Which reforms do we win?

October 22, 2014

THANKS FOR your editorial on "What moved the Court on marriage equality?" As Socialist Worker said, the shift in public opinion resulting from the long struggle for marriage equality was the foundation for the shift by the justices. Without that struggle, and change in opinion caused by it, there is no way even the liberal justices would have supported this decision.

But is this enough to explain the change? On many, many issues, public opinion is far to the left of the position of the political establishment--Congress, the courts and the presidency.

In the early 1990s, when opinion polls showed support for a Canadian-style single-payer health care system, Hillary Clinton remarked, "Tell me something interesting." The same support existed in 2009, but instead, we got the insurance company's dream: Obamacare. Opposition to the war in Afghanistan has been consistent and strong for years, yet the U.S. is still there. When millions of people opposed the drive for a war on Iraq in the largest international demonstrations in world history on February 15, 2003, George W. Bush dismissed them as a "focus group."

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A recent study by Princeton University researchers outlines what Marxists and indeed millions of other people have long known: the U.S. is an oligarchy ruled by the rich. The people who actually make the decisions in this capitalist "democracy" are the capitalists and their agents. They make their decisions based on what they think is good for capitalism, not what is good for or desired by the vast majority.

So if the rich run the government, how do we ever win positive reforms? Our rulers make a calculation. If their interests (their political dominance and profits) are threatened more by refusing a reform than by granting it, they will grant the reform.

To save the disintegrating U.S. Army, they responded to the mass antiwar movement and pulled out of Vietnam, for example. In the 1930s, they granted labor rights because workers were seizing factories and threatening private property. Revolutionary ideas and organization were rising. In the case of Vietnam, they were also afraid of alienating a whole generation from the U.S. system. The more independent of the two-party system a movement is, the more threatening it seems to the rulers.

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It is not just whether people support a reform or not that determines whether it wins, but how much they support it, how militant they are prepared to be, how radical they are ready to become to achieve it. In the case of the civil rights movement, whole areas of the South had been continually disrupted, and in some cases, Blacks had adopted armed self-defense.

THERE IS another factor as well: If the reform is not very costly to them, the rulers of society are more likely to grant it. They may not grant it easily, but they are more likely to grant it under pressure.

The calculation in the case of marriage equality was several-fold: There was a very active mass movement that kept the pressure on and shifted public opinion. The Supreme Court could restore some of the legitimacy it lost over the Citizens United case and other decisions by allowing marriage equality to progress.

But beyond that, it became clear over the years that the general oppression of LGBTQ people needed by the ruling class could be continued quite well even after the granting of marriage equality. Granting marriage equality also had the side effect of reinforcing the institution of marriage and the privatized nuclear family. This is true even if the granting of marriage equality can also have the effect of furthering the movement for LGBTQ rights and liberation.

Just as with other reforms, the rulers would never have thought of doing this on their own. It always takes a movement to bring about major reforms. But whether a movement succeeds or not depends on its strength, militancy and size--and on how the ruling class assesses its interests in relation to the reform demanded. The movement itself can, of course, alter the ruling class's view of its own interests by raising the political costs of not granting the reform.

We can never know how strong, broad and militant a movement will need to be to compel the ruling class to grant a reform. Some reforms will turn out to be so threatening to ruling class interests that they will not be fully granted under capitalism. Even with those, we can often win part of the reform if the movement is strong enough.

The only thing we know for sure about a reform movement is that the bigger, stronger, more militant and more independent it is, the more likely it is to win. Public opinion is necessary, but never enough on its own.
Steve Leigh, Seattle

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