Can communists govern a major American city?

by Jehu

A month ago, I was asked by a commenter to expand on the argument I made in an earlier post on the failure of Marxist economists to offer any policy useful recommendations to radical activists trying to organize among the working class.

I offer this post as an answer to that request.

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A changed political landscape

There is something of a distinction between the generations raised before Reagan and Thatcher and those who came after that suggest radical politics is now on an even footing with bourgeois politics. Allow me to oversimplify this argument for purposes of brevity.

Before Reagan and Thatcher, if the working class wanted something done it elected politicians who passed laws to get it done. This might not have always been successful, but it was an effective strategy that appeared to work for a time. After Reagan and Thatcher, this strategy was less effective; and, with the rise of forces in the advanced countries, like the Democratic Leadership Council and New Labour, it became positively ineffective.

The generations raised after the rise of the DLC and New Labour have never known politicians who get things done for the working class.

People have tried to explain this changing political landscape employing concepts like neoliberalism, etc., but these concepts rarely explain it in a satisfactory fashion because they treat the changing landscape in a purely political way; which is to say the role played by specific individuals like Clinton or Blair is reduced to their individual policies.

What tends to get missed is the background of this changing landscape. Capital has transcended national boundaries. National capitals are no longer purely national and, in the case of the very biggest capitals, have grown to straddle many countries throughout the world market.

What I am arguing for here is the idea a real, material change has taken place in the capitalist mode of production that renders conventional policy tools ineffective, and, perhaps, altogether useless. It is not just that bourgeois parties refuse to deliver on their promises, they can’t deliver on their promises. And this means a radical program for change is on an even playing field with bourgeois parties.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of people today who still think the failure of bourgeois politicians to respond to the demands of the working class is a matter of individual politics or character. They even want to explain SYRIZA’s failure by its ‘neoliberal politics’ or its lack of working class character. I don’t think this is the full story. Something else is afoot. Whatever its intentions,  SYRIZA lacked a strategy to even deliver on its rather modest promise to end austerity in an era where the national government exercise little control over their national economy.

A viable strategy for SYRIZA would have begun with recognition of the absolute dependence of Greece on the world market. The SYRIZA government did not control production; it did not control communications and transportation; it did not control money; it did not control investment. Above all, SYRIZA could not simply borrow and spend in hopes the economy would grow its way out of its social problems as Keynesian theory calls for.

If you are absolutely dependent on the world market, how do you deliver on even tepid promises to the working class?  What viable measures are Left?

Applying the lessons of SYRIZA to the US

This is a critical question because US Left are essentially in the same position as Greece — and, I believe, the same position as any local bourgeois politician in the US: the US Left has no effective policy tools to deliver on its promises. If a radical party managed to gain power in a municipality it basically would face the same limitations on its actions as was faced by SYRIZA. A radical municipal government would lack any policy tools offered by conventional Keynesian and Soviet theory, because, like SYRIZA, it would lack control of production, communications and transport, money, investment and the capacity to run the deficits necessary to temporarily grow its way out of poverty and unemployment by conventional policy measures..

I want to argue that this is an excellent situation for us precisely because all standard Keynesian politcy options are impossible to implement on a municipal scale. The absence of conventional policy tools is not just true for radical parties, it is also true for bourgeois parties. Thus, in trying to win power at the municipal level, communist are basically on a level playing field with capitalist politicians.

But we have an ace up our sleeve.

Boston as a case study

Suppose a radical Left party wanted to gain control of a local government. How should it proceed?

I am going to use the city of Boston as an example here, but the city is chosen arbitrarily. You can plug in the numbers from your own city and it should work pretty much the same.

We begin with the assumption that a radical government comes to power and faces the daunting problems of the typical urban area: high incidence of poverty, unemployment, inequality, racism, homelessness etc. This new government has none of the tools we normally expect government policy to possess: it cannot issue money, borrow, control its borders, the means of production, communications and transport, investment, etc.

The government thus faces all the problems of a typical city, but has none of the conventional policy resources that might be available to sovereign national actors.

Moreover, let us assume at the outset that, like SYRIZA, this government is hated by the class enemy, who wants nothing more than to see it fail. Thus, it can expect no support from the national and state governments in any form and that every effort will be made to sabotage its efforts.

Thus, the radical government has no resources at its disposal but the working people who voted it into office. With no resources available to realize their aims, the working people who voted for the radical party must themselves eradicate their own poverty, unemployment, inequality, racism, and homelessness, and they must do it over the strenuous opposition of the capitalists.

The Problem statement

Boston faces six major problem areas a communist municipal government might want to address:

PROBLEM 1. THE BURDEN OF GOVERNMENT:

The city of Boston employs approximately 17,000 persons, according to 2015 research by the Boston Globe — making it the largest single employer in the city. The average income of this public labor force is $70,856.20. This is a whopping seventy percent above the per capita income for Boston residents of $40,593. Worse, the average cop earns $118,000 almost three times the income of the average Boston resident. The total revenue of this bloated machine for 2016 is $2.86 billion.

PROBLEM 2. POVERTY:

21.6% of the population of Boston lives below the poverty line of $28,440 for a family of four.

PROBLEM 3. UNEMPLOYMENT:

After the city itself, employment is concentrated in health care, finance, education, professional services and hospitality which account for 33% of total employment. The poverty rate among those active in the labor force is 12.4%. The rate is much higher for those who are not in the labor force at 40.6%.

PROBLEM 4. HOMELESSNESS:

Nearly 17,000 people were in emergency shelters in Boston over the past year, according to one report, with an additional 3,900 in transitional housing. More than a third of them are severely mentally ill and nearly a third are physically disabled.

PROBLEM 5. HUNGER:

Requests for emergency food exceeded the amount distributed by more than a third, even as the city increased its food distribution by more than 4 percent over the past year. Narrowly defined, most of Boston is a food desert with few full service stores located within walking distance.

PROBLEM 6. EDUCATION:

Boston has a poor performing public school system. According to the results of the latest Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, 52% of public school students are not proficient in English, 58% are not proficient in Math and 73% are not proficient in Science, — and this despite the fact that the education sector is the third largest private employer in the city.

Additional relevant information: About 121 employers account for one third of jobs in Boston. These are concentrated in health care, finance & insurance, educational services, professional science & technical services and accommodation & food services.

What can communist do?

So we have a rather extensive list of social ills: a bloated public sector, massive poverty, unemployment, homelessness, hunger and a failed education system. Can communists fix these social ills assuming they have no access to conventional policy tools and face complete hostility from both federal and state authorities?

I think so.

To be sure, no one would suggest a radical party can build socialism in one city. So our real limitations on how far we can carry a radical plan is subject to the same limits that might be encountered in a country like Greece. Given this, I want to propose six measures, short of full communism, that I think a newly installed communist city government might undertake to address the social ills mentioned above.

Again, these are not fixes for capitalism. Instead, think of them as holding actions we can do until a real (global) solution arrives.

STEP ONE: Dismantle the existing city government:

This is by far the most controversial measure and the most important in light of long term radical goals. Thus I want to explain it at some length.

On the premises we have assumed above the existing government has no resources at its disposal to fix the problems of poverty, unemployment, inequality, racism, segregation, homelessness etc. Despite lacking any resources to fix these social ills, the city government imposes a very large and costly burden on the population and requires a very large amount of resources for its own maintenance. This cost can be eliminated by simply eliminating most of city government and freeing up the resources devoted to maintaining it.

Unfortunately, this might lead to howls of anger from many on the Left, because they see the public sector as the means to effect change. However, on the premises we discussed above, this is clearly not the case. The government has no control of production, communications and transport, it cannot issue money, borrow capital or control its borders. Simply put, it cannot play the role usually assigned to it in most Keynesian and Soviet theory. If this is true, the government only imposes a burden on the rest of society, with none of the benefits the Left usually associates with this burden. It is mostly dead weight.

While we can’t employ government to reach our goals, we can reduce its burden on the community as much as possible. The easiest way to accomplish this is to drastically reduce the hours of employment of public workers from 40 hours per week to 16 hours per week. The wages of these public employees should be capped to that of an average resident, $41,000 annually. Of course, the police force can be disarmed completely and should be greatly reduce in size. Eventually the police department should be abolished altogether and replaced by the members of the commune.

STEP TWO: Replace the existing government with a commune-style administration

With the city government severely reduced by the previous measures, administration of the city should be shifted to the communities and neighborhoods. If the election campaign has been organized with this option in mind, the very same organization the made possible the election of the communist administration can serve as the scaffolding for a commune-style government that can replace the city government entirely. The duty of supervising what is left of the old governing machine should be turned over to this commune to supervise, especially police (to the extent this institution cannot be abolished altogether) and the public schools.

Once established the commune should be the center of public administration and the old governing machine allowed to die.

STEP THREE:  Legally mandate reduced hours of labor and raise the minimum wage

In addition to reducing the hours of labor of its own employees and setting wages to the average income of Boston resident the radical government must take additional measures to tackle poverty and unemployment generally. Through their control of city contracts, communists can impose labor conditions on vendors and contractors to the city that will immediately raise the level of subsistence of the employed working class, while reducing their hours of labor. The city of Boston should mandate all public contractors/vendors must reduce hours of labor to 16 hours as well and raise wages to $40.  This contractual condition requires no expenditures on the part of the city, no deficit financing, no money printing, etc.

Further, as Seattle and many other cities proved, the city of Boston can at least force all private employers in the city without exception to raise the minimum wage of their employees to $40; it also may be able to legally mandate reduction of hours of labor to 16 per week. A legally mandated $40 minimum wage will ensure that every worker who works at least 16 hours a week earns at least $41k per year.

STEP FOUR: Undertake the complete unionization of all workers in Boston.

To lock in our victory, guard against the rollback of the radical measures and enhance our capacity to fight, the commune should undertake to organize all workers in the city into a union.

This should begin with a concentrated campaign aimed at the mass of low-wage workers in the accommodation & food services industry, who earn an average wage of only $11.95 per hours. According to the Boston Globe, “restaurant workers represent a whopping 10 percent of the workforce, and a vastly disproportionate share of low-wage workers.” These workers are mostly unorganized, as are most cashiers and sales persons in the retail trade who on average earn only $11.09 and $13.03 per hour, respectively.

If the state and federal government tries to prevent the legally mandated imposition of shorter hours and a higher minimum wage, vastly expanded unionization will allow us to gain our goals by direct means.

STEP FIVE:  Establish a city-wide network of consumer cooperatives to reduce the cost of living

Boston is a massive food desert. Moreover, private capitalist firms charge exorbitant prices for good food. The city of Boston, however, can open its own network of cooperatives and sell groceries, clothing and household necessities to residents at cost. With a network of full service neighborhood stores, managed by the neighborhood commune organizations themselves, we can leverage the concentrated buying power of the entire city network. Employing this concentrated buying power, we could negotiate costs with suppliers down to a very low price point.

This would provide needed relief for the 21.6% of Boston residents living below the poverty line and some needed employment for those without jobs. Moreover, the members of the neighborhood commune organizations can meet at the neighborhood level and city wide to decide the affairs of this venture. This will give them practical experience managing the affairs of the city. If the commune was successful in this, eventually it could begin a similar program for housing, providing a network of publicly owned housing units for residents.

This approach would very quickly drive for-profit firms out of these sorts of businesses. There is no reason to leave these areas to private for-profit capitalist firms, when we can do it ourselves at cost.

STEP SIX: Complete reform of education

The public school should be supervised by the commune as it increases its capacity to administer the affairs of the city. Emphasis should be placed on this problem, because it is the single most important function for which local government is responsible.

Probably the most important single step the commune can take to improve education, (and the one it should implement immediately), is to reduce the actual class size to no more than ten students.

According to the NEA, a small class size has these educational benefits:

  • Closing the racial achievement gap: with a 38% reduction in test-score gap in grades K–3;
  • enable early identification of learning disabilities;
  • raise high school graduation rates;
  • increase college entrance test-taking rates.

The cost of funding smaller classes should be realized by severely reducing all unnecessary functions of the city government and devoting the saving to the public schools.

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Of course, there are additional measure that can be implemented by a radical government that would significantly improve the economic conditions of the working class, like, for instance, single payer health insurance, extending full civic rights to undocumented workers, lowering the voting age, abolishing enforcement of punitive drug laws, restoring the right of jury nullification, reintegrating former inmates from mass incarceration into society, etc.

The point of this exercise was not to be exhaustive, but to emphasize how little thought we have been given to what a radical government can accomplish even when it lacks conventional economic policy tools.

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