The Marxist method is to start by trying to figure out the main processes – the main forces at work – and get some idea of how they will interact and develop. Only then can we figure out our tasks within that general process. Recently a small group of Marxists – the Workers International Network – held a conference in Britain. Here are some thought on the perspectives for the United States that were submitted to that conference:
On November 9, 2016, the world awoke to Americans having elected the most right wing and racist president since before the US Civil War. This is a man who:
- Openly encouraged physical assaults on those who opposed his views
- Directly appealed to racism
- Directly appealed to chauvinism and anti-immigrant bigotry
- Bragged about sexually assaulting women.
- Denied science, especially regarding global climate disruption/global warming
Since he’s been in office, he has doubled down on all of this. In addition, he has:
- Opened up federal lands to the ravages of the mining, oil and ranching industries.
- Defended white supremacists as “good people”.
- Sent out a never-ending stream of tweets encouraging millions to ignore the facts and instead base themselves on “alternative facts.”
- Appointed a whole series of federal appeals court judges who are far right ideologues and will be in their positions for many years to come.
- Helped push through a tax bill that sets the stage for future massive cuts in social spending.
Not only is the election of Trump a defeat for the working class*, he is also partially out of control of the mainstream of his own class – the capitalist class. That’s because he is a long time money-launderer for the Russian oligarchs/mafia.1 As such, he is closely linked with the interests of one of the main rivals for US imperialism – Russian imperialism.
How did this happen? How did the mainstream of the US capitalist class largely lose control over their own presidency, while millions of workers actually voted for this buffoon billionaire? That is what we have to answer if we are to effectively combat him and what he represents.
Weakening of US imperialism
Part of the answer lies in the decline of power of US capitalism around the world. As with every other working class, most US workers associate the loss of strength of “their” country with their own loss of strength. Every defeat or humiliation for US imperialism is seen as their own defeat or humiliation. That was part of the meaning of “Make America Great Again” – return US imperialism to its unchallenged position of world domination.
But those days will never return.
In September of 2017, the US Army’s War College published a study called “At Our Own Peril”2 which assesses the situation of US capitalism in the world today. The theme of the report is that US capitalism does not dominate the world and control world events any more. That is a huge change.
They point out that after WW II, the US basically controlled the capitalist world. That power even increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1989). Then came 9/11, which they call a “strategic shock”. Now, they say, we are in the “post primacy period”. This means the period after the loss of control by US capitalism. They say this period is “even more uncertain and faces a wave of fundamental change.”
The report points out all sorts of reasons for what amounts to the chaos of today’s world. These include the close and immediate connection between groups and people around the world through the internet. It also includes “great power competition.” It also includes the breakdown of society in different countries – “dissolution of political cohesion and identity” as they put it.
They quote General Martin Dempsey: “In the next 10 years, I expect the risk of interstate conflict in East Asia to rise, the vulnerability of our platforms and basing to increase, our technology edge to erode, instability to persist in the Middle East, and threats posed by violent extremist organizations to endure.”
They also warn against new rebellions like the Arab Spring and say that “the one certainty is in fact uncertainty.”
Weakening of US capitalism at home
The unease due to the end of unchallenged world domination of US imperialism has combined with anger at the collapse of the “American Dream” at home. Take one example: With the historic absence of a mass working class party, US workers have had far less of a social safety net than their equivalents in Western Europe. This has historically been partially compensated for through homeownership, which provided a source of cash in times of crisis. That is disappearing, as home ownership has steadily declined even during the current economic expansion. By the end of 2015 (the most recent period for which there are statistics), it hit a historic low of 63.4%.3 But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Among millennials, homeownership is down to 36% from a previous high of 43% in 2005.4 Nor is life for renters so great as over a
quarter of renters pay at least half of their income for housing costs.5 (Paying no more than one third is considered “affordable”.)
This reflects the explosion of the “gig economy” – that sector of the economy in which workers are considered private contractors, with no rights and no benefits like unemployment insurance, disability insurance, workers’ compensation, etc. One study predicted that by 2020, 40% of US workers would be in this situation!6
War time propaganda and anti-intellectual traditions
The state of war, on a low grade but constant scale, since 9/11 (15 years, in other words), also adds to this. Whenever any capitalist country goes to war, war fever, chauvinism and even blood-lust tend to increase. This is usually only cut across when the body bags start coming home. But the body bags from the present wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) have been relatively few. Also, the absence of conscription has allowed this low grade war fever to continue.
This attitude bolsters the machismo, the tendency towards violence, the worshipping of the gun, and the cheapening of human life in US culture. Even under Obama, talking about “capture or kill” of so-called enemies abroad was normalized as was the murder of children, which was justified in the name of “collateral damage”. Trump has further boosted these attitudes.
He has also boosted science denialism and the infantile belief that what exists is simply what one wants to exist. Here is an example of the rhetoric he uses: “This is a rigged system. This is a sick system from the inside. And, you know, there’s no country like our country, but we have a lot of sickness in some of our institutions, and we’re working very hard. We’ve got a lot of them straightened out, but we do have — we really do — a rigged system in this country, and we have to change it. Terrible. Terrible.”7 What does it mean? Nobody knows, but his supporters eat it up. It shows the worst aspect of “the unthinking American”.
All of this has allowed the ascendency of a racist, chauvinist buffoon like Trump, whose support, while extremely low, is still over 30%
Absence of working class as coherent force
But there is also another major factor:
Like any other class, the working class can only express its independent role through the creation of its own party. Because of the unique way in which US capitalism developed, there is no tradition of such a party in the US including up until now. That flows from and contributes to the relative weakness of class consciousness in the United States.
The absence of a mass working class party is so prominent and constant that it’s hardly even noticed, and it also largely explains why so many US workers voted for Trump. For example, it’s estimated that 43% of voters from union households voted for him.8 The Democrats offered a candidate who was seen for what she was – a corporate shill – while Trump was seen as an “outsider”.
The concept of class interests was entirely lacking for millions. And the union leadership contributes to the burying of this concept. Within the unions, they bring out corporate executives or their mouthpieces to lecture the members about how they have to be the most productive workers, how they have to help their employer compete. This attitude is carried out on a daily basis in the work place, where union representatives consistently discourage members from organizing and standing up to the boss. In their public pronouncements they reinforce this view. Within a short time after Trump’s election, Rich Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO said that “we will work with” Trump. This statement was not renounced by a single national labor leader. Then, within a few months, Dennis Williams, president of the UAW, and the heads of the building trades unions gave Trump photo ops to boost his plans to increase the profits of their respective industries.
To give a concrete example of the results: For over a year the United Auto Workers had a campaign to organize the Nissan workers at a plant in Mississippi. The employer and its politicians harangued the workers about how the union would make the company less successful and how the workers’ success depended on the company’s
success. Of course they’d be spouting this. That’s standard and normal for the employers. The problem was that the UAW couldn’t counter this because the leadership had been spouting the exact same position for years. As Bob King, then-president of the UAW, said to the Chamber of Commerce in 2011: “We need to join together…. When we join together we can go down a path to true economic growth and prosperity…” And during the organizing campaign at Nissan, the UAW had signs printed up saying “pro-Nissan and pro-union”. The result was that the workers rejected the union by over 60%. If you’re going to be pro-company, then who needs a union?
The issue of sexual harassment has become an open scandal, especially with the nomination in Alabama of the serial sexual predator and child molester Roy Moore for the US senate. Already before his exposure but even more so since then, dozens, possibly hundreds of women have been stepping forward to denounce different powerful men for sexual harassment, groping and even rape. These include James Levine, conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Matt Lauer, newscaster for NBC; Glenn Thrush, New York Times journalist; Russel Simmons, music mogul; US Senator Al Franken; Trent Franks, member of the US House of Representatives, and many others. There must be hundreds, probably thousands, of men in positions of power wondering when the axe will fall on them. How many, in fact, will be left standing?
One thing that tends to be ignored, though, is the class element in this. There are no female CEO’s who are accusing their male counterparts of such acts, nor any congresswomen or female senators. In the case of Roy Moore, it was evidently all the young daughters of working class women that he went after. The class element is also clear in the case of Jeff Epstein. He was basically a procurer of teen age girls for the rich and famous. His own private Caribbean island was called “Sex Slave Island,” and his private jet was called the “Lolita Express.” He was associated with both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump (and also Prince Andrew), among others.9
In any case since the Republicans have been largely defending “their” harassers and predators, and since the Harasser-in-Chief is a Republican, it’s been largely the Democrats who have benefited from this. The percent of white women who voted for Trump was about equal to that who voted for Roy Moore in Alabama, but the big change seems to be that women seem to be getting more active, largely motivated by both an increased feeling of independence and the issue of sexist harassment.
The number of women running for office in 2017 was four times the number in 2015, and about ¾ of them were running as Democrats.10 There was a group of women who campaigned in an organized way in the state-wide elections in Virginia who are now spreading out to other states. Any campaign against sexism will tend to oppose machismo in general, and that attitude is closely intertwined with militarism and war. So, while there is no guarantee that women will oppose US militarism, as Hillary Clinton proves, it seems there would be a tendency in that direction.
There is also increased activity among black voters. In the state of Virginia, for example, the Democrats nearly ran the table, including the surprisingly easy win of Northam for governor. A poll conducted last August of black voters in that state showed that 54% said they felt minorities were under attack and 73% agreed that a Democratic victory would “send a message to Trump,” but only 60% said they were very likely to vote. A subsequent poll showed that 90% said they were very likely to vote. In the event, 87% of black voters voted for Northam while only 42% of whites did. (67% of Latino voters voted for Northam.) In the more recent election in Alabama, a stunning 98% of black women voters voted for the Democrat, Doug Jones. Black voter turnout was what defeated the racist, Moore. In 2008, when there was massive enthusiasm for Barack Obama, black voters comprised 28% of the Alabama electorate. This time, they comprised 29% (and 96% of them voted for Jones).11
A similar process is at work among Latino people in the US, mainly due to the immigration issue.
The Democratic Party
The Democratic Party is caught in a bind. Traditionally, it has served as the party to capture movements from below against the attacks of the capitalist class. This includes both economic attacks and racism, sexism, and homophobia. It also includes the movement against the environmental destruction of the capitalist class. However, it is controlled at the top by the capitalist class, especially by the financial wing of that class. The very lack of structure of the party makes it all the easier for them to control the party overall.
In order to continue to capture any movement from below, at times the Democrats, or at least prominent representatives of that party, advance individuals and ideas and demands that are inconvenient for the capitalist class. Bernie Sanders and his present campaign for “Medicare for all” (what was previously called single payer) is a prime example of that. The strategy of the liberal/”progressive” wing of the Democrats is to ride this issue back into power in congress in 2018 and into the White House in 2020.
The Democrats proved in 2009 that they will not bring this about. They proved it again in 2017 in California. If they get back into power in 2020, they will be sure that just enough Democrats join with the Republicans to vote against Medicare for all. (And that says nothing about the severe weakness of this step.**)
Meanwhile, major capitalists are shifting away from the Republicans and to the Democrats. This seems likely to lead to increased tensions within the Democratic Party, as the progressive wing (led by Sanders right now) continues to struggle for measures like single payer.
Sanders himself deserves special mention. One thing: It is not true that he ran as a socialist. He hardly ever mentioned the word. What happened was that the capitalist media, thinking that they could stir up a red-baiting campaign against him, started raising comments he’d made in the past favoring socialism, and he had to respond. But except when they raised it, he did not raise socialism. The capitalist press campaign against him on this issue turned out to be a major blunder on their part since, instead of provoking an anti-Sanders backlash, they actually increased the profile of socialism!
In any case, since the election, Sanders has devoted himself to strengthening the Democratic Party by campaigning for individual liberal Democrats. In doing so, he is helping maintain the historic role of the Democratic Party in short-circuiting any tendency towards a working class party.
Democratic Socialists of American
The Sanders activists, who are overwhelmingly young, white and middle class, had to have somewhere to go, and thousands of them went into the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). From a group of a few hundred, within months of the election it was transformed into a group of some 6 or 7,000. The chapter in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay area reports having grown from about 60 to 900 at present!
In the past, DSA functioned simply as a network for some liberals in the Democratic Party. Even politicians like former New York City mayor David Dinkins was a member. This influx threatens to shake that up, but to what extent? Will DSA break from its reliance on the union bureaucracy and its support for liberal Democrats? Will it be able to break out of its present demographic of being overwhelmingly white and largely middle class? A lot depends on future developments in the class struggle as a whole.
How far can Trump go?
Very, very few thought that Trump would even win the Republican nomination no less the general election. That he did means that we have to consider things that were unthinkable a few years ago.
There is the matter of North Korea, for example. Right now, the rhetoric as far as crushing that country seems to have receded. But who knows what’s going on beneath the surface? There have been some reports that some generals are implying they would disobey an order to launch a first strike nuclear attack. But relying on the military, which has always had its crazed Dr. Strangelove wing, is a very weak assurance indeed.
Then there is the Mueller investigation. It seems to be getting closer and closer to Trump himself, and there are reports that Trump is considering getting rid of Mueller, possibly by getting rid of the head of the FBI first. What would happen if Mueller started to reveal some of the outright criminal dealings of Trump – his collusion with the Russian regime and the link of that to his having been a money launderer for the Russian mafia? What steps would Trump take to defend himself then and what forces are at work that could resist him?
And how about the 2020 elections? If it became clear that Trump is going to lose, would he accept that? He’s already complained about massive voter fraud (which is a lie), and he’s established a voting commission which is seeking the voter information on every voter in the US. At the same time, there’s been a steady increase in voter suppression, for example by sharp decrease in polling places in predominantly black neighborhoods. Is it possible that he would secure reelection through massive and blatant vote fraud and suppression, far in excess of anything that’s happened up to now? And if that happened, and there were massive protests, would Trump crack down sharply? And where would that lead?
There are also all sorts of other crises that could arise, such as an environmental crisis or an economic collapse. How would that affect the hold Trump has?
Trump seems to orient towards two elements: One is the far right populist base, which contains outright white supremacists. The other is the military, which has several representatives in his administration, the most prominent of which is Chief of Staff John Kelly. Kelly largely controls who has access to Trump. Also, as shown by his comments on the US Civil War, Kelly himself is playing to the racists and right wing populists.
Bonepartism arises when the capitalist class loses its base within society and cannot rule through “normal, democratic” means, and when the working class is insufficiently organized to take power itself. In that situation, a “strong” individual can arise to rule in the capitalists’ name but also partly outside of their direct control. Such rule also means the elimination of almost all democratic norms. There are elements of all of this in the present situation. However, we aren’t there yet. The questions are: Can we get there, especially in the face of some sort of crisis, either domestic or international (or both), and will the capitalists be able to rein him in? They are trying to do so through the Mueller investigation, and maybe they will succeed, or maybe succeed in ousting him. But it’s also possible that he could oust Mueller, or ham string him. Then who knows what would happen?
In the past, just raising these sorts of questions would have smacked of melodramatic alarmism. But now, it has to be considered.
Limitations on Trump
US capitalism’s relative stability, which has endured since the Civil War, will not collapse easily. It has been able to absorb disquiet like that in the 1930s and again in the 1960s due to the base it has in large sectors of society. This base is expressed through confidence in major capitalist institutions like the capitalist media, the police and the military. This confidence is eroding, but still exists.
Right now, the mainstream of the capitalist media is engaged in a bitter struggle against the fanatics in the Republican Party, including Trump and Bannon. They have succeeded in reducing support for Trump down to 32%. The general attitude also resulted in Republican defeats in three critical state-wide elections (in New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama). These defeats are being used to push back against the Bannon wing of the Republicans. With Trump’s support down to 32%, and with the Mueller investigation moving ever closer to Trump himself, it’s possible that the mainstream of the capitalists – as represented by mainstream conservatives – might be able to recapture control over the Republican Party.
They hope they can weather the crisis, keeping Trump in check through Chief of Staff John Kelly, until 2020 and then oust him, either through a primary challenge from within the Republican Party or through the election of a Democrat. Meanwhile, they hope that some more mainstream conservatives will be nominated for office in the 2018 elections. With enough money thrown their way, that’s possible. Also, the confidence in basic capitalist institutions has not disappeared completely. They will try to use this to regain control over the Republican Party and, thereby, over US politics in general. Also, with Trump’s declining support, they hope that some Republicans in congress will be a little more independent of him.
The problem is that the activist base – the very same base that these conservatives worked so hard to build over the years – tends to dominate in the primaries. That still might be overcome, but what happens if it isn’t?
We have focused on Trump’s reliance on the far right and how this destabilizes US society. There is another aspect, though: The fact is that Trump’s links with Russian capitalism are wide and deep. They actually originate even before the collapse of the Soviet Union and continued after, with Trump playing the role of money-launderer for the Russian oligarchs/mafia. It is now beyond serious doubt that the Putin regime helped engineer the surprising Trump victory last November. So, not only has the mainstream of the US capitalist class partially lost control over its president as far as domestic policy is concerned; they also are saddled with a president who has ties to one of their strategic rivals – Russian imperialism.12 This, in itself, is an amazing situation.
Already, prominent Republican strategists are moving towards the Democratic Party. In other words, the Democrats are tending to become the party more favored by the mainstream of the capitalist class. This will lead to increased friction within the Democratic Party, as the Bernie Sanders wing continues to try to build support. More important, it means a huge realignment of US politics. Despite all the efforts of the Sanders wing, it means a vacuum is being created. Who knows how it might be filled?
Working class party
Commenting on developments here in the United States, Frederick Engels wrote, “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.”13 What was true then is still true. How might such a party develop?
Right after Trump was elected, there was a series of mass street protests, including the ones at the airports in response to Trump’s Muslim ban. It seemed that these might continue and build. Had that happened, then there would have been an inevitable tendency for these protests to lead to some form of coordination, which would mean the rise of some sort of national coalition. Also, there would have been a tendency for the working class to join in, which would have given them more of a class character. A coalition that coordinated such a movement, and one which had a working class base, would have been a working class party in-the-making. It would have conformed to the US tradition of starting out with action and only later actually organizing. Ultimately, such a body would have had to decide its position in regard to elections. One tendency would have been to run its own candidates on a working class basis. That would have stamped it as a working class party.#
That movement in the streets has died down (although far from disappeared). Meanwhile, there is an increased focus on elections.
In the November, 2017 elections, a whole series of DSA members won office. They were in the more traditional role of DSA candidates – liberal capitalist politicians, not working class representatives, never mind socialists of any sort (even social democrats). However, times have changed and so has DSA. The situation cries out for groups like DSA and others to run their own candidates at the local level, ones which run outside of and opposed to the two capitalist political parties. So far, they have adamantly resisted doing this, but will they be able to resist indefinitely?
If a series of such candidates got elected – or even made a credible showing – there would be a tendency for them and their backers to develop some sort of network. This would be the beginnings of an outline for a new, serious, working class party.
Support the “progressive” Democrats?
Can we actually organize towards building of a mass working class party while we run candidates on the Democratic Party line? Both history and simple logic dictate that the answer is “no”. It is basic to explain that the working class must have its own party and that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party and will always be one. However, it’s impossible to do this while running as a Democrat, or while supporting others who run as Democrats at the same time. The contradiction is too great. Any involvement in electoral politics that isn’t based on the necessity of building an alternative to the Democrats will inevitably mean falling into the Democratic Party swamp.
Nor should socialists call on Bernie Sanders to split from the Democrats and build a working class party. He has proven over and over that he will not do that, and calling on him to do so only further focuses attention on this left liberal capitalist politician. Such a call tends to draw attention away from workers relying on their own organizations and their own movement to build their own party.
There has been a 40 year propaganda war against the traditions of class struggle in the US. That war has been carried out not only by the capitalist institutions (including the politicians, the media and many, many religious leaders); it has also been carried out by the union leadership. Once ideas are taken up by masses of people, they become a material force. In this case, we are talking about the ideas of individualism and political passivity. In the late ’90s, workers started to be drawn into the struggle against global capitalism. Then 9/11 shattered that process.
This low level of working class activity has had a strong effect on the left in the US, first and foremost in its support for Assad, Putin and Rouhani. Major elements of the left here have given support – either overt or covert – to these reactionaries. The reason is that they don’t see the working class as the force that can stand up to US imperialism. Support, either overt or covert, for these forces is a betrayal of the working class and of socialism. Nor is it acceptable to be “neutral” on the issue.
Others on the left look for a way around the low mood that still exists in the working class by adopting volunteerism or outright charity work. This runs the gamut from doing free repair of people’s tail lights (to help prevent the drivers from being stopped by the police), to free food programs to even fixing pot holes in the street. They do this on the grounds that it is creating “dual power”. This claim makes it impossible to understand revolutionary history and the real role of dual power.## It also avoids the difficult task of struggling to understand the current mood, how and why it developed, what objective events can change it, and what role socialists can play in the process.
However workers do move into activity, eventually it will happen. Even before a mass working class movement develops, some clear demands are necessary to clarify what’s needed, to inspire and to unite the working class. Here are some ideas:
- End privatization: For full funding for all public services and programs including public education and other social services. For control over these services by the workers and the public they service not the bureaucracy.
- For a mass public housing program: Build public housing, under control and management of the residents and workers themselves. This means pleasant, open housing development, not the huge prison-like apartment towers like exist in many major cities. The for-profit, private real estate and housing industry has proven it cannot fulfill the housing needs of the people. While rent control would be a positive step, it cannot solve this problem.
- Guaranteed jobs for all at a $20/hour minimum wage plus full benefits: With the dramatic increase in housing costs, $15/hour doesn’t even begin to pay the rent.
- For socialized medicine: “Single payer”, now called “Medicare for all”, is a step in the right direction, but has the major flaw that it would accelerate the consolidation and closure of hospitals. We need a fully-funded national health plan, plus the socialization of the pharmaceutical industry, which dominates health care in the US.+#
- Mobilize the working class to defeat racism, sexism and all forms of bigotry. This includes opposing police violence and racism: Call on the unions to organize against these outrages, including the racist outrages and violence by the police. For the right to strike over racist or sexist harassment.
- Build Strong Unions: Fight union busting and concessionary contracts. This can only succeed by linking it with a struggle of the rank and file organize to oppose the “team concept” in all its various forms and to fight for stronger contracts and on-the-job union power. Take back the unions from a leadership that works hand-in-hand with management. For unions, starting with the rank and file – to directly link up with their counterparts around the world for global, industry-wide struggles.
- For a mass program to fund renewable energy, especially wind and solar power: The technology is there; what’s necessary is adequate funding to develop it on a mass scale.
- Internationalism: Oppose US military, economic and political intervention around the world. Build direct links between workers and youth around the world.
- Build a mass working class party: The working class must have its own party to even start to become an independent force in society. It is impossible to organize towards this ends while supporting any Democrats.
- For socialism: On every score – from the issue of oppression to poverty to the environment to war – capitalism is daily proving that it is leading to disaster. It is leading to more war, sectarianism, oppression, poverty and environmental disaster; its sell-by date has long passed. “Socialism” does not mean a few increases in public services; it means organizing for the complete ending of capitalism and the building of a socialist society, based on public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and the creation of an economic plan, under the control and management of the working class itself.
*It would have been slightly less a defeat if Hillary Clinton had been elected, but a defeat nevertheless.
7From his speech in Florida on 12-08-2017
9See this article, for example: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2017/03/22/gorsuch-and-acosta-representing-the-financial-environmental-and-sexual-predators/
**See this article for an explanation: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2017/07/06/us-health-care-single-payer-or-socialized-medicine/
12For those who doubt this, see: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2017/04/04/mobster-in-chief-donald-trump-life-imitates-art/
Also see whowhatwhy.org for more up-to-date coverage:
13Engels to Sorge, November 29, 1886
#For a more fleshed-out explanation of that possibility, see: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2017/01/02/a-new-political-party-blueprint-or-perspectives/
##For more on the issue of dual power, see https://oaklandsocialist.com/2015/02/07/what-is-revolution/
+#For more on the issue of “single payer” see: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2017/07/06/us-health-care-single-payer-or-socialized-medicine/