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The Austerity Election

The winner of this election will be called upon by the capitalists to implement sweeping austerity to make the working class pay for the capitalist crisis. More and more capitalists seem to be making the call that Joe Biden will be more successful at doing austerity than Trump. Either way, we should be clear that whoever wins, austerity is coming and we must prepare to fight it.

Sybil Davis

October 14, 2020
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Illustration by Emily Haasch; photographs by Ruth Fremson and Erin Schaff/The New York Times

As the 2020 presidential election is approaching its climax, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are continuing to try to sell this election. For Biden and his supporters, this election is about rescuing democracy from the creeping authoritarianism of Donald Trump. For Trump and his supporters, this election is about continuing the “great American comeback” and fighting back Biden’s supposed “radical socialism.” However, as we enter the final stage of the election, we should be very clear what this election is actually about for the capitalists: deciding which of the candidates will be better at demoralizing and attacking the working class through the implementation of austerity.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

James Carville’s famous 1992 saying that “it’s the economy, stupid” in regards to the Bill Clinton campaign rings more true today than ever. The full impact of the current economic crisis is still unknown. What is generally understood is that Trump’s promise of a “V-shaped recovery” — a recovery where the economy recovers as fast as it crashed — is not happening. In an October 3 article, the New York Times declared that while the “pandemic depression” is over, the “pandemic recession” is beginning. 

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In that article, Neil Irwin points to the deep ongoing unemployment crisis, writing, “[the jobs numbers imply] that even as public health restrictions loosen and as vaccines get closer, the overall economy is not poised for a quick snapback to pre-pandemic levels. Rather, scarring is taking place across a much wider range of sectors than the simple narrative of shutdown versus reopening suggests.”

Even this statement could be overly optimistic. In a September 30 article for the Financial Post, David Rosenberg argues that “We are in a depression — not a recession, but a depression. The dynamics of a depression are different than they are in a recession because depressions invoke a secular change in behavior. Classic business cycle recessions are forgotten about within a year after they end. The scars from this one will take years to heal.”

The current crisis is the deepest in decades as successive waves of mass layoffs have left millions without work. Indeed, many of these layoffs were due to industry-wide shutterings such as in airlines, hospitality and the arts. It is unclear if some of these jobs will ever return, adding to the scars of the crisis In addition, an untold number of small businesses have closed due to this crisis as even major corporations filed for bankruptcy. For a period during the height of the first wave of the pandemic, the capitalists were in bad shape.

This crisis isn’t just limited to the United States. In recent weeks, the New Zealand economy has shrunk more than it has any time since the Great Depression, and the European recovery has become a “summer memory,” in the words of the New York Times. In Argentina, about half the country is in poverty as Latin America experiences their worst economic contraction ever. 

In short, the impacts of the crisis are deep and on-going. Add to this the very likely fact that another shutdown could be looming on the horizon, and it becomes clear that whoever occupies the White House next will be principally tasked with addressing the economic crisis before essentially anything else. The next president will be the “Pandemic Recession President.”

Austerity on the Horizon

Given that either Trump or Biden will be charged with addressing the current crisis, it is important to understand that — on economic matters — they are largely unified. Both men support bailouts for big business and austerity for the working class. Indeed, in the current moment, the bailouts for businesses are even larger than they were in 2008, there’s been essentially no oversight on how businesses use this money, and it’s all funded with taxpayer dollars. So, essentially, the government is fleecing the working class, who are deeply struggling, in order to funnel more money to the capitalists. They will then throw up their hands about the deficit and how we need to decrease spending, and rather than stop writing corporations blank checks, they will “balance the budget” through cutting programs for the most vulnerable. 

This is what austerity is:  the government slashes government spending (almost always on social services), ostensibly in order to get out of an economic crisis. However, austerity is really just an excuse for capitalists to find ways to grow their profits through increasing exploitation of the working class. Unsurprisingly, under austerity, it is the working class and the most vulnerable who disproportionately pay the price. 

Austerity was most famously in the news during the economic crisis of 2008. Europe specifically was devastated by austerity imposed by politicians of both the Left and the Right. As an example, the United Nations expert on extreme poverty wrote a report about the impact of austerity on the UK. The report says:

It thus seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty. This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the Government to appoint a Minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation. And local authorities, especially in England, which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net have been gutted by a series of government policies.  Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold off.  

That’s just a taste of the wreckage that austerity brings. It destroys the social safety net in the midst of an economic crisis that plunges millions into poverty. As more and more people are thrown into precarious situations, things like health, education, and retirement become underfunded and overburdened. The results are disaster and despair. 

Both the Democrats and the Republicans are unified behind austerity. We can see this in the fact that the bailouts passed so far have bipartisan support. Another example is how, in their recent city budget, the almost entirely Democratic New York City Council voted for a devastating austerity budget. Indeed, we too soon forget that the crippling austerity that was forced upon Puerto Rico was done under Obama. 

Both Trump and Biden will oversee deep cuts to the practically non-existent social safety net of the United States. Education will be gutted, and so-called “entitlements” programs may be privatized. Any bailout money that comes will continue to be funneled into the pockets of big capital.  

Biden is the Man for the Job? 

While the race for president is far from over — and if 2016 taught us nothing else, it taught us not to call the race before it’s over — the chance of Biden taking power is seeming increasingly likely. He’s ahead by an average of 10.8% nationally and is leading in most swing states. In addition, Biden has more support among billionaires and sectors of the capitalist class than Trump does and is raising significantly more money from Wall Street than Trump.

The answer to why Biden is drawing this support from capital is clear: they think that he will be the best at implementing austerity. The rich and big businesses want to ensure that there is a smooth implementation of austerity so that they are able to continue to enrich themselves off of our labor without pushback. Their hypothesis that Biden is the man to do that certainly has precedent.

In the UK, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was able to continue the devastating policy of Thatcherism and use his “left” trappings to solidify it. Indeed, Blair didn’t just continue Thatcher’s austerity; he added to it. Two months after promising during the election to not introduce university tuition fees, he did — marking the first time that British universities had tuition fees since 1962. While Blair faced some pushback for his austerity, because he was a member of a supposedly left-wing party, he didn’t face nearly the amount of public pushback that Thatcher did before him. 

In the United States, Bill Clinton was able to escalate Reaganism and deepen the neoliberal offensive but faced little public backlash because, as a Democrat, he had a shield against criticism. Thomas Frank put it best when he said: “Bill Clinton was not the lesser of two evils, he was the greater of them. The magic of him being a Democrat was that he did things that Republicans could have never accomplished. Welfare reform, the crime bill, NAFTA—things that injured members of his coalition. Clinton got done what Reagan couldn’t do and what Bush couldn’t do.”  

However, we don’t just need to look to past examples to see that Biden intends to be no friend to the working class in the current crisis. Biden’s website touts his experience running the “recovery” in 2009, but for working people, there never really was a recovery. Instead, an entire generation was forced into precarious labor and crippling student debt while millions lost their homes. That is the legacy of the Obama-Biden “recovery.”  And Biden is proud to have overseen it. Obama was an austerity president, and Biden will be the same. 

Frank’s words have a disturbing resonance in the current moment. As Biden is leading a coalition that includes most of the Black Lives Matters movement, much of the organized left, and all of the progressive wing of his party, what will he be able to do with them as a shield? Capital is supporting him for a reason. What will he be able to do that Trump can’t? 

We’ve been down this road before, and we cannot go down it again. We cannot — we must not — give our faith and support to a candidate who promises his capitalist donors that “nothing [will] fundamentally change.” We are in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and both Biden and Trump are going to ensure that there is more money for big business and more austerity for the working class. 

However, it is important to note that the current moment is very different from the 1990s. The global capitalist crisis is deeper, and years of neoliberalism have begun to polarize people to the left. Additionally, Biden’s control over his coalition is much weaker than Clinton’s was. Indeed, while the prevalence of lesser evilism is helpful for whipping votes for Biden but it does lead to a large sector of Biden’s electoral base who disagree with policies. This could result in him being in a very weak position as president as his coalition is held together by opposition to Trump, not support for Biden. All in all, the task seems much harder for Biden than it did for Blair or Clinton.

In addition, if Trump is able to pull out a win, we should be very clear that he will also bring crippling austerity. His first term has already shown him to be a tireless ally of capital — especially given that many of his policies seem intended to specifically enrich himself and his family personally — and he is already withholding aid as part of a political tactic. However, Trump’s instability is leading him to be a more erratic ally to capitalists than Biden would be. Especially in the face of both the pandemic and the uprisings against police violence over the summer, Trump showed that he was not able to calm the situation, leading to frequent crashes in the market. While it is not set in stone yet, it does seem like a growing sector of capital is done with Trump and have decided to put their eggs into Biden’s steadier basket.

To resist the coming austerity, we must mobilize and organize to resist the coming onslaught of austerity. The only way to do this is through using the power of the working class to attack the capitalists and their politicians where it hurts: we need to withhold our labor through strikes and work stoppages. The capitalists are counting on the fact that Biden will be a more stable servant of capital who will receive less resistance as president when he implements austerity. We have to prove them wrong. Biden or Trump, we must be ready to fight back every single time the capitalists try to make us pay for their crisis.  

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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