This appeared in Lumpen Magazine's 'First 100 Days' Issue. With Donald Trump’s rise to the pinnacle of American politics, many think-pieces have been comparing this era to 1930’s Germany.
But perhaps the better comparison would be
1850’s America, when abolitionism moved from the fringe to the center of American politics.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed many Northerners to accept an armistice with slave states. While abolitionists organized against slavery, for many Northerners, abolition seemed outside the mainstream. They didn’t like slavery, but it wasn’t in their backyard, so they learned to live with its existence.
Likewise, the New Deal allowed the modern Democratic Party to live with Capitalism. socialists, communists and anarchists seemed too extreme to many liberals as long as people could count on minimum wage laws, workplace safety, strong unions, and social security.
However the slave power of the 19th century was not content to exist within it’s borders. The fugitive slave acts, the Dredd Scott decision, Bleeding Kansas, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act made clear that slave owners could exert their power in Northern states, and that given time, they would, as Marx said, transform “all territories of the republic, present and future, from nurseries of free states into nurseries of slavery,” and once they had the voting power in Congress, bully their way to expand slavery across the entire country.
When you actually study history in books like Robin Blackburn’s Marx and Lincoln: an Unfinished Revolution, Matt Karps’ This Vast Southern Empire, or Philip S. Foner’s First Volume of the History of the Labor Movement in the United States, you see just how deceptive is the claim that many revisionist make that slavery's end was inevitable, and that all that activism of abolitionists led to an unnecessary war. History actually shows that it was slavery’s expansion that drove abolitionism to the mainstream, and it was Southern states refusal to accept their political defeat with Lincoln’s election that led them to treason and war against the republic.
Likewise we see today that capital, the 1%, Wall Street, etc is not content with their massive profits and a compromise with labor when they could have even greater profits and no organized labor. The attacks on unions in Wisconsin, Michigan and other so-called ‘right-to-work’ states; the privatization of local, state and federal organizations; corporate globalization’s race to the bottom and more are the precondition for the rise of someone like Trump.
The Democratic Party since the New Deal have been like the old Whig party. The way that Stephen Douglas argued that two systems, slave and free, could coexist, the Democrats have argued the same for capital and labor.
Lincoln’s phrase that a house divided against itself cannot stand, is still true. Today our country is divided, between the top 1% of the top 1% who own the means of production,- vast farmlands, huge factories, global supply chains, and the fictional wealth of brand names, and speculative financial transactions, and the many millions who labor, or struggle without work, who do not own the wealth that their labor creates. Just as there could be no peace between slave state and free state, there can be no peace so long as private tyrannies of corporate power assault the people’s democratic right to control the fruits of their labor. There can be no peace so long as the super-rich have declared war on the 99%. As long as there are the homeless, those who can’t afford health care, those whose schools are underfunded, those who must tolerate harassment at work, those who face discrimination, as long as capital oppresses us, we must fight back.
There are two competing systems that we must choose a side of. On one hand is the principle of 1 dollar 1 vote which is exemplified by how corporations are owned - by those who buy stock, and how our public elections are increasingly being privatized, to allow the richest the greatest ability to influence elections through private, sometimes secret donations, and increased media coverage. On the other hand is the principle which civil rights activists have fought for, and how labor unions and community groups are run - the principle of 1 person 1 vote.
As we see the 1% under Trump expand corporate power and undermine the protections and guarantees of the New Deal Compromise between labor and capital, we need to work towards a revival of abolitionist politics. We need to make clear that our goal must be abolition of the capitalist hydra, so that the major industries, large agriculture, and institutional financial planning shall be in the hands of the people, to control as they see democratically fit to meet the needs of all. We must work to bring these politics from the margins to the political mainstream of American life.
What we need, that the party of compromise with tyranny does not, is a vision of what we stand for, of what we want the future to be. The far right has theirs - private tyranny and corporate control. We must have our own vision of an economy managed through democratic means for the collective good of all.
The policies a modern abolitionist movement should pursue must include not only nationalization, but most importantly democratization of the major economic institutions.
When the federal government bailed out the auto manufacturers, they were for a time the majority shareholder in those companies. What did they do? They have ownership of the companies back to the same private interests that have destroyed the industrial midwest, to the same profiteers who would rather send jobs to non-union plants in repressive dictatorships to save a few dollars. Detroit is but the largest example of the destruction left in the wake of the decisions made not by the millions who built the wealth of the auto companies, but by the executives trying to appease the stockholders.
Imagine, if when the federal government bailed out the banks, if elections were held to determine the boards of those banks. Imagine if those elections were not limited to those with the money to buy stocks in the company, to to every citizen of the country. Would the people elected to those positions be so inclined to adopt policies that evicted homeowners? Would they be so included to jack up interest rates on homes? Would they leave condos empty when so many need shelter?
Imagine, if we required the boards of fortune 500 companies to be elected through the popular vote. What kind of energy future would we have? What kind of access to the internet would we have? What kind of media and culture would we have?
The abolitionists of the 1850’s would have thought it absurd to argue that plantation owners deserved their wealth. It was theirs by theft. Likewise we need to emphasize a labor theory of value - that the riches of the wealthy are stolen from those who work to create the it. In all cases, the riches of people like Trump belong rightfully to the 99%.
We must also seek to unite abolitionist politics with other progressive movements, and to see how they are all intertwined, that the abolition of capital must be wrapped up in the abolition of white nationalism, sexism, homophobia, religious bias, and more. We must reject false narratives which seek to divide the 99%, and work to embrace a democracy with many voices, from many backgrounds.
What can we do to make abolitionist politics more mainstream? A lot. We should look to what abolitionists did - organized groups, published newspapers, ran the underground railroad, ran for elected office, mobilized religious groups, wrote novels, and more.
It used to be that socialist politics where a third rail of American politics. But since the great recession we have seen in poll after poll that young people in particular continue to warm to socialism. Bernie Sanders’ strength should be seen as a reflection of that. Now when I mention socialist ideas to liberals, they nod their heads in agreement, even some staffers, elected officials, and small business people! Running for local office is essential to building a corps of qualified and experienced activists and I think there would be a lot more support from unexpected places for anyone running on an abolitionist platform.
We can use direct action. From occupations in public places, to occupying workplaces, or banks. We can organize unions, co-operative workplaces, community-run banks, and neighborhood associations. Abolitionists had John Brown, we need to look to people from the Haymarket Anarchists to Chelsea Manning as our own heros.
We can stand up for our civil liberties and for the civil rights of all. We can build alternative media, counter-culture art, and support “the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now”, and be “realists of a larger reality” as Ursula Le Guin said.
With many groups there will be a process for them to realize that there can not be a compromise with Capital. That doesn’t mean we should give up on them.
Fundamentally there is only one way out of the dilemma of a Trump presidency that we face. We must organize. To organize requires a multifaceted approach. We must energize our own base, win over those who can be won over from the enemy, demobilize those who can not be won over, and take actions based not on ‘compromise’ but on what will bring us objectively and materially closer to abolition. That may be policy that improves people’s lives. It may be policy that undercuts our opponents ability to mobilize. We must listen to those we seek to organize. We must seek truth, but we should not be so haughty as to assume that we already know all of it.
It’s a long road, but as Dr. King said,“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In our quest to reject government of the corporation, by the CEO, for the profit and fight for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we should dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work of those who did the same before us, and to put forward the demands to power in ways that the abolitionists of yesteryear would recognize as being a part of the same tradition of struggle for progress and freedom.