Wednesday, 5 November 2008

"I Was Born By the River"

Sam Cooke once sang, "Its been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come" (see bottom). One one level the election of Obama as the first black American President does signify that change. It is an event that Sam Cooke and other Black Americans in the early 1960's could only strive for. We should remember, that in what is supposed to be the world's greatest democracy it has still taken half a century from that time before a Black man could become President.

But, as I have written in previous blogs the question is not really about the change that has occurred within American Society that allows a relatively privileged black man to become President, but what has changed in American society for the vast majority of Black men and Women, and what difference will the election of Obama make to their condition.

The answer to the first question is fairly easy to answer. Black men might not suffer the same lynchings by white supremacists that they did in the 1960's, but they still suffer State sanctionded lynchings through the far higher proportion of Black Men on Death Row compared to their white counterparts. Ordinary Black Men and Women still suffer huge discrimination in employment, in housing etc. despite the small number of Oprah's and Cosby's that have for some time provided a role model for aspiration. It seems unlikely, that after decades of such individual successes even Obama's triumphant ascent to the White House can make any greater effect in that direction. And how could it? The problem for poor Blacks is effectively the same as for any other group of working class people. It is not a lack of aspiration, no lack of desire to be affluent. It is the fundamental fact, that in a capitalist society not everyone CAN be rich, and whatever the delusion presented as the American Dream, the fact is today in the United States more than anywhere, the fact is that the best way to become rich is to be born rich. Study after study has shown that despite all of the propaganda the US has a much lower - and falling - rate of social mobility than many other countries, particularly Scandinavia, and Germany.

One of the basic reason for that is the low level of social support in the US, and in particular the poor standard of Education provided the lowest levels of society. Being black simply exacerbates that discrimination that all of the poor experiences whatever its colour, whatever its creed, whatever its gender or sexual orientation. Just look at the experiecne of Hurricane Katrina which showed that in the world's richest country a large proprtion of its people live a life similar to people in the Third World. This is a country where something like 25% of the population do not have wealth, but have negative wealth that is they live he whole of their life in serious debt. Yet, this is a country where Warren Buffett has as much personal wealth as the bottom 40% of the population combined. Bill Gates who until recently was slightly ahead of him owns a similar amount.

To get a grip on how much Marx was right about the degree to which Wealth would be concentrated in the hands of an ever smaller minority consider this. In order to come within the wealthiest 1% in the US you need a Net Worth of $3 million. Most of the people that come within this category are not really rich odd as that may seem. Certainly they are rich compared with the vast majority of US citizens, but in reality most of these people are not true Capitalists, they are really only Middle Class. Th majority are people over 50 whose wealth is tied up in their house, and their Pension Plan. For most of them - particularly given US Health and Social Care costs - this wealth will disappear in their retirement. Compare that wealth with say Warren Buffett or Bill Gates with a Net Worth of around $40 BILLION. Put another way either of them has as much wealth as 13,000 of those that just scrape into the top 1%! To Buffett's credit he favours much higher taxes on the rich like himself, and both he and Gates have transferred the vast bulk of their wealth into Gates Charitable Foundation which seeks to provide Healthcare and other humanitarian aid for the world's poorest people. But, the point is that society should not have to rely on such philanthropy, it should be ordered such that these gross maldistributions of wealth and income do not arise int he first place. That cannot be achieved by redistributive tax policies either. It can only be achieved when the system that creates such iniquities is abolished, when workers own and control the means of production for themselves.

Unfortunately, the charges of the republicans that Obama is a socialist are nothing more than slurs. If he were and attempted to introduce socialist measures the US ruling class would quickly undermine him, and replace him one way or another. They will have no need. Obama is no socialist. That doesn't mean that Obama's polcies will be totally indistinguishable from those of George Bush. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century once of the consequences of the Long Boom was that in the US and elsewhere a series of reformist measures was introduced. Under Teddy Roosevelt in the US, under the Liberals in Britain. Similarly, after a similar period of expansion in the Long Boom after WWII similar reformist measures were introduced under the Wilson Government in Britain, under DeGaulle in France and the Great Society under LBJ in the US. It will be no coincidence if such a period of reformism happens under Obama. But, the nature of that reformism has to be understood. Marx spoke of the "Civilising Mission" of Capitalism the way it is forced to raise the living standards of the working class, to expand the scale and scope of the Use Values produced and therefore consumed, the way the nature of its production leads to the need for the education and culture of the workers to be raised. On the one hand that provides part of the basis for workers to become the ruling class. On the other hand, those reforms also act to socialise and tie workers to the bourgeois regime,and to reliance on the bouregois State.

The nature of Capitalism is to break that personal tie that existed between Landlord and serf, and to replace it with the open cash nexus. The nature of the Welfarism introduced by an expanding Capitalism is to reconvert a sizeable proportion of the working class to serfdom no longer existing as free wage workers, but existing as dependent vassals on the good graces of the Capitalist State, watched, investigated, their activities restricted, their whole existence dependent upon a paternalistic State, with the consequent effect on their own dignity and conscioussness. That is the true nature under Capitalism of those kinds of reforms.

Watching, the jubilation of tens of thousands of Black Americans on the news today it is difficult not to share their joy, the joy of those like Jesse Jackson who are of the generation that saw the lynchings and all the other vile outpourings of racism and white supremacism, and the joy of those thousands of young Black Americans of a generation that only knows of that from what it has read, and seen on TV, and that looks to Obama as offering a new hope. Yet, I was moved to think about the difference between the two. I heard a comment last night that said something about in the 1960's we as young people were in the streets trying to bring about change, today the young people are in the voting booths bringing about change. As someone has pointed out the latter would not have been possible without the former. But, that difference also caused me concern. It is very well to have mobilised tens of thousands of young people - black and white - to vote for Change, but what Now. The likelihood is that they will see their job as done. The whole of bourgeois ideology is geared to the idea that you elect someone else to do the politics, because bouregois ideology says that the politics happens elsewhere in some elected forum - it does not occur on the streets, in the factories, or in the communities. But, of course for workers it is precisely in all of these latter places that politics does, and must occur if real change is to be won.

The consequence of that can be seen in advance. Disappointment, disillusion and demoralisation. Already, all of those stock bouregois phrases of One Nation Toryism are coming out of the Obama Camp, talk of bringing in Republicans to the Government, talk about how tough things are, and must be - always the introductory statements of Government intent on squeezing the workers - and a general rowing back of positions. The only answer to that is not to ask the workers, the poor and the middle class to simply look for some alternative more left-wing politician to resolve their problems. It is to tell them in advance what is going to happen, and to help them t organise themselves, to rely on themselves and not on some politician/s. It is vital that US socialists are active at the grass roots of the Democrats as these discussions on "What Now?" take place, as well as in the Unions, in the Community Organisations and so on. It is necessary to organise and orientate the workers around a program of self-activity building their own co-operative organisations for control and ownership of their housing and communties, for building other co-operative enterprises geared to meeting the immediate needs of those communities, and to tie them together preventing them from being isolated utopian, small-scale ventures, to mobilise the Unions and Labour Movement to support and be supported by such ventures, to help mobilise the necessary Capital through the Unions funds, through the workers pensions and savings, through the Mutual Societies, through the creation of Local Credit Unions, and of a Co-operative Bank under the ownership and control of the workers through their unoins and other Labour organisations.

A Change is gonna come, but it requires the working class to bring it about now through its own activity. The working class has to end its servility, and its servile dependence upon the bourgeois State, has to get up off its knees.

Sam Cooke - "A Change is Gonna Come"

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