“If there is no struggle, there can be no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Frederick Douglass.
In a few months, Occupy shifted the political agenda of U.S. society further to the left than many decades’ worth of voting for Democrats. The ruling elite have developed a narrative that there are no class divisions in U.S. society except between the middle class and the homeless/drug addicts/unemployed on the streets. Everyone else is considered in some way “middle class.”
Occupy smashed that whole mythology. New data has shown that David Simon, of Simon Property, received a pay package worth more than $137 million last year. A minimum wage worker – paid $7.25 per hour as some workers at Simon malls are – would have to work one month shy of 9,096 years to make what Simon made last year. This, and other outrageous examples of the class divide in U.S. society, fueled the acceptance of the central divide in U.S. society to be between the 1% and the 99%.
The enemy has been identified, and they live on Wall Street, in corporate board rooms, and among politicians from both parties on Capitol Hill. Most importantly, identifying with the 99% helps break down barriers so painstakingly built up by the ideologues of the ruling elite, who seek to divide us based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status.
Occupy has put struggle back on the agenda. Ten of millions have watched police brutally attack young people camped out in parks, or students pepper-sprayed while locking arms and sitting on the ground. The failed attempt by New York police to silence the Occupy movement by breaking up the camp at Zuccotti Park on October 15, 2011 instead spread the movement virally across the country.
As has occurred countless times in history, experience gained in struggle leads to further radicalization. The final destruction of Occupy encampments in November did not silence Occupy. It just deepened the understanding of the role of the police as an instrument of the 1%. The immediate response was to move to shut down the Port of Oakland. Supporters of Occupy have not disappeared, and will keep reappearing at the first need for struggle, whether against corporate abuse, racism, or sexism, or in the workplace.
A History of Struggle in the U.S.
U.S. history is full of amazing struggles by ordinary people to win improvements in their lives. These include: the struggles to end slavery in the 1800s; the fight to win public education and abolish child labor at the turn of the 20th Century; the struggle for the 40-hour workweek, social security, and unemployment benefits in the 1930s; the fight for civil rights by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s; the Vietnam antiwar movement and the struggle for women’s rights, for LGBT rights, and to defend the environment in the 1960s and 1970s. All these were won against the determined resistance of the ruling elite.
Over this whole period, there was an ongoing class struggle being fought between workers and bosses to win living wages and the right to organize unions in the workplace. In this struggle, the 1% and its two parties used the courts, the police, and the National Guard in an attempt to defeat workers’ struggles. Workers and other oppressed groups in U.S. society overcame this by showing their power through determined strikes, workplace occupations, and mass demonstrations, by their ability to mobilize other workers and young people to their cause, and by their willingness to struggle.
The 1% has consistently used its two political parties to protect its interests against the needs of the 99%. Whether the Democrats or Republicans were in power, they used the state forces to try to defeat struggles. Together, they passed anti-union legislation. Democratic President Roosevelt used troops on striking workers more than any president in U.S. history. It was Democrats in power in the South who turned police dogs on African Americans in the struggle for civil rights.
The only force that holds back the hand of politicians today from slashing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is their fear that it will precipitate a new wave of struggle, leading to the political awakening of the huge working class in the U.S.
When we have won real reforms, it has been because powerful struggles were organized in the streets or workplaces. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, it was the strength and intensity of the struggles that determined what gains were won, not which political party was in power. Often, these struggles have come when the Democrats have been in power.
For example, the Vietnam War was begun under Democratic Presidents Kennedy and then Johnson. A rising tide of antiwar protests first shattered the Johnson Administration and then peaked in the early 1970s, forcing the Republican Nixon Administration to finally withdraw troops.
Due to escalating struggles for women’s rights and the environment and the ongoing struggles for civil rights, it was the Republican Nixon Administration that passed some of the most important reforms. It was the dying down of protests and the ending of the post-war economic upswing of capitalism from 1950 to 1975 that brought an end to this period of the ruling elite conceding reforms.
Lessons for 2012
As is common in election years, the 2012 election season has seen increased calls from progressive individuals and organizations that we need to put our energies into voting for Democratic Party politicians to stop the right. Many will argue that voting Democrat is the most important thing we can do in 2012, more important than continuing to build Occupy, occupying houses to fight foreclosures, mobilizing in the streets to fight cuts, racism, the Keystone pipeline, defending women’s rights, etc. We disagree.
We need to reject the demands of Democrats and their liberal co-thinkers that we again vote Democrat. We need to reject their calls to stop our movements or restrain the militancy of our movements so as not to embarrass Democratic candidates.
As Democratic Party leaders parade their “progressive” credentials, we must not forget that it was Democrats who voted to bail out Wall Street and capitalism and left working people out to dry. Democrats failed to stand up to the oil industry and continue to feed the dirty energy beast with Gulf oil. They failed to massively shift the economy toward clean energy though a massive green jobs bill. It was the Obama Administration that escalated the war in Afghanistan, increased the attack on immigrants, and signed laws restricting our civil liberties.
What did we achieve by voting Democrat in 2008? Similarly, what did we achieve by voting Democrat 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004? Time and again, promises are made, and demoralization follows. Most recently, the right-wing Tea Party managed to capitalize on the disappointment with Obama in the 2010 elections. Before then, Reagan was elected due to disappointment with Carter, Bush was elected after Clinton’s policy of backing NAFTA ,etc, etc.
How “Lesser-Evilism” Weakens Struggles
It’s not just confusion about the role of the Democratic Party that pulls people away from organizing struggles. Most leaders of labor and other social movements close down social movements at election time to prevent embarrassing Democrats. This represents a huge obstacle to building a coherent ongoing movement.
Time and again, leading antiwar organizations turned off antiwar protests around election time. For example, after Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, the antiwar movement grew steadily in momentum until the end of 2003. That was when the Democratic Party presidential primaries began. We were told to rally around Howard Dean as an antiwar candidate. Liberal leaders of the antiwar movement stopped calling rallies and prioritized electing an antiwar Democrat.
Not only that, but Democratic Party supporters in our movement said the main slogan of the movement, “Bring the troops home now,” was too radical and would embarrass the Democratic Party candidate. In 2004, the movement went into a nosedive as it was muffled in preparation for the supposed election of an antiwar Democrat. Instead, the Democrats delivered “pro-war” Democratic Party candidate John Kerry!
Again, in 2007-2008, with growing anger at Bush and the war, we were told to tone down our opposition to war in favor of electing either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. While Obama made comments about a timetable for ending the Iraq War, he supported the “good” war in Afghanistan. Once again, the antiwar movement almost vanished.
A similar process happened during Bill Clinton’s period in office. Leaders of the women’s rights movement congratulated themselves on electing a “woman-friendly” Democrat and abstained from building a grassroots movement. Even when Clinton scaled back a woman’s right to choose, they refused to mobilize opposition. Yet now we see Obama trading away women’s access to abortion in exchange for Republican votes for his corporate health care bill.