By University of the Poor – December 2021
The University of the Poor Political Coordination Committee has drafted this political report as a basis for debate, discussion and coordination throughout our network. It’s not meant as an official position paper of the University of the Poor, or as our final word on these important questions, but as a contribution to our leaders’ ability to make concrete analysis of the concrete situation. We plan to develop and publish these political reports regularly moving forward.
International Situation and China
We are living in a period of a significant change in world history similar to the time of Marx and Engels. During that period of the mid-1800s, labor was shifting from primarily agriculture to industry. With the development of the microchip we are experiencing a world-shaking technological revolution with parallel or even more significant impacts on every aspect of our society.
The centrality of technology on production and its social impact is the key to understanding events today. The entire world has entered an epoch of social revolution. This is the foundation of the UPoor Concept Paper.
The global economic capitalist crisis and the upsurge of the poor in the US and internationally are inevitable due to the impact of the technological revolution. The economic crisis is no longer simply cyclical, but structural, and therefore only partial economic recoveries are possible. The technological revolution is increasingly eliminating human labor from production and the objective conditions for revolution are now present. However, revolutionary transformation can happen only when the poor and dispossessed understand their historic role.
The ruling class of global capital see a “world in disarray”, to quote Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). They are unable to find “solutions” to the problems they confront. Instead, they talk about “managing” the various situations, including the US domestic situation.
The existing world capitalist order, largely constructed in the aftermath of World War II and in the context of the Cold War and the anti-colonial upsurge, has proven incapable of dealing with the global challenges and crises of the 21st century. At the same time, it is being confronted by an increasingly independent, strong, and assertive great power: China. A central response to this “world in disarray” has been the shift of world economic and political events from the Atlantic (US and Europe) to the Pacific (US and China). US foreign policy is centered around this “pivot to Asia.”
On the one hand the US is moving to confront and compete with China. The Chinese state, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, represents the single greatest challenge to the world order dominated by the United States, and thus the interests of big capital around the world. The Democrats and Republicans have united in a bi-partisan propaganda war against China, which in addition to clearing the way to escalate conflict and confrontation with China, has the purpose of distracting Americans from the growing poverty in the US. It’s particularly aimed at covering up the unprecedented anti-poverty campaign in China, led by the CPC, which has dramatically improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. On the other hand the global economy is relatively integrated. Economically, China is essential for the profitability of global capital. This is why we should not overestimate the danger of war between a US-led alliance and China, while still resolutely resisting attempts to rally the people of the United States, particularly the poor and dispossessed, around the “great power competition” preoccupying the ruling class.
China’s foreign policy heavily involves the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This initiative, which seeks to fund and supply the construction of infrastructure around the world, primarily reflects China’s geopolitical aims of developing relations with other countries and reducing their dependence on lending from institutions controlled by the major capitalist powers, consequently helping to influence UN policies. The BRI’s economic factors (increasing demand for Chinese raw materials and increasing Chinese demand for raw materials from around the world, finding outlets for Chinese investment, increasing possibilities for future trade and investment) play a secondary role.
China’s economic policy of “dual circulation” is a recognition of the limitation of global capital. While China remains open to the global economy, it is further developing the Chinese economy. The Chinese policy of “common prosperity” is also key and is a policy to reduce economic inequality in China.
To understand both the international situation and the modern revolutionary process it is critical to study the Chinese revolution. There are a number of important insights into the revolutionary process that can be understood by studying the Chinese revolution.
• The Chinese have mastered the history and culture of their country and have used that understanding in carrying out their revolution. An important aspect of this is the history of Confucius Thought in the shaping of China’s mental terrain. This is the meaning of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” In the US, the role of the Bible, the concept of rights, the fight against racism and racial divide-and-conquer politics, and the history of the class struggle, particularly the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, are important for us to master. This is the fight for socialism with US characteristics.
• The Chinese have constantly emphasized the important role of cadre and the Communist Party of China. One of the central tasks of the UPoor is developing and understanding the role of a cadre organization of revolutionaries.
• The main enemy of the Chinese revolution and the revolution of the poor and dispossessed in the US is the US state apparatus. The Chinese revolution has much to teach us about the nature of our common enemy and the key importance of the global unity of the poor.
Domestic Economic Situation
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”
To reflect on this quote allows us to understand that we don’t simply live in a world gone mad. The crises of our times are not an inscrutable set of problems, but come down to this basic contradiction which Marx laid out 150 years ago.
It’s very important for us to understand this conflict with the existing property relations; of who owns the means of production versus the productive forces themselves and how this is playing out today. Only through this framework can we understand what’s happening in our world, and in particular the four key interlocking crises in the United States: the pandemic or public health crisis, the environmental crisis, the economic crisis, and the political crisis or the legitimation crisis.
COVID-19 Pandemic: As of December 15th, there are nearly 800,000 people in the US who have died from COVID-19, the disease, and the response to the pandemic. There has been zero expansion of public health during the worst pandemic in 100 years in the richest country in human history. Meanwhile, in the face of this death, the Moderna Vaccine, which is 94.1% effective, was designed in two days, and the first experimental vaccines shipped within 6 weeks of the publication of the virus’ genetic sequence. The ability to design an effective vaccine for this new pandemic in two days is an example of the level of productive forces that exists today.
Since early in the pandemic, there has been debate around vaccine access and intellectual property rights. When Oxford University announced it would create an open vaccine, the Gates Foundation intervened to pressure the team at Oxford to instead sell their vaccine to AstraZeneca. Intellectual property rights make up 90% of the assets of today’s digital capitalism. The past year and a half has shown that defending the property rights of the 600 billionaires in the United States, and of the others around the world, is more important than the health of billions of people. The result is vaccine apartheid and five million dead globally from COVID-19.
Environmental Crisis: The past ten years have also been the ten hottest yearsrecorded in human history. Due to the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels, we are approaching 1.4 degrees Celsius above the average of pre-industrialized society. If we allow this warming to reach two degrees Celsius, the feedback effects will be such that it will be unstoppable. The immediate results are not only global warming and sea level rising, but the wildfires that are consuming the West and the flooding and mega storms that are happening all over the South and Midwest.
Yet the productive forces are already on hand to solve this environmental crisis. According to the International Energy Association, solar is now the cheapest electricity in history without any subsidies. The US could make the transition off of fossil fuels and onto renewable energy within a few years, if there was political will for it.
Economic Crisis: In the most recent report on the growth of the US economy, the gross domestic product was worse than economists predicted, at 2% quarterly growth, below the predicted 2.7% quarterly growth.
In August, 4.3 million Americans – or 2.9% of the entire workforce – quit their jobs in what is being called the “Great Resignation”. Some have said this is a kind of a general strike, in that it’s especially concentrated among so-called “essential workers,” low-wage workers who are sick and tired of hyper exploitation, inhumane working conditions, and the danger of COVID. Republicans and Democrats alike have cut off unemployment benefits in efforts to force people back to work. In September, over 8 million Americans lost their pandemic unemployment benefits while only 194,000 new jobs were created. Instead of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, providing meaningful child care assistance, transportation assistance or removing other barriers to get people back to work, the political system relies on threatening people with starvation, death, and homelessness.
Additionally, fear over inflation is being misleadingly stoked. According to a recent Pew study, 93% of the country is either very or somewhat concerned about the rising prices of food and consumer goods. Inflation is erroneously being blamed on social spending to detract from legislation such as the Build Back Better Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But the reality is that the reason for inflation is the supply chain crisis. The already stretched supply chain was overwhelmed during the pandemic by e-commerce booming, experiencing four to six years of growth in only one year. This crisis has roots going back to the 1980s and the emergence of “Just In Time” production, characterized by very low inventories, and extended, fragile global supply chains, which are not designed with any kind of robustness or redundancy.
United States factories are running at 75% capacity. They could run at 100% capacity if there were demand and the government could supply that demand. In response to these crises, corporations are ramping up automation, similar to the 2008 crisis: the same kind of automation that is producing this very crisis.
American billionaires have grown $2.1 trillion richer during the pandemic, with their collective fortunes skyrocketing by 70%. At the same time as people are enduring some of the worst times of their life.
Legitimation crisis: The political system has no solutions to any of these crises. It doesn’t matter if we elect Republicans or Democrats, or if Democrats control all of Congress and the presidency. The political system is completely controlled by the 600 billionaires, and they will allow nothing to come between them and their fortunes. This means that people are having a profound disillusionment with the current governing system, unleashing forces such as those which led the January 6 insurrection.
Domestic Political Situation
This disillusionment and loss of legitimacy will tend to grow as the Democrats prove unwilling and unable to deliver on their promises, even while controlling both the executive and legislative branches. Pandemic unemployment insurance and eviction moratoriums have expired, stimulus checks have been spent, and the inflation induced by the supply chain crisis is stretching household budgets even more.
The Build Back Better Act (BBBA), despite falling far short of what’s actually needed to address the crises laid out above, still represents the most ambitious anti-poverty agenda in decades. The polarization within the Democratic Party – between the wing represented by Senators Manchin and Sinema on the one side and by the Congressional Progressive Caucus on the other – has already dramatically scaled back the agenda, and threatens to sink it completely. The deadlock within the Democratic Party has already taken minimum wage increases and the energetic defense of voting rights off of the table. The pandemic shock, following on the heels of the Trump presidency, has forced to the surface the deep rifts within the Democratic Party – between a section that is willing to move toward, and in some cases even be led by, a movement of the poor and dispossessed, and a section that is fully entrenched in a program that sacrifices humanity and the planet to the wealth of billionaires. The power of the conservative faction of the party is highly visible in the fact that the second most expensive provision of the BBBA are tax cuts that will benefit the wealthy.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, is thoroughly captured by the far-right. Its main backers are smaller, nationally-based capitalists and the extractive industries (which always tend towards authoritarianism). Its political strategy is to continue the “Southern Strategy” through racial divide-and-conquer and the suppression of democratic rights; its broadest social base is among the reactionary middle strata; its rhetoric is demagoguery, false populism, racial dog-whistle, and “culture war”; its domestic economic and social policies are mostly a continuation of “take the money and run.” At the moment, big capital — Wall St., the major technology companies, and major media conglomerates — has a preference for the Democratic Party and reform as the best road back to legitimacy and relative stability, as seen in their broad opposition to Trump in 2020. But if the Democrats prove unable to stabilize the situation at home, or pursue a policy that too aggressively targets their wealth and power, big capital could soon find Trumpism more and more appealing.
For now, however, big capital in the United States sees its biggest domestic threat coming from the right, not from the left, and sees large sections of the 140 million poor and low-income people as a potentially powerful force to use as a cudgel against this threat. A recent report from the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, Waking the Sleeping Giant: Poor and Low-Income Voters in the 2020 Elections, showed that in 45 states, poor and low-income voters accounted for at least 20% of the votes. In battleground states, their numbers went up to over 30-40% of the total votes cast. Of these, white poor and low-income voters accounted for a greater share than all other racial categories combined. The report adds to the long trail of historical evidence testifying that the ballot box is an essential instrument for forging the political unity and leadership of the poor and dispossessed in the United States. The current attack on voting rights and on elections, especially in the South, is an attack on the ability of this multi-racial movement of the poor to build and test its power. Armed with organization, united around a shared agenda, and aided by intelligent and unselfish leadership, this class can take advantage of the growing polarizations in society to establish itself as the leading element of a broad movement against the forces holding back, misusing, and hoarding the wealth and abundance of our society.
Tasks of the University of the Poor
The last issue of our journal was all about “making the struggle a school.” We picked that theme because that’s what it means to be a revolutionary leader in these times. Power for poor people — the reorganization of state power and policy under the leadership of the poor and dispossessed — isn’t directly on the table today. To put it on the table means planting the seeds of the ability, the togetherness, the assertiveness, and the aggressiveness that will allow 140 million poor people to move together. We’re in a fight for the hearts, minds, bodies, and souls of the people who are leaders and revolutionaries, even if they don’t know it yet. In those conditions, leaders have to be teachers and preachers.
Some of the lessons that the poor and dispossessed have to learn, and learn from their own experience in the struggle, are that scarcity is a lie; that they can and must work together; that no one else is coming to save them or save anyone else; and that fundamental change is needed and that it’s only possible through their power. They have to learn who the enemy is; how to build power through organization; how to forge unity in diversity; how to exercise political power and moral authority; and tell friend from foe. They have to learn how to rally to their side, out of the current disintegration and polarization of old institutions, everything living and vibrant and opposed to the spiritual death, social cannibalism, and political paralysis of the day.
June 18th, 2022 – the Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington – can be a living school to learn and teach these lessons. The mobilization is about demonstrating that the poor and dispossessed, as a class, can be a significant national political force – coming together around a broad, ambitious, and deeply moral vision for the future of the country, across racial, geographic and other lines of difference and division. It is an attempt to establish an independent political pole, under the flag of the program of the poor, for all those opposed to Republican reaction and Democratic do-nothing.
It will attract true friends, along with wolves in sheep’s clothing; forces that want to unite with the movement of the poor and forces that want to use it. Our task is to help the movement make the most of all of them. June 18th, along with the lead-up and the follow-up in every state, is a chance for leaders to help the poor learn, from experience, how to take political action together; how to lead those who can actually be won to their side; and how to use those who plan to use them. It is a chance for us as leaders to learn, to be tested and tried, to organize in a broad coalition, to make compromises while maintaining independence and discipline for ourselves and others, and to identify and develop other potential leaders.
The formation of a network of political leaders of the poor can only happen in the process of fighting for the actual political and ideological unity, independence, and leadership of the poor. We encourage the University of the Poor network to appreciate the significance of the Poor People’s Campaign and the June 18th mobilization as an essential vehicle for that fight on the national scale, and to act on that basis. These conditions demand that we find ways to strengthen the political training of our network for this kind of campaign organizing, which has not been a major feature or focus of our work until now.
The Poor People’s Campaign in relation to the poor and dispossessed today is the closest parallel to the Republican party in the lead-up to the Civil War, in relation to the enslaved; or the Farmer-Labor Party in the 1920s and 30s, in relation to the industrial proletariat. In the years leading up to and through the Civil War, the Republican Party disrupted the prevailing two party system as it became a mass electoral vehicle to unite and advance the interests of the enslaved in and with a broad coalition of forces which also included former enslaved people and abolitionists, Northern workers and Northern Industrialists, and Midwest farmers. In the years leading up to and through the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Farmer-Labor Party held out an unrealized potential of performing a similar mass electoral and organizing role for small farmers and industrial workers. Without such a national, politically independent mass electoral and organizing vehicle, the dispersed upsurges and organizing drives of the unemployed and employed workers, veterans, tenant farmers and sharecroppers across the US were unable to assert and secure their interests. These various social forces were either co-opted into the Democratic Party’s New Deal/Roosevelt Coalition or smashed under its heel at the behest of its Southern Dixiecrat faction.
The moral vision, the demands, and the determined leadership of this process today are rooted in the immediate life-and-death struggles of the poor and dispossessed, and in the organizations formed on the basis of those issues and in those communities. These organizations are basic sources of strength and direction for the Poor People’s Campaign and any other effort to organize the poor and dispossessed into a conscious and powerful political force. And they are indispensable schools of struggle, training and proving grounds for potential revolutionaries from the ranks of the poor, and key bonds – bonds that have to be made stronger and stronger – between a network of leaders and the poor and dispossessed as a whole. The University of the Poor has to develop our ability to support leaders as they fight to build and shape these organizations, and train and prepare our members for that work.
None of these efforts can succeed without cadre, a united group of leaders. The key problem in each and every area of political work is the lack of trained, qualified, and effective leaders. The demand for cadre to lead and guide campaigns and organizing drives far outstrips their availability. The demand to sync up mobilizing and organizing, to combine different forms of organization and struggle instead of posing them in conflict and competition with each other or treating them as separate or disconnected processes, can only be met by trained and tested leaders, well beyond those currently in place in terms of both quality and quantity. In 1902, V.I. Lenin described a similar situation in the context of the Russian revolutionary process, writing:
“There are no people — yet there is a mass of people. There is a mass of people, because the working class and increasingly varied social strata, year after year, produce from their ranks an increasing number of discontented people who desire to protest, who are ready to render all the assistance they can in the struggle against absolutism [for us today, capitalist dictatorship], the intolerableness of which, though not yet recognized by all, is more and more acutely sensed by increasing masses of the people. At the same time, we have no people, because we have no leaders, no political leaders, no talented organizers capable of arranging extensive and at the same time uniform and harmonious work that would employ all forces, even the most inconsiderable.”
The potential leaders are out there, and many are already struggling and seeking organization. We are meeting them every day through our work. To be in any position to help to develop and train these leaders, to connect them with each other, to coordinate their activity, and to equip them for the demands of these times as laid out above, we have to intensify our work on curriculum and the study of basic texts and basic areas of education and training, on research, strategic debate and discussion, summing up of experience, and concrete analysis of the concrete situation.
We know that a network of leaders is deeply needed to support every organizing drive, vehicle, and form of struggle of the poor and dispossessed, and to synchronize them with each other. And we know that, at the same time, those leaders can only emerge and be forged through those struggles. Our task is to master that relationship, in practice, over the course of the coming period.
Feature image: University of the Poor logo.