Brandon Johnson Won in Chicago. Now His Movement Will Have to Beat Capital Strikes.

Brandon Johnson’s mayoral victory is a first step toward transforming the deeply unequal city. If he’s going to undertake radical reform efforts in Chicago, Johnson needs protests and strikes to fend off the inevitable capitalist attacks.

Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson speaks during a rally at the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation on March 18, 2023, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Brandon Johnson’s shocking victory in Chicago’s April 4 mayoral election has sparked intense reactions across the spectrum. Three months ago, few expected a black organizer from a militant union to defeat an opponent who enjoyed the unified backing of big business and police and a two-to-one funding advantage. While Johnson campaigned on taxing large corporations, addressing the social roots of crime, and enacting a modicum of police accountability, his opponent Paul Vallas pledged more school privatization, more austerity for workers, and free rein for police.

Johnson’s win not only offers hope for transforming a ruthlessly unequal city, but signals what the Left could accomplish elsewhere. For that reason, the election has elicited fear and rage from the lords of the city and trepidation from the national business press. Investors are issuing dire warnings of capital flight, while police officials are predicting an explosion in street crime.

To the extent that Johnson and his allies on the city council attempt to deliver, they will incur a phalanx of resistance. Reactionary forces may have lost the election, but they retain enormous power to coerce both policymakers and the general population.

Neutralizing that resistance will require learning from the history of would-be reformers, most of whom fell short of their campaign promises. The ultimate outcome in Chicago will depend on whether progressive forces continue to deepen their capacity for mass militancy outside the electoral realm, as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has been doing since 2010.

The Reactionary Recipe

The Right has a well-tested playbook in these situations. When its candidates lose, it turns to its other levers of power. It finds judicial and legislative choke points to obstruct reform and wages a propaganda war in the press. Less visible but equally important is the structural leverage that comes from controlling employment, access to loans, and government tax revenues. Threats to withdraw those resources — a “capital strike” — can bring significant pressure to bear on reformers.

Some cases of such coercion are well documented. When a popular revolution challenged US domination of Cuba, Washington imposed an economic blockade “to bring about hunger, desperation, and overthrow of government,” as a State Department official wrote in 1960. It was a capital strike enforced by the US government, designed to inflict misery on the Cuban people.

When Chileans elected a socialist president in 1970, US policymakers and top corporations launched “a laboratory experiment” to redirect investments away from Chile “in an effort to discredit and bring down” Salvador Allende. As in Cuba, the immediate target was the population, which would presumably then revolt against their government. “We shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty,” the US ambassador wrote. The same logic lies behind the numerous economic sanctions the US has imposed in recent decades.

Salvador Allende in 1972. (Arquivo Nacional Collection / Wikimedia Commons)

More routine than these dramatic episodes, though, are the constant warnings about how progressive economic reform will damage “business confidence,” meaning capitalists’ willingness to invest in particular sectors or locales in the form of employment and loans. Capitalists are always threatening to go on strike against policies they dislike and, conversely, promising to open the investment valve when government adopts “policies that are more pro-business.”

To be sure, capitalists are known for hyperbole. Often their threats are just hot air, and often businesses disinvest or invest for purely economic reasons. But given their control over the resources that we all depend on, their words carry real political weight.

Brandon Johnson is the latest target. A postelection Bloomberg report aired industry’s threats: a tax on large employers would be a “job killer”; his proposals for modest new taxes on airlines, hotels, and real estate would risk “a negative spiral” of corporate disinvestment; Chicago’s stock trading sector “would be decimated” by his proposed levy on securities trades; failure to “maintain fiscal discipline” could harm Chicago’s already poor credit rating. In other words, capitalists will withhold the resources that Chicagoans need unless Johnson falls in line.

Police are making parallel threats. One of Paul Vallas’s biggest boosters, John Catanzara of the Fraternal Order of Police, said last month there would be “blood in the streets” if Johnson won because police would quit the force en masse. (In other public statements, Catanzara has casually advocated genocide against Muslims.) Police can also wield financial leverage insofar as municipalities depend on arrests and citations for revenue. For a few weeks in 2014–15, the NYPD went on an unannounced strike in response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mild criticism of police violence. Cops elsewhere have done the same in recent decades.

These scare tactics can erode reformers’ base of support while also emboldening liberal leaders’ anti-left antipathy. During the mayoral election, there was no shortage of pro-Vallas liberal elites with loud megaphones, from party big wigs to pastors to former Black Panthers. Liberal defections and rising public ambivalence toward the reformers can prepare the ground for an ouster, whether it’s a coup, a recall, or a defeat in the next election.

What Reformers Face

In this context the most common response of reformers is to jettison progressive ambitions and pursue partnerships with capitalists — including big corporations — and state institutions like the police. The pragmatic logic behind this approach can be appealing: since we’re not strong enough to defeat them, let’s try to appease them so they’ll acquiesce to at least some of our program.

This is what happened with the wave of black mayors elected across the US in the 1970s and ’80s, most of them on social democratic platforms. Chicago was a prime example. In 1983 Harold Washington became the city’s first black mayor after running on a program similar to Brandon Johnson’s. He promised to expand public services and job creation programs, tax the rich, and confront the city’s racist policing and segregation. Like Johnson, Washington won a slim victory over a business-backed candidate who had vastly outspent him and who had the support of many Democratic elites.

Harold Washington, circa 1982. (US Congress / Wikimedia Commons)

Washington’s tenure was not without accomplishments. He weakened the stranglehold of the city’s corrupt and racist Democratic machine. He helped expand the Independent Political Organizations (IPOs) as alternatives to traditional Democratic politics and made important efforts to open city government to black and Latino residents. And he did so in the face of vicious resistance from Democratic power holders, including the reactionary white majority that controlled city council from 1983 to 1986.

But most of his intended reforms never materialized, and city council stonewalling was not the sole reason. A crucial impediment was the structural power of capitalists and the lack of a militant, nonelectoral mass movement that could force concessions from them and thereby open space for government reforms.

The ruling-class response to Washington’s election was predictable. BusinessWeek’s coverage of the 1983 election quoted corporate moguls who insisted that taxing the rich would jeopardize business confidence. “Chicago must compete with other cities as a place for businesses to locate and stay,” said one. “If Washington won’t listen to the business establishment, this effort will fall apart at the seams,” said another. Without more effort at “wooing businessmen,” Washington would scare away investors. One CEO predicted that “he’ll come around because business and government must work together.”

Washington was not overthrown or recalled; he died of a heart attack after being reelected in 1987. But he did “come around” to many of business’s demands. His Economic Development Task Force was dominated by corporate executives (albeit a multiracial group of them), reflecting the assumption that economic development was only possible if Chicago did more to “woo businessmen.” Part of that wooing included anti-labor policies, such as trying to ban strikes by municipal workers and failing to support unions in key labor conflicts. Given the elite’s success in blocking progressive tax reform, Washington found that the only way to achieve “a more stable fiscal footing for the city” was to raise taxes on the general population, as Newsweek reported after his death.

Washington’s fate paralleled that of other black mayors: Coleman Young in Detroit, Kenneth Gibson in Newark, and Maynard Jackson in Atlanta, to name a few. Variations aside, their basic approach was the same: shore up “business confidence” by paring down progressive campaign pledges, hoping that the resulting investment would generate decent working-class jobs and a stable tax base.

It didn’t. Their cities continued to hemorrhage jobs and tax revenue. “Unfortunately,” as Robert Brenner wrote in a classic 1985 article, “no Black mayor has succeeded in slowing down even slightly the downward curve of economic development for Black workers and the poor throughout the 70s and early 80s.”

Certainly, the reformers were victims of bad timing. By the late 1970s, employers and finance capitalists had launched an all-out war on labor rights and social welfare. That war has continued, with only minor abatements, down to the present.

However, the failure was partly within the Left’s power to control. In the 1970s many progressive organizations shifted away from the boycotts, sit-ins, and other tactics that had won real reforms in the ’60s. Middle-class black leaders and labor officials reasserted their control over the rank and file, sermonizing about how “the militancy of the old days is passé” and conspiring against rank-and-file militancy when it did break out. Ironically, those leaders undercut their own ability to deliver reforms, for it was mass disruption that had given reformers the leverage to shape policy.

Instead, electoral campaigns and lobbying became the order of the day. By the time people like Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson ran for office, most elected reformers had neither the inclination nor ability to counter the capitalist onslaught.

Harold Washington Didn’t Have a CTU

Many on Chicago’s left understand all of this. In fact, since CTU reformers first won power in 2010, they have prioritized real organizing and collective direct action, including several major strikes since 2012. They’ve done electoral campaigning too, but on the foundation of a well-organized, combative, multiracial movement that has operated mostly outside the electoral sphere. Brandon Johnson’s victory would be unthinkable otherwise.

CTU militancy, and the fact that Johnson comes from the ranks, marks a big difference from Harold Washington’s era. Washington himself lacked Johnson’s organic connection to mass organizing, and once in office made little effort to encourage grassroots militancy outside of election campaigns.

The Johnson administration’s fate will depend on how Johnson and his base each respond to the inevitable reactionary offensive. For the base, success will require maintaining the CTU-style emphasis on organizing people to take direct action in pursuit of their interests, and expanding that fighting model to more of Chicago’s workers, students, parents, consumers, and renters. The Johnson administration, meanwhile, can fortify their efforts by constantly championing that principle.

At the level of economic policy, the administration must persuade the public that economic development does not require lavishing subsidies on major corporations, and that corporations in any case are fickle and traitorous partners. It must split small capital from big capital. Johnson’s tax proposals reflect an awareness that, at least in the short term, no reformer can confront a unified business class.

The administration should also foster the growth of counter-institutions like worker and consumer cooperatives. With legal, moral, and material support from local government, such institutions of popular power can assume a greater role in the economy, even taking control of abandoned shops and factories.

Much of the funding for those projects could come from a public bank established at the city level. Because profit-oriented lenders systematically exploit small-time debtors and invest in businesses that maximize profits rather than social welfare, the idea of public banking has gained momentum of late. A public bank could simultaneously combat predatory lending and channel investments toward public housing, cooperatives, job programs, and other unprofitable but socially useful ventures. There’s no reason (no economic reason, at least) why Chicago or other municipalities can’t do it.

Changing Chicago will be hard. Given limited resources, progressives will be tempted to focus exclusively on electoral mobilization. The administration will feel tremendous pressure to accommodate the city’s capitalists, particularly as federal COVID funds dry up, budget deficits persist, and a possible recession looms. If crime remains at high levels, Johnson will also be tempted to revert to a traditional tough-on-crime approach.

Whether or not we live in Chicago, we must be ready to stand with Chicago’s workers during the coming confrontations — for example, by donating to union strike funds. Solidarity also means learning from their example and applying the lessons where we are.

Entrenched elites can be forced to accept meaningful reforms. Those wins can then become springboards to bigger victories. If Chicagoans succeed, their example will reverberate far beyond the city.