A new and stronger whirlwind
(NOTE: a shorter, adapted version of this essay can be found in?DemocraticLeft Online, 4/10/2020.)
When I was in Nicaragua during the first Sandinista decade (the 1980s), there was a saying: No hay mal que por bien no venga. It means there?s no bad thing that doesn?t bring some good ? a useful reminder as the country and the world slides into catastrophe. My whirlwind started in the 1960s, with rebellion against the U.S. war in Vietnam and the racist violence at home. Now the wind is stronger, more dangerous in many ways.
The coronavirus pandemic changed everything. Trump?s callousness and incapacity caused countless deaths and endangered everyone. The system was out of control. But people began to fight back.
The high priests of the classic American ?everyone-for-themselves? culture wanted to at least sound like they cared. Basic human solidarity made a comeback. People showed a natural reflex to care about each other ? not everyone, of course, but more than before. Even rabid Republicans and mainstream Democrats got together to start a bailout as the economy shuddered in the pandemic: bandaids mainly, but the biggest bandaids in a very long time. Money by the trillions flooded not only to banks and big business, but to ordinary people ? in the latter case about enough to cover rent for a month or two, pay unemployment checks for a while, maybe avoid homelessness. The scope and depth of the crisis demanded these moves, but much more. Landlords had to put evictions on hold in many places across the country.
Some of the government?s ?generosity? raised questions: Trump suggested eliminating payroll taxes during the pandemic. Nice idea, but a major part of the payroll tax is the 15 percent of gross that workers pay into Social Security, which is matched by the employer. Was this meant as a ?trojan horse? to get rid of Social Security, or just a clever way to take several months of payments away from future retirees?
Of course there was plenty of corruption and profit gouging ? some in Congress made a bundle by selling stocks based on what they knew before anyone else. And profiteers hauled in windfalls by selling essential supplies that should have been provided by the government. Trump tried to buy out a German vaccine maker, so the vaccine could become a U.S. monopoly, but his ?offer? was rejected. Meanwhile, for corporations, the bailout was a bonanza: untold trillions to save the system.
Common people banded together for mutual support and common demands. It promised a new stage of the ?political revolution? Bernie Sanders had launched. Sanders pressed, successfully, for an unemployment package unlike anything before: coverage for all people who needed it ? gig workers, ?independent contractors,? restaurant workers and more ? at a higher, more realistic level. He changed the Congressional agenda, prioritizing basic survival and human justice. And he argued for a recovery focused on the Green New Deal.
The scope and depth of the crisis was unprecedented: as the economy shut down, the numbers of people out of work skyrocketed to millions. Trump and his team panicked, calling for everyone to get back to work, ?by Easter? ? a nice pander to his evangelical base. But the natural laws of capitalism don?t depend on miracles: supply has to follow demand. Even though 20th century capitalism succeeded in ?manufacturing? demand, this time it would take bigger miracles than before. While putting money into people?s pockets would allow them to buy groceries and medication for a while, the survival of the system depends on a vast global market, and the pandemic paralyzed populations and markets across the globe. People?s health and safety really did come first, in many cases for the first time ever in most countries. But people had to fight for their health and safety. Trump backed away from his ?back to work suggestion? as essential services workers began a wave of strikes.
At home the crisis of human needs began to highlight how massive debt had crippled the lives of ordinary people: mortgage debt, medical debt, car debt, student debt, credit card debt, payday loan debt, and more. Instead of life savings people could fall back on, millions of people faced overwhelming, unpayable debt. A mass movement emerged to cancel the debt: ?We can?t pay, we won?t pay!?
As money flooded out to save the system and provide bandaids for people, some pointed out that if all that money is there in a crisis, if it?s possible to have a moratorium on student debt, why not cancel the debt? If transit can be free in a crisis, why not all the time? If prisoners can be released in a crisis (as they were in many cities), why not free them all, permanently? If the government can flood the system with money, why does anyone have to be homeless?
The social and economic breakdown set off a social and political breakthrough: people decided to stop waiting, and mobilized to end the suffering. People power began to grow while the empire continued to weaken both globally and at home. Trump didn?t start being a bumbling fool with the pandemic, but many more people noticed. His goofy failures to manage the crisis caused his vaunted invincibility to ebb away. His racist efforts to blame the coronavirus on China fizzled, as China?s effective ?people?s war? against the virus impressed people everywhere. Trump was losing the proverbial ?mandate of heaven? as China?s leaders held on to it. While Trump and Pompeo moved to intensify sanctions against Iran and Venezuela ? hoping to strangle them into submission as the pandemic raged in their countries ? Chinese medical workers and supplies came to the rescue, not only in those countries, but also in Europe and elsewhere. Cuban doctors, and medication, joined them.
Trump insisted on calling COVID-19 ?the China virus.? Asian people often paid the price, as racist incidents proliferated. Solidarity efforts in defense of Asians also proliferated. The Chinese government suggested the virus may not have originated there, rather in the USA, possibly in the Pentagon?s bio war lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
Reports that government planners, together with Big Pharma and others, had conducted detailed simulations of the pandemic months before it broke out raised questions: why weren?t they prepared? Why didn?t their planning result in stockpiles of needed supplies? What was the purpose of their planning? Was it just to help Big Pharma cash in, or was it something even more sinister?
These questions added urgency to Bernie?s call for Medicare for All. They also highlighted the need to change from endless war to global cooperation and solidarity. In China the People?s Liberation Army was mobilized to staff emergency hospitals and deliver medical supplies. In the USA the Pentagon?s priority continued to be aggression and domination abroad and repression at home. In March, European members of NATO cancelled their participation in planned war games against Russia, stopping the supply line through Germany of both troops and supplies: effectively cancelling the exercise. The Norwegian military said that they were canceling because of the ?out of control coronavirus.?
But the war danger worsened: as the economy began to fall apart, Trump, Pompeo and the Pentagon seemed to look to more war as a solution to the crisis, the way World War 2 had pulled the country out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Attorney General Barr filed drug trafficking charges against Venezuelan President Maduro and several of his aides, in a ?conspiracy? he claimed included Colombian revolutionaries. It was reminiscent of claims against Panama?s President Noriega back in 1989, which led to massive bombing to take Noriega prisoner. But Venezuela is not Panama. The charges fell apart in the face of well-known facts, that U.S. ally Colombia is the major Latin American source of drug trafficking. Meanwhile Venezuelans were organized and ready to resist despite two decades of strangulation. At the UN, Venezuela?s foreign minister denounced the intensified U.S. sanctions against his country in the midst of the pandemic as genocidal, with support from China.
The crisis exposed a dramatic loss of U.S. prestige globally. European leaders denounced Trump?s unilateral and reckless moves, while they noticed the new source of leadership and support in the pandemic was China. They also had less reason to go along with U.S. sanctions against more than three dozen countries around the world: the U.S. banking system seemed much less threatening than before.
At home, the crisis generated more popular mobilization, not less. ?We need to build a political revolution not just to make the Green New Deal victorious in this election, but to upend the balance of power in this country for a generation,? said?Dyanna Jaye, the Sunrise Movement?s organizing director. The Democratic primaries were eclipsed by the pandemic, but that didn?t stop the movement. Postmortems of the Sanders campaign became daily fare as spring arrived. But there were predictions of a ?hung? and brokered Democratic Party convention in the summer.
I?ve seen it before: the Chicago convention in 1968, where Mayor Daley?s machine delivered the nomination to LBJ?s vice president Hubert Humphrey, while Daley?s cops bashed the heads of anti-war demonstrators in the streets outside. Humphrey then lost to Richard Nixon, who escalated the war and intensified repression at home. Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace in 1974, but he did a lot of damage, and things got much worse: constant war, mass incarceration of millions of non-white people, rampant inequality, and a planet on the brink of extinction. Then Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and even Obama, made it worse. It has felt endless.
Still, the campaign to change America had really only begun. ?Our movement is more powerful than ever,? wrote Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement. ?But we are in a fight for the soul of this country.? Prakash admitted that ?we cannot take a single election for granted, but we also know that no matter what happens over the coming months, elections alone won?t be enough? We know big change has never been won through elections alone. That?s why our movement is oriented around a guiding strategy for this year of:?Organize, Vote, and Strike.? She had meant student strikes to stay out of school, but with schools shuttered the students supported and joined rent strikes that popped up in many cities, as well as mass refusals to work without protective gear and hazard pay among nurses and other essential services workers.
?History has shown that when millions of young people dedicate themselves to a cause, and show up in overwhelming numbers, revolutionary change isn?t just possible ? it?s inevitable,? Prakash declared. ?As long as we are organizing our generation into an unstoppable force in American politics, we will eventually ensure that the Green New Deal comes to pass ? no matter what happens this election.? (For me ?Green New Deal? means economic transformation.)
Organizing a generation into an unstoppable force is a tall order. The Sunrise Movement appeared almost spontaneously in early 2019, joining Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) for a fairly polite visit to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi?s office. From there it mushroomed in size and numbers of locations: a force to be reckoned with, along with Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, nurses, teachers, gig workers, and many others.
The youth movement is a key factor, but is not alone. Blanca Estevez, a DSA National Political Committee member from Arkansas, pointed to another looming force for change: the Latinx community. It was Bernie?s outreach to Latinx communities in Nevada that ?clenched it for him,? she wrote. Highlighting the grassroots work of AOC and?Carmen Yul?n Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a co-chair of the Sanders campaign, she described how they brought in organizations such as?Mijente?and Make The Road Action to help shape the effort. ?Combining multifaceted outreach and coalition-building with a political message that resonates with workers of all backgrounds,? Blanca said, ?Bernie was able to capture an undeniable lead in the [Nevada] primary race that [had] ruling class media in full meltdown.?
This new phenomenon was not a flash in the pan. Latinx voters were a major factor in both Iowa and New Hampshire. They carried Bernie to victory in California, and kept him strong in Texas.
The youth vote and the Latinx vote were the cutting edge, both for Sanders and in the battle to beat Trump. There was ironic beauty to this, since Trump built his neo-fascist juggernaut on bashing Latinx people. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump shut down the southern border. But he may have missed something.
Today one in five millennials is Latinx. In total, Latinx people comprise 18% of the country?s population, making them the largest ethnic minority in the nation. The U.S. is surpassed only by Mexico in containing the largest number of Spanish speaking people in the world. The number of native Spanish speakers in the U.S. is comparable in size to Spain. Together with African Americans and other People of Color, they comprise more than a third of the U.S. population. No wonder Trump and the Republicans fear them!
?Tyson Foods is one of the largest employers in Northwest Arkansas,? Blanca Estevez observed. ?A Tyson processing plant employs large numbers of predominantly Latinx workers in our area: they?are?the working class in Northwest Arkansas.? She could add that food processing workers across the country are overwhelmingly Latinx.
Even though Biden got the primary vote of older African American voters loyal to Obama, the natural working class alliance of Black and Latinx workers would be strong in the fight against Trump ? electorally and otherwise. This alliance includes enough other forces to be a solid majority of workers: women, men, Black, Latinx and white, LGBTQ, and immigrants of all nationalities. This is the decisive majority, together with the youth, not only for the elections, but for the future.
It was an alliance of dock workers and the Occupy movement that shut down ports on the West Coast in 2011. And in 2006 there was virtually a May Day general strike in many cities, as Latinx workers banded together to make ?a day without Latinx workers.?
These same workers are poised to benefit from a Green New Deal, and will fight for it ? both for the jobs it would bring, and for the future it could preserve for their children and grandchildren. My fantasy is millions of workers joining the Sunrise youth in massive numbers, shutting down the country and sending a message ??you can?t do anything without us, and we can stop you from hurting us!
Consider the sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, whose captain was fired for calling publicly for help when members of the TR crew became infected. The sailors cheered him as a hero for putting their safety above the ?chain of command.? Will other sailors and soldiers on ships and bases across the globe demand their safety must come first? If so, they will need massive and vocal support.
Talk of? resistance and revolution is now common: ?Big Changes Ahead ? Let?s Be the Whirlwind,? wrote Max Elbaum, author of Revolution in the Air. ?It?s end time for the ?end of history/there is no alternative? era. The fight is on over what will replace it,? Elbaum wrote. He answered a claim by conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks that ?the imperative for Biden, if he wins, is to bring change or reap the whirlwind.? Elbaum said Brooks ?is afraid of the whirlwind, while we aim to be the whirlwind.? He added that ?we are for ?upending? the current political order??
To repeat, we?cannot take a single election for granted, but we also know that no matter what happens over the coming months, elections alone won?t be enough. The Civil Rights and union movements were built through struggle. So were the women?s and LGBTQ movements. Their victories were in some sense ?officially ratified? after the fact by presidents, Congress and the courts.
The movements inspired by the Sanders campaign expanded and intensified. The burning question was: could the horrifying reality here and around the world be transformed to ?a future we can believe in?? How could that happen?
The crashing economy holds the answer. The panic caused by the coronavirus exposed the economy?s fragility and instability, both in the U.S. and around the world. Wall Street is a roller coaster: ?the worst since?? 2008, or 1987, 1929, or ever. People used to say ?if the economy remains strong, Trump wins, and if it ?tanks? he loses.? Too simple, perhaps, but it rings true. Trump?s support is conditional: if he can keep Wall Street humming, he may keep his big business backers. But as the economy falls apart, his support system begins to collapse. The size and scope of the pandemic is very bad for Trump and company.
It?s important to remember the system is global. The economic shudders across the globe caused by the pandemic were a sign. Consider others: in France, neoliberal President Macron?s moves to change the pension system brought millions of people into the streets for a months-long general strike. Massive and repeated popular rebellions shook Chile, Ecuador, Haiti and Colombia recently. These are harbingers of a future in our country.
The traditional answer to such threats has been military force, police repression, and CIA subversion. The U.S. maintains more than 800 military bases around the world, in addition to hundreds more stateside. The CIA has always teamed up with both the banks and the military everywhere to keep the lid on, or to overthrow recalcitrant leaders declaring independence from the empire.
The status quo has depended not only on economic stability, which really cannot last, but also on effective repression and people?s passivity. It will take soldiers and sailors themselves refusing to fight, as they did in large numbers during the Vietnam era, to disarm the military. And it will take the rest of us becoming the whirlwind. If we can do that by the millions, we can begin to shape a future we can believe in. The fact is that as the system unravels, it will be our historic responsibility to step in and take over.