June was a big month for America’s left-wing culture warriors. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that same-sex marriage was the law of the land. A few days prior, a gun-wielding white supremacist carried out a massacre at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, renewing debate about structural racism in America — an issue symbolized by the illegitimacy of flying the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of the state capitol building. Corporate shunning of the treasonous flag representing racial slavery followed shortly thereafter, and even South Carolina’s Legislature has now voted to take it down.
Yet June was not a complete victory for the left. At the end of the month the Obama administration was granted fast-track trade authority for the looming Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal that would open U.S. borders even further to the rising economies of the Asia-Pacific region. Seemingly a good thing, the TPP has been criticized as a deal that will favor large corporations and undermine worker safety and conditions both at home and abroad, and it has been negotiated in total secrecy save for what has been revealed by WikiLeaks. Fast-track would allow the White House to present Congress with a document to be voted on with no prior interference, something many members of the public see as a prelude to an economic giveaway that will further undermine U.S. manufacturing and privilege Wall Street over Main Street.
Likewise with the Supreme Court’s decision on coal-fired power plants, which ruled the Environmental Protection Agency had overstepped its mandate under the Clean Air Act to regulate. The agency must now go back and reformulate its rules to take into account industry cost, thus delaying the implementation of President Obama’s ambitious plans to cut U.S. carbon emissions by dramatically scaling back the portion of coal in the nation’s energy mix. Although the plan is not dead, the ruling is a win for industry that will allow it to rally for a counterattack after the next set of elections in 2016.
Then, there was the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the Affordable Care Act, which ensured that millions of Americans would continue to receive subsidized health insurance even if the exact wording of the law was a little clumsy. At first blush, the decision to uphold, once again, President Obama’s landmark health insurance legislation would seem to be a victory for the left. But, was it, really? Obamacare, for all its benefits, is still a massive giveaway to insurance companies and does little to actually curtail outrageous pricing practices by hospitals, doctors and pharmaceutical companies.
Dollars, not Dixie
These disparate outcomes raise an important question: Why has the left been so successful on the cultural front of late, but seemingly unable to stop the juggernaut of global capitalism in any meaningful way?
To answer this, one must consider the underlying balance of power, both society-wide and in our political system. In terms of the gay marriage ruling, it is yet another sign that traditionalist religion and its culture is in full retreat in the United States, something long predicted but only now coming to fruition as demographic replacement picks up pace. Aiding this has been the increasing free flow of information and experience that has allowed gays and lesbians to demonstrate, conclusively, to others that they are people, too, and so undeserving of either society’s scorn or systematic discrimination.
Likewise with the Confederate flag, an emblem that is being seen as a symbol of racist tyranny instead of Southern heritage by a country that is more diverse and multicultural than ever. So much so, that the U.S. as a whole is projected to become majority-minority in a few decades. This demographic shift is already apparent in America’s public schools, where for the first time non-whites make up a majority of students. And the future is going to be even more interconnected and multicultural, regardless of whether America’s rural, conservatives want it or not.
On the other hand, June’s political events demonstrate that the economic left is still mostly incapable of challenging the status quo. Wherever there was a powerful block of corporate, moneyed interests at play in either supporting or knocking down a case, they won. This was true with EPA regulation of coal, the Affordable Care Act and passage of fast-track authority for the TPP. Moreover, this is completely expected by those familiar with how America’s capitalist oligarchy actually works. Studies, again and again, show conclusively that the opinions of average people, on any issue, are simply disregarded whenever wealthy, organized interests contradict them.
If the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, for instance, it did so not because of law or constitutional principle, which, like the Bible or “Das Kapital” can be reinterpreted to mean anything, but because a solid block of powerful interests favor of gay marriage. The Supreme Court is effectively a third branch of Congress that gets a final veto over legislation, and over the past years wealthy liberals who favor gay marriage have been able to “elect” more of their representatives to the Supreme Court than have wealthy conservatives. Similarly, the corporate interests distancing themselves from the flag are not doing so because of their heartfelt concerns over racial justice, but because enough consumers now find the flag and what it represents distasteful — dollars, in other words, trump Dixie.
What can be done?
This suggests that what is necessary to turn the economic left into just as effective a force as the cultural left is not better organization or even more resources, although both would certainly help. Capital, united, is simply too powerful a force to contend with, but only on very few issues are moneyed interests so united that there are not divisions the left cannot exploit. Indeed, the passage of the Affordable Care Act is a case in point. It may not be a single-payer system, but reform was still made possible by business interests outside the health insurance sector as desperate for reform as any member of the working class.
Another example is the FCC’s recent ruling on net neutrality, which aligned consumers concerned over price gouging by cable monopolies with Internet companies who depended on a free and open web for their success. So divided, capital can often be pitted against itself in such a way that incremental progress can be made on a whole host of economic issues. The trick is for the left to abandon all-or-nothing crusades that force business lobbies to unite against it in favor of a strategy of swinging to the aid of whichever of capital’s squabbling factions is more progressive on issues of interest to the left. In this way, step by step, the more odious industries and moneyed lobbies can be eliminated or tamed over time.
This will not be easy. For one, it will require the often disorganized left to coordinate their efforts in a systematic way much as the right as done over the past 40 years. Perhaps even more difficult, it asks the left to give up romantic campaigns that are usually doomed to failure for a long-term, flexible strategy aimed at building up small victories and gains over time via working alliances with different factions of the business community. To the slogan, “the people united, can never be defeated,” we must add the mantra, “capital divided, will always be defeated.” It is the only way forward.