The Lesson Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders have for the Left: Embrace Class Conflict

Photo by Anthony Green

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

Is there any politician in recent memory with a rise as meteoric as we’re seeing from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? I certainly can’t think of any. Her story is compelling on so many fronts, from being the youngest female congressperson, to her dramatic primary victory, to her being representative of a new wave of young, racialized women taking their rightful space within official power structures. But beyond all of this, the primary reason Ocasio-Cortez has captured relentless media coverage—not to mention the seething gaze of the American right—is because she has an unabashedly left political vision, delivered in a direct and unflinching manner. She knows what her values are; she has the skill to articulate them clearly, and she has the fortitude to not only withstand attacks, but to respond with gusto. She’s only technically been on the job for a couple weeks now, but it’s safe to say she’s made a clear impact.

What is so crucial to Ocasio-Cortez’s potential—as well as the sheer hatred she inspires among the right—is the simple fact that she acknowledges the class conflict inherent within a capitalist society. She wants to build a broad coalition, to be sure, but she knows that it will never include the very wealthiest, and so—unlike many Democrats—she isn’t bothering with the political charade. This is why—over the tut-tutting of much of the pundit class—she has proposed a 70% top marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans, a plan which, however unpopular with the 1%, is supported by the broad electorate. Likewise, her Green New Deal is a bold attempt to wed an impending climate crisis to a capitalist system with undemocratic and chaotic forms of production and distribution. In her view, the masses of regular people must assert their democratic priorities over the rich and their unearned wealth. If this is class conflict, than Ocasio-Cortez seems perfectly willing to embrace the branding and run with it.

In some ways, she’s building on some of the recent success of Bernie Sanders, a long-time legislator with a consistent desire to challenge the political, social, and economic status quo. In some ways, the American people caught up to his vision, which spoke frankly to the idea that class conflict was real, and that it was being waged deftly by the rich against the rest. But rather than rejecting this conflict, he embraced it. Take, for instance, what he would say to a hypothetical wealthy investor who has reservations about his political vision:

‘I’m not going to reassure them,’ he says. ‘Their greed, their recklessness, their illegal behavior has destroyed the lives of millions of Americans. Frankly, if I were a hedge fund manager, I would not vote for Bernie Sanders. And I would contribute money to my opponents to try to defeat him.’


Look also at how he, cheekily, took on the world’s then-richest man Jeff Bezos with the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act. The right decried this as a mob attack on innovation and initiative, and establishment Democrats saw this as an unhelpful targeting of an anti-Trump billionaire. But let’s be clear: Sanders’ legislation was—rightfully—an act of class warfare against a group who have been benefitting from state subsidization while their workers struggle to afford basic human necessities.

The lesson in my view is clear. The elites will never back a concerted push to build a just, equal, and democratic economy, and no amount of niceties and respectability will get them to: they must be defeated through a determined political effort that unites the many against the few.

For the left here in Canada, there is much to be learned: The NDP’s previous leader Tom Mulcair was an effective politician on many fronts, and wasn’t without progressive ideas and vision. But one of his crucial failings was the desire to be seen as a man for all classes, and to shape the NDP in said image. He rejected the class reality of our country, or sought to rise above it, but it was a fool’s errand, because those elites would never support him or the NDP. Really then, he forgot the moral of Mouseland: the mice aren’t served well by the cats, and won’t win power by being friendly or deferential to the felines, but by deposing them through the sheer force of their numbers.

The current NDP leader seems to have learned from Mulcair’s missteps, at least in part. He made tax reform a central aspect of his leadership platform, and while his proposed increases to the income tax were not as ambitious as Ocasio-Cortez’s, his calls for an increased capital gains inclusion rate and the creation of an estate tax are transformative ideas. The issue, however, is that these policies haven’t been as front and centre as they could be. I think Singh is working hard to portray a positive vision, but it should be underlined that while Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders haven’t shied away from conflict, neither have they resisted the urge to have fun, and share an optimism for the sort of wonderful things we can do if regular folks stick together. In some ways, those two sides of their narrative are inseparable as long as capital prevents a majority of people from enjoying a dignified existence where they can realistically have hope in their future, and in their children’s future.

It must be put clearly that class conflict is a reality in this country, too; that the economic elite have never supported the CCF-NDP, and they never will; and that we’ll be branded as class-warriors and socialists no matter what our policies, however ambitious or modest. We need to embrace the image we have, and not be ashamed of it. We need to take the progressive policies already on our books, and put them front-and-centre. We need to stand with allies like Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, who are fighting similar fights, and we need to show Canadians that when push comes to shove, we have a vision for this country which is different than what they’ll get from the Conservatives, Liberals, and Greens. Certainly, when it comes to recent attacks on the right to strike and bargain collectively, the NDP has been workers’ only consistent ally, but we need to not only play defence, but go on the attack for the society we want to build. And if the cats get grumpy, and cry class warfare? Let them. After all, what’s wrong with battling every day to make the lives of the working-class better against those fighting tooth and nail to stop us?

Christo Aivalis is an Editor of Active History, and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. He is also the author of The Constant Liberal Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour, and the Canadian Social Democratic Left. His most recent project has been a new introduction for a primary source book on the Winnipeg General Strike.

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