North American Political Milieu: Days of Discussion Conference

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As reported on our website , in April 2009 Internationalism hosted a weekend-long Days of Discussion conference which brought together a number of correspondents, readers, and sympathizers from geographically dispersed parts of the US and Canada for a much needed opportunity to meet face to face (often for the first time), to learn from each other, to exchange views, to deepen our understanding, the better to contribute to the development of class consciousness and class struggle in the period ahead. The agenda was developed in consultation with the participants and addressed the strategy of the bourgeoisie in the current economic crisis, the response of the working class, and the intervention of revolutionaries in the class struggle. An additional discussion focused on Darwinism and the workers movement. Presentations for each discussion were prepared by non-members of the ICC and were intended not so much to present any particular position but rather to serve as point of departure for the discussion.

In order to give readers a better appreciation of the content and quality of the discussions at the conference and to share more fully the fruit of this important conference, we publish in this report the presentations on the strategy of the bourgeoisie and the intervention of revolutionaries in the class struggle. The presentations have been edited slightly for reasons of space. Each is followed by a brief description of the discussion. - Internationalism, July 2009.


Strategy of the U.S. Bourgeoisie in the Current Economic Crisis

Presentation by Roza

1. Introduction

This presentation will limit itself to the economic and monetary-policy strategies employed by the current Barack Obama Administration to manage the current problems of a continually deteriorating U.S. economy. Obama's strategy of choice seems to be one in which desperation is quite evident, and which merely seeks to alleviate, in the short-term, the problems the country currently faces. Though its price tag would imply otherwise, the economic-monetary strategy employed is actually modest, as the state of a moribund U.S. capital takes away much of the incentive to seek long-term, stronger solutions to the problem. If the patient's disease is terminal, a palliative approach makes sense.

The harshness and distastefulness of these economic-monetary remedies require an ideological/political approach that will make austerity more palatable to the masses, who are either unemployed or are facing the very real possibility of unemployment in the near future while watching the financial sector receive aid many believe it does not deserve. The administration seems to hoped that mass austerity and the propping up of the financial sector will be accepted as "necessary evils" to be endured on the "road to recovery"-though, of course, the most likely scenario is that the bourgeoisie are counting on normalizing austerity so as to make it palatable indefinitely beyond a period of "recovery."

One of the ingenious, and thus dangerous, aspects of the Obama Administration is the relative ease and success with which it has thus far substituted lofty words for concrete plans (even the bourgeois type of plans!); and sold to the masses vacuity as substance. As the current Manager-In-Charge, Obama will continue to try to perfect his administration's record as most effective snake-oil sales team through its plan to use the current widespread (and blind and uncritical) distaste for the Bush Administration and the current economic crisis, as a means to implement a social approach to the crisis, reminiscent of the Clinton Administration's portrayal of the dismantling of the remaining social safety net in the U.S. as responsible and needed "reform."

2. Economic Level

The U.S., and indeed the world bourgeoisie, faces the most serious economic crisis since at least the Great Depression. The meltdown of the housing market from the second half of 2006 provoked a massive financial crisis on Wall Street, which posed the possibility, in Fall 2008, of the complete collapse of the global financial system.

Since the fall of last year, only massive state intervention into the economy, in the form of hundreds of billions of dollars in cash infusions and asset purchases, has kept the U.S. and global economies from total impasse. However, even as the U.S. state flexes its muscles to prop up the banks, insurance companies, etc., the U.S. working class is being devastated. Massive layoffs have led to levels of official unemployment not seen since the recession of the early 1980s. And as everyone here knows, the official unemployment numbers do not begin to accurately describe the depth of the situation faced by the long-term unemployed who are not included in the official statistics

Faced with this situation, even bourgeois commentators have openly asked themselves if "capitalism is finished." [1] While the rosier prognosticators continue to claim that recovery will happen sometime in the next year, the general consensus seems to be no consensus at all about how long the economic crisis will last and to what depths it will reach.

One thing is certain: The U.S. bourgeoisie will respond to this crisis by strengthening its state capitalist apparatus. Already, through the T.A.R.P. plan and through direct cash investments into the banks, the U.S. bourgeoisie has virtually nationalized the banking industry-at least temporarily. The U.S. government is now a major shareholder in banks such as CitiGroup and Bank of America, has encouraged or supervised the merger of other banks or financial companies, and taken a major step to shore up the banks and other financial institutions by bailing out AIG.

After nearly 30 years of so-called Reaganomics, which saw the U.S. state lift numerous regulations in the banking sector and throughout the economy as a whole, the Obama Administration has begun to implement an economic policy which some economists believe is reminiscent of the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Based on the theories of John Maynard Keynes, the American state is attempting to correct the economic crisis by taking a central place in the management and direction of the economy.

However, the nature of the Obama administration's turn to Keynesianism is up for debate: will it invest on military adventures or in the direct investment on the productive (or potentially productive) sectors of the economy?

There are two types of Keynesianism: "weak" and "strong." In the weak version, the state increases its "defense" budget and engages in militaristic adventures abroad in order to increase the market for military goods and the secondary institutions that support it. In the "strong" version, what economic historians have identified with the New Deal, the state engages in deficit spending and job creation. It intervenes on the social level with the goal to create jobs, lower unemployment and stimulate demand and consumption through massive infrastructure programs and investment. [2]

Both of these versions, however, have their problems from the point of view of the bourgeoisie. On the one hand, one of the problems with weak Keynesianism is that it requires significant increases in the state's military budget. The United States military is already stretched precariously thin, thanks in part to the militaristic presidency of George W. Bush, even as it claims to be winding down its mission in Iraq. The Obama Administration, however, perhaps in an attempt to both continue its imperialist agenda and to prop up the economy to some extent through weak Keynesianism, has proposed a $527 billion (excluding war costs) FY 2010 defense budget, which has been calculated as an 8% increase from the FY 2009 Bush Administration allocation of $487.7 billion. [3] True to his promise during the campaign when he insisted he was "not against all wars, only stupid wars," his will not be a "peace" administration, but rather as much a bellicose administration as the eight years of George W. Bush were.

On the other hand, strong Keynesianism's efficacy is limited by the appearance of the proverbial "white elephant," as the cost of job creation and infrastructure building at one point become too costly and absurd to continue. [4] The Obama Administration has not so far made serious overtures towards this type of economic policy other than to propose minuscule subsidies toward the growth of a "green economy," and to pay similar lip-service toward other such initiatives. As things stand, after its financial sector bailout efforts, the U.S. Treasure finds further deficit spending extremely difficult. Furthermore, deficit spending (provided it is successful in creating jobs), combined with bailout money, poses the risk of runaway inflation once full(er) employment wages and the cash injections made to the financial sector begin circulating in the broader economy.

Perhaps one of the most dangerous consequences of the current monetary and economic policies is the collapsing value of the dollar. As the U.S. tentatively feels its way out of the current economic crisis, the central banks abroad could begin to "diversify" their foreign currency holdings away from the dollar, and the OPEC countries to begin "shifting" away from pricing its crude in U.S. dollars. As confidence in the U.S. economy (and the dollar in particular) weakens, and as the U.S. national debt continues its upward climb, the U.S. could experience a devaluation of its national currency, spelling the end of U.S. imperial omnipotence.

3. Political / Ideological level

During the past six months, just as the economy was collapsing around them, the U.S. bourgeoisie enjoyed a temporary political and ideological boost with the election of Barack Obama. The Obama campaign's rhetoric of hope and change, coupled with the media barrage regarding the historic nature of the election of the first African American President, served to deflect most social and political unrest into electoral politics. For some time, it appeared that a messiah had arisen who would fix the economy, end the war, pay your mortgage, cancel your credit card debt and create a utopia of brotherhood on earth. The bourgeoisie will continue to play on these themes to the extent that it can in the period ahead, particularly with some of the most vulnerable groups in the population.

However, almost as soon as Obama took office, another message was propagated stressomg the tough road ahead to fix the myriad of economic, political and social problems "created by the irresponsible George W. Bush administration."  The American population was told that things would get worse before they get better, and that there would be no easy turn around in the immediate future. They were told to prepare for sacrifice in the form of continued job losses and lack of access to credit. Recently, Obama has taken this rhetoric further, arguing that Americans must learn to consume less and export more. [5] The glory days of consumerism fueled by home equity and credit cards is now over. If Obama has kept one promise, it is that of "change:" A change from a credit-subsidized consumption bubble (which to some extent propped up the standard of living for the working class for the last two decades); to direct austerity in the form of a declining standard of living and record unemployment. "Change we can believe in," indeed!

While the Bush and Obama administrations work feverishly to prop up the banks and financial sector, they simultaneously work to smash whatever remnants of "high wage" and "high benefit" employment remains, with serious talk of forcing General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy. The unions for their part are only too happy to oblige, agreeing to "compromises" in order to keep the companies solvent. [6] The Obama administration, with full cooperation of its Republican mouthpieces in Congress and the media, have taken advantage of the crisis to mobilize public opinion against the auto workers, labeling them overpaid special interests. [7]

4. Social level

On the social level, the U.S. bourgeoisie has taken advantage of the economic crisis and Obama's election to continue the policies of previous administrations to impose austerity against the working class. 

However, the Obama administration has also hinted at certain measures that appear on the surface to be reforms. In particular, he has announced a supposedly ambitious plan to enact a "universal" health care system in the U.S., the absence of which drags down the U.S.'s international competitiveness. [8] Obama's attempt to change the health care system in the U.S. is above all an attempt to rationalize health care delivery from the point of view of the state. The American system of public education is yet another area in which Obama seems to plan further "reforms." His appointment of Arne Duncan, former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, suggests that  public schools and their teachers will continue to experience the attacks begun under the Bush Administration. From No Child Left Behind, we will soon see No Teacher Left Standing. [9]

5. Questions for discussion

1. To what extent can the Keynesianism of the Obama administration succeed in alleviating the worst effects of the economic crisis? Is a new New Deal really possible?

2. To What extent are the ideological campaigns about socialism emanating from the Republicans reflective of a real split in the U.S. bourgeoisie regarding how to handle its response to the crisis?

3. Is the bourgeoisie's willingness to bail out the banks reflective of the domination of finance over productive capital? To what extent is this distinction useful for understanding the capitalist economy today?

4. What is the meaning of the attacks on the autoworkers for the broader working class response to the crisis?

5.Will the Obama administration be successful in imposing austerity withut provoking a serious working class response? Are confrontations of the scale witnessed in France, Greece and other European countries likely to happen in the U.S. Why or why not?

Notes

1. See for example Tobin Harshaw's blog for the New York Times, "Weekend Opinionator: A Different Kind of Red America"; (Press TV's interview with Noam Chomsky; David Harvey's "The End of Capitalism? A Response to Tim Geithner"; and The Atlantic's "The End of Capitalism?".

2. Harvey, David. "Why the U.S. Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail." Reading Marx's Capital with David Harvey, February 12, 2009.

3 Congressional Quarterly. "White House Draws Line on Defense Budget." CQ Politics, February 2, 2009.

4. See this article for a brief definition of the economic "White Elephant;" and Kevin Depew's commentary, "Two Ways to Play," broadcast on PBS's Nightly Business Report on February 5, 2009, for a brief critique of public works spending.

5. ibid.

6.  Dwyer, Dustin and Michele Norris. "United Auto Workers Open to Contract Changes." National Public Radio, All Things Considered, December 3, 2008.

7. Weber, Sarah. "Local Auto Workers Frustrated by Lack of Support From Fellow Americans." Sandusky Register Online, February 21, 2009. Maddow, Rachel. "Talk Me Down! Since When are Auto Workers the Fat Cats?" Newsvine, November 26, 2008.

8. Kaufman, Marc and Rob Stein. "Record Share of Economy Spent on Health Care." The Washington Post, January 10, 2006.

9 Giroux, Henry A. and Kenneth Saltman.  New Catholic Times, January 19, 2009. Rossi, Rosalind and Lynn. Chicago Sun-Times, December 15, 2008.

10.http://en.internationalism.org/wr/318/doortostruggles

Discussion Summary

The presentation triggered a very stimulating discussion which stressed the importance of placing the current economic situation in an historic context. In particular it was noted that the present recession is but the latest manifestation of the permanent crisis of capitalist overproduction, and that the current crisis is in fact the worst capitalist crisis in history since it has occurred despite all the state capitalist palliatives that were put in place in the 1930's. Regarding the recent media fixation on the distinction between finance and productive capital and the significance of this differentiation, the conference felt that this campaign was an ideological manipulation needed by the bourgeoisie for the purpose of obscuring the perspective of "no future" that capitalism offers to the working class. The campaign to blame the "evil" bankers for the current crisis seeks to obscure the fact that this is fundamentally a crisis of capitalist overproduction. This ideology will be utilized also to try to impose and justify austerity attacks against the working class. Repeatedly it was stressed that the ruling class has no way out the crisis, no choice but to continue to resort to debt, military expansionism, strengthened state capitalism, and austerity against the working class. A number of points that needed to be deepened in further research and discussion were identified, particularly the growing weight of gangsterism or illegality in economic life.


The intervention of revolutionaries in the class struggle

Presentation by Jogiches

In Class Consciousness and Communist Organization, the ICC quotes Marx as saying: "Theory is only realized in the masses to the extent that it is a realization of their needs..." and goes one to say, speaking of Bolshevik intervention in the class struggle in 1917,

"...the party had to go beyond the illusions remaining among the proletariat...Rather than waiting for the working class to get rid of them itself, without any intervention from its vanguard, it had to, on the contrary, put itself ahead of the confused aspirations of the workers, give them a clear expression, facilitate the development of class consciousness, act in such a way that the proletariat might arrive at a con­ception of its real historical interests. For Lenin, this was not a matter of flattering the prejudices that most workers still held to, nor of acting without taking into account the level of consciousness of the working masses, but of generalizing throughout the proletariat the awareness of the necessity for the seizure of power and of making the proletariat capable itself of realizing its historical task."

I read a quote from an article in Internationalism that said: "A working class that can't defend itself can't make a revolution." 10 which made a lot of sense to me in terms of revolutionaries intervening in the class struggle. Along those same lines, there was an article in last month's Internationalism that said:

"A social revolution can only be made by those ‘below', those who have least to gain from the preservation of the existing order. But those below will never advance towards making a revolution unless they forge themselves into a force that is capable of defending itself today, of fighting against every encroachment made by the capitalist system - every factory closure, every benefit cut, every wage reduction, every attempt of the bosses and the state to repress this resistance and victimize those who take part in it."

In some senses, defensive class struggle is a precondition to revolutionary offensive struggle--the intervention of revolutionaries must be to encourage the extension of these defensive struggles. But what is our role in these struggles? Is it our role to initiate them?

I was speaking to a Trotskyist who quoted me an old maxim he'd heard saying that "'sectarians' are like a man standing on the shore shouting swimming instructions to a drowning man (the working class), whereas what is needed is to throw the drowning man a lifesaver or swimming out to him to carry him to shore" Such a conception is false because, to extend the metaphor, the drowning man doesn't learn to swim. The entire set up of the metaphor conceives of the working class entirely as the victim of history, the object of history, but never as a revolutionary subject. However, because the revolution can only be carried out by the conscious, organized effort of the entire class acting for itself (and not as the obedience of the class to the slogans and demands put forward by revolutionaries), the intervention of revolutionaries in the class struggle must always be attempting to increase the consciousness and self-confidence and self-reliance of the working class--if workers are unconscious masses to be led by revolutionaries, they can just as easily be led by the bourgeoisie and will never be able to end their exploitation.

The central goal of all intervention in the class struggle then is to contribute to the process whereby the working class becomes a force strong enough, united enough, and conscious enough to overthrow capitalism and build communism internationally. The most important question for each intervention to answer is: how does this increase the consciousness, the self-confidence, and the self-reliance of the working class and increase their belief in their own capacity to struggle together as a class? How does this move toward the working class constituting itself into a force that can overthrow capitalism?

How can revolutionaries be an active part of the growth of the class into such a force? 

It is the material interests of the working class push it to struggle against the most fundamental demands of capitalism, and the only way for the struggle to be successful is for them to consciously unite with other workers. This is why the defensive struggles of the working class are inherently revolutionary in the period when the bourgeoisie cannot give an inch but is instead constantly asking for lower wages, longer hours, fewer staff, more insecurity, etc. The role of revolutionaries is to encourage this tendency and speed it along as much as possible and spread the consciousness of this process and encourage the class to take control of its own struggles.

Again from the Communist Organizations and Class Consciousness pamphlet:

"When they (revolutionaries) intervene in the class struggle, they do not put forward a pure abstract theory that the workers are supposed to ‘appropriate' instead of struggling. They are in the struggle. In it, they defend demands, forms of organization (strike committees, genera1 assemblies...). They support everything that can spread and strengthen the struggle. Their task is to intervene and participate - as far as they are able - in all the partial struggles of their class. They must stimulate every tendency for the proletariat to organize itself indep­endently of capital. Revolutionaries will be present in every political and organizational expression of the prolet­ariat, in every struggle, in the general assemblies, soviets, and neighborhood committees. There they will rigorously attack the maneuvers of capital's guard-dogs who will use the cover of ‘working class' language to try to detour the struggle into dead-ends and defeat."
"...as communists, we do not have the task of initiating slogans of daily struggle amongst the working masses - these must be posed by the workers in the factories. We must always point out to the workers that the solution of these daily questions will not better their situation, and that in no way will it be able to bring about the downfall of capitalism. We Commun­ists have the task of participation in this daily combat, of marching at the head of these struggles. Therefore, comrades, we don't reject this daily combat, but in this combat we put ourselves ahead of the masses, we always show them the road and the great goal of communism." (Intervention of Meyer-Bergman (KAPD) at the same congress)

What do revolutionaries do to ensure that class consciousness moves forward?

They participate in every struggle and in its organization, and from beginning to end they use the driving force of each combat to take the greatest possible number of steps towards the constitution of the proletariat as a force capable of overthrowing the dominant system.

"The aim of communist intervention is to contribute to this apprenticeship. In every struggle, communists must show the movement's historical and geographical dimensions, but this does not mean remaining satisfied with setting out the final goal of world-wide communism. We must, moreover, at each instant know how to weigh up the point the struggle has reached, and be able to make proposals which are concretely realisable, and at the same time represent a real advance of the struggle in the development of the unity and awareness of the whole class. To go as far as possible in each struggle, to push its potential capacities to the limit by proposing goals which are realizable but always more advanced - this is what revo­lutionaries aim, for when they intervene in the open struggles of their class."
Concretely, what does this mean? From "Unions Against the Working Class":
[the revolutionary organization must] "be among the most resolute participants in the struggle, propagating a general orientation for the struggle and denouncing the agents and ideologies of the bourgeoisie within the class. During the struggle it stresses the need for generalization...It is neither a spectator nor a mere water-carrier."

In addition to this, revolutionaries should encourage the appearance of workers' discussion circles and participate in them--not to artificially turn them into transmission belts of parties or thinking that they will become workers' councils--workers' circles can only be valuable if they don't adopt half-formed platforms but instead remain a place open to all workers interested in discussion the problems that face workers as workers..

Discussion Summary

In regard to the intervention of revolutionaries in the class struggle, there was consensus that there is:

  • No separation between the class and the revolutionary organization
  • No separation between theory and practice
  • No separation between the immediate struggle and the final goal of communism.

It was agreed that the objective of the revolutionaries' intervention in the class struggle is:

  • To help the class to extend struggles to other sectors of the working class
  • To strengthen the self confidence of the working class in itself as a class;
  • To help its tendencies towards self-organization, towards taking conscious control over its own struggle

As one comrade noted, there is a statement by Marx that the revolution is the task of the workers themselves. The organization does not organize the class, does not give orders to the class, as that would contradict the notion that it is the task of the class to make the revolution. It is the responsibility of the revolutionary minority within the class to contribute to the rise of consciousness. The organization is not able to formulate the immediate demands of the class. Indeed it does not have the capacity to do so, and it does not have that function. The dangers of an immediatist approach to our intervention, what to do in our own job, etc. were considered. Sometimes we intervene at locations other than where we work. We have also talked of the need for the working class to draw continuously the lessons of its struggle. We cannot think of intervention as an "individual" thing, but rather as a reflection of the collective struggle of the working class.