By STEVE LEIGH
In March 1991, Rodney King was savagely beaten by LA police. The beating was recorded on videotape. When the cops involved were acquitted, LA rose in rebellion in 1992. Rodney King called for calm, saying, “Can’t we all just get along?”
The unity of the oppressed with the oppressor, exploited with exploiter, and colonized with colonizer has been the common theme of ruling-class ideologists from time immemorial. Those on top are never willing to give up their power and wealth to achieve real unity. Instead they call on those at the bottom to give up their grievances, dissatisfaction and struggle. The reward for this renunciation is supposed to be peace. Tacitus, the Roman historian, explained how this worked for early Roman conquests: “They made a desert and called it peace!”
One problem with this con is that it doesn’t even bring peace. Those at the bottom renounce their claims to get along, but those at the top press further attacks. When workers stop using strikes, bosses press for more cuts in wages and working conditions.
As Frederick Douglass said, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them…”
This call for unity is based on tricking those at the bottom into believing they have common interests with those at the top. The truth is that the capitalists who rule this society make their living by depriving workers of the full value of what they produce. They must exploit to continue living as capitalists. Competition between capitalists requires that they increase this exploitation to the utmost.
This exploitation is backed up by dividing workers against each other. Racism, sexism, and attacks on immigrants, LGBTQ people, etc. are important to the capitalists to maintain their ability to be the rulers.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there is a new wrinkle on the ruling-class theme of unity and peace. Politicians and pundits are pushing this line hard. They start with the proposition that America is deeply divided between Red and Blue, Republican and Democrat. They invoke the tragedy of raucous family dinners, divorces, and shattered friendships. The imperative is said to be coming together and learning to listen to each other. Joe Biden, that “nice, decent” man who listens to people and cares for them, is uniquely capable of starting the healing process, they say.
The merits of personal conciliation aside, this line has a clear political purpose. If we should all learn to listen to each other, then shouldn’t the Democratic and Republican office holders also make nice? If so, shouldn’t they all compromise and give a little to make agreements that will help the American people?
This ignores the reality of politics in the U.S. The whole U.S. political system has shifted to the right over the last several decades. The top marginal income tax rate under that well-known raving radical Dwight Eisenhower was 93% in the 1950s. It is now 37%. The right to abortion, won in 1973, has been whittled away over the years since. Social Security, won in the ’30s, has been cut over time. Medicare, won in the ’60s, is under continual attack. Voting rights for Black people, won in 1965, was wiped out by the Supreme Court a few years ago. At the federal and state level, governments have imposed austerity and budget cuts while rates of racist imprisonment have skyrocketed. Wealth has concentrated at the top. It is now more concentrated than at any time since the 1920s. All of this has happened under both Democrats and Republicans.
The image in the media is that Democrats and Republicans just engage in partisan bickering. But in reality both parties have moved to the right, especially after the Democratic Leadership Council consolidated its control of the party in the early ’90s. This rightward shift took place under the influence of the top 1%. In early 1970s , the Trilateral Commission of ruling-class leaders decried the “excess of democracy,” referring to the movements of the ’60s. Future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell issued a memorandum urging business to reassert a conservative strategy around the same time. The ruling-class shift resulted in neo-liberalism ( deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, privatization and attacks on union rights).
Both parties are funded and controlled by the super-rich and followed this strategy. There have been some minor differences between the parties. Generally , though not always. the Democrats have been slightly left of the Republicans. Democrats and Republicans both bailed out big business in response to the Covid 19 economic crash. However , Democrats wanted to give a bit more to ordinary people to prevent massive unrest. The Republicans were content to rely more on the stick and less on the carrot.
The calls for unity will be an excuse for the Democrats moving even further to the right to meet the Republicans half way or more than half way. The politicians and pundits will say that the divided Congress requires compromise. They will say a divided nation needs to learn to get along. In reality, the most important divide is one that cannot be overcome within the capitalist system. It is the divide between the rich and the poor. It is the divide between workers and bosses. Reinforcing this division is institutional racism and sexism.
As with all previous divisions in history, if the oppressed compromise in order to create unity with their oppressors, they will end up more oppressed.
Ordinary people, workers, the unemployed, the specially oppressed should not let the Democrats off the hook. Democrats may feel the need to compromise in Congress, but we should not. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, ordinary people have forced reforms from the ruling parties. The Red State Revolt of teachers in 2018 forced even Republican legislatures to increase education funding. This spring and summer, the Black Lives Matter movement forced police funding onto the national agenda in mostly Democratic cities. The mass movement against family separation forced even the Trump administration to stop the policy going forward. Mass movements won Social Security, unemployment compensation, welfare, the EPA, the Civil Rights Act, and the Occupational Health Administration.
The role of grassroots movements is to demand what people need. If the movements are strong enough, the politicians are forced to respond. If the movements back off, identify with the Democrats and “understand” their necessity to compromise, they weaken the ability to win changes. We should not respect these calls for unity between Democrats and Republicans, which water down the power of our demands.
The fundamental problem is not that people disagree. The problem is that the system is exploiting and oppressing them and not meeting their needs. The only way to rectify this is a strong uncompromising struggle against the system and finally a revolutionary struggle to overthrow it.
Tragically, some of the poor will fight on the wrong side. They will support the top 1% by promoting racism, sexism, American nationalism, etc. When white supremacists attack Black people or chant “Blue Lives Matter” they are doing the work of the rich, whether they know it or not. They need to be stopped! There is no room for compromise or unity with them, no matter what class they come from.
We can create more unity among the oppressed and exploited by focusing on demands that help everyone—Medicare for All, higher wages, cancellation of rent, more money for education, infrastructure spending, investing in a Green transformation of the economy, etc. But to cement that unity, we need to win everyone to a direct fight against institutional racism and sexism as well as for the rights of immigrants. Strong unity cannot come from ignoring these issues.
This kind of struggle can win even some of those now inclined to look for scapegoats and support conservative solutions. The way to win them is not to compromise with their reactionary ideas but to engage them in common struggle for the interests of the poor against the rich. The focus should be on issues rather than political parties. Both parties serve the rich. Turning Republicans into Democrats does not make struggles on issues more effective. We need an independent alternative to both parties of the super-rich. In this sense, unity across party lines at the grassroots level is possible.
The slogan of unity and getting along is a class question. To the extent that it calls for compromise with the ruling class and understanding the position of its political parties, we need to reject it. Real unity can be based on fighting together for the needs of ordinary people for economic gains but also for attacking all forms of oppression.
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
Cartoon: The Condition of the Laboring Man at Pullman, ca. 1893-94.