Mar 27, 2015
The following text was adopted at a meeting of the whole Spark organization, describing the situation in which our work is carried out.
Whatever hopes parts of the working class may have had when Barack Obama first took office in 2009, the situation of the laboring classes has not improved. Their standard of living continues to decline, while the share of the workforce employed is three and half percent lower than before “The Great Recession” began. The unemployed who found jobs were shunted into mostly marginal and poorly paid jobs, significantly worse on the whole than the jobs they lost.
Uber, with all its talk about “be your own boss, make your own hours,” is setting the new standard for jobs, taking us back to the early days of capitalism, rife with street peddlers, jobbers and home workers.
The situation is made worse by the increasing level of indebtedness of large layers of the working population – not only cars and new mortgages, but also student loans. Today, the average student with a loan owes at least $29,000 after four years at a public university, and $40,000 at the privately-run, for-profit “technical” schools, which target workers’ children. This level of debt is more than half again as much as it was only ten years ago.
The gap in wealth ownership, which began to grow in 1980, continued to widen all during the “Obama recovery.” In 2014, the richest 1% of the population owned 36.6% of the nation’s wealth, up 2.8% since 2008. Added together, the top 10% owned 75.2% of the nation’s wealth. In other words, less than 25% remained for everyone else. But the most significant part of this picture concerns the poorer half of the population, who owned just over 1% of the wealth in 2014, down from 2.5% in 2008.
This economic “recovery,” over which Obama has presided, has done little for anyone but the wealthy, and especially, the very wealthiest.
As for foreign policy, Obama has presided over the widening of U.S. military interventions around the world. Not to mention the dozens of countries where the U.S. has either engaged in bombing campaigns and/or engaged its own troops in combat situations, it is now engaged in three major wars – in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – two of which Obama had pledged to end when he took office. The U.S. intervention in Syria was begun by his own administration. And then there is Yemen, which barely makes the news, despite the disaster that the U.S. has helped to create for the population there.
Guantanamo, which Obama promised to close in one of his first pronouncements after taking office, still has prisoners. And the strengthening of the state apparatus’s control over the whole society, thrown into high gear by George W. Bush after 9-11, continues under Obama, even symbolically with the current well-publicized “confrontation” with Apple.
The anger of the population facing a decaying situation has not only been directed against Obama – which is the normal reaction against a sitting president who presides over difficult times. The population’s dismay has also been reflected in the 2016 presidential election, with a large number of voters unwilling to stick with the traditional candidates of either party, looking for candidates that express their anger, in whatever distorted form.
Donald Trump gained attention, even before the primaries began, with his crude language and outspoken disdain toward immigrants, women, Muslims and even other countries. He vilely characterized Mexican immigrants as street thugs and worse. He promised to make Mexico pay for the wall he would build on the Mexican/U.S. border. He played on sexist views of women. He called for attacks on people protesting the killings by cops – i.e., black people. He called for a ban on all Muslims coming into the country. At the same time, his vicious attacks on other Republican candidates threw the party into disarray. The Republican debates resembled a food fight in a middle school cafeteria. The media began to question whether the party was on its way to committing suicide.
At the beginning of March, with Trump surging ahead, the big shots in the Republican party began a campaign to derail him. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, denounced him as a racist, misogynist, an isolationist, a failed businessman – and, what’s more, stupid. John McCain, nominee in 2008, publicly added his name to Romney’s indictment.
All those things may be true. But the problem for the Republican party is not Donald Trump’s social attitudes, behavior and language. The Republican Party and its nominees have played these same cards ever since 1980. It’s on the basis of not-so-veiled racism and opposition to abortion that the Republican party had built up a faithful voting base, appealing implicitly and in coded language to the most reactionary attitudes in parts of the population, especially among white Christian fundamentalists.
The only difference between Trump and most other Republicans is that he says directly and crudely what the others only imply. No one should ever forget the campaign ads run by George H.W. Bush featuring Willie Horton, which were devised to suggest that black men are brutes, wanting nothing more than to rape white women.
Nor should anyone forget what the other Republican candidates stand for: Cruz and Rubio push ideas every bit as reactionary as Trump’s, and they both cater to the Tea Party crowd. Cruz called for a larger more militarily fortified wall to be put up in his home state of Texas. Kasich made a name for himself in Ohio by attempting to eliminate union collective bargaining rights, and signing every piece of anti-abortion legislation crossing his desk.
No, the real problem for the Republican party is not Trump’s disgusting attitudes, nor even the fact that he incites his supporters to violence. The party’s problem is that Trump has boxed it into a dilemma. If he gains the nomination, the party tops fear his blatant attacks on important parts of the population may cost them the election, not only for the presidency, but all the way down the ticket. At the same time, the party risks losing a big chunk of Trump’s voters if, in the convention, it should obviously refuse him the nomination that he won in the primaries.
It became obvious that important parts of the bourgeoisie don’t want the disruptions that a wildcard like Trump could bring to the White House – they want their own dependable political class running things. They say it openly, and have begun to fund big attacks on him. At the very least, they are making it clear to him that he will be put on a short lease, should he win.
For us, the danger is that Trump has found a way to touch an important segment of the white workers. Certainly, it’s in part because a profound racist tendency and other reactionary ideas already exist in parts of the white population.
But it’s not just his viciously right-wing views that have created an audience for Trump. He also speaks about the workers’ economic situation, the difficulties they confront. He attacked all the other Republicans who agree that Social Security should be “reformed,” i.e. cut. He said that the big banks are sucking blood from everyone, and he mocked people who work in the big Wall Street companies as people who do no useful work. He indicted the insurance companies for making health care unaffordable. Moreover, he criticized George Bush for having gone to war in Iraq under a pretext that was a lie. He blamed him for the 9-11 attacks. And, like all demagogues, he shifts his positions whenever useful: from pro-choice, to anti-abortion, to support for Planned Parenthood – even if he “would not support the part of their work that concerns abortion”!
But above all, he plays on the fear of unemployment, blaming job losses on free trade agreements, immigrants, and imports from companies like Ford that move part of their production to other countries, and specifically, Mexico. By blaming Ford for building a factory in Mexico – costing “American jobs” – he covers up the enormous destruction of jobs in this country caused by Ford’s continual push to squeeze more work out of fewer workers. And by proposing to block all Muslims from entering the country, he adds to the hysteria that every administration since Bush has built up around the risk of a new 9-11.
In other words, while using a kind of “populist” discourse, Trump reinforces the violent anti-immigrant views and other reactionary ideas already floating around in the working class. He makes it acceptable to say these things openly, and therefore act upon them, as armed groups have already done along the border with Mexico – and did before Trump ever came along.
The Democratic Party also ran into a stumbling block, when Bernie Sanders, a previously registered “independent,” started to do well in the Democratic primaries.
Sanders spoke about the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else, he invoked a “political revolution,” and he attacked the big banks, promising to break them up.
But he is far from being the “insurgent” or even the “independent” that the media present. Since he has been in Congress, Sanders has voted with the Democratic leadership 98% of the time, including for every war-funding measure since he entered Congress, and for measures that increased criminalization of young black men. He voted for the Senate’s statement of support for Israel’s 2014 slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.
Sanders’ success in the primaries may be a bit of an annoyance to Clinton, but she certainly understands that he can reinforce her vote in November, assuming she is the candidate.
Moreover, the Democratic Party could easily accommodate itself if Sanders were to gain the nomination. He is a professional politician, just like Clinton, and there is only a minuscule shade of difference between their two voting records. He is, in fact, part of the Democratic Party’s Congressional leadership, a ranking member of its “Congressional Policy” committee.
Until recently Sanders’ primary base of support has been among students as well as from intellectual and other petty-bourgeois liberal milieus, overwhelmingly white. Undoubtedly, his declaration that tuition at the universities and colleges should be free has gained him support from students, including some black and Latino. But what he has to say about inequality has also touched the idealism of a certain number of students. In any case, up until now, this solid base, with something like 90% of students in some states voting for him, has been enough to gain him 40% of the vote in the Democratic primaries up to the mid-way point.
In Michigan, by focusing his campaign on free trade agreements which he says have cost many jobs, he found the way to touch part of the working class, including for the first time even a small slice of the black working class vote. The biggest part of his campaign was a simple listing of the 10 free-trade agreements that he voted against, reproaching Clinton for supporting them.
In other words, when addressing the working class, he and Trump play the same tune. By focusing workers’ attention on free trade agreements, just as Trump does, he not only hides the causes of job loss here, the things that workers could mount a fight against, he gives credence to Trump’s nationalistic babbling. And Sanders’s stance on free trade, which demonizes Mexican workers, reflects what he has done while in Congress on the question of immigrants without papers – voting for bills such as the “anti-tunnel” bill, which would have criminalized people crossing the border through a tunnel without legal documentation. It sets a precedent – so that anyone without papers who crosses a border can be declared a felon.
We should add here that the unions, by constantly blaming job loss on the “export” of jobs overseas, helped create the climate in which the reactionary views of both Trump and Sanders flourish.
Sanders is playing the role that others have played before him, especially Jesse Jackson – that is, to draw off the anger of working people with a populist rhetoric, mobilizing young people who want to be active against the ills of this society, only to bring them right back inside the Democratic Party when the long primary campaign is over. He’s already said he will support the party’s nominee, whoever it is. Of course he will, since he’s done that in one way or another in every presidential election since 1984, when he supported Walter Mondale.
Sanders’ candidacy may have given the word “socialist” some currency, but his candidacy, no matter what happens, will finally only have spiffed up the worn-out hope in the “lesser evil” – the same illusion the Democrats have peddled ever since 1932, hardly a recommendation for “socialism.” And it has absolutely nothing to do with what we – along with Marx and all those coming after him – understand by the term.
Finally, the question is raised by many liberals – why does the black population stick so overwhelmingly to Clinton? Even in Michigan, where Sanders is said to have cut into her black support, she rolled up 74% of the black vote, with an even higher proportion in Detroit. In other states, she gathered 80% or even 90% of the black vote.
Not only is the question silly, it implies, in the most condescending fashion, that black people don’t realize who Sanders is, and who Clinton is. In fact, the black population probably has fewer illusions than anyone else regarding all of the politicians, including Sanders, Clinton and Trump.
But Hillary Clinton, like Bill Clinton before her, made a special effort for years to address the black population, to be in the milieu, to speak in specifics to the problems faced. The other candidates – Sanders first of all – ignored black people, and the particular problems they face, and only came knocking on the door when it came time to vote. We know what workers’ attitudes are in the plant when the committeeman comes around only once every three years, just before local elections. Why should this be any different?
In fact, the solid base that Clinton has maintained is probably much more revealing about white Democrats like Sanders, who simply take the black vote for granted, than it does about Clinton herself, who is a very adroit and cynical politician.
In any case, the fact that the media emphasizes this aspect of Clinton’s support may have contributed to push a certain number of whites in the direction of Trump – or Sanders. If the election turns out to be Trump versus Clinton, we could see the campaign turn into a nasty struggle opposing one part of the white workers to the black population and to the immigrant population.
The working class is divided, torn between voting for a dangerous right-wing demagogue, or a false populist or a woman who proudly presents herself as a representative of the establishment. Once again, no one defends the interests of the working class.
For almost two years now the media has actually acknowledged that young and not-always-so-young black men are being killed by cops. It’s not that men haven’t been killed before. They have been, year after year. But those killings were forced into the big news outlets after bitter protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri and were maintained there after riots filled streets in Baltimore.
Even more noteworthy, a few murdering cops have been charged, including in Chicago, which had racked up one of the largest rates of murder by cop, without any notice being taken for years. (It doesn’t need to be said that charges by a prosecutor are not the same as work by a prosecutor to ensure a conviction.)
The killings by cop are the deadly consequence of a policy that has been implemented over the past four decades, a policy of criminalizing petty actions, using those newly defined crimes as a way to sweep unemployed young people off the street into prison. Of course, it touches everyone, young white working class, particularly the poorest layers, young Hispanic, particularly Puerto Rican, but especially, out of all proportion to their numbers, young Native Americans and young black people, mostly men. But also some black women.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the U.S. has become a kind of gulag, the country which imprisons its black population at a faster rate than has any other country, including South Africa under apartheid. What else is it but a gulag, when almost one quarter, 23%, of the world’s prisoners are in the U.S., which has less than 4% of the world’s population, and when one third of all black men born since 1970 have spent time in prison – just as have two thirds of those who left high school without a diploma.
This terrible rate of imprisonment was the result of conscious choices made by the bourgeoisie and its political apparatus, and was not simply a consequence of institutional racism and poverty, as liberal academics would have it.
Starting in the early 1970s, the bourgeois state established a new regime. It criminalized petty drug offenses, giving local police the means to sweep the streets clean of what Nixon had called “the rabble,” that is, the young black people who had taken over the streets of big cities in the urban rebellions, shaking the bourgeois state.
By the 1980s, with the development of what had by then seemed to be a near permanent economic crisis, the prison gates were opened to sweep up the unemployed on any and every pretext, but above all, with reference to drugs and weapons. Every administration since Reagan’s has added to and reinforced this prison regimen for the unemployed. Given that the black population, long capitalism’s permanent reserve army of the unemployed, was hit hardest by the lack of jobs, they were the ones most swept away into prison – which solved two problems at once for the bourgeoisie.
The policy to criminalize the unemployed created a kind of warfare in the streets of many big cities: the cops, afraid of every young man, shot first, knowing that there was no consequence.
The real issue is not as some Democrats (including Clinton and Sanders) underline, that “innocent” young men, unarmed young men, are being shot down on the streets. Of course, that is happening. But undoubtedly most of those who were shot did have weapons.
And so what? The real crime is the policy to imprison those for whom the society can provide no work. This hypercriminalization policy has created a generation, several generations now of hard young men, young men who do carry weapons, young men who are not afraid of prison, not afraid of dying, and who sometimes do turn on their own neighborhoods, and even families.
These hard young men are part of the working class, a reality the working class must address. They could be the best fighters the working class has, or they can become the gangs used against the working class when it fights. The choice for which lies in the hands of the working class – first and above all, on whether workers move to fight on the basis of their own class interests, which could pull these young men into the only fight worth making.
For four decades, capital has been almost cannibalizing its own productive apparatus in the push to squeeze more profit out of ever fewer workers. At first this was most notable in the private sector, where the level of exploitation, the surplus grabbed from productive labor, reached new heights, even while productive facilities were laid waste.
But with capital always on the look-out for more sources of wealth, it has more recently targeted the public funds that pay for such things as water and sewage systems, lighting systems, highways, public transit, public schools, as well as social welfare services like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and even child and family support.
Of course, there have always been ways to wrench profit out of the public sector, even if indirectly through contracts given to private companies that provide materials and services, or interest on the bonds the public sector floated with the banks. Not so long ago, capital still functioned mainly as a parasite feeding off the margins of the public sector.
In the last few decades, however, capital has set its sights more directly on the whole pot of money. To a very great degree, the banks and other parts of the financial system have been leading the charge. It’s not an accident that the biggest banks are behind the privatization, for example, of Chicago downtown parking lots and parking meters; nor that the biggest Wall Street firms have been pushing the transformation of public schools into charter systems.
We have been beset by a vicious circle in the worst sense of the term. Public bodies took on ever larger deficits by giving subsidies and tax breaks to private corporations. They used public funds to provide land or buildings for private owners; threw up big “public” stadiums for the use of sports teams owned in most cases by industrial or other capitalists. They are using public domain to hand over the most desirable land to real estate interests, etc.
The consequence of all the deficits is an exponentially growing debt owed to the biggest banks and financiers, loans that are often very similar to sub-prime mortgages. The state apparatuses, in turn, use the excuse of the exploding debt in order to cut back in more brutal fashion the range of public services on which the population depends.
Almost all those services were originally created to serve the needs of capital as it expanded. Nonetheless, the population also was served by, for example, clean water, public schools, Social Security, public transit – or even highways. Now, however, less and less does capital seem interested in maintaining what it once needed itself.
In some cases, the cuts have already been brutal. Detroit’s public school system is a case in point. Today, it is so severely indebted that almost half the money provided to the schools by the state of Michigan simply goes to service the debt.
Most of that debt was rolled up by “emergency financial managers.” Those managers were imposed on the Detroit school system, not to “regulate its finances,” as Democratic and Republican governors pretended, but to open up the school fund to raids by private interests. Privately run charter schools now account for over half the city’s students. Private “education companies” came in with the supposed latest high-tech software, which had little other aim than to replace teachers with internet courses. Contractors replaced custodial workers. A building boom – paid for with ever increasing debt – put up new schools, then turned them over to charter companies. Old schools were closed, squeezing children into larger classes.
Detroit is not the only city so ravaged. Washington D.C. and New Orleans are worse. And Flint is not the only city whose water and sewer systems have been plundered for private profit – Jefferson County, Alabama set the tone for that 20 years ago. But while these cities may seem worse than others, it’s only because they are a signpost for the future of every city.
The fact that capital today is cannibalizing services it once needed is merely a sign that capital is spreading its talons, searching for new ways to grasp all the surplus of this society. Clean water and schools for working people’s children have become luxuries that capital deems it can no longer afford.
In the year 2015, working people were appalled by many aspects of their daily life, and yet the working class was once again unable to bring its forces together to respond.
The 2012 strike of Chicago teachers, hardly a very militant or determined strike, was nonetheless the most important union fight in a long period. But it did not spread, did not seem to encourage others to fight, and three years later left little to show for it.
In 2015, auto workers came close to rejecting their contracts with Chrysler, GM and Ford, one after the other. Came close to rejecting? This may not seem like much – but it had never before happened in the 79-year history of the union.
It seemed obvious from the beginning that workers were using the vote against the contract to express wide ranging discontent, but it also seemed pretty clear that not enough were considering a fight to back up their NO vote. This was exactly the weapon the union turned against the workers to push the contract through. After the first Chrysler vote, which was a rejection, the union’s apparatus flooded the plants, threatening workers with a strike that would last for months, result in a worse contract than the one they had rejected and cost the two-tier workers their jobs. The UAW apparatus repeated similar maneuvers, first at GM, then at Ford. The campaign of fear mongering and the sizeable amount of money that was offered as a bonus if GM then Ford workers signed was finally enough to get a very narrow yes vote, at each of the companies, narrowest at Ford.
The bonus was biggest at Ford, even though it came last, after workers at the other two companies had finally ratified. It was a testament to work that had been done to organize a refusal of the Ford 2009 re-opener – the only time that workers at any of the American companies had not only voted down a contract offer, but were able to maintain that rejection.
Whatever this near rejection signified historically, it did not change the overall demoralization in the working class.
In the midst of an economic crisis that year by year creates more problems for the population, the working class doesn’t respond. A crucial aspect of the problem is the lack of working class organization – it is both cause and consequence of the lack of any mobilization. Certainly, there are unions, but even those touch a smaller and smaller part of the working class – only 6.7% in the private sector, 11.1% overall. But even if the unions were much more vital than they are today, most of the problems that workers face can only be addressed politically.
But the working class is not organized politically. There is no party of the working class and has not been for nearly a century. Workers haven’t had a political voice, an organization that, even if relatively small, would have been able to speak to sizeable parts of the working population from the standpoint of the class interest of working people. It’s obvious that the lack of political organization is a problem, and the revolutionaries have an obligation to try to address that problem.
There have been some attempts, among them the 2014 campaign of a slate of five individuals in Michigan, who campaigned based on a working class program, that is, on a socialist/communist program. Or the 2015 campaigns of a teacher in Chicago, running in a municipal election on a similar basis. And certainly there have been others, some who presented themselves as socialists (Jorge Mujica, for example, in Chicago, or individual candidates presented by the Socialist Workers Party or by the Workers World Party).
But the problem remains to give a more organized form to such a campaign, to make it clear that it is not just a few individuals, with their own ideas, but the beginnings of a party that is addressing the working class.
Even just to put a party on the ballot in some states would be an important step forward. Of course, there are obstacles to do that. In Michigan, for example, something on the order of 45,000 signatures, de facto, would be needed to qualify.
Being on the ballot does not mean that a party exists, but at least it would give the possibility to speak to the working class, raising demands that express the interests of the working class. It would open the door for raising how a working class party would be different, what kind of answers it would give to the problems the population confronts.
And if such a party were put on the ballot, it would give all those workers who understand the necessity for their class to organize politically – it would give them a chance to express what they think.
Even the work to put such a party on the ballot would raise a very simple, but basic idea: a working class party doesn’t exist. It’s needed.