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.

 

 

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.

Jill Stein Livestreams the Scripted Talk Between Hillary and The Donald Tonight

Tonight’s scripted talk between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – for we cannot call something controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which itself is run by former heads of the Democrats and Republicans, which excludes both Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, and whose format barely allows for real interaction between candidates a debate – will be interesting to the extent that we will be able to gauge voter disgust with the choices and the level of spectacle and obfuscation from Trump and Clinton going forward into the last 5 weeks of the campaign.

The real debate will be on the outside of the Hofstra auditorium, where Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka will be protesting their exclusion from the debates alongside thousands of protesters demanding their inclusion and the recognition of issues that are going to be ignored or glossed over on stage tonight.

Jill Stein will also be livestreaming her response to the moderator’s questions tonight on her Facebook account: http://www.facebook.com/drjillstein.

 

The Jill Stein/Green Party Town Hall Was An Historic Event

Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka were on CNN for 75 minutes last night. The enormity of this should not be lost: Green Party candidates appeared on a major cable news network and were allowed, in long-format, to discuss their views to a national and international audience. It’s safe to assume many had never seen a major US network where a presidential ticket was allowed to speak frankly on issues of class and racial injustice, women’s rights, foreign policy, the climate crisis and the jobs crisis. Nor is it likely many had seen two candidates talk openly about the need for revolution, or for someone on a presidential ticket refer to themselves as a revolutionary.

Even Ajamu Baraka clarifying his statement calling Barack Obama an “Uncle Tom” and then mentioning the need for internal discussion on the left – most people in the United States don’t have a concept of ideology or that like-minded activists can have a broader conversation about tactics and platform. Now, they might.

Predictably, the rest of the mainstream media has gone dark on Stein’s town hall. Since smearing a longer format event is more difficult when the participants perform well as did Stein and Baraka, their other option is to refuse coverage in the hopes fewer people will seek out the video. We can expect lack of coverage to continue for a few days until the Mighty Wurlitzer cranks up again and the media begins to defend the interests of their capitalist ownership groups (only 6) and the professional caste of journalists respond the way we expect from a privileged, indoctrinated group.

If you haven’t managed to catch the entire discussion, you can watch it here:

 

Smearing Stein: Media As Propaganda

My latest piece on Counterpunch, for those who haven’t seen it:

Smearing Stein: Media As Propaganda

AUGUST 5, 2016

Peter A. LaVenia

Jill Stein, the Green Party’s nominee for president, has been the sudden target of attacks from all corners of online media since the official end of Bernie Sanders’ campaign at the Democratic National Convention. Outlets like the Washington Post, New York Magazineand Gizmodo have assaulted Stein by using out-of-context quotes to assail her, wrongly, for being anti-vaccination and anti-WiFi, which is a code for being “anti-science.” This allows us a unique opportunity to confirm the structural role of the media as hypothesized by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Manufacturing Consent: that the media is a propaganda arm for the elite and powerful, and is used to condition us to accept the bounds of socio-political discourse as set by the ruling class. It also shows us the desperate need we have for an alternative media culture to counteract mainstream discourse.

The attack on Stein (and not, conveniently, on Gary Johnson), is linked to the need by the elite to de-legitimize A.) critics of neoliberal policies and B.) potential alternatives to the political status-quo. Trump and Clinton have had and will have no discussion about thirty years of neoliberalism and austerity. Sanders gave a voice to those within the Democrats who were willing to question, but since his defeat momentum on the left has shifted to Stein and the Green Party. It is, granted, still early, but the outpouring of support means there is a possibility the left could begin to regroup outside the Democratic Party. Real success for Stein could mean a permanent presence on the national stage for the left, to which a president Clinton or Trump would have to answer and which would be able to build an entirely different ideological discourse in the United States.

What is the role of the media in this scenario, one that explains the current froth about Stein? Although the public is rarely allowed a glimpse behind the curtain, almost all media in the United States is controlled by just a few large corporations. In the era of mass communication, the media has usurped the role formerly played by the Church as a primary source of information and the bounds of discourse. Private corporations are interested in making a profit, and ensuring the economy continues to produce those profits. Marx once opined that “the ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” and in an era of (potential) mass political upheaval, the media plays an active role in silencing dissent to those ideas. Indeed, they are linked to the continued profits generated by the political order. Political candidates and parties that challenge and threaten to upend this are typically subject to vigorous criticism if they threaten to shift the political discourse or take power: witness the barrage of negative stories and editorials on leaders like Hugo Chávez or new political parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain.

These attacks on Stein are produced and then echoed by a online media constructed to reach an educated, young segment of the population that has nevertheless begun to consider rejecting Clinton (and Trump) on election day.

Chomsky notes that 20-30% of the populace is highly indoctrinated so as to function as system-managers, and that these tend to correspond to the college-educated. The remaining 70-80% are fed a steady diet of entertainment programming to induce sheer apathy in politics, even though today the propaganda fed to the managerial class often takes the form of info-tainment, and news departments are filled with pundits and not reporters.

This is exactly the function of the skewed negative articles on Stein: the huge bloc of people who rejected Clinton (and Trump) are young and only loosely tethered to party affiliation. Much of the rest of the world has seen a sudden explosion in new left-wing parties winning legislative seats because the young generation has seen job prospects vanish and incomes flatline while the 1% continue to enjoy robust growth in wealth. To take quotes out of context and paint Stein as anti-science to a population segment that is highly educated really means A.) her ideas are beyond the pale and B.) she is no better on these issues than the Republican Party.

These scare tactics do not engage with the Green Party or Stein’s platform. Indeed, it is hard to call the people who wrote them journalists, as proper procedure for writing a story on a presidential candidate whose statements require clarification is to engage them or their media team in extended conversation. This is usually how it works for Clinton or Trump, but apparently not for Jill Stein. It is far easier to conduct a smear campaign when the subject is given no chance to respond.

It is important for concerned activists, citizens and voters to treat with skepticism the propaganda campaign being rolled out against Stein in the next three months. Read full quotations and speeches, doubt sensationalist headlines, and let editorial boards know your displeasure at such tactics. Realize we need to resurrect an independent press, and that a century ago papers like Appeal To Reason were not only openly socialist but able to break with established orthodoxy because they weren’t beholden to investors with a stake in the status quo.

Peter A. LaVenia has a PhD in Political Theory from the University at Albany, SUNY and is a member of the New York State Green Party’s executive committee. He can be reached on Twitter @votelavenia and at his website, unorthodoxmarxist.wordpress.com.