U.S. and World Economy

Notes on the Debt Ceiling Debate Scam

By Lynn Henderson

In an article I wrote almost a year-and-a-half ago for Socialist Viewpoint, “Obama’s No Deal, New Deal,” I indicated that: “U.S. capitalism will use the present crisis itself to dramatically intensify the class war against America’s middle/working class. Use it to “reform” what they now label “entitlements.” Cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other hard won social gains. Use the crisis to drive real wages even lower.” We are certainly seeing that and much more to come. How do they hope to accomplish this? The Democratic and Republican parties manufactured a “crisis” and phony debate on extending the debt ceiling. It was a smokescreen. Despite all the rhetorical name calling and posturing, it’s hard to imagine a time when the two ruling class parties of American capitalism have been in more complete agreement on every major political question, foreign and domestic—especially on the need to impose an austerity regime based on slashing social spending and further cutting wage costs.

They also know these actions would produce anger, frustration and potential social unrest. So they wanted to do it in as confusing and indirect way as possible. They wanted to prevent the fingerprints of either party being too exclusively and too directly on the results. They wanted to create a narrative in which they were forced against their will to take actions and make “compromises” which, while painful, were necessary and responsible and for the good of the entire nation. But most of all they want to maintain the illusion that there are major philosophical and practical political difference between the two parties. As anger and resistance grow, they wanted to keep any response within the confines of capitalist electoral politics. They remember the danger during the Vietnam War, even if others do not, when resistance got out of the confines of capitalist electoral politics and into the streets. They hope to use the phony debate on the debt ceiling as a vehicle for furthering these goals.

What has been surprising to everyone is how tepid the response in the world working class has been to the attacks that have already occurred and those that are clearly in the works. Those of us who consider ourselves to be revolutionary socialists have to take a hard analytical look at this and probe its roots.

Defeats for the working class

The biggest defeat the world working class ever suffered was the victory of Stalinism in the first workers state created by the 1917 Russian Revolution. Even we who trace our roots back to the Left Opposition and Leon Trotsky, who dissected the nature of Stalinism and its implications for revolutionary developments, tend to underestimate the impact of this defeat today. In the 1938 Transitional Program Trotsky wrote: “There are now only two possible courses for the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union; either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”

When more than 50 years later the former part of Trotsky’s prediction became a reality it did not come as an unexpected shock to us. But for most of the world working class with little understanding of the nature of Stalinism it certainly did, with the strong implication that socialism seemed to have failed and could no longer be considered a viable alternative. Because we had recognized for so long the counter revolutionary, capitalist thrust of Stalinism, I believe we have underestimated the devastating impact the playing out of its final act has had on the world working class.

The dramatic decrease in seeing socialist solutions as a viable alternative to capitalist crisis disorientates and short-circuits the development of effective resistance to the escalating ruling class attacks. This is true even at the level of pure trade union activity. Virtually all past militant trade union upsurges in U.S. history contained and were dependent on a significant anti-capitalist, socialist current—the Molly McGuires, the I.W.W., the rise of the C.I.O., etc. Often these anti-capitalist, socialist currents had flaws—ultra-leftism, syndicalism, Stalinism; but were, nevertheless, essential. This anti-capitalist socialist content is even more decisive today. Trade union struggles and strikes cannot succeed on pure bread and butter issues but will have to move almost immediately to broader social and political questions. Today this socialist current is dramatically absent.

Developing resistance

In Europe we see the beginnings of more resistance, but even in Greece it is confused and diffuse. In Greece, Spain, and Portugal, the capitalist parties and leaders that are imposing the most draconian austerity measures all call themselves socialist. We of course know they have nothing to do with socialism but for workers everywhere they are the most visible and almost only example of “socialist” politics they are exposed to.

In the U.S., middle class liberals are beginning to openly grumble their disappointment with Obama and his policies; no doubt this sentiment will grow. The Black Princeton professor Cornel West who did 65 campaign events for Obama now expresses his bitter disillusionment by describing Obama as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” West says he cannot in “good conscience” ask people to vote for Obama again—except, he adds, if the alternative is really bad. To liberals, the Republican alternative always turns out to look really bad. Liberals and liberalism have never been an independent force in American society, especially when there was no radical organized left and militant trade union movement, on which they could piggyback. Historically their primary role has been that of working to assure such movements remained in the confines of Democratic Party electoral politics. They will not and cannot initiate, let alone lead, resistance to the growing ruling class assaults.

In the past, our political current has characterized this epoch as dominated by a “crisis of leadership.” That is, capitalism was rotten ripe for socialist revolution but the principle element lacking was a revolutionary leadership. I believe the crisis today is broader than that. We face not only a “crisis of leadership” but also a “crisis of ideology.” A major task of revolutionary socialists today is rescuing socialist ideology from its massive Stalinist defeat and convincing crucial segments of the world working class that it is not only a realistic but indispensable alternative to the growing capitalist crisis. It is hard to envision the emergence of an effective fight back without this.

—July 11, 2011