Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a spirit of optimism in the United States. We had "won" so to speak, and in the words of our then president George Bush, we could look forward to a New World Order of peace, freedom, full employment, and the crushing domination of the US in world affairs and trade. This fresh outlook, coupled with one of the most powerful economic booms in history, led many to believe ever more strongly in the system. Yet there are chinks in the armor. To look at the stock market, the economy is still healthy. But corporate profits are at their lowest level in nearly a decade (in spite of the billions of dollars handed to them in corporate welfare), and for the first time since the early 1990s, workers are seriously worried about losing their jobs. While the momentum of the boom is still in most workers’ consciousness, it is apparent that among the most advanced layers, the mood is definitely changing in America. From optimism to pessimism, hopes for "the good life" are disappearing for broad layers of Americans, with important implications for the coming period.
By far, the youth are the most important element in the new situation. The youth in America today are increasingly restless, and there is a palpable tension in the air. After a long period of cultural stagnation and conservatism, they are ready for something new. They are the first generation since WWII that will have a standard of living and quality of life below that of their parents. Whether this registers consciously or not is not really important. What matters is that large numbers do not feel the confidence in the future that their parents, the generation of John F. Kennedy did. Drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and violence among the youth are symptoms of a deeper malaise.
After a long period of being apolitical and labeled the "forgotten generation", young people are more and more becoming attracted to social issues and involvement. Anti-authoritarianism is growing, and many are becoming interested in anarchism and the romance of guerrillaism—Che Guevara is an icon. Environmentalism and animal rights activism are also growing in popularity.
While growing up, today’s generation was promised a better life if only they went to college. Sadly, the reality is far from this. Countless young people begin college only to drop out in order to work at menial, low paying jobs. There are teaching certified grocery store baggers, poorly paid nursing assistants with psychology degrees, even PhDs working at convenience stores. This is certainly not the "good life" promised them by the system they were raised to honor and defend.
"Plastics!" was the advice given Dustin Hoffman in the classic movie of apathy and disillusionment "The Graduate" in the 1960s. Just a decade ago, the advice given young people was "computers!" Yet even this lucrative, opportunity filled industry is becoming saturated. Every year the market for these types of positions gets flooded by thousands of new graduates following their high school guidance counselors’ advice to get on the bandwagon. When the economy shrinks, and with it the opportunities available to young people, these graduates will find themselves with high-tech skills and nowhere to apply them. Many of them will begin to question the way things are run and it will occur to them that with the skills they have, they could manage things better themselves.
There is a whole generation that does not remember the Cold War, and the accompanying vitriol towards the ideas of Marxism. Once these young people actually crack open a book on scientific socialism, they will find not outdated, "unworkable" ideas, but the most modern of ideas and a program for the future.
Certain layers of American workers are also experiencing a shift in consciousness. The present boom has been achieved mostly at the workers’ expense. Increases in productivity and a lengthening of the working day have extracted the maximum amount of profit out of the working class. In the words of one striking worker from Detroit, "How much more can they cut and squeeze?"
Public support of workers’ strikes is also rising, even though many of these (UPS, US West Communications, and Northwest Airlines) have been disruptive to the lives of working people. According to one of the Detroit newspaper strikers, his 70-year-old grandmother—in his view a barometer of social consciousness--has been raising the idea of revolution—and she votes Republican!
Long stereotyped as nationalistic, the working masses are becoming more and more aware of the common fate of all workers under the heel of the corporate bosses. Especially as regards the moving of factories to neighboring Mexico—in order to get the cheapest labor and the least regulation--they are beginning to see not competitors, but fellow sufferers. Solidarity campaigns between workers of both countries are on the rise, especially in the Maquilladoras along the border.
Membership on the Trade Unions is also on the rise. In 1998, there was a rise from16.1 million to 16.2 million members, a net gain of 100,000, although actual new members numbered 373,000. These gains were mostly in the service, communications and utilities, and government sectors. However, the percentage of the workforce represented by unions dropped nationally from 14.1 to 13.9 percent. This was due largely to attrition in the manufacturing sector. Militancy of union members is also increasing, as evidenced by the activity of the traditionally docile telecommunications and teachers’ unions in recent disputes.
In the United States, the media is God. But even in this area of corporate domination, cracks are showing through. Magazines, movies, music, etc. all show evidence of a shifting consciousness. From the blockbuster "Titanic" in which audiences cheered when the rich people drowned and the poor people were saved, to the movie "Antz" in which one of the worker ants proclaims that the workers "control the means of production", brief glimpses of a growing class-consciousness are visible.
The humorous documentary style movies and TV shows by Michael Moore, author of "Downsize This!" which depict the corporations as greedy, and the workers as exploited, are very popular among layers of the population. Time magazine recently ran a four part series on corporate welfare, and even attacked its parent company in the process! Other major magazines put forth the possibility of a 1930s style depression, and ask the question, "who lost capitalism?" in relation to the economic and political turmoil enveloping much of the world.
This change in the attitude of the media is a reflection of the public consciousness, as the media tries to get into people’s pocketbooks by giving them what they want. Disaster movies about dinosaurs, volcanoes, floods, and meteors that threaten to exterminate the human race, are symptoms of the fears for the future underlying the apparently tranquil lives of American working people.
The November mid-term elections in the USA were held with the lowest voter turnout in half a century—only 37%. For the first time in over 150 years, the incumbent party actually gained seats in the congressional races. This was not necessarily a vote for the Democrats, who along with the Republicans are seen as the lesser of two evils, (or the "evil of two lessers" according to some), but a vote against the conservative Right which has largely dominated the past five years. In Minnesota, 3rd party gubernatorial candidate Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler, defeated two experienced major party candidates with an astounding voter turnout of 62%!
His victory could very well mark a new stage in American electoral politics. His success is largely due to his being seen as an "ordinary person". He is a member of two unions, served in Vietnam, and is an advocate of public education, less government waste, and electoral reform. While many of his policies are confused, his victory shows that when offered a choice, the workers, youth, and other layers disenchanted with electoral politics in America came out in droves to vote for something different. In the words of one commentator, the upper echelons of corporate Minnesota expressed themselves thusly: "We've been running everything for years and now the scum bag people have decided to come out of their closet and upset our punditry."
It is no accident that just over two years ago the Labor Party of America was founded. It is a reflection of the growing awareness that the only way to stop the madness and exploitation of the corporate bosses is to unite. This marks the first attempt in many decades at creating a mass working-class party in the United States. After resolving to maintain strict class and political independence at their first constitutional convention in mid November, the Labor Party stands poised to take advantage of the changing moods in the masses of working people.
The mood in America is just beginning to change, if only among the most advanced layers of society. Subtle signs of a shifting mood are popping up everywhere. There is not yet mass class-consciousness, but the elements of discontent that are peeking through the rusting armor of American capitalism give us a glimpse of what the future holds in the country which Trotsky called the "the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged."