Robert Hennelly’s Stuck Nation is a vigorous and well-researched analysis of the exploitative and racist nature of US capitalism, but falls short of a convincing way to be rid of it, argues John Clarke

Robert Hennelly, Stuck Nation (Democracy at Work 2021), 172pp.

In the forward to Robert Hennelly’s Stuck Nation, Richard Wolff suggests that it is a ‘book for our times’ (p.5). In Wolff’s view ‘US capitalism’s inequality has become socially divisive to the point of explosion’ (p.3) and yet ‘mainstream media, politicians and academics work to keep system change off the public agenda’ (p.4). He asserts that, in this context, the book can be a means ‘to free ourselves from a declining capitalism’ (p.4). He builds upon this with a reference to the need ‘for social transition beyond a stuck capitalism’ (p.5).

Given how the book is presented at the outset, it is necessary to evaluate it according to this claimed standard of anti-capitalist firepower. This is unfortunate in some ways because it is a heartfelt, well researched and highly readable expression of outrage at the great injustices of present-day US society. Yet, its subtitle, ‘Can the United States change course on our history of choosing profits over people,’ warns us before we turn to the first page that its perspective will be considerably more liberal than Wolff would have us believe. Though the book finds much wrong with US capitalism and presents the evidence with great conviction, what it really proposes is a vigorous popular effort to convince the leopard to change its spots.

Hennelly has had a long career as an investigative journalist, and he puts his knowledge and skills to good use as he fashions his case. To his credit, he is no tame apologist for the Democratic Party and his prologue offers a clear appraisal of the false promises and harsh realities of the Obama years:

‘When President Obama was just in his second term, I could see that in places where I was reporting – like Newark and Paterson, New Jersey – things had actually continued to deteriorate from the Great Recession’ (p.7).

He says of the former president that ‘he was more of a charismatic moderate than a change agent’ and he makes clear that ‘local governments, invariably presided over by Democratic machines’ (p.9), have played a decisive role in deepening inequality and advancing the process of urban decay. He sees this political conduct as the reason why ‘millions of voters were ripe for Trump’s picking’ (p.12).

Nature of US capitalism

The first chapter of the book sets a pattern that will continue throughout. Clear historical and present-day evidence of an exploitative and deeply racist system are put before the reader. Yet, though a wide range of symptoms are considered, the malady is never diagnosed with any precision and no clear idea emerges of what will be needed to cure it. Even when Hennelly exposes the fundamentally exploitative and oppressive nature of US capitalism, he fails to draw the requisite conclusions. Speaking of the founding of country, he acknowledges that:

‘Our nation came into existence through its complicity in two crimes against humanity: (1) the enslavement of African people; and (2) the ethnic cleansing of the Native inhabitants encountered here by white European settlers, who claimed dominion over all they saw when they landed on behalf of a God no one could see’ (p.19).

The author then asks us to: ‘Scroll forward to January 20, 2021, when President-elect Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris were sworn in as president and vice president, marking the unprecedented elevation of a woman, who is also a person a color, to the second highest office of the land.’ (p.19). However, he points out that this took place even as ‘a once-in-a-century public health crisis – which hits the poor and people of color the hardest – continues to grip the nation in the absence of a nationally coordinated plan in place to eradicate it’ (p.20).

From this, Hennelly goes on to show ‘the central role of active-duty and retired members of law enforcement and the military in the violent attack on our Capitol (on January 6, 2021)’ (p.20). That state enforcers in the US would collaborate in this way with overt racists and fascists is not surprising, and the evidence of longstanding racist police violence is then presented in some detail and very compellingly. He goes on to show how the pursuit of profit in the US is conducted along lines dictated by an effective hierarchy in the value of human life, with communities exposed to pollution, toxic waste and ‘environmental racism’ (p.30).

However, having exposed something quite fundamental about the nature of the society he is challenging, the author asks us to accept that what is required is a ‘Great Reconciliation – to get our nation “unstuck” and he urges his readers to become ‘Repairers of the Breach’, a task for which ‘we will need a road map to triage where the damage and suffering are most acute’ (p.31).

The title of the second chapter calls for ‘a moral understanding of our history’, which rather implies that an infusion of better ethics is the remedy that must be sought. Hennelly points to the horrors of slavery, usefully focusing on his own northern state of New Jersey, and stressing that that oppressive institution was by no means confined to the south. He provides powerful examples of how a racist legacy has continued to shape the US. Yet, having done so, he weakly suggests that ‘an open-ended, dynamic conversation’ is required ‘if we have the moral courage to have it’ (p.33).

The book’s third chapter takes a detailed look at the appalling degree to which the hugely toxic effects of the bringing down of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, were denied and concealed by those in power. In order to keep profits flowing and to promote the image of a resilient and unbowed USA, workers and even children attending schools in the affected area were put at risk of long-term health impacts. The precise scale of the cancers and other serious conditions attributable to this poisoned environment have never been properly charted. As Hennelly explains: ‘Almost 20 years after the attack, there is still a lot that is unknown about the health of most of the people epidemiologists say were at risk from the toxic fallout’ (p.54).

The failure to protect those impacted by the 9/11 attack is, very appropriately, linked to the utter failure to safeguard public health in the face of Covid-19. This, however, is attributed to the ‘barbarism and excesses of winner-takes-all capitalism’ (p.57). Once again, this suggests that some other form of capitalism might be possible that could operate in ways that avoided such excesses.

Given the focus on 9/11, this might have been a good point to consider the US role on the world stage. The author does acknowledge that the War on Terror was the cause of massive death and suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. He also stresses that the US is engaged in ‘an endless war without boundaries, with no limitation on time and geography’ that involves ‘massive military spending’ (p.44). The book is certainly focused on the injustices with US society but its role as an imperialist power needed to be more adequately considered in order for its domestic system of capitalism to be properly understood and effectively challenged.

Race-based exploitation

The book continues to chart a course through the many examples of exploitation and oppression that distinguish US society. We see the long-standing failures of the privately operated healthcare system and how it fails both working-class communities and healthcare workers. Hennelly repeatedly and justifiably returns to the deep racism that continues to shape the US, and highlights the intensity of ‘race-based economic exploitation’ (p.69). Once again, however, the book offers an implausible explanation for something so clearly fundamental to the system by suggesting that ‘overlooking that exploitation is one of capitalism’s most wilful blind spots’ (p.70). The only remedy it can offer is ‘disciplined and passionate organizing [to] make sure the essential workers who have already given so much remain visible in a country where market forces have so consistently disregarded what is inconvenient to acknowledge and address’ (p.75).

The author shows how the system of representative democracy is controlled by business interests, who ensure that public policies are developed and the allocation of social resources take place in ways that meet their needs. He draws from the book Captured: Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy, and suggests that ‘our politics’ are being undermined by the ‘undue influence’ of powerful capitalists (p.79). He presents ‘the violent assault on the US Capitol’ by far-right groups as having occurred ‘during our democracy’s most vulnerable time’ (p.81). This deep respect for the governing institutions highlights very clearly that the book is written from the perspective of someone who thinks that US capitalism and its political system have taken some seriously wrong turns but that these are inherently correctable.

Hennelly is admirably frank in his assessment of the factors that produced the Trump presidency, which he returns to in the eighth chapter. He is very clear that the Democratic establishment wanted to prevent a run at the White House by Bernie Sanders, even if it meant Trump would emerge victorious. He thereby draws out clearly the ‘bipartisan’ nature of the political services rendered to capitalist interests. At the same time, he points an accusing finger at the complicity of conservative trade-union leaders, declaring that ‘the unions opted to play it safe with corporatist Democrats who had been playing them for years as wages lagged and their clout increasingly diminished’ (p.105).

Despite this bureaucratic obstacle to effective action by US workers, Hennelly considers some of the ways in which a working-class resurgence is brewing. He draws on the important lead being given at the time of writing by teachers. He suggests that: ‘The post-2016 challenge for organized labor was to re-energize itself and insert a new militancy into the national conversation’ (p.107), and he shows the magnificent example that was set by a two-week strike in 2018 by 20,000 West Virginia teachers that won significant gains.

The author points out that the unions in the US have largely been on the defensive since the mass firing of air-traffic controllers by Ronald Reagan in 1981 (p.109). While he wishes to strike a hopeful note, with regard to the prospects for a resurgence in union struggles, he again reveals the limits of his challenge to the US profit system by suggesting that ‘it’s possible – when labor is united – to check the excesses of corporate capitalism to the benefit of the workers’ (p.112).

The ninth chapter poses the weighty question, ‘So, how do we break out of the Stuck Nation cycle and empower the tens of millions of Americans marginalized by economic exploitation in a racist and misogynistic system that puts the accumulation of wealth above all other human endeavours?’ (p.9).

In trying to point the way forward in tackling this enormous undertaking, Hennelly draws on some key examples from the past, in order to argue that the prospects are very favourable. He looks at the pivotal struggle of Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, in the late 60s (p.118) and considers the role played by Martin Luther King, including the Poor People’s Campaign that he initiated (p.120).

Moving to the present, he explores initiatives that seek to bring broader sections of the working class into the struggle and looks at important campaigns that are being taken up for the rights of undocumented workers (p.130). He examines ways in which the rights of precarious workers and those in the ‘gig economy’ are being advanced (p.140).

In his epilogue, Hennelly gathers together the threads of the case he has developed and asserts that: ‘The task before us is daunting, but there is ample evidence that we are up to it’ (p.149). He points to the importance of the sweeping Black Lives Matter upsurge that rose up in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis (p.149). He asserts that: ‘After decades of wages flatlining or dropping, there’s evidence that the balance of power between capital and labor may be tipping ever so slightly towards labor’ (p.152).

Freeing stuck capitalism

Hennelly concludes with a formulation that reveals both the positive aspects and the severe limitations of his book.

‘But there’s no doubt that if you’ve made it this far in my diagnosis of what’s got us stuck as a nation, you too have a sense of the scale of the change that’s required to move us forward. Once we fully process what it means, the only thing left for us to do is to take action’ (p.153).

In truth, though Hennelly provides enormously important observations on the exceptional brutality of capitalism in the world’s hegemonic imperialist country, and though he charts some inspiring examples of resistance by workers and communities under attack, the harsh reality is that he actually has very little sense of ‘the scale of the change that’s required to move us forward’. This in turn, severely limits his understanding of the nature of the action that needs to be taken in response.

The very title of the book, Stuck Nation expresses its basic limitation, both as a work of analysis and as a call to action. For all its burning sense of outrage, the meticulous way in which it fashions its case and the important examples of working-class resistance it documents, it is not, as the publisher claims at the outset, a means ‘to free ourselves from a declining capitalism’ (p.4). This is for the clear and simple reason that the author doesn’t wish to challenge that system fundamentally. For Hennelly, US capitalism is stuck in a pattern of excesses and abuses, and he fervently wishes to get it unstuck so that it can be rendered more rational and just. Sadly, this is an impossible undertaking and his book is accordingly doomed to failure.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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