by Ellen Isaacs
The premise of this blog is that US capitalism cannot live without racism, which is also true of many other racialized societies, such as South Africa or Israel, with histories of settler colonialism and large non-European populations. And racism is also basic to imperialist exploitation of the darker nations of the world, be it pre- or post-colonialist, for their resources and markets.
Of course, capitalism also cannot live without profits, as the making of profit is the very reason for being of a capitalist enterprise, and profits come from returning to workers less than the value of what they produce. That means limiting wages and benefits to the level needed to provide enough adequately healthy and trained workers and high enough to prevent mass rebellion. Moreover, capitalists cannot choose to limit their profits, even if done in the name of moral good, for capitalist competition dictates that profits must be the same or higher than others in the same business, as investors and lenders will always favor the most profitable.
Huge amounts of profit in the US are made by paying women and black, Latin, and immigrant workers less than white male workers, adding up to 25-50% of corporate profits in some years. In addition, from the days of slavery to the present, divisions between white and non-white workers have massively weakened the ability of workers to unite and organize to make gains for the working class as a whole. Segregated housing, schools, work places and often, unions, have kept workers estranged and weakened. Thus it is impossible that a racialized capitalist state can be reformed so as to dispense with racism or provide workers with equality, justice, and ample social benefits within its own borders or, that any imperialist nation can do so in the nations over which it holds sway.
Nonetheless, in the US today we are witnessing an ecstatic reaction to several aggressive and progressive newly elected members of the House of Representatives and Democratic presidential candidates. Many of them, as well as their forerunner, Bernie Sanders, call themselves democratic socialists, by which they mean they aim for a kinder form of capitalism. In fact, over 50% of registered Democrats now say they favor socialism over capitalism. The fundamental problem is that democratic socialists want to better peoples’ lives without fundamentally changing the economic relations between the working class and capitalists, a relationship ultimately maintained with force.
The platforms of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar are identical in most respects. They all call for a $15/hour minimum wage and equal pay for women, abolishing ICE, ending mass incarceration, gun control, more affordable housing, a carbon tax and other mechanisms to control climate change, free higher education, increased banking regulation and some degree of taxing the rich and campaign finance reform, and single payer universal health care (Medicare for All). All of this sounds great, but the costs to a capitalist class which is is struggling to surmount rising international competition, economic and military, would be too great to bear. To just consider the case of health care, it is extremely unlikely to imagine US capitalists forfeiting the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, the most profitable in the country, let alone those of the health insurance companies. Moreover, health depends very heavily on many factors other than medical care, such as a good diet, exercise, a clean environment, safe working conditions, and a minimization of stress – all the things denied to most workers under capitalism. The fact that the US ranks low among developed countries in almost all measures of health is not important to capitalists as long as the well-to-do can obtain adequate care and there are enough healthy workers to do the work that needs to be done. In fact, the unemployable – the old or disabled – are only a burden to the system, an unremunerated cost.
All of the politicians named declare the wish to limit the prosecution of foreign resource wars, but their foreign policy aims and strategies are vague and limited. Ocasio-Cortez, for example, says that continued US military action in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia “damages America’s legitimacy as a force for good…. We can become stronger by building stronger diplomatic and economic ties, and by saving our armed forces only for when they’re truly needed.” Of course when they’re needed is completely undefined, and does she really believe that the US was ever a force for good in the world? When exactly? Without the capitalist class being removed from power and as long as it is in a competitive relationship with other large capitalists, it is inconceivable that the US military would only respond to an attack on its territory or only intervene overseas to insure justice for the world’s poor, as opposed to guaranteeing access to vital resources and markets.
Bernie Sanders also espouses a fanciful foreign policy, saying “in order to effectively combat the forces of global oligarchy and authoritarianism, we need an international movement that mobilizes behind a vision of shared prosperity, security and dignity for all people, and that addresses the massive global inequality that exists, not only in wealth but in political power.” Of course, US capitalism is dependent on the subservient relationship of the less developed world to obtain minerals, oil, ports, and pipelines, all in competition with China and Russia. Although he has recently criticized Israel’s harsh policies in Gaza, he has not voted against the massive military aid to Israel or ceased calling for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question, which most observers see as absurd given Israel’s continued land grabs in the West Bank.
Gun control and some degree of free education may be affordable, and the system can tolerate some prison reform. But to institute an actual living wage (at least $30/hour), equal pay, and limit investment in fossil fuel are simply not affordable for American capitalism to remain competitive in the short run, the only time frame in which competition allows them to think. To talk of abolishing ICE is a superficial demand, having nothing to do with the actual role of immigrants in the US. Essential to the agricultural economy and disproportionately represented in many low-wage jobs, immigrants are invaluable as a source of super-exploited and intimidated labor. Attacks on immigrants are also a widely accepted form of racism against those of Latin descent, so valuable in justifying the perpetual US abuse of Latin America. And to postulate that one could prevent capitalists from financing politicians and massively lobbying them is antithetical to the way in which they maintain power while appearing to promote democracy.
Democratic Socialists Cannot Change the Nature of Capitalism
Whether or not they call themselves members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), these reformers are supported by that group and have the same platform. The DSA, formed in the 1970s as a response to the rightward policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, states on its website that “working people should run both the economy and society democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few.” Elsewhere, they say the DSA “fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people. For example, we support reforms that:
- decrease the influence of money in politics
- empower ordinary people in workplaces and the economy
- restructure gender and cultural relationships to be more equitable….
- We are socialists because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.
- We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms (emphasis added) to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships.”
A major delusion of the would-be reformers of capitalism is the belief that the owners of the major productive forces and the bankers who finance them would ever voluntarily give up the massive amount of wealth which they control: the top 1% now have nearly 40% of US wealth (which has occurred at several other times in US history). Nor is the state separate from the interests of capitalists and able to choose to redistribute the wealth. As Marx pointed out so many years ago and Noam Chomsky still explains so well, the state is the instrument of capitalist rule, providing the armed force necessary to break strikes, conquer new markets, put down rebellions and intimidate the poor, especially those of color, in a day-to-day way.
Large upheavals, like the 1960s urban rebellions, have engendered reforms and have been counteracted with broad strategies besides outright force, ranging from promoting black politicians to create illusions of change (many black mayors, even a president), to flooding communities with drugs followed by mass incarceration. The small group of new congressional representatives is significant for promoting the illusion that the electorate will be able to redistribute wealth, prevent climate disaster, and increase racial equality if only enough progressives are elected. However, why would we expect the capitalists and their allies — who have made sure Bernie Sanders, with his few domestic reform proposals, could not get the nomination; who regularly manipulate the vote through gerrymandering, racist ID or felon laws; who use armed force to break strikes or disperse anti-racist protests; who massively murder the poor from Yemen to Afghanistan to Honduras, who have dropped a nuclear bomb – would ever willingly cede wealth and power?
To be sure, many tremendous gains have been made through workers’ struggles, such as the shorter workday, health insurance, pension plans or maternity leave. However, no such gains are fixed or permanent. As soon as they are won, the move is on to take them back. This may take the form of price increases or general inflation or demanding give-backs at the next round of contract negotiations. When and if discontent from below becomes too great, the system may have to bend a little. The partial success of the Fight for $15 campaign is a move in that direction, although $15/hour for a family of four is probably about half of a minimum livable wage in the U.S. There is also a need to keep wages just high enough so that workers can buy goods, another impetus for a little give in the system. Meanwhile, racism and patriotism are built to diminish struggle by dividing workers and fool us about whom our real enemies are.
Social Democracy in Practice has Failed
It makes no sense to posit that capitalism can be changed so that profits become secondary to workers’ needs and desires. Proponents of this idea usually point to Scandinavian and South American countries to prove their point. In Sweden, Social Democrats were in power from 1932-76 and again since 1982, but 90% of corporations are privately owned. The economy experienced downturns in the 1990s due to bank deregulation and a housing bubble, and again in 2008, along with everyplace else. The result was the usual – a cut in benefits for the working class. In 2013, overall unemployment was 9% and 29% among 15-25 year olds. Sweden has the fastest growth in class differences within the OECD countries. In Norway, the most generous of all the Nordic countries, the fall in world oil prices, devastated the economy, causing layoffs and unemployment and a rise in indebtedness, bankruptcies, and strikes, all to save the profits of the ruling class. There is no escape from capitalist crises in a capitalist economy. The Danish ruling class has just implemented a policy forcing mainly poor Muslim immigrants in “ghettoes” to give up their children 25 hours a week to be inculcated with “Danish values,” rather than acting to mitigate the poverty and despair in these neighborhoods.
In South and Central America, some attempts at social democratic reform, as in Chile or Guatemala, which were threatening to the US capitalist class and not supported by armed popular movements, were simply militarily wiped out. In others, like El Salvador or Nicaragua, there was more prolonged armed struggle, but ultimately the victorious reform governments were defeated by their own weak ideology and proved to be capitalist neighbors tolerable to the U.S. rulers.
In Venezuela it was a somewhat different story. Venezuela had economic strength due to its vast oil resources, and this wealth enabled President Chavez to distribute many benefits to the population. However, the economy remained dependent on the world capitalist market for a single product, oil. The US was primarily angered because Chavez developed closer ties with China and Cuba, lessening its dependence on the U.S. There was no mass communist movement involving power or decision making in the hands of the workers, nor any development of other sectors, such as agriculture. As a result, when oil prices tumbled, the economy went into free fall. Masses of poor people are now facing starvation and crossing the border into Colombia searching for food, as the US is attempting to engineer a coup.
Other so-called socialist regimes in Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador have similarly retained capitalist economies, even though their rulers have tried to be somewhat more generous to the poor. But nowhere has there been a mass-based party that was actually running society or had armed power. So one by one, all these regimes have failed to deliver lasting reforms and have been defeated by coups, lost elections or fiat, often orchestrated by the US.
Electoral Politics is Not Enough
DSA specifically rejects the necessity of actually seizing power by the working class, communism, and rejects communism as a form of authoritarianism as evil as capitalism. In fact they call the collapse of Soviet and Chinese communism “a critical gain for democracy.” Rather than analyzing why these seizures of power from capitalists by workers turned back into capitalism, they decide it is better to try and manipulate the fundamental laws of capitalism, to empower workers without taking power.
The US is losing the perch of economic pre-eminence it held after World War II, when it manufactured half of the world’s goods. Now China is about to be the main producer of goods in the world, outstripping the US within the next few years. Politically, the US is also losing its political dominance, with China gaining sweeping influence in Africa, Asia, and South America with its infrastructure projects and Russia reasserting itself in Eastern Europe and the Middle East (see The Decline of US Imperialism on this blog). The threat of increased conflict with China and Russia necessitates a stronger and more expensive military. Thus it is more difficult for American capitalism to make concessions to workers, a trend which is only worsening.
The leaders of the Democratic Party realize that a little “radicalism” is a good thing, maintaining the illusion of a real shift in priorities. But ultimately they must find a candidate to protect the interests of the financial elite, but one who appears to have the interests of many workers, someone like Obama. To date, their best bet is Kamala Harris, a black woman, but one who is a former prosecutor with a very reactionary record. She opposed compliance with a court order to dramatically reduce California prison overcrowding, because it would shrink the number of inmates available for work in the prison system. https://blackagendareport.com/bernie-sanders-vs-kamala-jailer-and-her-corporate-backers. She has refused to attack predatory lenders and bilkers, criminalized school truancy, upheld convictions obtained with prosecutorial misconduct, supported the death penalty, and opposed investigating shootings by police officers (NYT 1/17/19). Sounds like she may have broad appeal simply based on gender and race, while threatening no capitalist priorities. But they may have to find someone with better liberal credentials.
Ultimately our conclusion is that you cannot dispense with the evils of capitalism without getting rid of capitalism. Although reforms may be won by mass actions like strikes and rebellions, as opposed to merely via elections, they will never be enough in quantity or duration to guarantee every working person a secure, healthful, and fulfilling life, free of racism or exploitation. Having faith in well-spoken reformers in elective office only serves to deflect us from the organizing we need to do. While it may take decades and a crisis like major war or climate disaster to actually see a mass movement able to threaten the power of the capitalist class, we can build struggles now that bring that day closer. But we must rely on militant, multiracial organizing of fellow workers, students and neighbors directly for what we need. If we rely on so-called radical politicians and concentrating on elections, we are only fooling ourselves with delusions and losing an opportunity to become experienced rank and file leaders, able to lead an anti-capitalist struggle.