Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The need for workers to fight back in the American class struggle

Barack Obama has signed into law the deal on the US "debt ceiling" which passed the House of Representatives on Monday. After much hot air and political power-play, with pundits fretting over the "bipartisan consensus" and whether Republicans or Democrats get a better deal, only one thing is certain. The US working class is the real loser from this whole affair.

The debt ceiling, in essence, is the cap on just how much the US government can borrow. It is the mechanism which, since 1917, has allowed the treasury to borrow money without each round of borrowing being directly authorised by Congress. The latest crisis, and bid to raise the ceiling, was precipitated by fears that the European sovereign debt crisis would overwhelm the US. As in Europe, the measures taken to solve the problem are to be paid for by the working class.

As WSWS points out, "the Obama administration that will cut nearly $3 trillion from federal spending over the next ten years, the bulk of it from domestic social programs." There will be cuts of "more than $600 billion from domestic social spending, particularly in education, environmental protection, transportation and housing." Perhaps why the San Francisco Chronicle thinks that "the Tea Party has real power to shape the debate in Washington," their point underlined by the fact that "his month, Tea Partiers will storm town hall meetings of Republican and Democratic members of Congress and demand even more cuts."

Liberals aren't overly happy about this. Paul Krugman argues in the New York Times that the "worst thing you can do in these circumstances is slash government spending," whilst Johnathan Cohn of CBS adds that "by reducing deficits starting next year, this deal would do the very opposite of what virtually every mainstream economist now believes we should do: increase consumer demand by pumping more money into the economy."

However, the debate is a similar one to that taking place in Britain. The difference between liberals and conservatives is, ultimately, one of scale. At no point in the debate is the very idea of capitalism challenged, a point underlined by the fact that it was Obama who first broached cuts to social security. A writer for Time magazine even goes so far as to say that he "can now claim the mantle of fiscal conservatism - a surefire defense to ubiquitous Republican accusations of socialism and big government." Not, of course, that any serious commentator could accuse Obama of ever being socialist.

Whilst the ruling class argue over scale and implementation, the working class suffer the brunt, and it seems they know it. 72% of respondents in a poll for the Washington Post opposed the deal, and a majority view those involved from both parties less favourably than before. But what can they do about it?

The answer, on the face of it, doesn't seem optimistic. The most recent upsurge in class conflict in America - the Wisconsin dispute over collective bargaining - ended in defeat. As Juan Conatz notes, there were a number of factors and contradictions which stifled the initial outburst of rank-and-file anger, from reformist politics and union leaders to a failure to generalise the struggle beyond the public sector. With even that movement now a memory, the prospects of a significant mass struggle now look bleak.

There have been hints of protest over cuts since Wisconsin - such as in Minnesota and Conneticut - but they have been limited in scope. The only national protest comes in the form of US Uncut, but they have failed to make the impact that their UK counterparts did.

That's not to say that reviving the struggle is an impossibility. Wisconsin reminded us that America does have a working class, and brought rebellion into the heart of capitalism whilst the Arab Spring was at its height in Egypt. It has also undoubtedly raised the profile of the Industrial Workers of the World. Formerly the most radical force in America, and enough of a threat to inspire a red scare, they only recently organised an international week of action against Starbucks in solidarity with the Starbucks Workers Union in Chile. There is still the potential of rank-and-file class struggle on the streets of America.

The point now has to be to turn that potential into reality.