With the American election looming, it appeared that a resounding defeat might be in the works for Trump and his Republican enablers. Nevertheless, it was clear that Democratic contender Joe Biden was not exactly setting the country alight with enthusiasm. The vote appeared to be not less a choice between the two rivals than a question of accepting or rejecting Trump. As it was, Biden was forced to run a much closer race than had been anticipated.
Biden had been given the nod by his party as an impeccable representative of the neoliberal centre. In June, he had assured a gathering of wealthy donors that his actions in government would not have any significant financial impact on them and that “nothing would fundamentally change.” He even stressed that the rich should not be blamed for income inequality and told the monied interests that “I need you very badly.”
With these rather shaky credentials as a champion of social justice, Biden was presented as the uninspiring alternative to the right populism of Trump, with its false opposition to “the elites.” The bare bones victory that Biden managed to maneuver was so dismal that “Democrats wept, cursed and traded blame.” ‘Moderates’ within the party reached the conclusion that electoral success will only be found at the political centre. If “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win,” said one. Another advised his colleagues, “don’t say socialism ever again” because, if left ideas are at the fore, “we will get f***ing torn apart.”
The refuge to be found in the neoliberal mainstream is seriously overrated by these Democrats. Indeed, there is no basis for concluding that a move to the left would prove disastrous. Bernie Sanders might well have defeated Trump in a presidential race, the group of left congresswomen, known as “the Squad” mounted hugely successful reelection bids, and candidates that were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America did exceptionally well in this election.
The determination to conclude that a move to the left would be folly can’t be explained simply in terms of electoral calculations. There is a strong underlying motivation at work here. The Democratic Party shares with its Republican rival the task of political stewardship over US capitalism and its empire. Biden was entirely correct to assure his rich backers that fundamental change is not on the agenda. The US doesn’t have a mass-based social democratic party and this has led to attempts over the generations to use the Democrats, a liberal party of Big Business, as a vehicle for creating a left alternative. For the party’s establishment, however, such a direction is at odds with everything it stands for. Fulfilling the role of servant of monied interests is essential and this means keeping the left in check at all costs. Bluntly put, the grandees of the party would sooner have lost to Trump than see Sanders move into the White House. They can survive in opposition, as a centre right critic of the Republicans, but to lose control of their party to left-wingers is a fate worse than death.
The Corbyn project
Some very definite similarities exist with the drawn out and ultimately successful campaign in the United Kingdom to defeat the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party. Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said that she considered her greatest achievement to have been Tony Blair and New Labour: “We forced our opponents to change their minds.” She expressed the belief that Labour had been reduced to the level of an entirely safe and predictable understudy for her Tory party. Labour governments before Blair were far from unsullied champions of working class interests but the base of the party and its strong left-wing rendered it unreliable in the eyes of the British establishment. Its transformation into something much more akin the US Democrats or the Liberal Party of Canada was required and Thatcher thought she had that in the bag. The Blairite project generated a layer of elected politicians and party functionaries well suited to this political role.
The election of Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 was a shattering blow to all who wanted to spare the ruling class sleepless nights. From the outset, the majority of the elected representatives and those who controlled the party apparatus worked to reverse the disaster they had suffered and drive Corbyn out. As with the US Democratic establishment, the great fear wasn’t that Corbyn couldn’t win an election but, rather, that he might be able to. During the 2017 general election, “officials from the party’s right-wing, who worked at its HQ, became despondent as Labour climbed in the polls during the election campaign despite their efforts.” When the news came in that Labour had overturned the Tory majority, a senior official described this remarkable gain for his party as the “opposite to what I had been working towards for the last couple of years.”
Since then, the drive to remove Corbyn from the leadership has prevailed and a purge of the left is underway, with the new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, actually suspending Corbyn from the party. The response to this monstrous attack has taken a tack that has weakened the left all along: compromise and accommodation with the right is sought in the name of unity, but the right is only interested in total control of the party. Even in the face of the attempt to drive Corbyn out, this hopeless effort to appease those who seek to destroy the left persists.
Those seeking to advance left politics within the Democratic Party have similar illusions about those who work to thwart them. Once the establishment of the party had prevented his nomination in favour of Biden, Sanders raised entirely implausible hopes about the progressive potential of a Biden presidency. Similarly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seemed perplexed at the hostility to everything she represents. “So I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy,” she said, “And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy.” She is entirely wrong. She and the movements that take to the streets to fight for justice are the enemy of the Democratic Party establishment, even if a liberal capitalist party is more cunning in its dealings with such movements that its right-wing counterparts. A socialist alternative in the US requires an open struggle against the politics of Biden as surely as unity between the left in Britain and the likes of Starmer is a fatal fool’s errand.
Lessons for Canada
Canada has not experienced anything like a Corbyn or Sanders movement that has galvanized people behind a left upsurge. Certainly nothing comparable has emerged within the NDP and it is impossible to say if it will. However, the road ahead is influenced by some very similar considerations. The conditions of crisis that we live under are sharpening the social and political contradictions at every turn. The Trudeau Liberals hold on, as a minority government, but their progressive veneer is ever less convincing. The continuing waves of the pandemic and the economic crisis they are exacerbating will create contradictions that are far too deep and powerful for their middle-of-the-road politics. The left alternative, however, will need to be a lot more substantive than a radical sounding electoral initiative. Against the fake anti-establishment posturing of the right and the lifeless political centre, the left alternative must take the form of a social mobilization of which contesting elections is but one part.
Ocasio-Cortez is right to point to the struggles on the streets around popular demands as a starting point. Those struggles are vital today in terms of immediate survival but they are also needed to create the sense of hope and forward movement that can drive a struggle for political change. How can we achieve that without mass social action against housing evictions, racist police brutality and deteriorating public services? How can we defend workers and the communities they belong to without rejuvenated, dynamic and militant trade unions? The recent scandalous revelation that the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), presided over by Hassan Yussuf, had joined with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in endorsing former Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s bid to head up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows how urgently we need to ensure that “the workers’ inspiration through the union’s blood shall run.” This speaks to the need for new approaches that go well beyond finding a CLC president with some capacity to feel shame.
We are living in a time of biomedical, economic and ecological crises that are in turn engendering worsening social and political crises. Gramsci famously observed that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Biden, as the candidate of the neoliberal mainstream in the US, barely contained one such symptom, the racist monstrosity that is Donald Trump. His administration will only offer more of the same measures that render that mainstream increasingly irrelevant and that will fuel the rise of something even more aberrant than Trump. The only alternative lies neither in unity with the political centre nor in the false hope of deliverance by lesser evil, but in mass social action and the forging of a clear socialist project.