It’s Time to Build An Alternative for the 99%

The 2016 presidential race to date offers striking evidence of the massive loss of support for the political establishment and a sharpening polarization within both major parties. On the one hand, Bernie Sanders – who has called for a “political revolution” against the billionaire class – is currently receiving 35% support from likely Democratic primary voters (according to the latest NBC poll) and is rising fast. Hillary Clinton, favored choice of the corporate wing of the party, was supposed to be on a long victory lap, but now her campaign is in serious difficulties. Meanwhile the two front-runners in the Republican race, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, are right populists whose support is partly based on having no experience as politicians. This shows the hatred for political insiders who engage in horse trading.

What is happening here is part of an international trend, which in some countries has gone much further, with the complete collapse of key establishment parties and the rapid emergence of new political forces both on the left and the right. The most recent and very significant development is the victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the race for leader of the British Labour Party. Corbyn, a longstanding socialist member of parliament, ran on the basis of opposing the austerity agenda that the Labour Party leadership had completely accepted for years. Rather than debating how much austerity to impose, Corbyn has called for resistance to the savage cuts being imposed by the Conservative government.

These developments show the huge potential that has opened up to build the left here and in many other countries. But only if the necessary conclusions, especially the need to build an independent political force for the 99%, are drawn in time.

New Era of Struggle

These developments are the political reflection of the deep crisis that global capitalism has entered since the 2007-8 implosion in the financial markets, a crisis which may be about to enter a new phase with the economic downturn in China. It is true that in the US there have been some elements of an economic recovery, but it is fundamentally a recovery for the rich. The bulk of the working class has not experienced it. The latest data from the Census Bureau shows that median household income was 6.5% lower in 2014 than in 2007. The jobs being created are overwhelmingly low paid and working conditions are worsening.

Over the past few years we have seen a growing wave of resistance, beginning with the Wisconsin uprising of workers and youth against Governor Scott Walker in 2011. A few months later the Occupy movement exploded on the national scene, raising the banner of the 99% and putting the question of inequality firmly on the agenda. Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson just over a year ago, tens of thousands of black youth have taken the road of struggle. The fast food workers’ actions for “$15 and a union,” which reached a new height on April 15, 2015, are increasingly explicit in linking the fight for economic and racial justice. They also point to the potential to rebuild a fighting labor movement, which is critical to begin a full-scale push back against super-exploitation. Hundreds of thousands have also taken to the streets to demand real action to fight the looming climate catastrophe.

What Is Needed

There is clearly a rising tide of anger and a powerful desire for serious change among large sections of the working class and youth. For several years, polls have shown that socialism as a broad concept is increasingly popular, especially among people under 30. Polls have also consistently shown majority support for left positions like higher taxes on the rich (in 2013, 52% supported the statement “redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich”) and earlier this year no less than 63% said they supported a $15 minimum wage. A Gallup poll in September 2014 showed 58% supporting the idea of a third party.

But it is also clear that unless the left is able to rise to the task of building a coherent alternative to corporate politics, right populist forces will take advantage of the political vacuum. This has already been seen in a number of European countries.

We in Socialist Alternative have long argued for the building of a new mass party that serves the interests of working people and the poor rather than the 0.01%.

Many people think of a political party only in electoral terms, but what is needed is a party rooted in communities and workplaces, a party of social struggle whose political representatives give voice to the demands of ordinary people in the halls of power. At the end of the day all key reforms achieved by working people, black people, women, and LGBTQI people have come through struggle. But while elections are not the source of fundamental change, it is critical to see that as long as the electoral plane is ceded to corporate forces, working people’s interests will be constantly undermined.

Clearly a new political force on the left must take no money from corporate interests. Some think it is impossible for the left to make an impact politically in the post-Citizens United world because of the avalanche of corporate cash. But Bernie Sanders’ anti-establishment campaign – which refuses corporate donations – raised $15 million in the first couple months from 250,000 donors giving an average of $31. Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant’s reelection campaign for Seattle City Council so far has raised over $300,000, a remarkable figure. Imagine what would be possible if even part of the unions’ massive political funds (the top ten unions alone spent over $153 million in the 2012 elections) were put behind independent working class candidates standing in targeted local and national races.

American Exceptionalism?

To many progressives the idea of a new party still seems far fetched. This partly flows from the lack of experience of mass labor or socialist parties, of the type historically seen in many European countries.

This view is based on a misunderstanding. The labor movement and left played a massive role in the past in this country and helped win huge gains for working people as a whole. Furthermore, the potential to build a broader mass party was very real at a number of points, including during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the economic crisis of the mid-1970s, but was also cut across by significant factors that reflected the power of US capitalism throughout much of the 20th century. Of course with their own party, workers could have potentially achieved far more, but union leaders instead threw their support behind the Democrats.

US capitalism has been in long-term decline since the mid-1970s, and its institutions and establishment have lost credibility. Of course we can’t ignore that the response of the ruling elite to this decline was the neo-liberal offensive of the 80s and 90s, beginning under Ronald Reagan, which led to a massive retreat of the labor movement, along with a broad attack on the public sector and social services, that has lasted right up to the present. The role of the Democrats in pushing forward the neo-liberal agenda should not be forgotten. Under Bill Clinton, we saw the “end of welfare,” the passing of the job-destroying North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the ramping up of mass incarceration through “three-strikes” laws and harsh sentencing guidelines. All the while, Democrats kept pocketing checks from the unions while giving ever less in return.

Today, however, neo-liberalism is thoroughly discredited and the political parties, including the Democrats, are to the right of the majority on many key issues. The huge desire for change, in the absence of a fighting labor movement, is looking for expression on the political plane. Genuine left-wing politics now has the potential for a mass base in American society. The question is whether the forces can be assembled to tap into this potential before this opening closes.

The Two-Party System

Many argue that is that it is impossible to break the political stranglehold of the two existing big business parties and that working outside this framework is counterproductive. A concrete expression of this is the description of left candidates, particularly in national races, as “spoilers” allegedly taking votes away from Democrats and thereby allowing reactionary Republicans to win. Generations of progressive activists have been caught in the vise of such “lesser evil” arguments.

Lesser evilism is of course rooted in the reality that in many cases the Republicans are demonstrably more hostile to working people’s interests. But supporting the Democrats has at best resulted in slowing down the retreat of working people, not stopping it. At worst, it actively demobilizes the struggles of working people, allowing the “greater evil” to win. We can only begin to regain what has been lost when we have fighting unions and a political party that answers to our interests.

It is also worth pointing out that today large numbers of cities and congressional districts are in reality one-party – not two-party – operations. Political analysts have been pointing out for some time that there is a geographical polarization underway in the US, where “blue” districts become more blue and “red” districts more red.

When Kshama Sawant was elected two years ago as Seattle’s first socialist council member in 100 years, with 95,000 votes, the local media began talking about Socialist Alternative as the city’s “second party,” given that there is no effective local Republican operation. Of course the corporate media is thoroughly hostile to us, but calling us the second party in Seattle is a recognition of reality, and there is no reason in principle why this could not be replicated in many cities and towns across the country (including in places currently run by Republicans), and building on that strength to become a “third party” in Congress.

Can the Democrats Be Reformed?

This is a key question that must be answered. We do not say that all Democrats are the same nor do we deny that under pressure the party can shift some of its positions. Nevertheless, our view is that the Democrats are a political entity thoroughly dominated by corporate interests.

This is expressed in many ways, but two key elements are the role of corporate cash and the tight nexus between politicians (of both parties) and corporate lobbyists. While the top 10 unions spent $153 million in the 2012 election cycle, the Koch Brothers alone spent over $412 million!

But parties serving the interest of capitalism also have an apparatus whose job is to make sure that dissent is contained and that candidates acceptable to the elite are chosen.

In the very unlikely event that Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic Party nomination, he will face the unremitting hostility of the party’s dominant corporate wing and apparatus. In fact he will face that hostility long before he wins the nomination. This is exactly the situation facing Jeremy Corbyn in Britain as he faces full-scale resistance from the neo-liberal apparatus of the Labour Party. In effect Corbyn must set out to build a new party.

The Democrats are even more tightly controlled by corporate interests than the Labour Party. Sanders and his supporters must therefore set out now to build the outlines of a new political force independent of corporate interests or at some stage they will succumb to those interests. This is why we have engaged with Sanders’ thousands of supporters who currently are the most important factor pushing towards real left politics. They want to see the many positive elements of Sanders’ program achieved. So do we. But how is this to be done? Only by taking the road towards building a new party.

Sanders has recently begun more openly challenging Hillary Clinton’s politics. He has also said that the Republicans did not win in 2014; rather the Democrats lost because they failed to inspire working people, minorities, and young people, who stayed home in record numbers. This is true. But Sanders implies that an overall Democratic victory in 2016, based on moving towards a slightly more populist position, would represent a decisive change for working people. And this is not true.

Who will the Democrats in Washington answer to if they win in 2016? The trade unionists, blacks, Latinos, women, and young people who put them there? Or their corporate paymasters? Such a situation happened not so long ago. Between 2008 and 2010 the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. This was when Obama filled his staff with people from Wall Street, and Congress approved the massive bailout of the banks while millions lost their jobs and saw their homes repossessed.

What Will A New Party Look Like?

In the past socialists have looked to the unions as the key force to build a new political party in the US. Today this is not a likely scenario, although some unions could be pushed to play a role in such a development. But in general a new left party will not at this point be centrally based in the organized working class, at least at the start, and politically will not begin with a socialist program.

In the formation of a new party of the 99%, socialists will argue for a clear left, anti-capitalist program opposing cuts to government services, anti-union attacks, environmental destruction, and structural racism and sexism, while boldly calling for taxing the rich to begin addressing the horrible social and infrastructural decay permeating our society. Clearly such a party must take no corporate cash, and we would also argue that its public representatives should, like Kshama Sawant, commit to taking the pay of an average worker to remain tied to the reality of working people.

Again, if the party of the 99% is to succeed it must be rooted in workplaces and communities, linking the movements in the streets to the fight against both corporate parties in city councils and Congress. This is precisely what we sought to do in Seattle when Kshama Sawant won office in 2013. On a small scale this is a model for what a new party could do,

Kshama’s campaign focused on the call for a $15/hour minimum wage, and her victory helped to take this question to a new level. Through building the grassroots campaign, 15 Now, with the support of key unions, Socialist Alternative and Kshama played a leading role in achieving the first local $15 minimum wage in the country, which led to further breakthroughs in Chicago, San Francisco, and LA.

Now Kshama and Socialist Alternative are fighting to win rent control in Seattle and to push back against the profit lust of the developers and their allies in the political establishment. This battle too has important national repercussions, as city after city faces rapid rent increases and destructive gentrification. The victory on the minimum wage and the fight around other social issues is also helping to spur the Seattle labor movement into greater activity, as evidenced by the recent teachers’ strike.

There are other independent leftists in local public office who are waging determined fights against entrenched public interests, notably the Progressive Alliance in Richmond, California, whose representatives have resisted the attempts of Chevron to unseat them and also recently passed rent control. Nevertheless, Kshama’s position is the most prominent one occupied by someone clearly trying to create a new political force, which makes her re-election vital.

We must in the coming months and years take the “Seattle model” on the road and make it a key part of building a powerful socialist current within the broader forces pushing towards a new party.

Real Democracy

We must be very clear that establishing a new party is not in itself the solution to the problems working people face. But it is a vital step. However, given the range of forces that must come together to make such a party viable, there will inevitably be different currents. In particular there will be a vigorous debate between those who believe capitalism can be tamed through a series of reforms and made to serve the interests of working people, and the socialists who, while fighting for every possible reform under this social order, believe that capitalism must ultimately be removed as a roadblock to human development. Such a discussion linked to the building of an independent political movement and involving tens or even hundreds of thousands of people would in itself be an enormous step forward.

We firmly believe that for the party to go forward and lead the mass movement that will finally end corporate domination of society, it will have to adopt a fully socialist program. But this position will be arrived at on the basis of experience and the testing out of different positions.

It is therefore essential that the party of the 99%, as a party of social struggle, have a genuinely democratic internal life and accountable structures so that the lessons of struggles and political campaigns can be fully assimilated and thereby strengthen the party’s roots in the broader working class. It must, for example, be possible for the party membership to recall public representatives who no longer represent the party’s positions.

We believe 2016 could be a key year for the emerging left in the US. There are great opportunities, but these opportunities will not seize themselves. In particular we can see how Bernie Sanders’ supporters will face hard choices if they seriously want to develop a political revolution against the billionaire class. Socialists have a key role to play in the discussions that will unfold that could lead to concrete steps towards establishing a genuine independent political alternative for the 99%.

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