The Spark

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

United States:
The Political and Social Situation, 2015

Apr 1, 2015

The following analysis of the political and social situation in the United States, which was written at the end of February 2014, was discussed in the Spark organization in March, then adopted by its militants in a meeting of the whole organization in April.

A Recovery for Only the Very Few

The American business press never tires of saying that we are living through one of the longest economic recoveries on record. And, it’s true, in the fashion that bourgeois economists measure such things, there has been a recovery – for almost five and a half years.

But this recovery is for only the very few. Profits have been on a rapid and steady increase, reaching historic highs in 2013, touching almost 11% of GDP and 14.5% of national income. The early reports for 2014 are not quite so high, but nonetheless still enormous.

Shareholders reaped an enormous benefit from this rush of profits. For example, the companies represented in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index will apparently pay out 95% of all their profits to buy back shares of stock and to issue dividends, for an astronomical gift of almost a trillion dollars to the shareholders of just these 500 companies during just the one year of 2014. [Bloomberg News estimate in October]

Despite the propaganda that pretends everyone owns a little slice of the corporate pie, the fact is that 80% of stock shares are owned by the wealthiest 10% of the population [Robert B. Reich 1-8-2014].

So, yes, the number of billionaires also hit a new high again in 2013, then again in 2014.

Corporate profits now represent the largest share of GDP going back as far as 1929, when such records were first kept; total wages represent the smallest share. Two sides of the same coin.

A Huge Price Paid for by the Population

This enormous increase in the wealth of a few was paid for broadly by the working class.

In the first place, unemployment still ravages the working class. The government’s headline unemployment rate (U3) may have come down to 5.7% in January of 2015, improving by nine-tenths of a percent over the last year. But the fuller official rate (U-6) stood at 12%.

And even that’s a statistical mirage. Fewer of the adult population were employed proportionately than at any time in the worst years of the so-called “Great Recession,” the fewest, in fact, in 37 years.

It’s worse for adult males: proportionately fewer are working now than in all the years since 1948, when this series of figures was initiated: 69% at the end of 2014.

The situation for women is diametrically opposite. Starting in the early 1970s, women rapidly entered the work force, with their numbers increasing every year up to 1999, by which time, 60% of all women were in the work force. (2014, 57%.)

Probably the women’s movement itself and other social changes influenced the choice that women made, at least a little bit, particularly within middle class milieus and at first.

But working class women with children began to rapidly enter the work force a little later for a very immediate and practical reason. Starting in the 1970s, the crisis began to erode family income. The damage done to family income by the unemployment of male workers and the reduction in their wages forced women into the work force – even when they had very young infants, even within a month or two of giving birth, even when they, at first, thought going to work was only a temporary stop-gap.

In the earlier part of this period, the change from one to two people working in a family may have been enough for several decades to maintain family income. But especially since the “Great Recession” hit in 2007 – with both women and men facing unemployment, and both seeing their wages eroded – even family income with two workers in a family declined.

Moreover, the so-called “war on drugs,” which has helped park an astoundingly large number of young men, and above all of young black men, in prison, has left many more women as the only breadwinner for their children. Given women’s lower wages, that can only mean larger numbers of children living in poverty.

In any case, after more than five years of so-called recovery, overall median family income in 2014 was still $4000 less a year than it was eight years ago, taking inflation into account.

Produce More with Fewer Workers – Increased Exploitation

Production in this country is on the increase, which, other things being equal, should have meant that jobs increased.

They didn’t. By the end of last year, the index of industrial production had reached its pre-Great Recession peak, but the number of jobs had not begun to keep pace with increasing production.

Between the beginning of 2010 and the end of 2013, almost 700,000 factory jobs were added to the rolls. But that still left a deficit of 5.3 million jobs, 5.3 million fewer factory workers than there had been in 2000 – which was the previous peak of factory employment.

The auto industry shows this reality starkly: the total number of vehicles produced in the country hit 11.7 million annually by mid-2014, the same as what had been produced in 2004, the pre-collapse peak. But 20% fewer people were employed in the production of those vehicles.

In other words, jobs are being ground up in the tremendous push for greater productivity, very little of which was accounted for by investment in labor-saving processes. Bloomberg reports that companies’ plants and equipment are older than they have been at any time since 1956, as the proportion of their cash flow used for capital investment continues to fall, year after year.

That greater productivity ends up congealed in the greater profits taken by the companies, then transmitted to the wealthy class that owns them. But productivity is not simply a cold economic fact; it rests on flesh and bones. The increasing intensity of work and the crazier hours used to wring out more productivity are being deducted from the workers’ life span.

Dramatic Decrease in Wages

To the extent there are new jobs, they don’t bring with them higher wages. Wages in manufacturing, which long had been 8 to 10% higher than overall wages in the economy, have decreased so rapidly in the last ten years that the median manufacturing wage was more than 4% less than the median wage for all occupations by 2013.

This rapid reversal reflects in part the ability of many companies to impose two or three pay scales for the same jobs (the infamous two-tier of auto), and their resort to temporary or part-time hiring and to employment agency staffing. From 2009 to 2012, the number of temporary workers increased by 29%. All told, at least 30% of all workers today are either temps, contract workers or the so-called “self-employed” whose work is done for private companies.

The lower wage bill also reflects the refusal of companies to grant wage increases to current workers – the “first tier” or legacy workers. Workers at the three American auto companies, for example, have not had a wage increase in ten years.

Finally this lower wage bill reflects the push among many companies – and not only in manufacturing – to “out source” work to other U.S. companies, in many cases, “spin-offs” of their own subsidiaries. By whatever means, this outsourcing has almost always led to lower wages, often paid to the same workers, who were shipped off to the new company along with the presses, the hi-los, even the material stock – and maybe even the brooms.

The Plunder of Public Budgets

What has happened to wages and jobs in the private sector has been reflected, but with a short delay, in the public sector. With public employees protected a little bit in the earlier years of the crisis by the fact that the Democrats depended on the unions for their votes, the attack there was somewhat muted at first. But the Democratic Party’s need for votes counted for little when capital set its sights on public budgets to take money to protect itself from its own crisis. Public sector workers, including teachers, have been the target of some of the harshest attacks in the last few years.

The resulting severe reduction in city services and the destruction of public schools in workers’ neighborhoods has also lowered the workers’ standard of living. The degrading of conditions in which people live demeans them. And the brutal attack on the schools means quite simply that the future of working class children, particularly the poorest, is being torn up.

The politicians say there is no money to fully maintain services and schools. Of course there isn’t! The public purse has been thrown wide open to every bank, every big corporation, even every little shark looking to make a quick buck.

Detroit Bankruptcy: An Example

Detroit is a case in point. The city used bankruptcy to reduce city retirees’ pensions by as much as 20% and eliminate their health care coverage. On the same day this outrage was finalized by the courts, the bankrupt city signed an agreement to pay for a new hockey arena and entertainment center for the Ilitch family, who had already been given a baseball stadium 14 years earlier, paid for by the city and county – only one of many similar deals that threw the city deeply into debt, and from there into the bankruptcy courts.

The fact the city dared once again to hand over the keys to the city to the Ilitch family on that particular day shows the arrogance of the people whose goal is to rapidly transform Detroit from a working class city, mostly black, into a city with the whole center reserved for the wealthy, mostly white; one where other large chunks of land are to be given over to developers, industrialists and real estate speculators for their own benefit. They are in a hurry – trying to do in Detroit in a decade or two what has taken nearly 70 years to do in NYC – to kick the working class out of the central city.

Detroit is no exception. In one way or another, almost all the American cities that held the working class and poor in the center, with the wealthy perched out in suburban enclaves, are today using the powers of city government to hand back the center city to the wealthy, to turn every city center into a mini-Manhattan.

Chicago: The Destruction of the Public School System

In many ways, Chicago is the model of how the capitalist class and its politicians aim to squeeze money out of the public schools, to the detriment of working class children. Going back to the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley, who took office in 1989, the Chicago schools have been the testing ground for various plans to hand public money to the rich and well-connected: charter schools and privatization of various services, including various administrative services. At the same time, the various schemes by which the destruction of education has been partially hidden – schools of “choice” or “selective enrollment” schools – have flourished in Chicago.

It’s more than symbolic that the administration of the public school system was adapted to a business model – with the chief administrative officer of the schools designated as a “CEO,” rather than a superintendent. Nor was it just coincidence that Obama, when stepping up the attack on the schools, turned to Arne Duncan, the “CEO” of Chicago’s public schools, to be responsible for implementing and expanding the privatization schemes of George W. Bush’s administration, justified by the slogan, “No Child Left Behind” – and then by the hyper-competitive “Race to the Top,” which implies that only the “best” make it.

But while Chicago may have been one of the trail-blazers, it doesn’t stand alone in working to turn the public schools into a cash cow for private capital, nor is this simply a local issue. Chicago and other cities were only responding to the demands made by big capital, via the billionaire-created non-profits (the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation, etc.) And the push on the schools is not simply a question of someone like Bill Gates or the Koch brothers who have too much money and don’t know what to do with it.

Capital has been looking to raid the public school system for several decades now, as another means to protect itself from the crisis. In 1996, the now defunct Lehman Brothers issued a report in which it declared, “the education industry may replace health care in 1996 as THE focus industry” – that is, focus for “investment.” In much the same way that the health care “industry” was transformed from a public, charitable or non-profit service into a for-profit moneymaker, so too has capital been working to transform the public schools. (By the way, Lehman Brothers also dabbled in the dot.com bubble, then the sub-prime craze. With its fingers in too many pies, it went bankrupt.)

Some of the most vicious attacks in Chicago, as elsewhere, have involved the closing of neighborhood schools, which long served to anchor their communities, and which offered a certain protection to children, younger and older. In some cases, it’s just simple disregard for the needs of the children and the community, in the attempt to “save money” by jamming more children into fewer schools, or to, de facto, force their transfer into charter schools.

But in other cases, the closing of neighborhood schools is part of a longer range plan to transform the cities, driving out the poorer people who had lived near those schools. When the school goes, the families are often not far behind. And, of course, it’s almost always the poorest and most disadvantaged who suffer the brunt of these closings. Of 50 schools closed in Chicago in 2013, 45 were in black neighborhoods.

The Results of the 2014 Elections are Significant

2014 was an election year. Only 35.9% of the “voting-eligible” population voted, the lowest mid-term vote recorded since 1942, when the World War II draft was already disrupting communities.

Granted, 2014 was a mid-term election, that is, one without a presidential contest. And granted, the Republicans, in states where they had established their control over the political machinery, used it in an attempt to reduce the Democratic Party electorate. But even in the big cities, where Democratic Party mayors run the show, the turnout was abysmal. The New York Times reported only 31% in Detroit, 25% in Los Angeles, about the same in Baltimore. Chicago, where the ward-level apparatus of the Democratic Party machine can turn out voters at a somewhat higher rate, was one of the exceptions. But even there, the turnout was only 36.4%.

In writing about the 2014 elections, the Wall Street Journal described the electorate as “sullen.” And it was exactly that – distrustful of both parties, but in most states without any way to express their anger. In the absence of choices other than between the Democrats or Republicans, most workers chose to sit out the election.

Given the political context in the U.S., maybe it’s not so unhealthy that many workers don’t want to vote.

Of course, it can mean that they are simply demoralized, not ready to do anything. And the continuing lack of struggles, even just on the shop floor, attest to that. Even in relation to the killings for being black, the response in most cases has been somewhat muted, with the continuing protests in Ferguson a notable exception.

By not voting, workers at least did not give their stamp of approval to their class enemies.

Working Class Electoral Campaigns in Michigan and Illinois

Five candidates, proclaiming that the working class should not pay the cost for the bosses’ crisis, were on the ballot this year in Michigan. They stood for the same policy, a revolutionary working class policy, and they supported each other. Logically, they should have been on the ballot as candidates of a new, working class party. But reactionary state laws make it extremely difficult to put a new party on the ballot. So they each ran as individuals: Gary Walkowicz and Sam Johnson, each running in a separate U.S. Congressional district; Mary Anne Hering and Ken Jannot, running for the Dearborn School Board/Henry Ford Community College Board; and D.A. Roehrig, running for Trustee of Wayne County Community College.

The five candidates denounced the fact that the capitalist class has protected itself by driving down the standard of living of the working class and other layers of the population. There can be no improvement in the population’s situation, said the five candidates, until the working class begins not only to fight, but to fight to impose its own answers to the problems. Above all, they insisted that the wealth the workers produce with their labor must be taken away from the companies and the banks. It must be used to protect the lives and well-being of ordinary people and their children.

The campaign of these five candidates did not have millions of dollars, as bourgeois candidates do. They didn’t have TV ads, billboards. The media didn’t talk about them and promote their candidacies.

But they had people who campaigned for them in the neighborhoods, at their workplaces, in their clubs, in their churches. And the five candidates and their supporters, who included militants of the SPARK organization, found thousands of people who were ready to discuss with them in all the public places where they campaigned.

Their candidacies gave workers in the districts where they ran a choice this year. Instead of throwing their vote away, voting for one of the two big parties, both of whom have led the attack on the population, working people had the chance to vote for someone who stood for the interests of the working class.

The campaign found a response, with almost 16,000 votes cast for the first four candidates. D.A. Roehrig, who was unopposed, was elected with over 15,000 votes.

The Michigan campaign was followed up by the campaign of Ed Hershey for alderman in the city of Chicago. Ed is a public school teacher in Chicago who has seen first hand the destruction of education for workers’ children caused by the draining of funds from the public schools by bourgeois politicians who give money away to the capitalist class and their bankers.

Over the past eight years he was part of the fight against those attacks – in the 2012 teachers’ strike, in struggles by parents and children to prevent school closings, backing students who organized a protest against the killing of black men by the cops.

Like the candidates in Michigan, he stood for a working class fight based on a working class policy. Chicago is a wealthy city, more than enough wealth to provide a decent school for every child, adequate services and pleasant neighborhoods to live in. But that money has to be taken back from the bankers, the real estate interests, the big corporations and the speculators that stole the wealth from the working people of the city. Ed Hershey’s candidacy gave workers a choice other than the usual bourgeois politicians who pretend to speak for working people, only to stab them in the back. His candidacy allowed working people to express their anger, to register their agreement with the need for a working class fight.

When Ed’s 602 votes were added to the 900 votes gained by Jorge Mújica, long time community and immigrant rights activist who headed “the Socialist Campaign,” just over 20% of the people in this ward registered their approval of programs that socialists proposed to the working class. It showed that the Democratic Party may control the political apparatus in Chicago, but not the minds of working people.

An Epidemic of Murder by Cop

2014 was marked by what seemed to be a never-ending parade of police murders of black men who were unarmed. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund issued a report naming 64 of them killed in the last seven years. Not all of them were young, but most were. And the NAACP report also named three Latino men and two Native American men killed in the same years, as were seven black women. But the fact remains, by far the largest percentage of the ones killed by cops were young black men.

Most of those the NAACP named were killed in 2014. Were more killed in that year than before? It doesn’t seem reasonable. More likely, the protests in Ferguson, reflected in weaker protests elsewhere, probably drew the media’s attention to such killings.

All we need do is follow a Google search of local papers and we can kick up many more killings. For example, a search of Chicago papers for the year 2012 found articles about a protest organized by a local religious organization in response to the killing of four black men and one woman in that same year. Only the woman was included in the Legal Defense Fund’s report. Look at crime reports, you’ll find many more in every city. But short of someone having decided to bring people out in a protest, those killings pass mostly unnoticed. At the very least, the cops’ version – that the person killed was armed, a threat to someone’s life and/or trying to flee the scene of a crime – passes unchallenged.

No one can really say how many times this year a young black man was killed by cops. There is no central recording of such events. And even locally, authorities often keep records only of killings they can pretend were linked to criminal activity on the part of the victim. Whatever the number is, it accurately is reflected in the term used in the black community: it’s an epidemic of murder by cop.

These killings cannot be divorced from the fact that the so-called “war on drugs,” on top of the endemic poverty, has criminalized large parts of a whole generation – generations – of young black men. Having channeled them directly into prison, the authorities have helped to create a bitter and hard class of young men. And the cops know it. So, yes, they jump when they see someone on the street, even those cops able to distinguish between the gang-bangers and other young men.

This doesn’t take into account the often knee-jerk reaction of many racist white (or Latino or Asian or sometimes black) cops when faced on the street with a young black man. It’s that reaction which explains many of the most outrageous of the killings, like the murder of 12-year old Tamir Rice sitting on a park bench in Cleveland or that of Akai Gurley, walking with his girlfriend down an unlit stairwell in a housing project in Brooklyn.

Ferguson: The Population Confronts the Cops

This year was marked by the protests in Ferguson. But it’s important for us to understand profoundly the differences between the way the protests developed in Ferguson, as opposed to the rest of the country.

Ordinary people in Ferguson mobilized repeatedly. They seemed to refuse to let the matter drop, putting their bodies out into the streets. In a small town like Ferguson, almost certainly every local person in the streets has been identified and recorded by the overtly racist police department. At the same time, in a small town like Ferguson, almost everybody knows someone who knows someone involved, which, when people do decide to act, counts for something. In fact, Ferguson is the place that recalls, at least in a small way, the kind of things that happened in the small Southern towns where many of the most bitter, as well as courageous fights against Jim Crow took place.

Given the desperate situation so many people face, something starting in one place like Ferguson could certainly give an impulse to the population mobilizing elsewhere, fights with deep roots in the community. And it could happen overnight. But we haven’t seen it yet. We’ve seen protests, certainly, but not the kind of popular mobilization that explodes, or even just maintains itself, as it did in Ferguson.

The Need for a Working Class Fight ... and Revolutionary Party

There was very little response in 2014 by the working class or other popular layers of the population against the ongoing attacks carried out by the capitalist class and its politicians.

There weren’t any important strikes over a contract – not even at the scale of the 2012 teachers’ strike in Chicago, as timid and controlled as that might have been. In fact, what gave that strike its importance was the fact a union called it in the midst of a presidential election race, knowing that it would embarrass the Democratic Party candidate, whom that union had endorsed. That is, the strike became a political fact. And it seemed to be popular with the population in a city where the schools have been under attack. But we cannot say that it was militant, combative or determined.

There was no big response by the unions to the ongoing attacks by Republican governors to union rights, not even at the level of the state capitol demonstrations and occupation organized in Wisconsin in 2011 against Walker. Only legalistic appeals. And we should remember that the unions, in seeking to use the Wisconsin demonstrations to protect their own right to collect dues, were ready to sell out the workers’ pensions – effectively digging their own grave. It had to demoralize state workers who had joined the protests. In any case, public sector workers rushed to opt out of paying union dues when the changes pushed through by Walker gave them a chance.

There was also nothing like the Occupy demonstrations of 2011 – even though those were little more than play-acting by a part of the left Democratic Party intellectual milieus tied to the union apparatuses in preparation for pulling young people back into support for Obama in 2012. Just like the immigration demonstrations of 2006, they disappeared, hardly leaving a trace, other than some numbers pulled into a Democratic Party election campaign.

The left too often calls any new protest a “movement,” confusing proclamations on the internet with people who put their bodies into the street in a difficult situation. It too often believes that demonstrations organized sporadically and from the top by apparatuses tied to the Democratic Party means that there is a surge from “the bottom.”

Whether or not the population mobilizes does not depend on revolutionaries. What does depend on them is the will to build a revolutionary party, to understand that without such a party, there will be no outlet for the fights that do take place.