US politics and the state of the left
By Wael Elasady
I want to say thanks to the Socialist Forum and to all the comrades who helped organize the event.
I want to especially thank two comrades. Elia who I am facebook friends with and who I first reached out to about meeting comrades here
and to Furat who had to deal with me giving her my talk to translate 13 pages one night before the event.
Statement about international solidarity.
This election season has been unlike any other that I have lived through. More and more American politics were looking like contest between political dynasties, like the Bushes and the Clintons. Instead we have seen a real polarization which has surprised everyone’s expectations of what would happen.
On the one hand there is the rise of Donald Trump. A candidate who makes the most appalling and idiotic statements yet it seems like nothing will damage his campaign. He has called Mexicans criminals and rapists. He has promised to build a wall between Mexico and the US and make Mexico pay for it. He has said the most sexist things, most recently stating that women should be punished for having abortions. Most notoriously he has called for a ban on all Muslims entering the US.
Trump has set as a goal to get rid of so-called “political correctness”. Which is to say he wants to make open racism and sexism acceptable. And in some ways it's working. One poll in South Carolina found that among Trump supporters in the state's primary, some 80 percent want to ban Muslims from traveling to the U.S. In Trumps rallies his supporters have attacked protesters with Trump encouraging them from the stage, vowing to pay people's legal fees if they hurt a protester.
Trump is giving legitimacy to disgusting racist and reactionary ideas--and confidence to the most right-wing elements of U.S. society--and he is doing this at a time when Islamophobic hate crimes are on the rise.
On the other hand there is Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders campaign which many thought would not seriously challenge Clinton but he has gained more support than anyone would have imagined. The campaign has helped to change the election season to one in which the anger at the system and aspirations of millions are being expressed in heated national debates. All of a sudden it has become acceptable in mainstream American politics to demand free education, taxing billionaire class, universal healthcare, ending racial profiling, and equal pay for women!
Sanders rallies are drawing thousands of supporters. In my hometown of Portland Sander’s rally drew some 27,000 and a recent rally in New York drew some 48,000. But it is not just that Sanders has a left wing ideas and is inspiring a young and radicalizing base. It is that Sanders as a self identified socialist has helped to bring forward discussion of socialism in a way that none of us in the US have seen perhaps since the 60s.
For example. In the lead up to the Iowa caucuses 43% of democrats used the word socialist to describe themselves. Not just that they prefer socialism which is also very high but that they would describe themselves as Socialists. This is incredibly exciting for those of us who are building explicit independent socialist organization in the United States.
But to understand the elections today we must look beyond this particular moment to understand the deeper roots of what is happening in US politics. So I want to take a moment to lay out that context.
The Neo-liberal Offensive and the immiseration of the American working class
This polarization both to the Right and the Left has its roots in a 30 year neoliberal assault on the working class of the US and the 2008 economic crisis which further increased class inequality. In the 1970s the US was faced with a global economic crisis of profitability, rising competition from Japan and Germany, and radical struggles in the streets from the civil rights movement, to the women’s liberation movement to the Anti-war movement. The capitalist class of the United States decided to carry out a massive counter offensive to restore its profitability and roll back the gains won by the working class in the struggles of the 30s and the 60s.
To restore its profitability and global competitiveness the US ruling class worked to reduce the social wage by defunding and dismantling government programs like Welfare, which had previously provided poor Americans with some relief, as well as attacks on unions, which had guaranteed workers wages and benefits.
To accomplish this, they needed to attack the social movements and gains of the 1960s movements. So there was a ratcheting up of racism and sexism. Direct open racism was no longer possible but instead blacks in the US were instead referred to as thugs and criminals under the idea that “law and order” needed to be restored. This lead to the rise of mass incarceration with the US having the highest rate of people in jail in the entire world, with black suffering at much higher rates. So that today There are more African American men in prison or under state supervision than were enslaved in 1850
This was also the period in which the Republican Party in the United States began to turn to the Christian fundamentalist right to attack the gains of the women’s movement and oppose LGBT rights.
These caricatures of blacks were also central to attack the welfare state in the US. Ronald Reagan used the racist stereo-type of the “welfare queen”, a lazy black women who simply has children to collect checks from the government to justify “smaller government” to white voters and attack a welfare program which hurt the living standards of all American workers black and white.
This racism and sexism was central to dividing the working class and allowing and justifying the attacks on its living standards in the US.
The rightward shift was carried out by both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans were the sharp edge of the attack while the Democratic party followed providing a liberal veneer to make the massive misery that was being forced on the working class.
This lowering of the living standard of Americans of course was accompanied by the weakening and disorganization of social movements and working class organizations. There is perhaps no better gauge of this than the number of workers organized in unions in the US, the basic form of worker organization, and fight back today has dropped to about 10% while, 50 years ago nearly 30% of U.S. workers belonged to a union. And today strike levels are at all time lows.
As a result of this decades long offensive by 2008 Americans were working longer hours, at worse jobs, for less pay, paying more for education and health care and with little to no hope of being able to save for retirement.
Then, the 2008 economic crisis hit, further exacerbating these problems as the government rushed to rescue the banks and financial institutions using the taxes of working class people while millions lost their jobs and homes without any help.
Today the U.S. has the most extreme inequality in the whole of the developed world. Fully One out of every four jobs are considered "low wage". Male worker’s wages are actually lower than they were in 1973 and overall household income has fallen 9 percent since 2000. And if you want to get an education in the hopes of trying to avoid getting a low paying job, you will be racked with crippling debt with the average college student graduating with 30,000 dollars in debt. On top of lower incomes and increased education and healthcare costs, working families have taken a huge hit to their number one source of savings, their homes with some 5 million homes going into foreclosure since 2008.
This is the first generation in the US that will have a lower life standard than its parents generation and for the first time life expectancy is dropping. And In every single one of these statistics the conditions facing blacks and latinos and women workers are even worse.
There is perhaps nothing that better symbolizes this neglect than Flint Michigan which is a poor and majority Black city, which had its water supply contaminated and poisoned by lead because city officials wanted to cut back on spending. And there are many places in the U.S. that has this type of crumbling and dangerous infrastructure.
This is happening at the same time as 60% of Americans do not have 500$ in their bank to handle a basic medical emergency. Far from the American dream, the US today for millions of Americans is nothing short of a Nightmare.
Its is these conditions which provide the context for the polarization we see expressed in the elections today. On the one hand, worsening conditions are producing a huge amount of anger. On the other a working class who after 30 years of attacks lacks organizations to provide sustained mobilization and expression for that anger. Therefore, this accumulated anger by the working class is being expressed in the only game in town in the US. The two-party capitalist system.
Trump’s campaign reflects both the bitterness and sense of hopelessness that many White Americans feel. He has been particularly effective at playing on the discontent at declining living standards by attempting to scapegoat and blame immigrants, foreigners, women and Muslims. He also appeals to people's sense of disempowerment, especially the feeling that the government doesn't work in their interests, and that politicians are disconnected from their concerns promising that he alone can “make America great again”.
Many try to explain Trump's support, to that of easily duped and racist white workers. But people in the U.S. today don't have to be duped into thinking their living conditions are deteriorating. Trump’s message resonates because the politicians both of the Democratic and Republican parties, who represent “mainstream” American politics, have offered nothing but misery and more economic misery for ordinary people. And they have fostered racism, sexism and the most reactionary ideas to further their anti-working class agenda. This is what opens the door to Trumps racism and scapegoating.
Therefore, Trump, far from being something having nothing to do with American politics, is a monster that this system spawned created, which it now cannot control. And for this reason the only way to curb support for Trump is not to vote for the same politicians that created these conditions but rather to directly challenge his bigotry, as thousands of young people in Chicago did when they went out and protested his rally and forced him to cancel his event.
It has taken a self-identified socialist, Bernie Sanders, to provide a more hopeful, left-wing alternative--that's the secret of Sanders' extraordinary success.
And on a final note on Trump, it's important to note that it's not Trump who is winning over working class voters. Poll after poll show that Trump has not been able to expand his vote count beyond the traditional base of the Republican Party. In fact, he has some of the lowest likability ratings even among his supporters and contrary to the image put forward by the media among white voters, Trumps gets lower percentage of the vote than both previous two republican candidates. He has continued to lose support lately and in every poll it shows that Trump gets handedly beaten by both Democratic candidates, this is part of the reason the Republican elite are opposed to his campaign because they know it will spell disaster for the Republican party in the general elections.
Its is actually Sanders and his radical message that has captured the support of young and working class Americans. Now I want to say a few things about the Bernie Sanders campaign and how some Socialist groups in the US are orienting on this campaign.
The first thing that I think has to be said is that Sander’s has certainly helped to give expression to, embolden and validate a growing left wing radicalization especially among young people. But Bernie Sander’s himself did not create this radicalization and neither can it simply be reduced to his campaign or support for his campaign. As I mentioned earlier what has set the stage for this growing left-wing consciousness among young people in the United States is the dismal economic conditions they experience in their everyday lives which are exposing, for millions, the nature of capitalism.
As my comrade in New York put it, "Bernie’s message around universal healthcare is popular because today healthcare costs, are the leading cause of bankruptcy." And "Bernie’s message around free education is popular because today college students graduate with $30,000 debts.
Bernie Sanders campaign has benefited from a host of struggles and social movements, both national and international, which emerged after the economic crisis 2008. They changed the horizon of what was possible, increased people's confidence and expectations and set the ground for the support Sanders is getting.
This started in 2011 with Egypt and the Arab Spring, in which a generation of young Americans saw for the first time the idea that revolution was a real living breathing possibility. The effect of the Arab uprising cannot be underestimated internationally. A whole generation of activists in the US were glued to their television watching Al Jazeera's live stream and seeing for the first time a living breathing revolution in the making.
It is no surprise that several months later, teachers and students who took over the capitol building in the state of Wisconsin held signs, which said “walk like an Egyptian” and they compared their hated governor of their state to Hosni Mubarak.
Not long after, the Occupy Wall Street Movement erupted in cities across the US, taking over hundreds of public squares and parks just as Egyptians had done in Tahrir and bringing the language of class back into US political vocabulary with their slogans of the 99% vs. the 1%. It is the language which Bernie Sanders today uses.
And it was the rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore by the African American population in response to police murders of black youth and the hundreds of cities that joined in protest to say that Black Lives Matter, which has made racism a central issue that every single Democratic Presidential candidate has had to seriously address.
Sanders' campaign message and the progressive reforms he proposed have given voice to the sentiment behind many of these struggles and the reforms he suggests would be a huge step forward for workers and students. But Bernie Sanders' campaign has decided on a strategy of running inside the Democratic Party, one of the two major parties of the capitalist class in the United States, which stands against everything that is unique about Sander’s campaign and the ‘political revolution’ he promises.
Furthermore, Bernie Sanders has promised over and over again that if he is to lose the nomination, as is most likely the case, he would not run as an independent but rather that he would endorse Hillary Clinton, the candidate of Wall Street and the 1%. However much he disagrees with Hillary, Sanders will agitate for social movement activists to vote for the lesser of two evils. The result is that he will help pull people on the left from taking any steps toward building a genuine alternative to the two-party status quo and towards the dead end task of attempting to reform the Democratic Party, a task that has failed every time it has been attempted in the history of the US and it has been attempted many times.
Rather than pulling the Democratic party to the left or transforming the party, those trying to reform the party inevitably end up being pulled to the right. It is for this reason that the Democratic Party is called the graveyard of social movements. It is a shock absorber for the capitalist system and the primary mechanism that capital uses to incorporate and dominate social movements and paralyze any attempt to break out of its rule.
This of course is no conspiracy of Bernie Sanders, he is genuine about the reforms he wants to enact and I believe he is a genuine social democrat. But he has been very forthright. Since the 1990s, he has stated openly that he does not believe 3rd parties are possible and today openly states that his hope is to “revitalize the Democratic Party by bringing millions of young people and movements into it."
It is just that this strategy, whether intentionally or not will ends up breathing life back into the Democratic Party at exactly the time when its policies were becoming discredited and when the opening to begin building a genuine alternative for the working class was becoming possible.
Socialists and the Bern
This is the central challenge that has faces socialists and revolutionaries in the United States: how to relate to the very real and very promising radicalization of the millions of Bernie Sanders supporters without strengthening or getting pulled into one of the historic parties of capital. The organization that I am a member of, the International Socialist Organization, is approaching the Sanders campaign by engaging and debating with the massive audience that Sanders is reaching, without endorsing or participating in his electoral campaign.
Furthermore, we are honestly telling Sanders' supporters that we agree and support many of the reforms being proposed, but we disagree with Bernie’s strategy and do not believe the Democratic party itself cannot be reformed or revitalized. Instead we are calling for a protest vote for Jill Stein, the independent Green Party candidate, which has just as progressive of a domestic program, but is much better on questions of imperialism than Sanders, who opposes the Palestinian BDS movement, supports Obama’s imperial position on Syria, and supports the US drone program.
At the same time, we continue to carry out a united front with Sanders supporters by working with them around initiatives and actions outside the electoral arena--organizing against police brutality, in support of union struggles, fighting for minimum wage increases and building the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid. We participate in organizing forums, debates, exchanges and dialogues with Sanders supporters and others on the left in unions, on campuses and in our communities.
We have generally found a great willingness among Sanders supporters to discuss and debate many of these issues and we hope that we can win a minority of them to independent socialist politics through the course of the elections and beyond. However, we understand that the pressure to line up behind the democratic candidate will be massive and many Sanders supporters who today loath Hillary Clinton will be pressured into voting for her.
It is important to note that in the United States we are still at the very beginning of the radicalization process, which is still very far from breaking the monopoly of politics that the two parties of capital hold. First, there is a large gap today between the level of anger at the system and the political and organizational capacity to translate this anger into lasting blows against capital. After 40 years of a one sided class war in the US, which has severely weakened and disorganized the social movements and labor unions, the left is at the very beginning stages of rebuilding our political and organizational capacity.
Furthermore, unlike Europe, in places like Greece or Spain where Podemos and Syriza were able to break the hold of the neoliberal parties, in the US we face a very rigid and undemocratic two-party system. It will take much higher levels of struggle and working class organization and militancy for us to begin to mount a serious challenge to break this system in the US.
At the same time, the election cycle this year has shown the anger of millions of Americans at the inequities of the capitalist system. The world economy today stands on the edge of another recession and we know that the 1% has only more economic misery, more wars, more racism and sexism in store for us.
People will fight back and struggle, as they did in 2011 and throughout history. This we can be sure of, just as the Chicago teachers did two weeks ago when 30,000 flooded the streets their city to demand that we tax the rich and fund schools, just as Kuwait’s oil workers who are on strike are doing today, just as our Egyptian brothers and sisters have been bravely doing this past week and just as the people of France have been doing by their hundreds of thousands.
But the main lessons we learned from every struggle in this past period whether it was the Arab revolts or the Occupy Movements is that political organization matters.
Polarization does not only occur to the Left during capitalist crisis but also to the right.
If the Left and revolutionaries are not able to build their organizational strength and capacity to lead, we know all too painfully that even the largest mass struggles can be defeated and captured by reactionary forces.
For this reason our organization sets as a primary task to help train experienced Marxist cadre, to connect our movements together and to help in building an independent party of the working class to fight,overthrow capitalism, and build the better world we all deserve.
Wael Elasady is a Palestinian Syrian living in Portland, Oregon and is active in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). He is a co-founder of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights and a long-time member of the International Socialist Organization.