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 angry 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 1950s, the capitalists were confident. They had beaten back the workers’ rebellion of the 1930s-1940s with the Cold War and the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts. During the 1960s, 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.
The capitalist class used carrots and sticks to put down this rebellion. The carrots were limited reforms like Head Start, food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid. The impact of racism was reduced with the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and affirmative action policies. In 1967, a federal moratorium was placed on the death penalty. In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act established workplace safety standards. In 1973, women won the legal right to abortion. And all over America, employers raised wages and benefits.
The sticks were repression. Civil rights demonstrators were attacked with dogs, clubs, teargas, water cannons, and guns. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. 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.
In the early 1970s, the U.S. economy plunged into recession. In response, the heads of major U.S. corporations organized a Business Roundtable to push a policy of “neoliberalism” also called “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 promoted as the only way to solve social problems. But neoliberalism was never about solving social problems; its aim was to restore the 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 the world by seizing control of Middle East oil reserves.
By the end of the 20th century, the American Empire was being threatened by China’s rapidly-growing economy and by political rebellions across Latin America. In response, U.S. foreign policy became more aggressive, and domestic policy became more repressive. The result has been 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 in protest against 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.
Changing the faces in Washington proved to be no solution. Regardless of which person or which political party is in office, life continues to deteriorate for the majority.
We have a choice:
We can continue to put our hopes in one set of politicians or another in the mistaken belief that capitalism can be made to function humanely.
Or we can organize ourselves to replace capitalist rule with a cooperative, socialist society that will put human needs first.