Smell the Fear of the Ruling Class

Editorial for issue 31 of Socialist Revolution magazine. Subscribe now to get your copy!

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For thousands of years, the world’s ruling classes relied on brute force and intimidation, bribes and tribute, religious spectacle, and monarchical awe to ensure their domination over the masses. The rise of capitalism brought new tools to control the individuals and populations they exploit, including nationalism, racism, and, above all, economic coercion.

Although naked force and ideological manipulation of every kind remain in their arsenal, they rely primarily on the gravitational pull of the wage labor–capital relationship itself. If workers want access to food, shelter, and a few basic comforts, they must voluntarily “choose” to sell their labor power for a wage. By keeping workers chained to the illusory freedom of living paycheck to paycheck, they limit their options for rocking the boat. And by slightly elevating the living standards of some workers over others, they pressure millions into believing the fantasy that anyone can make it, if they work hard and play by the rules.

But what happens when the economic incentives to buy into the system are fewer and further between? To be sure, the capitalists appear to have everything more or less under control on any given day. But the dramatic events of the pandemic, economic collapse, and in particular, the explosion of Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020 had them more worried than they’ve been in generations. Tragically, in the absence of a revolutionary working-class leadership that could channel that energy into systemic change, they were able to ride out the shockwaves. But it won’t be the last quake triggered by the capitalist crisis. As impressive as the George Floyd movement was, it was merely a foreshock for the seismic events yet to come.

BLM_Fibonacci Blue Flickr
The dramatic events of the pandemic, economic collapse, and in particular, the explosion of Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020, had the US ruling class more worried than they’ve been in generations. / Image: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr

In this context, a series of laws seeking to legislate away the class struggle have been introduced. According to Jeffrey Sachs, since the start of 2021, 137 bills have been proposed in 35 states limiting what schools can teach regarding race, American history, politics, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

In North Dakota, a new law uses the red herring of critical race theory to assert that racism is, in effect, “merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice” and is not “systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.”

Various bills around the country seek to ban teachers from raising anything remotely pertaining to nontraditional gender identities or fluidity, gay marriage, LGBTQ rights, or even conversations about “sex and sexuality.” Some would require that teachers tell parents if their child raises questions about their gender identity.

And legislation currently being considered in Indiana would mandate that in the run-up to any general election in the state, teachers must tell students that “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are detrimental to the people of the United States.”

As revolting and ridiculous as these laws may be, their introduction is a sign of weakness, not of strength. They stem from the ruling class’s fear of the tectonic shifts taking place in the depths of society. You can practically smell their fear, and what they fear is clear. They are deeply worried that the corrosive cancer of racism is turning into its opposite and will eventually converge into a united class struggle. That oppression in its many forms is being rejected by the majority. And that the ideas of that “dead dog” Karl Marx are making a comeback among millions of American youth.

State senate chamber
As revolting and ridiculous as the reactionary curriculum laws may be, their introduction is a sign of weakness, not of strength. / Image: Randy von Liski, Flickr

When people have nothing to lose, all bets are off when it comes to maintaining social peace. The bleak mood of millions was summed up recently in the New York Times: “I have stopped pinning my hopes on this being over, ever. I’m just preparing for the worst all the time and not hoping for the best.”

Sowing division and confusion can drag things out and buy the ruling class some time—but it can’t postpone the day of reckoning forever. With no more carrots and not enough sticks to keep the majority at bay, the more farsighted representatives of capitalism are laying the legal and ideological groundwork for a colossal class confrontation.

But if history has anything to teach us, these kinds of measures will actually increase interest in the ideas of Marxism and the need for revolutionary change. Try as they may, they cannot simply ridicule, moralize, or legislate away the profound changes taking place in society. Nor can they kill an idea whose time has come.

A new epoch of revolutionary socialism has well and truly come. As the workers and the youth begin our own preparations for a decisive showdown, we can take inspiration from the founding document of our movement, the Communist Manifesto: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

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