After months of bickering, and just days after narrowly avoiding yet another government shutdown, the removal of Kevin McCarthy from his role as speaker of the House of Representatives was a salient reminder of just how divided and dysfunctional the U.S. regime has become since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. That election inaugurated a political crisis that has since reshaped both parties and spawned a far-right movement that has become increasingly influential inside and outside of the halls of power. While the House has always had its share of political turmoil and controversy, the events of this month, including the ongoing battle to find a new speaker, are truly unprecedented. Not only is this the first time in history that a speaker has been removed, it is the first time that one has been so openly and successfully challenged by such a small minority of their own party. Indeed, because of compromises made during the bitter factional fights over McCarthy’s election, it took just one disgruntled Republican, the upstart far-right Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, to trigger the proceedings for removal. This process was then happily supported by nearly all of the House Democrats. This meant that Gaetz needed only a small handful of Republican dissenters to remove McCarthy, who lost his bid to stay in power by just six votes, and who has still yet to be replaced after almost two weeks of factional infighting within the party over a new speaker.
Such an undemocratic maneuver, whereby a small minority of far-right congresspersons, representing a tiny portion of the U.S. population is able to effectively paralyze the entire congress in order to advocate for a policy of further spending cuts to entitlement programs and increases in border militarization, is bad enough. But the fact that nearly half of the rest of the congress (that is, nearly every Democrat) played along shows just how unserious these people are about actually governing in the interests of the people they claim to represent. But of course, none of these people truly represent the mass of the working class of the United States and never have. Instead, they represent the ideological and material interests of the capitalist class, and it is precisely the slow realization of this fact that has led to the political crisis we are seeing now.
Thankfully, there is a solution. As class consciousness rises and thousands of workers continue to strike across the U.S., the path for the working class to take to the stage of national politics has been set. In order to begin the task of solving the capitalist crisis, we must take advantage of this momentum and growing militancy to lay the ground for further battles and the construction of independent political organizations, and turn the hot labor summer into a permanent wave of working-class struggle.
Perpetual Crisis and Political Monsters
While the removal of McCarthy was historic, it is only the latest in a long series of political, economic, and environmental crises that have rocked the U.S. since the economic collapse of 2008. Since then, the U.S. has experienced three government shutdowns, the election of a billionaire reality-TV star (now facing several state and federal felony charges), two impeachment trials, a contested presidential election, a nationwide uprising against police violence, the storming of the U.S. Capitol by bloodthirsty, far-right protesters, a global pandemic, two years of out-of-control inflation, and a historic economic crisis (with another recession potentially on the way). And now, after many years of relative quiescence, the labor movement in the United States is waking up with strikes and the threat of strikes spreading throughout several sectors of the economy, adding even more fuel to the fire. These events, and the decades of neoliberal misrule that preceded them — which weakened U.S. unions and dismantled the inadequate social safety net — have only exacerbated the underlying political crisis that has been developing since even before the 2016 election.
Fed up with declining wages, layoffs, deindustrialization, massive income inequality, precarious employment, cuts to social services, rising housing and education costs, and the financialization of everything, the working class and the downwardly mobile — often self-employed — petit-bourgeois have turned on their traditional political leaders. On the Left this has meant a growing interest in socialism and social democracy of the variety put forward by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez — a warmed over version of the already vanishing European welfare state. On the Right, however, it has led to a whole series of what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called “morbid symptoms.” These include crises like the one we are seeing in Congress now, as well a growing reactionary populism grounded in the misguided belief in a glorious past and an often xenophobic, racist, and nationalist authoritarian politics. This new Right, as Nancy Fraser has well argued, was formed in the cauldron of anger and dissatisfaction with the prevailing bi-partisan political project of “progressive neoliberalism” — an ideology best represented by the “girl boss” politics of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 Presidential bid.
This growing population of disgruntled voters has opened up political space for far-right populists like Trump and the members of the Republican Freedom Caucus to develop a base of hardline supporters, who no longer see their interests aligned with that of the traditional Republican Party and, in some cases, the U.S. state more broadly, which they view as inherently corrupted. It is this fundamental distrust of the establishment that allows billionaire populists like Trump to rally millions of voters to “drain the swamp” even as he is found guilty of several counts of fraud. Though somewhat weakened by the overreach of the Capitol riots of January 2021 and the Republicans’ poor performance in the midterm elections, this disgruntled population has nonetheless continued to gain significant influence in U.S. politics. For instance, despite — or perhaps because of — the many indictments against Trump, polls show that more than two thirds of Republican voters continue to say that the 2020 election was stolen, and Trump is already the de facto nominee for the 2024 elections, with at least one recent Quinnipiac poll showing him leading Biden by two points in a general election. Most other polls show a very tight race, well within the margin or error.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has done little to combat this ugly populism or to address the underlying economic grievances of working-class voters. In fact, rather than confront the Far Right, they have instead often sided with them on issues like immigration, exemplified by the fact that Biden is moving forward with the construction of a border wall despite promises he made on the campaign trail not to “build another foot” of Trump’s wall. At the same time, the Democrats have actually openly supported the nomination of right-wing Republican candidates in the misguided hope that these candidates would be easier to defeat in general elections. This was the Democratic Party strategy that led to the nomination and eventual election of Trump, whom Hillary Clinton regularly mocked as unfit to lead. Despite that massive blunder, the same strategy has continued to be used to provide millions of dollars to far-right primary candidates. While this may have helped Democrats win some elections, especially during the 2022 midterms, it has also helped the Far Right amplify its politics and ideological influence, which has grown dramatically since 2016. The consequences of this are nowhere more clear than in the emboldened conservative court and the ongoing attacks on abortion and trans rights in states like Texas and Florida where the Far Right is strongest.
This strategy was on full display earlier this month, as vote after vote, Democrats, including all but one of the so-called progressive members of “The Squad,” lined up behind the Freedom Caucus to vote “Yea” to remove the speaker, in the naive belief that this would make the Republicans look like they were incapable of leading. The problem is that this strategy has once again only amplified the voices and influence of Trump-supporting politicians like Matt Gaetz, who, among other heinous political positions, opposes abortion and gay marriage, supports the further construction of a border wall, and wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Indeed, Gaetz is now more popular than ever among his Republican base. And now, it is looking increasingly likely that the next speaker will be even more to the Right than McCarthy. Although the situation remains incredibly fluid, the withdrawal of Steve Scalise has opened the door for Representative Jim Jordan — an equally stalwart Trump supporter who helped stage a sit-in of the house intelligence committee in order to delay impeachment proceedings — to become the Republican conference’s next nominee and perhaps the next speaker of the House.
In short, despite the crisis in the House and the Democrats’ attempts to portray the Republicans as incompetent louts, dissatisfaction with the regime is only growing, and the Far Right, by raising criticisms of the economy and even, to some extent, U.S. foreign policy, has, in contrast to the Democratic party establishment, been able to paint itself as the defenders of the “common man.” Without a real political alternative, many working people will continue to fall prey to these ideas, further weakening and dividing the power of the working class.
Solving the Capitalist Crisis Requires Independent Working Class Politics and Class struggle
As House Republicans scramble to elect a new speaker (a task made more urgent by the desire to pass legislation providing additional emergency aid for Israel’s gruesome war on Gaza), and as Democrats seek to take political advantage of the chaos that has ensued, voters have been losing faith in the institution as whole. In polls conducted just before the speakers’ removal, only 15.6 percent of those polled said they approved of the way that congress is handling its job, a number that is likely to decrease even further in the coming days as polls conducted after the speaker’s removal are published.
While support for Congress (never very popular to begin with) has unsurprisingly waned, polls also show that labor unions, strikes, and workers’ struggles have become more popular than ever. Two thirds of Americans polled by Gallup said they approve of labor unions, while a decisive 75 percent said they stand with the United Auto Workers (UAW) in their current strike against The Big Three, and 72 percent support the entertainment workers’ strike. This new level of working-class consciousness is part of a bigger backlash against neoliberalism that began with the 2018-19 teachers’ strikes — part of a wave of labor resistance that was temporarily interrupted by the pandemic. The new level of militancy we are witnessing now, best represented by the ongoing UAW and Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) strikes, is at once both a continuation and an escalation of those earlier labor struggles. The pandemic, as well as the uprising against police violence in the Summer of 2020, not only forced workers, like those at Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, to organize to protect their health, but revealed, in the most fundamental way, that working people have power, that they truly are essential, and that the world does not run without their labor. Thankfully, the wave of unionization efforts, strike threats, and strikes that have followed show no sign of slowing down. Last week, 75,000 health care workers walked out at Kaiser Permanente, 40,000 picketing hospitality workers are now on the verge of a potential strike, and UAW President Shawn Fain just spontaneously called out another 9,000 workers in the middle of a contract meeting with Ford executives.
This new labor militancy shows the material and political power of the working class and can be a potent antidote to the influence of the Far Right in the midst of this political crisis. While unions are no panacea for racist or nationalist politics (indeed, they have unfortunately sometimes been bastions of such ideologies in the past), labor struggles and workplace organization do offer an alternative outlet for the often legitimate economic and social grievances that fuel such ideas. In fact, it is only through the self-organization of the working class and class struggle that racism, homophobia, nationalism, economism, and facile individualism can be challenged — through debate and discussion, but more importantly through experience. There is no better teacher, after all, for understanding the problems of capitalism and the importance of solidarity than class struggle.
It is no surprise then, that President Biden and former President Trump are each attempting to co-opt this new movement, both in order to win the 2024 election and to contain it and keep it neatly aligned to the interests of the state. This is especially true in the case of Biden, who last year notoriously led the charge to crush, with the help of much of “The Squad,” what would have been the biggest railroad workers’ strike in decades. Biden’s visit to the UAW picket lines, and Trump’s competing speech at a non-unionized factory the following day, reveal the degree to which a strike like the one at the Big Three has the power to force the government to act.
But we cannot fool ourselves into believing that we should thus use this power to support one or the other of these two candidates. Instead, we have to take advantage of the growing working-class consciousness that these struggles have created in order to build a larger more militant labor movement, to unite our struggles, and to spread strikes to every sector of the economy, private and public. But even more important than this, we must also learn how to use the power of labor to confront the state, to make demands of the state, to win demands from the state, and, when that fails, not to resign ourselves to despair, but to continue to build the organizations we will need to win. This includes building an independent working-class party with a socialist platform that can address the political crisis by channeling the anger and frustration of the working classes into working-class struggles and not back into the capitalists’ parties. But it also includes independent organizing within our unions and workplaces to confront our bureaucratic leaders who would try to tie us to this or that bourgeois party.
Thanks to the economic and political chaos that has unfolded since the 2016 elections, many working people are turning further toward right-wing politics because they see no alternatives to the zero sum game of neoliberalism and are seeking ways to protect themselves, often at the expense of other working people. This is meanwhile being exploited by politicians from both parties who have used the undemocratic mechanisms of Congress, the executive, and the judiciary to attack working people and to limit their power in order to maintain the capitalist system that exploits them. The dysfunction in the House reveals more than ever the need to use working-class methods to abolish these institutions and replace them with a single united congress that puts the decisions of the country into the hands of the working class. As CLR James said, “every cook can govern” and it is with this spirit that we must confront the political crisis before us.