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Politics and the Agent of Social Change

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Donald Trump’s first 100 days as president fueled a groundswell of popular unrest spreading through the country.  Political protest is mounting, becoming an increasingly common feature of national life.  The growing discontent may foretell what’s to come during Trump’s next 100 days let alone his remaining 1,000 days.

Insurgency began the day after Trump’s inauguration with the Women’s March and continues as a regular practice.  Those opposed to Trump — and his cabal of Cabinet and Congressional enforcers — are finding an increasing number of ways to express their outrage, including rallies, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, work stoppages, strikes, boycotts, petitions, email/call campaigns, town-hall gatherings and grassroots political organizing.  National and local campaigns are matched by individual and small-group acts of protest, cumulatively reflecting mounting civil discontent.  There are almost daily media reports of political confrontations, whether in Washington, DC, New York or cities, towns and rural sites across the country, some ending in bloody encounters, arrests and even deaths.

Americans, including a slowly-growing number of Trump supporters, are getting increasingly enraged about the Trump’s actions and his administration’s assault on civil society and personal life.  Popular outrage is fueled over Trump’s firing of the FBI director; his anti-Muslim ban; ICE’s capture and deportation of non-documented people; income stagnation, rising costs and an ineffective – and corrupt — healthcare system; attacks on abortion rights, Planned Parenthood and teen sex education; police killings of African-American and other minority people; subsides for fossil-fuel companies and regulatory protections for corrupt corporations; cuts to science and environment programs; and the return to a “war on crime” judicial system — law enforcement, courts and prisons — with a likely increase in false arrests, unjust convictions and longer prison terms.

For a century, from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, agents of social change promoted – and often led — political movements.  Marx, Bakunin and others radical thinkers – and activists – of the mid-19th century shared a common belief that the proletariat was the agent of social change.  It was the spearhead of class struggle, its efforts embodied in the Luddite uprisings of the 1810s, the European rebellions of 1848 and culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In the 20th century, Lenin, Stalin and Mao fostered the leadership role of the Bolshevik or Communist Party as the organizational lever of social change, the agent of rebellion.  They defeated capitalism in two underdeveloped but powerful countries, Russia and China.  Their beliefs fueled movements – and wars — of national liberation around the world, including in Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba, let alone Hungary.  If victorious, the party would control state power and, over time, become a new ruling class; if defeated, death, suffering and relocation awaited the survivors.

In the U.S., radicals played critical roles during periods of social change.  During the WW-I era, anarchists fought against the Robber Barons and entry into the Great War.  The Russian Revolution reverberated in a handful of bitter strikes, a couple of terrorist acts and the launch of the FBI and the modern American police state, culminating in the persecution of radicals with nationwide roundups and mass deportations (e.g., Emma Goldman).  During the Great Depression, CP operatives played a key role in union organizing campaigns and bitter rent strikes.  During the Depression and WW-II, communists and other radicals helped forged the early civil-rights movement, ceaselessly defending and – ultimately – securing the exoneration of the Scottsboro Boys.

During the ‘50s Red Scare, radicals were targeted as foreign agents, Russian stooges; many lost their jobs, some were prosecuted and jailed, all humiliated and two executed.  The postwar campaign against sin, sex and subversion devastated radical and Marxists organizations; Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s terror only compounded the crisis.  People who had dedicated their lives to social change and made a difference were assailed by the powers that be and deceived by those who held out hope for a better world.

America’s great post-WW-II recovery lasted about three short decades, from 1945 to 1975. “Since 1973,” the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports, “hourly compensation for the vast majority of American workers has not risen in line with economy-wide productivity.  In fact, hourly compensation has almost stopped rising at all.  Net productivity grew 72.2 percent between 1973 and 2014.”  More revealing, it acknowledged that “… inflation-adjusted hourly compensation of the median worker rose just 8.7 percent, or 0.20 percent annually, over this same period, with essentially all of the growth occurring between 1995 and 2002.”  Income stagnation fermented growing popular resentment over the dominate status-quo that Trump harvested in his electoral victory.

 

In the four decades separating 1973 and 2014, the U.S. has been fundamentally remade in certain key areas of social and political life.  For much of the late-19th and 20th centuries, organized labor was acknowledged as the principle agent of social change.  Most disturbing, between 1983 and 2016 union memberships dropped by nearly half, to 10.7 percent from 20.1 percent of the labor force.  Concomitantly, as organized labor declined in numbers and political influence, grassroots campaigns expanded to include an ever-larger array of issues, whether involved anti-Vietnam War protests, civil-rights fights and the environment as well as the rise of the religious right’s culture wars.

Now, as the Trump presidency gains momentum, has the U.S. entered an era of politics without an agent of social change?  Does the absence of such an agent signify a new era of political and social struggle, one without a single agent, be it a class or party, but a new politics defined by struggles on every social front?  In other words, have we entered an era marked by the emergence of a new notion of the old-fashioned proletariat?

***

For more than a century, the proletariat was understood by radicals of every stripe as the agent of social change, the vanguard of class struggle.  It was at once the most advanced sector of the capitalist system in terms of generating profit as well as the most exploited.  In the wake of the great postwar economic recovery and consumer revolution, the proletariat morphed into the middle class.  Now, a half-century later, the old proletariat as the agent of social change has essentially disappeared from the historical stage.

Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, defines the proletariat as “a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”  He goes on to note, “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”

In Marx’s day, the proletariat was the industrial working class.  Remember, it’s 1850s London and the early factory system is taking over manufacturing and steamship imperialism is expanding global capitalism.  Marx identified the proletariat as those who generated the most surplus value (i.e., profit) and, thus, experienced the greatest degree of exploitation.  They had the most to lose, thus most challenged the owners of the means of production, the capitalist.  No one speaks in these terms anymore; both the traditional bourgeoisie and proletariat have disappeared, superseded by a new capitalist world order marked by the absence of an agent of social change.

During the postwar era the working class of old became the suburban middleclass.  This process has been identified by some as “declassing.”  Two key factors contributed to this process: (i) automation and more capital-intensive technologies that reduced the relative share of labor directly applied to the production process; and (ii) working people can be so easily replace that they no longer identify as workers, with a personal claim to a specific productive function.

This development is especially evident among low-wage — post-manufacturing and post-mining – service workers, many of whom are women, people of color and younger employees (often with large college debt).  They include the growing army of caregivers, retail clerks, food preparers, maids and housekeepers, office and house cleaners, day laborers, office functionaries and personnel at distribution and delivery centers.  In addition, a generation of “gig” workers, including Uber drives, freelance tech laborers and other piece-work hustlers, are reshaping the labor market.  Academics have dubbed this workforce the “precariat,” signifying the precariousness that Marx referred to as the “reserve army” of the working class.

***

Over the last decade-plus, Americans have been growing increasingly unhappy with the political system.  On the right, this unhappiness led the rise of the Tea Party caucus among Congressional Republicans, deepening white disaffection and culminated in Trump’s election.  On the left, the Democrats are split between moderates (Clinton-Obama faction) and the “progressives” (around Sanders).  The split was contained when the party elected the establishment’s Tom Perez as chairman and Rep. Keith Ellison as co-chair.  The floundering Democrats are being challenged by a forceful grassroots movement, still politically inchoate, engaged in significant actions outside the party’s control.

Among Democrats and non-affiliated “leftists,” the real battleground for social change is being playing out at the state level over gubernatorial and Congressional candidates.  A disappointing, if illuminating, example of this struggle is currently taking place in New Jersey over the Democratic nominee for the upcoming gubernatorial contest.  Phil Murphy, the mainstream contender and likely winner, is an ex-Goldman operator and Obama’s ambassador to Germany.  However well-intentioned and “progressive” his policies seem, his contenders accuse him of buying the nomination by buying the endorsement of all NJ-party county chairmen.

The election of Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression (1932) propelled the Democratic Party into the role of the nation’s principle agent of social change.  It used state power to both contain capitalism and provide social welfare.  However, WW-II and the Cold War transformed the party from an agent of social cohesion to a centrist force of accommodation.  Since the Cold War ended, the Democratic establishment facilitated globalization and imposed economic stagnation (as measured by flattening income and deepening inequality) on a growing proportion of the American public.

Today, popular resistance comes from many fronts, inspiring new organizations and movements. Battles against racist cops, campaigns against environmental criminals, shaming of corrupt bank-hucksters and the exposure of the revolving-door government con artists are but a few of the fronts in with the broad left is confronting a capitalist system in crisis.

E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, observed: “The important thing to remember is that class is not a thing; it is a social relationship, which is in constantly in flux, and that the conditions, under which it is produced, are constantly changing.”  He added, “Class-consciousness is not an ideology, a thing, which the proletariat has to learn from its would-be saviors. Class-consciousness is a process.”

In the U.S. today, class and class-consciousness are being transformed.  A new proletariat is in formation, one reaching back to the Luddites at the dawn of capitalism and pointing forward, calling for the end of social injustice and inequality, of the redistribution of political power and economic wealth.  This new proletariat is the emerging agent of social change leaving behind relics of the past, including political parties and the old working class.

 

David Rosen He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

CounterPunch Magazine


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