Dec. 2, 2016

By W. T. Whitney Jr.

Two political situations are ripening to become laboratory-type demonstrations of how, maybe, unified working people can secure justice. In Puerto Rico, home to social disaster, the stage is set. In the United States, the process of resuming struggle following Donald Trump’s victory hasn’t begun. He won through a splintering of the working class, and so the object is to build unity.

One observer thinks Puerto Rico is having “its great depression, the most severe in 100 years.”  The U.S. government in 1996 ended manufacturers’ exemption from paying taxes on earnings from factories on the island.  Factories departed, jobs disappeared – since 2007 almost 300,000  – and living conditions worsened.  Now only 40.7 percent of working-age Puerto Ricans are employed or are looking for a job.  Some 45 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty, including 58 percent of the children.  In 2014, “84,000 people left Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland, a 38% increase from 2010.”

Puerto Rico’s government cannot pay debt obligations amounting to $73 billion, yet under U. S. law it may not file for bankruptcy. Since 2007, 70,000 public service jobs are gone. Social services have shrunk. Now a U.S. financial control board controls the island’s finances, budgetary processes, and ultimately political decision-making.  . On November 8, 42 percent of eligible Puerto Ricans did not vote; 22 percent didn’t in 2012, 21 percent in 2008.  The island colony is home to 15 U. S. military bases.  

A reckoning between social classes may be imminent in Puerto Rico, while in the United States general consciousness of a face-off is developing, but slowly. Social class does count, and in surprising ways. Donald Trump, for example, abuses women in word and apparently in deed. Yet the 53 percent of white women voting for him were more loyal to the interests of their social class than they were concerned about the candidate’s misogyny. And the Republican Party now portrays itself as the defender of the working class.

Having downplayed the role of social class and thus set the stage for Trump, liberals in power paradoxically succeeded in elevating class as a matter for political strategizing. Two class-war veterans from abroad weigh in on that, having examined the U.S. election results. Their critiques of the Democratic Party are similar.  

Carlos Borrero of Puerto Rico’s Communist Party finds a “high grade of political disorientation” in the United States. Condemning “the incessant campaign to promote identity politics,” he observes that, “While the Democratic Party coalition has been based on the black population, on women, white ‘liberals,’ and Latinos, the Republicans depend on support from the so-called ‘white working class’ mobilized under the banner of national chauvinism.”  With their emphasis on placing under-represented minorities in positions of power, Democrats have promoted a “pernicious and divisive consciousness”.

They’ve “weakened the capacity of the working masses to struggle together,” and there’s no “ideological center capable of guiding massive discontent.” Borrero thinks identity politics led to a “political vacuum” to be filled by Donald Trump.

Vicente Navarro, writing from Barcelona, agrees. The former Johns Hopkins University public health expert and student of race – class interplay notes that: “The Democratic Party (considered with excessive generosity as the left in the United States) emphasized, instead of class-based politics, a politics directed at integrating minorities and women into the political system in order to combat discrimination.”

“But the main beneficiaries,” he adds “were high-income, middle class persons. There was generally no improvement of the social and economic welfare of most minority people and women, who belonged to the working class. … Identity politics without attention to class (supposedly disappeared) didn’t alter the power of the dominant class in the country.”

Ultimately, “the disappearance of social class as a socio-political category on the part of the Democratic Party (as also occurred with social democracy) entailed the abandonment of redistributive politics.”

Both writers want far-reaching change. Borrero sees “the necessity to create new instruments of struggle and present new ways of doing politics for the working class.”  That’s not a priority, however, for newly-empowered, upwardly-mobile political leaders focused on the destinies of individuals and particular population groups.

Assumptions about class in the United States are in shambles.  Not only do white workers back the Republican Party, but labor unions are apparently on a leave of absence.  And, maybe to be expected, workers supporting Trump have a relatively high median income.

Cultural alienation mars working–class cohesiveness with divisions like: rural and urban, suburbs and cities, new and old Protestants, condescending bureaucrats and contrarian citizens, and settled Americans and new arrivals – who in their differences are seen as threatening. “Everyone’s sticking together in their groups,” a Long Island suburbanite told the New York Times, “so white people have to, too.”

Puerto Rico offers a better short–term prospect for a united and combative working class than does the United States.  But even there struggles over particular issues will emerge, and resisting together might become a habit. That could prepare the way for more ambitious projects, notably formation of a political party dedicated to advancing what the working class needs.  

Some good news:  David Brooks, the Washington correspondent for La Jornada of Mexico (not the columnist David Brooks of the New York Times) suggests that “peoples of the world … may begin to prepare international brigades of solidarity with the resistance now cropping up in these [U. S.] streets.” Unfortunately Mr. Brooks has a sense of humor.