Blaming government or capitalism: “What’s Left?” March 2011, MRR #334

The international economic meltdown of 2007 that resulted in the Great Recession we’re still living through has been characterized by state funded bailouts for banks and other financial institutions, and considerable hardship for most of the rest of us. When the French government recently decided to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, workers struck and youth rioted for weeks on end as French public opinion remained firmly against the government’s actions. By contrast, while the American government does next to nothing to prevent escalating home foreclosures and ongoing high unemployment, workers and youth, inner cities and campuses are utterly pacified, while the American public remains thoroughly passive.

That is, unless one counts the growing Tea Party movement. Explicitly anti-big government, the Tea Party folks would give corporate capitalism free reign with tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization. So, what’s up with this country that, just as capitalism is proving itself bankrupt, the only apparent form of popular resistance turns out to be pro-capitalist? That the Tea Party movement had such a major impact on the recent midterm elections doesn’t speak well of the American electorate’s intelligence.

(I’m reminded of a couple of editorial cartoons, the first one by Joel Pett from the Lexington Herald-Leader in which the character is subject to ongoing capitalist abuse. A corporation lays him off, a corporation takes his home, corporate cash corrupts democracy, a corporation denies his medical claims, and corporations track his every move via surveillance, wiretaps, internet monitoring, and urine drug testing. In the last panel, he exclaims: “I hate the #@!% government!” Another political cartoon, by David Horsey from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, contrasts European and American reactions to government austerity measures. In the first panel, rioting French students battle the gendarmerie. For protesting government austerity in America, the illustration is of a Goldman-Sachs executive grabbing another man by his tie and yelling: “Save my tax cut, Senator! I don’t want to give up any of my million dollar bonus!”)

Why there’s such a dearth of class consciousness and class conflict in the United States at present, despite the ample material conditions that should generate the contrary, we’ll get to in a moment. That a spontaneous uprising of the working class, or the masses, or the people, or the multitude, or whatever, isn’t in the cards any time soon should be obvious in any case. The pious faiths of anarchism and left communism are less than useless when dealing with this unerring propensity of ordinary Americans today to act against their economic interests and class loyalties. The “American way of life” remains the greatest threat to the future of humanity and the survival of the planet with, perhaps, with the exception of a billion and half Chinese trying to emulate America. But at least the class war is alive and well in China, as sites like http://chinastrikes.crowdmap.com/ amply demonstrate.

Lately, I’ve wondered what it would take to bring a little class war back to the American scene. Perhaps a charismatic, Huey Long type demagogue could stir up a populist, quasi-socialist, share-the-wealth movement among the American people. Then at the right moment this demagogue would be assassinated—an event that, instead of suppressing the movement led by him, would instigate a mass uprising that begins a resurgence of American socialism.

This scenario is a far cry from what is required to transform the working class from a class in itself to a class for itself, let alone a successful revolution that brings about the self-emancipation of the working class. Am I going so far as to deny the self-activity and self-organization of working people? No, but lately, I’ve come to understand how such sentiments for class autonomy come about. You see, for the longest time, I assumed that such impulses were innate to workers by virtue of them being a social class. That, up until the 1950s, the US labor movement was often the most violent and energetic in the world according to folks as diverse as Eric Foner, Howard Zinn, Staughton Lynd, and Jeremy Brecher, I attributed to the advanced nature of the American working class. Thus, I ignored that socialism never really took root in this country in any substantive way, that a labor party never emerged to challenge the two-party electoral system, and that factors like the western frontier, race and affluence easily deflected class struggle despite its supposed intensity.

When I did pay attention to such constraints on the class war in the United States, I thought that a little more historical development would be required to overcome any such limitations and obstacles. After all, weren’t immigrants invariably at the forefront of America’s class struggles, immigrants from places around the world with greater historical depth? Then I realized that the planet is not likely to survive the five hundred or so years of war, invasion, conquest, economic and social upheaval, etc., etc. that will be required to give this country the historical perspective for a halfway decent class war. Which then leaves me with John Brunner’s “The Sheep Look Up.” Published in 1972 when the United States represented approximately 6% of the world’s population consuming over 50% of the world’s resources, Brunner’s science fiction novel describes a planet on the brink of ecological collapse in which the only solution offered to humanity is the total destruction of America. The book concludes with this country descending into civil war.

Quite a grim little mood I’m in.

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