Political Decay and Economic Crisis: US Ruling Class Faced With No Easy Options

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Internationalism has devoted an article in each issue since the November 2010 Mid-Term elections to analyzing the political situation facing the U.S. bourgeoisie. Our analysis has centered around the increasing difficulty of the U.S. political class to overcome the effects of social decomposition on its own apparatus, expressed primarily through the progressive descent of major elements of the Republican Party into openly ideological politics—a situation that puts the GOP’s ability to act in overall interests of the national capital in jeopardy. In our last issue, we analyzed how this process has been carried the furthest at the level of state government, evidenced by the totally ham fisted attempts of certain Republican Governors to smash public employee unions, thus depriving the bourgeois state of one of its most important bulwarks against class struggle.[1] In our analysis, these policies run counter to the overall need to maintain a functioning union apparatus, faced with the threat of renewed class struggle in response to an economic crisis that shows no signs of going away.

As a result of this descent into ideology by elements of the U.S. political class, the main factions of the national bourgeoisie[2] now face a stark dilemma threatening the traditional ideological division of labor between the Democratic and Republican parties at the national level. The beginnings of a class response to the economic crisis, symbolized by the massive mobilization of workers in Wisconsin in March (before being recuperated into a defense of unions and “democracy”), should move the main factions of the national bourgeoisie to consider a policy of putting the left in opposition in order to better control working class anger. This strategy would seem to be best accomplished by the election of a Republican President in November 2012.

The Dilemma of the 2012 Presidential Election

However, the increasingly ideological nature of many elements of the Republican Party makes implementing this strategy dangerous for the U.S. national capital. The GOP’s increasingly inflexible approach to politics calls into question its ability to serve as a credible party of government on the national level. Thus, the main factions of the U.S. national bourgeoisie seem to be faced with two choices looking forward to 2012. The first is to work for President Obama’s re-election in order to avoid the possibility of a radical Republican taking office, unable to effectively govern in the overall interests of the bourgeoisie, enacting policies more in line with libertarian, free-market, “starve-the-state ideology” than the concrete needs of the national capital as a whole. The second is to attempt to give life to a more moderate Republican candidate who is able to resist the most extreme interpretations of GOP ideology. This figure would need to be capable of governing from a more pragmatic perspective, recognizing the need to avoid unwise and untimely provocations—utilizing a more levelheaded approach to managing the social and economic crisis besetting the country.

In our view, there are major problems in implementing either of these options for the U.S. bourgeoisie. The first option would risk further upsetting the ideological division of labor between the Democratic and Republican parties, almost forcing a second term Obama administration to engage in open austerity against the working class. Moreover, an Obama re-election would likely require engineering a repeat of the massive voter turnout effort of 2008. If the President is to win re-election, the bourgeoisie will need to mobilize the younger generation behind his candidacy again in order to counteract the strong anti-Obama fervor among Republicans. Undoubtedly, this will be much more difficult to pull off a second time. Many 2008 Obama voters have grown frustrated with his vanilla Presidency that has not lived up to their “historic” expectations. Enthusiasm for the Obama administration is currently rather low; although, it is possible the nomination of an extremist Republican candidate could produce a similar motivation to turnout for the President.

The second is fraught with difficulty given the depth of the GOP’s ideological deterioration. It is not even clear at this time if a more moderate Republican candidate could survive the party’s primary process, which in today’s political climate would seem to reward those with the most ideological bent. Already early in the campaign, supposedly moderate Republican candidates, such as former Governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, have been required to pander to the Republican right-wing.[3]

Faced with these difficulties, the main factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie have little choice but to attempt to implement both options simultaneously, deferring the final selection of a strategy for 2012 until after the Republican primary has been sorted out. Thus, the U.S. domestic political situation has been characterized by a wild roller coaster ride over the last eight months, with dramatic swings in momentum back and forth between President Obama and the insurgent Republican right wing. In November, the mid-term elections were a clear victory for the Republican Party; Obama emerged badly wounded with the pundits openly suggesting a one-term Presidency.

However, a string of legislative victories in the lame duck Congress; followed by months of uncertainty regarding the Republicans’ Presidential field saw momentum shift back in Obama’s favor. The President’s skillful release of his long-form birth certificate at the culmination of a shameless media circus seemed to spell the demise of the most ludicrous forms of conspiracy theory surrounding the Presidents’ legitimacy. However, the seeming coup de grace came on May 2nd with the announcement of the assassination and burial at sea of America’s archenemy Osama Bin Laden. Although perhaps a bit earlier in the election cycle than the White House would have liked, in one fell swoop the President seemed to have finally established himself as a genuine American warrior who accomplished the ultimate victory over the terrorism that had frustratingly eluded his Republican predecessor.

While the post 9/11 patriotic celebrations were a genuine tragedy, this time they were pure face. Ultimately, the morbid celebration of the brutal death of an abstract enemy in a far off land proved to be no consolation for the economic and social pain gripping the American working class.

Already, barely a month after the event, whatever political boost the President thought he was getting from having “slain the beast” has largely evaporated. Obama’s approval rating has now dropped below its pre-Osama assassination level, as the economy stubbornly fails to show any signs of improving. Even bourgeois economists have been forced to admit the likelihood of a double dip recession as unemployment remains stubbornly high, the housing market heads for Hades once again and the pain of inflation begins to take hold. The political consequences of all this has been that in a hypothetical Presidential race, some polls now show Romney defeating Obama.[4]

Of course, it is not even clear that the U.S. bourgeoisie will be able to engineer an Obama-Romney (or another moderate Republican) race for 2012. Romney still has to run the gauntlet of the Republican primaries in which there will be a strong temptation to nominate a right wing ideologue. His previous support for the individual health insurance mandate, his Mormon religion and his acceptance of the reality of man-made global warming will not sit well with many Republican primary voters.[5]

With people like the bizarre, yet immensely popular, Michelle Bachman already in the race, Sarah Palin still not ruling out a run despite strong pressure from Republican insiders to stay on the sidelines, and the neo-Confederate Texas Governor Rick Perry pondering a campaign, there remains a real threat that a candidate totally unacceptable to the main factions of the national bourgeoisie will ultimately win the Republican nomination.[6]

It is for this reason that the national bourgeoisie realizes it must develop a strategy for managing a growing class response to the crisis in a situation in which a traditional left in opposition arrangement is not possible. In some ways, the increasingly belligerent and tactically clumsy approach to politics of the Republican right wing—in particular by Republican Governors at the state level—has helped in this endeavor. The bourgeoisie has taken full advantage of the movements in Wisconsin and elsewhere to attempt to energize a new “people’s movement” around the unions and the left wing of the Democratic Party (the so-called “progressives”).[7]

This movement, although still unable to match the right wing Tea Party in organization or fanaticism, can serve several functions for the main factions of the national bourgeoisie in the period ahead. First, it can serve to deflect class anger at the crisis into the dead ends of the unions and the defense of bourgeois “democracy” as Republican governors show few signs of slowing their assault on the public employee unions. Second, this movement could help President Obama’s re-election efforts against a right wing Republican candidate by channeling the populace’s disgust with the state of the nation into a “lesser of two evils” campaign. Another possibility is that votes to this left wing of the Dem. Party can attract the votes of those dissatisfied with Obama, thereby creating the terrain for a republican victory which would then put the Democrats into opposition. The Democratic Party may see this as necessary depending on the development of the crisis, and manipulate accordingly, without the electoral results expressing an agreed-upon strategy between the two parties. The larger question is really what the ruling class will be forced to do to confront the crisis, but it is not united on the ideological level.

However, perhaps most importantly, this so-called people’s movement could ultimately form the skeleton of a left in opposition to a centrist Obama who has little option but to enact open austerity in his second term. We have seen a possible preview of this strategy in the near revolt of rank and file Democrats in Congress against the President’s deal to preserve the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in the lame duck session. It is not for nothing that there has been a consistent campaign on the left attacking the Obama administration for being too close to Wall Street and the banks.

Nevertheless, all this could ultimately come to naught given the degree of ideological hardening that has taken place in U.S. society in the last two decades—a reality that is contributing greatly to the increasing difficulty the main factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie are having controlling the outcome of its electoral circus. There are not many persuadable voters anymore, so the bourgeoisie has to rely on manipulating voter turnout in order to try to achieve its electoral objectives. High turnout is generally better for Democrats, as was the case with Obama’s “historic” election in 2008, while fewer voters at the polls favors the Republicans, as witnessed by the 2010 midterms.

Given this reality, Obama will face many challenges in the 2012 campaign, whether or not he is the choice candidate of the main factions of the bourgeoisie and regardless of his opponent. Already, Obama staffers have admitted that his margin for victory in the Electoral College will be slimmer this time around, conceding several key swing states he won in 2008 to the eventual Republican nominee.[8]

The lesson in all this for the working-class is clear. The rot that eats away at capitalist society has advanced to such a stage that it now infects the very political apparatus of the ruling class itself. The unique flavor of decomposition in the United States, which is marked by a progressive ideological hardening of intellectual and political discourse, are combining with the specific features of the U.S. state (the Electoral College, a Senate weighted in favor in the most backward states, etc.) to produce a grave political crisis that poses the distinct possibility a candidate unacceptable to the main factions of the national bourgeoisie could win a Presidential election. The most “responsible” elements of the U.S. political class will work to try to prevent this outcome, even if it risks complicating the ideological division of labor in the class struggle. Whatever the outcome in 2012, it is clear that there is no electoral result that serves the proletariat’s class interest in a society marked by such profound social and intellectual decay.

The Bourgeoisie Struggles to Manage the Economic Crisis In the Midst of Political Rancor

Of course, the political crisis of the U.S. ruling class is not transpiring in a social or economic vacuum. On the contrary, it is taking place in the midst of the worst economic crisis of the capitalist system since at least the Great Depression. It is in this context that the ideological meltdown of certain factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie has been most keenly felt.

In the face of massive unemployment, rock bottom wages, a real estate crisis that many analysts fear will soon suffer a second downturn and an enormous national deficit, all the Republican Party can do is scream for more tax cuts, fewer regulations and the gutting of the federal government bureaucracy and the social safety net. This is not just true for the Tea Party inspired Republicans elected in 2010; on the contrary, the mantra that massive cuts, lower taxes on “job creators” and less government oversight of business are the only policies possible is proudly proclaimed by the highest tenured leaders of the Republican Party in the Capitol. The dogma that business always knows best and government is always bad has become so ingrained in the Republican Party that it now seems to be the GOP’s very raison d’être.

Moreover, although the Republican Party only controls one house of Congress at the present time, the current political realities of U.S. politics have allowed it to exert an incommensurate weight on the overall direction of U.S. state capitalism’s policies in the face of the economic crisis. Although now even many bourgeois economists recognize that the U.S. economy suffers from a grave “demand deficit” caused by the massive concentration of wealth in the hands of an increasingly small elite and the resulting inability of the working class to consume much of anything, there is no political possibility at the present time of any additional demand-stimulus emerging from Washington. All policy attention is now focused on the massive federal budget deficit; with the political debate defined only as an opposition between those who would cut a lot (Republicans) and those who would cut slightly less (Democrats).

In this vein, the Republican Party has defined the debate in Washington on economic policy over the several months, primarily through the cruel austerity budget proposal put forward by the GOP’s new wonder boy, Congressman Paul Ryan from Indiana. Chief among his proposals has been the audacious plan to replace Medicare with a system of vouchers for seniors so they can buy their health insurance on the open market. While applauded for his “bravery” and “boldness” by pundits in the bourgeois media, the Ryan budget has been met with strong hostility from the American working class, with polls showing almost universal rejection of this idea. Clearly, just the hint of an attack on the modest centerpiece of the minimum social wage offered in the United States has stoked a class instinct, with even many workers who vote Republican rejecting this proposal as a step too far. As a result, while many Republicans in Congress continue to defend the Ryan plan, the GOPs most serious Presidential contenders, including Romney, have remained non-committal.

Although the Ryan Medicare plan has been revealed, for the moment, as a bridge too far in the class war, this has not stopped the forward march of austerity on all fronts from all factions of the bourgeoisie, both Republicans and Democrats. The drama building over the looming congressional vote to extend the U.S.’ “debt ceiling” has been used as a cynical cover for negotiations between the parties on extensive cuts to the federal budget: cuts that will ultimately hurt the working class and erode its purchasing power even further. Nevertheless, in this game, the Democrats have been all too willing to let their Republican rivals take the lead allowing their own party to play the card of the “smaller bully” on the playground.

Still, among the bourgeoisie’s more serious economists the sense grows that the political dynamic in Washington has broken down to the point where the U.S. state is incapable of acting in the best interests of the national capital. Paul Krugman has written of “The Mistake of 2010,” comparing it to the years 1936-37 when the New Deal slowed and the Depression deepened. For Krugman, U.S. state capitalism’s attempts to stimulate the economy and create jobs have been meager at best. The political focus on reducing the deficit over job creation is a huge blunder that will only deepen the demand crisis in the economy and grow the federal deficit in the long run as tax receipts decline even further. Meanwhile, Robert Reich openly wonders whether the Republican Party is deliberately sabotaging the economy for political gain, as the Obama administration willingly cuts its own throat—happy to fight the economic policy debate on the GOP’s chosen rhetorical terrain.

These controversies are reflective of the overall impasse of state capitalism today faced with an economic crisis without precedent. Krugman and Reich may be right that the U.S. political class’ obsession with deficit reduction will only deepen the economic and fiscal crisis. However, while the massive Keynesian stimulus these “responsible economists” call for may alleviate the immediate pressure on the economy by providing a brief steroid-like boost, the Republican Party is not totally mistaken either when it argues that further deficit spending only serves to add more debt that in all likelihood will never be repaid. However, this debate is moot; as even Krugman admits, there is no chance of another serious stimulus in the foreseeable future.

In short, the U.S. bourgeoisie now finds itself faced with a real Kafkaesque dilemma from which there is no escape. In this world, all options are bad; all answers are ultimately wrong answers; all doors lead to nowhere. While the ideological deterioration of the Republican Party likely does pose the most acute threat to U.S. state capitalism, this does not mean that the Democrats have the “correct” approach that will solve the persistent economic crisis. On the contrary, its preferred policies—while perhaps less immediately damaging, less overtly contradictory, less immediately provocative of social chaos—are ultimately no less futile faced with a global capitalist system that is, at this juncture, utterly beyond repair. At the end of the day, however, it is still up to the working class to send this rusting wreck of a system to the historic junkyard where it belongs.

Henk, 06/09/11.

 


[1] See our article in Internationalism #158, “Public Employee Union Busting in Wisconsin and Elsewhere: The Ideological Decay of the U.S. Bourgeoisie Deepens”.

 

[2] We realize some readers would like us to expand on what me mean by “main factions of the national bourgeoisie.” Indeed, we think it is an important task in the period ahead to draw a more complete map of the U.S. bourgeoisie, in order to understand the nature and historical evolution of its factions. We intend to take up this effort in the future.

 

[3] Pawlenty recently gave a speech suggesting the Obama administration’s economic policy constituted “central planning,” an ominous allusion to the former Eastern Bloc (See http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/pawlenty-to-propose-tax-cuts-smaller-government-role-in-economic-address/2011/06/06/AGQzqkKH_story.html ). Meanwhile, Romney continues to have difficulty defending his implementation of a version of “Obamacare” as Governor, creatively attempting to argue that the question should be left up to the states.

 

[4] http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-loses-bin-laden-bounce-romney-on-the-move-among-gop-contenders/2011/06/06/AGT5wiKH_story.html . The main factions of the national bourgeoisie can probably take some solace in the fact that the poll shows Romney as the only potential GOP candidate that outpolls the President.

 

[5] Rush Limbaugh recently declared that Romeny’s purchase of the global warming hoax means the effective end for his campaign. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/romney-draws-early-fire-from-conservatives-over-views-on-climate-change/2011/06/08/AGkUTaMH_story.html

 

[6] In a different poll than the one cited above, Palin currently leads Romney in a hypothetical GOP primary, highlighting the current dilemma facing the U.S. political class. See http://www.sunshinestatenews.com/story/reuters-ipsos-poll-sarah-palin-leads-mitt-romney-barack-obama-beats-gop-field . Above all, these differing results show the inherent dangers of over reliance on polling data!

 

[7] Of course this incipient movement was dealt a serious blow by the recent Twitter “sexting” scandal surrounding New York City Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner, one of the leading spokesmen for “progressives” in Congress. The precise nature of the multifarious sex scandals rippling through the U.S. bourgeoisie at the moment remains unclear. Are they the result of political manoeuvring, or are they more reflective of the arrogance of a U.S. political class that seems to think it can get away with anything?