USA - In the shadow of September 11 - one year on

Nov/Dec 2002

The present article is reproduced from the quarterly published by the Trotskyist group "The Spark" in the USA (Class Strugggle #37 - Nov 2002)

Practically from the moment the planes hit the World Trade Centre, right up to today, September 11 has been used to justify a wide-ranging attack on the population, especially on the working class.

Within days of the attack, Bush proclaimed a "war on terrorism" - a new kind of war, as he explained it. We were warned not to expect quick results, that this new and different war would be virtually permanent - against an "enemy" we cannot see, do not know the whereabouts of, nor know what it is doing. We just have to take the president's word for it. For months, the fearful atmosphere originally produced by the attack on the World Trade Centre was carefully reinforced, with declarations of "red alerts," "orange alerts" and "yellow alerts"; announcements that Al-Qaeda "sleeper cells" had been broken up; requests that the population be "vigilant," and that any "suspicious behaviour" immediately be reported to the FBI.

Occasionally, of course, this produced some absurd results as, for example, when a patron of a diner thought she overheard three "Arabic-looking" men discussing a new bomb plot and relayed the information to authorities, who shut down a significant part of the Georgia-Florida interstate highway system for hours. The plotters turned out to be medical students on their way to the hospital where they were supposed to intern, discussing the anniversary of September 11, which had just occurred and had been the big focus of the media for days. Of course, it was only after they were picked up, all their belongings torn apart, and their medical school plans totally disrupted that the authorities finally admitted that a "mistake" had been made.

In fact, whatever Al-Qaeda is - if it actually exists as such - and whatever it might have done or be planning to do in the future, this Bush's "war on terrorism" is not aimed at rooting it out. No, it is primarily a propaganda campaign aimed at rallying the US population behind Bush.

That is not to say that military actions have not been carried out, subjecting the people of Afghanistan first to the horrors of US bombing raids, and then to the threat of a renewed civil war as the various warlords, resting on old loyalties, seek to guarantee their own hold on territory. At the beginning, the war against Afghanistan was presented in terms of retribution and vengeance. And Bush, of course, presented the rapid collapse of the Taliban as the sign that, in his words, God is on the side of "the good guys." But Afghanistan has not proved itself so amenable to the will of Bush's God. The fall of the Taliban was not followed by the quick withdrawal of US troops. Indeed, the number of US troops has been increased, today standing at 8,000, with hundreds more US mercenaries, working under "contract" to the US military. Casualties continue, and the puppet regime installed by the US clearly cannot defend itself even inside its own capital, Kabul.

At this point, of course, it is difficult to say exactly what policy the Bush administration is pursuing toward Iraq - if Bush himself or his handlers even know - or what calculations underlie this policy. But whatever other reasons Bush has for stepping up threats against Iraq, the stagnation of the war in Afghanistan pushes him to seek a victory for his "war on terrorism," somewhere else. If Bush could proclaim a "victory" by carrying out another massive bombing of Iraq - which would carry less political risk to himself and less material risk to the US military - he would certainly do it. But a US invasion of Iraq is not ruled out, in part because Bush's ability to continue using September 11 as a diversion from the real and terrible problems confronting the population is beginning to wear a little thin.

What a convenient smokescreen

Bush, who owed his election to the peculiarities of the Florida electoral system and whose main claims to fame before September 11 were his lack of knowledge of the world and the amount of time he spent vacationing after moving into the White House, was of course the first to benefit from the "war on terrorism."

If it were not for September 11, Bush most certainly would have had a much more difficult time shrugging off the monumental stock dodge perpetrated at Enron by his close buddy "Ken Boy" Lay and by his secretary of the army Thomas White; or the same kind of theft perpetrated by Cheney at Halliburton.

Before September 11, Cheney was about to be brought to court by the General Accounting Office over his financial dealings and his attempt to use the office of vice-president to avoid providing information about them. Explained David Walker, the GAO comptroller general: "On September 10, there was virtually no question we were headed to court. But now, not only do we have to assess when it's appropriate to do that, we have to assess whether it's appropriate to do that." Walker, who had served in the administrations of Reagan and Papa Bush before Clinton tapped him to head the GAO, admitted, "Candidly, this is another example of how the events of September 11th have had a significant ripple effect on a range of issues, some of which have nothing to do with terrorism." When the GAO finally did reinstate its law suit against Cheney months later, the whole affair had been buried so deeply by the media that it had become a non- issue.

Then there was the convoluted scandal concerning Bush himself. Bush had been on the Harken Corporation's board of directors and head of its audit committee in the 1980s. With the SEC poised to question Harken's accounting, Bush sold off his stock - just before a big drop in its price. And when the SEC began to question whether Bush had benefited from insider information, a friend of Papa Bush, who managed a Harvard endowment fund, used some of its moneys to cover Harken's losses, thus driving the stock price back up, at least until the SEC stopped looking.

But that was only the beginning of Bush's wheeling and dealing. Bush Junior took part of the money he gained from Harken stock and put it into a consortium that purchased the Texas Rangers baseball franchise. Only nine years later, this consortium sold off the franchise for three times as much as they paid for it - a price so high that the owners of other teams questioned it. The man who paid this inflated price was also a friend of Bush's - he used the investment fund he managed to buy the team. This fund had recently received $9bn from a University of Texas endowment fund that had just been privatised by...none other than Bush Junior, who was by then Texas governor. But there is still more! Bush's share of the consortium should have given him $2m from the sale; instead the other members of the consortium decided to give Bush $15m, apparently just in recognition of what a good old boy he is!

Bush had managed to brush this old scandal under the rug until the Enron affair began to throw a spotlight on all sorts of financial deals. It finally surfaced again this last July. Was it just a coincidence that Bush stepped up threats against Iraq at the same time that this old corruption scandal broke into the open? If so, it was a monumentally convenient coincidence.

Of course, it is not just the Bush administration that has corruption to hide - although by all accounts the corruption of his administration far surpasses anything seen for decades. But Bush does not stand alone. The fa-reaching corporate scandals, which the implosion of the stock market bubble revealed, show how corruption is in fact an intrinsic feature of this capitalist economy. But, with the exception of a few well-publicised arrests of executives, the shadow of September 11 has served well to divert attention from this corruption - and from the actual state of the economy. An imploding stock market, which has not yet stopped going down; corporate bankruptcies which come tumbling one on top of another; a new recession before the last one has even been put to bed by the official economists - if it were not for the "war on terrorism," these things might have dominated the news, drawing attention to the enormous dangers in the current situation. But no, the front pages are too full of talk of "sleeper cells" or "weapons of mass destruction" or "terrorist alerts" for the real state of the economy to weigh on the situation. Bush, who might otherwise get part of the blame for the current economic morass, has found, in September 11, the perfect way to deflect unwanted attention.

Strengthening the state apparatus

For the capitalists, bigger things than Bush's reputation were at stake in the war on terrorism - among them, the justification for new sacrifices by the population and for a strengthening of the state apparatus that had been somewhat curbed by the pressures of the social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Long before the flames died down in the World Trade Centre, the Bush administration had presented a series of bills, executive orders and resolutions, the aim of which was to strengthen the police powers of the state apparatus. These changes had clearly been prepared long before September 11. For example, the first draft of the USA Patriot Act - all 350 pages of it - was given to Congress just one week after the attack. But September 11 gave Bush the perfect pretext to roll back the clock, resurrecting much of the repressive framework that had been used during the McCarthy period, but was subsequently challenged and its imposition blocked by the protest movements of the 1960s.

In so doing, Bush was only continuing what Clinton had started when he used the Oklahoma City bombing as a pretext to introduce the "Effective Death Penalty Act," whose main purpose was to deprive convicted people of many of their rights to have their cases reviewed.

While these various changes have been pushed through under the guise of a war against foreign terrorists bent on wreaking havoc on American soil, the state used them to make a demonstration, rounding up thousands of ordinary people, citizen and non-citizen alike, but certainly not terrorists, under the vaguest of pretexts. And the most significant of these changes - the FBI guidelines - was in fact directed only against citizens. The range of these laws marked a real move in a reactionary direction, legally and formally. And while most of them just sit, for now, on the books, unused, it is clear that they are important additions to the arsenal which the bourgeois state wants to have in reserve in anticipation of renewed struggles by the working class or other social movements - all the more so, given the range of attacks that have been carried out this year.

Sacrifice for the common (i.e. bosses') good

Within a matter of days after September 11, the calls for sacrifice began. With the Bush administration leading the way, every level of government pushed the same idea: that budgets must be vastly overhauled to pay for the war on terrorism. In the budget that Bush offered at the beginning of 2002, with the exception of education, not a single program that in any way benefited the population escaped cuts. The programs whose budgets were not openly cut were frozen, and thus cut, de facto, due to inflation.

As for education, formally the federal budget for education increased (after all, Bush was busy styling himself the "education president" when he was not posing as the avenger of terrorism). In reality, most funding for the public (as opposed to private) schools comes through state and local budgets - which were being hit by big cuts in revenue sharing from the federal government. The end result of this meant a decrease in state funds available to for allocation to public schools. Moreover, the small funding increases for education at federal level came in forms which allowed money to go to religious schools - hardly a reinforcement of education.

Where did the money go? A lot of it, of course, disappeared right down Wall Street's drain. The supposedly balanced budget that Clinton had handed over to Bush was predicated on proceeds deriving from capital gains made on the stock market's ascent. With the steep descent of the stock market, which had started long before September 11, those fictitious gains were disappearing from the government's tax receipts. With the budget suddenly in deficit, Bush moved to make up that deficit in the usual way, by putting his hands on the social side of the ledger, and not just to cover the government's deficit, but more importantly to subsidise the big corporations, whose profits were also tumbling as the economy headed south.

Bush turned to the government's most convenient mechanism for subsidising corporate profits: the military budget, which, with this new type of "war on terrorism," now offered seemingly unlimited possibilities. The biggest beneficiaries of the post 9/11 budget were the large corporations that traditionally benefit from military spending. That is, almost every major corporation in the country. Of the Fortune 500, for example, only a few derive no income from the military. Moreover, under the excuse that September 11 had given a near-mortal wound to some industries, especially the airlines, the federal government moved to authorise loans and direct subsidies. In New York, the city quickly pushed through subsidies and tax breaks to encourage the "reconstruction" of downtown Manhattan. "We will rebuild, showing the terrorists that they can't break our spirit" - so proclaimed New York city and state politicians. Politicians in other cities and states followed New York's budgetary lead - in any case, as far as instituting severe cuts in social programs, public services and education - and all of this under the mantle of recovering from the blow to the economy dealt by September 11.

"Being part of the bosses' solution" IS the problem

With Bush speaking about the need for sacrifice for the "common good," the biggest corporations rushed to announce new job cuts: half a million in the first six weeks after September 11.

This was nothing new. There had been announcements of big job cuts starting as far back as the previous January. What was different was the gold-plated pretext that September 11 offered them, and they rushed to use it, practically wearing it out while the unions stood on the sidelines reiterating their support for "our president" in this "moment of crisis."

In the year since, the corporations have begun to carry out a new concession drive against unionised workers. In the airline industry, United and USAir have demanded major concessions, or else. USAir went to the bankruptcy court, threatening to use bankruptcy to simply abrogate the whole contract it has with the various airline unions unless the unions agreed to specific concessions in wages and benefits. The unions agreed.

Of course, one should not make any assumptions about the real situation of USAir. After all, Chrysler played a very similar game some 20 years ago, pretending to be on the very verge of bankruptcy and closure, only to pay off its loans several years in advance and start producing multibillion dollar profits just as soon as the union agreed to give long-term concessions.

As for United Airlines, the biggest company in the industry, its situation is not at all comparable to that of USAir. But nonetheless, United made an equivalent threat: if you don't give us concessions, we will declare bankruptcy, then abrogate the contract. United demanded $1.5bn a year in labour cost concessions over six years! The unions made a "counter-offer" of only $1bn a year over five years, plus undefined "other cost savings," arguing, just as the UAW had at Chrysler (then afterwards at Ford, and finally at GM), that the workers share a common interest with their own company. According to the president of the flight attendants' union: "Being a part of the solution that assists United in surviving its near-term financial crisis is central to our goal of ensuring that the Flight Attendants' long-term interests are represented."

This is particularly ironic, coming at United, since unions at United had given big concessions in wages, benefits and staffing levels in 1994, under the pretext that the company then was in a "short-term crisis," which the workers needed to help overcome in order to "ensure that their "long-term interests be represented."

That short-term crisis was surmounted very quickly - between 1996 and 2000, United racked up $5.9 bn in earnings. By 2001, United had accumulated so much spare cash, it was able to offer to buy USAir for $4.3 bn and pay off $7.3 bn of USAir's debt. The deal did not go through, not for lack of money, but due to government opposition. In any case, during this whole period when the company's short and long-term interests were being well attended to. The workers continued to work for the wages and benefits conceded in 1994 up until ... this very year, in fact just a few short months before United came back and asked for even bigger concessions!

There is another irony in the United situation. In 1994, sealing the deal with the unions, United management offered stock to the workers - 55% of outstanding shares - turning the workers, supposedly, into "worke-owners." But in 2002, threatening to declare bankruptcy, the management of the company made a point of emphasising that bankruptcy would transform the value of those shares to nothing, which the worker-owners, majority share-holders that they might be, had no legal right to prevent.

It is clear that the demands for concessions to rescue companies supposedly harmed by September 11 are nothing but a continuation of the demands for concessions that have swept through the working class starting in the late 1970s, and continuing throughout the 1980s. And, as the aftermath of the concession demands of the 1980s has shown, concessions did not save jobs. They did not produce an improvement in the workers' standard of living. But they did produce an increase in wealth for the executives and rich investors, which they used to buy up other companies and they produced spiralling sums of money which fed the stock market bubble. The unions that agreed to concessions, almost across the board, lost jobs...and saw their membership numbers go down precipitously.

The auto workers union, which in the early 1980s had set the standard in accepting concessions, also set the standard in job loss and membership decline. Today, the Big 3 auto companies have only about 40% as many workers as they had before the drive for concessions began, even while production is several million vehicles higher. And the UAW membership itself has declined from 1.6 million to 710,000 today.

Regardless of that history, the demand for concessions goes on, along with the unions' willingness to give in to them. It was not September 11 that created this situation, but the willingness of most of the unions during this whole period to oblige, combined with the craven attitude in the days immediately after September 11, which has encouraged the bosses to increase their demands for sacrifice.

Industries other than the airlines, including most recently steel, longshore and aircraft, have demanded major cuts in health care, pensions and/or increased subcontracting of work, leading to more layoffs. And we have every reason to believe that these demands will grow, so long as the unions demonstrate their willingness to help "their companies" survive their "short-term financial crises."

This past summer, more than a year before the next UAW contract talks with the Big Three auto companies, General Motors announced that it can no longer continue to fund its pensions at the same level. Given the weight of the auto industry in the economy and the role of the UAW as a pacesetter - both up and down - it is an ominous indication of big attacks to come. And it is a sign that GM believes that the UAW will put the company's interests first, just as it did during the concession drive of the 1980s.

With Chrysler currently threatening to close its McGraw glass plant, UAW vice-president Nate Gooden commented to reporters that Chrysler never should have been in the glass business. This is simply the expression - perhaps a little more crass than most, but that is the only difference - of a bureaucracy which has for decades openly identified itself with the interests of "their" bosses, including when those interests show themselves clearly and blatantly to be diametrically opposed to the interests of the workers, short-term and long-term.

We have just gone through one recession and may be entering right back into another one - or the same one, depending on how you make the calculation. This recession has not yet become catastrophic. But even without that, the losses the capitalists have suffered in the stock market casino encourage them to try to increase drastically the exploitation of the working class. This is the real issue that is - or ought to be - confronting the working class today. Not September 11.

Put through the wringer - and still feeling it!

Whatever the polls may show about the support that the population generally and the working class specifically, gives to Bush today, the fact is that this support is grudging, at best. And on almost every issue, even the polls themselves demonstrate it. The poll taken immediately after Bush's speech before the congressional vote and after weeks of the administration orchestrating the news about Iraq, showed that only a little over half of the population favoured going to war. But even then, not immediately, not without the allies, not without the approval of the UN, etc.

Moreover, when people were asked what the biggest problems were, facing the United States, Iraq did not head the list. For the population, the problems were the economy, lack of jobs and failing schools.

It is certain that workers pay much less attention to Bush's speeches, to the scare headlines, to the patriotic calls for unity today than they did a year ago. But all of this has had some effect, remaining in the consciousness of the population. The year-long barrage of propaganda seems to have worn workers down.

People are unhappy about the general situation and unconfident that the economy will soon be righted or that their own situation is secure. But, with an occasional exception which flares up from time to time, the general atmosphere in the working class seems to be a defeatist one: things are bad, getting worse, but what can be done about it? And this is the consequence not just of the year since September 11, but of all the years since the beginning of the 1980s, when the workers began to give concessions. And since then, even if there have been occasional militant strikes, those strikes at best simply managed to prevent the worst of the concessions but more commonly led to defeats.

Bush may claim part of the credit for keeping the working class - up until now, at least - in a state of impotence. But the union leaders also should claim "credit" for this, since it is their policy that has deprived the working class of any prospects.

The workers will not be deceived forever. Less and less do they believe the lies they are showered with today. Tomorrow, their anger against all those who deceive them may very well boil over. This is certainly what we want to see happen, since for the population to be protected from all the calamities the ruling class has in store for it, the working class will have to fight back.

15 October 2002