The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 76 (Winter 2006).
Version II of Bush II is in tatters. A year after starting his second term celebrating his electoral “capital,” his administration has undergone a series of crises, failures and scandals that has reduced his electoral popularity to record-low levels and left his standing highly suspect within his own capitalist class. No wonder: his problems mean trouble for the ruling class itself. At least temporarily, they have forced some detours in the unrelenting capitalist attack on the working class.
But this has certainly not meant an end to the long-standing capitalist offensive. All the more critical, therefore, is the need for a working-class leadership that can take advantage of the opportunities presented by Bush’s setbacks and cohere an opposition not only to Bush but to all capitalist politicians, including the “Bush lite” and liberal Democrats.
Internationally, the most sustained crisis is the Iraq occupation, which becomes a greater fiasco with each passing month. The year 2005 opened with Bush proclaiming a “turning point” in Iraq, with the pseudo-democratic January elections. But as resistance deepened and more body-bags of U.S. soldiers flew home, the war’s unpopularity grew among the mass of Americans. Bush now proclaims that he is focused on “complete victory,” a boast concocted out of denial, desperation and cynical public relations. He is utilizing the recent December elections, with their high turnout and low violence, to make propaganda about the alleged democracy the U.S. is creating. But once again, the voting patterns and resulting protests reflect and deepen the ethnic and religious fractures that the occupation set loose. The new government will be based on the Shi’ite religious parties, which are anti-Sunni and are close to the regime in Iran, one of the poles in Bush’s “axis of evil.” Some victory.
It is increasingly apparent to representatives of the U.S. ruling class, including important sections of the military staff, that the occupation faces a fundamental quandary: the longer the U.S. stays, the more the resistance grows; and if the U.S. pulls out, the puppet government will lack the capability to contain the resistance or govern the country. That would mean either splitting the country, or ethnic and sectarian religious civil war (or both). Turmoil could spread throughout the Middle East and further into the Islamic world. Three years ago we predicted the failure of the U.S.’s Iraq adventure and its whole Middle Eastern strategy. (See Proletarian Revolution No. 67.)
The facts point to a debacle for U.S. imperialism. Bush’s dream of setting up a stable government in order to make Iraq a base for dominating the Middle East and Central Asia is already a nightmare. On top of this, from the torture centers at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and those run by the U.S.-created Iraqi police force, to the ones the CIA had set up in Eastern Europe, the administration has been directly or indirectly involved in a variety of sordid and secretive crimes.
The leaders of the ruling class normally don’t lose sleep over such matters as murder and torture, but on top of Bush’s mounting embarrassments the public relations effect was damaging. Thus Bush, who was once seen as an opportunistic but audacious champion of imperialism’s global interests, is now largely regarded as a stubbornly inept pretender who is undermining U.S. influence and even its military power. Working-class revolutionaries stand for the defeat of imperialism in all its wars.
On the home front, Bush’s presidency has been distinguished by its avid prosecution of the capitalist offensive through its privatization efforts and its transparent display of capitalist class rule in the political system. Corporate lobbyists literally write laws and regulations, with the aim of not simply maintaining profits but of openly engaging in the wholesale looting of national resources, regardless of the long-term effect. The administration and its party’s commitment to rapid profits is exceeded only by their dedication to gorging themselves at the public trough.
Shortly after beginning his second term, Bush tried to push privatization of the Social Security system through Congress. As we analyzed in PR 75, the attempt to trash the popular social program was too much for the working class. In the face of massive opposition, Republican as well as Democratic Congressmen balked, and Bush had to shelve this lead item on his domestic agenda. Another early setback was the Republican intervention into the Terry Schiavo case, with the Democrats gutlessly cowering in the background – until polls showed them that public opinion overwhelmingly condemned political intervention into this personal and medical matter.
Last year the Plame case also came to a head: the “outing” of CIA agent Valerie Plame by administration officials. Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff Lewis Libby was indicted, and it is clear that presidential aide Karl Rove is also up to his armpits in the mess, if not Cheney and Bush themselves. The idea was to retaliate against Plame’s ambassador husband for challenging trumped-up evidence of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions. The case is a dramatic example of the Bush team’s willingness to harm imperialism’s own operations to protect its priorities.
The culmination was the Katrina tragedy, which exposed the criminal responsibility of all levels of government. (See Katrina Survivors Still Under Attack in this issue and Racist Capitalism’s “Perfect Storm” in PR 75 for background.) Its roots go deeper and further back than the Bush administration. But Bush’s policies exacerbated the lack of preparedness. The government’s corrupt ineptness and blatant contempt for the lives of hundreds of thousands of mostly Black working-class people, created a horror for all the world to see.
The usually politically astute Bush made the disaster worse for himself by his praise for Michael D. Brown, the witless incompetent he had appointed to head the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) who compounded the fiasco of the Katrina relief effort. Even after he was forced to fire “heckuva-job Brownie,” the cronyism continued: Bush tried to appoint Harriet Miers, another hack crony, to the Supreme Court, and public disgust mounted.
The outrages keep popping up. In December Bush’s approval of wiretaps without warrants for domestic spying surfaced, a defiance of the U.S. constitution and the Congress. It has drawn angry opposition even from leading Republican senators. And as we write, the lobbying scandals around the confessed swindler Jack Abramoff threaten to entangle carloads of Republican and Democratic politicians in the Capitol and the White House. Dozens of Washington politicians, among them the president himself, are scurrying to dump his tainted “campaign contributions.” Not coincidentally, their move to donate tens of thousands of dollars to charity turned into a flood the day Abramoff pleaded guilty, out of fear he would tell prosecutors the names of all those he paid off and the favors he asked of them.
There were further international setbacks in the fall. One was a disastrous visit to Latin America, where he was upstaged by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela (who basked in the glow of the anti-imperialist upsurge across the continent). There was also a diplomatic debacle at the Asian summit, where his efforts to isolate China and deal with North Korea failed embarrassingly. And in December, Bolivian voters elected as president the reform candidate Evo Morales, whose margin of victory was made overwhelming by the U.S.’s unconcealed distaste for him.
The avalanche of humiliations has taken a severe electoral toll. Despite a recent uptick in polls owing to illusory and temporary economic “good news,” Bush faces unusually low approval ratings. More and more people see him for the liar and agent of the rich that he always was. From the outset of his presidency, Bush was a severely polarizing figure, rightfully hated by Blacks, immigrants and other victims of his anti-working-class policies. Now he is even held in contempt by many who voted for him.
In the wake of these setbacks, Bush has been forced to retreat and cede defeat on legislative initiatives besides Social Security, including his latest installment of enrich-the-rich “tax reform,” and his blessing of torture in interrogation. In short, Bush is on the run. His arrogant sneer has been repainted with a veneer of phony modesty. New events and the White House’s political shrewdness may yet provide some bursts of political fortune, but it is clear he is never going to regain the momentum and power that he once had, courtesy of Osama bin Laden. His major asset has been the blithering vacillation of the Democrats.
Bush’s defeats over Social Security and other legislation are both causes and effects of his political troubles. They show that some of the worst elements of capitalists’ “one-sided class war” have been sidetracked. But the war itself has not ended and in fact has started to take on renewed fury.
This is clear in the case of the automobile industry. Ford and General Motors workers have been dealt cuts in health care benefits (Chrysler workers are up next) in the wake of massive financial losses at those companies. Huge layoffs are impending. And still more cuts are promised in the next contract round. The Delphi Corporation, a huge auto parts spinoff from GM, is pursuing bankruptcy, has shut plants and demands truly massive cuts in wages and benefits.
These are attacks on better-paid workers, whose health insurance plans in auto have been the crown jewels of gains for production workers. Much of the attack on the working class at large – plant closings, speed-up, reduced health plans, pension eradication, etc. – has been less publicized but is no less devastating.
The attacks have been particularly focused on Blacks and Latinos. This is not just the objective working of the “market” alone; it involves conscious decisions to superexploit Latino and fearful immigrant laborers while excluding many Blacks because of their militant history. The increased level of anti-Black racist attacks was manifested in the hurricane disaster. Now Bush is attempting to regain some popularity with his conservative base and others through a racist campaign against illegal (mainly Latino) immigrants, while at the same time maintaining a balancing act of utilizing their labor for superexploitation.
Nevertheless, the ruling class still generally prefers to avoid head-on battles with workers at their strongest positions. It still can achieve many of its desired goals through flanking maneuvers. For example, reducing benefits at GM and Ford is largely an attack on retirees, not active workers. Likewise Delphi, following the example of the airline and steel companies, is seeking to use the bankruptcy laws to back it up in wiping out union gains.
The economic attacks are partly offset for the moment by the flooding of consumer markets with cheap goods and easy credit. These features, however, in their own way contribute to the attacks themselves. The outsourcing of production to factories that superexploit labor in China and elsewhere is largely responsible for the cheaper goods. And the expansion of usurious credit is a “blessing” that is reaching crushing proportions in raising the personal debt of working people.
These attacks will continue, as they must. It cannot be overstated that they took place also under Democratic administrations and Democratic-controlled Congresses. For this is the only way the capitalists can try to resolve the decline of their profit system and stave off the explosive possibilities of a new great depression.
The crisis looms largest in regard to health care and pensions. Since the U.S. has no universal health care, American companies themselves bear costs that foreign competitors, at least in other advanced industrial countries, do not. As for pensions, one way the capitalists have boosted their profits in recent decades has been to underfund their pension-plan obligations to their workers. (That is, they have robbed workers of deferred wages.) Nationally, the shortfall totals to at least half a trillion dollars.
This frames the fundamental problem that Bush’s presidency presents to the ruling class. It is not that he is acting too roughly. (Indeed, some think he is not hard enough). Rather, he has become too compromised: his administration is too nakedly incompetent, corrupt and elitist to do the effective job on the working class they put him in office for. Important sections of the ruling class are also reacting to the administration’s quick-buck operations, its favoritism toward particular industries (energy, military, reconstruction, medical corporations) and its open cronyism – all at the expense of adequately maintaining the system. In the Katrina calamity, a major American city and the country’s largest port were left to drown, even though the disaster was both predicted and preventable.
The bourgeoisie is in disarray. It never has a full consensus on what to do; that is one reason for having two major capitalist parties. Bush himself flounders, retreating on earlier initiatives while appealing to his conservative petty-bourgeois base through religiosity, “pro-family” stances, a racist campaign against immigrants, etc. Since this president is a lame duck, various capitalist politicians would in any case be scrambling to position themselves for a presidential run. But Bush’s breakdown makes the ruling class’s need for new leadership much more urgent.
Various Republicans are either running or putting themselves in a position to become capitalism’s new commander. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, beset by his own scandal, nevertheless seems to be assuming the mantle of a “true” compassionate conservative. Senator John McCain has attempted to spread his appeal, combining hard-core patriotism with attacks on corruption. Thus he sponsored the congressional legislation against torture. Rudy Giuliani, the notoriously racist ex-mayor of New York City and pseudo-superhero of September 11, is another contender.
At first blush, it would appear that Bush’s unraveling is a heaven-sent opportunity for the Democrats to reverse their long decline and provide a capitalist alternative to the mess the Bushites have created. To be sure, they have stepped up their sniping and are not performing their standard rollover in the face of the right-wing agenda. Hence Bush’s legislative defeats. But their response is still timid and divided, showing their inability to provide a cohered liberal bourgeois pole.
This can be seen clearly over Iraq. Democrats increasingly are trying to separate themselves from Bush. But their most prominent spokespeople, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, do not want to undermine the occupation itself, which they supported from the beginning. Some partial exceptions prove the rule: John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman and a long-term supporter of the war, recently came out for immediate steps toward withdrawal. Murtha did not become a dove, much less an anti-imperialist. He wants to cut imperialist losses in an unwinnable war while still maintaining an American military presence in the region. He reflects assessments within the military leadership itself, with whom he has always been close. His military credentials and changed position provided a huge patriotic shield for an opening by “anti-war” Democrats.
However, his position was isolated in his own party when the Republicans called for a House vote on withdrawal from Iraq: the overwhelming majority of Democrats, including Murtha himself voted against it. Even supposedly anti-war stalwarts like Dennis Kucinich blather about “benchmarks” and “timetables” rather than call for withdrawal at once.
The Democrats are trying to mark out a safe position: figuring that the growing anti-war sentiment has no other place to go if they nod to it. They prefer not going out on a limb by taking a hard stand. They act this way because they share with Republicans a well-founded feeling that only a substantial American military presence, however unpopular at home and abroad, can protect imperialist interests in the Middle East.
Their position on Iraq echoes their overall relation to the Bush agenda. They have basically gone along with Bush’s stepped-up offensive on the working class. They just want to distance themselves from Bush’s excesses. They criticize him on Katrina but offer no reconstruction program supporting working-class and Black New Orleanians’ real right of return. They went along with the suspension of prevailing wage statutes. They defended Social Security for now, under mass pressure, but whispered about needed “reforms” (i.e., cutbacks) in the future. And it remains to be seen how vigorously they will fight over the latest lobbying corruption scandals, since leading Democrats are implicated as well.
Although all the Democratic leaders are committed to imperialism and defense of capitalism, there are a few who see profound changes coming as the ship of state is tossed and turned in increasingly dangerous waters. Jesse Jackson and Albert Gore are making noises in this regard. In the future, when mass sentiment threatens to get out of hand, these politicians will make more populist promises about defending the “have nots” against excessive greed and preventing giant corporations from sending jobs abroad. John Edwards, who is now aiming for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, has apologized for his initial support to Bush’s war position and is already pumping up his populist line.
But for the moment, both Republicans and the Democrats are tossing about rudderlessly. Both bourgeois parties are boxed in by capitalism’s economic stagnation, which demands increasing cutbacks in social programs, and the fear of mass resentment and potential action against the rulers’ greed and criminality. The course they are all committed to is keeping the masses at home and abroad in line and making them pay for the growing crisis.
If the crisis in ruling-class leadership is striking, the crisis of working-class leadership is even more appalling and of longer standing. The fact that mainstream Democrats hardly bother appearing even liberal indicates how much the class struggle in this country has been contained, despite worsening conditions for so many workers.
Many are becoming increasingly disenchanted, as the economic and social miseries and dislocations accumulate. But they are also defensive, in the wake of the sustained offensive. In the recent round of concessions in auto, for example, workers feared not only what the auto companies might do to restore profitability, but also the real possibility that these symbols of American capitalist power could go down the tubes.
That discontent is being registered electorally and in opinion polls: opposition to Social Security changes; increasing hostility to both Bush and Congress and to both the Republicans and the Democrats, etc. While the ruling class does not feel comfortable with even such safe channels of dissatisfaction, they are nonetheless acceptable. But there is also opposition growing in more direct forms of class struggle. Strikes were up slightly from the year before, even before the pre-Christmas walkout of New York transit workers and the resistance at Delphi. The union decisions to accept concessions at Ford and GM only passed over widespread opposition. Protests over Katrina and other forms of racial attacks are isolated at present but indicate the volcano building up underneath.
Critical in keeping the response of the working class in check has been the treacherous role of its leadership, the union bureaucracy and the Black, Latino and immigrant politicians. Throughout the 30-year capitalist offensive, the labor misleaders especially have accepted the basic capitalist dictum that the workers must pay for the crisis of the bosses’ system. Even though unions represent a declining percentage of workers, their potential for leading struggles in the interest of the entire class makes the bureaucrats’ capitulation all the more treacherous.
The union officials disagree with the capitalists only over exactly how and how much. Even then, they try to limit any struggle by the ranks to the absolute minimum. As brokers for labor power, they do not want any mass action by workers to get out of hand and threaten the arrangements through which they derive their status, power and income. On the occasions that workers have defied the bureaucrats’ efforts, they have been ruthlessly repressed.
The alternative the bureaucrats present is: don’t struggle, vote! They pose the election of “pro-labor” capitalist politicians, principally Democrats, as the elixir for the ranks’ mounting miseries. By steering workers away from genuine fightbacks, they have allowed the attacks to succeed. The more accelerated the attacks and desperate the conditions of much of the working class, the more the bureaucrats will push populist electoralism as a solution.
As with the Democrats, the lack of mass struggle has caused the bureaucracy to flounder and quarrel internally. Now the unions, and therefore the bureaucracy itself, have become endangered species. While the bureaucrats fight over how to maintain the unions even while continuing to retreat, the attacks rise. Neither the AFL-CIO nor its recent split, the Change to Win Coalition, has even thought about breaking their alliance with capitalist politicians or advocating genuine mass struggles.
Several things are necessary if the working class and oppressed people in the U.S. are to successfully defend themselves from the ruling-class attacks: 1) a program of demands which spells out the actual needs of the workers and oppressed; 2) a fight for classwide mass action; and 3) the coming together of a revolutionary leadership right now to fight for the needed demands and actions within the existing mass organizations and movements and to expose the current reformist and centrist misleaderships.
In every struggle, revolutionaries patiently explain the need for the revolutionary party and the socialist revolution. Even now, revolutionaries must educate the most militant and politically advanced workers and youth in the method of the transitional program, which is designed for intervention in major class battles – exactly to prove the need for socialist revolution. Today’s struggles are already showing the need for jobs for all at union wages and a massive public works program to solve the crises of low wages, unemployment and the decaying cities and infrastructure as a whole. The need for a universal health care system and a guaranteed decent pension system for all is evident to most working people. An end to racism and the realization of freedom and full equality for Black, Latino and immigrant people are also essential.
Revolutionaries must also consistently raise the need for mass working-class action as key to the defense of our class. The working class has great power because of its ability to withhold labor, which is what makes society run and creates profits. Our class doesn’t recognize its own power, however, because the union bureaucracy keeps even major strikes isolated.
The League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) has long been associated with the call for a general strike because it is the most effective way that the working class can learn its own power as a class through its own experience. At times, we have posed the need for a general strike in an agitational manner, advocating it in situations where a struggle is under way and there is potential for a mass understanding of the need for a general strike strategy. Far more often, we advance the general strike in a propagandistic way, as a means to reach a more limited audience of already radicalizing workers and youth with the vision of how a united working class could exercise its power. The layer of revolutionary-minded workers and youth today is the key to building a vanguard party which can lead our class.
Whenever there are major class battles, we participate in them and point out the road forward. Authentic Marxists know that the mass of the working class can only grasp its own power, reach class consciousness and achieve its own interests through mass action, not classroom lectures. We believe that the struggle itself will show that capitalism, and pro-capitalist leaders, are obstacles to working-class needs. The interests of the workers and oppressed can only be gained and secured through a revolutionary workers’ state.