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Storming Caesar’s Palace: Some Thoughts and a Review

January 6, 2007, 8:08 pm

booksI was pleased to see last night that the new Democratic Congress started off with a bang by passing a bill that balances expenditures against revenues as an attempt to try to control the Crazy Man in the White House. I was also pleased to see that 50 Republicans joined the majority, demonstrating that party discipline as we have known it in the GOP has temporarily dissolved. This bill is a good example of two things. One is that a guy like Chris Shays of CT, who voted aye and said he “only wished my party had proposed” the bill really understands that he nearly got the “thumpin’” that Dubya’s other retainers got in November (but Chris, baby — you could have proposed it before…oh well, NEVER MIND!)

The other more mixed response I have is that a bill like this serves many ideological purposes or it wouldn’t have drawn such wide support. The Dems and other anti-war allies now have a pincers attack available for making the funding of little George’s war hurt: “You want all your defense spending? OK, then how about some — New Taxes!?” But of course, taxes, and cutting weapons programs that are clearly unsuited to fighting wars against terrorists, are not the only way to feed the insatiable budget of this dreadful war. There are always new attacks on social programs. And this is where those of us in the so-called radical (formerly known as liberal) wing of the Democratic party may have to start paying the piper for November’s election: those social conservatives who helped bring us a majority may well decide that squeezing the poor is a better idea than raising taxes whenever new funding is being requested for anything.

Uh oh.

But here’s the good news: there is a fabulous, newish book out on the welfare rights movement of the 1960′s and ’70′s that can help us think through what could happen next politically and what to do about it. “Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty” is Annelise Orleck’s second major book on poor people’s movements (the first is “Common Sense and A Little Fire” about women organizers on the Lower East Side of NY during the 1930′s and ’40′s.) It is beautifully written, meticulously researched, and utterly engaging. As in her first major book, Orleck relies heavily on interviews with participants in the Las Vegas WRO to shape her narrative and move it along, and you get a real sense of these women as what Gramsci would have called “organic intellectuals.” I have also learned a number of things that will help me teach this period better, among them:

- why many black women ended up on welfare in the first place, even when they had a work history of salaried labor. It was usually a result of some catastrophe, often a health crisis brought on by the conditions they had labored under;

- the political and ideological conditions that caused poor women more generally to have no access to birth control in the 1950′s and 1960′s, even when they went from doctor to doctor begging for it, thus respectfully refuting the notion that having large families is a “cultural choice” that Black women make out of ignorance;

-why raising children is labor, contributes to the social good and should be compensated (Orleck needs to be commended for resurrecting this old radical feminist chestnut. Why? Because it’s true, dammit. Look down the hall at the circles under the eyes of any junior faculty member on the tenure clock and raising a family at the same time.)

- the conditions under which racial oppression persisted outside the former Confederate states, and why segregation particularly served the economic interests of a place like Las Vegas — until it didn’t, and then casino owners ended it;

-why grassroots movements can be simultaneously so vital and so fragile (Orleck does not dwell on this, but it is fairly clear that the empowerment and vigor of local organizations of welfare mothers was the death knell for a national WRO);

-that people who have no formal education, under conditions in which they can take action, can learn what they need to know, not just to run their own lives, but to run complex organizations with large budgets.

Many of these things I have always assumed to be true, but what is impressive about Orleck’s book is that she shows, very gracefully, how it works, with evidence and testimony that makes the story jump off the page. She also demonstrates — in a way that I have never seen in another book — how Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven’s theories about poverty and poor people’s organizing actually worked to convince a range of people of what they needed to do to create change, from welfare mothers themselves to organizers to lawyers working for pennies to design successful strategies for making the state deliver resources to the poor.

The central theme of the book, however, is that conservatives have been cutting social programs relentlessly, both legally and illegally, since they were originally framed in the second New Deal, and that some of the “reforms” of the 1990′s were originally tried out at the state level back in the 1960′s. Welfare was always expendable because lawmakers have always hated it, and employ gate-keeping social workers to give out as little funding as possible so that a reserve army of cheap labor will always be available. They then disseminate vile images of the poor to a middle-class public that seems to believe much of what they read and see on TV because otherwise they would have to engage the idea that we live in a cruel, hierarchical society where a few of us benefit from the immiseration of the many. One of the things that struck me, then, when I saw the Pay as you Play legislation in the news last night (and I have to ask — what part of what the government is doing right now constitutes “playing?” Could we get back to talking in serious words about the state and its activities?) was that the first thing Nixon did to fund the expansion of the war in Indochina in 1971 was to go after welfare benefits. So let’s watch out — keeping our mitts on the White House’s military purse strings is an excellent idea, but I think we know from past experience that if W. wants to expand the war through a “surge” he will and that he will pay for it on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans if he can.

Read this book if you have a chance — welfare rights organizers did change their world, for a while, and this would be a good moment to start reminding ourselves and our students what it might mean to restore a sense of humanity and responsibility to our political culture, and to start assuming that people who — by all the values of our materialistic society have “failed” — have a lot to offer themselves and us if given even the smallest amount of encouragement.

And imagine if the $1 billion we will spend on the war in Iraq today went to the public it was taken from in the first place for hospitals, schools, housing, day care, or job training. What then?

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