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

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.

 

Why Don’t People Vote? It’s History…

The NY Times asks an interesting question: what makes people into voters and non-voters? The conclusion, though not addressed by the Times even with clear data in the article, is that non-voters are making a logical choice based on the limited amount of selection and impact they perceive their vote to have in an electoral system that is mostly rigged in favor of particular outcomes. This has a two-fold component: an historical attack on working-class organizations that dates back to the rise of mass parties, labor unions and socialist politics in the late 19th century, and modern hurdles to ensure continued flat voter turnout outside of groups that are unlikely to vote in a radical fashion: the wealthy and the professional managerial class of college-educated workers.

The Historical Assault on Voting

The 19th century was a time of robust political participation in the United States – both among groups that were enfranchised and those that were fighting for suffrage. In the 60 year period from 1840-1900 voter turnout in presidential elections fluctuated between 73%-82%, similar to high-turnout nations today like France, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Korea, and New Zealand. We can see this clearly here (and note the sharp decline after 1900):

The youth vote, unlike today, was similarly high, since:

“From children to 20-somethings, young people were considered the most wildly political Americans. The Newark Evening News declared the “great majority” of school-kids “violent little partisans,” who hollered nasty rhymes at rivals (“Democrats eat dead rats” was a favorite). Many youths joined political marching clubs—girls dressed as goddesses, boys in military uniforms, wielding torches, playing brass instruments, sometimes concealing bowie knives or revolvers. And so-called “virgin voters” turned out on Election Day, excited to cast their first ballots for their beloved parties.”

We may have to revive the “Democrats eat dead rats” slogan…

Class barriers to political entry fell away in the mid-19th century, as the Jacksonian Revolution stripped away the last property qualifications to voting. By 1840 – the year of the spike in voter turnout – they were gone in all but three states, and by 1856 in all of them. Keep in mind that this was the result of fierce struggle between the old elite and the rising petty-bourgeoisie (as well as the small but growing working class) fought over the first few decades of the 19th century much like in the U.K. (where it resulted in the Reform bill of 1832 and eventually the Chartist movement).

We know the jumble of political issues in mid-to-late 19th century America; slavery, suffrage for African-Americans (and women), labor rights, the tariff, imperial annexation. Political machines provided material benefits to supporters in rapidly expanding metropolises.

Yet the inevitability of mass political participation and growth of political parties and organizations across the United States, like much of the West, brought with it increasing class consciousness and militancy. It was the fear and inability of the ruling class to control these movements that lead to changes in electoral laws specifically designed to decrease voter turnout and strangle mass left-wing political party growth.

The crucial period is 1876-1900. Rutherford B. Hayes’ election signaled the end of Northern elite interest in Reconstruction, and the ensuing twenty-five years would be punctuated by massive economic growth coupled with boom-and-bust cycles of economic depression.

Growth, and with it unparalleled economic consolidation brought with it growing mass participation in large political organizations. The growth of (American) capitalism brought with it the rise of large bodies of people able to engage in collective action, and the passing of sectional rivalries meant political consciousness could shift to class issues.

The largest worries for the ruling class and their intellectual advance guard – the Progressives – were not truly urban-ethnic city machines (though they were hated by nativists and attacked) but three movements:

  1. Populist success in the Midwest.
  2. Socialist and Labor Union gains in the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest.
  3. North Carolina & the poor white farmer-African American alliance

Populist organizing in the 1880s culminated in the formation of the People’s Party in 1891. Populism was a largely agrarian movement of poor white farmers in the Midwest and South opposed to large commercial and financial interests that kept farmers in perpetual debt. The party was left-wing reformist in the sense that they wanted to break up large monopolies in the railroads and on Wall St., and attempted some alliances with labor unions in large cities to do so. The People’s Party was successful at the state level in the Midwest and managed to elect a number of representatives to Congress.

Socialist and union organizing was in its formative stages during this period, but the growth of working class political parties and labor unions around the globe in the 1890s was mirrored in the United States: from the failure of the American Railway Union strike in 1894, Eugene V. Debs helped form the Social-Democratic Party of America in 1898 (later to merge in 1901 with elements of the Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America). The SDP almost immediately began to elect members to local offices.

Finally, in North Carolina the People’s Party formed an alliance with the Republican Party (which was largely controlled by African-Americans). Poor white farmers and blacks united in an uneasy but successful political partnership from 1894-1898, instituting economic reforms intended to benefit small farmers, loosening suffrage restrictions and democratizing government.

Ruling Class Reaction and Voting Decline

There were largely three reactions to suppress voter turnout very pointedly during an era where working class and poor farmer organization was having success:

  1. Co-option of the movement and candidates.
  2. Restrictive and confusing electoral laws.
  3. Violent suppression.

Co-option is a powerful tool used to this day in various front parties (see the Working Families Party) and in mainstream candidates promising social movements legislation for electoral support; inevitably the radical edge of that organizing is blunted. Victorious parties rarely feel the need to deliver on the pledge to their working class constituency, and unsuccessful campaigns can leave the movement tied to an organization that no longer wants or needs them beyond election day. The Populist movement was famously co-opted during the Presidential election of 1896, when they decided to endorse Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who was running as a representative of the silver mining interests; after his loss the movement splintered and faded.

While the imposition of “voting reform” by Progressives has largely been seen as a reaction by middle-class nativist reformers against urban ethnic working class political machines, it can also be read as an attempt to blunt the rising potential power of radical urban working class political parties. Socialist success in the United States during the first two decades of the twentieth century potentially heralded a new electoral order that could have forced an open acknowledgement of class politics. Instead the Progressive reforms: nonpartisan elections, city-manager governments, separating local election years from national, party primaries and even the secret ballot shifted the balance-of-power from working class voters and urban machines to an educated, white, native, middle-class segment of the population.

While not all of these reforms were bad (like the secret ballot), there was no corresponding effort towards proportional representation, multi-member districts or much more than lip-service towards public campaign financing. Reformers had “cleaned up” government by blunting urban voters’ power, and with it limited the rise of groups like the Socialist Party.

In the South, especially North Carolina, the dominance of racist white elites was challenged by the success of the Populist movement’s alliances with African-American voters. In North Carolina a coalition of People’s Party and Republican elected officials held sway in the state legislature from 1894-1898 and were able to institute a series of reforms that increased voter participation, democratized government and empowered poor whites alongside African-Americans. Though the coalition was tenuous especially due to continued racism inside the People’s Party, it was only defeated by an armed white uprising in 1898 and corresponding electoral defeat by the Democratic Party, which quickly instituted Jim Crow laws to prevent another coalition from forming.

Finally, a landmark study by Piven and Cloward in 1988 showed that after the 1896 elections the anti-turnout forces succeeded in suppressing voter turnout by making participation more costly in the North and nearly impossible in the South for many; laws outside the South mandating personal registration on workdays made it nearly impossible for working class voters to register, and poll taxes in the South eliminated voting for most poor whites and blacks. Party competition nearly ceased regionally, leading to large swathes of one-party districts, further depressing turnout.

The Lingering Effects 

While there have been notable successes in extending and broadening voting rights – largely due to the women’s suffrage, labor union and civil rights movements – the effects of the broad-based attack by the ruling class on working class and petty-bourgeois electoral parties in the late-19th century lingers over a century later. Voter turnout collapsed in 1900 and never recovered to late-19th century levels; we applaud today when it approaches 55-60% in presidential elections even though in other nations there would be cause for alarm if national voter turnout dropped to that point.

The crushing of electoral movements that bring broad gains for their working-class and poor supporters has the effect of demoralizing supporters. Greece today is a perfect example: Syriza was elected in January of 2015 with a groundswell of support for radical confrontation with the Troika, against austerity budgets and with an ostensibly anti-capitalist platform. From January-June – until the betrayal after the “Oxi” vote – the populace saw the potential for a radically different future from the one offered by the Troika. Yet during this period the ruling class used its time-worn tactics: co-option of Syriza’s leadership and more right-wing elements, castigation and crushing of the left, and a threat of economic violence against the country if it did not comply.

Correspondingly, Greek voter turnout collapsed in the September, 2015 elections, declining from 63.6% in January to 56% just nine months later.

Political scientists Thomas Ferguson and Walter Dean Burnham have shown that voter turnout in the United States from 2012-2014 declined to levels not seen since before 1840. Any uptick in 20th century voting must be seen historically as that of working-class American voters during the New Deal era (1932-1972) that were mobilized by the Democratic Party because the party leadership and donor base were willing to ally with organized labor to push a Keynesian economic agenda at home and an internationalist foreign policy abroad. Once the ruling class was no longer interested in doing that, the collapse of the New Deal coalition was assured and the Democratic Party was no longer interested in mobilizing workers as a class. Voter turnout collapsed below 60% in the 1972 presidential election and has never since approached that level.

Marten Gilens and Benjamin I. Page released a study in 2014 and wrote

“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it…

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

There is a fundamental political consciousness in non-voters that, more-or-less, what Page and Gilens say is true. A century of co-opting, stymieing and crushing mass social movements and we have arrived at an era where the elite no longer desire or need to mobilize vast quantities of people to vote in elections, just a small and motivated group of wealthy and educated whose interests are still catered to by the political establishment – the Occupy’s famous 1% ruling class and Thomas Frank’s 10% professional class.

What Is To Be Done?

There are reforms that clearly increase voter turnout:

  • Automatic Voter Registration: Making it easier for voters to remain registered means they are more likely to turn out on election day.
  • Proportional Representation: giving voters more choices seems to increase turnout.
  • Election-Day Holidays: By allowing weekend voting or national holidays voters would be more apt to participate, especially if the elections took place during warmer months.
  • Competitive Electoral Districts: turnout is usually higher in races with competitive elections.
  • Consolidated Elections: By eliminating multiple elections and consolidating votes onto one, or at most two days a year, turnout can be increased substantially.
  • Lower Voting Age: Numerous countries have lowered the voting age to 16 with positive turnout results.
  • Campaign Finance Reform: Giving non-corporate candidates a chance to win elections could increase voter interest substantially.
  • National Popular Vote: Electing a president by national popular vote would increase voter participation in the majority of states that are usually reliably one-party.

Of course the likelihood of any of these being achieved without a struggle against the ruling class is low, because the success of a number of the reforms would open the door for linking mass social movements and political parties, leading to electoral success. The professional class – the system-managers and ideologues – would be mobilized immediately to defend the superstructure of elite control.

Yet fighting for reforms that would increase voter turnout would also have the effect of mobilizing and educating vast segments of the disaffected into a broad radical social movement/electoral coalition of the working class. Perhaps, as Leon Trotsky opined, it is the task of the working class to expand and consolidate the democratic gains for which the bourgeoisie is no longer interested in fighting.