Wednesday, July 24, 2013

US society: the calm before the storm?

Occupy Oakland shuts down the docks
by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

The Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, wrote on the eve of the second world war that The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.  He explained that the objective conditions and the prerequisites for a workers’ revolution were not only ripe for a transformation of society but were “somewhat rotten.”

He used an often quoted phrase that humanity was faced with Socialism or Barbarism. The Barbarism came on the scene soon after his statements as 50 million or so people died in the war that that followed, as many as 12 million in death camps. Communists, labor leaders, the physically and mentally disabled, gays and lesbians, Romany and as many as 6 million Jews all perished in places like Treblinka, Aushwitz, and Bergen Belsen.

Today, we are not simply faced with socialism or some form of barbarism, as barbarism exists aplenty in the capitalist horror that encompasses most people of the world.  From the factories of Bangladesh to the plantations of Indonesia, sweat shops of Cambodia, and mountains of Afghanistan barbarism is the norm, the legacy of capitalism in its slow and agonizing demise.  The difference is that what faces us now is socialism or annihilation. While nuclear war cannot be ruled out it is the environmental degradation, the plundering of the world’s natural resources in capitalism’s rapacious quest for profits that threatens to end life on this planet as we know it. The environmental catastrophe, overwhelmingly market driven like starvation and conflict is real and capitalism is incapable of solving it.

In the US, the richest and most powerful economy on the planet, inequality and poverty are on the increase and despair and a sense of foreboding exists.  The Great Recession is dragging on longer than the so-called experts expected and the insecurity and fear of falling through the cracks, so useful in keeping folks in check, hovers around unacceptable levels, a point where a spark can ignite a conflagration.

Objective conditions are worsening for American workers and the middle class.  Once powerful unions like the UAW have been tamed through a powerful combination of the employers and the top leadership of the worker’s organizations who see no alternative to capitalism and try time and again to help it to its feet at the expense of workers and the middle class.

Results of a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released today give us a glimpse in to the mood in US society when it comes to the economy and the two capitalist parties.
As expected, the love affair with Barack Obama is not what it was as he has turned out to be quite the war president and a fine representative of the 1%.  83% of Americans disapprove of Congress which is the highest number in the history of WSJ polling and 29% of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction.

When it comes to their own representatives in Congress, a mere 32% of Americans say their representative deserved re-election with 57% of Americans saying they would like to defeat and “..replace every member of Congress if they could” the WSJ adds. There’s “..a strong, deep disconnect between the public and the government that purports to serve them” Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster tells the Journal.  It is not the mood for change that is missing.

The criminal acquittal of George Zimmerman has dealt a significant blow to how the black population sees this country and 54% of them polled said they “strongly disagreed” with the idea that America is a country that judges people on their character and not the color of their skin, 30% of them felt that way after Obama’s election. When those who “somewhat disagreed” are included, that figure jumps to 79%. 

Further on the effects of the trial, the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 33% of Americans had lost confidence in the US justice system because of it, 24% of them whites and 71% of blacks. This figure is far more reflective of a racist justice system than the details and ins and outs of the legality of an individual case like Trayvon Martin’s murder. Whites are treated differently in this that system. Obviously, those with money are treated the best of all and can get away with murder quite frequently---Zimmerman is the son of a judge and we are supposed to think that this doesn’t matter in America. But with more than two million people incarcerated, close to 50% of them black folks, there are only two explanations for this incarceration rate. 

One is to argue that people with darker skin are more prone to criminal activity which is the racist argument which many whites believe but refuse to acknowledge openly. The other is that the justice system, indeed, the entire system is racist---the latter is the only correct answer, the only answer that offers all workers a future.

The Wall Street Journal is the main publication of US finance capital and the capitalist class as a whole and bases the health of society and economic improvement on the level of profits. The discontent revealed by this survey perplexes them a bit as it arises “..despite and uptick in other barometers of American well-being, including a surging stock market and continued signs of strengthening on the employment front.”  It’s all very simple for them, numbers up, numbers down.

But even their employment numbers are skewed. A Household Survey last month put the number of job increases since January at 753,000. But as Mortimer Zuckerman commented in the WSJ last week,  “there are jobs and then there are "jobs." No fewer than 557,000 of these positions were only part-time.”  “The survey also reported that in June full-time jobs declined by 240,000, while part-time jobs soared by 360,000 and have now reached an all-time high of 28,059,000.” Zuckerman adds. The capitalists don’t create jobs because people need them, they buy labor power if they can profit from it; they can’t profit, you won’t work.

Whether the objective pre-requisites in the US are ripe, semi ripe, or rotten enough for a workers’ revolution that could transform the economic and political structure of society is a matter for debate, but there is no doubt that the objective situation is very favorable for activists and a movement for social change, more favorable than it has been for a long time.  That close to 138 million people opted out of the electoral process in the last election is not due to apathy or reaction as some argue.

The Occupy movement had tremendous popular support for a whole period and at the huge gathering in Oakland that shut down three shifts at the port we had as many as 30 to 40 thousand people present, workers and their families, the disabled, students, single mothers with their children and the elderly.  Union workers, the unorganized, white collar and blue collar all came out. The great strength of the Occupy Movement was its audacity, courage and willingness to defy the law but refusing to wage a political struggle and build anything permanent as well as resisting making any concrete demands was an obstacle to its continued success although it is not dead yet.

What is clear is that Trotsky’s statement about a crisis of leadership, not necessarily a revolutionary one at this point, holds true today.  It’s clear that there is intense anger beneath the surface of US society. There is anger at the rich, the bankers, the coupon clippers who flaunt their stolen wealth ever more aggressively.  Anger at the racism, sexism, inequality and lack of basic services in the richest most powerful country in the world. US capitalism’s wars and the cost of them are not popular and are a major cause of the war on living standards and the 1%’s austerity agenda.

The heads of organized Labor could change this situation if they would offer an alternative to capitalism rather than appeasing it, but they will not, trapped as they are by their own view of the world which is the same as the bosses’. Every little step forward, every victory on the part of the working class threatens the relationship they have built with the bosses and capitalism based on cooperation and labor peace and has the potential to lead to chaos.

The figures here are a small example of what actually exists in US society; a restless, angry and insecure population insecure and wary of what the future holds. I will say with some confidence, it is not going to get any better.  It is remarkable in a way that there haven’t been mass riots in the cities at the failure of the US justice system to protect a huge section of the population from racial violence or women from sexual discrimination and rape and all workers from the threat of joblessness, homelessness and security.  Capitalist courts cannot protect workers; as institutions of a racist society they inevitably abandon the victims that society in general.  Millions have lost homes, jobs, have no health care and can’t afford to get it, as the Wall Street Journal asked a couple years ago, “Why No Outrage?”.

US society is a tinderbox, an overconfident capitalist class will make some serious mistakes. Congress still needs to cut more social spending and at some point there will be further explosions in the streets much like the Occupy Movement. It could be over any number of issues as people are pushed beyond their limits.  There are increasing protests against environmental degradation for example. Strengthening and broadening this movement as it develops is an important aspect of any activists activity and revolutionary socialists must be seen as the most ardent supports of and defenders of the movement as it develops.  And by avoiding the traditional mistakes of sectarianism, ultra leftism (making demands of the movement that do not correspond with the mood) and opportunism, building a revolutionary socialist current within this movement as it develops, a crucial element of it if we art to make permanent gains as opposed to partial victories, will be successful.   

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