I’m sorry to be the negative voice but I don’t consider Kevin Drum’s May 27 Mother Jones article “Why the Democratic Party Has Abandoned the Middle Class in Favor of the Rich” to be a profound analysis of why or how the working class became impoverished and disempowered over the past thirty years. Drum documents the extent of this attack in a hard-hitting way, but focusing on the Democratic Party is a distraction from the role of the ruling class and the nature of capitalism in its decline. Also, focusing on the “middle-class” distracts attention away from the existence of real classes, and rapidly expanding poverty in the US.
Drum seems to put the blame on the 1960s New Left for promoting disunity by abandoning labor unions and the Democratic Party, forcing the Democratic Party to turn from labor to corporations for money, making the Democrats stop advocating for the working class. Please, let’s be serious. The Democratic Party has always been as much a ruling class institution as the Republican Party, even while representing different tendencies. And organized labor has mostly gone along with the corporate agenda since the McCarthy campaign and Taft-Hartley laws removed communists and leftists and substituted right-wingers, with Democrats’ support. This was particularly true in the 1950s and early 1960s, when US corporations extracted huge wealth from the rest of the world following World War II, and shared table scraps with organized labor in return for organized labor’s support of imperialism.
Christian Parenti’s book Lockdown America (1999, Verso Press) has a much better explanation of our current situation. The book is about the drug wars at the center of mass incarceration of young black and Latin men, and is a valuable complement to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow because it portrays the mass incarceration of blacks and Latins as part of the attack on all workers. But for this discussion, Lockdown America is valuable because it gets to the heart of why workers have been under such severe attack during the past thirty years.
Parenti cites three factors for this attack on us:
(1) With the rise of European and Japanese capitalists following WWII, and with the US defeat in Viet Nam, after the 1970s, US rulers lost the ability to extract untold wealth from the rest of the world, and decided they must extract that wealth from their own workers.
(2) There was unprecedented working class militancy in the 1960s and 1970s, including huge numbers of strikes, urban rebellions against racism, open rebellion in the armed forces, and campus rebellions against the war. In reaction, US rulers initiated an attack on workers, (1) jacking up interest rates in 1980 to deliberately cause the biggest recession since the 1930s, and (2) eviscerating social services, which were regarded as giving support to workers who were on strike, or considering job actions, or were unemployed. Then, as now, the object was to make workers so desperate they’d work for peanuts.
(3) Because of the intrinsic tendency of capitalism to over-produce commodity goods, and the intrinsic tendency for the rate of profit to decline, in the 1980s, capitalists worldwide turned away from production of goods, which provided jobs and some stability. Instead, they turned toward huge financial speculation, corporate takeovers, commodity future trading, and bubble economies, producing three decades of bubble-and-burst cycles, culminating in the 2008 Great Recession with its massive layoffs and foreclosures.
In Parenti’s words:
“So finally you have the fundamental crisis that capitalism always returns to: you have a crisis of overproduction. This is one of the central irrationalities of this system. That when things work out the way they’re supposed to, you run into trouble. When the economy is going well, you inevitably produce too much stuff and therefore you can’t keep producing at the same rate of profitability, which is the logic, which is the reason that investors invest, that’s what keep capitalism going, is profitability.” (Christian Parenti, Lockdown America in 22 Minutes.)
Drum’s also suggests that in the late 1950s and 1960s the civil rights movement abandoned the labor movement. Actually, it was the other way around: leaders of organized labor had abandoned civil rights in the previous decade. A marvelous book, The Color of Politics, by Michael Goldfield (1997, New Press) shows how, following World War II, unions were supposed to be organizing the South, with its anti-union right-to-work policies and its low-wage white-supremacist workplaces:
“The organization of the South had been an unfinished item on organized labor’s agenda since the nineteenth century. The reasons.. if anything having grown more urgent with the substantial union growth in all parts of the country during the previous decade and with the acceleration of industrial development in the South during World War II. (First) Wage standards of unionists remain(ed) in jeopardy as long as a North-South wage differential exists. (Second) Many in the CIO – especially those on the left – believed that equality for African-Americans and democracy for white as well as Black citizens – especially of the lower classes, could not be achieved without labor organization throughout the South.”
So starting in 1946, a giant CIO unionization campaign, Operation Dixie, was supposed to organize the newly industrialized South, where blacks were being frozen out of many newly opening positions. There had been tremendous increases in overall union membership during the war, and many areas in the South had been successfully unionized. Everything pointed to success. But as Goldfield describes:
“Operation Dixie .. was from the start controlled completely by the CIO right-wingers” (who later took control during the McCarthy period). “Rather than being conceived as a militant mass mobilization campaign like many of those in the 1930s and early 1940s, the CIO right-wing wanted a corporate strategy ..
“First, it wanted to appear completely respectable, to be seen as legitimate, patriotic, and southern. … [A]rguments were made to businessmen about the benefits of unionism to their businesses. .. It was in good part further restrained by its close relations with the Democratic Party, (largely) Dixiecratic.”
“Second, a major tenet of this strategy was to deemphasize race. .. It downplayed those more racially mixed industries such as tobacco, transportation, and wood, whose initial prospects seemed more promising than textile. ..Statewide Operation Dixie leaders even sent back national CIO literature with interracial pictures. (This) caused them to lose textile elections where the percentages of blacks were high, because they failed to get sufficient support from African-American workers, an almost unheard of problem for CIO unions in the mid- and late- 1940s.”
“Third, .. the CIOs strategy was to exclude all left-wingers from the Operation Dixie staff, again in order to be respectable and to keep them from getting greater influence within the CIO. This approach led the CIO leadership to bypass precisely those organizers who had been most successful in the South, (including) Black organizers (who) tended to be left-wingers.”
“Fourth, .. Operation Dixie’s head, Van Bittner, had a go-it-alone approach, refusing support from other unions and even the liberal Southern Conference for Human Welfare.”
“The bureaucratism and obtuseness to the importance of solidarity and worker militance, especially to questions of race, led the CIO right into a completely self-defeating strategy. The biggest successes that the CIO right had, especially in the late 1940s, were their raids on left-wing unions, which in some important instances destroyed unionism in those industries. The unions attacked were in many cases interracial and anti-racist, with varying degrees of support among white workers for racial egalitarianism. The most militantly anti-racist white workers, many of whom had large followings among whites as well as blacks and were almost invariably leftists, were driven out of the unions in maritime, metal mining and tobacco in the South.”
So It understandable why 1960s anti-racists spurned the leadership of organized labor. Besides the betrayals outlined above, there was governmental pressure to suppress late 1950s and early 1960s worker-based and class-based anti-racist activity and promotion a new civil rights movement that eschewed communist affiliations. This is spelled out in Gerald Horn’s Black Liberation/Red Scare (1994, Associated University Presses). The Color of Politics describes the limitations on the outlook of new civil rights movement:
“Racial discrimination was not economic or structural. .. Rather, blacks were denied their individual rights, guaranteed by the Constitution and the American Creed because of the prejudices – irrational beliefs – held by whites, especially the less-educated, working-class whites. The remedies were twofold: first, educating whites .. and second, changing the laws … No need to mobilize people for collective struggle, no need to fundamentally to challenge the social structure or economic order, no need to alter class-based governmental policies. … Although the late 1950s and early 1960s civil rights movement was to drop the gradualism and reluctance to engage in mass mobilizations – harking back to the immediatism and moral urgency of the abolitionists – they were to retain much of the rights-based perspective embodied in the “new” stance.”
So where does this leave us?
First, what Drum calls the Democratic Party Abandonment of the Middle Class is at most a symptom of the problem, certainly not the cause. The Democratic Party is firmly bound up with US capitalism. When US capitalism could take whatever it wanted from the world and could share a little with workers, then the Democratic Party took on the appearance of helping workers and unions. Then in the late 1970s, when US capitalism entered its decline, as all empires must, and the rulers decided to keep themselves alive by eating their own workers, the Democratic Party shed a few crocodile tears and followed its masters into the deadly swamp. Unfortunately, following the late 1940s expulsion of communists and leftists from unions, the leadership of organized labor went the same way.
The question isn’t how can the Democrats get out from under corporations. The question is how we can get out from under capitalism.