Following are excerpts from the Freedom Socialist Party document “Standing on the Edge of Something Big,” adopted at FSP’s September 2016 convention.
These sections analyze the political and economic nature of the times and the history leading up to today’s reality. Others examine the decline of capitalist democracy; the 2016 elections; the upsurge in class conflict and social activism; and the war of ideas in society and the movements. The paper concludes by exploring how FSP can rise to the challenges facing the working class and oppressed people through “optimism by doing.”
A definite shift in the political weather marks this U.S. election year. The rear-view mirror shows a decades-long era of relative labor peace and relative stagnation in the movements, during which war became unending and an enormous amount of wealth was transferred from workers and the poor to the ruling elite. The new period, inaugurated by the launch of the Arab Spring with the Tunisian revolution in December 2010, is one of increasing instability and extreme polarization internationally. The unpredictable and tempestuous U.S. election, featuring the popular upstart candidacies of billionaire bigot Donald Trump and self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, is a glaring example of this volatility and sharp division.
The political instability on display has at its foundation economic instability. Neoliberalism was capitalism’s answer to the end of the post-World War II economic boom and the newly obstinate tendency toward recession that set in during the 1970s. By breaking down trade barriers, intensifying the exploitation of workers everywhere, and stealing public wealth through privatization, neoliberalism succeeded in keeping capitalism on life support. However, it could not reverse the basic downward course of an outmoded system whose contradictions have become acute. As a strategy to return the profit system to its youthful health, neoliberalism has failed. But the capitalists still cling to it, because they have no viable economic strategy with which to replace it.
Permanent war is neoliberalism’s partner, also devastating, also failing as a strategy, and also with no end in sight. Along with immeasurable human suffering and environmental damage, imperialist military adventures have engendered crisis-level disequilibrium in the Middle East, caused widespread disapproval at home, and helped to provoke the revolutions that they meant to forestall. At this point, counterrevolution has the upper hand, but revolt has not been contained.
As capitalism continues to degenerate, with the resulting instability, polarization, and permanent war, crises of leadership are everywhere — in the ruling class, in the working class, in the movements, and on the Left. At the same time, the conditions experienced by workers and the oppressed are provoking outbreaks of resistance in the U.S. and internationally, some on a scale not seen in a long time.
From revolution to relative class peace
In the first decades of the 20th century, capitalism was lashed by revolution in Russia, workers’ rebellions, and the Great Depression. It solved its most acute problems with World War II and the rebuilding of Europe and permanent militarization of the economy that followed. The post-war boom inhibited the development of radical movements. This was especially true in the U.S., the main country to benefit from the conflagration economically and geopolitically.
The prosperity of the time extended to a broad swath of the working class. But workers shared in this prosperity unequally, based on color, gender, immigration status, etc.; the main beneficiaries were the labor bureaucrats and “labor aristocracy,” the highest-paid and most skilled workers. And the fact that this prosperity was created largely by the super-exploitation of workers abroad fed the nationalism, conservatism, and allegiance to the government of labor’s top layers. This was no “Golden Age” for workers, but the age of U.S. imperialism’s giant leap forward.
A great factor in the comparative stability of the post-World War II decades was the Cold War. Military spending directly propped up the economy. But the hot and cold wars also boosted the economy in other ways, as described in Part 3 of the Red Banner Reader A Worker’s Guide to the 20th Century: “The war and the subsequent arms race sparked unprecedented progress in science, medicine, and technology. The years between 1940 and 1960 saw everything from the discovery of DNA to the development of birth control pills.”
Along with its boost to prosperity, the Cold War also muted class conflict in other ways. “Peaceful coexistence” was not really all that peaceful for parts of the globe, as also described in the Worker’s Guide. However, in the standoff between the USSR and the U.S., the USSR subordinated the advance of world revolution to the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy, while at the same time checking the hand of U.S. imperialism to an extent. In the advanced industrial countries, a shaky balance among countries and classes prevailed.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s, and the rise of neoliberalism as imperialism’s answer to the economic stagnation that set in during the 1970s, a new kind of steadiness set in — what was termed the “unipolar” world. Essentially, Washington did whatever the hell it wanted internationally. First among its goals was control of oil — and so a feature of this new “stability” became permanent war. This ultimately led us to the world situation today: rampant instability, partnered with an insoluble capitalist economic crisis.
The decades following the last big spate of U.S. strikes and labor protest in the late 1940s were generally reactionary. Nevertheless, gains were made and consolidated during that time.
First of all, successful wars and campaigns for national independence swept the colonized countries of Africa and Asia, especially during the 1950s and early 1960s. In Africa, 17 countries gained their independence in one year alone, 1960. Following the Chinese revolution of 1949, bureaucratically deformed workers’ states like Cuba and Vietnam also came into being, in defiance both of the Yankee giant and of Stalinist détente with imperialism.
All these developments showed that the imperialist emperor, if not naked, at least could be challenged and beaten under the right circumstances.
In the U.S., as the Worker’s Guide describes, “McCarthy interviewed his last witness in 1954. One year later, Rosa Parks changed the world by sitting in the front of an Alabama bus.” The civil rights movement as we know it today had begun.
That movement and the Black Power movement that followed it altered the political landscape forever. Internationally, they reinforced and were reinforced by the battles against colonial domination and apartheid in Africa. At home, they set off a chain reaction of liberation movements that still reverberates.
Most of the reforms won by the mobilizations of the sixties and seventies are in shreds today: safe, legal access to abortion, and even contraception; voting rights; opportunities and legal protections for people with disabilities; and more. This all goes to show that reforms without revolution don’t last.
But something did last — a deep, widespread shift in consciousness. Despite the malevolent persistence of institutional and individual sexism, racism, and heterosexism, the attitudes of most people today — especially youth — have become more progressive. The beliefs of the majority differ dramatically from those held 60 years ago on issues extending from gender roles and women’s rights to the standing of people of color and immigrants in society, the rights of LGBTQ people, environmental awareness and concern, corporate America, the trustworthiness of government, the U.S. two-party system, and capitalism and socialism. These are changes with powerful implications.
An end to stability
That, more or less, brings us up to today, and the stubborn economic crisis arising from capitalism’s fundamental contradiction, which the Communist Manifesto calls “the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production” — i.e., the profit system. This basic antagonism causes bouts of overproduction; these are followed by recessions and depressions that are growing longer and more acute, like the one that started in late 2007.
As a result of the crisis and its attendant misery, anger and desperation, there is a global shift to profound instability and polarization.
According to ruling-class gurus, the world is in the middle of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” But this revolution, instead of creating jobs, is destroying them. U.S. politicians running on a nationalist program love to blame employment loss on companies moving overseas and unfair international competition. What they don’t discuss is the role of technological progress.
Where workers are employed will shift, according to what the capitalists can get away with: where can they operate with the lowest wages and fewest restrictions? But technological progress is a historical constant. Over time, human beings improve the methods by which they survive. Or, put another way, labor productivity grows.
Increased productivity means that the human labor time needed to produce goods and services decreases. This should mean that people would be able to spend more time doing what they love and less time working just to live. It should mean that the work necessary to maintain society is shared and no one goes without a job. But under capitalism it means none of that.
In our age, progress involves leaps forward in automation, digitization, artificial intelligence, virtual reality — everything from robots assisting in surgery to automatic checkout stations at the grocery store. The tech boom is driving overproduction at the same time it is destroying jobs, a recipe for economic collapse. As the World Economic Forum prepared for its January 2016 annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, it reported that tech advances could wipe out five million jobs in the next four years.
Volatile stock markets and slowing global growth contributed to what was described as a grim mood at Davos. And compounding capitalist anxiety is a multi-trillion dollar illness festering under the surface of global finance: toxic loans.
The debt problem is not new. But it has been greatly exacerbated by credit binges — in the U.S., notably by the energy industry — and by government borrowing to stimulate economies thrown into crisis by the Great Recession. Big banks are holding massive bad loans from Europe, where this debt is believed to total over $1 trillion, to Brazil, where a recession is sharpening. In Puerto Rico, the U.S. Congress is now using the country’s $72 billion debt as an excuse to impose an economic dictatorship through a seven-member Financial Control Authority — to do to the island what was done to Detroit through the “emergency manager.”
The Great Recession officially lasted in the U.S. from December 2007 to June 2009 and spread globally in 2008 and 2009. It ultimately affected at least 60 countries, from Venezuela to Albania and Greece, where it persisted for a shocking 63 months — more than five years.
China is a special case in some ways, but caught by similar contradictions. Its current troubles, traceable in large measure to stagnation in behemoths like the U.S. and Japan, in turn cause problems for the rest of its trading partners. Australia, one of the few other countries to dodge the bullet of the global recession, is an example. Its growth in recent years has been heavily dependent on export of mineral resources to China. Now, with the slowing of China’s expansion, Australia is feeling the pinch, and the government is pursuing a vicious anti-working class agenda.
In the U.S., the 2007-2009 downturn was the longest and worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the economy has barely rebounded. For a “recovery,” especially, employment has been sluggish in the past few years and the GDP rate of growth anemic — roughly half of the pre-recession years. And the recession wiped out massive amounts of household wealth, especially for Blacks and other people of color, and provided an excuse to launch a no-holds-barred assault on working-class gains won over more than a century of struggle, in the U.S. and in all the developmentally advanced countries.
More bad news: bourgeois economists predict that the next U.S. president will be saddled with a new recession, and soon. The billion-dollar question: Will the organized labor movement be ready to respond more aggressively than it did in this past period?
When crisis hits, the ranks always show signs of a willingness to fight. However, the leadership always puts the brakes on, counseling reliance on labor’s false friends in the Democratic Party. This is because the natural inclination of those in the union hierarchy is to work within the confines of the system; they fail to recognize the need for the class independence of the labor movement. On top of that, their willingness and ability to fight has been eroded through the decades of prosperity, McCarthyism, and right-wing assaults on unions.
But the tremors of the times are rattling the House of Labor, too. Union support for self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders is significant. Sanders was running as a Democrat, yes, but is attractive to labor precisely for his positions outside the Democratic mainstream. Seven national unions endorsed him, including the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America after a general membership vote. More than 60 local unions and regional bodies endorsed him, and over a dozen of these picked Sanders in defiance of their national organization choosing Clinton. This is remarkable. These events show both a fighting spirit and an advance in consciousness as discussed above.
But it doesn’t alter the fact that labor’s top officials have done a lousy job of resisting the egregious onslaught against workers and their unions, which the bosses are trying to destroy now, before the next economic crisis sharpens the existing instability and increases rank-and-file radicalization. When that time comes, labor leaders are going to have to decide: fight or die.
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As the political pillars on which the social compact is built begin to crumble, as rights are denied and reversed and power becomes ever more centralized, people respond with growing distrust of government and protest. The ruling class then redoubles its attacks on civil liberties while relying more heavily on state violence to quash dissent and pursue its aims at home and abroad.
However, no matter to what degree protest is legislated, restricted, and hamstrung, the sharpening of irreconcilable antagonisms means one additional thing: social explosion is inevitable.
Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 38, No. 1, February-March 2017