(This article appeared as the editorial of Insurgent Notes No. 12)
U.S. Party Elites Hemorrhage at the Edges
Insurgent Notes has no use for electoral politics per se. They are useful mainly to take the temperature of society, primarily with “our party”, the majority party of non-voters. But American party politics have been dominated for so long by “same old same old” that 2016, with still months to go until November, already stands out as an exception. Missing (so far) are the assassinations and nationwide urban riots which marked that last exceptional year, 1968. Most clearly in the case of the Republicans, but palpable as well with the Democrats, the “center-right” and “center-left” elites who have graciously taken turns administering year-in year-out austerity for more than forty years, have lost control. Washington and Wall Street are loathed by the great majority, across the spectrum. What interests us is not so much who will win—barring some as yet unforeseen upheaval, by no means excluded, it will be Clinton—as what will become of the huge bases of Trump and Sanders, once their leaders are defeated. The hard right and extreme right forces newly legitimized by Trump, especially, will not be going away. On the moderate left, the long-dormant “socialism of junior professors”, DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) has reportedly been opening a new section somewhere every week (they, hopefully, will be going away or remain as irrelevant as they have been). A friend of Insurgent Notes based in the Midwest, who has been closely watching the far right at gun shows and elsewhere for years, tells us that some of Trump’s base would be attracted to a real revolutionary left movement, if one were to exist (he also adds that “they have a lot more guns than we do”).
Commentary across the board also seems to see “angry white men” as the most contested terrain. We note one statistic: for the U.S. “demographic” between the ages of 24 and 59, whites have the highest death rates of any group from suicide, drugs and alcohol. For all the decades (more than four of them, and counting) during which American workers, white, black and brown, have been downsized, outsourced and de-industrialized, who has been talking to them? Surely not the elites of either party. Not the “chattering classes” from Park Slope in Brooklyn and Bernal Heights in San Francisco. Not the denizens of the cool “campuses” of high-tech firms in Silicon Valley. Surely not the middle-class left, which has been twisting itself into knots about race, gender, ethnicity, identity, inter-sectionality and transgender, i.e. the super-tolerant left where anything goes, anything of course but the “old hat” and much-maligned concept of class. During these ever more shrill debates, which reach far beyond academia through education and popular media, who, precisely, has been speaking to the hundreds of thousands of ex-workers in ravaged ex-industrial cities such as Detroit or Youngstown or Pittsburgh or Buffalo or Rochester, N.Y.? to similar hundreds of thousands of working-class retirees seeing their often-miserable pensions cut or eliminated? to the former furniture workers (there used to be a million of them) in the forgotten towns of North Carolina or Virginia? To all the doughty, overweight inhabitants of rundown trailer parks made invisible by the “bi-coastal” elites and their fading hegemony?
And who is speaking to such people today?: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
(We should note in passing, to dispense with any America-centric lenses, Trump’s counterparts, this newly-vocal hard and extreme right–anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-chattering classes, anti-globalist– exist as well in a large swath of northern and eastern Europe, drawing support in part from the same downwardly mobile and ex-working class strata produced by the post-1970’s crisis. This is the “bill” come due for all the intervening decades of invisibility enforced by the globalist “Davos” bourgeoisie, its captive media and professoriate, and by the middle-class left, the latter being always (as in the Stalinist 1930’s) the vanguard of anti-worker ideology.
A good segment of the world is moving to the right, in western and eastern Europe and in Latin America (with Argentina and ugly mass demonstrations in Brazil in the lead); for that, we can in part thank the moderate left managers of capital, the Clintons, the Obamas, the Blairs, the Hollandes and the Lulas and Rousseffs.
America, therefore, with an emerging mass left-wing grassroots reaction against the legacies of Bill Clinton and Obama, would seem to be on a somewhat different timetable. A mere ten years ago, at the height of the “sub prime” bubble and phony “wealth effect” of debt-fueled expansion, to imagine a self-declared “socialist” calling for “political revolution” attracting millions of people, and especially young people, would have been a bad joke. That 50% or more of Americans today define themselves as “socialists” or claim an interest in “socialism”, or that “socialist” is the most searched word in Google: all of this is rather mind-bending for anyone who lived through the long, glacial winter from the 1970’s until a few years ago. Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the Sanders campaign were and are all different responses to the same deteriorating situation.
It has taken a while, but the real toll of decades of economic decline culminating (so far) in the 2008 crash is finally emerging to the visible surface of social and political debate. The Obama years will be remembered as a meaningless parenthesis in which this calm, slick, well-spoken Harvard Law School graduate and first black president , with his sleazy economic advisors (Tim Geithner, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers), restored, for a while, the appearances of normalcy, at least for Wall Street. Meanwhile, tens of millions lost their homes and were ground down economically, record numbers of undocumented immigrants were deported, 4700 killer drone attacks were authorized by the White House, one-third of young people, into their 30’s, have been forced, with crushing student debt, to move back in with their parents, the electronic police state revealed (for any remaining skeptics) by Edward Snowden was further consolidated, the militarization and the sickening proliferation of American flags in daily life continued apace, and America, with military installations in 110 countries and a defense budget equal to those of the seven next largest armed forces combined, plays with fire and a potential major war in the Middle East, Ukraine and the South China Sea.
Or even better, the Obama years may well be remembered as the parallel to the 1929-1937 period, during which a lame state-sponsored recovery from the crash ran out of steam and gave way to preparations for war, and then to war itself.
We know very well that Bernie Sanders still mainly operates inside the “white bubble” of American politics. While it seems remarkable to hear any major candidate call for free higher education and free health care, and to consistently denounce the role of big money in U.S. politics, there is also a “clean Gene” element to Sanders’ appeal that avoids any head-on confrontation with the American blind spot of race. Who is this Brooklyn-born man who, after working with CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality) in the deep South in the mid-1960’s, joined (consciously or not) the post-1960’s white flight to the counter-culture paradise of Vermont to make his political career? He enlists himself in the long tradition of socialists, including his otherwise honorable role model, Eugene Debs, who said that socialism has nothing special to offer to black people. Sanders draws bigger crowds than Clinton, but they are largely white. While nominally an independent for most of his decades in Congress, he has voted 95% of the time with the Democrats, including for Bill Clinton’s Omnibus Crime Bill of 1995, intended to put 100,000 new cops on the streets. Hillary Clinton, for her part, dominates in the black middle class, based on both their calculation that she alone can stop Trump and on rose-tinted memories of the Bill Clinton years, memories which somehow do not include the latter’s law-and-order rhetoric, the above-mentioned Omnibus Crime Bill leading to the incarceration of further hundreds of thousands of black and brown youth, or the abolition of welfare, forcing still further hundreds of thousands of single mothers to take minimum-wage jobs accessible only by hours of door-to-door of commutes on miserable public transportation (where such transportation existed at all).
We of the hard left or left-communist milieu acknowledge that we as well, in our own very small comfort zones, have little or no contact with, not to say influence on, the working people, of any color, who are supporting Sanders, Clinton or Trump.
Let’s also acknowledge that there has been no major presidential candidate for the White House as far left as Sanders since at least World War II, perhaps even since Eugene Debs in 1912 and 1920. And polls show him defeating Trump more decisively than Clinton could. Hillary Clinton will never shake her obvious association with the highest levels of Wall Street and Washington, not to mention her association with the sleaze that has dogged her and Bill Clinton and, more recently, the Clinton Foundation. Even her immediate natural base of middle-class feminists seems to prefer Sanders.
Sanders, on the contrary, has been politically consistent since he was mayor of Burlington. Vermont and subsequently elected to Congress (House, Senate) from Vermont. There is no sleaze or waffling in his background.
We therefore begin our critique of Sanders with the old adage: the Democratic Party is a political roach motel; reformers check in, they don’t check out. Democrats (Bill Clinton, Obama) and Republicans (George Bush father and son) alike have strangled Iraq and unleashed the whirlwind in the Middle East. Sanders does not have much to say about extricating the U.S. from this disaster; he will be, willy-nilly, the commander-in-chief of U.S. imperialism, and all that entails. When considering left-wing Democrats, it is sobering to recall that Woodrow Wilson (World War I), Franklin Roosevelt (World War II), Harry Truman (the Korean War) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam) were all (with the exception of Truman) on the left wing of the party. Republicans have historically been the party of wealth, Democrats the party of war. It is remarkable how apologists for this lineage focus entirely on the (already problematic) domestic agenda, and rarely venture into foreign policy, which in a super-power where foreign policy is central, is hardly an afterthought.
Sanders, his supporters will say, is different. We ourselves cannot suppress a smile watching him make it hot for Hillary Clinton, who a year ago seemed on her way to a coronation, and who responds to his lacerating comments about her Wall Street ties with a lame “let’s stick to the issues”, as if those monied
ties of the political class across the board are not one of the issues. Trump himself has every chance of making mincemeat of her, if not for the chattering classes, more importantly for a significant part of the downsized white population, which already loathes her anyway.
Let’s stretch the envelope a bit and concede for the sake of argument: yes, Sanders is the most left-wing major candidate for president of the U.S. since Eugene Debs. But immediately we see that historical context, if not everything, is almost everything. Debs was the product of decades of sharp class struggle in the U.S. going back to the 1870’s, and lasting to the 1930’s. He himself had led some of those struggles and in 1912 got 5% of the vote as a socialist, at the peak of influence of the old Socialist Party, whose considerable left wing (Debs included) opposed American entry into World War I. He had emerged in an era marked by mass strikes and by the upsurge of the IWW. Imprisoned during World War I for sedition, he ran again from jail in 1920 and still got one million votes. Rosa Luxemburg he was not, but radical, especially in American terms, he was.
Sanders is none of that. He recently joined the Democratic Party in anticipation of running. We can hardly criticize him for not having the class struggle profile of a Debs, since the long empty decades prior to 2011 were no kinder to him than they were to us. Barring a social and political earthquake even larger than the erosion of the two parties’ elites, a hypothetical President Sanders will be even more isolated and handcuffed before a hostile Congress than Barack Obama has been.
Enough, though, of elections. Let’s get back to where we began. What will become of Sanders’ considerable base when he crashes and burns?
The current period reminds us, in a bizarre way and in much more dire circumstances, of the early 1960’s. Then as now, an idealistic new generation was awakening to politics. Then as now, in both the nascent New Left and early civil rights movement (both deeply interconnected in the Jim Crow South, where the young Sanders cut his teeth politically) and today after Occupy and Black Lives Matter, something got out of the bottle that will not easily be put back in. We insist above all, where the potential role of our marginal milieu as conscious communists is concerned, that small groups do not shape consciousness, events do. Events for the 1960’s were the Vietnam War, the radicalization of black people after the civil rights movement hit a wall, and the rank-and-file and wildcat upsurge In the U.S. working class. By the late 1960’s, one million young people coming out of the New Left declared for revolution, and many joined groups organizing for it. It did not end well, for reasons beyond our scope here.
For this new generation as well, events there will be, events that will demonstrate the end dead of electoral politics and, in short, of anything except mass struggle in the streets, a struggle which has already begun. There is no end in sight to economic crisis and decline, workers’ wages and pensions and the threadbare social safety net will continue to be cut, the American bourgeoisie is toying with war in at least three major theatres, terrorist attacks will continue and probably increase (and will be used to intimidate the emerging mass movement) and black and brown people, immigrants and Muslims will be again be scapegoated.
Our task, in those circumstances, is to intersect the burnout from Bernie, and contribute to the convergence of a consciously anti-capitalist movement that will say at last: hic Rhodus hic salta! Here is the rose; here we dance.