Today the concentration of wealth and its political power has reached stunning intensities. In large companies, people who work in the same enterprise are now earning $1 for every $416 that the CEO takes away. In 1940 it was $1 for every $12. Today the financial wealth of the top 1 percent of households exceeds the combined wealth of the bottom 95 percent of American households. Earlier this year Bill Gates' wealth was equal to the combined wealth of the poorest 120 million Americans. Whatever this enormous imbalance says about the great software imitator from Redmond, Wash., it means that about tens of millions of Americans who work year after year, decade after decade, are nearly broke. What democracy worth its salt would have left this profound inequity? Globally, the combined annual income of the poorest 3.5 billion people equals the world's 200 richest people, who more than doubled their net worth between 1996 and 1999.
Ralph Nader's acceptance speech as Green Party presidential candidate.1
Upset at the polls?
Ralph Nader is the popular symbol of the fight for consumer rights against the abuses of corporate power. Since the start of the year, he has registered 4 to 6 percent in pre-election polls as the Green Party presidential candidate. Recent polls show this trend growing, with Nader now favored by anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of voters, depending upon the state.
Until recently, Pat Buchanan was expected to capitalize on any economic discontent and channel it rightward toward protectionism and nationalism. But Buchanan's support has evaporated, down to only 2 percent in the polls. It is Nader who is the focus for popular discontent, and whose agenda is a part of election discussions.2
Nader draws his strength from the issues raised by the new movements against the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, along with working-class anger toward the economic policies of the Clinton-Gore years. He has managed to tap into a mood of anger and revolt against big business and corporate power.
The media try to convince us that the Democrats lose elections when they are not sufficiently moderate, or when they are "too liberal." But the truth is that the Democrats are losing workers' and students' votes that might cost them the election because they are too right wing. The unexpected popularity of Nader could shift the political balance and vastly increase the importance of the left in American politics. It is remarkable that such an important change has occurred in what seems to be just a few short months.
The employers' consensus
Ror the past 20 years...big business has been on a rampage to control our society.
Ralph Nader, Citizen's Guide to the WTO3
Ever since the onset of the employers' offensive in the 1970s, the "one-sided class war"4 of capital against labor, establishment politics have moved rightward. And breaks from the two-party arrangement came from the right--Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, the militias--reinforcing the dynamic pressuring politics in an ever more conservative direction.
The American political system--where two capitalist parties represent distinct wings and interest groups of the same class, but have to appeal to, and make concessions to, different popular social bases for support--has always tried to prevent political alternatives from becoming real or finding an organized expression. Increased corporate funding reduced differences to the narrow range that fully accommodated the employers' demands. As a loyal capitalist party, the Democrats got the message. First under Jimmy Carter, then under Clinton-Gore, the Democrats moved from a policy of New Deal government regulation and consumer-demand stimulus to traditional Republican neoliberalism--deregulation, corporate welfare, globalization, and budget-balancing social cuts. As USA Today commented, there is a "new consensus in which some century-old economic debates appear to be settled." This convinced Nader, a one-time New Deal Democrat, to argue that the Democratic Party is "no longer the party of working families."5
Then Clinton, under Gore's conservative prodding, joined the employers' attack on the gains of the social movements of the 1930s and 1960s. He abandoned traditional liberal social policies by ending welfare and cutting Medicare and food stamps. His policy on racial issues was essentially one of benign neglect. The Clinton-Gore team tolerated racial profiling, embraced "tough on crime" rhetoric to justify imprisoning two million Black and working-class victims, and massively extended the death penalty. As one Democratic congressman cynically joked, we now have two Republican parties divided over abortion. The last-ditch argument liberals give for voting for Gore over Nader is that, if allowed to win, Bush will make conservative Supreme Court appointments. But that misses the dynamics "down below" that are beginning to shift away from the ever more conservative Democratic and Republican consensus of the last two decades.6
Freedom is participation in power...justice means redistribution of power and opportunity and income and livelihood, that's what justice means.
Ralph Nader's speech to the NAACP7
The ideology used to justify choosing an ever worse "lesser evil" has been repeated so often that it has become widely accepted on the American left. The arguments for lining up behind Gore as a lesser evil, that he is the only choice for the left, have been belied by the important shift in the political mood in the United States. The far right of the militias, rabid congressional right-wingers like Helen Chenoweth-Hage, and the U.N./black helicopter conspiracy crackpots were a significant Republican force several years ago. They are now barely tolerated lunatics. The more "respectable" right of the Moral Majority, such as Phyllis Schlafly, Bob Jones University and flat taxers, are still powerful among Republicans. But they are increasingly viewed by the Republican leadership as electoral handicaps.
The Republican primaries turned a surreal pink when hard rightist John McCain started denouncing special interest money corrupting the political process, demanded campaign finance reform and opposed "tax cuts for the rich." Aping Clinton's "I feel your pain" formula, one-time "Republican revolutionaries" and the Christian Coalition quickly reinvented themselves as "compassionate conservatives." With the base of the right in decline, Bush has opportunistically maneuvered the Republican image to the center. One is reminded of Woodrow Wilson's famous words on the last Gilded Age: "No leaders, no principles; no principles, no parties." Yet there is an important change from the years when differences narrowed as the Democrats moved right--now the Republicans are inching away from the right to tilt to the center. Meanwhile Gore, fearful of losing votes to Nader, has begun to adopt more populist, anti-big business rhetoric against Bush.
Birth of a new left
Seattle was a fork in the road.8
Ralph Nader, "Seattle and the WTO"8
The shift at the top from the right is toward the center, but on the ground it is toward the left. We are seeing, as an expression of this, the start of the first serious radicalization since the 1960s. It is a challenge to the notion that There Is No Alternative (TINA) to neoliberalism, corporate control, globalization and the disparities of income and wealth. It is this emerging left that's driving the Nader campaign.
The current radicalization has been bubbling below the surface for years. It is fueled by working-class anger and bitterness over an economic boom whose benefits are reserved for the rich while wages stagnate and better-paying jobs morph into part-time, contingent, no-benefits jobs. Meanwhile, full-time workers are forced to work longer hours and face harder working conditions and declining union power. Class struggle has been at a low ebb for some years, punctuated by eruptions like the UPS strike in 1997. But class consciousness has been growing. The emergence of a new left and the sudden upsurge of an anticorporate electoral campaign are the products of the last 25 years of class polarization.
A new political awakening became visible in the growth of struggles in the last few years. Even a partial list is impressive: opposition to the NATO bombing of Serbia; growing yearly demonstrations against the School of the Americas; various fights around police brutality; the fight to save Mumia Abu Jamal; the growth of United Students Against Sweatshops; new opposition to the death penalty; South Carolina's fight against the Confederate flag; the defense of affirmative action in Florida; and the strike of janitorial workers in California.
Yet this mounting activity often seemed to be localized, single-issue struggles without links to other fights, not tied together in anything that resembled a movement. It was not perceived, even by participants, as different aspects of a common underlying ferment.
Some of that changed in November 1999 with the return of militant street confrontations in Seattle, and later in Washington, D.C., against the WTO, IMF and World Bank. The start of a new left finally broke through to reach popular awareness, and it began to be conscious of itself as a national movement. These protests produced unifying themes as they targeted corporate control of the global economy for destroying the environment, trampling on the rights of working people, and impoverishing the Third World. And they struck a responsive chord among workers.
This new left is still somewhere between mood and movement. It remains amorphous and unorganized. It lacks consistency and commitment. It comes and goes. At moments it is huge and combative; then it is impossible to find--momentarily nonexistent before it reappears in new struggles. Like all previous radicalizations it begins with contradictory, even confused, consciousness. No new left emerges by immaculate conception with full-blown revolutionary socialist consciousness. The origin always is a peculiar mixture of liberal and conservative beliefs with radical ideas. The liberal-conservative ideas are baggage from the past. The radical ideas are incomplete, a jumble that arises from struggles that begin without worked-out political programs. They are the future of the movement, an alternative that is in process of formation. These different strands of consciousness cohabit in uneasy tension in the new radical mood.
Seattle goes to the polls
How bad a party do you have to be to let the Congress of the United States be taken over by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott?
Ralph Nader's speech to the NAACP9
A Seattle slogan, "Teamsters and Turtles Together at Last," became popular because it captured the spirit of the demonstration, the hope for a blue-green alliance of labor and the environmental movement against the corporations. The politics of Seattle--the uniting of environmentalism with trade unionism into a common front against corporate capital control--is a central part of the Nader campaign.
Seattle and Nader are two parts of the same phenomena. Seattle made confrontational struggle legitimate again to large numbers of people. As the electoral expression of the budding social movements, the Nader campaign is making even more people aware of the questions raised in Seattle.
Nader's campaign has the potential to win over many working people who have not yet taken part in demonstrations and militant activity but who are sympathetic to the ideas of this new movement. Their next step, taking a stand by voting for Nader or arguing for him with their families, friends, and coworkers, draws them closer to the aims of the new movement. Nader's campaign has the potential to move them to the left by getting them to make the case against the corporations, inequality, and the Democratic Party.
Nader's campaign broadens the radicalization because it connects to people's daily experience. It links generalizations about globalization and corporate control with their concrete effects on workers' lives on questions of a living wage, health care, and restriction on trade union rights. The Nader campaign is deepening the radicalization by changing the class concerns of the movement.
A break with the Democrats
The only distinction between Bush and Gore is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when big corporations knock on the door.
Nader, in Robert Bryce, "Naturally Nader," Austin Chronicle10
Without the Nader campaign, many more activists would vote for Gore. Their radicalism would be weakened by having to justify the Democrats' commitment to corporate capitalism and American global domination. Radical ideals would be subordinated to the limits of "the possible," to the election of officials who are the "less evil" face of capitalism. The Nader campaign is forcing activists to make the case for radical change beyond where the Democrats and their corporate sponsors are prepared to go.
Nader's critique of Gore and the Democrats' record is difficult for Gore defenders to dismiss. He calls Gore an "environmental imposter," an enthusiast for "economic apartheid," who drove millions of children into poverty as the behind-the-scenes force for the Clinton administration's destruction of welfare. He compares Gore to Herbert Hoover in his support for paying down debt and opposition to deficit financing, no matter what the economic and social consequences. In truth, Gore yields nothing to the Republicans in terms of economic conservatism--something liberals seemed to accept until Nader pushed the debate to the left.
Nader argues that the lack of differences between Gore and Bush is because the two parties are both controlled by big business. "Bush and Gore," says Nader, "are competing for the Presidency to see who will take the marching orders from their corporate paymasters." Nader charges that under Clinton and Gore the Democrats provided more corporate welfare and subsidies than did the Republicans. As corporate creatures, they have been worse than Reagan and Bush were in policing the corporations through regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Food and Drug Administration.11
Charged by liberal apologists for the Democrats with being a spoiler--for taking votes from Gore and helping Bush win--Nader responds: "You can't spoil a spoiled system... business money runs the government. So you can't really spoil a two-party system that acts like a duopoly, with one corporate head wearing different makeup."12 Nader argues that if Gore loses because of the Nader vote, it will not be a victory for the right, but for the left. It will shake corporate control over politics and put left demands back on the political agenda. The Democratic Party, whose career politicians depend on working-class votes to win, will be thrown into crisis. It will be pressured to move to the left to win elections or it will precipitate deeper splits that may allow for the formation of a new party independent of the corporations.
Nader's arguments logically lead in the direction of forming a third-party alternative against the Democrats. Unfortunately, Nader does not carry them through to conclusion. Faced with liberal outrage over the possible defeat of Gore by the left, Nader equivocates. He argues that his candidacy will bring out large numbers of previously turned-off, working-class voters to the polls, and they will tend to vote for and return a Democratic Congress. But the problem is not Gore the individual. The problem is the class politics of the party which he leads, including its congressional wing, who are controlled agents of corporate capitalism. Even the most liberal Democrats play the role of left cover in order to keep workers and social movements bound to the Democratic Party. The question of partial support or reliance on sections of the Democratic Party--and even the pressure to move back into the Democratic Party fold come election time--will continue to be fought out within the Nader campaign and the new left movement.
People Before Profits.
Green Campaign Button
Nader's campaign has some of the limits of capitalist electoralism, where the candidate floats above the movement and gives it his, not the movement's, political outlook. In Nader's campaign, he makes the important decisions, while the Green Party and the movement are assigned the role of mobilizing the vote.
The campaign's politics are an eclectic mixture of liberal, populist, environmentalist, working-class, and radical ideas, joined together by its anticorporate theme. This is not electoral opportunism, which appeals to different constituencies with different messages. The politics of the campaign reflect Nader's past liberalism, the current radicalization that has swung Nader and the Greens to the left, and the current mixed consciousness of this new movement.
Nader's reputation as a militant liberal fighting for consumers' and workers' rights against the big corporations was created over decades. He made his political debut in 1965 with his book Unsafe at Any Speed, which charged General Motors with criminal negligence for designing unsafe cars when it had the technology to make its cars safer. He achieved national celebrity when his crusade forced the auto companies to introduce mandatory seat belts and air bags.
It launched Nader's career as a reformer, a maverick within bourgeois politics. His operation was all about reform from above. His activist student core, known as "Nader's Raiders," mobilized popular attention and support through meetings, congressional hearings, and lobbying (with the occasional demonstration) to push through legislation and government oversight of corporate abuse.
Nader's list of reforms is impressive. Defending his liberal approach as more practical than what radicals could achieve, Nader failed to understand that without the left he would have been ignored. His success in achieving legislative reform was made possible through the climate created by the left's more militant actions. His battles against the corporations won cleaner air and water, a ban on smoking on airplanes, insurance reform, better meat and poultry quality, oversight of utility rates, and defense of coal miners' working conditions, among many other reforms. Nader became an outspoken crusader for workers' health and safety on and off the job.13
End of reform
Civil society is being closed down by the corporate state.
Ralph Nader in the Los Angeles Times14
But Nader's strategy of incremental reform became a casualty of the employers' offensive and the collapse of the left. Nader was pushed out of the system. His liberal lobbying could not compete against corporate lobbyists, who bought out the legislative process. Frustration over the fact that "corporations have taken over the government, stymieing the kind of citizen advocacy he did successfully in the past" convinced Nader to take his apolitical operation into the electoral arena. Rather than collapse like so many liberals, Nader decided to challenge corporate power and its hold over the legislative system.15
Nader's solution to overcome "democracy" run by and for monopoly capital, what he calls "deep democracy," is summarized in his Concord Principles. The Concord Principles call for a return to a nineteenth century past of good government based on small businesses and the small-town democracy of a New England town meeting. Nader seeks to replace the impersonal globalism of the present, where people have no control over the institutions and decisions that affect their lives, with (an idealized) localism of the past. These ideas appeal to middle-class interests represented among the Greens and newly radicalized students.16
But there was no "golden age" of American democracy to return to. Nineteenth century small-scale capitalism was a limited democracy whose characteristics were racism, nativism, sexism, restricted suffrage, mass poverty and illiteracy. The lower classes were expected to "know their place" and never challenge "their betters" on whom they were economically dependent at "democratic" village meetings.
We have a government of the Exxons, by the General Motors, for the DuPonts.
Ralph Nader's statement announcing his candidacy17
Forced beyond liberalism, Nader now champions the historic American left tradition, populism. He speaks for the struggle of the common people--farmers, workers, small business people--"for the many against the few," against the power of "the octopus"--the giant corporations, monopolies and trusts. He frequently quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' famous thought, "We can have a democratic society, or we can have a concentration of great wealth in the hands of the few. We cannot have both."18
Nader attributes recent concentration of corporate wealth and power to deregulation. The state no longer regulates the corporations to prevent abuses against the people, says Nader. Now the corporations regulate the government the better to control the people. Corporate power has destroyed trade union rights so that now only 10 percent of workers in private industry are unionized, the lowest level since the 1920s. Nader stresses that this is the cause of declining wages and poverty.
Nader's opposition to corporate capitalism is far to the left of European social democracy (followers of Clinton's "Third Way") and more radical than present-day left social democrats, such as Ken Livingstone in Britain and Oskar LaFontaine in Germany. But populism is an even weaker tradition than social democracy when dealing with questions of class and the capitalist system of production. Nader's populism shades into an unrealistic, even reactionary, utopianism. It harkens back to a century-old world of small corporations and small towns run by "civic-minded" local elites.
There will never be a return to the social world of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century populists and progressives, whose mass social base were independent farmers, then the majority of the people. Today farmers are 2 to 3 percent of the population. The small manufacturers who supported the Progressive movement looked to government regulation to defend them from the oil, railroad, and steel trusts. But the capitalist state was, and has always been, the state of the large industrialists. Trust busting in America proved to be a sham--witness today's power of the global corporations.
The small manufacturers lost to the trusts. They went bust and were bought up or merged into the great corporations. Today's small manufacturers are suppliers, subsidiaries, or wards of the large corporations. They do not constitute an independent social class opposed to big business; they are its dependents. Moreover, they are typically the most reactionary wing of capital.
Anticorporate but not anticapitalist
--Are you a Marxist?
"No, I believe in democracy. I believe in competition. I think big corporations are destroying capitalism. Ask a lot of small business around the country how they're pressed and exploited and deprived by the big-business predators.
Nader on CNN, "Talk Back Live," July 5, 200019
Nader's attack on the great corporations but deference to small business is a predisposition of every new movement in the United States. It is where the barriers of populism run up against the absence of a mass, labor-based American social democracy. It is part of the American tradition of militant action but theoretical primitivism that has often acted as a barrier to socialist consciousness. In this sense it repeats the history of the left of the early 1960s prior to the international radicalization of 1968.
Small capitalists and large capitalists are part of the same economic system, driven by the same dynamics. They both produce for profit, which comes from the exploitation of labor. In order to compete against the large corporations, the small firms are usually the most anti-union, and offer the worst wages, benefits, and working conditions. A return to small manufacturing would be reactionary. Without the productivity of large, modern industry, there was a miserable standard of living that could not provide for abundance, the prerequisite for equality and the end of class society.
If the large corporations disappeared, the scramble for profit among a host of smaller producers would reproduce the same result it did in the past. Business competition forces companies to maximize and accumulate profits or be driven out by more competitive producers. Capital accumulation leads to concentration in bigger units, and the rise of monopolies. Nader's sharp attack on the corporations ends in a solution that tries to replace the sorry end of capitalist development by its more competitive beginnings--a move that, if possible, would reproduce the horrors he condemns.
While it is possible to win some regulatory measures from the state, the market can not be fundamentally altered by a state that serves capitalist social relations. The corporations and banks will always find ways to overcome whatever limits are placed on their profitability.
Nader's populism--opposing big business but supporting competition--is anticorporate but not anticapitalist. The American radical populist tradition remains a barrier to going beyond the capitalist system, to rejecting profit and exploitation. It looks for economic justice in a world of class inequality. It supports the private ownership of the means of production, of an economy where the products of labor belong not to the laborers but to the owners.
Nader and this new left are against the corporations and are spreading opposition to corporate control to masses of workers. They have enormously widened the audience for socialist ideas. They must be supported for this, but they don't go far enough. Within this movement, socialists must organize a fight that can go beyond this system--a fight to win democracy, to end inequality, and to put control over production in the hands of the producers not the owners of business, big or small.
Nader and labor
›here are about 47 million workers, one-third of the workforce making less than $10 per hour, many at $5.25, $6.00, $7.00, with no or few benefits. The majority of workers still after 10 years of overall economic growth make less today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, and work 160 hours longer per year than did workers in 1973.20
Nader's acceptance speech20
A third party against the corporations can only be successful in the present day if it has mass support from wage workers, who are 80 percent of the population. The call for a blue-green alliance is recognition by environmentalists that, as a force, they can only be effective in association with the working class. This appreciation draws on the experiences of the last left upsurge of the 1960s, which failed to connect the radical movement with the lives and struggles of working people.
The Nader campaign has started to win a sympathetic response among workers. Union enthusiasm for the Democrats rings hollow after eight years of broken promises and betrayals. Only the Nader campaign raises class politics on wages, health care, and trade union rights. Though Nader addresses workers' concerns, he is not building or advocating a class party, nor is his appeal to workers that they should be a self-active class.
One union, the California Nurses Association (CNA), has endorsed Nader. The CNA, which has 31,000 members, never before endorsed a presidential candidate but came out for Nader because of his support of universal health care, patient rights, and trade union organizing as the way to achieve them.21
Both the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have made strong attacks on Gore for being controlled by the corporations and for selling out all of labor's demands. They have made favorable statements about Nader. This marks an important turn, even if they are only using such statements as leverage to gain concessions from Gore. Stephen Yokich, president of the UAW, recently stated, "We have no choice but to actively explore alternatives to the two major parties...and instead focus on supporting candidates such as Ralph Nader who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates."22
It is indicative of the political shift to the left in the country that the Teamsters under Hoffa started the year by playing footsie with Buchanan and his racist nationalism, and have shifted to flirting with Nader on grounds that he represents the views of working people. Hoffa stated, "No one in the political arena speaks stronger on the issues important to working American families than Ralph Nader. Ralph Nader understands what globalization means...it's a race to the bottom."23 However limited, this is a large opening to win support for a shift to the left in the unions.
Nader's labor program makes a class appeal, linking corporate wealth to inequality and the need for trade union law reform and a social-democratic welfare state.
Try applying people's yardsticks instead of the measures of record GDP, corporate profits and stock exchange prices, and a very different picture emerges. Because the benefits of this boom have accrued to the wealthier and especially the wealthiest class. The majority of Americans are left behind. There is over 20 percent child poverty, 25 percent for pre-school children."24