Superman and a New Progressive Strategy!

When I was a child, I used to watch cartoons at home after school (I understand there is a debate about the wisdom of letting children watch TV.  However, I am doing fine today). My favorite cartoon was Superman.  Let me clarify. It was a little confusing watching Superman growing up in Puerto Rico.  Although all the dialogue was in Spanish, the main character was still “Superman,” not “Super Hombre” or “El Hombre de Acero.” In any event, one afternoon after returning from school and, as always, with the go-ahead of my mother — who, incidentally, was a public school teacher — I went for my daily routine: cartoons! Right after Tom and Jerry, there he was, Superman to the rescue.  Let me remind you that this was back in the 1970s, when average unemployment in Puerto Rico was 15.2%.  In other words, if Superman was not a superhero, he was at least a distraction for a family of five with only one source of income.  As I told you already, my mother was a public school teacher, and no, she wasn’t a single mother.  My father was in Marx’s army of unemployed (he was a private at that time, but he later made it all the way up to captain!).

We all gathered around the old TV to watch Superman’s new adventure, to escape from reality. I guess it was comforting to imaging someone out there willing to help you out no matter what.   However, this time Superman was confronting a different enemy.  It was a creature like no other, a big mass of energy. Every time Superman hit it, this creature took in his energy, making it stronger.  Superman needed to confront the creature, but by doing so, he was confronting his own destruction. In other words, fighting was useless, just like the sentiment in my home.

Although it was not the end of the (real) world, here I was, a seven-year old facing his worst nightmare, the demise of Superman.  His defeat was inevitable because Superman became weaker every time he confronted this creature, and all this without the use of Kryptonite!  In desperation, however, Superman came up with a clever strategy: “If this creature desperately needs energy, I will give it plenty!” Superman took the creature to a nuclear power plant.  Once there, the level of energy was too much for the creature to absorb, and the creature collapsed.  As the TV screen showed the credits and announced the next cartoon (The Roadrunner!), I remember, my mother said:  “Maybe that is what needs to happen in Puerto Rico. No matter how hard you try, you can’t win.  Maybe if we let it crash, we can start from scratch!” For a seven-year old it was a strange argument. Although I had a great imagination, I couldn’t understand the notion of “letting it crash.”

Today at thirty-five and with a Ph.D., I am an Assistant Professor of Economics (I told you, I did fine).  I still watch cartoons but of a different sort, and available in different channels (ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, FOX News, CNN . . . ). The more I watch, the more I am convinced that I am actually watching a rerun of that old Superman episode.  Confronting the creature — whether it is war, attacks on social security, tax cuts for the rich, or destruction of the environment — seems useless, since it gets bigger and stronger. 

The progressive movement confronts a very difficult task, because the creature is smart and slippery. Just look at the justification for going to war against Iraq. The first justification for the war was the fact that Saddam was somehow responsible for 9-11. Of course, it was baseless.  Then, it was WMDs.  However, it was flimsy, too.  Finally, the reason we went to war became because Saddam is a bad guy. Well, no one can question this fact! Nonetheless, by absorbing the energy of the progressive movement’s confrontations with the first two justifications, the creatures gave it back two big ‘uns (so to speak): 1. UN-Patriotic and 2. UN-American!

How do you defeat such a creature?  Better yet, how do you bring the masses to understand the nature of the creature? Of course, the problem is not new. The current situation has been in the making for a while now. Just stop and think for one moment — when was the last time there was a real progressive agenda in Washington D.C.?  If the Clinton Administration comes to mind, you need to read Robert Pollin’s Contours of Descent, Michael Meeropol’s Surrender, and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Roaring Nineties.  Then you will realize that the neoliberal mantra has been the orthodoxy for decades now. 

So, what should we do? Recently, my mother’s words — a bittersweet memory of the past — have been playing in my head like “Chan Chan,” Buena Vista Social Club’s melancholic song, which takes me back to my Puerto Rico of the 1970s and 80s, to the contradiction of “poor but happy because we are together!” My mom passed away five years ago; I have moved North, to the belly of the beast; my sister survives in the oldest remaining colony in the West; and my brother is in Iraq, of all places, fighting a war declared by a man for whom (like all residents of Puerto Rico) he does not have the right to vote.

My mother’s words were echoing loud the other day when John Gibson (Fox News) told us that Karl Rove should be given a medal. I really have no hopes for a federal/national progressive agenda.  I do understand that we have won some significant battles, as the living wage and sweatshop movements have shown.  However, although extremely important, these are local/grassroots battles.  I always trusted my mother’s wisdom, and her words are telling me that we might have to feed the creature with more energy, so that it will collapse.  In other words, neoliberalism contains the seeds of its own demise within itself, and its fields are getting more manure every day (vacancies in the Supreme Court, extension of the Patriot Act, environmental policies, more tax cuts . . . ).  If we feed the creature to the point of its collapse, what will happen? There are two possible outcomes:

1. We were wrong. Neoliberalism was the right choice to eliminate poverty and improve living conditions;


2. We have a crash and can build a new system.

Avoiding words that might trigger the propaganda machines to crank out more cartoons, we might build this new system following Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff’s Class Theory and History, with stock markets, property ownership, and political freedom, but with one important element that is missing today: workers deciding how the profits of their work will be allocated. So, citizens of the world unite, the only thing we can lose is . . . well, you know.

Carlos F. Liard-Muriente is Assistant Professor of Economics at Western New England College. His forthcoming papers include “Globalization and Inequality: Some Remarks” in Equal Opportunities International (forthcoming, 2005) and (with Michael Meeropol) “A Critique of ‘Rubinism’ — Did Reduced Budget Deficits and the Brief Experiences with Surpluses Cause the Economic Successes of the 1990s?” in Proceedings of the 11th Presidential Conference “William Jefferson Clinton: The ‘New Democrat’ from Hope” at Hofstra University, New York (forthcoming, 2005). August 14, btw, is Liard-Muriente’s birthday!