Most “Millenials” today are a little too young to remember the last two shutdowns under Clinton, so the events that have unfolded over the last week are really a new experience for a group that has been much discussed and often maligned in recent weeks. What is absolutely, frustratingly familiar, however, is the wading pool shallow discussions parading themselves around as serious journalism and analysis. Professional loudmouths and hand wringers dance and shuffle around on cable news, the best print journalism maps only the surface technicalities and the worst tries to split the difference between cowardice and insanity. Of course, no one has anything approaching a serious practical – or even “impractical” by today’s bankrupt “pragmatism” – suggestion on what to do whatsoever to escape this trajectory of self-destruction.
The first, most obvious, most undeniable point to be made is this: the current shutdown in the Federal government today is a direct result of the rise of a new Tea Party faction in American politics. While the mainstream media has largely been obsessed with the theatrics of the debacle, the U.S. Left has failed to provide even a glimmer of an analysis that is compelling or practical in any way whatsoever.
The phrase that the two parties are “two wings of capital” has been repeated by fellow activists by rote so many times that it has become completely bankrupt. The Socialist Worker has largely hopped on this same trope in recent days:
So it will be all the more important for those who want an alternative to the status quo in Washington to remind themselves and others of a hidden-in-plain-sight truth about American politics–that the Democrats and Republicans agree about much more than they disagree.
The key problem with this kind of sloganeering is that it actually tells us nothing. It simply freezes capital into a seemingly eternal thing, with two wings also frozen in loyal opposition, only superficially different but ultimately homogenous and unchanging. This is cheap nonsense masquerading as analysis and needs to be recognized as such.
To begin, capital is not a “thing.” Capital is a particular form of social organization that has developed and is continuing to develop over time. The capital that the two parties represented during the Johnson administration is far different in its functioning and composition than the capital represented by Reagan and Clinton. In fact, it is this transition from one form of capital to the other that is so critical to understand if a person hopes to begin to not only make heads or tails of why the shutdown has happened but also what we should do about it now.
American capitalism post-WWII was marked by massive industrial output. Having come out of the war basically alone in having an entirely intact industrial base, production proceeded apace. America was booming and Keynsianism was spreading the wealth around. The slogan “What’s Good for GM is Good for America” rang from coast to coast. A well funded public school system, extensive social programs, a significantly organized industrial labor force, and a rising standard of living were characteristic of the dominance of industrial capital over the society that America’s Greatest Generation was building. Things seemed rosy and never ending.
Yet end they did. The mid- to late-70s marked the beginning of a crisis for American industrial capital. The Marshall Plan had functioned as designed and now Germany and Japan were once again competing internationally, putting ever increasing trade pressure on the US. Anti-colonial struggles were securing (ultimately dubious) victories, culminating in a debilitating OPEC oil embargo. American Labor, fat on the milk and honey of Keynsianism, was refusing to submit to the market discipline of unemployment. Industrial capital was in crisis; something had to change.
The Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973, led by Milton Freidman and his “Chicago Boy,” represented the opening shot in a pitched struggle for power, the Volcker shock a decisive blow, and the rise of Reagan and Thatcher the ultimate march to victory of finance capital over industrial. In short, Wall St. demanded its turn at the helm and Detroit had to no choice but to acquiesce. The end of the so-called American dream enabled by Keynes marked the beginning of the neoliberal nightmare of globalization.
The critical success of Reagan was enabled by fusing together a coalition of the finance capital of Wall St., the military and law enforcement, and certain petite bourgeois and working class elements that were made up of the most reactionary and conservative sections of American society found in White, Southern, Christian evangelicals. A lasting legacy from the end of the Civil War in the US and reacting strongly against the last throes of the struggles of the 60’s, this last faction is to play a critical role in the story to come.
This coalition, however, was one of opportunity, not of principle. Each faction utilized the strength of the others to crush common enemies, namely the Black working class, labor unions, and social programs in general. Each faction also tolerated sacrificing certain positions to others in their coalition. The evangelical section, largely consisting of petite bourgeois elements or reactionary and backwards sections of the working class, weathered attacks on their standards of living in exchange for the political prioritization of their social issues. The much more secular Wall St. tolerated increasing restrictions on things like abortion or art in exchange for, among many other things, much lower tax rates and regulations. The key point here is that while these two factions functioned together very well over a particular historical period, the reality is that they also have very conflicting interests.
There developed over the course of three decades of uncontested neoliberal rule three key pillars that helped maintain the Reaganite coalition. First, there was the institutionalization of a “bubble-to-bubble” economic policy, rolling one crisis into another without ever fundamentally addressing the problems that gave rise to the crises in the first place, desperately clawing to keep the economy growing at whatever cost. Secondly, and intimately bound up with the first, was the utilization of expanded debt and credit in order to mask stagnant or declining wages and a declining standard of living that went with it. Lastly and critically was the rise of not just the 24 hour cable news cycle, but the development of a media hegemony via institutions like Fox News and conservative talk radio, which were able to professionally crank out political ammunition in the fight against any hope of a Keynsian resurgence.
However, the current crisis is stretching the coalition to its limits. Since each faction had conflicting interests, the coalition was only stable during periods of strong economic growth. With finance capital increasingly less able to provide a stable standard of living, the petite bourgeois evangelical wing is finding its position in the coalition increasingly less tenable and is becoming increasingly vocal and confident in its demands, coalescing around the Tea Party label. Further, this petite bourgeois wing is itself beginning to show fractures, with one wing shifting hard to the right over social issues like immigration or abortion, and another wing shifting left into the Libertarian camp, though these lines still remain largely blurred.
There exists in America today an increasing sense that our parliamentary process is in a deep and intractable crisis. The rout of popular forces under the Reaganite assault has given finance capital free reign of the toy box. One critical blow to an already moribund political process was the Citizens United ruling; the other was the rise of gerrymandering.
The American political process has always been entirely beholden to the monied classes of the U.S., but there was, under The Great Society, at least a pretense of electoral regulation. With Citizen United, the financial dominance of Wall St. over Washington was made legal and blatant. Finance capital now unabashedly controls the purse strings of American politics and thus faces very little serious challenge to its hegemony through the ballot box.
The second phenomenon, gerrymandering, has been seized upon by the lower sections of the right coalition. The right wing upsurge of 2010 was in response to the election of a Black Democratic president and came right during the time of electoral redistricting. This allowed the more extreme right elements to carve up their respective districts, making any serious grassroots challenge to their power much more unlikely. This has given the Tea Party a relatively secure parliamentary base of about 60, half hard line and half sympathetic, House members from which to wage their struggle from the hard right. However, while secure in their own districts, they will never be able to muster the strength to defeat finance capital and the political mainstream on parliamentary grounds. Assuming no unforeseen economic amelioration, the conditions that are developing and radicalizing the far-right petite bourgeoisie faction will only deepen.
Yet with a decided inability to advance any further through parliament, the possibility of a right-wing break with the ballot box as the sole terrain of political struggle will begin to loom ever larger on the horizon. The popular base and the historical conditions for a new form of Fascism or proto-Fascism, called by a much different name, will continue to grow unless relentlessly combated by a genuine, militant U.S. Left.
That this confrontation could happen through the Democratic Party is a complete impossibility. Democrats under Clinton retreated completely under the assault of neoliberalism and finance capital. It became accepted as a given that Democrats must operate in the new world that Reagan had built. They continued resolutely down the path of free trade agreements, deindustrialization, and attacking social programs.
The time has come for a break to the left of the Democrats. The traditional argument against third parties is the fear of splitting the left and empowering the far-right. As the Reagan coalition continues to fracture, this argument begins to take more and more irresponsible form. The Right is advancing resolutely ahead of the Left, beginning to develop militant leadership and is no longer shaken by the fear of splitting or fracturing the broader party, calling at all points of its advance for a principled, practical unity. This method is serving to show the power of a disciplined political minority if properly trained and organized. Despite the demographic trends showing what looks to be an inevitable end to at least the far-right and potentially the whole GOP, the Tea Party continues to advance and organize itself.
The Democrats, however, represent a paradox themselves. While still trying to maintain a functionally Keynsian political base, its leadership has capitulated to the logic and parameters of neoliberalism wholesale. With such a sharp contradiction between social composition and practical leadership activity, the Democrats not only are unable to mobilize their base consistently to fight, they actually work to demobilize and confuse their various constituencies. Making up the left wing of finance capital, the Democrats now float in the air, vulnerable to the most damnable and nauseating bouts of shameless opportunism.
The conditions now are ripe to begin to gather those social forces abandoned in the collapse of Keynsianism: intellectuals, teachers, and students at schools and universities, immigrants pressed into mass migrations under the forces of free trade and globalization, the skeletal remains of industrial and organized labor, those bodies warehoused under mass incarceration, and the new “precariat” of service, temp, and intern workers. These all represent major sections of American society but have been largely rendered mute through a lack of any serious political vehicle from which they could speak or fight.
The parliamentary limits faced by the Tea Party Right will operate with an equal or even greater ruthlessness for the Left. While the possibility of principled obstructionism would remain for the handful of candidates who might be elected under this new third party, the real power base for it would have to rest squarely in the schools, workplaces, and prisons. Here our party would be able to disrupt the smooth functioning of the merciless dominance of finance capital.
The biggest mistake this new formation could make would be to simply advance as program a return to the sadly mythologized Keynsian past. The conditions that made such an arrangement possible are long, long gone today. This third party must develop from its ranks a new vision, a vision of struggle and mobilization.
This government shutdown is only one episode of a much longer series of events yet to play out, each one increasingly more desperate than the last. The older layer of my generation came to age under the second Bush administration. Our future and our world looks increasing wracked by crisis and creeping dystopia every day. How many young people find themselves laying in bed some nights, unable to sleep with thoughts of student debt and declining economic opportunities? Our generation just can’t keep playing by the same playbook, marching in rank and file formation to cast our votes for parties and programs we no longer believe in.
We have to fight. We have to do something to fend of this dark spectre of desperation and collapse.
Our mobilizations must be prepared to inevitably break labor law or civil order laws and disrupt the status quo in the same way Americans of the past put themselves on the line to break and eventually defeat criminal Jim Crow laws. We must build our new party to carry on the legacy of struggle passed down. This crisis is more and more revealing itself to be intractable and uncontrollable. Our time is running short and the opportunity for bold and energetic action is now. The future is ours, whether to win or to lose.