Austerity in New York City: Bourgeois Legalism is a Dead-End for the Working Class

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In our last issue, we reported how the American bourgeoisie is making full use of the pretext of the "war on terrorism" to ram through unprecedented attacks on the working class' living and working conditions (see "War is a Pretext for Austerity," Internationalism #125). Utilizing the federal structure of its state apparatus, the American ruling class seeks to obscure its policy of generalized austerity at the level of the national capital itself by portraying the measures as the result of particular local and state officials' policy choices.

We are seeing this logic play itself out spectacularly in America's largest locality: New York City, the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Recently, city and state officials in New York have been compelled to enact a whole series of unprecedented austerity measures. Public sector lay-offs and givebacks on the shop-floor have been accompanied by a 33% hike in the subway fare, toll hikes on bridges and tunnels, a rise in the already high sales tax, property and income tax increases, a sharp rent hike for rent stabilized tenants, fire station closures, tuition increases at city universities, and, in an attempt to raise revenue, an aggressive police enforcement of a number of obscure city ordinances. For most workers, whatever increase in take home pay that results from the Bush administration's policy of federal tax cuts, which is likely to be meager at best, is quickly eaten up by the local austerity measures.

The American bourgeoisie is employing a sophisticated strategy to divert the working class away from responding to these austerity measures on its own class terrain and calling upon it to mobilize behind bourgeois democracy, bourgeois legalism and the unions.

In New York, the media has portrayed the measures as self-contained policy choices of the particular official or agency with the responsibility for implementing them, and never as part and parcel of an overall concerted austerity campaign at the national level. For example, the recent subway fare hikes were the subject of intense media coverage as the "Straphangers Campaign," a leftist inspired "consumer interest" lobby, along with a number of local and state politicians, launched a legal challenge to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) decision to raise the fare by 33%.

According to the Straphangers’ legal complaint, the public hearings the MTA sponsored on the fare increase were held under "false pretenses," such that the "democratic process" was subverted by lack of "informed debate, because the authorities presented the public with a set of fake financial records showing a budget deficit. In mid-May, the court had decided in favor of the plaintiffs, and subway fares would be rolled-back after all! However, with the media still celebrating this supposed "victory for the public interest," the MTA appealed the decision, was granted a stay and now "the public," i.e. the working class, will be paying the increased fare, at least until the conclusion of the legal process at some undetermined future date

Similar campaigns have been launched around the bridge and tunnel toll hikes; the pending closure of firehouses in a number of the city's poorer neighborhoods; as well as the strict police enforcement of city ordinances evidenced by a media blitz surrounding the ticketing of a man for "unauthorized use of a milk crate" for using the latter as stool on a public street and a pregnant woman cited for illegally resting in the stairway of a subway platform. The latter episode has even witnessed the local police union take out a radio commercial urging citizens to petition city hall in an effort to alleviate the pressure on beat cops to write as many citations as possible!

Moreover, a number of consumer groups, in particular the Metropolitan Council on Housing (METCOUNCIL) together once again with a number of city council members and state assemblymen launched a campaign opposing sharp rent hikes for rent-subsidized housing, calling on renters to attend all meetings of the Rent Guidelines Board. In the end, despite the campaign, the RGB voted to raise rents 8.5% for a two-year lease and 5.5% for a one-year lease, figures that were very close to the landlords' actual proposal of 12% and 9% increases respectively. Clearly, this was a process with a pre-determined outcome, as many observers believe Mayor Bloomberg had previously hinted to landlords that the burden of their property tax increases could be shifted to their mostly working-class tenants. In a city where rents are already high, where the average rent-stabilized family makes $32,000 a year and pays 1/3 of its pre-tax income on rent, and where 1/4 of tenants pay 50% of this income (cited in Tenant/Inquilino, April 2003), this rent hike constitutes a serious blow, a blow against which the democratic and legalistic route of the bourgeois state proved no defense for the working-class.

In still another example, recent city lay-offs have been the target of yet another lawsuit, this time by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), claiming that the lay-offs have unfairly targeted minority workers, because most of the teachers aides being laid off are blacks and Latinos. The union legal campaign does not challenge the logic of austerity and lay-offs; it only asks that people be thrown out of work in a more racially sensitive manner. The union campaign not only serves to trap workers behind the dead-end of race-based litigation and but actually seeks to divide workers against themselves on the basis of race and ethnicity -- one more example of the "divide and conquer" strategy the American bourgeoisie has always played, and which the unions have historically been on the front line in implementing.

The lesson of the recent media campaigns in New York City, emphasizing legalistic campaigns based on our "democratic rights as citizens," is that in struggling to resist the austerity measures being taken against it, the working class must not fall for the dead-end of bourgeois legalism and democracy. Filing lawsuits in court, petitioning city hall or testifying at administrative hearings will not halt the current austerity drive that capitalism is compelled to launch against the proletariat. On the contrary, workers must resist the call of the bourgeoisie to bury its struggle in the inter-classist stew of democracy and legality. It must struggle on its own class terrain in defense of its living and working conditions. In this, it must come to see that all factions and levels of the bourgeoisie have the same policy: faced with the insolubility of capitalism's permanent crisis, faced with the senility of its entire system, it has no choice but to attack the working-class. The working-class must take its fate into its own hands, develop its own organs to coordinate its struggle outside of the state's legal and democratic arena, including its union apparatus.