The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
The Economic, Political and Social Situation, 2019

Feb 28, 2019

The following is excerpted from a text presented to, discussed and voted for unanimously at a recent meeting of the whole SPARK organization.

Ferociously Growing Exploitation

We are in the ninth year of what the business press – without shame – calls an “economic recovery.” What characterizes this “recovery” is the vast increase in profits for the banks and other large capitalist enterprises, and the vast increase in wealth for the bourgeoisie.

Capital has protected itself from the ravages of the financial crises its own economy has spawned by intensifying the exploitation of labor. This is the reality of our epoch – whether in the midst of “recovery” or “recession” or “financial collapse.” An enormous part of the working-age population today remains without a job – very close to a record high. In the post World War II years before women reentered the workforce in large numbers, the overall participation rate of the working age population was obviously lower: the majority of women were not working. But forced by economic necessity in the 1970s, women, and then even women with young infants, entered the workforce in increasing numbers. To have some idea of the change, today almost 60% of women with infants under three years old are working, compared to a little over 30% at the beginning of the 1970s. Wages for the bottom two-fifths of workers continue to be lower, in real terms, than they were in 1978; wages for the middle fifth is barely above what it was then – even officially. The minimum wage reached its highpoint in 1968, even in the “real terms” defined by the official CPI. Work itself continues to be degraded, through growing intensity, and through the casualization of labor. A recent example of casualization: 800,000 federal workers were impacted by the shutdown. But there were a million more workers working for the same departments: “contract workers,” lower paid, with fewer benefits, in some cases, none.

It’s not a question of bad choices made by the wrong people, choices that could be overturned, or even just moderated if more enlightened – or at least, less greedy – people were running the big companies. In an economy mired in crisis, the capitalist class has no choice, not simply to exploit, but to voraciously drive down the standard of living of the working class, that is, to continually reduce jobs and wages.

But there is a necessary consequence to this: by systematically restricting wages and destroying jobs, the capitalist class has at the same time restricted its own market, giving the bosses little reason to invest in the productive economy. It’s a classical vicious cycle.

With productive investment running at record low levels, idle money must go somewhere else, and it does: it floods into financial markets, where the return on money that is invested has been higher than the return on money invested in production. But remember, the profits fed into the financial system ultimately come from the surplus value wrenched from labor in the production of goods and services. And the frenzy to keep feeding the casinos of the financial system in turn pushes capital to increase the direct exploitation of the working class – which is not the same thing as investing to expand production.

The public treasury is increasingly an open purse, organized for the benefit of capital, through open subsidies, awards, grants, contracts, lease arrangements, a myriad of tax breaks and the ongoing skewing of the permanent tax system in favor of the wealthy. This vast operation of public theft is paid for with money withheld from workers’ income before the paychecks are issued, or taken back afterwards in taxes, fees and other charges that workers must pay with paycheck in hand. But de facto they all increase the surplus taken by capital from the value produced by labor. The income workers have to expend on their own upkeep is reduced accordingly.

At the same time, the diversion of money from the public treasury for the benefit of capital restricts public services, reducing the conditions of life of the ordinary population. Schools devoted to the education of their children are starved for funds; services needed to ensure the health and safety of daily life – roads, bridges, sewers, water systems, public lighting, etc. – are left to decay.

Reducing jobs, driving down wages, destroying public services, capital has driven down the standard of living and the conditions of life of the laboring population. Taking a greater share of society’s wealth through all these means, the capitalist class protects itself from the decay of its own system.

This is what has led to the enormous and growing gap in wealth between the very richest layers of the population and everyone else. The significance of this growing gap in wealth is not – as some Democrats and most union leaders would put it – “unfairness.” Its cause is not simply bad policy on the part of certain politicians or perverse greed on the part of bad-intentioned individuals in the capitalist class. The cause is rapidly growing exploitation.

Of course, exploitation is the constant linchpin around which capitalism developed and still continues. But in the midst of a seemingly permanent crisis of capitalism in an advanced state of decay, exploitation takes on a particular intensity and ferociousness.

“Responsible” Party for the Bourgeoisie and “Lesser Evil” for the Population

Political life in the United States was dominated by Trump during the first two years of his presidency. Flouting political convention, spouting wild lies, insulting other countries, playing on blatant prejudices, and acting like a petulant two-year old, Trump kept the spotlight on himself. But strip Trump of his TV smirk, he’s nothing more than another reactionary demagogue in a world where declining living standards have favored the growth of the extreme right – with this difference, demagogue Trump sits at the head of the most powerful imperialism in the world.

The appearance of a demagogue like Trump at this late date, in the most “advanced” country in the world, reflects the fact that the working class has not torn apart a society that was already “overripe for revolution” when Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program in 1938. Trump can get a hearing in parts of the working class – this only reflects the fact that organizations of the working class long ago renounced calling on workers to mobilize as a class, to fight for their own class interests, that is to overthrow the capitalist class and put themselves forward as the organizers of a new society. That was true on the global scale, including in this country.

In this country, the working class has no mass political organization, no political party of its own, only the unions. The bureaucracies that have led those unions almost from the birth of the CIO have, for 83 years, worked to fasten the hopes of the working class on the Democratic Party, an openly bourgeois party in terms of its program, its candidates, its activities and its direct ties to a significant part of the bourgeois class.

For the last century, the Democratic Party has proven itself to be the most efficient political instrument for defending the interests of the bourgeoisie and of the capitalist system. With the help of the union bureaucracies and of many churches, it disarmed the working class morally – and sometimes physically – in the two periods when struggles of working people threatened to bypass the existing social order: the 1930s sit-down movement and the 1960s urban revolts. By presiding over the state apparatus during periods of struggle when the bourgeoisie made concessions to popular demands, the Democrats assumed the credit for the gains the struggles of the working class or the black population or women had imposed. But this did not prevent the Democrats from carrying out policies to take back many of those same gains: smothering the unions with the Wagner Act (under which the state regulates unions and labor struggles) and subsequent overtly anti-labor legislation; stripping them through anti-communist legislation starting just before World War II; pushing through “welfare reform” and the incarceration state under Bill Clinton; and, even before that, negotiating the legislative “compromises” that have helped reduce Roe v. Wade to a legal shell. The Democratic Party actively worked to marshal the population behind the wars carried out to impose the global rule of U.S. imperialism: the two World Wars, the Cold War, Korean War, Southeast Asian wars – not to mention all the incursions into Latin America, as well as the loyal support they gave to wars directed by the Republicans. And the Democrats worked with the unions and the CIA to intervene directly against labor unions and workers’ movements around the world.

For over a century, the Democrats have been the “responsible” bourgeois party. They defended the class interests of the bourgeoisie, in part by doing what was necessary to maintain social peace: distribute very minimal reforms to the population as well as organize violence against those who fought back.

Nonetheless, the Democrats were able to appear as the “lesser evil” to a significant part of the working class – simply because the Republicans for most of that time made little effort to hide their allegiance to the very wealthy. Most people who voted for the Democrats over the years did not have big illusions in their vote. We can safely say that voting Democrat was ordinarily accompanied by a certain suspicion. Disillusionment in voting gradually set in, as can be seen directly in the trend of decreasing percentage of the population that votes after the 1960s. The real participation in voting is affected by many things beyond people’s desire to vote. Remember, in the 1960s, which is the recent highpoint in turn-out, a large number of black people were still openly and legally prevented from voting. But even as those bars to voting fell, others were set up, dating back to the 1980s, when certain minor activities were criminalized, which ended up by condemning to prison large numbers of poor people. In some states such convictions were a permanent barrier to voting. Finally, the increase in immigration brought with it an ever larger part of the population that could not vote.

During the last decades, a section of white workers began moving over to the Republicans, sometimes out of disgust with the Democrats, sometimes for reactionary reasons. This was certainly true in 2016. But a much bigger section of white workers didn’t vote, particularly in impoverished states like West Virginia, Tennessee, Utah, Oklahoma, and Arkansas; a relatively large section of Latino voters who could vote, didn’t; and, significantly, an even larger section of black voters who could vote, didn’t. Trump’s victory in 2016 was predicated on disillusionment with the Democrats, which expressed itself above all in a noticeable drop in turn-out.

It’s a mistake to overlook the very large section of the population that does not vote, particularly since non-voters are clustered in the poorer layers of the rural population, and widely in the working class. Our aim is to speak for our class, and not only the part that votes. In 2016, 46.9% of the voting-age eligible population (i.e. citizens) did not vote; 25.5% voted for Clinton; 25.3%, for Trump; 1.7%, for Johnson (Libertarians); 0.5%, for Stein (Greens); and 0.3% was split among 27 others, plus write-ins, plus “none of the above.” The workers who did not vote were not necessarily politically conscious of the class significance of their non-voting. The very large majority probably were not. Non-participation in elections can reflect workers’ demoralization, somewhat like non-participation in the unions does. Nonetheless, non-participation is implicitly a commentary about the lack of real choice, not only concerning the Democrats, but also with the two-party system.

Disgust at Trump Opens the Door – Once Again – for the Democrats

Two years of Trump led to a shift of voters to the Democratic Party. In 2018, Democrats had a 9.7-million-vote margin, compared to their margin two years before in the 2016 presidential election, which was only 2.8 million votes. (Remember, Trump won the Electoral College vote in 2016, but not the popular vote.) The explanation of this resurgence in the Democratic margin does not rest on increased voter turn-out. Turn-out may have been historically very high – for a mid-term election. But it was still nearly 5% less than for the 2016 presidential election. Apparently, there was some fall-off of voters in 2018 who habitually vote Republican, and some increase of voters who do vote Democratic – when they vote. But the big increase in the Democrats’ margin is explained by a very large shift to the Democrats of the people who vote all the time. Some of the white and Latino workers who had supported Trump shifted back to the Democrats. But the most significant shift to the Democrats came from middle-class well-off voters in the wealthier suburbs and city centers who voted Republican in 2016 and usually do vote Republican, but in 2018 voted Democrat. In 2018, 23 Democrats won in districts that often vote Republican – which is what gave the Democrats their margin of victory in the House of Representatives. If those districts had provided their usual Republican vote, the Republicans would have won the House of Representatives. Numerically much less important, but politically significant, was the shift of people who had voted for a minor party in 2016, but who gave their votes to the Democrats in 2018.

It’s safe to say that a large part of the reason for these shifts was a visceral fear of and outrage against Trump, rather than big hopes in the Democrats.

Short of events we can’t foresee, it’s obvious that political life for the next 20 months will focus on the campaign for the 2020 presidential election. It’s already started. Ideas are percolating in the big media and in the social media that the Democrats are “moving to the left.” Presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are said to have turned their backs on the so-called “centrist” policies tracing back to Bill Clinton, and even further back to Jimmy Carter. The new crop of “progressive” Representatives in the House, symbolized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is said to be transforming the party. There are even a few who let it be known they belong to the Democratic Socialists of America! So what does it mean, to be “moving to the left”? Are the Democrats thinking about junking their position as the “responsible” bourgeois party?

They certainly didn’t act like it in their first big confrontation with Trump after the Democrats took over the House. They opposed his demand for five billion dollars for his wall. But they didn’t discuss what created the situation in the migrants’ countries that forced them to come here – of course not. They didn’t call into question the militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico, a militarization which had started long before Trump. They didn’t call into question U.S. policy in this hemisphere. On the contrary. They debated with Trump over who was responsible for the shutdown. Some “progressive” Democrats disputed the factual basis of Trump’s claims that the migrants were criminals. Some of their “mavericks” even called for an end to ICE. But the biggest issue disputed by leaders of the Democratic Party was a technical one: whether Trump’s wall could be an effective tool for “controlling our borders.”

In other words, they peddled, without question, the xenophobic nationalism behind those words, “controlling our borders.” And they voted money to do exactly that. In the House, 213 out of 232 Democrats voted for the budget deal that included more spending to militarize the borders – i.e., to control refugees and migrants without papers. In the Senate, 42 Democrats out of 47 voted for the budget. There is no difference in policy, only a difference in the words each party used to describe it. When Trump issued an “emergency declaration” to fund his wall, Democrats voted a resolution to overturn it, citing only a constitutional issue: the “separation of powers”! Trump was stepping on a Congressional prerogative. It was the same old legislative dance – they engaged in the shutdown in order to deny Trump his wall, then voted for funds to further militarize the border, for which the wall is only a symbol.

A move to the left by the Democrats? There’s certainly no sign of it in “foreign policy” – the equally xenophobic term used to describe U.S. imperialism’s policies toward the rest of the world. The Democrats continued to support and fund all the U.S. wars currently going on: of course, the ones Trump inherited from Obama, most of which Obama had inherited from Bush. But they also fully support Trump’s imposition of sanctions on Venezuelan oil, which can only increase starvation for the population; they supported his administration’s threats of possible military action in Venezuela; they supported his provocative use of the so-called “president” that U.S. money propped up; they see nothing wrong in the U.S. using Colombia as a staging ground for so-called “humanitarian” shipments, in the hopes of provoking a coup d’etat.

They did oppose Trump’s foray into isolationism when, without consulting the military, he declared he was immediately pulling U.S. forces out of Syria. Democrats criticized Trump for being too friendly with Russia for his own personal financial interests at a time when the U.S. state apparatus seems to be resurrecting Cold War themes. It’s clear the U.S. state still views Russia – even weakened as it has been by the break-up of the Soviet Union – as an impediment to U.S. domination of the world. The Democrats lined up to attack Trump because he talked about dropping some of the sanctions currently active against Russia. They may have criticized Trump’s imposition of tariffs against China, because his impetuous way of acting and his braggadocio threatened to ignite a tariff war. But when Trump’s Administration accused China of having “persistent and unfair trading practices,” when the Administration declared that “China’s economic expansionism” must be reined in, the Democrats applauded. Effectively, when they disagreed with Trump, it was because his method of intemperate, self-serving and unthinking action threatens to destabilize an unsteady status quo, particularly in the Middle East.

In international policy, the Democrats step forward as the most reliable representative of U.S. capital.

So that leaves domestic policy, in which superficially the Democratic Party seems to be breaking out of its mold, with “Green New Deal” and “Medicare for All.” Of course, these ideas are aimed at the 2020 election since the Democrats control only one House of Congress. There’s nothing wrong with that. If a party wants to lay out for the voters exactly what policies it would carry out if it were given the majority, all the better. But there’s the sticking point. These aren’t policies, but bumper-sticker slogans.

Take “Medicare for All.” No one knows what it means, or which of the many proposals the Democrats have in mind. One of the proposals is to allow someone older than 50 to buy into the existing Medicare plan. Another is to let more people without insurance buy into an existing Medicaid plan. Another is to replace the current exchanges under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with Medicare. But all of these would be based on private insurance companies, which would continue to draw profit from the plans. Some of the 2020 candidates would set up a “public option,” but allow private insurance companies to administer it, as they currently do with most Medicare plans, that means to profit off of it. A few of the candidates say they would like to redo the whole structure. But by this, they mean only getting rid of private insurance coverage, replacing it with a “single-payer” government funded plan. But all of these proposals – even the last one – envision leaving the current private nature of the health care system itself intact. The cost of health care in this country – one of the most important sectors that produces profit for the capitalist class – would still be prohibitive for the population, and still highly profitable, no matter under which redoing of the current system.

The Democrats – including their progressives – would have us believe we can leave the basic structure of capitalism in place, and yet escape its ills. Not true.

“Green New Deal” has at least been put into the form of written goals, issued by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey. Starting from the very real risk to life on earth caused by the dependence on carbon-based forms of energy, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey propose a 10-year mobilization directed and funded by the federal government to get net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, replacing almost all carbon-based forms of energy and radically reorganizing agriculture. Furthermore, they would revise existing social welfare programs to deal with social dislocations such changes might cause. This would be paid for – in part – by pushing back the income tax system to something like the brackets from the 1950s. (State debt would furnish the rest of the funds needed.) “Green New Deal” assumes that through legislative action the bourgeoisie could be forced to do what is necessary for humanity. To show that this could happen, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey refer to 1930s New Deal programs, which they say “rescued the country” from the Great Depression, and the organized war effort of World War II, which, they say, “saved the world for Democracy.”

In fact, the New Deal programs – as far as the population was concerned – were little more than a bandage. The war is what allowed this country to get out of the economic crisis of the 1930s – at least for some decades, until the second edition of the crisis hit in the 1970s. It was the results of the war that enabled a general improvement in the standard of living in this country. But there was a terrible human cost to this war around the world and in this country, something the proposal’s two authors blithely ignore. The American bourgeoisie was convinced to throw itself into the effort for World War II, not for humanitarian reasons, but because there was so much money to be made in the war, and the extension of U.S. domination over the rest of the world. In World War II, enormous profits were made off the backs of the laboring population in this country, imposed by the ban on strikes and the military breaking of those that did break out. The government ran up a vast amount of debt to pay for the military, providing enormous profits to the corporations and the big banks – which meant higher taxes in the future for working people to pay off this debt. After everything history has demonstrated about that war, the “progressives” still would use it as a model to peddle the lie that the bourgeoisie would forgo its profit today for ten years in the interest of the common good.

To deal with what industrialization under the control of capitalism has done to this planet requires that the hold of capital on the state apparatus not only be shaken, but overthrown. It requires a vast social mobilization, whose goal can only be socialist revolution, the elimination of the bourgeoisie as a class and the taking of and exercising of power by the working class, using it to reorganize society to meet the needs of the population. If that were to happen, the working class would undoubtedly have many items of a first priority other than those the two sponsors of “Green New Deal” thought up.

It’s obvious that the rhetoric of a few Democrats has changed. But the Democratic Party has long shown itself ready to put forward one policy in its rhetoric, while carrying out another one in practice. Party leaders along with most of the Democrats newly elected in 2018 have already publicly reminded their “left-wing” colleagues that the Democratic Party is a “big tent,” where everyone’s ideas can be laid out, but one which in the end has to work in a “practical way to win elections” – and then “to govern the country” prudently.

The Democratic Party has long pretended to be “a big tent,” one which welcomes working people into its voting ranks, but puts their interests aside in order to get elected, and then puts them aside in order to govern!

Nonetheless, the buzz on social media about the new “socialist” stars of the Democratic party, about diversity, and about the slogans said to have socialist content have already brought the loose left to fall into a rapturous swoon, joined by at least parts of organizations like the ISO and by some of the remnants of the CP. As for the more traditional left, they may not openly support the Democrats, but most indulge in speculation on the slogan “Green New Deal.” The SWP, trying to distance itself from this stance, sometimes seems to confuse Trump with the workers who voted for him. However others position themselves, we can be sure we will be going against the grain of the time period.

Needed: A Communist Perspective

What is needed is to give another perspective to the working class, a communist perspective, the aim of socialist revolution. The prospect of a struggle of the working class to impose its own solutions, to organize its own society may seem very far away. Revolutionaries may seem out of touch when they raise this prospect. But the role of communist revolutionaries is to prepare the future: to discuss the possibilities that are inherent in the situation and the necessity for the working class to fight for its own interests, to win workers to that prospect. When workers do begin to move, it’s necessary that there already be worker militants who understand the direction in which they need to try to lead their class.

What workers need is a wider perspective, the big picture, something that helps explain the trap they feel they are in today. Struggles can run into difficulties, but in the past workers overcame those same kinds of difficulties. It is true few people are fighting today. But revolutionaries should be able to talk about other times when this seemed to be the case, only to have the whole apple cart turned upside down, Paris in 1871, Russia in 1917, Detroit in 1967, for example.

Trying to understand the situation today, means thinking about social history in this country, not from the standpoint of how the unions or the Democrats tell it – but from the standpoint of what possibilities were implicit in events, and why they were not realized. We need to keep in the front of our minds, not only what people accomplished, but what they lost. Both the 1930s and the 1960s carried within them the possibilities for social revolution, but neither the working class nor the black population carried their struggles up to the end of those possibilities. The problem is not what the laboring masses did not do. It’s what revolutionaries, who were there at the time, did not even try to do to prepare for those possibilities, to grab at them.

Those struggles produced a certain number of reforms. Reforms like Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid were the price that capital paid to rein the struggles back within the framework of class society. It was a very small price compared to the price paid by the working class: the lost chance at revolution in both of those periods.

We should remember that the opportunity lost in the 1930s led directly to the evisceration of the working class by fascism and World War II, with 100 million or so people killed and much of the planet’s productive capacity wasted by the war’s vast arsenal. The opportunity lost in the 1960s led directly to the moral evisceration of the working class we see today. Of course, we should accuse capitalism for what it has done to the people of the world, including in this country. But the responsibility for a working class that remains essentially rudderless up to today lies with all those who were cheerleaders during those movements, but never fought to give them a different perspective.

Capitalism, like any social order, rests on the passive acceptance of exploitation and oppression. One can take part in a strike, even fight militantly, yet nonetheless accept exploitation and oppression. It depends on the goals workers give to their fight. And the goals workers need for their fights, goals inextricably leading to revolution, must come from militants who are communists, in the philosophical sense of this term.