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Can U.S. Workers Embrace Anti-Imperialism?

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor movement activist who currently serves as the president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organizing and educational center formed to raise awareness in the United States about issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. He is a director of the Monthly Review Foundation.

No doubt one is a wretched plebeian harassed by debts and military service, but, to make up for it, one is a Roman citizen, one has one’s share in the task of ruling other nations and dictating their laws.
—Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (1927)

The period between September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq raised many questions about the psyche of the U.S. public in general and the U.S. working class in particular. The ability of the Bush Administration to utilize fear and patriotism to refocus attention away from pressing domestic issues has been astounding. The Republican Congressional victories in November 2002 were nearly unprecedented and most likely would not have happened had the focus on Iraq not emerged during the prior summer.

The widespread fear that resulted from the terror attacks on September 11 is understandable. The assault on civilians through the destruction of the World Trade Center and the use of civilian aircraft as weapons were certainly crimes against humanity. However, the ability of the Bush Administration to link all sorts of real and perceived threats to the personality of Saddam Hussein (and prior to that, Osama Bin Laden), as well as to create what looks like a state of permanent war, has resulted in a situation of perpetual anxiety. It has also enhanced the foundation of a pro-imperial front, presumably representing the U.S. people, against the rest of the world. This front has led many people, including those of good intention, into believing that any and all concerns and disagreements expressed overseas or at home about the objectives of U.S. foreign policy are without foundation. Instead, it is argued, any and all methods to guarantee “our” security must be entertained, regardless of the cost.

For these reasons, the danger of a domestic police state has risen to levels not seen since the Nixon Administration. Additional dangers of a cowboy foreign policy in the interests of strengthening a U.S.-dominated global capitalist empire place the entire planet at risk and certainly do not increase security for anyone.

In this situation, a fundamental question emerges. Can a working-class-based, anti-imperialist movement emerge that shifts U.S. foreign policy and, in the long term, lays the foundation for the transformation of the U.S. state? In order to answer this question, we must ask ourselves some difficult questions about labor, “race,” and empire. It must be said at the outset that much of our focus will be on the organized sector of the U.S. working class, in order to consider the strategic and tactical options for the creation of a new set of politics through a transformation of organized labor.

The Crisis of Contemporary U.S. Labor

The defining ideological feature of the modern U.S. labor movement is the Gompersian notion of trade unionism. Samuel Gompers, founder and long-time leader of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), rose out of the Cigarmakers Union in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Responding to the crisis in the Knights of Labor, a significant and more radically inclusive labor federation, Gompers argued that workers could only be organized effectively on a craft basis. Although he paid lip service to unskilled workers, Gompers’ emphasis was on the skilled crafts. In constructing the American Federation of Labor, Gompers built a ruling bloc that supported such a vision and was soon able to surpass the Knights of Labor in size and influence.

Gompers broke with the earlier U.S. tradition, and that of Europeans, in his opposition to a labor party for the working class. This view flowed from his belief that the role of the trade union was to fight in the interests of the workers in the workplace. Further, his philosophy dictated that the trade union movement accept the existence of capitalism and take no steps in opposition to it. Gompers’ program came to be known as bread-and-butter trade unionism or job conscious trade unionism, most notable for its claim to be pragmatic and not ideological. In the political realm, this meant that organized labor would not, to paraphrase Gompers, have permanent friends or enemies, but permanent interests. At one level, that might sound quite class conscious, but Gompers was not speaking about the entirety of the working class, only of its organized, craft-based sector. When it came to political action, Gompers restricted the AFL to lobbying rather than the political mobilization of the working class. In other words, Gompers insisted that the AFL engage only in traditional interest-group politics.

The roots of Gompers’ philosophy of trade unionism were in his view of class and the state, and, by implication, race, gender, and U.S. foreign policy. Though once a socialist, he soon rejected any noncapitalist view of the future. The role of trade unionism was to improve the lives of those who were fortunate enough to be in such unions. Gompers was actually embracing a peculiar form of trickle-down thinking; what was won by the trade unions might eventually improve the lives of the unorganized sector. Yet the unorganized sector was not Gompers’ concern. If they wanted improvements, they should join or form unions.

Gompers’ pragmatism reflected an exclusionary unionism, a view that the objective of unionism is to narrow the relevant population to that which can cut the best deal with capital. The AFL, from its beginning, excluded the bulk of unskilled workers, as well as the mass of workers of color and female workers. This “pragmatic” practice demonstrated, in practice, the racism and sexism of the AFL.

Gompers also came to view the U.S. state as essentially an empty vessel that could be filled by any sort of politics or political/economic influence. The job of the trade union movement was to exert pressure on that state to benefit organized labor, and through the trickle-down effect, the whole of the working class. It was not necessary for the working class to challenge the capitalists for state power. The state could be influenced either by organized labor or by capital. It was up to organized labor to ensure the former. The class character of the state was denied by Gompers. For him, the state is a class-neutral entity, a view which holds sway within much of organized labor even today.

Gompers slowly but steadily abandoned any concern about matters of race and gender. After the great 1892 general strike in New Orleans, a strike which demonstrated the potential of a racially united labor movement, the matter of race and its significance declined in importance for him. By the early 1900s, Gompers had become an open white supremacist.

Within Gompers’ “pragmatism,” it was a short step from the repudiation of class struggle and the fight for power, to the open embrace of capitalism and the government’s efforts to strengthen U.S. business interests abroad. In other words, there existed a unity for Gompers between labor and capital; both continually sought a better economic climate. In the realm of foreign policy, this view came to mean open, unconditional, and even rabid, support for whatever the U.S. government did abroad. An early example of this was the AFL’s embrace of the First World War and its support of the suppression of opponents of the war, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, a left-wing union which had had considerable success organizing workers ignored by the AFL. For Gompers, the interests of organized labor were allied to a strengthening of capitalism and the success of U.S. foreign policy, regardless of the impact on workers in other countries. The flag of an imperialist patriotism was to be the banner of the AFL.

Alternative politics challenging Gompersian trade unionism did emerge after the founding of the AFL. The Industrial Workers of the World, organizations allied with the Communist and Socialist Parties, independent left/progressive currents, and caucus movements of oppressed nationalities have all significantly influenced both the discourse and practice of U.S. trade unionism. Nevertheless, while this alternative politics was sometimes successful, the Gompersian view (often aided by a repressive state) has remained hegemonic. The reluctance, and frequent opposition, to tackling racist oppression (always with the excuse that this would create divisions); the tailing after the Democratic Party, and worse, the crass currying of favors from both major parties; and the consistent support of U.S. foreign policy in the name of patriotism have continued. And they have, in fact, strangled the development of the movement.

The ‘Patriotism’ of Organized Labor

To further explore the consequences of organized labor’s “pragmatism,” we need to examine the notion of “patriotism.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, patriotism is “Love of and devotion to one’s country.” Yet this is not the operative definition of “patriotism” in U.S. politics. The operative definition is more akin to “support for the policies of one’s government irrespective of the social costs, if said policies are justified as being in the interests of the nation-state.” In the United States, this operative definition has been used primarily to suppress dissent.

Gompers wrapped organized labor in the operative definition, and the AFL and later the AFL-CIO used it to crush opposition to its pro-business, pro-imperialism policies. Most critically, two decades after Gompers’ death, the operational definition was critical when the Cold War commenced and loyalty oaths were enacted into law. In the late 1940s, unions representing over one million workers were expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) for failing to sign affidavits, mandated by the Taft-Hartley Act, signifying that their leaders were not Communists. In order to justify and enforce these expulsions, “patriotism” was an effective means of intimidating opponents. Linked to this skewed view of patriotism was the notion promoted by the political right that antiracist activity was a sign of communist influence. This became the case within organized labor as well. The unions that were expelled from the CIO were those that had the strongest positions against racism within the labor movement.

The operative definition of patriotism, then, is a call for class collaboration and a repudiation of genuine international working class solidarity. In the realm of international affairs, for instance, the AFL and later the AFL-CIO, supported foreign policies that accepted U.S. world hegemony and overseas trade union movements which were, themselves, in opposition to the political left. In other words, the operative definition of patriotism supports the empire; what stands domestically in opposition to the empire is seen as unpatriotic. Organized labor, seeking to justify its own existence and withstand attacks from the capitalists, chose the expedient route of support for, and advancement of, the operative notion of patriotism. It supported policies that were antithetical to working-class interests, but which often seemed to be in labor’s (and especially labor’s leaders’) short-term economic interests.

A Race-Neutral Social Contract, or, Does a Rising Tide Raise All Boats?

Established trade unionism embraces the notion of a social contract between labor and capital, within the context of the capitalist system. In embracing this conception, however, the leaders and members of organized labor put on blinders when it came to matters of race and gender. Not coincidentally, these blinders also inhibit the ability to see and understand the empire.

It is once again important to clarify terms. The early usage of the term “social contract” derives from the Enlightenment and the U.S. and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century. The term referred to a myth, elaborated by the intellectuals at the service of the emerging bourgeoisie, to the effect that a bond or contract had been implicitly made in the early years of humanity to end prehistoric barbarism. This social contract presumably recognized basic rights for all sectors of society and protected people against arbitrary rule.

While the nascent bourgeoisie used the myth of the social contract in its struggle with absolute monarchies and feudalism, the term, in fact, justified the existence of classes and the relative role for each of them. This was true whether the social contract took the crude Hobbesian form or Rousseau’s more revolutionary and egalitarian form.

In the twentieth century, however, the social contract took on a new meaning, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War. It came to refer to the welfare state and the demand upon society to protect its citizens. Again, a myth developed that there was a basic acceptance by all sectors of society of the existence of a strong public sector, core social benefits for all, and trade unionism. In reality, there was never full acceptance of these precepts, nor was there ever consistent implementation of the policies which would have made these a reality. There was, however, a balance of forces in the class struggle that gave this new meaning of the social contract some plausibility.

Organized labor has typically seen the terms of the social contract as narrowly economic. Under Gompers’ reign, those who were fortunate enough to be in AFL unions were seen as the beneficiaries of the social contract. The fate of those outside official trade unionism was left to chance. Over time, the views within organized labor changed, with a greater concern for the conditions and future of unorganized workers. This took of the form of organizing the unorganized, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, and later within the public sector, during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as fighting for progressive legislation.

Even during the New Deal, the social contract was never consistent. The trade union movement could perpetuate the myth of this contract only by its failure to address racial disparities in the working class and among the oppressed more generally. For example, Roosevelt’s agricultural and labor programs overlooked black farmers and farm workers in the South and Asian and Chicano farmers and farm workers in the Southwest. Little was done later, during the “golden years” of U.S. capitalism (1945–1973) to address the secondary (low-paid and insecure) labor market situation facing the majority of black and Latin workers.

The social contract myth assumed that capitalism now had a human face and would be forced to respect all sectors of society. It also assumed that the conditions for the existing workforce would continually improve so that the living standard of their children and grandchildren would always be better. This myth was a white myth. Racial differentials in jobs, housing, education, and health policies always militated against the full implementation of the social contract.

The existence of a relative privilege for whites over people of color created a myopia that reinforced the social contract myth. The ability to rise from the poverty of the early years of immigration led many whites to believe that this society was and remains equitable in its treatment of its citizens. The social contract promised the continuance of this modus vivendi. Indeed, the racial nature of the social contract permitted the transformation of Europeans into white people.

In addition to its racial character, the social contract myth also had an imperial quality. The great wealth of the United States was not simply the result of domestic economic performance and ingenuity, but also its global power. By the end of the Second World War, the United States was the premier capitalist/imperialist power, and the dollar was the de facto international currency. The United States has used its international power to export its debt, gaining badly-needed cash resources to sustain its economic stability. This imperial role, therefore, did not have solely a psychological impact on U.S. workers (and not just whites); it also had a positive material impact on the condition of the bulk of the U.S. working class and petty bourgeoisie. Defending this status quo became for many an essential component of the theory and practice of their lives and their organizations.

Yet the racial and imperial nature of the social contract myth and the failure of organized labor to challenge it undermined the ability of workers to conceive of themselves as having any legitimate and independent progressive class interests. One of the most tragic examples of this took place following the Second World War, when the trade union movement failed in its effort to conduct a large-scale Southern organizing effort (known as “Operation Dixie”) and subsequently failed to integrate itself into the emerging Civil Rights Movement. The bulk of organized labor, though bloodied by the defeat of Operation Dixie and the subsequent passage of the rabidly anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, believed that it nevertheless had an established place in the tripartite relationship of business, government, and organized labor, a place which dictated that labor promote U.S. capitalism.

A second tragedy revolved around the open support of U.S. foreign policy, even when that foreign policy took direct aim at workers overseas. Examples range from support for the crushing of French dockworkers in the late 1940s, and for military coups in what was then British Guiana in 1964, and Chile in 1973. Despite the known impact of such actions on the working classes of these countries, the bulk of organized labor was prepared to serve as foot soldiers in the fight to promote U.S. interests. In its anticommunist crusade, organized labor could generally be counted upon to disrupt and attempt to destroy legitimate working-class organizations, including those in Brazil during the 1980s (the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores or CUT), as well as those in South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the Congress of South African Trade Unions or COSATU).

The impact of the racial social contract myth on labor has become particularly critical in the last twenty-five years, with the collapse of the welfare state/New Deal consensus and its liberal conception of the social contract. Had the collapse of the welfare state and the social contract only affected people of color, organized labor would still be facing a crisis, but one very different than it is currently experiencing. Majority acceptance of the equitable nature of the U.S. imperial state would persist, at least to some degree. What is creating a larger crisis, however, is that the emergence of neoliberal globalization, guided by the U.S. imperial state, has challenged the earlier notions of a racial deal for white workers.

A Challenge Emerges: Right-Wing Populism

Key to the complicity of most of the white working class, and most significantly its organized fraction, with U.S. racism and imperialism was a combination of two essential factors: white racial privilege and the social bloc that it created, and the promise of improving living standards. These two factors, though related, have to be distinguished. White racial privilege is not necessarily tied to the economic strength of the U.S. state. The privilege is fundamentally political and structural, and refers to the enforced racial differential that exists between whites and nonwhites in U.S. society. This differential exists in both boom times and depressions, but it is enforced through the practices of both the state and civil society. It can be seen in the areas of employment, education, housing, health, and culture, as well as in arenas where there is a high preponderance of people of color, such as entertainment and sports.

Living standards, on the other hand, correlate with the overall economic picture, the racial differential, and the status of the United States as the dominant imperialist power. Political decisions play a part in living standards, but the performance of the economy is directly affected by larger forces. The stagnation of the U.S. economy, which began it the early 1970s, was driven by economic and political factors. Specific political and economic decisions were taken to deal with this stagnation and these affected the working class as a whole, usually with a disproportionate suffering within communities of color.

The stagnating economy generated a significant drop in living standards for the bulk of the U.S. working class, and this sent reverberations throughout the entire society. At the same time, the victories of the social movements of people of color and women, as well as changes in immigration patterns, changed the tapestry of U.S. society. It took some time for people to grasp that living standards had permanently declined, but certainly during the 1980s and 1990s this came to be understood. By the 1990s, the established media were giving heightened attention to this phenomenon and its impact on social sectors that had typically often thought of themselves as impervious to economic decline.

One of the consequences of declining working-class standards has been the rise of right-wing populism, not just in the United States but in most of the advanced capitalist nations. Its rise in the United States must be understood in terms of the crisis to the white racial bloc, which has unfolded at the same time that neoliberal globalization has arisen.

The challenge to the white racial bloc arose from both the victories in the antiracist struggle and changes in imperialism itself. The victories in the domestic antiracist struggle have resulted in new and unprecedented roles for individuals of color. The appointment of people like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell represented a fundamental change at the top levels of power. These are not the traditional roles occupied by people of color, in either a Democratic or a Republican administration. In corporate America, the rise of black CEOs in key companies, such as American Express, is also significant.

The problem created for white America by these developments is summed up in the notorious comment by sports commentator, “Jimmy the Greek,” who bemoaned the future of white players with the advent of black quarterbacks. What happens to the hopes of the average white person? Does it pay to be white anymore?

Both the state/corporate onslaught on labor, which included the wholesale destruction of much of U.S. manufacturing, and the constitution of closer intercapitalist and interimperialist alliances have meant that the U.S. workforce holds no special place for U.S. capital, other than its role as consumer. The threat of movement overseas, not to mention its actuality, has presented a major crisis of confidence in the status quo for the average worker. The loyalty that workers were led to expect from their employers simply does not exist. The loyalty is, as it always has been, to the almighty dollar.

The sense of betrayal goes to the core of contemporary right-wing populism. Despite his poor showings in the 2000 election, political commentator Pat Buchanan summed up the feelings of millions when he launched tirades at the allegedly traitorous companies that had abandoned the “American worker.” Buchanan’s subtle anti-Semitism, racism, and nativism became the lens for his anticorporate (though certainly not anticapitalist) polemic.

The racial deal is now in shambles. Key elements of the white racial bloc sense betrayal, and white workers (as well as sections of the white petty bourgeoisie) cannot count on improved lives for their children. Thus, a combination of the objective economic decline in the living standards of the average worker and the readjustment in the racial deal has fueled right-wing populism. The anger that this has spawned, whether in the extreme form of the militia movements or in the more acceptable form of a Pat Buchanan, has become a pulsating pressure point within the U.S. social formation.

This right-wing populism is demanding a reinstatement of the white racial deal. Even in its most militant anticorporatism, it is not challenging capitalism but demanding a return to the mythical social contract. With regard to the international situation, at some moments this right-wing populism is isolationist and protectionist, while at others it is expansionist and jingoist. In both cases, however, protection of the U.S. state and its hegemonic role in the world are key: the United States first, and within the United States, so-called natives, and among the so-called natives, whites. Patriotism, in its operative definition, then comes to mean defense of the empire against any and all potential threats.

Within the U.S. left, there have at various points been assumptions that the economic decline of the United States, and specifically the decline in the conditions for its working class, would engender a militant if not radical response. This may end up being true, but not quite in the manner in which the left expected. Declining living standards do not automatically lead to any predictable response. The left is seldom the immediate beneficiary. Any politics predicated on this assumption is a politics destined to destruction.

The additional complicating factor in this is the matter of the white racial bloc. The declining living standards, understood through the prism of white racism and white racial privilege, can easily be blamed on anyone other than the capitalists and the capitalist system. As we have seen over the last twenty years, the growing number of immigrants from the global South, whether documented or not, can be the scapegoats for the unraveling of the “American Dream.” Politically this has been in evidence in English-only and anti-immigrant initiatives.

One note should be added here. Right-wing populism does not find the same level of resonance among people of color. Part of the reason for this is obvious in that at the core of right-wing populism in the United States is white racism. Additionally, people of color in the United States have had the “advantage” of seeing the underside of the American Dream. That said, two points are worth making. In the 1990s, with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and violence, there was some populist sentiment among segments of communities of color. In the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 campaign in California in the mid 1990s, large numbers, though not a majority, within the African-American, Chicano, and Asian electorates supplemented white fervor in favor of the reactionary proposition. In the competition for limited resources under capitalism, the worst sentiments started to come to the surface. Years later, in the aftermath of September 11, there were calls to variants of right-wing populism within communities of color. In the name of patriotism, African Americans, for example, were called upon to march side-by-side with others in the United States in the so-called war against terrorism. Many African Americans embraced this call in the hope that we would finally be accepted as “Americans.” Things have not quite worked out that way, however.

As already noted, right-wing populism can also serve the interests of imperial expansion, as we have seen post-September 11. Playing into both fear and the desire for revenge, right-wing populism has merged with jingoism to support all sorts of adventures in the name of patriotism, security, and ensuring U.S. hegemony. The desire for revenge, not simply against al-Qaeda but against any group or nation allegedly threatening the U.S. way of life, can play itself out politically as support for war, militarism, and, indeed, political repression. A case in point is the alliance between the reactionary Bush regime and the Teamsters Union under James Hoffa, Jr.

The leadership of organized labor has been relatively paralyzed in addressing the emergence of right-wing populism. Trapped within the Gompersian paradigm, the bulk of organized labor has been unable to respond, credibly, to the new populism. It has been unable to address the sense of betrayal among many white workers, except rhetorically, due to its lack of deep critique of neoliberal globalization, the lack of a frank admission of the racial nature of the social contract, and the lack of any coherent analysis of U.S. foreign policy. The irony of the current situation is that as we approached the invasion of Iraq, there were sections of the leadership of organized labor that wished to take a stand against the aggression, but found that their views were not necessarily mirrored within the membership. This gives new meaning to the notion of reaping what one sows.

The Gompersian paradigm has not only restricted organized labor from addressing race and gender, but it also has inhibited an ability to tackle the picture of global capitalism. Insofar as organized labor saw its role as helping to promote a more humane, pro-U.S.—global capitalism, it has found itself hamstrung in opposing U.S. foreign policy. Demands for organized labor to face up to its brutal history of support for U.S. imperialism have been met with silence since there is no consensus on this history, and whether it was correct to collaborate in these various atrocities. Thus, in the aftermath of September 11, it was nearly impossible to engage in a discussion of U.S. foreign policy and the simmering hatred engendered by the role that the United States has played in the global South. The repression in the name of patriotism that has taken place nationally had its counterpart within the ranks of organized labor when it came to any serious attempt to understand the tragedy of September 11.

Can Organized Labor Be Won to Anti-Imperialism?

There is not a clear answer to this question. There are good reasons to believe that segments of the working class, including parts of its organized section, can, in the short run, be won to a variant of anti-imperialist politics. In the long term, however, anti-imperialism will need to become the dominant view within the U.S. working class if any form of progressive, transformative politics, such as socialism, is to become hegemonic. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano made the observation that in order for the global South to achieve the level of development that the global North has achieved, there would need to be ten more planets in the solar system. This is a dramatic illustration of the skewed manner in which resources are distributed and used internationally. According to the United Nations, the richest fifth of the world’s population consumes 86 percent of all goods and services while the poorest fifth consumes 1.3 percent. In addition to actual resources, wealth is polarized dramatically. Again, according to the United Nations, in 2002 the world’s 225 richest individuals, of whom sixty are from the United States, have a combined wealth of over $1 trillion, equal to the annual income of the poorest 47 percent of the world’s population.

The imbalance in resources and wealth, a direct result of imperialism, is not referenced here in order to make a moral appeal. Nor is this an advertisement for the poor starving masses and the charity they need. Rather, in order for the U.S. working class to advance, and specifically in order for the trade union movement to transform itself, an appreciation of this imbalance must become part of the new politics it embraces, for these facts point to what for many people is an unsettling proposition, namely the need for global wealth redistribution.

In order to defeat right-wing populism within the working class and other sectors of U.S. society, a multipronged assault will have to be mounted against points of division. Cracking the white racial bloc and cracking imperial consciousness will be key to that assault. To the extent that segments of the U.S. working class see themselves as victims of the rest of the world, rather than both pawns and victims in an imperialist game, right-wing populism can be counted on to gain strength.

In this context, the struggle for reparations—both domestically for African Americans and internationally for Africans—has an objectively anti-imperialist character. The demand for reparations begins the discussion about global (and domestic) wealth redistribution. This is not a demand that white people, or in the international context, citizens of the global North, give up their toothbrushes and cars. It is a demand, however, that will necessitate changing the manner in which we live our lives in the global North. It is a demand that will need to be directed at governments, multi-national corporations, banks, and the real estate industry for compensation for past atrocities and, in more general terms, reconstruction assistance to place peoples ripped out of history back onto a path of self-determined development.

Again, this is not charity. It is compensation for crimes committed. It is also a recognition that the global North generally, and the people of the United States in particular, cannot be trusted as long as they turn a blind eye to the wealth (and people) stolen from the rest of the world. This may sound moralistic, but it can be put in other terms that are more self-interested: there will be no security for anyone as long as wealth, resources, and power are distributed so unjustly.

Thus, within the organized section of the working class, the struggle for reparations and global wealth redistribution should move from a demand of well-intentioned leftists to becoming a political demand of the movement. Such a demand can take many forms, one being the struggle for a democratic foreign policy.

In light of the Bush administration’s codification of the “New World Order” through the release of the new National Security Strategy of the United States of America in the fall of 2002, the entire pretense of a peaceful, humane, and harmless U.S. foreign policy has been stripped away. The new doctrine proclaims for all the world to hear and see, that the United States heads the global capitalist empire; that no other power shall be allowed to contend with U.S. military might; and that the United States reserves the “right” to take preemptive military action against any nation or force that it deems to be a threat to its interests.

While the United States has historically engaged in much of what the new doctrine advocates, what is different is the blatant nature of the proclamation. What is also different is the flagrant disregard of the opinions and actions of the key imperialist allies of the United States, with a case in point being the heated international debate surrounding Iraq. While the Bush administration has succeeded like few before it in isolating the United States internationally, what is striking is the arrogant denial of the importance of this isolation.

Developing anti-imperialism as a mass current within the working class, therefore, involves a fight for a democratic U.S. foreign policy. Of course, as long as the United States remains an imperialist power, there will always be objective limits to its ability to have a democratic foreign policy. Nevertheless, it is the fight that is critical in changing the consciousness of the U.S. working class, with regard to the role of the United States on the world stage. Such a struggle could include demands for reparations/reconstruction assistance, massive assistance to the Global AIDS Fund, renunciation of the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, withdrawal of military assistance from dictatorial regimes, removal of agricultural subsidies from U.S. agribusinesses, full repayment of dues to the United Nations, replacement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) with a democratic, multilateral trade institution, and the list could go on and on. In sum, this is a fight for altering the role of the United States within the international arena.

There is an additional side to the fight for a democratic foreign policy. For the working class to engage in this struggle represents a strike against the Gompersian dependence on either of the two established capitalist parties. Such a struggle brings to the fore the notion of an independent working-class view of the world rather than tailing after whoever happens to be the “best” Democrat. Trade union policy during the Clinton era demonstrated the bankruptcy of failing to have an independent stand. Even when there were disagreements with Clinton regarding foreign policy (or domestic policy, such as with welfare reform), there was a deep fear of establishing independent terrain. This made it exceedingly difficult for the union movement to conduct a consistent struggle against Clinton’s pro-globalization policies (with the exception of the WTO demonstrations).

Another challenge to the U.S. working class is that of protectionism. Protectionism can sometimes appear to be anticorporate, if not anti-imperialist, but it is actually neither. While it is the case that the working class is justified in its anger at the loss of jobs, rather than a protectionist response, there must be a response that strikes at capital and supports workers overseas. As Jesse Jackson so eloquently demanded during his 1988 run for the presidency, there must be accountability—which could be described equally as a form of repair/reparations—on the part of capital when it vacates a neighborhood, community, city, or state.

This matter goes to another issue which extends beyond the scope of this paper. With the loss of many value-producing jobs either due to technological changes or moving offshore, the productivity gains by corporations must be shared. We cannot assume that there will be a return of such high-paying jobs in the future, thus, to borrow from the late Tony Mazzocchi, founder of the Labor Party (of the United States), there will need to be a redefinition of work. There will additionally need to be a massive unionization effort of existing jobs to transform them from low-wage to higher-wage employment.

A second response to the specific matter of the shifting of jobs overseas is true international labor solidarity. The growth of left-led trade union movements in places such as South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil, and South Korea has represented a major development in the fight for global justice. Not only has this meant an improvement in the living standards of the workers, but it also has made it far more complicated for the capitalists to place workers in what has come to be known as a race to the bottom. The AFL-CIO under John Sweeney has brought about considerable improvements in the international arena with regard to labor solidarity, but even here it is inconsistent, with remnants of Cold War trade unionism continuing to sneak through. The choice, for organized labor in the United States, seems all too often to be one between the desire for respectability in bourgeois circles with the accompanying fantasy of a return to the “good old days” of the New Deal’s social contract, versus solidarity with genuine foreign labor and other social movements.

One final arena which is implicit in the above is opposition to U.S. wars of adventure. While it is conceivable that a scenario at some point might reemerge that is analogous to the Second World War, there is nothing like that on the horizon. Instead, and in line with the new national security doctrine, we are now witnessing the further militarization of the United States, justified, in the most cynical manner, by alleged concerns about human rights, terrorism, and so-called rogue states. Liberal and progressive forces are constantly placed on the defensive when the political right demands that actions be taken against this or that state. Instead, we must flip the script,” so to speak, and ask the difficult questions as to the objectives of U.S. policy and military actions. In order to do this, particularly in the post-September 11 environment, fear must be directly addressed. As long as fear of alleged and real threats dominates the national discourse, anti-imperialism will be suppressed.

The fear that most people experience today is the uncertainty of further terrorist attacks. This fear has been played upon by the Bush administration and the political right in order to increase militarization and domestic repression, and to discourage any popular examination of the deteriorating U.S. (and global) economy. This can and will be broken to the extent to which people come to understand the political nature of the terrorists (both clerical fascists and state terrorists), as well as the actions of the United States which have laid the basis for the sympathy that many of these terrorists receive.

Concluding Thoughts

The challenge to the U.S. working class and to organized labor cannot be addressed without some formal left presence. The emergence of anti-imperialism as a current, rather than a set of politics elaborated by a few individuals, will take engaging in various political struggles, both within the trade union movement and more broadly.

The movement against U.S. aggression in Iraq is precisely the sort of mass social phenomenon which can lay the foundation for an anti-imperialist movement. Even here, though, this will fail unless there is a more organized left presence to tie the various strands together.

Discussion of the reconstitution of such a left goes beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say, though, that the development of genuine anti-imperialism is actually tied to a vision of a different world. Anti-imperialism in its best sense is not solely a reaction against the atrocities of the global North, but the suggestion that the world can and should operate on a fundamentally different basis. Creating and articulating such a vision should be the task of a genuine left. In the absence of such a left and a new vision, we find ourselves facing and fighting endless resistance battles with little hope of final victory.

2003, Volume 55, Issue 03 (July-August)
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