cynical “to the victors belong the spoils.” Instead, she provides us the opportunity to imagine a different kind of life and world—one in which ideas matter, giants do in fact fall, and people (including Boggs herself) evolve.