by Susan Rosenthal
Times of transition are difficult.
In times of struggle, people are more open to new ideas and more willing to organize. The fight for civil rights of the 1950s fed the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Both fueled movements for workers’ rights and for women’s, gay and Black liberation. As millions of people moved into struggle, there was widespread belief that we could change the world.
In the 1970s, the capitalist class launched a counter-offensive to recover the ground it had lost. This campaign was so successful that an entire generation has known only setbacks and defeats.
Today, most Americans believe that real change is not possible. They have accepted the lie that there is not enough to go around, that they must lower their expectations, and that the only choice is the lesser evil. In such times, people hunker down to survive and can’t bear to think about much else.
In the 1990s, the anti-globalization movement raised the hope of change. So did the massive anti-war demonstrations that preceded America’s invasion of the Middle East. When the U.S. began bombing Baghdad, many people became discouraged and retreated from activity.
In the spring of 2006, the largest demonstrations in American history raised the demand for immigrants’ rights. Demoralization followed as Washington escalated its campaign of intimidation, arrests and deportations. Immigrants’ rights organizations were thrown into conflict over how to proceed, and momentum was lost.
Hopes were raised again when the Republicans were swept out of Congress and dashed again when the Democrats voted more funding for the war.
This roller coaster of struggle is hard to take. Pessimism can seem protective. Why get your hopes up only to be disappointed? However, pessimism provides no real refuge and blocks us from seizing opportunities that do appear.
We are currently in a time of transition, which is difficult because rising discontent is not matched by a corresponding rise in struggle. There is enough struggle to raise people’s hopes, but not enough to win significant gains.
America is seething with discontent over the war, environmental crisis, falling living standards, government corruption, and the abysmal state of the medical system. The episodic eruptions of the past decade have the potential to coalesce into a generalized rebellion against the system. The ruling class is concerned about this.
In May, Congress threw the working class a small bone by raising the minimum wage. This move marks a shift from the unrelenting attacks of the past few decades. The confidence of the capitalist class has been shaken by their inability to win the war and by their failure to create a workable immigration policy. Their faltering provides an opening for us to step up our demands.
The 1960s gave us a glimpse of what is possible. Today, it’s even more clear that capitalism cannot solve the problems it creates. Our only hope is to build a unified struggle against the war, for immigrants rights, for universal health care and for a socialist society that will put people first.