A New Dawn For The US Left
Appeared in the Guardian "Comment is Free" on June 3rd, 2011
Tea Party activists gather on Capitol Hill in support of budget cuts, but the Tea Party's libertarian, anti-government sentiment clashes with corporate interests in, for instance, federal spending on defence. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Prospects for the left in the United States are far better than they seem to most observers across the political spectrum (excepting those who fantasise imminent revolutionary uprisings spearheaded by 79-year-old sociology professors). The economic crisis has bitten hard and deep. Millions of people have been impacted by high unemployment and home foreclosures, by decreased job benefits and job security, and by the realisation that none of these afflictions will end soon. A sense of betrayal is settling into the popular consciousness. People are coming to believe that despite their hard work and "playing by the rules", a long-term decline is placing the American Dream increasingly out of their reach.
The economic crisis activated, intensely and very publicly, the hegemonic alliance among big business, the richest 5% of citizens and the state. Business and the rich insisted on (and the federal government complied with) corporate bailouts costing huge sums of public money. The state borrowed that money rather than taxing big business and the richest 5% of citizens. This three-way hegemonic alliance is now proceeding to utilise the suddenly and vastly increased state debt to shift the cost of the crisis onto the mass of people. First, its members depict enlarged state debt as costing too much in state outlays for interest and repayment – threatening what the state can do for people in the future. Second, they insist that therefore "there is no choice but to" cut public payrolls and services and raise taxes (in combinations depending on what voter constituencies will allow). A crucial part of the hegemonic alliance among big business, the richest 5% and the state is the role of the state as the socially acceptable object of anger, protest and rage deflected from the economic power and privileges of its hegemonic partners.
As a result, the Tea Party movement is, so far, the only systematically organised expression in the United States of mass opposition to the crisis and its social effects. But they do not see the state's policies as reflecting complicity with its hegemonic partners' determination to emerge from the crisis unchecked in their activities and richer than before. Tea Party activists are, after all, specialists in demonising the state as the root of all social problems.
As often happens, though, the usefulness of the Tea Party movement to the hegemonic alliance is partial and temporary. Once the deflection of people's upset seems secure and likewise the shifting of the crisis's costs onto mass austerity, the ruling class will have no further use for the Tea Partiers. The Tea Party movement's demonisation of the state risks disrupting the hegemonic partnership, which does not want or need to cut the defence budget, or cripple the many other (and likewise, costly) ways the state subsidises business and favours the richest citizens. It does not want to provoke a mass backlash against reduced state services, because that might rediscover the most obvious alternative to austerity – namely, taxing business and the rich to avoid deficits and thereby obviate austerity.
When the Tea Party movement pursues what the hegemons see as an excessive government-cutting agenda, the temporary allies will find themselves on a collision course. Since the hegemonic alliance is more powerful than the Tea Party movement, the latter's prospects in the United States now looks decidedly poor. As its significant corporate financiers shift their strategy, Tea Party activitists may well disassemble and shrink back into its more socially marginalised feeder organisations.
For different reasons and from a different history, the American left also leans toward anti-government sentiment, but the crucial point is that, unlike the Tea Party, the left has no taboo against focusing its activism also against big business and the richest 5%. The crisis has revived and renewed those voices on the US left that stress its nature as systemic – a crisis of the economic system that does not originate in or reduce to government policies. The ideological grounds for a left resurgence are developing in the consciousness of American citizens.
The left's solutions are not restricted to re-regulation or punishment of corrupt speculators. They affirm, but also go beyond, massive public employment programmes and other economic stimulants paid for not by borrowing (and socially burdensome deficits), but rather, by taxing corporations and the richest citizens. Their solutions increasingly include transformation of enterprises such that workers collectively, cooperatively and democratically owning and operating enterprises would become a growing business sector.
In short, the US left is working its way to a comprehensive alternative programme to exit the crisis, one taxing the corporations and the richest 5% – those who contributed most to the crisis, who are the most able to pay for resolving it, and who have received the most state aid so far and therefore "recovered" the most. Those sympathetic to the left have their work to do, but the prospects for success suggest excitement and energy and no longer the demoralisation that afflicted them for so long.
In contrast, the Tea Partiers' proposals for shrinking government offer immediate pain and suffering to the mass of Americans, while also fraying their connections to the hegemonic alliance in the United States. Tea Party prospects are not good. A resurgent US left can take from the Tea Party movement those of its supporters who can identify business and the rich as adversaries, who harbour anti-capitalist impulses. The political terrain in the United States has shifted and the US left now has major opportunities.
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