high-level leader in the AFL-CIO told me several years back, during the
nadir of the Bush-Republican Party stranglehold on the US government.
"So, if the labor movement is going to grow, build strength, win
victories and win more political power, we need to build coalitions with
the community," he concluded.
Another community and union activist about the same time said, "People
on the left say all the time that we need one big labor or socialist
party. Well that's not going to happen soon. So we need to build
coalitions if we are to have any chance of advancing democratic
struggles." If these comments are true, what is the importance of
coalition-building to the development of class consciousness, working
class power and social progress in the era of reform since the victory
in the 2008 election?
Both of these working-class activists hit on key aspects of politics and
class in the US. Media pundits typically use stock but meaningless
phrases like "center-right" or "fiscally conservative and socially
liberal" to characterize US politics generally. More a projection of
capitalist class values than an empirically-based description of
society, this view of US politics reflects an attempt to preserve
political and cultural hegemony. In fact, the right-wing ideas and
political formations that have held sway over the last 30 years have
served as the cornerstone of capitalist power in the US.
Hegemony, ideology and consent
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued two basic things about
politics in developed capitalist societies that contain valuable lessons
for today. First, he argued that "hegemony," or the maintenance of
class power by the capitalist class, flows from the ability to preserve a
multi-class coalition led by the capitalist class. In this manner,
while resistance and opposition persist, capitalist rule is preserved in
the main by the consent of the governed.
We can see how this principle operates in the health care debate today.
The sections of the capitalist class that oppose health reform, using
fear tactics and a far-right ideology mired in religion and populist
libertarianism, have formed a coalition. This coalition includes
insurance companies and a powerful right-wing media (Fox News and
right-wing radio personalities) and their followers many of whom are
the very working-class people who would benefit most from health reform.
On the other hand, the reform movement is comprised of labor and other
working-class-oriented democratic movements, some sections of the
capitalist class, small business owners, middle-class professionals
(like doctors), and the majority of federal-level elected officials in
the Democratic Party.
These configurations are radically different from those which operated
in the early 1990s when reform failed. Then, as in the past, reform
efforts led by a fragmented reform movement met with united and powerful
opposition from the capitalist class.
However, the key to winning meaningful reforms that restructure the
broken private health care system into one that puts human needs before
profits lies beyond just those who make up of the present coalition of
forces that is demanding reform.
Reform driven by the principle that health care is a human right that
can only be guaranteed by providing expanded, affordable coverage, would
be a major victory for democracy and would substantially improve the
material situation of the working class. It would also advance the
general struggle for socialism by laying a basis for future humanization
of the health care system through the elimination of exorbitant
profits. And while the struggle for reform on this front has exposed the
lies of capitalist ideology the perverse idea that the appropriation
of social wealth as private capital is the best, most democratic way to
organize a social system the effort to win a humane system will not be
over when a reform bill is signed.
Secondly Gramsci argued that hegemony of the capitalist class is
preserved by means of the formation of a broad, pro-capitalist support
base for that hegemony. Marxists, up to this point, had tended to
emphasize the development of productive forces as the primary influence
on the formation of ideas. Thus advanced capitalist societies should
naturally have advanced working-class movements, ideas and cultures,
they insisted. But Gramsci countered that ideology and culture are often
relatively autonomous from the material bases of society, as evident,
to him, in the slow-to-develop socialist movements in the major
imperialist and capitalist countries of his time.
While Lenin and others facilely explained this by saying that
imperialism's material benefits, the surplus that trickled down to
working classes in the big capitalist countries, created an "aristocracy
of labor" opposed to socialist revolution, Gramsci insisted that the
main answer to the question really lies in the realm of culture and
ideological struggle, a factor which is still incompletely understood or
ignored by pro-working-class forces and movements in developed
Today, we might add a qualification to Gramsci's point: that because of
the anarchic, cut-throat nature of capitalism itself, sections of the
capitalist class compete amongst each other for hegemony as well (for
example, think of the fierce, high-stakes competition between emerging
owners of potential capital reaped from renewable energy sources and the
titans of Big Oil).
Ideologues who side with the capitalist class, or sections of the
capitalist class, adopt fragments of the ideologies of the working class
and the democratic movements allied with the working class, creating a
mirror image of their slogans and stock phrases to reinforce
capitalist-controlled coalitions in order to maintain the status quo.
Words and symbols are stolen from working class or revolutionary history
and pressed into the service of capitalist hegemony.
Take, for instance, the American flag. What was once a symbol of the
multi-class, national liberation coalition of landowners, slaveholders,
merchants, farmers and the emergent industrial working class against
British imperialism, has been turned by the ultra right into a nearly
meaningless symbol of hackneyed patriotism and jingoism.
Consider the lapel pin brouhaha against Barack Obama during the
Democratic primary campaign. Expressing the emptiness of the right-wing
symbolism of the flag, Fox News personality Sean Hannity explained to
his audience, "Why do we wear lapel pins? Because our country is under
attack!" As if lapel pins could defend us from imaginary WMD. In recent
years, more than anything else, they became an emblem of support for
Bush's "war on terror" and his war of choice in Iraq.