The ideological battle is alive and well in the United States – and there’s more to fight for now than ever writes Caitlin M. Walsh
America is a deeply divided country, but progressive politics are finally making some headway in the north. The election of the new Mayor Bill deBlasio of New York City with a mandate to reduce inequality was a landmark moment. More promising still is Seattle’s Kshama Sawant, its first openly socialist City Council member in more than a century. Though we remain a deeply divided country, their election, and the ideological backlash against them, shows that the battle for hearts and minds in America is still being fought – we’ve not reached the end of history, even here.
A New New York?
Forget deBlasio’s critique of NYC as “a tale of two cities”; in reality, our situation is more like a tale of two countries. The problem with America is multi-faceted and includes the disintegration of unions, unprecedented student loans (that cannot by law be defaulted on), high risk of unemployment/underemployment, our constant bombardment by WMD’s (weapons of mass distraction) and loss of faith and will to participate in the political process, amongst other things.
Fear of unemployment has become an epidemic. However low-paid, any work is preferable to being trapped by our ever-expanding prison-industrial complex. Our country is fraying at the edges and eroding outward at the centre; from the failing apartheid wall that separates the southern US from Mexico, to the polluting oil pipeline cutting through the American heartland, to the total corruption of the government and ruthless criminality of Wall Street.
Yet despite constant media deception and omission, and the failure of average citizens to take action thus far, more and more people are waking up to and considering the worsening situation everyday. Many people think about the big issues often and some do take action; there are tons of activist groups and causes and political parties other than the dominant ones. People are taking note of the failure of our government, the failure of our economy and the failure of our attempts to assert our imperialist foreign policies – but they remain a small minority. The inaction of the majority of working Americans, their failure to stand up against the infringement of human rights at home and abroad, is rooted, at least in part, in a fundamental issue that goes back to the conception of the USA.
The U.S. population is currently fracturing along a disparate ideological fault line. It lies with the founding fathers’ concerns over what the government should become: big government or small government. Translated into 21st century terms: an all-powerful, overbearing government capable and willing to provide extensive social services or a limited, impotent one that provides little or nothing in the way of welfare for its citizens.
At this point, it must be stated that the big/small government argument is a false dichotomy. The founding fathers were cautious about big government because of their experience with Britain; they were anti-imperialist (large states tend to be imperialist if powerful enough) and libertarians who believed in civil rights (which are being crapped all over by the so-called ‘small’ American government- that spies on the emails and calls of all its citizens, and has a huge degree of control over their lives in all the spheres that matter – work, advertising, and so on). The U.S. government wants to be small government when it suits them (such as when they don’t want to shell out for welfare) and a big government when that suits them (examples such as the military and prison industrial complex, interference in agriculture, and many other policies including the financial bailouts come to mind),
In this country, at this time, there are conservatives and liberals sprinkled throughout the states, but still the fault line appears to run roughly between North and South and from the centre (being the most conservative) outward. In the North, progressives are making headway, as Seattle has just elected their first openly Socialist City Council member in more than a century and the new Mayor of New York City was elected based on a platform of promoting economic equality and affordable housing. Both of these public servants advocate a humanist approach to politics. But there are plenty who do not, many of which support the model I will discuss later.
DeBlasio ran on a platform that advocates the wellbeing of all. While NYC has been recently hailed as the new frontline in the war on inequality, it continues to be one of the most disparate cities in the world as far the socio-economics of its inhabitants are concerned. As Wall Street and other NYC elite have reaped the benefits of the recession and become even richer than they were before the economy crashed, the vast majority of New Yorkers have become poorer. DeBlasio seeks to remedy this by building more affordable homes in and around the boroughs of NYC as well as by raising taxes on the cities wealthiest citizens in order to finance social services including universally available and accessible pre-kindergarten classes.
Despite his genuine demeanour and no doubt desire to bridge the gap between the rich and poor in New York, there are some perceived issues with his plans. What he is speaking about, may in effect be impossible, both within the current political and economic climate of this country and within the realm of possibility available within our overarching ideological economic mandate: free markets, profits over people and consumer capitalism.
History is not on his side either. After 12 years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies, namely producing a business and social climate favouring the cities ultra-rich, it is not surprising that his lasting legacy has been one that has privileged the rich’s ability to stay rich while leaving out the so-called 99%. Currently, apartment rents in Manhattan (and some other boroughs) can cost more than $3,000.00 per month and condominium prices often stand at $1 million or more. As a result of this uncontrolled housing inflation, the middle class has been pushed off of the island of Manhattan (much like central London) and this trend is in no way projected to change.
DeBlasio’s plan to build up to 200,000 affordable housing units in and around the city would be contingent on a high level of Federal tax credits being allocated to this purpose. Considering our current Federal government and their desire to continue with their misguided austerity plans, this is unlikely. As far as his plan to raise the taxes of the cities richest citizens, deBlasio would need the support of the NY state legislature and the Governor, Andrew Cuomo. This is also highly unlikely. DeBlasio is on a slippery slope, as he challenges the interests of the rich and powerful of NYC, the heart of our capitalist system. He may find, just as Obama has, that it is a lot easier to promise change than it is to deliver it (Look at The Week Magazine Vol. 14 Iss.651 for more information and here).
In the case of deBlasio, he believes that the US can fight inequality, poverty and inefficiency while continuing to operate under the capitalist system. He is a Democrat and thus is committed also to the style and form of our current government. These two truths expose a lie, however unconscious, in the promises he has made to his city. How can one promise to reduce inequality in any meaningful way, while continuing to operate within an economic framework in which inequality is the most fundamental component? This is, after all, a system in which the ruling class derive all their power and profit from the exploitation of the rest of us. Whether or not he can deliver his promises, it is promising that New Yorkers are willing to vote for such ideas; it may be a response to the current financial crisis and could represent the growing of class consciousness in NYC.
A Socialist Alternative?
Kshama Sawant was elected to Seattle’s City Council by speaking the truth: we have come as far as we can within the capitalist structure. Democrats have failed to bring about lasting real change because they refuse to see any possibilities outside of capitalism - both democratic and republican politicians must do what big business wants because big business funds their lavish lifestyles and multiple re-election campaigns. She was elected by a constituency who agrees with her: the economy is failing the young, our political system is corrupt, and people should be allowed to earn a living wage. What is really remarkable is that she was elected on a platform whose fundamental core realizes that progressive, lasting change cannot be made within the current capitalist paradigm, which in the American context is nothing short of historic.
In her inaugural address she spoke of how the middle class is shrinking, the working class is struggling to survive, the cost of living has skyrocketed while wages adjusted for inflation have stagnated and healthcare has become more costly and less accessible. She acknowledged the 50 million Americans (1 in 6) who live in grinding poverty and the people who die all around the world day after day due to lack of sanitation, food and clean water, despite the fact that there is more than enough for everyone to share. This is the reality of global and domestic capitalism: a gross misappropriation of social resources; workers reap a fraction of what they sow, and often it ain’t enough to make ends meet.
She painted an accurate picture of Wall Street as glorified criminals, who have chosen to profit at the expense of the vast majority of people. Her words dispel any doubt that the only economic recovery that has been experienced as of late, has been for the country’s wealthiest inhabitants. She condemned Congress for voting to continue to raise their own wages while the Federal minimum wage has continued to stagnate and fall behind the rising rate of inflation.
One of her biggest goals is to raise Seattle’s minimum wage to a living wage of $15.00 per hour. As she pointed out, $15.00 an hour as a minimum wage is really not that presumptuous when you consider that the average American CEO earns $7,000.00 per hour. Her other promises include fighting for affordable housing to be made available to Seattle residents and taxing the ultra-rich to pay for the expansion of public transportation systems and education services. She pledged to stay true to her constituents, by refusing to make back-room deals with corporations or other politicians.
What I like most about Sawant, besides the fact that she is an immigrant from South Asia, a union member, an Occupy activist and an economics professor, is her vision of how to challenge the status quo effectively: mass mobilization of a broad-based coalition of the people, by the people, for the people. Her desire to organize a mass movement of workers, young and old, from the fast food and Walmart workers to the stop the pipeline and anti-war movements is reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, and the Union Movements of the early and middle 20th century. She would like to see the broadest coalition possible, independently funded and relying on their own individual and group strengths to take on the bankers, politicians and big business.
An effective push for real democracy, economic and social justice in the heartland of global capitalism would be a serious blow to international capital. It is her hope, and my own, that the working class will create a new political party, run by and accountable to themselves, and carrying forward policies which would utilise the immense resources of our country for the benefit of all people, not just those at the top.
The middle class dies – and goes to Texas
Meanwhile, a new socio-economic model is creeping northward out of Texas, a place countless Americans wish would just secede already. This model is aptly named the Texas model, and has spread out into the deep and mid-south, as well as some of the mid-western and south-western states. This model represents the other side of the American ideological divide. It is based primarily on limiting government by keeping taxes low, providing little to no social services for citizens, few regulations on business and thus minimum/low wages for the 99% (because who needs medical insurance when beer and bourbon are so affordable?)
Why in the world would sane people move to a state with few social services available, where benefits practically cease to exist, where one-quarter of the residents have no access to healthcare, where the education system is sub-par at best and the murder rate is constantly rising? Well, because they claim it is “America’s America”, a place where hard-working, self-reliant people can start over and maybe, just maybe, find their own slice of the American Dream. That is the dream that someone can come up from nothing, by the sweat of their brow and make it big. The dream that claims our government, our economic system, our class – in fact nothing in the world - has any impact on whether a person succeeds or fails. The dream that most people of my generation know is long dead.
Instead, it is the death of the middle class, the rising price of living and the austere mood in the rest of the states that is pushing and pulling people to migrate to Texas and other similarly-oriented states. It is cheap to do business in Texas, mostly because start-up costs are low compared to places like California and New York, there are criminally low corporate tax rates and very few state regulations on things such as emissions and other how’s and what’s of doing business.
As increasing numbers of Americans find themselves unable to achieve or maintain middle class livelihoods, it is no surprise they are looking for an escape route. Nationally, median household income has declined by 5% since 2009; during the same period, 58% of all job growth has been in low-wage occupations, defined as jobs paying less than $13.83 per hour. Despite these statistics, incomes of the elite have not stagnated: the top 1% of earners took home 19.3% of the U.S.’s total household income over the same period- their largest share since 1928-the year before the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. The top 10% of earners have taken home a record 48.3% of the U.S.’s total household income over the last 5 years as well- meaning that while the recession has yet to ease for the vast majority, the top 11% of earners in the U.S. have taken home nearly 68% of all wages since the economic collapse in 2008. The driving force for all this is not wholly unknown: globalization, advances in computing and automation, out-sourcing, and so on. I will also add greed, corruption and wanton waste to this list of driving forces.
The capitalists in this country will have you believe that the people who are moving down the economic ladder so to speak are only those who have been unsuccessful in acquiring new skills, higher education and the like. In reality, most of us are experiencing what Ha-Joon Chang has labelled the “kicking away of the ladder”- a term used to describe how the rich use multiple strategies to keep the rest of us from achieving the same level of wealth and prosperity that they have reached-but instead of this being a cruelty formerly used on less developed countries, it is now being used on the people of the most developed countries in the world
The youth are the ones being hardest hit. Cost of tuition and living has skyrocketed, while the chances of graduates finding employment, or employment leading to a career, have fallen drastically. People with 4 year degrees, who are employed, earn less today than graduates earned in the year 2000. What does that really mean? Persistently lower earnings, failure to establish oneself on a meaningful and stable career ladder, unhappiness, inability to purchase their own homes, and more people moving to Texas. So, as people in my age-bracket find it harder and harder to survive on their pay cheques, or on benefits (which is hardly a safety net any longer), the cost of hanging onto/achieving a middle class lifestyle is increasing in the face of costs skyrocketing beyond our means, namely college, healthcare and housing.
While Texas is not wholly immune to any of these problems, it has two advantages: low cost of living and a job market that is not as bad as elsewhere. The reality is that whenever the economy of the whole country tanks (as Capitalism promises it will), people move in droves to Texas. Right now Texas has an unemployment rate of 6.4% compared to the national average of 7.3%. Texas also contains three of the top 5 fastest-growing cities in America: Houston, Dallas and Austin; all rife with potential for hungry job-seekers. Ultimately all this is facilitated, not by the superiority of Texan policies (obviously) but its geology: which features oil – and lots of it.
1 million people have moved to Texas in the past 15 years alone. Housing is cheap, gas is cheap, food is cheap because labour is cheaper and all this makes it that much easier to survive – whereas in my home state of California, the poor are being forced out. This is the same reason other states residents leave and go to places like Texas.
For Americans heading to places like the Carolina’s, the Deep South or Texas, it is far more likely that they will be met with slow-growing, stagnant or even vastly decreased wages. Even so, the danger of the Texan model being generalised should not be underestimated and would have dire consequences. Health care and education will become more expensive and harder to get, most Americans will have to move into smaller homes involuntarily, no longer will we be able to prop up the myth that living standards increase with each generation. We would be resigning our young and the generations to come, to a lifestyle nowhere near as nice as the ones we once enjoyed, and committing them to an ongoing race to the bottom with capitalist states across the world – for ever-lower wages, ever-fewer rights and ever-worse standards of living (Look at TIME Magazine Vol. 182 No. 18 and here)
The bottom line is that job creation in Texas is an anomaly, and at any rate mostly low-wage and insecure. To quote a phrase I keep noticing on the Counterfire site – ‘whose boom is it anyway?’ ‘Not ours’, is the answer for most Americans. And that’s a truth we have to fight to make understood. The empty figures being trumpeted as a case for the Texan model are designed to hit back against the headway being made by the likes of deBlasio and Sawant.
What it shows is that the ideological battle between the welfare-state vs the right-to-work state, between helping people rise up and pushing people down the ladder, is alive and well in the United States – and that there’s more to fight for now, than ever.
Caitlin Walsh is from California and graduated from SOAS in 2013, with a double major. She is a political activist, contributing to campaigns that fight against neoliberalism/neo-imperialism, war, fascism/racism, police brutality and the destruction of the environment. She is a supporter of medical marijuana and LGBT rights as well as universal human rights.