The spectre of socialism
Paul Demarty casts a critical eye over the rise of self-styled socialists in the Democratic Party
Recently, the New Yorker dedicated several pages to the attempts of various bright sparks to fill the American football off-season - no games from the Super Bowl until Labor Day in September! - with different competitions. There have been attempts at the same before, and it is hardly surprising - despite trending downwards, gridiron puts American asses in front of TV adverts more reliably than any other form of broadcast entertainment.1
There is something inimitably American about filling any remaining space with more, more, more! - as evidenced, also, by the hypertrophy of its political cycles. That alternative form of gladiatorial combat, the presidential election, has now expanded to fill no less than half of its notionally quadrennial cycle with feverish speculation, character assassinations, bribes from the incumbent, and spoilers from the opposition. Unlike in the sport our transatlantic friends alone call football, it is the spectators, not the participants, who end up feeling concussed.
And so it has been a busy period in American politics, between new rounds of indictments in Robert Mueller’s investigations, the threat of another government shutdown and a scandal that somehow leaves Donald Trump threatened by Jeff Bezos’s todger.
Such is the fate of official bourgeois politics in the USA, as the political, media and state-core elite divides into warring tribes on the matter of Trump’s presidency. Yet there is, if anything, an even more ominous process going on, crowded off the front pages by Russian hackers and ‘below the belt selfies’ - it seems America is haunted by the spectre of ‘socialism’.
The Financial Times is not the first to note that those prospective candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination fastest out of the block are all tacking left on economic issues.2 All must speak in favour of a $15 minimum wage; nearly all are now on board with a single-payer (that is, universal) healthcare system, which, within the emaciated terms of dispute that divided Barack Obama from Hillary Clinton back in 2008, would have been thought tantamount to turning Rhode Island into a Maoist labour camp.
Various competing proposals are available for taxing the super-rich. Elizabeth Warren - the Massachusetts senator who started out as a Republican-neoliberal technocrat, but has since set herself up as the standard-bearer for the left-liberal section of the Democrats - proposes a 2% wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million, and 3% over $3 billion.
It is quite striking how modest these measures actually are, given the consternation they have caused. The FT writer can barely conceal her horror at demand of the avowedly socialist congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for a top tax rate of 70% … for incomes larger than $10 million. War communism it ain’t. Nonetheless, many among the American elite will have been on the same page as the president when he used the state of the union address to condemn “calls for socialism”. ‘Socialism’ is gearing up to be the line of attack next year.
That in itself is not terribly new; but it is interesting to see a slew of presidential hopefuls from the right and centre of the Democrats adopting demands that are guaranteed to provoke that epithet. There is hardly a surprise there, of course: the calamity that was Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 has caused a richly deserved crisis of confidence among the machine Democrats. Their candidate, and her army of policy wonks and pollsters, was defeated by a raving, narcissistic demagogue with a tenuous grasp on reality; in order to get her over the line to the nomination, meanwhile, they resorted to all the cynicism and dirty tricks you like - all of which was then exposed to Democratic activists by Wikileaks and, perhaps, foreign cyber-espionage agencies. (All the frothing about Russian ‘fake news’ cannot do away with the fact that the most damaging allegations said to be unveiled by Putin’s employees were true.)
Thus the popularity of Clinton’s opponent in that election, Bernie Sanders, and his present status as - by some pollsters - the most popular politician in the country, and certainly the front-runner for now. There is hope among machine Democrats that the entry of Joe Biden will put paid to that. Biden, former vice-president and ‘plain-spoken’ southerner, is a sort of cover version of Bill Clinton; time will tell if primary voters fall for the shtick. For now it is Sanders who leads, however, and it is his agenda from which the others pilfer (Warren is a partial exception, wealth taxes having been a hobby horse of hers for years).
More worrying still for Wall Street/Silicon Valley moguls, fearful of losing a political party to a rabble of intersectionalists and soi-disant socialists, is that much of this is pretty popular - especially a sharp increase in taxes on the super-rich. Proposals along the line of Ocasio-Cortez’s command majority support even among registered Republicans, by some surveys. And for the first time on record, a Gallup poll of attitudes finds only a minority of Democrats with a ‘favourable view’ of capitalism (the ‘favourable view’ of socialism has stabilised around 60% over the last few years). With the unacceptable face of capitalism chowing down on burgers, while watching Fox and friends in the White House, left-leaning Democrats are unsurprisingly wondering what the dominant mode of production has done for them lately.
This actually sets up a tricky situation for machine candidates. In order to get through the primary season, they may well have to follow the crowd and back single-payer healthcare and taxes on some tiny sliver of rich Americans. Now we can picture our candidate - let us call him Bo Jiden - trailing through the presidential debates, with a certain Donald Trump pointing out relentlessly that he has promised to support the policies of the notorious socialist, Bernie Sanders. Fox News will no doubt discover that our Bo was a member of the Communist Party in his college years, even if that is not actually true. The ‘plainspoken’ image will evaporate immediately, as he stumbles through a section of denials. Four more glorious years for The Donald must follow.
Sanders, on the other hand, can hardly be accused of socialism when he is unashamed of it, and there can hardly be an American alive who believes he is not a socialist. The same goes for the other lefts lifted up in his wake. A remarkable feature of the polling in 2016 was that Sanders consistently did better in a straight choice with Trump than Clinton - not that it would really have turned out like that, as we shall see.
For the ‘socialism’ at issue is more real than the ‘socialism’ of which Barack Obama was accused relentlessly by rightwing conspiracy theorists, or the ‘socialism’ of the bank bailouts initially rejected by headbangers in the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives back in 2008 - in the sense that it is at least not rejected by those ‘accused’.
Yet it is not exactly the vision propounded by this paper, or more broadly the Marxist left. We view socialism as the first step on the road to stateless, moneyless society based on direct planning for need; a radically democratic form in which all exploiting classes are politically expropriated and the broad masses - led by the class-conscious proletariat - take control of the economy and progressively replace all vestiges of capitalism with an expanding, democratically organised, cooperative commonwealth. Americans - including, it seems, the average run of American ‘socialists’ - view socialism more or less as a grab-bag of extremely modest, though highly desirable, reforms. It is ‘motherhood and apple pie’ stuff; and socialism in this sense consists in holding out at least for the pie.
The great disadvantage of socialism as apple pie, as opposed to socialism as workers’ power, is that the grab-bag of reforms do not, as it were, add up to more than the sum of their parts. The reflexive eclecticism at work leaves out of account the fundamental interconnection between (as one example) the manifest injustice of access to healthcare in the US and the bureaucratic-Bonapartist constitution that enshrines the power of judges and officials over elected representatives, and less proportionally-elected representatives over more. Marxist socialism exposes these interconnections, and thus prepares people for a prolonged political struggle on many fronts rather than a big push on a selection of issues that poll well. It also prepares socialists for eventualities like the rigging of the 2016 election by the Clintonites and their billionaire friends; and would have prepared them, in the unlikely eventuality of a Sanders-Trump face-off at that time, for the mass defections of ‘liberal’ capitalists to the side of the orangest man in the west.
Among the living
All of this leaves out of account the question of the American far left - which, alas, is not well equipped to intervene in this process.
There is a cartoon floating around in US activist circles of the Democratic Party as the “graveyard of movements” - a cemetery at dead of night, with headstones marked “Labor, 1930s”, “Environmental, 1970s”, “Anti-Globalization, 2002”, and so on. At the front is an open, empty grave with Black Lives Matter etched expectantly into the monument.3
This is true - indeed, the problem is that it is more exactly true than American lefts understand. For the message clearly intended by the cartoonist, Mike Flugennock, is: stay clear of the Democrats, or your movement will be buried! Yet a cemetery is not a place to take the living, but the dead. The graveyard of movements, then, houses those who have gone the way of all movements.
This critique of Democrat-focused politics, then, is half-true. The fact that these movements were buried without fully achieving their aims - in many cases, without achieving hardly any of their aims (in the Trump era, you could almost imagine that there had never been environmentalists at all) - testifies to the power of the Democratic Party as an effective means for grinding down dissent until nothing remains of it but sand. The mistake is in imagining that going on as a movement - understood as essentially a single-issue campaign focused on protest - is an alternative to this kind of benign oblivion. If it was, to be blunt, surely one of the preceding movements would have worked it out by now.
Instead, this sub-Bakuninist outlook runs up against the limit that movements are only very occasionally successful at the level of single-issue campaigns, and instead - as we argued above - must win their aims at the level of general politics. This is a matter of necessity, not mere happenstance; it is not possible to treat a union campaign against offshoring some enormous factory with an environmental campaign against pollution downriver as separate issues without them ultimately coming into contradiction by the very nature of capitalist heavy industry. Thus divided, but drawing on the same reservoirs of human concern, both will fail and be outmanoeuvred by an enemy class that wants to up its exploitation with total indifference to the ecosystem.
There are innumerable other examples of such contradictions, and their root is in the extraordinary complexity of capitalist society and the deep entanglement of its constituent processes. It is this that sucks people into the world of Democratic machinations and Washington skulduggery - for a government can pick its way through these dilemmas that a sea of disaggregated campaigns cannot. For the activists swept up into single-issue movements, a move into party politics is a sign of maturity; but that is not the same thing as doing ‘grown-up’ politics in the sense that the desiccated specimens of the Democratic National Committee would have it.
At least, not necessarily the same; but they will remain identical, so long as the American Marxist left remains committed to exactly the same sub-Bakuninist politics. For these comrades, as for the periodic waves of radical youth they attempt to recruit, the alternative to the Democrats is … more activism, more of the time. The traditional far-left insistence on working outside the confines of the Democratic Party is, thus, both correct to a limited extent and somewhat besides the point: maintaining an organisational identity apart from the Democrats becomes a shibboleth that is supposed to cover up the lack of a meaningful alternative political project to left-Democratism. It is no wonder, then, that the Democratic Party swallows up successive generations of activists; or, for that matter, that on substantive issues of political line the far-left groups are compelled to tail the party from which they mean to keep clean.
Educating this latest generation - the first to even want to be socialists for a long while - means denouncing the bourgeois constitution, the bourgeois state, and both its parties, with fully worked-out alternatives. Otherwise, today’s bright-eyed Sandernistas will be tomorrow’s Clintonite creeps.