Remarks on "U.S. Politics: Rough Sketch" (Pre-Convention Document)

by Isaac S.

This document is a response to the documentU.S. Politics: Rough Sketch.”

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1. In the “Rough Sketch,” the draft over-emphasizes elections and bourgeois politics, rather than social forces, in determining politics. Due to this emphasis there is a lot of focus on various reform policies, looking at politics in the electoral realm, etc. I think this is generally a distortion of the trends we should be looking for, which are longer term restructuring of capitalism and the impact this has in re-shaping the working class. Secondly, in a discussion of electoral parties I believe we must, at some point, evaluate efforts toward “Independent Political Action” and how that actually fits in to a socialist strategy.

2. In the section on “Social Decline and Resistance,” I feel that we need to attempt to assess the prospects for various movements rather than being mainly descriptive of what they have done. Typing this I can already hear the finger-wagging that we should not criticize the movements that do exist, which is not what I am proposing. There is a sectarian, abstentionist method of criticism and an engaged/involved method of criticism. I think that we should seek to be more involved in the movements and stake out political ground within in them, have strategic proposals, and so on.

One formulation that I disagree with is that “Occupy lives on in a variety of forms.” Occupy’s importance was that it formed a qualitative break (and advance) beyond the sectoral activism that already existed. The current foreclosure activism, etc – although it has the Occupy “brand” – is a return to pre-Occupy forms of resistance.

Another important distinction in the social movements is between the “USSF milieu” and the trajectory of recent “spontaneous” social movements (like the California student movement in 2009-10, Wisconsin in 2011, and Occupy in 2011-12). There was not a lot of overlap between these two wings of the movement! I believe we should think more deeply and critically about the foundation-funded organizations which are represented by the USSF and which do not tend to engage with unexpected political mobilizations of the “spontaneous” type (by “spontaneous” I don’t mean leaderless, but just that they unfold in a much more dynamic, unplanned way than the stage-managed mobilizations of NGOs).

This distinction also has relevance for our thinking about left unity – RWIOT was largely of the USSF wing; the small ultraleft collectives emerge/orient to the student movements or Occupy. I think that we should be connected to both wings — in the movement context as well as in our organizational goals of fusion and unity — in order to do so we need to recognize the strategic and tactical distinctions of each, and evaluate those distinctions.

3. For “Labor at the Edge” — given the severe decline of organized labor, I think it would be helpful to step back and try to look at the state of the whole working class rather than just its organized section, in order to put the challenges that unions face in that context. This is maybe too impressionistic but it seems like the US working class is more stratified and heterogeneous than has been the case in generations due to a minuscule level of union density, mass incarceration, immigration, shift to service economy, etc. The fact that most unionized workers have been facing (usually unsuccessfully) defensive fights makes those difficult to “spill over” into the majority of the unorganized working class whose immediate task is either new organization and/or winning democratic rights that would allow large-scale organizing.

This is not an argument for abandoning involvement in unions or a dual unionist approach or something like that, but sometimes I think we flatten the different strata of the working class and the labor movement. I think something like attempting a more detailed class analysis of the United States would be useful for longer-term analysis. This would include places where the working class is growing or shrinking — I read an interesting report that recommends shifting production from South China to Mississippi and South Carolina over the next decade…

An issue with the “chokepoint” strategy is that it highlights potential economic leverage of small groups of workers (like in shipping or transit) but doesn’t necessarily address a related problem to what I tried to describe above – which is the social ties between workers as a class. In other words, certain workers can flex disproportionate economic strength, but that does not necessarily translate into social and political influence in the broader working class. The “economic chokepoint” idea seems to be a syndicalist idea to me, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but something to consider.

Finally, the sector where we’ve been paying more attention to – workers in “reproductive” sectors of the economy like education and health care which prepare and maintain the workforce rather than producing commodities. As such, these are exactly the kinds of “social chokepoints” because of the potential for broad alliances uniting different strata of the working class. The attacks on education and health care both seem to be at the same time “ideological” (restructuring public services to market-based education/health, altering the content of healthcare and education) as well as more general attacks on the workers in these industries. Another similarity in each has been the contradiction of “professional” craft unions which cling to certain craft privileges of nurses or teachers and their relationship to the broader labor movement much less the broader working class (incidentally we see “Taylorism” of standardized testing, relative “deskilling” of nursing through raising the educational requirements, and other mechanisms which have been used to proletarianize crafts in the past).

4. On the section on “Imperial Decline” – I think we should be more careful about declaring the US a “declining empire” – especially when the document admits that there is no counter-power. Maybe it’s a decline from the neoconservative ambition of a unipolar world, but that was just an ambition. On some measures the United States has been weakened in Latin America by the “Bolivarian process” but it’s still able to pull of coups as in Honduras, etc. In Africa its influence is growing with Africom. The EU has been battered by economic crisis and projections of China as a global power are questionable. So, this is something that needs further discussion – both whether it’s true, as well as what that would mean.

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  • saulo colon says:

    Great comments Isaac, I very much agree.