The Revenge of Class and the Death of the Democratic Party

My Counterpunch article in case you missed it:

The Democratic Party of my lifetime – the coalition of Wall St finance capital and identity-politics voters that arose during the 1980s and 90s – is dead. It has been killed, quite ironically, by the revenge of class politics – the kind once championed by the Democrats. Decades of economic misery and the hollowing-out of vast segments of the American economy, which the Democratic Party participated in gleefully, has led to the inchoate rage which found expression in the fun house mirror version of class struggle politics: Donald Trump.

Barack Obama’s presidency will be seen as the high-water mark of this Democratic Party. The reign of finance capital, on the rise since the 1970’s and the shift within capitalism from productive industry to the financialization of everything, grew to a point where Obama used the machinery of state to not only rescue finance capital after its 2008 collapse but to extend its rule by crushing any attempts at a left-Keynesian solution to the crisis. Occupy Wall Street, a class-conscious response to austerity politics, was exterminated by Democratic mayors under dictates from Obama’s White House.

Obama’s electoral coalition was driven by the professional class that had arisen to manage the various segments of the financialized economy. Since they derive significant benefits from late capitalism, the professionals eschew class-struggle based politics. What this group wants is a slow expansion of individual rights. The liberal illusion is that this gradual expansion of rights is inevitable, that progress is slow-but-steady, and more radical attempts to deal with the economic system are unwanted or impossible. It is a perfect illusion for professionals within capitalism to have: moderate progress and no need to mention class. Capital very well accomodated itself to these demands during the Obama years and showed itself willing to incorporate same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, etc. The point is not that these gains are insignificant – they are indeed important – but that they do little to address the larger inequalities within capitalism and have been used to split professionals from the working class.

Thus the collective trauma of the liberal class after Trump’s win is very much that of a group illusion being violently shattered. Every subclass manifests ideological justifications for its position, and the wrenching defeat of Hillary Clinton – who had the full might of the media apparatus behind her – shows there are no longer enough votes to continue mining in new sectors of the identity-politics class. This class reaction to defeat is a comical extension of itself: talk of fleeing the country is only possible because they are credentialed professionals with portable skills across international borders. Working class individuals are to be left behind to resist, or be crushed by the new regime.

Indeed it was that working class of the Rust Belt that handed the Democratic Party its defeat. Trump is no savior of workers, but he understands what successful elites have from time immemorial: to win the backing of a disaffected working class means you acquire a strong base of support against other elite factions. The inchoate rage of the working class (many of whom voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012) is a product of a half-century of structural decline coupled with conscious policy decisions that decimated the workforce. Clinton signed NAFTA, Obama failed to press forward on card-check unionization rules, and none of them moved to repeal Taft-Hartley. It is also a product of post-war order that took apart class-struggle unions and attacked class struggle parties, making it nearly impossible to organize in the private sector. Until mid-century there was a healthy class-conscious culture buoyed by labor and socialist media, organizations and education. Its loss has opened a space for the rise of a right-wing that gives a distorted voice to working class concerns.

Many will point to Bernie Sanders as a rebuttal to the terminal decline of the Democratic Party’s drift into the party of identity politics and Wall St. It is true that Sanders voiced a social-democratic agenda warmly received by workers and a good part of left-leaning petty-bourgeois Americans. But remember: the professional identity-politics voters in the Democrats fiercely rejected Sanders. He won states with large working class populations not tied to the professional identity-politics class, and he usually needed support from independents in open primaries to do so. Class-struggle politics can be tied to expanding personal freedoms, but it is anathema to a professional class and party whose existence depends upon the largesse of finance capital.

Class, then, has had its revenge on the illusions of the professional caste. This likely signals the terminal decline of the Democratic Party. Hemmed in by campaign donors from moving left and by the ideology of its party functionaries, there will be little room for it to maneuver in Trump’s America. The capitalism of the early 21st century also prohibits a return to the classic social-democratic bargain of mid-century. While social-democratic programs like a massive public works plan for full employment, income redistribution and social programs are still possible within capitalism, but the old alliance of labor and a section of big capital will not materialize because capital no longer needs or wants to use those programs to create and sustain profits by developing a mass of well-paid workers in production industries. Thus any group implementing reforms on the left will be immediately challenged and forced to either radicalize towards socialism or acquiesce to the demands of capital. The Democrats cannot do this and will remain boxed into their strongholds; within Congress a Sanders (or Warren) will be allowed to posture while in the minority but will not be allowed to build a platform to take the party in a more leftward direction. Trump, because he is bourgeois, will conversely be permitted to throw sops to workers in exchange for their electoral support. It is a cruel return of working class politics that cannot be won without building a radical left party capable of challenging the system at the ballot box and in the streets.

Vote for Stein to Build the Left

 

If this election cycle in the United States has proven anything, it is the decay of the political system now firmly mirrors the decline of US military and economic hegemony. The crisis of American capitalism has two bookends: economic and political turmoil under Nixon in the early 1970s – solved for a time by neoliberalism – and the end that was hastened by Bush’s wars, now coming to a dénouement under the next presidential regime. American capitalism no longer hides its rottenness: the Clintons are openly corrupt and abetted by an entire institutional structure devoted to living off the continued easy access to capital, exploitative trade deals and hawkish military intervention promised by Hillary and Bill part deux, while Donald Trump is a clown of a politician seemingly chosen by the ruling class to ensure a Clinton victory through his own buffoonish behavior.

Where does this leave the radical Left in the United States?

Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, Green Party candidates for President and Vice-President, have articulated a political agenda open to anti-austerity, pro-working class policies. During the Green presidential convention, an organized socialist faction helped insert a section into the national platform endorsing economic democracy and anti-capitalism. Stein and Baraka were given unprecedented access for national Greens to the media, including an hour-long interview on CNN, where they were able to discuss Left policies and critiques openly. Even Ralph Nader was never granted this courtesy during his runs.

Yet the Left electorate is not coalescing around Stein (or any other candidate for that matter); she’s polling at between 2-5% nationally.

Lack of Left electoral strength during a time when the right is resurgent and the working class has begun to cry out for solutions to the permanent crisis of late capitalism can, to an extent, be blamed on the usual culprits: election laws meant to prevent growth of independent political movements, the large amounts of campaign cash needed to win offices, media hostility, and hereditary voting blocs that create ideological walls against exit from Democratic or Republican parties. The decline of the American industrial working class, partly a product of this long-cycle of accumulation’s turn to financialization for super-profits, but also clearly manufactured by the political establishment in both major parties in their drive to kill the strength of American labor unions, manifests itself in the lack of support for independent left alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans. The Sanders phenomenon pointed the way towards what could happen if a significant part of the left electorate bolted from the two parties – but that break was momentarily halted after Sanders tried to herd his supporters back into the Clinton camp.

If the radical electoral Left wants to begin reasserting itself as a political force in the United States, the Stein/Baraka Green Party ticket needs to receive 5% of the popular vote on Tuesday.

That result won’t reignite conscious political class struggle in the United States on its own. Rosa Luxemburg was quite correct a century ago that class struggle arises and peaks due to external shocks and tends to be pushed spontaneously into new forms by the masses of unorganized workers; we can’t yet know what that will look like for the United States. What the result would do is help with the dialectical counterpart of that spontaneity: a growth of an organized, potentially radical political party and a space for a radical culture of dissent to grow so that when spontaneous class struggle occurs, that organization can interact with and help guide the movement. This interplay of spontaneity and organization is the crucial dialectic that the Left here has been unable to fully understand or capture for the last half-century.

5% would mean that the Greens are entitled to millions in federal electoral funding, but this funding could go towards hiring organizers, staffers and funding campaigns at every level. A weakness of the party and the Left would turn to strength. Media would likely be forced to bring a Green or left representative on to discuss policy decisions made by the next presidential regime, and masses of potential supporters would be exposed to Left ideas regularly for the first time. Green ballot lines would allow the Left to run against the Democrats and Republicans at all levels of government. The next time real class struggle happens at any level, the Left would be more ready to build upon it, and might lay the groundwork for it with organizing on economic and political issues at those levels.

Karl Kautsky once observed that elections are “are a means to count ourselves and the enemy and they grant thereby a clear view of the relative strength of the classes and parties, their advance and their retreat.”[1] Kautsky’s flaws as a theorist notwithstanding, he is here correct to the extent we understand elections will never be a perfect means to count how powerful the Left is, or could be in a revolutionary moment. Parliamentary politics are not a perfect representation of the class struggle, nor could they be.  What they allow us is the possibility of examining the level of class-conscious electoral support parties may have and to build organizations and a political culture that could help guide the class struggle.

Conditions are ripe for a truly radical, anti-systemic movement – in fact they may be getting a bit rotten. The question for the Left is whether or not we will cast our votes to help build a space where radical politics can function and grow, bit by bit. I hope you will join me tomorrow in casting a vote for Jill Stein and then joining together in building a movement.

[1] Kautsky, Karl. The Social Revolution. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co, 1902. https://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1902/socrev/pt1-3.htm#s6

Against Amnesia

“In my own country, amnesia is the norm, the schools teach us to unremember from birth, the slave taking, the risings up, the songs of resistance, the first May first, our martyrs from Haymarket, to Attica to the redwoods of California, ripped whole from our hearts, erased from official memory….” – John Ross, “Against Amnesia”

Donald Trump’s declaration that the election system is rigged made me laugh a bit – it is, though not in the way he means it – and think about John Ross’ fabulous poem on our nation’s own utter (and often willful) ignorance of history. I wonder how many of the pearl-clutching journalists and Clintonistas were part of the brigade that wished Al Gore had decried the clear election fraud in 2000 and fought as hard as Donald claims he will after Nov. 8? More than a few, I suppose.

The election system is rigged, of course. A decade ago Citigroup produced a frank memo that said the United States was fast becoming a plutonomy, a neologism for a society with extreme class inequality; Profs. Gilens and Page said as much in a 2014 study: American politics responds to what our oligarchs want, not voters. It is hard to imagine oligarchs permitting democracy – Aristotle even categorized oligarchy as aristocratic government run in the interests of the wealthy, and not the many. Our ruling class uses the spectacle of national elections to pretend it doesn’t exist. This election cycle, more than others, has given us a glimpse into how deeply corrupt our system is, perhaps because Trump and Clinton are so universally despised by voters.

Why is the system rigged? The national presidential popular vote is irrelevant; instead there are 51 separate elections going on across the United States. A candidate can lose the national vote and still win due to the electoral college. There are only 10 or so states where the vote is even in doubt from election cycle to election cycle. To have a chance of winning a candidate must raise millions of dollars and convince outside groups to spend billions (really, after counting the amount of cash spent on this election it will total in the many billions). You have to get on the debate stage – a stage controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. Before that you have to get on the ballot, which is a maze of 51 different election laws – please read Theresa Amato’s amazing book detailing the problems candidates face doing so if they aren’t running as a (D) or (R). A candidate has to receive media coverage, which is often hostile if a candidate doesn’t meet political norms prescribed by the oligarchs.

Not to mention the gerrymandering that has left perhaps 20 House seats (out of 435) as truly competitive elections.

Or that our economy is controlled by a small segment of very large and powerful corporations, who will, by and large, work with anyone in power (and usually split donations to various candidates over time to make sure this happens).

So yes, the election is rigged! As a public, we understand parts of this from time-to-time, but often forget in the heat of campaign season.

The question is, can we learn from this collective amnesia? Start organizing to change this before we unremember again? One can only hope, I suppose.

 

 

Politics Is a Racket

I don’t often like to resort to overused analogies when analyzing politics, but when talking about the U.S. presidential election I find the best way to view it is as a protection racket. A protection racket, of course, is a mafia-like scheme where a group threatens violence against businesses or people unless they are paid to “protect” said groups. You know, the old “you’ve got a nice store here, wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to it, would you?” Our political system has been carefully crafted by the Democratic and Republican parties to frighten voters into selecting what they perceive to be the best worst option, rather than the most positive outcome. Keep in mind that the opposite is true for the ruling class and donors to campaigns: they tend to get what they want because both candidates are likely to promote the interests of the people and groups who fund their campaigns and control the levers of economic power. The two major parties and their large retinue of paid staff also get what they want: political power and access to jobs/resources.

The Shape of the Racket

The political protection racket has been built and maintained by the Democrats and Republicans using a number of techniques:

  • Gerrymandering rendering the majority of the country into non-competitive Congressional and state-legislative electoral districts.
  • Use of the Electoral College, and not the popular vote, to elect the president.
  • Placing of ballot-access and electoral hurdles in the way of alternative party candidates.
  • Preventing the establishment of fully publicly financed elections.
  • A symbiotic relationship with media outlets to both indoctrinate and propagandize the voting public as an extension of the media’s role in supporting the state and ruling class ideology.
  • Extremely negative responses to attempts by voters to exit the system by voting for alternative parties and candidates: predictions of voter irrelevance giving way to constant propaganda that third-parties (which may be the voter’s preferred outcome) will prevent the voter’s least non-preferred outcome from happening.
  • Actual reprisals against districts and voters who have successfully chosen to exit the protection racket.

It’s important to examine each of these in turn.

Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is drawing a district so that one party has an overwhelming registration advantage over all others. This makes voter rebellion (exit) unlikely because it would require the opposition to either enroll a significant number of new voters, encourage non-voters to vote, attract a significant portion of the majority party voters to vote against the party, or a combination of the three. In the United States, the Congressional district map has been so gerrymandered that there are between 16-19 races out of 435 that can truly be called competitive. That’s 4% of all House races! The Senate is slightly more competitive, with 7 seats out of 35 up for election in that category (20%), but keep in mind they are only 7% of the total Senate (7/100).

I mention this as a building-block of the political protection racket because by eliminating choice in vast majority of elections, you force voters to A.) consistently elect people from one political organization no matter what their preferences might be, B.) inevitably discourage many voters from participating in the political process, and C.) train voters to consistently vote for one particular party (no matter what) and that this is part of a democratic political order’s proper functioning.

Keep in mind this is all even worse at the level of state legislative elections.

Thus the Democrats and Republicans and their paid staff are assured a certain amount of political spoils no matter what, as exit from the system is blocked in most areas of the country. Like a company store, the voters an residents have to go because there seems to be no other option.

Electoral College

The Electoral College was designed to prevent the working class and poor from electing a radical executive who might try confiscate the property of the wealthy. Alexander Hamilton put this in an eloquent way when he wrote that the Electoral College was designed so “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” That is, because the vast majority of electors were originally chosen by state legislatures, this meant there were safeguards in place to prevent the popular will from being exercised, should it prove unacceptable to the elite.

Today the Electoral College is a part of the protection racket not because they are selected by state legislatures, but rather because it limits the truly competitive (swing) states to just 10 or 11: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. 40 of the 50 states have voted for the same party since the election of 2000.

Think about this!  Preventing a fully national electoral campaign and limiting the impact of democratic choice (in the form of the popular vote) but means there is precious little chance of voter rebellion and exit. The protection racket has tightened its grip by limiting the swing vote to merely 11 states.

On top of this the state-by-state nature of the vote means the two parties can attack alternative party candidates like Jill Stein in two ways: first for being irrelevant (they can’t win electoral votes) and second because they could be so relevant as to tip the election. They can have their cake and eat it, too, and petrify voters into choosing between two candidates even in non-swing states due to the irrelevance/relevance pretzel-logic of the Electoral College.

Those of us who fight for instant runoff-voting and the popular vote in presidential elections should bear in mind that it is the Democratic and Republican parties who love the Electoral College and the fear they can create in the hearts of voters if alternative presidential candidates gain any traction (while ignoring and disparaging them when they do not). It is a perfect example of the racket.

Ballot-Access and Electoral Hurdles

I doubt most people think of how difficult it can be to even appear on the ballot for office in the United States. There are 51 different rules (including Washington, D.C.), and the process used for independents and alternative party candidates is usually onerous. Not only that, but since boards of election issue the rules and are staffed by Democrats and Republicans by law, non-major party candidates start at a disadvantage.

As for electoral hurdles, while gerrymandering is one, the single-member district, plurality voting system tends to replicate the racket at the local level. Alternatives (which often include the disadvantaged major party candidate in that district) are either derided as a wasted vote or they are seen as a mortal threat to the party that controls the racket.

By limiting the ability of candidates to appear on the ballot and then limiting their chances of success, the racketeers rarely have to worry about serious rebellion.

Campaign Finance

The amount of campaign cash spent on elections in the United States is staggering; the Economist estimates nearly $5 billion will be spent in the 2016 cycle. Neither major party has much interest in limiting the gusher of donations available to them from the very wealthy and corporations. In fact, the political economist Thomas Ferguson developed his investor-driven theory of elections after determining that political parties set their policies and limit their rightward and leftward tilts based on investor-blocs donating to the parties. Since no investor-bloc seems interested in eliminating private funding of elections, there is no real movement to do so in Congress or at most state levels (with Maine and Arizona as rare exceptions).

Quite simply, this is part of the protection racket because A) candidates and parties unable to raise vast sums of cash cannot pay for ads, staff and mailings necessary to appear viable – which is only the case because there is no system of public campaign financing, B) voters either become non-voters due to despair or disgust (which is preferred by the racketeers in gerrymandered districts if a voter is not an orthodox party supporter) or dismiss alternative candidates and choose to keep the racket because nothing else seems viable.

Media Coverage and Propaganda

It would be easier to view the media as a crucial part of the state and ruling class’ tools for indoctrinating the population than as an independent body; it is enmeshed in the ideological superstructure of the system. Regardless, the media’s role is to be a gatekeeper for their paymasters. 6 corporations control 90% of the media in the United States! Not only does that give unprecedented control to the heads of those corporations, but given their own interests in maintaining a relationship with the racketeers (for “access”) the journalists and editors rarely take a negative view of the electoral racket, and even more rarely afford third-party and independent candidates equal, fair time and consideration.

They are in fact more likely to propagandize in whatever way keeps the racket stable for the elite; in 2016 this seems to mean almost every media outlet denouncing Donald Trump and backing Hillary Clinton (the elite consensus choice).

If one never knows about an alternative, the limitation of choice means a large contingent of voters will simply choose to become non-voters when discouraged, and the rest will remain trapped loyal party members.

Negative Response To Racket-Exit and Third-Party Votes

The main response to a concerted decision by a bloc of voters to reject the racket is to belittle their chosen candidate(s) and to shame and scare them back into line. We see this with the development of the “spoiler” mythology during, and then immediately after the election: the Democratic Party, which has helped game and rig the system almost since the inception of the United States, blamed Ralph Nader and the Green Party for their candidate’s loss. It is as if the owners of a casino (another racket) were sobbing about losses due to card counting at the blackjack table – hilarious, to be sure, since they set the rules to a corrupt game!

This is a very persuasive tactic and most people don’t like being constantly belittled for their choice of third-party candidates or “losers.” It’s ideological shaming and part of the larger indoctrination into the systemic rules that are enforced by hard and soft power.

Actual Reprisals 

Actual reprisals are rare, since the system is rigged against alternative candidates to begin with, but examining wins by Green Party state legislator John Eder in Maine (2002 & 2004) we can see that the first course of action is to redistrict (this also happened to Dennis Kucinich in Ohio even as a Democrat, albeit one very critical of the Democratic Party apparatus). Eder happened to run in Portland, Maine, a very liberal city and won his second election after being redistricted; it helps that Maine has a very good public campaign financing law as well. Matt Gonzalez, who was a GP head of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, very nearly won the mayor’s race in 2003. During the run-off election the Democrats and Republican celebrities campaigned together and there were threats to city workers to campaign for the Democrat (Gavin Newsom) on the job.

Break the Racket

The solution, of course, is to break the racket. Build alternatives by supporting them with money, time and votes – and refuse to accept the fear-based racketeering of the major parties. Easier said than done, of course, but the decay of the two-party apparatus in the United States – which mirrors the swift decline of old-guard 20th century parties in Europe – should give hope that a battle against the racket is not fruitless.

 

All Right, We’ll Call It a Draw – Debate Analysis

Well, that was… something. A spectacle to be sure, but a debate? Some quick thoughts:

  • In any other year you’d have to say that Clinton won the debate. She stuck to the traditional model of wonky, factoid-laden answers she’s used to giving. Trump was emotional, excitable and vague, with a habit of circling back to answers he’d already given, always trying to have a gotcha moment. Still, Trump only needed to not stumble too much in order to pull a draw, and I think he came close to doing so because it isn’t a normal year and a lot of voters are probably very happy with his angry outbursts.
  • Trump had a very strong first fifteen minutes. He seemed very animated where Clinton was aloof, and managed to hit her very strong on her awful economic track record, her support for NAFTA and her negotiation of trade deals that were, indeed, awful for the American worker. He could not, of course, hit her from a working-class, anti-capitalist perspective, so his rant was about protectionism more than anything. I suspect, though, that this will play to his base and many more who have been hurt by the deliberate gutting of the American manufacturing base.
  • Clinton again appeared stronger than Trump on the specifics of economic policy. Trump is always more potent when attacking an opponent’s positions rather than outlining his own. I didn’t see Clinton having a moment where she could really hit back on the economy because it’s clear for most that the economy hasn’t benefited the in the last few decades.
  • Trump was nearly incoherent when discussing race and baldly lied about stop-and-frisk. His positioning as a law-and-order candidate seemed to be more pleading than anything else. Clinton’s response was typical liberal talking from both sides of her mouth. No real discussion of inequality as a factor in violence and the use of police as a tool to repress poor minorities.
  • Hillary’s one really good line – “I prepared to be president, and that’s a good thing.” is only going to appeal to her base. There are a lot of people this year who don’t want an insider, and they are not going to vote Clinton.
  • Russophobia was on full display when Lester Holt served up a softball to Clinton on the hacked/leaked DNC emails. Pretty disgusting and unfortunately Trump is correct in his rebuttal that we really don’t know who hacked the DNC. Still, no discussion of the national surveillance state or how pervasive US hacking is around the world.
  • Foreign policy – I think this was an area where Clinton was going to shine to people who loved her tenure as SoS, but I’m not sure the rest of the voting public really likes or cares about how many countries she visited. Trump bumbled through an attack on her hawkish tendencies and how she supported the overthrow of Gaddafi and funneling arms into Syria, and that her vote on Iraq was part of the domino that started the crisis, but he could not carry it through to a logical or well-aimed conclusion. He repeated his argument to make NATO members pay for protection which is hard to argue with (pearl-clutching from the pundit class aside). If he’d been more coherent he could have scored real points here.
  • It’s hard to tell who won this debate with the voting public; the polls will give an immediate result but we have 5 weeks to figure it out. I don’t think he did as poorly as the pundit class is going to claim, and Clinton didn’t land a knockout punch. Trump merely needed to pull a draw here to survive, and as varied as his night was, I think he did that. The trouble is, where does he go from here? It’s difficult to imagine him refining his points any more for the next two debates. Clinton is going to have a lot of time to prepare for the second debate and to push him on the issues.
  • Finally, the absence of Jill Stein from the debate stage was noticeable; listening to her live-feed you got the substantive discussion of issues that was lacking in the debate. There’s a clear reason the CPD keeps Greens and Libertarians off the debate stage. Just like Nader would have wiped the floor with his opponents in 2000, 2004 and 2008, Stein would have given Trump and Clinton fits in 2016.

I think, though Trump didn’t “sniff” victory it’s hard to say that Clinton put him away. That’s why it’s likely to be more of a draw in the long-term than anything else.