2009 CWI Summer School: The US under Obama

Brown shoots of recovery, green shoots of fightback!

“Do the leaders of Wall Street want to set off an anti-capitalist political tidal wave across the United States that will sweep them away forever?”

Martin Sieff, United Press International (UPI), 16/3/09

It was against the backdrop of economic crisis and a growing anti-Wall St. mood that the CWI Summer School discussed the situation in the US. The discussion focussed on developments under Obama and the tasks posed for the CWI. Socialist Alternative’s Jesse Lessinger introduced and replied to the discussion.

Economic Crisis and Stimulus

The US has been particularly hard hit by the economic crisis. So far this year each month 600,000 workers have lost their jobs. House foreclosures are a reality for millions and a fear for millions more. States have clocked up massive deficits, $120 billion cumulatively, and by law must balance their books. Californians are facing into the biggest deficit – $24 billion and Schwarzenegger plans a series of massive cuts to public expenditure, including $10 billion from education.

A very important question for US society, raised in the commission discussion, is whether Obama’s stimulus package can ‘fix the foundations’ of the economy or at least lead to temporary recovery. The stimulus package amounts to $787 billion worth of infrastructural projects, aid for state deficits and unemployment relief. Many see this as a solution to the crisis and there’s hope that the measures will bring relief.

In the discussion, though, Ryan, a bus driver, from the US explained that although the measures may help to soften the landing, the crisis will not be fundamentally solved. Any ‘green shoots’ of recovery that do exist are quite feeble and will not amount to a full recovery – in that sense they are brown, withering shoots. Much of the stimulus is being channelled into Corporate America, just as it was under FDR during the New Deal.

Rather than bailing out the rich, this money should be used to create jobs in areas like Green Technology and Transport. A socialist stimulus plan would include a massive series of public works that would create millions of jobs while providing socially necessary infrastructure.

Political Crisis

A political crisis has developed directly from the economic. The Republicans have been massively discredited by their foreign policy and their handling of the economy. Meanwhile, the Democrats are coming under increased pressure as the economy nosedives. President Obama’s popularity rating has fallen from above 60% to below 50%. According to Gallup, most of the disapproval towards Obama comes from his handling of economic issues, but it is too early to tell whether this drop in approval is the start of a real decline in Obama’s popularity or whether it is a blip. What we can tell though is the anger of working people at the bailing out of the ‘banksters’ that got us into this crisis.

Ray and Tom from Britain each asked questions about mass consciousness surrounding Obama and how this will change. Lynn Walsh from the CWI International Secretariat (IS) responded by saying that the masses had projected their dreams onto Obama and that we cannot just trample on these dreams and illusions, to do this would have an alienating effect. Instead, we should make skilful criticisms, including the role Obama played in the bank bailout and his about-turn on single payer healthcare, for example.

Having won the presidency and now a super-majority in the Senate, the Democrats can enact any laws they see fit. Robert Bechert, also from the CWI International Secretariat, outlined that while concrete demands must be put on the Democrats and bosses, these must be linked to building movements that actively fight to win gains, rather than lobby the Democrats. Such campaigns, combined with experiences, can be the basis undermining a break with the totally capitalist Democrats and the beginning of a serious movement for an independent working peoples’ party.

Fight back and the Unions

The discussion featured the growing fight-back across the country. Factory workers in Chicago, students and teachers in Los Angeles, university workers at Harvard and bus workers in Boston are just some of the sections of the working class that have started to fight against cuts and job losses. These are only isolated examples, as yet there is no generalised mass struggle – but this can develop.

Consciousness and struggle do not develop uniformly, but can develop rapidly and explode at certain times. The need for fighting union leaderships and militant action is posed in these struggles now and will be increasingly necessary as struggle develops.

Roger from Britain reminded the commission that the US has a strong tradition of union activism. This is shown in the history of the CIO and the Teamsters. He said that the wave of sit-down strikes in the 1930s should not be looked on with nostalgia, but rather as a practical example of what the union movement should aspire towards today.

Methods of struggle used in the 1930’s, such as sit-down strikes, mass picket lines and defiance of union-busting laws are not only relevant for today, but are necessary to reverse the decline of the Union movement in the US.

Auto Industry

Points made by Brett, a Ford worker, on the US auto industry earlier in the CWI School plenary sessions, were followed up by Jesse in the US commission. In some ways, the state of the crisis in the auto industry is a microcosm of the crisis gripping the wider capitalist system. In the crisis, car sales have dropped by 30-40%, there have been mass layoffs and GM, once the largest corporation in the world, is bankrupt.

The auto industry was once the symbol of the power of US capitalism, now it is the opposite – symbol of capitalist crisis and industrial decline. The auto industry clearly shows the crisis of over-production (‘over-capacity’) that is gripping the capitalist system as a whole – the working class cannot afford to buy back the cars produced or the plants are able to produce too much.

Need for a mass workers’ party

Jesse’s response to the commission discussion drew out some of the important political conclusions. The most important of these was the need for a mass party of the working class in the US. Such a party would provide an alternative to the big corporate parties that dominate US politics in the interests of the rich.

Currently, many in the US are saying “what can we do?” The immediate response to the crisis has not yet been widespread struggles. But this will change, particularly as the understanding increases that there mass unemployment and poverty will remain.

New left formations will most likely go through a series of false starts and mistakes, but it is only by going through these mistakes that the working class will develop important experience and draw lessons. In the midst of deep and wide-ranging attacks, illusions in Obama will inevitably fade and a volatile, radicalised consciousness will develop. In this scenario, a union-backed, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist party could gain enormous support – even if it is only on a small mass basis.

Jesse concluded the commission by stressing the importance of building a base for socialist ideas in communities and workplaces. To take advantage of the immense opportunities that lie in the period ahead, the CWI will aim to build its support.

The Irish Marxist, James Connolly wrote: “The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go.” This was in 1910, shortly after Connolly returned from the US, but could as easily have been written in 2009!

The current economic crisis is a fundamental crisis of capitalism and cannot be solved by better regulation and stimulus – it cannot be patched up, the foundations cannot be fixed by regulation or less greed – the system has to be swept away.

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July 2009