New Repressions, Same Old Class War

Before the break for the mid-term elections, both Houses of Congress voted to approve a bill, The Military Commissions Act of 2006, heavily pushed for by the Bush administration. Although cloaked in the rhetoric of the “war on terror, in reality this bill will give the executive branch enormous powers, including the ability to suspend the rights of whomever it decides.

It effectively provides the legal elbowroom for the presidential office to ignore several of the basic protections found in the Bill of Rights and in international law, including the Geneva Conventions. For example, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions bars such things as “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”  The Bush administration found this to be too “vague”. 

The new bill gives the President and the Secretary of Defense the ability to indefinitely imprison anyone, whether an alien or a citizen, simply by characterizing the suspect as an “unlawful enemy combatant”. Anyone making a donation to any organization that turns up on the government’s list of suspected “terrorist” organizations could be declared an “unlawful enemy combatant”. This provision has clear political implications as a number of student, anti-war, and left-wing groups, many of which have openly disavowed terrorism, have been added to these lists in the past. This law could be also used against the labor movement, as have many repressive laws in the past. Let us not forget that in 2004 Bush’s Education Secretary called the NEA, the largest teachers union, a “terrorist organization”. 

The bill also strips the writ of habeas corpus from detained aliens who have been declared enemy combatants. This is the right to challenge your imprisonment in court. It is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and is meant as a protection against arbitrary imprisonment by the state.    

Although formally amended to restrict “blatant abuses” of prisoners, the bill would allow the President to decide what methods of interrogation are permissible. It also allows in court confessions and other information gathered regardless of method of extraction: i.e. torture, simulated drowning etc., so long as it took place before Dec 30, 2005. This just happens to be the period of time during which the worst cases of abuse of detainees in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay occurred.  

One would expect such a contentious and far-reaching change in the law to be preceded by a vigorous and wide-ranging debate. But this did not happen; within a week, most U.S. legislators had decided and voted “yea”.  This includes those Republicans and Democrats who voted in favor of the bill while allegedly being in “opposition”, in order to put its constitutionality to the test in the Supreme Court. This opportunistic position was best expressed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter who voted for the bill, after calling it “patently unconstitutional on its face.” citing its denial of the writ of habeas corpus to detainees.    

Of course, the current make up of the Supreme Court puts in doubt whether such a “patently unconstitutional” law will be thrown out. Certainly its two newest members, Judge Alito and Chief Justice Roberts, are both ardent defenders of repressive state power. In June, the Supreme Court struck down Bush’s first proposal for military tribunals. The court ruled that the administration could either use the current method of court-martial, or seek congressional approval of new rules for the prosecuting and interrogation of suspects. This is precisely what has happened; Congress has approved the colossal extension of Bush’s powers. Such is the system of “checks and balances” in the U.S. 

This all forms part of the general preparations being made by the U.S ruling class for a period of crisis, all under the cover of the “war on terror”. As we have explained in previous articles, the U.S. state, the aggregate representative of the capitalist class, is preparing for a coming period of intensified class struggle. The recent legislation is a continuation of this process.    

In many ways, the new law is merely an attempt to legalize what is happening already: indefinite detention, cruel interrogation, suspension of trial, torture, secret prisons etc. The new bill essentially declares the following: if you can’t keep it hidden, make it legal! The bill acts as a retro-active legal cover for what the U.S. military and other government agencies have been up to anyway, and to free any future action from legal restraint.  

The Bill of Rights, a concession then, a take back now  

The drafting of the U.S. Constitution came after a protracted revolutionary war which succeeded in throwing out British imperialism. But far from being the legal representation of the spirit of the American Revolution, which was fought above all by craftsmen, small farmers and merchants, indentured servants and slaves, it represented a compromise between the new ruling masters.  It was drafted in secret, primarily by moneylenders and plantation owners, without the popular input of the vast majority.   

Aside from the Bill of Rights there is nothing particularly “democratic” about the U.S. Constitution. It is a document created by and for the wealthy, in defense of their political and economic interests:  above all, the land, slaves, and the means of production. The Bill of Rights was a concession by those who held the most power, in order to give the illusion of a genuinely popular democracy, a concession ultimately designed to prevent a popular revolt against the new federal government.   

Now the Bill of Rights is a sort of legal thorn in the side of the ruling class, many of whom would prefer to rule openly with an iron fist. But it is a thorn with built-in contradictions, like all reforms and concessions won under capitalism.    

Whenever convenient, the ruling class uses the freedoms written into the Bill of Rights to foment the idea that the U.S. is the world’s “greatest democracy”, that it has the most “freedom”, etc. We are told there is little room for improvement, and that U.S. workers, youth and the poor should “be happy we have it so good”. But millions of Americans really do believe that this is a truly democratic country, and will defend these basic democratic rights if they are threatened.   

The ruling class understands that suspending these rights outright would arouse the resistance of the workers, the youth, the poor and even the lower layers of the middle class. This is why the “war on terror” provides a perfect shell for the “necessary evil” of abridging these rights though a new law aimed at “saving freedom” from a terrorist threat.  Since the Bill of Rights itself remains formally unaltered, they can continue with their rhetoric about “freedom and liberty.”  

The class nature of the state   

We are told that the government serves all members of society equally and impartially. In reality, the state most definitely serves one class in society over another. Lenin explained that the state was born out of a society cleaved into classes: “an organ of class domination, an organ of oppression of one class by another; its aim is the creation of ‘order’ which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the collisions between classes.”    

In periods of relative class peace, the state can usually handle isolated and limited outbreaks of class conflict – a typical strike for example – through the normal legal and juridical channels. However, when class conflict begins to boil over, in the form of mass demonstrations, general strikes, massive organizing drives, insurrections, etc., then the “normal” methods of the state are replaced with the essential methods of the state: violence and repression.   

The new laws, along with the internal shuffle within institutions like the CIA, FBI, and NSA, the passing of the Patriot Act, the ongoing use of wire-tapping, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, as well the militarizing of the U.S. border, are all part of an overall plan of attack. Each of these elements taken out of context may appear simply to be an individual reactionary policy. But when analyzed in relation to each other, and in the context of the general U.S. and world situation, we can see the similarities with previous periods of class upheaval, and the state’s efforts to keep thins under control: the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act 1918, the Red Scare, Taft-Hartley, COINTELPRO, etc. The new law is merely another gem in the crown of legalized methods of oppression.  

The War on Terror: an excuse for attacks on working people  

As Congress was formally legalizing the otherwise criminal actions of the U.S. military and civilian tops, reports surfaced which indicate that high-ranking Bush administration officials were warned by the former CIA director of the imminent threat of a terrorist attack in the months and weeks prior to 9-11. At the same time, 16 U.S. intelligence agency reports argued that the Iraq War has only exacerbated terrorism around the world.  

This information notwithstanding, the Senate voted 100-to-0 in favor of $447.6 billion for the Department of Defense, with $70 billion earmarked for the continuation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pushing total war spending to more than $500 billion. 

In addition to the Military Commissions Act and the appropriations for the Department of Defense, Congress passed a $35 billion dollar “Homeland Security” spending bill. This spending package is clearly aimed not only at those already in custody in Guantanamo Bay or in a secret prison in Eastern Europe.  Its intended target is closer to home. In the bill, $1.2 billion was set aside for the construction of a 700 mile long border along the U.S.-Mexico border. In a blatant attempt to blur the difference between immigrants and terrorists, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the funding would “make substantial progress towards preventing terrorists and others from exploiting our borders”.    

With many Latino workers bringing class conscious struggle with them in their migration north, and a number of unions actively organizing these workers at some of the lowest paying and unsafe job sites, it doesn’t take much to see that this new law could be used to separate and indefinitely detain those who are guilty of refusing to live in poverty and servility for ever. What Bush and Congress fear most isn’t terrorists, but a mobilized and conscious working class!  

For over 5 years, the Bush Administration has cynically used the terrible attacks on the Twin Towers as a blank check for overhauling U.S. law in the name of “combating terror”. But as the government’s own reports show, it has done little to actually stop terrorism.   

The real reason for these sweeping legal changes is clear. Despite Bush’s apparent ineptitude, the most far-sighted capitalists can see that their system is entering into crisis. In an effort to preserve their profits, they have launched an all-out attack on the wages, conditions, and dignity of working people. They know that this will eventually result in a major counter-offensive.  They are also losing their grip on the rest of the world, and are particularly worried about the spread of the Latin American revolution. 

It’s clear that the bosses are preparing for battle.  The working class must prepare as well.  We are the vast majority of society, and once we are organized and mobilized, there is no force on earth that can stop us.  Armed with the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, we can end this system of terrorism and repression once and for all.

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