The Marxist sociologist, William DiFazio, died March 10, 2020, at the age of 72 from complications related to diabetes. I met Bill in 1975 when we were both students at the CUNY Graduate Center. We remained friends for the next 45 years.
He hosted a popular radio show called City Watch on WBAI from 2000-2016, where he interviewed community activists as well as radical intellectuals. There is a Wikipedia page for Bill, “William DeFazio.”
Bill contributed to a number of journals, including Social Text and Situations, where he served on the editorial board. At the time of his death, he was writing a book to be called, Conversations in Diners: Ordinary People and The Crisis in Capitalism.
Bill DiFazio was a popular teacher at St. Johns in Queens, New York. He served as Chair of the Sociology Department at St. Johns for six years. He also volunteered at a food program run by St. Johns in Brooklyn for several years, where he did the fieldwork for, Ordinary Poverty. Bill’s method of doing sociological research was called, “theoretical ethnography,” which differs from the standard type of ethnography done by most sociologists in the stress Bill placed on theoretical analysis. Both Longshoremen and Ordinary Poverty are clearly examples of theoretical ethnography.
When Bill was a student at the CUNY Graduate Center, he studied with George Fischer, Mike Brown, Bill Kornblum, and Stanley Aronowitz. He participated in study groups that met in Mike Brown’s office for several years: beginning with Capital and then moving on to contemporary political economy. We went to parties at Bill’s apartment in Williamsburg. The justification for the parties was to celebrate someone’s Dissertation Defense, birthday, or life itself! Bill joined DSA before it was the popular thing to do. In the 1960s, he joined SDS, went to demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and gave his support to the Civil Rights movement – joining CORE and SNCC’s voting rights projects in the South. Bill was what Sartre called, an engaged intellectual.
Bill DiFazio is survived by his wife, Susan Heller, a Brooklyn artist, and his daughter, Liegia DiFazio, an attorney in Atlanta.
On Tuesday, May 26, 20120, starting at 10:00 a.m. (Eastern Daylight Time), a global network of scholars, trade unionists, development specialists, and democracy movement activists are launching the second online Global Teach-In to address the COVID-19 crisis and economic depression. Speakers include Hillary Wainwright, David Graeber, and Dario Padovan. To learn more about the Teach-In, visit http://GlobalTeachIn.com.
A taut editorial published in the British Medical Journal provides a concise indictment of Donald Trump’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Put simply: “He downplayed the risk and delayed action, costing countless avertable deaths.” The editorial concludes with an appeal to social movement action:
To get through this, the US will need unprecedented social mobilisation. The dislocations call for a new social movement, inspired by the AIDS movement of the last 40 years—one that pushes local, state, and federal leaders to provide universal health coverage, universal sick pay, and rent and food assistance, focusing particularly on people who are poor, homeless, marginalised and those in jail or juvenile and immigration centres. Trump’s astounding incompetence was a political determinant of the US covid-19 epidemic. A new “politics of care” could be the corrective.
In a recent op-ed, Victor Wallis, S&D’s Editor-at-Large, contrasts how capitalist and socialist imperatives shape our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wallis addresses the full range of issues from distributional questions including access to health care and prevention to macroeconomic matters and the immediate demands that we should address both nationally and globally. One of the more striking differences between systems, one that shatters the myth of capitalist abundance, is that leaders in capitalist countries simply lack the infrastructure and productive capacity to address the material needs, let alone organizational ones, required to either care for ill or bring a quick end to the pandemic. Decades of globalizing production and supply chains and shifting to a just-in-time production model makes for “efficiency” while leaving the entire system vulnerable to disruptions at multiple points and ensuring that very few countries and regions actually have the necessary productive capacity to immediately address these shortages. Reflecting on the specific healthcare dimension of this crisis, Wallis notes that a “socialist approach to healthcare… builds an infrastructure that can respond to emergency needs. This was strikingly shown just now in China, where urgently needed temporary hospitals were built (in Wuhan) in just two weeks. Moreover, a fully socialist approach, with its corresponding culture of cooperation, makes it possible, as Cuba has repeatedly shown, to extend health services on a large scale to people in other countries.” Read the full article at Political Animal Press’s magazine.
In a recent post, James Hansen, who first sounded the catastrophic climate change warning bells before the US Congress, notes the public’s increased literacy about the nature of growth curves and particularly the impact of early interventions. Regrettably, at this stage, we are late in the game of carbon mitigation and while the public may better understand the physics behind the exponential growth rates we are confronting, literacy about the social relations that drive the physics remains grossly inadequate. Hansen however cautions against despair, there are actions that can be taken. He notes, though, that the “present graph suggests that we have a lot of mitigation to do before we can flatten and bend downward the global temperature curve.”
In this excerpt from the first Shelter & Solidarity* episode, Johanna Fernández, a historian at Baruch College and most recently the author of The Young Lords, A Radical History (UNC Press 2020), explains the history of mass incarceration. She traces it to the anti-imperialist uprisings in the Global South and with the United States. The reactionary, harsh “law and order” response from the state – to lock up the working class and especially its black and brown ranks explain the phenomenon we now call, “Mass Incarceration.” With the decline of U.S. economic power and industrialization, sections of the white working class are also drawn into the phenomenon, both as the jailers and the jailed. (Further excerpts to follow.)
You may know Lee Camp from his amazing show “Redacted Tonight” (available online), a unique blend of deep journalism and biting comedy. Well, here it is in book form, and it doesn’t disappoint. It consists mainly of short essays that were the basis for some of his shows. Although we miss the physical performance, we are compensated by being given full documentation for all his factual assertions. It ranges widely in subject matter, from the Pentagon’s “missing” $21 trillion to dissections of Wall Street, racism, police violence, media mendacity, and much more. An excellent vehicle for introducing a Marxist analysis of the present to people who don’t usually read books.
S&D’s co-sponsored online show, Shelter & Solidarity, launched on Thursday, April 9, 2020. The first episode, Disease and Detention, featured Johanna Fernandez, Jose Saldana, Kevin Rashid Johnson, and several other activists in conversation with Joe Ramsey. We will be posting further excerpts from the show. In this video, Jose Saldana explains the rationale for his urgent COVID-19-related challenge to New York state’s Cuomo: clemency now!
Sounds odd, right?
How could the coronavirus, which has killed thousands around the world and
thrown the global political and economic system into crisis, be considered an ally? Instead, shouldn’t it be seen first and
foremost as the common enemy that we all face and that needs to be defeated?
Of course, the virus needs to be controlled and we need to
inoculate ourselves from it. Those
objectives, we do not question.
Yet, the virus can also help bring about significant change
with the right kind of push from grassroots movements. That is, if we recognize
the nature of the political opening that the virus has provided.
First, think about the standard organizing strategy,
popularized by struggles such as the civil rights movement. The goal, as MLK
wrote about in his famous Letter
From Birmingham Jail, was to create tensions, and
in the process, force elites to negotiate.
How? By filling the jails. This way, public services would be paralyzed and elites would have to sit down and discuss the issues that movements sought to address. Or workers strike, stopping the gears of production, and thereby, leverage their power to bring the bosses to the table to negotiate.
But, isn’t the stimulus essentially a corporate bailout, which actually may total more than $5 trillion, if you count the underwriting of banks and large enterprises? Isn’t it an outrageous betrayal to working and middle-class taxpayers akin to the 2008 stimulus scam?
Yes. But to denounce it merely as such may suit people with the privilege to “shelter-in-place” and work from home, but for many working people with real needs, there are lots in the legislation of value. For instance, there’s immediate relief for workers and families, provisions for non-profit organizations and the unemployed, student debt relief, and funds for Native Americans. It also provides critical funds to state and local governments who are also racing to meet mounting need, as well as funds to conduct this year’s elections safely. To be sure, none of this is nearly enough. And the slush fund to corporations is scandalous and shameful.
Still, why not think of these relief measures as a downpayment on what is really needed, as a foot in the door to leverage future action?
Yes, the bailout package contains billions dedicated to the airlines and other corporate behemoths, and too many workers—particularly the undocumented—are left out. And healthcare workers, state and local governments, elections officials, and many others need much more support fast.
Yet, the legislation prohibits stock buybacks for one year, as well as sharp limits to CEO pay for entities that receive the funds. More importantly, the legislation opens the door for government to have a stake in some of the world’s largest companies and industries.
This point is huge, so don’t scoff at it. We can hear the
naysayers now – isn’t this an opportunity for Steve Mnuchin and the CEOs of
Fortune 500 companies to sit around awash in hundred dollar bills, setting them
on fire to light their cigars as they laugh at the rest us who wait desperately
for those $1,200 checks to arrive?
Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be that way – these provisions allow the government to make essential changes in businesses that accept its assistance. And because so many businesses need relief, this provision could help achieve a huge leftwing goal – massive restructuring of private enterprise.
In effect, the virus has created this opening for us to
transform the economy. The question is –
who will get into it and what will they do?
Think about the 2007/2008 Great Recession and the restructuring of General Motors. It wasn’t in Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act but came about later as part of a joint plan between the government and the automobile manufacturer that had filed for bankruptcy. Under their agreement, the Obama administration replaced executives, passed new industrial standards, and influenced production decisions.
But neoliberal errors were made – the government failed to assure effective safety measures in vehicles and workforce downsizing continued. Similarly, in 2008, the housing and financial sectors were ripe for massive reorganization but in 2009 Obama and company essentially gave them a pass. Occupy Wall Street came to life in its aftermath, largely because the promise of “hope and change” delivered neither. Worse still, the fallout of the Great Recession essentially led to an even more unequal recovery.
Still, the example of General Motors shows that government
takeovers can take place in our current time.
It also shows that we cannot rest assured that the government will do
the right thing for working people when the opportunity presents itself—we need
to take action strategically to take power, or at the very least, to affect its
exercise in decisive ways, shaping its direction more effectively.
This is why in addition to relentlessly demanding transparency and pressuring political elites to provide oversight, we need to push for the breakup of large firms into smaller ones with new leaders, or nationalization of sectors. Movement members and leaders should have a stake in making such decisions, as many argue.
We need deeper changes to the political economy, that hue to values of transformative solidarity, with new arrangements and institutions. Such changes occurred during the Great Depression, albeit short of a fuller transformation advocated by the millions of poor and working people, socialists, and communists of the time, or along radical lines many seek today.
The USDA, for instance, created what were known as the Greenbelt communities. These settlements were experiments in
collective living, where unemployed people were selected to live and work
together. The housing and economic arrangements were set up as cooperatives.
The Greenbelt communities, for the most part, have been
swallowed up into other growing metropolises.
Yet, social security remains an integral part of our lives, as do the
various programs that were part of the AAA –
including food assistance and agricultural subsidies—and housing programs such
as the FDIC.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign was fed by these movements, and in turn, has fed these movements. The energy and infrastructure created by Sander’s campaign could still serve as a vehicle to help organize for political and policy changes. He’s not giving up and neither should we.
If popular movements and progressives recognize this opening and take concrete strategic actions to organize in ways to shape the next relief package(s), then we can use this historical moment to make more profound, structural changes, including new institutions, new policies, in short, a new economy. Call it a “Better Deal” or the “Real Deal.”
Naomi Klein is partially right to elevate Milton Friedman’s idea – that during a crisis, the direction of response and change depends on the ideas laying around. But, in crafting responses and making change during such times, the task is not merely to raise awareness about issues; its about power.
People already know that inequality exists, healthcare is inadequate, the rent is too damn high, and climate change is a real, big problem. And even if they don’t, or don’t care, or deny that such issues are in fact social problems, fast-changing facts on the ground can snap them into awareness. Nearly everyone has been directly or indirectly affected by this crisis — or will be soon — in profound ways. The burning question is can we act collectively and decisively to win the world we want and need?
MLK had to rely on a coalition of students, religious people, and poor and working people to put pressure on elites. In our current situation, the virus has been a catalyst, bringing elites to the table. It has created a crisis on a scale that screams for massive and multiple remedies.
This gargantuan crisis is not going away anytime soon. Already, it has led to surprising and rapid gains that organizers have long sought. Walmart, Uber, and others quickly enacted sick leave policy; healthcare insurers are covering patients; the state of California has blocked landlords from evicting tenants thrown out of work. Who would have thought Trump and the GOP would send unemployed people $1,200 checks?
There’s no better time than now for movements to demand resources, as well as power. This means organizing like our lives depend on it, to restructure our economy, create new institutions, and gain power over private enterprise. Imagine a version of the Meidner Plan down the road?
The moment is filled with peril and possibility; it’s up to
us to seize it.
In this article, S&D editorial board member and DigBoston’s Executive Editor, Jason Pramas, brings a laser-like focus to the practice of physical distancing. We share his introduction below and link to the original article. Future posts on this blog site will address other dimensions and impacts on our lives and practices, including practical matters – like earning a living!
The DigBoston Article:
For most of us who pay close attention to the progress of the coronavirus pandemic over the last three months, talking to our families about how to stay safe and healthy can be difficult. People don’t want to hear that the way they’ve lived their lives up to now is no longer the way they need to live their lives for the next couple of years. Which is completely understandable. But if we love them, we have to do our best to give them the information they need to protect themselves from the virus. Without getting into unproductive and pointless fights with them over it.