Two views of a polarised America

Mike Phipps reviews Taking Control!: Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic, by Anthony Barnett, published by Repeater  and Breaking the Impasse: Electoral Politics, Mass Action & the New Socialist Movement in the United States, by Kim Moody, published by Haymarket

In 2000, the founding editor of New Left Review announced that “there are no longer any significant oppositions – that is, systematic rival outlooks – within the thought-world of the West.” Neoliberalism was apparently “the most successful ideology in world history.”

Twenty years later, neoliberalism lies in ruins, if not everywhere in practice, certainly as a credible ideology. The 2008 economic crash struck the first blow and market fundamentalism has never really recovered. The free market caused the crisis and government intervention was hailed as the solution. In the US, argues Anthony Barnett, the banks were bailed out with astronomical largesse, while 9.3 million American families lost their homes to foreclosure. Attempts by the Obama Administration to help them could not get enough Congressional support – “the banks had to be saved: the homeowners did not.”

The climate emergency too is widely understood to have been exacerbated by neoliberalism which is equally incapable of solving the problem. And most recently the Covid pandemic underlined that not only was the free market not the answer: the entire economy had to come second to the priority of human health.

What Barnett finds interesting in all this is how negligible a role socialism played in overthrowing the neoliberal consensus – in the US at least. I’m not sure how accurate this is given the huge support for both Bernie Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020. And he cannot deny the central role that progressives played in the resistance to both Trump and the neoliberal order.  Out of this came the Biden Administration, for which Barnett claims a cross-policy “inner coherence” which I do not find particularly convincing.

But before that came Trump’s last – for now – gasp, revealing his true colours. William Beveridge, the architect of the British welfare state, wrote in 1944 that “the essence of democracy is effective means of changing the Government without shooting.” But what happens when powerful interests refuse to relinquish their grip on office? A rehearsal for this was seen in the January 6th 2021 assault on the US Capitol, which even the hyper-partisan right wing Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell denounced as “a disgrace”, adding:

“American citizens attacked their own government. They used terrorism… They tried to hunt down the Speaker of the House. They built a gallows and chanted about murdering the Vice President. They did this because they’d been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth because he was angry he’d lost an election.”

Despite this, the Republicans refused to allow the impeachment of Trump and they were fully supported in this by their Party’s base. The polarisation in America goes hand in hand with an anger born of pessimism, particularly noticeable in the situation facing young people. Over half of 18 to 29 year olds live with their parents, the highest percentage in more than a century. People born between 1981 and 1996 own less than 5% of the wealth, even though they make up over one third of the workforce. “In this collapsing empire,” noted Bernie Sanders supporter Aaron White, “there’s not much to look forward to.” No wonder teenagers in America are reporting the highest levels of depression ever recorded.

Does Biden have the political solutions to confront these problems, or will his term in office under-achieve as badly as Obama’s eight years, ushering in another period of toxic authoritarian nationalism? Complaining that his best policies were blocked in Congress – again, like Obama, Clinton and, for those with long memories, Carter – is unlikely to change the appearance of timidity. Nor will it help the Democrats electorally, given that right wing neoliberal outliers of that party, like Joe Manchin, regularly help block so much of the Administration’s legislation, even if on paper the party controls both houses.

But the nativist authoritarianism which Trump mobilised and threatens to bring back is not just a product of Democrat under-achievement. It’s also a reaction to the supercilious condescension that accompanies it: Hillary Clinton describing Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” or Obama referring to working class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses in these terms: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Remember these were trade unionised rustbelt workers Obama was talking about, not the long lost racist white South. This casual elitism towards core Democrat voters has long been rife within the Democrat establishment. Its complacency echoes the New Labour belief that working class voters had nowhere else to go – but eventually they did, and in the US they did as well when Trump arrived on the scene. This critique is absent from Barnett’s analysis but it is important to understanding what Democrats need to do to win back its lost voters.

In his wide-ranging book, Barnett wills Biden to succeed. But he recognises that, in the US at least, representation was developed “as a means of keeping democracy at arms-length and it has done so successfully.” While elsewhere other models of citizen participation have been introduced alongside traditional representative functioning – and that’s true at a local level in parts of the US too – the likelihood of changing the archaic US constitution at a federal level remains remote.

Trump would not have got the presidency in 2016 without the outdated electoral college. The US senate would not be such a reactionary institution were it not for the fact that it hugely over-represents the smaller, more rural states. Institutional gerrymandering and voter suppression are endemic. And with little prospect of changing the 235 year old document, the ambiguities of the text are interpreted by a deeply conservative Supreme Court that has the license to determine the legality of abortion rights, affirmative action, rights in custody, corporate lobbying rules, public health care, environmental policy and much else.

In this context, Barnett’s optimism is laudable, but hard to share. Things could be about to get a lot worse.

Kim Moody’s book also starts on an optimistic note. After all, in the last few years a new socialist movement has taken shape in the United States on a scale not seen since before World War II. The leader of this movement is Bernie Sanders. Its organisational expression is the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) which has soared from a few thousand members in 2015 to nearly 100,000 today.

Underpinning these developments has been a range of activity at the base: mass demonstrations against the economic crisis from 2008 onwards, the Women’s March and #MeToo movements, the teachers’ upsurge, new forms of rebellion under the pandemic, the explosion of the second phase of the Black Lives Matter movement and some important trade union recognition battles.

But the two Sanders campaigns, in 2016 and 2020, “as inspiring as they were, have not left behind the kinds of organizations required to build the working-class movement needed to create momentum and power, ” argues Moody. The concentration on top-down methods of mobilisation and electoral priorities – optics, soundbites, vote-winning – do not of themselves create anything lasting. And if Sanders’ huge high-profile campaigns couldn’t produce the germ of a new political formation, there seem to be few prospects of creating one from any other current developments in the Democratic Party.

The impasse referred to in the title of Moody’s book is not unique to America. It is found around the world where the traditional parties of the left have moved toward the centre, disenfranchising whole sectors of society, while part of the right wing opts increasingly for a more irrational, authoritarian politics.

But in the US, the first past the post electoral system along with the financial and other advantages enjoyed by sitting Congressmen – incumbents regularly outspend their challengers by a factor of six to one – are a major barrier to radical candidates breaking through. Those who do – Moody cites Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an example – come under intense pressure to move ‘upward and rightward’, through a combination of carrot and stick, co-optation and marginalisation.

Congress, dominated by the lobbying arm of business interests, excels at destroying progressive legislation, even under the leadership of apparently progressive Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi assigned the House version of the Green New Deal to no less than eleven different House Standing Committees, where it “could be torn to pieces, amended beyond recognition, delayed indefinitely, buried, etc.”

If this – and any other progressive legislation – is to have any chance of success, Moody contends, massive disruptive social movements from below will need to take action. And given the effective segregation of the majority of Black and Latino people in substandard education, housing and services – “along with punitive welfare and racist policing” – the independent self-organisation of the most oppressed in society will need to be a vital part of that process. Moody dips into some interesting American labour movement and Civil Rights history to emphasise this.

Despite the obstacles, he is ultimately optimistic. A 2019 poll found that 64% of Americans approve of trade unions and 58% of those between ages 18 and 34 approve of socialism. Nor is it just college-educated millennials who think this: 46% of those without a degree approve.

Activists need to be prepared, Moody argues, for when these attitudes translate into a significant upsurge, which arguably has already begun. Whether this will open the way to the establishment of a new political party of the working class is more open to question.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

Main Image: Bernie Sanders. Source: Bernie Sanders. Author: Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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