This week, the Republican National Convention met in New York City, hoping to cash in on GW Bush's "performance" after the September 11 tragedy. In a magnificently stage-managed convention hall, Bush and Cheney accepted their nominations with the usual speeches about a strong economy, "principled leadership", opportunity, a victorious war on terror, and of course, plenty of attacks on their Democratic opponents. The Iraq War was justified as the legitimate defense of America, and tax cuts for the rich were touted as a great boon to the economy.
Listening to these neo-conservatives' prattle on this past week, one wonders whether they themselves are aware that the Iraq occupation has gone horribly awry; that the probability of another massive terrorist attack is as likely as ever if not more so; that a net 1.65 million jobs have been lost while corporate profits have soared; that the federal budget deficit threatens to destabilize the entire world economy; and that millions more joined the ranks of the poverty-stricken and uninsured.
Then again, most of those in the convention hall are among the handful of Americans who have benefited from Bush's anti-worker and predatory international policies. To these great patriots, the plight of millions of other Americans is of little importance so long as their own net wealth continues to increase. The increasing polarization of American society was strikingly visible as the frenzied, well-heeled delegates rapturously applauded Bush's every reactionary pronouncement. Delegates and visitors to the spectacle were carefully screened and even required to sign waivers assuring they agree with the President and his policies, and would not cause any disruptions. Nonetheless, a few protesters squeezed through the cracks. One of them held up a sign that said, "Bush lied, thousands died." He was quickly escorted out of the hall, and peace and bliss once again reigned in the hall. In such a setting, it's easy to see why Bush imagines he is widely beloved and that his policies are enormously popular. But things outside Madison Square Garden were very different.
The largely peaceful protests began last weekend, continuing through Bush's speech last Thursday night. Using the excuse of "the threat of terror", the police were especially zealous in their pre-emptive arresting of protesters. It has been reported that many non-activists who were simply in the area were arrested, including 2 actors and the director of an independent film using the demonstrations as a backdrop. Some 1,800 were arrested in total, the most in the history of U.S. political conventions. This caused an unprecedented degree of strain on the courts which are required by law to formally charge people within 24 hours. One judge went so far as to hold the city in contempt, and ordering that 470 people who had been held for over 40 hours be processed and released.
The protests took various forms: 5,000 protesters lined up in a mock unemployment line outside the convention hall during GW's speech; thousands of cyclists held up traffic in protest at the convention's presence in their city; AIDS activists swarmed Grand Central Station demanding a war on AIDS, not Iraq; others infiltrated the convention hall's security, proclaiming, "how can they secure the country if they cannot secure their own convention." But the most massive protests – the largest in the history of U.S. political conventions - took place on Sunday the 29th of August, with an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 participating throughout the day.
Not surprisingly, many protesters were part of the "Anyone But Bush" crowd. This is an understandable reaction to the blatantly reactionary policies of Bush and his cronies. But in practice, this means supporting Democrat John Kerry – a distasteful proposition for millions of working Americans. What was significant about the protests is that many participants viewed the Democrats with equal reservation and suspicion. It was definitely not a predominantly pro-Kerry demonstration. As reported by a member of the Workers International League (www.socialistappeal.org) who attended Sunday's demonstration:
"Sizable layers of the attendees made it quite clear on their signs, banners, and in conversations that not only do they see Bush and the Republicans as a hostile, alien force to the interests of workers and ‘average Americans', but that they also see the Democrats and Kerry as equally squared away in the corner of the bosses. There seemed to be strong support for the million-worker march on Washington, DC on October 17th, which was initiated by the West Coast longshoremen's union (ILWU). This event is not overtly geared towards making a clean break of the labor movement from the Democrats, but among many in the rank and file it is generally felt that organizing this sort of event is far more important than election year organizing which in practice means organizing for the Kerry campaign."
These demonstrations marked a significant upsurge in the protest movement which was largely deflated after the commencement of hostilities in Iraq. And it is only the beginning. In the coming period, no matter who wins the elections, American workers will be increasingly forced to hit the streets to fight back against the ruthless offensive of the bosses. The U.S. ruling class is confronted with an economic crisis that can only be dealt with by squeezing every last ounce of productivity and dignity out of the world working class, starting right here at home. Wages, conditions, health care, retirement benefits, job security, and even the 40-hour week are all under attack.
In this pre-election period, both candidates are doing their best to appeal to working Americans. If John Kerry wins, we can expect him to be given a honeymoon period while working people wait and see how he will proceed. However, given his class interests and the current economic and social instability on a world scale, it won't be as long as he'd like to think. Even if he is able to offer a handful of cosmetic concessions and minor reforms, nothing fundamental will change, and it will in no way make up for the losses suffered by the labor movement over the past 25 years. On the contrary, he will be forced to go on the offensive against the very people he demagogically promised to defend during the campaign. The gut instinct of millions of Americans who on November 2nd will hold their noses and vote for Kerry for lack of an alternative will be vindicated. If Bush remains in the presidential office, we can expect a sharpening of the class struggle from the moment the result is announced, and an acute questioning of the Democrats' inability to defeat the most unpopular president in recent history. Either way, working Americans will lose out as the bosses and their government intensify their attacks. Once the realization sets in that neither capitalist party can offer a way out of the crisis faced by millions of hard-working Americans, things will really start to heat up socially and politically in the U.S.
Only after bitter experience and through determined struggle will American workers be able to stop the onslaught of the bosses and win back what has been taken from them and more. The formation of a mass party of labor based on the unions is the urgent task of the U.S. labor movement. The trade union mis-leaders who continue to tail the Democrats must be vomited out and replaced by leaders from the rank and file with the members' interests at heart. The upcoming Million Worker March will be an important step in the re-wakening of the American working class, which is just beginning to stretch its muscles after a long period of relative inactivity. It has been organized against the wishes and without the support of the AFL-CIO leadership, and is symptomatic of the growing pressure from below. It is no accident that it was the ILWU who initiated this event. After they were locked out by the bosses on the West Coast and sold out by the Democrats and their union leaders, they have clearly understood the need for the working class to rely only on its own strength and organizations.
The U.S. working class has a heroic and militant tradition. However, this class-consciousness has been dampened by years of relative prosperity and the gradual ebbing away of the gains won in the past. But everything has its limit, and the patience of the American workers is no exception. After years of searching for individual solutions and placing their hopes in the two-party system, working people are starting to realize that they can rely only on their own forces and organizations in order to improve their lives. The RNC demos were just a hint of what's to come as the working class becomes increasingly aware of its own strength. We can be confident in the fact that the American workers' spirit of creativity, sacrifice, hard work, and determination to take their destinies into their own hands will be revived under the hammer blows of events in the coming months and years.