This is the big question, right?
It’s what people are wondering everywhere.
The answer is simple and plausible – but the explanation is a bit more complicated. The majority of Americans are suffering terribly from the current economic crisis, but they do not yet have a political self-identity that will allow for a successful fightback. They don’t know who they are or what they’re fighting for. Neither do they understand whom or what they are fighting against.
“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles . . . if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” These are the words of Sūn Zǐ, a 6th century BCE Chinese general, military strategist, and author of The Art of War, an immensely influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy.
All fighting is the same. Self-knowledge and knowledge of the enemy confer on the fighter the outlines of a winning strategy, based on the best utilization of available weapons of offense and defense.
The majority of Americans, unknowingly, are members of the working class, AKA the proletariat, and will be fighting for the kind of socialism in which sharing, cooperation, volunteerism, and wellness replace the drive for individual profits, competition, ego, and the desire for power over others. Most Americans would like to see an end to global poverty, war, and injustice, and one day, we shall discover that the means to this end involves the social ownership and democratic control of the world’s wealth. Only with this in place can the benefits of that wealth find their way back to the vast majority – the bottom two-thirds of the economic ladder.
That accomplishment will prepare us for the next stage, which will fulfill most of the needs that we “earthlings” currently have. These essentials include saving the environment, automating all boring and unhealthy jobs, developing the individual person, living wherever and however we wish, and benefiting from the astounding medical and other technological advances of the future.
The American majority will be fighting against the other pole of attraction – the ruling class, AKA the capitalist class, AKA the bourgeoisie, and their particular version of class society, which could be referred to as the Dictatorship of Capital. The rulers are fighting for the status quo – their supposed right to own, control, and accumulate wealth – and the power over the majority that that wealth provides.
The capitalist class already knows who they are and what they are fighting for, and they are well aware of who their enemy is. That’s why they are presently winning the fights.
Before we examine the roadblocks that need to be cleared away for this to begin, let us briefly review the current unpleasant situation.
The Current Crisis and Today’s Fightbacks
The last four decades have witnessed the first-ever generalized stagnation of wages and benefits for working people in this country, as well as the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world, from middle and low income Americans to the billionaire gamblers, bankers, industrialists, and their hirelings. According to Mother Jones, from 1979 to the present, the productivity of American capitalism grew over 80 percent, while US wages only grew around 12 percent.
The share of US wealth held by half of American households plummeted in 2010 to 1.1 percent, while the top 10 percent’s share was 74.5 percent. And according to the British aid agency Oxfam, the 2012 income alone of the 100 wealthiest families in the world was enough to end global poverty four times over!
This is the Privatize Everything period, when every grain of sand and every drop of moisture must be owned and extracted for their profit-producing potential. Since capitalist markets began crashing in the early 1970s due to the final exhaustion of the post-World War II boom and the subsequent global crisis of overproduction, American workers and small business owners have been hit with a concerted regimen of job speedup, increased competition, and economic strangulation – AKA “austerity” – which is aimed directly at them.
For the working class in America, unemployment remains high; debt is increasing; pensions are under attack; public education and medical care are being undermined; prices keep climbing; security and respect on the job are historical memories; public services are being slashed; cultural standards are coarsening; prisons are filling; foreign wars continuing without end; cop brutality increasing; harmful addictions of all kinds soaring; personal relationships fraying and mental/physical health spiraling downward, while the secretive security state grows stronger day by day. Times are good for snake oil salesmen of all colors and stripes, but bad for whistleblowers and other honest folk – and getting worse.
So the objective justifications for the Big Fightback are firmly in place.
Some are fighting back, but not the majority of Americans all at once. An old Chinese proverb reminds us that “the tallest nail gets hammered down.” Political fightbacks have coalesced recently around many “separate” struggles, such as those of public union workers in Wisconsin, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the coal miners, the US postal workers, the fast-food workers, public school teachers, the anti-war movement, those determined to stop global warming, the free speech and press freedom movements, communities fighting to stop police harassment, the reproductive rights movement, the LGBT movement and a hundred others. Despite some victories here and there, none have so far initiated a real groundswell of opposition to the relentless rightward course of the oligarchy and its institutions of class rule.
Two Successful Fightbacks from History
History offers us valuable lessons from the examples of successful, largely non-violent fightbacks by big majorities against oligarchic tyrannies.
In 509 BCE, the Roman people overthrew the last king and established a republic, which was composed of three socioeconomic classes: the patricians, landed aristocratic families who owned and controlled the wealth, did no physical labor, and made all of the decisions; slaves, who performed forced labor in the fields and the homes; and the plebeians, the Roman proletariat who served the Republic as soldiers, shopkeepers, crafts people, skilled and unskilled workers, and small farmers.
Fifteen years later, the proletariat, who had been suffering horribly from debt bondage and the threat of slavery, physically withdrew from the city confines and vowed to establish a new city on a nearby hill if their demands were not met. These organized plebeians told the grossly outnumbered patricians that they weren’t going to fight their wars, produce their food, make their clothes, or anything else for them until they – the working class – received some debt relief and some say in the operation of the new republic.
The plebeian fighters knew who they were and whom they were fighting. These workers were the people who, aside from slaves, created the wealth that the patricians had come to depend on.
- Because of their overwhelming numbers, the strategy of peaceful physical secession forced changes favorable to them – debt relief and political recognition.
- They understood that all plebeians – the immense majority – were their comrades and that all patricians were their foes, and that this tyranny in which patricians were making all the decisions had to be fought against and overturned.
Their understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and their enemy gave them their weapons and their winning strategy. With these, their fear and apathy turned to anger and enthusiasm and, within a year, they had won political representation and debt relief. The plebeians used this strategy three more times over the next two centuries until the final plebeian secession in 284 BCE and the resultant law known as the Lex Hortensia, which forced the retreating patrician order into a permanent position of subordination to the plebeian order.
A more recent example would be the phenomenon of Polish Solidarity, whose full name is “Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarnosc.” At the time, Poland was a Stalinist workers’ state with one owning class – the working class – and a bureaucratic caste managing and usurping wealth and privileges, much as some corrupt union officials today are make decisions and live well while the silent rank and file struggles.
Solidarity emerged on 31 August 1980 at the Gdańsk Shipyard. It was the first non-governmental trade union in a Warsaw Pact country. This very large union reached 9.5 million members – 1/3 of the total working age population of Poland – before its September 1981 Congress.
Their fightback was against the ruling bureaucrats of the Polish police state and their Stalinist brand of “socialism-from-the-top-down.” The members of Polish Solidarity knew themselves to be working class – and they knew they were fighting for the kind of political freedoms that Americans have in our Bill of Rights.
During the 1980s, the unionists used the powerful weapons of class solidarity – massive sit-down strikes that brought the economy to a standstill and peaceful mass street protests that generated support throughout Poland and the world. This double-barreled plan of action eventually brought the oligarchic bureaucracy to its knees and opened the floodgates of anti-Stalinist rebellion around the world, culminating in the fall of the Soviet Union and the shakeup of the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy.
Current Obstacles to Knowledge of Self and the Enemy
Compared to the European and Latin American proletariat, Americans lack political savvy. One reason is that in Europe and Latin America, when the going got tough, the working class had to stay put, organize, and fight back. By contrast, in the US, when the going got tough, individuals and families just picked up and moved West. Now however, there is no more out West, no wide-open spaces to flee to to make a living, and we on this continent are now forced by circumstances – the global capitalist crisis of overproduction – to stay and fight back.
American workers don’t really want to fight. We don’t want trouble or violence. We just want to live our lives in peace with a reasonable level of prosperity. It’s easier to simply sit by the fire and munch on a drumstick. But when that nasty cave bear tries to enter, that’s the time for everyone to get angry and grab the weapons. And when the entire clan stands in unison – in solidarity – ready and able to defend itself, violence is averted because the bear gives up and runs off.
The development of modern technology has far outpaced political understanding and social progress (think nuclear bombs, global warming, and artificial intelligence). That is why the catch up, when it happens, will likely be rapid and explosive, taking most by surprise.
The following seven obstacles currently stand in the way of a proletarian knowledge of self and the enemy:
1. Lack of class consciousness. This is the single most important obstruction blocking the road to a successful fightback. The terms capitalist class and working class have been completely obliterated by the Orwellian Newspeak of American discourse. Americans are burdened with a peculiar and spurious definition of class. In the post-World War II textbooks and mass media, class has suddenly and curiously become synonymous with income level. When class is confused with income level, political self-identity becomes entirely connected to the selfish accumulation of personal wealth. This is the game played by the ruling rich. Workers cannot play that game and expect to create any kind of class solidarity. As in the case of the Roman plebs and Polish workers, class is what unites the toiling majority and solidarity is our most potent weapon.
Class is a reflection of a person’s relationship to the means of production of wealth. The majority of Americans have to work for a living to survive, in workplaces devoid of democratic rights. Workers are neither middle class nor lower class, no matter how much or how little we earn, no matter if we work with our minds or muscles, in factories, offices, transportation companies, schools, hospitals, or retail outlets. We are working class, but are discouraged from thinking of ourselves as such, even by labor leaders and leftist academics and journalists who should know better. George Orwell, Joseph Stalin, and Joseph Goebbels all understood that political thinking and behavior can be channeled by restricting and reshaping the language.
The term middle class generally refers to owners of small and medium sized businesses and farms, managers who represent employers, and college students. Ironically, at the time of the Great French Revolution which established capitalism as the dominant mode of economic organization in Europe, middle class and bourgeoisie were the terms commonly used to refer to the emerging capitalist class. If we keep referring to ourselves as “middle class,” we are essentially identifying ourselves with the enemy. No fightback is possible in that case.
Before the Big Fightback begins, American workers – the vast majority whose hands and minds control the wealth-producing “machinery” – will realize our awesome power over economics and politics. We will also come to understand that we share mutual interests with other toilers everywhere and that we have no interests in common with our class enemy – the American capitalist class.
2. The bad taste left in the collective mouth by the Stalinist experiment. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed of its own massive internal contradictions in 1989, capitalism had lost its best defensive weapon against socialist revolution. After all, nobody wants to live in a totalitarian police state. It has been a quarter-century since that momentous event and still working people are leery of the socialist goal, not yet realizing the difference between top-down socialism and bottom-up socialism. Totalitarianism has been relentlessly associated with all forms of socialism by the big business press and their educational system, while the democratic aspects of the Cuban revolution remain a big secret – like the elephant in the room that everyone tries to ignore.
Post-Stalinist, anti-authoritarian sentiment is also reflected in the phenomenon of worker-owned enterprises. It’s understandable that workers hate being at the mercy of bosses or any kind of mis-leadership. To avoid layoffs and harassment, a few are pooling their resources to buy the businesses at which they work. Some people believe that this development will gradually and seamlessly replace capitalism as we know it.
These developments are valuable as learning experiences for the working class and can help to prepare for an alternative society. However, the strategy has some inherent problems:
- While worker-owned businesses do not have pay management salaries or generate profits for shareholders, they nevertheless must pay for overhead such as rent, utilities, raw materials, and marketing and still have some left over for the workers and all the while compete against large corporations, which can buy cheap in bulk, cut prices, and more easily absorb temporary loses in order to put smaller competitors out of business.
- Without an accompanying cultural shift away from unbridled competition, the talented and greedy few may eventually become the new bosses. We remain people acculturated to a dog-eat-dog culture, surrounded daily on all sides by selfishness and insecurity.
- The workers at major corporations will never raise the money to buy these corporations, because the super-rich who own them care more about the powerthat wealth confers on them than the actual selling price, and will do anything and everything to smash any idea about surrendering their power.
3. Fossilized, bureaucratic unions. American labor unions need to be thoroughly rebuilt from the bottom up. In periods of general retreat such as we find ourselves in today, the likelihood is greater that elected leaderships will put their own interests first, ahead of the interests of the shell-shocked membership. Their jobs depend on defending the existence of the unions while at the same time not confronting the dominance of the ruling class – not rocking the boat. This middle-man strategy leads to the ruthless extermination of genuine fightbacks and the inevitable steerage of working class aspirations into the harmless arena of electoral politics – and specifically the Democratic Party. All electoral efforts are aimed at reform – improving capitalism – and away from any real challenge to the bosses’ profits or their for-profit structure.
As the fightback gets rolling, we will see young militant workers who believe they have nothing to lose, begin replacing these reformist leaderships who engage in sectarian squabbles with other unions and who promise a lot and deliver little. The union, after all, is a weapon owned entirely by the workers and, unlike the institutions of the capitalist state, is potentially responsive to the needs of an aroused and determined membership.
Union dues will partly be used to establish and maintain the international Labor Party, whose purpose will be to represent and fight everywhere for the interests of the working class.
4. Capitalist electoral politics. Voting is an important right that must be jealously defended. However, there are a hundred-and-one methods that the ruling class can and does employ to make certain that pro-capitalist candidates will always win their elections. These days, scores of Western-supported tyrannies around the world hold “elections” which they always win, such as the recently fallen Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, to name just one notorious example.
In the US, the twin parties of capitalism – the Democrats and Republicans – are used by the ruling plutocracy in a tag-team strategy of good cop/bad cop to successfully divert anger and dissatisfaction away from real change and into the Neverland of personality politics, morality politics, and empty promises. We are taught that voting is all that most of us need to do – just vote for the right people. Oh, we can also sign a petition or write a letter to our “representative.”
Both bourgeois parties and their politicians, funded mostly by powerful industries and corporations, naturally dance to the tunes that these wealthy pipers play. And unlike in the past, neither Tweedle-dee nor Tweedle-dum can deliver significant economic concessions any more.
The “third” parties that have been given just enough media exposure to make it onto some ballots (but not enough to pose a serious threat to two-party rule) are limited to those that call for the reform of the capitalist order, not its wholesale replacement with a humane, sensible system run by the majority working class. Neither the Green Party nor the Peace and Freedom Party nor the Libertarian Party publicly advocate the social ownership of the means of production. Many in these reformist parties will one day want to join a powerful Labor Party that has a clear program for defending the health of the biosphere, world peace, and our political freedoms.
The 40 percent of the American electorate that typically isn’t motivated to vote has, in some sense, a higher political consciousness than the 60 percent who vote time and again for the continuance of class society, because the 40 percent know consciously or unconsciously that these elections are not going to improve their lives in any meaningful way. Only when a mass Labor Party enters the arena will bourgeois elections take on real significance for the bottom two-thirds majority.
5. Arbitrary divisions of the proletariat. Nationalism, sexism, racism, and xenophobia serve the interests of the ruling class in a big way. These major divisions prevent the formation of solidarity, the most potent weapon in the working class arsenal. “Divide and conquer” has ever been the strategy of ruling minorities, because they know in the dark recesses of their hearts that sufficient numbers will defeat their lawyers, guns, and money.
- The nation-state is purely an invention of 15/16th century capitalism, used by the investor class to protect their profit-making abilities. The tribes, city-states, and regional states that preceded the nation-state eventually gave way to the approximately 195 national governments that currently keep humanity divided against itself.
Working class politics begins with the world. The disasters we face today – poverty, war, climate change, disease, and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust – are planetary in scope and require global solutions and an “earthling consciousness.” This means that the concept of Amerika can no longer retain its religious hold on people’s loyalties, and that working people must stop taking responsibility for the concerns and crimes of the ruling rich. Working people will learn to avoid using the first-person plural pronouns of “we,” “us,” and “our” when referring to the capitalist government and military, (we invaded Iraq, we must fix our economy, they hate us for our freedoms, and other inanities), and instead use these pronouns when referring to our class and our human species.
- The oppression of women – a division of the toilers right down the middle – has been with us since the establishment of class society approximately 7,000 years ago, and is an organic component of modern capitalism. For more insight into the role that sexism plays in class society, readers can study The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the Stateby Frederick Engels, available through Pathfinder Press.
- Racism is another capitalist invention. One would be hard-pressed to find any examples in pre-capitalist history of whites or anyone else asserting natural superiority over other people based on skin color. Anti-racism will become a major focus of the mass Labor Party.
- Xenophobia – fear and hatred of immigrants – is the flip side of nationalism, and is an important weapon that keeps the working class confused about political self-identity. In contrast, the relocation of workers across borders strengthens the working class by the sharing of information and lessons learned from other struggles. Americans will discover that immigrants are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Time and again, when people fight shoulder to shoulder against the common enemy, these differences melt away. This is what the ruling class fears most.
6. The capitalist propaganda machine. The big-business media and educational system are organs of the capitalist order whose functions are to make a profit, while keeping the majority of us misinformed, confused, and distracted. Their message to us is loud and clear: We are “consumers” who should only be concerned with earning money, spending money, and avoiding politics.
The proletariat will need to cast a skeptical eye on this propaganda while developing its own informational and educational vehicles that will promote the interests of workers. Defending press freedoms and free speech and opposing censorship of all kinds will be crucial in this process.
7. The American security state. The ruling class as a whole would prefer to maintain their power and privileges here and abroad through non-violent means, using electoral politics and a steady stream of disinformation. It’s easier. But these are not easy times for them or us.
As the crisis of capitalism drags on, fightbacks will increase in quantity and quality. The oligarchy will be tempted to use every repressive weapon in its arsenal to instill terror and a sense of hopelessness and disorientation in its adversary, the international working class. These terror weapons include cop harassment and violence, repressive laws, frame-ups, prisons, kidnappings, the use of torture, assassinations, private goon squads, and military invasions and occupations. The tallest nail gets hammered down.
State secrecy, already at its highest level since World War II, will only increase, as will the violation of privacy and attacks on all of the rights embodied in the constitutional Bill of Rights that working people fought so hard for. Attempts to physically disarm the working class will also intensify, even as it means decreasing the profits of the armaments capitalists.
In the beginning stages of the Big Fightback, we will likely witness the rise of mass fascist organizations, composed mainly of ruined middle class elements and the chronically unemployable, and funded and supported primarily by those same armaments capitalists. Ranks of Brownshirts will be loosed onto city streets in a desperate attempt to head off the revolutionary upsurge. There can be no illusions here. This will be a fight for the very existence of humanity.
Many of these terrorist measures were used unsuccessfully to stop the Roman plebeians and Polish Solidarity. What neutralized them in each case was a self-aware, organized working class, conscious of its mission, its abilities, and its enemy.
Learning the Lessons
As we become new people, we will be learning many lessons through smaller defeats, victories, and stalemates. American workers have to develop an abiding faith in democratic principles and our own abilities, and we have to relearn how to win fights.
In the words of that old ruling class warrior Winston Churchill, “Americans always do the right thing, after they have tried everything else first.”
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
E Douglas Kihn is a Doctor of Oriental medicine and a licensed acupuncturist with 25 years of experience in Chinese medicine who lives and works in Los Angeles. He has written three books: Chinese Medicine for Americans, Avoiding Death Indefinitely, and The Workbook of Chinese Herbs. He can be reached through his website at www.drkihn.com.