by Gary Olson
There is only one thing the ruling circles have always wanted — and that’s everything.— Michael Parenti
A recent lead editorial in The New York Times reads “Another Way the 2020s Might Be Like the 1930s.” Written by Jamelle Bouie, an African-American millennial (age 33) on the paper’s editorial staff, the piece contains the following opening and closing paragraphs:
Class consciousness does not flow automatically out of class identity. Being a worker does not necessarily mean you will come to identify as a worker. Instead, you can think of class consciousness as a process of discovery, of insights derived from events that put the relationship of the class into stark relief.
After devoting most of what follows to empathic snapshots of recent worker strikes and protests Bouie concludes:
The militancy born of immediate self-protection and self-interest can grow into calls for deeper, broader transformation. And if the United States continues to stumble its way into yet another generational-defining economic catastrophe, we may find that even more of the working class comes to see itself as an agent of change — and action.
The piece seemed far outside the NYT’s semi-official propagandizing fare. Were the editors inadvertently aiding and abetting capitalist class suicide? Realizing that this was an a priori impossibility and reflecting further, I could fathom a similar piece appearing in the paper in the early 1930s. Indeed, I found a cartoon in the Times from 1933 that expressed confidence in a newly-elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
At that time, economic conditions and organized, radical pressure from below, threatened to delegitimize the ideological and structural foundations of capitalism. Fearing that an emerging working-class consciousness might lead to a revolution, Bouie-like liberal reformers of the day tried to persuade the predator class to change their greedy ways before it was too late. Because they failed, FDR publicly accused fellow members of his class of being “stubborn and incompetent … they have no vision.” He and the Democratic Congress then launched a raft of reforms in a conscious effort to save capitalism while simultaneously neutering working-class militancy. In doing so, FDR solemnly pledged this was all “entirely feasible under the form of government we have inherited from our ancestors.”
Here it’s worth noting that considerable uncertainty remains about just how comfortable FDR, previously a conventional liberal politician, was about his own far-reaching reforms. One piece of evidence casting doubt on his commitment was that in 1937-38, perhaps believing that the two emergencies cited earlier had been blunted, FDR sought a balanced budget, severely reduced the Federal fiscal stimulus and reduced taxes, all of which collapsed the economy again and quickly sent unemployment figures into the high teens, a period dubbed the “Roosevelt Recession.”
With World War II looming, FDR turned away from the New Deal, scuttled national health care, tied welfare to work and championed free trade. We’ll never know what might happened next because massive deficit spending on World War II saved the capitalist economy. I rarely agree with Paul Krugman but he’s correct in saying that “Even under FDR, there never was sufficient will to do what was necessary to end the Great Depression; it’s eventual resolution came essentially by accident.” Deficit spending on the war was the equivalent of $30 trillion in today’s dollars.
All of the above bears directly upon Bouie’s column. In an earlier opinion piece, he praised Bernie Sanders as his favorite candidate to undertake needed liberal reforms, just weeks before Sanders ended his presidential campaign and endorsed Joe Biden. In another column, he urged Democrats to seize the moment and enact “New Dealish” policies and programs. What’s transparent in Bouie’s narrow view of class consciousness, he confuses it with an embryonic stage when working men and women arrive at something commonly understood as trade-union consciousness (TUC). All too often this is its terminal stage and that’s not by accident. When conservative AFL founder Samuel Gompers was asked by nervous U.S. Senators — who were fret- ting about socialists in the labor movement — what his members wanted, he replied “More!” His response put the Senator’s fears to rest as they immediately envisioned channeling worker unrest into safer outlets.
Recognizing the need for unions is an essential but insufficient step on the path to class consciousness. While mitigating some inequities, unions themselves do not fundamentally transform the relationship between owners and workers. By contrast, mature class consciousness is nothing less than when the objective, general, and rational interests of a class become its recognized goals. It would be captured in a statement like:
I’m a worker, exploited by the capitalist class. Our collective working-class goals cannot be realized without overthrowing the exploitive capitalist class relations that prevent us from getting what we want and need.
By only favoring TUC, Bouie and The New York Times reveal that capitalist system-maintenance are the motives behind their importations for action. They are encouraging union officials to get out of bed with the bosses, “essential” workers to realize their importance in the economy, Congress to take bold action and at least implicitly, VOTE BLUE! And that’s all. In promoting reforms to prevent the transition from economic demands to class struggle, capitalists and their enablers demonstrate why they are the most class-conscious group in the United States. It’s a strategy we can expect to see deployed more in the near future.
Today, the recourse of relying on politics within a democratic system that isn’t democratic is a fool’s errand. Likewise, the Democrats, who are part of the oligarchical establishment, have no interest in the working class other than obtaining their votes. Beyond that, the Lords of Capital and their enablers have rigged the system, making it virtually impossible for third parties to succeed.
Our rulers are now panicking about the possibility of wildcat strike waves, rad- ical organizing, and sustained, massive non-violent civil disobedience by those who, like MLK’s followers, are unafraid of arrest and knew, along with Frederick Douglas, that “Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never did and it never will.” Given their overwhelming numbers, if these self-emancipatory actions emerge out of genuine working-class consciousness, the state’s enforcement powers will be helpless to stop them. Neither will they be co opted because — to recast Parenti’s opening quote — there is only one thing that those wanting radical change have ever wanted in terms of economic and political democracy — and that’s everything.
Gary Olson is professor emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College. His most recent book is Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain.
We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.—Karl Marx (1843)