The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 81 (Spring 2008).
The word on every politician’s lips this election season is “change.” No wonder. The U.S. ruling class is stuck in a losing war in Iraq and the economy is tipping toward a devastating crisis.
Just months ago, few imagined that Hillary Clinton’s coronation could be stopped, or that a Black candidate could be elected president. But Barack Obama has emerged as the image of change itself, and therefore the extraordinary is becoming possible.
Warning: the image is not the reality. Obama’s charisma hides the fact that when it comes to policies, he has no important differences with Clinton. Both are typical Democratic politicians: they fake sympathy for the downtrodden to cover their loyalty to the banks and corporations that really rule this country.
On Iraq they promise to end the war, then vote in the Senate to keep it going; one moment they say they’ll withdraw U.S. troops, the next they admit they’ll keep tens of thousands there to “defend American interests.” On the economy, they say they oppose the free trade policies that have killed jobs, lowered wages at home and pillaged countries around the world – and they then vote to maintain and extend such agreements.
Some say that Obama’s success is proof the country is getting over its racist history. Far from it. Blacks, Latinos and immigrants continue to be oppressed by a ruling class that relies on racism to divide the working class – the better to rule and exploit all.
The willingness of millions of whites to vote for a Black candidate is certainly evidence of improved racial attitudes. But Obama’s support among whites comes at a price: he ignores racism whenever he can and downplays it when he can’t. This is symptomatic of his refusal to offer more than empty promises to all the victims of this system: the working class and poor of all races.
While the country’s political crisis is driving record numbers to the polls, the majority of workers and poor people are still sitting the elections out, just as they have done in the past. Those at the bottom of the economy sense that no matter who wins, they will not see any improvements. And tens of millions have no vote at all: undocumented immigrants who work in some of the toughest and poorest-paying jobs, and citizens denied the right to vote by anti-worker and racist laws targeting prisoners and ex-prisoners. Not to mention the billions of people in other countries who are just as affected by American policies as are U.S. voters.
Nonetheless, millions of working class people desperate for relief from years of war and growing economic hardship, hope the elections will make a difference. The candidates’ tight race for the Democratic nomination is forcing them to appeal more and more to working-class concerns. This is a dangerous game for them. The longer it goes on, the more expectations will be raised that a Democratic president will create jobs, raise wages and improve healthcare and education. And the election of a Black president would further raise expectations for greater justice and equality.
But the stagnating economy means that the next president will inevitably dash such hopes. The capitalists will demand efforts to make the working class pay for the crisis, and the president will endeavor to oblige. We can already imagine the politicians’ appeals for common sacrifice for the national good.
However, the popular shift against war abroad and free market attacks at home will not be easily undone. Decades of unchallenged right-wing ascendancy in this country are ending – no thanks to the Democrats. When the politicians’ promises of change prove to have been so many lies, the stage will be set for an explosion of struggle from below. Through protests, rebellions and, most importantly, mass strikes that shut the economy down, the working class can beat back the capitalist attacks. In the course of those struggles, more and more workers will sense their class’s great power and be open to views that only few embrace today: the answer to this imperialist world of exploitation, oppression and war is working-class revolutions that overthrow the capitalists and their profit-driven system and build a socialist world of freedom and abundance.
Elections are always difficult for capitalist politicians. They must appeal to the working class for its votes while reassuring the ruling class that its interests will be protected. The more the candidates can find a theme that can unite the working class behind capitalist interests, the better. In these elections, the vague promise of “change” has fit the bill perfectly, since the ruling class itself is for the most part desperate for a change in government.
The big capitalists and their agents openly express fear that more of the naked imperialism that defined the Bush years will trigger greater struggles of the oppressed abroad, threatening their investments from the Middle East to South America. They hope the next administration will extract the U.S. from its disastrous war in Iraq without surrendering its domination of the region. They want to see America’s image restored by a president who will cover the iron fist of its military power in the velvet glove of a little more diplomacy.
Similarly at home, the rulers worry that the chasm between them and the increasingly desperate working class will spark a return to the protests, strikes and riots that have rocked this country in previous times of war and economic crisis. They hope that a presidency with a “kinder, gentler” image will avoid provoking upheavals – and continue the erosion of working-class incomes and living conditions that feeds their profits. And if workers and youth are convinced that rich and poor alike are part of a movement for “change,” all the better.
Of course, the workers, poor and oppressed have a very different idea of what “change” means. The working class long ago turned against the bloody war in Iraq and wants the government to focus on raising living standards and expanding justice at home. It must be recognized that most American workers turned against the war when it became clear America was losing – not because it has led to the deaths of a million Iraqis. But many do feel for the plight of the Iraqi masses, and that sympathy would be most likely to turn into active solidarity in the context of a rising struggle against the capitalist attacks at home.
But as has happened so often in the past, every upshoot of struggle for these aims has been killed off by the Democratic Party and its allies – the union and community leaderships and the pro-capitalist left. The massive protests against the initial invasion of Iraq were hijacked by leaders who said the only solution was supporting the Democratic Party – only to see the Democrats eventually take over Congress and continue to fund the war.
Likewise, the huge and militant demonstrations by millions of immigrants against threats to criminalize and deport them were similarly directed into support for the Democrats under the slogan “today we march, tomorrow we vote.” And every attempt by union workers to strike back against the bosses’ attacks, from the 2005 transit strike in New York City to the auto workers’ strikes last year, was prevented or shut down within days by union bureaucrats who promote electing Democrats as an alternative to struggle.
The working class’s failure to break free of their pro-capitalist leaders and onto the road of struggle has allowed the Democratic candidates to get away with offering few concrete promises. Instead, they assume that little more than relief from the threat of another Republican White House will be enough to get a Democrat elected. But while they differ in rhetoric and do have some policy differences, all the major candidates – both the Republicans’ McCain and the Democrats’ Clinton and Obama – are in agreement on the major issues raised in the campaign:
At the beginning of her campaign, Hillary Clinton took for granted that Wall Street and the corporations would back her as the candidate who could deliver the sort of change they want. She still enjoys a lot of their support. But she quickly saw some influential members of the political establishment and capitalist class rally to Obama. With no fundamental policy differences between him and Clinton, they figure Obama’s magnetic image makes him much more capable of achieving their aims.
Much is made of Obama’s support among Black voters as well as the tens of thousands of whites who have turned out to his rallies across the country. Black support shifted to Obama only after his victory in the almost all-white Iowa caucuses proved he could offer the possibility of electoral success. Then, after the Clintons’ race-baiting attacks, Black voters overwhelmingly rallied to Obama in defense.
But what boosted him early on in his campaign was his success in winning significant support from Wall Street and other rich donors and his appeal to the well-off middle class. While Clinton has still received slightly more donations from big business, 80 percent of Obama’s campaign contributions have come from business interests. Furthermore, he has won majority support in every part of the country among every privileged demographic of Democratic primary voters surveyed. So let us look at the positions that make him a trustworthy recipient of ruling-class funds.
The key to Obama’s success is that he offers the ruling class precisely the change they require. He spelled it out to the editorial board of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper:
Given the amount of repair work that has to be done internationally in the wake of the Bush-Cheney administration, I don’t think there is anybody else who would signal a clear break from Bush and would receive a more open attitude from the world than me.
If I go to a poor country, I do so with the credibility of someone with a grandmother who lives in a small village without running water. If I go to a Muslim country, I do so as someone who has lived in a Muslim country for four years as a child and with relatives there ... credibility overseas directly translates into the ability to mobilize the world around real threats.” (The Plain Dealer, February 10.)
The most important place Obama hopes to use a new, more diplomatic approach is in Iraq. There, the only hope the U.S. has of significantly scaling down its occupation is by winning the cooperation of other imperialist powers to supplement its forces. In the meantime he has made it clear that he will continue to maintain a massive U.S. force in Iraq and neighboring states.
Further, having removed Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-based dictatorship in Iraq, the U.S. is now anxious to weaken Shi’ite Iran’s newfound strength in the region. Obama has joined the crowd hyping Iran’s supposed nuclear threat; he pointedly refused to rule out military action there while saying he supports a diplomatic solution. And during Israel’s murderous starvation siege of Gaza, Obama blamed the Palestinian victims and pledged his support to Israel as the key to America’s policy in the region. In sum, he is no radical or “progressive” but a run-of-the-mill liberal imperialist.
In the U.S., vicious racist oppression has been crucial for capitalism. From the days of slavery in the South through the incorporation of Black workers in the heavy industries of the North in the 20th century, the mass struggles most threatening to the capitalists have been disproportionately led by Black workers. So who better to unite the country across class lines at a time of economic crisis and growing class divide than a Black president?
With the economy already mired in recession and threatening a more catastrophic fall, the next president will need to preside over significant attacks on working-class wages, benefits and social services. Toward this end, Obama has included in his recent campaign speeches the warning that he would be a president “who won’t just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know.” With the honesty characteristic of all bourgeois politicians, he is not now revealing “what we need to know.” He plans on saving the bad news until after he gets elected.
Influential figures in the ruling class are becoming convinced of Obama’s usefulness. One recent endorser was Paul Volcker, the Federal Reserve chairman under Presidents Carter and Reagan, who began in the 1970’s the massive attacks on working-class living standards that continue today. He explained:
After 30 years in government, serving under five Presidents of both parties ... I have been reluctant to engage in political campaigns. The time has come to overcome that reluctance ... The breadth and depth of challenges that face our nation at home and abroad ... demand a new leadership and a fresh approach. ...
It is only Barack Obama, in his person, in his ideas, in his ability to understand and to articulate both our needs and our hopes that provide the potential for strong and fresh leadership ... [to] restore needed confidence in our vision, our strength, and our purposes right around the world.
Of course, what Volcker so politely describes as “our purposes around the world” means the ruling class’s continued imperialist domination of the globe and stepped-up exploitation at home.
Obama has plenty of other ruthless ruling-class tutors as well. His foreign policy advisers include former Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, as well as Carter’s foreign policy architect, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who noted that Obama would be “clearly more effective” than Clinton. Brzezinski has been vehemently denouncing the Bush administration for wrecking the U.S.’s power and prestige abroad – he notoriously champions the U.S.’s prerogative of manipulating the rivalries of other capitalist powers to keep the U.S. on top, and using local dictators to do the dirty work of keeping the masses down. Given these aims, it is no wonder that many ruling class figures see Obama’s multinational and multi-hued image as a distinctly advantageous cloak.
The tremendous unpopularity of the Bush White House means that the Democratic candidate has the best chance to win the presidency. We have already noted that the tight race between Clinton and Obama is forcing both to appeal more directly to working-class concerns about jobs, wages, and trade than either would prefer. They will try to lower expectations for change at the first opportunity. But the clash between their promises and the real policies of a Democratic presidency will inevitably provoke protest.
Abroad, the Democrats’ pretensions of wanting to “bring the troops home” from Iraq will be quickly exposed. Both Clinton and Obama have made clear that they won’t sacrifice “American interests” in the region. With no apparent way to stabilize the Washington-loyal government without a massive on-going commitment of U.S. troops, the bloody occupation will continue. Moreover in Afghanistan, where the once-defeated Taliban are now resurgent, Clinton and Obama have signaled their intention to send thousands more troops. Thus both candidates are calling for the expansion of the U.S. military and for an increase in the military budget.
Because the U.S. ruling class’s ability to use its military might around the world has been so compromised by the disastrous occupation of Iraq, a Democratic president will be anxious to take advantage of a more liberal image to reassert that power elsewhere. Clinton and Obama both talk of freeing the U.S. military to credibly threaten other countries, under the guise of the “war on terror.” At the top of their target lists is Iran, which they hype as threatening to develop a nuclear weapon. But the real reason U.S. imperialism wants to strike at Iran is that toppling Saddam Hussein had the unintended effect of greatly increasing Iran’s power in the region. Clinton has gone furthest in backing Bush’s threats against Iran. But Obama couples willingness to diplomatically pressure Iran with his own threats of military strikes.
The U.S.’s bi-partisan “war on terror” has really been a war drive to assert U.S. power over its unofficial empire of economic exploitation. Opponents of imperialism will want to protest such attacks, and revolutionaries will have to fight tooth and nail against Democratic Party and liberal efforts to squelch any response. Working-class action against imperialist aggression would be the most powerful way to deal blows to such adventures. But as long as the working class in the U.S. continues to be prevented from defending its own immediate interests, there will be little prospect of such international solidarity.
The Democrats’ promises of “change” to reverse falling living standards will also prove to be lies. As corporate profits falter, the next president will have no choice but to call on the working class and poor to tighten their belts and sacrifice in the national interest. There will be cutbacks in social services and possibly even renewed attempts to privatize Social Security – along with policies that help the capitalists cut jobs and lower wages and benefits. And as always, with rising economic attacks the ruling class will drive rising racist attacks as well. Further, legislating phony “pathways to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, coupled with slave-labor “guest worker” programs, will aim to drive them into an even more vulnerable position.
With the Republicans so widely hated, most of the ruling class recognizes that a Democratic president will be best placed to advance their class war. Democratic politicians, labor bureaucrats and pro-capitalist “community” leaders are always concerned that mass struggles would threaten the interests of the capitalist system on which they rely for their privileged positions. They will be more reluctant than ever to lead struggles for fear of undermining a president of their own party.
For the working class to advance a struggle for its interests will mean a fight against the resistance of their Democratic and liberal leaders every step of the way. Pressure from below can force such leaders to go along with struggles, but the danger of betrayal will always be present. Key to mobilizing pressure for struggle and resisting betrayal at the top is building a political leadership of the working class that isn’t chained to what the capitalists can afford. That means a leadership committed to their overthrow: a revolutionary communist leadership.
The growing class divide in this country, plus the inevitable exposure of the Democratic Party’s false promises, will be an explosive combination. There will be a great potential for mass struggles against the capitalist attacks, through which the working class can become aware of its power and independent interests.
We have said that the Democratic candidates are already turning to populism. Populism seeks to convince workers to unite behind bourgeois politicians instead of undertaking class-based struggles against the capitalists. For the moment, Clinton and Obama (like John Edwards before them) are flirting with populist attacks on companies that export jobs overseas, insurers who rip consumers off and oil industry profits. Bourgeois editorialists who complain that this rhetoric is inconsistent with the business-friendly Bill Clinton administration overlook that its primary purpose for now is to win elections.
When class militancy heats up, a more sinister populism will aim to derail workers’ struggles by combining rhetorical sympathy for the troubles of white workers with appeals to racism and nationalism. Mike Huckabee, the last competitive Republican presidential candidate aside from John McCain, shows the signs of things to come. In a TV commercial featuring images of factory workers and demoralized home owners, Huckabee seemed sympathetic:
We’re losing manufacturing jobs, homeowners face a credit crisis, high fuel costs are spiraling, and families are hurting. ... I believe most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off.
Such appeals to workers are essential if the ruling class is to rally part of the working class to its side – against the rest of the working class. For that, racism is essential, and thus Huckabee also promises to deport 12 million undocumented immigrants as well as introduce a federal consumption tax on the grounds that currently “illegals, pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers” – all racist code words for people of color – don’t pay taxes.
Beyond all the politicians’ talk of hope and change, the dominant feeling among the American working class today is fear. Many see their fate tied to American capitalism, and its prospects are clearly not good. The current mortgage and credit crisis is only the latest turn in a downward spiral. Now the very homes and cars of workers and middle-class people, the very symbols of the “American Dream,” are being repossessed by banks that themselves are in danger of collapse.
This is not just another cyclical downturn in the “business cycle” – a relatively mild slump before things get better. Overall, capitalist profit rates internationally have not recovered since the post-World War II boom ended in the mid-1970’s. Since then, only the intensified exploitation of workers at home and abroad has sustained the system. To recover full profitability, the system needs another Great Depression to wipe out the weaker capitalists and force the working class onto its knees.
Capitalism’s long-term stagnation is driven by contradictions inherent to the system. The great productive power of the world economy has outgrown the bounds of private profit and the limitations of the nation state. It took the long nightmare of depression, counterrevolution, fascism and World War to revive capitalism in the 1930’s and ’40’s.
Today corporations and the nation states that enforce their interests are driven into even more cutthroat competition. As we have explained in these pages, for example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not simply the result of a crazy conspiracy by a right-wing White House. It enjoyed the bi-partisan support of Republicans and Democrats at the time because despite its great risks, it was an attempt to address a pressing need of the ruling class – not only to reassert American military might after September 11 but to extend U.S. domination of oil reserves against the country’s more oil-dependent imperialist rivals.
With the U.S. failing in its war aims in Iraq and its global power weakened, its imperialist rivals will increasingly seek to carve out spheres of economic domination through their own military might. For now, all the imperialists rely on the U.S. as the ultimate guarantee of capitalist stability. But their own profit needs will increasingly drive them to challenge U.S. interests.
Because of the dominant role of the U.S. in consuming products manufactured on the world market, a sharp economic downturn in the U.S. threatens to bring the entire world economy down with it. Other capitalist powers thus have an interest in trying to prop up the U.S. with loans and investments. But such moves only delay the crisis and make the eventual collapse all the more catastrophic. The same crisis of falling profits that laid to waste much of the “Third World” in the 1980’s, and led to the collapse of the Stalinist statified-capitalist economies in the USSR and Eastern Europe in the ’90’s, will ultimately confront the Western powers as well.
In this context, the programs of the U.S. presidential candidates look like rearrangements of the deck chairs on the Titanic. And on that score, the possible election of Barack Obama looks more like the pathetic Hollywood movie of a few years ago, Deep Impact. In that film a Black man won the presidency – just in time for a huge asteroid to hurtle toward earth threatening its destruction.
Capitalism’s non-fictional destruction of the environment threatens the very survival of our species. But the system may not even allow time for that ultimate catastrophe. A depression far worse than that of the 1930’s can be delayed but not avoided. If capitalism is not overthrown, it will again threaten to engulf the world in world war that this time could lead to nuclear holocaust.
A socialist society would seek to produce the needs of all rather than the private profit of an elite class of profiteers. Capitalism has itself laid the basis for transcending the misery to which it condemns humanity. It long ago built up the productive forces – industry, technology and a globalized economy – to the point where the potential exists to produce an abundance of all the things people need. Shortages of housing, food and every other form of want can be easily overcome, but that potential remains trapped by capitalism’s pursuit of profit.
Control of the economy will have to be seized from the capitalists. The state power, with the police and military that defend its rule, will have to be smashed in a revolution that puts the majority, the workers and oppressed, in control. And it will take revolutions across the world to prevent sabotage and attack by the capitalists and to unleash the productive potential of the world economy.
By producing an abundance of necessary goods for all, workers’ states would undermine the very basis for the existence of classes. Necessary work would be divided equally among all. And the introduction of labor-saving technology, instead of creating unemployment as it does under capitalism, would be used to shorten the work week and free workers’ lives for greater leisure. In such ways the basis would be laid for the development of a society free of all forms of exploitation and oppression.
Moreover, capitalism has created the class with the potential to overthrow it: the working class. Drawn from across the world and organized into a productive force on the job, the working class can turn this organization against the capitalists in collective struggle. Strikes and other forms of mass struggle can defend past gains and even win temporary improvements; but they also show workers the real power of their class when it unites in action. General strikes by the entire working class raise the question of re-starting the economy under the working class’s control and direction.
Through the experience of such struggles, more and more workers can come to revolutionary socialist conclusions – if there is a working-class revolutionary party leadership built beforehand to help show the way. To this end, there is no easy road. Revolutionary-minded workers and youth cannot afford to wait until the great struggles of the future to begin to prepare themselves politically to play a leading role. The League for the Revolutionary Party is dedicated to building the beginnings of a revolutionary political party leadership of the working class by combining a study of political theory with active involvement in our class’s struggles. We urge every reader of Proletarian Revolution to contact us and join that struggle.