The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

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

The Political and Social Situation

Mar 1, 2013

The following analysis of the political and social situation in the United States, which was written March 1, 2013, was adopted by the militants of the Spark organization in a meeting of the whole organization in April.

2012 Elections: More Money—Fewer Voters

The elections dominated the political scene all during 2012, from January to November.

The 2012 presidential election may have been the most expensive ever—upwards of six billion dollars, when everything is counted, twice as much as the previous presidential election, which itself had set a record. All that money bought more TV ads, more radio ads, more flyers to our mailboxes, more “robocalls” and fake survey calls to our phones. In other words, more aggravation.

But those extra dollars didn’t bring out more voters. In fact, only 57% of the voting age population voted, down from 62% in 2008. Despite a growing electorate, two million fewer people voted this year than 2008. Overall, about 93 million eligible voters, mainly working class, poor and young, didn’t bother to vote. That doesn’t count the roughly 20 million non-citizen immigrants, with or without papers, who weren’t allowed to vote.

Barack Obama won a second term by a comfortable margin in the electoral college, getting 332 to Mitt Romney’s 206 votes. He also beat Romney in nine out of the 10 battleground states. In fact, those figures hide the fact that Obama won by a much closer margin of the vote this time than in 2008, with only 2.8% more of the popular vote, compared to 7.3% more in 2008. In raw numbers, he actually had about four million fewer votes than he had in 2008.

Obama’s lower vote should have come as no surprise. During all four years of his term, he presided over a bad economy, a nearly three-year long jobless recovery. Ordinarily that would have led to defeat for a sitting president.

The surprise is not that Obama won by a smaller margin, but that he won at all. He certainly didn’t win because he gave working people any reason to vote for him. All that “Yes we can” business of four years ago was long forgotten. Obama clearly followed in Bush’s footsteps on the major policy issues: the two wars, increasingly unpopular, the bailout of the banks and big corporations, which both administrations made the working population pay for with cuts in jobs, benefits and services.

Most black workers seem to support Obama, in part because of the blatant racism of some of the attacks on Obama and undoubtedly because of the historical significance that a black man was finally elected president. But there was less enthusiasm this year for Obama himself. That was reflected in the fact that a slightly lower percentage of the black population voted in 2012 than in 2008.

Obama won, despite the economy, despite his record, despite the lower turnout, because the Republicans scared a lot of people. That was certainly the single strongest sentiment we ran into during the months leading up to the election.

Playing to Reaction, the Republicans May Have Lost ... the Presidency and the Senate

The Republicans played on every backward idea, aiming their campaign at the most reactionary parts of the population—even more than usual. Many people were disgusted by the reactionary rhetoric and policies spouted by the Republicans: the frequent racist undertones in the attacks against Obama, the open hostility to basic workers’ rights and women’s reproductive rights, the immigrant bashing and gay bashing, and the Republicans’ efforts to trash Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

In the midst of the campaign, Romney was videotaped, caught saying that 47% of the population don’t work, pay no taxes and live off government handouts—so he wasn’t going to concern himself with them. After that, it became a kind of bitter joke: “I’m unemployed—I’m part of that 47%.”

The Republicans gave almost everyone in the popular layers of the population a reason to make every effort to vote against them.

The same reactions played out in the Senate races. There, also, if things had followed their usual course, the Democrats should have lost seats, perhaps even their majority in the 2012 election. They held most of the senate seats up for a vote—23 out of 33—including in states like Montana, Missouri, Nebraska and North Dakota that often vote Republican. Instead, overall the Democrats picked up two seats, increasing their lead in the U.S. Senate to a 53 to 45 margin. In addition, the two independents, including one who took a Republican seat in 2012, are expected to vote with the Democrats.

The presidential election may have focused on the so-called “battleground states,” that is, those states that can switch back and forth, but usually go with the winner. But the outcome in the Senate was determined in those states, often normally Republican states, where so-called “Tea-Party-backed candidates” won the Republican primary by appealing to a very reactionary segment of the Republican electorate, spouting attacks on abortion, immigrants, unions, gays, etc., a rhetoric that came back to sabotage any chance the Republicans had of winning the Senate in the November election. Twelve of the 16 Senate candidates backed by the Tea Party lost, including in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia. And 12 out of 13 candidates who openly took an anti-abortion stance lost.

The Demographics Illusion

The common explanation for the 2012 presidential and senate results was, in one word, “demographics.”

Supposedly, the Democrats are increasingly favored by a demographic explosion: that is, the U.S. is becoming more black and brown. Add to that women—and the Republicans face insurmountable odds, according to this scenario. The conclusion the big media draws from this is that the Republicans will have to renounce Tea Party support and find a way to appeal more to the “center.

It’s a real misreading of the election, of Republican strategy and of the political situation.

First of all, the so-called “demographic” issue. Yes, there was an increase in the percentage that Hispanic, Asian and black voters represented out of the total vote. But that was not because they turned out in significantly higher numbers, compared to their total numbers in the population. Hispanic vote participation was up a little bit; Asian participation a bit more; black participation was, in fact, down. But the big change came among white voters, a large number of whom—about eight million voters—sat out this election. That’s why their share of the overall electorate decreased from 74% in 2008 to 72% in 2012. Whites are not today a smaller part of the potential electorate, given the differing rates of turnout. But even if that 72% marked a real decrease in potential voters, if the issue were only “demographics” in the racial and ethnic sense that term is usually used, 72% is still a dominant figure.

Women, including white women, were supposed to make up the difference. But the spread among women voters in this election—55% for Obama to 45% for Romney—while important, was not overwhelming. If in the midst of the really misogynous 2012 Republican election campaign, Democrats can muster only 55% of the women’s vote, that speaks strongly to the existence of other factors behind the choices made by different blocs of voters.

The issue was not “demographics” in the sense that the bourgeois press—as well as a good part of the left—spoke about it. It was class, which class, or part of a class, votes for which party—and, equally important, which one, fed up with both parties, doesn’t vote. The white voters who stayed home this time seemed to be mostly from those rural areas particularly hard hit by the recession. Given the choice between a super-wealthy financial wheeler-dealer and a president who presided over four years of tough times, a number of poorer whites chose no one. As a result, a larger part of the whites who voted in 2012 were from better-off layers of the population, with the result that a larger percentage of the whites voted for Romney in 2012, 59%, compared to 55% for McCain in 2008.

But there is an even more basic misreading of the political scene. For some time, the Republican Party has parlayed support from a rabid, but small minority into electoral success. The Republicans have consciously aimed at the most reactionary parts of the electorate, what has come to be known as “the Tea Party” vote. When they controlled state legislatures, they implemented policies that pleased the reactionary views of that electorate. In a way, it’s the Republican version of a “popular” electorate, made up to a good extent by middle class people, but also by some fringe parts of the working class, particularly in small towns, rural areas and some suburban areas. Often, it is made up of people on whom the destructive content of religion weighs heavily.

Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Every poll has shown for years that the majority—a sizeable majority—of the population supports women’s right to choose for themselves. BUT a rabid minority can outweigh that majority in the electoral arena—all the more so, because behind that rabid minority is money. And that’s exactly what happened in this election.

The Republican Party, unable to match the working class voting base of the Democratic Party—even though parts of the working class always defect to the Republicans—makes up for it by attracting a minority passionately attracted to issues the Republicans are free to play on, issues that don’t really disturb the bourgeoisie. Taking their cues—and often the wording of their bills—from rightwing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Republicans carried out a head-on assault on a wide range of democratic rights and social issues.

What does it cost the bourgeoisie when Republicans in control of state legislatures pass dozens or even hundreds of bills based on those issues? Very little.

Sometimes, the Republicans were forced to retreat a little. When Republican members of the Michigan legislature tried to attach an anti-abortion amendment to the legislation turning Blue Cross/Blue Shield from a non-profit into a mutual insurance company, for example, the insurance industry indicated it was displeased. The Republican leadership stepped back. Sometimes, the Republicans were forced to retreat a lot when their stance put them at odds with the overall interest of the bourgeoisie, as it did on the issue of “immigration reform.”

But overall, Republican fomenting of reactionary sentiments serves the bourgeoisie—and, what is important for the Republican Party, it gives them a voting base. Why would the Republicans throw that voting base away? And why would the bourgeoisie require them to? The spiel of reactionary garbage coming out of Republican mouths today can serve to lay the groundwork for organized reaction in the future.

The Republicans Kept Control of the House and the States

The Republicans did not “lose the election.” They lost the White House and the Senate. But they kept their control over the House of Representatives, even if their margin is somewhat smaller than it was. And, what is even more important in some ways, they kept control over the majority of state legislatures. And they did both of those things with only a minority of the vote.

In fact, the Republicans bragged about that. In a report called, “How a Strategy of Targeting State Legislative Races in 2010 Led to a Republican U.S. House Majority in 2013,” the Republican State Leadership Committee insisted on it, saying: “... voters pulled the lever for Republicans only 49 per cent of the time in congressional races, suggesting that 2012 would have been a repeat of 2008, when voters gave control of the White House and both chambers of Congress to the Democrats. But, as we see today, that was not the case. Instead, Republicans enjoy a 33-seat margin in the U.S. House... having endured Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.

There is no reason to believe the Republicans have renounced their Tea Party base.

In 2010, the Republican Party had taken advantage of the popular disappointment with Democratic policies in the first two years of Obama’s term not only to regain control of the House of Representatives, but also to take control of state legislatures. They were aided in the state efforts by a loose network of billionaire and millionaire donors, strategists and conservative political groups, which poured money and resources into states that had been under Democratic control: especially, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. In Michigan, for example, conservative super PAC’s—including Americans for Prosperity, founded by David and Charles Koch; the Republican State Leadership Committee, funded by big corporations and wealthy individuals and led by former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie; and American Crossroads, founded by Karl Rove—joined with a coalition of local business groups and wealthy donors, including the DeVos family, which owns, among other things, Amway.

The Republicans poured many more resources into the 2010 and 2012 state elections than did the Democrats. Dollars go further in these races; $250,000 won’t win or lose a U.S. Senate race, or even a congressional campaign, but in a state assembly or state senate election it can overwhelm the opposition.

The strategy was successful. Twenty-two state house or senate chambers flipped from Democratic to Republican in 2010; none went the other way. The Republicans ended up controlling the entire legislature in 26 states, 12 more than they had going into the 2010 elections. They maintained this control in the 2012 election. In only three of those states is the governor a Democrat. The Democrats maintained control of both houses in only 16 states. It was the largest control by Republicans of state legislatures since the 1920s. In Texas, a Republican majority turned into a super majority, that is, Democrats are no longer needed to make up a quorum. The Republicans also gained in 2010 and kept in 2012 a large majority in former Democratic strongholds in the industrial heartland, including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Indiana. Wisconsin was particularly notable because Democrats had regained control of the Wisconsin Senate in 2011 after several successful recalls of Republican legislators, only to lose it back in 2012.

The 2010 victories at the state level put the Republicans in a position to control the redistricting process, that is, to redraw congressional and legislative boundaries following the 2010 census. And that is exactly what they did.

The redistricting done by state legislatures had a big impact on the 2012 elections. Among other things, it helps to explain the 2012 reversal in Wisconsin.

The Republican redistricting created congressional districts often shaped like noodles, snaking through five or six counties. As a result, in Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates received 83,000 more votes than the Republicans. But the Republicans gained about three-quarters of the congressional seats. In North Carolina, more than half the voters voted for Democratic representation, yet Republicans will fill about 70 per cent of the seats. In Michigan, voters cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress.

This is not to say that the Democrats didn’t gerrymander also. In Maryland, Democrats got 62 per cent of the combined vote in House races and 88 per cent of the congressional seats. In Illinois they won 54 per cent of the vote and about two-thirds of the congressional seats.

But Republicans controlled many more state legislatures coming out of the 2010 elections, when large numbers of working class voters, fed up with Democratic control, sat out the election. Thus, the Republicans were able to take advantage of the 2010 census to solidify their control both in the state governments and in the House of Representatives.

The report by the Republican State Leadership Committee after the 2012 election spelled out the Republican strategy: “Controlling the redistricting process in these states would have the greatest impact on determining how both state legislative and congressional district lines would be drawn. Drawing new lines in states with the most redistricting activity presented the opportunity to solidify conservative policymaking at the state level and maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade.

There is no reason to believe that Republicans will renounce that strategy nor the appeal to reaction on which it is based. In fact, it’s obvious from the discussion going on in the Republican Party since the 2012 election that what the party heads wish to do is “tune it up.” Karl Rove’s statement in this regard is significant. He wants the party apparatus to be able to exert more control over candidates chosen for the top of the ticket—for president and the U.S. Senate—where the appeal to the extreme-right has been counterproductive. It’s clear, from the special party report, that the party apparatus is trying to figure a way to avoid the kind of blood-letting that really harmed Romney in the primaries, giving Obama an important lead before he even started his campaign.

Elections Over, the Push for Austerity Resumes

Within days of the election, Obama adopted Romney’s main campaign issue, the soaring national debt. Of course, neither Obama nor Romney raised the very things that have pushed that debt up: two wars and all the other costs associated with being the biggest imperialism in the world; tax cuts to the wealthy going back decades; the interest on the debt itself; outrageous medical expenses which drain money out of government medical programs—not to mention the bank and auto bailouts.

A number of CEO’s from the biggest corporations and four of the big five Wall Street banks, rushing to reinforce the campaign about the debt, signed a pledge that they would be willing to have their own personal taxes increased by 5% if the two parties can agree to make the “difficult choices” to rein in spending.

The biggest banks came in right behind them as the rating agencies they control threatened another downgrade of U.S. debt if Congress doesn’t find a way to reduce the “debt.”

Using the threat of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” an arbitrary deadline that both parties themselves had set, the two parties conspired to ram through a new attack on the population—a 2% increase in the Social Security payroll tax. Congress had cut this tax two years before. Since the payroll tax is imposed from the first dollar earned up to $113,700, it really is a two per cent pay cut for every worker—at least those making less than $113,700. And which worker makes more? All the propaganda about how Democrats had forced the Republicans to agree to increase taxes on the wealthy buried news about this tax increase on working people.

Obama’s office trumpeted the idea that the increased taxes on the wealthy fulfilled his electoral promise to make the wealthy “pay their fair share.” But that tax increase on the rich turned out to be tiny, and they end up paying anything but a “fair share.”

The propaganda about making the wealthy pay also hid a great big gift to the wealthy: a whole series of formerly temporary tax cuts for the wealthy—including taxes on very large inheritances, capital gains, dividends and interest—were made permanent. Moreover, the two parties also quietly slipped through hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the biggest corporations and banks. A single one of these tax breaks is said to be worth three billion dollars per year for General Electric.

And that was just the beginning. The Democrats and Republicans set a new fiscal cliff deadline, March 1, this time calling it “sequester”—which kicked in, with its enormous across-the-board cuts in domestic and some military spending.

In the two years since December 2010, the Democrats and Republicans had repeatedly slashed domestic spending. These cuts will gradually take hold over the next 10 years. By the time all the cuts already made take effect, domestic spending by the federal government will decline from 3% to 1.5% of projected GDP (according to estimates made of projected growth of the population and of the economy.)

Obama has boated several times that this will bring domestic spending down to levels much lower than it had been under Ronald Reagan; in fact, down to levels not seen since the Eisenhower administration.

Thousands of programs and services are being cut, programs that reach every person in the country through education, health care, infrastructure maintenance and construction, environmental protection, workplace, food and drug safety, to name just a few. Much of this money is administered through state and local governments and agencies. And that means more devastating cuts in state and local employment for years and years, as well.

The Big Attack: Social Security “Reform”

This whole campaign revolving about debt, fiscal cliff and “sequester” has been used to justify cuts in the so-called “entitlements,” that is, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

These entitlements contain the biggest sources of money coveted by the bourgeoisie, with the richest prize, the trust fund for the Social Security retirement pension, containing about three trillion dollars. Cuts to these programs will directly enable the government to funnel more money from the working population into military spending, into other programs that directly enrich the bourgeoisie and into repayment of the debt the government owes to the banks—as the result of bailing out the banks.

Cuts to the entitlements had already been proposed in 2011. Obama and Boehner had come close to agreeing to over several trillion dollars in cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as part of a “grand bargain,” involving 10 trillion dollars in cuts and tax increases. Those cuts included upping the eligibility age for Medicare benefits from 65 to 67 and changing the formula for cost of living adjustments for Social Security in order to allow inflation to gradually reduce the value of the benefits, as the New York Times first revealed.

The “grand bargain” fell apart, done in by maneuvering between the parties, each one trying to put the blame for the cuts on the other.

Different than many other domestic programs, Social Security and Medicare impact directly or indirectly almost the entire population in a single national program. They have always been a tricky target for the bourgeoisie—more exactly, for its politicians. The political firestorms that politicians have run into when they openly tried to cut Social Security benefits illustrated why it was called “The Third Rail of Politics.”

But, of course, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have been cut—and many times. Medicaid has been cut by bits and pieces, often state by state. Medicare has been cut indirectly by medical inflation, and by requiring recipients to pay a bigger share of the costs and increasing the premiums they pay. Social Security benefits have also been chipped away by inflation. According to economist John Williams of the Shadow Government Statistics website, the government has changed the Consumer Price Index (CPI) so much over the years that: “Social Security checks would be about doubled had the various changes not been made.”

Moreover, the age for full retirement benefits was raised. In 1983, the Reagan administration and the Democratically leadership of the House pushed through a Social Security “reform” that gradually increased the age when full benefits would be available, from 65 to 67 in 2022. When fully implemented, the increase in age will amount to a 20 per cent benefit cut. But the age increase had been phased in so slowly, and put off so far into the future that it almost wasn’t noticeable at the time it was passed.

Undoubtedly, something similar is on the agenda today. The fact is that big capital has wanted to put its hands on the money involved in these “entitlements” for years. The inability of the two parties to deliver is one of the major unresolved issues of the past four presidencies.

The Other Big Attack: Immigration “Reform”

The other unresolved issue on the bourgeoisie’s wish list—what has been called “comprehensive immigration reform”—was put on the legislative agenda almost as soon as the 2012 elections were over.

In 2005, after re-election to his second—and final—term, George Bush, claiming he had a mandate and he intended to use it, let it be known that he wanted a “reform” of both Social Security and immigration. “Immigration reform” has some of the same problems for the two parties, trying to find an agreement: it can spark opposition from a range of forces wide apart on the political spectrum—from Tea Party types to trade union leaders to white and black workers fearful for their jobs. Bush was forced to drop both projects.

This has not prevented Obama, now that he is safely back in his second—and last—term, from pushing the issues forward again, more subtly perhaps than Bush, but with equal insistence.

At this point, no one knows what will be in the final immigration bill at the level of details—or even if it will be passed. But from what has been said publicly, and from what we know was in the various versions of Kennedy-McCain back in 2006-07, and what was in the so-called “immigration amnesty” of 1986, we can say without any hesitation that it will be once again an attack on the immigrants without papers.

In fact, we have very little to add to the way we characterized it in our domestic report of 2007, when we described it this way: “Immigration reform” meant just what the bourgeoisie and its politicians have meant by other “reforms” carried out in recent years—Welfare “reform,” Medicare “reform,” Workers Disability Compensation “reform,” tax “reform,” etc.—that is, another attack on working people; in this case, an attack on immigrant workers, for the benefit of the corporations.”

Under the guise of offering a false “amnesty” to immigrants without papers, the 2006 reform would have locked them into a tenuous, semi-legal status—from which, after 11 or 12 or more years they might qualify for citizenship, perhaps. But until that far-off time, they were still every bit as much at the mercy of employers, school systems, landlords, etc. as before. In the meantime, all those immigrants who came after them would have found themselves in a worse situation. But the 2006 reform would have been a real benefit for employers, making it easier for them to hire immigrants: they could have kept the steady supply of cheap labor, while being freed of many of the onerous regulations they faced. And it would have expanded the use of “guest workers” and seasonal farm labor—one of the most exploitative of the situations facing immigrants. Nothing makes us think that the current “reform” will be any better.

There is a superficial difference, of course, between 2006 and today. In the months leading up to the fight in Congress in 2006, there had been demonstrations, massive ones in fact, but those were demonstrations orchestrated with the tacit and sometimes quite open approval by major parts of the bourgeoisie and its small capitalist partners.

This is what we had to say in 2007 about that: “As far as the left was concerned, we were one of the very few organizations or papers that, from the beginning, exposed what was going on. Most of the left and the liberals were too busy gushing about the “new movement” to warn about the maneuvers being carried out, about what it means when you join in a partnership with your enemy. It’s obvious that even if the whole left had been ready to confront this issue, it could not have prevented these big bosses-driven coalitions from controlling the situation from the beginning up to the end. But at least there might have come out of this experience a few small groupings of immigrants who had come to see their own self interest, come to understand what really was going on, and therefore might have been prepared to build something around them on a different basis.”

One thing that we could only hint at in 2007 is much more obvious today. We asked, at that point, “Are people demoralized as the result of this experience? We have no means to know that. But we certainly can see that up until now the immigrants who did take part almost a year ago have not seen the way to break out of the straitjacket they were put in.”

If we gauge by the collapse of the so-called movement since then, we’d have to say that the hundreds of thousands of people who were drawn to the demonstrations found no place further to go. Worse, the anger felt by many immigrants in that time period was channeled into nothing more than support for the Democrats in 2012, channeled by the same unions and immigrant associations making up the coalitions calling the demonstrations

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. It’s the classic dodge of all these people who pretend to the workers that they can “solve” their problems within the framework of a degenerating and crisis-ridden capitalist system.

After the 1986 “amnesty,” almost three million people got papers. But in 1986, ahead of passage, we didn’t pretend that the so-called “amnesty” served the interest of the undocumented immigrants. When it passed, people of course tried to take advantage of it—if they qualified. But many didn’t qualify and some didn’t want to get papers. But the law that was passed in 1986 made the situation worse for the ones who didn’t get the papers. There were more restrictions established—particularly the provision requiring employers to verify and attest to their employees’ legal status, and the provision making it illegal to knowingly hire immigrants without papers—both of which were used to hound people. Provisions in the 1986 law created the much worse situation facing the 14 million who came afterwards—or were among those who didn’t qualify in 1986. Like all measures of this type, the 1986 “reform” held out so-called “amnesty” for some people at the expense of all those others.

It’s obvious that there was a crack through which some people could find an advantage—just like sometimes in work militants do in the workplaces, they can find “cracks” in NLRB procedures or the courts or even the grievance procedure that they try to take advantage of. But that doesn’t mean that we declare those things to be in the interests of the working class. Just the opposite. We tell the workers what roles these procedures play.

The Population Squeezed by States and Municipalities

According to the Center on Budget Policy Priorities, states faced more than 400 billion dollars in what it called budget shortfalls between 2009 through 2012. In fact, that “shortfall” figure gives some idea of the most recent tax breaks and subsidies handed out by the states to business and the wealthy during those years. Most of the 400 billion dollar shortfall was closed through spending cuts or tax increases, both of which had serious impact on the laboring population.

Large cuts came in health care, services to the elderly and disabled, K12 education, higher education, and other areas. At the same time, the need for these services did not decline and, in fact, rose as the number of families facing economic difficulties increased.

Almost all the states carried out wide-ranging layoffs, imposing mandatory furloughs (time off without pay), or making other cuts affecting their own workforce. This not only made it more difficult for residents to obtain state services. Cutting staff—whether on a permanent or temporary basis—also contributed to increased unemployment and/or lower wages. Another drag on the economy.

The cutbacks in public services were illustrated starkly by hurricane Sandy when it swept up the East Coast. For two days authorities didn’t even know there were problems in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of modern New York City, the borough that suffered the worst destruction. On the third day after the storm hit, while people themselves were still digging for bodies in Staten Island, the city directed its efforts to help Wall Street trading resume. The mayor said it would be good for people’s morale to see things getting back to normal! Normal it was to put the interests of big finance before those of the population.

In Detroit, the destruction of public services and schools has gone further than in most of the rest of the country. Having given out enormous gifts for decades to the big auto companies and to a slew of financiers who are “redeveloping” certain areas of the city, the city went deeply in debt. The debt multiplied as the result of “exotic” bonds written for the city by the big banks. The city is now so indebted, that it spent more to service, repay and refinance its debt in 2009 than what it spent to provide public services to the population!

The consequences for the population are catastrophic: 60% of the city is without regular street lights. In many of those same areas, garbage collection is sporadic. Plans are on the table to lay off 80% of the water system’s remaining workforce. This, in a city where three times in the last two years, cars fell into sink holes when water from leaking water pipes broke through the pavement. Almost two-thirds of the vehicles used by city’s fire companies have been eliminated, with predictable results. The city’s zoos and museums have been transferred to “non-profit” private organizations, most of its parks and recreation centers closed or given away to churches. The mayor, using powers given to him under the state’s old “emergency financial manager” law, unilaterally imposed wage cuts on city workers and eliminated their pensions, abrogating contracts the city had with the unions. Nearly a decade ago, the city was among those especially targeted by mortgage companies. In some neighborhoods, the banks hang on to the houses they foreclosed on, in anticipation of reselling them. In other neighborhoods, speculators grab houses, leaving them to rot. Vacant houses are often occupied by the homeless, including many foreclosed homeowners still living in their houses. People tap into electric and gas service themselves, sometimes with ensuing fires.

In a lame-duck session of the Michigan legislature, a bill was pushed to reimpose emergency financial manager (EFM) legislation—right after state voters had passed a ballot initiative that overturned the state’s law establishing emergency financial managers. EFM’s, or even the threat of them, are a way to fast track huge concessions from public sector workers and to dismantle vital public services—a way more rapidly to hand money and resources over to the capitalists.

The Emergency Financial Manager about to be appointed by the state will function a little like the IMF in this regard, helping to impose greater austerity on the population. In many ways, Detroit is a little like the Greece of the United States. It may be more squeezed than other American cities, but others are close behind. Detroit points out the future that capitalism holds for every working class area of the country—cities or parts of cities.

Robbing the Schools, Damning the Next Generation

Schools have faced the budget ax too. In Texas, the Republicans in 2012 slashed 5.4 billion dollars over two years from the public schools, an unprecedented cut that’s left districts and classrooms struggling to provide basic services. More than 10,000 teaching positions were cut, and over 8,000 elementary schools had to apply for waivers because their average class size was larger than the state’s class-size cap. That’s up from 2,000 schools the year before, according to the AP.

But no one should believe that only Republicans target the schools for cuts. California, with a Democratic super-majority, is ranked dead last among the 50 states in the amount of money spent on education compared to the size of the state’s economy. It also ranks last in the ratio of students to teachers. California teachers, on average, have 50% more students than does the average teacher in the rest of the U.S.

Beyond the obvious raiding of school funds as a way to extend more tax breaks and subsidies to business, there is the more insidious “education reform”—which is nothing more than Wall Street’s desire to put its hands on much more of the money held by the public schools.

Whole school systems have been turned over to private companies to run in a number of smaller cities around the country—but also in New Orleans. Washington D.C. and Detroit are not far behind. And Philadelphia announced that it will auction off the right to run its school districts to the highest bidder!

The testing regime is little more than a wildly profitable venture for a number of companies, which rake in big profits by creating and selling the tests to school systems, and by contracting test preparation services to the schools.

The turn toward internet “teaching” is a similar benefit for any number of other fly-by-nights, including some very big companies.

And big finance stands behind all these ventures.

Many of the changes being imposed in school systems around the country were first implemented in the Chicago school system, going back to the 1990s. In 2001, Arne Duncan became superintendent of schools. He was one of the first of the “new type educator”—that is, a businessman who approached so-called “school reform” with a cost-cutting accountant’s zeal. He had been an executive for a Chicago hedge fund, responsible for the fund that invested in the formation of charter schools, this hybrid type of school we now have—paid for by public taxes, but run and controlled by private interests that suck big amounts of money out of the schools.

Democrat Duncan gave concrete expression to the education “reforms” imposed on the public schools by the Republican Bush administration under No Child Left Behind.

The fact that Duncan moved on to become Obama’s Secretary of Education, responsible for pushing through Chicago-style reforms in other cities reluctant to go along, shows clearly that these changes are not just the isolated work of one school system, or a badly hatched Republican school “reform,” but the carefully coordinated bourgeois policy for the public schools: to drive down teacher’s salaries and real education expenses in a drive to wring profit out of education, much like Wall Street did with health care starting in the 1980s.

A Dearth of Social Struggles

In the face of this situation, the unions focused all their efforts on electing Democrats and on defending the revenue of the union apparatus.

Even in their greatly weakened and numerically reduced state, the unions in the 2012 elections were instrumental in winning the election for Obama and other Democrats, especially in the key battleground states. According to AFLCIO officials, during the last four days of the campaign, union members and their community partners contacted 800,000 voters in Ohio alone, as part of what they said were 10.7 million door knocks and phone calls made nationwide by the federation’s 56 unions. Moreover, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said that its members alone knocked on five million more doors, including 3.7 million in battleground states.

What the unions did not try to do was defend the interests of the workers. They could not even defend their own apparatus.

Since the wave of Republican wins in 2010, there had already been campaigns to limit unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere. Then in a lame-duck session after the 2012 election, Republicans in Michigan pushed through a right-to-work law. Whatever was the interest of the many wealthy backers of this legislation—ranging from the DeVos family to the Koch brothers—the Republican Party had its own reasons for passing the legislation: to cut the income of the union apparatuses, which are among the most important supporters of the Democratic Party, both with money and the legwork in election campaigns. In any case, the passage of this legislation in Michigan without the unions finding the way to mobilize much opposition was particularly notable, given Michigan’s long labor history.

The Democrats protested noisily throughout the session when the bill was passed. But they acted powerless to stop the attack—ignoring all the tricks the Republicans use to stop legislation when they are in the minority.

The union leaderships had sought to hold off “right-to-work” by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot giving workers the right to form a union—only to lose in the 2012 election. They organized demonstrations in the brief period leading up to the passage of the law. While people who demonstrated seemed to be pleased, the tenor and size and militancy of the demonstrations made it clear that union leaders were not really waging a fight. They certainly made no attempt to shut down work for those demonstrations. In fact, the demonstrations did little else than lay the groundwork for the 2014 elections, that is, two years from now. Union leaders even said that in their speeches.

It’s much like what they did last year with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. We still see people who use the label when they show up at a demonstration. There are still young people who enlist themselves with the unions when they demonstrate one day in front of a house about to be foreclosed on, for example. But the union and Democratic Party apparatuses that provided the bulk of people at the big demonstrations last year, as well as much of the funds for the encampments, had something else to do this year: the elections. All during this election year, the Occupy movement faded away, confirming the analysis we made of this phenomenon last year.

There have been a few fights, always isolated, and often a little desperate, usually led by local union leaders trying to break through the apathy of the labor movement. When workers in one of the unions at the Detroit Water Department, for example, went on strike, many of them said they have nothing to lose; so why not; they’re going to lose their jobs anyway. But the upper levels of the union apparatus avenged themselves when an “opposition” in the union that unseated the main leader of the strike in the following union election. The “opposition” argued essentially for the policy the top leadership had followed, that is, to get the courts to roll back the city’s attacks on the workers!

There was the nationwide strike for a few weeks at an industrial bakery, Hostess, which just closed all 33 of its bakeries and 500-some distribution centers, throwing 18,500 workers into the street. Having demanded and gotten wage and benefit concessions three times before from the unions involved, the company used bankruptcy to demand still more. One of its unions accepted, but workers in another said No and went out on strike. The company gave them two days to return. Most didn’t, saying it’s not worth it to keep a job if it means impoverishing themselves.

The Chicago Teachers Strike: A Somewhat Unusual Outcome

The one important social struggle that was a little different this year was the Chicago teachers’ strike, not just because it was somewhat successful, but because it was carried out against the education apparatus associated with Obama, just two months before the election.

The old leadership, which had been very tied to the Democratic Party apparatus in Chicago, lost in the 2010 union elections to a coalition of different teacher activists, including the new president, whose parents had been active in the union before her. And this changeover may have played a role in the development of the strike.

When Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, became Chicago mayor two years ago, he began to push for teachers’ salaries to be dependent on the results of their students’ test scores. And he continued the policy of replacing neighborhood schools with charters in poor areas, or combining neighborhood schools, or closing neighborhood schools attended by poor children in areas that where “gentrification” is planned.

Emanuel made several attempts to head off the strike.

Over a year before contract expiration, he helped push through a special law passed by the Illinois state legislature, one provision of which applied only to teachers in the city of Chicago. All teachers’ strikes would be illegal unless the vote for the strike was at least 75%—75% of all the teachers employed, not just 75% of those who voted.

Emanuel’s clever maneuver came right back to bite him in the ass. For all those people ready to strike, it gave them a way, months ahead, to discuss with and convince the others, to organize discussions in their schools, or demonstrations, mock strike elections, etc. When the vote was finally held in June 2012, 98% of those voting and 89.7% of the whole workforce, voted for a strike.

During the summer, Emanuel shifted gears, retreating from his earlier insistence that teachers must accept a three-year wage freeze, and he even rescinded his unilateral decision to suppress a wage increase that had been scheduled for July 2011.

Apparently, not only did it not divert teachers, if anything it encouraged their desire to strike, since Mister Tough Guy, who pretended he never backed down, had blinked.

One of the interesting aspects of this situation is that the Chicago teachers’ union has a House of Delegates—every one of the city’s schools is supposed to send at least one delegate to this council that usually meets once a month. In the past, some schools sent delegates, some didn’t. But during the build-up to the strike, it met more frequently, and almost every day during the strike, with many new and additional delegates sent by their schools. It certainly wasn’t a strike committee, but it could more easily reflect what the ranks at each school were thinking than did the usual leadership of most strikes. It was a very quick means of communicating to the teachers at each school what was happening elsewhere and to organize roving pickets to go from one school to another, or from their school to a central demonstration. It was also useful in communicating the number of people active on any given day and at which schools.

After five days on strike, Emanuel seemed to cede, backing off his more stringent plan on test scores and teachers’ evaluations, along with several other items.

The leadership of the union announced, before all the language on the new contract had even been written, that classes would resume on Monday and that the teachers would vote later after the language was finished. (In other words, the union leadership may have been new, but it had some of the same habits as the old.)

This created a real outburst in the House of Delegates, which had to vote on the question. The majority refused to go along, voting instead to continue the strike, reminding the leadership that Emanuel himself had used weak language in an earlier contract to cancel their last wage increase, and voicing doubt in his commitments about test scores. They decided that delegates should take a straw poll about resuming classes, meaning the strike would continue at least two more days.

Emanuel blustered, saying it was his final offer, there would be nothing else. He threatened a court injunction, as well as a civil suit against the union and individual teachers. The media went wild. And Obama stayed well hidden in the White House, far away from the action. But behind the scenes, Emanuel rushed to put somewhat clearer language down, and, using a pretext, he found a way to pay the teachers for when they were out on strike—something other teachers on strike often did not benefit from.

No one could say it was a brilliant victory, but for most workers in Chicago, who have been used to one set of contract concessions after another, it sure seemed like some kind of victory. Workers in other cities talked about it at the time. Teachers everywhere certainly noted it. Maybe some of them discovered that it’s not true, this miserable phrase: “when you fight, you lose.” No, when you fight, you don’t always win. But when you don’t fight, you lose. Always.

The upcoming presidential election undoubtedly played a role in the outcome of this strike. Obama could not afford to have a real confrontation continue pitting his men against the teachers in his city. And that undoubtedly gave the teachers some leverage. But their own determination, even if it wasn’t very deep, was what put them on strike in the first place.

One Certainty: The Working Class Needs Its Own Party

We have no way to know how long the current situation will continue. Will the current phase of the crisis finally lead to the crash which can’t be papered over with more debt and more bailouts?

Even without “the crash,” the situation is catastrophic for the working class and the poor. The list we could make is endless: unemployment so deep the official figures have practically become meaningless; standard of living falling so rapidly that workers can note it; a housing crisis that promises to put a million more families out in the street over the next two years; schools that less and less make any attempt to provide even minimal instruction; cities that let their basic services rot; social services that are being chopped to bits—when people are desperately in need.

Austerity—the term may not be regularly used in this very apolitical country. But austerity is what has been imposed on and continues to be imposed on the U.S. laboring population, by the capitalist owners of production and services, by the governments at every level.

How soon will the working class react in this country to a situation increasingly catastrophic? If workers elsewhere break out, what impact will that have here?

No one can say. But what we can say is that when the working class does finally react and masses its forces, it needs to do so with its own perspectives, fighting for its own interests, with its own means. In a word, it needs its own political party, a revolutionary communist party.

That party doesn’t exist. But the goal of our activities has to be the rebirth of such a party—in this country and in the world. Without it, whatever fights the working class makes will only be diverted, with the consequences we saw only too well during the 1930s.

In 1916, in the midst of the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg, paraphrasing a passage by Engels in Anti-Dühring, described the only options facing humanity: “either transition to socialism or regression to barbarism.” Almost 100 years later—during which time humanity has been ravaged by still another world war, hundreds of colonial wars, economic collapses, fascism, mass slaughter, genocide of peoples, starvation in the midst of a surplus of food—that bitter dichotomy haunts this earth.

We have no idea what the future holds, near or far. We don’t even know if the situation will be more favorable for any attempt to create a party—or just the opposite.

But we do know we have no choice other than to go on working toward that goal. That means, we carry out our work—all of it—with that perspective clearly in mind.