Are the Republicans out of control?

October 14, 2013

SW readers and writers weigh in about the Republicans and the government shutdown.

Who's in charge of the GOP?

THE DEBATE sparked by Paul Heideman's "Does GOP spell 'bad for business'?" is an important one for socialists and radicals organizing against austerity in the U.S. today.

At the moment, elements of the pro-Democratic Party "left" are renewing their calls to subordinate any and all independent organizing to supporting Obama and the Congressional Democrats as the only "progressive alternative" to the pro-corporate Republican Party intent on "wrecking the country" by shutting down the federal government. Heideman's essay presents a powerful alternative--in this fight, it is the Democrats who are the best spokespeople for U.S. capitalism, not the Republicans, who are captives of a radical right-wing middle class faction.

Todd Chretien's response, "The ruling class and the state," unfortunately resists recognizing this reality. Chretien, mistakenly I believe, equates contemporary working class disorganization and weakness with a claim that "there has never been a time in American history when the capitalist class has more directly controlled the state than today.

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

A key to the success of the neoliberal offensive in the U.S. and globally has been the ability of the capitalist class to gain the support of important segments of the middle classes--small businesspeople, professionals and managers--for their anti-working class agenda. While hostile to unions, social welfare, government regulation and the like, the middle classes are also suffering falling living standards as a result of the capitalist crisis that began in 2007-08.

The Tea Party's popular support (not necessarily its financing and leadership) is being fueled by an increasingly radicalized middle class, which blames BOTH "big business" and working people (unions, people of color, immigrants, women, queer people) for their suffering.

The individual billionaires who finance and lead the Tea Party faction--the Koch brothers--are outliers in the capitalist class. They are out of step with the rest of the capitalist class on key issues. The two most important organizations of capitalists in the U.S.--the Business Roundtable, which represents the largest transnational capitalists; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which speaks for a broad segment of small and large corporations--oppose the Tea Party on shutting down the federal government, protecting the federal debt (and the credit rating of U.S.-based transnational corporations) and a pro-corporate "reform" of the U.S. immigration system (guest workers, etc.)

While the vast majority of U.S. capitalists are more than willing to use the middle class Tea Party "insurgents" when their interests align--attacking unions, social welfare, government regulation of corporations, etc.--they will not tolerate policies that threaten capital.

We need to be clear: There is no reason for the left to support the Democrats against the crazed Republicans. U.S. capitalists will mobilize their considerable resources to defeat the Tea Party, which has demonstrated that it is an irresponsible and undisciplined political instrumentality (the New York Times reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other capitalist "trade groups"' are ready to finance challenges to Tea Party zealots in Republican Primaries in 2014).
Charlie Post, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The useful tea-pardiots?

I THOUGHT Todd Chretien's contribution ("The ruling class and the state") made some important points to add to the article by Paul Heideman ("Does GOP spell 'bad for business'?") on why the Tea Party faction seems to be driving Republican strategy during the shutdown circus.

It's not hard to find ruling class individuals who are every bit as fanatical as the Tea Party in their hatred of government and Barack Obama's health care law. Think of how many times Obama has been repaid for his devoted service to the ruling class--bailing out Wall Street, intensifying the austerity drive, ensuring that health care "reform" legislation was slanted in favor of corporate interests--with vitriolic rhetoric from capitalists who think a marginal increase in taxes on the rich is the equivalent of Hitler's invasion of Poland, as hedge fund parasite Stephen Schwarzman put it.

So I agree with Todd that we shouldn't assume undivided capitalist hostility toward the Tea Party. Still, let's consider some of the right-wing kooks who are in a position of political influence right now--like Texas Rep. John Culberson who celebrated the House rejection of a compromise to keep the government open by casually comparing Senate Democrats to the September 11 hijackers: "I said, like 9/11, 'let's roll.'" It's hard to discern any consideration of ruling class interests, from any perspective, when it comes to zealots like Culberson.

In this respect, I think Paul's article makes some very valuable points about why the Tea Partiers have gained an advantage among Republicans.

The GOP establishment and the corporate interests that dominate the party have always needed political vehicles to bolster their right-wing voting base and to act as an ideological battering ram in the political arena. The Religious Right has served this purpose in the past; today, the Tea Party is more prominent (actually, there's a lot of overlap between the two). These vehicles are creatures of the party establishment, but once set in motion, they do have a life of their own.

Right now, because of factors that Paul pointed out, the Republican leaders who associate themselves with the Tea Party are in a position to extort inter-party rivals. If you're a House Republican who's wavering on the shutdown, you have to worry that the biggest immediate threat to your future ambitions and career longevity isn't corporate campaign donations drying up, but the Tea Partiers challenging you in the next election.

So it's possible for factional infighting within the Republican Party to trump other considerations. But there are limits--the most important being if a majority of capitalists really cares about something.

That's why I think we will see a deal on raising debt ceiling--with or without an end to the shutdown--before the October 17 deadline. Wall Street and Corporate America have raised enough of an alarm about the prospect of a default that there will probably be bipartisan support in the House for some bill that increases the government's borrowing authority. As in past "compromises," several dozen Republican "yes" votes will provide the cover for many more Republicans to cast a "principled" vote against, but knowing the measure will pass.

As for the government shutdown itself--well, that's less clear-cut. There are long-term economic effects to worry about, particularly for sections of capital that do business with the government. And it can't make the ruling class happy that its favored political party is increasingly discredited in the eyes of the public.

But the immediate brunt of the government shutdown is falling on: one, government workers; and two, working class people, disproportionately the poorer ones, who depend on its services. I think there's agreement, approaching unanimity, in the capitalist class that those two groups can go to hell. So how much is at stake for them in the shutdown (in contrast to the debt ceiling)?

Plus, keep the big picture in mind: The Tea Party's usefulness as an ideological battering ram, making extreme demands so that the eventual "compromise" is pulled to the right, remains intact. When some deal is worked out on the budget, the end of the shutdown will be welcomed as a victory over Republicans by a lot of people, but the actual funding levels will be closer than ever to the most extreme demands for austerity made by the GOP.

Capitalists may be blind to many things, but they understand the usefulness of a strong opening in any negotiation.
Alan Maass, Chicago

The failure of the flunkies

IT SEEMS to me that both Paul Heideman ("Does GOP spell 'bad for business'?") and Todd Chretien ("The ruling class and the state") speak to elements of the truth in their contributions on how Marxists should understand the relationship between capitalists and the state in the current moment of U.S. politics.

Heideman is quite right to say that the government shutdown is against the interests of capital, taken either together or separately. In that sense, the capitalists have certainly "lost control" of the state: the political leadership is engaged in a shenanigan that no important sector of capital supports.

Chretien's attempt to gloss over this with his thesis that "a significant section of the ruling class that just cannot deal with the fact that we have a Black president" is not at all convincing. So a "significant section" of capital works against its own immediate and perceivable material interests because it "just cannot deal"? I am not sure how to reconcile this with a materialist analysis of capitalism.

That said, Heideman's assertion that "the state isn't directly controlled by capitalists," while formally true, rings a false note in the era of Citizens United, ALEC, the Treasury Department/Goldman Sachs "revolving door," the Senate of millionaires, etc. Chretien hits closer to the substantial truth when he points out, "Arguably, there has never been a time in American history when the capitalist class has more directly controlled the state than today."

So who's right? I'd suggest they both are: the capitalists lose their grip on the state more often these days precisely because their bought-off political flunkies are unusually faithful reproductions of themselves.

To explain what I mean, it's useful to start with a crucial observation from the first volume of Hal Draper's Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution:

Of all the ruling classes known to history, the membership of the capitalist class is least well adapted, and tends to be most averse, to taking direct charge of the operation of the state apparatus. The key word is: direct. It is least suitable as a governing class, if we use this term in its British sense to denote not a socioeconomic ruling class, but only the social circles from which the state machine tends to derive its personnel. (Sec. 14.4)

This is basically Heideman's point, but I think Draper's more "tendential" formulation is advantageous; it suggests that the "directness" of capital's political rule is a historically mediated quantity.

How, after all, does a bourgeois politician or functionary get any less myopic than the bourgeois class from which he almost invariably hails? The answer is class struggle. By dint of his role as the suppressor of the working class--the capitalist state is, first and foremost, its police--the bourgeois politician is compelled to deal with the working class as a political entity; and if the class is well-organized, it becomes too expensive and ineffective to rely entirely on main force.

Hence, the British parliamentarians of the 19th century did not reduce the length of the working day because they realized that the physical and mental deterioration of the proletariat threatened the reproduction of the system--although that was indisputably true; nor did they do it because it compelled capital to invest in mechanization, to the great benefit of productivity and profit--although that was also true; rather, parliament acted because the working class organized a huge social movement that defied forcible suppression (and not for lack of trying).

In other words, the working class created a political crisis that compelled the capitalist state, as a state, to raise itself above the mass of individual capitalists and "discipline" them.

By way of contrast, consider our situation today, where an extraordinary spell of weakness in the U.S. (and international) working class has permitted the vision of the typical capitalist politician to narrow down to the range of the typical capitalist money-grubber. Every politician (or high-level bureaucrat) looks out for "number one," seeks only his own advancement, works only for his own peculiar interests--then shrieks with rage when the fiasco comes because his peers have been equally greedy. But isn't this exactly the behavior of the "ordinary" individual capitalist during a market crisis?

Lack of foresight, vacillation, myopic avarice, fury at catastrophes of one's own creation: These are all the classic traits of the capitalist, but the interesting thing about our times is that their politicians are now no better. The capitalists bear the burden of leaders as stupid as themselves.
Shaun Joseph, Boston

Further Reading

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