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!