The relevance of political independence

March 18, 2015

OF THE many charges leveled by Ben's recent letter to ("Be critical, but be for Chuy"), one of the most puzzling is his claim that refusing to support Jesús "Chuy" García in the runoff election for Chicago mayor on April 7 condemns socialist politics and organization to "irrelevance."

This claim mirrors an argument often leveled at socialists in the context of debates about whether to support candidates whom some advocate as "the lesser of two evils": That refusing to campaign and vote for such candidates means we "abstain" from an important political struggle.

Many readers besides Ben will know that the International Socialist Organization, the publisher of this website, has been at the forefront of struggles for education and social justice in Chicago for many years. Many readers besides Ben will also know that we've also supported independent political candidates who unequivocally oppose attacks on our schools and communities, including Tim Meegan's campaign in the 33rd Ward, Jorge Mujica's campaign 25th Ward, Zerlina Smith's campaign in the 29th Ward, Olga Bautista's ecosocialist campaign in the 10th Ward and Tammy Vinson's in the 28th Ward.

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We point with pride to this record whenever faced with charges of "irrelevance" and "political abstention"--and it's a record we'll continue to build on, no matter what the outcome of the mayoral race. Whenever schools or clinics are threatened with closure; whenever parents, students and teachers come under attack, we will be on the front lines--and we think you should be, too.

THIS ARGUMENT may satisfy readers already convinced of the necessity of an immediate break from Democratic Party politics of austerity and neoliberalism. But will it satisfy Ben? His argument, after all, is that García's campaign represents a "move" in a "long-term game of moves and countermoves," whose end goal is an independent left alternative. He contends that while the mobilization for García may stand for an austerity Democrat today, it can redirect itself to support an alternative to the Democrats tomorrow.

Socialists agree with Ben that it is of essential importance that the working-class movement develops a long-term political strategy. And of course, socialists will hardly begrudge workers any opportunity to mobilize for struggle. But it's these two positions taken together which lead us to pay special attention to making sure that the demands raised in our movements reflect--or, at least, do not damage--the interests of the entire working class. This is the central premise of the socialist argument for breaking from the Democrats.

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The Democratic Party maintains support among many labor organizations partly through promises of legislation and contracts that benefit workers that these organizations bring together. While at the present time, this may not be the wisest use of unions' resources, given that the promises are not often kept, we don't find anything unprincipled about unions pursuing their members' interests in the political arena.

The trouble arises when these promises--which, when won through struggle, constitute important advances for the confidence and combativity of our side--are coupled with policies that either attack other groups of workers or degrade the position of the entire class outside the workplace. For socialists, workers move towards "political independence" as a class only in proportion to their capacity to resist this tendency to tie parts of the class to political organizations that work against the interests of the class as a whole.

In the words of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto: "The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this...In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole."

The question we wish to pose is this: Do García's promises of tax increment financing reform and opposition to the privatization of public education--promises which, if won through ongoing struggle, stand to benefit everyone with an interest in quality public schools--justify also lending support to an agenda that would force parts of the working class to accept job cuts and pension sacrifices, while raising taxes for all workers? Many in Chicago seem to think so, in part because they add to this equation the consideration that a victory for Rahm Emanuel would result in much worse austerity measures being forced on the entire working class--such is the core of the politics of "lesser evilism."

But is this true? Can we follow Ben in saying that García--the floor leader of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the Democrat tasked with implementing an austerity budget on a county level--represents less of a "mover and driver of austerity" than Rahm?

If the García campaign's recent fiscal policy proposals are to be taken seriously, then García plans to lead a substantial reorganization of Chicago government that will likely cost many public-sector jobs. The campaign proposes to consolidate sub-departments of larger city departments that share functionality and bring in outside auditors to seek "increased efficiencies," which cannot but translate to public-sector job cuts and speedups.

WORSE STILL is García's refusal to rule out increasing property taxes. Despite his opposition to regressive measures in the form of Rahm's "fines and fees," García's fiscal policy document dismisses progressive tax measures as something that would "take too long" because they require legislative action on a state level--despite the fact that the candidate's party has a supermajority in the state legislature.

Instead of using his connections to the Democratic Party on a state level to advocate for such legislation, García proposes a Chicago-based commission to "examine all options" for raising revenue. But given that the only possibility for doing so within Chicago city limits is through property taxes which fall on the backs of working-class homeowners and tenants, sending the revenue question to a committee sounds like a maneuver to distance García from the political consequences of supporting an "inevitable" property tax increase.

Then there's García's commitment to slashing pensions. While the campaign's policy document proposes to fully fund current pension obligations, this would come through the proposed consolidation of city departments--unnecessarily pitting pensioners against current city workers. The campaign further proposes to slash contributions to pensions for the next generation of workers, pitting young workers against older workers--effectively advancing a two-tier pension system as the "new normal."

Far from being "a humble Cook County commissioner who has spent his career trying to do right by his people" and who is somehow "outside" of the Cook County Democratic machine, it seems that García is a sophisticated, experienced "austerity cadre" in this machine. His campaign is based on selling himself to potential donors in Chicago's business community as someone with a proven track record in sweet-talking public-sector union leadership into rolling over for budget cuts. The campaign as a whole has not questioned the neoliberal logic of austerity--the idea that a small public sector is inherently good for the economy, and the idea "that there is no alternative" to budget cuts and regressive taxation.

So I can't agree with Ben that a mobilization for García serves as a step toward "political independence," since some of García's politics stand precisely in the way of a unified class-wide movement. It doesn't follow from this that we shouldn't pressure politicians to make concessions--only that we needlessly undermine ourselves by tying the application of pressure to electing politicians who also stand for policies that hurt us.

Some people argue that support should be given to candidates who fall short of what we want because they may be easier to pressure once in office. But in doing so, we risk sending the message that candidates shouldn't expect any consequences, no matter how far they sell us down the river--which in turn sends a message to our movement that it should lower, rather than raise, its horizons for struggle.

As sitting officials are open to influence primarily in proportion to the size and strength of our movements, one problem with "easier to influence" arguments about "lesser evil" candidates is that they too easily transform into calls to scale back the struggle once a candidate wins. Think of what happened to the antiwar and health care justice movements after Obama's 2008 victory, when some activists raised the slogan that we should "give Obama more time"--a call for "abstention" and "irrelevance" if ever there was one.

Another problem with "easier to influence" arguments for "lesser-evil" politicians is that of triangulation--a term coined in the Clinton years to describe what happens when Democratic party politicians adopt politics (formerly) from "across the aisle," effectively shifting the entire political spectrum to the right. With both candidates in the Chicago runoff advocating austerity, some García supporters who in other circumstances would reject austerity politics are led to defend the need for budget cuts and tax increases-- which makes it harder over time to question the logic of austerity, no matter who is in or running for office.

ALL OF this said, socialists should go beyond criticizing the weaknesses of Garcia's campaign--we should argue for our movement to actively take up political demands that would benefit all of us.

For example, since the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 sent financial markets into a tailspin and provoked the long slump in which we remain today, corporate profits have recovered while wages remain stagnant. This is partly because of a low level of workplace struggle and low rate of unionization--but it's also because of the power that major investors have to pressure employers at the bargaining table.

Financial transaction taxes which penalize risky investment behavior may help weaken the hold of finance over the productive sector while also helping to alleviate budget deficits, laying a basis for reversing cuts to the public sector. This is why we should continue to argue (alongside union leaders like Karen Lewis) that our movement should demand that politicians of all parties advocate a LaSalle Street tax--because weaker banks mean a stronger position for workers at the bargaining table.

We should also continue to argue, as Socialist Worker has, that workers should not be responsible for the consequences of banks reckless' investment behavior. This means we reject García's campaign rhetoric which claims that Chicago's budget deficit is a "crisis" which "puts our city in the danger zone." Instead, the deficit should put the banks that helped trash the economy in the danger zone.

Following the lead of activists in Southern European countries being held hostage by the International Monetary Fund, our movement should demand a citizen's audit of the debt, and demand that the state force banks to allow unconditional default on those portions of the debt which don't represent current operations costs and pension obligations.

These are just some examples of demands that the working-class movement could make of politicians who claim to represent our class's interests. A fuller list might include demands about a plan for fighting unemployment, gentrification, segregation, a plan for combating police violence that draws down the number of police on our streets, and a plan for reopening closed schools and clinics.

Thus, it isn't us who "abstain from politics." In refusing to support lesser-evil politicians who nevertheless advance austerity budgets, our position is precisely about securing the "relevance" of socialist politics within mass struggles. We charge those who offer support to Democrats who refuse our movement's demands with abstaining from the political struggle that begins when our movement says, "Here is where we must stand"--for, to paraphrase Malcolm X, "a movement which stands for nothing will fall for anything."

Socialists argue for the working-class movement to develop an active orientation on all political questions, advancing a clear program of action that connects our movement's immediate aims with the realization of working-class power. But such an orientation and program cannot be complete without attitude which says: "If our demands are rejected by politicians of the Democratic Party, so much the worse for the Democratic Party." We can and must declare independence and build a party of our own.
Jon Kurinsky, Chicago

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