Unless the Power of the People Asserts Itself

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The COVID-19 pandemic and recession and the political realignment in Washington after the defeat of the malignant fascist Trump and the two former Republican Senators in Georgia have opened the door for some welcome federal action. Among the improvements: the newly serious and aggressive federal response to the deadly virus and the passage of a covid relief bill that promises to significantly reduce poverty and economic insecurity in coming months. With a combination of food assistance, rental, and mortgage aid, expanded tax credits, increased health care subsidies, and more, the measure will cut U.S. poverty by one third and child poverty by half.

Left, center, or right, you have to be a serious shit-head to be opposed to Biden’s $1.9 trillion aid bill, which is backed by 70% of the U.S. populace.

It takes no small cognitive stubbornness these days to retain the timeworn foolish refrain that there’s “no difference” between the two dominant political parties in the U.S. Look at the lockstep partisan breakdown of the Congressional votes on covid relief, accompanied by sickening Republifascist screeching about how elementarily decent government protections raise the specter of “communist tyranny. “

It is far too soon to announce the dawning of a new welfare state and progressive age in America, however. The Democrats’ stimulus package, welcome though it may be, is an emergency measure that offers no fundamental or permanent change to the institutional structure of American government. Where’s the call to smash the exorbitant costs of the U.S. for-profit health care system and make quality health care a human right with Single Payer insurance?

The accelerated vaccine rollout is badly plagued by savage inequalities of race and class as well by the anti-science madness of red state governors and legislators.

With Biden announcing that the U.S. imperial machine will stay set on kill by attacking Syria, the Pentagon System continues to function as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described it in 1967: “a demonic suction tube…draw[ing] men and skills and money” away from the meeting of human needs to feed the military-industrial war machine.

Note three critical, elementarily progressive things that have been unceremoniously kicked to the curb at the dawning of the Biden Revolution:

+ Forgiving more than a tiny share of the giant and outrageous college student debt load that hangs like a bad nightmare over the heads of tens of millions of young and even middle-aged adults, turning them into neo-sharecroppers. Biden could wipe out an ocean of debt peonage with a single executive action but has already betrayed one of his campaign pledges by announcing his unwillingness to forgive more than a pittance.

+ Raising the federal minimum wage to the elementarily decent if still woefully inadequate level of $15 an hour, which translates (assuming full-time work for 50 weeks) to $30,000 a year, less than a quarter of the cost of a basic minimum family budget for two parents and two children in Queens. Biden and the Democrats used the reactionary ruling of the arcane “Senate parliamentarian” to justify not honoring the Fight-4-$15 in the covid relief bill. They could have overruled or fired the “parliamentarian” if they had been serious about $15 an hour.

+ Passing the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The PRO Act would be the most pro-labor legislation enacted by the federal government in 86 years. It would support workers’ rights to strike for better wages and working conditions, strengthen protections for fair union certification elections, and allow the National Labor Relations Board to fine bosses for violating workers’ rights. It would expand the definition of an employee by permitting independent contractors to join unions. It would overturn right- wing “right-to-work” laws by letting union contracts require dues to be paid by all employees represented by collective bargaining agreements.

The PRO Act would re-legalize union organizing and expand the labor movement, whose stunning decline over the last half century is one of the most neglected but important factors behind the deadly rightward drift of American society and politics. (The United States redistributed income downwards and granted much of its working populace a decent standard of living for roughly two decades after World War II thanks in part to the New Deal’s legal authorization and empowerment of union organizing and collective bargaining, reversed by decades of top-down union-busting since the 1970s.)

The PRO Act was recently passed by the House on an almost 100 percent party-line basis (more evidence against the “no difference” myth) but is currently dead in the water in the Senate thanks to opposition from Republicans, the business class (the US Chamber of Commerce says the PRO Act would “destabilize America’s workplaces and impose a long list of dangerous changes to labor law”), and at least two reptilian corporate Democrats — Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Krysten Sinema (Arizona).

If Biden were serious about his pledge to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” he’d use his bully pulpit to put the squeeze on Manchin and Sinema, call workers into the streets and public squares, and demand the Democratic Senate abolish its reactionary filibuster rule.

A real deal progressive president would call for a constitutional amendment to end the absurd over-representation of the nation’s most reactionary, rural, and white states in the U.S. Senate (liberal, urbanized, and multicultural California and right wing white and rural Wyoming both have two representatives even though the former state is home to nearly 40 million and the latter one houses just over half a million). At the very least, such a president would move to overcome the Republifascists’ absurd over-representation by advancing statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico. He’d also act to expand the Supreme Court, home to a right-wing super-majority absurdly far to the starboard side of the citizenry. Then he or she and their allies would initiate challenges to the Buckley-Valeo (1976) and Citizen’s United decisions, which combine to grant practically unlimited campaign finance power over U.S. politics to the wealthy Few.

But don’t leave it up to Joe Biden, who promised elite Manhattan donors in 2019 that “nothing would fundamentally” change in the distribution of wealth and power when he became president. Demonstrating, marching, monkey-wrenching, bottlenecking, organizing, street-preaching, teaching-in, pot- and pan-banging, striking, and demanding in the streets, workplaces, public squares, fields, parks, mills, mines, offices, schools, town halls, and factories is the only way to win elementarily decent things like student debt abolition, a humane minimum wage, the right to organize effective unions, seriously progressive taxation, Single Payer, and then, beyond that, a Green-Red New Deal, the tear-down of the permanent war machine, and workers’ control.

Let us never forget the sage wisdom of Howard Zinn, who wrote the following in a 2008 essay titled “Election Madness”:

“Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death…I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice… Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.”

I’d go beyond Zinn. We need to do more than “shake whoever is in the White House.” We need to undertake what Dr. King called “the real issue to be faced” – “the radical reconstruction of society” beyond capitalism and its evil twin imperialism. And we are running out of time for “patient” movement-building in a time of capitalogenic ecocide.

But that aside, please appreciate Zinn’s basic point: hoping for your masters to give you nice things after voting for one of their candidates won’t get the goods. It’s about more who than is sitting in the White House. It’s about who’s sitting in the streets.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).