In the days shortly before the election last November, I published an article in the Daily Nexus titled: “Joe Biden Will Not Defeat Facism, Class Warfare Will.” In that article, I discussed the failure of establishment Democratic politicians to take action in the face of what seemed like an existential threat to our democracy. Thankfully, the worst scenario did not come to pass, and former-president Donald Trump (seems to have) failed in his attempt to seize the reins of power on his own accord, with no intervention necessary. However, with rumors of Trump’s next presidential run and other far-right demagogues like Senator Tom Cotton already ripping through headlines, it is clear that this threat to our basic democratic principles is still alive and well. With this in mind, my partner Riley Hull and I have decided to write a second piece to expound on some of the perspectives introduced in the previous article and further articulate what is necessary to not simply defend, but also expand, American democracy.
To do this, we first need to understand the different perspectives on power within politics and society at large. In the last article, we touched on the “liberal” view that social change is enacted solely in the halls of the elites. But another key tenet of this view is that society is broken up into a number of “interest groups”: things like corporations, labor or the LGBTQ+ community, each with different policy agendas that compete for the attention of elite power brokers in a supposed “marketplace of ideas.” Liberals claim that each group makes its argument from an equal platform; therefore, whoever wins simply has made the superior argument, since politicians make decisions based on rationality or concern for ordinary people.
Socialists take a different stance. We do not view the political arena as some sort of pluralist playground, composed of good-faith actors on equal footing. Instead, we acknowledge politics as a bloody battlefield of warring class interests, with the wealthy on one side and everyone else on the other. Rather than being waged on a level-playing field, however, political and social power is derived from economic standing, allowing the rich and powerful to wreak havoc from above on the working people below.
What gives the rich the political advantage in this battle is that, due to the structure of a government operating under a capitalist system, politicians have no choice but to serve capitalists’ interests for two primary reasons:
- In countries like the United States, where elections are privately financed, the vast majority of politicians must either beg corporate donors for campaign money or be wealthy themselves to even stand a chance. Regardless, they end up with financial interests in direct opposition to what’s best for the rest of us.
- Whenever progressive change is on the table, the wealthy can exploit their power over investments to destroy the economy via capital flight. As an example, if it looked as though a new environmental regulation might actually pass, capitalists could undercut the whole effort by simply moving their money overseas to countries that do not have such restrictions. As a result, even under the rare circumstance where a politician wants to bring about beneficial change, they often must avoid doing so in fear of capitalist retaliation.
The question of how to convince politicians to enact positive change therefore becomes one of how working class people can demand the change they need to thrive. To get an idea of what path to follow, we can think of a quote from Abraham Lincoln on the importance of labor’s position within a capitalist system: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” In essence, CEOs need workers to make their money, but workers gain nothing from managers and stockholders leaching off the products of their labor. This dynamic of capital requiring labor but not the reverse gives labor a valuable tool to fight with: withholding labor.
Withholding labor cripples capitalist production, allowing workers to hit those on top where they’ll notice: their profit margins. We can see this relationship in action in the Black Lives Matter movement, where up until people began looting and damaging property, all that was thrown around in elite circles was rhetoric and symbolic change. That’s not to say that rioting is the most productive or necessarily ethical way to win change, but it does hit the system where it counts and forces the elites to pay attention.
This is because while politicians and men in suits don’t particularly care about Black and brown lives, property damage simply isn’t good business. Yet all too often, the uncoordinated nature of these revolts leads to needless collateral damage that hurts innocent people and doesn’t hit the right targets hard enough to win as much as they could. There are better alternatives.
This is where the labor movement enters the picture. Since the capitalist system hinges on the cooperation of labor to survive, withholding that labor through strikes is a direct and existential challenge to capitalist hegemony. Working people don’t need to burn cities to save the world — they just need to stay home (hence why corporations are so eager to throw working people into dangerous working conditions during a global pandemic).
If working people felt so inclined, the entire American economic and political system could be overthrown in a day. Should American teachers, doctors, nurses, Teamsters and truck drivers decide to not clock in at 9 a.m., we could have single-payer healthcare, a Green New Deal and legitimate economic democracy by supper. It isn’t truly a matter of building power where it doesn’t exist, but simply showing Americans the power they already possess, and teaching them how to use it. That is the task at hand.
And therein lies the importance of organized labor. There are no other institutions in the United States today that have the capacity and functionality necessary to show the American working class its muscle. The American Civil Liberties Union can’t teach people how to talk to their coworkers, Planned Parenthood doesn’t have the jurisdiction to ask its members to skip work tomorrow and the Democratic Party isn’t going to show working people the weak points in the capitalist system it works to uphold. Even the Democratic Socialists of America isn’t designed to call for strikes of its own initiative, though it does play an important role in training skilled community organizers. Only unions have the tools necessary to call for strikes. Building them into the fighting, unwavering organizations they need to be to wage these essential functions of class warfare is of the utmost importance.
This is why socialist organizations place such tremendous emphasis on organizing labor and why the chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) here at UCSB recently announced its campaign alongside the academic student employee union UAW 2865 to oppose austerity measures and tuition hikes being pushed by the UC Board of Regents. While the board delayed a planned vote to raise tuition fees for incoming UC students in response to COVID-19, that delay will not last unless UC students prove they’re ready to fight against it tooth and nail. That’s exactly what the YDSA at UCSB and UAW 2865 aim to do.
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Riley Hull and Taylor Clark believe that organized labor and unions are the key to winning lasting change.