23 February 2011

Emanuel is the opponent the left needs

I'm glad Rahm Emanuel will be the next mayor of Chicago. Why? Because it's a job that I would wish on my worst enemy. Emanuel will have no choice but to preside over brutal cuts to public services, to squeeze the city workforce and in the process alienate the main voting constituency in Daley's machine, and probably also raise taxes and fees across the board, alienating everyone else - potentially even his most important constituency, multinational capital. He's going to be a one-term mayor. And that gives progressives the best chance we've had since Harold Washington to produce a viable candidate in 2015. If we can somehow get our act together.

Chicago's budget is an absolute catastrophe right now. The $6.15b regular budget is short $655m - over 10 percent - and the schools budget is running $370m in the red. Not to mention the disastrous unfunded pension liabilities the city holds, which amount to $7000 for each and every citizen of Chicago - even if all future pensions ceased today.

There are no easy solutions. Daley has already squandered a vital asset that was supposed to pay for a significant part of Chicago's future: he sold the parking meter system and then immediately spent almost all the proceeds to paper over the budget gap. Real estate prices have plummeted to their lowest level since the crisis began, taking with them a major source of city revenue, property taxes. The economic recovery (if it can even be called that), is little more than another speculative bubble that will come crashing down once consumer demand fails to materialize - if inflation fears or instability in the oil countries don't do the job first.

Emanuel is not responsible for any of this in any direct way, but he has been a vigorous proponent of the economic regime of neoliberalism that got us into this mess. That makes Emanuel the ideal symbol for the left to mobilize Chicagoans against. Emanuel is a pure product of the forces we are combating - the other candidates would have muddied the waters too much with their own personal incompetence, membership in the Daley machine, or the worst possibility of all, a progressive administering devastating cuts to public services.

Chicago is entering a very fluid political moment, not just because of the new mayor and many new faces on the city council, but because of continuing instability produced by the crisis. The next year will be extremely important in defining Emanuel's approach and the nature of the opposition that will rise to meet him. The left cannot waste this opportunity.

But it won't be good enough to simply offer resistance. The protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere in defense of basic labor rights have been heartening, but they are completely inadequate to the current political moment. What is required is, first, a clear understanding of what caused the crisis. And second, a clear set of concrete policies that can lead us out of it. Short of this, protests will be seen - with substantial justification - as nothing more than a defense of parochial interests.

The fact that the left hasn't even begun to address either of these two central tasks is a shocking failure - not only in Chicago, but around the world. One of the aims of this blog in the coming months will be to lay out an adequate understanding of the continuing crisis and, on this basis, to develop a concrete politics around an identifiably progressive counter-program. Emanuel's election is not to be mourned - it has given Chicago progressives a golden opportunity to create the first viable left politics in 25 years. But to seize it we will have to start spending as much time trying to understand our predicament as we usually do bemoaning it.

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