Weak Jobs Numbers and a Crying Capitalist Class: Is This a De Facto General Strike?

by Keaton Weiss

In the days and weeks after the coronavirus lockdowns began, many on the Left called for a general strike. What better time than now, we thought, to demand a more robust social safety net, and to withhold our labor until we get it?

Hopeless romantics that we are, visions of picketing UAW workers and steel miners filled our heads as we imagined what could be. Wouldn’t it be great if, in the face of a once-in-a-century crisis, America’s workers could rise up en masse against their oppressors, and starve the system until it starts delivering for us?

To no one’s surprise but ours, such a thing never happened. Those put out of work by the pandemic went on unemployment, the professional managerial class worked off their laptops in their pajamas, and much of the true proletariat – “essential workers,” as they’ve come to be known – simply continued on, business as usual, with cloth masks tied around their faces. There was no general strike, no uprising, no fundamental challenge to the status quo that rendered so many so hopeless in the first place.

Now, however, over a year later, we’ve just seen the publishing of a weak April jobs report in which the economy added a mere 266,000 jobs despite a nationwide surge in vaccinations and a decline in covid cases. The unemployment rate ticked up to 6.1%. We’re also seeing a business owners large and small begin to complain that “no one wants to work anymore,” as they’re having difficulty rehiring employees for their reopenings. This phenomenon particularly applies to the restaurant industry, where the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour, but April’s employment numbers suggest that this trend is more widespread than originally thought.

True, we never got the formal declaration of a coordinated mass action, nor have we seen a wave of labor activism sweep the country as we hoped it would. But we are seeing some of the basic dynamics of a strike begin to take shape: namely, workers choosing not to participate in the job market, and bosses bitching that young people are too spoiled, entitled, and lazy to agree to work for poverty wages. Job growth is stalling, unemployment is rising, and the government is feeling increased pressure to intervene.

What all of this suggests is that perhaps we are seeing a de facto 21st century general strike led by millennials and Gen Zers. No marching, no picket lines, no inflatable rodents. Just a bunch of people who’ve decided they’d rather stay on unemployment than have their labor exploited by an increasingly piggish and petulant capitalist class. It’s not what committed Leftists with dreams of recreating the 1970 Postal Workers’ strike would have envisioned, but it’s something. In the age of the internet, social media, and food delivery apps, this just might be what a modern general strike looks like: individual people just staying home and saying “Fuck it, I’m really not into working for $9 an hour anymore.”

The aesthetics are different, the organizing isn’t there, and the political demands aren’t as pointed as we on the Left would like them to be. But perhaps, for the time being, the rallying cry of the labor movement isn’t solidarity forever, but rather, pssht, whatever. At a time when the Left can’t even organize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, this might be the best we can hope for in the short term.

We’re not seeing a true “movement” arise as we had wished, but we are seeing workers of all stripes simply choosing not to work for starvation wages, and an ownership class in meltdown mode over it. Most encouragingly, management’s typical playbook of shaming, guilting, and bullying the working class into submission doesn’t seem to be working. The topsy-turvy reality that many workers are making more money on unemployment than they would at their jobs is effectively demonstrating not the evils of government assistance, but the absurdity of a $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

In response to the April jobs report, the Biden administration stated that more stimulus is necessary. We’re seeing what might be the first effects of an organized strike start to take shape, just without the organizing. Maybe the workers of the world aren’t uniting as we’d like them to, but they are staying home and withholding their labor from the capitalists who have been exploiting them far too much for far too long.

This is a start. Is it enough? No. Is it too little too late? Probably. But a return to the pre-covid economy was never a viable option. And so for now, we should take some solace in a stubborned workforce and a crying capitalist class; it’s progress of a kind.

Photo: twentytwowords.com

Centrist Liberals Are More Hostile To Class Politics Than Right Wing Populists

by Keaton Weiss

Last summer, Nathan Robinson reviewed Krystal Ball’s and Saagar Enjeti’s book, A Populist’s Guide to 2020. He criticized the authors for overstating the compatibility of Left and Right wing populism, stating that Right wing populism is more or less “just fascism,” and that the Left should confront supposed Right wing populists, rather than court them and seek common ground with them.

This sparked a debate on the Left which was recently revived when Jimmy Dore did a video on a Boogaloo Boys member named Magnus Panvidya, who, despite his alignment with the ostensibly far Right group, seemed to speak fondly of Antifa and Black Lives Matter, and lamented the corporate takeover of the U.S. government. Jimmy later interviewed Magnus on his show, a move criticized by subsequent guest Jerry White, a socialist organizer, who appeared on the program moments after Magnus’ segment ended.

Some on the Left agree with Robinson and White that seeking partnership with Right wing populists is a non-starter, while others feel Left and Right populists ought to engage each other and seek common ground on certain issues. Which side of the debate one finds themself on depends to a large extent on their perception of class struggle. Those who interpret it as a “top vs. bottom” conflict would be more inclined to partner with those of a different political ideology, feeling their common class interests transcend their political differences. To those for whom ideological divides supersede class positions, such a partnership is deemed both unfeasible and undesirable.

While Leftists’ trepidation on this question is understandable, those in the latter camp who dismiss and disparage the idea of constructive Left-Right populist dialogue are badly misguided in their assessment.

First, we as Leftists should establish that in order to grow our power and influence, we have to grow our numbers. There simply aren’t enough of us in the country right now for Left politics to be taken seriously in mainstream circles. Many Leftists like to delude themselves with the notion that our policy program is already sufficiently popular, and that we need only to galvanize this already existing public support and organize it into a potent political force. If this were true, then we could perhaps afford to simply dismiss Right wing populists as our opponents, because we’d have the numbers necessary to defeat them.

For better or worse, however, this is not the case. Despite strong polling numbers for social democratic programs like Medicare For All, the term “socialism” still carries with it a great deal of baggage, and is viewed negatively by a convincing majority of Americans. As much as we may wish this wasn’t the case, it is. And so we have significant work to do in growing our numbers before we can hope to have any real influence in national politics.

Once we accept that we aren’t yet popular enough, we must ask ourselves to whom we can appeal in order to boost our popularity. This is where questions of “top vs. bottom” and “Left vs. Right” become rather messy. Because the problem is this: the closer you get to the political center, the less of a “top vs. bottom” analysis you’ll find.

Centrist Democrats and Republicans both subscribe to a neoliberal economic philosophy, the very purpose of which is to erase class consciousness from political discourse. Therefore, there is no support for class struggle campaigns to be extracted from establishment-adjacent centrist liberals or conservatives.

Populist Right wingers might disagree with Leftists ideologically, but there is at least a common acknowledgment of the permanent power imbalance between elite institutions (both private and public) and ordinary people. Centrists deny the existence of such a thing, not because they don’t believe it, but because their political ideology explicitly demands that they deny it.

Leftists who still believe that centrist liberals are persuadable on this point are sorely mistaken. Liberals’ aversion to class politics is not an innocent misunderstanding that can be rectified through persuasion. It is part and parcel of their core belief system, as reflected in their political rhetoric, the media they consume, and the candidates they support. To them, class politics is classism – it’s a form of prejudice, which, like all other forms of prejudice, undermines the market-based meritocracy which they aspire to perfect.

A relevant microcosm of this key difference between Right wing populists and centrist liberals is the current debate over online censorship. Right wing populists and Leftists recognize the danger of the concentrated powers of discourse management, because Right wing populists and Leftists broadly acknowledge the perils of concentrated power. Centrist liberals, on the other hand, cheer on the censorship, offering the defense that the giant tech companies doing the censoring are privately owned and can therefore act as they wish, and that constitutional norms ought not apply. Nowhere in the liberals’ position is an analysis of any power imbalance whatsoever. This same ludicrous denial manifests itself in their embrace of neoliberal economics, making partnership with such people utterly impossible. They are staunchly and consciously committed to rejecting not just our arguments, but the very premises on which our arguments are based.

Apply this same dynamic to the ongoing struggle between labor and capital, which is a central, if not the central, concern of any movement with legitimate claims of being “Left” in nature. The populist Right winger sees the deterioration of American manufacturing jobs and prescribes as part of a solution draconian border enforcement to keep out competing workers. As Leftists, we believe that in a capitalist society, capital is power, and those with amassed capital, ie, concentrated power, will always wield it to benefit themselves at the expense of the many, and that immigrants are merely a scapegoat for the failures of capitalism itself. Is this a difficult idea to sell to to a populist Right winger? Yes, it probably is. But try making a similar anticapitalist argument to an Obama-worshipping #resistance liberal who insists that the solution to globalization is education, and that high wage blue collar jobs are never coming back, and that the plight of undereducated people is both inevitable and irreversible. You’ll very quickly realize that the former lift is in fact the lighter one. Because in that case, there at least exists the shared recognition that blue collar wages are too low, and that they can and must be raised. The liberal, once again, refuses to accept this very premise.

Of course, none of this is to say that compromises can be made with the Right on issues of civil rights, gender and racial equality, humane immigration policy, etc.. Obviously, overt and committed white supremacists are never to be reasoned with – but that’s not who we’re talking about. Saagar Enjeti is not a white supremacist. Neither is Magnus Panvidya, assuming he honestly represented his views on Jimmy Dore’s show. Engagement with people like them, I promise, is no less fruitful than with centrist liberals. So if you believe, as you should, that the Left must start growing its ranks by winning people over with convincing arguments, the populist Right is at least as fertile a ground as the liberal center, if not much more.