Sunday, June 28, 2020

Defunding the police as a stepping stone to getting rid of capitalism

Send to Printer, PDF or Email

by Frank Brenner

Defunding the police has become the marquee demand that’s emerged from the George Floyd protests. It’s understandable given the history of racist police violence in America, but more than that, it indicates that for masses of people – in the black and brown communities and among progressives of all races – the lynching of George Floyd has crossed a line. The cell phone video of a cop’s knee on Floyd’s neck, choking the life out of him, is now seared into our collective consciousness. In just shy of 9 minutes that video has undone nearly a century of cop hero-worship from Hollywood and broadcast tv. Which is in itself remarkable, attesting to two things: first, that social media, seemingly almost suffocated to the death by surveillance capitalism and the social pathologies of trolling, still has enough residual power to break through all the bullshit with moments of searing reality; and second, that the masses respond to those moments with outrage, as if all the decades of pop culture programming are just so much loose dirt easily brushed away.

The demand to defund (or abolish) the police is not just a slogan that protestors have latched on to as a way of venting their outrage over Floyd’s murder. There is good research by activists and academics underpinning this demand. Notable in this regard is the book The End of Policing by Alex Vitale, a criminologist from Brooklyn College. (The e-book version is available for free from the publisher, Verso Books.) The book is a thorough deconstruction of mainstream cultural myths about how the ‘thin blue line’ is here to serve and protect us all. In a chapter on the history of policing, Vitale writes:

“The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and non-white people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements … [P]olicing emerged as new political and economic formations developed, producing social upheavals that could no longer be managed by existing private, communal, and informal processes. This can be seen in the earliest origins of policing, which were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the eighteenth century: slavery, colonialism, and the control of a new industrial working class.”

Predictably the origins of the police in England go back to the suppression of the Irish; in America, again predictably, policing goes back to patrols for capturing runaway slaves in the antebellum South. The suppression of labor unrest became a paramount concern for the powers-that-be with the ramping up of the industrial revolution in the later decades of the 19th century. America’s imperialist expansion starting at the end of that century, particularly its military takeover of the Philippines, provided important models for how to run domestic police operations. (In this respect, the much-discussed militarization of the police in recent decades is more an intensification of past practices rather than a departure from them.)

In a recent interview with Jacobin, Vitale explained how this history bears on the current crisis with policing:
Today, we’re not dealing with slavery and colonialism in the same way. Instead, we have neoliberal capitalism and austerity. That system is producing massive wealth inequalities and the hollowing-out of the welfare state, which is in turn producing mass homelessness, mass untreated mental illness, mass problematic relationships with drugs, black markets for drugs and sex work and stolen goods, that people have turned to survive in this precarious economy. Policing has come in to manage those suspect populations — really, in their mind, surplus populations. They’re not trying to form them into a working class, they’re warehousing them in our prisons and jails. We have to understand policing as fundamentally a tool of social control to facilitate our exploitation. So the idea that we’re going to make them nicer and friendlier while they do that task, and that’s gonna make everything okay, is laughable.”
These truths are evident to many protestors on the streets and to activists who have long been fighting against police brutality and mass incarceration. A recent op-ed in The New York Times by one such activist, Mariame Kaba, got a lot of attention. The piece was titled: “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police”, with a subhead: “Because reform won’t happen”. In support of the latter claim, Kaba walks us through over a century of public commissions and inquiries which again and again laid out the facts about police brutality and called for reforms, only for nothing to change beyond some window-dressing.
Kaba zeroes in on the fundamental weakness of all these reform proposals: “The philosophy undergirding these reforms is that more rules will mean less violence. But police officers break rules all the time.” And then she lists some widely-reported examples of such rule-breaking during the recent protests: “police officers slashing tires, shoving old men on camera, and arresting and injuring journalists and protesters.” She also notes how Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who choked Eric Garner to death in 2014, wasn’t worried about being filmed; in fact he waved to the camera. “He knew,” writes Kaba, “that the police union would back him up and he was right. He stayed on the job for five more years.” Most telling of all in clinching the argument against police reform is that no city was more committed to such an agenda than Minneapolis – and yet it made no difference in terms of getting George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, off the force despite a record of 17 misconduct complaints over two decades.

All too often, impassioned arguments against injustice get murky when it comes to spelling out alternatives, but that isn’t true in this case. The protestors do have a clear objective, which is to make the police “obsolete”, as Kaba states, and in order to make that happen what they want is massive cuts to police budgets and to the number of cops, and redirecting those billions in savings “toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.”

Mental health problems, which cops all too often make much worse with shocking and at times lethal brutality, would instead be dealt with by community care workers with special training. Restorative justice models could be used as an alternative to the plague of mass incarceration. Vitale spells out a number of measures that could be taken immediately, including eliminating COPS – the Orwellian named Community Oriented Police Services – which has been the federal government’s main conduit for militarizing and expanding city police forces.

The police would no longer be able to function as an army of occupation in minority communities, a brute force for keeping a knee on the collective necks of “surplus populations”, as Vitale puts it. Kaba sums up her vision as being that “of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation … This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.”

It isn’t hard to see that Kaba’s vision of “a different society” is really a socialist society: there simply isn’t any other kind that’s based on cooperation and mutual aid. Maybe Kaba was leery of using the s-word in the e-pages of the authoritative newspaper of the American establishment or maybe she hasn’t thought this vision through beyond a rejection of society as it exists now, which I imagine is true for many protestors. There is a glaring gap between the radicalism of what protestors want and the absence of a vocabulary to articulate it. That’s because the sort of vision Kaba is talking about is traditionally associated not with any particular race but with the working class – and yet that class has largely lost its voice.

Trade unions have been marginalized for generations (apart from police unions, that is!) and no mass socialist party exists. The Bernie Sanders campaign could have provided the impetus for such a party, but Sanders turned out be more radical in his rhetoric than his politics. At the very moment when reality itself (the pandemic, mass unemployment, the George Floyd protests) seemed to be crying out for the sweeping social reforms that Sanders had been campaigning for – at that very moment Sanders bowed out and threw his support to Joe Biden, a candidate who, in combining reactionary politics with doddering mental faculties, vies with Trump for exemplifying how rotted-out mainstream politics has become. In this way Sanders consigned himself to the same historical junkyard where many other progressives in America have ended up – the one with the words ‘Lesser Evil’ over the entrance.

Bernie Sanders-brand popcorn

This leaves the current political situation in a dangerous place. On the one hand, mass protests against police brutality; on the other hand, the contagion of Trump’s populism that still largely fills the political vacuum left by the corporate Democrats (and by Sanders now as well) in the white working class. If we are ever going to have a chance of getting to a society based on cooperation and mutual aid, that fissure has to be overcome.

One big obstacle to doing that is the prevailing mindset of identity politics. A term like ‘white privilege’ – without any qualifiers – is egregiously counter-productive. Racism is deeply entrenched in American history but painting all whites with a racist brush does nothing to overcome it. White workers are as much wage slaves as black or brown workers, assuming that they can get a job at all. To the extent that all workers remain demobilized as a class, to that extent many of them are also vulnerable to the scapegoating of minorities and immigrants that capitalist ideology constantly resorts to in order to keep its wage slaves divided and obscure the systemic nature of its economic oppression. But the first step in mobilizing such workers is to recognize them as potential allies rather than enemies. Terms like ‘white privilege’ only perpetuate those divisions, and in that sense undercut the struggle for structural change that will really make it possible for black lives to matter. Like all identity-based politics, ‘white privilege’ isn’t a cry for liberty but a bill of complaint, one whose ultimate purpose isn’t to change the system but to ‘diversify’ it, as in having a black president in the White House.

‘Defund the police’ is potentially a breakthrough to structural change because it is a direct challenge to the legal monopoly of violence exercised by the government machinery of corporate capitalism.  The “surplus populations” are saying they’ve had enough with being warehoused by the system and constantly terrorized by its armed thugs. The argument is beginning to shift from vague rhetoric about structural racism to concrete manifestations – but the remarkable thing about that shift is that it ceases to be just about race. If it were just that, then the problem would have been solved decades ago, with more black and brown cops and even (by now) more black and brown mayors and chiefs of police. But this is the police reform agenda that has completely failed, as Vitale and Kaba make perfectly clear. So the consciousness of the masses has begun to move on. The police are un-reformable, so we have to get rid of them.

What would it take to abolish the police? Kaba tells us: the billions from police budgets should be redirected “toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs.” Big investments should be made in mental health and treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, which account for an appallingly large percentage of the victims of police brutality and mass incarceration. Even bigger investments would be needed to improve education, provide free college tuition and create millions of decent-paying jobs. The redirecting of police-budget money would be a start – but only that. What this would really take is a massive re-distribution of wealth from the rich and super-rich to the increasingly impoverished great majority. Or to the put this another way, defunding the police can only work if it’s a down payment on getting rid of social inequality.

Housing is instructive in this regard. There is no more blatant manifestation of structural racism than the big city ghettos where black and brown families seem condemned to live eternally. And nothing has perpetuated this de-facto segregation more that the redlining of minority neighborhoods by banks in their mortgage-lending practices. According to recent reporting by NPR, in Chicago 68 percent of all the housing loans made by banks went to majority-white neighborhoods compared to 8 percent for majority-black neighborhoods. JP Morgan Chase, the biggest bank in the country, was also the worst in this regard, lending out 41 times more in white than black neighborhoods. It’s a similar story in other metropolitan centers like DC, New York, Los Angeles and the eye of the current political crisis, Minneapolis.

It could be the banks are all full of racist loan officers, but this would miss the point. This isn’t about the prejudices of individual bank officials (many of whom happen to be minorities themselves) but about the way banks operate. Their guiding principle isn’t race but the bottom line. Historically ghettos were indeed the product of racist policies, especially by federal government housing authorities, but banks don’t operate to right historic wrongs. They go where the money is – where they can make the most profit at the least risk. In minority communities the reverse is most often true: low profits, high risks. So the only way to end the blight of urban ghettos would be a massive overhaul of the banking system so that the need for decent and affordable housing takes precedence over the bottom line. You can’t get rid of the structures that perpetuate racism without getting rid of the structures of capitalism.

But no matter how true an argument is, it needs to find a point of connection with mass consciousness to have a political impact. For many protestors who’ve just begun to be politically engaged, ‘defund the police’ sounds like something do-able whereas overthrowing capitalism sounds like a far more distant (and hazy) prospect. But in a period of crisis like the one we’re living through mass political consciousness doesn’t tend to develop incrementally but can suddenly leap forward to positions hardly anyone would have expected. A mere month ago ‘defund the police’ would have seemed pie-in-the-sky, but seemingly overnight it’s become a demand that millions are backing. What’s crucial now is to make sure such demands don’t get gutted of their radical potential through the usual co-opting by the political mainstream. You can already see this happening with Black Lives Matter, as it gets suffocated to death by the embrace of corporate and political elites.

We should do everything possible to push ‘defund the police’ as far as it can go – and if that pushes the limits of what the mainstream considers acceptable, then so much the worse for the mainstream.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Getting up off our knees: race, class and politics

Send to Printer, PDF or Email

To say that America in 2020 is in an existential crisis is an understatement.  Manhattan, where I live, just had the first curfew since World War II.  You had to be off the streets by 8 PM in the evening or you were liable to be arrested, especially if you were a person of color in one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city.  We are experiencing a double pandemic – a medical one and a social one – at the same time.

The murder of George Floyd has energized the biggest protest movement in this country in decades. The banners of this protest movement typically read “Black Lives Matter”, or the acronym “BLM”.  But “Black Lives Matter” is not so much an organization to these protesters but a symbol of what motivates them.  The movement is completely spontaneous and, in its beginnings at least, completely leaderless.  It is an expression of outrage and anger on a very primal level. In that respect it bears some resemblance to the Occupy Wall Street movement that shook first New York and then the whole world in 2011. But the intensity of anger as well as the level of popular support far surpasses the OWS movement. Not only have we seen protests numbering tens of thousands in every major city in the U.S. (as well as some cities in other countries),  but there has even been significant protests in small town and rural areas throughout the country.  Another remarkable aspect of this protest movement is its multi-racial character. While African-Americans are in the forefront of this movement, they are joined by other racial and ethnic groups representing a consensus that the repressive institutional structure that allows police to kill black people with impunity must come to an end. What was politically unthinkable just three weeks ago has now become a common refrain.  The militarized police who have gobbled up a huge percentage of the budgets of every major city, particularly since 9/11, are now perceived even by middle class people who do not think of themselves as “radical”, as an occupying force, much like the way the Israeli Defense Force is perceived by Palestinians on the West Bank. While most African-Americans have always perceived the police in this way, this understanding is very new to most of their white brothers and sisters.  That is a significant step in the development of class solidarity.

In the last two weeks the anger of the protesters has sometimes spilled over into looting and destruction of property.  Much ink has been spilled in the bourgeois press and the Internet about “looting and rioting” and “attacks on police” spurred on by “outside agitators”. The real story behind the looting is very simple – many young people who have been pushed into financial desperation as a result of decades of racism, increasing social inequality and the Depression brought on by the pandemic, see looting as an opportunity to get something back from an oppressive system.  They see what they are doing more as an act of liberation than of looting.  My partner and I went outside after midnight one night and witnessed first-hand some of the looting and spoke to a couple of participants.  There were so many people involved in these actions that the police did not interfere when a crowd smashed a window and ran into a store.  They did however pick off isolated individuals on the street here and there.

Looting and random acts of violence are counter-productive and impede rather than encourage the growth of class consciousness,  but it is very much what one would expect given the powder-keg that has finally erupted after years of abuse and given the lack of leadership and a coherent organization to give the protest movement a clear direction. Were there such leadership the pent up anger could be channeled in a political direction to challenge the power of capitalism itself.  I  should also add that the overwhelming majority of protestors were demonstrating peacefully.

A police vehicle that was burned

In the Manhattan neighborhood of Soho almost every store has now been boarded up with plywood.  Even before the protests erupted, Manhattan seemed like a ghost town during the lockdown caused by the pandemic.  Now with the added covering of boarded up stores it has the feel of a desert landscape.  Mid-town Manhattan is much the same.  I passed by the entrance to the Empire State Building, one of the biggest tourist attractions in New York. There was no one in front of the building and all the windows on the ground floor were boarded.

Empire State Building entrance

Soho was an epicenter of the looting and broken windows due to the number of stores with brand names that are symbolic of the elite – Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Versace, etc. After its windows were broken, the Chanel store not only covered the windows with plywood but even took its sign down so no one would be able to identify it. 

Chanel store before the sign was removed

A number of Manhattan neighborhoods, including my own, have been the subject of constant surveillance from the sky by police helicopters. Even as I write this, there is the buzzing of a police helicopter directly over my building. The drone of the helicopter is a constant presence almost 24 hours a day, a reminder that we are living in an occupation zone.

There are also indications that some of the violence has been deliberately stoked by undercover police agents and by neo-fascist provocateurs who are trying to incite a civil war.  One neo-fascist outfit, known as the “Bugaloo Bois”, carry automatic weapons and are openly encouraging a new Civil War.

The reaction of the Trump Administration to the protests was entirely predictable. Trump has used the protest movement to stoke fear within the older white middle class and racist elements in the working class to firm up his base. He has incited police departments to “shoot” the looters and has labelled himself the “Law and Order” President.  He has blamed the Left and his Democratic Party opponents for the violence when it is the police that are responsible for 99% of the violence.  He has declared  “Antifa” a “terrorist organization” in a blatant attempt to criminalize the Left.  Antifa is not even an organization much less a terrorist one. According to one non-partisan researcher,

Antifa is not … a terrorist group. At the most basic level, it is not even an organized group but rather a set of ideas and behaviors coalescing into a social movement. In addition to lacking any membership lists, they have no organizational structure or designated leader… 

In the most blatant attack yet on the Constitution and whatever vestiges of democracy remain, Trump called on the governors of the States to request the deployment of Federal troops to suppress the protests.  He then followed that up by attempting to deploy active Federal troops against the protestors in the streets of Washington. He had to back off at the last minute due to push-back from within the military itself. Instead, the active duty troops were placed on standby outside of Washington while Federal police agencies under the control of Attorney General William Barr were sent in to brutally remove a crowd of peaceful protesters, using rubber bullets and pepper spray, so that Trump and his entourage could walk across the street from the White House to pose for a photo-op in front of a church.  Trump’s actions underscore the movement towards authoritarianism that he and a section of the ruling class now favor. The Constitution strictly forbids the deployment of military forces against civilians within the borders of the United States.

The official “opposition” to Trump, the Democratic Party,  and their supporters in the press such as the New York Times, have offered only the most tepid opposition.  
The political implications of the protest movement are explored in depth in the following essay by Frank Brenner.  I would just add that since he wrote his essay one demand has come out of the protest movement that has gained much traction, and eclipsed the vapid “No justice, no peace” slogan, namely the demand to “Defund the police”.  This is potentially a very radical demand.  But it has already been “interpreted” to take the teeth out of it by the liberal media.  A recent article in the Washington Post said the following,

Be not afraid. “Defunding the police” is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds…

and added,

For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever. Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. 

All of which reinforces the point Brenner makes in his essay, that the best of intentions and the best conceived reforms will fail to change anything fundamental unless the problem of endemic poverty is confronted - and that cannot be done without confronting capitalism.

Alex Steiner
New York, June 11, 2020

Getting up off our knees: race, class and politics

By Frank Brenner

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.  George Orwell, 1984.

The protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd have provoked a big political crisis. The crisis seems to have unhinged Trump more so than he usually is, with his threats to “dominate” major cities with military troops and his use of armed thugs and tear gas to clear peaceful protestors out of Lafayette Square across from the White House so that he could stage a photo-op. 

A key point about understanding mass psychology is that it's a mistake to believe that the political behaviour of the mass of workers can be reliably predicted only by 'rational self-interest', that other irrational (i.e. emotional) factors can be just as important or more so. But a related point can be made about the ruling classes. In their case, ideological delusions (political, militarist, religious) can lead them into making huge political miscalculations. This is often how wars start – and civil wars too. There are deep divisions in the ruling class, many of the rich and powerful know full well how reckless Trump is being, but they have only a weak alternative in Biden and the Democrats whereas the 'wrecking crew' of Trump and Fox News is going full throttle - going, that is, over a cliff but with the other ruling elites reluctantly along for the ride. 

Here’s a good example of this: Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's Labor Secretary and one of the more astute liberal public intellectuals, took to twitter with the following cry of despair: "Where is Congress? Where is the Supreme Court? Where are the mayors and governors? Living former presidents? Where are the university presidents, foundation heads, editors and publishers? All must stand up to Trump's madness."

Since this was posted, there has been some of the pushback Reich was pleading for, notably from Trump’s former defense secretary Jim Mattis. Even the current secretary Mark Esper was forced belatedly to distance himself from Trump, obviously reflecting unease in the upper echelons of the military. But that it should have come to this underscores how destabilized the institutions of state power are. Another retired general, John Allen, made this point explicitly, saying that the clearing away of the protestors from Lafayette Square “may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.” While comparisons between Trump and Hitler are facile, comparisons to the Weimar Republic do now seem in order. It is now a subject of open speculation in the mainstream media that Trump will refuse to leave office if he loses the election in November. Or, to cite a line of thinking by Jacobin writer Seth Ackerman, it may be time to consider America as a failed state.

All that being said, when it comes to the protests, the old question yet again arises: What is to be done? 

The protests are spontaneous, despite the torrent of lies about outside agitators. This is their strength in the sense that they are direct and genuine expressions of mass outrage. They are also impressively multi-racial, with whites often outnumbering minorities. But their spontaneity is also their great weakness. 

Mass outrage is a feeling, not a program. There is some informal organizing on line, but it's so informal as to barely register. There are no banners from any organizations with concrete demands, all one sees are signs scrawled by individual protesters on pieces of cardboard. Black Lives Matter has little presence as an organization but is visible everywhere as a slogan (just as Occupy Wall Street only has an after-life as a number - the 1 percent). The most common chant is No Justice No Peace - which is vague to the point of being almost meaningless. What is justice - jailing the four cops who killed George Floyd? And if that isn't enough, what would be?

The Floyd murder was the spark that set off an explosion fueled by enormous social discontent, which probably explains why the protests persist without any organization. The pandemic and the grossly disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos dying from it, 20 million unemployed, countless numbers of families facing eviction and ‘food insecurity’, a large cohort of young people suddenly with nothing to do and no prospects: this is the tinderbox that is America.

And then of course there are the police, where racism is so pervasive it almost seems to come with the badge. It’s no surprise that all the police unions are avidly pro-Trump. Reform efforts going back to the Civil Rights era primarily led to hiring some black and brown officers, but the reign of police terror in minority communities hasn’t abated much, if at all. One noticeable difference, though, is that many of the authority-figure faces on the tv screens – the big city mayors and police chiefs – are black or Latino. In other words, the elites have become more diverse, exemplified above all by Barack Obama’s presidency, but that diversity has done next to nothing to diminish the police violence that young blacks and Latinos face on a daily basis. Which must mean that something deeper is at work.

This is usually where ‘structural racism’ gets pulled into the conversation, though when a phrase has become so commonplace that even the likes George W. Bush or the Clintons bandy it about, you know it’s become so sanitized that nothing’s left to it except political posturing. In any case, if ‘structural racism’ is meant to point to something deeper than personal prejudice, then that structure must be the poverty of a permanent underclass of blacks and Latinos.

Of course, there is also widespread poverty and misery among whites, highlighted in the ‘death by desperation’ reports that came out a couple of years ago. There is also lots of police violence against poor whites, and in absolute numbers more whites are killed by cops than blacks or Latinos. But what distinguishes the poverty of minorities is their concentration in big city ghettoes, itself a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and, most directly, the redlining of big city neighborhoods (initiated under the auspices of the New Deal, to its eternal shame) that has condemned generations of black families to a poverty sinkhole.

To respectable society (upper and middle classes), the police operate (ostensibly anyway) to ‘serve and protect’; in underclass communities, they operate to ‘contain and control’. Add to this the militarizing of police forces over the past few decades and the vast increases in their budgets, and you have an operation that generates police terror almost by design, a real-life version of Robocops.

The ‘structure’ in structural racism is about protecting private property – and that applies no matter what the racial identity of the person running the police department happens to be. It also means that after the dust of this current crisis has settled, there will be more George Floyds. That’s because structural racism can only be de-structured by getting rid of poverty – and capitalism is structurally incapable of doing that.

(I don’t want to ignore entirely the psychological aspects of racism. But it seems necessary these days to repeat the obvious – that no one is born a racist, that prejudice is learned, absorbed through family, friends, work, politics, mass media and the culture at large. In the case of cops, you could say that racism is almost an occupational inevitability. The cops are essentially an occupying force in minority communities – that is what ‘contain and control’ amounts to. It’s not hard to see that as a cop, the way you justify to yourself the daily grind of pushing people around, arresting them, violating their rights, brutalizing and even killing them – the way you justify all that is to dehumanize them. You are part of a heroic ‘thin blue line’ and they are scum. From there to overt racism is no big stretch. A personal anecdote to illustrate the point. I was in Chicago in 2018 on the day a cop was convicted of the murder four years earlier of Laquan McDonald, an unarmed black teenager. The cop had shot him in the back 16 times, and when a video of the incident came out, there were widespread protests in the city. On that day I was covering a tragic fire that had taken the lives of ten children, and I happened to be talking to a cop posted at the scene. I asked him what he thought of the guilty verdict in the McDonald case. A look of disgust came over his face: “He should’ve been given a medal for marksmanship.”)

I said earlier that spontaneity was the great weakness of the protests. There is a lack of organization and also of direction and purpose. The most consciously political act to come out of the protests so far is the destruction of the police station in Minneapolis, and the most coherent political demand is to defund the police. The people on the street are well aware who their immediate enemy is. But this is only the barest beginning of political consciousness – and it leaves loads of room for mainstream politicians to fill the void with their hot air and corral the outrage on the streets into yet another pointless exercise in voting for the supposedly ‘lesser evil’ Democrats, who always turn out to be the same old evil of corporate capitalism but with a more congenial face.

(Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were masters of this political charade: they would console the insulted and injured by telling them how much they ‘feel your pain’ – and then go ahead and impose the same ruthless policies that had inflicted the pain in the first place. Joe Biden is cut from the same cloth, except that he is a lot less talented as a performer.)

In looking at the protests, the strongest impression you get is of atomization: individuals materialize from various places, cohere for a while and then disperse, if they aren’t attacked and arrested by the cops. Their atomized character is especially evident if you compare these protests to the union organizing of the Thirties or the civil rights or anti-war protests of the Sixties. Saying this isn’t about making a virtue of the past: new struggles need to find their own ways of doing things because they’re never just a replay of previous struggles. But a movement that aspires to be more than just a flash in the pan needs to learn from the past, if only to avoid repeating old mistakes. Already though this assumes a lot that may not be true: are these protests a movement or are they just a way for individuals to ‘make a statement’ about police violence? And if this is a movement, what does it aspire to?

The power of workers, as a social class, is that they are more than just an agglomeration of individuals. The fact of their work gives them potentially great collective power and the fact of their exploitation under capitalism gives that power a direction for revolutionary social change.

This potential has been highlighted by the pandemic: from health care workers often risking their lives to save those of their patients to the countless workers delivering packages or working grocery stores or maintaining essential services so that the bulk of the population could stay home during the lockdowns: these previously all but invisible workers are widely being hailed as heroes. But they are heroes because the mainstream political culture suddenly woke up to the fact that society can’t function without them. The more those workers wake up to that fact as well, the more they will call into question their ongoing subservience.

The poverty of an underclass does not have the same potential for social change: their plight is often so dire and unrelenting that they can rarely get beyond immediate survival needs. Suffering, as the writer Bertolt Brecht once said, is a poor teacher. Nor, for that matter, is moral outrage. It can lead many thousands on to the streets, but it doesn’t on its own show them a way forward. In this sense social energy is akin to physical energy: if it isn’t harnessed to a purpose, it eventually dissipates.

No one was in a better political position to harness this energy than Bernie Sanders. If ever there is a time for Medicare for All, the pandemic is it. His other signature policies – free college tuition, decent low-cost housing, a Green New Deal, raising the minimum wage – would have resonated powerfully with the protestors on the streets. Sanders could have used his political stature and popularity to link up the outrage at racist police violence and the structures of poverty that generate that violence.

A noteworthy fact in this regard: The Sanders campaign refused to accept corporate money and so it was funded entirely by small donations from millions of individuals. It turned out that the single largest group of donors to the campaign were workers at Amazon, who have become increasingly militant in fighting the super-exploitation imposed on them by the Simon Legree of 21st century capitalism, Jeff Bezos.

Yet Sanders suspended his campaign just as the social crisis brought on by the pandemic was beginning to take hold. By April the corporate ‘centrists’ of the Democratic party had consolidated support behind Biden, Sanders lost a series of primaries and it was clear he wasn’t going to get enough delegates to win the nomination. Sanders’s calculations were of the narrowest sort. He dropped out, declared his support for Biden, signed on to a token policy committee on the Biden campaign and effectively disappeared from view. Even more damning was his vote, just after dropping out, for the ‘Cares Act’, which in the guise of ‘caring’ for workers who’d lost jobs and small businesses that had to shut down during the pandemic, really amounted to a transfer of trillions of dollars to corporate elites. 

To call this a betrayal of his supporters is an understatement. His campaign was never supposed to be just about winning a nomination – it was supposed to be about mobilizing millions of people to effect major social change, above all to fight back against the neo-feudal levels that social inequality has reached in the United States. Sanders could have galvanized workers during the pandemic (as opposed to Biden who has spent the past two months in his basement!) and he could have electrified the crowds protesting the lynching of George Floyd. He could have been a huge catalyst for the very thing he always claimed to be doing – building a movement for radical social change.

It turned out though that Sanders wasn’t that kind of politician at all. Though Sanders makes a show of venerating the great American socialist Eugene Debs, he is nothing like Debs – who cared so little about winning elections and so much more about raising the political consciousness of workers that he famously campaigned for president from a federal prison cell (where he’d been jailed for opposing American militarism) in the 1920 election. It turned out that Sanders is nothing more than a ‘left-talking’ Democratic Party hack whom Debs would have abhorred.

A crucial underlying weakness of the Sanders campaign was that it was just that – a personal political campaign. Sanders had no party and made no effort to build one: though he wasn’t technically a member of the Democratic Party, it was the only political organization he had any connection to. The same goes for the ‘Squad’ – four progressive members of Congress elected in 2018. Though they come out with progressive rhetoric on twitter and in speeches, their actual votes in Congress have done little, if anything, to rock the boat or cause trouble for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (In fairness, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the best-known member of the Squad, was the sole vote against the latest version of the ‘Cares’ [for corporations] act, but she too has by now been co-opted by the Biden campaign.)

In this sense, progressive politics partakes of the same atomization that afflicts the larger body politic. Though there have been some signs of life in the labor movement (teacher strikes for example), the labor movement as a whole is largely moribund, and unions have virtually no noticeable impact on daily life – apart that is from police unions! A small but telling sign of this: during one of the protests in Washington last week, when there was some sporadic looting and window breaking, one of the places that was broken into was the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, the American labor federation. I would be willing to wager that the looters had no idea what the AFL-CIO was, that it probably looked to them just like any other faceless corporate or government building, in other words a symbol of oppression – and they wouldn’t have been far wrong.

We need to break out of our collective political atomization. Whether that will come through the protests cohering into a political movement or through an upsurge of labor resistance to corporate exploitation and greed, or through some combination thereof, it’s impossible to say. But we need a breakthrough – and that will only come with the emergence of a mass party opposed to capitalism and its political duopoly. That’s what Eugene Debs would have fought for, and we need that kind of spirit again to animate socialist activism. It’s not enough to have political ‘stars’ with feel-good rhetoric or crowds making statements. We need not just to ‘take a knee’ but politically to get up off our knees.

Election Pin for Eugene V. Debs when he ran for President from the Atlanta Penitentiary

Monday, April 13, 2020

The left needs to grow up - fast!

Send to Printer, PDF or Email

Jeremy Corbin

Bernie Sanders

By Frank Brenner

We have come to the end of the Sanders-Corbyn period of left politics in the west. 

It began in 2015, a belated reaction from the left to the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis, and it pretty much dominated the politics of the radical left with the exception of a few sectarian cults. Just last year Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara came out with The Socialist Manifesto, and in a chapter called "How We Win" he lays out this Sanders-Corbyn perspective: "On the face of it, Corbyn and Sanders advocated a set of demands that are essentially social democratic. But they represent something far different from modern social democracy. Whereas social democracy morphed in the postwar period into a tool to suppress class conflict in favor of tripartite arrangements among business, labor and the state, both of these leaders encourage a renewal of class antagonism and movements from below ... Sanders and Corbyn don't represent a social-democratic politics that will serve as a moderate alternative to more militant socialist demands. Rather, they offer a radical alternative to a decrepit center-left."

How much of “a radical alternative” Sanders and Corbyn offered is debatable. There was always a gap in these projects between radical rhetoric and less than radical substance. Corbyn never mounted a serious challenge to the influence of the Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour Party, even when he had the upper hand following his surprisingly strong showing in the 2017 election. (Contrast this with Boris Johnson, who cleaned house inside his own parliamentary caucus as soon as he became Tory party leader.) Similarly, Sanders never challenged the legacy of the Obama administration on social inequality, bank bailouts, imperialist war, record deportations. And in line with that, Sanders largely gave Joe Biden a pass during the campaign despite the latter’s deeply unpopular record on (to name just a few issues) social security, voting for the Iraq war and sponsoring laws that led to the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration.

The comedian-turned-YouTube pundit Jimmy Dore (who seems like a throwback to the scabrous pamphleteers of the French Revolution) makes a valid point in characterizing the Democratic primary campaign. The key issue in the campaign was Trump, and in order to figure out how to get rid of him it was necessary to understand how he’d come to power in the first place. The message from Biden and his various centrist competitors was that Trump was just an anomaly, some political nightmare that came out of celebrity culture and Fox News – which is to say, out of nowhere – and so their narrative was that the Democrats needed a candidate who could get us back to ‘normal’. The truth, of course, was that the ‘normal’ of the Obama-Biden years was precisely what had given rise to Trump. But Sanders never made this point because he avoided any badmouthing of the Obama legacy.

Part of the reason for this was no doubt tactical, i.e. not wanting to alienate black voters, especially older ones, who venerated the first black president. But if this was the case, it turned out to be a total failure, with Sanders losing heavily in states like South Carolina with a large black voting base. A bigger reason, though, was ideological: to have ripped into the Obama legacy would have undermined the basic political orientation of the Sanders campaign. After all, if the problem was the Democrats when they were in power, why not run an independent campaign instead of continuing to vie for that party’s nomination? (Trump, it’s worth recalling, made it loud and clear that he’d run as an independent if what he judged to be a rigged process denied him the Republican nomination.) In any case, as Dore points out, what this meant was that the Biden centrist narrative was the only one on offer in the campaign: we need a candidate who can get us back to ‘normal’. Hence the head-spinning contradiction of poll after poll showing Sanders beating Trump, and yet Biden trouncing Sanders in the primaries over the issue of ‘electability’! This also goes a long way to explaining the failure of Sanders to do much in the way of expanding his base, particularly by mobilizing young people who’d never voted before, and even losing some working class support he’d had in 2016 in states like Michigan. Though by and large he was saying the same things in 2020 as he had four years earlier, the campaign no longer had the same edge, the same rousing sense of an insurgency against the Obama-Clinton crowd.

Not surprisingly then, the "decrepit center-left" is back in charge. Corbyn has been replaced by an Ed Miliband clone, Keir Starmer, and the Clinton-Obama tribe that gave us Donald Trump continues to rule the Democratic Party roost. So it's now painfully clear that the Sanders-Corbyn project was a failure. Which means, for one thing, that you can't bend corporate capitalist political institutions like British Labour or the Democratic Party to serve radical ends - or even the fairly moderate agendas of Sanders and Corbyn. 

So “How We Win” has once again become an open question. There is a key point here worth considering. A common meme circulating on the left is that 'reality has endorsed Sanders' in the sense that the pandemic validates Medicare for All and much else on the Sanders agenda. And yet it is right when this crisis is happening that Sanders drops out. Surely that in itself is a stark contradiction that needs to be considered. (To cite Dore again, he notes that the final political act of Sanders before bowing out was to vote for the Covid-19 assistance package, which leaves tens of millions of working class people – notably renters and those without paid sick leave or health insurance – with minimal or no support. The failure of Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of the Squad to register at least a protest against this is indicative of how much they’ve caved as oppositional voices. It’s also noteworthy that Sanders’s support for Biden seems virtually unconditional: no demands, just the usual blather about what a fine guy ‘Joe’ is.)

If we pull back the lens and consider the evolution of the left since the Wall Street crash of 2008, what we see essentially is a movement still in its infantile stages. Occupy in 2013 denied even the need for programmatic demands. Anarchist pipe-dreams, the (very stale) remnants of hippie counterculture and ‘leading-by-example’ would be enough. Another name for this concoction is magical thinking (which is what infants do). The one lasting contribution of Occupy was to popularize a number – the 1 percent. But even this was a dubious contribution: while it focused animosity on the super-rich, it also obscured the real anatomy of class society. It did this in two respects. First, the 99 percent are not a single mass but riven by deep class divisions, especially between the upper middle classes, who have profited greatly from neo-liberalism, and the bottom 75-80 percent, many of whom have lived for decades a missed paycheck away from disaster. (Thomas Frank has shown in his writings that the Democratic Party under Clinton and Obama has based its policies almost exclusively on appealing to the upper middle classes. American ‘democracy’, in this light, amounts to a choice between a party of the rich and a party of the super-rich.) Second, and more importantly, it obscured the truth that we aren’t just dealing with a bunch of greedy individuals at the top but with a system that necessarily breeds extreme economic inequality and social misery. And the answer to that isn’t some vague call for more democracy in the abstract but for the democratic control of something very specific – to wit, the economy, so that everyone is guaranteed a decent income, housing, medical care and education as their human right. 

The Sanders campaign at least went from crawling on all fours to taking toddler steps. Programmatic issues were now central: Sanders’s stump speech, the campaign’s central fixture, was devoted entirely to issues like Medicare for All and free college tuition. Rhetoric aside, though, Sanders was no revolutionary, as many commentators pointed out. He inveighed against “the billionaire class” in the same way that Occupy inveighed against the 1 percent, but he never called into question the property rights of that class, and certainly not of the upper middle classes. His polices amounted to some redistribution of wealth via taxation but still entirely in the context of a capitalist economy. Hence the repeated (and valid) criticism that he had no realistic way of paying for big ticket items like Medicare of All, to say nothing of how he was ever going to get such measures past the political whores on Capitol Hill.

The quote of Sunkara’s I cited earlier indicates that many Sanders supporters saw his campaign in terms of empowerment: even if Sanders himself didn’t have all the answers, the movement he inspired would create powerful pressure to bring about important social change. But this bespeaks an essentially naïve view of how power operates in a capitalist society. While such power can be made to bend on some secondary issues (and not even all of those, see: gun control, abortion rights), its resistance to change grows exponentially the closer the issues get to impinging on the prerogatives of property and wealth. And the performance of Sanders in this campaign, and of the Squad during their time in Congress, hardly inspire confidence that they would be able to withstand serious push-back from the elites.

A key problem here is that we seem stuck at a stage where politics gets funneled through election campaigns organized around political ‘stars’. Sanders talks the talk of a ‘movement’ but he’s never walked the walk: there is no democratic socialist party that he or Ocasio-Cortez belongs to or represents. Sanders of course says he’s a socialist, but all that is a personal statement; the only party he has any connection to are the Democrats, who are dead-set against socialism and who have shown in two campaigns now that they will never let anyone claiming to be a socialist get their nomination. Which brings to mind an apt definition of insanity: that when something doesn’t work, you keep doing it again.

If socialists are ever going to get beyond this stage of infantile paralysis, we really do need a movement for socialism. And that movement has to be much more than just an electoral machine: indeed, it has to be a movement first and foremost, where election campaigns are just one of an array of tactics for raising political consciousness. What we need, in short, is a new party.

Yes, this has been proposed and tried many times before, and what seemed so exciting about Sanders and Corbyn was that they offered a way to finesse this problem, to get the left out of the perennial deadlock of having to choose between political irrelevance or ideological submission. Except that the finesse didn't work. 

So, why would an effort at building a new party be any more successful than previous attempts?

One simple reason: the coming Great Pandemic Depression. 

I don't want to suggest that misery automatically radicalizes political consciousness. Far more likely, in the near term, will be widespread confusion and demoralization. During the last century's Great Depression nothing much stirred in the American working class until five years after the 1929 crash. And fascism tends to thrive on confusion and demoralization.

But one big difference this time around is that there will be no FDR. There will instead be Joe Biden, assuming he even wins in November. That is not a small matter. Roosevelt kept the Democratic Party from fragmenting through the New Deal, even though lots of left alternatives sprang up in the mid-1930s, like the Democratic Farmer-Labor in Minnesota. (The American Communist Party, which back then exerted a big influence in unions and among left-minded intellectuals and young people, played a crucial role in stymieing such efforts and shoring up Roosevelt’s left flank.) Biden will have neither the political nor the economic capital to keep his political base from cracking up, to say nothing of not having anywhere near FDR’s political smarts. The pressures from below will be enormous. This will be true even if Trump wins again. I imagine the Republicans will be happy to promote political fissures on the left, believing it to be to their advantage - as ruling elites often do when they are digging their own graves. 

2020 may turn out to be the last duopoly election ever. To be sure, brave pronouncements like this have been made in the past by an ever-hopeful radical left, only to see those hopes dashed. But this time we are living through a social and political earthquake. A lot of rotten institutions are going to come crashing down. The big takeaway from the last decade is that the left has to grow up. And the big takeaway from the present crisis is that it has to grow up fast!

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ecological Politics for the Working Class

Send to Printer, PDF or Email

We are reposting this article by Matt T. Huber from Jacobin’s theoretical journal Catalyst because I think it’s one of the best discussions I’ve come across of the political problems facing the environmental movement. The gist of Huber’s argument is that “climate change is class struggle”, as the title of a follow-up article by him puts it. The more urgent the climate crisis becomes, the more essential it is to grasp that basic truth and organize around it. As Huber rightly argues, only the working class has the social leverage capable of rescuing the planet from ecological catastrophe. 

But this is far from how the environmental movement has been doing politics. It is overwhelmingly a middle class movement that “is often directly antagonistic to working-class interests.” Perhaps the best thing in Huber’s article is his analytical breakdown of that movement. He distinguishes two strands: what he calls “lifestyle environmentalism” which amounts to a moral condemnation of consumerism, and an offshoot from this that he calls “livelihood environmentalism” which fetishizes a supposedly direct relation to the environment by poor and racially marginalized communities. 

Basic to both strands is “ecological footprint analysis”, which ties consumption to ecological impacts, and has become a staple of political discussions about the climate crisis, often devolving into an exercise in making people in general (which is to say, mostly working class people) feel guilty for driving a car or eating in a restaurant or flying on an airplane. Here Huber asks exactly the right question: “Is an individual consumer’s ‘footprint’ all their own? The difference between humans and other organisms is that no other organism monopolizes the means of production and forces some of those organisms to work for money.” 

I’ll leave off any further summary but I want to raise a couple of concerns. First, an obvious gap in Huber’s analysis is any discussion of Green Party politics. We’ve now had more than a generation of Green parties in the so-called Western democracies. While they began in the Seventies as upstart political movements, they have since become pillars of the political establishment in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia, and smaller but well-established players in France, Canada, Britain etc. (In the US the Greens are marginal players politically, which may explain Huber’s ignoring of the issue.) In Austria the Greens just brokered a deal with the right-wing People’s Party to become junior partners in a coalition government. Tellingly, they are in effect stepping in to replace the neo-fascist Freedom Party, whose coalition with the People’s Party broke down because of a corruption scandal. This is a stark but by no means unique example of how Green parties function as props for capitalism – and how this fatally undermines their reason for existence. 

My second concern is about politics as well, but this time working class politics. Huber wants, as the title of the essay states, to create an “ecological politics for the working class”, but the latter is hardly a blank slate politically speaking. The essay contains some useful discussion of the Green New Deal, but nothing about the stranglehold of the duopoly that dominates American mainstream politics. In a follow-up review of an essay collection by Naomi Klein, Huber delves somewhat deeper into the issue, noting the inadequacy of a ‘movement of movements’ approach that figures like Klein favored in the past, and how class has to be the central axis of the climate change fight, not just one of a list of ‘isms’. There is some discussion of fissures in the trade unions over climate change policy but it is superficial. It isn’t just that the building trades are opposed to climate action while those in the education and service sectors are supportive – this makes it seem as if the problem is with the workers themselves. Unions have their own deep class contradictions, expressed most clearly by the role of their bureaucratic leaderships, often corrupt (e.g. the UAW) and almost uniformly committed to capitalism. Shortly after Huber’s article was posted, Jacobin ran a report on how AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka and the (seemingly eternal) head of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, were undermining the fight for Medicare for All. If union bureaucrats are bridling even about that reform, how conceivable is it that they will ever be on side for the mammoth effort to head off climate catastrophe? An “ecological politics of the working class” means not pulling any punches with workers: only revolutionary political change is adequate to meeting the gravity of the climate crisis. 

Frank Brenner

Ecological Politics for the Working Class

By Matt Huber
The climate and ecological crisis is dire and there’s little time to address it. In just over a generation (since 1988), we have emitted half of all historic emissions.1 In this same period the carbon load in the atmosphere has risen from around 350 parts per million to over 410 — the highest level in 800,000 years (the historic preindustrial average was around 278).2 Human civilization only emerged in a rare 12,000 year period of climate stability — this period of stability is ending fast. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report suggests we have a mere twelve years to drastically lower emissions to avoid 1.5 C warming — a level that will only dramatically increase the spikes in extreme superstorms, droughts, wildfires, and deadly heat waves (to say nothing of sea-level rise).3 New studies show changing rainfall patterns will threaten grain production like wheat, corn, and rice within twenty years.4 A series of three studies suggest as early as 2070, half a billion people will, “experience humid heat waves that will kill even healthy people in the shade within 6 hours.”5
You don’t have to be a socialist to believe the time frame of the required changes will necessitate a revolution of sorts. The IPCC flatly said we must immediately institute “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”6 The noted climate scientist Kevin Anderson said, “… when you really look at the numbers behind the report, look at the numbers the science comes out with, then we’re talking about a complete revolution in our energy system. And that is going to beg very fundamental questions about how we run our economies.”7
The radical climate movement has long coalesced around the slogan “system change, not climate change.” The movement has a good understanding that capitalism is the main barrier to solving the climate crisis. Yet sometimes the notion of “system change” is vague on how systems change. The dilemma of the climate crisis is not as simple as just replacing one system with another — it requires a confrontation with some of the wealthiest and most powerful sectors of capital in world history. This includes a mere 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of the emissions since 1988.8 The fossil fuel industry and other carbon-intensive sectors of capital (steel, chemicals, cement, etc.) will not sit by and allow the revolutionary changes that make their business models obsolete.
Like all other such battles, this confrontation will take a highly organized social movement with a mass base behind it to force capital and the state to bend to the changes needed. Yet, as Naomi Klein argues, this is really “bad timing” because over the last several decades it is capital who has built formidable power to neutralize their main challenges like a regulatory state, progressive tax structures, and viable trade unions.9 The history of the nineteenth and twentieth century shows that the largest challenge to the rule of capital has come from organized working-class movements grounded in what Adaner Usmani calls “disruptive capacity” — particularly strikes and union organizing. 10 It is the working class that not only constitutes the vast majority of society, but also has the strategic leverage to shut down capital’s profits from the inside.11
Yet, herein lies the main dilemma. A movement up to the task of bringing about the changes needed will not only have to be massive in size, but have a substantial base in the working class. In its current form, however, environmental politics has little chance of succeeding in this. Its ideological and strategic orientation reflects the worldview of what Barbara and John Ehrenreich called the “professional managerial class” that centers educational credentials and “knowledge” of the reality of environmental crisis at its core.12 This is not simply a problem of the kind of people involved. Middle-class environmental politics is often directly antagonistic to working-class interests. It grounds its theories of ecological responsibility in ideas of “ecological” or “carbon” footprints that blame consumers (and workers) for driving ecological degradation. This approach centers on the appeal that we need to live simply and “consume less” — a recommendation that is hardly likely to appeal to a working class whose wages and living standards have stagnated for almost two generations.13 When seeking examples of emancipatory environmental politics, radical academics imagine real environmental politics as a form of direct livelihood struggles over natural “use values” like land, resources, and the body itself. While livelihood struggles are very important, professional-class environmentalism sidesteps how such a politics could appeal to the tens of millions of workers who do not directly access nature in “use value” form. In this essay, I argue for a working-class ecological politics14 aimed at mobilizing the mass of workers to confront the source of the crisis — capital. In order to build this kind of politics, we needs to appeal to the mass of the working class who has no ecological means of survival apart from access to money and commodities. This politics centers on two major planks. First, it offers a much different story of class responsibility for the ecological crisis. Rather than blame “all of us” consumers and our footprints, it aims its focus on the capitalist class. This kind of politics can channel already existing anger and resentment workers have toward their boss and the wealthy in general to explain yet one more reason why those antagonists are making their lives worse.
Second, it offers a political program meant to directly appeal to the material interest of the working class. It is relatively straightforward to insert ecologically beneficial policies within the already existing movements around the decommodification of basic needs like “Medicare for All” or “Housing for All.” The climate crisis in particular is centered upon sectors absolutely vital to working-class life — food, energy, transport. The goal should be to use this scientifically declared emergency to build a movement to take these critical sectors under public ownership to at once decarbonize and decommodify them. The emergent politics of the Green New Deal, although far from perfect, does exactly this. It not only offers a solution at the scale of the problem — aiming to revolutionize the energy and economic system — but also offers clear and direct benefits to the mass of the working class (e.g., a federal job guarantee). Although there is much consternation about the anti-environmentalism amongst established building trade unions and fossil fuel industrial workers, a working-class environmentalism could better align with rising militancy in more low-carbon care sectors like health and education. These campaigns’ focus on anti-austerity politics and “bargaining for the common good” can also address the expansion of a public response to ecological breakdown.15
Part 1. From Lifestyle to Livelihood: The Limits of Environmentalism
The environmental movement in its current form is dominated by middle-class professionals. Along with the expansion of higher education, this class exploded during the post-WWII boom — itself a product of mass working-class struggle and union victories in the 1930s and 1940s. Out of these historical conditions emerges what I will call “lifestyle environmentalism,” the essence of which is to seek better outcomes through individual consumer choices.16 Yet this desire comes from a deeper source of anxiety about the forms of mass commodity consumption wherein middle-class security is equated with a private home, automobile, meat consumption, and a whole set of resource- and energy-intensive commodities. As such, lifestyle environmentalism sees modern lifestyles — or what is sometimes called “our way of life”17 — as the primary driver of ecological problems. This, of course, makes a politics of material gains inherently ecologically damaging. Since lifestyle environmentalism blames commodity consumption — and the vast majority of society (i.e., the working class) depends on commodities for survival — it only appeals to a very narrow base of affluent people who not only live relatively comfortable middle-class lives but simultaneously feel guilty doing so. Under neoliberalism especially, the bulk of the population does not feel guilty or complicit in their consumption, but constrained by severe limits on access to the basics of survival.
Lifestyle environmentalism also produces an offshoot, a distinct and seemingly more radical alternative vision of ecological politics prevalent in academic scholarship. This form of scholarship accepts the premise of lifestyle environmentalism that modern “consumer lifestyles” are inherently damaging to the environment. As such, radical ecological scholars look to the margins of society for a more authentic basis for environmental politics. This is what I will call “livelihood environmentalism,”18 or what is sometimes called “the environmentalism of the poor.”19 This form of scholarship argued the proper basis for environmental mobilization was a direct lived experience of the environment. I will cover two critical fields. First, political ecology broadly seeks examples of struggles over direct “use value” reliance upon land or resources for subsistence among often peasant, indigenous, or other marginalized communities (usually in the Global South). As such, this scholarship often romanticizes what are seen as anti-modern subsistence livelihoods on the margins of global capitalism. Second, environmental justice focuses more on the uneven effects of pollution and toxic waste as deadly threats to livelihood in racialized marginalized communities (usually in the Global North). Often critical of mainstream environmentalism’s focus on wilderness or wildlife preservation, environmental justice scholars bring to light how poor and racially marginalized communities make “environment” a question of survival. Yet, again, those struggling directly against the poisoning of local communities are often on the margins of society as a whole. Struggles like this (e.g., the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil or the struggle for clean water in Flint, Michigan) are obviously important matters of survival for those involved. Yet the strategic question of how to translate local livelihood concerns into a broader mass environmental movement able to take on capital remains unclear.
Livelihood environmentalism is often seen as the opposite of lifestyle environmentalism, but its academic focus emerges from the foundations of the latter. It is the disaffection with the mass commodity society that sends the radical academic’s gaze to the margins of society looking for “real” environmental struggle. Livelihood environmentalism is indeed a much more attractive form of politics rooted in the material interests of specific groups. By fetishizing the direct lived relation to what is seen as the real environment (land, resources, pollution), it sidesteps how we might build an environmental politics for the majority of society already dispossessed of land and dependent on money and commodities for survival…