The United States is on the verge of a government shutdown.
The fact that a minority far right in Congress has forced this, largely over disagreements with military spending, shows that the U.S. regime is in a historic crisis. Now more than ever, workers must intervene for their own interests.
For the fourth time in ten years, the government is about to shut down ( prior to the 2013 shutdown, the last shutdown was in 1996). This shutdown, if it isn’t averted through last-minute maneuvering, would mean that roughly four million government employees — including police officers and the military — would have their paychecks delayed, be furloughed, or otherwise impacted. The chaotic process of trying to keep the government open reveals, again, the deeply undemocratic nature of the U.S. regime. That a small sector of the far-right, elected by a tiny segment of the U.S. population, can hold necessary social programs hostage and demand new cuts in order to prevent an incredibly disruptive government shutdown is a sign that the U.S. government doesn’t represent the masses. They represent the interests of the ruling class and are perfectly happy to meaningfully worsen the living conditions of workers and the poor if it helps them gain political capital.
A shutdown would massively disrupt the political situation and pose risks to the economic recovery that Biden has made the centerpiece of his re-election campaign. This shutdown would also take place in the context of a particularly acute moment of crisis for the ruling class as the re-emergence of the labor movement — seen in the UAW strike, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, and several smaller strikes across the country — has put the working class back at the center of the political situation and both parties are having to figure out how to address this re-emergence.
If the government does shut down and millions of workers find themselves without pay, these workers must look to the example the labor movement has set in recent years. There is precedent for government workers to organize and demand that they not suffer as a result of Congressional dysfunction. For instance, the last shutdown ended a day after flight attendants threatened to strike to end the shutdown. This is the type of organizing that will be required for the working class to ensure that this shutdown ends not on the terms of the capitalists, who will use “compromise” to slash already underfunded social programs, but on the terms of the workers. We must organize to ensure that the working class takes up the fight to protect social programs and the pay of millions of government employees, things that the ruling class clearly has no interest in protecting.
This shutdown is also unfolding against the backdrop of the 2024 election, which draws ever closer and looms over both parties. In addition, past government shutdowns have, unsurprisingly, been incredibly unpopular, with the 2013 shutdown leading to only 14% saying they were happy with how the country was being governed — lower than during the Watergate crisis. In a moment when Congress has a 19% approval rate, it seems like the last thing this institution needs is another unpopular shutdown. So, then, why is it increasingly looking inevitable?
The Stand-Off In Congress
To understand that question, we need to look at the crisis within Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives. The House Republican Party has been the site of some of the most acute signs of the on-going civil war within the GOP since the disastrous affair to get Kevin McCarthy elected as speaker earlier this year. The process of getting McCarthy the speakership was the most contentious and drawn out in over 160 years. McCarthy’s antagonists — the far-right wing of the Republican Party organized in the Freedom Caucus — are, yet again, his antagonists in the current moment. These far-right members of the Republican Party have seized upon the narrow majority Republicans hold to exert far-greater influence over national politics than their relatively small numbers would otherwise justify.
The Republicans’ nine-vote majority is narrow enough that the establishment wing of the party (which is by-far the most numerous bloc within the Congressional party) has had to enter into a coalition-esque dynamic with the Freedom Caucus who, despite being few in number, have been able to exert a significant amount of control over the functioning of the House. Rather than governing as a single party, McCarthy and the rest of the GOP House leadership are constantly having to negotiate with these fringe members of their party who realize that — given the ultra-partisan functioning of the current Congress — their votes will be essential to get anything passed. From holding up McCarthy’s election until he agreed to a wide-set of their demands, to their long-standoff about passing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), to the current threat of a shutdown, these far-right Republicans are more than happy to hold Congress and government as a whole hostage in order to get their demands met. Indeed, one important concession that McCarthy had to make as speaker was giving any individual house member the power to call a vote to remove the speaker — strengthening the ability of the Freedom Caucus to oust McCarthy himself if he doesn’t live up to their demands. Freedom Caucus leader Matt Gaetz has already threatened to do this during the on-going fight over the budget.
It is not a footnote that one of the main points of contention in Congress was the NDAA (the annual funding bill for military spending). Since this summer when Congress first began debating the NDAA, the far right has fought for the bill to include provisions that cut U.S. aid to Ukraine and military spending on abortion access, trans healthcare, and diversity programs. After twice preventing the bill from being brought to the floor and winning concessions from McCarthy, the far right finally allowed the NDAA to pass late at night on September 28. However, the bill is considered “dead on arrival” in the Senate given the amount of concessions McCarthy included for the far right in order to get the bill through the House. All this fighting over the NDAA — which has passed with bipartisan support for more than six decades — shows that the far right’s agenda also represents deeper divisions within the U.S. regime over the war in Ukraine. This far-right sector is likely emboldened in the current moment by the shifting mood of the U.S. population, with a new CNN poll revealing that 55 percent oppose more aid to Ukraine. Recent data from the Pew Research Center indicates that opposition to Ukraine aid is even higher among Republican voters.
These tensions within the GOP have overflowed, with both the establishment and far-right wings of the party actively trashing their own party colleagues in the media. Gaetz, for example, tweeted asking if any Democrats would support his motion to remove McCarthy as speaker, and several other Freedom Caucus members openly attacked McCarthy. McCarthy, allegedly, responded to the threats against his job by telling the Freedom Caucus that “If you want to file a motion to vacate, move the fucking motion.” McCarthy also implied that Gaetz was orchestrating the removal of McCarthy because he wanted McCarthy to intervene in an on-going ethics investigation of Gaetz. So, suffice it to say, tensions are high and public — with some reporting that a motion to remove could be put forward as early as next week.
This is, of course, far from business as usual in Congress and represents a shifting dynamic within Congress over the past period. The days of bipartisan collaboration that ended the shutdown in 2013 are over, and straight-party votes are increasingly common. This dynamic has meant that the parties in power (especially when they have narrow majorities) essentially need every member’s support. As a result, previously fringe members of the party wield a greater amount of power — think of the way that Joe Manchin was able to essentially hold Biden’s agenda hostage during the last Congress.
What is unique about the Freedom Caucus is that they are acting as a group with some level of discipline, which has increased their respective power compared to if each member was just negotiating on their own. Something else that has strengthened the Freedom Caucus’ position is that, despite being a minority in Congress, they are the main representatives in Congress of a major phenomenon in the Republican Party — the emergence of a new far-right. With Trump out of office and the Republicans out of power in the Senate, the Freedom Caucus represents the Republican right’s best shot at actually being able to implement their agenda (or at least parts of it) at the national level. Some of their key demands — cutting aid to Ukraine, slashing or eliminating federal agencies, stopping government investigations into Trump, and attacking “wokeness” — are all signs of the type of right-wing Republican politics we’ve seen at the state level and in Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential campaigns, but haven’t seen in the Republican establishment that holds the majority of the Congressional Republican Party.
These far-right Republicans are holding up the bills needed to keep the government out of shutdown, and even as McCarthy bows to their demands and holds votes on smaller concessionary bills, the government shutdown is still not necessarily averted because the bills passing the House will have to pass the Democratic Party-controlled Senate and then be signed by Biden. Whatever concessions have been given to the Freedom Caucus will likely not pass the Senate, which would force revisions to be made, opening up this crisis yet again. The standoff happening in Congress right now is a symptom of a much larger crisis of the regime.
The Organic Crisis, Congress, And The Re-Emergence Of The Working Class
This crisis in Congress is the latest sign of the organic crisis — a phenomenon where traditional parties go into crisis as the masses no longer feel represented by their representatives — re-emerging. As we wrote about the McCarthy Affair:
Battered from four years under Trump, the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, two decades of endless war, declining hegemony abroad, and multiple “once-in-a-lifetime” economic crises, the public’s trust in the institutions of the U.S. regime are at historic low levels. This loss of trust has opened a crisis in which the masses (the “represented”) no longer feel that their politicians and institutions (the “representatives”) share their interests… Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci coined the term organic crisis to describe situations like these, in which there is a growing crisis between the represented and the representatives — this phenomena can benefit both the Left and the Right. As people increasingly (but not fully or en masse) realize that the U.S. state, the established parties, and the current system do not serve their interests, they will increasingly look for alternatives. This causes the established parties (in this case, the Democrats and Republicans) to scramble over themselves to figure out how to reorient themselves to the developing situation.
This crisis that we analyzed in January has only been deepened further by the rise in class struggle. From the narrowly-avoided UPS strike to the Hollywood strikes and the UAW strike, the working class has re-emerged and asserted itself as an actor in national politics. This has forced both parties to re-orient themselves to figure out how to deal with this new emergence. And the Republicans in particular lack agreement on how best to do this. As we saw with the reactions to the UAW strike, some sectors of the GOP are holding to their traditional politics of opposing unions, while others are taking on a more conciliatory position toward workers — with Trump skipping the debate to visit Michigan to talk about the strike (in a non-union plant), and Josh Hawley, a Trumpist Republican Senator, even went so far as to visit the picket lines and deliver a strong message of support (filled with anti-China and xenophobic rhetoric) for the striking workers.
This disagreement, like the stand-off over the budget and NDAA, shows the deep divisions within the Republican Party in the current moment. These divisions cannot be easily overcome, and it seems like more crisis is in store for the Republican Party. In fact, the fights over the NDAA and Trump’s presidential campaign show that even the role of the U.S. imperialism is more fiercely contested by a far right that has its own vision for how to best maintain U.S. control of the world.
Imperialism Under Trump Vs. Imperialism Under Biden
It’s important to remember just how much the Trump presidency broke with the norms of U.S. imperialist strategy under decades of neoliberalism. Trump proudly rejected U.S. participation in international trade agreements and military alliances including NATO, spoke to working class Americans’ fatigue with forever wars and ridiculed the leaders who started them, and took competition with China to new extremes with trade war measures. The “America First” foreign policy that Trump developed is still fresh in the minds of the more traditional imperialist thinkers, and many fear that a second Trump presidency would go even further with this approach.
It is also important to remember that while Trump postured as a critic of war in order to rally support for his agenda, he was an imperialist through and through. During his presidency, he launched even more drone strikes than Obama, including the escalatory assassination of an Iranian general. He attempted a coup in Venezuela and backed a coup in Bolivia. He even publicly threatened nuclear aggression against North Korea. What set Trump apart from Biden and other neoliberal representatives of U.S. imperialism was not any serious opposition to U.S. intervention, but rather an opposition to the United States asserting its dominance through the methods of “diplomacy” to act as a “leader” on the international stage. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy was instead one of unilateral action, using the sheer strength of the United States to strongarm other countries, and longstanding U.S. allies were not safe from Trump’s strong-arming.
One of Biden’s main tasks following the Trump years was to rebuild U.S. power through a renewed commitment to traditional alliances. So far, he has largely succeeded, using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to pursue an unprecedented rearmament and expansion of NATO while subordinating European powers to U.S. interests. Going further, Biden has used the U.S. influence of NATO and other key alliances like the G7 to connect U.S. aims in Europe to partnerships in the Asia Pacific region, strengthening the U.S. military containment of China.
Heading into the 2024 election, Trump is already attacking Biden’s foreign policy as a pillar of his campaign, claiming that Biden is dragging the United States into World War Three. Like the far right in the House, Trump has put a critique of Ukraine aid at the center of his foreign policy agenda, saying, “We must stop this insanity, immediately end the bloodshed in Ukraine, and return to a focus on America’s vital interests.” This raises an important question. If the far right doesn’t see the war in Ukraine, and the advance of U.S. imperialism that has come with it, as being in the interest of the United States, what is their preferred strategy?
The Far Right’s Foreign Policy
While the Democrats and establishment Republicans have been united in their support for the war in Ukraine, the far right — from presidential candidates like Trump and Ramaswamy to the House Freedom Caucus and even far right senators like Josh Hawley — have been united in their insistence that the United States is wasting its money and ignoring more pressing matters. They argue that the war distracts from the “invasion” at the border and a more direct confrontation with China. As an alternative, they propose that the United States should move more aggressively towards decoupling its economy from China with a protectionist economic policy and reserve repressive resources like the military for domestic repression, strong-arming weaker powers, and possible conflict with China.
The opposition to spending on Ukraine is still a marginal position among capitalists, but it is gaining traction. This is in part due to the growing rejection of aid at the level of the masses, especially among Trump’s base which sees Ukraine spending as the United States focusing on “other countries’ problems” instead of their own economic interests. However, claims that the war in Ukraine distracts from military confrontation with China may also become more convincing to imperialist strategists as Biden exhausts more and more military resources in Europe, even as Ukraine fails to make meaningful advances. Aid to Ukraine has depleted U.S. munitions stockpiles, which cannot be easily reproduced given the United States’ limited domestic production. The United States has also increased troop deployments to Europe at a time when the military is struggling to meet its recruitment targets amid historically low interest from young people. As a result, Biden has been relying on reserve forces and the National Guard for foreign troop deployments, forces that the state increasingly relies on for suppressing domestic instability and policing the border.
It must also be noted that the militarization of the border is central to the far right’s approach to competition with China. Along with “protecting American jobs,” from migrants, the border is one of the main resources the United States uses to expand and maintain its influence throughout Central America. U.S. power over Latin America has become all the more important as China is growing its influence in the region historically seen as the United States’s backyard.
Keeping migrants out is also central to the far right’s strategy to economically compete with China. Outsourcing labor has allowed U.S. businesses to exploit workers in countries with fewer labor protections — most notably China — and as a result, reap massive profits. Decoupling the economies means that the United States must find ways to replicate this extreme exploitation at the domestic level. Militarization of the border and restriction of immigration enables businesses to more intensely exploit undocumented and immigrant workers within the United States, relying on the threat of deportation to keep these workers from demanding more. Workers born in the United States are then forced to compete with their precarious migrant class siblings, meaning that attacks on immigrant rights are also a way to drive down the conditions for the entire U.S. working class.
Through its fight over the NDAA, the far right is showing that it has an alternative pitch for re-establishing U.S. dominance, but it is a pitch that is incompatible with the more traditional strategy that Biden is attempting to re-establish through war in Ukraine. How far they can go with their strategy depends on how much they can wield chauvinist sentiments in their populist base and how deeply the contradictions of the war and U.S. military power develop.
Workers, Not Capitalists, Must Resolve This Crisis
The far right continues to show that even as a minority, it has enough support and influence to impose its demands on the government, and it is not afraid to disrupt the normal functioning of the regime to get its way. But the far right is not the only force that has greater space to make demands.
As the historic UAW strike and other developments in the labor movement show, the organized working class has the power to shape national politics and demand concessions. In fact, both Biden and Trump have been much more oriented to the UAW strike than to the debates over the NDAA, an important sign of what poses the biggest disruption to capitalist interests.
Whatever the outcome of this current stand-off, the larger dynamics that brought about this crisis will not go away. The contradictions of the whole capitalist system have brought these different sectors into conflict. The bankruptcy of bourgeois democracy is what allows a minority in Congress — elected by a miniscule sector of the general public — to threaten a shutdown in order to impose its agenda. And the real harms of neoliberal policies and imperialist wars is what has allowed the far right to consolidate a populist base.
Despite their anti-war posturing and supposed concern for “American jobs,” the far right’s agenda is deeply anti-worker and pro-imperialist, shown most obviously by the fact that they are willing to freeze pay for millions of workers in order to get their way. Their chauvinism also weakens the power of U.S. workers by convincing them that they are in a zero sum competition with workers in China, Mexico, and throughout the world. In reality, nothing would pose a greater threat to elites in the United States than the U.S. working class organizing alongside its international class siblings against capitalist exploitation and competition. And far from being “anti-war,” it should be clear that any opposition the far-right has to the war in Ukraine is based on a desire to prepare for competition and a potential war with China. To win this competition, they will gladly drive down the labor conditions of the U.S. working class and turn the repressive forces of U.S. imperialism on any domestic opposition from U.S. workers and social movements. To win a war with China, there is no question that the far right would sacrifice any number of workers, Chinese or American.
It is correct, though, to question the NDAA and other aspects of the annual budget. But unlike the far right, which questions if the budget is the best use of resources towards the goal of capitalist competition and is slashing funding for social programs (such as a proposed 33 percent cut to the housing budget amidst a housing crisis), workers should question why both parties continue to spend hundreds of billions annually on war and border militarization while claiming there is no money for programs that benefit workers like healthcare, education, housing, green jobs, and so on.
Faced with yet another government shutdown, an emboldened far right, no serious opposition to constant war, and every indication that these crises will only deepen, it is essential that workers use the moment to demand better and fight for budgets and a government that actually serves our interests. This requires a fight for socialism that relies on our power as a class, not better representatives in capitalist parties. It is not a fantasy that we can develop this fight. We are already shaping the national agenda, and as our strikes show, we can organize shutdowns with far more power than anything the Freedom Caucus can pull. It’s time to use that power.