Re-election of President Obama: The Bourgeoisie Prepares to Enact Austerity

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The 2012 Presidential election has come and gone with a positive result for the main factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie. Beating back a firm challenge from his Republican rival Mitt Romney, President Obama has secured re-election meaning the Democratic Party will now survive to guide the ship of state for another four years.

The post-election media narrative has been deafening. Obama won in a landslide they tell us, taking 332 Electoral College votes to Romney’s 206 and beating his rival by over 3 million popular votes. All the doomsday scenarios of another contested election like 2000 came to naught.[1] All of the state level GOP attempts to suppress the votes of likely Obama supporters hardly mattered at all. Obama now has a national mandate to govern and Obamacare is set to remain the uncontested law of the land. The Republicans, still licking their wounds from a trouncing that also saw them lose seats in the Senate, will almost certainly have to moderate their rhetoric and come to the negotiating table. Finally, after four years of obstinate obstructionism, the GOP will be forced to get a grip on reality and strike the grand bargain on deficit reduction that eluded the US bourgeoisie throughout Obama’s first term.

The more rosy pundits even expect that this election will spell the end of the Tea Party insurgency within the Republican Party. They claim the more rational elements within the GOP (Jeb Bush perhaps?) will now be able to assert themselves and regain control of the party, reinvigorating a healthy two party system once again. Still others foresee a civil war in the GOP as it struggles to come to grips with a new demographic reality in which its commitment to race baiting, retrograde sexual politics, anti-science conspiracy theory and immigrant bashing will never again permit it to secure the Presidency.

For our part, against the optimistic interpretations, we feel the results of the election, and the preceding campaign, confirm the analysis we have developed since Obama’s initial election regarding a developing “political crisis” of the American bourgeoisie. We should review what we have analyzed as some of the main features of this crisis:

  • The effects of social decomposition have been asserting a centrifugal weight on the bourgeoisie itself leading to an increasing inability for certain factions of it to act in the overall interests of the national capital. However, this process has not affected all factions of the bourgeoisie equally. The Republican Party has suffered disproportionately from an ideological degeneration calling into question its ability to act as a credible party of bourgeois government.
  • The inability of the bourgeoisie to find any solution to the continuing economic crisis has only strengthened the tendencies towards vicious factional infighting within the bourgeoisie. The ideological decomposition of the Republican Party means that it more and more abandons any attempt to manage the economic crisis in a rational way falling back on thoroughly discredited conservative economic dogma and aggressively pursuing anti-union policies that threaten to strip the state of its best bulwark against the working class.
  • Given its current condition, it is too risky for the main factions of the bourgeoisie to risk putting the Republican Party back in charge of the national government. This is despite the fact that the continuing economic crisis and the accompanying need to enact austerity would tend to suggest that it would adopt a strategy of the putting the left of its political apparatus into opposition in order to capture and divert working class anger into dead-ends that are not threatening to the capitalist social order.
  • As a result of the Republican Party’s degeneration, the Democrats are left to run the national government and carry through the needed austerity. This risks upsetting the traditional ideological division of labor within the bourgeoisie making the Democrats responsible for painful cuts to social programs and the Republicans running against the rhetoric of economic recovery.
  • Whatever its reservations about the Republicans assuming control of the national government, the main factions of the bourgeoisie are faced with a situation in which it is increasingly difficult for it to impose its will on the electoral process. The ideological decomposition of the Republican Party has been accompanied by a generalized ideological hardening of society itself. More and more, the nation is divided into two—roughly equal sized—political blocks. In a Presidential election, each candidate is assumed to start out with about 47 percent of the vote. With the Republican Party increasingly unwilling to accept the discipline of the main factions, each election is fiercely contested. Election campaigns turn more and more into a zero sum fight over the remaining “undecideds” in which fewer and fewer tactics are ruled out. Moreover, the structures of the US state—the Electoral College, equal representation of each state in the Senate, the management of national elections by state and local officials, tend to favor the less populated, more backward areas of the country, giving the GOP a certain advantage.
  • Obama’s Presidency, while providing an initial revitalization of the electoral myth among a population that had been turned off by eight years of the Bush Presidency, has only sparked an even more intense, and much more durable, right wing backlash. With conspiracy theories and racist stereotypes coming to define the President in the eyes of many, his Presidency has faced questions about its legitimacy from the very beginning, threatening to bring down his signature achievements such as the passage of Obamacare.

So, does Obama’s reelection spell the end of these difficulties, what we have labeled a “political crisis’? Are the main factions of the bourgeoisie right to celebrate their victory, believing, as they do, that it will mark a return to political normalcy in which the business of the nation will be the top priority once again? What about the working class? What role did it play in this election? Was the bourgeoisie able to maintain its momentum from 2008 and keep the population convinced that electoral democracy is the best way to protect its interests? What does Obama’s victory mean for the working class? What can it expect from his second term in office? We will try to shed some light on these questions, from a Marxist perspective, here.

The Meaning of Obama’s Victory For the Working Class

We should have no illusions about what Obama’s second term will mean for the working class. We can sum it up in one word: austerity. For all the campaign rhetoric the Obama team spewed, aided by their union and “progressive” allies, about protecting Social Security and Medicare from the right-wing “evil genius” Paul Ryan, it is clear that cuts to both programs have always been on the agenda for Obama’s second term. The only question is how deep the cuts will be and how fast they will be implemented.

It is pretty simple really. The US bourgeoisie, Democrat or Republican, left or right, are all in agreement that the nation’s fiscal course is simply unsustainable. They all recognize that in order to attempt to get the deficit under control “reforms” will have to be made to the so-called “entitlement” programs, which account for a large share of the nation’s budget woes. It is true that the policies advocated by former VP candidate Ryan, such as turning Medicare into a voucher program, were simply too draconian to enact at this time. It is also true that the main factions of the bourgeoisie reject the right-wing trope by which Social Security must be privatized in order to “save it”. However, none of this means that they will endeavor to preserve these programs as they are now. On the contrary, painful cuts are in the offing.

President Obama has already signaled his willingness to slash these programs. It was a major part of the so-called “grand bargain” he was in the process of negotiating with Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner in the lead up to the debt ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011. The only real difference in that matter was the President’s desire to bundles the cuts with certain tax increases on the wealthy in order that he could sell the bargain to the population with the poll-tested language of “shared sacrifice.” It was only Tea Party intransigence that prevented Boehner from agreeing to the grand bargain, forcing the complex machinations that now pose the threat of the so-called “fiscal cliff”: automatic tax increases and draconian spending cuts to kick in at the beginning of the new year unless a deal can be reached.

In fact, the political pundits are already on record that this is the real import of the election. Obama now has the political capital he needs to force the Republicans into a grand bargain that, at the very least, includes some tax increase for the wealthy that can be sold to the population as “shared sacrifice.” We don’t know for certain how deep the cuts will be or how fast they will be implemented, but there is little question that they are coming. The left of the Democratic Party can cry all it wants about “protecting the Big Three[2],” but can one really doubt that in the aftermath of whatever deal is reached, they won’t try to sell us on the idea that it could have been much worse if the Republicans controlled the White House? Or try to make us feel a little bit better that at least the billionaires will be kicking in their fair share? Of course, how exactly any of that helps the Medicare beneficiary who just saw their benefits slashed or their premiums go up, or the 65 year old coal miner, who will now have to wait another year or two to collect his measly Social Security check is never explained.

In terms of the overall economic picture, it is not at all clear that the situation can get any better in Obama’s second term. While the bourgeoisie turns its attention to deficit reduction, any thought of providing more stimulus for the economy is completely abandoned. There is simply no political will for any more government spending, despite the fact that the more serious bourgeois economists like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich have continuously called for another round of stimulus in order to try to pull the economy out of the doldrums.

It’s symbolic of the dead-end the bourgeoisie finds itself in that its focus on deficit reduction runs smack into the face of stimulating economic growth. The best the pundits can do on this score is to hark back to the glory days of President Clinton, who raised taxes and balanced the budget while presiding over the “largest economic expansion in American history.” So ahistorical and short sighted has the bourgeoisie become that they fail to remember that much of the “growth” of the Clinton years was the result of the debt fueled tech-stock and real estate bubbles that led to the current Great Recession! They seem to believe that the recipes of the Clinton era can be resurrected and applied today, regardless of the historical and economic context.

It is unclear whether or not the Obama administration really believes all its campaign hype about how much better the economy is getting under its tutelage. Regardless, even if it does recognize the need for further stimulus, there isn’t a whole lot it can do about it. Whatever new mood of cooperation the GOP may acquire as a result of their electoral “trouncing,” it is unlikely they would agree to a new round of stimulus. With Congress gridlocked on this issue, the Federal Reserve has recently been compelled to act on its own by buying up more mortgage securities, but most serious economists agree that this amounts to nothing more than a peashooter, when what is needed is something closer to a howitzer. In the end however, even if there were political will for such an endeavor, its unclear where all the money would come from—the printing press? Borrow more from China? All of this would fly directly in the face of the pressing need for deficit reduction. The bourgeoisie is truly stuck between a rock and a hard place. Even if they are able to pull off another round of stimulus, this would—in the end—amount to nothing more than kicking the can down the road.

All of this makes it patently clear that Obama’s triumph was not as victory for the working class. On the contrary, he now has enough political cover to enact the austerity he has planned all along and which the needs of the national capital demand. While there remains a certain danger to the bourgeoisie that the Democratic Party will be perceived as the party that presided over the looming cuts, this is tempered to some degree by the Obama administration’s ideological success in selling the population on the fact that under the Republicans, the cuts would have likely been much worse. It is most likely for this reason, rather than through a deep conviction and support for Obama’s policies, that many working class people bit the bullet in this election and voted for the Democrats. The logic of the lesser of the two evils appears to have carried the day.[3]

However, those workers who still have illusions in Obama’s Presidency, who still believe that he can “restore the middle class” or that he is some kind of champion of “workers’ rights,” need look no further than the events surrounding the Chicago Teachers’ Strike to get a real sense of where the President stands on these issues. We must not forget that it was the President’s cronies in Chicago that carried through these assaults on the teachers.[4] Can there be any doubt that this vision for the education sector—indeed for the entire working class—is ultimately shared by the President himself? The original architect for Mayor Emanuel’s plan to reform the Chicago school system was none other than former Chicago School Chancellor Arne Duncan—Obama’s current Secretary of Education!

We must assert against all the possible electoral calculations that the interests of the working class lie elsewhere—in its autonomous struggles to defend its working and living conditions at the point of production. It is understandable that workers fear the Republicans’ draconian attacks. It is quite possible that this party has lost any mooring in reality and would proceed to enact the most retrograde policies at the national level if it ever makes it back into office. However, should this mean we have to find solace in the Democrats? It’s clear that the only real difference between the parties at this point is how fast and how dramatic the cuts will be. In the end, both roads lead to the same place. When we vote for Democrats, it is we workers who are kicking the can down the road. The only real solution for our condition is to return to the road of our own autonomous struggles around class issues.

Is the Political Crisis Finished?

This brings us to the issue of the political crisis of the US bourgeoisie itself. Will Obama’s re-election put an end to the all the rancor within the ruling class as the bourgeois media has been telling us? Will the Republicans’ electoral “trouncing” cause the more rational factions in that party to reclaim it from the Tea Party lunatics? Is a new era of cooperation and progress in the offing in which both parties will turn their attention toward governing in the best interests of the national capital?

In answering these questions, it is first necessary to address the issue of the alleged electoral “trouncing.” It is true that Obama won by a large margin in the Electoral College, but only in the context of recent American politics can a 51 to 48 percent margin in the popular vote be considered a “landslide.” On this level, the election results only seem to confirm the reality that the United States is a deeply divided country. The population is so sharply divided that even month after month of relentless campaign propaganda painting Romney as a greedy vulture capitalist and Obama as an un-American socialist barely moved the final election tallies from 2008, when Obama bested McCain by 53 to 46 percent. So hardened have the ideological lines in society become that the challenge of building a national narrative is more severe than ever.

It is likely true that the emerging demographic trends within the electorate spell serious trouble for the GOP. If it is intent on continuing its brand of hard right policies based in large part in playing to white racial fear and gender based demagoguery, it is unlikely a Republican Presidential candidate will ever be able to build a broad enough electoral coalition to make it competitive against a strong Democratic one[5]. However, can we conclude from this reality that the GOP will necessarily be able to right its ship as the media predicts? This seems unlikely. Having stoked the flames of the white male backlash it does not seem reasonable to expect this element in the party to go quietly into the night. Should the Republican leadership compromise with Obama on comprehensive immigration reform (as most pundits suspect it will try to do), it seems quite possible that there could be a split in the Republican Party—something that would throw a major spanner in the works of the US two-party system. While we can’t say for certain that this will happen, the fault lines within the GOP are clear. It will be torn for some time between a wing of the party seeking to refurbish its image in order to maximize electoral success, and another intent on preserving ideological purity.

However, the Republicans are not the only ones with a demographic problem. Obama lost the white vote by a large margin. Whatever his advantages among blacks, Latinos, single women and young voters, he suffered severe deficits among blue-collar whites (in particular men). While in the context of a high turnout Presidential election, this arrangement favors the Democrats going forward, it remains unclear whether or not this will translate into lower turnout mid-term, state and local elections. The GOP, in whatever form, reformed or retrograde, will likely continue to be a force at these levels. In fact, even in the current Presidential year—largely due to corrupt gerrymandering—the GOP was able to retain control of the House of Representatives. The perspective appears to be one of continued partisan bickering rather than real cooperation.

On another level, the US bourgeoisie will continue to be dogged by the practical “reversal” of its traditional division of ideological labor. If it were obliged to keep the Democrats in power indefinitely pending a resolution of the Republican Party’s meltdown, this would pose serious problems for the legitimacy of the Democratic Party itself. Forced to preside over the coming austerity, the Democrats would have to own the policies they enact. This is something we saw play itself over the course of the recent campaign. What an odd sight it was, in the midst of a terrible recession, for the Democratic candidate to have to run on the illusion that the economy was improving, while the Republican candidate ran as the voice of the long-term unemployed whom the President had failed to help! How long can this situation hold? The Democrats only response to this is to argue that an intransigent GOP forces them into these policies and prevents them from being able to act to their fullest capabilities. While they have had some success with this tactic so far, how much longer can they keep it up before the Democrats become viewed as the party of austerity?

We should also acknowledge that President Obama’s first term was marked by the emergence of a genuine extra-parliamentary movement around the issues of the economic crisis in the Occupy Movement, which captured the public imagination for a period of time in the fall and winter of 2011. It appears that the U.S. bourgeoisie was able to recuperate much of the energy of this movement into Obama’s re-election campaign under the same “lesser of the two evil” logic that moved many workers to support the President. However, now that the election is over, it is reasonable to consider whether or not there is a perspective for the reemergence of similar movements should the economic situation fail to improve given that there will no longer be a pressing electoral campaign with which the bourgeoisie can blackmail it? If the Democrats come to be viewed as the party of austerity, will it continue to be able to divert the energy of future extra-parliamentary social movements into the electoral dead-end?

In the realm of foreign policy, it is clear that the Obama administration will continue to face growing threats to US hegemony, which it will find increasingly difficult to head off. Although foreign policy may not have been a major issue in the Presidential campaign, as evidenced by the third and final debate in which Romney basically agreed with Obama on most major issues of foreign policy, this does not mean that there are no tensions within the US bourgeoisie on these issues. Already, just a week after the election, President Obama is dealing with a major public relations debacle regarding the sexual indiscretions of CIA Director and Iraq surge hero General Petraeus.

While it is not clear what the ultimate import of this crisis will be, it seems the Republicans smell blood in the water and will certainly use this scandal to ramp up their investigations into the administration’s mishandling of the Benghazi consulate attack that left the US Ambassador to Libya dead. However this plays out, the US bourgeoisie will continue to face severe challenges to its imperialist hegemony including the possibility of a wider war emerging from the Syria crisis, continued tensions with Iran, increasing difficulties keeping its Israeli running dog in line and the growing threat to its hegemony coming from an increasingly aggressive Chinese imperialism.

In the end, while we think the main factions of the US bourgeoisie may have won another victory with Obama’s re-election, this does not completely reverse the tendency towards political crisis that has been gripping the US bourgeoisie for over a decade. While we do not have a crystal ball and we cannot tell how this situation will play out exactly, it seems likely that the road will continue to be very rocky. It is instructive that some political scientists who study US politics think we are on the verge of another party realignment. What shape that will take is not quite clear. The reality of decomposition makes it very difficult to predict with any certainty.

From our perspective, the re-election of President Obama does not herald a new era of peace, prosperity and cooperation. While it is true that there will probably be an attempt by the more rational factions of the Republican Party to retake it from the Tea Party, this does not guarantee success. Moreover, it would be a mistake to reduce the problems of the US bourgeoisie to this alone. The challenges facing it are immense and in all probability insurmountable. For the working class, the conclusion is clear—there is no salvation in this mess of bourgeois electoral politics. We can only pursue our interests on a fundamentally different terrain—that of our autonomous struggles around class issues.

--Henk

11/14/2012

 



[1] It is worth noting that the election in Florida was another disaster. Although it was ultimately decided in Obama’s favor—it was by a razor thin margin and it took nearly a week to count the votes, amidst allegations that the election was run in third world fashion.

[2] This is left wing Democrat and talk show host Ed Schultz’s term for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

[3] It should be noted, however, that the electorate was about 10 percent smaller this year than it was in 2008.

[4] See our article/leaflet “Solidarity With the Chicago Teachers” here: http://en.internationalism.org/internationalismusa/201209/5162/solidarity-chicago-teachers

[5] Of course, it is worth considering that even a “rock star” candidate as Obama was barely able to move the results much beyond a “margin of error” victory. One wonders what the results would have been with a less sensational candidate without such compelling personal appeal?