(This statement was prepared as an introduction to a panel at the Working Class Studies Association Conference, June 5, 2009, Pittsburgh)
The thirty year trajectory of growing income and wealth inequality, stagnant real wages, and job loss have been exacerbated by the deep economic crisis of 2007 and beyond. Literally millions of jobs are being lost in manufacturing and service while formerly so-called “middle class” workers, salaried employees, are experiencing an economic marginalization historically reserved for workers on the shop floor, the restaurant, or the health care facility. The effects of job and income loss are spilling over to destroy entire communities. Youth and people of color, as always, experience economic crisis two or three times the magnitude of others. All but the ruling class is becoming “proletarianized.”
This panel will address the depths of the economic crisis and what it means for class in the United States in the twenty-first century. It will particularly address the connections between economic crisis, the changing nature of class, and political practice: campaigning, mobilizing, consciousness raising, building a progressive majority, and envisioning socialist alternatives.
As we address the context in which mobilization may lead to reforms, worker consciousness raised, and class conflict becomes class struggle, I wish to raise a few points at the outset of our panel.
First, the 2008 presidential campaign mobilized a broad array of people, many of whom never participated in any political activity before. New generations of party activists, particularly youth, and trade unions were mobilized. Scores of issue-oriented groups such as those concerning the environment, health care, anti-racism struggles, and gay rights worked alone and in concert with others to defeat right-wing forces who had dominated the political system since the 1980s.
Second, out of the campaign a number of activists, and their organizations, vowed to continue their work, mostly at the grassroots level, to promote a progressive agenda. They took the new president at his word when he invited citizens to pressure him to demand significant policy changes. In the months since his inauguration, it has become clear that President Obama has embraced a “pragmatic” decision-making style, avoiding taking clear and progressive positions on issues, while waiting to see how the constellation of contending political forces mobilize to demand change. Groups as varied as the Progressive Democrats of America, Move On. Org, various Obama groups, and a variety of single-issue groups networking with others have emerged or been reenergized; groups such as The Apollo Project, the Blue-Green Alliance, and United for Peace and Justice. This time has become a “teachable moment” and an “actionable moment.”
Third, groups on the left who come out of various Socialist and other Left traditions have been engaged in reevaluating their political visions and their relationships with the swirl of political activism that has emerged over the last 18 months. The Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, for example, is holding its national convention this summer to address both participating in Building a Progressive Majority and envisioning Socialism.
Fourth, perhaps three material conditions most dramatically underlay this new 21st century context; depression, environmental devastation, and war. Each leads to organizational needs. The response to depression requires building new working class movements that begin with the revitalization of the trade union movement. The response to environmental devastation demands a radical transformation of the political economy away from unbridled, unplanned growth to an economy that creates life-sustaining work and human development. Finally, the response to war requires a mobilization against the “permanent war economy,” an economy that depends on war to sustain imperialism abroad and aggregate demand at home.
Fifth, progressives need to incorporate in their theory and practice an understanding of the three ways in which people have been organized, stratified, and segmented in modern times. These include understanding class, race, and gender.
Finally, before we despair about the depths of the economic crisis, the potential for destruction of life on earth as we know it, and the continuing legacy of war and violence, we need to remember how far progressive forces have come over the last 18 months. For example, there is evidence of a changing consciousness among the American people. A recent document presented by the Campaign for America’s Future, “America: A Center-Left Nation,” reports that majorities of American’s favor significant changes in public policy on a variety of issues. Respondents to a national survey indicate that government action is required because of growing economic problems; business needs to be more regulated; too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies; corporate influence over government should decline; health care should be a government responsibility (54% for single payer); and gays should have equal rights.
As Eric Lotke wrote summarizing the findings:
“The media still calls America a “center-right” nation, but ‘center-left” is closer to the truth. On issues ranging from health care to energy, the public is more progressive than people think.”
“This report should give people the courage to push ahead. The danger is not going too far, too fast, too overreaching. The danger is in not doing enough. The American people want to achieve the promise in Obama’s great speeches, not the compromise forced by conservatives in both parties.”
The task before progressives is clear; working with growing majorities of people to make this new political consciousness into an effective political force to change the United States.