"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord." - Barack Obama
American workers are faced with an economic and social crisis on a scale not seen in decades. One after another, the pillars of American capitalism are crumbling around them: all the major banks and financial services companies; all the major auto makers; the dream of home ownership and a secure retirement; the aura of invincibility of U.S. military might; the promise of a tomorrow better than today. In short, the bedrock upon which U.S. capitalism has justified its continued exploitative existence has turned to quicksand.
As Marx and Engels described life under capitalism in the Communist Manifesto: "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." This shattering of the "American Dream," the realization that this is indeed as "good as it gets" is having and will continue to have a profound effect on the consciousness of all classes in society, not the least of which is the working class. Already there are symptoms of a simmering discontent beneath the apparently calm surface of society. As the crisis deepens and the illusions in Obama are inevitably dashed against the cold realities of this system, these undercurrents will gain strength and direction, bursting to the surface in dynamic and unexpected ways.
The capitalist class, represented in government by the Democrats and Republicans, has also had its confidence shaken. They are unsure how best to proceed. Some argue that the market should be allowed to "adjust itself," while others advocate Keynesian state intervention and a new "New Deal." But while they may be divided on how best to get the economy moving again, they are unanimous in their defense of the capitalist system as a whole. Not once will you hear Obama, Bush, Biden, Cheney, the Clintons or the rest raise any doubts about the system itself. They are also well aware that the social consequences of the crisis could spiral out of their control. They have therefore chosen the best man they could find for the job: Barack Obama. He has in turn put together a galaxy of pro-capitalist and imperialist talent to assist him in carrying out his policies. The 44th president's historic task is clear: to preserve the United States of America as we know it today. That is to say, his role is to defend the U.S. capitalist system in its epoch of imperialist decay.
Then and Now
The constant comparisons and references to Abraham Lincoln are no accident. Lincoln came to power during a profound crisis that ultimately led to a bloody civil war that claimed some 618,000 lives. Although the Civil War was at root a war against the slave system, it was waged largely around the slogan of "preserving the union." Lincoln leaned on the masses and on the working class in particular, on their instinctive striving for unity and sense of outrage at the slave system to wage the war. His call for "national unity" resonated with the mood of society and the economic needs of the capitalist system. The war and Lincoln's role were revolutionary and supported by Karl Marx himself.
Lincoln's historic task was to defend burgeoning Northern capitalism and extend it to the entire country. At the time, this was a necessary and progressive task, despite the misery and exploitation that is part and parcel of the system. Capitalism was still in its historically progressive phase, and the abolition of slavery in the South "cleared the decks" for an unprecedented development of the productive forces and the strengthening of the urban working class, thus laying the material basis for socialism.
But things are far different today. Obama comes to power at a time of capitalist decline. His task is to preserve a rotting system whose historic task has been exhausted. Capitalism has ceased to play any progressive role for the vast bulk of humanity. It has already served its historical purpose: to lay down the material foundations for socialism. We will build on the technology and productivity of labor achieved by humanity under capitalism in order to build a new society, free of exploitation and based on the common interests of the working class majority. However, the capitalist class will not give up their power and privileges without a fight. This handful of individuals is determined to continue their domination and exploitation of billions of humans around the world. Their system is increasingly incompatible with the continued existence of humanity itself. We can either replace it with socialism on a world scale, or the entire "experiment" of human civilization could be thrown into a very violent and horrific reverse.
What Sort of Unity?
It is with these considerations in mind that we must understand the main theme of Obama's inaugural address: a call for national unity and sacrifice in the even harder times to come. But first, let's take a look back at the early Bush years. After September 11, 2001, GW Bush also invoked a call for "national unity." Here is what we explained at the time in the article What Sort of Unity?:
"Even more significantly, the sleeping giant of the American working class has now been awakened to social and political awareness. At the moment they are enraged, grieving, and in shock. They are reaching out for solutions that are familiar to them – military aggression, religion, abstract 'unity' and so on...
"The thundering cries for war and revenge are one of the most visible effects of the attacks. Overnight, the country has been gripped by war fever and nationalist hysteria. Sales of American flags have gone through the roof, and there is hardly a fast food store or church without a variant of 'God Bless America' displayed. Religious invocation has also reached unheard of levels as people look for answers in a world apparently gone mad. To hear the politicians and news anchors, one would not imagine that there is a separation of Church and State in this country. The calls for national unity are nearly universal and all the superficial political differences between the Republicans and Democrats have been drowned out by the beating of the drums of war...
"...It is therefore vital that we are clear as to what GW Bush means by 'national unity.' What he is calling for is for the working class to subordinate itself to the interests of the ruling class. This is always the situation under capitalism, but in times of crisis, war, and revolution, the importance of keeping the millions of newly conscious workers 'on the side' of the bosses takes on even greater importance. Especially when the very 'leaders' who are supposed to be protecting 'our nation' have proven completely inept at doing so, the spontaneous outrage of the working class must be channeled into 'safe' means – against an external enemy.
"...And although the immediate reaction of many has been to rally around the flag in the interests of 'national unity,' what they really strive for is the unity of humanity and an end to these terrible events. The fundamental effect of the attacks has been to give workers a shocking wake up call as to the cruelties of this world. Millions of people in the US now know what it feels like to live in uncertainty and fear - and they don't like it. They have been awakened to the fact that they cannot simply ignore the outside world - the problems of the rest of the world are also the problems of the American working class. And it is precisely the lack of stability of life under capitalism which will force millions of people to take their lives and futures into their own hands."
Nearly eight years later, what was the result of this "rallying around the flag"? Two imperialist wars costing billions each week while schools and hospitals are closed; some 47 million without access to health care; trillions in retirement savings lost and millions thrown out of their homes while CEO pay and bonuses reached astronomical levels. In short, the rich won and the working class and the poor lost.
Why is this? Why can't we "all just get along"? The reason is simple: the interests of the capitalist class and the working class are diametrically opposed. Under capitalism, the capitalist class holds all the cards. They control the media, the government, the courts, the police, the military, the banks, and the educational system. They write the laws. They make all the real decisions as to who works and who owns a home. In other words, they use every tool at their disposal to defend their own interests, which are irreconcilable with the interests of the working class majority.
Abstract "national unity," which blurs the clear class distinctions and contradictions that exist in society, subordinates the interests of the working class to the interests of the capitalist class. It is the "unity" of the horse and rider, of the lord and the serf, of the master and the slave. As Marxists, we are in favor of unity. But what is needed is class unity, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or nationality. Only the power of the united working class can decisively challenge the domination of capital.
Change We Can Believe In?
Now it is Obama's turn to call for national unity. In his inaugural speech, he made it clear just what he means by "national unity." He acknowledged the "sapping confidence" of millions facing economic disaster. He addressed the "nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights." He compassionately identified with those losing their jobs and homes, calling on "we the people," on "this generation of Americans" to remain "faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents." He also invoked the specter of terrorism and the danger of relying on "our adversaries" for energy. He dampened people's expectations of a quick reversal of fortunes, saying that the challenges are serious, many, real, and "will not be met easily or in a short span of time." He invoked the Scripture and the Declaration of Independence, asserting the "God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
And then, out of the swirl of lofty rhetoric, hints of what he really means:
"Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom
"...For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth...
"...Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction...
"We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
In other words, we must put aside our class differences ("differences of birth or wealth or faction"), stop complaining about our lot in life and accept the conditions we are forced to live under ("protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions"), and pull ourselves up by our boot straps to clean up the mess made by the capitalists and their system ("pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America"). In so many words, "hard work!" and "work hard!" This is the real "spirit of America."
But who is to do this hard work? Is it true that the millions "obscure in their labor," who break their backs for low wages just to scrape out a living, are simply not working hard enough? We might also ask: whose pleasures, riches and fame? Whose prosperity? Whose freedom?
After outlining an ambiguous plan to create jobs, lower health care costs, and cut unspecified inefficient government programs, he revealed his true colors as an apologist and defender of capitalism:
"Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."
After lamenting the "excesses" of the system and taking a swipe at the "prosperous," he unveils the mythological creature of a kinder, gentler capitalism, which extends "opportunity to every willing heart."
Then, after invoking the "rule of law" and the "rights of man," he reminded Americans that they had "faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions." So much for Obama being a "communist"!
And in a line that could have been uttered by GW Bush himself, Obama had the following to say in reference to the Iraq War: "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
And to tie his theme of national unity together, the following words:
"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate." [my emphasis]
In other words, we should applaud the sacrifice of low wage, part-time workers, who divide up capitalist scarcity and poverty amongst themselves for the "greater good." But more importantly, Obama's words have an unintended message: it is the millions of average working Americans that makes the country run. This begs the question: why don't these millions of American workers run the country?
In times of crisis, it is normal for people to want to band together, to seek protection, safety and comfort in numbers. But the fundamental question is the class question. Whose interests does Barack Obama defend? The working class majority or the capitalist minority? And if this is truly a democracy, should the interests of the majority be subordinated to the interests of a tiny minority?
Perspectives for the Future
The U.S. is a different place than it was just 8 years ago. A lot of water has passed under the bridge (and over the levees). Consciousness is changing rapidly. The old stereotypes about Americans no longer apply. For example, it will not be so easy to turn Americans' attention outward, hysterically, against an external enemy. Seven years of war and crisis has had an effect. University and factory occupations are back on the agenda. Now more than ever, there is an acute danger that the accumulated frustration and anger will be turned against the enemy at home: the bankers, CEOs, Big Business politicians, and the capitalist system itself. This is why Obama's task is so delicate and crucial from the perspective of the ruling class.
The capitalists have high hopes for Obama. They expect him to save their system. Millions of workers also have high hopes for Obama. They hope for an end to the instability, for a secure job at a living wage, a home, access to health care and a decent retirement. Hope for change is a powerful, inspiring force, but the truth is concrete. The reality is, despite this or that cosmetic change, life under Obama will be more of the same: tighter belts for the working class while the wealthy continue to enrich themselves, albeit with a more modest public display of their excesses.
Bush ended his presidency with a 22 percent approval rating, a tremendous collapse from his post-September 11 high. Obama enters the Oval Office with over 80 percent approval: the only direction it can go is down. Obama's call for national unity is a call for the lamb to sleep with the lion. We have seen the effects of such "unity" in the years since September 11. We must learn from this experience and base ourselves on class unity. We can rely only on our own strength and organization to bring about the fundamental change we need.
On a small scale, the social crisis is already being expressed on the streets, in the factories, and on the campuses. This process will accelerate in the coming period. In the final analysis, what is at stake is the survival of the capitalist system itself and the success or failure of the socialist revolution in the United States. This may sound far fetched just a few days into Obama's presidency, but events in the coming years will prove the correctness of this perspective. His honeymoon has already ended for many workers and young people who hoped for more. Thousands have already broken with Obama and the Democrats, are aware of the need for a mass party of labor, and are looking for a revolutionary socialist solution to the crisis. We invite you to contact the Workers International League, to join with us in the struggle to bring about real change, not just hope for change. Join us in the fight for socialism!
January 23, 2009
Source: Workers International League
- Obama and the Economic Crisis by US Socialist Appeal Editorial Board (January 12, 2009)
- [Video] The election of Obama and the perspectives for class struggle in the USA by John Peterson (January 22, 2009)
- Obama’s Ag Policy: Corporate Business as Usual by Josh Lucker (January 15, 2009)
- Obama and the “Chicago School” of Economics by Graeme Anfinson (January 14, 2009)
- Martin Luther King Jr., Obama and the Struggle Against Racism by Workers International League (January 19, 2009)
- Does Obama’s Victory Mean the End of Racism in America? by Josh Lucker (December 5, 2008)
- [Audio] US elections - Obama for change? by Mick Brooks
- US elections: Welcome to the “School of the Democrats” by John Peterson (November 5, 2008)