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How the hell did we get here?
By “here” I mean a world characterized by incredible inequity, endless war and environmental destruction. I mean this thin ledge above the abyss of extinction on which we balance precariously.
And oh yeah, there’s that other nasty thing about “here” that must be mentioned. Donald Trump has just been elected President.
How did we get here? By groveling.
How do we get out of this place? By standing up and using the power that has always been ours for the taking. There’s never been a more auspicious moment to do so.
Groveling Under Obama
What’s “groveling”? It’s acquiescence in the unacceptable. It’s an array of illusions and submissive behaviors that accompany that acquiescence. The last eight years provide countless examples.
Where was the public outcry as Barack Obama deported over 2.5 million people?
Why weren’t there mass protests as Obama militarized the border?
Why did we tolerate the horrific deaths of thousands of people funneled into the most dangerous crossing points by 650 miles of border barricades during the Obama years?
These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking.
Here’s another: Why didn’t environmentalists denounce Obama and the Democrats as climate destroyers? When you look beyond the token gestures, toothless plans and pleasing rhetoric over the last eight years, you find skyrocketing U.S. oil and gas production, huge coal leases, massive expansion of fracking and offshore drilling, and tens of thousands of miles of new pipelines. (The rejected KXL pipeline is dwarfed by all the pipelines Obama approved in the last eight years.) These resulted from Obama’s and the Democrat’s deliberate strategies, not an inability to defend us from Republicans. Obama even brags about all of this to select audiences.
The truth is that we have hurtled backwards under Obama on multiple crucial fronts. Obama has been an immigrant-attacking, climate-destroying, due process-gutting, labor-abandoning, war-mongering, food stamp-cutting, pesticide-approving, EPA-undermining, Wall Street-uplifting, bad “trade” agreement-pushing, education-privatizing, Social Security-threatening, dictator-supporting, weapons-proliferating, whistleblower-prosecuting, servant of the 1%. (See The Obama Legacy, Parts I-X by Black Agenda Report’s Danny Haiphong.)
But most people don’t know about any of this. On a broad array of important matters, putative progressives have been absolutely silent. On a few issues, like climate change, there have been decent-sized protests, but environmental “leaders” have made a point of not denouncing Obama and his party for the extraordinary damage they’ve done.
Throughout Obama’s two terms, he has been lavished with accolades for positive leadership he never provided, while his leadership in the wrong direction has been consistently overlooked. “Progressives” have meekly asked for less than what is needed and then obsequiously accepted even less than that. They’ve failed to object in any meaningful way to most of the horrible setbacks dished out by Obama and the Democratic Party.
Groveling doesn’t deliver the world we want. After eight years of acquiescence, poverty has tightened its grip on tens of millions, while the super-rich have gotten even richer. Black Americans, in particular, are much worse off now than they were in 2008. Due process and privacy rights lie in shreds on the ground. U.S. wars and the military budget have expanded dramatically, and the result is that we’re less safe. We have grown closer to full-blown ecological disaster, as invaluable international opportunities to turn things around have been squandered.
Groveling also paves the way for bigoted demagogues like Trump. They know how to fill a vacuum, fomenting racism and other divisions to gain power.
What’s more, groveling ensures that elected demagogues are even more dangerous than they might otherwise have been. Trump will be able to assassinate people without due process because of the precedent Obama set. He’ll be able to use Obama’s massive surveillance system to spy on activists, reporters and others. Trump will have an especially easy time expanding oil and gas production because of the vast network of pipelines Obama put in place. And millions of undocumented immigrants who could have become citizens long ago will face deportation under Trump because Obama broke his promise to champion immigration reform as a first year priority.
We need to understand all this. Aiming low, self-silencing, misrepresenting our enemies as our friends, and other submissive behaviors are no way to win justice and prevent extinction. We’ve got to take a very different approach. Even in the absence of a Trump victory, this would have been the case.
The Biggest Acquiescence
The submissive behaviors described above are part and parcel of the biggest acquiescence of all: accepting our current economic system as inevitable and even desirable. “Progressives” pretend that we can create the world we want under capitalism, and they urge us to keep on keeping on within its confines.
But capitalism is what stands between us and the world we want. It’s what’s led to the destructive policies we’ve experienced under Republicans and Democrats alike. Just look at its basic structure.
Under capitalism, major industries are privately owned and operated for profit. This means that a few individuals at the top of big corporations make big decisions that determine humanity’s fate, such as what products to produce.
In contrast most people work for wages. Though we spend most of our waking hours at work, we have no control over our workplaces, what we produce, and even whether our jobs exist. This makes us vulnerable to extortion, particularly as our wages stagnate, and we find it harder and harder to make ends meet. We’re forced to accept low pay, lousy working conditions and jobs we dislike, including jobs that poison our environment, because we need to put food on the table. We agree to tax breaks and other give-aways to big employers to entice them to build and maintain facilities near us.
Under capitalism, working people don’t reap the profits our labor produces. As a result our general treasuries lack the funds we need to implement the programs we want. Austerity reigns despite the vast wealth generated by the work we do.
We’re told that we can steer corporate decisions through public policy. But the profits that don’t flow to working people, do flow to corporations and their owners. Capitalists are supposed to accumulate wealth under capitalism, and they sure do. Currently, 1% of the world’s population owns more wealth than the other 99%. And they use that wealth to thoroughly distort public policy.
Big Money buys elections, legislation, science, the news media, massive public relations campaigns, lawsuits, control over academia, phony “trade” agreements, ubiquitous spying, and much more. Polices that should steer corporate decisions towards serving humanity, end up increasing corporate profits at our expense instead. The rich keep getting richer, and as that happens, our ability to influence public policies becomes even more limited.
This is not what democracy looks like. These fundamental features of capitalism—private ownership of major industries, working people’s lack of control over our jobs, our lack of control over the profits we produce, and the accumulation of those profits in the hands of the few—inherently hand to a minority the power that should belong to the majority. They ensure that profits are valued more than people and that the Earth becomes something to exploit rather than revere.
Capitalism is fertile ground for slavery, mass incarceration, and laws that declare immigrants “illegal”, all of which reduce labor costs. It is fertile ground for racism, sexism, homophobia and other poisonous mindsets that justify exploitation of certain groups and keep working people from uniting with one another.
Acquiescing in capitalism condemns us to permanent injustice. It pushes us towards extinction.
A Different Way to Organize Things
We can move beyond capitalism to a much preferable economic system. There’s a much better way to organize things. Major industries can be publicly owned. Through vibrant grassroots-up structures we can democratically develop plans for these industries, ensuring that public needs are met and that the environment is protected. We can also democratically plan for jobs and for transition assistance for those who must move from one job to another.
In this system beyond capitalism, we can establish an economic bill of rights that guarantees everyone a good-paying job when they can work and a decent income when they can’t. Free health care. Free education through graduate school. All of these things and more can be guaranteed and paid for with the profits our labor produces. Extortion and stress can become relics of the past. In fact, since productivity has steadily risen over the years and will continue to rise in the future, we can decide to pay excellent full-time salaries for part-time work. This will give us more time for self-governance, caring for our families, and enjoying life.
By planning together democratically, we can both end unemployment and ensure that necessary work gets done. We can hire teachers to reduce class size, construction workers to repair bridges and other crumbling infrastructure, diverse teams to replace blighted urban areas with vibrant food-producing oases, and more.
Imagine what it would mean in our battle against global warming to have a democracy-infused post-capitalist economic system in place. As owners of the energy industry, we could swiftly install renewable energy systems and grids, and end fossil fuel production. We could implement a jobs plan, ensuring just transitions and union wages for workers whose jobs are lost due to needed economic transition. In short, we could simply do what needs to be done directly ourselves. Instead of begging for favors from the unelected 1%, we could have actual control over our future.
This rational democracy-infused system is called socialism. The same people who spend tons of money promoting climate denial spend even more misrepresenting socialism and demonizing anyone who talks about it. But socialism is what we need to be discussing and fighting for.
One of the things planted in our brains by those who profit from the status quo is the belief that we couldn’t possibly achieve a big step forward like moving from capitalism to socialism. But here’s something important to remember: Society doesn’t work, unless working people do. We turn the wheels, grow the food, provide the services, make the products, and more. When we unite behind a common agenda, we can bring society to a standstill if necessary to get what we want. The power of labor has achieved “impossible” changes before, but has not yet been used to deliver an economic system that makes such advances permanent and gives us real control over our future.
Working people have tremendous power. Many just don’t realize that yet.
How to Win
Martin Luther King noted that “a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.” It’s more than time to stop groveling and stand up. Here’s what that would look like:
1) Make big demands for each injustice we face.
We need to jettison the old approach of limiting our demands to what is deemed “winnable” or “pragmatic” by some. Instead, we must demand what we really want. We must paint a picture of what the world could look like for all to see. Adopting a defensive posture won’t work.
On matters of racial injustice, the demands laid out by the Movement For Black Lives in the document “A Vision for Black Lives” are a good start. On climate issues, we need to call for nationalization of the energy industry and other real solutions. On health care, let’s push for single payer instead of defending ObamaCare (aka Romney-Care or Heritage-Foundation-Care). On military issues, we need forceful and clear demands, like “U.S. Troops Home Now.” And so on and so forth.
One priority for all of us must be actively defending those who will be most vulnerable under Trump. The near-silence that greeted 2.5 million deportations under Obama must be replaced with mass protest, widespread sanctuaries, and strong support for strikes and boycotts organized by and for immigrants, for example.
2) Unite in a joint struggle to get beyond capitalism.
Every campaign we undertake, every strategy and tactic we use, and every message we deliver must be shaped by a larger goal of getting beyond capitalism. Building a vast movement to achieve that goal must be a priority.
A vision of an economic system based on people not profits, peace not war, and respect for our environment rather than exploitation, can be what unites us.
This is not to say that incremental reforms can’t be part of our agenda. They must be. But the reforms we win must serve as stepping stones to the democratic world we want.
People organizing on specific issues need to join and work with socialist organizations. We must seek out those who have been fighting all along for an economic system based on public ownership of major industries, true democracy from the grassroots up, an economic bill of rights, and planning in the public interest. There is much to discuss in terms of the world we want to create and how to get there. Those who have kept resistance to capitalism alive in the face of severe repression have important wisdom to share.
3) Reject dead-ends.
The problem we face isn’t “unregulated” or “unbridled” capitalism. It is capitalism itself.
The basic structures and core tenets of this economic system are inherently undemocratic. Left intact they severely limit the progress we can make. To eke out even modest victories, we must mount lengthy resource-intensive campaigns. Owning-class opposition makes it so hard to win on a single issue, that we are forced to engage in triage, leaving all sorts of other problems unaddressed.
Moreover, as long as capitalism is left in place, the victories we do win are never secure. Those who didn’t want change undermine implementation, create loopholes and work-arounds, and steadily push for outright repeals.
Any attempts at shifting wealth, promoting people over profits, or otherwise creating a kinder, gentler capitalism are doomed to failure. Just as with any major reform we seek, even if we eke out some victories, these will ultimately be undone. Much of what was gained through the New Deal, for example, has been erased over time.
We need to stop squandering our power in foolhardy attempts to “save” or “fix” capitalism.
4) Build a party of the working class.
Speaking of dead-ends, it’s time to drive a stake through the heart of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders and others are working over-time to persuade us to do the opposite. They want us to pour our time, money and energy into Democrats yet again. We’ll make the party one “which represents working people and not just the 1 percent,” they insist, as if dual allegiance to both the 1% and the 99% is possible. This isn’t the first time politicians like Sanders have promised that the Democratic Party will soon start acting in the public interest.
Enough already. The Democratic Party’s record under Barack Obama has been atrocious. It’s been atrocious under prior Presidents, too, like Bill Clinton who gutted welfare, pushed through NAFTA, played a lead role in the mass incarceration of African Americans, repealed Glass-Steagall, and more. In addition, we now have proof from leaked documents that the Democratic National Committee undermined Bernie Sanders’ campaign and “elevated” Donald Trump. Those who keep going back to the Democratic Party for more are empowering an abuser.
We need a political party that grows out of the movement we are building. It must be based in the working class, our organizations and our struggles. Our party’s platform must be binding and our electoral campaigns must be based on advancing that platform rather than particular personalities.
A key element of our platform must be a commitment to economic democracy, including public ownership of major industries, public planning, an economic bill of rights, and democratic structures that ensure vibrant participation by working people in self-governance. Unlike the Democratic Party, our party must unabashedly represent only the working class. It must adhere to democratic procedures that empower the rank and file, ensuring their ongoing control over party leaders.
The Democratic Party bears no resemblance to what we need. It is a dead-end that we must reject.
5) Watch your language.
To fight effectively, we need to speak truth to power.
We need to stop implying that the Democratic Administration that preceded Trump served the public interest. It didn’t. Our goal isn’t to return Democrats to power. It’s to take control of our destiny, including building our own independent political voice.
Our language must illuminate the power that is ours, instead of ceding it to others:
+ No, our goal is not to “hold corporations accountable.” We aim to own those corporations and make decisions ourselves.
+ No, we don’t want to share power with the 1%, or have a seat at the table with its representatives. We want to eliminate the concept of the 1% altogether. Democracy can’t exist when a portion of the population gets to hoard resources and hold the reins. We aim to establish democracy and nothing less than that.
+ No, we’re not content with steering our future via the purchases we make. We want to be citizens, not consumers.
+ No, our goal isn’t to make the price of solar cells cost-competitive in the hope that low prices will lead to deployment. It is to actually deploy solar cells en masse. It is to have the power to take such actions ourselves directly, instead of being limited to steering things indirectly.
We Can Actually Do This.
Taking control of our future is not pie in the sky. Even though a small number of people wield incredible power by virtue of hoarding society’s wealth, ultimately working people can call the shots. Nothing works without workers. When we unite behind a common agenda we can and will bring society to a standstill until we get what we want.
There are huge signs all around us that the time has come to claim our power. The taboo against even mentioning socialism has begun to fade. While calling himself a socialist, Bernie Sanders drew huge crowds and won lots of votes. Sixty-nine percent of people who are 18 to 30 years old say they would vote for a socialist, and older age groups are not far behind. Moreover, 42% of Americans now self-identify as independents, while the most recent numbers for those considering themselves Democrats and Republicans are 29% and 26% respectively.
A full 57% of Americans believe there should be a third major political party in the U.S.
Harris polls have consistently found that over 80% of Americans feel that companies have too much power and influence. People are absolutely disgusted with how things are going and how so few calls the shots. The vote on November 8th reflects that disgust.
The Trump Opportunity
Now, after an eight-year slumber, people are pouring into the streets, protesting things they should have been protesting all along. They are pledging to work hard to protect people, our rights and our planet. The conversation has changed. People are searching for real answers. They’re talking about the need for radical change. We’re seeing the numbers, passion and big thinking we’ve needed for a long time.
This is a time of crisis. But it is also a time of tremendous opportunity.
Let’s fight with all our might, putting forward strong demands and protecting the most vulnerable populations as a top priority. Let’s link everything we do to building an unstoppable movement that gives us actual power through an economic system based on public ownership of major industries, democratic planning for public good, vibrant democratic structures, our own political party, and an economic bill of rights.
This is what we’ve needed to be championing all along.
For a long time, corporate political parties, nonprofit organizations and others have told us that working people don’t have power. They’ve argued that we need to be “realistic”, aim low, and compromise readily. They’ve convinced us that it’s impossible to take control of our destiny and create the world we want. But they’re wrong.
The Trump crisis is an opportunity for us to stand up and claim the power that has always been ours. We can block the evils Trump has planned, and we can concurrently build a powerful movement that sweeps across our land, bringing about the radical changes we need.
This is a chance to reverse course. It could well be our last. We have no choice but to think big and stand tall, leaving illusions and groveling behind.