There was an interesting article posted on Alternet (April 12, 2020) – Leftist policy didn’t lose. Marxist electoral theory did – in response to the dismal showing by Bernie Sanders in the current Democratic Primaries. I think it summarises the confusion that is now abundant on the progressive side of the political struggle. The arguments presented highlight the dilemma facing the progressive side of politics. Should Leftists compromise with centrists to get more traction? Compromise with what? If you read between the lines, there is no argument being made for Leftists to challenge the basic macroeconomic myths of neoliberalism that social democratic politicians around the world have adopted and straitjacket by. Rather, Leftists should accept these constraints and work at local levels to make small gains for better housing etc. It is a defeatist agenda – a surrender to the main game. I reject it.
The author, David Atkins, is a long-standing Democratic Party operator from California and regularly contributes to the political debate.
The substance of the argument being put by Atkins is that:
1. The Left is now despondent as a result of the “defeat of Bernie Sanders”.
2. This is the “fourth consecutive defeat for Sanders-style revolutionary leftist politics in the Anglosphere” – Sanders to Clinton 2016, Sanders-style losses in 2018 US mid-term election, British Labour loss in December 2019, and Sanders to Biden in 2020.
3. The Left should not, however, feel defeated – “leftist policy has never been more ascendant” – all the Democratic candidates advocated a “version” of Medicare for All, climate change responses, and student debt relief.
4. So why does Sanders keep losing? Well according to Atkins: “What lost unequivocally, was a certain brand of anti-partisan class revolutionary electoral politics rooted in industrial-era Marxist theory.”
The ‘workers of the world unite’ narrative (apparently) on the road to a “socialist utopia” which eschew “any cultural divisions within the working class that get in the way”.
The demagogues who push this crude Marxist (apparently), a “hostile to the political reality in which suburban middle-class professionals (regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the party of the “left” while blue-collar rurals (again regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the “right.”
5. So they are “hostile to the Democratic Party” and in their delusion think there is “a big mass of independent voters and non-voters to the left of base Democrats on economics and open to revolutionary politics” and try to “minimize cultural divisions” as they advance their socialist aspirations.
6. This approach “utterly failed” because votes “actually like the Democratic Party” and there are no Leftists out there independent of the Party that can be harnessed. Further, Sanders had his ‘Bernie Bros’ and claimed there was a mass of young people ready for revolution but “whatever the secret formula is for turning out voters under 45 in large numbers, the Sanders campaign didn’t find it”. Sanders also failed to attract “culturally conservative whites”.
7. “Marxist theory leftists have a range of excuses for all of this–all of them unpersuasive” – ranging from conspiracy theories within the Democratic Party, hostile media, etc. They also deny the reality that “white working class neighborhoods” care about too much immigration and cultural issues.
8. So what to do? Stop “testing industrial-era Marxist theories of social alignment”, and, instead, “meet voters where they are”.
9. Which means what? Leftists need to support the existing political machinery (that is, the Democratic Party). They should use “negative partisanship against the Republican Party” and stop seeing “partisanship as a false consciousness construct of an elite duopoly”. That means calling the working class out for what they are!
10. It means that Leftists have to work “with even centrist coalition partners” – which requires compromise.
11. Leftists should stop using political campaigns “as the key testing grounds for left-versus-liberal contests of will and start more local”. At the national level, there is little scope for differences between the Right and the Left because of “conservative structural impediments to policy”.
So it is better to fight for change at the local level “on issues like housing and criminal justice”. Forget the grand plan. Marxist leftists have more chance of engaging with the urban professional liberals and culturally conservative working class on these issues within the Democratic Party institutions.
12. Conclusion: “Let the industrial Marxist dream of working-class electoral realignment die” and instead work with the urban middle-class liberals to advance local policies.
I think that is a fair rendering of his thesis and it is one that is increasingly common across the political landscape among progressive activists who run the line that the policy agenda ‘won’ despite being slaughtered in the voting process.
It is also the line that was prominent among Remainers in the British debates about Brexit, post Referendum.
It is a very ‘middle class’ view and is consistent with the arguments I have been confronted with all my career which we might summarise, in part, by invoking the US President Lyndon Johnson’s comment about J. Edgar Hoover (quoted in the New York Times, October 31, 1971):
It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.
I recall as a younger academic being invited to discuss employment guarantees with the leading ACOSS (Australia Council of Social Services), which is the peak body in Australia representing the welfare sector.
Unemployment was even higher than it is today and underemployment had spiralled upwards.
The federal government was full-on neoliberal and pursuing what they called ‘full employability’, which was a training-based activation policy coupled with a punitive enforcement regime (work tests, etc) designed to make it hard to stay on income support despite the pronounced absence of work opportunities.
More or less, by the way, the regime that is still in place – it is the neoliberal approach after all.
The ACOSS meeting was very dispiriting and they claimed they rejected public job creation schemes as the solution for poverty and preferred to work within the training culture that pervaded the national political scene.
I was told that for them it was better being in the ‘tent’ seeking compromises with the neoliberals, working angles and edges, rather than be like me, always outside the tent without a seat at the table.
My view then, and now, is that all these institutions that play that game end up being co-opted by the dominant agenda because they never really challenge the essence of the power that perpetuates it.
A classic case in Australia was when the conservatives privatised the public employment service (the Labor Party had planned to do it anyway but were turfed out of office in 1996) and created a new industry – the management of unemployment.
This quasi-market saw all manner of church and welfare agencies (Mission Australia, Salvos, etc) bidding for contracts to manage the case loads of the unemployed.
Part of this process was to report work test failures to the Government – the activity hurdle for the unemployed was ridiculously high (going for jobs etc) given the paucity of jobs. The Government, in turn, would ‘breach’ the income support recipient, which was fancy lingo for taking their benefits away.
So you had church welfare agencies, who were meant to be delivering the mission of Christ, becoming tools in the cruelty and perniciousness of a sociopathological government regime.
Totally co-opted and justifying their actions by ‘being in the tent’ and ‘having a voice’ and pursuing ‘social entrepreneurship’. Welfare became an entrepreneurial mission and the losers were the poor, the disadvantaged, the frail, the weak and the vulnerable – millions of Australians.
So compromise with what?
This sort of message resonates with the themes we discussed in our 2017 – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).
One of the reasons the progressive side of politics has been an abject failure over many decades now is that they ‘compromised’, or better, adopted the neoliberal economic narratives that had been fed to them by the Right, who knew that they had to reconfigure the state and use it as a tool to further their own class interests.
Meanwhile, while mouthing off that globalisation had rendered the nation state irrelevant in terms of fiscal policy sovereignty etc, the progressives – David Atkins – ‘urban, middle-class professional liberals’ encouraged us to debate identity as a meaningful social location and abandon the economic class narrative.
The youth have been trained to say ‘we are all entrepreneurs now, not workers’ as they (formerly pre-crisis) buzzed around on scooters delivering pizzas for a pittance with zero security.
The urban, middle-class professional liberals in London, Oxford and Cambridge felt it was their right to call out lower-income workers, who had little left to lose after years of industrial hollowing out and fiscal austerity, as racists, idiots, and more, just because they voted to Leave the most advanced neoliberal institutional construct – the European Union.
We were told by the Europhile progressives that these working class neighbourhoods were so stupid and impulsive that they would immediately Bregret their wild choice and listen to reason if there was another vote.
Well, eventually there was another vote – the December 2019 election. And we saw what that delivered. The result had nothing at all to do with industrial Marxists dreams of working-class electoral realignment.
And when social democratic politicians embraced the idea that governments had to pursue fiscal surpluses, or, at least, balance the position over the course of the economic cycle, and largely rely on so-called ‘independent’ central banks to do the counter-stabilisation policy work, they created a straitjacket for themselves where they were always having to defend any progressive policy agendas.
As a result they had to invent ridiculous ‘funding’ plans, which they thought would resonate with the voters:
1. Robin Hood taxes on the finance sector because that sector was bad.
Well if it was so bad, why not use the legislative capacity of the government to fix it and if it cannot be fixed declare the ‘bad’ bits illegal?
They couldn’t do that because they received largesse from the financial sector in the form of campaign funding, rolling door safety nets when leaving office, and other material benefits.
The main party structures that David Atkins want the Left to work within and compromise with have been up to their necks in this sort of patronage.
So effective financial market reform was always impossible if we relied on the traditional political parties. They were so co-opted and bought that no meaningful action would be forthcoming.
2. ‘Tax the rich so we can fund Medicare for All’ or whatever service shortage or deficiency applies to the specific nation under discussion.
So the narrative makes it clear that the Government needs the cash of the rich to ensure it can provide services to the poor.
The narrative is wrong at the most elemental level but is core progressive policy. The sort that David Atkins wants the Left to compromise with.
The billions/trillions of public spending initiatives that have been announced by governments around the world demonstrate where the ‘money’ comes from!
3. ‘Fairer more gradual austerity’ – this is another of the narratives from progressives who perpetuate the public debt will need to be reduced and the fiscal position brought back into surplus but if people vote for progressives they will ‘consolidate’ or ‘repair’ the fiscal position more slowly and ensure the burden of the adjustment falls more on those who can afford it.
Meanwhile, they leave the metaphors of ‘repair’ and ‘debt burden’ and all the rest of it on the table, largely unchallenged – and the straitjacket remains.
So when David Atkins claims the Left has to compromise and work within traditional party structures, he is really saying that we need to work within the neoliberal macroeconomic narrative, which he claims is one of the “conservative structural impediments to policy” that prevent meaningful action at the national level.
Which, in my view, is a defeatist strategy.
We might end up winning a few local seats or positions because the local community is sick of the sociopaths in charge who can’t deliver clean water or whatever, but without address the macroeconomic constraints, we get nowhere.
The macro always dominates the micro.
A macro constraint overpowers anything.
I also don’t buy the claim by Atkins that the Left agenda is winning the public debate. This same angle has also surfaced among the wannabe progressive ‘insiders’ in Britain – the curious argument ‘we lost badly but actually we are winning’.
I discussed the logic of that approach in this blog post – You lost! Badly! Humility not hubris is needed in order for British Labour to regenerate (March 17, 2020).
If the stream of invective on social media over the last several months from Sanders’ supporters is anything to go by, especially after it was obvious that Joe Biden would be the nominee, then Biden is not singing off the same song sheet as the Leftists.
I have seen the most vituperative character and policy attacks against Biden from the Sanders’ supporters – relentless and divisive about his abandonment of the types of policies the Left were advancing.
I know that when we talk of America, hyperbole is never far from the action – but was this really “revolutionary leftist politics” that Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn was advocating?
It was more of a weak-kneed ‘tax the rich’ neoliberal macroeconomics from where I observed.
And it hasn’t taken Sanders long to seemingly, backing away from a full on Medicare for All, Climate Revolution stance as he ‘compromises’ with the Biden camp. But then he essentially advocated ‘sound finance’ anyway.
What the Left should prioritise is education aimed at dispelling the macroeconomic myths that force progressive politicians to take stupid policies to elections that are largely indefensible.
They should also realise the only way forward is to create new political structures that abandon all the ‘mates’ stuff with lobbyists and revolving-door type mechanisms.
And the middle class should realise that they are being whittled away by neoliberal austerity policies and should not adopt positions of cultural superiority viz the less-advantaged working class communities, who they currently show contempt for.
I am not hopeful.
I have written about what they should do about the ‘culture wars’ previously and won’t repeat those ideas here.
That is enough for today!