“Anti-Austerity” Protest in PortlandCapitalism Can’t Be Reformed:
The Only Solution, Workers Revolution
No Vote for Obama, Romney – For a Revolutionary Workers Party
Portland police attack “Solidarity Against Austerity” march, 3 November 2012.
(Photo: Ross William Hamilton /The Oregonian
PORTLAND, OR – On Saturday, November 3, a “Solidarity Against Austerity” protest is being held under the auspices of a number of Portland-area labor, community and left groups. In addition to a march there will be various actions by affinity groups aimed at banks or government institutions associated with budget cuts. A flyer by the Portland Action Lab (an offshoot of the Occupy movement), which initiated the demonstration, calls to “Resist Cuts, Strike Debt, Empower Communities.” Several unions are supporting the protest, including the Portland Association of Teachers and other teacher groups, Laborers, Letter Carriers, CWA and SEIU locals. The endorsers are politically diverse, some proclaiming “Our dreams don’t fit in their ballot boxes” while many of the unions are supporting Barack Obama and other Democrats in the elections. But independent of their formal positions, the protest amounts to pre-election pressure on Obama and the Democratic Party.
The Portland Internationalist Group will be at the demo with our own banner, but with a sharply different perspective, calling for class-struggle action against capitalism rather than liberal/reformist pressure on the Democrats. The demands of the protest are deliberately vague: does “strike debt” mean actual strike action or a call to cancel debt, and refer to individual or government debt? “Communities” could very well include local businesses, and the very term “empower” is a liberal buzzword invented by the likes of Democrat Jesse Jackson in order to counter the appeal of radical calls for black power. From the U.S. to South Africa, “empowerment” has been used to hoodwink oppressed populations into thinking they have a stake in the system by buying off a few misleaders who become dependent capitalists and bourgeois politicians. It is the same populist rhetoric used by the Occupy movement with its talk of the “99%” which is designed to paper over basic class contradictions (and even appeal to Tea Party right-wingers).
The vague slogans reflect the usual practice of reformist left groups of forming “coalitions” on a lowest-common-denominator platform, which since they mainly seek to attract liberals, means that the demands don’t go beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy, even if sometimes accompanied by radical-sounding rhetoric. This leads to amorphous alliances based on feel-good generalities (what Marxists call propaganda blocs), and if they catch on, to “popular fronts” that subordinate labor and the left to a section of the ruling class. This is the norm with the various competing “antiwar coalitions” and similar formations – as opposed to our call for workers strikes against the war, a call which began to be realized in the May Day 2008 ILWU shutdown of all West Coast ports against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s pretty simple: if the slogans of a march don’t mean anything definite, it may make it easier to round up endorsers and marchers, but a mixed or even meaningless message doesn’t advance the struggle of the working class politically when we are facing an implacable foe. For that, what’s required is programmatic clarity.
The tactic of pressuring the Obama government is bound to fail, first of all, because both major capitalist parties are firmly and irrevocably committed to carrying out drastic budget cuts following the elections in the name of balancing the budget. The Democrats already agreed to massive slashing of social programs in the bi-partisan “debt-reduction” deal which will take effect after December 31 unless they come to an agreement with the Republicans. (This is highly unlikely, and even if they did, the cuts would be just as bad.) That is a major reason Barack Obama has been endorsed not only by the “liberal” Washington Post and New York Times but also by the conservative Chicago Tribune and London Economist. More fundamentally, the “pressure” tactic is doomed because “austerity” is not just a policy that can be changed with a different political constellation in Washington. It is the watchword of a capitalist war on organized labor, “entitlements” and all social programs benefitting working people generally. This class war will not be defeated without a struggle for socialist revolution.
The “anti-austerity” coalition has the same methodology as the “people’s budget” lash-up from earlier this year, with many of the same participants pushing the same idea of pressuring the rulers to change their “priorities” (see “Why Negotiating the Bosses’ Budget Doesn’t Work for Workers” [July 2012], at www.internationalist.org). In an article published on various liberal web sites announcing the November 3 protest, Seamus Cooke of Workers Action takes aim at “‘cuts only’ budgets” (i.e., that put forward by Republican Romney) and writes: “The alternative solution to austerity is obvious: budget deficits should be fixed by taxing the corporations and the wealthy” (truthout, 27 October). This is a constant theme for reformist groups like Workers Action and the International Socialist Organization with their programs of pressure politics. Current tax rates on upper brackets are so low that “tax the rich” is also the program of Democratic Party liberals and even multi-billionaires like Warren Buffet. Obama’s position is to let the Bush administration’s tax cuts on the super-rich expire, in order to “balance” trillions of dollars of cuts in social programs that would drastically reduce non-military “discretionary spending” almost in half as a percentage of the gross national product.
Even a far greater tax hike on the wealthy won’t stop budget cuts, and it won’t put an end to capitalist “austerity” because the attacks on poor and working people and the oppressed have nothing to do with a lack of dollars in government coffers.
The claim that there isn’t enough money to pay for schools, libraries, day care, medical care, unemployment insurance, mass transit, the post office and all sorts of essential services is obvious nonsense when U.S. expenditure over the last decade just on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq (only a small part of the military/intelligence budget) is equal to the $4 trillion in cuts in social programs Obama plans. But that doesn’t make the liberal/reformist slogan of “money for jobs/education/health care, not for war” correct. The U.S. ruling class isn’t waging war as a matter of budget priorities but in a drive for imperialist world domination. Nor is the question of “balancing” the budget a simple policy choice. When they need to, the capitalists and their government are prepared to shell out vast amounts in deficit spending. In the wake of the fall 2008 Wall Street crash, the Federal Reserve Bank simply handed over $29.6 trillion to bail out the banks. But now they are intent on balancing the budget on the backs of the workers, and no demonstration is going to change that.
So what is the “solution” to the endless economic crisis, now in its fifth year, with over 22 million people unemployed (17% of the total labor force) even according to government statistics? Many liberals and quite a few professed Marxists basically call for a return to deficit spending as advocated by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s Great Depression. But there will not be a return to a Keynesian “welfare state” or even the watered-down American version. “Butter and guns” programs reached their limits in the mid- and late 1970s, driving down profit rates and setting off the last major capitalist economic crisis, when the banks and government demanded “austerity” of public sector workers, notably in the New York City fiscal crisis. This and the attack on auto workers under Democratic president Jimmy Carter set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s onslaught against unions and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, with so-called “neo-liberal” (free market) policies embraced by Republicans and Democrats from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama.
Neo-Keynesian policies will not put an end to “neo-liberalism” because the source of the war on workers, the poor and oppressed is capitalism, not a set of economic policies that can be changed at will.
What’s required instead is a working-class counteroffensive against capital preparing the way for socialist revolution. Recently, Canadian left-wing economist Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin spoke in Portland advocating a series of what they call “transitional demands” such as contained in the platform of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, of which they are leaders. The term recalls the Transitional Program (1938) of Leon Trotsky. But that program was aimed at building a bridge between the present demands of the working class and the goal of socialist revolution. Panitch and Gindin’s platform consists of “transitional measures aimed to move us towards a truly democratic society that functions without exploitation and oppression.” This is a classless social-democratic program, with calls to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy, “public ownership” and “democratization” of banks, establish free mass transit, ban scab labor and pass “worker-friendly” employment laws. Panitch himself notes that many of these planks were put forward in the 1970s by left social democrats like Tony Benn in Britain. They didn’t fly then and they won’t now. This is not a program for the working class to take power and expropriate capital, but a utopian call to democratize capitalism.
A genuine program of transitional demands would call for workers struggle to enforce such measures as a sliding scale of working hours, shortening the workweek in order to provide jobs for all; a sliding scale of wages to counteract the ravages of inflation; workers committees to impose workers control of industry; workers defense guards to protect picket lines, workers and poor/immigrant neighborhoods against fascist and repressive attacks; democratic demands such as free, quality education for all and full citizenship rights for all immigrants; workers strike action against imperialist war; massive public works programs under workers control; expropriation of capitalist trusts, war industries, monopolies and the banks under a workers government. Such a program pointing to the need for socialist revolution requires above all the formation of a revolutionary workers party to lead it. In seeking to build the nucleus of such a party, the Internationalist Group calls for a class-struggle fight against capitalist austerity – which means forthrightly opposing attempts to delude workers and the oppressed with empty phrases and tie us to the parties, politicians and institutions of the ruling class. ■
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