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October 12 - October 16, 1998

Wednesday, October 14, 1998

Hard rain gonna fall

Because there's really no other way to describe it, one is forced to concede that Adam Smith's invisible hand is at work in the ongoing ideological-marketplace competition between Frontlines and the Bay Guardian. Both papers recently set forth comprehensive programs for the future of the city, agreeing completely on many issues, differing in their emphasis on other positions, and parting solidarity strongly on their respective views of what should constitute the ideal ingredients in the apparatus of leadership.

Probably only in San Francisco could you witness an ostensibly left/center-left dispute assuming such major proportions, and have it play out as a public relations/marketing tiff. As those of us of that general ilk all know deep down, and the free traders so charmingly now running the nation and the globe have persistently misjudged, we denigrated "San Francisco Democrats" (though we insist on the small "d"), are a far cry from approaching any notion of "collectivism," even in attitude. It's the notorious Left Coast's best-kept open secret. If you use the classic formulation of socialism as the reform of communism, and social democracy as the reform of capitalism, we're muddled somewhere in between, in that leftish netherworld of clashing wish fulfillment and practical reality. Even a raging master of mainstream perceptions like KRON's Pete Wilson ought to be able to grimace his way to that distinction and air it as a matter of record.

So we're at a moment in the town's history where the two most prominent alternative newspapers --- one a long-entrenched and cloistered citadel, the other a collegial upstart with a surprisingly thorough and thoughtful vision --- are strategizing like yuppies over market share. We could mention how well capitalism has apparently furnished them the lessons of its marketing ethos, but that would be glib. Instead, let's take a look at what's obvious here and see what it portends.

The Guardian's Bruce Brugmann evidently feels Frontlines nipping at his heels, and last week the Guardian's 33rd anniversary issue reflected a bit of his competitive chagrin. In August, Frontlines published a detailed cure-all for the city's ills, entitled a "Draft Platform of the Progressive Left." Respectively, the BG's special issue emphasized housing and specific proposals to maintain affordable and sufficient units in the face of corporate gentrification, while Frontlines offered a package of progressive taxation of downtown businesses as an impetus to local economic planning as international recession draws nigh. In most other respects --- transportation, living-wages, PG&E municipalization, anti-privatization, etc. --- their programs were largely similar.

In short, this is all a rather predictable would-be-left antiphonary reactiveness, heavy on legislative solutions, which provide additional ammunition for corporatist declarations that the era of "big government" had long ago been declared officially dead. As a tactical approach, and without any greater specificity to its constituent parts, it is self-defeating

Oppositionist politics in this city has its finger on the problem, to be sure: unemployment, gentrification and homelessness are direct consequences of rapacious global capital. Our antidotes, unfortunately, miss the mark; however admirable in intention, obversely grand and ill-considered retorts to our own prognoses lack immediate applicability (you'd think we'd have learned by now). A progressive slate of fresh faces on the ballot, as Frontlines is pushing, isn't enough to implant such agendas. Nor, certainly, is the more restrained and consciously pragmatic Guardian belief in the efficacy of a nucleus of liberal/progressive elected officials eventually effecting the necessary policy changes. To attempt to do so is to remain playing in capital's court, with their equipment, and with only their fans in attendance.

You may be asking, is this newsletter, yet another of the town's alternative publications which would not hesitate to accept chain store advertising, about to join the fray with its own prescriptions? You betchum. And first off, let's dispense once and for all with the claptrap about the Brown-Burton "machine," as indulged in to varying degrees by both of the aforementioned publications. Phil Burton, were he alive today, would long ago, at the very minimum, have taken the impostor Willie Brown over his knee and meted out a stern lesson in political reawakening. Burton proudly  described himself as man perpetually with his "balls in an uproar." As self-styled members of the left, we're obliged to offer this concession: There are liberals, and then there are liberals.

As to the gristle, let's take one issue, jobs, as an example of methodology. The Guardian  has little to say beyond the usual beseeching for job creation. Neoliberals exhibit similar melancholy. Frontlines is calling for massive public works jobs, to be funded by its proposed tax increases. It anticipates $830 million in increased revenue yearly as a hedge against the viciousness of the next recession, and as the basis for implementing a New Deal-ish economic program for the city. More's the pity that such imaginative ambition on behalf of economic justice won't fly. As a matter of practical confrontational politics, embedding the hooks into corporate America and having it face up to its national larceny, I would submit, requires a different tack.

Call it badass piecemeal incrementalism, if you like. And to that end I offer you a personal prospective microcosm of the global predicament vis-à-vis our urban niche: At the top of the list, for your consideration, the San Francisco Umbrella Company, an envisioned consortium of the city and its top corporations. A company whose objective will be to produce the finest umbrella in the world, and whose 200--300 employees will consist of the ranks of the many skilled and able-bodied workers to be found lying in doorways and standing in the food lines at St. Anthony's.

For the corporations which will soon be pummeled by the coming downturn and who will scurry to big government as they have since they kneeled in front of FDR in the 1930s and begged to have their industries nationalized, the SFUC will also provide an ideal instructive setting. The system of Keynesian subsidies which have bolstered the country for more than 60 years gets a bit of illumination right here. San Francisco corporations, which probably receive at least $10 in various forms of welfare for every $1 the poor used to get, will be absolved by their capable and well-recompensed formerly-homeless workforce (the very best tutors of generosity we have), and will be offered a continuation of their industrial dole: In this case, the subsidy is nicely built-in, as 700,000 city residents go through their two or three brollies each winter and respond enthusiastically to the ad campaign asking them to choose an SFUC product when they step out of the rain and into a Walgreen's. That would be the $3.99 model, of course, and the mid-priced model with the distinctive logo and environmentally friendly fabric could be found at the Wharf and other tourist spots throughout the summer. (July in St. Louis? San Juan in August? You'll need one of these for those squalls and tropical storms when you get back home.) Inroads into national consumer markets would necessarily follow, as would openings to reliable sectors of the value-added export market. Bowler-hatted gentlemen in London and finicky financiers in Zurich, seeking only the very best, would be mere keystrokes away from the SFUC mail order web site and its top-of the-line umbrella.

Over time, the employees of this sterling venture would justifiably become majority-share worker-owners of the company once their investors' initial outlays had been recouped. Second acts in American lives make such great copy these days, as the Clinton folks are quick to display with examples of welfare-to-work success stories, and the SFUC would clearly be a representative model of that. Moreover, a spin-off to worker ownership is something corporate directors instinctively understand, and this instance would be yet another reminder of their own windfalls after WWII, when their companies emerged wealthy and proficient from a wartime production system whose research and development costs were paid for by taxpayers.

As more and more cargoes sit idly in our ports as the export market becomes moribund, it's simply nifty that labor-intensive domestic production primarily serving domestic markets, which CEO's will soon be imploring Uncle to help them reestablish, not only may save many American companies from bankruptcy, but may possibly cleanse mendicants from our streets. It dangles the promise that the disastrous U.S. global economic experiment and its manipulation of government as its cold-calling sales force had never actually happened. And the added beauty is that the disenfranchised, cast off and now poised to reacquire the dignity of livelihoods and shelter, wouldn't make an issue of it (that generosity, again, born of true community, and no little pain). For locals so situated as to be able, over nouvelle cuisine and full-bodied varietals, to habitually praise our environs as "the best place on earth," not only may there be no impinged consciences, but the party need never end.

Anyway, for starters, that's the pitch --- or, more accurately, the demand in the form of a pitch. Capitalism teaches that the best marketing is deception --- the subtler, the deadlier --- and for our purposes, such cavalier virtuosity is most useful in establishing a motif for action. Certainly an old pro like Phil Burton, in that seamy back room fashion currently so disdained by the claimants to ideological purity, understood that. In the service of proper ends, sometimes labels are beside the point.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

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