A political vacuum of unprecedented proportions has opened up in the United States. Not since the US Civil War has the US capitalist class faced such a political crisis. It spent four long years struggling with a president over whom it exercised almost no control. While the policies of this president did boost the profits of the capitalist class, that is not their only concern. Their mainstream also thinks about the stability of their rule, both at home and abroad. And that president constantly threatened to upend things for them. The rise of a president whom they didn’t control was due to the weakening of the influence of the US capitalist class over society as a whole, including over the working class. This weakening is due to the end of the American Dream at home and the weakening of US capitalism on the world scale.
This political crisis of US capitalism has been expressed in this peculiar way – this vacuum has developed – also because of the crisis in the US working class. And we do neither ourselves nor anybody else any favors by closing our eyes to this crisis. It is estimated that 37% of union members voted for Trump in 2016, and even after four years of unbridled racism and chauvinism, that support does not seem to have slipped at least among white blue collar workers.
75 Year Propaganda War
It might seem strange, a paradox, contrary to logic, that the crisis of US capitalism is reflected by a turn to the right on the part of millions of workers. The explanation largely lies in the fact that the US working class has been subjected to 75 years of relentless propaganda that they have common interests with those of the employers – the capitalist class. Nor has this propaganda come purely from the capitalist class and their outlets – the politicians, the media, etc. Our own union leaders have also been a source. They, themselves, tell the members that they must help “their” company compete with other companies. They even bring the bosses into union meetings to preach this. In reality, this means these union members must compete with other workers for who can work cheapest and be most servile to the bosses. The great majority of union leaders do everything in their power to suppress those union members who try to keep alive the best fighting traditions of the labor movement in days gone by.
Some locally elected union leaders struggle against this onslaught, but these leaders are few and far between. Meanwhile, the upper echelons have an entire apparatus of full time staffers who carry out this campaign. A few staffers might be dedicated to the workers, but they cannot openly oppose the pro-employer policies of the leadership or they will be fired.
Despite the best efforts of this union leadership, though, there are still some union members who understand that theirs are not the same as the interests of the employer and that a collective union struggle against the boss is necessary… in the work place. But most of those same workers don’t project that situation onto society as a whole. Take one example: Recently an auto worker told us about a shop steward who had vigorously fought to defend the job of a fellow member who is black. Yet this same shop steward – a white guy – voted for Trump and was willing to use the “n” word!
Class Consciousness and Working Class Party
In a nutshell this confusion, this fact that a sort of class consciousness – union consciousness – is not projected onto society as a whole expresses a historical vacuum in the US working class. That vacuum is caused by the absence of any history of a mass working class political party. It is through a working class party that a class viewpoint can be expressed in every issue, be it poverty and low pay, bigotry and oppression or the environmental crisis. When most people in the US hear “political party” they think of a group of politicians and would-be politicians marshaling votes for one candidate or another, or to support one bill or another that these (capitalist) politicians put up. That is the beginning and the end point. That’s because we’re talking about capitalist parties; a working class party would be different. It would be a gathering point for the most conscious workers to draw lessons from the struggles. It would be an organizing center for workers’ struggles in the streets, work places, schools and, yes, in the unions. It would be a step towards clarifying what capitalism and socialism are. That is exactly why the union leadership opposes building a working class party and why it uses every trick, every diversion it can find to prevent this.
How can such a party start to develop?
It seems that it could be a combination of two sources: First is the movement itself. A mass movement in the streets – one where a major sector of workers is involved – could develop in a scattered way as did the Occupy and black lives matter movements. But if it lasts long enough and is powerful enough, then it could start to come together nationally. That is what happened with the BLM movement, except under the control of some of the nonprofits, who channeled it into voting for the Democrats in 2020. As part of that, they did their best to demobilize the movement in the streets.
Representatives of the nonprofit corporations can play a positive role at times. They did so in Occupy Oakland, for example. But the problem is that, as corporations controlled by their own board of directors, they are not democratically controlled. Also, many of them get their funding from liberal foundations that are either directly or indirectly tied to the Democratic Party. Some of the nonprofits can play a positive role, but it must be the activists in the movement who control that movement, not the nonprofits.
Mass Movement in the Streets
A movement that is less influenced or even controlled by the union leadership and the nonprofits would tend to build a leadership that is democratically elected from below rather than self-selected. There would be a tendency to organize democratic structures through which the different issues of the movement could be discussed and debated. The movement would not be demobilized in order to get some capitalist politicians elected. In this way the most conscious and courageous members of the working class – including working class youth – would tend to assert themselves more. Eventually, this national body that coordinates and leads the movement would have to decide how it relates to elections. Either it falls into the trap of supporting liberal Democrats or it puts forward its own leaders – leaders of the working class. In other words, it would have to decide whether it becomes a truly independent working class party or just a pressure group on the Democrats. But running its own candidates might be further down the road; a working class party might not start out by doing that.
Individual workers’ representatives
Along the way, there could be workers’ leaders who run for office independent of the Democrats. Oaklandsocialist recently was part of a discussion with Belden, “Noonie Man” Batiste, who is running for congress in New Orleans. He is running independently and expressed support for a working class party. That is one example. This writer is considering running as the Oaklandsocialist candidate for mayor of Oakland in 2022. If I do that, it could be another example. I have no illusions that this would have any major impact on the race since there is not a group of any size behind such a campaign. What it could do is set another example for some working class fighters and socialists to take up as the struggle develops.
All Oakland municipal races are non-partisan, meaning candidates don’t run under a party label. However, research into who are the major donors to the campaigns of the mayor and other city council members reveals that Oakland is still run by a liberal Democrat cabal that is financed and controlled in the end mainly by the bankers and real estate developers (who often are one and the same). It is not possible to be independent of and opposed to this Democratic Party cabal without being very explicit and clear that a candidate is working to build an alternative to that party. The history of Oakland politics, from city council member Ignacio de la Fuente to present council member Rebecca Kaplan, proves this. De la Fuente was a real fighting union business representative who went into politics, got enmeshed in Democratic Party politics and became the most pro-business and pro-landlord member of the city council. Kaplan was an environmental activist who today is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the council. There are thousands of such local politicians all around the country.
In other cities, candidates run under a party ballot line. It’s not possible to run under the Democratic Party line and campaign for a working class party. Somebody is bound to ask, “hold on, now: You are saying that the Democratic Party represents the capitalists and always will and workers need a working class party to oppose both them and the Republicans. Yet you are running as a Democrat. How can you explain this?” The fact that there is not a single Democrat in office who is actually working to build a working class alternative to the Democratic Party is the proof of the pudding. It cannot be done.
Oaklandsocialist for Mayor 2022
If I do run as the Oaklandsocialist candidate, the main theme would be that Oakland does not exist in a bubble. Every issue we face, whether it be poverty, homelessness, high rents, or racism and police brutality – none of these issues can be resolved here in Oakland alone. What is true for such issues is a thousand more times true for issues like global climate change. We here in Oakland nowadays are directly affected by this through the wildfires that are tending to get worse every year. Caused by climate change/drought, they are making the air unbreathable here in Oakland for weeks on end during the fire season. Oakland cannot end climate change but neither can it escape it. Oakland’s working class can play an important role in building a working class movement, and set the example in building a working class party. In that way, we can start the ball rolling towards building such a party.
There is something else to consider: Especially for its size, the Oakland working class is extremely international. We have workers from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe (east and west) here in our city. Today, the crises we face as workers are international crises. Oakland’s working class can play an important role in linking up the workers of the world into one, powerful, working class party – an international working class party.
To return to the issue of the election itself: It is not until November of 2022. Candidates must get onto the ballot by August of that year and they do so by getting the signatures of at least 50 registered voters. That should not be an insurmountable obstacle. (I like to joke that I probably personally know 50 people who would sign that, but probably at least 50 more who would sign a petition demanding that I be kept off the ballot!) Another detail to consider is that Oakland city elections are held by ranked choice voting. Voters vote for their #1 choice, their #2 choice, etc. That means that there would not be the danger of splitting the “left” vote here. While this is a technicality, elsewhere it could be a big issue.
Realistically, as things stand now, an Oaklandsocialist election campaign would not be a high profile campaign. In these races, different community groups hold candidates nights to which all the candidates are invited to speak and answer questions. It’s entirely possible that an Oaklandsocialist campaign would be limited to simply going and speaking at those events and recording them. This could then be used as an example of how working class socialists can campaign for office and use the election campaign to argue for working class independence, a working class party and socialism. There is no illusion that this would magically be taken up by hundreds or thousands of others. But hopefully, it would register with some, and as a movement develops such a campaign would be one small influence.
A lot can change between now and the fall of 2022, including my own personal circumstances. But this is what I’m thinking for now.