by Susan Rosenthal
(Updated at: After 30 Years of Defeat, the Tide is Turning)
The other day, a patient told me that the only way her life was going to change was through a social revolution. Her comment is a sign of the times.
Millions of people feel enraged about the deterioration of their lives and of society. Yet, most think that real change is not possible. This is no surprise. An entire generation has matured knowing only setbacks and defeats. To turn things around, we need to understand how we got here.
The political climate is determined by the relative strength of the capitalist class and the working class. During the 1950’s, the capitalists were more confident. This was the era of the Cold War and the McCarthy witch hunts. During the 1960’s, the working class pushed back, fighting for racial equality, women’s liberation, gay liberation, and better working and living conditions. A mass anti-war movement challenged U.S. imperialism. The belief that ordinary people could change the world was in the air, and it was intoxicating.
The capitalist class used carrots and sticks to counter this rebellion. The carrots were limited reforms like Head Start, food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid. The Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and affirmative action policies reduced the impact of discrimination. In 1967, a moratorium was placed on the death penalty. In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act set workplace safety standards. In 1973, women won the legal right to abortion. And all over America, employers increased wages and benefits.
The sticks were repression. Civil rights demonstrators were attacked with dogs, clubs, and guns. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Black churches were bombed, and scores of Black Panther Party leaders were imprisoned and killed. Anti-war demonstrations were assaulted. In 1970, the National Guard killed four students at Kent State University and wounded nine others. At Jackson State University, police killed two students and wounded 12 others.
Despite these measures, the social crisis deepened. The U.S. was defeated in Vietnam, President Nixon resigned in disgrace, and the economy plunged into recession.
In 1972, the heads of major U.S. corporations organized a Business Roundtable to push a policy of "neoliberalism" or "trickle down economics." Business Week described the difficulty of their task:
"It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow — the idea of doing with less so that business can have more…. Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must be done to make people accept the new reality."
Economic growth was pushed as the only way to solve social problems. But neoliberalism was never about solving social problems; its aim was to restore the power and profitability of American capitalism.
Social programs were eliminated to fund corporate tax cuts. Deregulation and "downsizing" axed millions of good jobs. Employers rolled back wages and busted unions. Progressive social policies were overturned, the death penalty was restored, and the prison population exploded.
Through the 1980s and the 1990s, vast amounts of wealth were transferred from the have-nots to the have-lots. Emboldened by success at home, the capitalist class moved to dominate an oil-dependent world by seizing control of Middle East oil reserves.
Nothing stays the same forever. In 1989, the Russian Empire collapsed. By the end of the 20th century, the American Empire was threatened by China’s rapidly-growing economy and by political rebellions across Latin America. In response, U.S. foreign policy has become more aggressive, and domestic policy has become more repressive. The result is a volcano of simmering resentment.
The spring of 2006 saw the largest eruption of mass protest in American history. Schools emptied, workplaces closed, and general strikes crippled major cities as millions protested anti-immigrant policies. Chanting "We are America," the working class rose up and punched the capitalist class in the face. That fall, the Republican Congress was swept from office by a population sick of war, lies, and corruption.
The unraveling of the current world order has opened a space for new possibilities. Which way will we go? Will we continue to lurch from one set of politicians to another, believing the lie that capitalism can be made to function humanely? As my book explains, there is another way. We can organize ourselves to create a very different world, run by working people, where human needs come first. What do you think?
For more on this subject see POWER and Powerlessness, Part 4, "What will It Take?" Available at www.powerandpowerlessness.com