Shutdown crisis set back Tea Party, but mass struggle crucial to fight reaction and austerity

The government shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis evolved out of a civil war within the Republican Party between right-wing conservatives and the ultra-right Tea Party and its partisans.

These two vicious, anti-working-class tendencies were locked in struggle over how much austerity they could get away with imposing on the people. The Tea Party and its allies wanted to sink the Affordable Care Act, completely gut Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, and cut the budget for all social services to the bone.

The so-called “mainstream” conservatives calculated that this would produce such a catastrophe that the Republican Party might never recover from it.

The big capitalists behind the conservatives wanted these issues settled without default, because that could threaten their interest payments. The vast majority of the ruling class were afraid that the reputation of U.S. finance capital was on the line globally. And they demanded an end to the shutdown. It was costing them money in contract payments, stock losses and business declines, among other things.

All classes suffered from the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis. The global reputation of U.S. finance capital was severely tarnished. But by far the greatest damage was done to the workers and the oppressed.

The Los Angeles Times of Oct. 12 reported that 500,000 federal workers were laid off and that many lived in “emergency mode,” struggling to pay mortgages, rent, car payments, credit card bills and the like. Some estimates of the number of workers laid off, including private sector workers, run much higher.

Federal funds were cut off for the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food for 8.9 million pregnant and nursing women and children under age 5. This left the states struggling to find emergency funds to keep programs open. The same is true for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which serves 4 million people. Many Head Start programs around the country that serve 1 million low-income children stopped providing services.

Banks bailed out but not workers

In fact, this ugly fight, carried on at the expense of the people, should never have happened at all. Beginning in 2008, when the bankers, stockbrokers and billionaires were suffering from a financial crisis after having profited from reckless gambling and cheating, the U.S. capitalist establishment found trillions of dollars to keep them afloat.

But during the current 16-day shutdown, the government and the financial establishment folded their hands and let the masses suffer while the two political factions in Washington fought things out. There is a great lesson in this: The people must not rely on the political and financial machines of big business to protect them.

The masses, especially the working poor, had a stake in the struggle.

The Affordable Care Act is severely flawed. It requires people to sign up or pay a fine. It fails to give universal coverage across the board, instead setting up complicated on-line exchanges. It forces people to buy insurance from private, profit-making health care plans. It taxes medical plans that provide decent benefits, especially plans covering union workers.

Nevertheless, with all its limitations, millions of people immediately tried to register for coverage. This shows the desperate need among the 50 million uninsured for some form of health care coverage. Insofar as the struggle was about keeping the Republicans from undermining or defunding the program, large sections of the population had a stake.

Millions excluded from ACA coverage

Yet the Obama administration stood by passively when the Supreme Court on June 28, 2012, allowed the exclusion of millions of people from the plan. The ACA had specified that people with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level would be covered by expanding Medicaid. But the court ruled that states could opt out of this part of the plan.

So far 26 states have opted out, leaving millions excluded from coverage. This “will leave out two-thirds of the poor blacks and single mothers and more than half of the low-wage workers who do not have any insurance, the very people the plan was intended to help.” (New York Times, Oct. 3)

It is an outrage that after the elected president put forward a bill aimed at making health insurance available for millions and the elected Congress voted that bill into law, a group of nine (the vote was 7 to 2) unelected, appointed-for-life Supreme Court justices could gut the bill, affecting the lives and health of millions.

In the 1930s, when the Supreme Court was blocking New Deal legislation, President Franklin Roosevelt threatened to pack the court through legislation that would have allowed him to appoint new justices in place of those over 70 years of age. He lost that battle, but just having waged it resulted in pushing the court back. Eventually the essentials of the New Deal legislation were implemented.

The Obama administration, however, did not open up a fight for vital parts of its plan, even though it is touted as Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.

Tea Party revival and roots of ultra-right

Illusions abound over the meaning of the latest defeat of the Tea Party faction in Congress. It must be remembered that this defeat is in the context of a revival of these racist reactionaries.

The Tea Party first emerged in 2010 with financing from right-wing billionaires to challenge the health care plan, taxes on business, cap-and-trade legislation to limit pollution, etc. It was conducted on a racist basis, with vile attacks on the first African-American president. Indeed, the national political conversation in the capitalist media during that entire period was largely about the Tea Party and its agenda.

That lasted until the fall of 2011 and the bold appearance of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupations began in New York’s Zuccotti Park and spread to cities from coast to coast. OWS denounced the 1% — more accurately, the super-rich capitalist ruling class. Occupy claimed to represent the 99%.

These bold occupations quickly shifted the national conversation to the obscene inequality engulfing capitalist society. The actions caught the attention of the workers and the capitalist media and also stimulated sections of the labor movement. Itbegan as a challenge mounted mainly by young adults, a majority white, who were being forced to take low-paying jobs or were shut out of the economy altogether.

Street assemblies set up by OWS were soon crushed in a nationally coordinated police campaign, organized by the Department of Homeland Security, which used violent repression in city after city. Unfortunately, the movement did not have the reserves to sustain the occupations.

With that the Tea Party made a slow comeback, aided by billionaire backers like the Koch brothers.

It is not likely that the reactionary currents represented by the Tea Party and other right-wing forces — the American Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, etc. — are going to fade away and give up the struggle. On the contrary, in the wake of their congressional setback, they are likely to redouble their efforts.

Ultra-right-wing political reaction has deep roots in U.S. capitalism, going back to genocide against Native peoples, slavery, the defeat of Black Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Since the beginning of the Cold War, the ultra-right currents in the ruling class have surfaced with different identities and shades — from the John Birch Society and Christian Anti-Communist Crusade to the Tea Party. A whole variety of ultra-rightist, racist, anti-women, anti-lesbian-gay-bi-trans-queer, anti-immigrant and militarist groups have repeatedly emerged and faded under the impact of mass movements, and then reappeared under different names and using different issues. This is an enduring feature of U.S. capitalism.

It has been reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other big business organizations are discussing financing “mainstream” reactionary Republican candidates in the 2014 Congressional races to defeat the Tea Party types.

But the truth is, the big capitalists fight the ultra-right only half-heartedly, if at all. First, they share with the ultra-right their anti-labor, racist, bigoted, anti-immigrant, militarist, reactionary sympathies. And second, they do not want to destroy these elements altogether. They would rather keep them in the wings as a battering ram and shock troops to be used against the workers and oppressed when they need them.

An example is Heritage Action, the lobbying and legislative strategy arm of the Heritage Foundation, which shaped the current shutdown strategy and targeted the Affordable Care Act. This foundation was begun by the ultra-rightist and homophobe Joseph Coors, of Coors Beer. But its corporate sponsors include giant multinational corporations such as General Motors, Ford Motors, Procter & Gamble, Chase Manhattan Bank, Dow Chemical, Readers Digest, Mobil Oil, Glaxo SmithKline and others. (Right Wing Watch)

These corporations are pillars of the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and other associations of monopoly capital that are now complaining about the ideological rigidity of the Tea Party. Their problem is just that the Tea Party faction got out of control and threatened ruling-class interests for the moment.

Capitalist class and
its political establishment

The relationship between the capitalist class and sections of its political establishment can become antagonistic at times. But this antagonism always exists within the framework of a common dedication to enforcing wage slavery and oppression and intensifying capitalist exploitation.

This struggle over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling should be a wakeup call to the workers, the oppressed, the trade unions and the entire progressive and revolutionary political movement.

The present period of realignment, finger pointing and jockeying for position in the 2014 and 2016 elections is just an interlude before the next struggle over how to attack the masses.

The budget negotiations scheduled for Jan. 15, in which the Obama administration is preparing to negotiate debt reduction with the Republicans, hold great danger for the people. Entitlements are going to be on the table, as well as many other vital programs.

The workers’ movement, the communities, the youth and the students, whose lives and futures are at stake, must not be passive observers in this political struggle or place their fate in the hands of the two big business parties.

Every form of organization should be used to mobilize against ruling-class plans for further austerity. Community organizations that are under the gun must organize. There are sparks of militancy in the labor movement, such as the BART strike in San Francisco, the Boston bus drivers’ struggle against the huge transnational Veolia Corp., among transport workers in Detroit and fast-food workers all over the country. These sparks should be taken as a signal by militant trade unionists everywhere to prepare to push back against the coming austerity negotiations in Washington.

Workers Assemblies and Peoples Assemblies are forming around the country and provide an ideal arena to develop mass mobilizations and direct struggles that can unite low-wage workers, organized labor, communities, students and youth.

The people must fight the right and the ultra-right with independent organization and politics. There is no other path to effective resistance.