The politics of degenerate capitalism

From the new May-June 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2013-2014

II. The politics of degenerate capitalism

The rulers are not about to sit back and let revolt freely develop. All sorts of reactionary ideas and attitudes have been ushered into the mainstream of politics and the media.

State governments like Wisconsin’s and Michigan’s have taken the lead in ramming through reactionary laws (see “Undoing Michigan election,” Jan.-Feb. N&L). Recently passed anti-labor laws have already led to a sharp drop in unionization in states like Wisconsin and Indiana. Nationally, only about one in 15 private sector workers are in unions now. The state-appointed emergency manager of Detroit joins others in Michigan not only to deny democracy for majority-Black cities but to attack labor, African Americans and Latinos by dismantling union contracts, pensions, environmental protection and public education–as inadequate as all of those already were. (See “Detroiters organize,” p. 11.)

On a federal level, the sequester’s drastic cuts gave the Obama administration political cover to join the Republicans in imposing austerity on the U.S. President Obama followed up by writing cuts to Social Security and Medicare right into his budget proposal–before compromising with Congress.

Smarting from their losses in the 2012 elections, Republicans did appear to be in retreat on homophobia and the demonization of Latin American immigrants. A number of politicians changed their stance due to the historic shift in attitudes. Polls show that a majority favors legalizing Gay marriage, up more than 20 percentage points since 2004. However, the Catholic Church and the Christian Right are still crusading against LGBTQ people, and politicians still equate Gays with murderers and pedophiles. The mythical “traditional family” serves as a rallying point for patriarchal reaction that opposes any kind of liberatory movement.

Attempting to co-opt the Latino vote, many Republicans have muted their anti-immigrant rhetoric, though far Right groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform remain influential enough to be featured on Fox News. Yet the record number of deportations–1.5 million in Obama’s first term–reveals that, if anything, the treatment of undocumented immigrants has become more vicious under Obama than under Bush. Detention of immigrants also hit record levels, with 429,000 held in 2011. Human rights groups have lodged protests over the widespread use of prolonged solitary confinement on immigrants who were not even convicted of crimes. It is a form of torture.

Now a bipartisan immigration reform bill has a chance of passing. The bill, a compromise hammered out by power players in Washington without consulting with the millions of people actually affected by it, lays out an absurdly long path to citizenship, which would take 13 or more years. Or maybe never, since that would only be implemented if tightened “border security targets” are met. It would not dismantle the repressive deportation and detention machinery. A number of rallies took place in March and April from San Francisco to Miami, with thousands in Washington, D.C. The demands were to legalize immigrants, reunite families, and end deportations and detention.

Immigrant workers’ revolt has a new visibility and force in the last several years, not because the Republicans are worried about their votes but because immigrants showed their resolve in strikes and protests from the May Day 2006 strike/boycott to the 2010-13 eruption of “undocumented and unafraid” youth speaking out publicly at the risk of deportation. Immigrant workers from Latin America have been key to much recent labor militancy.

The 200-mile March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in March 2013.  Photo courtesy of CIW ciw-online.org/march/index.html.

The 200-mile March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in March 2013. Photo courtesy of CIW ciw-online.org/march/index.html.

One example is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ campaign to pressure Publix and Wendy’s to sign Fair Food Agreements to help stop exploitation and slave labor of farmworkers. Their 200-mile March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food ended March 17 with a rally of 1,500 farmworkers and supporters at Publix headquarters in Lakeland, Fla.

Despite lip service to Latinos and Gays, Republicans’ hostility to women’s freedom continues to deepen. Women not only are the first to suffer from the cutbacks in social programs, but are the specific targets of a whole raft of mean-spirited legislation aimed at controlling their lives. The blatantly unconstitutional anti-abortion laws passed by Arkansas, Kansas and North Dakota are just the tip of the iceberg. New laws have been cutting women’s access to abortions in many states. Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia have passed TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws that threaten to shut down all abortion providers in those states by imposing incredibly expensive regulations, hypocritically justified as “protecting women’s health” by politicians who would rather see women die than be able to get abortions. Most often, clinics that perform abortion also provide other vital health services for women, such as checks for cancer, birth control and AIDS testing. Anti-abortion ideologues do not care that closing down abortion providers means poor women are left without access to lifesaving healthcare.

Women are fighting the normalization of violence against women, as seen from their reactions to the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial and the suicide of 15-year-old Audrie Pott in Saratoga, Calif., after being raped while unconscious. (See “Violence ‘normalized,'” p. 2.) Whether in the U.S. or in the Arab countries, women are pointing out the need for fundamental social transformation and challenging actual revolutions to deepen. They are driven by frustration over continuing oppression and retrogression–and by the way women in the Middle East and North Africa have taken the historic stage in the uprisings and strikes of the last several years and then suffered a brutal backlash against their gains. (See “From India to Egypt to U.S., women fighting for freedom,” March-April N&L.)

A. American civilization on trial

“In a word, the new human dimension attained through an oppressed people’s genius in the struggle for freedom, nationally and internationally, rather than either scientific achievement, or an individual hero, became the measure of Man in action and thought.”
— Raya Dunayevskaya, American Civilization on Trial

The re-election of the first Black President could not hide the hollowness of U.S. democracy. Black masses have exposed that hollowness from the beginning, and indeed have put American Civilization on Trial (ACOT), which is the title of one of Marxist-Humanism’s foundational works, first published 50 years ago.

On the U.S. scene, the reality under Obama, as under Bush, is that, in everything from poverty to unemployment, to imprisonment, to police brutality, to health, to attacks on women’s autonomy, to the rapid restructuring of the educational system, African Americans are worse off than whites. While we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, one cannot help but notice that slave labor still exists in this country, both inside and outside of prisons; that the structure of our economy still depends on a superexploited layer of immigrant workers of this country not given the rights of citizens, as well as superexploitation of workers from China to Honduras to Bangladesh; that families are still being torn apart by armed agents of the state; that resisting this system of exploitation can land you behind bars, deported, or even dead.

From the police force to courts to prisons, the criminal injustice system remains a machinery of oppression and a focus of revolt. Youth of color, often targets of “stop and frisk” actions as well as killings by police (see “New Yorkers protest police murders,” p. 11), are in the forefront of opposing them.

One of the 2012 election’s features was the voter suppression effort aimed primarily at Blacks and Latinos, and the resistance it sparked. Coupled with that, Republicans used a phony narrative of victimization of whites plus gerrymandering to maintain partial control of the government. Now the Supreme Court appears to be on the verge of helping suppress votes by gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with a decision anticipated in June. Many of last year’s voter suppression efforts were only temporarily blocked by courts, and the expected Supreme Court ruling would restore other measures while sending a signal to racist local and state authorities to open the floodgates of disenfranchisement.

What ACOT shows throughout this country’s history is that the real moves to establish true democracy and a fully new society have come from below.

Across the U.S. there are determined struggles over school closings, housing and healthcare cutbacks. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed to close 54 public schools, on top of years of school closings, mainly affecting Blacks and Latinos. Angry parents, students and teachers have rallied, sat-in in the streets and demanded answers in hearings. In many cities schools are being closed or privatized.

Obamacare has not ended struggles over healthcare. In Chicago communities are still fighting the Mayor’s closure of several mental health clinics. Sit-ins have also protested the closure of emergency rooms on the South Side. Four activists were violently arrested by University of Chicago police in January at a sit-in by Fearless Leading by the Youth, demanding the University’s hospital reopen its trauma center to adults. They have been fighting for a trauma center on the South Side for three years since FLY founder Damian Turner was shot four blocks from the University of Chicago Hospital but taken ten miles away to die at another hospital.

Organizing for Occupation prevented the eviction of 82-year-old Mary Lee Ward of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.  Photo courtesy of Michael Premo flickr.com/photos/michaelpremo/6060165165/

Organizing for Occupation prevented the eviction of 82-year-old Mary Lee Ward of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Michael Premo flickr.com/photos/michaelpremo/6060165165/

As evictions and foreclosures continue at a fast clip, so do the struggles against them. Detroit, where the foreclosure rate is about one in every 500 homes, is one of several cities where anti-eviction groups, aided by Occupy, have successfully kept people in their homes when threatened with eviction.

All these struggles reflect the onslaught of austerity and privatization that hurts people of color the most.

As ACOT put it: “The elements of the new society, submerged the world over by the might of capital, are emerging in all sorts of unexpected and unrelated places. What is missing is the unity of these movements from practice with the movement from theory into an overall philosophy that can form the foundation of a totally new social order.”

The question arises: Where is the total view? Again and again, struggles arise from the grassroots but are carried out without raising a banner of a totally new society, with new human relations in production, between the sexes, and more. Those who would limit the movement’s reach have taken advantage of this to mislead.

Union bureaucrats succeeded in diverting the struggles in Wisconsin and Michigan into electoral channels. The “lesser evil” ideology shared by so-called Marxists and anarchists destroyed Occupy’s solidarity with the Syrian masses. And at the very time that large numbers of U.S. Blacks and Latinos came out to resist the Right’s attacks on voting rights, these same Left tendencies undermined Occupy’s solidarity at home by substituting abstract revolutionism (claiming that “voting makes you complicit with the imperialist system”) for the needed historic link to actual struggles–past, present, future–by Black masses to transform society.

B. Wars of the U.S.

Militarism has ever been one of the rulers’ favorite tools to sap revolt by the masses. There is no end to war in sight so long as capital drives society.

President Obama has set 2014 for the end of the war in Afghanistan. The Afghan people have every right to fear a recapitulation of what happened after Russia’s withdrawal in the early 1990s: no end to war, but a deadly struggle for power among multiple warlords, including the Taliban; and more exploitation and violence directed at women, youth, workers, and national minorities. Yet many look forward to the departure of an occupying force that has committed all too many atrocities, including bombings that killed children with their families, and the yet-to-be-punished massacre by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales of nine children and seven adult civilians in Panjwai one year ago.

There is no shortage of new vistas for war as the U.S., with bases in 130 countries already, undertakes its military “pivot to Asia” and at the same time expands its reach in Africa. With special forces and drones already based in East, West, and Central Africa, the new war in Mali accelerated the long-planned entry of the U.S. military into a number of African countries. (See “State of the U.S. wars,” March-April N&L.)

Iran’s approach to nuclear weapons capability remains a serious flashpoint. Saber-rattling over Iran by elements of the ruling classes of the U.S. and Israel is ratcheted up and down as politics demands, yet, as with North Korea, the danger of brinkmanship remains, as underscored by Obama’s trip to Israel, preceded by his adoption of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “red line” rhetoric.

The trip itself highlighted the administration’s unwillingness to take substantive action on the biggest spur to Middle East conflict: Israel’s imperialist occupation of Palestine. Words about a “peace process” were drowned out by the U.S. demand for Palestinians to drop their modest demand for a freeze of settlements as a precondition of talks.

Iraq, more than a year after Obama declared the war over, remains the poster child for the ruinous effects of U.S. war and occupation. Iraq still suffers from the sectarian and ethnic violence stimulated by the U.S. invasion ten years ago, giving an example of the kind of “peace and stability” that imperialism can live with in Afghanistan and Syria. The occupiers pushed Iraq toward an ethnic/sectarian-based politics. Prime Minister Maliki has exploited those divisions and shut out Sunnis to centralize power around himself.

The country is torn by violence, with frequent attacks on religious processions, political gatherings, and independent media. On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the invasion, 56 people were killed in 19 bombings in Baghdad. Fifty people were killed in one day leading up to the April 20 elections. Al Qaeda, which had little or no presence in Iraq before 2003, regularly murders rivals now. Power outages are frequent. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation has plummeted since the invasion. In cities like Fallujah and Basra, the incidence of cancer and birth defects has spiked.

(Part III will be posted next.)

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