American workers have been on the receiving end of an onslaught of astonishing proportions, all of it caused by the bourgeoisie which considers the rest of the population to be a free-fire zone. In past months, the extra-juridical executions of black people by the police, the deaths of a quarter of a million people from Covid-19, the accelerated impoverishment brought about by the economic crisis and the refusal to send relief to the unemployed and hungry have intensified social distress. Added to which the elections and events around them have seemingly bludgeoned the population into the most extraordinary mindsets.
Clearly, faced with this barrage, the workers have been on the defensive. So, how do we assess their ability to fight back? To do this we have to unravel several themes in the social situation; in so doing we encounter its several unusual features.
Racism, Plague and Poverty
Throughout American history, racism has been an integral part of the social reality and as capitalism developed so this poison was used to divide the working class. The US party system with its Republican and Democratic organisations have each had what we might label their progressive and reactionary wings. But, especially since the Nixon era, their alignments have moved. For decades up to the early ‘70s, the Democrats were strong in the South with their support for segregationist policies, their high mark personified by Wallace of Alabama. However, the Johnson administration’s policy of desegregation, enforced by federal troops and agencies acting against the segregationists, changed the political landscape and weakened the Democrats among white supremacists. In their campaigns, first Goldwater’s and then later and most explicitly in Nixon’s Southern strategy the Republican Party decided to forego the black vote. Together with the predominantly white suburbs developments across the country, the combined effect led the Republican Party to move to the right and to monopolise the political projection of overt racism.
Although racist dog whistles have been used for years (such as in the elder Bush’s Willie Horton advertisements) Trump and his acolytes have weaponised it. The street murders of George Floyd and others have brought massive protests that were corralled and attacked by police and national guards. Inevitably, there were reactions leading to rioting and looting, these giving the government the opportunity, as always, to justify state violence by the need for law and order to defend innocent citizens and their property. It also gave Trump staging for photo-opportunities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created the backdrop for the strangest propaganda. In the face of appallingly high and increasing infections and deaths, Trump started by saying it was a Democratic hoax, later that it would just disappear, then that it could be dealt with by injecting bleach and finally, during the election campaign, he just ignored it – despite being hospitalised himself. All this from the man who has admitted publicly that he knew early on how dangerous it would be but decided to play it down. His lies have been intensified by several Fox News commentators, supplemented by further conspiracy theorists like QAnon and TV channels such as One America News. The deliberate neglect of the disease by the executive has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. And, most bizarrely, we see the internalisation of the denial of the very existence of the disease across swathes of the US population – a mental pandemic in itself.
In the first half of 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services ran a simulation exercise, entitled Crimson Contagion, – involving many branches of the American state, including health authorities and private companies, and established the state of readiness for a pandemic. Despite the findings showing clearly how unprepared the government and many agencies were, nothing was done; and this led to – among many other things – the almost universal lack of personal protective equipment. Consequently, the bosses put many workers between a rock and a hard place: either turn up for work and risk infection or stay home and don’t get paid. It was not only health workers in hospitals and care homes that were put at risk: many others such as delivery drivers and supermarket staff risked heightened exposure. This negligence was massively criminal, though not illegal in the eyes of this ruling class. Indeed, Trump went so far as to mandate some industries – including meatpackers – to keep production going. (And at one such plant, the bosses had a sweepstake on how many workers would contract Covid-19.)
How did the working class respond to all this? As individuals, workers of all colours were involved in the protests against the police murders of black people – and not just in the US but all over the world. This was in stark contrast to previous eruptions of only or mainly black people, such as in the Watts riots or after the Rodney King assault by white policemen. In various factories and depots, there were wildcat – and sometimes union-supported – struggles demanding PPE or danger money. But, collectively, the American workers have not gone into the fray despite the pandemic triggering a tsunami of layoffs across the country.
And then there’s democracy
Elections in bourgeois democracies do not provide measures of class antagonisms – none of the parties stand for the interests of the proletariat. However, they can provide some insight into major sentiments inside the class, which Marxists need to analyse. Many elections are characterised by an indifference to outcome as people appreciate how little one or other candidate will change their lives. Not this time. On this occasion, Trump’s behaviour over four years was a galvaniser. He had taken a stand – against the views of the majority of Americans – against gun control, health care options for all, and on the path to citizenship for the undocumented, including the ‘dreamer’ DACA children. On the other hand, and significantly, he oversaw the passing of the 2018 First Step Act which took legislative measures to dismantle consequences of the 1994 Crime Bill, sponsored at the time by one Senator Joe Biden, which contributed to mass incarcerations of black people.
The democratic process in the US has become something that every strongman in every tinpot dictatorship would have been proud of (Mugabe, eat your dead heart out). In addition to the customary gerrymandering that the parties always engineer, the Republicans have also gone flat out for voter suppression against blacks, false advertising campaigns, removal of drop-off electoral boxes, campaigns against mail-in voting, alt-right threats and armed demonstrations. Trump has topped this off with a denunciation of the entire electoral process as being rigged against him.
The bulk of the election campaigning was over the choice between Trump and not-Trump, rather than between Trump and Biden. There was little in the way of policy debated between the parties – neither between the presidential candidates nor between congressional candidates. In the outturn, many more people voted for Trump than in 2016 – even knowing what he stood for now rather than when he was a non-politician vowing to drain the Washington swamp. Yet, he was beaten by a record-breaking not-Trump vote. Overall, the Republican Party did better than Trump did himself and the Democratic Party as a whole weakened slightly from the 2018 mid-terms; they did retain the House majority – though we still have to see the outcome of the Georgia runoff on 5 January to see who has control of the Senate. We see again the long-term paradox of the Republican Party’s electability that, although it campaigns to give working people more post-tax money in their pay cheques, it always gives huge tax benefits to the wealthy.
A full sociological analysis going into which demographic voted for whom will not be available for some time. So, all we have for now are studies based on exit polls all with flaws. Nonetheless some broad statements can be made. Larger cities and urban areas tended to vote Democrat; rural and rustbelt areas tended towards the Republicans. Except for two areas (South Florida and southern Texas) Latinos tended to vote Democrat, as did Asians. Black voters tended to vote Democrat. White voters were split.
Of these latter voters, who did the white working class vote for? Even given that not everyone voting for Trump was a worker, there is little doubt that a substantial proportion of workers voted for Trump. Clearly, his rhetoric was effective in maintaining his base: against the Washington elite, against the exporting of jobs to China, demanding that allies pay their way, in broadcasting their fears, and showing that their voice was heard. All this, for many white workers, over-ruled Trump’s tax breaks for the wealthy, his attack on health care for the working class and the poor, his deliberate avoidance of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the blocking of a second relief package in the autumn.
And in his rhetoric, Trump’s dog whistle racism was a landmark issue for many white voters and the rest of the Republican party candidates for the House and Senate had to use Trump as a lodestone to get votes from his base. Even taking into account the presence of other strata in this voting category, this is a hell of a statement about the penetration of toxic and divisive ideologies into the working class, one that the ruling class has been pushing since American capitalism began. One can see the decades-old clashes between minorities and the police again being the excuse for the often-used ‘law and order’ mantra of the ruling class and that this plays to the fears in the American population about the police being the thin blue line separating Order from Chaos.
This intensity of belief (in Trump) and disbelief (in the mainstream news media) has a religiosity to it that can’t be dealt with on a rational terrain; an intensity capitalised on by the evangelical Christian churches. At least part of the explanation is that these people have been lied to all their lives by the spokespeople for American capitalism which is itself built on the biggest lie: its denial that the activity of the proletariat is the sole source of social wealth in the capitalist system. And supporting the big lie are other lies: that in bourgeois democracies the people are in charge; so, we are supposed to conclude, the rulers are really the servants of the population. This lie is embedded in the constant propaganda churned out by the print and broadcast media that aims to defend the existing order; over time journalists and politicians have become the two least respected occupations by society at large. No wonder that Trump’s denunciation of ‘fake news’ has been so effective among his base.
Also, the incredulity of a sizeable proportion of the population on matters such as the reality of the coronavirus needs serious consideration: even in the ICU of a South Dakota hospital dying patients have refused to accept that they had Covid and demanded to be told the truth. The distrust of the mainstream news media is, in some quarters, total. Any questioning of Trump’s victory leads to denunciation by his crowds – to the point where Fox News is now coupled with CNN in derogatory chants.
The ability to live in denial can persist through strong experience to the contrary; and history provides plenty evidence. The question for us is to determine how can events unfold so that the reality of exploitation and of shared working class interest becomes undeniable? There are two dimensions to the answer: one is the immanent tendency to crisis in the capitalist economic system, and the other is in the ongoing struggle between the two great classes over the trajectory of that system. However, capitalism is not going to collapse by itself no matter how crisis-ridden it is. Capitalism can only by brought down by a social force – and that requires a revolutionary subject, the working class, that consciously and self-consciously struggles against its enemy, the bourgeoisie. Despite the forceful protestations against racism and police violence we have seen this year, there was no powerful mass, class action. The way was left open for a massive bourgeois assault using their democratic machinery.
To denounce any racially-motivated campaigning for the Republicans does not imply any support for the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders, much less Biden, no more speaks for the American worker than Trump. And it was both Democrats and Republicans who could not agree to a second relief package … so they dropped it and went home for their fully paid holidays. We only point out that while both parties have toxins to prevent the workers from seeing their enemy, at this juncture, it is the Republican Party that is injecting most of the divisive toxins into the working class.
The situation is very serious for the proletariat. We have noted elsewhere the international development of social struggles, their connections, and the growth of class struggle within it. These augur positively for future struggle. But, alongside, there are many dangers and containment by bourgeois democracy is a major trap. As well as confronting the ruling class, the proletariat must look to itself to deal with the fractures that result from the stressors of bourgeois society. Most important is the racism that aims to divide workers. And in the US, as elsewhere, we can see the damage it causes.
30 November 2020