Private ownership of the means of production has hit a dead end on a world scale. The system is dying on its feet, and this inevitably has profound political and social consequences in the country par excellence of capitalism. Francis Fukuyama, who, upon the fall of the USSR, famously declared “the end of history,” now says that America “suffers from the problem of political decay in a more acute form than other democratic political systems.” In plain English: capitalism and its institutions are in big trouble.
Discontent with the status quo led to a massive abstention rate of 63.4% in the 2014 midterms, paving the way for a Republican “victory.” An article titled “To Angry Voters, Washington Comes Out the Biggest Loser” summed up the mood in several quotes from voters:
“I feel like I’m in that class of people that’s kind of getting left behind in this whirlwind,” said Etrulia Byrd, 37, a waitress from Anchorage. “I’m in that economic class of people that works really, really hard and will probably never get too far ahead, barely makes it, and kind of gets punished for it.”
“They just don’t seem to get anything done anymore,” said John Miller, an independent in Iowa voting at the Red Oak Fire Department. “All they do is fight between each other and don’t get anything done. So we—and I—need something different in there. Everything needs to change.”
Shari Pizarro, 49, a Democrat who works as a waitress in St. Petersburg, Fla., said she voted Democratic but had few hopes for Washington—now or in the future. “I have no clue what’s going on in DC, but what I do know is that you can’t really trust anyone,” she said. “It’s all screwed up no matter who’s in the White House.”
Due to politically motivated redistricting, just 5% of the House of Representative’s 435 seats in the recent midterm elections were seriously up for grabs. 69 candidates for the House ran entirely unopposed. This means that the “choice” of who will win a district is really determined in the party primaries, in which fewer than 20% of voters participate. Add to that the tens of millions who do not bother voting at all, and you have a government made up of politicians elected by billions of dollars and 10% or less of the electorate. Not surprisingly, that is roughly the approval rating of the majority-millionaire Congress. Disgusted by this travesty of genuine democracy, it is little wonder that only 13% of voters under 30 bothered voting.
The so-called “lesser evil” strategy is in tatters and has been exposed as a hollow and dangerous fiction. The “greater evil” is now in the legislative saddle and can’t wait to ride roughshod over the American working class. In response to his defeat, President Obama immediately reached “across the aisle” to his colleagues for collaboration and conciliation. His first order of business was to ask for $5.6 billion in new funding for the Iraq War, which voters sincerely believed he would end when he was first elected in 2008. Earlier this year, the president signed into law bipartisan legislation cutting $8.7 billion in food stamp assistance for the poorest families. His much-trumpeted plan for executive order action on immigration is little more than a partial codification of Bush’s antiworker and anti-immigrant proposals. So which is worse: the “greater evil” knocking at the gates, or the “lesser” varietal that opens them? Either way, the rich win and the workers lose.
Contrary to the pundits’ claims, these results by no means indicate a “shift to the right” by the American people. On issues such as raising the minimum wage, banning fracking, GMO foods labeling, marijuana decriminalization, tax increases on the rich, funding for public schools, legalization of gay marriage, voter ID requirements, and more, Americans have leaned decidedly to the “left” in recent popular referenda. Independent-left candidates have also done moderately well, despite their limited resources and campaigns. But with no viable mass alternative, the back-and-forth political ping pong game continues. The blame for this rests squarely with the current labor leadership. The National Education Association alone spent $60 million on the 2014 midterms and will receive nothing in return from either party but a kick in the teeth. How much better off would labor be if those precious resources had been used instead to lay the foundations for a nationwide labor party?
While both major parties represent the bosses, it could be said that the Republicans are currently the party of choice for the US ruling class. The Democrats represent the political “left boot” of the capitalists, and are useful to them only insofar as they are able to dupe the workers and youth into voting for them, in order to give the illusion that there is a “left” alternative on the mainstream political spectrum. If you follow the money spent by Wall Street in the 2014 cycle, they have clearly shifted their financial allegiance to the Republicans—though they continue to hedge their bets by contributing heftily to certain powerful Democrats’ coffers.
Two years ago, the Republicans seemed to have overplayed their hand with the “Tea Party.” They had moved so far to the right that they were alienating many of their own supporters, and risked falling perpetually into second place, with the Democrats as the “go-to” party of the bosses. Since then, however, they have successfully reined in many of the most extreme right-wingers, and have put forward more “moderate” candidates, with some even paying lip service to the environment, immigrant and women’s rights. This is part of the “secret” to their sweeping 2014 victories. Voters wanted something different—but not rabid right-wing ideologues. Sick and tired of the incumbents, those who bothered going to the polls cast a majority of votes for “the other guy.”
With illusions in their demagogic pro-worker pandering shattered by six years of the “School of the Democrats,” the Democrats are being squeezed out. The capitalists require solid and faithful defenders of their system in office, and given the choice between the “real deal” and the “lite” version, they chose the former this time around. Nevertheless, until a mass working-class alternative is formed, we cannot be too categorical in predicting what will happen with these two parties. Many variants and possibilities may yet arise. Remember, in 2002, the Democrats were considered dead and buried, and many said the same of the Republicans in 2006, 2008, and even 2012.
With the experience of a Republican congressional majority fresh in voters’ minds, Hillary Clinton may well be able to pull off another victory for the Democrats at the presidential level in 2016. However, if she drops her faux populism and runs even further to the right in a failed reading of the recent midterms, the Republicans may eke out the win. No matter what transpires, the historical shelf life of the current two-party system is limited. The frenetic oscillations between them cannot continue indefinitely. Long gone are the genuine mass illusions and enthusiasm that swept the Democrats into a congressional majority in 2006, and Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008.
The representatives of a diseased and decaying system cannot produce visionary leaders. What we are witnessing is a new phase in the growing polarization of American society—not between those who identify as Republicans and Democrats, as the media would have us believe—but between the classes. The political perspective for the future is therefore one of endless stalemate and mutual recriminations, while workers continue to wallow in a stagnant economy. It is no exaggeration to say that the potential for a mass party of labor based on the unions has never been greater. Without the support of organized labor, the Democrats would be on life support. It’s time to pull the plug!
Such a step would represent a political earthquake. The right-wing labor leaders and Democrats would rage and cynically blame the new party for “stealing their votes” and “losing” them elections. Never mind that the Democrats handily lost this latest election with absolutely no assistance from a labor party. With a mass political party based on at least a significant portion of the unions, labor’s hands would be freed up to take on the bosses on our own terms. The working class can rely only on its own organizations, power, and resources!
The Republicans have no mandate for harsher austerity and their arrogance will be met with a rising wave of resistance. Already, students have organized protests against right-wing school boards and walkouts to protest cuts. Strike actions by workers remain at historic lows, but we should not be lulled into complacency by superficial appearances. The tension is brewing beneath the surface and can erupt explosively when we least expect it.
Despite soaring stock markets, most people feel as though the economy never recovered from the crisis. Middle-income families’ standard of living remains at the same level as 1995—two veritable “lost decades”—and for the poor things are even worse. Although official unemployment levels are finally at precrisis levels, millions remain un- and underemployed, and wages are rising just barely enough to keep up with inflation. According to Doug Handler, chief US economist at IHS, “Jobs isn’t really the issue. It’s ‘good’ jobs, and improved pay for those already punching the clock.” And sooner or later, there will be another dip into recession, a systemic inevitability under capitalism. This is truly “as good as it gets” in the bastion of world capitalism.
In the years ahead, US politics are set to become increasingly volatile, opening up countless opportunities for the Marxists to win workers and young people to our perspectives. The more things rot at the top, the more American workers and youth will have no alternative but to take their political and economic destinies into their own hands. They will enter the stage of history on a scale and with an élan and militancy not seen since the 1930s. It may take several months, or it may take several years; but when the American working class enters the path of mass revolutionary struggle, it will shake the planet from crust to core.