By Greg Godels
October 14, 2020
From the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims
And to the buffalo who once ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds
Looking for the rain
Looking for the rain
Just like the cities staggered on the coastline
Living in a nation that just can’t stand much more
Like the forest buried beneath the highway
Never had a chance to grow
Never had a chance to grow
And now it’s winter
Winter in America
Yes and all of the healers have been killed
Or sent away, yeah
But the people know, the people know
Winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to save
Gil Scott-Heron (1974) Winter in America
When Gil Scott-Heron wrote these words, the US seemed to be in swift decline. Watergate had cast a shadow over government legitimacy; the US had lost/was losing the imperialist war in Vietnam; economic inflation, unemployment, and stagnation were crushing US living standards. For many in the post-war generation, the early 1970s were a low point in the prestige and influence of the US.
Scott-Heron was masterful at blending politics with his art, without compromising either. It enabled him to force issues like apartheid, drugs, police violence, racism, and poverty into the listeners’ consciousness, while still entertaining. Many of his songs became anthems for progressive movements.
For many of us, Winter in America affirmed the terminal decline of the US: “It’s Winter in America, and ain’t nobody fighting, ‘cause nobody knows what to save.” Hope was frozen, promise was frozen, and ideas were frozen with the onset of a metaphorical winter: a political, environmental, racial, and foreign policy crisis.
Scott-Heron’s lyrics touched all the ills of 1974, noting that “all the heroes have been killed or sent away.” The “Constitution was a noble piece of paper…” that “…died in vain.” And “Democracy is ragtime on the corner.” He warns of “last ditch racists” and laments the “peace sign that vanished in our dreams.”
But we were wrong if we thought that the US had hit rock bottom.
Nineteen seventy-four was only the beginning of the long, painful decline. Average hourly wages today are barely higher than in 1974. The minimum wage continues to shrink in constant dollars. The obscene growth of inequality in income and wealth seems unstoppable.
Constant and persistent aggressions– proxy wars, invasions, occupations, and remote, video game-like massacres– have become almost routine to the point that they tragically muster little domestic resistance.
Racism remains a scourge on the US, though more and more along a class dimension. African American workers have taken an even bigger hit than their white counterparts; the growing poverty that afflicts the population, afflicts the Black population even more; and, consequently, the neglect, contempt, and official violence that always accompany impoverishment batter African Americans severely.
The competition for jobs in the US has shaped both a narrow, xenophobic response and a wage race to the bottom. The decline of unions, the legacy of anti-Communist purges in the labor movement, has further sharpened the competition for low-wage jobs.
The raging religion of market-fundamentalism has privatized or debased public wealth, commodified social services, and devastated public education.
Where we thought Nixon shamefully broke the public trust, corruption, political dirty tricks, and lying are political commonplaces in the twenty-first century.
What was winter in America in 1974 is now a veritable ice age.
And what is most tragic about the continuous decline in the US empire in influence, domestic peace, and mass well-being is the hollowness and ineffectiveness of the available political options.
US politics has devolved since the purges of the left in the 1950s and the failed liberalism in its wake, becoming a paper tiger incapable of confronting the multi-faced crises spawned by capitalism.
Twenty years into the twenty-first century, political partisans, devoid of new ideas, can only reflect back on earlier times, searching for a lost “golden era.” Today’s politics is largely politics in the rear-view mirror– a politics of nostalgia.
For the petty-bourgeoisie and the want-to-be petty bourgeoisie– engorging on the table scraps of the ultra-rich– the Obama presidency brought life at its fullest and greatest. Hipsters call a sector of this strata the PMC (the professional managerial class). The Obama trickle-up rescue of the economy in the 2007-2009 crisis cemented their loyalty to globalism and elite rule. They are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Witness their Black Lives Matter signs in their nearly all-white, segregated neighborhoods. They are for symbols and gestures, but not at the cost of redistribution of their incomes or sacrifices in their lifestyles. For them, Trump is the scourge blocking the return to Obama-like civil management of national affairs. They are the dominant force in Democratic Party politics.
The forthcoming destruction of thousands of small businesses will prove a hard lesson for many in the petty-bourgeoisie, sending them scurrying for solutions. Far too many will find succor in the bitter victimhood that has traditionally fed an ugly, twisted populism with roots going back as far as the Know Nothing Party of the nineteenth century.
A similar economic devastation drives many workers toward the bogus radicalism of right-wing populism, especially in the Midwestern states racked by capital’s abandonment of industry for investments in other sectors or other countries. Without a viable, substantial movement to direct their justified anger at capital, they find scapegoats elsewhere.
Other sectors of the working class long for the celebrated era of “middle class” prosperity after the Second World War, what the French call “Les Trente Glorieuses.” This highly romanticized era saw wages and benefits marching in lockstep with strong productivity gains for US workers, allowing many working class families to buy homes and automobiles, to take vacations, and to envision college education and upward mobility for their children. Forgotten in this idyllic memory is the ugly oppression of Blacks and other minorities and women in this period. Forgotten is the suppression of the left, the vulgarity of culture, and the uniformity of thought. Forgotten is the bloody footprint of US foreign policy around the world.
The social contract of the postwar period came at an often-overlooked cost. Working class leaders agreed to purge left resistance to capitalism and uncritically support US imperialist foreign policy, becoming complicit in the crimes of global anti-Communism. When the moment proved opportune, the US ruling class betrayed its part of the bargain and slammed the door on working class gains.
Though memories of this lost era grow dimmer and dimmer, nostalgia for this interlude holds much of the trade union leadership wedded to the Democratic Party along with a core of organized labor’s increasingly skeptical members.
For most voters, constrained by the two-party system, a desire for an earlier, often fictionalized period inspires their politics. The Biden and Trump messaging underscores this insipid nostalgia: “Build Back Better” (Biden) and “Make America Great Again” (Trump). We can only build back or restore that which is lost. And people are confused over what and why they have lost.
This should be a moment for the left.
But sadly, most of the left is adrift in a sea of old and failed ideas. Some imagine the noble selflessness of the local food or art coop as a cooperative model for competing with multinational corporations and bringing capitalism to its knees. Do we recall the other “anti-capitalist” fads foisted on us by academic leftists? ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans)? Micro-financing?
All of these strategies share a profound pessimism that capital cannot be directly confronted and defeated. Instead, they propose to outfox capital by nipping away at its margins. Despite the fact that similar utopian measures have failed over centuries, influential leftists continually resurrect them.
The notion that the perfection of capitalist-style democracy can effectively challenge the inequalities and injustices of capital pervades the US left. Since the suppression of the Communist left in the Cold War, the self-described “New Left” has invested heavily in “democratizing” the structures and institutions currently serving capitalism. Whether or not this project makes any sense, it certainly hasn’t succeeded, despite the fact that the New New Left has embraced it. Every ineffective response to the growing crises of capitalism seems to confirm that the socio-economic-political system accompanying capital is its handmaiden and is not and cannot serve as an effective tool against its inequities.
There was a reason that US capital suppressed and continues to suppress Communist and socialist-oriented workers’ movements. It is not nostalgia to recognize that the ideology and strategies devised by Marx, Engels, and Lenin have in the past rocked the very foundations of the capitalist system, sending capitalists and their lackeys into a frenzy of violent resistance. Surely there is a lesson in that fact.
The cold wave of uncertainty, fear, and despair that is now sweeping the US will not abate unless we fight for a new future. The tools are there.