The system of capitalism is in serious crisis. With massive inequality, impending climate catastrophe, and the loss of confidence in political institutions, it is clear that the foundations of the system are beginning to shake. Much of the political energy of the past year was directed toward the midterm elections where millions of people were looking to strike a blow against Trump and the Republicans. Many have understandably breathed a sigh of relief as the Democrats handily took back the House as well as a number of state legislatures across the country. Particularly significant was the election of genuine progressives and self-described socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
2019 has the potential to be a year of explosive struggle. Socialists will play an active role in that process, drawing out the need for a working-class struggle against the billionaires and bigots.
Growing Social Struggle
The deep inequality that defines U.S. society today and the devastation caused by the 2007-8 recession has resulted in a bubbling rage experienced by millions of Americans. Now we are facing the threat of another economic downturn with all that will mean for ordinary people.
Beginning in 2011 with the Occupy Wall St. movement, the battle lines were clearly drawn: the 99% and the 1%. In the years since Occupy, we have seen the awakening of the American working class develop further. This year’s teachers strikes, the bitter contract battle at UPS, and the recent walkout of Google employees against sexual harassment, are just a few examples of the American working class coming alive to their potential social power.
In 2019, there are a number of key issues that have the potential to spark a movement. These struggles should be brought together as much as possible into a decisive fightback against the agenda of the right and corporate power.
A key feature of many social struggles in the U.S. during the past two years has been a deep disdain for Donald Trump and a desire to see him out of office. Trump and the right wing have launched attack after attack on oppressed groups, from the Muslim ban to the vile immigrant detention centers and threatened attacks on trans people’s limited gains. We will likely see mass protests sparked in reaction to attacks or threats from Trump. Alongside this, further legal problems for Trump can bring the question of impeachment on the agenda of the Democratic controlled House. However the Democratic leadership will not go down this path without mass pressure.
Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court is a direct threat to women’s right to choose and Roe v. Wade. There are similar attempts at the state level to restrict abortion access. Just this month proposed legislation in Iowa would limit abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, effectively reversing Roe v. Wade throughout the state.
Alongside the specific attacks on reproductive rights, we’ve also seen a general radicalization of women on the basis of a number of issues. During the 2016 Primaries almost 40% of young women supported Bernie Sanders – more than supported Trump and Clinton combined. They saw Bernie’s brand of feminism – Medicare for All, $15 minimum wage, free public college – as far more accessible than Hillary Clinton’s corporate feminism. As we have seen with the historic women’s marches and Kavanaugh’s appointment process, women are front and center in the fight against Trump and the right wing and it is likely that in 2019 we will see continued growth of this women’s movement.
Best Defense Is a Good Offense
While there are certainly defensive battles that will continue or be sparked this year, there are also critical offensive battles that have explosive potential. Polls demonstrate that 70% of Americans support Medicare for All as an alternative to the current corporate dominated health-care system. In the 2016 Democratic Party primaries, this issue was a key dividing line between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with Clinton saying Medicare for All would “never, ever come to pass.”
However the overwhelming public support for the idea forced many Democrats to take up the issue in the 2018 midterms. In fact, among those who had policy sections on their websites, more than half of Democratic candidates in open primaries expressed support Medicare for All. However, this support needs to be put to the test and we believe organized mass public pressure will be needed to force Democrats to seriously attempt to pass Medicare for All. This fight has potential to be a flashpoint in the coming years. We demand comprehensive Medicare for All!
On a state and local level, the dire state of the housing market causes millions to struggle to keep up with rising rent. There have been movements for rent control in cities like Seattle and Minneapolis where socialists have played a key role, and those struggles have been taken up in Chicago, California, and elsewhere. It is likely that with a renewed economic recession the housing crisis will only intensify, and there is the possibility that this will spark a real fightback. We need to tax the rich to fund high quality, permanently affordable public housing!
The images of the California wildfires were nothing short of apocalyptic. With the new reports from the UN indicating a strong risk of climate crisis before 2040, the real effects of climate change will be felt more intensely every year. We have seen young people propelled into action on this issue, as shown by the occupations of Nancy Pelosi’s office in November demanding a “Green New Deal,” and it is likely this movement for climate justice will develop further in the coming year. We need a massive green infrastructure program to create millions of good paying jobs transitioning the U.S. away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy!
As shown by the madness following the November midterm in Florida and Georgia, voter suppression is rampant on a national scale especially in a number of Republican dominated states, particularly targeting people of color. But Florida is also the state where a large majority voted to restore voting rights to ex-felons. This is alongside the ridiculous levels of gerrymandering across the country. Democratic demands will be an increasing focus in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. We call for an immediate end to gerrymandering and to defend and extend voting rights!
Besides these issues, there is always the potential for unpredictable events to spark a fight back like the student uprising after the Parkland massacre. However, besides the scale of the movement and the social power it mobilizes, the critical factors that will determine whether these struggles are victorious or not are decisive leadership and a coherent strategy.
A Strategy to Win
As history has shown us time and again, the key factor that determines whether working-class people win improvements in our lives is the scale of social struggle. From the Civil Rights Movement to the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the anti-war movement, major gains – whether in the workplace or in broader society – are only won through a determined, mass struggle. In order for a movement to be strong enough to take on some of the challenges we face today, it needs: the broadest possible participation of working-class people; democratic structures to make decisions about the direction of the struggle; and leadership that is committed to pushing the movement forward, not limiting its demands and strategies based on what is acceptable to the political establishment.
It is crucial that any struggle we build has its feet squarely rooted in the broader working-class movement. Working people function as the backbone of our society – teaching children, caring for the sick, operating trains, building roads – and therefore collectively have the power to bring society to a halt. As we’re seeing clearly displayed in the French yellow vest movement, when ordinary people collectively fight back in a determined way, we can wrest major concessions from those in power. What is missing in France, and would be a tremendous tool in their struggle, is an organization where the workers and students in struggle can meet, discuss and determine the course and trajectory of the movement.
What Obstacles Do We Face?
Beyond the obvious enemies like Trump and the right wing, one of the most difficult obstacles our movements will have to overcome is the pressure and influence of the Democratic Party establishment that will make attempts to demobilize and co-opt the struggle at every stage. The approach of the establishment is to give lip-service to social struggles and then direct the movements’ energies off the streets and into channels that are acceptable to them.
But again and again they fail to take a decisive stand even on issues they allegedly see as important. For example, when young Dreamers were facing the threat of deportation in early 2017, the Democrats took a progressive step by saying they would not vote for a new budget without guaranteed protections for DACA recipients. This led to a government shutdown. However, as pressures mounted from the Republican Party, the Democrats – rather than calling on the power of ordinary people to demonstrate, march, and rally – caved and shamefully surrendered with nothing more than a promise from Republicans to at some point address DACA.
Similarly, during the scandalous nomination process of serial abuser Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court – the Democrats made no real attempt to harness the mass outrage into a decisive fight to block the nomination. This would have also required articulating how Kavanaugh represents a full-spectrum threat to women, LGBTQ people, voting rights, labor rights, and the environment. Rather, the Democrats expressed disapproval in words and put no mandate on their Senators to vote against his nomination.
The platform of newly-elected democratic socialist Congresspeople Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib as well as Bernie Sanders is of enormous importance in building the movement we need in 2019. Soon after the election, Ocasio-Cortez announced her intention to fight for a “Green New Deal” in order to address the dire state of the climate. She supported a sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office. This is a good example of the combative approach needed.
But these leading progressives are facing enormous pressures to bend to the will of the Democratic Party establishment. Unfortunately they also accept the framework of the Democrats and the extremely unrealistic idea that the party can be “reformed” into a tool for the interests of ordinary people.
For example, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and others pragmatically voted to support Nancy Pelosi’s nomination from the Democratic Party to be Speaker of the House despite her clear loyalty to big business. In order to fend off these pressures, elected socialist representatives, as we have raised, need to be held accountable by mass organizations of struggle with democratic structures and ultimately by a new party of working people.
What Type of Movement?
In order to protect from the pressures that come to bear on a social movement, it is crucial we have clarity on what type of movement we need. Whether the terrain is a woman’s right to choose, Medicare for All, climate justice, housing, or anything else – the movement needs to make attempts to link up with the broadest sections of working-class people to bring them into struggle. This means being explicit about the links between various forms of inequality and oppression and creating demands in the spirit of solidarity to win improvements for the widest amount of people.
For example, at the height of the Black Lives Matter struggle, the movement in some areas began to incorporate the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage. Not only does this speak directly to the needs of black workers who make up a disproportionate section of low-wage earners, it connects the struggle against racism to the wider struggle against inequality.
Similarly, the fight for a woman’s right to chose should not be narrowly focused on defending against attacks on Roe v. Wade but should take up positive fighting demands that would give women real choice. Demands like free abortion on demand, universal childcare, and paid maternity leave – defending a woman’s right both to have an abortion as well as the right to raise a child free from undue financial burdens. These demands can speak to and activate a wide section of working-class people giving the movement its best chance at winning.
Beyond the question of broad, fighting demands comes the question of strategy. One-off marches and protests can certainly be powerful and are a great collective expression of outrage, however they are not frequent enough to force the hand of establishment politicians and their corporate backers. In order to win, a movement needs to have a far reaching strategy that includes a variety of tactics from protests to occupations and sit-ins to strike action. The movement will need to identify where and how it can put the most pressure on those in power and it will need the determination not to release that pressure until its demands are met.
Tied to the question of strategy is the question of leadership. The fightback of public sector workers in Wisconsin in 2011 demonstrated the vulnerabilities a movement faces when it lacks decisive leadership. Facing a massive attack on union rights from newly-elected right-wing Governor Scott Walker, the call for a general strike was widely popular. However, the leaderships of national unions were able to stifle this mood and redirect it into a campaign to recall Scott Walker which ultimately failed. On the other hand, the teachers’ revolt early this year won a series of important victories because they did not capitulate to conservative union leaders and began to develop an alternative leadership.
To defend against the pressure of the ruling class requires mass democratic participation in struggle including in the formulation of strategy and tactics. Structures must also exist within the movement for it to replace its leadership should they begin acting outside the interests of those in struggle.
This points to the need for a new party based on working people with democratic structures that takes no corporate money and does not limit itself to running in elections, but is committed to building the power of ordinary people in the streets.
The crisis in the system is becoming clearer every day as capitalism’s instability shows its face. With the looming threat of a renewed recession, climate disasters beginning to descend on the coasts, and record levels of inequality – the status quo is no longer viable. The driving force of change are the masses of working people who make up the very backbone of our society. If organized on the basis of a positive vision for the world, armed with the political will to take on the establishment, and with the strategy and vision of a mass movement on the scale of the ‘60s and ‘70s, immense change could be won. The year 2019 has the potential to see explosive struggle and socialists will play a key role in helping to point the way forward.