Capitalist electoral politics and class struggle

Adapted from a talk given at the Sept. 7 New York City meeting of Workers World Party.

At the moment of this writing, the Chicago Teachers Union has set a splendid example for the working class during this presidential electoral season. They have refused to be swept away by the electoral tide, in which both parties are financed by hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate money, and are on strike against the Chicago school administration to defend their own rights and the rights of the poor and oppressed communities of the city.

Whatever the politics of the union leadership, what makes this action so politically significant is that it flies in the face of the stampede to the polls. This is, after all, a city whose mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is Barack Obama’s former chief of staff. And this is a time when the president is engaged in a fierce electoral battle against the right-wing Romney-Ryan ticket.

The Chicago teachers represent a sector of the organized working class that has been under severe attack in recent years. In particular, they have experienced first hand the futility of relying on elections.

They have faced the so-called “Race to the Top” initiated by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was formerly superintendent of the Chicago schools. This program is nothing but a big bribe to local officials and school boards, costing $4 billion, that is aimed at fostering charter schools, privatization of the public school system, abandoning the mass of school districts that are disproportionately Black and Latino/a, and undermining the union rights of teachers.

It is no accident that it was teachers facing similar attacks, along with students in Madison, Wis., who started the heroic two-week occupation of the state Capitol there.

This strike is a healthy antidote to the obsession with electoral politics that is being drummed up by all quarters of bourgeois society.

The ‘lesser evil’ dynamic

The traditional dynamic of capitalist politics is taking hold in an atmosphere in which the election is cast as a matter of life and death for the masses. They are being told to drop everything and throw themselves into stopping the Republican right-wing ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

To be sure, the Romney-Ryan team is thoroughly reactionary. But by focusing on this alone, the broader picture is obscured — namely, that the presidential election is at bottom a struggle between different factions in the ruling class to get their hands on the capitalist state with its $3 trillion budget and win the right to parcel out the spoils to their corporate and financial cronies.

While there are important policy differences on the surface between the two parties, there is no daylight between the parties from a fundamental point of view. Both enforce capitalist rule, wage slavery, exploitation and oppression and foster imperialist conquest and intervention abroad.

Karl Marx grasped this essence of capitalist democracy splendidly when, in analyzing the experience of the Paris Commune, he said that the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in government.

The parties do look very different socially and economically, however. Comparing the Republican National Convention to the Democratic National Convention makes the parties seem as different as night and day. The RNC was probably 99.9 percent white, with delegates ranging from prosperous to rich, filled with business people and Chamber of Commerce types.

The Republicans flaunted a reactionary program, promising to cut programs and services for the masses and reward the rich. The convention marked a continued shift to the right.

It seems ages ago now, but even a reactionary like George W. Bush was compelled to run in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative” and to pay lip service to immigrants, the poor communities and their failing school systems, among other deceptions.

The present ticket, however, is running with an extreme anti-abortion and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights platform as its standard, in addition to threatened budget cuts and openly anti-immigrant and anti-labor policies. In his speech, Ryan even red-baited the Obama administration as being “central planners,” evoking images of socialism and the USSR. Would that the charges were true!

The DNC, on the other hand, was populated by large numbers of Black and Latino/a delegates and unionists, along with liberal public figures and celebrities. The speakers included people from these communities, as well as a Dreamer, an undocumented young Latino. Speakers made progressive statements in favor of a woman’s right to choose, same-sex marriage, immigrant rights, taxes on millionaires and billionaires, and so on. The contrast with the RNC could hardly have been greater.

Differences & similarities

But this contrast is deceiving. Consider that in his speech President Obama pledged to carry out Wall Street’s austerity plan of cutting $4 trillion from the budget, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. If his cuts are not quite as drastic as those that the Republicans call for, they are still drastic and a huge attack upon the masses.

On bellicose war talk, of course, the two parties converged.

Obama’s greatest booster at the convention was former President Bill Clinton. This is the Clinton who threw millions of mainly single mothers, disproportionately African-Americans and Latinas, off the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program — welfare — and forced them to compete for scarce low-paid jobs to earn benefits, even as they struggled to raise children.

This is the Clinton who initiated the Effective Death Penalty Act, which drastically cut down the appeals process for death-row prisoners. To make the point that he was in favor of the death penalty, Clinton even left the campaign trail in 1992 to travel to Arkansas to witness the execution of a mentally disabled Black prisoner.

Clinton also initiated anti-terrorist laws that were later used by the Bush administration. He teamed up with Newt Gingrich to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, which caused a full-scale agricultural depression in Mexico, forcing millions to leave their land as the country was flooded with cheap corn and other products from U.S. agribusiness.

Finally, Clinton had the hypocrisy to accuse Romney of wanting to deregulate financial firms and give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires. But it was Clinton and his two Treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, who did away with the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which had been enacted to limit financial speculation.

The Clinton speech, perhaps more than anything else, highlighted the deception behind capitalist electoral politics.

The openly reactionary proclamations and threats by the Republicans have set up a stampede to the camp of the Democratic Party. But this party is no less controlled by Wall Street, the giant monopolies and financiers than the Republican Party. The difference between the two parties is that the Republican base is made up of actual business owners and bosses, while the Democrats have the progressive masses and middle-class liberals as their base.

In the end, however, both parties will do the bidding of the bosses. As an example, Ronald Reagan is often denounced as the initiator of the sharp shift to the right in capitalist politics. But it must not be forgotten that it was Jimmy Carter who began the deregulation process in transportation and other spheres that was used to break unions. And it was Carter who planned the operation, carried out by Reagan, that broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. That was the beginning of the anti-labor campaign.

It was also Carter who callously declared that “Life isn’t fair” as he signed the Hyde Amendment, denying poor women the right to federal funds for abortion. And it was Carter who began a massive military build-up that was continued by Reagan.

Carter did not do all these things because he suddenly got the ideas, but because they expressed the right turn in the ruling class, in the same way that the austerity programs of both Romney and Obama express the consensus on Wall Street today. The bankers and bosses are feeling the stress of the world economic crisis, and they want to take it out of the hides of the masses.

Shift to the right: It’s not money alone

The current wisdom is that the Republicans and the right wing are gaining ground because of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that corporations are people and can contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns.

This argument defies historical analysis. The bosses in the U.S. have dominated the political parties and legislatures as far back as the founding of the republic. George Washington was the richest man and the largest slave owner in the U.S. at that time. In the 19th century, legislatures, presidents and judges were bought and sold by the giant railroad barons, the cattle barons and the mining companies, who were granted millions of acres of land stolen from the Native people. It was all done through corruption and bribery.

Any study of the relationship among money, politics and capitalist interests, from the booming 1920s on, shows the further fusion at the top between the political machine and big business. If there was a modification of this at all, it was during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, when sections of the ruling class had to be pushed back by Roosevelt so he could avoid a brewing revolutionary upsurge during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s.

To be sure, the Citizens United ruling further widened the gap between the labor movement, women’s and civil rights groups, and LGBTQ organizations, on the one hand, and the corporations on the other. But the strength of the mass movement has never been lodged in financial resources that could influence the political establishment, but in mobilization and militant struggle.

The shift to the right in U.S. politics began in the late 1970s. It was accelerated a decade later by the collapse of the USSR and has been deepened with the retreat of the top leaders of the labor movement from the arena of class struggle. It is the present and temporary relationship of class forces that is responsible for the sharp shift to the right by the ruling class, not corporate money in politics — which has always been there.

Rely on resistance & struggle

The way this situation will be reversed is to reverse the relationship of forces in favor of the workers and the oppressed. Social democrats and liberals like to bait the revolutionary forces and the left, who refuse to be dragged into the elections behind an imperialist party. They are accused of sitting on the sidelines and abstaining from the inevitable and inescapable game of capitalist politics.

But this is a false accusation. In the first place, the game of capitalist politics played by the Democratic Party — and the Republicans too — is a shell game. The workers are shown a very small prize at election time but can never lay their hands on it. The promises are accompanied by a torrent of imperialist national chauvinism and social patriotism. But the social democrats tell us there is no real struggle, so therefore we are whistling in the dark and nothing can happen outside the framework of capitalist electoral politics.

Revolutionaries, particularly Marxists, are not unconscious of the fact that the vast majority of the workers right now see the electoral arena as the primary, perhaps the only, arena in which they have any hope of getting their grievances redressed.

But revolutionaries have answers to the social democrats and the liberals. First of all, we definitely are in the game. But it is a different game — the game of resistance, the game of struggle, the game of fighting for our rights on the ground.

Second, the task of the liberation of the multinational working class belongs to the class itself. No section of the bourgeoisie will ever do that for us.

The bosses always try to take away the democratic rights of the masses when the opportunity arises. Our answer when they make the attempt — through voter I.D. laws or anything else — is to fight to defend those rights at all costs. But we do not hand over the keys to the political process to the very class enemy that wants to take away our rights in the first place.

And finally, we know that the present acceptance of the capitalist electoral framework cannot forever contain the workers and the oppressed, who are being ground down on a daily basis under the class dictatorship of capital. The fraud of capitalist democracy will not be able to contain the people who are now suffering. Between 25 million and 30 million underemployed and unemployed are losing ground every day to debt collectors, landlords, greedy health care and insurance companies, and a thousand other capitalist bloodsuckers.

The teachers, students and community activists on the picket line in Chicago are an early testament to this. The heroic workers, students and community activists who seized the Capitol in Wisconsin showed it even earlier.

Capitalism is at a dead end, and sooner or later the masses will grasp this.

In the meantime, the real game is to build a workers’ party of resistance and class struggle.

Goldstein is the author of “Low-Wage Capitalism” and “Capitalism at a Dead End.” More information is available at The author can be reached at [email protected].

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