Solidarity and a new struggle for socialism

August 17, 2016

Socialism was put at the center of U.S. politics by the campaign of Bernie Sanders, which confirmed again what people who protest for a living wage or stand up against police racism have been saying for years: The capitalist system isn't working, and we need an alternative.

At this summer's Socialism 2016 conference in Chicago, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Sharon Smith were the main speakers at an evening plenary session on "The Fight for a Socialist Future." Here, we publish the speech by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, edited for publication, in which she talks about how exploitation and oppression are interwoven under capitalism, and therefore the struggle against them must be, too. SW also featured Sharon Smith's speech here.

IN MAY, Hillary Clinton gave a signature speech intended to display that she is the most prepared to be the "commander-in-chief" of U.S. military forces compared to Donald Trump.

As with most of these kinds of speeches, she waxed on about the greatness of the U.S. as the basis upon which this country apparently has earned the right to dictate the terms of what happens in the rest of the world.

In other words, not only does the U.S. rely on its arsenal of nuclear weapons, its tens of thousands of troops, its drones and the entire weight of its military to wield its authority, but perhaps most importantly, it relies on its self-description as a country of democracy, opportunity and fairness as its moral authority to act as judge, jury and executioner in the world.

It is referred to as "American exceptionalism." This is how Clinton put it:

Don't let anyone tell you that America isn't great. Donald Trump's got America all wrong. We are a big-hearted, fair-minded country...

I never lost my sense of pride at seeing our blue-and-white plane lit up on some far-off runway, with "The United States of America" emblazoned on the side. That plane--those words--our country represents something special, not just to us, to the world. It represents freedom and hope and opportunity.

I believe with all my heart that America is an exceptional country--that we're still...the last, best hope of earth.

Marching in protest after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer

These comments make sense from the perch where Clinton and the rest of the 1 Percent sit and view our society. A little closer to the ground, it's pretty clear that far from being the "last, best hope of earth," the U.S. is a violently unequal and racist country. Increasingly, it is the land of the hopelessness.

THE IDEA that the U.S. is a free and democratic society is based on what is hidden, not what is said. These candy-coated phrases are not just American hubris, but more importantly they are intended to shroud a darker, destructive reality that grows increasingly harder to hide.

But when 47 percent of voters say they would vote for a socialist in the country that is supposed to worship at the alter of free-market capitalism, then you know something is amiss.

And when 40 percent of people under 30 say they have a "favorable view of socialism" in the country that claims to have no barriers to social mobility, then you know something is amiss.

And when a self-described socialist runs for a mainstream party's nomination to become president and receives 12 million votes, you know there is a crack in the empire's narrative. You also know that he has tapped into something deeper and more profound that can actually be measured in a presidential election.

The Sanders campaign certainly didn't create this discontent and anger. It revealed it on a much larger scale. From the Occupy revolt against income inequality to the eruption of Black Lives Matter in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland, and beyond, to now the open discussion of whether or not socialism is possible in the U.S.--all point to the extent to which the U.S. is only exceptional in the minds of its elected leaders not in the actual lives of its people.

The interest in socialism and in the activism against racial and economic inequality in this country is not born of academic interest, but resides in the deepening social crisis here.

The millionaires and billionaires at the helm of this country, tell us that things are great. It's a sentiment that even trickles down to some middle-class people who think that, yes, we may have some problems, but on the whole, we have it pretty good here in this country.

If there are poor people or people suffering, it's because of something they did or didn't do in their lives. Perhaps they haven't worked hard enough, they are lazy, they have low expectations, they haven't taken advantage of the opportunities that exist here, or they need better role models.

These ideas are reflected in mainstream politics, in the media, in our popular culture, in our common-sense assumptions about the nature of our society--until they are not.

Maybe you can describe a relative, a neighbor, a co-worker or any random individual as lazy and unmotivated, but there are 47 million poor people in the U.S. and 10 million people have been forced to move in the last 10 years because of foreclosures. The value of ordinary workers' wages have not significantly increased or kept up with the rate of inflation since 1979.

What has been unearthed by Occupy, Black Lives Matter and now the Sanders campaign is something deeper, systemic and fundamental about the country we live in.

WHEN SYSTEMIC problems become too big to ignore--when socialists start gaining millions of votes, when Black people riot and rebel in the streets--the news media is forced to provide some explanation. In doing so, they typically give us fractured glimpses of reality but rarely do they piece the entire picture together.

Consider four separate news stories from this year.

There is the continuing crisis of opioid--narcotics--addiction in the country. There are 2 million people addicted to opioids in the U.S. Half of those people are addicted to heroin. From 2009 to 2014, almost half a million people have died from opioid overdoses--a four-fold increase since 1999.

There was the short-lived story of the decline in life expectancy for white women and the plateauing of life expectancy for white men. In fact, it is unprecedented for life expectancy to reverse in a so-called First World country. In the U.S.'s peer countries, life expectancy is actually growing. Why is life expectancy for white women in decline? Drug overdose, suicide and alcohol abuse.

In Chicago, the story has been, according to the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets, the quizzical rise in shootings and murders in the city's working-class Black neighborhoods. The news media's nonsensical explanations for the violence--including citing retaliation as a central explanation--is only matched by the nonsensical piffle offered by elected officials, which includes the absence of role models and poor parenting.

What is almost never offered as at least part of the answer is the fact that Chicago has the highest Black unemployment rate of the nation's five largest cities at 25 percent. Or that nearly half of Black men ages 20 to 24 in Chicago are neither in school nor employed.

Finally there is the story of the "shrinking middle class." In the 1970s, 61 percent of Americans fell into that vague but stable category of "middle class." Today that number has fallen to 50 percent. It's driven by the growing wealth inequality that exists in the country.

In the last year alone, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by 7 percent; and the 0.1 percent saw their income rise by 9 percent. In general, the richest 20 percent of households in the U.S. own 84 percent of the wealth in the country. While the bottom 40 percent own less than the top 1 percent.

These four prominent stories reported on over the last several years are often told separately. They reinforce the perception that different groups of people in this country live in their own world and have experiences that are wholly separate from each other...especially Black, white, Latino, Arab and Muslim workers.

But what would happen if we put these stories together and told them as a single narrative about life in this country?

If we told them together, it could allow us to see that the anxieties, stresses, confusions and frustrations about life in the world today aren't owned by one group, but are shared by many. It wouldn't tell us that everyone suffers the same oppression or exploitation, but it would allow us to see that even if we don't experience a particular kind of oppression, every working person in this country is going through something; everyone is trying to figure out how to survive, and many are failing.

If we put these stories together, we would gain more insight into how the white working class and poor have as much stake in the fight for a different kind of society as anyone else. We wouldn't so casually dismiss their suffering as privilege because they do not suffer as much as Black and Brown people in this country.

The privileges of white skin run very thin in a country where 19 million white people languish in poverty. Apparently, the wages of whiteness are not so great to stop millions of ordinary white people from literally drinking and drugging themselves to death to escape the despair of living in this so-called "last, best hope of earth."

If we put these separate stories into a single story, we could make better sense of why socialism is rising in popularity and why people have taken to the streets over the last five years to protest growing racial and economic inequality.

THERE ARE 400 billionaires in this country. They are the reason why there are 47 million poor people. You cannot have untold, obscene wealth unless you have untold, obscene poverty. That is the law of capitalism. That is the law of the so-called free market.

And how does a puny, putrid, parasitic 1 percent of the population hold onto their wealth when we are so many? Racism, immigrant-bashing, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and nationalism. They get us to fight each other while they horde their wealth. And they keep our stories separate from one other so that we never understand the entire story but only our particular part of it.

But despite this great effort to keep our side divided and confused, millions of people are coming to grips with the harsh reality of an economic system that guarantees them nothing but a future of hardship and an inability to ever get ahead.

But that knowledge alone of the existence of racism, inequality, poverty and injustice does not necessarily equip our side with the political tools needed to fight the battles of today or fight for a socialist future. We need struggle. But we also need politics because we must contend with a political establishment that wants to lower our expectations to believe that this existing society is the best we can expect from humanity.

They warn us not to dare think beyond the existing parameters of electing a Democrat or Republican to change the world we live.

Hillary Clinton, in fact, has been running a campaign of low expectations--a campaign that cynically pivots around the notion that ordinary people shouldn't ask too much and must be realistic about the possibilities. Bernie Sanders, for all the excitement that his campaign generated for rightly demanding more, his commitment to remaining in the Democratic Party has effectively neutered his "political revolution."

EXPECTING THE Democratic Party to fight for the democratic redistribution of wealth and resources in this country is like expecting to squeeze orange juice out of an apple.

No, we must build independent organizations and political parties that are not connected to the Democratic Party or that rise and fall with the electoral cycle. We have to build organizations that are democratic, multiracial and militant with a foundation in solidarity.

Solidarity meaning that even if you don't experience a particular oppression, it doesn't matter because you understand that as ordinary people our fates are tied together and that one group's liberation is dependent on the liberation of all of the oppressed and exploited.

In closing, I want to go back to a speech by revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs, who upon being convicted of violating the Sedition Act when he spoke out and organized against the First World War, gave the following speech capturing so much of the humanity and solidarity at the heart of the socialist project:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free....

I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned--that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all...

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence...

I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time, they will and must come to their own... Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

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