1992: Seize the Time!

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

The Editors

NEO-NAZI DAVID DUKE gets the majority of the white vote as Louisiana’s Republican candidate for governor. Hundreds of fascist skinheads drive immigrants from the east German town of Hoyerswerda. In France, the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen dominates electoral districts formerly controlled by the Communist Party. In the Swedish elections, the racist New Democracy Party’s electoral breakthrough helps topple the Social Democrats … Are the extreme racists and the far right, then, the inheritors of the “end of history”?

Not necessarily: There are openings for the left also. In Canada, three recent provincial elections (Ontario, Saskatchewan, British Columbia) have been won by the mildly social-democratic New Democratic Party. In Pennsylvania, George Bush’s attorney general is defeated for U.S. Senate by a nearly unknown Democrat running on the issue of health insurance—even at the moment that New Jersey voters are sweeping Republicans into the legislature as a right-wing revolt against taxes. Bush’s own popularity begins to fall from both the right and the left.

The political paradox, particularly acute in the United States, has to do both with observers’ blindness and with reality’s contradictions. The United States presents one of the most striking pictures of capitalist decay—and of the invisibility of any anticapitalist left No wonder that substantial numbers of white people consider the suffering brought on by the crisis to be inevitable—and fight to make sure that people of color do most or all of the suffering. No wonder that David Duke is popular in the white sector of George Bush’s America.

Yet there are prospects for a reborn left in this country. Millions of people are ready for ideas like universal health care, taxing the rich, even perhaps a new radical party. Promoting and realizing these ideas require an unapologetic attack on the logic of production for profit, racism, and the New World Order. Such an offensive could create an independent mass left force in the United States in this decade. The alternative may be a new right-wing assault vicious enough to make us nostalgic for Reagan and Bush.

Triumphant Capitalism?

The paradox and the political uncertainty arise not from capitalism’s success but from its continuing signs of crisis. The euphoria about U.S. capitalism’s prospects that was general in the wake of the Gulf War—followed by the Soviet upheaval—seems to have been years instead of just a few months past. In that short space of time, the number of people polled who think the U.S. economy is in bad shape has doubled or tripled. Mainstream economists talk about a slow, halting recovery. Some now mention the formerly unspeakable possibility of a double-dip recession, as in 1979-80/1981-82.

More generally international capitalism, ideologically unchallenged as it has not been in a hundred years, is all too obviously not working for hundreds of millions of people—those enduring conditions from famine in the Horn of Africa to terminal unemployment in Liverpool or East St Louis. As for the international “rule of law” that protects the expansion of “democracy,” tell that joke to the new waves of boat people and death-squad victims from Haiti.

Less obvious perhaps but just as true is that capitalism isn’t working all that well for-capitalists. Back in the USA, it’s not just ordinary people and Democratic politicians who are made nervous by Bush’s distaste for “domestic” issues. It’s also investment bankers. The U.S. economy keeps on “shaking out,” with many more casualties to come. There are still plenty of savings and loans that haven’t gone bankrupt yet, but will; the biger banks, despite a frantic wave of mergers, still have major collapses ahead; several airlines have folded, but more need to go under before the rest can count on adequate profits. And so on, for one industry after another.

The only response from the government and central economic institutions has been repeated interest rate cuts, which have failed to stimulate any recovery. An attempt in Congress to cut interest rates paid by consumers on their credit cards was met with a veto by capital in the form of a 100-point stock market drop. This reflects in part pure greed, but also in large part the dependence of banks on the inflated interest on personal debt (to say nothing of payments by starving Third World countries on their catastrophic foreign debts).

As for schools and transit systems that never made profits for anyone in the first place, it will be years before they get off the chopping block. The fact that the military will also be cut somewhat-inasmuch as ICBMs and military establishments of two million are not the most efficient means for bombing an Arab country into the Stone Age or for fighting guerrillas in the Peruvian forest-won’t help food stamp recipients. Bank and corporate bailouts are a higher priority.

Incredulous trade unionists are going to face still more wage and benefit cuts. The issue is not whether these will be temporary measures to put the company back on its feet, nor whether this is what a golden era of labor-management cooperation looks like. The issue is whether enough working people are ready for the long, bitter, coordinated, creative fight-backs that are the alternative to submission.

It’s an outlook this bleak that made 39% of the Louisiana electorate (55% among whites) vote for David Duke Even the New York Times noted in a lead editorial that Duke essentially took the trail blazed for him by Bush when you have no workable policies to offer, just shout “Willie Horton!” and “Quotas!” The Times might have added (but of course didn’t) that Duke’s domestic rhetoric was a milder version of Bush’s international line, with which the Times’ editors are in staunch solidarity. The racist appeal that underlay the celebration of mass murders of Panamanians and Iraqis would still sound too blatant in reference to African-Americans or Chicanos, but there is inevitably a seepage from one racist discourse to the other, since racism is central to the New World Order in much the same way that anti-communism was central to the Cold War.

The entire political mainstream accommodates to the racist mindset, creating a more solid ground of legitimacy for Duke. Democrats show as much horror at “quotas” as do Republicans. Their received wisdom about 1992 is that they can win the White House if only they can complain about the economy without mentioning Blacks, abortion or homosexuals, or looking unsound about the ‘free market’ Nor is acceptance of racism limited to the United States. French Socialist Prime Minister Edith Cresson, imitating the cryptofascist Le Pen, has appealed to anti-immigrant prejudice; even the German Greens, while defending immigrants already in Germany, have decided that “the boat is full.”

The moderates, liberals and reformist left could not cut their own throats more effectively than by accepting in this way the extreme right’s premises. They are all well aware that African-American law students are not responsible for the fact that many whites can’t find jobs; that Puerto Ricans collecting food stamps are not responsible for the budget deficit that Japanese auto workers are not responsible for the fact that U.S.-made cars can’t compete To do any differently, however, they would have to explain the truth about why there are no jobs, why there’s a deficit, why U.S. industry is in trouble, and how these problems can be taken on without destroying working people’s living standards.

Fake and Real Alternatives

With George Bush suddenly in noticeable political trouble, not only liberals but many on the left take Democrat Harris Wofford’s upset victory over Republican Richard Thornburgh in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race as an inspiring example of the kind of tactics that can beat the right A closer analysis is in order.

Of course Wofford benefitted, rightly, from his calls for universal health care and extended unemployment benefits. Millions of people who need and believe in such programs will vote for them—if given a chance. But millions of people also know that they can’t afford more taxes and will still need jobs when unemployment benefits run out They will soon hear that even the model Canadian health care system, which does save the billions that the United States wastes on administrative overhead and insurance company profits, is under intense pressure from economists and politicians who say it “costs too much.”

If faced with a choice between liberal promises with no credible economics on the one hand, and racist populism on the other hand, millions of white voters could swing to the latter. To have social programs—decent education or national health care—and to create jobs, you need money. To get the money you have to go where it is, and tax corporations and the rich. That already is virtual anathema. What Democrat in the presidential race has credible answers? Jesse Jackson, the one Democrat who sometimes sounded different from the rest, has effectively acknowledged that his project in the Democratic Party is dead by declining to run. Mario Cuomo, the pundits’ favorite, has shown New York State the economics he practices if not preaches: the same as Reagan’s and Bush’s.

Tom Harkin becomes the Democratic hope to which many leftists are clinging. Though Harkin seems willing to play with the tax-the-rich fire to some extent, the next step is even harder. To tax capital in a genuinely global economy, you have to block its mobility and usurp its owners’ prerogatives. Franklin Roosevelt did not have to contend with this problem. French president Francois Mitterand, who did, solved it by giving in. In our bipartisan post-Communist age, you will certainly not find a Democrat to do what Mitterand wouldn’t.

Luckily, you don’t need Democrats to say it in order for voters to buy it Some radical ideas, however unfashionable among the educated elite, are more popular than before in the general public The evidence? That’s why the independent and socialist Bernie Sanders got elected to Congress from Vermont That’s why Tony Mazzocchi’s Labor Party Advocates is winning a sympathetic hearing among unionists. That’s why former Rainbow Coalition director Ron Daniels is exploring an independent presidential campaign, and why some who used to be the Rainbow’s best activists won’t work for Democrats any more; why the National Organization for Women’s commission to explore formation of a third party overwhelmingly voted to recommend such action to NOW’s June 1992 convention.

If these forces, small as they are right now, came together behind an independent campaign, we believe that campaign and its candidate would have a powerful appeal, perhaps rivaling that of any Democrat now in the race. Unfortunately, such a convergence looks unlikely at present: Too many of these forces still have Democratic “allies” that they’re afraid to break with. Too many still define political independence in a way that leaves them supporting a Carter-, Mondale- or Dukakis-equivalent They fail to remember that Carter became a proto-Reagan under the pressures of 1978-80.

What these aspiring independents need is a powerful social push. We said before that only a determined fightback by workers could fend off further declines in Wages. That same fightback would provide a movement base for independent labor politics. In the same way, the fightback needed to save legal abortion would provide a movement base for independent, feminist politics. We need a convergence of many fightbacks—to end AIDS, to end campus racism, and many more—to create an anti-capitalist alternative to the New World Order at home.

January/February 1992, ATC 36