The Spark

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

The Situation in the United States, 2020

Jan 31, 2021

The following text of orientation has been circulated among the Spark organization.

Covid-19: A Medical Catastrophe with Economic, Social and Political Roots

In the country that today brags of having 19 of the top 25 biomedical research institutions in the world, the country that spends more money per capita on medical care than any other country in the world, a previously unknown, but not unexpected, deadly virus has led to a human catastrophe beyond anything seen in the United States for at least 100 years.

By November 3, Election Day, Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, had touched every county in the continental United States, except one. It had spread from the two coasts where the virus had first incubated, and from cities, which seemed to be its natural breeding ground. Prairie states with low population density like the Dakotas were suffering greater per capita rates of infection than were more populous states; and the small town and rural areas in Midwestern and Southern states, more than the big cities.

By January 20, Inauguration Day, more than 24.3 million cases of Covid had been reported, with more than 400,000 deaths directly attributed to it. The predictions of a “dark winter” were playing out in real time. It took four months and one week for the virus to claim the first 100,000 lives; three months and three weeks to record the second 100,000; two months and three weeks to record the third; but only five weeks to bring the total up to 400,000. States that earlier had seemed to bring the spread of the disease under some control—states like California, Arizona, New York, South Carolina and Rhode Island—found themselves caught in a new spiral of Covid infections that bypassed earlier surges, with some speculation that Southern California was the breeding ground for a new, more contagious mutation.

The widening medical disaster of Covid revealed and also exacerbated the grossly disproportionate spread of wealth in American society. One’s social class fed into who contracted Covid, who got the best or worse care—or even no care—who recovered and who died. And all of American society’s inequities were laid bare in the Covid statistics: black people fell victim more often than white; immigrant more often than native-born; manual labor more often than headquarters staff; service workers more often than professional classes. The richest neighborhoods in New York City emptied out as the privileged classes left for country getaways when the virus was first raging out of control in the city; other people, those considered “essential” to the every-day running of society, were shoved onto the front lines, in serious danger of contracting the disease. In the first months, many did.

The U.S. public health system—and behind it the larger State bureaucracy of which it is part—proved itself unable to confront the rapidly spreading virus. Even today, more than a year after the first people fell dangerously ill, it still has not managed to organize provision of the essential basic protective equipment needed by medical personnel working with Covid patients, much less to distribute masks to the population, as should be done. It did not organize and provide the means for testing and tracing to be carried out, which is an essential condition for limiting the spread of the disease. Even now, it has not started to organize a unified national study of the ways in which the virus is mutating and evolving. Finally, even as new vaccines are being touted as the panacea which will “pull us through,” there has been no clearly organized distribution of those vaccines. As vaccines began to be administered, as many as half or more of the staff in nursing homes refused to be vaccinated—and that speaks loudly about the lack of confidence in the whole health-care system, which has not given people much reason to have confidence in it. At the same time, the lack of clarity over distribution led to angry contentions that some people were being vaccinated out of turn. Sites popped up on the internet giving advice on how to “jump the line”; a hack into a big Michigan hospital system by someone trying to set up bogus appointments shut down its vaccinations for the whole day.

The abject failure to confront the virus testifies not only to the virulence of the virus itself, but to the degree by which successive administrations, federal and state, had depleted services like public health in order to channel funds into the hands of a rapacious capitalist class, seeking to protect its wealth in the midst of a decades-long economic crisis. This has left the public health care system, which is supposed to be responsible for the whole country, in a state of shambles.

Certainly, the disaster was compounded by the incompetency of the Trump administration and the enormous personal defects of a megalomaniac president who despised science and viewed all issues through the lens of how he might immediately spin them in order to further his own re-election chances. No one should forget Trump’s declaration to his supporters, who came unmasked to his campaign rallies: the virus was, he said, like a bad cold, sniffles for a few days and then you’re over it—except that some of the people who listened to him didn’t get over it.

But the main problem, at every level of government—federal, state, city and county—was not Trump. It was the decades-long stripping of resources from public health in order to nourish profits and the private wealth of the billionaire class—and this includes by the CDC, NIH, etc., who themselves poured scarce funds into profit-making enterprises.

The pandemic itself became the pretext for funneling more profit to a number of favored companies. Tens of millions of dollars poured into the accounts of companies whose ventilators lay unused in storage because they don’t work. In the very midst of the disaster, contracts to develop, manufacture, distribute and administer the vaccine were drawn up based not on the priority of rapidly getting the largest number of vaccine doses into the arms of the population but of guaranteeing enormous profits to the companies that got the contracts. The new vaccines effectively were the result of research done at publicly funded institutions over the years, but the results of that research were handed over with more government funds to private enterprises to develop for their own profit, including with ownership of the patents and immunity from liability. Were the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna the most efficacious ones that could have been developed based on that research? No one can really say that. What can be said, with assurance, is that the particular vaccines they developed allowed Pfizer and Moderna to get ahead of all the companies engaged in a race to cash in on a world in desperate need of remedies. Public health is not the only service laid waste in the drive of government to feed profit. Roads, public transit, waterways, dams, water systems, firefighting, the post office, and so on—every public service has been crippled. So have been public education, the social welfare system, including unemployment benefits and medical disability payments, as well as prisons and the rest of the so-called “justice system.” Even the state offices responsible for the conduct of elections, the supposed hallmark of this “democratic society,” were bereft of the funds they needed to carry out a safe election in the midst of a spreading virus. Social Security has regressed yearly in relationship to the actual cost of living of seniors. The reductions imposed on each of these programs have been sources of profit channeled by successive administrations into the hands of the capitalist class.

Public health stands out from this overarching, generalized drive only because in the middle of the pandemic, its criminal depletion is the most glaring.

To suppress the spread of the virus, the government bureaucracy at all levels resorted to means that might as well have come from the Middle Ages: essentially, the shuttering of social life and crashing of the economy. For a very significant part of the workforce, employment was suddenly eliminated or severely cut back, temporarily or permanently. Mom & Pop small businesses were hard hit, whether because they were closed by state fiat or because their clientele disappeared. Every state to a greater or lesser degree locked down much of ordinary human social contact—ranging from funerals to the neighborhood tavern; travel was disrupted; public schools were mostly shut, classes shifted “on-line” in a country where 15 million school children live in homes without wi-fi; childcare centers were closed down; seniors living in assisted living facilities or nursing homes were blocked from having visits, even from their closest relatives, and moreover blocked from socializing with each other.

Except in the earliest weeks, the lockdown did not interfere with the ability of most big companies to organize their economic activity and their workforce as they saw fit. Nor did it interfere with the money to be made in speculation—in real estate, as well as the stock market. Over the last year of Covid, the wealth of the nation’s billionaires increased by more than one trillion dollars.

The lockdown carried a terrible human price: elders lived—or died—alone, cut off from family and friends; children were stunted not only in academic development, but also in their social development, extracurricular skills and perhaps, for the youngest, even in the development of their own immune systems; women were forced back out of the workforce, on the risk of leaving small children alone; other women were forced to become teacher, childcare worker and data entry clerk, all at once, all in their own home. Workers in hundreds of industries confronted the choice of staying off the job to protect their lives, only to lose their jobs; or going in to keep the job, at the risk of contracting Covid, and perhaps losing their lives or spreading it to their families. Poverty increased rapidly as did the actual lack of food. And, in the midst of the lockdown, domestic violence and murder increased.

All of this pales when compared to what the populations in a large number of less developed countries have faced in a world dominated by imperialism. Bodies may have stacked up in refrigerated trucks stationed in New York City parking lots in the early days of the epidemic; in Guayaquil, Ecuador, they stacked up in the streets, out in the open. The U.S. may be slow in getting the two authorized vaccines into people’s arms; the population of Brazil and India are having their arms stuck with vaccines less protective and with less surety of their safety, while some African countries have no prospects at all for immunization, given the hold of the pharmaceutical companies over the patents.

Nonetheless, in this, the world’s “richest country”—as the saying goes—the lockdown created a catastrophe that the population could not have imagined one year ago.

Over it all hangs the miasma of superstitions, including those of religion. If one part of the population continued even to deny the reality of Covid; another part didn’t take precautions because God will decide who gets the virus, who will live and who will die; and still another was ready to believe that the virus had been manufactured in a Chinese laboratory and sent over here in helicopters that sprayed it on the population. Wild ideas like these may have floated through social media; some may have been pushed by Trump and certain Republican governors as a way to wash their hands of all responsibility for the disaster. Some were preached in weekly sermons. But wherever they came from, backward ideas gained a hearing based on popular ignorance of basic science, and specifically on the ongoing lack of decent education for large numbers of the popular classes.

Having said that, it’s necessary to recognize that superstition was not seriously challenged by the science and public health establishment whose actions and statements created confusion from the beginning. Just one example: the handling of whether to wear a mask. At first, the population was told a mask wasn’t necessary—instead of being told the simple truth that masks were in short supply. Then people were told to wear a mask to protect themselves. Or was it to protect other people? Or themselves? Or both? The contradictory pieces of advice depended less on newly developed data, than on what public health experts thought at different moments might be the best way to ease the population into doing what was “in their own best interests”—that demeaning stance by “experts” that people resent.

Consider the CDC’s propaganda: don’t take the kids to visit Grandma on Thanksgiving. Politicians visited family. Well-known heads of public health visited family. Executives for big companies visited family. Trump had his coterie down at Mar-a-Lago. And moreover, big companies ran flat out, with workers in much closer proximity to many more people for much longer—but no, the population’s visit to Grandma was at the top of the No-Go list. No one should be surprised that the population—resenting double and triple standards, resenting the implication that it is the cause of the medical crisis—doesn’t listen much to advice from public health, which finally can have serious consequences for the population itself.

There was obviously a great deal of popular suspicion toward the public health and medical establishment—and that can’t all be blamed on “conspiracy theories” and social media. The bottom layers of the population have long been used as subjects for medical experiments. Tuskegee may be emblematic, but it is only a very small part of that history. State prison populations continue to serve as guinea pigs in the testing of drugs. Women who used publicly funded clinics were often the unwitting subjects for testing the efficacy and safety of different types of birth control—ranging from pharmaceutical products to minor surgical procedures. And while the pharmaceutical companies in their blind chase for profit own the responsibility for the damage caused by “wonder drugs” like DES and thalidomide, the use of those drugs was authorized by public health authorities. The chaotic roll-out of the vaccines has done nothing to repair the reputations of these establishments.

It was obvious that the disaster linked to Covid-19 would have repercussions on the election—which it did—but that was nothing compared to its human impact. The numbers of people sickened, the numbers who died, the millions who lost their jobs, the sudden collapse of living standards, the human damage caused by the lockdown—all of these things poured into a great big pot, just sitting there ready to boil over at any moment. Into that bubbling pot, Trump poured a toxic mix of racist, nativist, misogynist slurs.

The Economic Crisis within the Crisis

In 2020, the U.S. went through the worst economic contraction since the early 1930s, that is, 90 years ago. The U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) plunged by more than 35% between March and September. In the following months, there was a partial recovery in GDP. But by the end of the year, GDP was still much lower than it had been the previous year.

This dire economic situation is not due just to the pandemic and the lockdowns. Key sectors of the economy, including corporate investment, construction and manufacturing, had already been declining for a year before the pandemic hit, and the rest of the economy was poised to follow suit. That is, a potentially devastating recession was already taking shape independently of the pandemic. All it took was the coronavirus epidemic to send this stagnant and decaying economy into a collapse.

With the pandemic and the lockdowns, unemployment exploded this spring. The U.S. government said that unemployment reached 15.6% in April, a post-war record high. In reality, joblessness was much higher than that. The New York Times pointed out that the real unemployment rate stood at 27% when all the jobless were counted along with all those forced to work part‑time when they needed a full time job. The only other time there was such widespread unemployment was during the “Great Depression” of the 1930s. The difference is that the loss of jobs during the Depression was more gradual, taking place over a nearly three-year period between 1929 to 1932, while this one took place over a matter of days and weeks.

Despite all the talk about a recovery, by the end of the year, unemployment was still hovering around 20%, when taking everything into account. This level of unemployment is a product of the ordinary workings of capitalism in all of its senility.

First, as in other crises, waves of unemployment have been fed by growing concentration. Big companies have gotten bigger, while hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses have gone under in sectors like retail, hospitality, energy and even health care, which was laying off staff.

Second, big profitable companies have used the crisis as an opportunity to reduce labor costs by “restructuring.” For example, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway raked in profits of 56 billion dollars during the first six months of the pandemic while one of its subsidiary companies laid off more than 13,300 workers. Even big pharmaceuticals, including Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Johnson and Johnson, which stand to make a killing off of the pandemic, all announced layoffs. Of course, companies that had lost money in the middle of the crisis—such as Disney, Boeing and Exxon—used that as the excuse to cut jobs, despite their stupendous accumulated past profits. Larger companies actually laid off a greater portion of their workforce in this period than smaller companies, despite having more resources to survive the downturn.

Third, state and local governments took advantage of the crisis to downsize and “restructure,” just like they have done during every other crisis. Over 2.3 million public-sector jobs have been cut over the last year, with more than half the cuts coming in education.

These mass layoffs are a form of class war against the entire working class, employed and unemployed. Capitalists take advantage of the desperation of the unemployed in order to force them to accept a new job that offers less pay for more work. And they take advantage of the crisis to force their employed workforce to make more sacrifices in order to keep their jobs.

The relief measures passed by Congress, which were supposed to cushion the loss of household income during the pandemic and lockdowns, were a recognition of just how little of the so-called safety net exists for workers in ordinary times: how few of the unemployed are covered by it anymore, and how small the benefits are. Moreover, the collapse and chaos that tens of millions of workers confronted in trying to access those benefits shows just how much the entire system has been degraded over the decades.

Congress granted those supplemental benefits on a very temporary basis, for only four months, originally April through July. So, they lapsed in the middle of the crisis. Then what finally passed in December was of even shorter duration, for even less money. These temporary starts and stops held down their cost to the federal government. It also put companies in a stronger position to take advantage of workers with little or no income.

As a result, in the second half of the year, hunger skyrocketed by 50%, to 54 million people, according to Feed America. That comes to one in every five people in this country who don’t have enough to eat, and it amounts to millions more people than the entire population of Spain. Tens of millions of working people have been reduced to relying on food banks and charities to keep from starving.

As for housing, one in six renters in the country is behind on payments, according to the U.S. Census. Thus, a flood of tens of millions of people face eviction and foreclosure once the government-sanctioned moratoriums run out.

In this most powerful country in the world, capitalism, with all the advanced technology and wealth in its hands, cannot supply even the bare minimum to increasing parts of the population.

In contrast, federal government aid to corporations and the very wealthiest sectors of the society was open-ended and practically limitless. Of the four trillion dollars in relief passed by Congress in March in four separate bills, four-fifths of the aid went to the biggest corporations and the very wealthiest layers of society, according to an analysis done by The Washington Post (October 5). For example, the 43,000 richest individuals in the country got tax breaks worth 1.6 million dollars in one year! Special corporate tax breaks amounted to the entire amount of money spent on supplemental unemployment benefits for tens of millions of people.

On top of that, the Federal Reserve immediately brought out its firehose to flood the market with money, purchasing, from March to June 2020, 1.6 trillion dollars in U.S. Treasuries and 700 billion in mortgage‑backed securities, letting markets know there was virtually no limit to the trillions the Fed was ready to pour into markets.

This aid was used not to produce and invest, but to let corporations pay interest on their own growing debt, as well as assure big returns to their biggest shareholders. Just as lockdowns were being instituted and unemployment was soaring to the highest levels since the Great Depression, Wall Street profits rose in the first half of 2020 by 82% over the year before. The total wealth of U.S. billionaires skyrocketed by 700 billion dollars between March and July 2020, even as the number of those dying from COVID‑19 in the United States continued to mount and as millions of U.S. workers found themselves hit hard by the crisis. Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos experienced an increase in his total wealth by more than 74 billion dollars in 2020, while Tesla’s Elon Musk saw his wealth increase in 2020 by 76 billion.

This payoff to the capitalist class comes with a price. The enormous financial operations for the profit of a few are vacuuming up ever more wealth produced by the working class through higher interest payments on debt, more dividends and higher executive salaries. This leaves less money for wages and benefits, less money for productive investment. The capitalists’ drive for ever greater profits and wealth is a dead weight on the economy, reducing consumption and worsening the underlying crisis.

By backstopping big losses of the capitalists and their companies, the Federal Reserve is only encouraging the capitalists to do more of the same. That means the growth of ever more debt and speculation, and ever greater financial bubbles, which will one day collapse, paving the way for bigger catastrophes.

A Demagogue in the White House and the Extreme Right

For a few days immediately after the January 6 invasion of the Capitol building, it seemed Donald Trump had become a pariah.

Hypocrisy was on display. The Business Roundtable issued reproaches, so did the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation—along with a long list of companies. The PGA moved its tournament from Trump property, Shopify removed Trump-branded clothing sold on its website. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube permanently banned him. Banks and brokerages and many major companies threatened to cut off funding not only to Trump, but to the 138 Republican representatives and senators who gave credence to Trump’s wild claims of having won a “landslide” victory. Even Deutschebank, the last major bank to continue loan arrangements with Trump companies, announced it was done with him. And Republican leaders of both the House and the Senate indicated they were ready to break with Trump. Senate Minority Leader McConnell said, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president.” House Minority Leader McCarthy said Trump “bears responsibility” for the mob attack and implied he should in some way be held to account for his actions.

The fact that this demagogue might broadly hint to his supporters that they should march on the Capitol in order to overturn by force the results of an election he lost—did this shock anyone? Really?

What Trump did on January 6 was completely in keeping with his behavior while occupying the White House. For four years, he had played to and reinforced the extreme right. He put forward a persona appealing to their world view. He was, in turn, a locker-room braggart claiming his celebrity gave him access to any woman’s body he wanted; a racist in the style of those 1950s Southern “populist” governors who insisted that leaders of the KKK were among some of the “finest” people in their states; an “America first” loudmouth playing to nativism by the toughest means—for example, separating migrant children from their parents; AND a self-serving self-made man, using the political game in pursuit of his own fortune.

Trump didn’t hide what he is. Long before he announced for office in 2015, he had racked up a record as an unreconstructed racist. In 2011, he had been the driving force behind a campaign to invalidate the nation’s first Afro-American president as “a foreigner” born in Kenya, thus ineligible—playing to white supremacist ideas that a black man as president was not acceptable in “their” America. Two decades before, Trump had provided the money and exposure behind a virulent public campaign to convict five black and Latino teenagers falsely accused of raping a white female jogger in Central Park. No symbol, no implication was too gross for Trump’s billboards and full page ads in the New York Times and other papers which conveyed the idea that those five teens were raving beasts whose aim was to rape any white woman they ran across. He stridently called for putting them to death. As recently as last year, long after their convictions had been overturned, he called on Federal authorities to retry them on “hate-crime” charges.

Within days of announcing his 2016 candidacy, in a storm of tweets, he characterized Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, and Muslims as terrorists. The wall—which he promised to construct on the border with Mexico—was the physical expression of his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” (MAGA), which meant, in his racist universe, keeping out the dark-skinned hordes poised to overwhelm white, Anglo-Saxon Christian America.

For four years, his Twitter account was filled with derisive physical descriptions mocking particular women. He defended himself from women who accused him of physically abusing them by asserting he couldn’t have done that, they were too ugly.

For four years, he pounded out a drum beat defending the so-called “Constitutional right” to bear arms. After 17 people were killed at a Parkland Florida high school shot up by a young fanatic with a military-style weapon, some of the survivors began a campaign to restrict such weapons. Trump re-tweeted claims that the students were paid actors. When militia members porting automatic rifles demonstrated in the Michigan capital against medical restrictions, he tweeted, “liberate Michigan.” When some of those militia members were caught in a plot to kidnap and perhaps kill the Democratic governor of Michigan, he tweeted, “Whitmer wants to be a dictator.... The people can’t stand her.”

In July 2020, his Justice Department announced it was resuming executions of federal prisoners. For 17 years, there had been no federal execution. But Trump’s administration—in a bid to demonstrate his toughness—scheduled 10 to be carried out over four months’ time. Thirty-five percent of those to be killed were black, roughly three times their share of the population.

During the summer’s demonstrations protesting the murder of George Floyd, his Attorney General called out heavily armed military forces to disrupt a legally permitted demonstration, so Trump could have a photo-op with a bible. In August 2020, when a 17-year-old white supremacist killed two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with a rifle he had brought from Illinois, Trump supported the killer as someone simply defending himself—who traveled 15 miles to do it! In the October 2020 debate with Biden, Trump called on the nativist and misogynist Proud Boys who had been coursing through Portland, Oregon, to “stand back and stand by.” As far back as August 2017, Trump had extended his hand to “the fine people” who gathered to “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia: neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Christian nationalists and armed militias.

On January 6, Trump called on these “fine people” for violence, based on wild, conspiracy-based claims, untethered from reality. But it wasn’t just the day before yesterday that he plunged his followers down that rabbit hole. For the better part of a year, in anticipation of losing the election, he had called on Republican officials to “purge” voting rolls in big cities where black voters predominated; he called on his followers to flood the ballot boxes with hundreds of fake ballots—to counteract, of course, the fake ballots he said were being cast by his opponents in certain (i.e., black) precincts; he called on his followers to bust into the polls in suspicious (i.e., black) precincts to “prevent fraud.” He called on the Georgia Republican official responsible for elections to find exactly the number of votes he needed in order to win Georgia’s electoral votes.

What Trump did on January 6 was a logical conclusion to the last four years of his presidency.

But January 6 was not simply or even essentially a question of Trump, neither man nor myth. The invasion of the Capitol on January 6 marks the kind of period we are in—an unsettled period, with extreme economic dislocation—the kind of period when a demagogue like Trump can gain a following for himself by demeaning and attacking the traditions of political life, by expressing crudely what other politicians express politely and only imply. Trump’s policies were not different than 99% of Republican policies—nor most Democratic ones, either. What made Trump different was his awareness that the path to his personal success ran through the extreme right. Trump didn’t create the extreme right. He figured out—or maybe simply by accident hit upon—how to tap it.

We shouldn’t exaggerate the strength of this extreme right, despite its “success” on January 6. January 6 was not an “insurrection”—it wasn’t pushed forward by a popular uprising; it wasn’t planned and coordinated enough to use its position once inside the Capitol to do much of anything other than take a few souvenirs. It wasn’t a “coup.” Despite the militias, despite individual cops, former military and even a few National Guard among the mob of invaders, there was never any possibility that the military was about to engage itself in crushing civilian government. If it needs to be said what January 6 was not, it’s only because so many people have grabbed hold of those words to explain it, ignoring the fact that the “success” of the mob’s invasion of the Capitol owed more to the decision not to confront Trump’s demonstration—a decision taken by police authorities and behind them the political leadership of both parties—than to any organized strength of the mob.

But we also shouldn’t underestimate the possibilities inherent for the development of this extreme right in the current situation. White supremacists, Christian nationalists and xenophobic nativists have existed forever in this country, waxing and waning with the needs of the ruling class. Even when they were deadly, as in Oklahoma City or Columbine High School, they were marginal. And that had been true for almost half a century. They still are somewhat marginal today. But they have gained wider attention. It’s too early to tell if the success the mob had on January 6 will mark a real leap forward for the extreme right.

This extreme right is not comprised of Trump’s 74 million voters—not by the wildest stretch of anyone’s imagination. Certainly among this 74 million are people who agree with the reactionary views of the extreme right, people whose racial antagonism would bring them to justify the killing of George Floyd; people who despise Jews and Muslims; people who applaud when Trump separates migrant children from their parents at the border. There are all those from the wealthy classes, who in their large majority always vote Republican, and from the “educated” layers, who in a closer majority still supported him.

But, still, there are all the others. And among those others are a great many made desperate by the collapsing of capitalist society, even though they are not aware that capitalism is at the root of their desperation. Some of them are “small” farmers, losing their land, some of them small businesspeople barely able to survive even before the shutdown, many of them workers—the kind who work in rural areas, a few people in a small workplace, people who have to work to survive, but whose isolated conditions of work do not give them much possibility to organize collective actions. Many of them live in areas where the one factory in the region has been shut down. Some live in the suburbs and work in all kinds of jobs, in big and small workplaces. What unites them is desperation—and anger at “the establishment” that created the situation: the “swamp” that Trump promised to drain.

Trump acknowledged that desperation. He did nothing to alleviate it. But he acknowledged it over and over again. Neither the rest of his party, nor the Democratic Party did the same thing. That’s what allowed Trump not only to keep his electoral base from 2016, but also to increase it and to widen it. He touched only a minority of Mexican American and Puerto Rican voters, but it was a noticeably larger minority this time. It’s important to note that he made a small inroad into the usually solid black support for the Democrats.

The danger in this situation is that Trump—or someone like him, perhaps more efficient than him—can turn people’s desperation against other parts of the laboring population. Obviously, the racial and ethnic and religious antagonisms he stokes go in that direction. The danger hasn’t lessened because he has been “banished” to Mar-a-Lago, become a persona non grata. (And just to note: many of the official denunciations of Trump in the days after January 6 seemed nearly forgotten by the end of January.)

In a situation where the working class has not begun to move, nor to offer perspectives to other parts of the laboring people, the antagonisms spread by a demagogue like Trump can play an outsize role, all the more so when they are wrapped in a kind of populist package, counterposing, at least rhetorically, all those “hard-working Americans” to the “privileged elite.”

And Now What?

Last June, a sudden, vast explosion of outrage burst out over the police killing of George Floyd. Begun as a local flash of anger to one killing—which we’ve seen before—it turned into wider demonstrations linking grievances from everywhere. George Floyd and very quickly Breonna Taylor came to symbolize all those who had been killed by cops, while “say their name” became the way to recognize so many others. The protest streamed out across the country, from big cities, to towns, even to rural villages—including in those places where Trump had his base. It touched every part of the population: black, white, the varying parts of what is often lumped together as one single “Latino” population. Old, young—especially the young. It sprang out of churches and neighborhoods, out of schools, even those closed. It opened up the “lockdown.”

It’s been said, it was the biggest social movement ever. In terms of numbers, yes, and the speed with which it broke out. It certainly demonstrated the falsity of believing that because “nothing is happening” that nothing ever will. It showed that American society, with all its ills, is pregnant with the possibility of explosions.

But the movement also receded, even if some trace of it still lives in collective memory. In fact, it was a movement that had been led into an impasse, focusing on reforming the behavior of the police, trying to discipline the police by defunding them—even getting rid of them. But it ignored their role. The police, like the armed forces behind them, stand as guardians of the capitalist class which lives off the exploitation of working people, which includes the severe exploitation of black workers. The police will not be “defunded,” the police will not be removed unless the population gains the understanding that it must get rid of the class the police defend.

Such understanding doesn’t come automatically, it doesn’t just spring from hard-earned experience. There must be people who put this aim forward, that is, there must be a revolutionary working class party, a communist party, or at least its beginnings, able to connect with the population. And that party remains to be built.

This is a period unlike any we have lived before—neither as an organization, nor as individuals. Events are speeding up. The collapse of the real economy is making life untenable for larger swaths of the population. The political framework is becoming unstuck. Where this goes does not depend on us, but on whether and when the working class will mobilize to struggle in its own interests.

What does depend on us is whether we maintain ourselves, and first of all whether we have confidence in our own program and our own history.

We made choices at the beginning. Those choices did not seem so obvious—no one else in this country, and few in the rest of the world were making them. But we had links with the militants who created the organization that became Lutte Ouvrière. They had chosen to work to build a Trotskyist organization in the working class, a revolutionary communist organization. And we made that same choice.

At critical moments we reaffirmed that choice. Others sought to give priority to union activity, which sometimes boiled down to courting union “oppositionists.” Others sought to bring “the left” together, on the basis of the minimum possible political agreement, in order “to have forces to meet the situation.” Others gravitated to the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie, which seemed quicker to respond, or to the movements spawned out of it.

We chose to struggle in the working class—or the part of it in front of us—for our ideas, for our program, the Trotskyist program, the Marxism/Leninism of our day. The editorial in our newsletters is the symbol of that struggle today.

We maintained our international links. The working class is an international class. And we have seen all those organizations that claimed to be communist degenerate in a nationalist direction when they sought to go it alone.

The period ahead almost certainly will be more difficult than periods we have known—and it may well be disorienting. But the choice we make will be simple: to continue our work to build an organization in the working class, to maintain the political basis we already have, to stick to revolutionary communism.