Reagan, the Right and the Working Class
After the election of Donald Trump as American President, Verso republishes a classic piece of analysis from Robert and Johanna Brenner produced in the wake of Ronald Reagan's presidential election victory in 1981. It was originally published in socialist magazine, Against the Current.
The results of the recent election reflect a general drift to the right in American politics. No doubt the core of the organized right, at every level is recruited from the middle and lower-middle classes as well as from the capitalist class proper. But over the past decade, right-wing political alternatives have won increasing support in the working class as well. To deny the existence of this trend is to put one's head in the sand.
Nonetheless, the election results hardly merit the panic with which they have been greeted by some sections of the left. Fascism is not on the agenda. Nor can the election results possibly justify the conclusion, already reached by many leftists, that we should now rally our forces behind left-talking liberals, self-styled social democrats, or "pro-gressive" trade union officials and community leaders.
There has, as yet, been little hardening around right-wing political positions. The election results show, above all, that people are ambivalent and confused, uncertain and changeable. Thus, it is not so much the political out-look of the American people at this moment that is worrisome. But what the election results tell us about the over-all trend is cause for concern.
There are some who doubt a drift to the right in so far as it applies to the working class. After all, workers are profoundly disillusioned with American politics and institutions. Everything is suspect, from the unions to the ability of the Establishment to solve the problems of American society. The most dramatic evidence of this disillusionment is the steadily increasing abstention from elections. On the face of it, this would seem to augur an opening to the left, and for a small minority, that may have happened. Yet cynicism by itself is just as likely to provide ground for an individualistic, nihilistic view as it is for a class conscious world view. This is especially so in the U.S., given the huge gulf between the working class and any residual radical tradition—a gulf which is greater today than at any extended period in the 20th century. Moreover, the over-riding development which needs to be confronted is that since the early '70's, in the absence of any significant working class mobilization, real material forces have been at work to push large numbers of working people, toward the right. Workers have moved right instead of left because of what they perceive to be—and what in a limited but important sense really are—their immediate, short-run economic interests (however disastrous this may be in the long-run). It is this development which makes the politics and organization of the right a serious threat.
I. The Election Results
Forty seven per cent of all blue collar voters supported Reagan; 44% of those from labor union households backed him. These figures cannot be brushed aside. Reagan was well-known to be a candidate from the far-right of the political spectrum. The Republican Convention which nominated him gave its overwhelming support to the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party, while millions watched on TV. Despite Reagan's attempts to appear as a moderate during the campaign, most voters who supported him had to be aware of what they were voting for—or be willfully blind, which also says something about their politics.
Indeed, polls taken at the time of the election and since have registered an overwhelming sentiment in favor of building up American military power and of a more aggressive foreign policy, and against welfare and affirmative action. There can be no denying the right wing trend. After all, the last candidate who ran with an orientation similar to Reagan's—Barry Goldwater in 1964—was buried beneath one of the greatest landslides in American history.
On the other hand, as has been widely remarked, the voter turnout was the lowest since 1948. Only 52% of those eligible voted. A large majority of those who didn't vote opposed Reagan. According to the polls, if all those eligible to vote had cast their ballots, Reagan would have lost. Moreover, close to 40% of those who voted for Reagan, did so apparently as a protest against Carter and his politics ("It's time for a change") and not out of ideological conviction. Finally, according to the polls, only a relatively small percentage of those working people who voted for Reagan supported the full program of the right. They were, they said, protesting inflation and opting for a tax cut. But they are not in favor of dismantling state services. While voting for Reagan, they continue to want nationalized health, government regulation of occupational health and safety, environmental protection, restriction of government contracts to firms hiring unionized workers, etc.
Nonetheless, when all is said and done, many workers who want traditional liberal social programs still supported Reagan even knowing that he opposes these programs. In settling for Reagan, they were, for the moment at least, giving up the hope of getting what they really want. They have foresaken traditional liberalism not so much because it is theoretically undesirable, but because it no longer offers a realistic approach to protecting their own interests. They have drifted to the right because it appears the only way to defend themselves.
II. The Material Basis of the Drift to the Right
The election results are ambiguous and contradictory. But it would be foolish to ignore the powerful logic leading significant sections of the working class to support right wing political positions. This logic has asserted itself ever more powerfully during the '70's as the working class has reeled under a vicious employers' offensive.
The Capitalist Offensive
The period since the late '60's has witnessed a severe economic crisis. Above all, profit rates have fallen from 10% to 5.4% between 1965 and 1972. They never really recovered during the '70's. To recoup, the capitalist class unleashed an attack against working people. Real wages, especially for the unorganized majority, have been cut; speed-up, lack of safety and other declining conditions have become a fact of life at work. In addition, the quality of life: of social services, of the cities, of the natural environment has decayed.
The working class has not been passive under these assaults. But after an initial militant outburst in the early '70's, resistance has been sporadic, routinely derailed by the trade union officials, and generally ineffective. It was this inability of working people to defend their position through collective action against the employers, which led sections of the working class to seek other solutions. The economic pie is shrinking. The employers appear too strong to confront directly. Moreover, to attack the employers' profits seems counter-productive, for there is an obvious crisis of investment and productivity across wide areas of the American economy and clearly more investment is needed. The all-too-evident flight of capital only hammers this point home. Working class people feel powerless, hostage to the needs of capital accumulation and profit.
In this situation it is understandable, though not defensible, that sections of the working class should try to protect themselves at the expense of the weaker sections. This is the main source of the drift to the right in the working class. The process is not always conscious. But insofar as people are really unable to act as a class and are not taking on the capitalists, they are unlikely to adopt a class struggle world view to solve their problems. There is then every temptation to see society as made up not of two classes in opposition but of individuals competing on the market. This outlook does correspond to one aspect of capitalist reality: for workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production. They are also individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions. etc. This individualistic point of view has a critical advantage in the current period: in the absence of class against class organization, it seems to provide an alternative strategy for effective action—a sectionalist strategy which pits one layer of workers against another.
It appears possible for the stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions by organizing on the basis of already existing ties against weaker, less-organized sections. They can take advantage of their position as Americans over and against foreigners, as whites over and against blacks, as men over and against women, as employed over and against unemployed, etc. In so doing, working people may act initially only out of what they perceive to be their most immediate self-interest. But over time they inevitably feel the pressure to make sense of these actions and they adopt ideas which can make their actions reasonable and coherent. These ideas are, of course, the ideas of the right.
Attempts by stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions at the expense of weaker sections are bound to prove counterproductive. Workers who use such strategies inevitably ally themselves, implicitly or explicitly, with the capitalist class, or a section of it. In so doing they only deepen already existing antagonisms within the working class, making it more difficult for every section of the working class to organize on the basis of common class interests. In the long run, sectionalist strategies are a dead end. But in the short run they appear reasonable. Therefore, to explain workers' attraction to right wing politics as merely an expression of false consciousness—that is, as something imposed by the capitalist class on the working class through the media, the schools, etc.—misses a critical point. These politics express, in however distorted a fashion, real material interests—interests which must be understood, if the right is to be effectively combatted. The destructive consequences of the sectionalist strategies to defend these interests are revealed in the rise of racism, sexism, and national chauvinism within the working class.
The Tax Revolt, Affirmative Action, Busing, and The Rise of Racism
Between 1972 and 1979, average spendable weekly earnings (for a family of 4) declined by 9%. Meanwhile the burden of taxation has increased. The weight of property taxes has become unbearable in some states. In 1977, for example, property taxes took 7.6% of personal income in Massachusetts, 6.5% in California, compared to 4.6% for the U.S. as a whole.
The growing squeeze on working people, caught between stagnant or declining real wages and rising taxes, forms the background for the tax revolt. Cutting taxes is an entirely understandable response to a real problem. And working people have been quite discriminating in their support of tax cut proposals. They have backed anti-tax programs mainly where the burden has become most unsupportable. Thus, Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 21/2 in Massachusetts won property tax relief. But tax reduction proposals were defeated over the recent period in Michigan, Oregon, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah and Arizona. In these states property tax rates had already been about 30% less (as a proportion of per capita income) than they were in Massachusetts or California. In California, in the wake of Proposition 13, voters turned down a proposal to cut income taxes—primarily because state income taxes take such a small proportion of most families' incomes, especially now that the income tax structure is fully indexed for inflation.
Still, tax cuts do not benefit everyone equally, nor is their impact on government equally felt. Tax reform propositions have hurt, above all, the worse-off sections of the working class. They have come at the expense in particular of public workers. At the same time, they have hit recipients of welfare and job-creating programs (like CETA). Overwhelmingly, cuts fall most heavily on blacks, Latinos, and other oppressed minorities; for they are heavily concentrated in public sector employment and they are to a disproportionate degree the beneficiaries of government programs to help the poor (since they are disproportionately among the poor). The effect of the tax revolt—within the working class—is to help the better off sectors at the expense of the worse-off, and to help whites at the expense of the oppressed minorities.
Similar dynamics are at work around the issues of affirmative action and busing. During the '60's and early '70's, blacks and other oppressed sections of the working class won important gains. Among these were better access to higher education through scholarships and quotas, to jobs through preferential hiring and promotion policies. These and other advances quite probably represented to some extent a re-distribution of benefits within the working class, from the better-off to the worse-off, rather than a redistribution from the capitalists to the working class. For example, the employers are not hurt by preferential hiring at a construction site, or busing (because their children go to private schools). But in any event these gains for Blacks and women were made possible by the spectacular economic growth of that earlier period in which everyone gained. More jobs were available, increasing funds could be devoted to services of all kinds. Thus, for the poor to gain even proportionately did not prevent the better-off sections of the working class from gaining absolutely as they too experienced improvements in their living standard.
Today, of course, the opposite is true. Jobs are scarce, good jobs even more so. Services are in decline. Unable to get more from the capitalists, the better-off sections of the working class have responded in a predictable fashion. They are attempting to recover the position they have "lost". The attack on affirmative action is widespread. The fight against busing has the overwhelming support of white working class communities. Both busing and affirmative action arise as issues because whites see their problems at least in part as resulting from the gains made by blacks. The busing question is naturally very complex: many people may oppose busing because they want their children to go to neighborhood schools. But one source of the struggle against busing is undoubtedly opposition to its tendency to equalize educational opportunity. It is not that whites necessarily object to special opportunity, but in a period of education cutbacks, equalization can only be a levelling process which comes at the expense of white workers' children.
The struggles to lower taxes and cut government spending, to limit affirmative action and stop busing have tended to be accompanied and justified, sooner or later, by the adoption of right wing ideas. "Cut waste" and "get rid of welfare cheaters" are widely supported slogans. They represent scarcely veiled attacks on Blacks. Unable to fight off the capitalist assault, even the formerly progressive, unionized, sections of the working class have been open to these ideas. As Glen Watts, liberal president of the Communications Workers union recently remarked, "When I speak to our members, people are always asking me, 'Why do we pay so much taxes to take care of those deadbeats?'"
It is in the context of the material opposition between white and black workers, given that the working class has so far failed to counter the employers' offensive, that we should understand the alarming revival of racist sentiment. While for many years it was socially unacceptable to express openly racist opinions, such opinions are, today, beginning to be tolerated. This heightening of racism within the broader population forms the background to the alarming rise of the Klan and the outbreak of racist killings. There is, of course, no more direct line to the politics of the right than through racism.
Growing National Chauvinism
Just as racist ideas emerge from the immediate conflict between better-off and worse-off workers, so does super-patriotism emerge from a strategy for survival which unites U.S. workers against workers in other countries. The most obvious stage for this conflict between the workers of different nations is the struggle for cheaper oil. The rising cost of fuel leads to higher prices and lower standards of living. One solution to the high cost of fuel is to prevent the oil companies from passing on the higher price of crude oil. This solution requires an attack on the profits of the oil-producing capitalists and seems to be out of the question, given their enormous power. So U.S. workers' opposition is directed instead against other nations, especially in the Middle East, who have stolen "our" oil and held the American people up for ransom.
In a similar way, Americans are being pitted against foreign workers over jobs. They blame runaway shops, rising unemployment, and lower wages on the workers of other countries who are paid less, and on the immigrants driven into the U.S. seeking jobs by the poverty of their own countries. The demand for protectionism is one tactic for securing jobs for American workers in the short run. But high tariffs on Japanese cars and steel make Japan's more efficiently-produced and otherwise cheaper products as expensive as domestically-produced goods thus raising the U.S. cost of living. The demand for ceilings on immigration and for stricter patrols of the borders, aims to protect wages by limiting the labor supply. Organizing the unorganized is a far better way to maintain wages, but that seems to most workers to be a hopeless strategy at the moment.
Of course the real source of the trouble is not "cheap" imports, but the fact that many of the U.S. corporations are losing their ability to compete because they are not producing efficiently. Moreover, the deepening world-wide economic crisis has led to shrinking markets. The competition between U.S.-based industry and foreign-based production has therefore intensified. One apparent way out is to compensate for the weakness of the U.S. economy by reasserting U.S. military muscle. This policy appears to many workers to offer an alternative to declining jobs and real wages. Indeed it is the only "realistic" alternative once class struggle at home appears as a dead end.
High tariffs, immigration controls, and a "firm" bargaining stance against OPEC form the "rational kernal" for a nationalistic world outlook that is taking on an increasingly irrational and potentially explosive character. The vicious, racist hysteria around the Iranian students of the past year was perhaps a preview of what might emerge on a broader scale in the future. The sense widely shared within the American working class, that the U.S. is on the defensive in the world is leading to the re-emergence of a militarist, anti-communist consensus. Through the late '60's and early '70's, it appeared that the cold war ideology had been definitively exploded by the Vietnam War. But today support for a hard line foreign policy is widespread. This is expressed not only in the demand to balance the "human rights" policy with even more backing for oppressive anti-communist regimes, but also in rising sentiment against the Soviet Union. In 1972, 49% of Americans were concerned about keeping our military defenses strong, in February 1980, a staggering 78%. In 1974, only 33% wanted the U.S. to play a more important role as a world leader; in February 1980, the figure had jumped to 57%. Polls taken at the November election found that more than half of the voters agreed that the U.S. should be more forceful in dealing with the Soviet Union, even if it would increase the risk of war.
Racism and national chauvinism are two keystones for the right wing world view. The third is the anti-feminist, anti-gay, "pro-family" ideology of the new right. The most ideologically powerful and compelling aspects of the new right—expressed in the so-called Right to Life Movement and in the anti-gay movements such as Save Our Children—do not at first sight connect so directly to the deepening economic crisis and the intensified struggle for survival. Nonetheless, insofar as anti-abortion and anti-gay ideas are sources of a political mobilization which recruits from within the working class, they do reflect the employers' offensive, just as surely as the rise of racism and national chauvinism. The link is through the defense of the nuclear family.
The family, with all its weaknesses, is one of the few places in capitalist society where it seems possible for people to have non-competitive, inter-dependent, relatively supportive relationships. Family members are not competing with each other on the market—fighting to get the best deal for themselves—but trying to make a go of it together. As the economic crisis gets worse, and when working class collective action against the capitalists is not rapidly developing, competition between workers intensifies. The world "outside" the family becomes, more and more, a "war of each against all:' In this situation the family appears as a refuge. Here at least there is some support, some trust. Here everyone has to work together, because they depend on each other. Here, it seems, there is a type of solidarity which counteracts the individualism and competitiveness so rampant in capitalist society.
Of course, the family cannot actually fulfill this ideal. Yet, lacking other alternatives people are forced to rely upon it. Even so, just as the crisis is increasing people's need for the family, it is also undermining the family. Families are breaking up—and breaking down—under the economic pressure. To maintain family incomes, men have increased their work hours and women have gone out to work. More than half of all married women are now working. Women, especially, are robbed of their leisure time coping with double burden of housework and childcare along with full time wage work. With their emotional and physical resources stretched to the bone, it is hardly shocking that men and women find it difficult to maintain their relationships—or to provide the caring that each hopes to get out of family life.
It is this desperate need for solidarity and support, ideally but not really provided by the family, which more than anything else seems to be the well-spring for the increasing opposition to the women's and gay movements. Neither the gay movement nor the pro-abortion movement defines itself as attacking the family. Nevertheless, both challenge the nuclear family. For they deny that either men or women must accept the adult sex roles defined by the nuclear family. The very assertion that women have the "right to choose" (especially to choose not to have children), and that gay people's sexual preference may represent a positive alternative to heterosexuality, in themselves raise questions about the "natural" and inevitable character of traditional family roles and structures.
Now it is true that fear about the loss of the family is not the only source of an anti-gay. anti-women politics. Men do have a vested interest in the maintenance of traditional roles, for the family is organized to assure male dominance. Control over women's sexuality and their reproductive capacities is one of the key elements in the patriarchal relationship which governs family arrangements. Moreover, some women resist the feminist movement because they feel that to reject women's traditional role means that they reject those nurturing qualities—particularly their special role in childbearing and childrearing—which have been the only source of self-worth and value allowed to many women.
But these sources of support for an anti-feminist, anti-gay politics have always existed. And despite them, the women's movement and gay movement of the late '60's and early '70's created an atmosphere in which many people, including working people, responded positively or were willing to tolerate these movements. Whatever opposition may have existed, there was little political mobilization around a "pro-family" program.
Only a few years later, the tables are turned. The women and gay movements are losing ground, while significant numbers of people are rising to "defend the family." This turnaround can't be understood unless we see its connection to the intensification of the economic crisis over the last decade and the atomizing pressure of that crisis on the working class. This pressure has generated a desperation about the family which has opened people up to the irrational politics of the "pro-family" program, with its anti-gay and anti-women content.
The rise of the pro-family ideology supports and feeds into the resurgence of national chauvinism. The idealization of the days when men were men and women knew their place fits perfectly the militaristic nationalism which yearns for the days when the U.S. was on top and the rest of the world knew its place. The return of the paterfamilias and the Pax Americana go hand in hand. A nation of pantywaists can hardly do battle in the world to secure our right to domination.
Not surprisingly, this macho identification with the Nation—and the restoration of its power—runs much stronger among men than women. Many more men than women were attracted to Ronald Reagan. (54% of all male voters went for Reagan compared to 46% of all women voters). Polls indicated that women's concerns revolved as much around fears that Reagan would start a war as around his opposition to the ERA and abortion. Still, the combination of pro-nation and pro-family ideology forms a potent mix and has proved increasingly attractive to both men and women.
III. The Capitalist Offensive and Right-Wing Populism
At least in the short run, it is possible to put forward a powerfully pro-capitalist politics without having to take on what have traditionally been the best organized sections of the working class. Indeed, the decaying political and economic position of the unionized workers in basic industry appears to offer the opening for right wing ideas to penetrate the working class. Since the rise of the CIO in the 1930's, these workers have formed the mass base for progressive social legislation. Yet, today, they are being forced onto the defensive.
In order to deal with increasingly effective foreign competitors and declining markets, industrial capitalists in this country have moved to "rationalize:' They want to cut away inefficient plant and eliminate inefficient work practices. They intend to make do, for the foreseeable future, with a vastly scaled-down plant, equipped with the most advanced technique. The result has been a significant loss of jobs in basic industry. In steel the workforce was reduced by 25% between 1960 and 1979 (from 449,900 to 339,200). Overall, between 1969 and 1976 at least 15 million workers have lost jobs as a result of plant shutdowns.
The effect of this rationalization process has been to retard the development of a working class counter-response. On the one hand, fighting layoffs or organizing the unemployed is notoriously difficult, and simply has not yet happened. On the other hand, those workers remaining employed have tended to enjoy relatively favorable situations. In steel, for example, the average weekly wage increased from $166 to $433 (161% ) over the period of "world crisis in steel" between 1970 and the present. In auto, the situation is similar—hourly straight time earnings rose from $4 to $11. The result is not only a work force that inevitably feels relatively privileged, but at the same time is only too aware of its weakness given the precarious position of much of U.S. core industries. When the employers demand stringent wage cuts to insure profits, workers can be prevailed upon to make the concession— as happened recently at Chrysler and U.S. Steel.
In sum, there seems to be emerging in the U.S. something like the "two-tiered" labor force so prevalent in parts of Europe. This is characterized by a fairly restricted, well-organized, well-paid sector, concentrated in heavy industry (as well as some of the high technology lines) alongside an increasingly large, poorly-paid sector in government jobs, service employment, and "labor-squeezing" industry. For example, in 1970 steel workers earned $83 more per week than garment workers. By 1980, the gap had grown to $277 per week. This structure creates huge problems for working class organizing and left politics wherever it has emerged. It is causing specially great difficulties in the U.S., because even the best-organized, well-off sector feels so weak.
Thus, the still relatively privileged workers of the industrial core, in the face of their position as an evermore isolated minority are attracted to the most narrow interpretation of their interests. They naturally still come at politics from the standpoint of trade unionists. But they draw only the most limited conclusions. In the summer of 1980, the AFL-CIO polled its membership on key political issues. The results showed that union members believed three to one that government was more to blame than business for the recession, and three to two that there is too much government regulation of business. 72% opposed cuts in military spending. 65% favored a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. 60% opposed the Panama Canal Treaty. 44% opposed legalized abortion. These workers did put a high priority on immediate labor issues. They overwhelmingly affirmed they would vote in favor of candidates who were strong on issues such as the right to organize, job safety, paying prevaling (union) wages on government contracts, over candidates who supported tax cuts, increased military spending, limits on abortion but were weak on union issues. Even so, some 44% of unionized workers voted for Reagan in November, while in 1976 the more moderate, Gerald Ford took only 39% of the labor vote.
Although industrial union voters probably have not moved more sharply to the right than workers as a whole, the shift by this layer is especially dangerous. For union action and union funds have been an important base for social welfare politics and policies since the 1930's. Today, these workers—especially those in the CIO industrial unions—who have most consistently projected the closest thing to a class view of politics in the U.S., seem to be abandoning that position. Defending themselves by trying to shift the effects of the employers' offensive onto the weakest sectors, they are moving toward what has been called "neo-populist" conservatism—the politics projected by right wing Republicans like Jack Kemp from Buffalo. This neo-populist program centers in particular on heavy tax cuts, benefitting mostly the capitalists, but also parts of working class (at least those parts of it least dependent on state services). These tax cuts are to be balanced by massive cuts in social expenditures hitting the poor, most especially the racial minorities, while military spending remains protected. In addition, supposedly to stimulate and protect investment, all government regulation of business (environmental protections, job safety,) would end. To complete the picture, affirmative action and busing would be eliminated. Protection for industry threatened by foreign imports is also projected—but is least likely to be implemented. Much of this program will undoubtedly be put into practice by Reagan. It will, of course, be justified as "in the national interest,' and in covertly racist terms. And it cannot help but result in strengthening the right, organizationally and ideologically.
IV. The Bankruptcy of Liberalism and Social Democracy
Reacting to the growing strength of the right, many have felt they have no choice but to rally around the remaining liberals and social democrats—politicians, trade union officials, and community leaders. These elements seem to carry some political clout, so we should "go where the action is'." These leaders still articulate policies that appear to oppose the right. Isn't it common sense to support them, especially with the working class drifting rightward?
Unfortunately, neither the social democrats nor liberals —today it is difficult to tell them apart—will on their own offer an alternative to the right for the working class. The implication of the analysis which we have made here is that the only way to fight the right is through organization that confronts capital; that, for example, insists on maintaining government services at the expense of business, not other workers; and that champions the special demands of the oppressed. It is necessary, through action and politics, to counter the splits within the working class which are pushing workers toward the right. None of the current "progressive" leaderships can be relied on to do this.
The high tide for liberalism and social democracy came, naturally, during the economic expansion of the 1960's. In this era it was possible to win gains through pressure group politics, without threatening capitalist profit. Even then, it was the social movements of the time—especially the Black movement which developed in the streets, largely apart from the official leadership of liberalism and social democracy—which provided the muscle necessary to extract the advances that were made.
Today, with capitalism in crisis, social democrats and liberals have had the rug pulled out from under them.
Since they accept the basic capitalist structure, they see no choice but to help restore the prosperity on which their programs depend by helping to restore capitalist profits. Thus, here and abroad, nearly universally, social democrats have given up any hope of winning significant economic advances for the working class. Instead, they have accepted austerity programs as an unfortunate necessity in the here and now in order to achieve a better condition in the future.
Of course, both liberals and social democrats want to soften the impact of austerity by equalizing its impact. They want "equality of sacrifice:' from capital and labor. Let everyone pull together to "get the economy moving again:' In every country they have argued that wage controls are acceptable if accompanied by price controls, presumably to prevent "unjustified" profits. In turn, as an alternative to "destructive labor-management conflict:' they have offered "worker participation:' so that workers and management can together administer production, supposedly in the interests of economic growth.
Nonetheless, wage and price controls and worker participation can only be cosmetic covers for involving the working class in its own exploitation. If profits are "too low:' then they must be raised to stimulate increased investment—the single key to economic recovery. The immediate way to raise profits is to lower labor costs, i.e., wages. And that is the whole point of austerity. If wage and price controls are to serve their purpose they must be administered to allow prices to rise enough to increase profits, while wages are kept down. Workers participation schemes are also organized with the conscious purpose of increasing the firm's profitability. The aim is to elicit workers' input in the interest of rationalization—reorganizing the labor force and the labor process to increase productivity.
Because they have no intention of organizing their supporters to take action against capital, social democrats and liberals alike have necessarily fallen back into the sectionalist strategies that can win the support of their own constituencies. Thus, we see the UAW dropping its traditional opposition to import controls and its commitment to environmental protection. Seeking to save his auto worker followers by protecting "their own capitalists," Doug Fraser, President of the UAW has called for legislation against foreign auto imports and for Congress to relax pollution standards for automobiles.
Similarly, given their refusal to lead their ranks in a fight against the employers, trade union leaders (not to mention "progressive politicans") are in a bad position to argue in favor of programs such as affirmative action and welfare which defend the weaker unorganized members of the working class. Even worse, unable to offer a solution to the resentment that their memberships feel about the squeeze on their living standards, the labor leaders have even capitulated to the sentiment against those more vulnerable workers. Thus we find Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers, arguing that in supporting Reagan, Americans were rejecting "liberal excesses" such as busing, racial and ethnic quotas (which create "new injustices"), and bilingual education.
Finally, over the next few years, there will be growing pressure on these former liberals in the trade unions and the Democratic Party to cave in on one of the most critical policy issues facing them—the demand for militarization and increased arms expenditure.
The fact is that so long as the labor officials and progressive politicians project policies designed to develop the national capitalist economy, (protectionism, austerity, increased defense spending, cuts in government services) they will fail to offer an alternative to the right. On the contrary, the real content of their politics—their classcollaborationism, their nationalism, their implicit racism —simply reinforces those ideas and attitudes around which the right is organizing directly.
Although the Left cannot hope to fight the right with a policy of uncritical support for so-called progressive elements, it does not at all follow that united fronts with liberals are precluded in the period ahead. Particularly, when they are no longer the majority and therefore formally in "opposition," as they are today, some liberal politicians may well become involved in defense efforts against the worst excesses of the right (for example, around civil liberties or the worst racist and sexist abuses). In such cases it is not only necessary but desirable to engage in united fronts with them. But in doing so, we can not afford to rely upon them. It is necessary to always maintain political and organizational independence to prevent their inconsistencies from derailing any developing movement against the right.
Out of the Impasse
The key to qualitatively changing the overall political climate in the U.S. and to a reversal of the drift to the right, is a breakthrough to a new period of workers struggle against the capitalist class. This can happen very quickly. In the early '30's it took three and a half bitter years of depression in which struggles were few and far between, before rank and file upsurges in a few places finally sparked a massive upheaval. Almost all at once, the possibility for collective action was made real. As a class struggle world view became practical, the political mood shifted from one of cynicism and defeat to militancy and class consciousness.
Such a development is potentially contained in the present economic crisis. There will be no restabilization of the capitalist economy in the coming period. Indeed, pressures on the working class will intensify across the board. The possibility for a breakthrough exists. But we can not predict when, nor base a strategy on its imminent occurence. In the meantime, how and where can we work to build a class conscious, militant layer within the working class which can begin to organize a counter-offensive to the right?
It seems likely that Reagan will not head for a confrontation with the most powerful unions. His policy will be to complete the process of housebreaking them, so that they cooperate and do not spark other oppressed layers by their example. Initially, he is likely to succeed. Fraser's concurrence in modifying the EPA rules and his advocacy of protectionism tell us how easy his cooptation will be, if Reagan does not overplay his hand and provoke the ranks into a response. Indeed, Fraser's telegram to Reagan after the election offering "cooperation" is reminiscent of a similar offer of "cooperation" made by the social democratic leaders of Germany's unions immediately after Hitler's election in 1933. As for the ranks, relative government leniency (for example, allowing wage increases above the average), and the strongly entrenched bureaucratic leadership of the UAW, USW, LAM, etc., as well as the awareness of workers that their industries are weak today, will combine to retard action in this sector at least for a time. But that is not to say that there will be no fight back. There will be opportunities, however exceptional, of which socialists can take advantage, if not always precipitate.
First, while the splits within the working class have opened up many workers to the ideas of the right, the experience of others is leading them to recognize very clearly that the right and its program are the enemy. The most powerful unions in the core industries may for the time being stay quite. But they represent at most 10% of the work force. Among the "other" 70 million workers, weakly organized or unorganized, are those taking the brunt of the crisis. It is quite likely that initially the ranks of these workers who are organized into the less powerful unions will be first to respond.
Among unionized workers, public employees have offered the greatest resistance—even though they have often suffered defeats. The pressures on these workers will continue. California's Proposition 13 is finally having its real impact, since the state has exhausted the surpluses needed to bail out local government services. In Massachusetts, there are no state surpluses to cushion the blow of Proposition 21/2, and at this point basic services including schools and other sources of public employment are severely threatened. Because public worker unions are far less regulated by national contracts or controlled by tight-knit bureaucracies, such as the UAW, there is more chance for local rank and file militancy to break through. For the bureaucracy is less capable of interfering to choke off struggle.
Second, the attacks on Blacks, gays and women is certain to increase—not just directly from Reagan but as a result of the climate of opinion which created him and which his victory has already strengthened. The Black community especially has begun to respond to the rising tide of racism not only by spontaneous outbreaks, such as the Liberty City rebellion in Miami, but also by local organizing against the Klan and Nazis in anti-racist coalitions in many cities.
So it is primarily in these two areas—in the militant brush fire movements of class struggle in the public sector, and in the local embryonic movements of the oppressed—that the left can find openings. What can we offer these struggles? Above all, a political strategy.
The point of this strategy has to be to show the self-defeating character of sectional approaches based on immediate short run interests and to provide a class unifying alternative. What follows is the need for mutual support and defense which means bringing working class issues into the movements and movement issues into the unions.
Secondly, a systematic, that is, a political solution is needed. That in turn requires a political instrument, a working class party which incorporates the needs and aspirations of the movements. Recognizing the need for such a party is one thing. But it seems dubious that a movement for constructing such a party is, at this moment, capable of mobilizing the ranks of the unions or the movements. We are therefore left, for the present, with the more elemental defensive instrument—direct action and rank and file mobilization which are the real prerequisites for political action, as the most immediate and initial means of combating the right.