For the leaders of the fight for racial equality throughout the twentieth century, anti-discrimination and anti-capitalism went hand in hand; the struggle for economic justice was always viewed as integral to and inseparable from the struggle for racial justice.
"Our needs are identical with labor's needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community," Martin Luther King Jr. said at an AFL-CIO convention in 1961, expressing the prevailing sentiment among the socialist leaders of the civil rights movement.
Bayard Rustin, the key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, emphasized the importance of organized labor in advancing the rights and material conditions of black Americans in a 1971 essay, in which he asserted both the centrality of unions and the need for a radical approach to inequality.
He urged that "only a program that would effect some fundamental change in the distribution of America's resources for those in greatest need of them" would be enough "to meet the present crisis."
And "a program truly, not merely verbally, radical in scope" could only be achieved with the backing of that "one social force which, by virtue both of its size and its very nature, is essential to the creation of such a majority — and so in relation to which the success or failure of the black struggle must finally turn. And that is the American trade union movement."
Rustin, like the other organizers with whom he worked, was idealistic, but he was also intensely practical; he understood the limitations imposed by a business and political class fiercely opposed to his aims. And though he was, in the words of Paul Heideman, "perhaps the most talented organizer the US left ever produced," his efforts to transform the Democratic Party into a force for the radical change he thought necessary to bring about racial and economic justice fell short.
In the decades since Rustin's death, we have seen the opposition to even mild forms of social democracy intensify, and organized labor—for King, Rustin, Randolph, and others, "the principal force" in the struggle for equality and dignity—has taken on the brunt of this war.
"For the past forty years (and, some would argue, even longer), the capitalist class and its political representatives in both parties have waged a vicious offensive against working people," writes Charlie Post. "Employers across the economy have demanded tremendous concessions from their unionized employees—wage, benefit, and work-rule givebacks; the introduction of multi-tiered workforces; the outsourcing of work to nonunion subsidiaries and companies—all while fighting union organizing drives at their new facilities."
While the Republican Party has openly sided with the rich in the class struggle, Democrats have in effect (if not in word) abandoned the causes of labor and embraced the financial backing of some of America's most prominent corporate patrons—the most prominent, of course, being Wall Street.
Hillary Clinton's insistence that the Democratic Party is "the party of working people" is thus little more than empty posturing. As Rustin, a man fully committed to altering the ideological core of the Democratic Party, understood, it is not possible to simultaneously fight for the masses and for the business class because their interests are, in most cases, in direct conflict.
Though they still vaguely speak the language of working class struggle, Democrats have for the last several decades embraced a politics of inclusion, particularly eager to welcome into their coalition wealthy, white-collar professionals and technocrats whose views on economic matters fit with the rightward shift of the party's leadership. In turn, this has led the party away from an aggressive redistributive agenda and toward a market-oriented vision, one characterized by privatization, deregulation, and "free trade."
As Thomas Frank and others have documented, this demographic and ideological shift began as early as the 1960's. Today, we are seeing the culmination of these trends.
"Democrats," writes Vox's Lee Drutman, "are replacing Republicans as the preferred party of the very wealthy."
This is not, as is commonly argued, because the business class and other professionals are horrified by Donald Trump: Thomas Edsall, a columnist for the New York Times, has nicely documented the gradual nature of the shift to which Drutman refers.
"Democrats now depend as much on affluent voters as on low-income voters," Edsall wrote last October. "Democrats represent a majority of the richest congressional districts, and the party's elected officials are more responsive to the policy agenda of the well-to-do than to average voters. The party and its candidates have come to rely on the elite 0.01 percent of the voting age population for a quarter of their financial backing and on large donors for another quarter."
Edsall went on to quote the authors of a 2014 study on income inequality, who wrote that "the Democratic agenda has shifted away from general social welfare to policies that target ascriptive identities of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation."
This shift in emphasis didn't have to come at the expense of working class politics, but it did—and for obvious reasons. As Walter Benn Michaels has observed, "the answer to the question, 'Why do American liberals carry on about racism and sexism when they should be carrying on about capitalism?', is pretty obvious: they carry on about racism and sexism in order to avoid doing so about capitalism."
We are now faced with a political establishment in which both major parties are committed to the fundamentals of an economic structure that has produced the soaring inequities that now permeate every facet of American society, from education to health care to employment.
Recently, the most striking look at the consequences of the neoliberal consensus comes from a study by the Institute for Policy Studies, which found that, as The Nation's Joshua Holland summarizes, "If current economic trends continue, the average black household will need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their white counterparts hold today."
"For the average Latino family, it will take 84 years," Holland adds. "Absent significant policy interventions, or a seismic change in the American economy, people of color will never close the gap."
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And as we have seen over the last several decades, "significant policy interventions" are unlikely to come from those ideologically and financially committed to sustaining and perpetuating business as usual. Recent studies lend credence to this view: The wealthy, even if they identify as progressive Democrats, care very little—if at all—about income inequality.
This is consistent with the Democratic Party's ideological core more generally. To be a high-ranking liberal Democrat in 2016 is to, for the most part, say the right things about race, gender, and sexuality, all the while remaining silent about the suffering imposed by a system subordinated to the needs of both the market and its beneficiaries.
During the primaries, Hillary Clinton put to use a revealing critique of her opponent Bernie Sanders, one that, as Carl Beijer notes, "has a long history in right-wing red-baiting rhetoric": She implied that, because Sanders focuses intensely on income inequality, he is an "economic reductionist."
"Not everything is about an economic theory, right?" Clinton said (at a union hall, of all places) in February. "If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?"
This is, of course, little more than, to use Clinton's own term, an "artful smear." Bernie Sanders, and socialists more broadly, have never said that "everything is about an economic theory," and it is obviously true that racism cannot be reduced to problems of class.
What Sanders has argued, however, is that an economy dictated by the needs of the wealthiest is likely to disproportionately harm poor black and Latino communities. This is precisely what we have seen over the last several decades, and this harm has often been intensified by Democrats eager to clear the welfare rolls and deregulate the banks that so generously bankroll their political ambitions.
But while neoliberal Democrats fail to address these realities (for reasons Upton Sinclair would have understood), those organizing and fighting for a better future beyond the limits of electoral politics are addressing them, and in inspiring fashion.
The Movement for Black Lives, "a collective of more than 50 organizations" dedicated to the fight for racial justice, has released a policy platform that places issues like police brutality and mass incarceration "within the context of institutional racism and neoliberalism."
From its call for the "restructuring of tax codes" in a way that would "ensure a radical and sustainable redistribution of wealth" to its affirmation of the necessity and centrality of labor organization, the Movement for Black Lives has offered a radical alternative to the Democratic leadership's stale and ahistorical commitment to incrementalism.
"By seeking to take on all of the threats to Black lives and not just those that are most immediate and violent, this platform is creating—for the first time since Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph released the Freedom Budget in 1967—a banner behind which the Black working class can march and fight," writes Douglas Williams. "It does this by seeking to address the challenges working class Black people face in their day-to-day lives under racialized capitalism."
Central to the corporatization of American politics has been the singular focus on electoral victories and defeats as markers of the successes—or failures—of ideas and movements.
The Movement for Black Lives, in solidarity with those fighting for racial and economic justice throughout the nation, has forcefully rejected this notion, recognizing that it is futile to wait for legislative victories to trickle down from the top. As Charlie Post has noted, legislative victories come after organization from below, not before.
They have also rejected the elite identity politics espoused by wealthy Democrats by connecting the fight against racism with a critique of American capitalism.
As Adolph Reed has noted, the identity politics embraced by liberal elites is "not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism."
"All politics in capitalist society is class, or at least a class-inflected, politics," Reed adds. The question of consequence, then, is: Which side are you on?
By courting the nation's wealthiest and accepting as normal a corporate-dominated political process, Democrats and Republicans have answered the question with striking clarity.
And in their attempts to offer something for everyone—including odious neoconservatives and high-profile billionaires—the so-called "party of the people" is, as Daniel Denvir nicely put it, deploying "the class equivalent of 'All Lives Matter.'"
Hillary Clinton, speaking at the Democratic convention, promised to "be a President for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. For the struggling, the striving the successful. For all those who vote for me and for those who don’t. For all Americans together!"
Such flowery rhetoric trivializes the severity of the struggles of millions against the very forces Democrats and Republicans have both so gleefully embraced, from billionaires who exploit the poor and vulnerable at home to war criminals who sanction the killing of the poor and vulnerable abroad.
Political leaders, activists, and commentators, regardless of party affiliation, who fail to address these realities—those who fail to acknowledge, in explicit terms, the class war being waged from above—are, as Connor Kilpatrick has written, "not just wrong anymore. They're on the wrong side."