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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 administration.

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 recent developments.

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 undocumented workers.

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 “grassroots” upsurge.

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 for Prosperity.

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 others.

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 scale.

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 of struggle.

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 quo.

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 racist police.

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 branded.”

An injury to one is an injury to all.

Fred Goldstein is the author of the recently published book “Low-Wage Capitalism.”