International Women’s Day, the Welfare State and the Banality of the Anti-Trump Resistance

Betsy Devos and her ilk believe there is no such thing as a free lunch. There’s a great irony to her statement saying we need to be promoting “responsibility” and “choice” (ironically excepting any instance regarding reproduction) because the truth is that her entire agenda enables nothing but a free lunch for her neo-feudal aristocratic family and friends!

The point of the liberal-capitalist revolution against feudalism in the 18th century was ending a system of governance where the landlords would earn money in their sleep via rents. The liberal philosophers believed that the state should be a custodian of the commons and that markets should be freed from parasitical rents given the aristocracy. For serving as this custodian, rent was converted to paid taxes. As these taxes accumulated to finance state operation/infrastructure and then some, the excess was put into a fund known as the commonwealth. This commonwealth is passed down through generations and, owing to a popular near-revolutionary epoch following the 1929 stock market crash, was materialized further in the welfare state. Karl Marx wrote in his critique of the Gotha program that “Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it.” He recognized that the commonwealth would serve as the basis of a future society that socialized the means of production when he wrote “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society – after the deductions have been made – exactly what he gives to it.” The welfare state was a happy medium between a capitalist and socialist society, a peace offering given to the workers by the financial elites in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.

However, it bears mentioning that such a victory was born out of more than half a century of battle that had spanned two continents. European immigrants that had come to America brought with them the traditions of the First and Second Internationals but also Otto von Bismarck. Beginning in 1883, Bismarck began to construct the first welfare state in Germany with the Health Insurance Bill of 1883, Accident Insurance Bill of 1884, Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889, Workers Protection Act of 1891, and the Children’s Protection Act of 1903. These had been created so to augment and steal the thunder, so to speak, of a Social Democratic Party that had earlier been banned (but, much to the chagrin of Bismarck, not smothered) by the 1878 Anti-Socialist Laws. After years of direct state violence and oppression, the old Prussian realized he would have more success if he enacted what these annoying radicals had been demanding. In response this system was described by the German Social Democrats as “state socialism”.

I recently had a conversation with an older friend of color who reflected out loud “She never apologized for Welfare.” If there is one absolute reason why we now have a game show host president, it comes down to the arrogance, apathy, and cynical attitude of Hillary Clinton regarding the Black vote in 2016. If she had merely admitted destroying a pillar of the American welfare state twenty years ago had been a mortal sin she would now make reparation for, the Black vote in key districts would have been much higher. Even if she had given a lame excuse about how, in the afterglow of the implosion of the USSR, the political elites suffered a mass delusion about class ceasing to exist also (God knows that one worked for the Chinese), it is quite logical to argue the Black voter turnout would have been higher.

In a 2007 essay, Fredric Jameson wrote “The welfare state is of course the great postwar achievement of social democracy, even though in continental Europe it knows longer and older traditions. But it seems to me important to defend it, or better still, to give social democracy and the so-called Third Way, a chance to defend it, not because such a defense has any prospects of succeeding, but rather very precisely because from the Marxian perspective it is bound to fail. We must support social democracy because its inevitable failure constitutes the basic lesson, the fundamental pedagogy, of a genuine Left.” Again and again over the past century and a half worldwide we have seen the dialectical antithesis of this, the welfare state coming into existence as a result of struggles by a genuine Left.

“The lesson is this, and it is a lesson about system: one cannot change anything without changing everything,” writes Jameson. “Such is the lesson of system, and at the same time, if you have followed my argument, the lesson of revolution. As for the lesson about strategy, the lesson of What Is to Be Done?, I hope I have suggested an important differentiation between strategy and tactics in these remarks: one need not, in other words, slavishly imitate Lenin’s divisive, aggressive, sectarian recommendations for tactics to grasp the ongoing value of a strategy that consists in tirelessly underscoring the difference between systemic and piecemeal goals, the age-old differentiation (and how far back in history does it go after all?) between revolution and reform.” Does this quasi-prophetic suggestion by America’s favorite motorcycle-riding materialist dialectician bear such fruits a decade after its writing?

Over the past six months, the impoverished of Rhode Island have been suffering a minor catastrophe of epic proportions. Gina Raimondo, a Clinton super-delegate, botched the roll-out of a new welfare state benefits administration system. One cannot put all the blame solely on her shoulders, the conversion was initiated by her predecessor and the computer systems vendor, Deloitte, delivered an inoperative and faulty computer system that never was capable of being operated properly, something not fully understood by the government until just in the past few weeks. Yet in that time, Raimondo has mimicked the Clinton aura of smug efficiency, firing administrators who were connected to key vulnerable populations in the community and laying off technicians who now are said to be required. Things are getting so bad the Providence Journal is running headlines this week saying “Benefit Delays From Computer Glitches Are Pushing People Into Prostitution”. A century ago, women with similar straits in a bloated imperial bastion that was failing its poor and vulnerable started raising hell on International Women’s Day.  An exiled political radical asked how such a miracle could have happened. Answering his own question, he wrote “There are no miracles in nature or history, but every abrupt turn in history, and this applies to every revolution, presents such a wealth of content, unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces of the contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that must appear miraculous.” Rather quickly he got on a train headed for the Finland Station. Simultaneous with these recent developments, the so-called Resistance to Trump in Providence has been seen nowhere near the Food Stamps office. Last week they protested a visit by Speaker Paul Ryan, who I call Gina Raimondo with a cheaper haircut, and did an admirable job of farting in his general direction. When I tried to push Raimondo’s name into their protests it fell on deaf ears. First as a tragedy, next as a farce? I cannot see Jameson’s alleged revolutionary moment on the horizon today. Instead I see a bunch of well-intended progressives holding an extended pep rally for the Democratic Party.

The struggle for the welfare state was borne of making the elites fear popular revolt. Joseph Kennedy said of the period just after the March 4, 1933 inauguration of FDR “In those days I felt and said I would be willing to part with half of what I had if I could be sure of keeping, under law and order, the other half.” Immediately after taking the oath of office, Roosevelt called for a four day banking holiday while he counseled with the leaders of the banking system nationwide. Though this is only conjecture, it seems obvious in hindsight what he said to them as a member of their class and a former Governor of New York, that either they would allow for the creation of the welfare state or the next step for all of them was the guillotine. Contrast that with the Trump resistance today and it seems obvious what is amiss.

When Bismarck created state socialism, it was not merely due to agitation. The preceding anti-socialist laws had been passed in 1878 following assassination attempts on Kaiser Wilhelm I. As he introduced these welfare measures he chose to describe them as “practical Christianity” to appease his religious constituents. Roosevelt signals in his first Fireside Chat, given on March 12, 1933, a sort of collective sigh of the elites in his closing words. “It has been wonderful to me to catch the note of confidence from all over the country. I can never be sufficiently grateful to the people for the loyal support they have given me in their acceptance of the judgment that has dictated our course, even though all our processes may not have seemed clear to them. After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

The withdrawal of the welfare state, done in tandem with a concerted ideological effort that trains a new generation to forget the war that was waged by their forebears to earn this peace offering, is a cyclical occurrence. After several decades the bourgeoisie slowly but surely, usually on the basis of racism and imperialism, will enact policies to snap the strands of the social safety net. The prelude to the current neoliberal siege of the welfare state came in March 1956 when word of Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech on the crimes of Stalin morally discredited Communism, a political movement set on defending worker welfare to the point of military action, for a generation. The British Communist historian E.P. Thompson, reflecting on his feelings in the immediate aftermath of the Secret Speech, noted in an essay titled Socialism and the Intellectuals how claims about high suicide rates in Sweden were being floated in the discourse at that time. “I don’t know how long this colossal fact has been in circulation, but recently I have tripped over it in the most unlikely places. Do we need to examine the credentials of such a shifty, scarcely literate fact as this?”, he asked. “I don’t know the answer, and neither do those who throw this ‘fact’ into the anti-humanist balance. But until this fact passes some such examination it is not a fact at all: it is a noise. The noise goes like this: Sweden’s welfare state, wealthy working class, social-democracy = gin and suicide. Welfare = suicide. Wealthy working-class = suicide. Hydrogen-bomb.” Twelve years later, in April 1968, Conservative British MP Enoch Powell would strike the first blow that his colleague Margaret Thatcher would capitalize on using neoliberal identity politics through the delivery of his dreadful Rivers of Blood speech. Speaking of a phantom female constituent, he said “She finds excreta pushed through her letter box. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. “Racialist,” they chant.”

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.