Can it happen here?
The savagery of the ruling-class offensive is setting the stage for future struggles.
August 31, 2011
A YEAR of revolutionary change and massive social struggles around the world–that’s how 2011 will be remembered in the history books.
From the start of the year, a wave of rebellions swept through North Africa and the Middle East, shaking dictatorial regimes to the core–and in Tunisia and Egypt, toppling U.S.-backed tyrants whose decades-long reigns had seemed, only months before, like they would never end.
Later in the year, the spirit of the Arab Spring bloomed in Europe when the “indignados”–predominantly young protesters fed up with a future of unemployment and poverty–took over the public squares of Spain in an ongoing mass mobilization. In Greece, a similar “movement of the squares” united with the working-class movement to paralyze the country for days at a time in a struggle against the latest austerity measures.
And now, the Arab Spring has become a Chilean Winter after a mass student movement erupted in a country that has been the laboratory for the privatization of education.
Another example: One of the countries that last year experienced a vibrant youth struggle, Britain, seemed to be quieter this year. But that changed suddenly in August with an explosion of rioting that started in London over the police murder of a Black man, and spread to cities across the country as an expression of bitterness at declining living standards.
After two years of a severe recession worldwide, and two more of a shallow and faltering economic recovery, anger and resentment have given way to resistance and struggle in country after country.
But what about here in the U.S.? On the surface, the situation seems different from the mobilization of millions in the streets.
Of course, anyone who thinks that U.S. workers won’t ever protest and picket needs only to remember back a few months to when the labor movement was electrified by the battle against Wisconsin’s union-busting Gov. Scott Walker–complete with an occupation of the state Capitol building that took inspiration from the revolution in Egypt. And just last month, union members at Verizon went on strike in the largest labor battle in years, and won wide support in their fight against corporate greed.
Nevertheless, Walker was able to push through his union-busting law, and the fight in Wisconsin was demobilized. Union leaders sent Verizon workers back to work without a new contract in place after the company returned to the bargaining table. The opportunity for a broad-based, national and ongoing struggle was missed in both cases.
So is there something different about the U.S. that prevents resistance from reaching the scale it has in other countries?
The answer is no, precisely because of what is the same in the U.S. as elsewhere–the savagery of the assault on working-class living standards, while the bankers and bosses amass ever-greater wealth and power.
This ruling-class offensive is setting the stage for future struggles. What form those struggles take and how they play out will depend in important ways on how workers, students and everyone committed to justice organize today, before the mass protests are upon us.
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THE DEBT-ceiling agreement negotiated by the Republican maniacs and the Obama White House is emblematic of the ruling-class assault underway today. With unprecedented spending cuts already pushed through and more to come in the cherished Social Security and Medicare programs, the deal will wreck what remains of the social safety net in the U.S.
The Republicans tried to use the Tea Party fanatics as evidence that they had public support for their program. Ironically, the Democrats also used the Tea Party–to justify their concessions to the right as a matter of responding to “what the people want.” The question for virtually all politicians isn’t if budgets should be slashed and public-sector workers attacked–but how much. The narrow choice is between the House Republicans’ slash-and-burn austerity and President Barack Obama’s slightly less extreme version.
This has had an effect on the millions of people who enthusiastically supported Barack Obama and the Democrats three years ago. The growing bitterness with Obama and the Democrats among the party’s base is palpable. But there’s also a sense of distress and disorientation–leading to the question of how the discontent with Obama will be expressed practically.
Even so, it’s gotten harder and harder for the politicians to claim that popular sentiment is behind their deficit obsessions when every opinion poll shows a majority of people wants government action to create jobs–and favors taxing the rich to pay for it.
This disconnect between the bipartisan consensus in Washington and what a majority of people in the U.S. thinks is becoming more and more stark–as is the anger with the upside-down priorities of both the government and the business elite. As one striking Verizon worker said on a picket line in August, “We don’t want to give up what we fought for over the years. We have to organize to make our lives better. Corporate America doesn’t give a fuck about us.”
Washington’s attack on social spending has gone hand in hand with the scapegoating of public-sector workers and their unions. But like in Europe and elsewhere, the fact that the few at the top of society are making no “shared sacrifice” at all isn’t lost on anyone. “Many of these cuts are hitting the same vulnerable people over and over again,” Lydia Missaelides, executive director of the California Association for Adult Day Services told Newsweek. “It’s not sharing the pain, it’s really piling on the pain.”
The anger that those remarks reflect does find expression in protest. But they’re often small and local ones that don’t attract the attention of the mainstream media.
They’re no less important for that, though. To take one example, in New York City, activists in Brooklyn organized a defense of an 82-year-old grandmother who was being threatened with eviction in mid-August. Two hundred neighbors showed up, and the eviction didn’t happen.
This was just the latest in a series of small struggles with homeowners and their supporters in New York, Chicago, Rochester and elsewhere facing off against the banks and marshals trying to evict them. These fights won in a number of cases–but you might not ever hear about them unless you’re a regular reader of a website like SocialistWorker.org.
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FOR DECADES, it was a common argument that American workers had it “too good” to ever fight back. But that was never true. The U.S. working class has a long history of militant and often bitter battles.
Even in periods that are considered relatively quiet times for labor, like the supposedly idyllic 1950s, U.S. workers struck for better wages and conditions, and the right to organize. The ’60s and ’70s are remembered as a time of social struggles, but with no connection to a supposedly hostile working class. Wrong again–the 1960s social movements raised class questions and even inspired a rank-and-file rebellion in the labor movement.
There’s another lesson of history worth remembering today–one that the revolts in countries as different as Egypt and Britain bring to mind: The most powerful upsurges often come when and where they’re least expected.
After the U.S. victory in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, President George H.W. Bush was riding a sky-high popularity rating and proclaiming a “new world order,” with the U.S. in charge. One year later, when the four Los Angeles cops who beat Black motorist Rodney King nearly to death were acquitted, the Los Angeles Rebellion erupted–a multiracial uprising in one of the largest cities in the U.S. the exposed the truth about the new world order.
Like the recent riots in Britain, the LA Rebellion was a revolt against police brutality, but also against systematic poverty and racism–one that spoke not to just one incident of police brutality, but to people’s brewing anger over countless daily humiliations and injustices.
In a situation of economic crisis like today, both the left and the right have the potential to grow–as working people try to find their voice and the mainstream political parties fail to deliver. So in Wisconsin, a Tea Party Republican became governor in November 2010–but a few months later, he sparked the largest protests of the labor movement in decades when he went after the right to organize.
As is the case with all struggles, there are ups and downs. The Capitol occupation and the huge protests outside brought together workers, students and people of all walks of life who were united by their hatred of the Republicans–and who won’t soon forget what that struggle felt like.
But when Walker and the Republicans did ram their legislation through, union officials and Democratic Party leaders opposed escalating the action. Instead, they channeled the energy of the mass mobilization into an effort to recall Republican state senators–a campaign that fell short of changing the balance of power in the state legislature.
So one battle is over, but the war is not–and activists need to prepare for the next phase of the struggle. The organizing and political discussions that take place between the outbursts of struggle shape the fights to come.
To take another recent example, the struggle around women’s rights has been electrified by the SlutWalk demonstrations against sexual assault and victim-shaming. A whole new generation of women and men are now part of the fight, taking part in protests, discussing the political questions involved and organizing for the future. We have a way to go to turn the tide against the assault on women’s rights–but a new movement is taking the critical first steps.
What individuals do now to build up networks of activists and political organization–in our schools, workplaces and communities–couldn’t be more important. By waging the important smaller battles of today, they are laying the basis for the larger showdowns of tomorrow.