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From brownh@hartford-hwp.com Wed Nov 1 15:01:36 2000
Date: Wed, 1 Nov 2000 15:01:20 -0500
From: <brownh@hartford-hwp.com>
Subject: Labor and the Lesser of Two Evils
Reply-to: brownh@hartford-hwp.com

Labor and the Lesser of Two Evils

By Haines Brown <brownh@hartford-hwp.com>
1 November 2000

[A slightly revised version of the original posting].

The coming US election has been the source of more anguish for me than any other I can remember, and so I can't help ventilating here about the "Lesser of Two Evils" and the "Friends of Labor."

I understand and am to a degree sympathetic to the "Lesser of Two Evils" argument. In a situation in which the kind of structural change that might open new possibilities for labor seems remote, one must adapt and make the best of circumstances. You never fight a battle you don't think you can win; a vote for Gore will promote a Panglossian best of all possible worlds.

Why am I not finding this argument persuasive? There are several reasons.

The labor movement has always existed as a struggle for change, and an accomodation of the status quo would therefore imply its death. I suppose that if our situation were favorable to labor, we might happily embrace it without thought of the consequences. However, has not the labor movement since its inception insisted that profits are based on the exploitation of workers? Are not good times either a temporary aberration or purchased through the misery of others in our world? The issue should be, not whether the present is tolerable, but what tactics lie open to us to change it for the better. Our class is a process, not a collection of static distinctions.

Perhaps the option to change the existing order simply does not exist. That must be admitted as a possibility, but then what approach should we take? First, it is never a win-all or loose-all situation, and so we should do what we can, if not in one way, then in another. We must be willing to sacrifice immediate benefits if it furthers the cause of labor, but it should be noted that only organized labor can bring that to pass. Spontaneous protest necessarily is fixated on the immediate present. Labor and its leaders have never hestitated going to jail in the name of justice, or to express a class position on issues, or to endure the hardships of an extended strike. Why then not vote according to class interests even if doing so means we have to endure four years of Bush. Wouldn't it be worth it if it meant we keep the flame alive for meaningful change in four years rather than hide it under the bushel of a Lesser Evil?

There's a big difference between taking a position on bills that seem relatively favorable or unfavorable to labor and adopting policies that really represent the working class. The bills debated in Congress are the product of non-working class legislators (who, more accurately, are the puppets of big business), and while some bills will of course be more beneficial to us than others, working class awareness should result in policy recommendations that are of and for the working class majority in this country. We hear candidates dicker vacuously over how to fix Social Security, when long ago the Social Security system should have become a decent retirement income for every citizen. I've not explored the figures, but I'll bet that if we were to abandon the military machine required to support U.S. imperialism, we could well afford real social insurance and the redeployment of people presently engaged in military production.

A "Friend of Labor" has not been a politician who have struggled for the working class, but almost always someone associated with the ruling class who seeks labor's vote and throws out a few crumbs in payment for it. In fact, Clinton and Gore in the past have not even been friends of labor, but have consistently moved away from labor. Although the labor vote is important for his electoral success, there's no reason to think that Gore will for that reason adopt a more progressive stance than he or his mentor have previously taken. In fact, there is every indication that Gore will aggressively pursue policies (such as free trade) that are intolerable for labor, especially labor elsewhere in the world with whom we must establish solidarity if we are to survive.

But, still, Bush is said to be the epitome of evil, and perhaps we can at least vote to get rid of him. This, too, is reasonable enough, but ultimately not persuasive. For one thing, the whims of a president usually don't really determine what happens, and I'd include Supreme Court appointments here. Policies and judgements are contested in the political arena, and perhaps more important than the President is Congress, and what legislation does pass is usually the result of compromise. But I think the Democratic party under Clinton (and before, if the truth were told), has moved to the right (not to some imaginary "center" invented by the press) and ever further away from labor. Besides, under capitalism, it is money that rules, not presidents or Congress, and most of the money needed to buy candidates, run campaigns or get out the vote stems from the corporate sector.

Money is the source of capitalist strength; it seems to me labor should therefore be trying to change the rules of the game, rather than trying to play it better. Labor will never command the financial strength enjoyed by capital. Labor's only strength is social solidarity, which today must be global in scope, and this represents the only possible counter to the power of capital. Labor's top priority should be its own power and dignity, and this is the only real issue, not whether China joins the WTO.

What this amounts to, I realize, is an old fashioned call for democracy, but so be it. I suspect that in retrospect the election of 2000 will mark the final demise of democracy in the country that was its harbinger in the world. Will the labor movement have to accept the moral burden of not having fought to preserve and restore it? Getting out the vote does not promote democracy if the total percentage of people who vote continues to go down and if significant issues are not raised. It is to whistle in the wind if there's no working-class candidates and working-class issues to vote for.

Some suggest that things would be so much worse under Bush that we better hold our nose and vote for Gore. But this seems to overlook the whole point: the fundamental issue is the power of the working class to shape its own destiny, not whether we get favorable action on certain bills. Working-class power is both the end and the means. Issues can be instruments of struggle, but if they are not explicitly working-class issues, they won't fulfill that function. Otherwise, we are well-fed slaves, indifferent to the mounting misery of the working class the world over and therefore ultimately to our own interests. Without power, the only policies we can expect favorable to labor will be ones needed by the capitalist system to perpetuate itself and strengthen its ability to exploit labor.

Public education, for example, while much the achievement of the teachers' union, was really necessary for capitalism after the Second Industrial Revolution. In terms of the new economy, public education had become a necessity. But it is well known that it also aimed to create a more docile labor force. Working-class struggle over public education only benefitted workers to the extent it helped capitalism create the conditions for its own continued existence and to exploit labor. While public education is of vital interest to the working class, it ultimately does not seem to have enhanced labor's power in relation to that of capital.

While we would probably experience less damaging policies under Gore as President than under Bush, it would be hard to show that signifant changes in the condition of the U.S. working class correlate closely with which capitalist party happens to be in power. The source of our wellbeing is struggle. But note that struggle does not arise simply out of misery, but out of an awareness that that progressive change is possible. If we don't struggle, even if it is sometimes Quixotic, we abandon hope and thus the engine of progress. Power is really the only issue, for whether we see favorable legislation or not depends entirely upon it.

Struggle builds on struggle and atrophies from passivity, but we can't disregard the content of that struggle. If the working class is to develop, that struggle must be in terms of our class, not in terms of issues defined for us by the ruling class. If labor pursues an independent political line, what it looses in terms of the crumbs falling from the master's table will be gained in terms of class development, whether it be a heightened consciousness of specifically working-class issues or rising expectations emerging from solidarity in struggle. As much as I liked the New Deal, I would never try to represent it as a manifestation of working-class power.

The issues and candidates in this election have little to do with labor, but I don't think for that reason we should boycott the election -- as half the American people will do who do not vote. We have seen that their boycott has not (until perhaps now) put to question the legitimacy of the capitalist system. Further, a boycott represents an abandonment of struggle altogether. While a vote for Nader may be no more a vote for labor than would be a vote for Bush or Gore, it can help put to question the legitimacy of political system based on two very similar parties, of the slavish pandering after existing order by the press, of the de-legitimation of any ideas that are not capitalist. Even if Nader does not get his 5%, a vote for him is not wasted, for it helps keep politics alive.

So the alternative to Gore and Bush might be Nader, and I suppose I'll force myself to vote for him, even though he only seems to stand for small business vs. big business; the common man vs. the elite. Despite recent campaign rhetoric in reponse to criticism, he does not really appeal much to labor, to women, to the urban poor, to minorities, etc. But at least he appears a bit less a spokesman of the capitalist ruling class than Gore, and if I have no other choice, I guess I'll feel that I betrayed the working class less if I decide to vote for this Lesser Evil. Nader might not do much for labor, but he seems democracy's last hope, and it is worthwhile to preserve political life as a contested arena.

So perhaps I'll go for Nader as the "Lesser of Two Evils," but not infer that he is for that reason a "Friend of Labor", which would would throw out a smokescreen, perpetuate the capitalist status quo and therefore de-legitimate or make less likely any alternatives to it. So a vote for Nader is not a vote for Labor's Friend, but would nevertheless be tactically useful.

So even if our situation does not offer much hope for significant change, besides supporting Nader, I believe we should at least articulate the policies we believe are really those of labor and demand that candidates, including Nader, respond to our initiatives. As opportunities permit, we should develop alternative candidates who are committed enough to labor to reject existing the party apparatus, and we should then work for them even if electoral success seems unlikely. This is not foolish, for it can help develop the working class if done properly (probably through the local labor councils rather than outside them). Participate we must, but at least we should participate with dignity. If we had made this decision back in the 1950s, just think of where we'd be today!

Many progressives now fear that Nader is a spoiler and that his candidacy will make Bush's electoral victory far more likely. I have tried to suggest here that the real question is not whether this is true, but whether it is raised from a class position. Progressives who do not reject the capitalist system but aim instead to reform it are likely to embrace Gore as a lesser evil; those who adopt a working-class perspective and have class development as their primary goal might well conclude that a vote for Nader will best promote working-class development, even if it is accompanied by painful policies imposed on us by the capitalist government.

Marx once spoke of "parliamentary cretanism," but I don't think we should infer that it is pointless to be involved in politics. Things have changed since Marx's day. One thing has been capitalism's need to develop mass politics, which means that a strategic mass political mobilization against the existing order is now possible. Secondly, the existing political institutions have, for several reasons, acquired such enormous legitimacy that they can only be overthrown from within, by launching a mass movement in the existing framework that will deepen the contradictions of the existing order to the point that Republicratic legitimacy is lost.

Haines Brown

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