Paul Boggs on Right-Wing Populism

by x365097

In the last five years, the U. S. mainstream has seen a sharp increase in right-wing populist activism, from the Ron Paul supporters of both the 2008 and 2012 election cycles to the Tea Party movement and beyond. While often calling themselves “libertarian,” a term which, in countries other than the U. S., tends to refer to IWW-style anti-capitalism, people caught up in this circuit have made calls for a total razing of the concessions won during the New Deal and Great Society reforms of the 1930s-1960s and a return to Social Darwinist, “law of the jungle” capitalism.

The claim is that such a program will somehow be beneficial to the average American, but on pages 129-130 of his 1986 book, Social Movements and Political Power, author Paul Boggs, a professor of political science at USC, eloquently lays bare the implications of the demands of movements like these with the following critique:

The sharpening institutional, economic, and cultural crisis of American society has given rise, since the 1960s, to resurgent populist movements on both the right and the left. These movements and the organizations they have spawned reflect an erosion of the Keynesian welfare-state consensus that has shaped two-party politics since the 1930s. Set in motion by the fiscal crisis and bureaucratization of the state, the two populist revolts share an anti-statist, decentralizing vision with deep roots in U. S. history. Both legitimate their goals through appeals to democracy [although this is increasingly less the case on the right in 2012], the community, self-help, and the everyday concerns of the common person, and both envision gradual but militant struggles to restore civic participation against the encroachment of powerful interests. Further, both offer solutions to the present crisis that contain a strong moral as well as economic and political thrust. The right-wing populists, who helped catapult Ronald Reagan into the presidency, urge a return to the mythic free-enterprise economy, with its glorification of unfettered individualism, self-regulating market forces, and private incentives, and to traditional values embodied in an old-fashioned work ethic, the neighborhood, religion, patriarchal sex roles, and patriotism. […]

In terms of any real democratizing potential, it is difficult to take rightist populism very seriously. Beneath its antibureaucratic rhetoric lies an elitist and corporatist project designed to strengthen multinational corporations, the military, and the authoritarian state. Poorly camouflaged by symbols of traditional morality, self-reliance, and “supply-side” economics, the corporatist “solution” is little more than a cover for policies beneficial to the affluent and powerful and cynically brutal to workers, the poor, minorities, and the vast majority of women. It follows that Reaganism could not for long reconcile the rationalizing imperatives of capital accumulation with a populist legitimation urging a return to early capitalist principles, or laissez-faire myths, appropriate to the frontier. Something had to yield — in this case, the new-right ideology of a free-market economy already suffocated by the requirements of both monopoly and governmental expansion. Still, the ideological success of a right-wing populism that has strong appeal among blue-collar workers, urban ethnic groups, Christian fundamentalists, and small proprietors has been impressive.

The broad diffusion of populist sentiment, even where its ideological content remains highly variable and unpredictable, signifies a fundamental shift of American social and political forces that was well under way before the 1980s. If the right wing (and the Republican party) appears to be the main beneficiary in the short run, the direction of change could be altered in the long run to the degree that space for leftist mobilization is extended.

Working people, although the “traditional American values” you’ve likely been handed during your socialization in the U. S. may cause you to veer for some time towards the flag-draped right-libertarians and their hard-money “hearts of gold,” the Austrian economics they frequently promote does not and cannot resolve the fundamental contradiction within capitalism: the exploitation of labor through the employment relationship. Rather, its adherents will try to convince you that workers’ sale of labor to capitalists for wages is a voluntary and mutually beneficial arrangement.

Wage labor might beat starving to death, but it certainly isn’t equally beneficial to both parties, coming to the table as we do with dramatically uneven bargaining power. Having entered into this relationship, the worker, when all is said and done, loses control of the products of her or his labor and receives wages in return, while the capitalist retains full control over how the surplus is distributed. Most of it usually goes right into her or his own pockets, while we workers struggle to meet our basic needs, often going into debt just to try to do so (as we then enjoy the privilege of paying interest to the for-profit loan masters). No matter how “personally responsible” we are with our finances, our standard of living as a class steadily continues to drop right alongside our level of organization as workers.

Is there truly no possible improvement to this system, which grants the capitalists, through their monopoly on decision-making productive authority, the ability to steer humanity and the rest of the natural world to an uncertain tomorrow? Is capitalism, a system which, on the other hand, promises hardship and insecurity to the all-producing worker, really the end of history, or can the working class organize, seize control of the means of production, and institute a cooperative, planned economy in which human need is satisfied and creativity increased exponentially?

The IWW offers a proven path toward this revolutionary possibility, and the change will start to happen as soon as you put your mind to it to do so. Why let the capitalists continue to hoard the wealth that you and your fellow workers have created? Every day that approaches is another opportunity to organize with the IWW’s support.