Strategies of Containment

Many of us on the left have been kettled at demonstrations: surrounded by a wall of police, herded into a small area, and prevented from reaching our goal. The term is a translation of kesseln, the German military tactic of enclosing an enemy force within a tight cordon of troops and gradually wearing it down rather than attacking it directly.

But we are also kettled by the thought police, and that’s even more insidious. This strategy of containment is used politically to confine potentially revolutionary energy into an area where it can’t reach its goal. Instead of by cops, we are corralled by institutions that purport to be progressive or even socialist. This pseudo-left diverts our energies away from organizing a militant working class and towards supporting the Democratic Party. Democrat congressman Dennis Kucinich referred to this when he described his calls for a more peaceful US foreign policy as a way to keep peace activists within “the big tent” — the Democratic Party. The Democrats like to have a few seeming progressives like Kucinich in their ranks to create the illusion that they are the party of change.

They also have media and political groups on their periphery that are often critical of their policies but consistently promote the premise that this party is our only chance and with enough effort it can be made progressive. They spend their energy trying to convince the Democrats to move left. Their base is not in the working class but among slightly-left-of-liberal professionals who prefer progressive policies because they will benefit from them. They want to reduce the accumulation of wealth by the superrich and direct more of it in their direction and some of it down to the masses to ease discontent. As befits their class, they are well educated and have access to financial and political power. They communicate professionally and persuasively. Like the wall of cops, their message is clear: You must stay here. The only way to change the system is from within it. There is no alternative.

To prevent militant rank-and-file activism, labor bureaucrats also kettle workers into pro-capitalist unions tied to the Democratic Party. The union hierarchy exists to block independent action by the workers. The leaders speak with populist rhetoric, but to keep their privileged position they collude with employers to force lower wages and poorer working conditions onto their members.

The goal of these pseudo-left media, political groups, and unions is to hold us within capitalist institutions, thus rendering our efforts futile. The police kettle us physically and the pseudo-left tries to kettle us mentally, to keep us in the system.

“Working within the system” is a strategy promoted by the system itself in order to divert demands for fundamental change into superficial reforms. But this gradual approach has been proved to be a sham. Hard won improvements in wages, health care, and retirement benefits are being reversed under both Democrat and Republican presidents.

Instead of advancing Roosevelt’s modest reforms, the Democrats have undermined them. They have consistently served the needs of capital for imperialist wars and exploitation of workers. When they allowed wage increases in the 1950s and ’60s, it was largely to stimulate domestic consumption. When they supported equal employment opportunities for women and minorities in the ’70s and ’80s, it was largely to expand the labor pool so corporations could reverse the earlier wage increases.

It’s not just greed that causes corporations to be vicious. The system requires this. Slashing labor costs is the only way they can maintain dominance in the face of low-wage competition from emerging industrial powers such as China and India. The corps are shifting their economic pressures onto us, the workers. They’ve lowered wages to the point where young workers are earning less than their parents did. The only “progress” is that now we all have an equal opportunity for the lousy jobs that are available.

The Democrats led this attack on workers when they were in office and colluded with it when they were in the opposition. Labor union leadership cooperated in this betrayal of their members. Throughout it all the pseudo-left clucked in disapproval but continued to support the Democrats. This pattern continues today.

But more and more people are now breaking free of these strategies of containment. A look at the historical record and the experience of our day-to-day reality show we’ve been kettled with lies. It has become obvious that capitalism can’t produce long-term prosperity for its workers. Its profits must continually increase, and it has three ways of generating those: exploiting our labor by paying us less than the value we have added to the product; innovating new ways to lower costs; expanding their markets. Now that these last two methods are approaching their limits, the exploitation must increase to produce the required profits.

Liberal prosperity was a feature of the Keynesian phase of capitalism, a 30-year bubble of better wages that occurred only in North America and Europe when it was necessary to stimulate consumer demand. But those conditions are gone and can’t return. The world market has become more important than the home country, and selling there requires low prices, which in turn requires cheap labor.

We’re now in the consolidation phase of capitalism, when global competition eliminates the less effective predators and wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer giant corps and the rest of us become their vassals. We have to overthrow this barbaric system and build a humane one or face an increasingly degraded life.

To direct this struggle successfully, we need a political program based on the lessons of history and a strategy for implementing it. We need a militant base within the working class that can defend workers independently of the unions. We must break decisively from the Democratic Party, that graveyard of social movements. We need media that inform the working class rather than delude it. And we must do all this internationally, coordinating our efforts with workers in other countries to build democratic socialism, where the people decide how the economic life of society will be organized. When the resources and productive capacity of the world belong to its people, they can use them to meet human needs rather than to generate private profits for a few owners.

This is the challenge of our time, an historic battle for liberation. It’s an enormous job, but no more difficult than other evolutionary changes humanity has mastered. The best program I’ve found for building this economic democracy is the Socialist Equality Party’s.

William T. Hathaway is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His latest book, Wellsprings, concerns the environmental crisis. He is a member of the Freedom Socialist Party, a red feminist organization. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org. Read other articles by William.