We Need a Politics That Is Not Only Class-Focused, but Class-Rooted

It’s not enough to make class the subject of our politics. We need to develop our political demands from a ferment that is rooted in class organizing and union density.

Protesters outside Massachusetts State House in Boston, 2020. (Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

When the pandemic eventually ends, globalization may no longer accelerate at the same rate as before. Particular sectors will remain hard-hit, and tensions between the United States and China will continue, and may even become more menacing (to borrow from Mao Zedong, the making of a global capitalism is not a “tea party”).

But none of this signals the end of globalization, an imminent collapse of capitalism, or an inevitable decline of the American empire. Global business will still be profiting from the commodification of nature and human activity, US corporations will still be a leading force in high tech and business services, the dollar will still be the global currency, and the Federal Reserve effectively the world’s central bank.

The crisis that consequently frames the political opening beckoning the American left isn’t capitalism’s economic but social failures; capitalism’s vulnerability is marked by the destructive impact of its successes on popular needs, aspirations, and fears.

And with the responses from parties and states to the rising popular discontent falling short, this crisis of legitimacy has expanded into a political crisis. Alongside popular anger with policies like free trade and austerity has come a loss of faith in state institutions ranging from social agencies to the judiciary and the police, as well as disenchantment with mainstream political parties.

The pandemic further exposed the distorted priorities and social irrationalities of capitalism: its lack of planning capacities and unpreparedness to deal with social emergencies, the ugliness of its inequalities, its general disregard for those who produce needed goods and provide essential service. The health pandemic was, as well, the canary in the mine for the far greater environmental pandemic waiting in the wings, a threat which will demand very much more than social distancing, lockdowns, or vaccines.

Especially important, the pandemic hinted at new possibilities in class resistance and formation. Will the popular empathy for frontline workers that emerged during the crisis be translated into a new working-class confidence, militancy, and wave of unions organizing? Will the remarkable scale and broad support of the Black Lives Matter protests expand to include the wider concerns of black working-class families such as housing, education, health care, and union jobs? And if so, might such a pivot contribute to the kind of black-white-brown working-class coalitions that could overcome the racial divisions that have so haunted and diverted working-class unity and effectiveness?

Through the pandemic something of a “social-democratic sensibility” surfaced in liberal circles (see for example “The America we Need“). Suddenly calls for universal health care, sick pay, and more robust welfare provisions seemed common sense. But as welcome as this was in terms of expanding the space for the Left, it should not be exaggerated; to a significant degree it reflected the liberal comfort, now that Sanders was safely defeated, with expressing qualified support for left-wing positions.

The range of official politics remains confined, and dangerously so. On the one hand an egomaniac president with fascist leanings who is ill-disposed to accept the electoral writing on the wall. On the other, a conservative Democratic Party establishment ready to lower the bar to the least inspiring of alternatives: a commitment to bring back the “stability” of the pre-Trump normal that was so critical to the very advent of Trumpism.

This, then, is the context the American socialist left faces today: the persistence of anger and frustrations with some four decades of deterioration in the quality of life; the experiences and lessons of the pandemic; the pockets of openness to a more egalitarian zeitgeist; and the vacuum at the heart of the dominant political parties. Can the Left, in responding to this moment, escape its own crisis of marginalization?

Strategic Demands

What kinds of demands and campaigns might contribute to building and spreading the understandings, networks, commitments, struggles, and structures that can materialize the possibilities pregnant in this moment?

We can expect the emergence of a wide range of mobilizations, based on differing demographics, regions, constituencies, and interests. But can we also identify a short and focused set of demands — not a wish list or a comprehensive program for a socialist government, but demands that go beyond particularist concerns — that contribute to the construction of a nationwide movement with accompanying organizational structures? Can we, that is, create a social force capable of fundamentally challenging capitalist power?

The specific demands can only emerge out of widespread discussions. The demand for universal health care, its crucial importance all the more revealed through the pandemic, seems an obvious focal point. That this has already been rejected by the Democratic Party, with the approval of leaders from some key unions, signals one arena of struggle that will undoubtedly occur within the broad left itself (never mind extending the notion of ‘universal care’ to pharma-care and dental care, and ending private control over the research and manufacture of drugs and protective equipment). To that goal three demands, each strategically related to the new openings posed above, might be added.

One is the demand for a onetime emergency wealth tax. This is an unashamedly populist demand, intended to appeal to a broad swath of the population without addressing the underlying issues of democratic economic control.

A second is economic conversion, an unashamedly radical demand that moves beyond the generalities of the Green New Deal and the vagueness of a “just transition” to engage workers in struggles that link the maintenance of a livable planet to the democratically planned restructuring of jobs and the economy.

Third, we need a push for greater unionization. The promise here lies not only in shifting the balance of power between groups of workers and their employers, but in unleashing a long-awaited union upsurge with the potential to transform a working class currently fragmented and demoralized into a coherent social agent capable of winning and sustaining social change.

Onetime Emergency Wealth Tax

In the late 1980s the distribution of household wealth in the United States (net worth minus debts) was already stunningly unequal with the wealth of just the top 10 percent of households being more than one-and-a-half times that of the combined wealth of the rest.

By 2020 the top 10 percent increased their share to double that of all other US households. The shift was even greater for the 1 percent at the top of the American pyramid: at the start of 2020, 1.6 million American families had as much wealth as the 144 million households constituting the bottom 90 percent (See Federal Reserve and Pew Reserach Center Social and Demographic Trends).

Such astonishing inequalities contradict any substantive notion of democracy. It perpetuates, through intergenerational transfer, future inequalities that are even less defendable. Rationalizing such inequality as the necessary “price” of our rising standard of living was always a feeble defense but it is all the more so today, after three decades in which the top 10 percent grabbed 70 percent of the total increase in US household wealth while the quality of life for most Americans stagnated or deteriorated.

During the Depression, the top income tax rate in the United States went from 25 percent in 1931 to 63 percent the following year, and 70 percent at the end of the 1930s. At the beginning of WWII, it was increased again to 81 percent and, in light of the war emergency and sacrifices ordinary people were called on to make, it was raised to 94 percent, and an excess profit tax was also introduced. (Today, by contrast, the top rate of tax is just 37 percent).

In that same spirit the current emergency moment, with its special sensitivity to inequalities, and the massive and unwarranted wealth of the rich, calls for a decisive and radical reversal in the distribution of wealth.

To get a sense of the fiscal potentials of a onetime emergency wealth tax to offset the costs of the pandemic, consider the following example. If the top 1 percent were kept to their share of wealth at the end of the eighties (one-quarter of all wealth) — that is, if their wealth increased at only the rate of the total increase in American wealth since 1989 —  this would justify a onetime average tax on their current wealth of 23 percent or some $7.5 trillion (it might be phased in over a few years to accommodate the process of cashing in some locked up wealth so as to  pay the tax).

This would, because of the overall growth in inflation-adjusted wealth, still leave the average household in that top 1 percent with more than triple the wealth they had in 1989, and the average wealth of someone in that top category some eighty-nine times the average wealth of those in the bottom 90 percent.

To put this $7.5 trillion in perspective, it would cover the estimated “pandemic deficit” of some $6 trillion (i.e., an almost $4 trillion increase in the fiscal deficits in 2020 and 2021 over the pre-pandemic year 2019, plus an assumption of continued emergency spending while tax revenues lag).

Or to use another comparison, the $7.5 trillion exceed Biden’s largest proposed budgetary item, the Green New Deal, costed at $7 trillion over seven years. These are only illustrative, but they point to a significant onetime emergency wealth tax going a long way toward overcoming the fiscal space lost in coping with the pandemic or for addressing essential programs. (And if an emergency onetime wealth tax of just 1 percent were levied on the rest of the top 10 percent, that would generate another $4 trillion).

No less important is the strategic significance of placing such an emergency tax on the public agenda. It would keep the inequalities in American capitalism in the public eye and those at the top of the pyramid on the defensive. It would also position the Left re: future debates over ‘”getting the fiscal deficit in order”; if we were in the midst of exposing wealth inequalities and discussing how far to go in a new tax on wealth, elites might be in a bit of a bind arguing that the deficit is unaffordable and there is nothing to do but cut social programs and wages.

And as Matt Bruenig has convincingly argued, highlighting the class distribution of wealth shifts, the understanding of a “black-white wealth gap” into a “race-inflected class gap” (if the wealth is so concentrated at the top, it is only through going after the top 1 percent or 10 percent that significant redistributions can occur).

A wealth tax, however, will not solve all our woes. As with the notion of printing money and spending our way to the good society, we cannot pretend that simply taxing the wealth of the richest households will provide all the revenue we need.

Middle-income workers will also have to see their taxes raised. First, because there aren’t enough superrich to finance all our expectations on an ongoing basis. Second, because environmental pressures demand limits on the growth of private consumption, and taxes are a mechanism for limiting individual spending and channeling the funds toward collective services that are kinder to the environment — education, health care, and public spaces.

Third, winning workers over to accepting a greater weight to public (collective) consumption is not just an environment concern but a socialist one. Public consumption can further economic equality and involves a cultural change that speaks not so much to consuming less, but to consuming differently and hopefully better.

Think, for example of taxes securing better health care, water supplies, schools, libraries, public transit, parks, recreation centers, cultural activities, ending poverty, and for that myriad of universal services making it easier to look to more time off work as productivity increases.

Winning the working class to high taxes will not be easy, but it will be impossible without an especially high tax on the rich. Wealth taxes, such as an emergency onetime wealth tax, are therefore a condition of gaining broad acceptance for the taxes needed to pay for what we want from governments.

Wealth taxes are doubly egalitarian: they take more from the rich (from each according to ability to pay) and, if distributed properly (to each according to need), the pool of taxes collected from both workers and the rich will disproportionately benefit the working class.

A final note on this: there are those who see, in the stunning levels of fiscal expenditures introduced during the pandemic, a precedent that tends to downplay the tax issue. We simply need to print more money to get us to the good society. There are a number of problems with this seductive argument but the main one is that how societies determine the allocation of their labor and resources — who is in charge, what the priorities are, who gets what — rests on considerations of social power and corresponding values/priorities.

Transforming how this is done is conditional on developing and organizing popular support for challenging the private power of banks and corporations over our lives and with this, accepting the risks this entails. Controlling the money presses is certainly an element in this, but hardly the core challenge.

Conversion

The environmentalist movement has impressively raised environmental consciousness and the Green New Deal has effectively placed the issue of massive environment-oriented infrastructural investments on the public agenda. Yet the call for a “just transition” for those threatened with job loss generally has limited resonance among workers.

Without the power to deliver on the promises, the demands come across as slogans rather than actual possibilities. And without linking the call for a fair transition to concrete struggles in specific workplaces and communities, the promise of a just transition is too vague to engage workers.

The dilemma we face is that while the urgency of the environmental crisis tends to push us to develop a mass base as quickly as possible, emphasizing that environmental advance will mean that introducing comprehensive planning and taking on the property rights of corporations (you can’t plan what you don’t control) amounts to overturning capitalism — policies which risk limiting the base of supporters and demand a much longer time frame. There is no shortcut here; there is no way forward other than telling the truth and winning workers over to its implications.

Directly related, popular demands are often too vague to engage workers. Missing are concrete links to everyday struggles: the loss of jobs, the loss of the community’s productive capacities, addressing the potential of alternative production for social use. (See the exemplary work of Green Jobs Oshawa). Absent such engagement, it is near impossible to overcome the impact of accumulated defeats over decades that have not only lowered expectations of what can be achieved but even erased just thinking about alternatives.

The significance of a strategic emphasis on “conversion” is that it links environmental issues to retaining and developing the productive capacities we will need for the environmentally sensitive transformation of everything about how we work, travel, live, and enjoy life.

It shifts the focus from the trap of looking to private corporations competing for global profits to inward development where possible, and applying our skills and resources to planning for social use. And it is only in engaging in struggles and campaigns that are both immediately concrete and national (and international) in scope, that it becomes possible to develop confidence in genuine possibilities.

The political demands this raises require new capacities largely undeveloped in the state’s historical coping with administering a capitalist economy. Specific institutional proposals would include a) the creation of a national conversion agency to monitor closures and the rundown of investment, for the aim of placing productive facilities that corporations no longer find profitable enough into public ownership and retooling them for social use; b) markets for environmentally friendly products and service through government procurement of the products; c) the creation of decentralized (regional) environment-technology hubs staffed by hundreds of young engineers exploring unmet community needs, and bringing together or developing anew the capabilities of addressing them; and d) elected community conversion boards to oversee the local economic transformations.

This brings to the fore again the question of financing. One response is a levy on financial institutions in order to develop a fund to address environmental restructuring. Having bailed the finance industry out in desperate times, such a levy is an obvious quid pro quo.

Yet if capital — especially highly mobile finance capital — is left with the right to move whenever it is unhappy, it also retains the blackmailing power to undermine democratically determined goals. Capital controls are therefore both a defense of basic democratic principles and a practical necessity.

Taking the question of democratic participation and engagement seriously would mean mobilizing workers in their community or through their organizations. Labour councils would be encouraged to establish conversion committees and actively participate on the community environmental boards, and locals that created conversion committees in their workplaces would be supported with research and funds from their national unions.

These workplace committees would address what they were producing and what products they might produce, act as early-warning whistleblowers to check corporate environmental failures and inadequate investment plans, and stand ready to take direct action to bring in a newly constituted national conversion agency.

Union Transformation

Protests may surface via all kinds of struggles — student movements, fights for gender equality, anti-racist demands, immigrant rights, and so on — but as André Gorz famously noted (See Leo Panitch’s discussion of Gorz), the trade union movement still carries, in spite of its weaknesses, “a particular responsibility; on it will largely depend the success or failure of all the other elements in this social movement.”

The card check (if a majority of workers sign up for the union it must be automatically — legally — recognized) has been the main legislative change emphasized by unions: More radical steps would include banning any corporate attempt to influence workers’ decisions on unionization; banning, as well, the use of scabs to undermine workers on strike, particularly critical in first contracts before unions have had a chance to consolidate a solid membership base; and, given the overall imbalance in employer-worker power, removing the prohibition against solidaristic worker refusals to handle or work on goods shipped from a struck plant (“hot cargo”).

The present moment could not be more favorable for pushing Joe Biden and the Democratic Party to defend unionization, and for prioritizing legislating the card check. The link between rising inequality and the decline in union density has been well-documented, and various social movements have indirectly laid vital ground for unionization.

This was the case with Occupy, which in the fall of 2011 shined an international light on popular anger over how extreme income inequality had become. The Fight for Fifteen followed soon after, revealing widespread support for lower-paid workers.

That struggle was endorsed by unions, who insisted that even if the demand was met through legislation, unionization remained essential: first, to block employers from recouping by other means than what the law forced them to do re: wages; second, to extend any monetary improvements to broader workplace rights.

The pandemic qualitatively increased the potential support for unionization to a new level, as empathy for the frontline spread workers on matters of both pay for their special risks and the failures of employers to do everything possible to provide proper equipment and the safest possible work environment.

And in regard to the increased profile the BLM protests gave to black-white disparities, it is worth noting that, in a notable example of the positive over-representation of blacks, unionization rates are higher among black workers than their share of the working population (this is especially the case for black women who are less than 12 percent of the female workforce but over 17 percent of unionized women). That unionization has been cut in half since the early 1980s is inseparable from discussions of the quality of black lives.

There is skepticism on whether Biden will come through on the card-check, which he had also endorsed as part of the Obama-Biden ticket but then reneged on. But there is also a question about the extent to which higher union density, in itself, would bring greater class-conscious or even effective unions.

Canada currently has more than double the union density of the United States, yet the labor energy is greater in the United States. Sixty years ago, the share of the US workforce in unions was almost triple its roughly 10 percent today. Yet unions weren’t able to block or even significantly moderate the subsequent context in which they operated (slower growth, more mobile capital, more international competition, more aggressive corporations, and hostile governments).

The crisis in American unions lies in their general failure to effectively come to grips with those changes. What they now confront is not just adding members but transforming their structures and aspirations to overturn the incapacitating context they confront.

This does not negate the importance of legislation sympathetic to unionization — it is absolutely crucial — but it poses the hope that a legislative breakthrough (as opposed to various minor reforms) might be seized upon by unions as a once-in-a-union-lifetime chance to reverse labor’s death by a thousand cuts.

In the 1930s, the United Mine Workers, fearing that if Big Steel weren’t unionized the miners would be isolated, sent some one hundred organizers out to organize steelworkers into their own union. It is that kind of foresight and boldness that needs to surface once again. Only a virtual crusade could lead to the kind of dramatic leap forward essential to making unions into a confident and leading social force.

Only through the ferment of an explosion in unionization might we see a reordering of union priorities and structures, the engagement of rank-and-file members in the struggle for unionization, the emergence of new leaders and new blood. And if this leads unions to penetrate Amazon warehouses and Walmart distribution centers with all their disruptive power and bring workers as far apart as personal care workers and Google programmers into the organized working class, then the class as a whole will be strengthened.

It is fundamental that, if union leaderships do come to enthusiastically embrace the spread of unions, they do not ignore their own members. If they don’t first get their own members onside, the shift in resources and attention outward will be resented and undermined.

If leaderships ignore the working conditions of their own members especially in regard to workplace health and safety (which has gained such prominence since the pandemic) and relentless speedup, the drive to increased unionization will falter. This is not only to get and retain support from their members for moving on to organize other workers, but such high-profile struggles uniquely demonstrate to nonunion workers that unionization really matters.

Buoyed by new enthusiasm and power, a revived labor movement could lead a political upsurge against the social rot at the heart of the American empire — the appalling inequality, permanent working-class insecurity, denial of the most basic needs like universal health coverage, the stunted lives, punishing austerity, decaying infrastructure, and the contrast between the liberating promise of technology and the confining reality of daily life.

And it is that kind of example that can inspire young people — black, white, Hispanic, Asian — to look once again to labor struggles for where the action is. From there, unions could ambitiously move to confront and reverse the economic context that underpinned their years of defeat: “free” capital movements, corporate driven “free trade,” the prioritization of “competitiveness” over all else, and the distancing of life below from decisions made above.

From “Class-Focused” To “Class-Rooted”

Capitalism has, by and large, been successful in “making” the kind of working class it needs: one that is fragmented, particularist, employer-dependent, pressured by its circumstances to be oriented to the short term, and too overwhelmed to seriously contemplate another world.

The challenge confronting the Left is whether it can take advantage of the spaces capitalism has not completely conquered and the contradictions of life under capitalism that have blocked the full integration of working people, to remake the working class into one that has the interest, will, confidence, and capacity to lead a challenge to capitalism.

This is primarily an organizational task. Policies matter of course — there is no organizing without fighting for reforms — but the choice of policies to focus on and the forms the struggle for those reforms must be especially attuned to their potentials for organizational advance.

The above emphasis on a wealth tax, for example, is based on keeping inequality in the forefront, and so creating fertile ground for mobilizing anger and raising more fundamental questions. The emphasis on conversion points to the necessity of radical economic and state transformations if we are to address our most critical needs. As well, it emphasizes the centrality of engaging workers in ways that can develop their understandings and capacities.

The emphasis on unionization is closest to a policy directly addressing working-class power, but it also locates policy primarily in terms of serving as a catalyst for transforming unions, not just “growing” them, and so leads to expanding future strategic options.

For the socialist left, with the only seemingly viable option for the time being to operate within existing political parties, the foremost task is figuring out how to maneuver through the institutional morass these parties inhabit and use the openings to: support the most promising workplace and community struggles; restore a degree of historical memory to the working class; and contribute, through campaigns and discussions of lessons learned, to developing the individual and collective class capacities to analyze, organize, and act.

Out of this comes the most difficult undertaking: the project — cultural as much as organizational and political — of creating a new politics that, as Andrew Murray so clearly put it, is not only “class-focussed” but “class rooted.” That is, the invention of a left that is not just engaged in periodic working-class struggles but is genuinely embedded in workers’ daily lives and whose prime commitment is to nurturing the best of the working class’ historic potentials.