This document was discussed, voted on, and passed by the 2017 National Congress of the US Section of the IMT.
We live in an epoch of instability, austerity, war, crisis, revolution, and counterrevolution. Sharp and sudden changes that erupt seemingly out of nowhere are implicit in the situation. Capitalism is at an impasse on a world scale and can no longer meaningfully develop the means of production or improve the quality of life of the majority. The crisis is expressed in every country and at every level of society, with intense polarization to both the left and the right.
The decay and overwrought contradictions are evident everywhere. They are the death agonies of a system that can no longer take humanity forward and is already beginning to drag us backward. Capitalism can only be replaced by socialism through the conscious and united action of the world working class. But due to a crisis of leadership, many opportunities to bring about the socialist transformation of society have been missed. As a result, capitalism has continued to exist well beyond its “natural expiration date,” in the sense that it no longer has a historically progressive role or justification to continue. To paraphrase Marx, the old society is pregnant with the new—but the birth is long past due. Aspects of humanity’s potential under socialism, which can only be fully actualized after capitalism is ended, are increasingly present today, but in an uneven and distorted form.
The objective potential for socialism has never been greater, but the necessary ingredient—the subjective factor in the form of a revolutionary party—is still too weak. Far from being immune to this process, the United States is at the very heart of it. Once capitalism’s most important source of stability, the US is now the most destabilizing factor in world economic, political, and diplomatic relations. In these conditions, the US Marxists have a crucial role to play in ensuring the success of the world socialist revolution.
The purpose of perspectives is not to “predict the future” for the sake of it, but to outline in broad strokes the most likely political and economic developments and effects this has on the consciousness of the workers. Our aim is to prepare our forces to orient correctly and build efficiently as conditions around us evolve.
Capitalism is a chaotic, nonlinear system—even more so with Donald Trump at the helm of its most important economy. Events are moving quickly, changing from one day to the next, and we do not pretend to have a crystal ball. However, armed with the Marxist method, a knowledge of history, and by combing through facts both hard and anecdotal, we can anticipate the main processes. Through a series of successive approximations, we will keep our finger on the pulse, analyze and correct our mistakes, and continually refine our understanding.
The Obama administration has come and gone, and with the remarkable exceptions of Wisconsin, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter, these were quiet years for the class struggle—despite the aftermath of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. The ruling class temporarily managed to stabilize their system and postpone the worst effects of the crisis. But discontent and dissatisfaction simmered beneath the surface and the consciousness of the workers did not emerge from the Obama presidency unaffected. After nearly a decade of crisis and steadily declining quality of life, millions of Americans have lost faith in the system’s parties, politicians, and institutions. According to CBS News, “The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer finds a decline in trust in four major sectors including media, NGOs, business, and government. The new report calls 2017 the year of ‘Trust in Crisis’ where the mass of the population believes that systems are failing and becoming less credible.”
We are all familiar with the eventual result. As one commentator proclaimed, Trump’s election “breaks political science as we know it.” Many more things will break under the weight of the capitalist crisis. Unfolding before our eyes is not merely a political crisis, but a crisis of the regime of American capitalism.
In the final analysis, political parties reflect the interests of a particular class or layer of a class. As the underlying economic basis for capitalist rule enters into crisis, so too do the ideological and political tools of the ruling class, although this is not a straightforward process. The current two-party system, the bedrock of capitalist rule since the Civil War, is fragile and vulnerable. The Democratic and Republican parties, both of which represent the interests of the ruling class, were able to prolong their dominance on the basis of the postwar boom, social inertia, and the rotten role of the labor leaders, who have refused to break with these parties and offer a class-independent alternative. But the hold of these parties and leaders is diminished with every election. In the absence of a viable mass working class alternative, Trump and Sanders gave expression to the pent-up discontent, further amplifying the fissures in the existing political set up.
Trump’s election represented a confused and contradictory electoral revolt against the establishment. He preyed on the prejudices and insecurities of a layer of society who saw him as the only “anti-establishment” option left on the ballot after the primaries and caucuses. The abstention of nearly seven million former Democrats, combined with roughly 80,000 voters in three rust belt states, tipped the balance. This is a clear result of so-called lesser evilism, of fomenting illusions in the Democratic Party, which was unable to defeat Trump even though his own party was against him. As one Trump voter expressed it, “Nobody has been able to fix my problem… Trump tells me he can.” But he won’t be able to. He is the richest president in history and has assembled the wealthiest, most blatantly anti-working class cabinet in living memory.
Bernie Sanders was the one candidate who truly generated enthusiasm across the country. Many eventual Trump supporters respected him and would have voted for him. Had he run as an independent in a three-way race, he very well could have won. Now he aims to spearhead the opposition to Trump on behalf of the Democrats. We can have no illusions in this, nor can we forget that his “lesser evil” endorsement of Clinton helped pave the way for Trump’s victory in the first place. Nonetheless, the most significant development of 2016 from our perspective was the mass movement around a self-identified socialist calling for a “political revolution against the billionaire class.” Sanders’s modest program was reformist at best and in and of itself posed no threat to capitalism. But he awakened deep-seated aspirations and sparked a national debate about these ideas in the land of the Cold War and Joseph McCarthy. Millions of Americans now consider themselves socialists and believe a revolution of some kind is necessary. We cannot underestimate the importance of this change in consciousness.
Bernie’s capitulation to the DNC was a harsh but necessary lesson in the role of reformism and reformist leaders. However, because no alternative yet exists, many will continue to look to Sanders and the Democrats. Despite the party’s attempt to posture to the left, many people—and the youth in particular— have already graduated from the “School of the Democrats” and are looking for more advanced political ideas. From the perspective of connecting with those interested in socialism and revolution, a Sanders victory would have introduced considerable complications. With his reformist policies and without an independent mass party, movement, and major unions behind him, the coming relapse into economic crisis would be blamed on “socialism.” Given his defeat, however, in their search for a political expression, the most advanced layers will inevitably gather around new leaders who—running to the left of the Democratic party machine—may find themselves elected to office.
The 2016 election can be summed up as follows: Americans wanted change, and Obama failed to deliver it. Sanders capitulated and refused to fight for it. Now change has come—but it will not be the kind of change most Trump supporters had in mind. As they say in Latin, caveat emptor—let the buyer beware.
After World War II, and especially after the collapse of Stalinism, the US was the world’s unquestioned superpower: an unprecedented economic, military, and imperialist powerhouse. In 1945, with much of the world in shambles, the US accounted for 50% of global GDP. Now it stands at around 20%. This is still higher than its 4.4% share of the world’s population but represents a dramatic fall from the overwhelming supremacy of the past.
This economic decline has necessarily affected US imperialism’s ability to underwrite its global domination. As a result, the geopolitical balance of power has been upended. While British imperialism reigned during the rise of capitalism, US imperialism is the world’s policeman in an epoch of decay and decline. While it is undoubtedly the number one imperialist power in the world, it is no longer number one in every region of the world. This can be seen in its humiliations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria and the encroachment of various regional imperialist powers in its former spheres of unquestioned dominance. To this we must add that fifteen years of war and overstretch have drained the treasury and public willingness to support such adventures.
In the postwar epoch, capitalism temporarily and partially overcame the “natural” limits of the nation-state and the market through the process of globalization and the formation of free trade blocs. However, as capitalism is structurally comprised of competing interests, this has inherent limits, and the process has now been thrown into reverse. The rise of so-called “economic nationalism” is a utopian, ahistorical desire to return to the early days of capitalism, when protectionism played a historically progressive role in the system’s development. During the initial rise of the system, trade barriers allowed weaker countries to develop their native industries without being overwhelmed by their more advanced competitors. The essence of capitalist globalization and free trade was to open the world market—by force when necessary—to the most powerful economies.
Foreign policy is the continuation of domestic policy, and wars—including trade and currency wars—are the continuation of politics by other means. Trump’s “America First” outlook means that everyone else must come dead last. He seeks to revive past American “greatness” by exporting crisis and unemployment to the US’s rivals. The capitalists must jumpstart the stagnant economy to maintain profit levels and stave off social unrest. However, the US economy cannot simply decouple from the rest of the world or strike economic blows at its rivals without retaliation or consequences. There is no such thing as “capitalism in one country.” Even the US cannot defy the laws of capitalist gravity; it too is constrained by the parameters of a system in terminal crisis.
After decades of benefitting more than any other from globalization, the world’s largest economy, biggest importer, and second-highest exporter complains of “loss of sovereignty” and seeks to turn inward and raise trade barriers. The country of immigration par excellence is moving to close its borders and deport millions. However, this runs counter to the interests of large sections of the capitalist class, who are deeply intertwined with the world market and whose profits depend on the exploitation of cheap foreign and immigrant labor.
No longer able to rely on economic carrots or military sticks to call other powers to heel, Trump’s swaggering bravado is a sign of weakness, not of strength, and threatens to unravel the postwar order painstakingly put in place by generations of his predecessors. Trump’s foreign policy is the refracted expression of the insecurity and desperation of a power whose hegemony over the world is finished, while the pressure of class struggle at home rises.
The capitalists of the entire world are terrified of what Trump represents and what he will do. In a system balanced on the edge of chaos, even the smallest push in one direction or another can unleash an avalanche. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, IMF chief Christine Lagarde told the World Economic Forum (WEF) that she fears global economic instability due to his protectionist policies. The WEF’s latest Global Risks Report contains the following fearful assessment: “Some people question whether the West has reached a tipping point and might now embark on a period of deglobalization.”
The objective causes of this downward spiral are rooted in the crisis of the system. However, the subjective actions of individuals have a reciprocal effect on the overall process, and this, in turn, feeds back into the consciousness of all classes and individuals. Trump is both a factor and an expression of capitalist instability. The difference between the Trump wing and most of the rest of the US ruling class is that the latter hoped to pull off a graceful and orderly retreat from the world stage. Their aim was to maintain the illusion of the US’s overwhelming predominance, although the material basis for it no longer exists. Trump’s solution is to turn the US into a gated community. To the horror of the more far-sighted capitalists, Trump is steering the Titanic away from an iceberg and into a glacier. Former Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, has called Trump’s trade policy proposals “wildly irresponsible” and “potentially very dangerous”—to capitalism. The fragility of the world economy is evident when a single tweet or press conference can lead to wild gyrations on the stock market.
The old rules no longer apply. Like capitalism as a whole, US foreign policy, traditionally backed up by virtually untrammeled naked force, is in uncharted waters. US imperialism would like to throw its weight around to bully opponents into submission, but its bulk is not the same as in the past. To rectify this, Trump proposes “historic” increases in military spending, though not by enough to satisfy the rest of the Republicans, who want to use their current momentum to gut so-called entitlement programs. With an enormous debt, social programs already cut to the bone, legislative caps on spending, and a parallel policy of further tax cuts for the wealthy, the only solution is more austerity, which runs counter to the expectations he has raised among his supporters. Anything he does to strengthen and stabilize US power internationally will only lead to greater instability at home—and vice versa.
While most world leaders reeled in disbelief, Trump was congratulated on election night by Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin. His first international visitor was former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage. This was followed by the infamous call with the president of Taiwan, as well as calls with the leaders of Pakistan and Kazakhstan, whom he praised heavily.
In Trump’s foreign policy cabinet we can see the broad outlines of his intended approach, although, as is characteristic of his entire administration and the Republicans as a whole, there is no unified strategy. As Secretary of State, he has installed former ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, an erstwhile acquaintance of Vladimir Putin’s, with global corporate experience on a grand scale. As Secretary of Defense, retired US Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, described by colleagues as “a tough-minded realist, someone who’d rather have tea with you than shoot you, but is happy to end the conversation either way.”
As UN Ambassador, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who has no foreign policy experience, and informed the UN on her first day that, “for those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names.” As head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, a Bible-thumping Christian fundamentalist from Kansas who believes the US must spearhead a crusade against Islam. As his second National Security Adviser in as many months, Trump tapped Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, a historian of the Vietnam War and counterinsurgency strategist with combat experience in Iraq.
For a variety of reasons, Trump has surrounded himself with generals, including John R. Kelly for Homeland Security, as well as Mattis and McMaster. The powerful Pentagon bureaucracy, along with the private corporations connected to it, will use these positions to put tremendous pressure on Trump, pushing him to adhere to the core foreign policy objectives of US imperialism. Their early success in this direction can be seen in Trump’s changing position on NATO.
In no time, cracks have begun to appear at all levels of the state apparatus. Trump’s first National Security Adviser, retired Army General Mike Flynn, was forced to resign within a month for lying about the extent of his ties with the Kremlin at a time when the Russians have been accused of meddling in the US elections and are surely emboldened by the chaos in Washington. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, top advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and others are embroiled in controversy over their close connections to the Russian state. There are indications that US intelligence functionaries at every level are so doubtful of the competence and even loyalty of the Trump administration that they have withheld intelligence from the White House.
However, with the Cold War over and Putin wholly embracing capitalism, a strategic alliance with Russia makes sense for US imperialism in its weakened state. A gangsters’ agreement to divvy up influence over Russia’s periphery and the Middle East would free the US to focus its attention on the rising threat in the Pacific. Though it spends less than half as much as a percentage of GDP, the US spends nearly ten times more than Russia on the military. Nonetheless, Russia’s power rating on Credit Suisse’s Military Strength Index is .80, second only to the US’s .94. This makes Russia an attractive potential partner whose regional aspirations are not nearly as menacing as China’s. Of course, this means abandoning Ukraine, Poland, the Caucasus, Balkans, and Baltics to Putin—but that’s just how it goes with pawns in the imperialists’ “Great Game.”
Europe is in turmoil as Brexit, a decade of crisis, and the rise of right-wing populism across the continent threaten to tear apart the EU. Although NATO remains, its purpose is no longer as immediately apparent now that the Warsaw Pact has been dissolved, leading Trump to call it “obsolete.” The handful of US troops stationed in countries bordering Russia is merely symbolic, and not very powerful symbolism at that. Trump’s protectionism and shift towards accommodation with Putin would leave not only Russia’s neighbors but the whole of Europe hanging.
Theresa May is desperate to ensure Britain is “second” to America’s “first,” but that is far from assured. Some hope Germany’s Merkel can become the new “leader of the free world,” but her reelection is not at all guaranteed. Confidence in US commitment to Europe’s security—a pillar of the postwar world order—is so shaken that the Germans are openly debating the pros and cons of nuclear armament.
After fifteen years of imperialist occupation and slaughter, the Middle East is in shambles. In true mafioso fashion, Trump insists that regional players such as Saudi Arabia need to pay more protection money for services rendered. He also had the delicacy to suggest openly that the US should have kept Iraq’s oil.
Over the last decade, US energy production has been ramped up, part of a strategic plan to disengage from the region in order to focus on East Asia. Various regional imperialist aspirants, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, Israel to Qatar, have moved aggressively to fill the vacuum of the retreating US, unleashing one bloody disaster after another. ISIS and other reactionary fundamentalist have also taken advantage of the chaos and the ebb in the Arab Revolution.
After denouncing the nuclear deal with Iran during his campaign, Trump seems to be reconsidering. Like Russia, Iran is a suitable regional partner for retrenching US imperialism and has gone from “Axis of Evil” to “necessary evil.” No longer able to control the entire playground alone, the chief bully must lean on smaller bullies to keep the peace, even if this means relinquishing some of his power. With the so-called “War on Radical Islam” the chief focus of US intelligence agencies and the military, it is no accident that Trump has surrounded himself with advisers from the Marines and specialists in asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency.
Last but not least in the Middle East, Trump claims he would like to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but doesn’t seem to be clear on the difference between a one-state and a two-state solution, upending decades of US imperialist diplomacy in a single offhand comment. As always, it is the oppressed nations and peoples like the Kurds and Palestinians who are trampled underfoot.
The greatest strategic threat to US imperialist interests is the ascendance of Chinese imperialism. An economic behemoth with a vast population, high-tech manufacturing base, and increasingly powerful military, it is positioned at the heart of East Asia and energetically asserting its right to regional dominance. Bogged down by the economic crisis and the quagmire of the Middle East, the US imperialists have been unable to effectively implement a “pivot to Asia.”
Trump’s insistence on cutting the US out of free trade blocs—in favor of bilateral deals—has struck a blow to this rebalancing of priorities. On his first day in office, he decreed that the US would not approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, viewed the TPP as crucial to the US’s geopolitical security—worth as much as an additional aircraft carrier in the Pacific.
Talk of war with China, either as a near or long-term perspective has been bubbling for some time. Regular military exercises in the South China Sea and rival claims to islands and fishing grounds are indications of rising tensions. While proxy wars worldwide and even small-scale clashes in the Pacific cannot be ruled out, an all-out war between the US and China is not an immediate prospect. US imperialism remains the world’s mightiest military force, and even in defeat, it could inflict serious damage on any rival.
Furthermore, the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides means that even a small escalation of open hostilities could quickly spiral out of control, which both sides would seek to avoid at all costs. The Chinese and US economies are also deeply intertwined and would almost certainly collapse if ties were abruptly cut. Most importantly, the class balance of forces in both countries is such that an existential foreign adventure would not be tolerated for long, if at all, and internal class struggle is a far greater long-term threat to their respective ruling classes than inter-imperialist war. There is a reason China spends more on internal security than national defense.
Trump appeared to be using Taiwan as a risky bargaining chip but has now acknowledged that the US continues to recognize Beijing’s “One China” principle, which declares that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China’s territory. The question of North Korea is thorny for both the US and China, not to mention South Korea and Japan, but even there, the prospect of open war with Kim Jong-un is remote in the near-term. US imperialism’s weakness is on display here as well, as it must lean on its regional rival, China, to try to contain the North Korean regime.
The conflict with China, therefore, takes the form of proxy struggles, diplomatic and economic jockeying for position. With doubts growing as to the effectiveness of US imperialism’s military and economic umbrella, China is actively wooing core US allies such as the Philippines and even South Korea and Australia. It is also aggressively expanding its reach into South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even if open conflict is avoided indefinitely, a trade war would not be without consequences. As Stratfor explained, “For every action it takes against China, the United States risks an equal and opposite reaction.”
Trump appears to have settled on long-term ally and economic partner Japan as the key regional player to lean on. Directly threatened by China’s rise, the Japanese imperialists also have their own regional ambitions. Trump’s insistence that Japan pay more for US protection is a convenient excuse for the Japanese government to justify their accelerating rearmament program.
Moreover, the crisis of capitalism and the social ferment in countries hitherto completely subservient to US imperialism is intensifying, further disrupting its strategies and perspectives. Duterte’s rise in the Philippines, and the rapid toppling of Park Geun-hye’s government in South Korea are examples of this process. This further diminishes US imperialism’s ability to impose its will as it had in the past. The “blind spots” in its field of vision are widening. This will lead to sharpening disagreements over strategy within the US ruling class.
In the Americas, Trump has hit the ground running with scapegoating, insults, and intimidation across US imperialism’s traditional “backyard.” He has pledged to renegotiate NAFTA and proposed massive tariffs on imports to “make Mexico pay” for a 2,000-mile wall estimated to cost over $20 billion. Trump reportedly made a humiliating call to Mexican President Peña Nieto, threatening to send the US military to go after the “bad hombres.” Whether he had in mind a Plan Colombia-style paramilitary collaboration or an actual invasion wasn’t clear. Aside from alienating one of the US’s most important trade and security partners such actions threaten to snuff the life out of Mexico’s tepid economic recovery, which itself was only made possible by savage attacks on the workers and poor.
It is said that when the US economy gets a cold, Mexico gets pneumonia; Trump seems determined to give Mexico lung cancer. He has tightened immigration policy and ramped up ICE’s regime of terror and deportations against immigrant workers and their families. Looking for work in the US has long been a safety valve for the pressure cooker of Mexican society. If remittances from the US fall and a job north of the border is no longer an option, the arrival of the next incarnation of the Mexican Revolution will only be accelerated. Like fires, wildlife, and people, revolutions do not respect borders and cannot be stopped by walls.
An open invasion of Venezuela is ruled out at present, but Trump will without a doubt continue efforts to destabilize the country through behind-the-scenes economic and political intervention. It also remains to be seen what he will do in relation to Cuba: continue Obama’s policy of opening relations—with a view to flooding the island with capitalism—or revert to the hard-line policy of strangling the revolution through a renewed tightening of the embargo.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, virtually the entire planet has been pried open to the tender mercies of capitalism. The handful of unexploited markets that are are too complicated or risky to claim outright. Although inter-imperialist tensions will intensify, open war is not in the cards. The only option for the US ruling class is to intensify the class war against US workers.
The litmus test for any socioeconomic system’s historical right to exist is whether or not it can develop the productive forces and continually raise humanity’s quality of life. Capitalism is a world system and must be judged globally, not in isolation. The worldwide revival of isolationism, protectionism, and xenophobia is a tacit admission that the system is at an impasse and can no longer take humanity forward. Private ownership of the means of production and the nation state represented steps forward as compared to feudalism, but are now fetters on further development. Only socialism, by abolishing the nation state and the market economy, can establish the free flow of goods and people on the basis of human need and solidarity.
The world is full of flammable material and Trump, who is particularly out of his depth when it comes to foreign policy, is like a pyromaniac with a book of matches. But the epoch of world capitalism means world crisis and world revolution. Just one successful socialist revolution anywhere on the planet would tip the balance in favor of the working class and change the course of history forever.
The “Great Recession” that began in December 2007 was deeper by many measures than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Over the course of the crisis, nearly nine million people lost their jobs, as many as 10 million families lost their homes, and world stock markets fell by 50%. The recovery technically began in June 2009, but most workers feel to this day that things have not improved—and they are right. Economic growth during the Obama years was lukewarm at best, averaging just 2.1% per year, compared to an average of 4% during the postwar boom.
But these overall averages hide the reality. While the top 20% of the American population benefitted from 5% income growth, the bottom 80% saw an average of 0%. Even this breakdown obscures the fact that the top 1% took in 95% of total income growth. The rich are richer than ever, the so-called “middle class” has been squeezed almost to extinction, and the working poor and unemployed have fallen into an abyss. Those who do have jobs must work harder than ever in return for less.
New York Times columnist David Brooks grimly explains the crisis faced by the system: “Slow growth strains everything else—meaning less opportunity, less optimism and more of the sort of zero-sum, grab-what-you-can thinking that Donald Trump specializes in. The slowdown has devastated American workers. Between 1985 and 2000, the total hours of paid work in America rose by 35%. Over the next 15 years, they increased by only 4%. For every one American man aged 25 to 55 looking for work, there are three who have dropped out of the labor force. If Americans were working at the same rates they were when this century started, over 10 million more people would have jobs. As [Nicholas] Eberstadt puts it, ‘The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.’”
What American workers and youth are most concerned about is simple: jobs. If the system could create millions of quality jobs, most people would be resigned to capitalism indefinitely. But it can’t deliver, even in the richest country on earth. According to Gallup, only 44% of US adults have what it classifies as a “good job”—one that offers 30+ hours per week and a regular paycheck.
Trump has promised to create 25 million jobs while growing the economy by 3.5% to 4% per year over the next decade. As he told Fox News: “I think the money is going to come from a revved-up economy. I mean, you look at the kind of numbers we’re doing—we were probably GDP of a little more than 1%, and if I can get that up to 3 or maybe more, we have a whole different ballgame.” While these levels of growth were possible for roughly three decades during the unique convergence of the postwar boom, in the epoch of capitalism’s senile decay, these rosy projections are pure fantasy, intended to justify tax cuts for the rich, a rising budget deficit, and increased military spending.
The official U3 unemployment rate is currently at 4.8%, a full percentage point lower than the 1948 to 2016 average. While this grossly understates the true state of un- and underemployment—the U6 rate is currently 9.4%—it means there is little scope for a big increase in jobs. ** This is about as good as it gets under capitalism. Private ownership of the means of production has reached its historic limits, expressed by the fact that the system is unable to create jobs and is incapable of coping rationally with the productive forces it has developed.
With 80% of the US economy based on services, there are big illusions that Trump will bring back high-paying jobs in energy, mining, and manufacturing. Unfortunately for him, he cannot simply snap his fingers and bring back the concatenation of factors that briefly made the “American Dream” a partial reality.
After World War II, fully one-third of US workers were employed in manufacturing. By 2015, it was only 8.7%. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of manufacturing jobs fell from 17.3 million to 12.3 million. Nonetheless, due to technological advances and increases in labor productivity, more things are “Made in the USA” than ever before. Total manufacturing output has doubled since 1984 and production of durable goods has tripled since 1980.
Trump blames free trade agreements and offshoring to China and elsewhere for America’s economic woes. However, only 13% of manufacturing job losses over the last few decades were the result of trade, while the rest were lost due to improved productivity and automation. Between 1962 and 2005, the steel industry shed 400,000 jobs—75% of the total. And yet, steel production did not decline over that period. One miner today produces as much as ten miners in 1945. One textile worker produces as much as a thousand workers a few decades ago. An article by the New York Times on technology and the oil industry underscores these changes:
“Oil and gas workers have traditionally had some of the highest-paying blue-collar jobs—just the type that President Trump has vowed to preserve and bring back. But the West Texas oil fields, where activity is gearing back up as prices rebound, illustrate how difficult it will be to meet that goal. As in other industries, automation is creating a new demand for high-tech workers—sometimes hundreds of miles away in a control center—but their numbers don’t offset the ranks of discharged field hands no longer required to sling chains and lift iron.
“Roughly 163,000 oil jobs were lost nationally from the 2014 peak, or about 30% of the total, while oil prices plummeted, at one point by as much as 70%. The job losses just in Texas, the most productive oil-producing state, totaled 98,000… Several thousand workers have come back to work in recent months as the price of oil has begun to rise again, but energy experts say that between a third and a half of the workers who lost their jobs are not returning . . . ‘People have left the industry, and they are not coming back,’ said Michael Dynan, vice president for portfolio and strategic development at Schramm, a Pennsylvania manufacturer of drilling rigs. ‘If it’s a repetitive task, it can be automated, and I don’t need someone to do that. I can get a computer to do that.’
“Indeed, computers now direct drill bits that were once directed manually. The wireless technology taking hold across the oil patch allows a handful of geoscientists and engineers to monitor the drilling and completion of multiple wells at a time—onshore or miles out to sea—and supervise immediate fixes when something goes wrong, all without leaving their desks. It is a world where rigs walk on their own legs and sensors on wells alert headquarters to a leak or loss of pressure, reducing the need for a technician to check. And despite all the lost workers, United States oil production is galloping upward, to nine million barrels a day from 8.6 million in September. Nationwide, with a bit more than one-third as many rigs operating as in 2014, production is not even down 10 percent from record levels.”
Ultimately, capitalist profit comes from the surplus value extracted from the working class. This profit can be expanded only in two ways: by increasing the workforce and exploiting more workers, or by increasing productivity and squeezing more out of existing workers. However, the growth of the workforce is slowing as birth rates decline and the baby boomer generation retires, while Trump’s war on immigrants will limit another key source of primarily low-wage workers while doing nothing to bring back industrial jobs.
In a development that has the serious bourgeois deeply worried, productivity increases also appear to have plateaued. From 1948 to 1973, during the “Golden Age” of US capitalism, labor productivity rose an average of 3.3% per year, while capital investment increased by 3.9%. Between 2008 and 2016, these average annual figures were more than halved, at just 1.3% and 1.7% respectively.
According to the Financial Times, “Output per worker grew last year at its slowest rate since the millennium . . . Economists are increasingly identifying the problem of low global productivity as one of the greatest threats to improved living standards, in rich and poor countries alike. The fact that companies have become less efficient at converting labor, buildings, and machines into goods and services is beginning to trouble policymakers around the world. Janet Yellen cited weak US productivity as a cause of ‘the tepid pace of wage gains in recent years’ . . . Raising productivity is seen as one of the only ways to improve living standards, at a time when advanced and some emerging economies are seeing aging populations and a rapidly increasing retirement rate. Without stronger productivity growth, the world may have to get used to much lower rates of economic expansion.
“In a report due to be published next month, the Conference Board said the slowdown in productivity growth is only partly the result of a hangover from the 2008-09 economic crisis and reflects more deep-seated global economic problems. With the global supply of workers reaching a peak, the trend must be reversed for people to enjoy rising prosperity in the years ahead, creating a ‘huge challenge’ for companies . . . Emerging markets are reaching the limits of easy growth based on catch-up technology while advanced economies are concentrating on services, which tend to have less scope for rapid efficiency gains. New technology has centered on consumer products, which have made people better off and able to do more than in the past, but have not necessarily improved the quantity or efficiency of their work . . . There is little evidence the slowdown stems from lazy or inefficient employees.”
An article in The Guardian expressed the contradiction as follows: “The only way in which the expanding credit mountain can be an accurate signal about the future is if we are about to go through a spectacular productivity boom. The technology is there to do that, but the social arrangements are not.”
Labor force participation is currently less than 63%, which means that 37% of working-age Americans are not employed or actively looking for work, a colossal waste of human potential. Capacity utilization hovers around 75%, indicating that the capitalists could produce 33% more goods and services without investing another penny. But they will not hire workers to run that idle capacity unless they can sell the commodities produced for a profit—and the market is already saturated. This is why Trump’s planned tax cuts for the rich will not have a stimulative, “trickle down” effect, and explains why millions of quality jobs are not coming back.
The capitalists prefer instead to sit on trillions in cash or to speculate on the stock, art, and currency markets. Between 2003 and 2012, the 449 companies that were publicly listed on the S&P 500 during that period used 54% of their earnings—$2.4 trillion—to buy back their own stock to drive up the value of their compensation portfolios. This is parasitism taken to an extreme level.
Capitalism is not a rationally planned system and is unable to surmount its inherent contradictions. The workers cannot buy back all the commodities that enter the market because they are paid less in wages than the values they create during the labor process. As Marx explained, this leads to periodic crises of overproduction. Booms and slumps are built into the system’s DNA.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, between 1854 and 2009, there were 33 “business cycles” averaging 38.7 months in expansion and 17.5 months in contraction, with each full cycle averaging 56 months. Between 1945 and 2009, the average boom lasted 58 months, with slumps lasting an average of 11 months. The longest expansion in US history was from March 1991 to March 2001. If the present “joyless recovery” lasts until July 2019, it would be the longest on record. Even if it surpasses the record, statistically speaking, another US economic downturn is on the horizon and will almost certainly hit during Trump’s administration.
The stock market—with the Dow Jones Industrial Average breaking through 21,000—bears no relation to the real economy and is merely preparing an even bigger burst of the bubble. As the New York Times put it, “The stock market reached yet another new high on Wednesday, the latest development to make a mockery of what savvy economic commentators thought they knew about the world.”
While there is no way to predict the timing or depth of a crisis in advance, there are many indications that the cycle is reaching its end. At the end of 2016, the industrial sector, especially capital investments, was technically in the midst of a recession. The auto industry saw record high inventory levels, a sales plateau, and a fall in used car prices. In high-end real estate markets such as New York City, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco, prices fell precipitously and foreclosures rose. Retail sales trends were close to recession-level. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, profits have fallen for five straight quarters, the longest decline since 2009. Only once since 1945 has a five-quarter fall in earnings not coincided with the beginning of a recession.
Behind the crude nationalist slogan “Make America Great Again” lies the desire to go back to the idealized and unrepeatable conditions enjoyed by a sizable but limited layer of the population during the postwar boom. For roughly thirty years, millions of Americans could count on relatively full employment and a steadily improving quality of life. A dignified retirement, affordable housing, education, health care, and a world safe from terrorism and uncertainty were the norm. Try as he may, Trump will be unable to deliver, because he cannot square the circle of capitalism.
He may have grand plans but he can’t simply will things into being. In spite of his symbolic “saving” of a few hundred jobs at Carrier, he cannot force the capitalists to invest or create jobs. Capitalists are not “job creators”—they are profit makers. Workers are mere “factors of production,” and jobs are a byproduct of their never-ending quest to satisfy their shareholders. As Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in an interview on March 7, “If we don’t employ robots, the Chinese will, the Vietnamese will, the Europeans will, the Japanese will. Anything that handicaps American business is not good.”
Trump’s protectionism, loosening of regulations on the financial and energy sectors, and a possible program of public works in some form may lead to the creation of a few million mostly low-wage, non-union jobs. But even under the most favorable circumstances, a “Trump Bump” cannot last indefinitely and will not bring back the millions of quality union jobs decimated over the last forty years. A strong dollar will act as a headwind for US exports. The potential for quickly rising inflation due to Trump’s policies has the more farsighted hedge fund investors worried. Eventually, there will be a “Trump Slump”—and he will be directly blamed.
Even before the next crisis, the system’s most ardent defenders fear a backlash against rising inequality. Billionaire investor George Soros was deeply pessimistic in an interview with Newsweek in 2012, well into the current economic expansion: “The situation is about as serious and difficult as I’ve experienced in my career. We are facing an extremely difficult time, comparable in many ways to the 1930s, the Great Depression. We are facing now a general retrenchment in the developed world, which threatens to put us in a decade of more stagnation, or worse. The best-case scenario is a deflationary environment. The worst-case scenario is a collapse of the financial system . . .
“The collapse of the Soviet system was a pretty extraordinary event, and we are currently experiencing something similar in the developed world, without fully realizing what’s happening . . . [Massive social unrest in the US] will be an excuse for cracking down and using strong-arm tactics to maintain law and order, which, carried to an extreme, could bring about a repressive political system, a society where individual liberty is much more constrained, which would be a break with the tradition of the United States.”
The World Economic Forum is also apprehensive: “It is no coincidence that challenges to social cohesion and policymakers’ legitimacy are coinciding with a highly disruptive phase of technological change… This points to the need for reviving economic growth, but the growing mood of anti-establishment populism suggests we may have passed the stage where this alone would remedy fractures in society: reforming market capitalism must also be added to the agenda … The combination of economic inequality and political polarization threatens to amplify global risks, fraying the social solidarity on which the legitimacy of our economic and political systems rests.” In other words, even substantial economic growth will not be enough to cut across “fraying social solidarity”—code for “intensifying conflict between the classes.”
During his campaign, Trump blamed the Washington “swamp” for globalization, offshoring, and social decomposition. But it is not the politicians or lobbyists who call the real shots in society, it is the capitalist class. The Fortune 500, which alone accounts for 75% of total GDP, ultimately determines who has a job and access to housing, healthcare, and education. Despite his anti-establishment bluster, Trump will not make any serious inroads against the property of the billionaires because he is a billionaire himself.
In the final analysis, predicting the details or precise timing of the next crisis is not essential, and in any case, would be impossible. As Marxists we understand that it is a matter of when—not if. After the experience of the last decade even a technically modest slump will have a devastating effect on consciousness. Millions more will break with the system and its institutions. The idea that “capitalism has failed” will spread like wildfire. No longer will the working class see crisis as a once-every-several-generations phenomenon. The idea that it is isolated individuals, and not the ruling class, who are to blame for their problems will be harder to peddle.
As the last crisis unfolded, then-President Obama was given the benefit of the doubt by many as he was seen as the inheritor of a mess created by GW Bush. But Trump’s honeymoon is already over for the majority, and those who believed he could turn things around will not be as forgiving if and when the next crisis hits on his watch. Even if he blatantly lies about the numbers to appeal to his base, the disconnect between his wild promises and the reality they are living will eventually turn them against him. Mass movements of the workers and youth have already begun and even greater ones are yet to come. This is the perspective we must prepare for.
The interests of the workers are irreconcilably opposed to the interests of the capitalists. The essence of the class struggle is simple: it is the struggle between the classes over the surplus wealth created by the workers. Higher profits for the capitalists means lower wages, benefits, and conditions for the workers. At the beginning of the 21st century, it boils down to the following question: until capitalism is overthrown by the conscious action of the working class and replaced by socialism, who pays for the crisis of the system? The capitalists or the workers?
The bosses are determined to make the workers pay. This means austerity in every guise as they strive to drive down wages and conditions. For over forty years, US workers have been on the defensive as the bosses and their two parties have rolled back the gains of the mass struggles of the 1930s and the crumbs granted during the postwar boom. As Warren Buffet famously put it, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Rustbelt workers who voted for Trump may have been desperate and confused, but one thing is certain: they were not voting for further austerity. Successful ballot measures to raise the minimum wage in several states that went Republican are evidence of this. But in one shape or another, austerity is precisely what they will get.
Trump’s very first act was to sign an executive order stating his intention to repeal Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act is widely hated, and for a good reason. Under this brazen corporate handout, the HMOs and pharmaceutical companies have flourished, premiums for working families have skyrocketed, millions remain without coverage, and only the poorest of the poor have received a modicum of relief. 58% of Americans favor its replacement by a federally funded system providing healthcare for all. But Trump and the Republicans are not about to implement universal health care. They despise Obamacare for even hinting that the government should give the poor so much as the slightest subsidy. Whatever form “Trumpcare” takes, it can only be worse, as this is part of the Republican government’s program of austerity.
One look at Trump’s top advisers and cabinet picks makes it crystal clear which class’s interests he will be ramming through. His first choice for Secretary of Labor was Andrew Puzder, a fast-food magnate and sworn enemy of wage increases. Trump himself has said that wages are too high. His second pick for Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, was on the National Labor Relations Board under GW Bush, and has been called a “proven leader, who understands the complexities of the modern workplace” by the president of the National Association of Manufacturers. Trump’s Secretary of Education is a school privatization crusader. His Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, is opposed to desegregation and public housing. His Secretary of Trade is billionaire investor Wilbur Ross. The Attorney General, responsible for all aspects of law enforcement and the courts, is renowned racist Jefferson Sessions. For the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, he chose Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier who is hell-bent on eliminating what meager environmental regulations are in place, at a time when carbon dioxide levels have hit a three-million-year high.
Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is a Catholic fundamentalist and right-populist conservative who has a crude understanding of history as cyclical and seems to think he and Trump have been chosen as the saviors of the American nation. Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference, he vowed that the “deconstruction of the administrative state” has begun. Meanwhile, the military, law enforcement, prison, and surveillance components of the bourgeois state are to be greatly expanded. Trump has pledged to defend Social Security and Medicare, as his base unironically demands “government hands off Social Security!” But stripping or abolishing other relatively minor agencies will not keep these essential programs off the Republicans’ chopping block indefinitely. If he does try to stay true to his pledge, the split in the Republicans could come sooner rather than later.
Attacks and austerity come in many forms: mass layoffs and incarceration; home foreclosures; rising co-pays for health care; police brutality and creeping infringement on civil rights; production speed-ups; government shutdowns; for-profit prisons and virtual slave labor; furloughs; wage and hiring freezes; cuts to Social Security, public education, arts, parks, broadcasting, transportation, food assistance, childcare, and other social welfare programs. Unable to return to the economic conditions of the 1950s and ‘60s, the far right seeks to artificially impose the alleged moral values of that era. From rolling back protections for transgender public school students to menacing the right to abortion, they chip away at our basic rights and dignity.
Trump and Bannon have promised to hit “hard and fast,” and we can be sure the take-backs, counterreforms, impositions, and indignities will be merciless. However, belt-tightening for the majority while a tiny minority enjoys unimaginable luxury is not easy to justify. Since brute force is not enough to keep the working-class majority in line, they must make use of “divide and rule” tactics to focus workers’ attention away from their class enemies. Not only do they openly foment racism and sexism, but they give preferential treatment and minor concessions to some while humiliating and scapegoating others. Muslims are alleged to be Christian-abhorring terrorists. Latino immigrants, Trump tells us, are rapists, drug dealers, murderers, and job-stealers.
Beating the drum of so-called American economic, cultural, and national unity, they push for class collaboration and subordination of the workers’ interests to the bosses’ in the workplace and at the ballot box. Meanwhile, an end to prevailing wage rules for federal projects and privatization of public schools and services are in the works. Plans for national “right to work” legislation is an attempt to kill the closed shop and starve the unions of dues income in order to hobble organized labor.
Labor unions are the front line defense against the capitalists, an organizational form that allows workers to collectively confront a boss or consortium of bosses to improve wages and conditions by threatening to withhold their labor. On average, unionized workers have significantly better wages and benefits than nonunion workers, enjoy better and safer conditions, and have greater protections against reprisals by their employers. As the saying goes, we can thank organized labor for the eight-hour-day, weekend, and paid vacations. But the eight-hour day, weekends, and paid vacations are at present an impossible dream for millions of workers who must endure low wages, no benefits, unsafe conditions, precarious employment, irregular scheduling, split shifts, and arbitrary dismissals.
Organized labor has been hammered over the last few decades. Just 10.7% of American wage and salary workers—14.6 million—were members of a union in 2016. This is a decline from 11.1% and 14.84 million in 2015, and 20.1% and 17.7 million in 1983. Public sector workers are more highly unionized than in the private sector (34.4% versus 6.4%). Nonetheless, unionized public teachers, firefighters, civil service, auto, steel, energy, mining, utilities, telecommunications, hospital, airline, transit, railroad, trucking, warehouse, and dock workers hold enormous potential power in their hands. For decades, the labor leaders have refused to mobilize this power. In 2016, there were just 15 major work stoppages, involving 99,000 workers. In the last decade, there has been an average of just 14 major work stoppages per year—a decline of over 95 percent since 1947.
This retreat has a materialist explanation. Formed in the heat of mass struggles and heroic sacrifices by millions of rank-and-file workers, the unions have been hijacked by an openly pro-capitalist bureaucracy. After the mass strike wave of 1946, the economy stabilized as the US capitalists profited enormously from the rebuilding of Europe and Asia. Booms and slumps continued, but the slumps were relatively minor and real wages increased steadily. The Red Scare was used to purge the Left from the labor movement, especially the Communist Party, which had many leadership positions in some of the key industrial unions. The pressure of the rank and file ebbed and the work of running the unions was left to the “experts,” who were increasingly divorced from the membership and drawn into the orbit of the bosses. The cutting edge of these organizations for workers’ struggle was dulled through disuse.
The idea that the workers and employers are part of a “team” became dominant. With this or that exception, the labor leadership has accepted decades of concessions and has moved might and main to keep the members in check—even if it means the extermination of their own unions and positions. In partnership with the bosses, they see the unions as tools for controlling the workers and imposing givebacks on the membership. Far from representing the workers’ interests, the union bureaucrats represent an objective obstacle to working class militancy and struggle.
As the bosses attempt to drive conditions back to the 19th century, the consciousness of the workers’ leaders has followed suit, becoming defensive, atomized, and narrow, jealously guarding the interests of “their” members. This is the slippery slope, entered after the victorious struggles of the 1930s, that led labor and the rest of the working class to its present position in the first place. Trump aims to use this to drive a wedge into organized labor, leaning on the traditionally conservative trades—carpenters, builders, laborers, ironworkers, sheet metal workers, etc. A clear example of this is the controversy over the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.
As reported by the New York Times, “Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, said that Trump had listened to his concerns and that it was ‘by far the best meeting I ever participated in’ over 17 years in Washington. ‘With all due respect, I represent construction workers,’ McGarvey told reporters ‘They’re the ones that pay me. They’re the ones that I worry about.’ Laborers’ International Union of North America was gushing over the new president: ‘He has shown that he respects laborers who build our great nation and that they will be abandoned no more.’”
And what of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka? Has he called for the unity of all workers, those in and out of the AFL-CIO, the trades, industrial, service, and public sector unions, the organized and unorganized, the documented and undocumented? Has he called for a general strike to stop “right to work” in its tracks? Far from it. Instead, he has praised Trump’s protectionism, called their meeting “honest and productive,” agreed to participate in Trump’s so-called “Manufacturing Jobs Initiative.” This is the state of the labor leadership 70 years since the biggest strike wave in US history.
However, the history of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries shows how consciousness can change rapidly. By the 1930s, the egoistic conservatism and racism prevalent in the trades was swamped by the monumental rise of industrial unionism. Significant communist currents emerged and led many of the most bitter class battles. Workers, industries, and regions deemed “unorganizable” formed the most militant and broad-based unions ever seen. City-wide general strikes, factory occupations, flying pickets, and running battles with the police wrenched real gains from the bosses.
In society as in nature, similar conditions lead to similar results. But similar is not the same. Today’s international, economic, political, and social context is not a carbon copy of the past. Individuals and classes learn from experience. The future struggles of our class will not be a mere repetition of the 1870s, 1930s, or 1960s. We must study our class’s history, victories, and defeats, not as a blueprint, but to understand the process of the class struggle.
Trump’s election was deemed an “an extinction-level event for American labor” by an already defeated union functionary. But Marxists take a different view. We do not accept capitalism or the capitalists’ right to rule. The low ebb of labor is not the end, but merely a turning point. The unions were forged in struggle and will only be renewed in struggle. Business unionism and business as usual are finished. Old leaders will be pushed to the left or pushed out. Existing unions will be reshaped, and new ones will rise. There will be many splits, but over time, the mounting pressure will push the most combative unions to fuse their forces. The blows of the capitalists and their crisis will hammer out the impurities and temper the working class and its organizations. More urbanized and concentrated in key industries than ever, with an important presence in many rural areas, organized labor will come roaring out of the forge on a higher plane. Even many of the most conservative unions and members will be inexorably drawn into the broader maelstrom as their fundamental class interests assert themselves.
It is impossible to predict how the struggle will unfold, but the creativity and energy of the workers may lead to new forms of organizing. For example, as a first step towards organizing McDonald’s nationally, perhaps all the fast food workers in a particular city will form a single union regardless of which restaurant they work for. However, whatever forms the workers’ organizations and struggles take, the only way to effectively fight and win is to embrace the principle that the workers’ and bosses’ interests are diametrically opposed.
An informational picket is not a strike. Only by collectively shutting down production and disrupting the flow of commodities and services can we strike at the bosses’ fundamental interests: profits. Workers will be forced to defy the anti-worker laws written and enforced by the capitalists to ensure the playing field is always in their favor. Solidarity is the workers’ strongest weapon, and laws and injunctions against solidarity strikes will have to be disregarded as the real class balance of forces is measured in the workplaces and on the streets.
The bosses and their government will threaten the unions with fines, arrest, prison, and dissolution. The only effective response will be greater solidarity and determination to stop the flow of profits. Strikes, occupations, and eventually, general strikes will bluntly pose the question: who runs society? Economic struggles can become political and defense can pass onto offense. Workers will fight to take back their unions on the principle of one member, one vote, with democratically elected, accountable and recallable leaders. The workers will learn to trust only their own methods and organizations and will increasingly see themselves as a class.
The workers can run society without the bosses, but the reverse is not the case. The same applies to the Democratic Party. Without the workers, it is nothing. By forming their own party, workers will finally have a tool to fight for political power against the bosses. The need for class-independent political representation will become crystal clear as both parties unleash the police, courts, and even the military to smash protesters and the unions. The path to a mass workers’ party will be filled with twists and turns as the workers test various formations, programs, and leaders, but a labor party in its full sense will eventually coalesce. The Marxists will be there, fighting for a revolutionary socialist program against the reformists and ultralefts.
Aside from Trump’s wedge, there is an even more significant division simmering in the labor movement: that between the current leadership and the rank and file. The recent Teamsters internal leadership election is just one indication of the rising pressure and a growing anti-incumbent mood. Long-time President Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. had the overwhelming support of 95% of local presidents. Nonetheless, the “Teamsters United” opposition current won 49% of the vote on a program of refusing concessions, reviving contract enforcement, defending pensions, rooting out corruption, and organizing in the union’s core industries. The reform slate won in all industrial centers where turnout exceeded 15%, including many powerful locals, and gained majority support across the South and in rust belt Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—another reminder that working-class consciousness is contradictory.
Low turnout played a role in Hoffa’s victory, as did the votes of the Canadian Teamster locals, which ultimately tipped the balance in his favor. But it is only a matter of time before an opposition current in a major union breaks the stranglehold of the old guard and emboldens rank and file workers across the spectrum of organized labor. These currents will almost certainly begin as militant trade unionism, limiting themselves to nuts and bolts demands around contracts, wages, and conditions. But broader political conclusions will eventually and inevitably be drawn as the bosses’ offensive against the class deepens.
Ironically, part of Trump’s electoral success was his demagogic appeal to the “working class”—a term the labor leaders themselves have long avoided using. Instead, they alleged, we are all “middle class”—a muddled, unscientific blurring of the real class relations in society. Bernie Sanders’s campaign also contributed to a revival of the word “worker.” It is significant that so-called Millennials self-identify as “working class” and support unions more than any other segment of the population, despite—or perhaps because of—their low unionization rates and precarious service-oriented working conditions. The youth are far from “apathetic.” But they are not attracted by stale defeatism and those who accept the status quo. They like underdogs and fighters. We can be confident that a revived labor movement will be flooded and spearheaded by the youth, breathing life into the many struggles that have been brewing in the recent period.
However, to win, these struggles must be broadened and adopt irreconcilable class struggle as their banner. For example, instead of organizing consumer boycotts and protesting Walmart from the outside, workers’ solidarity across the distribution chain has the power to paralyze the company at the ports, on the highways and railways, at the warehouses, and in the stores. The fight for $15 must include an all-out effort to unionize as union protections and collective bargaining are also needed. Furthermore, $15 is barely a living wage and must be seen only as a first step. Instead of “A Day Without a Mexican,” organized labor must set a date and build for a day with no workers whatsoever—an all-out general strike to prove in practice that an injury to one is an injury to all. Likewise, the intensifying attacks on a woman’s right to choose must be fought through mass action, not lobbying and appeals to the unelected and undemocratic Supreme Court.
We have often described the South as a powder keg. There is a noticeable increase in interest in Marxism throughout the largest geographical region in the country, and we can be sure that at a certain stage, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” When it comes to economic and political struggles, workers in barely unionized states like the Carolinas can leap ahead of heavily unionized states like New York or Pennsylvania, where workers must contend with stifling labor and Democratic Party bureaucracies. But there too, the pressure from below will eventually be too much to contain the rank and file.
Although Trump was not the ruling class’s preference, they are happy to use him to ram through the worst austerity in generations. The workers and youth will have no choice but to fight back. Ever since election night, there have been near-daily protests, student walkouts, and demonstrations, including the massive Women’s March. Under pressure from below, some of the current labor and political leaders may move further to the left than they themselves expect. While critically supporting steps forward in workers’ consciousness, confidence, and unity, we must have no illusions in these leaders and their maneuvers. Betrayal is inherent in reformism. Their intent will be to keep themselves at the head of the movement to control it and betray at a later date. Nevertheless, they could unwittingly unleash forces they cannot control, especially if the Marxists are present in sufficient numbers to have an impact.
None of this will come about overnight or without tremendous effort in the face of concerted resistance by the bosses and their state. Workers have had their heads down for many years and most are not willing to risk their livelihoods just to “send a message.” They have to know their sacrifices will be worthwhile and have a good chance of success. It is impossible to say precisely when, but when the workers are ready, they will move—and they will learn. At first, there will be more losing than winning, but just one inspiring victory can electrify the entire class. Once workers begin to experience their immense power, they will be eager to flex it. The American working class will be unstoppable once it begins taking its destiny into its hands. In the course of the struggle, they will raise their horizons and expectations and move beyond the limits of the current leadership, laws, strategy, tactics, parties—and system.
The more farsighted members of the ruling class realize they are faced with the most serious instability in the system’s history and are deeply divided over how to proceed. As Lenin explained, the inability of the ruling class to continue ruling in the old way is one of the first indications that the era of social revolution is approaching. The wind blows the tops of the trees first and Donald Trump represents a hurricane.
You cannot have polarization to the left without polarization to the right. Without a clear point of reference pointing the way forward, wild swings in one direction and then another and back again are inevitable. The rotten so-called “center” of bourgeois politics has collapsed. This is a necessary and clarifying process. Although it is messy and contradictory, these are the beginnings of polarization along clearly defined class lines, which will crystallize over time. Trump and Bannon’s hubris, arrogance, and all-but-inevitable excess will act as the whip of counterrevolution, accelerating the pace of the class struggle.
Trump is a right-wing populist demagogue. There are clear elements of Bonapartism in his governing style as he balances between different layers of the working and ruling classes. The ruling class is sharpening its knives in preparation for the inevitable class battles of the future. Already, Republican legislators in at least 16 states are pushing bills to toughen penalties against protesters. The repressive forces of the state apparatus feel emboldened and protected by Trump, and abuses of power at all levels are inevitable.
However, this is not fascism, which bases itself on a mass movement of the enraged petty bourgeoisie physically smashing the workers’ organizations. But if the workers do not win political and economic power in the next historical period, reaction and rising authoritarianism are inevitable. Bourgeois democracy is merely a fig leaf for the dictatorship of capital, which will use any means at its disposal to maintain its power and privileges. If the workers suffer a series of major defeats, some kind of dictatorship cannot be ruled out. But it would not be fascism as such, and for now, this remains the discordant music of just one potential future. Before things ever got to that stage, there would be many opportunities for the working class to overthrow capitalism. It is not hyperbole to say that the success of the revolution depends on the Marxists.
Most people tend to seek the path of least resistance. They hope that a yard sign or vote on election day will solve their problems. First with Obama, and now with Trump, workers are learning that much more than hoping for change will be necessary. With no broad-based mandate, he must appeal to his narrow social base while keeping the profits of the capitalists flowing. Actions speak louder than words, and eventually, empty demagogy will not suffice. How he expects to prolong his shell game and keep social unrest from getting out of hand in the long term is anyone’s guess.
Despite his bombast, Trump’s structural options are limited. A complex capitalist economy in crisis cannot be governed by executive decree, especially when hemmed in by the US Constitution. The ruling class opted to accept Trump’s victory and try to make the best of it rather than draw unnecessary attention to the Electoral College. But Trump’s actions on immigration and other questions may well unleash a constitutional crisis, stressing the world’s oldest still-active government charter to the limit. As it long ago ceased to reflect the world in which it was originally adopted, this 229-year-old piece of paper will be increasingly questioned at all levels in the coming period.
Even before the election, FBI director James Comey intervened brazenly in politics, and within weeks of being confirmed, Attorney General Sessions has been accused of perjury and had to recuse himself from a key investigation. Trump seems determined to exacerbate the growing divisions in the state apparatus. His attacks on the judiciary—the least well-defined and most undemocratic of the three branches of government—will only exacerbate the crisis of the regime. Cynically manipulating their instinctive class hatred of the institutional media, he has turned millions of ordinary workers against this key institution of bourgeois rule. Even the intelligence services have not been spared. The vast government bureaucracy—the state officials, professionals, and workers who run the state day-to-day—are already pushing back at one agency after another. Rising state repression against protesters and workers will eventually lead to divisions in the military and even the police.
The ruling class will work to rein in the new president, but this will be easier said than done. If the weight of the apparatus is not enough to bring him to heel, the ruling class has other options, including impeachment, as well as extrajudicial measures. There are already plenty of impeachable offenses should they decide that Mike Pence would be a more reliable trustee of their interests.
The civil war within the Republican camp is merely on temporary hold and could explode at any time. In a two-party system, the Democrats will continue to benefit from being “the other party” until the working class builds a party of its own. Elizabeth Warren is a prime candidate for 2020 and other liberal darlings, including Oprah Winfrey, are already waiting in the wings. We must tirelessly expose lesser-evilism and explain that there can be no reformism in an epoch of counterreforms. We must also explain that liberal democracy is merely a cover for the dictatorship of capital. The knives are coming out and the workers will have to defend themselves.
The “School of the Democrats” initiated under Obama continues in a different form. Trump will eventually be completely discredited and a backlash even further to the left is inevitable. Pressured from below and desperate to save capitalism from itself, the Democrats seek to capture this energy. To position themselves, they are demagogically posing as a “left” opposition—though not too far to the left. As Nancy Pelosi bluntly explained the nature of the Democratic Party, “We’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is.” The Obama-Clinton wing kept the upper hand over the “Berniecrats” and the so-called “liberal Tea Party” with the defeat of Keith Ellison and the election of Tom Perez as head of the DNC.
Blocking Ellison shows that the core establishment of the Democrats imagines it can simply continue to control the party in the old way. Pressure to the left of the Democrats is building but has no viable outlet. The Democratic leadership must balance between playing the opposition while denying any meaningful concessions to the workers in order to contain the anti-establishment sentiment, out of fear it could get out of hand. To win future elections, the party needs to keep the more radicalized voters still under its sway from breaking out of its “big tent.” This will depend on figures like Sanders and Ellison towing the line, and so far, they have been happy to oblige. But the longer figures like Sanders and the labor leaders hold back the creation of a mass workers’ party, whatever form it takes, the more explosive and difficult to control it will be. The ruling class will regret not having a labor party in place to play the role of the Social Democracy in Europe.
All political and economic perspectives are conditional; even more so with a president as unpredictable as this, in charge of a system as unstable and rotten as this. It is far easier to study or even to anticipate the broad sweep of history than it is to live through it day by day. There are many unknowns. We must expect the unexpected and cannot be categorical. US politics has been turned upside down. 2018 and 2020 will be here before we know it and people will be more politicized than in the past.
Almost overnight, it seems as though history has sped up. One can feel the growing tension as the accumulated contradictions of the past explode sporadically onto the surface. The new normality is a world in which the whip of reaction and fight-backs of the workers and youth are near daily occurrences. Racist attacks are on the rise—normalized by Trump’s bigoted rhetoric—and the workers and youth will not take this lying down. While there will be many ebbs and flows, the days when protests and mass movements were few and far between are finished. Over the next few years, many currents of struggle will be unleashed by the crisis. In time, these will converge into an elemental torrent of class struggle—and eventually, revolution.
We must have a sense of urgency and accelerate our work if we are to play the role history is preparing for us. But there are no shortcuts. No matter how much pressure is exerted on us to compromise or water down our ideas, we must stick to our principled position on the need for working class independence from the capitalists and their parties. Along with the enraged right-wing petty bourgeoisie, there exists an enraged left-wing petty bourgeoisie, which seeks to inject alien ideas into the workers’ movement, including individualist adventurism and a lack of confidence in the working class. While fighting shoulder to shoulder with our class, we must distinguish ourselves politically, keep our eyes on the big picture, and not get caught up in the eddies and whirlpools of the currents we work in. Thousands of people are watching us, and if we clearly and firmly plant our banner, they will know where to go when they decide they are ready to join the struggle.
In many ways, the world is set to get much darker. But the darkest hour is before the dawn. Life itself is a struggle and anything worth having is worth fighting for. Socialism isn’t only worth fighting for, it is a necessity if we are to survive as a species. Our task is to bury capitalism before it buries us. The IMT is filled with revolutionary optimism and confidence as we enter the most exciting period in human history: the epoch of the world socialist revolution. Join us in the struggle for a better world!
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