There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth on one side and posturing and boasting on the other. But in the wake of the confirmation of right-wing hatchet man Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, what’s needed most of all is a serious assessment of what happened, what it shows about US society, and where the working class movement – and socialists within that movement – go from here.
Mainstream Capitalists Worried
The mainstream of the US capitalist class and their more thoughtful commentators are worried. They are bemoaning the breakdown of “decorum” in the US Senate and how that reflects polarization in US society as a whole. Take this article in the NY Times, for example: It talks about the whole battle as being partly “a final spasm of division” but even more “an event that deepens the national mood of turbulence. The country is gripped by a climate of division and distrust rivaled by few other moments in the recent past.”
In this past, large sectors of US society had confidence in the main institutions of the so-called “rule of law”, which means bourgeois or capitalist democracy, US style. As Joe Biden commented the “blind rage” that is developing in the United states “threatens not only the Senate and the Supreme Court. It threatens the basic faith the American people have in our institutions.”
“Rule of Law” Threatened
The confidence in the main institutions of the “rule of law” have historically helped the capitalist class keep conflicting “factions” (as Alexander Hamilton put it) within tolerable bounds. The institutions kept the conflicts from ripping society apart. At the national level, the Senate is one of the main such institutions. Its strictly followed norms of “decorum” reflected this.
Under these norms, senators are not supposed to denounce each other. Under these norms, it was completely acceptable for Bernie Sanders to stand arm in arm with far right Senator John McCain (along with another power house – Nancy Pelosi) at Trump’s inauguration. Under these norms, leading liberal Senator Hubert Humphrey could accept a confederate flag pinned to his lapel by segregationist Senator Absalom Robertson in 1964 after debating the proposal for a Civil Rights Act.
The US Supreme Court was also seen as being above the fray, immune from politics and political corruption. As recently as 2002, 50% of the US population expressed a lot of confidence in the US Supreme Court. Today, that has shrunk to 37%. Confidence in congress has gone from 29% to near single digits (11%) while lack of confidence has skyrocketed to 48%.
What do these statistics represent and how did we get here? Under Nixon, the Republicans started to build a new coalition. It was composed of those whites who never did accept the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, nor those of women. They were also the true believers in the Vietnam War – the hard core patriots. (These were often one and the same.) Among other things, they did this by the appeal for law and order. But the Democrats were unable to counter this because they, too, joined in the choir for law and order as well as the attack on the more long term unemployed, who often were black workers. The (Bill) Clinton presidency exemplified this. At the same time, in order to further confuse and distract, the Republicans and a wide layer of the US capitalist class helped increase the influence of the reactionary Christian fundamentalists.
The economic collapse of 2007/8 actually spurred on this rise of the far right in the form of the Tea Party movement. A semi spontaneous movement from below, it originally based itself on opposition to the US government bailing out the banks. But the focus of its anger was governmental action, rather than the banks. Among other things, that reflected the long term propaganda of both main capitalist parties that only “private enterprise” could lead the way forward. The Tea Party was quickly taken over by a wing of the capitalist class and the Republican Party.
Elephant in the Room
The elephant in the room that few are paying attention to is the absence of the US working class as an independent force. While millions of US workers to some extent see that their interests and the interests of their bosses conflict on the job, there is not a significant tendency to expand this to see that it’s the same in society as a whole. Meanwhile, the standard of living is going backwards, leading to huge frustration. Also, those workers who take pride in the power of US capitalism overseas are seeing that power decline.
Role of Union Leadership
Then there is another factor: The failure of the union leadership. This leadership has done its level best to help the bosses keep workers in line and to marginalize or outright crush any tendency to try to return to the fighting days of the 1930s. It preaches every day that on the job the interests of the workers and those of the employers are one and the same. In society as a whole it preaches the same – that workers can only make their way forward by supporting one of the two main parties of the employers – the Democratic Party. (See this interview https://oaklandsocialist.com/2018/10/04/interview-cliff-willmeng-workers-candidate-for-boulder-county-commissioner/ with Cliff Willmeng, candidate for Boulder County Commissioner, for example.) And the socialists within the labor movement? Those who actually organized to try to make the unions fight for their members, who actually tried to organize the members independently of the leadership, were about as common as snow flakes in the tropics.
In the United States, racism/white supremacy has always been used to confuse and divide the working class. This is but another way of saying that it’s been used to tamp down class consciousness. Then there’s another factor: the frat boy/jock culture that expresses sexism and homophobia. These have all combined with the tendencies explained above. So, we have:
- Racism and division
- frat boy/jock bully culture, meaning sexism and homophobia
- the campaign for “law and order”
- the rise of the Christian fundamentalists
- the propaganda in favor of the role of “private enterprise” vs. governmental regulation and action.
It was always just a matter of time before some demagogue would combine all of this with the traditional anti-intellectualism of US society. Basing himself on the worship of celebrities (as thoughtfully explained by British columnist George Monbiot), Trump was simply an accident waiting to happen. It was inevitable that somebody like him would arise.
But now in office, he has driven matters far further; he has largely transformed the very institutions through which US
capitalism has been able to moderate and control the different competing “factions”. In the past, a president’s administration held competing tendencies. These give voice to the different views and, at times different secondary interests, of different wings of the US capitalist class. Not under Trump. He’s purged anybody who dares to express any differences with him. Then there’s his own party. He’s completely dominated it and, through that, has obtained complete domination of both houses of congress. Now, with the confirmation of Kavanaugh, he’s moving towards complete domination of the third branch of the US government – the federal judiciary. That includes his many appointments to the federal appeals court, which is maybe even more important than the supreme court. (See this article.)
What is the view of the capitalist class on this?
As the articles cited here show, the more mainstream New York Times is roundly critical of Trump. They are concerned about how he’s destabilizing all of US society, including the institutions built to keep things under control.
On the other hand, there is the more militant, the more extreme wing of the capitalist class. They are represented by the Wall St. Journal. When Trump first ran for office, the Wall St. Journal editors denounced him almost daily. Now, their tune has changed. Their columns and editorials almost always praise his actions, although they too criticize what they call his “chaos school of governing.” They also criticize his tariffs.
But in general, this is an untenable situation; it cannot last. All the main institutions used to keep conflicts under control are weakened. Even the slightly more thoughtful Republicans are worried. As Republican senator Lisa Murkowsky commented “We’re at a place where we need to begin thinking about the credibility of our institutions.”
The liberal Democrats want to return to what used to exist. That cannot happen. Not now that these conflicts have broken out more into the open, and now that the confidence in the main institutions of US capitalist rule has been so weakened. Either Trump will go far further in his one-man dictatorial rule, or the US working class will start to stamp its imprint on society. How can that happen? Or to put it another way: How can this resistance start to unite at least a major sector of the working class?
Working Class Movement
What are the perspectives for a working class movement to combat these far right attacks?
Right now, we’re seeing a bit of a strike wave. As this is being written, workers at the Marriott chain are going out on strike throughout the US. At least here in Oakland, there is a lot of spirit on the picket lines, with drums sounding an sirens going off. Maybe that spirit will spill over into more direct-action like tactics like mass sit-ins. In fact, it should be looked into whether sympathy strikes couldn’t be organized at Marriott’s around the world – or at least sympathy picket lines.
What might be most significant would be a (threatened) strike by steelworkers, many of whom represent the blue collar support (at least among white workers) for Trump. So far Trump is ignoring these strikes. But in the past he has said that wages are too high in the US! Will he react in some way or another ultimately? If these strikes increase, he’ll be hard pressed to avoid it.
This strike wave is based on the historically low levels of official unemployment and the fact that wages have lagging in the extreme. If unemployment continues to be low, the strikes might well increase. One question is whether they will tend to escape the straight jacket of the union bureaucracy. Socialists – especially the 10,000 member Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) could play an important role in helping build a movement for a more fighting and more broad-based working class movement, but so far they have tended to ignore this straight jacket. We should be fighting for:
- Link the struggles for higher pay with the resistance to white supremacy/racism, sexism and homophobia.
- Link the individual strikes with a movement for an immediate $5/hour raise for all plus full health and pension benefits.
- Fight for a 32 hour work week at 40 hours pay and for full time employment for all those who want it.
- Build direct links with workers internationally. For example, organize strikes at Marriott Hotels around the world until all Marriott workers are paid what they demand.
- For a strike policy of open defiance; for work-place occupations and mass pickets.
- Link up the strike wave with the political struggles against Trump and against the efforts to divide us. Built a mass working class party to coordinate and lead a workers’ movement nation-wide. Organize for this party running its own candidates for office, candidates who oppose both the Republicans and the Democrats. Explain that we can’t do this while we support any candidates of either of these two parties of the employers.
There is also the issue of a possible US attack on Iran, more likely after the November elections than before (if it happens). That would transform the situation, as would the end of the US economic expansion. Either of these events – or some other shock – would pose great threats, but also great opportunities for the working class movement and for socialists within that movement… as long as a struggle completely independent of the owners of capital and their parties is built.