Monday, April 13, 2020

The left needs to grow up - fast!

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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

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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…