Workers’ unity needed to counter ultra-right mobilizations
Published Sep 23, 2009 7:43 PM
The recent mass mobilization of racists and right-wingers of all stripes in
Washington, D.C., and in cities around the country requires the attention of
the working class, white workers especially. In the face of mounting racism and
efforts to divide the workers during an economic crisis, the struggle for class
unity is more pressing than ever.
While these right-wing demonstrations are numerically small, and may eventually
die down, they are politically significant because they represent a de facto
bloc between important sections of big business and the racist ultra-right,
based upon an immediate common objective: to push back the program of the Obama
Whether this is just a bloc convenient for a particular conjuncture that will
dissolve depends upon the fate of President Barack Obama’s program, the
course of the economic crisis and the development of the class struggle.
The social and political soil for further inflaming racism is fertile. There
are short-term, specific economic interests that the health care industry and
Big Oil (ExxonMobil, Chevron, etc.) have in fomenting anti-Obama sentiment, and
there are long-term strategic interests that the ruling class as a whole has in
stirring up racism.
As far as the right and the ultra-right are concerned, as long as there is an
African-American president in the White House and an increase in unemployment,
bankruptcies and economic hardship, the basis for racist mobilization will
continue to exist.
At the same time, the economic crisis, which is striking relentlessly at the
entire multinational working class, provides a profound and powerful basis for
a united working-class fightback. Preparations must begin now to mount a
strong, anti-racist, pro-working-class counterattack against both the economic
crisis and racist division.
Concerning ruling-class politics, it is important to trace the evolution of
Throughout August the capitalist media depicted the right-wing and racist
intervention at the town hall meetings on health care as an expression of
grassroots anger against the prospect of government intervention, excessive
government spending, and fear of losing health care, among other things.
It was clear to anyone paying attention that the outrageous attacks on Obama,
the racist signs and slogans, including ugly pictures and drawings of all
types, had nothing to do with health care or government spending. Actual
mentions of health care were a thin veneer covering racist attacks on the first
African-American president. They actually popped up in a forest of other
slogans about Obama being like Hitler and attacks on socialism, abortion and
The so-called “tea party” in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12 has also
been depicted as a manifestation of grassroots protest against upcoming
legislation on health care reform and environmental protection, including
limits on industrial pollution. Tens of thousands attended this event, many
with right-wing and racist slogans directed at Obama.
These orchestrated events have been on the increase since the right wing first
initiated them in February against the Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout of
the banks. When directed against the banks, they were quite small and not very
widespread. Fox News did its best to make these pathetic showings of a handful
of ultra-right stragglers look like a grassroots groundswell.
The Republican Party at first made a gesture toward the ultra-right and tried
to strike a blow against Obama by voting against TARP. But Wall Street cracked
the whip and forced a re-vote, and the TARP $750 billion bank bailout passed.
One by one a majority of the right-wing legislators took the floor to explain
why they were changing their votes. None gave the real explanation. Their Wall
Street masters gave them unequivocal orders.
Because the demonstrations were against the banks, they were small and
scattered. They continued to be small on tax day, April 15, when the issue used
to attack Obama was still the bailout of the banks and the stimulus package,
both programs that the ruling class as a whole favored.
Health insurance companies and Big Oil move in
But once the health care legislation came on the political agenda, the
ultra-right, with their racist poison, took a step forward–especially in
the so-called “town hall” meetings. In these meetings the
ultra-right were joined by the health care industry.
UnitedHealthcare and WellPoint, two of the largest health insurance companies
in the country, sent memos to their employees to take part in the town hall
meetings and do lobbying. They also sent talking points along with the memos.
They are both under government investigation in California for these
activities. (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 3)
UnitedHealthcare and WellPoint were caught because their e-mails were leaked to
the media. But other such companies undoubtedly participated in the so-called
Around the time of the right-wing town hall offensive, Big Oil, which had been
lobbying behind the scenes to kill Obama’s environmental legislation,
decided to follow in the footsteps of the health care monopolies.
The cap-and-trade program to put limits on allowable pollution by corporations
and require them to purchase pollution permits was regarded as an unwarranted
restriction on profits. Furthermore, in the fall, environmental legislation is
coming before Congress. After that, the international follow-up to the Kyoto
Accords is scheduled for negotiation in Copenhagen. The polluters want to tie
Obama’s hands in Congress so that he cannot even negotiate on significant
reductions of carbon gas emissions.
A memo leaked from the American Petroleum Institute, the central organization
of Big Oil, and published by Greenpeace revealed the API plan to establish
“Energy Citizens” rallies across the country. The memo called upon
member oil companies to recruit employees, retirees and contractors to
participate in anti-climate control rallies in 22 cities.
The coal industry, railroads, utilities, the National Association of
Manufacturers, and other big-business polluters have joined Big Oil in its
campaign to create an anti-environmental “grassroots” campaign. The
oil companies planned to field over 200,000 so-called volunteers and provide
buses, rally financing and other support.
Big firms work with ultra-right
Who did the health care industry and the polluters work with? The two principal
organizations operating both campaigns are called Freedomworks and Americans
Freedomworks is headed by right-wing politician/ideologue/organizer Dick Armey,
the former House majority leader from Texas. Other right-wing racists helped
form its leadership, including billionaire Steve Forbes, the late Jack Kemp,
and C. Boyden Grey. Freedomworks collaborates with Newt Gingrich, among
Because of all the recent publicity, Armey recently resigned from his position
with DLA Piper, a high-powered global lobbying firm. DLA Piper’s clients
include the DuPont Corp., BP America, Edison Electric and Alliant Energy, among
other energy-related polluters.
The firm also represents military contractor Raytheon, pharmaceuticals
Sanovi-Aventis and Medicines Co., Qualcomm, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and
various other giant companies.
Armey and Freedomworks constitute a convenient nexus between big business and
the ultra-right. Up until the Obama administration took office, Freedomworks
was mainly a networking organization that carried out occasional, limited
campaigns. These included a campaign to privatize Social Security in 2006, a
campaign against Obama’s program of aid to people facing foreclosure, and
several right-wing electoral campaigns.
Another nexus is Americans for Prosperity. According to Kert Davies, research
director for Greenpeace, this group “is doing both attacks on
cap-and-trade and attacks on health care, funded by Koch Industries ... a big
oil company. So this is a coordinated attack. And as you know, it’s ...
bigger than these issues. It is an attack on Obama’s power base.”
(Democracy Now, Aug. 21)
Since the health care industry, Big Oil and other big-business industries began
artificially manufacturing “grassroots” political opposition to the
Obama program, Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity have been catapulted
into the national spotlight. They have gone from behind-the-scenes networking
and sporadic public activities to mobilizing demonstrations on a national
Such organizations can easily be dissolved or supplanted by others, and are not
a threat in and of themselves. But they are a transmission belt of funds and
resources, both from the big bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, that are
used to create an arena for organizing by right-wing groups.
Right-wing strength exaggerated
The right wing appears much stronger than its actual representation in the
population. Millions of white workers voted for Obama. It is doubtful at this
point that they are being swept into a racist backlash.
The strength of the right is exaggerated both because the ruling class,
including their media, want it that way and because the working class has not
yet moved onto the arena of struggle to challenge the economic crisis.
Obama’s candidacy was predicated on getting the troops out of Iraq and
achieving a domestic program of reforming the health care system, reversing the
destruction of the environment, and reviving the educational system, among
other things. The reforms proposed were mild at best.
But big business has been on the gravy train since the end of the Jimmy Carter
administration in the late 1970s, when deregulation began in many areas of
capitalism. Then, under Reagan, Clinton and the Bushes, the corporations have
had a veritable free hand to expand their profits and
exploitation–facilitated by the destruction of anti-trust laws, NAFTA and
the repeal of depression-era banking restrictions.
The bosses want nothing to interfere with this system. They are determined to
push back any reforms that diminish their profits–including even the
mildest health care reform or restrictions on pollution. Hundreds of billions
of dollars in corporate wealth are ultimately at stake. There is nothing that
the oil and coal companies, the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries,
and all the rest of the profiteers won’t do to get their way.
That is their immediate cause for fanning the flames of racism and getting
behind right-wing propaganda about “big government” and
“socialism.” The right-wing ideologues and the corporations have a
common interest in promoting such poison.
But all this seems far weightier than it actually is regarding the general
population. And that is because the working class has not yet entered the arena
The situation is still at the point where it takes former President Carter to
acknowledge the hostility to Obama is racism. As New York Times columnist Bob
Herbert wrote: “Did we really need Jimmy Carter to tell us that racism is
one of the driving forces behind the relentless and often scurrilous attacks on
President Obama? We didn’t know that? As John McEnroe might say,
‘You can’t be serious.’” (Sept. 19)
While it was progressive for Carter to call out the racism behind the
anti-Obama campaign of the Republicans and the ultra-right, the
African-American population and the working class should not have to rely on a
representative of U.S. imperialism to fight their battles.
After all, as Herbert pointed out, Carter once defended neighborhood
“ethnic purity” during his presidential campaign. In addition,
Carter turned his back on millions of poor women, disproportionately Black and
Latina, when he refused to override legislation banning the use of federal
funds for abortion. At the time Carter was asked at a press conference if this
was fair. His infamous and callous response was: “Life is not
fair.” (National Black Network, July 18, 1977)
Obama and Carter
The media have pitted Carter against Obama on the question of race. Obama has
denied that race has motivated the hostility to him and attributed it to fear
of government. It is easy for Carter to come off smelling like a rose because
now that he has no authority, he can say what he likes. When he was president
and had the authority to act on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, he
declined to do so.
Obama, on the other hand, is caught in a vise-like dilemma. As president, he is
supposed to represent the overall interests of the ruling class. Were he to
open up a struggle against racism, he would be abandoning his role as
representative of the collective interests of the ruling class and would become
an advocate for the oppressed.
Precisely because he is African American and is president, even the slightest
tilt in an openly anti-racist direction could be a great stimulus to the
anti-racist struggle and lead to destabilizing the racist status quo. The
ruling class, however, would regard such a development as a gross violation of
his office. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, is not endangering the status
This became evident during the Professor Henry Louis Gates affair when Obama
said the Cambridge cops “acted stupidly” and was then forced to
take it back. The fact that the establishment allowed a local cop and a local
police department to defy the president of the U.S. and to refuse to apologize
for an egregious case of racial profiling shows how sensitive the ruling class
is to Obama’s tilting even slightly toward criticizing racism or the
In the Gates case, Obama could not even defend one of the most prestigious
members of academia against the police thug who illegally arrested him. Now, in
the case of the so-called anti-health care reform demonstrations, Obama cannot
even defend himself against racism. He is in the utterly contradictory position
of being the first African American to head the capitalist state—which
is, among other things, a racist state, the same racist state that Carter
loyally served when he was president.
In any case, the arguments put forward by both Obama and Carter obscure the
class truth of the present situation. It is the racist ruling class that is
ultimately behind the town halls, the “tea parties,” and the
arch-racists like Rep. Joe Wilson.
It is the working class that must lead the real struggle on the ground to beat
back the racist attack. The unions and the community organizations should take
over the town hall meetings and the streets with demands for jobs, health care,
housing and an end to racism.
Out of the population of 300 million people in the United States, 100 million
are now people of color. That proportion is rising. The working class is
becoming more and more multinational, and the long-term strategy of the ruling
class is to keep the workers from uniting.
Racism has been a prop for U.S. capitalism since the days of slavery. It has
been used economically to extract super-profits from the African-American,
Latino/a, Indigenous and Asian populations. And it has been used to politically
poison white workers and keep them from uniting against the class enemy.
But the needs of the class struggle can turn this around. It should be
remembered that the Ku Klux Klan reached its height during the 1920s. In 1924
tens of thousands of KKK members held a march in Washington, D.C. The Klan
spread its influence far beyond the South. It included governors, mayors, state
legislators and judges.
But then came the upsurge of the working class in the 1930s. The Klan showed
its anti-union colors as workers all over gravitated toward the Congress of
Industrial Organizations and industrial unionism. Union organizers promoted
Black-white unity, a necessity in the struggle to organize. The Klan, always an
instrument of capital and the big plantation owners in the South, turned its
fire against the unions.
The KKK opposed the Unemployed Councils; it opposed the Textile Workers
Organizing Committee, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, the sit-down
strike movement, and the class struggle in general. It carried out floggings
and murders of labor organizers. But in the long run, it lost out to the
industrial union movement. While it retained strength in the South, it was
pushed back for decades by the rise of the class struggle.
The road to beating back the racists today is the same as the road to beating
back the effects of the capitalist crisis–the united class struggle and
mass mobilization of a labor-community alliance.
White workers must recognize that racism is the tool of the class enemy. As
Karl Marx wrote 150 years ago in the first volume of “Capital”:
“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the
workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic.
Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is
An injury to one is an injury to all.
Fred Goldstein is the author of the recently published book “Low-Wage
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