Monday, September 18, 2006

The real threat to the American working class.

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Let's say I'm right and that a serious slump is about to hit America. It must do at some point. The massive debt-funded expansion of the state under Bush the Second is unsustainable. What is more the extraordinary efforts at restoring and enhancing every aspect of capitalist class power is a destabilising force in itself. The inherent imbalances in US capitalism result from the usual: because capitalism is an exploitative system, they can't possibly pay you enough to buy enough to realise every investment. The aggregate result is a crisis of 'overproduction', and they try to overcome the effects on profit rates by 'restructuring' the workforce (as in, "how you would you like me to restructure your bollocks?"), redistributing wealth through wage cuts, prices and taxes and breaking down the power of the working class to resist these measures. The reforms undertaken under the rubric of neoliberalism are usually associated in soft-left critique with growing inequality and poverty, which are really symptoms of the deeper effect of neoliberalism which was to transfer power from the working class to the ruling class.

Yet by busting unions and dismantling various forms of democracy and safeguards won through collective resistance, the US ruling class has ensured not the efficacy or longevity of capitalism, but their own ability to bunker down and ride out the oncoming catastrophe. The architects of the Bush tax cuts and the attempt to tear up social security are not informed by any arcane theories about capitalist growth models when they devise policy. They are interested only in the dismantling of the obligations that working class struggle has forced upon them, from safety and environmental laws to minimum wage to subsidies and benefits and union recognition. They want every last shackle removed. As capitalists, they cannot but see redistributive taxation and regulation as at best burdensome red tape and at worst repression on a par with the Nazi holocaust (hence the pharmaceutical industry's insistence that the threat of modestly socialised medicine merited the invocation of Pastor Nimoeller). Because they are, as always, the real victims.

A little bit of realism suggests that this class is not about to give up its power or its wealth or its clout even a little bit even to conserve the system that it benefits from. They hated Roosevelt for trying to make them do so, even though he unarguably saved corporate capitalism and ensured that the US would become a world empire: they resented it. And contrary to popular mythology, the US ruling class was not throwing itself out of windows in stock market trading rooms: it was exploiting the poor for every miserable penny, and employing Pinkertons to bust in the heads of those who tried to do anything about it. Had it been left to them, New York in 1936 would have looked like Berlin did in 1936. Rather than have the Works Progress Administration, they would crash the system, pay off some petit-bourgeois thugs and ride out the deluge from behind palatial fortresses, knowing full well that the depression will devastate the poor. Faced with the stark choice between even social democratic capitalism and barbarism, the ruling classes of every country have always preferred barbarism, and have always respected those willing to impose it. That Hitler, they quacked, he knows a thing or two. If we had Il Duce, he'd show the reds and the miscegenators.

And, in case you missed it, the American working class isn't in great shape as it stands. The situation today is already dire: even with a relatively small recession in 2001-2, US wages have not kept up with inflation since 2000. This was after thirty years of a brutal rollback by the US ruling class and its political allies in which the income of the poor had suffered dramatically already. There are fight backs, but the most militant and successful of these come from migrant workers who have a history of labour struggles. The Bush administration is therefore rather eager to break this layer, to intimidate it so that it will not stand up for its rights and set the wrong example to others. Similarly, they are keen to break any fruits of black workers' victories, such as affirmative action. The more women and black workers fight and win, the higher the wage floor goes. So Bush is, for American capitalists, a highly treasured wrinkled retainer. They rely on his 'tough guy' charisma to sell to American workers policies that are deeply costly to them, and utterly contrary to their interests.

As much as I hate the 'totalitarianism' thesis, I keep being drawn back to Hannah Arendt, who argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the unlimited expansion of power followed "the unlimited expansion of capital" - to put it in a more prosaic fashion, it is a sociologically banal fact that the most autocratic and violent regimes have been formed in defense of moneyed minorities and plutocrats who have wished to conserve not only their ill-gotten gains, but their ability to extract further ill-gotten gains by whatever means they deem necessary. The means of building up autocratic power in a democratic age vary, but the first gesture is always to break the working class. That was Mussolini's first move (a mass strike was what stirred the blackshirts to motion), and it was Hitler's first move, and it has been the first move of every tyrant and thug the world over: that part of the working class that they cannot coopt is trampled.

Of course, the American ruling class may not need to go all the way: if the American working class can be persuaded that the crash results from a crisis of competitiveness brought about by parasites and liberals and others of weak racial stock, then a full dictatorship may not be necessary. Perhaps they will merely have to expropriate the Muslim population and allow the workers to have their fun by breaking some windows and leaving stars n stripes flags on front lawns. But that might yield some resistance, and the regime will require that all forms of social solidarity are broken down and replaced by complete atomisation, widespread cynicism and mistrust and a contract of mutual indifference.