New Politics Emerging in Chicago
Politics, a concentrated expression of economics, is the struggle for political power. Elections are a narrow stage on which part of this struggle takes place. Chicagoans had a rare opportunity to see this up close when challenger Jésus (Chuy) Garcia forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff. He did this despite the $30 million war chest amassed by Emanuel and despite endorsements of Emanuel from nearly the entire political establishment, including President Obama. On April 7 Garcia lost by 55% to 45%.
When revolutionaries evaluate the Chicago elections of 2015, we look at more than the winning or losing tactics. Revolutionaries need to understand how far the workers have traveled along the path from allegiance to the Democratic Party toward the formation of a political party that represents their interests. At the same time elections are held in order for the ruling class to make estimates of the thinking of the people, and thus to corral popular movements. What can revolutionaries say about the thinking of the people? How does the growing disparity between wealth and poverty – the growing permanent unemployment matched by the potential for abundance – how was this polarity reflected in the election campaign? To what extent is a class politics emerging, as the old ethnic rivalries struggle to survive?
Chicago’s Economy Changes
As the 19th century ended steel mills circled the southern end of Lake Michigan; stock yards emptied their offal into the river running through the city’s center; Pullman raised a “model city” for workers building his railroad cars; Marshall Field captured consumption fantasies by “giving the lady what she wants.” Chicago, the iconic rust-belt city, had by 1900 become the largest transportation hub and center of heavy industry in the country. Carl Sandburg, in 1914, lauded the city thus:
- Hog Butcher for the World,
- Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
- Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
- Stormy, husky, brawling,
- City of the Big Shoulders:
The struggle for which political party would control industrial Chicago drew to a conclusion in 1931. From then on Democrats won every election for mayor and came to dominate the city council.
Post World War II expansion of American industrial capitalism reached a domestic plateau. More mobile industry moved elsewhere to find low wage factory workers. Federal contracts fled the Rust Belt. Electronic innovations began to replace workers through robotics and computerization. From the early 1950s to the 1970s Chicago saw a steady decline. Richard J. Daley became mayor of Chicago in 1955. He presided over the city as its industrial strength declined, its tax base eroded and the infrastructure of the city began to wear through. The Democratic Party’s patronage system – more than 40,000 municipal workers, political appointments at the ward level, and a disciplined ward machine organization – drained the city. When Daley died in office in 1976 the Democratic Party seized the opportunity to develop the city’s transformation of capitalism based on financial speculation and information technology.
These economic changes are nearing their conclusion. The 14-county World Business Council plan for the development of greater Chicago has called for converting the area into a Rust Belt version of Silicon Valley. The problem is, this expansion has led to an expansion of lower wage jobs, and displaces more workers who can no longer participate in the economy. Chicago must now determine the politics necessary to maintain control of the means of producing wealth, when the changing economy calls for the public control of these means.
Mayor Richard M. Daley, the son of Richard J. Daley, was the architect of austerity and privatization in Chicago politics. Rahm Emanuel has gone further. The agenda of the current political elite, to conform to the new economy, is to make profitable everything they can, while eliminating a superfluous population. If that means street wars, so be it. If that means warehouses for our children rather than schooling, the elimination of health care and other services for the people, the installation of military-like equipment to police the neighborhoods (beginning with “red light cameras”), so be it. Those whom they do not need they will not feed.
Public Education and the Chicago Elections
The Chicago public education struggle, characterized by the city’s orchestrated forced march to privatize schools, illustrates the new capitalist economy. It also is central to this year’s election campaigns.
The Mayor appoints the school board and a CEO of the schools, a power granted by a 1995 act of the state legislature. Under Emanuel and Daley the mayoral-appointed school board has been dominated by corporate friends such as investment banker David Vitale (who chairs the Board). Penny Pritzker, billionaire member of the family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain, was a Board member before being appointed President Obama’s Secretary of Commerce. Vitale and Pritzker played key roles in obtaining toxic loans and diverting funds to charter schools and private corporate developments.
After the April election a Federal investigation targeted a no-bid contract for principal training with an entity called SUPES Academy. As the investigation proceeded it revealed ties between SUPES and Rahm Emanuel going back 4 years, and to the Chicago Public Education Fund. The Board of the Fund includes Pritzker, Vitale, Governor Rauner, and a who’s who of the wealthy capitalists who run Chicago.
In 2013, following the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike, Mayor Emanuel’s school board closed 49 schools, the largest number closed at one time in U.S. history. The Board ignored the needs of the children; even more, they failed to take into account the growing objective unity being forged between different elements of a dispossessed working class. Teachers, parents and students found a common front as hopes for an educational path out of poverty were dashed. Tens of thousands of parents and teachers protested these closings at meetings of governmental bodies established to evaluate these decisions. They attended school board meetings and the hundreds of community hearings, but their unanimous voice got nowhere – no effective response from those bodies.
Next, they turned from the streets to elect aldermen who represented their interests. A “progressive” caucus of six aldermen had emerged as a populist opposition to Emanuel. In general they supported an elected school board, a $15 an hour minimum wage, reopening the closed mental health clinics and a moratorium on new charter schools.
CTU members entered aldermanic races they thought were significant: e.g., Tim Meegan took on Deb Mell, appointed by Emanuel to replace her father, Richard, a long time Democratic Party loyalist; Susan Sadlowski Garza took on Emanuel flunky John Pope. And Karen Lewis, president of the CTU, electrified Chicago when she announced her intention to collect signatures to run for mayor. Then, in a startling turn of events, Lewis underwent emergency brain tumor surgery and could not run. However, she convinced Jésus (Chuy) Garcia to enter the race.
The Democratic Party on a Fault Line
Garcia was an architect of the Black-Latino coalition that helped elect Harold Washington in 1983. Garcia challenged the sitting alderman in 1986 and won. He served two terms as alderman and then won office in the state legislature. Then Mayor Daley, along with a number of Latino politicians, formed the Hispanic Democratic Organization to shepherd the allegiance of the growing Latino electorate, and ousted Garcia from the legislature. Currently a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and floor leader for the President of the Board, Garcia has both the credentials of a community leader and a member of an insurgent Democratic Party caucus.
The unpopular (but considered invincible) Mayor Emanuel needed an absolute majority to win in February. He only garnered 45%, Garcia ran second, and the other candidates got 17% of the vote. All but a handful of leading African American politicians and church leaders endorsed Emanuel. MoveOn.org and Democracy Now both characterized the battle as a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party no longer has the pretense of a soul: the Party can’t meet the demands of the people for the means of survival. Elections explore how to carry out the mission of the powers that be – to protect the private property of the corporations. The ruling class needs to assess and manufacture the buy-in of the public, in order to carry out their plans in the name of democracy. They know that those who were fighting in the streets are looking for political ways to express their dissatisfaction. Elements of that dissatisfaction threaten to split the Democratic Party.
Now the Democratic Party sits on a fault line. The new economy of Chicago has destroyed the old industrial relations between capital and labor. Only a tiny labor force is required to perform the functions associated with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, now handling even more transactions than the New York Stock Exchange.
Rather than tired clichés, offering an unachievable return to past glory, revolutionaries can offer a vision of a new society to the leaders emerging from these campaigns, leaders who will not be satisfied with what Democrats have to offer.
The recent elections do not represent a complete break with Democrats. However, they do establish a new direction. Revolutionaries need to be closely connected to this motion, relying on the objectivity of the demands of the class for the means of survival. While being dispersed into the midst of these battles we have to evaluate what we are seeing and where are the revolutionaries.
Just by forcing an April 7 runoff election the workers of Chicago rejected the union of corporate and political power in the hands of the Democratic Party. By overturning some of the sitting aldermen in the 18 council runoffs, workers created a chance to increase the “progressive caucus.” Still, 60% of the electorate did not find any choices compelling enough to actually vote. Every majority African American ward voted for Emanuel. The significant efforts to build Black-Latino working class unity met some obstacles, which can only be addressed by recognizing the common demands for the means of survival.
The fight for Chicago’s dispossessed to have political representation is emerging. No matter how hard the Democrats try to stop it the new economy is forcing them to splinter. Our task at this stage of the revolution is to gather the revolutionaries in these political campaigns and show them what they are already fighting for: a cooperative society that can guarantee the means of survival to all according to need.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011