US: Calm Before the Storm

"Times they are a-changing", the song made famous by Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s, certainly captured the changing mood in the United States, caught in the upheavals of the Vietnam war and the civil rights struggle.

Today, more than 30 years later, a new mood of change is sweeping America. This new mood has gripped the minds of the youth in particular - a sure barometer for the rest of society - and was epitomised by the anti-capitalist/anti-corporate demonstrations of Seattle and Washington.

The growing alienation of large layers of workers and youth in the most powerful capitalist power on earth, is a reaction to the years of downsizing and blatant money-grabbing of the giant corporations. The riches of American capitalism are far from the reach of the bulk of the population, which has witnessed a massive widening of wealth between rich and poor.

The "land of the free" has currently two million of its citizens behind bars - a 30% increase since 1980.

Nearly one third of black males aged between 20 and 30 are under the control of the criminal justice system.

California spends more on locking up its young people than educating them in universities.

Despite the Wall Street boom and the talk of the American Dream, there is a malaise gnawing at the bowels of American society. Kate Rhee, director of the Prison Moratorium Project, that wants to drastically reduce prison numbers, makes a telling point about the prevailing mood when she says the campaign concentrates on private prisons as "anything that is anti-corporate gets people going these days."

This is certainly the case amongst American youth, especially on the campuses. Sit-ins, boycotts, demonstrations and the like are back on the agenda.

The big issue today is cheap labour and exploitation by multinational corporations like Nike, McDonalds, Coke and Monsanto. This is part of the growing anti-corporate movement that is sweeping the USA.

The revolt of the youth is causing growing alarm amongst sections of the ruling class. They thought such radicalisation was dead and buried. They are haunted by the huge youth movement in the 1960s, where the revolt over the Vietnam war was fusing with the militant black struggle, epitomised by the Black Panthers. The average age of the soldiers who went to Vietnam was 19. The army was demoralised in an unwinnable war. It was in a worse condition than the Russian army in 1917. This was a very explosive crisis for American capitalism.

The disintegration of the US army at that time and the anti-war movement at home were movements led by the youth. Had there been a revolutionary party in the United States, a pre-revolutionary or even a revolutionary situation could have resulted. As it was, Nixon was sacrificed as a scapegoat, the war was brought to an end and the movement tailed off.

Change of image

Today's big corporations - eager to adapt and cash in on every trend - have changed their image to embrace the so-called political correctness of yesterday's liberal radicals. The advertising department at Virgin Cola will happily show a gay wedding, just as Nike will put up PC posters of Tiger Woods declaring "there are still courses in the US where I am not allowed to play because of the colour of my skin", and of apparent feminists protesting that "high heels are a conspiracy against women."

However, the pumps Woods and the liberated sports-women were promoting were made, according to the American National Labour Committee, by Chinese sub-contractors whose women workers earned $0.16 per hour in factories where discipline was maintained with corporal punishment.

The revolt against third world sweat-shops has exploded across the campuses. Anti-corporate demonstrations have forced multinational companies - especially athlete equipment producers - to withdraw funding from some universities. But this has not stopped the movement. On the contrary, it has given it greater impetus.

There is a growing realisation that "corporate greed" is destroying tens of millions of lives in the third world. "Globalisation", far from helping the underdeveloped world, is a prison house for two-thirds of humanity. Today, 1.2 billion people are living in poverty - more than in 1990. In Latin America, the region that has integrated most rapidly into global markets, those in poverty have risen by 5 million. If the trend continues, World Bank projections point to an increase in global poverty over the next decade, with another 116 million Africans and 55 million Latin Americans living on less than one dollar a day. Mexico boasts some of the lowest tax rates and trade barriers in Latin America, along with the fastest growing poverty rates.

But this growing revulsion against capitalism is not just about the US corporations' exploitation of the third world. It is also about the actions of multinational companies at home. They have actively destroyed the environment, destroyed communities, trampled on workers' rights, and generally pursued their pursuit of profits without regard to neither man nor beast.

About five years ago, the economist Stephen Roach - the chief exponent of downsizing - said things had gone too far and that corporations through their squeeze on workers were in danger of creating a "worker backlash".

There have been many labour struggles and flash points since then : UPS, General Motors, Boeing, to name a few. However, the recent successful strike of janitors in LA has been heralded as a turning point in labour militancy. The three-week dispute produced the largest settlement for 20 years, and is regarded as a sign of new industrial muscle from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has concentrated on recruiting low-paid Latino workers.

Strikers brought the centre of LA to a standstill. They won overwhelming public support - which has been a feature of recent years. According to Mike Garcia, the president of the local union: "This is the beginning of a new era from organised labour. This fight wasn't about us. That's why we got such tremendous community and political support. We were at the right place at the right time. People were looking for an underdog to root for."

The economic boom in the US has lasted an astonishing nine years. It has been extended because of the super exploitation of the third world, and the intensified exploitation of the working class of the west. US corporate and personal debt has reached record levels on the back of a stock market bubble. But as with all bubbles, they have a tendency to burst at their height. This one will be no exception.


In the 1930s Leon Trotsky once remarked that the global role of the United States means that it has dynamite built into its foundations. This new phase of globalisation, led by America, has made sure that this is the case. Microsoft, Compaq, Intel, Boeing, Disney and McDonalds have carried the flag for the American way of life into every corner of the globe.

The very instability in its own back yard - Latin America - will have a major impact on the Latino population within the US. The events in Equador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Colombia are looked upon with dread by the American imperialists. The military advisers being poured into Colombia can very easily escalate into a full blown military intervention, raising the prospect of a new Vietnam.

The United States now stards at the crossroads. Seventy years ago the first phase of globalisation ended in the Great Depression. This current phase can end in a similar fashion, with far reaching consequences, serving to bring millions into political activity for the first time.

But even now, subterranean moods of discontent are affecting increasing layers of society. The janitors' strike is a harbinger of what is to come generally. It is a reflection of the changing mood in America. It represents a loss of fear amongst the most exploited sections who in the past feared the sack and replacement by the job-hungry unemployed.

The relative calm of the past few decades in being superseded by a period of profound instability. In the past period all the contradictions of US capitalism were intensifying below the surface, preparing enormous convulsions in the period opening up. Once the American working class - over 100 million strong - gets on the move, it will have earth-shattering effects.

Political implications

This in it turn will have profound political implications. The stability of the two party system of Democrats and Republicans was based largely upon the upswing of world capitalism and the strength of the United States. The trade unions cling to the coat tails of the Democrats in the same way as the British trade unions clung to the Liberal Party more than one hundred years ago. Now that relationship is starting to be undermined. Fewer and fewer people now vote. There is profound disillusionment with the two party system, as is shown by the complete lack of enthusiasm for the contest between Gore and Bush for President.

The collapse of the USSR has meant that the workers and youth are far more open to genuine socialist ideas. For youth in particular, the ideas of socialism, communism and Marxism have a new attraction. This attraction increases as more and more are repelled by the selfish greed of corporate America.

The scene is being set for a turn towards independent class politics. On the basis of the events which impend, the trade unions will be forced to construct a mass party of labour. Such a party, given the nature of the period, will adopt a very radical anti-big business programme. Very quickly on the basis of the crisis of American capitalism, it will move in a revolutionary direction. The youth will be in the forefront of this movement, as was the case in the mass radicalisation of the 1960s.

Ironically, the LA strike of janitors came as the British film director Ken Loach is set to complete a film of a previous janitors' strike. It took place under the slogan "Si, se puede" (Yes, it is possible).

This sums up the new radicalised mood now beginning to take a grip on workers and youth in the United States.

A period of revolutionary upheaval is not only possible, but inevitable in the decade that lies ahead. The new mood in the States is a symptom of the coming American revolution, which will transform the globe overnight, and lay the basis for a real new world order based upon solidarity and co-operation.