Over 800,000 federal workers in the US are furloughed – sent on holiday without payment. While their families are on zero wages from the federal state, the $174,000 income per member in Congress are untouched. Some services are considered essential and are still running, for example, the military and federal attorneys overseeing evictions of foreclosed houses. Others are threatened to run out of funds, such as social programmes to help low-income families in education or federal health programmes, like flu vaccination. These are some of the effects of the governmental shutdown which started on 1 October.
The Republican majority in the House (lower chamber of the parliament) blocked all attempts by the President Barack Obama to get a budget agreed or even the previous one prolonged.
On the one side, this is an attempt to bring down Obama’s very limited and business-friendly health care reforms. ‘Obamacare’ includes some positive steps to cover more people with health care, but it forces people into taking out private insurance and does not offer affordable health care for all. The most vicious advocates of capitalism aim to avoid any increased expectation into any kind of welfare state in the US, even only on a symbolic level. For them, this is an ideological battle by their class to fight working class aspirations.
Dysfunctional party, malfunctioning system
On the other side, the US ruling class is confronted with a broken political system and a dysfunctional Republican party.
The most vicious part of the ruling class backed the Tea Party movement years ago, to fight for their interests using right-wing populism. But the ruling class does not fully control this Frankenstein monster and the Republicans are not acting in the best interests of the US ruling class, in general.
The political crisis flowing from the budget crisis is a reflection of the economic and social difficulties facing the US, which claims to be the remaining super-power. The weakness of US imperialism was also recently underlined during the Syria crisis, both in the international sphere and due to Obama’s inability to mobilising support for an attack on Syria amongst US Americans.
Concerns of the rich
A three week shutdown could cut 0.9% from the America’s GDP, Goldman Sachs predicts. A sluggish 2% growth expected for this year could be further undermined. But what Wall Street worries even more is the possibility of the US reaching the “debt ceiling” around 17 October. Without new legislation in Congress, the Administration could not lend more money and the US would not be able to pay its debts and could technically default, for the first time in its history.
To avoid these deeper troubles, the more moderate part of the Republicans in Congress are prepared to make a deal with the Democrats and are searching for ways to compromise. However, this might reveal much deeper splits in their ‘Grand Old Party’ (GOP) and lead to fragmentation.
The narrative that the Democrats try to spin is that we are watching a repetition of 1995/96, when a weak Bill Clinton entered into conflict with the Congress, faced a shutdown and came out strengthened as people blamed the Republicans for the crisis.
Opinion polls indicate that many people do think there is some repetition of the 1995/96 crisis. Approval rates for Obama have slightly increased (overall still negative). Given the polarisation between the camps, this is based on the increasing support for Obama from almost entirely Democratic Party supporters.
However, the parallel might not be 1995/96, but the summer of 2011, when a stalemate between Democrats and Republicans – at that time, facing automatic cuts they implemented to force each other to compromise – sharply revealed that this political system does not function. Wall Street has two parties, while working class people have none. A few weeks later in 2011, the Occupy movement arose, revealing a much deeper anger and frustration within American society.
Occupy revealed existing anger
The fury is still there. Opinion polls also show the increasing frustration about Congress - with approval rates down to 10% - and the whole political system. Some of Obama’s previously most enthusiastic voters have drawn conclusions about the real character of the Administration after the recent NSA (state surveillance) scandal, the war-mongering over Syria and the inability of Obama to really stand up to the Republicans.
The economic situation does not provide a boost in support for Obama. There was a weak recovery, but only for the rich. The top 1% increased its real income by 31% from 2009 to 2012, while the bottom 40% lost 6%, according to Paul Krugman in the New York Times (23 September 2013)
The potential is there for another big movement like Occupy, but this time it is more likely around concrete issues and demands.
Immigrant rights groups are mobilising against anti-immigrant policies. Democrats are taking only very soft steps towards legalisation of the 11 million immigrants without legal status, giving in again and again to the right-wing Republicans’ agenda.
Fast-food workers are rising up for a decisive increase in their wages with the demand for $15 per hour and full union rights.
Unorganised workers at companies like Walmart, known for their anti-trade union furore, are starting to fight back.
The struggle against foreclosures and affordable housing saw a Green Party mayor in Richmond, California, not pushing through corporate politics, but defending house owners against banks. Occupy Homes in Minneapolis and elsewhere give lively examples of how movements can defend people’s homes and stop evictions.
But a generalised expression of this mood in workplaces faces the obstacle of right-wing trade union bureaucrats and the weakness of the organisations of the working class, in general. Because of this, anger expresses itself through more complicated routes and sometimes on the electoral front.
In the Democratic Party in New York, Bill de Blasio won the primaries to run for city mayor on the ticket of being against the Establishment, raising question of class, poverty and structural racism. The ruling elites do not have to worry about de Blasio, as he served in the Bill Clinton administration and worked as Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in her successful senate bid in 2000. But they are worried about the expectations he is raising with this kind of populism that he used successfully to come from an outsider position and win the race.
In other parts of the country, other more radical candidates, independent from the Democrats, are making some headway and starting to get attention. In a very clear way, the election campaigns of Socialist Alternative show the search by sections of the working class and poor for a radical, working class-based solution to the on-going crisis.
Seattle socialist gains support of tens of thousands
In money terms, Kshama Sawant will never win against the 16-year long sitting councillor, Richard Conlin, in Seattle. He had already raised $200,000 to defend his seat. The Socialist Alternative-endorsed campaign against him raised only a quarter of that, but that is still impressive for a campaign that is against corporate politics. And the lack of money is compensated with by ideas that resonate amongst a growing layer of working class people and youth.
The “$15/hour and a union” slogan is branding the campaign. Running on an openly socialist campaign, Kshama Sawant won 29% in November 2012 against Washington state representative Frank Chop in Seattle. With 44,000 votes for Kshama Swant in the primaries in August 2013 against Conlin, the campaign of Socialist Alternative showed that this is not just a one-time event. Even more voters will show their openness for a fighting, working-class based and socialist candidate on 5 November in Seattle.
Tight race in Minneapolis could bring socialist to city hall
As an activist fighting foreclosures and defending schools, Ty Moore has a proud record in his ward in Minneapolis. He is facing a race with another five candidates for city councillor. All of them sought to be endorsed by the local Democratic Party (DFL). Given almost no media attention and a confusing mayoral race, the message about the candidate fighting for affordable housing, for $15 minimum wage and against corporate hand-outs has to be delivered door by door. And Socialist Alternative is doing so, supported by SEIU (one of the larger trade unions in the US), strong voices of the Hispanic community and activists from many different backgrounds. It is an extremely close race but shows the potential for socialists to win elections in the US.
Openings for socialist ideas
This is the beginning of a new chapter of struggle for a real force of the working class in the US. There might be attempts to channel the anger again through right-wing populist forces. The “libertarians”, ultra-liberal advocates of capitalism linked with some progressive sounding phrases against the state and wars abroad, are trying to step into the vacuum.
However, around next year’s election more independent candidates on the Left will challenge not only Republicans but also Democrats and the two-party system. The Democratic Party could see splits as well and new ‘leftist’ populist forces could emerge.
It is even a problem for the ruling class that the political system makes it harder to reflect real changes in the mood of the working class and therefore to act as a buffer between the masses and the big bosses’ rule. Both parties gerrymander the electoral boundaries along ethnic and racial divisions and not many elections are genuine open races. This inflexibility makes it even more obvious that the political system does not function. It poses broader questions about the way the US system runs.
As part of a new wave of opposition, Socialist Alternative is preparing to play a major role: to help the workers’ movement to find its own political voice, to help build a broader platform to fight back - breaking from the Democratic Party - and to arm such a force with a socialist programme to fight and to end capitalism.