Workers Vanguard No. 1032
18 October 2013
De Blasio: Liberal Populist Face of Capitalist Politics
Break with the Democrats! For a Class-Struggle Workers Party!
Bill de Blasio is poised to become the first Democratic New York City mayor in 20 years. The liberal politician came from behind to win the Democratic primary election and has built a 50 percentage point lead over his Republican opponent, Joseph Lhota, based on his populist appeals to working people, black people and Latinos and also middle-class professionals. De Blasio was an early critic of how the New York Police Department carries out its policy of stopping and frisking blacks and Latinos and went on to denounce the gaping and growing gap between the filthy rich and the bulk of the city’s increasingly struggling population. But the hopes he has aroused are bound to be cruelly dashed. Whatever posture he takes today and whatever palliatives he may dole out, de Blasio as mayor will be charged with managing the finance capital of U.S. imperialism on behalf of the Wall Street plutocrats and real estate barons who run the city.
It has not hurt his chances that de Blasio’s family portrait could have been commissioned by the producers of the Modern Family television series: an interracial family featuring a former lesbian activist and their photogenic children. De Blasio’s TV ad describing concern over stop-and-frisk and featuring his 16-year-old son Dante sporting an Afro that would make a young Julius Erving jealous was a highlight of the campaign, so effective that lame-duck mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced de Blasio for running a “racist” campaign. That grotesque attempt at race-baiting fell utterly flat, which is as much a statement about how popular sentiment in the city is running as it is about Bloomberg’s haughty piggishness. This is, after all, the same multibillionaire who responded to de Blasio’s talk of a “tale of two cities” by declaring, “The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people.”
De Blasio’s promise to tax the rich and reform the police is being denounced as “class warfare” by Lhota and his press agents at the New York Post, who summon the spectre of New York returning to the fire-swept, crime-ridden 1970s. Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson warns of a “wealth flight” from the city, while Bloomberg forecasts a Detroit-type bankruptcy if more money goes to social programs benefiting the poor and even minimal raises for city workers, who have been working under expired labor contracts for a year or longer.
In fact, de Blasio knows full well which side his bread is buttered on. The New York Times (11 October) reported: “Mr. de Blasio, who scarcely appears in public these days, has been holding closed-door fund-raisers at a breakneck pace, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the same bankers and Wall Street lawyers whose excesses he has frequently bemoaned.” In an attempt to win over big bankers and others alarmed by his populist appeals, de Blasio recently told a meeting of business moguls in Midtown Manhattan: “Wall Street is our hometown industry.”
De Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign slogan has tapped into a reservoir of growing anger among the vast majority who have reeled under 12 years of Bloomberg rule—a banker’s dozen that saw the mayor and his Wall Street cronies swimming in billions in profits while most everyone else either treaded water or sank deeper into poverty. While Bloomberg’s personal fortune grew from $5 billion to $27 billion during his tenure, today 1.7 million New Yorkers, including 31 percent of children 17 and younger, live below the official poverty line. Approximately 50,000 people across the city–including some working two full-time jobs—spend the night in homeless shelters; over 21,000 of these are children. More than 167,000 families are on waiting lists for public housing, many for as much as ten years. The South Bronx, just a subway ride from Wall Street, is home to the Congressional district with the highest poverty rate in the country. Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s beloved Manhattan is home to the widest income gap of any large county in the country.
Add to this the NYPD state of siege in the ghettos and barrios, where a walk to the corner grocery store is likely to be interrupted by a police interrogation. Since 2004, the cops have made over 4.5 million stops and frisks, under what federal judge Shira Scheindlin in an August ruling called a “policy of indirect racial profiling.” Scheindlin declared the program as practiced unconstitutional and ordered a federal monitor to oversee police reforms, similar to the cosmetic measures de Blasio has called for.
As for the some 300,000 city workers wanting a new contract and expecting a reprieve now that Bloomberg is on the way out, they should know that in an October 4 speech to an overflow crowd of wealthy businessmen, de Blasio got a standing ovation after describing himself as a “fiscal conservative” focused on keeping a balanced budget as he negotiates with municipal unions. De Blasio will be heading into these negotiations in the same spirit as his onetime boss David Dinkins promised Wall Street during his successful run for mayor in 1989, “They’ll take it from me.”
No less than the self-styled independent Bloomberg and the Republican Lhota, de Blasio and his Democratic Party are class enemies of the multiracial, multiethnic working class that makes this city run as well as of the ghetto and barrio poor. His pretensions to the contrary make him an even more effective tool in keeping working people in the thrall of their capitalist exploiters. Workers and the oppressed have no horse in this race. As Marxists, the Spartacist League says: No vote to de Blasio! Workers need their own party, one that fights for workers rule!
Love Me, I’m a Liberal
“In every American community you have varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals.”
—1960s folksinger Phil Ochs
In addition to his police reform schemes, de Blasio calls for a slight tax hike on incomes above $500,000 to pay for citywide pre-kindergarten classes and after-school programs; for building more low-income housing; and for bolstering public schools rather than union-busting charters. This program appeals to many people after years of cutbacks under both Democratic and Republican governments on all levels.
De Blasio’s program spurred his opponents to try to whip up right-wing hysteria, including by painting de Blasio as a socialist based on his support to Nicaragua’s radical-nationalist Sandinista government in the 1980s. This effort gained as little traction as Bloomberg’s race-baiting. At this juncture, the bourgeoisie sees no need for the whip hand to crack heads, such as that wielded by Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s: a massage of the plebeian masses by a “man of the people” will do just fine. And while the Post and Co. may have nightmares about de Blasio “handcuffing” the police and turning the city over to the municipal unions, they can turn off the nightlight and rest easy—he will do no such thing.
On his signature issue of stop-and-frisk, de Blasio has never called for its elimination, merely its reform—i.e., repackaging the daily terror the police mete out in enforcing the racial oppression that is endemic to American capitalist rule. De Blasio’s campaign calls for putting more cops on the streets with greater resources. Among his candidates to replace NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly are Phillip Banks, currently the force’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, and William Bratton, NYPD commissioner in the mid ’90s and currently consultant for the Oakland police. Under Giuliani, Bratton engineered the “broken windows” method of policing—targeting minor violations like jumping a subway turnstile or playing hooky from school and designating “hot spots” for police attention and aggressive stopping and frisking. This spring, Bratton declared, “For any city to say they don’t do stop-and-frisk.... I’m sorry, they don’t know what the hell they are talking about. Every police department in America does it.”
De Blasio’s career hews to a not-so-rare arc of Democratic Party operatives of his generation. From youthful flirtation with leftist politics, he went on to work for Dinkins, former New York Senator Hillary Clinton and the state’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo. Next stop was New York City Council, then the city’s Public Advocate and now, presumably, the mayor’s office. Railing about income inequality is just the flavor of the day for a wing of the Democrats whose traditional role is to get in front of mounting discontents and channel them into the dead end of bourgeois electoral politics.
De Blasio and Labor
Despite his populist projection, de Blasio has a history of cozy relations with New York real estate developers, who join the construction industry as his top donors. Michael Greenberg observed in the New York Review of Books (24 October): “As a councilman his policy was much the same as Bloomberg’s: to work with real estate developers to ease the way for large-scale projects, while attaching to these projects as many units of below-market housing as the developers would accept.” De Blasio was instrumental in pushing through the City Council two rezoning laws to ease the way for apartment development in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood that included no affordable housing. With property taxes currently making up nearly half of the city’s tax revenue, Greenberg noted, “The city pays for basic services largely on the assumption of an ongoing real estate boom.”
To bolster his “labor friendly” credentials, two years ago de Blasio made sure to have his picture taken at a picket line of striking Verizon workers. Such posturing gives him more credibility to try to rein in unionized workers on his own turf. Early this year, de Blasio used his Public Advocate office to clamor for an end to a strike by school bus drivers. The popular strike was called off by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 leaders the day after they received a letter from de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, former Comptroller William Thompson and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—all of whom ran in the Democratic mayoral primary—calling on them to end the walkout (see “Union Tops Sell Out School Bus Strike,” WV No. 1019, 8 March).
More recently, de Blasio made a point of getting arrested at a protest against Brooklyn hospital closings. As we reported in “Brooklyn Hospital Crisis: Union Jobs, Services for Poor Under the Ax” (WV No. 1030, 20 September), he has called for setting up a “super-authority” with extraordinary powers to oversee Brooklyn hospital restructuring—a body that would contain the same city and state officials who are overseeing and approving the closures right now. De Blasio holds up Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx as a model for providing hospital services in a high Medicaid area—the same institution that has been buying up smaller facilities and laying off workers in the process.
One of de Blasio’s first tasks in office will be to deal with the municipal unions. For years, the labor officialdom has played dead in the face of the bosses’ anti-union assault, bowing to New York State’s Taylor Law, which bans public employee strikes. During Bloomberg’s last term, the union tops’ strategy was to work under the old contract, reasoning that whatever they could get from Bloomberg would be worse than what his successor would give out. Today, as the bureaucrats obediently fall into line behind the Democratic mayoral candidate, virtually every major public-sector union in the city, from teachers and other city employees to transit workers, is working under an expired contract.
In the face of union demands for up to $7 billion to compensate for past givebacks, de Blasio indicated that he would be willing to offer some back pay. In an interview with the Nation (20 August), he declared: “I always use the example of the 1970s, when the near-bankruptcy of New York City was a much tougher situation than what we face now, and labor stepped up and was very creative and responsible.” The “creativity” he harkens back to is the labor tops’ signing on to the looting of union pension funds and to job-cutting, wage-gouging contracts designed to meet the banks’ demands to bail the city out.
Occupy Wall Street in the Mayor’s Mansion?
At a time when even some ruling-class voices fret that the country’s yawning inequality may be hurting the economy by limiting consumption, de Blasio’s primary victory was widely hailed by liberal pundits. Charles Blow, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, called it a triumph of the “we are the 99 percent” call of the Occupy movement, while the Nation (4 September) celebrated the “rebirth of economic liberalism.”
In a Daily Beast (12 September) article titled, “The Rise of the New New Left,” Peter Beinart writes that many Democratic activists are envisioning their party breaking from the neoliberal playbook associated with the Clinton presidency. Beinart cites the younger political generation of “millennials” that came of age in a terrible economy, saddled with massive debt at a time when the government provided even less support. According to a 2011 Pew study, many Americans under 30 describe themselves as “have nots” and vaguely favor “socialism.” In this climate, a number of politicians on the Democratic Party’s left wing—such as de Blasio and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren—have achieved some prominence, playing the populist card to reinforce the illusion that the system can be made to work for the little guy. And you don’t even have to be a liberal Democrat to appear as the lesser evil when the Republican Party revels in union-bashing as well as racist, anti-woman, anti-immigrant reaction.
Playing the bourgeois shell game with its own rulebook, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) beams: “In the birthplace of Occupy, the mayor who oversaw its eviction will leave office soon, and his likely replacement is a candidate whose campaign rhetoric about a ‘tale of two cities’ draws on the popularity of Occupy’s message” (SocialistWorker.org, 2 October). As we insisted during the Occupy Wall Street protest two years ago, the movement’s populist notion of the “99 percent” versus the “1 percent” obscured the fundamental class divide in society between the working class and the capitalist class, whose wealth is gained through exploiting workers’ labor. We warned that with its liberal appeals to the government to rein in the bloodsucking finance capitalists—the class whose interests the government actually serves—the movement would end up a tail on the Democratic Party.
And now the ISO all but calls for votes for de Blasio, pronouncing in SocialistWorker.org (23 September):
“Millions of working class and nonwhite New Yorkers are hopeful that local politics is finally heading in a positive direction. For those of us who are skeptical about de Blasio, our role should not be to dash these hopes (as if we could), but to try to channel them into the grassroots movements for change...that have helped to create this political moment.”
The ISO adds that rather than dissuade others from campaigning for de Blasio, people should “instead demand that he campaign for us.” Anyone who dusts off old issues of the ISO’s Socialist Worker from five years ago will find that they said precisely the same thing about presidential candidate Barack Obama. These are chemically pure expressions of the ISO’s program: the quest to reform the capitalist state apparatus through the agency of the Democrats.
The role of Marxists is precisely to smash illusions that the bourgeois state can act as anything other than an apparatus of repression in defense of capitalist rule and profits. Workers must be broken from the Democratic Party, including especially its most left-talking elements, and won to the task of building their own class party—independent of and in opposition to all parties of capitalist rule. Advancing a class-struggle program in defense of all the exploited, oppressed and dispossessed, such a party is a necessary instrument in the fight for a workers government that expropriates the capitalists and rebuilds society on the basis of a planned, collectivized economy.