A lifelong socialist reflects on the new world we are entering, and the challenges and opportunities we can expect ahead.
It’s been a month now. The bullhorn sits in our hallway, over four weeks since its last use. It sits mute. A stack of flyers sit on my wife Linda’s desk, for an event whose date has come and gone. They sit unused. These are the silent reminders of a time of rallies and demonstrations, of interventions and picket lines, of forums and fundraisers, the tools that build mass movements. We must carefully put these tools back into the toolbox, because they will be needed again.
Now we have entered a time of Webinars and Zoom calls and social media. All are important. It is also a time of study and observation. A time to listen and learn. Much as our predecessors on the socialist left used prison and exile as a chance to sharpen their skills and develop their arguments, we must do likewise.
When the time comes to reemerge into the outside world we will face a legion of challenges, and a raft of opportunities. The old landscape will be shattered beyond recognition, and the old pieties will be shaken to their core. We must be prepared to hit the ground running.
“Believers in the shock doctrine are convinced that only a great rupture – a flood, a war, a terrorist attack, (a pandemic), – can create the kind of vast, clean break they crave. It is in these malleable moments, when we are psychologically unmoored and physically uprooted, that these artists of the real plunge in their hands and begin their work of remaking the world.”Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine
The recent Wisconsin election fiasco can be thought of as a trial balloon for the Shock Doctrine solution. The Supreme Court rendered the 1965 Voting Rights Bill meaningless, more valuable as toilet paper than as law. What would in normal times have been headline news, was relegated to the category of “and also,” on the evening news. The same holds true to at least a half dozen recent moves of the Trump administration, ranging from reducing auto pollution controls to increased hostility toward Venezuela to eliminating a key NLRB protection.
For capitalism to remain profitable it needs periodic destruction on a mass scale. Such devastation allows it a rare chance to clear away its dead wood and reboot itself. Such an opportunity hasn’t occurred in the United States since World War II. In that sense, the Covid-19 pandemic is exactly what it needs. A recent article in International Viewpoint put it this way, “Major crises in the political economy are absolutely vital to the functioning and long-term survival of capitalism.” In short, capitalism is the crisis.
Capitalism will survive the pandemic with several advantages in both “hard power” and in “soft power” undiminished. Its hard power begins with the state and local police forces. They constitute capitalism’s first line of defense, its Praetorian Guard. At first the police will still have the aura of heroic first responders, a holdover from the crisis’ immediate aftermath. Extraordinary circumstances, crowd control, and the public good, can all be used as excuses to keep resistance at bay.
The military will be there as the enforcer of last resort. The Defense Authorization Act of 2006 had a seemingly innocent rider attached to it, almost overlooked at the time. This rider was a poison pill written in the bill to give the president, for the first time, the power to “employ the armed forces, including the National Guard,” thereby circumventing state governments, “to restore public order, and suppress disorder.” Emergencies include hurricanes, mass protests, or especially timely now, a “public health emergency.”
We may be a long way from those drastic measures, at least I hope so. More immediate will be the challenges of soft power. The first among these challenges will be “who will control the narrative?” The closest example we have in recent memory is the fallout resulting from the financial implosion of 2008. The ruling class was well prepared to spin their version of events. Their think tanks and foundations, along with their lapdog media, were primed to tell a story that off-loaded the guilt from Wall Street on to the backs of working people.
In a matter of months, placing the blame on greedy mortgage peddlers and derivative traders morphed into a non-stop litany on the need for austerity. From chained CPI to the Simpson-Bowles Commission, cutbacks became the battle cry of the Geithner/Summers-infused Obama administration.
Rick Santelli, a sock puppet of the Koch Brothers, staged a scripted rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Amplified by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, a new Guilty as Charged was named: Homeowners. If seeds could be planted to grow Astroturf, this was the moment when they were sown. Among the weeds that grew was the Tea Party, a faux movement that temporarily – but at a crucial juncture – ruled the streets.
Divide and conquer, a tried and true tactic first mastered by the Roman Empire, and honed to perfection over the centuries by despots and tyrants of all varieties, will be on display as needed. Pitting race against race, and age group against age group, are deadly traps we must expose. Trump’s attempt to brand Covid-19 as the “Chinese Virus” is just a small example of what we can expect. “Greedy Geezers” vs. Millennials is another example.
When we roll back the stones and leave our caves we will find forty-five years of neoliberal orthodoxy exposed for the lie it has been and the carnage it has wrought. We will have been given a one-time opportunity to hit the restart button and rebuild a fighting, relevant, revolutionary socialist movement. We cannot afford to waste it. The clock will be ticking.
Socialists of all stripes must find common cause. Differences will exist, and that’s as it should be. Differences are the piston that drives the dialectic. But differences must not be allowed to be what defines us. Reform and revolution should be linked together wherever possible. Sectarianism has too long dominated the American far left, let us try to minimalize it.
Estimates on losses of private health insurance coverage for Americans begin at 7 million people at the low end, while according to a Business Insider article that number may balloon to a whopping 35 million. At the same time unemployment will reach levels not seen since the height of the Great Depression. There is no doubt that the mystique of the free market will stand revealed as a one way ticket on the express train to barbarism. But this fact alone will not necessarily translate to an instant leap to radical consciousness.
History tells us that a traumatized population’s first instinct will be to cling to the familiar. That mindset will not last. We must be patient, the time of bullhorns and flyers will return. Demonstrations and rallies will eventually again fill the streets. Strikes have already shown their potential. Our time will come, our ideas are powerful. A better world is possible, we can and must make it happen!
Guy Miller is a lifelong socialist and retired United Transportation Union member.