The Historic Moment of the 2016 Election

The 2016 presidential election presents the American working class with a historic moment.  No, I am not talking about the possibility of the first rich, neoliberal woman president.  Nor am I talking about the social democrat masquerading as a socialist.  Nor am I talking about the arrogant, racist, borderline fascist Donald Trump.

The historical moment is not in the outcome of the election itself. After all, the State is subservient to capitalist elites.  So long as economic power is concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, the State will always act to safeguard the private property and power of the capitalist ruling class.  Rather, the moment presents itself in the delegitimization of the political system, especially the growing hatred of the two corporate parties.

It’s easiest to begin on the Republican side, as this is most understood by the Left.  Donald Trump consciously promotes himself as the candidate of white supremacy.  Liberal commentators feign astonishment at his brazenly racist comments and widespread support among rank-and-file Republicans.  Anyone who has paid even passing attention to the Republican Party over the years should not be taken by surprise at the popularity of racism among Republican voters.  Racism has long been the strategy of Republicans to trick their working class voter base to support policies that benefit only the ultra-rich.

The shock in all this is in how the Republican establishment has been incapable of pushing their preferred candidates – from the utterly boring Jeb Bush to the frankly stupid Marco Rubio.  Donald Trump was able to gain mass support in the party by expertly reading the moment and directing the anger that white Republicans have at the economy, the political system, and the Republican elites into his own electoral campaign.  Whether this will transform into a veritable rebellion against Republican policies or if Trump will just be representative of a way of directing the right-wing masses into supporting the same old policies remains to be seen.  In either case, stirring up proto-fascist or explicitly fascist elements of the right wing is a dangerous game to play.

As mainstream pundits like to point out, Bernie Sanders is capitalizing on similar discontent towards the neoliberal Democratic establishment.  However, the similarities between the Sanders and Trump campaigns are only in the abstract.  From the perspective of class forces, the Sanders campaign – or more accurately the movement behind Sanders – represents a far greater threat to the status quo than Trump.

This has nothing to do with the alleged radicalness of Sanders’s platform.  After all, Sanders is a mere social democrat, comfortable with US imperialism.  His policies would alleviate gross inequality, but would not eliminate the exploitation of the working class by the owners of capital.  A Sanders presidency would not fundamentally change the economic mechanisms by which capitalists concentrate ever-greater wealth and power in their hands which they then use to undermine and repeal any concessions to the working class.  This has been the lesson of the absolute failure of every social democracy that emerged after World War II.  Any concession won by the working class can be repealed by the capitalist class so long as class divisions remain.

The ruling class fears the Sanders campaign because they know his platform cannot be achieved in the era of globalized, neoliberal, monopoly capital.  The basic dilemma is this: putting Sanders in and having his policies pass is unacceptable as it would cut into the profits of the major monopoly corporations.  Putting Sanders in and undermining him threatens to expose the Democratic Party as what it really is: a useful corporate tool to direct dissent away from effective channels.  Eliminate Sanders’s campaign too harshly and the Democratic Party will isolate the very popular base it’s supposed to represent thus threatening a break by this base with the Democratic Party.

The Democratic leadership has responded to this dilemma poorly.  First, they tried to ignore Sanders.  Then, they tried to paint him as crazy, idealistic, or unreasonable by attacking policies that the Democratic Party allegedly supports: single-payer healthcare, free university education, and even the $15 an hour minimum wage.  Predictably, this did nothing to boost Clinton’s popularity and only further made her appear as the hypocritical corporatist that she is.  Now the leadership tries to present Hillary Clinton as basically Bernie Sanders plus pragmatism (pragmatism is a favorite word of liberals.  It roughly means, “convince the working class to capitulate to the demands of capital.”  Pragmatism is to Democrats what racism is to Republicans).

This is an important point to emphasize.  The Democratic Party elites reacted poorly to the emergence of the Bernie Sanders campaign.  They vastly underestimated both the popularity of Sanders’s policies and of the mistrust and hatred of Hillary Clinton.  Elites are not omniscient or incapable of making errors.  There is a tendency on the Left to falsely think that the ruling class has it all figured out.  This is a dangerous thought to hold.  It makes us incapable of developing strategies to effectively exploit moments of weakness in the ruling class.

To better understand this moment, let’s take a brief look at history. For decades after the end of the Second World War, the United States was essentially the sole major capitalist power left.  Every other country in the Western sphere of influence was destroyed or had only marginal economic power relative to the United States. The experience of the Great Depression and the truly militant mobilization of the American working class forced concessions by the ruling class in the form of the New Deal and other welfare reforms in the subsequent years.  These reforms provided some measure of decent living and fueled the myth of the American Dream.

At the same time, labor unions and other popular organs embraced the Democratic Party enthusiastically as the lesser evil.  This was partly the result of liberal leadership that took advantage of the purging of socialists, communists, and anarchists from unions and other popular organizations.  The government and corporate media also perpetuated the myth that Keynesian style spending and social democracy have overcome the problem of class, thus removing the need to challenge fundamentally the economic system.

As the European and Japanese economies recovered, they came in competition with American corporations.  At the same time, excessive military spending on imperialist ventures started to undermine the American economy.  Stagnation set in.  The capitalist response was the neoliberal reaction (identified in the US with Reagan and in the UK with Thatcher), which privatized public services and benefited primarily finance capital above all else.  This lead to stagnant wages, elimination of guaranteed pension plans, increased consumer and household debt, and the decline of full time jobs in favor of the “gig economy” of part-time, low-wage, no-benefit labor.

Propaganda works only if there is some relation to material fact.  The capitalists were able to convince the American working class that socialism was unnecessary (and undesirable) because capitalism provided so many benefits to the working class in the form of social democracy and higher wages.  This was only ever partly true, as American society was still economically unequal not to mention the presence of gross social injustices against women and non-whites.

By destroying what little social mobility existed, increasing debt, eliminating guaranteed pension plans, and slashing wages, capitalists have undermined the material basis of their own propaganda.  The result is that traditional methods of social control are losing their grip on the minds of American workers.

Simultaneously, we are seeing the intensification of class struggle and the struggle of oppressed groups as well as the State’s turn towards brutal, violent suppression.  It is no coincidence that the militarization of the police and the growth of the State’s domestic repressive apparatus (what’s euphemistically called “national security” in corporate parlance) is accompanied by the violent repression of Occupy Wall Street encampments, Black Lives Matter protests, surveillance of environmental protestors and of Palestinian liberation organizations.  Economic stagnation, increased class struggle, and growing state repression go hand in hand.

What makes 2016 a historical moment is the convergence of these factors: (1) mass discontent at the political system and the economy, (2) the traditional forms of absorbing dissent appear to be weakening, and (3) the unlikelihood of the end of economic stagnation in the near future.

The second factor is the weakest link in the chain.  So long as no independent workers’ organization arises to teach the necessity of and organize the working class towards the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, this historical moment will pass by and be remembered as a great, missed opportunity.  This moment must be used to begin organizing the working class as a force conscious of itself.  This cannot be done within the ranks of a capitalist party.

The material and subjective conditions have never been so favorable for breaking with the Democratic Party.  Mass anger at the establishment – however vague – has characterized the 2016 election.  People desire something new.  At the same time, economic stagnation continues and the global economy is on the verge of a serious recession (if not a veritable depression).  The ruling class, especially those in the Democratic Party, has made serious errors in handling mass discontent and have essentially given up appearing progressive on the basis of policy.  As Paul Street correctly points out, Hillary Clinton is attracting anti-Trump Republicans into the Democratic Party in hopes of making the party “the objectively truer and more fully explicit ruling class party in the country.”

However, as is typical, a chorus of people (some who should know better) has appeared stressing the need to capitulate to the lesser evil to prevent the greater evil, Donald Trump. As problematic as he is, the primary problem isn’t Donald Trump himself.  It is the social and material conditions that give rise to a candidate who openly courts white supremacists and proto-fascist groups.

The support base for Donald Trump will not disappear by merely preventing a Trump victory in the general election.  The popularity of Donald Trump comes from decades of neoliberalism that ravaged the working class.  Trump supporters falsely see their candidate as an alternative to the problems caused by neoliberal capitalism.

Electing the unabashed neoliberal Hillary Clinton doesn’t prevent the rise of fascism.  On the contrary, the social base for fascism will rise under a Clinton presidency as she pursues policies like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that will further increase the precariousness of the working class.  Andrew Smolski correctly notes:

What we are deciding is to vote for the cause or the effect. Hillary and neoliberalism/neoconservativism in general are the cause of the Trump-style authoritarian populism that now haunts the US. … Actually, it seems we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t with no less damneder a situation on the horizon. Hillary’s presidency would solidify much of neoliberalism and imperialism, and continue to buttress the corrupt, rotten formal institutions of our society.

Fascism is not defeated in elections.  It is beaten back in the streets.  Only a militant working class united on a program of social transformation can prevent the dual ills of fascism and monopoly-finance capital.

At a historical moment like this, what we need is bravery, not cowardice in the face of our enemies.  We show our courage by building an independent movement for the emancipation of the working class and of all oppressed groups.  Decades of lesser evilism have emancipated exactly none of the working class or oppressed groups in any country on Earth.  It is only by organizing independently and militantly that we can avoid capitalist barbarism and be on the path towards socialist emancipation.

Michael Perino is an independent researcher and political writer. He manages a blog on current events and political economy. Read other articles by Michael.