A Springtime of Possibility (Speech to the November 15, 2008 National Committee)
Edwin Stanton, the tireless Secretary of War in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet said at the time of Lincoln’s death, “He belongs to the ages.” Much the same can be said about this election.
The election challenged long-held assumptions, broke voter turnout records, and shattered seemingly unbreakable barriers – none more historic than the election of an African-American president for the first time. And all this happened in the face of negative appeals to the worst angels of the American people. But to our credit, we repudiated the old politics of fear, division, racial code words, red-baiting, immigrant bashing, and nostalgic appeals to a country and time that never were.
If the election of Barack Obama was a monumental victory, election night itself was a magical moment. In Chicago and across the nation, tears of joy and exhilaration mingled with memories of how far we have come. As the President-elect greeted the hundreds of thousands of well wishers in Grant Park, it was hard not to think of the many struggles for freedom mapping our nation’s history.
For anyone who believes that democracy is nothing but smoke and mirrors in capitalist society, the election of Barack Obama should cause them to reconsider such paralyzing notions. Once again we learned that the struggle for freedom is a contested idea turning as it always has on whether one views freedom as inclusive or exclusive, as giving priority to human rights or property rights, and as accenting the common good or the individual good.
While the American people in all their diversity can and should take pride in Obama’s victory, African Americans have special claims. Obama is a son of the African American people and their role in his election was felt at every turn in the year long campaign. This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time, that African Americans and their leaders have dramatically inserted themselves at critical junctures in our nation’s history to expand democracy for all.
The breaking of the color line constitutes a landmark in the struggle for equality and against racism. To be sure, we haven’t entered a post-racial era, but the opportunities to further weaken racist ideology and to tear down the institutional barriers that sustain racial discrimination and exploitation have grown considerably. Hasn’t Obama’s election and Obama’s statements as President-elect demonstrated beyond a doubt that the struggle against racism in its ideological and institutional forms is as much in the interests of white workers as it is in the interest of the nationally and racially oppressed? As Marx wrote, “Labor in the white skin can never be free, as long as labor in the black skin is branded.”
To say that a sea change occurred on Nov. 4 is no exaggeration. On one side, the arguably worst president in our history leaves Washington disgraced. His party’s policies, ideology and cultural symbols are discredited. The GOP is in disarray and the blame game has begun. The red/blue state paradigm and the southern strategy, a strategy conceived exactly forty years ago to divide the nation along racial lines, are in shambles. And the entire capitalist class, not only its most reactionary section, is weakened.
On the other side of the changing sea, a sense of joy, catharsis and renewal is in the air. Expectations are high. A new era of progressive change is waiting to become a reality. If the past eight years of the Bush administration seemed like a winter of discontent, Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency feels like a springtime of possibility.
Man, moment and movement
The outcome of this election was due to the convergence of several factors. First of all, the political environment was toxic for the Republicans. Could it have been any worse? The spontaneous mass upsurge, beginning in the primaries in January and continuing to Election Day, was another factor. Then there was the diverse coalition of people and people’s organizations that mobilized millions to vote for Obama. Another factor was the Obama campaign, notable for its sound strategy, near-perfect execution, and employment of new techniques of communication, networking and fundraising. Still another reason for the outcome was the wisdom of the American people, especially the readiness of so many to throw off ignoble and self-defeating racist ideas. To suggest, as some have, that many white people momentarily set aside their prejudice to vote for Obama is an incomplete reading of the election results. Some did; but what stands out and what we have to take careful note of is that millions of white working people of all ages and nationalities responded to and voted for Obama enthusiastically. Finally, the candidate himself was brilliant campaigner. When all of these factors are combined, they turned this election into a rout of right-wing extremism, a reaffirmation of the decency of our country and people, a leap forward on freedom road, and a people’s mandate for change.
No one, of course, expects that the securing of a better future will be easy. There is, after all, eight years of extreme right-wing misrule to clean up. The economic crisis is widening and deepening. Right-wing extremism, while badly weakened, still retains enough influence in Congress and elsewhere to block progressive measures. And class realities are still embedded in our society.
Nevertheless, in electing Barack Obama and larger Democratic Party majorities in Congress, the American people have taken the first and absolutely necessary step in the direction of building a more just society. We are not on the threshold of socialism for sure, but it is easy to see the further congealing of a growing majority that will realign politics, not incrementally and momentarily, but decisively and enduringly in the direction of economic justice, equality and peace.
While we should look at the outcome of the elections objectively, I would argue that the biggest danger is to underestimate the political significance of what has happened. I am suspicious of advice that suggests that we temper our understandable joy and enthusiasm as if nothing of great importance has happened.
New lay of the land
The country is in a period of transition. A new potentially transformative president is entering the White House, along with increased Democratic majorities in Congress. Class consciousness is deeper and reaches into every section of the working class. A spirit of broad unity is palpable. The ideological environment is infused with progressive, egalitarian, and anti-militarist ideas. Labor and its allies are retrofitting their priorities, message and initiatives to the new political landscape. And millions are ready to energetically back the legislative agenda of the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Republicans are on the defensive, its grassroots constituency dispirited. And the capitalist class as a whole is adapting to the new terrain of struggle and the collapse of financial markets.
This favorable correlation of class and social forces couldn’t happen at a better time. The challenges facing the new administration are immense. Some are short term; others longer term; some are national in scope; others global. And all are begging for solution. But before turning to them, I want to speak about the economic crisis that impresses its mark on everything.
Current economic crisis
If there were such a thing as an economic tsunami, I would say we are close to experiencing it. The housing crisis continues and shows no sign of ending; credit and money markets are still tight; the stock market gyrates while trending downward; unemployment climbs upward (sharply so in the communities of the nationally and racially oppressed) and will only get worse; wages are down and poverty is up; the level of indebtedness is astronomical and difficult to reduce in the near term. Consumer spending, the engine of economic growth in the 1990s, is tanking. State and local governments are cutting back sharply on services and jobs; deflation, which simply means falling prices over significant sectors of the economy, is a creeping and perilous danger; and financial markets have yet to stabilize as evidenced by the troubles of CitiGroup. In short, not since the Great Depression has the economy deteriorated so rapidly and broadly, leading many economists to predict that the downturn will be L-shaped, that is, deep and prolonged.
What is more, the world economy is contracting. At one time the main unit of economic analysis was the national economy, but recent events and trends point to the fallacy of this notion. Looking at the economy and its prospects through strictly a national prism is conceptually mistaken and thus bound to lead to imperfect analysis and ineffective policy prescriptions.
Financialization – two-edged sword
While the present turbulence was triggered by the collapse of financial markets, it is located first in the outgrowth of longer-term processes of capitalism that go back to the mid-1970s and the systemic imperatives of profit maximization and wage exploitation that are at its core.
Thirty years ago U.S. capitalism was beset by seemingly intractable and contradictory problems – high inflation and unemployment, declining confidence in the dollar as an international currency, new competitive rivals in Europe and Asia, a slowing of economic growth, and, above all, a falling profit rate. And all of these problems occurred in the context of and were shaped by overproduction in world commodity markets.
Faced with this unraveling of the economy, a weakening of U.S. imperialism and a profitability crisis, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker stepped into the breech and pushed up interest rates to record levels. This spike in interest rates sent unemployment rates to the highest level since the Great Depression, forced the closing of scores of manufacturing plants and a great number of family farms, brought incredible hardship to the working class, and especially African-American, Latino and other racially oppressed workers, and negatively impacted the global economy, particularly the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
It also created, as we know too well, the conditions for a many-sided attack on labor and its allies, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the pre-Depression era.
At the same time (and of prime importance to Volker), it wrung inflation out of the economy, restored confidence in the dollar (investors are averse to holding dollars when inflationary pressures are eroding their value), attracted and redirected domestic and foreign capital abruptly and massively from the “real” economy into financial channels where returns were higher. Volcker, as an experienced banker, knew that the problem wasn’t too little money capital, but rather too much and too few opportunities to invest and absorb that capital profitably in the “real” economy.
Once in financial channels, money capital stayed there, but not idly. Financial agents of capital (banks, investment houses, hedge funds, private equity firms and so on) intent on expanding their profits in a very competitive and permissive regulatory environment raced at breakneck speed into a massive buying and selling and borrowing and spending spree for the next three decades — all of which led to an explosion of the financial sector in terms of employment, transactions, risky products, players and profits.
In other words, financialization, which economist Gerald Epstein defines as a process in which “financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions come to play an increasing role in the operation of domestic and international economies” proceeded at a feverish pace and with a broad sweep. (In Financialization and the World Economy, Introduction, 2005)
Capital that produces little, destroys much
If the cause of financialization lies in the stagnation tendencies in the material goods sector of the U.S. economy and the weakening of the role of U.S. imperialism internationally, its lubricant is the production and reproduction, seemingly without end, of staggering amounts of debt — corporate, consumer and government. Debt is as old as capitalism. But what is different in this period of financialization is that the production of debt and accompanying speculative excesses and bubbles were not simply passing moments at the end of a cyclical upswing, but essential to ginning up and sustaining investment and especially consumer demand in every phase of the cycle. Indeed, financialization grew to the point where it became the main determinant shaping the contours, structure, interrelations, evolution and dynamism of the national and world economy.
Without speculative bubbles, generated by the federal government and Federal Reserve over the past 15 years in internet technology, then in the stock market, and most recently, in housing – the performance of the U.S. and world economy would have been far worse. But, as we are painfully learning, financialization is a two-edged sword. While it stimulated the domestic and global economy and reflated the power of U.S. imperialism, it also left our nation with an astronomical pileup of debt; introduced enormous instability into the arteries of the U.S. and world economy; drained capital from private and public investment; contributed to jobless recoveries and heightened exploitation in the material goods sector of the economy; successfully engineered the biggest redistribution of wealth in our nation’s history to the upper crust of U.S. finance capital; made the U.S. economy dependent on the willingness of foreign investors to absorb massive amounts of debt in the form of short term government securities; and, finally, greased the wheels for a hard economic landing and a much deeper crisis on the down side of the economic cycle.
In other words, the growth of the financial sector was a parasitic and temporary fix for a sluggish economy and a declining imperial power, but as events have shown, it could not forever mask and compensate for slow growth, deindustrialization, stagnant wages, jobless recoveries, heightened exploitation, and a declining role internationally. A Wal-Mart economy of low wages, meager benefits and mounting debt, even when combined with massive military spending, is unsustainable and eventually erupts into crisis.
Of course, it took more than shock therapy in the form of high interest rates and then financialization to effect changes of this magnitude and usher in a new era of relentless attacks on the working class, the racially oppressed, women and other social groups. If Volcker struck the first blow, it was the Reagan administration, entering the White House less than a year later, and then successive administrations that were the main political agents of this upheaval in ideology, politics and economics.
Reaganites – main agents of neoliberalism
At the ideological level, the Reaganites said that government is best that governs least, that markets are self-correcting and efficient, that wealth is distributed according to work performed, that income inequality is a good thing, that deregulation and privatization are the best cures for what ails the private and public sectors, and that tax cuts for the rich and wealthy trickle down to working people, thereby lifting all boats.
But the Reaganites didn’t stop here. At the political-economic level, they dismantled the model of economic governance at the state and corporate level, a model that had its origins in the New Deal and was sustained and expanded by successive administrations in the next three decades. It rested on a measure of class compromise, societal obligations, union rights, formal equality and expansive macroeconomic policies that favored broadly shared prosperity.
In its place, the Reaganites built another model of governance popularly called neoliberalism. Not only did this model facilitate a reassertion and consolidation of power by finance capital at the expense of other groupings of capital, but it also used its control of the state apparatus to encourage deindustrialization and off shoring of production, union busting, deregulation, low-wage labor, low inflation, trade liberalization, the shrinkage and privatization of the public sector, draconian control (to the degree possible) over cross-border movements of labor, the re-embedding of racist and sexist practices into the country’s political economy, massive wealth redistribution to the wealthiest families and corporations, a stronger dollar, and the restructuring of the state’s role and functions.
This new model, combined with an increased readiness to use military power, was created for the purpose of strengthening the position of U.S. imperialism at home and abroad, radically changing the conditions of exploitation to the advantage of the transnational corporate class, and resubjugating the developing countries. But, as is said, the best laid plans of mice and men and often come to naught, at least in the long run.
Offspring of capitalism
The rise and fall of neoliberalism is organically connected to the underlying dynamics of capitalism. While each required hit men in the corridors of government and the suites of corporations and a set of institutions (the Federal Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund, for example) to grease the skids, it also is the indisputable offspring of capitalism’s internal laws and tendencies.
Although an anti-capitalist strategy would be premature at the present conjuncture, the faith of millions of people in capitalism has been shaken. People might defend capitalism if challenged, but not with the same vigor and not without a sympathetic ear to measures that would curb the power and profits of transnational corporations. Did we hear any hue and cry coming from industrial centers when the federal government partially nationalized some banks? And, I’m sure, if the government insisted on ownership and control as a condition for assisting the auto companies, few working people would complain. Most would say, “They messed up. Why give something and get nothing in return?” In short, the events of recent months and weeks constitute a profound defeat of capitalism ideologically, politically, and economically.
From another angle (and I am not going to develop this point), the implosion of Wall Street has delivered a debilitating body blow to the hopes of U.S. imperialism for unrivaled dominance in the 21st century. When combined with the Iraq disaster, the worldwide anger over structural adjustment policies and unequal trade, the inattention to global warming and world poverty, and the emergence of new global powers in nearly every region of the world – China in the first place – it signals a terminal crisis of U.S. imperialism’s dominance of the world system of states. Or to say it differently, a unipolar world is giving way to a multipolar world, which, I would add, presents both opportunities and dangers to the new administration and humanity.
In fact, an urgent question for the American people is the following: Will U.S. imperialism adapt peacefully to new world realities or will it employ massive force to maintain its standing in the world? Bush tried force, but failed, and will leave the White House in January completely discredited. There is good reason to believe that the new administration will choose a different option. How far it will go is another question that can’t be answered yet. Suffice it to say that the redefinition of the U.S. role in the world community and demilitarization (including denuclearization) are among the most compelling issues in the first part of the 21st century, ranking in importance to combating global warming. Unless attended to, both could endanger the survival of our species on Mother Earth.
A new New Deal
Given the current situation, it is apparent that the Obama administration enters the White House with huge challenges. At the same time, no president in recent memory brings to the job so much popular good will, a Congress dominated by Democrats, an election mandate for progressive change, and an energized movement that supports him.
From what he has said, Obama wants to be a people’s reformer. In time he hopes to make substantive changes in health care, housing, education, retirement security, energy, environment, urban affairs, race and gender relations, foreign relations, and popular participation in public affairs. If the last thirty years was an era of people’s retrenchment, Obama sees the years ahead as an era of substantial people’s reforms. In his view, the boundaries of politics, democracy, and reform in a capitalist social formation are elastic and thus can be expanded considerably.
The Obama administration’s immediate challenge will be to revive the economy. And the overarching question that it will have to answer is: Where will economic dynamism come from in near term? We know it won’t come from strapped U.S. consumers whose spending sustained the domestic and global economy over the past decade. We know it won’t come from corporate investment in plant and equipment; instead of expanding investment, corporations are contracting it in the face of overproduction in world commodity markets. We know it won’t come from the Federal Reserve; the federal fund rate, a rate the governs the Fed’s lending to banks, which is at a record low and might go a little lower, but rate cuts so far seem to have little effect on bank lending and the broader economy. We know it won’t come form foreign buyers of our exports; they are tightening their belts too. We know it won’t come from the European economies since they are slumping. We know it won’t come from the developing economies whose economic prospects are very gloomy. Finally, we know it won’t come from speculative excesses and bubbles; that method of stimulating and sustaining aggregate demand has run its course, at least for now.
So to return to the question above: Where will economic dynamism come from in the near term? The answer is massive fiscal expansion, that is, by large injections of money from the federal government into the economy. China is leading the way with its half trillion-dollar stimulus plan. Hopefully, China’s example will spread to other major economic powers. Given the nature of this crisis and the integration of the world economy, every one of them has to pony up billions and billions of dollars to reflate aggregate demand for goods and services at the national and global level.
The Bush administration doesn’t understand this, but the Obama administration does and with Congressional support it will take quick action. We can expect, and should fully support, an administration stimulus package that includes, among other things, extension of unemployment compensation, assistance to distressed homeowners, aid to states and municipalities, food stamp extension, infrastructure construction, and so forth. The only unresolved question is how large a stimulus package. In our view, it should be the range of a trillion dollars or more.
This, along with assistance (with real strings) to the auto companies and the stabilization and regulation of financial and housing markets, are considered the cornerstones of the administration’s recovery plan. Whether this is enough is unknowable at this point. By January or soon thereafter, more radical measures may be necessary.
I would add, however, that even if these policies are pursued, there is no guarantee that a full-blooded and sustained upswing of the economy will follow. According to conventional wisdom and mainstream economists, high growth rates, near full employment, and healthy profit rates are the normal condition of a capitalist economy. Departures from this norm, it is said, are only passing moments during which capitalism removes barriers to future growth and in so doing creates the conditions for a new expansion that surpasses old peaks in production, employment and profits.
Perhaps that was the case at an earlier stage of capitalism’s development, but there is considerable evidence to question this scenario going forward. Indeed, one has to wonder what the long-run prospects of U.S. and world capitalism are. Was the “golden age” of U.S. capitalism from 1945-1973, during which economic growth rates, investment levels and living standards steadily increased, the rule or the exception to the rule? Will the last thirty years of sluggish and lopsided growth continue, but at a significantly lower level? Is U.S. capitalism, embedded in an overcrowded and hyper-competitive world economy and restrained by an internal grouping of class and social forces (energy, military, health care, pharmaceutical, financial and other industries) resistant to structural economic change, capable of going over to a new and robust growth path, resting on green industry, jobs and technology, on demilitarization, and on rising living standards for working people?
Given the uncertainty of the long-term trajectory of capitalism and the likelihood that the present remedies under consideration will bring only short-term relief, structural reforms of a far-reaching nature and from the bottom up will be necessary if U.S. economy is to have any chance of resuming a developmental growth path that is robust and favors the interests of the working class (broadly defined) and its allies – not to mention the planet. Thus, the Obama administration and the multilayered and multiclass coalition that supports him will almost inevitably have to confront these questions:
Will the reform and restructuring process only touch the edges of corporate profits and prerogatives or will it make substantial inroads? Will government intervention include ownership of an anti-monopoly character or only temporary measures to stabilize turbulent markets? Will the counter-crisis spending measures be short term and modest or long term and of sufficient size to sustain a recovery – something that the New Deal never accomplished? How far will the reregulation of financial markets go? Will union rights be marginally improved or greatly strengthened? Will trade agreements be renegotiated so that international working class interests are at their core? Will bold measures be proposed to achieve equality in conditions of life for racially and nationally oppressed people and women? Will public takeover of finance and energy be on the table for discussion? Will the reform of housing, education and healthcare be radical in nature? What about the direction of foreign policy and militarism? Will the occupation of Iraq be terminated and the Afghanistan conflict resolved in a political and peaceful fashion? Will capital be rerouted from unproductive consumption (military, parasitic finance and so forth) to productive investment in a green economy and public infrastructure? And will equitable economic arrangements between U.S. capitalism and the rest of the world be high on the administration’s agenda?
New model of economic governance needed
Or to approach the same question in another way: Will the political-economic reforms be modest, or will they boldly embrace a new model of political-economic governance at the state and corporate level – a new New Deal? By that I mean a reconfiguring of the role and functions of government and corporations so that they favor working people, the racially and nationally oppressed, women, youth, seniors, small business people and other social groupings.
Such a model would draw from the New Deal experience, but in the end it has to be shaped by today’s conditions and requirements for political and economic advance for the broadest sections of the American people as well as people across the globe. No country or people are an island anymore. We either swim together or sink together.
The new model of governance wouldn’t be socialist, but it would challenge corporate power, profits and prerogatives, insist on peace and equality, extend social and economic rights, democratize state and quasi-state structures like the Federal Reserve, give communities, workers, and small business people a say in corporate decision making, seriously consider public takeover of the energy and financial complexes, demilitarize and green our economy, and constructively respond to new problems and power realities on a global level.
Depression conditions prompted President Franklin Roosevelt and his advisers — albeit with a mighty assist from a powerful all-people’s coalition led by the industrial unions and the multiracial working class — to reconfigure the role and functions of the state to the advantage of the ordinary people. This reconfiguration wasn’t easy or done in a day. Indeed, it was a contested process over time that combined unity of the Roosevelt-led coalition at every turn, independent political action in the corridors of power and in the streets, and a good dose of improvisation and experimentation. The broad people’s movement would do well to study the New Deal experience, not in a mechanical way, but with an eye to gaining insights for today’s struggles and challenges.
Change in strategy
As I said earlier, we are in a transitional period in which the broad contours and class relationships of U.S. politics have changed to the point that we have to adjust our strategic policy. Our policy of singling out the extreme right and its reactionary corporate backers and building the broadest unity against them, discussed in these meetings and contained in our Party program, captured the class realities of the past 30 years. In this year’s election we applied that policy consistently and creatively. Admittedly, we adjusted this policy at the tactical level in January of this year after concluding that Obama had the potential to bring together and give voice to an all-people’s coalition and win the election by a landslide.
Looking back, it isn’t immodest to say that both our overall policy and our tactical adjustment were on the money. We shouldn’t claim bragging rights, but we can say that our strategic and tactical approach captured better than any other organization or movement on the left the political algebra of the election process, including the possibility of a landslide.
This isn’t to say that other left movements and organizations were of no consequence, because they were, but none of them had as much political coherence in their strategic and tactical policies as we did. Nor did they do the day-to-day grassroots work with the same consistency that we did.
That said, the new political landscape in the election’s wake compels us to make strategic as well as tactical changes. Our current strategic policy, I’m sure you will agree, no longer corresponds with the present situation. But, by the same token, I would also argue that our anti-monopoly strategy doesn’t quite fit perfectly either.
Now and for the foreseeable future, the country is in a political transition that interweaves elements of the past and the future. This argues against attempts to fit the political dynamics of this moment into a rigid and schematic strategic framework. Our strategic policy is a conceptual device (or guide to action) whose purpose is to give us a first approximation of what is happening on the ground among the main class and social forces, which of them has the upper hand, and what it will take to move the political process in a progressive direction. It doesn’t claim to capture reality in all of its complexity. And this is especially so in a transitional period such as this one. Therefore, the strategic notion of stages of struggle has to be employed judiciously and flexibly, or, as some like to say, dialectically.
New casting of political actors
So briefly, how do the various forces line up? Let’s begin with Obama. During the election we correctly resisted fitting Obama into a tightly sealed political category. We should continue that practice. I don’t think categorizing him as a bourgeois or centrist politician at this moment is very helpful, even if he begins by governing from the center.
Obama is an unusual political figure. He has deep democratic sensibilities, a sense of history and modesty, and an almost intuitive feel for the national mood. His political and intellectual depth matches his eloquence. In the wake of the election, he is the leader of a far-flung multiclass “change” coalition that constitutes a new political universe to which everyone has to relate. He embraces a reform agenda in a reform era whose political character will be decided in the years ahead. Many, including ourselves, have used the words “transformational” or “transforming” to describe his candidacy — that is, a candidacy capable of assembling a broad people’s majority to reconfigure the terms and terrain of politics in this country in a fundamental way. The same can be said about the potential of his presidency.
Obama isn’t finished with Obama. Like other great leaders, he is a work in progress who has demonstrated the capacity to grow as things change and new problems arise. He will undoubtedly feel competing pressures, but he will also leave his own political imprint on presidential decisions, much like Lincoln and Roosevelt did. It’s good that Obama has these qualities because he is inheriting mammoth problems. In consultation with the Democrats in Congress and the main organizations of the people’s coalition, he will set the agenda and determine the timing of legislative initiatives next year.
Then there are the Obama grassroots networks and committees. These web-generated forms of organization and action were formidable in the elections and will in all likelihood continue to be a forceful presence in the coming years. They contain an array of diverse people, including lots of young people, all of whom are very loyal to Obama and will throw their weight behind his program. In some places we are part of “Yes We Can” networks and should remain so; where we aren’t, we (along with others) should make connections with them.
The Democratic Party
The Democratic Party, for sure, isn’t an anti-capitalist people’s party. Yet it contains a variety of currents. In the recent elections the center and progressive currents gained in size and influence. While its character isn’t left in its outlook in the wake of Obama’s landslide victory, liberal and progressive congress people have the wind at their back. Right-wing Democrats, meanwhile, are running into headwinds. This is not 1992 all over again.
While some sections of the ruling class will oppose Obama at every turn, other sectors will accommodate and support many of his legislative initiatives. Some of its members will be part of his administration. U.S. capitalism is in such a serious crisis on a domestic and global level that sober-minded sections of ruling class see the necessity of reforming and restructuring capitalism, but in their view within very prescribed limits. Even the most forward thinking of them will attempt to slow down and narrow the scope of the reform and restructuring process.
Finally, there are the broad people’s forces, (working class, racially and nationally oppressed people, women and youth). Their politics move along anti-corporate, egalitarian and anti-militarist lines. They express themselves through a range of organizational forms. Unity among them is on a higher level. In this election these forces walked with seven league boots, kicked butt and took no prisoners. Nothing seemed to knock them off stride.
In the period ahead, these forces will exercise an enormous, at moments decisive, influence on the political process. Labor will continue to play a special organizing and political role.
At the same time, labor and its allies, while vigorously advancing their own agenda, must adjust to the new scope of the post-election change coalition led by Obama that had emerged. Never before has a coalition with such breadth walked on the political stage of our country. It is far larger than the coalition that entered the election process a year ago; it is larger still than the coalition that came out of the Democratic Party convention in August.
Moreover, its growth potential is enormous. Significant numbers of white workers and small businesspeople, for example, didn’t cast their vote for Obama, but can be won to progressive and anti-racist positions going forward.
As you can see, this change coalition contains various political forces with disparate class loyalties and political orientations. But this should not surprise because there are no pure struggles at any stage of struggle. Indeed, in such a broad, multiclass coalition, relations will be contested as well as cooperative. Each component will promote its views and attempt to leave its own imprint on the overall struggle. And this is all the more so as the economic crisis deepens.
As for us, we can provide leadership only to the degree that we are in the trenches of the wider labor-led people’s movement, building this people’s upsurge in all directions. Only if we are making practical, on-the-ground contributions to the immediate struggles, and especially in the economic arena, can we help give political coherence to this broad coalition.
Yes, we should bring issues and more advanced positions into the process that go beyond the initiatives of the Obama administration and the broad multiclass, many-layered coalition that supports it. But we should do this within the framework of the main task of supporting Obama’s program of action and building breadth, depth and participation of the core forces. We have to master the art of combining partial demands with more advanced ones. The former (partial demands) are the immediate grounds for building broad unity in action.
Of course, change won’t be easy. The pressures to weaken, even mothball, progressive, anti-corporate measures will come from many quarters – from within the administration, from members of Congress, from the ruling class – which has its hands in every branch of government and controls the major media.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t assume that the Obama administration will inevitably track right. It isn’t dialectical because it fails to take into account the election mandate, the new leverage of labor and its allies and, perhaps most important, the broader developments in the economy. Nor should we go bananas when he appoints somebody whose politics we don’t like. We should not expect that this administration will be free of representatives of Wall Street or old line Democrats or even some Republicans. Their presence doesn’t necessarily define the political inclinations of the Obama administration, nor does it tell us exactly what its political priorities will be. Let’s give Obama some space; millions of others will, including, I suspect, the main leaders of the labor and people’s movement. Marxism is a guide to action, not a dogma.
We also shouldn’t have any truck with people on the left who argue that the main protagonists in the coming period are the Obama administration and Democrats on one side and the people on the other. Finally, we should take a dim view of some on the left who will wait for the new administration to stumble and then immediately call for a break and attempt to turn broader forces into a hostile opposition. In fact, probably the biggest challenge for the core forces of this multiclass coalition is to resist attempts by reaction and some left forces to pit the Obama administration and Congress against the main sections of the people’s movement on one or another issue. Where there are (and will be) differences over appointments, legislation or other actions between the administration and the broad democratic forces, these differences have to handled in such a way as not to break the overall unity.
The left can and should advance its own views and disagree with the Obama administration without being disagreeable. Its tone should be respectful. We are speaking to a friend. When the administration and Congress take positive initiatives, they should be wholeheartedly welcomed. Nor should anyone think that everything will be done in 100 days. After all, main elements of the New Deal were codified into law in 1935, 1936 and 1937.
Although we are not in the socialist stage of the revolutionary process, we are, nevertheless on the road, and the only road, to socialism – to a society that is egalitarian in the rough sense, eliminates exploitation of working people, brings an end to all forms of oppression, and is notable for the many-layered participation of working people and their allies in the management of the economy and state.
The room for socialist ideas is in the public square has grown enormously. Such ideas can be easily discussed with many people and people’s leaders. Furthermore, the force of economic events will compel millions more to consider socialist ideas that in the past were dismissed out of hand. But our vision of socialism will resonate to the degree that it addresses contemporary sensibilities and challenges. It can’t be a redux of 20th century socialism.
Our role, as I have tried to say, is to be part of the struggles going forward – beginning with attending the inauguration and encouraging others to do the same. It’s going to be a grand event and a public expression of support for Obama and a mass expression for change.
Given the overall situation in the economy, we have to refocus on economic struggles. While they will take many forms, the issue of jobs will climb to the top as layoffs mount. Undoubtedly, this crisis will strike with destructive force the Black, Latin, Asian and Native American Indian communities. Unemployment currently is in the double-digit range. Special compensatory measures will have to be combined with overall economic demands.
Let’s reengage with others (labor, the nationally and racially oppressed, women, and youth) in this struggle. As to precisely what we do, we have to do some brainstorming as well as consult with people and organizations that we worked with in the election campaign.
A couple of ideas come to mind. We should consider initiating meetings to discuss the economic crisis and how to respond to it at the local, state and national level. Such meetings could be very broad in their participation and sponsorship. We should also mobilize support for Obama’s stimulus package, for aid to the auto corporations — albeit with strings — and for immediate relief for homeowners. You probably have a thousand other ideas and we should discuss them.
In addition to joining economic struggles and projecting programmatic demands, we should also produce talking point sheets and analytical articles that explain the roots of the crisis and the political forces that that have to be assembled and unified to win both immediate and more far-reaching reforms.
In these and the other struggles, we have to become better at building the Party, press and YCL. I don’t want to say the opportunities to build the Party and press are limitless, but they have grown immensely.
Let me finish by saying that it sure feels good to be on the winning side. I’m sure everyone feels the same way. At the same time, because of this historic victory, we – and the broader movement that we are a part of – have our work cut out for us in the coming years. It’s a big challenge, but we have met other challenges. So let’s go out there and do it with a sense of confidence that the best days for our country lay ahead of us. Yes we can! Si Se Puede! Thank you.