The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 79 (Winter 2007).

While Populists Take Workers for a Ride –

U.S. Rulers Switch Horses in Midterm

George W. Bush described the November election as a “thumpin’,” and it was. We have to admit to a certain pleasure in seeing the sneer wiped off the face of this mass murderer and unmitigated hypocrite. The Republican defeat was the first big electoral shift leftward in the U.S. since the 1960's. The tragedy is that the Democrats who capitalized on the changed mood will inevitably betray all those – in the U.S. and across the world – whose hopes have been raised.

National elections are a forum for the various factions of the capitalist ruling class to sort out their differences, using the electorate as a sounding board for their contending agendas and leaders. The vote reflected mass anger over the deadly war in Iraq and the economic hardships that so many face: insecure jobs, inadequate wages and unaffordable health care. But at the same time it also signaled a shift in views within the ruling class itself.

Much of the ruling class had concluded that the Bush administration could not overcome what it sees as the incompetence and corruption that had led to disasters: the looming defeat in Iraq and the Katrina horror. Katrina was a monstrous crime against Black and working-class people, but for the rulers it was above all a public relations catastrophe. In bourgeois eyes, Bush had become a truly lame duck.

That American imperialism faces a monumental crisis of ruling- class leadership was shown not only by the mounting level of attacks on Bush from establishment figures and the media, but in the typically capitalist way: money. In a vicious, smear-laden campaign, the Democrats matched the Republicans in the tons of corporate funds received. By way of comparison, in the 2002 midterm election corporations gave the Democrats a bit under $250 million while the Republicans got almost $350 million. In 2006, the amounts had doubled and essentially equalized: both parties received something over $600 million.

Imperialists’ Dilemma

“Debacle” is an apt term for what the American bourgeoisie sees has become of its once-hailed march into Iraq. Then there is the defiance shown by the rest of Bush’s “axis of evil,” North Korea and Iran, in the face of mighty U.S. imperialism, while the previously “destroyed” Taliban rises again in Afghanistan. To top it off, Israel, America’s junior partner and closest friend in the Middle East, was humbled by Hezbollah in Lebanon – a humiliating blow to the U.S. and to imperialism in general.

Iraq is the immediate problem to be dealt with, and there is no good way for the imperialists to both cut their losses and maintain the dominant presence in the Middle East that had drawn them there in the first place. U.S. forces have already occupied Iraq for over three and a half years, longer than they fought during World War II. But the ruling class has only lately understood the depth of the swamp they are sinking in. (See our article, “U.S. Imperial Authority Cracking,” in Proletarian Revolution No. 77.) From the outset of the war, we predicted that Iraq would become a quagmire for U.S. imperialism and that bourgeois “democracy” was impossible there. We wrote in PR 71 in 2004:

The U.S. empire now faces an insoluble dilemma in Iraq. It cannot withdraw without seriously endangering its hegemonic position as the world’s top imperialist power and its dominance over the Middle East. On the other hand, it can not stay in Iraq without greatly escalating its bloody attempts to suppress the masses, thereby abandoning the invasion’s vital goals of pacification and stabilization.

Since then the dilemma has only become more acute.

As with Vietnam in the 1970’s, the ruling class will sacrifice a particular losing war in order to preserve the imperialist system as a whole. But then the world economy had just been through a quarter-century boom, and the statified capitalist USSR – the backer of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front that had defeated the U.S. – helped prop up the world capitalist system by keeping revolutions from spreading or even occurring. Today, the post-World War II capitalist boom is long over, and the USSR is defunct. The danger imperialism faces from defeat in Iraq, of both international chaos and economic crisis, is far greater.

Debating the Iraq Debacle

Right after the election, ruling-class hopes were pinned on the heavily promoted Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan collection of hotshots chaired by Bush Senior’s right-hand man, James Baker. But even after the release of the Baker report, all the strategies offered remain riven with contradictions. Consider some of the current proposals:

The Baker report at least dispensed with any notions of an American victory or of a pro-imperialist Iraqi democracy. It described the occupation as “grave and deteriorating” and emphasized there was no guarantee against failure. It also set the stage for blaming the Iraqis if the country blows up in an all-out bloodbath.

Meanwhile, Bush and his crew are staked to maintaining the occupation. Dismissing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was an implied promise to change course, but the main change they want is to fatten Rumsfeld’s famous “lean machine.” As we write, they have announced a “surge” of 20,000 additional troops for Iraq but have not made clear how they will use them.

One proposal for extending the war is to eliminate the Mahdi militia of the militant Shi’ite cleric and Iraqi nationalist Moqtada al-Sadr, a mainstay of the current wobbly prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The Sadrists have battled the Americans in the past, and an assault on them now could trigger a far greater mass uprising in Baghdad and a threat to the U.S. supply lines running through Shi’ite strongholds south of the capital. Since it would further divide and weaken the Shi’ites, it was opposed by the top Shi’ite religious leader, Ayatollah Sistani.

An alternative use for more troops is the “80% solution” of militarily smashing the Sunni-based resistance (Sunnis are about 20 percent of the Iraqi population). This would enrage Iraq’s Sunni neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and would likely internationalize the sectarian civil war. A more likely variant on these proposals is to attack the Sunnis and the Sadrists in turn, which would invite an even greater regional explosion. No wonder many prominent military figures, including Colin Powell and several top U.S. generals in Iraq, oppose any increase in U.S. forces.

An even more murderous possibility, for Iraq and the region as a whole, is an alliance with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. for an all-out war against the Shi’ites. A tacit bloc with Israel would allow it to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and re-assault Hezbollah in Lebanon, while U.S. and British troops in Iraq would smash the Shi’ite militias. The risk of region-wide turmoil would be enormous, but the imperialists may be desperate enough to try such a plan.

The Democrats rode the wave of anti-war sentiment, but they are divided over what to do. Some favor Bush’s “surge”; others – like some Republicans – denounce it. They agree only on the public relations task of seeing that Bush gets all the blame, so they struggle to dredge up a viable scheme for withdrawal before the 2008 elections while maintaining a semblance of regional stability. As with Bush, their top priority is to protect America’s superpower status, and therefore, like Bush, they have no real solution.

The Domestic Front

Even though exit polls showed that the war was the chief electoral issue, deepening fears about economic security also played a key role. And Democratic politicians appealed to workers’ economic worries by cautiously tying them to the Washington scandals about fat-cat lobbyists and crooked corporations. They also introduced minimum-wage resolutions in six key states, which all passed easily. In the end, the election sent to Washington a slew of Democrats proudly calling themselves economic populists.

Many workers who had previously been drawn to the Republicans, or had declared themselves to be independents in the center, moved to embrace the Democrats. But the shift is still confused enough to allow the populist demagogues to make only vague promises of modest changes.

On the economy the dominant capitalists are trying to avoid even small steps in the direction the electorate wanted to go, much less the major changes that workers yearn for. The fact is that the U.S. ruling class faces dangerous economic conditions itself. The boasts of American economic triumph by Wall Street and Washington cannot disguise concrete crises like the mounting public and private debt and the financing of the economy by foreign capital. The long-term hollowing out of U.S. industry recently hit the headlines: General Motors has ended its 80-year streak as the world’s largest auto maker. The inexorable drive to raise the rate of profit in the face of capitalism’s long-term stagnation demands yet further attacks on working-class benefits, wages and jobs.

That is the reason for the deepening economic gulf between the capitalists and the working class and the decline of wide swaths of the middle strata as well. The capitalists need to roll back even further the gains made by workers during the post-war boom and by Black people in the upheavals of the 1960's. Their problem is to figure out how to maintain the assault on workers’ livelihoods, in contrast to the increasing mass demand for relief.

The Democratic leadership is promising a short list of small improvements: raising the minimum wage, ending some corporate tax breaks, cutting interest rates on students loans, and allowing Medicare to negotiate discounts on prescription drugs. There is no chance that they will address the real crises of jobs, incomes, pensions and health care. But, reflecting the growing tide, there is now a wing of populist Democrats that is pushing hard for something more on the economic front, at least rhetorically.

The Rise of Electoral Populism

Right after the election, the mainstream media claimed that most of the newly elected Democrats were actually conservatives. And while a few of them are indeed social conservatives, most have mixed views on issues like “family values,” women’s rights, gay rights, etc., like most of their party’s politicians. However, on bread and butter issues these politicians were actually talking left.

Party leadership remains in the hands of the so-called moderate wing of the Democrats, including the Clintonites who spent their time in office in the 1990's slashing away at gains of workers and the oppressed. But the worsening economy guarantees that the populists will become a growing force, especially if the mass unrest does not produce an independent working-class movement.

Populism is one of the most loosely used and abused terms in American politics, but it has a real substance. A primarily rural and small-town movement in the 19th century, it has added a more urban (and suburban) character in the 21st. It reflects the outlook of distraught labor aristocrats and other middle-strata people who are being pulverized by a beleaguered economy. Another big difference is that today’s populism is not a mass movement; at least not yet. It is a mass sentiment coupled to the electoral stance taken by an expanding corps of politicians.

Populists speak to the “common man” and “the average American” in terms of their need to fight an attack on the “middle class,” a term used to engulf a variety of different social strata. By not addressing the working class as a distinct class with a distinct material situation, populists attempt to effectively connect with the feelings of workers while submerging the basic class divide in society.

The post-war economic boom saw a great expansion of the middle strata, in large part recruited from upwardly mobile workers. The more privileged labor-aristocratic occupations, including unionized skilled manual workers, were able to obtain income and benefit levels approximating those of upper-level white-collar managers and professionals. Some poorly-paid workers also had hopes of moving up. This was an immense source of stability for capitalism, but it is one that the system can no longer afford. The unrelenting attack on the workers and the deterioration of large sectors of the middle layers are eroding the system’s mass base of support. The collapse of the “American Dream” of becoming and staying middle-class has led to a massive change in outlook in the U.S.

Populism caters to this mass anger and anxiety by championing the struggle of the “people” against the big corporations and the rich and calls for a fairer balance between rich and poor within the capitalist system. The most conscious populist in the current bunch is Virginia’s Senator-elect James Webb. In a postelection statement in the Wall Street Journal on November 15, Webb made the electoral populist case in the form of a warning to the ruling class:

The most important and unfortunately the least debated issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. ... America’s elites need to understand this reality in terms of their own self-interest ... If it remains unchecked, this bifurcation of opportunities and advantages along class lines has the potential to bring a period of political unrest.

Webb uses “class” in the false populist sense of rich versus poor, but his awareness of the potential of an explosion is significant. He is telling the ruling class that economic concessions are vital if they wish to avoid mass upheavals not confined to the ballot box. But such talk itself remains troubling, even frightening, to many capitalists, and it has created conflicts within the Democratic Party. The electoral gains it brought have to be balanced against dangerously raising hopes in the Democrats’ large working-class, Black and Latino voting base. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore’s poll numbers went up when he threw out a few demagogic populist ideas, but so did complaints from his fundraisers. This year, given the demand for political change within the ruling class as well as the swelling of popular anger and fear, more Democrats seized on the risky populist theme.

The Populist Trap

For all its appeal to “middle-class working men and women,” populism represents no solution for the plight of the workers, the poor, the oppressed or even endangered petty-bourgeois elements. By the outset of the 20th century and the dawn of the imperialist epoch, populism had lost its progressive aspects and turned into a reactionary barrier to socialist class struggle. Racism and national chauvinism became more prominent features. Even in its leftmost forms, it performs a huge service to capitalism by teaching – in contrast to Marxism – that inequality, war and exploitation are not inevitable under capitalism.

Today’s electoral populism, a response to the growth of mass discontent, urges in the name of “the people” that workers follow left-talking bourgeois politicians instead of engaging in mass struggle against the ruling class. As Webb makes clear, today’s populism aims to head off a class upsurge, not promote it.

However, the populist Democrats will not be able to achieve reforms to any real degree. Their protectionist talk of raising labor standards abroad as part of trade negotiations is meant to end “free trade” agreements, not to seriously improve the conditions of super-exploitation in India, China, Mexico and elsewhere. But that will not stop the outflow of jobs. While cosmetic changes can be made to the corporate welfare state that the populist rail against, a major cut in governmental subsidies to the private sector would cripple the competitive abilities of American capitalists in the world market. Likewise, providing a large number of secure jobs would run up against the capitalist system’s need for a reserve labor army of unemployed workers. Only the threat of mass struggle could achieve such a gain. In sum, populist politicians can promise or hint at change, but delivery is incompatible with the system they defend.

The Republican agenda seeks to divert mass anger away from economic woes by beating the drums for patriotism. The populist Democrats are just as wedded to re-channeling mass anger through their own nationalist prism, which is ultimately militaristic as well as protectionist. For example, Webb – an ex-Marine – has opposed the Iraq war in a way that reflects a widespread sentiment in the officer caste, namely that it was an unnecessary adventure that heavily dented the armor of the imperialist killing machine.

The mass of American workers want out of Iraq because they hate that blood is being shed in a hopeless cause that doesn’t benefit them one iota. They may be terribly confused over how this will be achieved, but the yearning for a way out is unmistakable. Post-election polls continue to show that a majority of voters want a rapid withdrawal. But America’s rulers – populist politicians included – demand a “responsible” settlement that will avoid further devastating blows to U.S. imperialism. Again, the hopes the Democrats raise are incompatible with their system.

Populism and Racism

As usual, Black people who voted went heavily Democratic. In Virginia, their 85 percent vote for Webb was decisive for his victory (and therefore for the Democrats’ majority in the Senate), since he lost substantially among white voters. Yet during the campaign, all the Democrats glaringly avoided issues of race. For example, they paid little attention to the continuing neglect of the victims of Katrina (and downplayed the facts of racial oppression when the disaster was mentioned) – even though this issue had done so much to wreck Bush’s reputation. The populists welcomed the votes of Blacks but muffled their needs in the interests of a fraudulent “unity.”

There was a major shift in the Latino vote towards the Democrats, a negative reaction to the House Republicans’ openly racist Sensenbrenner bill that called for criminalizing undocumented immigrants, as well as to growing economic pressures. But the alternative bills the Democrats supported contained some pseudo-reforms but were no less punitive. (See our articles on the immigrant rights struggle in PR 78 and this issue [PR 79].) Nothing approved by the capitalists’ politicians will come close to the immigrants’ demand of full amnesty. In fact, immigrants will be the first to be betrayed by the Democrats, including the populists. They are the most immediate targets of the capitalists’ continuing efforts to divide and conquer the working class. Marshaling other sectors of the “people” – worried about being undercut economically – to see “foreigners” as their enemy is a necessary accompaniment.

In this regard, it should be noted that the economic populists are sometimes labeled “Lou Dobbs Democrats,” after television’s most strident and well-known populist. For all his anti-corporate rhetoric, Dobbs’ appeal to the “middle class” of working men and women is aimed directly against the most oppressed. Anyone who has heard his diatribes night after night against “the massive invasion of illegal aliens” knows he is a rampant nativist and racist. Undocumented immigrants for him are bearers of not only low-paid labor but also terrorism and diseases who are turning the country into a landscape “littered with languages not English.” This is not yet the line of today’s economic populist politicians, but Dobbs embodies the direction of populism’s hostility to working- class solidarity.

The Future of Populism

Today’s electoral populism will inevitably falter. As the class struggle heats up, many of the Democratic populists will move to the right, while others will try to accommodate to the mass actions in the factories and the streets in order to mislead them. History demonstrates that the pro-populist socialists are preparing the entry of the poisonous populist demagogues into the bloodstream of the coming movements. (See “Pseudo-Socialist Electoral Politics” below.)

If the populists succeed in preventing the emergence of a working-class leadership for the upcoming mass struggles, they will lead them back into the Democratic Party graveyard. The growing role of the bourgeois populists and the class-collaborationist “socialists” shows that the crisis of working class leadership is even greater than the crisis of bourgeois leadership. During much of the 20th century, counterrevolutionary Stalinism and Social Democracy used the weapons of populism and popular frontism, and thus undermined class consciousness around the world. Now that the struggle of the masses here and abroad is beginning to re-emerge, the task of re-creating a Marxist leadership can only be accomplished in the struggle for working-class independence.

Genuine communists fight side by side in the coming mass struggles with fellow workers, helping to dispel illusions in populism. We do so in order to expose leaders who are wedded to the defense of capitalism at the expense of the masses they claim to defend. We fight for Black and Latino liberation and full immigration rights: working-class unity will only occur if white workers recognize they can never be free if their brothers and sisters of color are not free and equal. Likewise we oppose all imperialist interventions and champion the need for internationalism to unify the working class across borders. We intend to prove in struggle the need for the working class to dump its illusions in the ballot box, in populism and in capitalism itself.

January 13, 2006

Pseudo-Socialist Electoral Politics

Many so-called socialists habitually prop up capitalist politics. Some, like the Democratic Socialists of America and In These Times, long advocates of working within the Democratic Party, have embraced the economic populists. Others try to stay clear of the Democrats but support instead the middle-class, pro-capitalist Green Party. In this election, Todd Chretien of the International Socialist Organization and David Sole of the Workers World Party even ran as Green Party candidates for the U.S. Senate in California and Michigan.

The ISO in particular argues that the Green Party, like the 19th-century Populists, is a useful vehicle for breaking working- class people from the Democrats. In this spirit they loyally build a non-socialist stage. Chretien’s campaign statements barely mentioned that he was a socialist. He spoke out against the Iraq war but scrupulously avoided citing U.S. imperialism. He attacked the Democrats and Republicans for various positions but not for being capitalist parties.

One Chretien idea “to dramatically improve our society” was to switch the Iraq portion of the annual military budget, $100 billion, with the education budget of $67.7 billion. The $32.3 billion produced by the above budget switch could create 660,000 “decent jobs with union rights.” This scheme is completely utopian for the imperialist U.S., and has nothing to do with the traditional socialist slogan, “Not a penny, not a man” for the bourgeois military. We suggest that since their candidate was proposing a $60-plus billion Iraq war budget, the ISO ought to correct its standard chant, “Money for Jobs, Not for War,” to “A Little More Money for Jobs, A Little Less for War.”

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