One year ago millions of Americans, many of whom had never voted before, came out for Barack Obama, energized by his message of hope and change. Surely things would now get better! But what is the reality?
Just one year ago, in the midst of the meltdown on Wall Street, millions of Americans, many of whom had never voted before, came out for Barack Obama, energized by his message of hope and change. His victory marked a turning point in U.S. politics, a clear rejection of Bush’s blatantly anti-worker and imperialist policies. The streets overflowed with joy and the promise of a new era. Around the world, cries of “yes we can!” could be heard as a collective sigh of relief swept the planet. The Bush years were over! Surely things would now get better! But what is the reality?
The fact is, things are actually worse than they were under Bush. Despite a much ballyhooed 3.5% growth in GDP in the third quarter of 2009, the economic picture is grim for working people. The unemployment rate has now surpassed 10 percent for the first time since 1983, and is likely to rise further. In some states, such as foreclosure-battered Ohio and Michigan, it is already substantially higher. If those working part time or no longer looking for work were included, the real rate would be closer to 17.5%.
So sure, the recession is “over” according to the official figures, but can it last? And what kind of recovery is it when nearly 16 million people can’t find work? In October alone, 61,000 manufacturing and 62,000 construction jobs evaporated. Jobs have now been lost for 22 months in a row, a steeper fall than during the Great Depression. Also in October, the average work week remained at just 33 hours, giving employers plenty of room to extend existing employee’s hours, not to mention to expand usage of existing industrial capacity before adding new workers or building new factories. Those unable to find work for six months or longer rose to 5.6 million, or 35.6%, a new record. For workers, the so-called “jobless recovery” is no recovery at all.
But how can this be? How can the GDP rebound when there are 7.3 million fewer jobs than there were less than two years ago? The answer is simple: the capitalists are making fewer workers do more work for less pay. Hence, profits are up for many companies such as Ford. According to the Department of Labor, productivity — the amount produced per worker per hour — rose by an incredible 9.5% in the 3rd quarter, after rising 6.9% in the 2nd. In other words, they are squeezing more out of us than ever, all while lining their pockets with federal bailout money. A very convenient situation for them, but not so appealing for the rest of us!
Workers are willing to take this for the time being. They hope that the worst is indeed over, that they have made it through the storm to relative shelter. They are willing to “wait and see,” and hope for real change from Obama. But this has its limits; the worst is far from over. The immediate shock of last year’s crisis may have subsided, but now the reality is gradually creeping in: Americans are going to be forced to accept a new, lower standard of living, and there will be no rapid bounceback of jobs. Millions of the jobs lost are gone forever, to be replaced by fewer jobs offering lower wages, no benefits, and no union protections.
As for Obama’s foreign policy, although he won the Nobel Prize simply for the “hope” he has generated internationally, the year since his election has provided many harsh realities for those who expected something new under the sun. The coup in Honduras against the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya has in effect been legitimated by Obama’s State Department — with the help of U.S.-trained officers and the brutal use of U.S. made weapons.
U.S. troops are to remain in Iraq for years to come, and the war in Afghanistan has been expanded by tens of thousands of troops and extended into Pakistan. In short, Bush’s wars continue despite the “changing of the guard.” The reason for this is also easily explained: like Bush, Obama defends the fundamental interests of the capitalists and imperialists, and “political realism.” Like Bush before him, his policies flow from this reality.
His expansion of the military budget to $680 billion — an amount only dreamed of by Reagan and the Bushes — speaks for itself. “Defense” spending now consumes 35-42% of estimated tax revenues. Add to that the billions handed out without any accountability whatsoever to the already-absurdly rich, and it’s no wonder there is “not enough” money for job creation, schools or health care. Obama has boasted that his stimulus package will create or save 650,000 jobs; but it’s not even enough to make up for the jobs lost in a single month earlier this year.
The new leadership of the AFL-CIO is an indication of the slowly changing mood in the Labor Movement. At least in words, Trumka is a reflection of the growing pressure from the rank and file, which is tired of cuts and concessions. The off-year election results were another indication of what is to come. Most incumbents were thrown out, and those who remained, did so at tremendous financial expense. Upcoming electoral contests will be interesting to say the least, as American voters reject the “status quo” in their own distorted way and look for a way out. In the final analysis, only the creation of a mass party of labor based on the unions can lay the basis for addressing the workers’ problems. Before then, however, more life experience will be necessary.
There are no direct historical parallels, and comparisons between epochs must of necessity take into account the many changes and differences that have taken place in the intervening decades. It is useful, however, to keep in mind that between the Crash of 1929 and the first mass stirrings of the working class in the mid-1930s, some five years or more elapsed.
In the interim, even the large, well-established left-wing parties such as the SP and CP did not experience an immediate surge in growth. Today, as then, mass consciousness has not yet caught up with objective reality. But it will catch up, and with a bang. It would be a mistake to mistake today’s apparent passivity in the face of such an unprecedented crisis for “the end of history.” In fact, the real history of humanity is only just beginning. We must not be caught unawares or unprepared!
For those of us who can see the correctness of our perspectives confirmed and the potential for the socialist transformation of society all around us, it can be frustrating to watch the molasses-like development of events in the U.S. and internationally. However, the Marxists and labor activists must not succumb to moods of impatience or spend time searching for panacaeas or shortcuts: there are none. Patience, hard work, discussion, theoretical clarity and dedication are the only way forward. History is on our side. We must have confidence in the working class, in the ideas of revolutionary Marxism as a guide to action, and in our perspectives for a socialist future. Join us!
November 17, 2009