Prospects for the U.S. Left: Not Bad At All

Richard Wolff Mar 9, 2011

Prospects for the Left in the United States are far better than they seem to most observers across the political spectrum (excepting those who fantasize imminent revolutionary uprisings spear-headed by 79-year-old sociology professors). The economic crisis has bitten hard and deep. Millions of people have been impacted by high unemployment and home foreclosures, by decreased job benefits and job security, and by the realization that none of these afflictions will end soon. A sense of betrayal is settling into the popular consciousness. People are coming to believe that despite their hard work and “playing by the rules,” a long-term decline is placing the American Dream increasingly out of their reach. And neither the major parties nor the resurgent far right (the Tea Party movement) offers anything like an adequate response to or program for offsetting that betrayal.

The economic crisis activated, intensely and very publicly, the hegemonic alliance among big business, the richest 5 percent of citizens, and the state. Business and the rich insisted on (and the federal government complied with) corporate bailouts costing huge sums of public money. The state borrowed that money rather than taxing big business and the richest 5 percent of citizens. Indeed, it borrowed a good deal of the money from big business and the rich who had funds to lend because 1) those funds had not been taxed, and 2) the depressed global economy offered less attractive alternatives for those funds.

This three-way hegemonic alliance is now proceeding to utilize the suddenly and vastly increased state debt to shift the cost of the crisis onto the mass of people. First, its members depict enlarged state debt as costing too much in state outlays for interest and repayment (threatening what the state can do for people in the future). Second, they insist that therefore “there is no choice but to” cut public payrolls and services and raise taxes (in combinations depending on what voter constituencies will allow). In Europe this hegemonic maneuver is called “austerity” and is operated by national governments. In the United States it is so far more a task of states and municipalities whose preferred words are “budget crisis” and “fiscal responsibility,” although the federal version is coming in the form of social security and Medicare reductions.

We are in the early years of what already is and will likely continue to be an exceptionally long-lived capitalist crisis. The mass of Americans still mostly watch in stunned shock as the capitalism that they so long celebrated as “delivering the goods” instead delivers one bad after another. Many keep hoping this downturn will pass and prosperity will resume, or that they individually will escape. Some do that very American thing and blame politicians and the state, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the unemployed were laid off by private enterprises, the vast majority of homeowners were foreclosed on by private banks, and the vast majority of the still employed have had their benefits and job security reduced by private employers. A crucial part of the hegemonic alliance among big business, the richest 5 percent, and the state is the role of the state as the socially acceptable object of anger, protest, and rage deflected from the economic power and privileges of its hegemonic partners. Then, too, the United States masses no longer have the labor union, socialist, and communist organizations that in Europe informed and mobilized historically unprecedented mass opposition to austerity all last year.

As a result, the Tea Partiers are so far the only systematically organized expression in the United States of mass opposition to the crisis and its social effects. However, they do not see the state’s policies as reflecting complicity with its hegemonic partners’ determination to emerge from the crisis unchecked in their activities and richer than before. Tea Party activists are, after all, specialists in demonizing the state as the root of all social problems. For them the crisis and its effects are all reducible to the government, that evil “other” whom they personify in an African American president. They function to deflect popular opposition and upset away from the capitalist economy and onto the government (as if the latter were an independent social actor and no hegemonic alliance linked them). Many of the Tea Party movement’s feeder organizations — John Birchers, Moral Majoritarians, etc. — maintained networks over recent decades that were reactivated and reconfigured to produce the Tea Party movement’s base. This paralleled on the right what the trade unions, socialist groups, and communist (and sometimes Green) organizations did for the European “anti-austerity movement” on the left. Moreover, that European movement on the left proved far, far larger and more socially influential than any current European movement on the right.

As often happens, the usefulness of the Tea Party movement to the hegemonic alliance is partial and temporary. Once the deflection of the masses’ upset seems secure and likewise the shifting of the crisis’s costs onto mass austerity, the hegemons have no further use for the Tea Partiers. Worse, the Tea Party movement’s demonization of the state risks disrupting the hegemonic partnership. The latter does not want or need to cut the defense budget, or cripple the many other (and likewise costly) ways the state subsidizes and favors business and the richest citizens. It does not want to provoke a mass backlash against reduced state services, because that might rediscover the most obvious alternative to austerity, namely taxing business and the rich to avoid deficits and thereby obviate austerity. When the Tea Party movement pursues what the hegemons see as excessive government-cutting agendas, the temporary allies will find themselves on a collision course. Since the hegemonic alliance is both more powerful than — and its members include significant financiers of — the Tea Party movement, the latter’s prospects in the United States now looks decidedly poor. It may well disassemble and shrink back into its more socially marginalized feeder organizations.

For different reasons and from a different history, the U.S. Left also leans toward anti-government pronouncements. Embarrassed by its long association with a USSR vilified as statism gone mad, angry at being a perennial target for state/police observation and harassment, and particularly sensitive to the imperialism of the U.S. government’s foreign policies, the U.S. Left focuses much of its ire and activity against the state and state policies. Anarchist is the preferred self-description of many on the U.S. left today: a way to distance their leftism from its socialist predecessors on the U.S. left and also to express a very broadly American distaste and rejection of government per se.

However, the crucial point is that the U.S. Left has no taboo against focusing its activism also against big business and the richest 5 percent. It is open to that perspective and broadly sympathetic to it as well. It has no significant financial dependence on big business. Moreover the crisis has revived and renewed those voices on the U.S. left that stress its nature as systemic, a crisis of the economic system that does not originate in or reduce to government policies. What is most striking is the speed and extent to which public discourse in the United States has rediscovered and opened up to those voices. Debates over capitalism itself are reviving and probing its adequacy, its alternatives, and its human costs. The ideological grounds and roots for a left resurgence are developing in the consciousness of masses of American citizens

The voices of those increasingly challenging capitalism are now assembling, refining, and ever more successfully disseminating powerful critiques: their take on the current global crisis is that capitalism is what hit the fan. Their solutions are not restricted to re-regulation or punishment of corrupt speculators. They affirm but also go beyond massive public employment programs and other economic stimulants paid for not by borrowing (and socially burdensome deficits) but rather by taxing corporations and the richest citizens. Their solutions increasingly include transformation of enterprises such that workers collectively, cooperatively, and democratically owning and operating enterprises would become a growing business sector. These would compete — on an economic playing field leveled by government support — with the older, hierarchical, capitalist enterprises where a few major shareholders select a top management that makes all the basic decisions about what, how, and where to produce, and what to do with the profits.

With the mass addition of democratically worker-run enterprises, U.S. workers could finally enjoy freedom of choice between work lives in the two alternative work organizations: capitalist or collectively worker-operated. Consumers could vote for whichever they prefer by buying its outputs. In short, the U.S. Left is working its way to a comprehensive alternative program to exit the crisis, one taxing the corporations and the richest 5 percent — those who contributed most to the crisis, who are the most able to pay for resolving it, and who have received the most state aid so far and therefore “recovered” the most.

The U.S. Left is constructing analyses and programs that have large and growing audiences and constituencies in the country. It will have to rebuild old or build new organizations to be able systematically to inform and mobilize that constituency. To do that, it will need to overcome its antipathies to organization per se. It will have to conceptualize democracy as the preferred structure of organization rather than the opposite of organization. However, the prospects for succeeding in new organizations of the Left are not bad given the ongoing crisis, the growing recognition of its severity and longevity by ever more Americans, and the likely fading of the Tea Party movement as the only other mode of expressing protest and demand for alternative social development.

Those sympathetic to the Left have their work to do, but the prospects for success suggest excitement and energy and no longer the demoralization that afflicted them for so long. In contrast, the Tea Partiers’ proposals for shrinking government offer immediate pain and suffering to the mass of Americans, while also fraying their connections to the hegemonic alliance in the United States. Tea Party prospects are not good. A resurgent U.S. Left can steal from the Tea Party movement those of its supporters who can identify business and the rich as adversaries, who harbor anti-capitalist impulses. That would leave the Tea Party movement with its fundamentalist social values and the burdens of a strained connection to an increasingly unpopular hegemony symbolized and championed especially by the Republican Party. The political terrain in the United States has shifted and the U.S. Left now has major opportunities.

Reprinted from Tikkun: A Quarterly Interfaith Critique of Politics, Culture, & Society.

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