As we write, the US government is shut down. Trump has been talking about building a wall on the border with Mexico since early in his campaign. It was one of his major selling points. He is asking for $5.6 billion to fund it, and won’t sign this year’s budget unless that money is included.
Congress is not willing to allocate that much money for border security. When we say “Congress,” we don’t mean just the Democrats. This shutdown began in 2018, when the Republicans still had control of both chambers of Congress. They could have forced an appropriations bill through if they really wanted to, Trump would have signed it, and the shutdown would not have happened. Now that the Democrats control the House of Representatives, the situation is even more complex.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that this began in 2018, when the Republicans controlled the entire Congress. This is occasionally referred to by the major media outlets, but hasn’t really been an important part of the national discussion of this issue. Let’s highlight this a little more.
Whether they admit it or not, the Republicans don’t want to spend that kind of money on Trump’s wall any more than the Democrats do. If they did, the bill would have already been passed. They are partisan enough not to discuss this in public. You don’t hear a lot of Republican legislators going on the record as opposing the wall. There are some issues which they will openly oppose. Not this one. Still, the opposition is there. There is no other reasonable explanation for why the appropriations bill hasn’t already been passed.
It’s more difficult to read the array of forces operating within the executive branch. There have been so many personnel changes at the highest levels of the White House that it’s hard to say who might be advocating for what. It’s safe to assume that there isn’t complete unanimity among Trump’s people any more than there is at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Whether anyone is actually negotiating for a compromise to resolve this shutdown is not known. We hear Trump’s voice loud and clear; the rest, not so much.
Meanwhile, nearly a million federal employees are forced to live without any income. Maintenance issues, such as overflowing trash cans and toilets, are already on the rise, and will become more difficult to fix the longer this goes on. Many federal employees are required to work without pay, which brings up the question of involuntary servitude. Cracks are appearing in the armor here, too. For instance, hundreds of TSA employees are calling in sick, rather than work for nothing. It’s not just a protest action. They are finding other work in order to pay bills, buy food, keep their kids in child care. This will snowball as the shutdown drags on. Will we see the National Guard mobilized to provide airport security to keep the nation’s air travel moving?
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has filed a lawsuit to have the government pay those who are forced to work. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has not taken any action other than a call for the shutdown to end. Both of these are moderate responses to the shutdown. We expect that (as usual) the rank and file are more militant than the leadership and will start to take matters in their own hands, perhaps with wildcat strikes or other spontaneous actions. Will we see yellow vests on American streets soon?
Putting all of this under a Marxist microscope, we find a number of contradictions in play. First, we see the lack of unanimity within the Republican party. While they are shielding it from public view as much as possible, we know that there is dissension within the GOP about how to handle this crisis.
Second, there is the division between the Republicans and Democrats. As always, we communists recognize that they are just factions of the one ruling class. Both seek to maximize the power and wealth of the bourgeoisie. For instance, there was never any doubt that a massive appropriation approaching a trillion dollars for 2019 would be passed by both parties. But they often differ on how to keep the bourgeoisie secure, and this is one of the times when that difference is apparent. The Democrats are still willing to spend upwards of $1 billion on unnecessary border security measures. (This article is not on the debate over immigration, so we will just say in passing that we support the international proletariat in its efforts to live safe, productive, happy lives.)
Third, as we see the “sick-out” emerging spontaneously, it displays the difference between the actual working class and the ruling class’s labor lieutenants. The leadership of AFGE is content to go to federal court and beg for relief. The rank and file are starting to act in their own best interests. This is not a revolutionary impulse, but it shows that there is more militancy among our brothers and sisters than is apparent on the surface.
The longer the shutdown continues – and as of this writing, there is no sign of resolution – the more acute and more obvious these contradictions will become.