It is hard to believe that nearly four years have already passed since the election of Barack Obama. The streets were filled with honking cars, waving flags, and shouts of excitement. Tears of unbridled joy and relief streamed down the faces of many. After eight long years of Bush, change had come at last! Or had it? As the months—and the crisis—wore on, it became increasingly clear that in all essentials, Obama’s presidency was more like Bush 2.0 than a new dawn of peace and prosperity.
By the time our next issue goes to press, millions of Americans will have cast their votes to determine whether he will remain another term, or be replaced by Mitt Romney. Millions of others will have simply stayed home; alienated, disenfranchised, and disgusted by the big money farce that is American democracy at the beginning of the 21st century.
The “school of the Democrats” has been a harsh one. Things are materially worse now than they were under G.W. Bush. The old adage that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is not empty propaganda, but a cold, hard fact. U.S. median households are now 4.8% poorer than at the start of the “recovery” in 2009. According to the Financial Times: “Median incomes have now fallen to the pre-internet level of 1993. All of the gains of the Clinton years have been lost. The decline in the past three years follows a 3.2 per cent drop during the recession, which itself followed a shrinkage during the 2000–2007 cycle.”
That is to say, not only have things not improved for the majority during the “boom,” but they have actually slid backward. This is truly as “good as it gets!” And things are even worse for those at the bottom end of the income scale.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 1.2 million households that make up the top 1% saw their earnings increase 5.5% last year, while earnings fell 1.7% for the 96 million households that make up the bottom 80%. Emmanuel Saez, a University of California at Berkeley economist who studied Internal Revenue Service data, has reported that in 2010, the 1% received as much as 93 percent of total income growth. Consumer spending, which accounts for some two-thirds of economic activity, jumped to its highest level in four years in August. Nonetheless, it still lags behind 2008 levels by more than 20 percent, and most of the spending came from higher-income households.
After Obama was elected in 2008, people were asked what his victory meant. “Jobs, baby!” was the enthusiastic reply of one person interviewed. And yet, official unemployment has remained double what it was during the Bush years for the entirety of Obama’s first term.
It has been a long, downward spiral for the majority of Americans. From 1979 to 2007, some $1.1 trillion in annual income shifted to the top 1%—more than the entire earnings of the bottom 40%. Little wonder the economy is the top issue on Americans’ minds, even after 3 years of a so-called recovery!
This is the stark reality in the world’s richest country. It is a case of democracy and prosperity for the rich, while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet and are offered no real political alternative.
“Heads I win, tails you lose,” fairly sums up the 2012 presidential elections. No matter who sits in the Oval Office in January 2013, the real winners and losers can be predicted in advance: Wall Street will win and the working class will lose.
To some, this may seem overly cynical. “Surely there is a difference between Obama and Romney! Better the ‘lesser evil’ than the ‘greater’ one!” But when Marxists explain that there is no fundamental difference between the Democrats and Republicans we simply mean this: despite this or that cosmetic or stylistic difference, both of these parties are defenders of the capitalist system.
Capitalism is a system based on private ownership of the means of production. Through their ownership of the key levers of the economy, the capitalists exploit the labour of the workers. As they own nothing of real value other than their ability to work—they cannot live off of stocks, bonds, savings, rental properties, inheritances, etc.—the workers must sell their labour power to the capitalists for a wage. While at work, the workers create more value for the capitalists than they receive back in wages—this is where profits come from. Workers agree to this arrangement, not out of big-hearted generosity, but because if they do not, they will be unable to feed, house, and clothe themselves and their families. This is the reality of capitalist exploitation.
To be sure, under slavery, there were “good” slave owners who did not beat and rape their slaves, who merely exploited their labour. Compared to the sadistic slaveowners, this may have appeared as a “lesser evil.” But it was slavery nonetheless! Capitalism has had over two centuries to resolve its problems. But it cannot resolve them: they are built into the system. It’s high time humanity moved on to the next stage of human social development: socialism.
As socialists, we fight for a different kind of society; one in which the working class democratically organises politics and the economy in the interests of the majority. The Democrats and Republicans enact and enforce laws that benefit the rich. In order to enact and enforce laws that benefit workers, we need a mass political party that represents and defends workers, and which can actually win state power. This is why the Workers International League never has and never will support a capitalist party or politician. This is why we fight for a labour party based on the trade unions, a party of, by, and for the working class. And this is why we argue that such a party must break with capitalism and fight for socialism.
Unfortunately, due to the role of the current labour leadership, there is no such alternative in 2012. This means that there is no real choice for the workers this election. This means that inevitably, one or another big business party will continue to call the shots. But this will not go on forever. Things can, must, and will change. People are learning, reflecting, and thinking.
Illusions in Obama’s message of “hope and change” have been mercilessly crushed by the reality of his administration. And yet, Americans are an optimistic, pragmatic people, who always feel that “something better is just around the corner.” As one political analyst put it, if you are sitting in a lukewarm bath, even the prospect of a single drop of hot water seems like an improvement! But there is no hot water to come. The capitalist crisis is convulsing the entire planet. Europe is at the forefront, but no country can resist being pulled into the turbulence: not even Germany, China, or the U.S.
The prospect of hearing the words, “Mitt Romney, President of the United States” justifiably terrifies millions of union members. This is why they will hold their noses on November 6 and unenthusiastically vote for Obama. And yet, a Romney presidency is a distinct possibility. This is due to the inherent nature of the Democrats and the failure of the labour leadership to offer a real alternative. If you adopt a “lesser evil” approach to politics and do not break with the two parties of big business, the “greater evil” will eventually find its way back into power—and it will be even more to the right than it was the last time around. This is a losing strategy!
As we have explained before, a Romney victory would mean all-out war on workers and their unions. The capitalists’ knives would be out and cuts and austerity would be accelerated. Many activists would be temporarily in a state of demoralisation and shock. But faced with this scenario, the workers would have no alternative but to fight back. The labour leadership would eventually be forced to mobilise the membership to resist these attacks. Mass rallies, demonstrations, marches on Washington, and a growing wave of strikes and student mobilisations would be on the order of the day. It would be a difficult period, but there would be many opportunities for the Marxists to explain our ideas to the radicalised workers and youth.
And what would an Obama victory mean? Obama promises to create 1 million new manufacturing jobs, but has not explained how he intends to do it. Even if he achieves this, it would be a mere drop in the bucket compared to the jobs that have been lost. More ominously, he has promised to cut the deficit by $4 trillion, which can only mean cuts and austerity. Even if he manages to modestly raise taxes on the rich, it will not roll back the losses of the last 30 years. A grand “compromise” on austerity would inevitably be worked out with the Republicans. The already Draconian recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission, which would slash Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social services, will seem like a tea party by comparison. Let’s be clear: cuts are cuts, no matter who implements them! Not only that, but austerity will not solve the crisis, and in fact will only aggravate it.
Nonetheless, Obama would likely enjoy a renewed honeymoon while the workers wait and see what he will do. The union leaders would do everything in their power not to mobilise the full force of labour against Obama. They would instead continue to play the game of the capitalists and rely on lobbyists, lawyers, courts, and backroom deals. Without a lead and perspective for struggle on the streets and at the workplace, and with cuts raining down from this alleged “friend of labour,” there would inevitably be confusion and dejection among many rank-and-file activists.
Our task during such a period would be to patiently explain, to win the ones and two to our programme, ideas, and perspectives, and train them in Marxist theory and methods. We would have to guard against moods of impatience and frustration, which are the bane of revolutionaries. Because as night follows day, every period of relative calm, no matter how prolonged, is followed by a storm. This must be our perspective!
Romney promises to “lead America back to greatness.” Obama promises to build a “strong and thriving middle class.” Ultimately, neither candidate has a solution to the crisis of capitalism. It has a logic of its own and is far bigger than the will or personality of this or that individual. The reality of the situation has been outlined above.
It is impossible to predict the election result in advance. Romney’s consistent gaffes and general unlikeability would seem to doom him to defeat in a contest devoid of any real content. For many voters it boils down to “who do I think is lying the least?” But a week is an eternity in politics. International events and the economy are wild cards largely out of Obama’s hands, and can crash the best-laid campaign plans. A 2000-style post-election fiasco also cannot be ruled out.
The candidates are virtually neck and neck headed into final weeks. Had Obama delivered even a fraction of what he promised, he would be a virtual shoo-in to win. On the other hand, given the state of the economy and the depths of disillusionment with Obama, Romney should have sealed the deal by now. And yet, only 54% of voters are satisfied with the choices being offered, the lowest level since 1992. By comparison, in 2008, 72% of voters said they were satisfied with the choice between Obama and McCain. Even these low numbers hide the reality, as the millions not counted as “voters” are not reflected in these polls.
A close race benefits the capitalists. Strategists from both campaigns have literally said that they expect (and want) the result to be determined by a “handful of voters in a handful of states.” Some democracy! In addition to allowing them to sell more advertising as people tune in to the debates and final weeks of the campaign, it increases the likelihood of deadlock after the polls close. Deadlock leads to frustration, and frustration leads to the acceptance of “compromise.” It is easier to sell austerity to the public in the name of “bipartisanship” than it is to carry it out unilaterally.
The presently existing third-party candidates will not make a dent in the two-party system. Even Jill Stein, the presidential candidate for the Green Party, acknowledges the need for a genuine labour party: “Imagine if labour had spent the over $15 billion they spent on the Democrats over the last 40 years instead building an independent labour party and movement. Today we would have scores of labour party organisers in every state supporting a broadly based party of the working class majority.” The labour movement does have a choice: it must choose class-independence. Instead of calling for a vote for “labour-endorsed” or “not-a-Republican” candidates (both code for “Democrat”), the enormous resources of the unions must be harnessed to build a labour party. Once such a party is created, the choice will no longer be between Austerity Party A and Austerity Party B.
With a bold program to make the rich pay for the crisis, to create millions of jobs through a massive programme of useful public works, for higher wages, universal health care and education, and safe, affordable housing for all, a mass labour party could fight for power and win. Not only that, but workers would be emboldened to fight for better wages and conditions at the workplace. For the first time in decades, the workers would be on the offensive, not the defensive. The only thing preventing this from happening is the subservience to the Democrats of the current labour leadership. But this cannot last forever. The pressure is building. These leaders will either be pushed to the left or pushed out altogether.
In these turbulent times, every election marks a point of inflection in the consciousness of the workers. Changes in mood are not linear and can fluctuate wildly from day to day. But the overall trend is clear: beneath the apparently calm surface of society, the workers are becoming increasingly radicalised. The Occupy movement, the struggles in Wisconsin, of the Chicago teachers, and of Walmart warehouse workers, although still not generalised, are an indication of this. At a certain stage, the workers will move as a class to take their destinies decisively into their own hands, and the entire situation will change.