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Once again we are getting “rope-a-doped” by the two-party electoral sideshow. But in this election cycle there are a few strands that appear to have escaped the parameters of the corporate/bank dominated ideology characteristic of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Bernie Sanders’ campaign has partially broken with neoliberalism and opened the country to a different message. Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, and it is important that this term is getting wide play in our political discourse: anyone who tries honestly to find out what it means, cannot avoid understanding that socialism aims to transform an economic system based on the private property and profits of the few, into one where the primary motive force is human need. It proposes to make the people who actually do society’s work the builders and operators of that society’s governance and institutions.
Bernie’s politics, however, are a revival of FDR’s New Deal. He seeks to empower poor and working people (regardless of so-called “race”) to participate in the process of freeing our society from the control of the big rich by voting for a candidate of the Democratic Party. Whether he can do this from inside that Wall Street dominated party is dubious. Even if by some miracle he overcame the power of Wall Street and the corporate media to become president, he would have to work within the institutions established in our history to ensure the rule of capital and its minions.
Meanwhile the Republican Party has continued its march to the right, with racism as a key part of its message. Republicans since Richard Nixon have been using their “Southern Strategy” to divide people by making veiled racist appeals, coupled with reactionary “culture war” ideas and attacks on abortion and women’s rights. The right wing refuses to recognize global warming while cutting taxes for the already wealthy and pushing policies that deregulate governmental oversight of corporate power. There has also been a revival of the right wing Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi domestic terrorist groups, both of which have long histories of racist murder and genocide. For this election, moreover, the Republicans have fielded a candidate in Donald Trump who has put aside the usual veiled racist appeals and is openly signaling his affinity with these white supremacist organizations.
All this is happening now, I believe, because of the unprecedented failure of capitalism everywhere to meet the needs of billions of people. While the U.S. is engaged in seemingly endless war for control of resources and labor, though with decreasing success and increasing opposition, our corporate rulers in search of cheap labor preside over the export of jobs to China and elsewhere. They undermine and destroy workers’ basic defensive organization (unions), and they promote right wing terror and the people who perpetrate it. Here it’s the Nazis and the Klan, or “lone wolf” killers influenced by right wing ideology. These terror groups rally publicly to spread racist hate and violence, and far from being stopped and arrested, they are given police protection. Now they are blending in with the Donald Trump campaign rallies behind a cordon of massed police, the same police forces that attack and murder people of color with impunity.
The U.S. military also spreads terror abroad with bombing and drone warfare. The “collateral damage” from this takes the form of innocent civilians (almost all poor women, children and old people unable get out of the way) killed and maimed by American bombs, supposedly aimed at terrorist groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. authorities claimed that the Taliban were defeated in 2003, but somehow they have been allowed to regroup and resume fighting, while the U.S. –supported Afghan government is notoriously corrupt. This relationship is nothing new. The U.S. has propped up regimes like “South” Vietnam’s notoriously repressive government that had little popular support, and would otherwise have been swept away. Furthermore, of the current terrorist boogeymen, al Qaida got its start when the U.S. was arming and supporting Osama bin Laden against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s; ISIS did not even exist before the U.S. invaded the Middle East. These terror organizations as well as the suicide pilots that flew planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 are the “blowback” from decades of failed American policies in the Middle East. They all subscribe to an ideology that originated with our ally Saudi Arabia. It’s a death cult that makes suicide bombers out of desperate young men, women and children, while their big capitalist leaders sit and collect the oil revenues. The U.S. also supplies arms to an increasingly rightist Israeli government to occupy and brutally oppress millions of Palestinians.
For almost fifty years after the Second World War, the U.S. was caught up in a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Since its collapse, however, America’s leaders have all been neo-conservative in thinking that world dominance was achievable, despite the weight of the historical record that shows every nation seeking world domination eventually provokes a reaction by other nations in opposition. This readily available historical knowledge has not stopped the latest reckless American moves against Russia and China. The U.S. helped overthrow a pro-Russian government in Ukraine and used neo-Nazis there to attack opponents, and seeks to confront Russia with NATO its borders. In the Pacific, the U.S. has begun its “pivot to Asia”, confronting the growing strength of China and pushing Russia and China closer together. Most frightening of all, instead of engaging in negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons in the world, the U.S. is refurbishing its own stockpile while selectively enforcing a ban on certain countries like Iran, while a nuclear-armed North Korea thumbs its nose. The shadow of a nuclear holocaust remains.
The United States’ enormous “defense” budget is untouchable, and only increases, lining the pockets of the “military industrial complex.” Yet corporate bosses will not or cannot pay living wages but must continue to recruit workingmen and women to fight other workers and peasants around the world. Some of our rulers surely know that working people everywhere and in growing numbers will resist all these moves. The Bernie phenomenon is one clear sign that this is happening and that millions throughout the world are fed up with oligarchic rule and forced austerity. This can be seen in the ongoing large nighttime demonstrations in France (Nuit Debout), the rise of Podemos in Spain, and Greek resistance to European bank-imposed austerity. Europe’s rulers also look to counter these working class movements with fascist parties like the National Front in France and the emerging rightist mass politics in Germany and Austria. The flow of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, yet another war brought on by the U.S’s destabilizing policy of “regime change,” has galvanized these latest fascist manifestations.
In the U.S., resistance to the United States’ disastrous foreign policy has not (yet) provoked an anti-war movement like that of the Vietnam era, but the possibilities of this happening are growing despite the decades long efforts of our rulers to leave the “Vietnam syndrome” behind. The War in Vietnam was fought at a time of relative prosperity. Now, however, workers can see that corporate and political leaders have unlimited money for their wars, but little to raise wages and improve people’s lives. The billionaire class fears a mass workers’ movement that demands economic and social justice and opposes imperialist wars, and is thus preparing a political response. I believe that our rulers could live with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but Trump offers them a bonus: the promotion of greater divisions among the working class, and the potential for violent white supremacist gangs to be used against any mass movement with explicit multi-racial and pro-working class (socialist) aims that police power is unable to suppress (as was done to Occupy Wall Street). In his hostility to Mexican immigration, Trump also lines up with the current neo-fascist movements in Europe that attack immigrants. Furthermore, as the U.S. acts militarily as the world’s bully against smaller and weaker countries, what better leader than a consummate bully like Donald Trump!
Divide and rule tactics (coupled with judicious use of repression) have been employed by elites to rule over much larger numbers of subjects since the Roman Empire. In America, “race” has been the most prominent divisive category with African Americans as the primary targets, from slavery until today. Mexicans in the Southwest, immigrant and citizen, also suffer from racism, and Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican immigrant diatribes are of a piece with this history. Racism has thus been the most frequent tool of modern ruling classes whose power is threatened by mass working-class movements, though clearly not the only one. Our corporate media highlight any differences that might be useful in preventing people from uniting in their common interests (religion, native born vs. immigrant, gender, “culture” and “identity politics,” sexual preference, young/old). The only cleavage almost never mentioned is social class.
The constant drumbeat of this divisive ideology, aimed at that very large class of people forced to sell their labor for wages paid by capitalists, has been remarkably successful in enriching the few at the expense of the many. It also distracts the masses and obscures the deepest, most widespread and fundamental division separating people today: that between the capitalist class of owners in control of business and the state, and the billions of the world’s people who must live by their labor – if they can find work at all!
The working class of the United States almost seems tailor made for such tactics. During the post-Civil War industrial development of the U.S., large numbers of immigrant workers were encouraged to come here. When they arrived they faced horrific living and working conditions – child labor, long hours, job-related injuries and death, low wages, slum housing, police repression. They were pitted against white native-born workers to keep them from joining in common efforts to unionize, and some native workers were given managerial jobs as foremen and little bosses over immigrants (just as poor white slave patrols were used to control and repress plantation slaves in the ante-bellum South). These people were encouraged to see themselves as whites first, workers second or not at all. Thus a category of “privileged,” white salaried employees was established. Yet they were only a step above the workers they bossed and at the mercy of the owning class, perhaps even more so since they could not join unions and forfeited any solidarity with the people under them.
After the later 19th century when large numbers of small and medium sized farmers were driven off the land by the mechanization and deflation of agriculture that prompted the Populist movement, large numbers of American-born whites also swelled the ranks of labor. There were a limited number of managerial positions available, and so the basic American working class became a mixture of immigrant and native labor. Many could see the necessity to organize, by craft and trade, but there was little class-consciousness. When in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they did manage to forge unions and confront the owners by collectively withholding their labor in strikes, the police and military power of the state were used to crush them, while a large sector of native-born workers were forcibly excluded from the struggle. Black workers were systematically oppressed, even lynched, to enforce Jim Crow laws and racist segregation. Racism kept them from joining with white workers in the struggles for unions and workers’ rights, and they were lucky if they got the lowest paying jobs with which they could barely support a family.
Have we really progressed beyond these conditions today? White workers, black workers, Latino and other immigrants have been kept apart by deliberate policies and de facto patterns of segregation. Immigrant workers continue to come here from nearby Mexico and Central America, where unemployment is catastrophically high, to take menial jobs and live in slum conditions. Contra Donald Trump’s fear mongering, however, their numbers are down and their positive contributions to the U.S. economy are a matter of record.
Despite the long history of struggle for civil rights and integration, it is clear that we have not fundamentally overcome this racist legacy of segregation. We do not all live together in integrated neighborhoods and attend integrated schools. Black workers especially are still ghettoized and face depression-like conditions. And this continued separation of people helps to support the racist narrative. People who live in close proximity in the same neighborhoods get to know one another, and can easily recognize their common humanity and the common circumstance that they all have to work for a living. This makes building a sense of solidarity much easier, and the spreading of racist lies about people with superficial differences much harder.
Today, after several hundred years of capitalist development, and in the “richest” country in the world, large numbers, many if not most of them people of color, can hardly support themselves, much less a family. People work longer hours, some at several jobs, and are still unable to afford a place to live, while the ubiquitous worker (most often a white man, many of them veterans) holding his “will work for food” sign is visible at far too many intersections in today’s USA. Clearly, racism has served our rulers well, while depriving workers of the class solidarity they need just to protect themselves.
There has been another tool in the ruling class arsenal for keeping workers in subjection to capital, and perhaps it has been the most decisive. This is the relentless use of anti-communism to discredit the most militant and principled leaders of working- class struggle. In fact, outside of black organizations like the NAACP, it was the American Communist Party that led efforts in the 1920’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s to defend the rights of black people and to bring black and white workers together in the same organizations. The role of Communist organizers in bringing industrial unionism to the U.S. during the Great Depression is an historical fact. The depression greatly weakened the ideological control of big business, which was forced to make concessions to struggling workers. But by the nineteen fifties when “normalcy” returned, the Communist Party and progressive allies were attacked and greatly weakened by Truman and the Democrats in the late 1940’s, and McCarthyism in the ‘50’s. Communist organizers were systematically driven out of the unions, thus purging them of the most militant and class-conscious leaders. The unions were left in the hands of “business unionists” who feathered their own nests and too often sold out their working class brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, individual Communists continued to struggle for civil rights, and their legacy of militant leadership carried over for a while into the 60’s and early 70’s, a key time in the civil rights movement and the peak of post-war union power in the U.S.
By the1970’s, market share and profits for U.S. businesses were in decline due to a variety of factors, including international competition from Europe and Japan. The corporate response was to begin a systematic effort to destroy unions. Ronald Reagan’s initiated this with his attack on the air traffic controllers. Workers were left without the militant, indeed revolutionary leadership that could have continued the fight against racism. They were encouraged by corporate politicians to “play by the rules,” that generally meant working within the Democratic Party. They were deprived of tactics for struggle like the sit-down strikes of the 1930s; worst of all, they have never been able or encouraged to form an explicitly socialist pro-working class political party of their own. Workers are victimized by big business control of the economy, politics, and basic governmental institutions, while the mass media and educational systems disseminate a pro-corporate ideology of division that encourages victim blaming, passivity, and obedience, and functions to atomize the entire population.
But the rich have failed to keep the working class quiescent. The capitalist economy has suffered from stagnation for decades, as documented by economists such as Paul Craig Roberts and Michael Hudson, who have pointed out that Wall Street and the big banks that now hold the levers of economic power have no intention of restoring an actual production-based economy. Instead, manufacturing jobs are shipped to China and elsewhere in search of the cheapest labor, while the major goal of financiers is to get more and more people into debt. Our neo-feudal rulers want a docile toll-paying population while they appear increasingly unable to provide the basic standard of living, health care, and education that the world’s working people want and need.
Here again, I believe, Donald Trump represents their (and his own) interests. The so-called “establishment” wing of the Republican Party appears to oppose Trump (while doing very little in fact to stop him). I believe, however, that if he wins the nomination, he will receive their support. At this point, without Trump, the Republicans have almost nothing and are looking at their possible demise. Trump may be both the savior of a useful ruling-class political party, and a shift in our rulers’ response to the growing opposition to capitalism’s failures. He is the epitome of a fascist demagogue. Like all fascists, he wants and needs to divide and control the working class, the only potential force in society capable of taking on big capital. To this end, he pretends to be on the side of at least some (white) workers. He attacks the “rigged system” of corrupt party politics, without ever naming the class of people (his own) who control the country’s wealth and institutions. He is a billionaire with experience as a media “star,” and like Hitler or Mussolini before him (he has made reference to the latter in his speeches), he knows how to put forward the Big Lie. In this he knows the corporate media will enable him. He strikes a bold pose in his scurrilous ad hominem attacks on his rivals, while at his rallies he promotes violence against people of color and immigrants. He mentions unfair trade, and talks about what a great dealmaker he is, but never puts forward any concrete policies. In this way he makes a phony appeal to the most ignorant and misled sectors of the (white) working class. Hitler did the same, starting with the name of his party: the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
Trump too uses a hyper-nationalism that promises to “make America great again,” but instead of blaming those holding power (our corporate elite and their political lackeys) for years of stagnation and war, he scapegoats Mexican immigrants and shouts out his reactionary message on cable news where it’s all Trump all the time. I call it “Trumpimping.”
Thus, far from making America great again, Trump’s aim is to further divide and weaken a working class that is now showing signs of restiveness, and is looking around for answers and a plan to reverse 30-plus years of stagnant wages and declining living conditions. As Bernie Sanders makes clear, this cannot but come at the expense of the billionaire class that has taken all the gains over the past three decades. Trump is acting in the interests of his class, while he makes empty promises to workers. But he never cites a single specific policy that might in fact address the enormous and growing divide between the richest 1% and the rest. Instead, his one big proposal is to build a wall on our border with Mexico. His hostility to a huge number of hard working people could not be clearer.
Let me conclude by suggesting that Trump is a straw in the wind. He presidential campaign has helped to spread his racist message and given his white supremacist followers a (thin) veneer of legitimacy. If they are not opposed, they will be emboldened and attract more like them. These types are the storm troopers waiting in the wings to be used by our capitalist rulers. We have seen the promotion of violence at his rallies. We have also seen that protesters, many from the Black Lives Matters movement, have consistently opposed him. Black people know from harsh personal experience about the concrete results of the kind of racist demagogy Trump is espousing, as do many Latinos and Asians. These protests need to be expanded, especially by white workers stepping up and joining the fight. Working class whites should understand that Trump’s campaign is part of a strategy to control and oppress all workers. Attacks on workers of color are attacks on their class brothers and sisters. And in response to the increased threat of right wing terror sponsored by Trump, two things should be made clear: 1. There should be no “free speech” for violent racists whose entire organizational history shows them to be premeditated murderers. No crying “fire” in a crowded theater; no free speech for KKK and Nazis! 2. Working people have an absolute right to oppose people like Trump (and those of his class) seeking to exploit and oppress, and they have the absolute right to defend themselves against anti-working class violence. We can certainly expect the power of the state to be used against protesters, and our only defense is to turn small protests into a mass movement. The seeds for this have been planted; we just need to clear the ground of illusions and confront fascism head on!