The glory days of American capitalism are over. Long gone are its youthfulness, enthusiasm, and idealism. The signs of extreme decay and senility are everywhere as the divisions within the ruling class are put on public display. The longest partial government shutdown in US history is just the latest example.
At the time of writing, there is no end in sight to this game of political chicken, which has real consequences for millions of American workers.
The ruling class may have differences from time to time. But for decades, the growing wealth gained from the exploitation of the working class—both here and abroad—meant that there was plenty of money for the capitalist parties to make deals and pass legislation.
Under Trump, the government has been shut down three times, even though the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for the first two years of his presidency. Trump had made a preliminary deal to keep the government funded and open. But in December, after the Republican House and Senate voted this through, Trump changed his position and demanded funding for his “border wall” as right-wing media personalities reminded him of one of his central campaign promises.
In the midst of this third shutdown, the Democrats took over the House of Representatives after riding a modest wave of anti-Trump sentiment in the last election. The latest polls show that his approval rating has dropped back down below 40 percent. Even “non-college educated whites”, a layer that voted heavily for him in 2016, have begun to turn against the president.
The shutdown and the wall
In the US Congress, flowery, semi-aristocratic language is typically used: “Madame chair, I yield to the gentleman from North Carolina!” This language was based on an understanding that although different sections of the capitalist class can have conflicting regional and/or business differences, they are united against the vast majority of the population.
Over the last century or so, disagreements in government have been handled in a generally civil manner. But the ongoing breakdown in this civility is a reflection of polarisation in society. Both Trump and the Democrats feel they cannot compromise over whether to fund the building of a wall on the southern border. Or, put another way, they cynically believe they can gain more than their opponents through continued intransigence.
The Democrats and Trump have no disagreement on general federal spending—they both agree to cut and underfund social services, education, infrastructure, and anti-poverty programs. Even on the issue of “border security”, the Democrats are willing to give the president plenty of money for drones, surveillance, and militarisation.
And even though many of these Democrats have voted for barriers along the southern border in the past, now they are drawing a calculated line in the sand. Similarly, Trump had no problem approving previous budgets and appropriation agreements and only now is demanding that over $5 billion be allocated to his wall.
The only way to understand this is to look at the politics. Trump won the election promising his supporters good jobs and high wages, like America had in the past. Furthermore, he promised to invest in infrastructure, implement a better healthcare system, and to build a wall—funded by Mexico.
Two years into his administration, Obamacare is still in place, the high-wage jobs are few and far between, nothing is being done on infrastructure, and Mexico has said that it will not pay for the wall. Given his recent election setbacks, Trump feels he must deliver to his base, and the rabid right-wing media personalities constantly remind him of this. Hence, Trump has demanded money for his wall and is holding federal appropriations hostage.
The Democrats' opportunism
The Democrats have dug their heels in for similar reasons. The Democrats won the 2018 midterm elections by being “anti-Trump”. In the absence of a mass party of the working class, they benefited from the votes of many workers and youth who want higher wages, free universal healthcare, and education. They also voted Democrat to send a message of opposition to the racist rhetoric and immigration policies of the Trump administration—temporarily forgetting that Obama still holds the record on deportations.
The Democrats, as loyal servants of the ruling class, are not about to fight to significantly increase spending for the working class, nor do they fundamentally challenge “border security”. However, with the 2020 elections already in their sights, they want to appeal to those voters who gave them an additional 40 seats in Congress. They have therefore decided to oppose Trump's wall.
As soon as the Democrats took the position of Speaker of the House, they voted to accept rules known as Pay As You Go, or “PAYGO”. Having previously accepted Trump’s huge tax cuts for the rich, which ballooned the deficit, they have now decided that any spending proposals must be linked with the means to pay for it—either cuts to existing spending or new taxes.
Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib, who all identify as “socialist”, have opposed this. They have correctly stated that this is a legislative manoeuvre to deny the establishment of reforms such as free, universal health care. However, they remain committed to working with or within the Democratic Party. Needless to say, we believe this is a mistake. Instead, they should break with the Democrats and use their public profile to call on the labour leaders to do the same and to build a working-class party.
After one of the longest “recoveries” in the history of American capitalism, the federal budget deficit stands at roughly $856 billion and the national debt is around $22 trillion. Marxists agree that in order to fund reforms, the government cannot simply print money. But the main issue here is not legislative rules like PAYGO. It is about who owns and controls the industries that dominate society. There is plenty of wealth available to fund education, health care, higher wages, and to rebuild infrastructure, but this must be administered by public, democratic planning, not the market.
Consequences for workers
In the standoff between Trump and the Democrats, some 800,000 federal workers are either furloughed—out of work—or forced to report to work without pay. This affects workers in every state, including 70,000 workers in the Washington, DC area, more than 30,00 workers in California, and another ten states that each have between 10,000 and 30,000 workers without their pay checks. Federal agencies such as Treasury, Agriculture, Justice, Homeland Security, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and even the State Department are affected.
These federal workers are receiving the first lashes of the whip. It is estimated that 78 percent of American workers live pay check to pay check—given the high cost of housing, transportation, education, and healthcare, as well as the personal debt burden.
Going weeks on end without a pay check has caused much pain and suffering for these workers and their families, many of whom have resorted to appealing to the public for rent money on GoFundMe. In addition, workers employed by federal contractors, such as cafeteria, cleaning, and maintenance workers, among others, are out of work indefinitely with no hope of getting any back pay when the impasse is finally ended.
Americans who depend on these government services are also suffering from Trump’s whip. As an example, immigration court cases are more backed up than ever, and workers waiting for a tax refund must now wait longer. The world-famous Smithsonian Museums and National Parks are also closed or operating with severely limited access.
The ruling class owns the workplaces, factories, and the media, controls the government, and dominates society in general. But the working class is the overwhelming majority and nothing can be built or operated without its consent. The strength of the working class lies first and foremost in its unity. Teachers in Los Angeles have more in common with teachers in Buenos Aires or Tunis than with Trump or Pelosi. Autoworkers in the Midwest have more in common with Mexican and Canadian workers than with Schumer or McConnell.
We must reject the “border security politics” of the ruling class. Workers south of the border are no threat to “the security” of workers in the United States. What will strengthen and “secure” the lives of American workers is a united struggle across borders against the bosses. All workers, wherever they are born, whatever their status, must unite against the rich to win job security, living wages, free healthcare, and everything else we need. Together we can transform the US, the Americas, and the world.
Workers have the power to put an end to the endless nonsense we are forced to endure under capitalism. Already, there have been “sick-outs” by some 3,800 TSA workers, and growing protests by air traffic control workers. Imagine if they organised a total strike and appealed to the rest of the labour movement for support, starting with the airline workers. This would hit the ruling class’s bottom line hard and fast and they would force Trump and co. to reopen the government.
Reagan only succeeded in firing the air traffic controllers during the PATCO strike in 1981 because the AFL-CIO leaders left them isolated. But if public and private workers unite to fight back against the employers and their government, the long decline of organised labour could be quickly reversed.