Editorial: US Party Elites Hemorrhage at the Edges

Insurgent Notes doesn’t have much use for electoral politics as such. In our mind, they are useful mainly to take the temperature of society, especially to keep track with trends that emerge from the actions of the majority party of nonvoters. But American party politics have been dominated for so long by the “same old, same old” that with months to go until November, 2016 already stands out as an exception. Missing (so far) are the assassinations and nationwide urban riots that 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 misery for more than forty years, have lost control. It appears that Washington and Wall Street are loathed by a majority of people 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 within the Republican Party (typified by the Tea Party) and the far-right forces that operate within the party primarily for the purpose of seeking new recruits, having been newly legitimized by Trump, will not be going away. Our best guess is that the grass-roots activists in both camps will simply renew their pursuits of recruits. It may appear that there is little to do about it in either version. However, a friend of Insurgent Notes based in the Midwest, who has been closely watching the right wings at gun shows and elsewhere for years, tells us that some of Trump’s base could be attracted by a vision of a radically new society—if one were to exist in tangible forms.

Of course, what we’re mostly interested in is what might happen with the Sanders supporters. The moderate left, typified by the Democratic Socialists of America, has apparently enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. A review of the organization’s web page reveals the existence of a handful of high school chapters—we’re a bit jealous. Nonetheless, what they offer cannot possibly sustain the development of an anti-capitalist movement. We anticipate that many of Sanders’s supporters, having been drawn into a new world of anti-capitalist sentiments, will be looking for deeper understandings of the workings of the capitalist system and the ways in which more fundamental challenges might be organized against it.

Commentary across the board seems to see “angry white men” as the most contested terrain. We are aware of the recently publicized research findings about the rising death rates among white men between the ages of 24 and 59, while death rates among other groups, although still higher than those for white men, have been declining and the presumed relationship between their declining fortunes and their more or less self-inflicted misery. We suggest that it would be wise not to be distracted. Let’s instead ask a different question. For all the decades (more than four of them, and counting) during which American workers, white, black and brown, have been downsized, outsourced and deindustrialized, who has been talking to them? Not the elites of either party. Not the denizens of the cool “campuses” of high-tech firms in Silicon Valley. Surely not the middle-class left, which has been busy twisting itself into knots about various forms of identity politics.

Who, precisely, has been speaking to the hundreds of thousands of ex-workers and their extended families in ravaged ex-industrial cities such as Detroit or Youngstown or Pittsburgh or Buffalo or Rochester? Or to similar hundreds of thousands of working-class retirees and their families seeing their often-miserable pensions cut or eliminated? Or to the former furniture workers (there used to be a million of them) and their families in the forgotten small cities of North Carolina or Virginia? And who is speaking to such people today? Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Let’s emphasize that we are more than aware of the pain and suffering (in injuries, chronic illnesses and early death) experienced by workers in industries like steel, auto, rubber, mining, textiles and furniture manufacturing, and we have no interest in seeing the pain and suffering of reindustrialization imposed as the price of progress. Nonetheless, we are acutely aware of the ways in which concentrated industrial production made possible remarkable forms of camaraderie on the shop floor and, beyond the workplaces, the establishment of towns and small and large cities where working-class families were able to create communities that came quite close to the kinds of communities we might imagine desirable in a postcapitalist society—communities where forms of mutual support were all but universally present and opportunities for children to pursue expanded horizons were real rather than advertising slogans. We need a restoration of the advantages of industrial civilization of the last half of the twentieth century without the reimposition of the pain and suffering associated with it. For the moment, we’ll hold off on the matter of the deep satisfaction involved with cooperative labor in industrial production—other than to say that we imagine a return of that satisfaction at a higher level. We should note in passing, to dispense with any America-centric lenses, Trump’s counterparts—a newly vocal hard and extreme right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-elite, and anti-globalist politics—that 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-1970s crisis. This is the “bill” come due for all the intervening decades of invisibility enforced by the globalist “Davos”[1] bourgeoisie, its captive media and professoriate, and, most importantly, by a left that accommodated itself to every twist of what we refer to as devalorization.[2] 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 in the UK, the Hollandes in France and the Lulas and Rousseffs in Brazil. But that is not all that is happening.

A mere ten years ago, at the height of the “subprime” 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 percent or more of Americans today define themselves as “socialists” or claim an interest in “socialism,” or that “socialist” is the most searched word in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary: all of this is rather mind-bending for anyone who lived through the long, glacial winter from the 1970s 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. We imagine that the Obama years will be remembered as a parenthesis in which a calm, well-spoken Harvard Law School graduate and first black president, with his predictable economic advisors (Tim Geithner, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers) restored, for a while, the appearances of normalcy, at least for Wall Street. Meanwhile, seven million families lost their homes and were ground down in every aspect of their lives; record numbers of undocumented immigrants were deported; one-third of young people, into their 30s, have been forced to move back in with their parents; the electronic police state, revealed (for any remaining skeptics) by Edward Snowden, was further consolidated; the militarization of daily life continued apace; 4,700 killer drone attacks were authorized by the White House, and the United States (with military installations in 110 countries and with a budget equal to those of the seven next largest armed forces combined) continues to play with fire with potential major wars in the Middle East, Ukraine and the South China Sea.

The Obama years may well be remembered as a parallel to the 1929–37 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 healthcare and to consistently denounce the role of big money in politics, there is also a “clean Gene” element to Sanders’s 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 Chicago in the mid-1960s, joined (consciously or not) the post-1960s 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 had nothing special to offer to black people. While nominally an independent for most of his decades in Congress, he has voted 95 percent of the time with the Democrats, including for Bill Clinton’s Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994.

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.

Polls show Sanders 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.

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 moneyed 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. On the contrary, Sanders has been politically consistent since he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and subsequently elected to Congress from Vermont. There is no sleaze or waffling in his background. We acknowledge that the libertarian or far-left, in which we situate ourselves, have little or no contact with, not to say influence on, the working people, of any color, who are supporting Sanders, Clinton or Trump. Nevertheless, we have some ideas to offer. We 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. Let’s explore why the adage applies. Sanders does not have much to say about extricating the United States from the disaster inflicted on Iraq and the ensuing whirlwind in the Middle East. He would be, willy-nilly, the commander-in-chief of US 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 superpower where foreign policy is central, is hardly an afterthought. 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.

Sanders, his supporters will say, is different. 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 United States 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 United States going back to the 1870s, and lasting to the 1930s. He himself had led some of those struggles and in 1912 got 5 percent 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 1 million votes. Rosa Luxemburg he was not, but radical, especially in American terms, he was. Sanders only 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.

Enough, though, of elections! Let’s get back to where we began. What will become of Sanders’s considerable base when, as we anticipate, his not-quite-so-quixotic campaign ends? The current period reminds us, in a bizarre way and in much more dire circumstances, of the early 1960s. 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) 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 1960s were the later years of the Southern civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the radicalization of black people after the civil rights movement hit a wall, and the rank-and-file and wildcat upsurge in the United States working class. By the late 1960s, some many thousands of young people coming out of the New Left and the Black Liberation Movement had declared for revolution, and many joined groups organizing for it. It did not end well, for reasons that we cannot do justice to here. For the most part, the emerging revolutionary movement was dominated by either Stalinist/Maoist/Trotskyist sects or by groups well on the way to embracing an all-purpose, and hardly anti-capitalist, “progressive” politics. A not insignificant part of the black left turned towards nationalism. And a small part of what might be considered the middle-class white left was drawn into the substitution of terrorist violence for politics. Little of consequence is left of all of it although, to be fair, Sanders’s current vision has more than a little in common with the above-cited progressive politics.

For this new generation as well, events there will be, events that will demonstrate the dead end of electoral politics and, in short, of anything except mass struggle, 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 threat of war on several fronts will remain serious; 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 targeted. Our task, in those circumstances, is to intersect the fallout 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.”

To be successful, a new movement will have to be armed with a theory of capitalism’s evolution up to the present moment, and a program that communicates a concrete vision of a world beyond capital, not one that merely seeks to paint the world green. This program is not “pie in the sky” but the conscious expression of what existing social forces on a world scale can already do, forces whose potential is the actual force undermining capitalist social relations everywhere. We are the opposite of utopians: we draw our force from a worldwide practice of working people and potential working people whose unwilling collusion with the dominant social relationships is what actually drives the world. “Material conditions” today begin with the huge productive power that is squandered and destroyed by these relationships; we might mention for starters the 2 billion people around the world consigned to the planetary social parking lots named Palestine or Pakistan or Congo or the Brazilian favelas, or to the suburban rings around Paris or Brussels, or the 270 million migrant workers in China, a permanent floating population in search of casualized work.

We continue with the hundreds of millions of wage-labor proletarians in North America, Europe and East Asia that modern ideology and mainstream media and academia have “disappeared.” On the other hand, we’d point to the emerging struggles in logistics (shipping, trucking, railroads, warehouse work, delivery services) where some of the most interesting struggles of recent years (such as the immigrants in the IKEA warehouses in Italy[3] or the Hong Kong dockers’ strike) have made visible a vulnerability of capital in the heartland in some ways as acute as that provided by the old assembly line. In previous issues of Insurgent Notes, (above all issue No. 1), we have begun to sketch out the kind of program we mean. It includes an equalization of conditions upward around the world, taking the wealth currently wasted in the enormous “FIRE” (finance–insurance–real estate) and military sectors and putting it and the labor trapped in them to useful activity. We propose the large-scale reduction of the individual automobile culture whose ramifications probably make up half the “economy” in the United States, from fossil fuel consumption to the dispersion of population in suburbia and exurbia, all of this implying a complete reconfiguration of people’s living environments to overcome what Marx long ago called the alienation of city from countryside. When we consider the abolition of the military, police, prisons, state and corporate bureaucracy, along with the cashiers and customer service representatives of daily life—all sectors which consume social wealth and destroy it while producing nothing useful—untold horizons of possibility unfold from all the aspects of current social life which exist merely toenforce capitalist social relations. (See, for example, the Jason Rhodes article in the current issue.) We will have to deal with the emerging crisis of global warming, which itself alone implies a fundamental break with the way humanity produces and reproduces itself. Without this programmatic perspective, only minimally sketched here, the coming explosions will be doomed to dissipate themselves. Most people instinctively understand how absurd and meaningless much contemporary “work” is. Our task, or one of them, is to show, from the future struggles that will emerge, the “beach under the pavement” (to borrow a wall slogan from the French May 1968): how what is already possible can be made both conscious and practical.

A new movement will demand new forms of communications, language, education, political debate, cultural production and organization. We hope to contribute to the development all of those spheres.

  1. [1]Davos is a resort town in Switzerland and is the site of the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum—effectively a gathering of the representatives of the world’s ruling classes and their favored advisors.
  2. [2]In 1981, Loren Goldner, one of IN’s editors, addressed this issue directly. See The Remaking of the American Working Class: The Restructuring of Global Capital and the Recomposition of Class Terrain.
  3. [3]See “Struggles in Logistics In Italy (2015).”

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