Mass protests are taking place around the world. Will anything similar happen in the U.S.?
Editor’s note: this article was written before the mass protests of students and workers in Wisconsin around Governor Walker’s attack on public sector union bargaining rights.
“The events in Egypt are so inspiring! But when is something going to happen here?” That was the question posed to me recently by a friend, and it’s worth discussing. To begin with, of course, it’s not only Egypt. Over the past year, mass struggle have bubbled up around the world. General strikes, or near general strikes, in countries like Greece, Spain, France, and South Africa. Massive student demonstrations in country after country, from Britain to Puerto Rico to Pakistan. Huge popular movements fighting corruption and inequality from Thailand to Kyrgyzstan. And a revolutionary wave across the Middle East that, as I am writing this, has succeeded in overthrowing U.S.-backed dictators in both Tunisia and Egypt who had been in power for decades.
Obviously the particularities of each struggle differ. Some have been focused on immediate economic issues—revolts against rising food prices, strikes against threatened cuts in wages or savage government austerity programs—while others have had the goal of throwing out corrupt leaders and changing the government.
Mostly, however, economic and political issues have been intertwined. In Egypt, the central demand was the overthrow of the hated Mubarak regime. But poverty and inequality also fueled the movement, and at the crucial moment, a strike wave broke out across the country, with workers from scores of workplaces simultaneously raising economic demands and calling for the government to step down.
Underlying all these movements, of course, is the economic crisis brought on by the near meltdown of the financial system in the fall of 2008. Ruling classes have responded to the crisis that their system created, by attempting to shift its cost onto the backs of workers and the poor through attacks on wages, pensions, and government social programs. They have been met with determined resistance as class struggle has intensified around the globe.
But there’s the rub. The United States has not, of course, been spared the brutal effects of the economic crisis, and both federal and state governments are now preparing to cut spending on education and other social programs. Public-sector unions are seeing massive attacks on their wages and benefits, while money is being funneled to corporations and the wealthy through tax cuts and subsidies. The attack is at an unprecedented level, and if workers and the vulnerable are to defend themselves, there will need to be a similarly unprecedented level of fightback. But that is not happening.
A report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in early February, for instance, noted that the number of strikes and lockouts in 2010 was the second lowest on record, with only eleven strikes with a thousand or more workers, and a total of 302,000 lost workdays. The worst year on record is 2009, with only five major strikes and 124,000 lost workdays. These numbers are part of a long-term trend that has seen the number of strikes in the United States fall dramatically over the past thirty years. As the BLS noted: “From 2001-2010, there were approximately 17 major work stoppages on average per year, compared with 34 per year from 1991–2000, 69 from 1981–1990, and 269 from 1971–1980.” Days lost to strikes in the past decade are down 90 percent compared to the 1970s. The percentage of the workforce in unions has fallen to 11.9 percent.
Rather than organizing struggle the U.S. labor movement seems to be in deer-in-the-headlights mode. Consumer and environmental activist Ralph Nader rails at the failure of union leaders:
The UAW [United Auto Workers] is a paradigm of a suicidal, supplicant labor union. It is disgusting. They are a puppy dog of GM, Ford, and Chrysler. They have huge reserves. The labor unions could organize the country, but they [union leaders] are into their own emoluments [compensation] and high salaries. The union leadership has so distanced itself from the rank and file that it is ashamed to do anything controversial. These union leaders will not go on TV on Labor Day because they do not want someone saying “Why are you making $500,000 a year with a pension that is six times your rank and file?” There is corruption at the top. The only way the union leaders can continue is to be in the shadows. And you don’t build a strong movement in the shadows.
It is not that there is no struggle in the United States, but right now it is at a pitifully inadequate level given the scale of the attacks that the working class is facing.
It would be easy to look at this picture and draw deeply pessimistic conclusions. That, for instance, seems to be the response of the journalist and author Chris Hedges (from whom I stole the Nader quotation above), a former New York Times foreign correspondent who over the last decade has transformed into a radical critic of corporate power and the two-party system that serves it. He has nothing but contempt for the Democratic Party, for Obama in particular, and for the “liberal class” in general, for their role in shoring up the status quo at home and continuing endless wars abroad.
Once a divinity student at Harvard, Hedges has now adopted the style of an Old Testament prophet:
We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as [Aldous] Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater, and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. Now that credit is drying up, good jobs for the working class are gone forever, and mass-produced goods are unaffordable, we find ourselves transported from [Huxley’s] “Brave New World” to [George Orwell’s] “1984.” ... We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.
In Orwell’s 1984, the population of Oceania is controlled by keeping the country in constant state of war (think “war on terror”) and a constant state of surveillance. Hedges notes the parallels with the contemporary U.S.:
The noose is tightening. The era of amusement is being replaced by the era of repression.... We are the most monitored and spied-on citizenry in human history.... The enemy is everywhere.
For Hedges, what we are seeing is the emergence of an American form of fascism, and there is probably little we can do about it. “I do not know if we can win this battle,” he writes. “I suspect we cannot.” He goes on to compare the situation of radicals in the United States today to that of abolitionists when slavery was in its darkest hour, of opposition figures in Nazi Germany, and of dissidents in the former Soviet Union.
This is certainly a bleak picture, not brightened much by Hedges’s assurance that the corporate state fears acts of rebellion, “no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored by a media that caters to the needs and profits of corporations.” For Hedges, political activism has become not a way to change the world in the here and now, but a way to bear moral witness, to preserve personal integrity, and to “keep alive another way of being” for future generations. “[A]s the rot of the state consumes itself,” small acts of civil disobedience (Hedges was one of dozens who chained themselves to the White House fence in December to protest the Afghan war) “will attract wider and wider numbers.” But, this may “not happen in our lifetimes.”
Hedges also believes that the time for talking, even among ourselves, is past, and he disparages gatherings like New York’s annual Left Forum as academic talk shops detached from reality. “The only gatherings worth attending from now on,” he writes “are [ones] that organize civil disobedience.”
But Hedges is simultaneously too pessimistic and too optimistic. Too pessimistic, because while it is undoubtedly true that the United States is a plutocracy, dominated by corporate power and influence, we are not on the verge of being plunged into a totalitarian fascist state. Too optimistic, because repeated acts of civil disobedience by a handful of committed activists are not enough. True, such acts can sometimes act as a catalyst to set broader forces in motion (as the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins sparked a revival of the civil rights movement in 1960), but they are not always the best tactic to employ, and acts of civil disobedience cannot take the place of educating and organizing wider layers of people. We need opportunities to discuss strategy, tactics, and questions of broader vision. Organizing the next civil disobedience opportunity for a committed minority is not the only task at hand.
Let’s return to the question with which I started: “When will something happen here?” The simple answer is I don’t know when, but the long-term nature of the current economic crisis and the struggles we have seen in other parts of the world in recent months make me quite certain that significant struggles will reemerge in the United States sooner rather than later. Two points are worth making here. First, before struggles break out on a large scale, few people expect them. I visited Britain a few months before its mass student demonstrations took place and heard people complaining about the lack of activity and the “apathy” of young people. Even a year ago, the Mubarak regime, with its vast internal security apparatus, seemed unassailable. Weeks before January 25, Egypt was the scene of communal violence between Coptic Christians and Muslims. In retrospect, it was years of patient organizing, building networks in communities and workplaces, coupled with the destabilizing effects of the global economic crisis, that laid the groundwork for a mass revolutionary upsurge.
Second, there is a rich but largely hidden tradition of working-class, radical and socialist struggle in the United States that stretches back 200 years. But, this tradition has been marked by deep discontinuities, with periods of mass radicalization and activism being followed by decades in which radical ideas have barely existed.
In both 1912 and 1920, Eugene Debs won nearly a million votes running as the Socialist Party’s candidate for president (on the latter occasion from a federal penitentiary, after being jailed for a speech opposing the First World War). But Debs’s successes, and the founding of the Communist Party (CP) in 1919, were followed by the Palmer Raids (in which hundreds of leftists were arrested and deported) and a decade of reaction in the 1920s in which both left organizations and unions went into a steep decline.
The 1930s witnessed the explosive rise of industrial unionism, the growth of the CP to nearly 100,000 members, and calls by the most radical sections of the workers’ movement for the founding of a labor party. But the anti-communist witchhunts beginning in the 1940s, together with the political weaknesses of the movement itself (in particular, its identification of Stalinist Russia with socialism), resulted in the virtual disappearance of the left in the 1950s.
The civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s radicalized a generation of Blacks, students, and other activists, leading millions to embrace some version of revolutionary politics. At the height of the antiwar movement, shortly after four million students had participated in a nationwide campus strike to oppose the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970, the New York Times reported that three million of them believed that a revolution was needed in the United States. Yet within a few years, this “new left” had almost completely disappeared. The movements of the 1960s disintegrated, and the 1970s were followed by the corruption, greed, and militarism of the Reagan-Bush years.
Although none of these periods of radicalization fulfilled its full potential, the demise of the movements thrown up by them was by no means inevitable. There is nothing inherent in U.S. social structure or political culture that doomed them to failure. Rather, the collapse of these movements was ultimately rooted in shortcomings in the political understanding and strategies of the organizations and individuals that led them.
Despite the current weaknesses of the labor movement and the left, objective circumstances will once again produce the potential for mass struggle in the United States What becomes of that potential will be up to us.