EFCA, AIG and the Political Struggle Over the Current “Populist Anger”

Posted March 19, 2009

The conservative spin-machine is running at full throttle in its attempt to thwart the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and potentially related-pro-worker legislation.

Today’s Wall Street Journal, for instance, featured an op-ed by former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao that invokes some of the usual boogiemen: the threat of “European-style policies,” which merit no discussion and spell doomsday a priori; the horror of expanding so-called “entitlement programs” such as paid leave for workers for family-related reasons; and allusions to the Democratic Party’s “governing elite” (which it is, for sure, but railing on elitism smacks of deceit and opportunism when it comes from a central mouthpiece of the ruling class).

An editorial in the same issue of the Wall Street Journal, discussing the anti-AIG backlash, decried that “[w]e’ve now got a full-fledged mob on our hands.” The editorial chastises the Democrats’ opportunism in piling upon AIG (fair enough, especially now that Senator Dodd’s role in constructing the bonus loop hole has been revealed). It evades any discussion pertaining to the roots and causes of the rightful mass anger towards the bonuses, and instead uses the Democrats as a proxy to denounce this anger.

There is a reason why conservatives are so viciously on the attack. They are scared that legislation like EFCA, popular support for raising taxes on the wealthy, and the legitimation of public spending programs could overturn the anti-labor, pro-business worldview they—with Democratic Party assistance—have worked so hard to establish as mainstream “common sense” during the last few decades. With their worldview so momentously discredited by the economic crisis, there now exists an opening for a shift towards a more just, pro-worker political-economic arrangement.

We see glimpses of this in the furor surrounding the AIG bonuses. The anti-AIG outrage is populist fodder for further anti-big business legislation. Right now, a proposal for 90% taxation on the AIG bonuses is being proposed in the House. This could be a significant political defeat for conservatives. It could be an opening for progressive tax policies that distribute wealth downwardly.

Unfortunately, paper victories won’t amount to much if there is no mobilized base to push them further. The anti-ruling class anger that is erupting among tens of millions of Americans is now shapeless, lacking organization and political programmatic basis. The struggle to harness this anger to various political interests is in full gear.

The left is not winning this war. If it doesn’t, the moment will pass and public opinion will mostly likely be successfully re-integrated into a new pro-business capitalist consensus. It’s happened before—after the Great Depression/WWII, for instance.

Where we now stand, conservatives are going to win the public opinion struggle over EFCA. The Far Right’s strategy of appealing to peoples’ basest emotions and of lying via omission of inconvenient facts is being complimented by a comparatively lackluster effort by labor and its supposed political allies in the Democratic Party.

Right now, many Americans are skeptical of the labor movement, and they are more conditioned to believe the Fox News line on EFCA than they are to listen to the AFL-CIO (if they even have access to the latter’s view). The problem is that the class-hued populist anger now fermenting is detached from the labor movement, not feeding into it. Labor should be conducting a massive campaign—via commercials, mail-outs, door-to-door meetings, and massive mobilizations, backed by tens of millions of dollars… in other words, all the things they typically do for Democratic Part presidential runs—that tie EFCA and the union movement more generally to the anti-big business sentiment now boiling up. Labor needs to do a better job of positioning itself as the voice and vehicle for the broader, inchoate pro-“Little Guy” and anti-corporate steam that politicians are now vying to channel into their own ships.

The political willpower for a broad shift in American political culture is there, but it needs to be fought for, and much more strongly so. If this is the contingent moment that those on the left-progressive political spectrum have been waiting for, our actions are not reflecting this. The Right, on the other hand, clearly understands the stakes. Democrats are just opportunistically riding the waves created by everyone and everything else.


2 responses to “EFCA, AIG and the Political Struggle Over the Current “Populist Anger””

  1. Paul Avatar

    I fear exactly what you stated:

    “The anti-ruling class anger that is erupting among tens of millions of Americans is now shapeless, lacking organization and political programmatic basis. The struggle to harness this anger to various political interests is in full gear.

    The left is not winning this war. If it doesn’t, the moment will pass and public opinion will mostly likely be successfully re-integrated into a new pro-business capitalist consensus.”

    When we think of what we as a tiny group of socialist revolutionaries can do, it’s easy to become disheartened. But I do think there are forces bigger than Solidarity or the socialist left that we can influence.

    While perhaps I could be accused of “mechanistic” thinking in this regard, sometimes I like to think in terms of gears in thinking how small groups or ideas can influence larger ones.

    In mentioning what the labor movement should be doing, it’s all very true. But organized labor right now is a very big “gear” that revolutionary socialists would have a great deal of difficulty in turning. We’re much too small a gear. We shouldn’t give up trying and perhaps union reform caucuses could end up being the right-sized gear that could start to turn the creaky gears of organized labor, but that’s a longer term battle I tend to think.

    Where might non-sectarian revolutionary socialists have an even greater chance right now of influencing events to the left?

    Perhaps one place to start might be among broader organized forces that have already been radicalized and who have an understanding of what role the Democratic Party plays as a handmaiden of corporate rule.

    I’m talking about forces that withstood the enormous pressure to vote for Obama: the Green Party with its McKinney-Clemente campaign and the forces who supported the Nader-Gonzalez campaign.

    Within these movements, even small numbers of socialists could act as a gear to turn these larger gears into motion. And a more unified political movement to the left of the Democrats could be a large enough gear to begin turning the labor movement and/or organizations and individuals who are beginning to radicalize in the wake of the economic disaster.

    I remember hearing a lot of good talk right after Nov. 4 about trying to unite these two organized segments of independent political action into something more coherent as a left force or possible future political party to the left of the Democrats.

    I haven’t heard much about that since November. I wonder what’s happened to such talk?

    While we still would be talking about the fusion of two relatively small efforts, it does seem like a non-sectarian initiative like this for unity could galvanize a lot of people and serve as at least some pole of attraction for those ever-increasing numbers of disillusioned former Obama supporters.

    Given problems with democracy (or lack thereof) within the GPUS, I understand this will be a challenge. Plus I’m sure there would be some GPUS activists who might have their own sectarian impulses toward the idea of “liquidating” the Greens into something bigger.

    But there were new forces mobilized around the McKinney-Clemente campaign who did end up joining the Greens. I’m curious if comrades have had any luck in exploring initiatives such as this with new forces who might have joined the Greens in the run-up to the election or since then?

    Parallel efforts could be pursued within committees that supported the Nader-Gonzalez candidacy. This would be a challenge as well. One valid critique of the Nader campaign in 2008 was that it was not really centered around movement or party building. However, it did seem like there were many involved in the campaign who were conscious of this weakness and wanted to pursue a non-sectarian unity party-builing with the Greens after the election.

    Can comrades involved with Green Party work or other areas of independent political action provide any kind of update on developments to build this kind of more unified party to the left of the Democrats?

    I’m currently living outside the U.S., so I admit my information is a bit sketchy. But I do follow U.S. events as best I can over the Internet, and unfortunately, it seems to me that some of this momentum from before Nov. 4 might have dissipated some. If so, that would be a terrible shame. I certainly hope I’m wrong on that and that my lack of info is just a result of being away from the scene.

    It does seem like influencing left-wing forces toward greater unity in action or toward the construction of a larger party could be a project that Solidarity and other non-sectarian socialists could be propeling forward.

    I would really like to see some discussion on this and I hope that comrades who have more info can contribute their thoughts and ideas.

  2. JohnM Avatar

    Very well said. There is a glaring contradiction these days between populist consciousness and class anger on the one hand, and the dismal condition of our social and organizational power to put said anger in motion. It’s obvious who still holds the reins.

    In the absence of a social force (the organized power of the working-class, e.g.) to promote and fight for alternatives, the shambles of the economy are laid at the feet of individual malfeasance, “mismanagement”, “excessive risk-taking” and other myths. When even the NY Post, a most vicious voice for oppression and capitalist class rule, can spend two weeks front-paging Madoff, and then AIG, we know this is barking up the wrong tree.

    The AIG bonus pay is a mere 0.1% or 1/1,000th of the $185 billion is has received from the public purse. The majority of this $185 billion is not going to job creation, “trickling-down” to workers and the poor, but to pay off “counterparty claims”, or debts AIG owes to other banks and financiers (Merrill-Lynch, Goldman Sachs, etc.)!! These latter, put simply, won the bet in buying up collateral debt obligations, hedging that the housing market would tumble. They bet on foreclosures, falling prices and rising homeowner debt and tightening credit. This is pretty sickening – imagine Paulson, Geithner or whoever trying to explain to a worker who is being kicked out of a home that billions of dollars need to paid to finance paper-pushing hucksters who counted on the likelihood she’d lose her home!?

    Estimates for the full cost of the bailout are hard to come by or predict these days. It’s in the trillions. And the vast majority of these funds is being circulated between debts held and owed by financial institutions.

    For lack of a counter-force to impose other policies, the fiction that the public money is going to save “the economy” still holds. But it’s not true. The bailout is geared to preserve a perverted and decaying financial structure, an attempt to prop up the power of private banking.

    You bring up the labor “movement”. $400 million of union funds were spent to win Democratic Party majorities and install the Obama-Gates-Geithner regime. I’d like to be a fly-on-the-wall at an evaluation meeting amongst the labor bigs to see how they spin justification for this enormous expenditure. It’s helpful to think what else they could have spent this money on. How many immigrant working organizing centers could have been organized in our communities, for example? How many unemployed or striking workers could have been supported with these funds? But these are movement ideas. And labor, at its top and in its dominant strands, doesn’t think or act like much of a movement, but more as a lobbying interest, not very different in character than the Sierra Club.

    EFCA may pass. If it does, I’ll be surprised if it’s not in some utterly ineffectual, watered down version.

    And actually, I don’t think it’ll pass – and certainly not in a form that strengthens our side – as a result a narrowly focused campaign to ‘just pass EFCA’. But the narrow “winnable” campaign is just what is being organized. Studies abound showing that laws are never, in themselves, a guarantee of real empowerment. Broader movements, organized around those far-fetched ideas like justice and solidarity, are needed to secure in real social transformations what are merely registered as rights on paper.

    So I’d propose that the most strategic thing labor can do to pass EFCA is to aim beyond it and fight against the bailouts to oppose the greatest transfer of wealth from workers and the public to the ruling class in world history. Cancel the Debts! Nationalize the Banks!

    Isn’t there some nice quote out there about how sometimes the only realistic thing to do is to demand the impossible? Or on “being as radical as reality itself.”