rs21 website editor Colin Wilson interviews US activists Natalia Tylim and Phil Gasper about the upheavals, dangers and opportunities facing socialists in the US today.
In Part 1, they discuss the social crisis sweeping the US in recent decades, labour organising across different states, ‘wokeness’, and abortion rights after the overturning of Roe v Wade.
Fifty years ago, US standards of living were ahead of anything in Europe. The American dream delivered for many working people, at least white people – in terms of suburban homes, cars and consumer goods. Now real wages have stayed the same for decades, people work two or three jobs, and you have social problems like mass shootings and opioid addiction. Is there a sense of social crisis?
Phil I think it plays out in different ways in different places, but it’s pretty universal in both big cities and rural areas. There’s a massive housing crisis. Houses have not been built at nearly the rate that would be needed over the past ten years, and so the cost if you want to buy a house is astronomical, and mortgage rates have gone up as well. That has then led to a huge rental crisis – rents have gone up 50% in many places.
You’ve got the issue of student loans – trillions of dollars of loans, similar to Britain, but more extreme in the US because almost everybody has to pay a lot of money to go to university and tuition has gone up and up. And with Biden’s support, they changed the bankruptcy laws so that you can’t declare bankruptcy and get out of your student loans. So you’re stuck with them for life. You have people who are now on Social Security and are still paying back student loans. For some people the loans are $75,000 or more. If you went to grad school, they could even be higher than that.
Student debt only that affects a certain segment of the population. Different segments of the population are impacted by different aspects of the crisis. But particularly now with raging inflation, the crisis is felt by everybody in one way or another. What political conclusions they draw from there is a different question.
Some of the issues workers faced were masked in the 50s and 60s when unionisation levels were high. You could win in the contract rights that aren’t guaranteed by law, so if you’re in a strong union you would have vacation days and good health care coverage and that kind of stuff. But it’s not guaranteed, and union membership has fallen.
Natalia There’s a couple of other elements to the sense of crisis just to add on. There’s the baby formula crisis, which was a production issue. In order to maintain profits you have this just-in-time production situation and you only make exactly what you need. But in the context of a pandemic, this creates backlogs in pretty much every single industry.
Phil Two other aspects of that crisis are relevant. One was deregulation. They had to shut down one of the biggest producers in Michigan, because it had a bacteria problem. Several babies died. Why hadn’t they been inspecting it for years before that? Because neoliberalism has slashed the amount of government oversight. The other issue is that baby formula manufacturing, like many other industries, is highly concentrated. There are four manufacturers in the US responsible for 75% or 80% of production. So you shut down one of the biggest producers and you immediately have a crisis.
Natalia If you combine that with the school shootings that have been happening – mass shootings happening almost on a weekly basis – in the US people wake up and just have this palpable sense that society is falling apart. It’s visceral.
Also I don’t think you mentioned the health care crisis: how many people don’t have access to health care. That has been huge in the Covid pandemic. And you’ve had a decline in life expectancy in the last couple of years.
And there are the natural disasters that are happening more and more frequently.
Phil Yes, climate change is having a big immediate impact. We get forest fires in California, all along the West Coast and in the Western States – as well as in parts of the South. Heat waves can be devastating and particularly impact people who can’t afford air conditioning – though of course air conditioning just adds to the problem.
The greenest city in the US is actually New York, because it’s got lots of public transport and people live in a fairly compact area. But much of the rest of the country you have to drive to get anywhere. I live in a city of about a quarter of a million people, but the public transport here is terrible, so you pretty much need a car to get to work or to get to the grocery store. The Democrats have approved $369 billion of funding for climate-related projects over the next 10 years. But their approach is fatally flawed – they are funnelling money to “green capitalism” while at the same time encouraging more fossil fuel extraction and exports.
Returning to labour struggles for a moment, how does all this affect different parts of the US? The stereotypes are like this: there’s what’s become the Rust Belt, where there were good factory unionised jobs, but the factories closed down. Employers have gone to the South because there was less union organisation in the South. On the coasts you have finance and IT people who are doing fine. Presumably it’s more complicated than those stereotypes.
Phil The rustbelt area in the Midwest – Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and parts of Pennsylvania – they’ve been hit very hard by the loss of manufacturing, so that is a big part of the picture and explains why the opioid crisis has been so intense in those areas. It’s a crisis of despair, basically. It’s a manifestation of alienation in the US working class.
For the loss of many of those manufacturing jobs, people blame the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) , and it certainly played a role. But many of the jobs moved to the South, which was non-union. The biggest auto manufacturing plants in the US are now in southern states, and there have been attempts to unionise them. But the labour movement, at least in that area – the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the traditional big unions – has been very weak.
The coasts are the centre of finance, and to a certain extent IT, though information technology has looked for different places to base itself. Then there’s the entertainment industry, which is great for the people at the very top.
But even traditional professional jobs have really been squeezed in the last 25 years. I’m in higher education, and there’s been a huge squeeze – bigger workloads, less job security. You see that in healthcare. You see it in the airline industry with the pilots, who used to be pretty much the elite.
Nobody feels particularly secure in those in those jobs now. And then, if you’re further down in the class structure, you’re living paycheck to paycheck if you’re surviving at all.
Natalia I think that’s right. I think that liberals tend to focus on the experience of upper middle-class people when they talk about the bigger cities, about places like New York or California. But the level of poverty in New York is very high. One in six children is food insecure in New York City. We have the most segregated school system in the country. The minimum wage is $15 an hour, but the cost of living is one of the highest in the US. A lot of people spend 75% of their paycheck on housing. A lot of discussion gets framed by the way the Republicans focus on the Rust Belt and the Liberals focus on the big cities.
Colin There’s that phrase ‘the fly over states’, implying that these states are full of ignorant right wing Christian homophobes. But you had the teachers’ strike in Virginia, and Virginia is a ‘fly-over state’.
Phil Virginia has been shifting over the years, it’s become more liberal. But the strikes in 2018 were called the Red State revolt – the states that were involved were the ones where Republicans win the state elections, but there was still this very militant working-class fightback. It doesn’t necessary follow that if you live in a red state, there’s not going to be a class fightback of some kind. The country is very complicated. Stereotypes don’t capture the complexity of what’s going on – and the left can have stereotypes as well, for example about what the Latino community or the black community is going to be like, but there are a lot of complications and contradictions within those groups. A lot of exciting stuff has happened in the US over the past few years and it doesn’t necessarily happen in the places that people would have expected it to.
The two other big changes since the long boom, and still happening, are the changes regarding first the ethnic mix of the population, and secondly attitudes to gender and sexuality. Non-Hispanic whites will become a minority around the mid-century. Men don’t bring in a family wage now, if they ever did. There’s increasing visibility of LGBTQ people, especially among young people. How far does the right simply want to go back to a fantasy 1950s of the long boom, white supremacy, a rigid gender binary and so on?
Phil There’s a lot of so-called white anxiety. Certainly Trump used this, with immigrants as the scapegoat. You have to have a really concerted fightback against that. Otherwise it’s very easy for people who are hurting economically to take the bait and think immigrants are the problem. The Democrats are very half-hearted. By and large, the Democrats pursue the same policies as the Republicans.
Things have changed enormously in terms of gender and sexuality over the past 50 years. Now we’re seeing this massive backlash from the right, such as the recent overturning of Roe v Wade. It’s devastating. That happened even though it’s only supported by a small minority. The vast majority of people in the US want abortion to remain legal everywhere, but the right see this as an issue to rally the troops. And now there’s a huge attack on all forms of queer sexuality, trans people and so on.
Natalia The far right has built a movement around their anti-abortion worldview and they’ve done a very good job. We’re not just talking about Republicans, we’re talking about proto-fascist elements. They’ve been able to link into a coalition with the Republicans. It’s terrifying the type of money and support that the anti-abortion movement gets, compared to the trans youth movement. You can see how it fits very well into a state project of exclusion and minority rule in a way that a left vision doesn’t.
There are all these right-wing tropes about the woke people trying to take over – but I think the reality is that our movements are very weak. The remnants of what was built in the 60s and 70s have for the most part been co-opted by more liberal forces and have come very much under the umbrella of the Democratic Party. They give this very facile liberal veneer to gender and racial justice without actually changing anything about the conditions of life. That leaves these movements very open to attack from the right.
Liberation movements have had such a huge impact on ideas in society – Liberals and the Democrats feel they have to pay lip service to things. But the reality is that the left has not been able to figure out how to organise, to start from where we are and build up our forces in the way that the anti-abortion movement has by being outside every clinic in this country harassing people.
The right-wing framing also shapes the discussion on the left – some discussions of oppression politics embrace this kind of anti-wokeness, which doesn’t help us.
Colin Is part of the right wing obsession with abortion about nostalgia for the time when there wasn’t a social crisis, back in the 50s and 60s, a desire just to get back to the kind of gender roles that were accepted then?
Phil It’s part of it. It’s highly contradictory as well. There’s a sizable minority of people with right-wing Christian background who have taken this on as an issue since the late 70s or early 80s. Before then it wasn’t a big issue even for the evangelicals. It’s a long-term project. They were looking for a political issue they could use to mobilise their base and they hit on abortion, particularly around that time, when Reagan became president – and they’ve built on it relentlessly.
There was a big pushback, huge mobilizations by the left and to some extent liberals in the late 80s early 90s, because at that point it looked like abortion rights might get overturned. I went to some of those protests in Washington DC. I think the biggest of them was over a million people and we’ve seen nothing like that in the past 30 years.
We’ll publish the second part of the interview shortly. We discuss the growing US far right, imperial competition with China, the role of the Democrats in upholding the status quo, Black Lives Matter, and the difficulties facing Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in devising a strategy to rebuild the US left.
Want to know more about left politics in the US? Phil and Natalia are both speaking at the Socialism 2022 conference in Chicago next weekend. Some sessions are available online for a small fee, or free for low-waged and unwaged people. See the Virtual Program of online meetings, including David McNally, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Jules Joanne Gleeson, Sophie Lewis and Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò.