ATC Turns 200 (issues)

Against the Current, No. 200, May/June 2019

The Editors

THIS MARKS THE 200th issue since the announcement in January, 1986 that with our new series, “Against the Current inaugurates a new magazine of socialist theory and strategy,” an occasion to look back at where matters stood then, and how they look now. One contrast stands out sharply: In the middle 1980s, the socialist left at least in the United States was going through one of its driest and most difficult times. To be sure there were dynamic movements, especially in solidarity with the Central American revolutions and the long, bitter struggle against the obscenity of South African apartheid, but the organizations of the 20th century U.S. socialist left were in severe decline.

Today, a very substantial (at least by U.S. standards!) recomposition of socialist activism and organization is underway, with enormous potential as well as many pitfalls lying ahead. The comparison is all the more interesting, given that both then and now mark reactionary and repressive moments in bourgeois politics.

Back then, the Reagan administration was knee-deep in bloody genocidal counterinsurgency wars in Central America, mired in scandal over secret arms sales to its official enemy Iran to finance illegal aid to counterrevolutionary Nicaraguan militias. Among the most vicious criminal operatives in that venture, Elliott Abrams, has now resurfaced in Washington’s drive to instigate a coup or civil war in Venezuela.

Also back then was an incipient crisis over the commander-in-chief’s diminishing cognitive capacities. (“What did the President know, and when did he forget it?” as the running gag of the day put it.) Today, thanks to the awesome technology of social media and particularly twitterworld, the mental imbalance of the occupant in the Oval Office is on open daily display, a staple of the incessant cable news cycle and fodder for long-distance diagnoses by learned as well as amateur specialists in the fields of narcissism, sociopathy and related disorders.

More important is the consequence of decades-long imperialist ravages in Central America, bringing tens of thousands of refugees and desperate asylum seekers today to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they’re subjected to world-class atrocities by U.S. border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In the 1980s, the United States covertly aided both Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against Iran, and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan anti-Soviet proxy war. Several imperial twists and turns later, the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and now a potential war with Iran, as well as Trump’s open alignment with the brutal regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the extreme rightwing Israeli government, have produced today’s Middle East catastrophe.

Assaulting Labor

In the mid-1980s, following Reagan’s 1981 crushing of an inadequately prepared air traffic controllers’ strike and their union, U.S. labor was in severe retreat; what we now call “neoliberalism” was slashing at living standards and the social safety net. That attack has continued without interruption, although in different-looking forms, under the administrations of both capitalist parties, and in even more extreme measures enacted by reactionary gerrymandered state legislatures.

The 1980s witnessed an economic restructuring at labor’s expense, with “lean production” and just-in-time management systems, high-stress work environments, higher productivity and stagnant real wages, all chronicled – along with worker resistance — in the pages of Labor Notes and the books it’s published. In the 1990s and since has come the “two-tier” plague pioneered in the auto industry, slashing established wage norms by as much as half.

This economic and politial regime known as “neo­liberalism” has served to enrich the top income levels and especially corporate elites, while producing little but austerity and stress for most and immiseration for the working poor and people at the bottom of the racialized and gendered capitalist heap.

The decline of organized labor has also been largely continuous, with defeats vastly outnumbering victories. Yet just when things looked bleakest for working-class America, a spreading strike wave by teachers has breathed new life into what looked like a dying labor movement. It’s a revolt triggered by the vicious attacks on public education — we’ve covered it in ATC’s recent issues as well as the current one — and by extension, the corporate drive to cripple practically the entire public sector. (The interview with Robert Brenner in these pages discusses the factors behind it.)

The teachers’ strike wave has been for higher wages, certainly, but even more about dignity and decent working conditions, supporting students and building alliances with communities.  Here again, the processes that capital unleashed have led to today’s profound social crisis — but also to a popular reaction, and none too soon!

It was a distorted quasi-populist revolt against the misery and insecurity that corporate neoliberalism has imposed on working people, and on whole regions of the country, that produced the semi-accidental election of Donald Trump. Under two years of hard-right Republican control of Congress — something that didn’t exist in the Reagan era — the most extreme reactionary anti-worker as well as anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-environment and racist politics have flourished.

That’s the less reported story underneath the sleaze and scandal and amazing corruption of Trump’s family, cronies and Cabinet and the filth that spreads to everything he touches. But the 2016 election also saw the campaign of Bernie Sanders, which galvanized a huge layer of young people as well as working-class voters, despite the fact that the Democratic Party establishment had no intention of letting him upset the Hillary Clinton coronation the way Trump “hijacked” the Republican machinery.

We know how that worked out in 2016 — but Sanders’ campaign played a large role in the U.S. socialist revival, including the explosive growth and sharply leftward evolution of the Democratic Socialists of America. As Tim Marshall’s account of the Oakland teachers’ strike in this issue makes clear, socialist activists and press were a dynamic and significant factor in supporting that struggle. It’s always true that socialist and class struggle ideas come alive in their intersection with living movements — then and now.

What might “Bernie 2020” mean for the next election and beyond? That’s a topic for much future discussion, but the central unresolved contradiction remains: the entrapment of progressive and left electoral activism inside the corporate capitalist Democratic Party, in the absence of a strong visible alternative political vehicle.

What’s Really New

These are some of the continuities between what we were living in 1986 and what confront us today. There are also some major differences, real historic turning points, from these intervening years that need to be taken into account.

First, back then as we know now but didn’t at the time, oil industry scientists were doing secret, excellent research on the climate impact of their corporations’ greenhouse gas emissions. The fossil fuel industry already understood — and made sure not to reveal — the implications of anthropogenic global warming.

Today the world is living through the devastating, escalating consequences of these crucial decades of neglect of the causes of climate change. As these lines are drafted, the overwhelming flooding of Mozambique, Malawi and eastern Zimbabwe — and of the U.S. upper Midwest — is the environmental catastrophe of the moment. Before this issue reaches our readers, there will probably be yet another. But whether or not its manifestations are in the headlines, the climate crisis that could become irreversible within the present century, creating hundreds of millions of refugees within decades and quite possibly bringing human civilization to an end, is a daily reality.

Second, in 1986 when this series of ATC was launched it was evident that the Soviet Union and the bureaucratic states of Eastern Europe were in sclerotic decay. What lay ahead and couldn’t be precisely foretold was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, ending the East German regime and cracking bureaucratic rule in Eastern Europe.

Those of us on the anti-Stalinist left held hopes that this leap toward freedom would open up a powerful democratic and social transformation, but the reality has generally been more nationalistic, often reactionary especially in regard to women’s reproductive rights, and recently viciously anti-immigrant.

The Tiananmen massacre of the same year  opened  the era of China’s explosive rise as a capitalist power under the auspices of a brutal repressive state. The ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union followed in 1991, with the ensuing crises and chaos that would produce today’s gangster-run, but economically fragile and oil-dependent, capitalist Russian state. On the other hand, China’s emergence, from semi-peripheral status to today’s brutally autocratic but leading economic rival to the United States, makes the opening of a new stage in imperialist competition for world domination.

Third came the world-shattering terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. These were blowback from the United States’ 1980s intervention in Afghanistan and the 1991 “liberation” of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi occupation. September 11, 2001 set in motion “a whole new world of shit,” as one of our readers who was working as a flight attendant in Boston accurately foretold that night in a phone conversation.

What followed was George W. Bush’s “USA PATRIOT Act,” the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (only Representative Barbara Lee heroically voted against it in Congress) and then of Iraq. That crime of aggression under international law is now also recognized as the United States’ worst strategic miscalculation, with consequences of violence and destruction that the Middle East and the world will suffer for decades. Among the U.S. troops who returned from Iraq physically and mentally damaged, some eventually explode in domestic violence, suicide or mass shootings while many more suffer silently outside of public view.

Fourth, resulting from this cascading disaster, from the “birther” backlash against the Obama presidency and from the cesspool of the Trump presidency, there’s been a massive growth of white-nationalist organizing and violence, Islamophobia on both government policy and popular levels, and a general rise in racism.

Trump’s Muslim travel ban, like the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, the massacres at the African American church in Charleston, South Carolina and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — these are symptoms and symbols of the times we live in now.

Against and with the “Current”

“Against the Current” implies, of course, swimming in the face of the ideological consensus that capitalism is the final, best and only conceivable system for producing prosperity and security. From the beginning, of course, this magazine — and our predecessor series from 1980-85 — have been against that current.

We are so thrilled that we’re now able to swim with an emerging, countervailing current that sees the horrors of actual, existing capitalism and looks toward the potential for a society of self-emancipation, of social justice, of what Karl Marx called “a free association of the producers” without classes of exploiters and exploited, of sustainable democratically determined production for human need — what we call, in short, ecosocialism.

The tasks are enormous, the time to avoid catastrophe is limited — but the possibilities are open. Wherever you are, however you can, join the fight for a socialist future and help swell that new current.

May-June 2019, ATC 200

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