A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Can Obama deliver the goods for working Americans?

To the activists Obama promised a timely end to the war in Iraq, an easing of tensions with Latin America and immigration reform; to the unions he promised the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA); to millions of Americans without coverage, he promised health care reform. But above all, he promised social stability and the continuation of business as usual to the capitalist class. So what promises has he kept? US troops remain in Iraq and even more are being sent to Afghanistan; the democratically-elected government of Honduras has been overthrown, more US troops are to be sent to Colombia, and the embargo on Cuba remains; the plight of immigrant workers is worse than ever and some 250 Mexicans have died crossing the border in just the first few months of this year. EFCA and single-payer health care are off the table. And as for job creation and saving people’s homes, forget about it. Millions more jobs have been lost since he came to power and hundreds of thousands have been thrown out on the streets. The only promise he has kept is to Big Business, with billions in handouts to the biggest and greediest corporations of them all and a continuation of the wars in the Middle East. Merrill Lynch, one of the main culprits in the crisis, awarding of $3.6 billion of bonuses last year, as it tries to persuade a federal judge to approve a settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over its own disclosures. The White House forecasts that the 10-year federal deficit will top $9 trillion; more than the total of all previous deficits since the USA was founded.

By 2020 the national debt will equal three-quarters of the entire US economy. And what do we have to show for it? The question answers itself. The geopolitical intelligence analysts at Stratfor clearly and frankly described Obama’s policies: “Presidents -- all presidents -- run on a platform that will win. If they are good presidents, they will leave behind these promises to govern as they must. This is what Obama has done. He ran for president as the antithesis of Bush. He has conducted his foreign policy as if he were Bush. This is because Bush’s foreign policy was shaped by necessity, and Obama’s foreign policy is shaped by the same necessity.” That “necessity” is the defense of the interests of Big Business at home and abroad. In other words, the vast majority of Americans have yet to see any real change whatsoever. Obama was swept into power on a wave of enthusiasm and hope, but it’s crystal clear whose side he’s on despite all the pretty sounding words. No wonder a majority of Americans are now against the war in Afghanistan and his approval rating has fallen 12% since April. Long gone are lofty speeches implying the promise of fundamental change. Also quickly fading are people’s sincere illusions that change could come from yet another big business politician.

The battle over health care is a perfect example. It has simmered beneath the surface for decades as literally millions have suffered illness and death in the richest country on earth for lack of basic health care. Most union contract struggles in recent years have revolved around the question of heath benefits. 7 in 10 personal bankruptcies in recent years have been the result of astronomical medical expenses. Now that Obama has attempted even the most modest of reforms, all the pent up contradictions are bursting on to the surface. On the one hand is the hysteria against Obama’s “socialism,” on the other are millions of bewildered but increasingly frustrated Americans who want a real solution now. Violence has broken out at Town Hall meetings as the growing polarization of society is expressed in an often confused manner. As has been the case for nearly a century, socialized health care advocates are being red-baited, intimidated and even assaulted. Obama is no socialist and his health care proposal has nothing to do with single payer. But if fighting for genuine universal health care, getting rid of the HMOs and the medical and pharmaceutical industries whose profits are squeezed from the health of working people and the poor is “socialism,” then what is the problem with socialism?

The problem is that it would take control over our health out of the hands of a tiny minority and put it into the hands of the majority. There are big bucks at stake. According to Harper’s Index, the percentage change since 2002 in average premiums paid to large US health-insurance companies was +87%. The percentage change in the profits of the top ten insurance companies was +428%. No wonder the health care industry is spending nearly two million dollars a day lobbying Congress against single payer or anything remotely like it! The universal health care in Europe and other countries around the world did not fall from the sky. The right to medical care was fought for in mass struggles by the workers of these countries. Just as the right to the eight-hour day had to be fought for tooth and nail, so too the right to live a healthy life had to be wrenched from the ruling class. The right to benefit from the marvelous medical knowledge and technology humanity has developed over the last few centuries is a class issue. The rich and their politicians all have excellent heath care coverage. The 47-plus million Americans without coverage are the workers and poor. Millions of others who do have coverage are a job loss or even just a single premium payment away from total economic disaster should there be a medical emergency.

The record is clear: the health care crisis cannot be solved within the limits of the profit system. The debate over health care in Congress has been bogged down and restricted to the narrowest possible limits. But there is a way out of this impasse. Despite the attacks and setbacks of the last few decades, the over 15 million-strong US Labour Movement remains a powerful force in society. If just these workers were to go on strike, hardly a truck, airplane or train would move, not to mention public school, universities, and city, county, municipal, state, and federal services. That, combined with massive mobilizations on the streets, would put real pressure to bear on Washington! Richard Trumka, the former United Mine Workers’ leader and heir apparent to the leadership to the AFL-CIO has come out in favour of single payer. Now is the time to put these words into action. Organized labour spent millions and mobilized the rank and file to elect Obama. We believe this money and energy would have been better used building a mass party of labor and running labor candidates. The AFL-CIO national convention will be held in September, presenting a tremendous opportunity to change course. The leadership should mobilize the millions of rank and file organized workers and reach out to the unorganized and unemployed to fight for a national health care system for all.

The Democrats have had their chance. They have no more excuses now that they control the White House and have a large majority in Congress. And yet they couldn’t even pass a basic reform like EFCA. It’s high time the Labour Movement broke with them and took up the question of a mass labour party, a party of, by and for working people. If the AFL-CIO leadership showed the way, breaking with the policy of “partnership” with the bosses, and their political parties it would open the floodgates for working class organization and mobilization on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The capitalists’ response to the crisis is to carry out a vicious wave of layoffs, cuts and closures. Living standards are being driven ever lower for the majority, while the rich literally get richer and the poor get poorer. The Labour Movement needs its own response: organization, mobilization, factory occupations under workers’ control to prevent closures, and a clean break from the pro-Big Business parties. There indications that some aspects of the economy are stabilizing. But we have to ask ourselves: who will benefit from the recovery? Will it be another “jobless” recovery? How long will the recovery last before the inevitable next recession? Why do we have to live in fear of losing our homes, jobs, and health care even during the “good times?” The capitalist system operates on a boom bust cycle, and the workers are exploited whether there is a boom or a recession -- things just get even worse during a downturn.

Although the majority opposed the Iraq War, Bush continued it. Although the majority now oppose the war in Afghanistan, Obama is expanding it. The majority want universal health care, and yet single payer is not even “on the table.” Why is this? If this is truly a democracy, then the majority should have genuine decision-making power. This is why we believe that socialism, in which the majority will democratically determine economic and government policies, is the only way forward for humanity. Just one year ago, in the midst of the meltdown on Wall Street, millions of Americans, many of whom had never voted before, came out for Barack Obama, energized by his message of hope and change. His victory marked a turning point in U.S. politics, a clear rejection of Bush’s blatantly anti-worker and imperialist policies. The streets overflowed with joy and the promise of a new era. Around the world, cries of “yes we can!” could be heard as a collective sigh of relief swept the planet. The Bush years were over! Surely things would now get better! But what is the reality? The fact is, things are actually worse than they were under Bush. Despite a much ballyhooed 3.5% growth in GDP in the third quarter of 2009, the economic picture is grim for working people. The unemployment rate has now surpassed 10 percent for the first time since 1983, and is likely to rise further. In some states, such as foreclosure-battered Ohio and Michigan, it is already substantially higher. If those working part time or no longer looking for work were included, the real rate would be closer to 17.5%.

So sure, the recession is “over” according to the official figures, but can it last? And what kind of recovery is it when nearly 16 million people can’t find work? In October alone, 61,000 manufacturing and 62,000 construction jobs evaporated. Jobs have now been lost for 22 months in a row, a steeper fall than during the Great Depression. Also in October, the average work week remained at just 33 hours, giving employers plenty of room to extend existing employee’s hours, not to mention to expand usage of existing industrial capacity before adding new workers or building new factories. Those unable to find work for six months or longer rose to 5.6 million, or 35.6%, a new record. For workers, the so-called “jobless recovery” is no recovery at all. But how can this be? How can the GDP rebound when there are 7.3 million fewer jobs than there were less than two years ago? The answer is simple: the capitalists are making fewer workers do more work for less pay. Hence, profits are up for many companies such as Ford. According to the Department of Labor, productivity — the amount produced per worker per hour — rose by an incredible 9.5% in the 3rd quarter, after rising 6.9% in the 2nd. In other words, they are squeezing more out of us than ever, all while lining their pockets with federal bailout money. A very convenient situation for them, but not so appealing for the rest of us!

Workers are willing to take this for the time being. They hope that the worst is indeed over, that they have made it through the storm to relative shelter. They are willing to “wait and see,” and hope for real change from Obama. But this has its limits; the worst is far from over. The immediate shock of last year’s crisis may have subsided, but now the reality is gradually creeping in: Americans are going to be forced to accept a new, lower standard of living, and there will be no rapid bounceback of jobs. Millions of the jobs lost are gone forever, to be replaced by fewer jobs offering lower wages, no benefits, and no union protections. As for Obama’s foreign policy, although he won the Nobel Prize simply for the “hope” he has generated internationally, the year since his election has provided many harsh realities for those who expected something new under the sun. The coup in Honduras against the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya has in effect been legitimated by Obama’s State Department — with the help of U.S.-trained officers and the brutal use of U.S. made weapons. U.S. troops are to remain in Iraq for years to come, and the war in Afghanistan has been expanded by tens of thousands of troops and extended into Pakistan. In short, Bush’s wars continue despite the “changing of the guard.” The reason for this is also easily explained: like Bush, Obama defends the fundamental interests of the capitalists and imperialists, and “political realism.” Like Bush before him, his policies flow from this reality.

His expansion of the military budget to $680 billion — an amount only dreamed of by Reagan and the Bushes — speaks for itself. “Defense” spending now consumes 35-42% of estimated tax revenues. Add to that the billions handed out without any accountability whatsoever to the already-absurdly rich, and it’s no wonder there is “not enough” money for job creation, schools or health care. Obama has boasted that his stimulus package will create or save 650,000 jobs; but it’s not even enough to make up for the jobs lost in a single month earlier this year. The new leadership of the AFL-CIO is an indication of the slowly changing mood in the Labor Movement. At least in words, Trumka is a reflection of the growing pressure from the rank and file, which is tired of cuts and concessions. The off-year election results were another indication of what is to come. Most incumbents were thrown out, and those who remained, did so at tremendous financial expense. Upcoming electoral contests will be interesting to say the least, as American voters reject the “status quo” in their own distorted way and look for a way out. In the final analysis, only the creation of a mass party of labor based on the unions can lay the basis for addressing the workers’ problems. Before then, however, more life experience will be necessary.

There are no direct historical parallels, and comparisons between epochs must of necessity take into account the many changes and differences that have taken place in the intervening decades. It is useful, however, to keep in mind that between the Crash of 1929 and the first mass stirrings of the working class in the mid-1930s, some five years or more elapsed. In the interim, even the large, well-established left-wing parties such as the SP and CP did not experience an immediate surge in growth. Today, as then, mass consciousness has not yet caught up with objective reality. But it will catch up, and with a bang. It would be a mistake to mistake today’s apparent passivity in the face of such an unprecedented crisis for “the end of history.” In fact, the real history of humanity is only just beginning. We must not be caught unawares or unprepared! For those of us who can see the correctness of our perspectives confirmed and the potential for the socialist transformation of society all around us, it can be frustrating to watch the molasses-like development of events in the U.S. and internationally. However, the Marxists and labor activists must not succumb to moods of impatience or spend time searching for panacaeas or shortcuts: there are none. Patience, hard work, discussion, theoretical clarity and dedication are the only way forward. History is on our side. We must have confidence in the working class, in the ideas of revolutionary Marxism as a guide to action, and in our perspectives for a socialist future.

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