2016 and the tale of two Americas
How to sum up 2016--a year of important struggles and a reawakening to the meaning of socialism in the U.S., but also a year of emboldened bigotry and hate and the triumph of a reactionary creep? SocialistWorker.org'stakes a shot, in an article based on a speech to an International Socialist Organization event in Burlington, Vermont.
REMEMBER BACK to this time last year? It looked like the coming 2016 would be a drearily predictable election year, pitting yet another Clinton against yet another Bush.
Instead, 2016 turned out to be a stunning turning point--the year when growing dissatisfaction on both the right and the left broke through a corrupt and broken U.S. political system.
The year began with a sense of hope among millions of people that Bernie Sanders, with his campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, could open a left-wing path out of decades of neoliberalism. But it ended with the crushing fears and disappointment brought on by the victory of a right-wing nationalist and billionaire bigot, Donald Trump.
The success of both the Sanders and Trump candidacies may have shocked the political establishment--and almost everyone else--but both clearly resulted from the fact that the system is failing the vast majority of people.
We have endured four decades of attacks on the working class, four decades of the scapegoating of oppressed people, and four decades of counter-reforms that robbed us of nearly all the victories won by the social movements and mass struggles of the 1960s and even the 1930s.
All these elements of the neoliberal era only intensified after the Great Recession of 2008-09. America's political leaders--first under a Republican president, then a Democrat--dragged the system out of economic free fall by bailing out the banks and corporations, but there was nothing for working people who suffered the brunt of the crisis. On the contrary, they made us pay for the bailouts with austerity measures and even worse scapegoating.
To enforce the savage inequalities of American society, police increased their reign of racist terror against Black people, and the immigration authorities deported well over 2 million of the undocumented. And this escalation in racist state violence was overseen by America's first Black president.
THE SAME dynamics have been playing out across the world. Establishment politics is provoking both struggle from below and right-wing populist reaction. The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote about a world of such polarization amid World War One: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold."
Thus, 2011 marked the high tide of left-wing struggles following the Great Recession, from the Arab Spring uprisings to the occupations of public squares in Greece and Spain; from the massive students movements in Chile and Quebec to Occupy Wall Street and later #BlackLivesMatter in the U.S.
These struggles crystallized the bitter discontent with a status quo of deteriorating living standards and worse to come. But in most, if not all, cases, they didn't achieve lasting victories, and their setbacks came at a terrible cost. For example, the Middle East and North Africa have suffered through a savage counterrevolution as local and global ruling classes reasserted their dominion.
As popular resistance receded, right-wing populism has taken advantage in many societies, rushing in to play on people's despair to win them to their reactionary solutions.
Trump is the latest example, but there are many more around the world: Narendhra Modi's Hindu communalist regime in India; Rodrigo Duterte's brutal "war on drugs" in the Philippines and Michel Temer's electoral coup in Brazil, as well as rising far-right European leaders such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France.
In the U.S. and around the world, the right wing is finding coherence around a program that combines immigrant-bashing and Islamophobia with nationalist opposition to rotten free trade deals.
On the other side of this political polarization are many threads of resistance that have yet to cohere into a clear left-wing alternative to both the new right and the rotten old establishment forces of the ever-rightward-moving center. That is the clear task of socialists in 2017 and beyond.
Thus, 2016, like the whole preceding period before it since the Great Recession, was a year of contrasts--a year of hope and a year of despair. The moment was encapsulated more than a century and a half ago by the great British novelist Charles Dickens, in the famous opening lines of his book A Tale of Two Cities, written about Paris and London on the eve of the French Revolution of 1789:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...
IN THE U.S., Election 2016 was the media's obsession throughout the year, even though it seemed, after the circus of the Republican primaries, that the Democratic establishment's choice would be a shoo-in on November 8.
Socialists regularly pointed out how bad a candidate Hillary Clinton was. Yet her loss to Trump is still shocking more than a month later.
But we must restate some facts amid all the confusion. Trump didn't win the election. Clinton won the popular vote by a margin that could be as big as 3 million votes, but lost the While House because of the slaveholder's Electoral College. Factoring in those who didn't cast a ballot at all, Trump barely got the vote of a quarter of the eligible population.
He will come into office with the lowest approval ratings for any president-elect in recent history. In other words, in the immortal words of the great Gil Scott-Heron: "Mandate, my ass!"
But Trump has never been concerned with facts. He'll act like he did win with a mandate and push to impose his reactionary agenda. We can see that clearly in the cabinet of horrors he is appointing.
Far from "draining the swamp" in Washington as he promised, he is filling his team with swamp creatures--from Wall Street magnates to establishment Republicans, along with far-right crackpots like former Breitbart News boss Steve Bannon.
And he's planning to attack all of us--workers and oppressed people alike. He wants to cripple unions, privatize whole sections of the U.S. state, and further shred what's left of the social safety net with attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The people he's appointing to run departments like Education and the Environmental Protection Agency despise the very institutions they will rule over.
Trump hopes to get away with this generalized attack through his program of scapegoating oppressed groups. The scariest immediate effect of Trump's victory has been the emboldening of racist street violence. Already last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims, and it reports a further intensification since Trump's election.
OUR HOPES have to lie in the wave of protest triggered by Trump's (un)election.
Spontaneous marches of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands swept through cities and towns around the country each day after the election. Student walkouts took place from middle schools through universities. Immigrant rights activists initiated calls for sanctuary cities and campuses.
This instinctive resistance stood in stark contrast to the calls to give the new president a chance from Democratic Party leaders who had spent the previous months calling Trump a fascist menace in an effort to scare up Clinton votes.
Hopefully, the protests and actions being called against Trump's inauguration--both national mobilizations for Washington, D.C., and local events shaping up in every city--will be the starting point for building the truly mass movements that will be necessary to oppose his agenda of mass deportations, Muslim registries, union busting and attacks on reproductive rights.
But Inauguration Day must be just the beginning. It will be a chance to show how many people want to send a message of defiance against the illegitimate president-to-be. But the work of resistance will take place in the struggles to come, whether on a local scale or a national one, around any number of issues.
Unfortunately, the potential for building large-scale resistance has been hindered by the invisibility of large institutional forces on the left. To this point, unions and mainstream civil rights organizations have been largely absent or inconspicuous from the anti-Trump protests, which were largely organized on short notice via social media. Even the Washington Inauguration Day protests have yet to get substantial backing from bigger organizations.
Amid the first protests of the coming Trump era, the struggle at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) stands out as a beacon pointing a way forward.
This struggle is built on hundreds of years of Native American resistance to colonization and dispossession--and, more recently, the heroic struggle of the Lakota Sioux to draw a line and refuse to move until the pipeline pushers stop the project that threatens their sacred land and water.
Their call for solidarity was heard by Indigenous people throughout the world, from Palestine to the Sami people of Norway, and thousands of non-Indigenous from all backgrounds flocked to North Dakota to stand against the pipeline.
Most dramatically, more than 2,000 military veterans mobilized for the first weekend in December to confront the police and private security hired by the pipeline builders. After word spread that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under pressure for months to take a side, had denied a necessary permit, blocking construction for now, representatives of these veterans of an institution that committed genocide against Native Americans organized a ceremonial apology for the crimes committed against Native peoples.
The fight against DAPL and other pipelines isn't over, but our side has won an important battle. Standing Rock can be our North Star in the dark winter of Trump's rise to power. It shows our potential and power when we unite in common struggle against our common enemies.
THE ELECTION proved again that the U.S. is a profoundly polarized country, but now with an emboldened right wing that can cohere around Trump's reactionary agenda and right-wing populism, while a new and stronger left is still struggling to be born.
Trump's presidency will present it with huge challenges. But make no mistake: that new left is being born. We know that people are flocking to socialist meetings, reading socialist publications and joining with socialist organization in much greater numbers--something that started before the election, but has accelerated since.
One Internet meme captured this aspect of 2016 better than I ever could. "Sophie's Merry Mom" sent a tweet with two pictures. The first picture, of Bernie Sanders, was labeled "Me at the beginning of 2016. The second picture, labeled "Me at the end of 2016," was of Karl Marx.
We need to raise the left in the politics of solidarity and democracy to defeat Trump's politics of divide and conquer. The old labor movement slogan needs to be pressed into service for a new generation: "An injury to one is an injury to all." The opposite is also true: Each victory for our side is a victory for the whole left and the whole working-class movement.
There are initial lessons we can draw from the month since the election about the patterns of emerging resistance: There is widespread anger, not just at Trump but the entire two-party system--but organizing has been hobbled by the weakness of the left that came before, and especially the subservience of unions and liberal organizations to the Democratic Party and the interests of Corporate America that the Democrats serve.
We can't kid ourselves about these weaknesses. But Trump's aggressive attacks will provoke eruptions of protest--at unpredictable times and over unpredictable issues--and radicals need to try to help these protests develop from spontaneous reactions into lasting organizations of opposition.
These arenas of grassroots struggle and resistance--more than the local election and certainly more than doomed efforts to take over the Democratic Party--will be the primary place where the socialist left can begin to develop itself into a viable alternative.
I WANT to close these reflections on the last year of hope and horror with the words of the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes.
In 1935, amid the labor and socialist radicalization of the Great Depression, Hughes wrote a vision of solidarity and resistance that is probably the best single response to Donald Trump and his sickening slogan of "Make American great again." It puts forward a vision of humanity and struggle that would make this country and the whole world actually great for the first time.
May it be read at many meetings and protests in 2017:
Let America be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the black man bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the black man, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The abuse and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again