With the main candidates representing the 1% in the U.S presidential elections next month, Sean Ledwith discusses how the movement should respond
The US elections on November 6th will see voters going to the polls in a very different atmosphere than four years ago. The high tide of 'Obamania' seems as distant to American voters as 'Cleggmania' does to their British counterparts.
Despite his underwhelming performance since 2008, Obama has predictably tried to recapture the spirit of his first election by packaging this one as a defining contest between two allegedly conflicting visions of American society and politics. His goal in the Presidential debates before election day will be to consolidate the dominant perception of ‘clear blue water’ between Democrat and Republican. The mainstream media will scour the nuances of each candidate’s language and demeanour in a mockery of serious political analysis.
The sobering reality is that both Obama and Romney -his Republican rival- represent a continuation of the neo-liberal agenda that has dominated US politics since the 1980s. Neither would have a stake in interfering with the staggering transfer of wealth from the majority to the minority that has been the hallmark of socio-economic trends over recent decades.
Imperialism as usual
Nor would either be remotely interested in dismantling the military machinery of US global outreach that hangs over the lives of millions around the world. These two certainties of the undecided race for the White House might tempt socialists to throw their hands up in despair at the political scene in the US. But there are far more inspiring forces at work beneath the banal bun-fight of the Presidential race. The last two years have seen a remarkable upsurge in class consciousness that offers the real prospect of the current generation of American activists re-connecting with the illustrious heritage of the Wobblies, the sit-in strikes of the 1930s and the anti-war movement of the 1960s.
‘Daily Show’ host, Jon Stewart, has mocked the downscaling of Obama’s lofty ambitions of 2008 as the rhetorical switch from ‘Yes we can’ to ‘Yes we can but...’ Obama skilfully rode a wave of disillusionment with ‘business as usual’ politics in that year to mould an image of an 'outsider' candidate who would overcome the rampant greed and imperialism of the Bush Presidency and tune into a post-racial and progressive zeitgeist emerging in US society.
The slogan of ‘Change We Can Believe In’ slickly captured that mood of American voters sickened by the bloody mire of the Iraq war and the venal activities of Wall Street that triggered the financial crash.
A candidate for the 1%
The tone of Obama’s rhetoric rapidly changed once he had secured the White House in 2008. He unreservedly backed the TARP bill: the Bush bail-out of the banks and poured trillions of dollars into the coffers of the institutions that had scammed millions of Americans through the sub-prime mortgages scandal.
Despite Obama’s call for a society where ‘everyone plays by the same rules’, none of the bank executives responsible for corrupt mis-selling of home loans has ever been brought to justice. Corporate profits amounted to $2 trillion in America’s boardrooms last year and they are estimated to have the same amount available in liquidity.
The much vaunted ‘trickle-down effect’ of Reaganomics has continued to be a sick joke as the richest 1% have seen their wealth increase by 130% since 1980 while 80 % have seen theirs fall by about 20% in the same period.
Apologists for Obama point to the Affordable Care Act -'Obamacare'- as concrete evidence of his commitment to improving the plight of working class Americans. From its inception, however, this legislation has been marked by compromise with the powerful pharmaceutical lobby in the US.
The debate on its content was dictated by private health insurance 'insiders' on Capitol Hill who ensured there was never any possibility of it delivering a genuine public health system on the European model, despite polls showing there was strong public support for it initially.
Obama's unwillingness to lead a committed defence of the plan in its early stages left an ideological vacuum that was filled by the resurgence of the Republican right and the Tea Party. The Act does not come into force for another two years and will still leave 26 million Americans without adequate health cover.
The Act scraped through the Supreme Court but only due to a conservative interpretation of the Constitution that opens up the possibility that other progressive legislation can be gutted in the future.
The 95% of black voters who backed Obama saw his victory as a triumphant culmination of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. For some on the left, Obama’s mere presence in the White House still represents a symbolic achievement that must be defended at all costs. The Trayvon Martin case in Florida earlier this year, however, highlighted with brutal clarity how little has changed for the black community under Obama.
All significant indicators point to black people continuing to endure a second class status in US society. Unemployment among black Americans is at 15% compared to the national rate that hovers at about 8%. The proportion of black children living in poverty is at 40% and - most notoriously- black males are 4O% of the prison population despite being 13% of the total population.
Obama foreign policy
In foreign policy, Obama has continued the tradition that 'party politics ends at the ocean' -in other words, both major parties are virtually interchangeable in their commitment to maintaining the global hegemony of the US economic empire. Despite riding into office partly on credibility gained by his vote in the Senate against the Iraq war, Obama has consolidated the American military presence in the Middle East.
US Central Command facilities in Oman, Kuwait and Jordan are all being upgraded. The Arab Spring last year exposed the shallowness of his attachment to ‘constitutional’ values. When the popular uprisings burst out across the region his first reaction was to try to prop up the dictators Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt.
After it became apparent the democratic upsurge could not be deflected, he cynically paid it lip service and then gave the green light for the Saudi army to crush a similar revolt in Bahrain, home of the US Sixth Fleet.
The assassination of Bin Laden displayed an equally cynical contempt for the conventions of international law and is now being used in the current campaign as evidence for Obama's steely willingness to deploy 'hard power'; in other words, trample over quaint notions like 'due process' and 'national sovereignty'.
He has set a date of 2014 for US withdrawal from Afghanistan but reserves the right to postpone that if necessary. Even if he delivers this policy it will be amid an escalation of drone attacks that has taken an appalling toll on the civilian population. Meanwhile Obama's election promise to shutdown Guantanamo Bay remains near the bottom of his 'to do' list.
Romney and the Right
Many on the left recognise the shortcomings of Obama's first term but perceive the prospect of Romney at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as so appalling that there is no option but to hold your nose and vote Democrat. There is no doubt that Romney is not only in the pocket of big business but that he practically owns the whole coat!
His unbelievably crass comment about 47% of Americans being spongers and freeloaders has probably nailed the lid on his election chances. The secret footage confirmed the suspicion of many that a candidate twice as rich as the last eight Presidents combined is unlikely to bring any respite from the cutting edge of austerity.
Romney's incompetence on his recent foreign excursions -such as upsetting the British over their ability to stage the Olympics- has possibly led even the string-pullers of the US empire to think this is not a man to safeguard imperial interests. William Kristol, one of the neo-con godfathers, has poured scorn on Romney as ‘arrogant and stupid’ -probably for being caught on camera making his 47% comments, rather than just thinking it like the rest of the American Right.
The furore provoked by Republican candidate Todd Akins and his brainless comments about ‘legitimate rape’ highlight the hard core right wing of Romney’s party. Akins also claimed that doctors were performing fake abortions on women who are not actually pregnant in a scam known as ‘Abortion Mills’ to make money. Romney and Ryan tried to distance themselves from this idiocy but Akins remains on the Republican ticket in Missouri.
Even House Speaker John Boehner -a Republican- has denounced this tendency as ‘knuckle-draggers’. Many on the US left find Romney’s ineptitude less of a concern than the cold-blooded calculations of his running mate, Paul Ryan. The latter slapped down Akins for distracting the campaign but Ryan is also one of the architects of the Republican platform that includes a ban on abortion in all circumstances.
Ryan has consciously cultivated an image as a rebooted Ronald Reagan, committed to slashing welfare spending and implementing tax cuts for the rich. America's first dose of Reaganomics in the 1980s saw the number in poverty soar from 29 million to 35 million. Democrats have denounced the calamitous effects of Ryan’s proposed reduction of federal spending to 17% of GDP.
The equally chilling news, however, is that one estimate of Obama’s spending plans has the reduction at 19%, hardly ‘clear blue water’ between the parties. The Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission authorised by Obama has recommended $4 trillion worth of cuts. The bulk of this would come from welfare provision. This unrelenting assault of the already threadbare US welfare state by both parties has provoked the astonishing and inspiring rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement on the basis of its broadly effective slogan, 'We are the 99%'.
Inspired by the Egyptian Revolution, activists in Wisconsin led an occupation of the state legislature in Madison that swelled to 100,000 people in March 2011. They were protesting at the planned termination of collective bargaining rights by Tea Party poster boy, Governor Scott Walker.
Although ultimately thwarted by a predictable co-option of the movement by the Democrat Party machinery, it triggered a stunning wave of city-centre occupations across the US that brought millions onto the streets in the autumn of that year. The initial euphoria of the Occupy movement has dissipated, not least due to a brutal attack by police authorities in cities such as Oakland, California. But its ongoing influence is apparent in the Chicago teachers' strike of last month.
Obama's former Chief of Staff and current Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, had tried to ram through an attack on the Chicago Teachers Union based on a compulsory no-strike deal and increased use of privatised 'charter' education firms. He clearly did not expect to see his plan fill the streets of Chicago for two weeks with red-shirted teachers on continuous strike action. The CTU's campaign triumphantly forced Emanuel to back down.
This fantastic form of resistance -alongside the Occupy movement and the Wisconsin protests- points the way to how socialists in the US should be orientating their activity.
Given that there is currently no serious electoral alternative to Obama, progressives may well wish to vote for him to keep out the ultra-right Romney. The Republican presidential candidate would represent a massive escalation of neoliberalism inside the US and would undermine the argument that the people reject austerity policies. What’s more, an attack on Iran, although only a matter of time either way, would also be more immanent under Romney. However, we should be under no delusion about the so-called ‘progressive’ qualities of Obama. The only way to wind back neoliberalism and to stop rampant imperial expansion is to build a movement for radical change which can in turn set the wheels of further industrial action in motion and deliver real change for the ‘99%’.
The recent forms of resistance outlined above need to be part of a class-based strategy to challenge American capitalism. Obama's lacklustre first term and the militancy of recent class struggles in the US point to where activists should be focusing their energy. Now that’s revolutionary change we can believe in.
Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in Philosophy and Politics at York College. He is a member of UCU, York People's Assembly and Counterfire. He has also written contributions for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.