The Spark

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

United States:
The Social and Political Situation, April 2017

Apr 2, 2017

The following text was adopted at a meeting of the whole Spark organization, describing the situation in which our work is carried out.

The whole year 2016 was dominated by the elections. This is usually the case in an election year – but the contest of the “establishment” by so-called “outsiders” in both parties, as well as Trump’s ability to bend the media to his outrageous statements, focused attention even more than normally.

We have little to add to the analysis we made of the results of the presidential election soon after November 8 – only to emphasize certain points.

The vote putting Trump in the White House was, first of all, a repudiation of the Democrats, at least as far as the working class is concerned, although it took different forms. Among white workers, there was some shift to the Republican candidate in working class areas, in part by white workers who the last two times voted for Barack Obama, and in part by white workers who, not having voted for a number of elections, if at all, did vote this time. Among black workers, there was an increase in the number of non-voters, perhaps deceived by Obama, but unwilling to vote for an open racist like Trump. The media highlighted the fact that perhaps almost one-third of Hispanics may have voted for Trump. Why should that surprise anyone? Hispanics are not monolithic; there are important class divisions and nationality distinctions hidden within this one category. Moreover, even among immigrants from Mexico or Central America, there can be differences according to how long someone has been here. Like so many other immigrant groups – Poles, just as an example – earlier immigrants can want to distinguish themselves from newcomers, including in which party they vote for.

There is another issue: who did not vote. A very significant part of the working class today – recent and not so recent immigrants – have no right to vote at all, even though they contribute to this society with their labor and their taxes. Furthermore, especially in the Deep South, barriers continue to be set in the way of poor people voting, usually poor black people, but not only. The legal restrictions of the Jim Crow era may no longer exist, but some of the obstacles to voting can be nearly as pernicious. Then there are all those people still in prison or, in many states, already out of prison or in jail awaiting court, who legally are denied the right to vote.

None of that takes account of all the people who just didn’t vote, some consciously, because they saw no interest in it, some simply out of boredom with the whole spectacle.

Even among those who legally had the right to vote, there was a large drop-off. Looking at the gross figures, about 73.5 million possible voters didn’t vote – more than the number who voted for either of the major candidates (Clinton had 65.8 million, Trump 62.9 million), while 7.7 million others either voted for one of the minor candidates or cast a blank vote when it came to the presidential line on their ballot. (We have to be careful not to attribute too much political consciousness to the numbers who abstained.)

Given what has happened since November 8, it’s necessary to underline the fact that the vote was a repudiation of the Democrats.

A Worsening of the Situation of the Working Class

It’s important not to forget that the situation facing the working class continued to degrade during much of Obama’s presidency, even as the economy supposedly entered a recovery period.

As we said in November:

“It’s true the Gross Domestic Product has increased for the last seven and a half years. And wealth has increased rapidly. But 95 percent of the increase in income over the Obama years accrued to that wealthiest ‘one percent,’ while Obama continued most of Bush’s tax policies that helped that process along.

“Yes, there are jobs – about nine million new jobs created since 2009. But that nine million increase in the number of jobs was accounted for almost completely by jobs that were part-time, temporary, contract or very low-wage full-time – or by jobs for the already very well-off.

“Even if there has been a slight increase in the industrial work force in the past two years, there are still nearly 1.5 million fewer industrial workers today than when Obama took office, and nearly five million less than in 2000....

“Fewer people of working age are in the labor force today: less than 63 percent, compared to 66 percent when Obama took office in 2009. That three percent difference accounts for 15 million more people who have been pushed out of a labor market that has no openings for them. All told, there are now 95 million people who are of an age to work, but aren’t officially employed.

“Median family income continues to fall backward to less than it was 16 years ago, adjusted for inflation. The income of those without college degrees has fallen the furthest.”

Furthermore, Obama pursued George Bush’s efforts to dismantle the public schools – indispensable for the children of the working class. He expelled more immigrants than Bush ever did, and in 2011 he finished the 700 mile long fence on the Mexican border started under George Bush in 2006. He continued and expanded the wars started under Bush. He laid the groundwork in Syria for Trump’s April intervention. He continued, under the pretext of a fight against “terrorism,” to expand the repressive and intelligence-gathering state apparatus. He presided over – just as Bush and Clinton did before him – an incarceration regime which shoveled whole generations of young people into prison, young people for whom capitalist society has no jobs.

For the working class, this situation was all the more bitter, given the quite open and ostentatious display of growing wealth at the top of society.

No Party of the Working Class

For the vast majority of the working class and for the rural poor, for the small business owners, things were not only NOT better after eight years of a Democratic presidency, they were worse. And a number of them gave their vote to Trump as a way to protest – as shocking as that might seem to some people in the left, and as much as some of them try to deny it.

That does not mean that the Republican Party has become the party of the working class. It means only that the Republican Party was able to find enough votes in the working class to gain the presidency in 2016, when they were added to the party’s traditional base among the well off layers of the population, plus religious fundamentalists and other conservatives.

The Republicans have been able to count on extreme-right religious fundamentalists (mostly Christian, but not only) for decades. They are the cornerstone of the Republican effort to have a popular base for their party, countering the union apparatuses and black churches that work for the Democratic party. And much of the Republican effort to build this base has turned around their appeal to reactionary and fundamentalist ideology, leading to their attacks on women’s right to control their own bodies and lives.

But they also began to cut into the influence held by the unions in the working class, as the union apparatuses offered no perspective to the working class. What Trump did is little different from what Reagan did before him in 1980, except that he was able to build on the anti-free trade propaganda the unions had carried out for decades, blaming that for the loss of jobs.

With the results of the 2016 election, we see once again consequences of the fact that the working class has no party of its own, no party recognized as such, that is, as a working class party, putting forward a working class perspective, which can only be a revolutionary one. On the one hand, the workers continue to be pulled into voting for and in some cases even emotionally or practically supporting one of two bourgeois parties, parties which long ago proved themselves to be enemies of the working class. On the other hand this time, a section of the workers were pulled into voting for a demagogic bigot who spouts racism, xenophobia and misogyny. Perhaps some did so in agreement with Trump’s vicious ideas. Maybe more did it, thinking they could ignore them – but they were wrong. The whole working class has been touched by those ideas, in one way or another.

For our part, we worked with other people to put Working Class Party on the ballot. Certainly, we do not believe that this electoral effort, at our small scale, means that a true working class party is being built, or even is at the first step of being built. It is not simply a question of size, however, but of the fact that the working class party, when it does come into existence, will be built by the struggles of the working class itself, whether for the conscious aim of building that party, and/or as a consequence of a mass fight of the working class for what might at first seem like immediate aims. But we were attempting to give a chance to all those workers who wanted to express their desire to have such a party – we wanted to give them the possibility to say it, to say it openly, in a way that could be noted, and to do that from the perspective of their own class. (See article in Class Struggle #91.) We know that not all those who voted for Working Class Party did it with that consciousness. For many it was just a way to express opposition to the current situation, just as voting for Trump, or Sanders, or the Libertarians, or the Greens, etc. could be for still others. Yet, it is also true that the name, Working Class Party, attracted votes from many whose first exposure to it was when they read the name in the voting booth.

Republican Party: Not a Monolith

Since November 8, there have been dire predictions running wild on social media sites: the Republicans would march into Washington after January 20, ripping up the “legacy of Obama,” and everything the Democrats had “worked so hard to accomplish” (!). Not to mention the robo calls that Obama made to households in Democratic territory.

Trump has seemed to fulfill the predictions. He rushed to issue executive order after executive order, presidential memorandum after memorandum and proclamation after proclamation: proposing to expel undocumented immigrants, banning visitors into the U.S. from seven countries, allowing states to ignore provisions of the ACA, if they so chose – a legal right they already had to a very great degree. He re-authorized the Keystone XL pipeline. He eliminated an Obama order that had required companies bidding on government contracts to disclose whether they had violated labor law! He rescinded an Obama regulation concerning environmental protections that might interfere with the competitiveness of domestic energy production. He did the same thing for the auto industry with fuel economy standards. He threatened to unilaterally rewrite NAFTA. He threatened to pull out of NATO until other countries coughed up more money. He issued orders backing the police in their confrontations with young people on the streets. His administration called for bids from contractors eager to build the wall. Day after day after day, another order, another pronouncement from the big bully.

Even the line-ups of flunkies watching as he signed one order after another made a point: they were almost all men, white men. The few women who were there were put in obviously secondary, i.e. “decorative,” positions. These carefully staged photo ops were a visual contrast to the Democratic Party’s also carefully staged demonstrations of its “inclusivity.”

This was all little more than another “reality TV” show. Part of what Trump was undoing – when he didn’t overstep himself, as the courts were quick to remind him – were executive orders that Obama had issued during the last year of his presidency, most of which had not yet been implemented. Trump was simply putting things back to square one. But the exchange of executive orders made good propaganda for the Democrats, as well as for the Republicans. It was a win-win deal for the two parties – but not for workers, some of whom were taken in by one of these two hucksters.

Political reality reasserted itself when the Republicans, with their 44-vote majority in the House of Representatives, had to pull their rewrite of the ACA because they couldn’t scrape up enough Republicans to cobble together even a one-vote majority.

Political reality also reasserted itself when House Republicans, faced with the need to pass the interim budget, decided that they would continue to let Planned Parenthood be funded, they would not put in a request for any money for the wall, and they would not allocate money to pay for Trump’s increase in military spending.

This doesn’t mean Republicans won’t try to sneak some things in by other routes, nor that they won’t pass legislation aimed at satisfying the most reactionary parts of the Republican electorate.

But the Republican party is not the monolith the Democrats portray. Nor is Donald Trump the hard-talking, rough-and-tumble negotiator, able to stop people in their tracks with just a tweet. At least not when it comes to changing policies the bourgeoisie wants to keep. And up until now, an important part of the capitalist class is not ready to junk ACA, not at all ready to stop immigration, probably not even ready to build Trump’s much bigger wall, not ready to overturn abortion, at least not legally, etc.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that things won’t get worse under Trump. They will. The economic crisis isn’t going away – and that is what will determine the course ahead, just as it has determined the worsening of the situation of the working class ever since the end of the 1970s. The bourgeoisie isn’t going to stop pushing to wring every bit of wealth it can from the lifeblood of the working population, including by using its own state apparatus to do so. But it would have acted exactly the same under Clinton.

Finally, we have to remember that the issue is not Trump himself, and not the Republicans. Almost every country in the world has seen the development, sometimes the irruption, of reactionary, even violently reactionary tendencies that get a hearing among the population: political tendencies that spew similarly racist and sometimes worse propaganda. Once again, it’s a reflection of the fact that the world is a whole and that the same economic crisis, which has been striking here since the 1970s, is striking the rest of the world, leading, in the absence of a vigorous working class movement, and in the absence of a revolutionary current really implanted in the working class, to the growth of reactionary populism.

The Democrats have worked hard since January 20 in an attempt to rebuild support for their party, including by asking for donations, both as a way to increase their funds and as a way to tie people to the party. And, along with the unions, their rank and file are the ones who spoke up, sometimes in hostile ways, sometimes in angry ways, sometimes just questioning Republican congressmen who came into their home districts to speak to “the voters.”

We can expect a resurgence in the coming months of support for the Democrats, including among parts of the “left” – and not only the CP, but also among those who loosely identify as “Trotskyist,” as well as state cap. We already are seeing it, at least implicitly, and sometimes explicitly. But our problem is not the rest of the left, as such; it’s whether a part of the working class once more gets pulled into putting its hopes, however vague they are, in the Democrats.

A Collapse of Working Class Struggle

Until the working class begins to fight again, there is no answer to the deteriorating situation working people face. But, for decades, the working class has not been fighting.

Over the past ten years, there were only 143 strikes or employer lockouts involving more than 1,000 workers. To be clear, that means 143 strikes all together over the whole ten-year period. That total for the ten-year period is less than what was recorded in any single year from 1947 to 1981. In all the years from 1947 to 1981, only four times were there fewer than 200 strikes. By contrast, not once after 1981, when there were 145 strikes, have there been even 100 strikes.

1981 was the year of the air-traffic controllers’ strike, which was broken when Ronald Reagan ordered the strikers back to work, and neither their union leadership nor that of any other union made a sustained attempt to organize resistance.

The union leaderships have long pointed to that strike as the turning point – and certainly the year 1981 is. But the question is: “why?” If one presidential order can cause the whole working class movement to roll over and play dead, then maybe it was dead to begin with.

In fact, it was not the working class that collapsed – it was the union leaderships, and the policy they had carried out ever since taking over the head of the unions, almost as soon as the unions were formed in the 1930s. Their policy was harmful from the beginning: they worked to handcuff the workers to the idea that they could do well when their boss did well, if the union only acted a bit to shake the tree, which might even include some long strikes. The deadly aspect of this policy was hidden by the fact that the working class made substantial gains, not only in wages, but in other aspects of their lives for decades. Those gains came from the resurgence in productive growth that capitalism underwent starting at the beginning of World War II, going all the way up to 1974, a growth from which the working class benefitted partially, even if most of the benefits were kept by the bourgeoisie – but that growth of production and productive facilities was based on one thing and one thing alone: the murderous destruction of the world-wide war. With the appearance of the crisis in 1974, all the way up until today, those gains now show themselves to be not only dripping with blood, but transient: here, and then gone.

In response to the ever worsening class war that the capitalist class has been carrying out on the working class, reducing its conditions of work and life, the union leaderships have nothing else to propose other than what they proposed in 1981 after the collapse of the PATCO strike: wait, try to get along with the boss; try to influence the “liberal” parts of society through so-called “corporate” campaigns, or whatever name they are given today; try to depend on the Democrats, etc. – when they didn’t take the outright reactionary stances of calling for an end to all trade, or supporting U.S. wars and military spending as a way to create jobs.

The Working Class Needs Its Own Party

But the issue is not simply the policies of the union apparatuses in this country. We live in a country where there is no reformist party of the working class, no social democratic party of note, no Stalinist party with any base, left over from the past. That sometimes leads us to forget the role that first the Social Democracy, then Stalinism carried out in diverting the working class from pursuing a revolutionary fight – in this country, as well as in all those other areas of the world where the working class began a struggle that could have directly led it to take power. Stalinism used its authority, seemingly inherited from 1917, to block those struggles. In so doing, it used up, in fact tore up, the credit that the Russian revolution once had with the working class, and with it, tore up the credit that the Bolshevik party had earned, the only party to have built the organization necessary to give a perspective to a revolutionary struggle that the working class threw itself into. And in the Soviet Union, it killed Bolshevism.

It was a terrible loss for the whole working class movement, and the working class has been thrown backward by several generations. We live today under that shadow. But the working class still retains the capacity to find its way out of the capitalist maze, to take the road of revolution. What has been lacking is a working class party worthy of the name, or at least the nucleus of a revolutionary party that has sunk roots in the working class.

Our confidence in the capacities of the working class still stands on the reasoning made by Trotsky, summed up in the opening section of the “Transitional Program of the Fourth International”:

“The orientation of the masses is determined first by the objective conditions of decaying capitalism, and second, by the treacherous politics of the old workers’ organizations. Of these factors, the first, of course, is the decisive one: the laws of history are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus. No matter how the methods of the social betrayers differ – from the “social” legislation of Blum to the judicial frame-ups of Stalin – they will never succeed in breaking the revolutionary will of the proletariat. As time goes on, their desperate efforts to hold back the wheel of history will demonstrate more clearly to the masses that the crisis of the proletarian leadership, having become the crisis in humanity’s culture, can be resolved only by the Fourth International.”

That is, by a return to the tradition of revolutionary socialism, of communism.

Those words, written in 1938, in the midst of the vast crisis of the capitalist system known as the “Great Depression,” retain all their validity today. And even more.