Posting until I feel catharsis

A week on from Louisiana's gubernatorial election

The second round of Louisiana’s gubernatorial election gave left-wing voters a choice between a right-wing Democrat who has maintained a one hundred percent anti-abortion voting record, and a far right Republican donor and millionaire capitalist who styled himself as a “conservative outsider” in spite of being one of the Louisiana GOP’s largest donors. In hs first term, the incumbent John Bel Edwards saw his agenda stymied by Republican obstructionism in the state legislature, where the GOP controls both houses. Edwards’s goal of restructuring the tax code and allowing the expiration of the Jindal-era tax credit regime has been repeatedly stalled, with Republicans fighting to extend tax credits that starve social services of funding, forcing recurrent budget crises and necessitating emergency legislative sessions which have cost the state over one million dollars altogether. Despite this, Edwards can boast about generating a budget surplus - a result of many cuts made to higher education and poverty relief among other items, in addition to the expiration of some tax credits - which drives home the fact that Republicans have consistently failed to achieve a balanced budget even with total control over the state. In contrast to Edwards, Bobby Jindal - Edwards’s Republican predecessor - left the state with an over two billion dollar budget deficit at the end of his second term as governor, even with cuts to public spending.

Rather than reaching across the aisle and embracing Edwards as an ally of the conservative legislative agenda, the Republicans doubled down on tired ideological bromides. Edwards, one of the most market and capital-friendly governors in the country, was red-baited by a conservative national newspaper, the Washington Examiner, for allowing a Chinese chemical firm to operate in South Louisiana. Rispone labeled him “socialist-leaning” and a “tax and spend liberal” for simply allowing tax credits from the prior administration to expire and then spending those tax dollars as the state of Louisiana is constitutionally permitted to do. Toward election day, Rispone hailed the half-hearted endorsement of Edwards as a lesser of two evils by a New Orleans branch of the Democratic Socialists of America as an endorsement of Edwards’s whole agenda. Policy wise, the Republicans insisted that imposing a more punitive austerity regime, one even harsher than that imposed under Bobby Jindal, would somehow boost Louisiana’s economic fortunes. There are good reasons to be cynical about this claim.

The record of conservative government in Louisiana

Republicans held both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office from 2011 to 2016. They have continued to hold both houses of the legislature since John Bel Edwards took the governor’s office. Their record in power is abysmal. From 2012 to 2016, Louisiana’s economy shrank. Total GDP in 2016 (the end of Bobby Jindal’s governorship) fell to $228,086,000,000 from $233,623,000,000 in 2012 . Major budget cuts under Jindal arrested Louisiana’s economic growth even despite an impressive boom in natural gas drilling in the state during this period. Conservative “laissez faire” dogma clearly does not generate the results expected by its partisans. Politically and socially, it might be expected that “laissez faire” - if more than just a slogan disguising the total domination of capitalist power over our daily lives - would imply the liberalization of drug laws and criminal justice reform. However, likely because it would negatively impact Sheriffs who are paid per diem rates for housing state prisoners to considerable profit, the GOP has consistently turned down any bills promising genuine divergence from the status quo. This last legislative session, a party line vote saw the Republican-controlled state legislature demolish hope for decriminalization of cannabis, with the GOP voting unanimously against two decriminalization bills in committee .

When the GOP talks about “laissez faire” policy, or “free markets”, “free enterprise”, and so on, what they mean is austerity: cuts to social services that working people rely on to live in a semblance of comfort, an increased dependence of the working class on their bosses, and even less public oversight of labor relations, turning workplaces into the fiefdoms of managers and bosses. While this increases the rate of exploitation of labor and means greater returns to capital, it also means the deterioration of living conditions for workers. Under austerity, Louisiana’s life expectancy has been stagnant or in decline (depending on the source of the data), leaving Louisiana with the ignominious status of having a lower life expectancy than one of our poorest regional neighbors, the embargoed socialist island of Cuba, which had a life expectancy roughly three years (78) higher than Louisiana (75) in 2018.

Rispone and the rest of the GOP establishment stand for imposing such an austerity regime, one in which social services are cut, eliminated, and those which are left subjected to wasteful “means testing” (the bureaucracy required for means testing probably amounts to a greater expenditure than simply tolerating welfare fraud would). Rispone campaigned on implementing stricter work requirements for recipients of welfare programs, leaving those who are unable to work - due to disability, for example, or due to the simple lack of capital investment in their communities - shit out of luck, and in a far more precarious and desperate position. The imposition of such work requirements is an attempt to discipline Louisiana’s already highly disciplined workforce, to intensify the exploitation of Louisiana’s working class by capital, and thereby to engender greater rates of capital accumulation via more intense labor exploitation. This precarity will not be imposed only on the lumpenproletariat, the chronically unemployed; it will affect all workers, who will be forced into more intense competition with one another as the situation for the working class as a whole deteriorates, enforced by a state-imposed race to the bottom. Rispone and the GOP’s platform for the working class is simple: lower real wages, increase difficulty in accessing needed assistance, and increase the power of bosses over our everyday lives.

Antonio Gramsci is instructive on the ideology of “free markets” :

Thus it is asserted that economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the State must not intervene to regulate it. But since in actual reality civil society and State are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of state 'regulation', introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. It is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political programme, designed to change - in so far as it is victorious - a State's leading personnel, and to change the economic programme of the State itself - in other words the distribution of the national income.

Another component of the conservative economic strategy in Louisiana has been to enable multinational energy firms to cheaply exploit Louisiana’s mineral resources, at the expense of native fishing industries and agriculture whose waterways and soils are polluted by extractive activity (to say nothing of the air pollution it also generates ). This strategy has not been successful at maintaining economic growth above or even near the national average. In fact, despite the state government bending over backwards to be of service to fossil fuel extractors, Louisiana’s annual economic growth has been regularly outpaced by the national average.

One problem with the Republican growth strategy is that global energy markets are very start and stop: once a glut sets in, production stops until it becomes profitable to begin producing again, putting oil workers at least temporarily out of work. Another problem is that the oil industry job openings can’t keep up with population growth: automation has put a hard cap on the number of workers actually needed to produce the same quantity of oil and natural gas. Most of the money in the oil industry winds up out of state, appropriated by multinationals as revenue. The money that stays either belongs to the workers who live here, paid as wages and salaries, or takes the form of tax revenues from levies on fossil fuel extractors (which the GOP hopes to minimize and eliminate). Money paid as wages will circulate within the state for a minute, but it has never been enough to sustain long-term economic growth. There are simply too few workers involved in this industry: the number of workers involved in mineral extraction (including fossil fuels) has nearly halved since it peaked in 2012 , and there is no sign this long-term trend will reverse. While the image of the oil field worker remains a powerful image in the far right’s social imagination, this type of worker is becoming endangered even despite the legislature and governor pandering to the fossil fuel industry’s interests.

Judging from recent history and by the intentions of Louisiana’s conservative movement, an even more conservative governor would have been an unmitigated disaster for the state’s working class. There is no reason to believe that Republican control over both the legislature and governor’s office would make Louisiana any more “free”, or its average citizens any materially better off. There is ample reason to believe that the worst authoritarian impulses of the conservatives would be unleashed: Rispone made it clear that he would punish New Orleans for refusing to cooperate with ICE raids, and crack down on anti-ICE organizing and activism. The conservatives want to wage a total war against the left and working class, and to entrench the already despotic power of capital over us.

The election in retrospect

There were few reasons to be optimistic about the result of the election. Rispone had the benefit of running as a Republican in a solidly red state. The intervention of Donald Trump, the avatar of delusional lunatics everywhere, mobilized many conservative voters, but also many more liberal ones frightened at the prospect of living under a governor who styles himself after Trump. Trump’s own endorsement of Rispone was hapless, as exposed when, at his Bossier City rally, he stumbled through clearly pre-prepared talking points like a used car salesman desperate to make commission.

The conservatives still have a stronger institutional network than any other political formation in Louisiana. Nobody else is as well-organized. Church groups manage to mobilize greater numbers for the March for Life, often by bussing in congregation members from out of town, than any left-wing groups have been able to achieve for any similar event. There was far more enthusiasm behind Rispone than behind Edwards, with Edwards being viewed from the left as a lesser of two evils, and Rispone being viewed by right-wing voters as the immanentizer of the conservative eschaton.

The continuation of the John Bel Edwards government leaves little room for hope, as the state Democratic party does not represent a real break with the far right and its elitist agenda. Under Edwards, Louisiana’s police have been emboldened, added to minority groups protected by hate crime legislation, and allowed to trample the rights of ordinary people with impunity. Environmentalist activists have been targeted and laws have been signed to criminalize anti-pipeline protests. The governor himself was the only Democrat to speak at the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council conference, held in Louisiana this last year. In almost any other state, he would run as a Republican.

Edwards won by less than a standard polling error. Rispone’s far right ramblings about “radical liberal socialists” and the like clearly spoke to a great number of voters. Many of these voters were voting solely in their own economic best interests. Bosses and landlords had plenty of good reasons, from the perspective of their private property and capital, to vote for the Republican candidate. Far more of Rispone’s voters, however, were voting in their own worst interest, and the causes of this deserve investigation. There is, for one, a dearth of left-wing media in the state, amidst a plethora of right-wing outlets. In such a context, right-wing politics becomes the default, and any political sentiments aimed toward the disruption of the status quo are siphoned into conservative political channels, using conservative shibboleths and conservative God and Devil words.

This was the strength of Rispone’s “conservative outsider” image. Although pure spectacle, given Rispone is a Republican party insider, the “outsider” image is a powerful one among voters who reject the status quo. What remains is the need to form an alternative which offers a genuine divergence from the current state of things. This alternative can only come from a position conscious of class struggle and opposed to the bourgeoisie’s class dictatorship. Any perspective which fails to account for class struggle can not point the way toward a rupture with the way things are. Class struggle, the struggle for power between the working class - the proletariat - and the ruling class - the bourgeoisie, is what structures the historical development of our society. Those who refuse to take a side invariably stand with the ruling class.

With the threat of Rispone as governor out of sight, we can not fall victim to the delusions which liberals fell into following Obama’s re-election. The enemy is still at the gates. The right is still organized and mobilized, and still actively pushing the boundaries of politically acceptable rhetoric to the right, with the Democrats tailing this right-ward lurch. As more and more working people become fed up with the status quo, it is vital that the left does not allow far right elites such as Rispone to monopolize this resentment and channel it into reactionary ends. Rather than be elated at the defeat of Rispone, the left in Louisiana needs to rebuild its capacity to challenge capitalist power and the more well organized reactionary movements which have a stranglehold on state politics.