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.

The Election and The Spectacle

  1. Spectacular political mobilization divorces participation from political action. Consumption of the product, in the form of a candidate, replaces the activity demanded of party members in previous eras.
  2. The spectacular nature of presidential politics in the United States requires fear of the other to operate. The demonization of opponents, especially so-called third parties, is a feature of the system and not a bug. The content of the election cycle is reduced from policy into reified images of the candidate(s) and their opponent(s).
  3. The reified image of the candidate, sculpted by P.R. firms, mirrors the nature of the “good” party member/voter, whose job it is to parrot and consume media and the story projected as the image of the candidate. Little is said of party work or to do more than repeat tropes fed to the voters. The passive consumer becomes active only at the moment of voting. Even within situations of debate with opponents it is the illusion of party differences (reified images) that war, not policy or social forces.
  4. The spectacle no longer needs masses of voters to act together as in previous eras of the mass party. Proper political consumers are individuals. Mass movements threaten passive consumption and the spectacle by creating active participants – which the ruling class views with grave suspicion.
  5. Mass frenzy/hysteria prior to an election is a prelude to the removal of the hysteria. Afterwards their role is to become either apathetic, cheerleaders of or angry consumers of oppositional media. Bereft of use as voters, they are barely political at all.
  6. This complete political alienation is built alongside a capitalist economy in the core that no longer has much use for productive labor. Alienation becomes complete in all aspects of modern life.
  7. It seems clear that a political party in this era cannot combat the spectacle without existing in multiple realms: electoral, social movement, economic, and cultural.

 

A Left-Alternative to Brexit?

The global Left is adrift. Look no further than Thursday’s Brexit vote in the U.K.: the choice is between remaining within the European Union – a body specifically designed to empower the (Northern) European bourgeoisie and block moves to the left on a national or supra-national level, and returning power to the British ruling class and its Parliament. Neither outcome is a particularly inspiring one for the left;  even though there are strong signs that this is a being perceived referendum on neo-liberalism and the stagnant economy, it is the right that has capitalized and stirred popular fears of job loss due to increased immigration.

Another era saw dreams of a Socialist Federation of Europe, where a democratic federation aided equitable distribution of resources, jobs and wealth. Democratic planning by workers and citizens would replace the rule of banks, bondholders and bureaucrats. This revolutionary world seems far off.

Imagine if the European Left – the anti-austerity bloc that has arisen in the last half decade – produced a real program for a federation of states that chose to leave the European Union. Brexit from the EU could be campaigned for as the first step towards a new alliance specifically designed to bolster the working class, protect and expand social programs and move towards a democratically planned economic bloc.

I won’t hold my breath – the intellectual decay of the left is nowhere more apparent when the boundaries of acceptable thought in its most radical parties abut what exists, not what should exist.

 

 

Cuban Bureaucrats Take the Axe To The Working Class

Following Andrew Goldberg’s interview with Fidel in the Atlantic where Castro was quoted as saying the Cuban economy doesn’t work anymore, comes this news of the state cutting 500,000 “redundant” jobs and allowing the expansion of worker cooperatives and private business.  Even the Cuban Workers Confederation, the only legal trade union, got in on the act, stating

“Our state cannot and should not continue supporting businesses, production entities and services with inflated payrolls, and losses that hurt our economy are ultimately counterproductive, creating bad habits and distorting worker conduct.”

The change in party line, until recently committed to full employment, sounds much like something an American CEO would say or what most Democratic/Republican candidates mouth on a regular basis.  Or perhaps, from a bygone era, the volte-face of a Stalinist union (which, I suppose, the CWC is).    Still, this isn’t much different a policy than what we’ve seen happen in China or Vietnam: the bureaucrats slash public jobs and privatize businesses, then use their political connections to buy up the most efficient state industry.  The Cuban CP will clearly maintain political control, like its counterparts in Asia.

This  has a significant impact because Cuba was “our” communist nation, the only one in the Western Hemisphere, and because it has withstood a fifty-year economic embargo from the United States.  We loved to hate Fidel, and even after the USSR collapsed 19 years ago the Cubans bravely soldiered on without the privatization of state industries as in China and Vietnam.  Cuba has been seen as a model for nationalist and independence movements in Latin America especially, so of course the press would see this announcement as a waving of the white flag – our greatest hemispheric enemy announcing that “communism” doesn’t work.

The reality of the issue is, as always, more complex.  Soviet subsidies accounted for $4-$6 billion annually until 1991, a not insignificant amount of the island’s $65 billion GDP.  The US embargo has hamstrung the economy, as it impacts not just American businesses but also potentially foreign businesses which trade in Cuba and also wish to sell in the United States.  It’s roundly condemned by the United Nations – but of course the United States ignores the UN except when it benefits Washington. There’s a case to be made, however, that the embargo has kept the Fidel regime in power, and from making these cuts to services years ago.  A burgeoning trade with the US might have empowered a section of the bureaucracy to embrace capitalism far earlier and become a nascent bourgeoisie.

Cuba is also an island nation that we can at best classify as being included in the world’s economic periphery, albeit at the top.  Peripheral nations are mainly raw material/agricultural exporters, or the site of factories relocated from the core (“First World) of the world economy.  Cuba’s strategy was much like that of other Stalinist nations over the last 70-80 years: to take a mostly agricultural country and industrialize it, raising living standards for the masses.  This was typically done with a mercantalist strategy of the government dominating imports and exports (which also prevented the rise of an independent capitalist export sector).  In the USSR this was called the “government monopoly on foreign trade” and was the subject of heavy debate in the 1920s.  Still, it was a modern, post-capitalist version of 19th century debates in the US and Germany over high tariffs in order to protect domestic industry, except this time the industry was state-owned (ostensibly collectively) and undergoing “primitive socialist accumulation” to catch up to the more advanced capitalist nations.  Industry was built in order to reach a quantity of good produced (mostly industrial, not consumer) and employ the population – not necessarily efficiently.  The legacy, and irony,  of Stalinism, is that where it dominated it modernized and trained the economy, built infrastructure, and educated a workforce better than capitalism did for the rest of the post-colonial world, to the degree that businesses now site in Vietnam and China instead of other, poorer locales.

What should we expect from a peripheral nation’s economy when it is embargoed by the world’s economic hegemon and mostly cut off from outside investment for half a century? Clearly, even in the best of circumstances, other small Caribbean and Latin American nations have not really been able to lift their citizens out of grinding poverty – and that was almost never the goal of any government in Latin America outside of Cuba; they were, rather, happy enough to let a few get wealthy while the country was exploited by international corporations.  Cuba has fared better than most, with a high literacy rate and a very educated population, model organic farms and a political system independent of US control.  Still, there never was chance to build “socialism in one country” even in the USSR, let alone Cuba.

Cuba is facing a harsh economic reality, and the one-party dictatorship and bureaucracy that runs the island has only a few choices, none of them good.  It can open up major parts of its economy to private influence, something the announcement is clearly leading towards, let the better-placed bureaucrats cash-in, while the Cuban Communist Party retains political control.  This is the China/Vietnam model.  It can stagger on as it has, isolated and poor.  North Korea is our best remaining example of this course.

Or, it could democratize the political system while turning over the control of the economy to the working class and people of Cuba – something which is not bloody likely.  This is what the old Trotskyist sects call a “political revolution” by the working class, but I think it would require a thoroughgoing revolt against the entire modern bureaucratic way-of-life to succeed, and would not immediately increase the standard of living for working-class Cubans.  It might, in fact, get worse as they reassess the real economic situation, assign people jobs and create cooperatives that scrounge over the remaining resources.  They would need to “spread the revolution” in the old parlance of Marxism, or at least have another large benefactor (none would likely be forthcoming).

Raul, Fidel, and their coterie are anything but stupid, and they’re going to maintain their grip on power until forced out.  There are few choices for them short of relinquishing control to the workers (fat chance) or dissolving and turning government over to a nascent bourgeoisie (I think they’ve studied the USSR too well to let this happen).  So we’re probably left with these abysmal cuts in social services until something happens.  Perhaps the decay of the last bastions of the “Old Left” will allow for a new, non-hierarchical left to emerge.