Class Struggle Beyond the Ballot Box
The Left We Need in Biden’s America
June 12, 2021
One of the enduring challenges for the Left is that of making strategic adjustments to the changing terrain of class politics. As ruling class strategy in the United States shifts into a postTrump gear, this challenge has become particularly intense. The socialist movement now risks extreme disorientation. Most worryingly, it risks becoming an appendage of a Keynesian project for restabilizing capitalism.
The months since Donald Trump left the White House can easily seem like a flurry of change. Joe Biden has issued a series of executive orders overturning various orders Trump had imposed and has embarked on multi-trillion-dollar stimulus and infrastructure building projects. As these programs roll out and Covid–19 vaccination ramps up, many people have breathed sighs of relief.
This is understandable after four years of Trump’s overt cruelty and white supremacism. Yet there is a huge danger here for the Left. Biden is in fact overseeing a renormalization of imperial aggression, mass deportation, and a cosmetically improved order of racial and class domination. This is no time for the socialist left to let down its guard.
We say this not to deny genuine shifts in government policy. It is certainly much better for people to receive stimulus checks than not. And we welcome spending that will provide jobs and improve crumbling infrastructure. What we reject is the notion that these moves comprise some sort of “left” social and economic policy. In fact, Biden has reached into the Keynesian tool kit that has often been used to revive an ailing capitalist system.
Because of the long night of neoliberalism, during which it was a ritual for politicians to deplore economic intervention by government, it is easy to forget that such intervention is by no means inherently socialist. In fact, large-scale government spending, often accompanied by significant state ownership of industries, defined capitalism for half a century after the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Indeed, John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who advocated state spending as an antidote to economic depressions was always clear that the purpose of such policies was to save capitalism, not replace it.
While traditional economists were allergic to government intervention in the economy, Keynes wrote, “I defend it…as the only practicable means of avoiding the destruction of existing economic forms in their entirety.”11. John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan, 1936), 380. So it is with Joe Biden and his administration. In a zero-interest rate environment, where government borrowing is effectively free, Biden and his advisors see little downside to deficit spending. They hope it will boost the economy out of an exceptionally deep slump, and that it might enable them to better keep pace with the booming economy of their biggest rival—China. And they further hope it will rebuild the credibility of the capitalist market economy—a credibility damaged by deteriorating conditions of life and worsening racial injustices.
Large swathes of the capitalist class support this neoKeynesianism, even if they resist corporate tax increases to fund it. The socialist left needs to be clear that not only are these new policy remedies not “socialist” or pro-working class, but they are also unlikely to produce a period of sustained capitalist growth. The underlying crisis of profitability that began in 2008 has yet to be solved—thousands of “zombie firms” that should have gone bankrupt continue to operate thanks to state and private credit. The Biden stimulus is likely to produce what the Marxist economist Michael Roberts has called a “sugar rush” recovery—a brief uptick in output and employment followed by a sharp crash.22. Michael Roberts, “The Sugar Rush Economy,” The Next Recession, March 21, 2021, https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2021/03/21/the-sugar-rush-economy/.
“Improved” Capitalism at Home
While the Republicans are resisting Biden’s stimulus and infrastructure proposals, Biden-Harris are winning the battle for public opinion and garnering the backing of many unions and NGOs. The danger is that this will have a dampening effect on political struggle against the new government.
But anti-regime struggle is precisely what we desperately need. Official poverty figures in the US rose at a faster rate last year than at any time in more than fifty years, as eight million people were added to the poverty rolls. Black households are dramatically over-represented in that group, accounting for 2.4 million of the newly impoverished. And overall, women, African Americans, and workers with lower levels of education have been hit hardest by the 2020–21 recession. So, the tentative recovery recently underway is likely to be characterized by extreme unevenness as millions are left to endure unemployment, underemployment, food insecurity, and precarious housing.
Meanwhile, the super-rich made off during 2020 like bourgeois bandits. America’s 614 billionaires increased their net worth by a collective $931 billion. The Federal Reserve Bank’s quantitative easing program will continue to benefit them via inflation of financial assets. Overall, US society increasingly resembles Marx’s picture of extreme polarization of wealth and poverty. This will fuel ongoing class resentment as the super-rich prosper while small businesses suffer. In this situation, the petty bourgeois rage that has powered the growth of the far right will amplify. With unions generally disabled, not insignificant numbers of traumatized white workers may continue to be pulled into the orbit of right-wing groups.
But there is nothing inevitable about this.
Flames of Resistance, Flames of Hope
All of us need reminding that the spring and summer of 2020 saw the most diverse and formidable antiracist protests since the 1960s, as upwards of 25 million people took to the streets in the US. Protests began in the United States but then spread internationally. From the toppling of slavers’ statues in Bristol, England, to rallies outside the US embassy iin Hong Kong, millions took to the streets worldwide in anger and solidarity following the murder of George Floyd by racist police.
Aboriginal activists in Australia used the moment to draw attention to the ongoing settler colonial policies of the Australian state, while young Black activists in South Africa and Tunisia rose up against the violence of their own states towards the dispossessed. As we watched protesters burn down the police station in Minneapolis, for a brief moment, we caught a glimpse of a movement that had the power, to paraphrase James Baldwin, to make the world what the world must become
If those movement flames were tamped down in the US by our autumn of electoral senility that followed, we call for their recovery, we call for the fire next time.
The events of 2020 teach us a profound political lesson about political mobilization and demobilization. While racist policing in the US formed the epicenter of the BLM uprising, the upheaval proved to be transnational precisely because capitalism systemically knits working class lives across borders in distinct but recognizable webs of dominance and dispossession. When the racist criminal justice system murders or imprisons Black people in the US, Dalit activists in India and organizers in Palestine can recognize patterns of racialization and violence that similarly brutalize their own lives.
The protests were global not only because people stood in solidarity with the Black uprising in the US, but also because the same relations of power and dominance marked their own lives. Solidarity became an internationalist mobilizer, drawing attention not merely to one or other ruling class, but to the entire system. As Black studies scholar Charisse Burden-Stelly observed, revolutionary Black uprisings expose “the rootedness of racial discourse in political economy and the capitalist world-economy” as a whole.33. Charisse Burden-Stelly, “In battle for peace during ‘scoundrel time’: W. E. B. Du Bois and the United States repression of Black peace activism,” Du Bois Review 16, no. 2 (2019): 556.
Yet, as two of our editors argue in a “Provocation” in this issue of Spectre, the turn to electoralism last fall forced the retraction of these solidarity networks. Insurgent activism and internationalism were displaced by passive electoralism focused on the nation state. Sapped of the spirit of the uprising, our ability as a Left to fight the far right was grievously damaged.
However much many of us rejoiced in Trump’s defeat, the Left cannot allow itself to be seduced by the Biden regime. The nationalist zealotry that was Trumpism, and the conditions that birthed it, remain alive and well. Indeed, they are stoked by Biden policies that target China, incarcerate children at the border, and promote enhanced military and police budgets. With its minimal reforms at home and imperial incursions abroad, the Biden regime has no solution to the multiple crises facing our lives and our planet.
Imperial Incursions Abroad
It is urgent therefore that we articulate demands for economic redistribution as part of an internationalist project for an emergent Left. The Biden administration ties its program of domestic economic recovery to imperial ambitions. It wants America to “once again sit at the head of the table,”44. Trevor Hunnicutt and Humeyra Pamuk, “Rejecting Trump’s foreign policy approach, Biden says ‘America is back’,” Reuters, November 24, 2020. presumably while the rest of world picks up the scraps that find their way to the floor.
For decades, America’s political class has been seeking to counter the emergence of rivals to its hegemonic power. Economic rivalry from Japan and the European Union has largely been seen off for the time being, but China’s GDP will surpass America’s at some point this decade. US military superiority remains towering, with its defense spending greater than the next ten countries combined (eight of whom are its allies),55. Peter G. Peterson Foundation, “U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries,” Peter G. Peterson Foundation, May 13, 2020. but many of its interventions in the last twenty years have not gone according to Washington’s plan: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria come to mind.
As the US struggles to maintain its hegemony, it engages desperate gyrations in grand strategy, which increasingly fracture the US party-political establishment. Whereas during the Cold War, a bipartisan consensus largely prevailed, the 2000s saw a swing to neoconservatism under George Bush, Jr., then back to neoliberal multilateralism under Obama, before the even wilder lurch in which Trump abandoned imperial multilateralism altogether.
Trump sought to reconstitute US power on the basis of white nationalism and an unstable approach to both allies and antagonists. But white supremacism weakened Washington’s projection of itself as a democratic model. Meanwhile, a shifting “transactional” approach alienated Washington’s historic allies in Europe and elsewhere; and the handling of Covid–19, rooted in right-wing libertarianism, deepened an economic recession.
Biden’s foreign policy strategy is designed to overcome this crisis. He is seeking to fuse together features of Obama’s neoliberal multilateralism with Trump’s obsession with China (and Russia). One plank is nationalist. It involves directing the winds of geopolitical competition, with China, to justify vigorous federal backing of US “national champions” (globally competitive corporations and banks), much as during the Cold War.
The other plank is multilateralist. Biden will make a more serious attempt to come to grips with the pandemic, will rejoin or restore relations with international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and will row back from the shrillest of Trump’s racist policies, like the Muslim Ban. He will endeavor to regain some of Washington’s lost “moral leadership,”66. Susan B. Glasser, “Biden Will Restore America’s Moral Leadership,” New Yorker, October 5, 2020. particularly by raising human rights as a stick with which to beat China. The goal is the continued US domination of a steeply polarized world system.
For domestic purposes, Biden will make concessions to undocumented “dreamers,” while continuing to deploy ICE, the deportation machine,77. Adam Goodman, The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020). and a network of cages to police and control the border.
Biden’s new strategy thus augurs an aggressive and interventionist foreign policy. As Forbes senior contributor Loren Thompson concluded, “A Biden presidency thus would be more likely to use U.S. military forces overseas than President Trump has been.”88. Loren Thompson, “Get Ready for President Biden to Throw U.S. Security Politics into Reverse,” Forbes, October 20, 2020. For this reason too, we must not fall for Biden’s attempt to marry a domestic jobs program in high tech with restructuring the US military to confront China. Instead, we should call for massive cuts to the military-industrial complex and for use of the saved money to fund jobs and a Green New Deal. And we should continue to agitate too for open borders as Biden–Harris continues the antimigrant crackdown at the border.
All this will require a Left that challenges all nationalist and imperialist designs—even when they come from a Democratic administration.
Oxygen for the Far Right
Without a fighting socialist left there is a serious risk that a fall back into recession, a return of pandemic lockdowns, or military adventures turned sour could rekindle the growth of the far right. Trumpism did not exit with the exit of Trump. Economic difficulties and social dislocation will continue to provoke the dangerous politics of middle class rage.
As an analytical category, “populism” does not particularly advance our understanding of either the dynamics of this movement or the composition of Trump’s base. Trump is, and remains, a charismatic figure, a node around which disparate forces align themselves despite their varying aims. This assemblage of the far right, from its hard, organized expression to its more inchoate penumbra of supporters, bears some unique marks of our neoliberal present alongside some features of classical fascism. The fact that former Obama voters joined the January 6 siege of the Capitol shows that we cannot draw a straight line from Goldwater through to the horned QAnon priest.
Our understanding of neoliberalism as perilously denuding social reproductive capacities may be of use here. The contemporary far right is not opposed to the augmentation of the welfare apparatus, so long as state welfare benefits native-born, white Americans. Welfare for the best, relegation for the rest. This is how voters in a state like Florida could overwhelmingly favor progressive policies on the November ballot while still voting for Trump.
The distinguishing feature of this coalition, however, remains the classical petty bourgeois politics of simultaneously punching up and down. In addition to racism, antiSemitism, xenophobia, misogyny, and transphobia, they target perceived “elites”: occasionally including Wall Street, but always including Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and a group of politicians they see as representing establishment interests, broadly construed. In the January 6 storming of the Capitol, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi were equal targets of the lynch mob.
But it is important to remember that the far right is still a precarious alliance, as opposed to a purposive movement with clear leadership structures. Militant sections of the movement, the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and countless micro-militias, are connected by a still amorphous politics to the bulk of QAnon proponents, antimaskers, antivaxxers, proud patriots, and other garden variety right-wingers who currently float as free agents.
The danger, of course, is that they get organized. And the trajectory of the Biden administration will only fertilize the soil from which they sprung. To arrest that growth would require a clear agenda of economic and social redistribution, a jobs and housing program, universal child and health care, debt cancellation—in short, a platform prepared to challenge the interests of capital. By turning to a means-tested Clintonism, the Biden regime will only exacerbate the sense of alienation that fuels the far right today. This much is certain: If the Democrats act as their own moderators despite controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress, they may very well be soundly defeated in the midterms—much as Obama was in 2010.
This is why the Left cannot afford an over-investment in electoralism. The Left we need must be capable of mobilizing through communities, schools, and workplaces. It must be a fighting, activist left that sees the strategic priority of union drives at Amazon, the rent strikes in Houston and Albany, the Minneapolis protests at the trial of Derek Chauvin, George Floyd’s assassin. This moment demands a Left that projects a socialist opposition to the restabilization of capitalism along Keynesian lines.
To return to James Baldwin, we need a Left that seeks to make the world what the world must become.
- John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan, 1936), 380.
- Michael Roberts, “The Sugar Rush Economy,” The Next Recession, March 21, 2021, https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2021/03/21/the-sugar-rush-economy/.
- Charisse Burden-Stelly, “In battle for peace during ‘scoundrel time’: W. E. B. Du Bois and the United States repression of Black peace activism,” Du Bois Review 16, no. 2 (2019): 556.
- Trevor Hunnicutt and Humeyra Pamuk, “Rejecting Trump’s foreign policy approach, Biden says ‘America is back’,” Reuters, November 24, 2020.
- Peter G. Peterson Foundation, “U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries,” Peter G. Peterson Foundation, May 13, 2020.
- Susan B. Glasser, “Biden Will Restore America’s Moral Leadership,” New Yorker, October 5, 2020.
- Adam Goodman, The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).
- Loren Thompson, “Get Ready for President Biden to Throw U.S. Security Politics into Reverse,” Forbes, October 20, 2020.