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Related Categories: U.S. | Labor & Workers
Struggles in the Shadow of the Pandemic
by John Clarke and Vishwas Satgar
Sunday Feb 7th, 2021 3:36 PM
For Trump, wealth, privilege, and power was even license to invent reality as he saw fit. Thus any divergence from his worldview and interests were ‘fake news’. Trump ensured the plutocratic wealthy were no longer in the political shadows but now in the mainstream.
Struggles in the Shadow of the Pandemic
POVERTY, SOCIAL MOVEMENTS • May 7, 2020 • John Clarke

It is a principle of historical materialism that social consciousness reflects social being and it is, therefore, inevitable that the former will tend to lag behind the latter. At a time like the present, human societies are being buffeted by rapid and deeply disturbing changes and the thinking of hundreds of millions of people is in flux, unable to take in everything that is happening. The biomedical, economic and ecological components of the unfolding situation interact and produce new developments at every turn.



We can be sure that the solutions to these devastating developments that those in economic and political power will seek to implement will require working class people to suffer greatly increased levels of exploitation and devastating reductions in their living standards. Shocked passivity is not a viable option and there is an acute need to fan the flames of resistance to the greatest extent possible, so as to generate the conditions of mass social action, out of which a leap in social consciousness is possible.

This year, our still very important May Day celebrations had to move online and, as we tried to take stock of the situation, something I have long considered vital about International Workers’ Day struck me as especially significant in 2020. The struggle in Chicago that we honour each year was rooted in the most practical of issues, the reduction of the working day to 8 hours, yet it was undertaken and led by those who advanced a bold vision of a very different society to that operated in the interests of profit and greed. As the lockdown causes so much hardship for so many, immediate struggles for survival that are shaped by clear anti-capitalist politics would be very much in line with the traditions and lessons of May Day. How can this be taken forward and what are the possible key sites of struggle?

Lockdown
The need for physical distancing, in order to prevent the disastrously rapid spread of the coronavirus, is well understood and has clear majority support, as polls in the US, the UK and Canada have shown. It is clear, moreover, that the present lockdown may only be the first one we have to deal with. One of the most decisive fights we will face in the months ahead will be against the capitalists, political leaders and their orchestrated right wing cheering section, as they push for a lethal profit driven ‘re-opening of the economy.’ How relentless and determined the drive to sacrifice human lives will be can be seen in the news reports that show the Trump Administration is moving in this direction even as it sits on evidence suggesting 3,000 lives a day will be lost to the coronavirus by early June. We will have to respond to such murderous courses of action by drawing up our preconditions for a safe reopening process and organize in our communities to defy back to work orders, the reopening of schools and other such life threatening measures.

If, however, physical distancing is the only way of protecting ourselves and our communities as long as the pandemic hangs over us, this doesn’t mean that we should accept lockdown on any terms. There is no safety for those who face hunger or who may be evicted for non payment of rent. We must oppose corporate bailouts while fighting for extended Employment Insurance (EI), increased social assistance rates and a Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) that is available to all who lose their income. Rents and mortgage payments must be frozen during this and any subsequent lockdowns. We must also utterly oppose all police crackdowns. The present period has opened up extended opportunities for the cops to extend their social control activities. Racist harassment and the persecution of poor and homeless people is being conducted under the guise of keeping communities safe. We will stay safe by building solidarity and support and the police have no role in that at all.

We must pay very close attention to supporting the struggles of those who perform essential work during the lockdowns. Health, transportation and service workers must be able to decide what they need to work safely and their demands and any actions they take in support of them must be backed to the hilt. Safe physical distancing must be a right for everyone and we can abandon no one in this regard.

Indigenous communities must get an infusion of resources to keep their populations safe. For a horribly large number of women, the lockdown has trapped them in homes that are places of danger and violence. The lack of safe space in Canada for women who face domestic violence is shameful and the present crisis demands this be properly addressed without delay. Homeless people must be provided with hotel rooms or housing, with provision for those who may have contracted the virus. Long term care facilities must be taken out of the hands of for profit owners so that they are no longer run as death traps. Prisons and jails can’t continue to operate as overcrowded magnets for the coronavirus and the widespread release of prisoners must be part of the solution. Special attention must be paid to removing the threat of removal from the country from over the heads of migrant workers and non status people and they must be able to stay in Canada in conditions of safety.

After the Lockdown
The problems facing the capitalist system run much deeper than the present pandemic, even if it has sparked and intensified the present crisis. A major global slump was developing before the first person got sick from COVID-19. The period after the pandemic will be marked by mass unemployment and a concerted drive to place the vast costs that were incurred dealing with it on the backs of working class people. This will take the form of a drive to increase the level of exploitation of workers, with union busting and wage cuts the order of the day, as well as a massive austerity driven assault on public services. It is vital that we begin now, in our unions and community organizations, to prepare for the unprecedented struggles that lie ahead. Where workers on the front lines have acted to challenge unsafe working conditions (and it has been happening on a very significant scale) it is striking how much this has been initiated and led by the rank and file. That momentum should be developed and intensified in the period ahead and linked to the resistance of communities under attack. We should encourage the formation of the most dynamic and democratic forms of working class organization possible to take forward the fightback.

The attacks that will come down will be many and varied but some key fights, apart from the attack on employed workers and the struggle for decent income support I have already mentioned, seem to be brewing during the present lockdown.

At present, a vast number of tenants are unable to pay their rent. There have been rent strikes that have given this an organized form and that point the way forward. The prospect of mass evictions during the lockdown has partly deterred the authorities but, once that phase is over, we may expect landlords to ruthlessly seek payment of arrears and for the state eviction machine to resume its ugly work. A militant anti-eviction movement, on a scale that surpasses that of the 1930s must be our objective.

Under great community pressure, with disastrous foot dragging and to a totally inadequate degree, the powers that be in Toronto have created safe options for homeless people. Much more needs to be done in this regard. However, once this lockdown is over, the fight against homelessness needs to expand dramatically. Whether there is to be a second wave of the pandemic or not, the basic human right to housing in this city must be won. We can no longer tolerate destitution and outright social abandonment. Social housing must be created and empty private housing must be taken over in the meantime to ensure no one is left on the streets.

The pandemic has given racists a sense of permission and we have seen a horrible increase in hate crimes against East Asian people. The harsh times that lay ahead will doubtless see a considerable rise in the worst expressions of racism and our movements must offer a united resistance to it, whether it marches on the streets or wears a suit and operates at the official level. We must also remember that the struggle in the period ahead will be waged on an international scale. It will explode in poor and oppressed countries and will be taken up by migrants and refugees. It is vital that we see our work here as part of a world wide struggle, that we give every support to those fighting back across the planet and that we generate the deepest sense of global solidarity.

The next few years will be very harsh and bitter but they will produce the conditions that can create a leap in thinking among millions of people. People will emerge from the present lockdown with a deep sense of grievance over how the crisis was dealt with and what they had to live through. Yet, they will not find any return to normality but will instead face major attacks. So staid an institution as the BBC is making comparisons to the Great Depression. This really is a turning point in history that calls upon us to act differently and decisively.

I began by saying that social consciousness lags behind social being but there are times when leaps in collective thinking can emerge that can drive social explosions. I suggest that the period we are entering into is one when fighting demands that truly challenge existing power structures can attract huge support, provided they are accompanied by bold plans of action that inspire and offer hope. I would also say that the vision of a society very different to the present one can resonate powerfully and anti-capitalist politics can win mass support. However, the idea that a better world is possible can’t take hold if those who run the present one appear invincible. The pandemic has unleashed a crisis that poses the gravest dangers but opens up the real possibility of transforming the decades of defensive struggle against neoliberal attack into an offensive challenge to the whole capitalist system. •

This article first published on the John Clarke’s blog.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.
_____________________________________________________

Trump May Be Gone, But Neofascism Remains
USA • February 7, 2021 • Vishwas Satgar Trump May Be Gone, But Neofascism Remains - The Bullet (socialistproject.ca)
At last, the Donald Trump Presidency has crash landed and he is out of the White House. Now, we can all start dealing with ‘Trump trauma’ and shock. What did we live through over the past four years? This is a planetary question. It is a question we are all grappling with because the world is now capitalist on a global scale and America is the leading power making that world. Post the Cold War we were all conscripted to be Americans and the ‘American Dream’ was declared the global dream. Even China bought into it through its own self interested and authoritarian way. They became so good at it then even Trump baulked. He wanted it back and declared: “Make America Great Again.”
While we do not physically live in America, through the global media we are front-row spectators gazing into it, watching the theatrics of its leaders while grappling with its presence in our everyday lives. The US has set the standards of ‘civilization’ by asserting a set of universals – democracy, progress, competition, individualism and free enterprise. These universals are the props of a mythic America, standing tall at the vanguard of the ‘free world’, and which reveals itself through the iconic hamburger, unthinking patriotism, voting in elections, the veneration of a masculine gun culture, Hollywood movies and mass consumption.

This idealized liberal version of America and its material roots is what Trump remade. He could do this because he exploited one of the most fatal flaws of US democracy: the over concentration of power in the US Presidency and the cult-like aura that surrounds this political institution. This weakness exists despite the constitutional separation of powers and Trump ably demonstrated this. One individual controlling the world’s most deadly nuclear arsenal, a powerful communications megaphone, commander of the military, imbued with a veto against Congress and extensive Executive Power, including for extra judicial killing anywhere in the world, got busy wrecking everything since his election in 2016.
Rising to the Top of the System
At times, with his racist utterances he looked like Hitler, and at other times, in his anti-democratic performances like Stalin. A Trumpian Presidency also demonstrated how an anti-democratic, neo-fascist, could use the weaknesses of a corporate controlled market democracy to rise to the apex of the US political system. Money, exclusionary nationalism, a sympathetic right-wing media and an effective social media strategy easily secured entry into the White House. This is not unique to the US but has become a feature of many market democracies in the global north and south.
The third wave of democratization (1973 – to the mid 2000s), based on American liberal universals, has been halting. As it plunges into crisis all over the world, it is giving rise to a second coming of fascism including in India (the largest democracy in the world) and Brazil (the largest democracy in Latin America). Inequalities have broken market democracies and ritual voting every few years for more of the same pro-business policies is breeding deadly divides across precarious societies. COVID-19 has only made this all worse.
Beyond mythic America and Dow Jones economic performance indicators is an extremely divided country. Since the 1970s, corporate America started pushing harder to end the US social contract that provided certain minimum social protections. Ronald Reagan’s unleashing of corporate power, coded racism (referred to in the mainstream as Republican conservatism) and renewed Cold War competition paved the way for Bill Clinton to entrench the power of US corporate finance into every nook and cranny of US life. This also provided the institutional basis for global corporate finance, centred on the Dollar and Wall Street, to shape deepening globalization.
In this expansionist economic tide there were winners and losers. The winners are the super-wealthy plutocrats. In 1965, an average CEO salary was forty times as much as the average wage; today that number is more than 300 times as much. Today, the top 5 per cent of households possess nearly 75 per cent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 60 per cent of American households have lost wealth. Unionization of the American workforce played a crucial redistributive role but this has declined from a high of more than 30 per cent in the mid-1950s to fewer than 10 per cent today. In this fragile society dramatic shocks easily reveal its underbelly. For instance, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 brought home vividly racial exclusion and wealth disparities in New Orleans. Moreover, the great financial crash of 2007-2009 exacerbated inequalities, as finance houses where bailed out and the precariat of American society lost homes and jobs. Barrack Obama and the Democratic Party did very little to change the direction of American society and deep social fault-lines widened.
Some Context
The Trumpian response has to be located in this context. It was a right-wing challenge to the hypocrisy of liberal nationalism and internationalism. Trumpism was about revanchist nationalism, to regain lost ground for white Anglo-Saxon supremacy, while drawing from deep wells of anti-intellectualism and discontent within American society. He was the strong man in the White House, in the age of social media, who was going to build walls, persecute the children of immigrants, crank up Islamaphobia and crush protests in defense of Black lives. In geopolitical terms he was also readjusting relations with trans-Atlantic allies and China to affirm a crude version of US transactional unilateralism, something which Democrats cloak in multilateralism.
Trump was doing all of this while keeping American capitalism going to keep plutocratic America happy. Tax cuts for the rich, Wall Street finance flowing, elite Charter Schools, enabling fossil fuel extraction, promoting climate denialism and asserting an anti-science approach to COVID-19. On the latter, Trump was demonstrating to the world a misguided libertarian individualism, with rejecting mask wearing as more important than the common good. Trump was the unapologetic and arrogant white male capitalist political ruler. In the context of the Republican Party, despite a few individual noises and divergences, Trumpism resonated because it amplified what was inside the Republican Party.
The American dream in this narrative is about a plutocratic white America being able to do what it wants despite the formality of democracy. Trump confirmed this with his cabinet appointments which included several billionaires, millionaires and centimillonaires. For Trump, wealth, privilege, and power was even license to invent reality as he saw fit. Thus any divergence from his worldview and interests were ‘fake news’. Trump ensured the plutocratic wealthy were no longer in the political shadows but now in the mainstream. This political reality essentially short circuited the Washington beltway, with its patronage wheels greased by mega business lobbies to buy out policies and regulation. Wealthy plutocrats were now directly in charge and at the apex of the state. This in turn constituted corporate power as the definitive marker of whiteness and the market as freedom. About 74 million who voted for Trump believe the same and this makes neo-fascism a living political phenomena in the mainstream of American society, even if Trump disappears.
On January 6th, the storming of the Capitol was a desperate plutocratic move Trumpism played to affirm its anti-democratic credentials. This moment of infamy was very similar to scenes in many parts of the world as the crisis of market democracies worsens. In the American context it flipped the narrative of the Muslim fundamentalist terrorist as being the barbarian at the gates to homegrown white neo-fascism. At the same time, the American standard of democracy, with its hypocrisy, exclusions and limits was rendered visible. It ended a propagandistic myth of the perfect democracy cultivated since the end of World War 2, through the McCarthy red baiting period, Cold War destabilization of many countries and in the era of corporate led globalization. The scary fact lurking in all of this is 139 Republican representatives (66% of the caucus in the House) and 8 Republican Senators voted to over-turn the recent national election. Stealing the election was a consistent agenda that united Trump, the mob and the majority in the Republican Party. This was further affirmed when only a small minority (10 out of 211 Republican representatives) voted in favor of the second impeachment of Trump.
The Joe Biden led Democratic Party is off to a good start to criminalize the mob violence but a narrow law and order approach is not going to solve the deep divides wrenching American society apart. Trumpian white supremacists and plutocratic elites can be securitized to ensure political management and old style deal making can kick in to divide the Trumpian support base but this is not new in America. This has been happening to African Americans since the civil rights victories of the mid-1960s: incorporation for some, exclusion, securitization and incarceration for the many. As a result the real challenge of the racial divide was not addressed.

America needs a new nation building project that addresses the deep roots of crisis. An immediate priority is ending COVID-19 devastation and policy failures. However, beyond the pandemic nothing short of a new constitution, electoral reforms which removes corporate financial influence, including a break with the two party system and the outdated Electoral College, climate change economic policies that are transformative, progressive immigration policies, tight gun control laws, democratic regulation of social media corporations and international relations that respects societies that democratically choose not to be like America, could lay the basis for renewal. Biden’s Democratic Party faces this historical test. If it fails in this task the world should expect further decay and social conflict in American society as it declines as a post-hegemonic power. •
This is an expanded version of an article first published by the Sunday Times.
Dr. Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations, University of Witwatersrand and an activist. He is the co-editor of Destroying Democracy – Neoliberal Capitalism and the Rise of Authoritarian Politics, Wits University Press, 2021.
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