The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case (Part Three)

In the third part of his essay on social democracy in the United States Robert Brenner considers the notion of movement building via electoral campaigns through the prism of Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential bid. Brenner is the author of The Boom and the BubbleMerchants and Revolution, and The Economics of Global Turbulence amongst many other crucial contributions to economic thought. 

The essay first appeared in the 1985 edition of 
The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook. You can read parts one and two of the essay here and here.

VI The Electoral Struggle as Movement Building? The Jesse Jackson Campaign

In the wake of the precipitous decline of the movements throughout the late 70s and early 80s, the official reformist leaderships — the trade union bureaucracy, the established Black leadership, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party — have focused ever more narrowly on the electoral road. In this situation, those who would revive social democracy have had little choice but to make a virtue of necessity. They have themselves focused more and more on electoral campaigns and have justified this tactic either by claiming to use these campaigns to organize mass struggles, or simply by construing the campaigns themselves as mass movements. In the absence of already existing mass movements, such perspectives are delusionary. It is, of course, on occasion quite possible to translate the power accumulated through mass struggle into electoral victories and reform legislation; but the reverse is rarely if ever conceivable. Those who contemplate such a strategy can do so only because they mistake the meaning of the electoral struggle to both the Democratic Party leadership and its rank and file, and because they fail to take into account what is required to wage electoral campaigns successfully.

Winning Elections and Organizing Mass Movements

In part, as I've emphasized already, using the electoral struggle for mass organizing is problematic because the official reformist forces who provide much of the impetus behind Democratic Party campaigns conceive the electoral road explicitly as a substitute for mass organizing. To use Democratic Party electoral campaigns for movement building would have to be done, so to speak, over their dead bodies. Nor are the bureaucratic leaderships the only force inside the Democratic Party that opposes the use of electoral struggle for mass organizing or left politicking. In the continuing absence of major mass struggle the Democratic Party rank and file and prospective recruits are no more likely than is the leadership to support such efforts. The most obvious, yet most important, fact about the reform-minded people who choose to work inside the Democratic Party or who are attracted to the campaigns of ‘progressive' Democratic Party candidates is that they believe the electoral process provides an effective vehicle for winning reforms. If they felt, as do a number of those leftists behind the new social democratic movement, that the electoral road, in itself, cannot generate the power required to win reforms, they would not expend the tremendous amount of energy required to do electoral work. On the other hand, because they are serious about the electoral road, they want to win, and because they want to win, they will have no truck with leftist plans to use electoral campaigns for mass organizing or left propaganda. This is especially because they believe, quite correctly, that such plans would be counter-productive for their own aim of winning the election.

There is a strict logic to winning elections which is quite different from the logic of winning strikes or organizing successful mass militant actions of any sort. In strikes and analogous forms of protest which have the object of winning concrete gains from the owners or the government, it is not only the numbers of people involved which is critical, but what they do. Especially as the economic crisis deepens, in order to win, people have to construct a new and enormous power, for they have to extract the desired concessions, since these will be granted by the employers or the state only under great pressure. If they are to win, then, they have to develop the most powerful solidarity; they must take risks; they have to make sacrifices; they must be prepared to take illegal actions and use force; and, in the end, they need to develop the ideas that explain and justify these actions to themselves and others. All this is necessary to win, because what is involved is a direct test of power with the employers and/or the state. Without such direct tests of strength little can be won, especially in periods of economic contraction the present. For this reason, leftists have much to offer in strikes and analogous struggles — above all an understanding of what is required, both organizationally and theoretically, to build a successful mass movement, and a willingness to act upon this knowledge.

Winning an election is entirely different: it demands two basic things: 1) appealing somehow to 50% plus one of the voters; 2) getting potential supporters to the polls. Nothing else matters. Money and bodies, and little else, are required. It follows that the way to win is to adapt one's program to the existing consciousness of the electorate. The right has to move left; the left has to move right. The battle is for the votes in the middle.[1] This is not to deny that mass struggles and the transformations of political consciousness with which they are associated would in theory be of help to a liberal or left candidate. It is simply to point out that, in the short period of an electoral campaign, it is almost never in practice feasible even to try to call such a movement into existence. It can rarely be done, and it would be absurd to predicate a campaign on succeeding in doing it. To win an election, one must essentially accept consciousness as it is and try to adapt.

Naturally, there are limits beyond which candidates cannot go without turning off their core supporters; but these supporters are often quite flexible. In the first place, where else can they go? They are not going to support the opposition (to the right), for this would be self-defeating. At the same time, and equally important in this context, the supporters of the reform candidate almost always freely accept the necessity of moderating the candidate's image and program, for they, too, understand that this is required to win. Winning, moreover, is everything, for unless the candidate takes office, absolutely nothing can be gained. There is, for the overwhelming majority of leaders and followers in the campaign of progressive Democrats, no other payoff.

Because of this logic, the reform-minded rank and file Democrats can have little or no sympathy for radicals who want to use the campaign ‘not only' to win, but to build organization and change consciousness. First, they understand that if the candidate were associated with radical ideas (as he/she would be if his/her followers were spouting left ideas in the campaign), it would be much more difficult to get the moderate vote. They understand, too, that the same is true, only more so, for any sort of mass organizing of militant direct action, for this is guaranteed to frighten moderate potential voters. It was on the basis of this sort of reasoning that some of the new social democrat forces ‘understood’ Mondale's move to the right in the recent presidential campaign. Given the rightward political shift within the electorate, they ask, what else could he have done? Of course it is precisely because the electoralist perspective must accept the state of mass movements and mass political consciousness as given that it is, in the end, like other reformist strategies, futile and self-defeating.

From Black Movement to Black Middle Class[2]

The supporters of Jesse Jackson's recent campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination contended, not surprisingly, that his campaign was something different. Some argued that it was the de facto extension and logical culmination of the Black movement of the 60s. Others asserted that whatever Jackson himself intended, his electoral campaign had the objective effect of building a ‘Rainbow Coalition,’ which wanted not merely the revival of the civil rights movement but the unification of the popular movements of the working class, women, gays, and Latinos, as well as Blacks. Still others, like Manning Marable, espoused both these positions and went on to assert that the Jackson movement actually represented an already crystallized ‘Black social democracy' and the vanguard of the left.

Nevertheless on the eve of Jackson's campaign and after it, the Black movement was and is at its lowest ebb by far in several decades, with very few struggles of any scope occurring in the Black community — neither strikes, nor rent struggles, nor fights for services, nor other campaigns of that sort. It is the demise of the Black movement which, more than any other factor, has determined the character of Black politics in the recent period. During the 60s, the growing Black movement relied on militant mass direct action, not the ballot box, to extract significant reforms 'from the outside.’ In the process, radical Black organizations like SNCC, CORE, and the Black Panther Party succeeded in loosening, partially and temporarily, the political stranglehold over the Black community long exercised by organizations more or less explicitly representing the Black middle class – the NAACP, the Urban League, and the like. These traditional organizations argued, even in the 60s, for toning down direct action and putting primary emphasis on legislative/ electoral and lobbying tactics. But at least through the 60s, they saw their political influence waning within the Black community.

However, with the political repression of the late 60s and the economic crisis which followed, militant Black organizations and their options radically reduced and entered into a period of profound decline. Even at its height, the Black movement had not, for obvious reasons, been able to amass a power or consolidate a position at all comparable to that of the workers movement of the 30s; nor could it, correspondingly, maintain as much of its influence as it began to run out of steam. This was especially the case, since the decay of the Black movement occurred at a time of deepening economic contraction and accelerating employer offensive, while the decay of the labor movement took place during — and was obscured by — the spectacular post-war boom. The fact that economic crisis and decline affected disproportionately precisely those heavy industries (auto, steel, etc.) where Black workers had made their greatest inroads into the workforce — and where Blacks had played prominent roles in the short-lived militancy of the early 70s — naturally made things even worse, increasing Black workers' economic insecurity and reducing the already rather limited potential for linking Black aspirations to the struggles of the organized labor movement. As it was, the skyrocketing Black unemployment— running at rates double the national average and at 50% among Black youth — was a further critical demoralizing factor, making it that much more difficult for the Black community to launch a fight back.

As the Black movement disintegrated, the Black middle class was able, bit by bit, to reconsolidate its domination over Black politics. Black professionals, small businessmen, government servants, and politicos turned out to have been the Black movement's main material beneficiaries, as well as its major political inheritors — even though they had not been its primary instigators. They staffed the new poverty programs. They gained most from the expansion of supervisory positions in state and local government. They and their children assumed the lion's share of the places opened up by affirmative action programs in the universities and the professions. They, too, were hurt by the diminished strength of the militant Black movement, as well as by the deepening economic crisis of the 70s. But the Black middle class was also able to adjust and make the most of the new situation, while the income gap between them and the Black working class and poor grew sharply throughout the 70s. Above all, the Black middle class was able to reimpose its old political line.

The Black middle class's increasing domination of Black politics was manifested in the fact that, as the Black community turned away from militant mass action tactics, they adopted whole hog the Black middle class's preferred strategy: getting Black progressives elected to office. The turn to electoralism was dramatically symbolized by the retreat of the Black Panthers, riddled by police repression and politically isolated, from their former militant tactics to a purely electoral focus. When in 1972-1973, Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown, symbols of Black Power, ran for mayor and city council in Oakland, they were setting the trend for what remained of the entire Black movement. Nor was the political perspective of the Black middle class exhausted by electoralism pure and simple; it also involved establishing ties between the established Black organizations and large corporations in order to obtain corporate assistance for the economic development of the Black community. It was expected that local Black businessmen and professionals could play a profitable, if subordinate, role in this development. Black organizations sometimes took their own lead in establishing such alliances —  as with the NAACP's agreement with Exxon or with the agreements made by Jesse Jackson's PUSH with Coca-Cola and other companies. But naturally, these alliances could best be consolidated when Blacks held leading urban offices; electoralism and the alliance with big capital generally went hand in hand.

The Black electoral effort has totally dominated Black politics in the 70s and early 80s.[3] Black mayors now govern four of the six largest cities in the nation — Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit — and a total of twenty cities with populations over 100,000. In 1973, there were only 48 Black mayors across the country; today there are 229. The new Black mayors nearly universally pursued the same strategy: a growing alliance with the corporations. Black mayors see to it that the governments grant tax cuts, raise (regressive) sales taxes, grant subsidies to corporations (including tax breaks, cheap loans, etc.) in order to create the conditions for corporations to invest. Black mayors like Maynard Jackson, Coleman Young, Kenneth Gibson have, for at least a decade, been making corporate investment the keystone of their urban development strategies. Recently-elected Andrew Young also did not waste much time in emphasizing the need to seek private capital for his city's economy, and quickly pushed through a 1% sales tax increase as a token of his intentions. More left-talking politicos, like Richard Hatcher of Gary, have pursued essentially the same policies with a different rhetoric throughout the 70s. The hope, of course, is that if businesses are encouraged, they will invest, the benefits will ‘trickle down' to the Black community. Unfortunately, there is no lack of statistical data demonstrating that no Black mayor has succeeded in slowing down even slightly the downward curve of economic development for Black workers and the poor throughout the 70s and early 80s. Still, the Black middle class does benefit from this approach. The professionals get supervisory and managerial jobs, and small businessmen get subcontracts from the giant corporations.

The more candid and sober of the Black Democratic politicians do not make great claims for their strategy. They point out that they are highly constrained in what they can accomplish by the cut-off of federal funds and the erosion of the urban tax base due to capital flight and the economic crisis. Surely they have a point. For without the sort of mass struggles which can compel concessions from the government and corporations at both the national and local levels, the cities will be hostage to the corporations and their requirements for profits. Meanwhile, the Black mayors can adopt the words, though not the actions, of the 60s Black movements. Above all, they depict their entirely legalist voter registration drives and the push to elect Black Democrats like themselves as the extension of the old civil rights movements — neglecting to mention the mass mobilizations, illegality, and confrontational tactics which gave those movements their power (as well as the fact that those were struggles for rights, not electoral contests). As Joseph Madison, director for voter registration for the NAACP put it at the time of the 198 meeting of the ‘Black Leadership Family,’ attended by over 1000 professionals, politicians, and government officials: ‘The militancy of the old days is passé. We've got to develop technical militants out of those middle-class affluent Blacks who have received training, acquired good education, worked themselves into the mainstream of economic life.[4]

Jesse Jackson's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination represented the culmination of the electoralist strategy which the Black middle class has been implementing for more than a decade. Many of Jackson's leading supporters are advisors, such as Richard Hatcher of Gary and Harold Washington of Chicago, are reform-minded, left-talking Black mayors. Indeed, Washington's dramatic campaign for mayor Chicago in 1983 was the immediate predecessor, and in many ways the model, for Jackson's own effort.

Washington's Campaign

As they would with Jackson's effort, many leftists insisted on calling Washington's campaign a mass social movement. The rallies were huge, the enthusiasm boundless, the rhetoric inspiring. But the fact remains that Washington's election campaign was simply that. It did not come out of, nor was it accompanied by, significant oppositional struggles of any sort in the Black community. There were no demonstrations (or demands) by Chicago Housing Authority tenants for improvement in their conditions; there were no strikes by workers demanding wages, better conditions or benefits, or that plants not be shut down. Material conditions in the Chicago Black community have deteriorated rapidly in recent years, but the level of Black militancy and political organization has declined with equal speed. In no sense did Washington ride to power on the crest of already existing movement of Blacks organizing themselves against employers or the government. Nor did the Washington campaign — which, like other electoral campaigns, remained solely concerned with electing the candidate — seek to bring such a movement into existence. On the contrary, as one observer put it: 'Everything stayed well within the bounds of traditional politics — though a remarkably boisterous and rowdy brand of traditional politics. Everyone's hopes were in Harold Washington — no one had any hopes or expectations in themselves.’[5]

What has happened since the election? Despite dealing a powerful blow to the old machine and bringing many Blacks and Latinos into important official positions, the Washington administration has functioned much like other liberal regimes in the crisis. Immediately upon assuming office, Washington explicitly called for 'austerity' and pushed through a reduction in the city's workforce. He did support a bill for collective bargaining for city workers, but only after seeking to pass legislation which would have taken away the unions' right to strike. Shortly thereafter, Washington forced the Amalgamated Transit Union to accept a plan to defer the payment of 26 million dollars into their pension fund, threatening that if they refused, 1500 layoffs would follow. Perhaps most important, Washington failed to give any support to the majority-Black teachers union in its bitter, unsuccessful, three week strike in October 1984. In fact, Washington's labor attorney, Richard Laner, helped the school board engineer the final settlement and defeat the union. Washington failed even to protest when U.S. Steel closed its Southside Southworks plant (which only a few years ago employed some 5000-7000 workers), despite massive concessions from the United Steel Workers Union. Meanwhile, like Black mayors all over the country, Washington went about creating an economic development task force whose membership reads like a who's who of Chicago business — with top representatives from all the leading banks, manufacturing firms, and construction companies. Washington has admittedly been badly hurt by the obstructive tactics of what remains of the old white machine. On the other hand, he has not lifted a finger to aid himself, the Black community, or working people in general by helping them to organize themselves to fight to improve their conditions. A traditional liberal politician, Washington led no mass social movement in his campaign; has, in office, been bound by social movement; and has done nothing to bring one into existence.

Jackson's Campaign

That Jesse Jackson was, intentionally and explicitly, carrying out the electoral strategy of the Black middle class and Black politicians to enhance their influence within the Democratic Party in particular and American society in general was made clear again and again throughout the campaign by his supporters and opponents alike. Jackson's overriding goal was to get millions of unregistered Blacks signed up for the Democratic Party. With this newly-created electoral base, Jackson hoped use the primaries to amass the power to leverage the Democratic Party: Jackson and the Black politicians would deliver a much increased Black vote to the Democrats, if the latter would, in return, grant the Black politicos a greater role within the party and, more generally, make certain programmatic concessions. This is precisely the same strategy organized labor has followed for the past forty years, with progressively diminishing returns.

As should have been obvious to those who hoped the Jackson campaign would constitute an on-going mass movement for social reform, Jackson's strategy did not require building mass struggles or even constructing much of an electoral organization. The be-all and end-all was to get Blacks registered and voting in the primaries for Jackson. No one should have been surprised therefore, to find that Jackson's organization, to the extent  it existed, was entirely top down. It was headed by elite figures long influential in business and Black politics, who saw their goal as accomplishing certain clear-cut electoral tasks. There was no need to get feedback and input, let along to encourage mass self-activity required for actual social struggles. Jackson did, of course, hold massive demonstrations and marches, and made hundreds of speeches in local community churches. He is a magnetic personality, and generated an enormous amount of enthusiasm. But despite the rhetorical verve, he did practically nothing to strengthen the existing grassroots organizations in the community, but, on the contrary, subordinated the already constituted organizations and their resources to the electoral effort.

Nor could those former leftists who flooded into the local Rainbow Coalitions, as they had into the Washington campaign, significantly reverse the direction. It is doubtful, in most cases, they even tried. It was not that the official politicos exerted a stranglehold on the campaign organization and tactics — although this was a problem in some places, like Los Angeles.[6] It was, rather, that most of those from the Black community who came to build the campaign naturally did so with a single purpose in mind — to get out the vote and win the primaries. It is hardly surprising that, only a few months following the elections, most local Rainbow Coalitions have been reduced to hollow shells, manned by leftists and liberals. No more the launching boards for new social struggles than they were before the campaign, most are looking to survive by finding new electoral efforts in which to immerse themselves.

Jackson's Impact

Precisely because he did not build a movement with the capacity to exercise power outside the Democratic Party and outside the polling booth, Jackson failed badly even in his own terms. When the Democratic Party, in an arrogant display of realpolitik, refused to grant a single one of Jackson's key programmatic planks, he was nonetheless forced, ignominiously, to call for unity at the national convention and to back Mondale. Some leftists saw this as a sell-out, but Jackson had, in fact, no choice, since he had no basis for breaking from the Party and going off on his own. First of all, Jackson himself never had any intention of splitting and had not prepared his followers to do so. But, equally important, Jackson's campaign had emerged in the wake of the decline of mass struggles in the Black community and had itself done nothing to bring about the emergence of a movement in any way independent of Jackson's electoral effort, or indeed, of Jackson the personality. This was why Jackson's more radical and impatient supporters were obliged to sit quietly by as Jackson capitulated at the convention. In possession of no mass base themselves, they had no means  to pressure the candidate. In the absence of already existing mass movements, a critical source of Jackson's attractiveness, not only to his backers among the politicians and the bourgeoisie, but to the Black community as whole, was his apparent ability to offer realistic strategy for reform. Consciously or unconsciously, the majority of Jackson's supporters saw in his plan to use primaries to leverage the Democratic Party a credible substitute for the self-organization which seemed, at that moment, off agenda.

Had Jackson sought at any point to build an electoral movement which claimed independence from the Democrat Party — and which had as its object a long term process of rebuilding the left — he would surely have lost the support of the Black middle class and, arguably, also the Black masses. As most Americans are aware, splinter parties have no hope winning practical gains, given the winner-take-all electoral system, unless they are extremely large — larger, that is, than any which have appeared on the political horizon for more than half a century. The premise for a practical third party campaign would have to be the radical and massive transformation of the national political consciousness. This would depend, in turn, on enormous historical changes, not the least of which would be the rise of mass struggles of a magnitude not seen since the labor upsurge of the 30s. In the absence of such a transformation, any third party efforts will, of necessity, be confined to propaganda objectives — which is not to say they would be without value.

Because the whole premise of the Jackson campaign was its claim to being practical, Jackson and his allies could not refuse to mobilize against Reagan after the convention, despite the Democrats' continuing failure to grant them the slightest concession. For, as the Democratic Party regulars realized, the Black leadership and the Black masses wanted to defeat Reagan more than did any other group in American society. To refuse this effort in order to punish the Democratic Party would have been to cut off their nose to spite their face. This, of course, has been the  characteristic quandary of the official labor leadership which has for decades supinely backed Democratic Party candidates  no matter how anti-labor. It follows strictly from the logic of the electoralist strategy.

A Black Social Democracy within the Democratic Party?

Despite the long term decay of the Black movements, Manning Marable, a prominent writer and national officer of DSA, has, in several recent essays, argued that the Black officials and the thrust they represent actually constitute an ‘American version of social democracy' within the Democratic Party and society at large. What Marable means by this assertion is that Black politicians, virtually across the board, advocate social programs and give voice to ideas which are today far to the left of those in the white political mainstream.[7] This is undoubtedly true, as far as it goes. There is no question that the political sentiments of the Black community as a whole are far to the left of those common in the rest of American society. Indeed, one reason Jesse Jackson could adopt his radical-sounding program was that his electoral strategy required focusing, almost exclusively, on the Black community and did not necessitate a broad appeal to the far more conservative white electorate.

But to imply, as Marable does, that the Black electoral movement led by the Black middle class constitutes a powerful force for reform is highly misleading. Even had the Democratic Party adopted significant sections of Jackson's radical program at the convention, it would not have made a stitch of difference: the party has adopted countless, quite radical, platforms in the past, but unless mass movements acted effectively to 'keep the Party honest,' these platforms have remained only on paper. Indeed, throughout the 70s, Democratic Party majorities with on-paper commitments to reform retained control of Congress to no discernable effect. To bring this point home, one has only to refer to the obvious fact that what Manning Marable sees as Black social democracy — the Black politicos with their left programs and mass electoral ‘movements' — has been in power in numerous places for at least a decade, but has done little either to challenge the powers that be or help the Black masses. Witness all the cities with Black mayors, including left-talking ones like Richard Hatcher and Harold Washington. Of course, social democratic parties also have been in power in quite a few nations around the world during the late 70s and early 80s, but have delivered only cuts in services and rising unemployment to their working classes. By conflating electoralism and program mongering with movement building, Marable perpetuates the myth that winning office is winning power, and that there is a shortcut the long, hard, and daunting task of rebuilding the movements.

VIII From Fair Share to Austerity: The Failure of Corporatism and the Opening to the Right

Throughout the 70s and early 80s, the official forces of reformism have become progressively more reluctant to combat capital. They are aware that the slowdown of the economy is, in the last analysis, a crisis of profitability and that this has consequences for their own strategic perspectives. Between 1965 and 1973, the rate of return on investment dropped from 16% to 9%, and it has declined even further since.[8] The crisis of profitability is, in the first instance, an expression of the long term crisis of the international economy — a crisis which has engulfed all of the capitalist nations. But it is also the case that international crisis has been accompanied by a long term relative decline in the growth of the productive forces and the accumulation of capital in the American sector, and this has had vast implications for working-class politics. It is sufficient to note that over the long period between 1950 and 1976, the rate of growth in productivity in U.S. industry averaged 2.8% while the comparative figures were 5.4% for Germany, 5.0% for France and 8.3% for Japan. Similarly, over this same period, the U.S. devoted on average 17.8% of GDP to investment in new plant equipment, while the comparative figures were 24.3% Germany, 23.2% for France, and 33% for Japan.[9] Over the recent period, the numbers have, if anything, become even more unfavorable for the U.S.

As the official forces of reformism are aware, these figures represent a huge decline in the competitiveness of the U.S. sector and, specifically, its declining attractiveness as a place for investment. The declining relative efficiency of the U.S. productive system has meant that relative costs of production, especially in manufacturing, have continued to increase. The result, as most are now aware, is accelerating disinvestment, a mass flight of capital especially in the form of loans, and a preference for finance over manufacturing. This trend has reached a climax over the past several years, with large sections of what was the industrial core of the U.S. economy entering into serious crisis — steel, auto, textiles, consumer electronics, machine tools etc.

These trends, in the context of the international crisis, have forced the official reformist forces drastically to reappraise the Keynesian approach to political economy which was their received religion throughout the post-war boom. By the end of the Carter administration, deficit spending was perceived not only as inflationary but as less capable of increasing employment. Equally salient, government programs which appeared to redistribute income away from capital came to appear increasingly counter-productive. Even the ‘left' leaderships of trade unions, Black organizations, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party have come to believe that forcing capital to give higher wages, better conditions, or more government services is less likely to make things worse, harming competitiveness and generating reluctance to invest. Wedded to an ideology of ‘fair share' within capitalism, the forces of reformism, both right and left, have accepting austerity as the economy declines, just as they demanded a bigger piece of the pie in the period of growth.

The long term political consequences of this change in perspective are ominous. Unwilling to launch an attack on capital, the official forces of reform have moved rapidly toward devising strategies to help ‘their own’ capitalists protect their profits in order to safeguard their own and their memberships' position. They have sought to enter into tripartite partnerships with business and government to launch vast cooperative efforts to protect and revamp the American economy from to top to bottom. Pursuant to this strategy, the labor leadership has, with increasing unanimity, embraced protectionism for U.S. manufacturing. Beyond this, in tandem with certain minority representatives of capital — notably the investment banker Felix Rohatyn — they have been the arch-apostles of what has come be known as ‘industrial policy,’ a hodgepodge of programs to encourage planning of and investment in new industry. At the level of the corporation, they have placed top labor leaders on boards of directors of corporations, while beginning more and more to accept corporate proposals for profit sharing. Finally, on the shop floor, they have become backers of so-called Quality of Worklife (QWL) programs, aimed at increasing worker participation to improve productivity.

Meanwhile, the decreasing numbers of liberal politicians who have continued, as the crisis deepens, to demand improved social programs from the government have failed, systematically, to show how the capitalists can be made to bear the naturally high costs. In so doing, they have opened the way to discrediting in advance any new offensive for reforms. Over the past twenty years, no section of the reform establishment has lifted a finger to oppose the dramatic long term decline in the level of corporate taxation.[10] On the other hand, since the early 70s, the working class has had to accept a massive decline in their disposable income: workers now get approximately 20% less spending money per hour (wages minus taxes) than they did 1972-1973, and approximately the same amount they received 1961.[11] The great majority of workers have come to assume that they themselves will have to pay for any increases in social services won in Congress. As a consequence, many working people have given up attempting to defend themselves through the struggle for reforms and sought to ameliorate their condition by trying to reduce taxes. Propositions 13 in California and 21/2 in Massachusetts were typical in this respect.

The reformist officials' increasingly desperate turn to corporatist solutions throughout the 70s and early 80s is understandable in view of their absolute refusal to confront capital, but has nonetheless proven entirely self-destructive. By emphasising both the impossibility of successfully resisting employers and the self-defeating character of any effective resistance, official forces of reform have merely confirmed the workers' own conclusions, derived from a decade-long experience of both defeat at the hands of the employers and of the declining competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing. By recommending, on that basis, policies which bring workers objectively into alignment with capital and in de facto conflict with other groups of workers, they have demonstrated the increasing irrelevance of strategies based on collective organization by the working class, and, in turn, the decreasing utility of their own organizations. Ironically, to the extent that the trade union officials have transformed their own organizations from weapons of class struggle into instruments of collaboration in production, they have been to that degree less able to assert their own place within those corporatist arrangements through which they had hoped, alongside the employers, to manage the crisis. Under no pressure to accept the trade unions as partners, the employers have seen no reason not to turn around and destroy them — and that is what they have done, with growing success, since Reagan ascended to the Presidency. 

Finally, as class-based strategies for self-defense have become less practicable and as class collaborationist alternatives have appeared more inevitable, workers naturally have embraced the ideological conceptions which can make some sense of what re actually doing.[12] To the extent that workers have supported protection, they have allied with their own capitalists against workers around the world. To the extent, moreover, that they have participated — at the level of the state, the corporations, or the shop floor — in cooperative arrangements to improve productivity, they are actually helping their own employers defeat workers in other places. To the extent that workers have turned to tax cuts, they are unavoidably joining the attack on the living standards of those who are dependent upon welfare and other social services, above all Blacks and women. To the extent that workers are defending their own positions — in a ‘color-blind' and 'sex-blind’ manner — through defending the seniority list against affirmative action, they are attacking Blacks and women in still another way. Many working people who attempt to defend their positions with these methods do not intend to profit their employers or to gain at the expense of other workers. But this is in fact what they are doing. Their actions are, in effect, chauvinist, racist, and sexist. Inevitably, therefore, they are opened up to the reactionary worldviews which will rationalize their conduct.

Ultimately, as workers cease to find any practical basis for the collective defense of their own lives, they cannot help but perceive the world as a dog-eat-dog competitive struggle, and, as a result, come to consider more attractive those pro-family and fundamentalist religious ideologies which make this perception their point of departure. Whatever oppression the patriarchal family brings, it can, with some conviction, still offer some of the only non-commodity, non-commercially competitive relationships which still remain intact — i.e., between husband and wife and between parents and children. It can, therefore, with some legitimacy, offer the reality of a (non-capitalist) 'haven in a heartless (competitive) world.' It need hardly be added that to the degree such a view of the world — as inevitably composed of families in cutthroat competition — carries conviction, that promise of community held out by the fundamentalist Christian sects will prove ever more appealing.

From Mitterand to Le Pento . . .

The progression from reformism to corporate capitalist restructuring to the rise of the right is, unfortunately, no mere prediction. Throughout the later 70s and early 80s, it has been, and is being, played out in a variety of forms in the capitalist west, above all in some of those regions which have experienced the most thoroughgoing social democracy during the first stage of the global economic crisis. In June 1981, the Socialist Party of François Mitterand came to power in France in a smashing electoral landslide that gave it a massive parliamentary majority and uncontested control of the executive for seven years. The Socialists were committed at the start to a somewhat radical version of the traditional social democratic program: Keynesian reflation, mild increases for social welfare, and ambitious plans for economic modernization through state intervention and nationalization. Within months of their accession to power Socialists' attempt to implement their program had led to run away inflation, massive capital flight, precipitously rising imports, the collapse of the balance of payments, and stagnating investment and growth. As a result, in less than a year, Socialists had junked their reform program, devalued the franc twice, and embarked upon a vicious program of austerity marked by severe fiscal restraint and huge cuts in government services. France's workers are today experiencing the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression, made worse by the decay of government welfare programs. Meanwhile to counteract the disastrous effects of its own policies on its worker constituencies, the government has sought shamelessly to shift as much as possible of the burden of the crisis onto immigrant guest workers, while attempting to distract the population with Cold War polemics and imperialist adventures.

With their own political parties and trade unions implicated in what has been, in effect, an all-out experiment in capitalist modernization, French workers have been compelled, not surprisingly, to rethink their political perspectives. With their traditional parties and trade unions making a mockery of class-based, collective strategies of self-defense, it is hardly unexpected that they are turning in increasing numbers to those political forces who will give coherent ideological rationalizations for the class collaborationist and individualistic strategies they have been forced to live by. Is it really surprising that Le Pen with his barely concealed fascism, has emerged from the rubble of Mitterand's experiment in capitalist transformation under Socialism? Do today's American exponents of a revitalized social democracy from within social democracy believe they can achieve better results than did the French Socialists through the agency of Mitterand's feeble American counterparts and their even feebler reformist perspectives?

- Read parts one and two of the essay.


*I want to thank the editorial board of Against the Current for helpful suggestions and criticisms of earlier drafts of this paper. I wish to dedicate this essay to the memory of Steve Zeluck (1922-1985)

1. The pressure of this electoral logic is of course the greatest where there is a winner-take-all electoral system, as in the United States (in contrast to proportional representation).

2. For this and subsequent sections on the Jackson campaign, see especially Anthony Thigpenn, 'Jesse Jackson and the Black Movement', Against the Current3, (Fall 1984)

3. For a fine analysis of the recent practice of Black electoralism, which forms the basis for this paragraph, see Monte Pilawski, ‘The Limits of Power', Southern Exposure, 12, (February 1984).

4. Quoted in Thigpenn, 'Jesse Jackson', p. 16.

5. Dan Labotz, 'Harold Washington: The Hopes and the Realities', Against the Current, 3, (Fall 1984), p. 40. My discussion of Washington's campaign and its upshot depends very heavily on Labotz's excellent article, and I have appropriated a number of phrases from it.

6. Thigpenn, 'Jesse Jackson', p. 16.

7. Marable, "Paradox of Reform', pp. 24-25.

8. D.N. Allman, ‘The Decline in Business Profitability', Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Review (January 1983).

9. Riccardo Parboni, The Dollar and its Rivals (1981), p. 93. Ira C. Magaziner and Robert B. Reich, Minding America's Business (1982), p. 45.

10. See Joseph A. Pechman, Who Paid the Taxes, 1966-1985? (1985), esp. chapter 5.

11. Samuel Bowles et al, Beyond the Wasteland (1983), p. 25. Wages per hour are about 10% lower today (before taxes) than they were in 1972-3.

12. For the following analysis, see Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner ‘Reagan, the Right and the Working Class’, Against the Current, 1, (Winter 1981) and ‘The Right Wing and the Working Class’, Against the Current, 1, (Summer 1981).