What Steve Bannon’s Exit Says About the American Welfare State

The welfare state is of course the great postwar achievement of social democracy, even though in continental Europe it knows longer and older traditions. But it seems to me important to defend it, or better still, to give social democracy and the so-called Third Way, a chance to defend it, not because such a defense has any prospects of succeeding, but rather very precisely because from the Marxian perspective it is bound to fail. We must support social democracy because its inevitable failure constitutes the basic lesson, the fundamental pedagogy, of a genuine Left… The lesson is this, and it is a lesson about system: one cannot change anything without changing everything… Such is the lesson of system, and at the same time, if you have followed my argument, the lesson of revolution. As for the lesson about strategy, the lesson of What Is to Be Done?, I hope I have suggested an important differentiation between strategy and tactics in these remarks: one need not, in other words, slavishly imitate Lenin’s divisive, aggressive, sectarian recommendations for tactics to grasp the ongoing value of a strategy that consists in tirelessly underscoring the difference between systemic and piecemeal goals, the age-old differentiation (and how far back in history does it go after all?) between revolution and reform.

Frederic Jameson, 2007

Steve Bannon’s ouster from the Trump White House is typical milquetoast liberal anti-racism. They succeeded in bouncing the loudest mouth that espouses notions of revived scientific racism while keeping Jeff Sessions in position as Attorney General, able to do monumental harm to frontline communities.

Just in case we are unclear, let’s examine for a moment another instance of this liberal anti-racism so we can better elucidate the obvious pattern. By now it is fairly well-known that you can encounter a swathe of liberals and even a few pwogwessives that are fond of mouth-breathing their exasperation over Trump’s Russian connections, which tend to entail either insinuations of a homosexual affair with Vladimir Putin or alternatively Donald’s ties to the Russian mob. Some want to get him impeached over this Russia stuff.

Yet here is a simple question that obviates the general hypocrisy. Are Trump’s connections to Russia as substantial and clearly criminal as Dick Cheney’s were with Halliburton when Iraq was turned into a parking lot for their oil tanker trucks? Apparently there’s a distinction between when shady business connections will harm Arabs in a third world country besieged for three decades by American imperialism and when they could harm middle class progressive American voters.

Let’s be clear, Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik did boost for Trump during the electoral cycle because of his isolationism and denunciation of regime change. They furthermore have promoted xenophobia, racism, and conspiracism on their European partner stations to build support for other isolationist politicians like Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farrage. But fighting racism with more racism is not praxis in any moral sense of the word.

So why did Bannon get the boot while a man named for two different Confederate heroes, Jefferson Davis and General PGT Beauregard, remains in an office where he is going to be able to rack up potentially millions of convictions against poor people of color?

I think the answer is a pretty striking instance of the dark logic within our imperial capitalist system.

On July 2, Jonathan Swan reported for Axios that “Bannon has told colleagues he wants the top income tax bracket to ‘have a 4 in front of it.’ (The top bracket is currently 39.6% for Americans who earn more than $418,400.)”

Quicker than you can whistle the first bars of Dixie the financial elites across America threw up their red card and said that Bannon the Hutt must go.

Make no mistake, the man is poisonous and rotten to the core.

But this episode is a rather striking confirmation of what Frederic Jameson wrote in 2007. Ever since February, when I first found his essay in an anthology titled Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, this passage has been on my mind almost daily. On the one hand, as Jeffrey St. Clair and others have pointed out to me, what the hell does Jameson know about what will happen when the welfare state is abolished? Speaking about such things from his tenured throne of academic Marxist literary criticism begs for rebuke.

But then there is the other side of the coin, namely that we’ve been not just witnessing this but doing it for the past quarter century. Whenever Alexander Cockburn would remind people about how Monica Lewinsky saved Social Security, he was fighting for the welfare state. When I report on and offer polemical analysis of school privatization and teacher union busting efforts in New England, I’m fighting for the welfare state. When people criticize the bloated Pentagon budget and point out how its domination of the Federal Discretionary Spending Budget is capital that should be financing anything from a Green New Deal to universal healthcare to reparations for slavery, that is a blow struck in defense of the welfare state. Almost every single piece of writing posted on CounterPunch, from Ralph Nader’s technicistic columns shining a light on the areas of the law which can be exploited for citizen betterment to Jeffrey St. Clair’s reports on the misbehavior of the EPA and everything in between, is one that fights for the expansion or preservation of the welfare state.

Bannon quite clearly desired to increase the tax rate while simultaneously increasing the militancy which prevents access to the welfare state so to push America back in time to the Eisenhower years, a kind of legislative time travel equivalent to THE TERMINATOR and its plot about changing the present via a retroactive abortion of a critical conception in human history. Bannon’s desires were framed around revocation of Eisenhower-Kennedy era immigration laws as well as a portion of the tax cuts JFK signed into law when he took office. Bannon’s white ethno-nationalist welfare state cannot be embraced by sane adults.

Yet it also demonstrates a kind of mathematical proof of the welfare state in the imperial capitalist system. If you want a welfare state, then it must be an extremely white nationalist welfare state that excludes minorities from its full set of privileges granted by citizenship. As a corollary, when you wish to see the margins of citizenship expanded to include the otherwise excluded minority groups, you must withdraw the welfare state benefits.

This proof is furthermore an illustration of the difference between “democratic socialism” and communism. In his history of neoliberalism, David Harvey argued that the post-World War II social contract was a sort of “embedded liberalism”. Yet many scholars have pointed out that Harvey quite obviously missed the racial prism of history by which American governance must be chronicled.

As a counter, I have argued instead that Franklin Roosevelt quite obviously and undeniably transformed the ontology of the Democratic Party from a liberal one to a labor party. As the former governor of New York and scion of an old money Dutch colonial dynasty, he campaigned for the 1933 as a free marketer. To quote Vijay Prashad, “Roosevelt’s main plank was to shrink the government and expand U.S. trade with the world. These were policy positions much favored by the elite. During the election, there was little sign that Roosevelt would expand the U.S. government and use state spending to enhance economic activity.” But when he got into office, he brought together his fellow members of the ruling class, former gubenatorial constituents on Wall Street, and, with the streets packed by Communists, Trotskyists, Musteites, Socialists, and other activists, said with panic in his voice “Boys, either we give these people their welfare state or the next stop is the guillotine.” Less than twenty years after the Bolshevik revolution, this had a bit of credibility to it.

But when he created this peace offering of the welfare state, it was a white nationalist one. The Solid Southern Democrats were a significant faction of the New Deal coalition not because of an accident. Blaming them for the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers (which in practicality meant the vast majority of Black and Brown workers) from the National Labor Relations Act is foolishness.

When the Other is allowed to take advantage of the welfare state, democratic socialists will use their democracy to take away the socialism. Consider the illustration of Little Rock’s school desegregation.

Orval Faubus was a typical New Deal southern populist democratic socialist. His youthful radicalism came back to haunt him in 1954 when he was red baited for attending a radical school and opposing the First World War, which had resulted in his jailing during the First Red Scare. His career was defined by upholding Jim Crow with his 1957 opposition to implementation of Brown v. Board. Bill Clinton in fact capitalized on that history when he won the May 1986 Democratic primary against Faubus’s bid for a comeback that would have ousted Bubba from the Governor’s mansion.

By contrast, every time that Sputnik passed overhead Arkansas, Radio Moscow would make the announcement over the airwaves and proclaim solidarity with Little Rock.

It would be foolish to say that Marxist-Leninist Communism as it was in the last century was able to take power and instantaneously abolish racism (case and point being the problems which remained after Castro did away with Jim Crow laws in Cuba). But the Leninist ideal as a principle was defined by its opposition to racism and imperialism.

In this sense, the recent developments around Democratic Socialists of America, both in terms of their convention resolutions and participation in anti-oppression efforts, demonstrates a kind of Leninist turn, if of course we speak of the Zimmerwald-era Lenin. Just this past week, a Haitian woman with connections to DSA was elected to City Council in Providence. This is in striking contrast with the old guard. Albert Shanker, Michael Harrington, and Bayard Rustin were on the wrong side of history regarding the 1968 New York teacher’s strike, Vietnam, and Zionism. I have in my digital archives a small pamphlet written by Harrington decrying anyone opposed to Israeli oppression of Palestinians as anti-Semites and now his organization has endorsed BDS. Heather Heyer, the martyr whose name is going to be up there with John Brown’s forevermore, was apparently a member of DSA and a Wobbly.

Meanwhile, the Green Party has been facing its own internal contradictions, most recently at its National Meeting in New Jersey. The two sides in the matter are essentially divided by the same bifurcation that split the party in 2003-4 with regards to the nomination of David ‘Safe State’ Cobb as opposed to the Ralph Nader-Peter Camejo ticket. In a development that will go down in my books as one of the most shameless instances of white supremacy in recent history, the group gathered around Cobb and Jill Stein actually had the gall to attempt to invalidate the national Steering Committee election with a smokescreen accusation of racism so to (get this) kick out of her elected seat a working class Latina of color! It would be equivalent to trying to kick Paul Robeson out of his seat so he could be replaced by someone who is more beholden to the whims of white leaders. Do these people have any sense of how slimy they are? It is a sad day when the Cobb faction effectively and practically is much further to the right of the Democratic Socialists of America. Without venturing too far into the realm of a pedestrian Freudian analysis, this adds a further dimension to Cobb’s bizarre and dangerous recent chats with Caitlin Johnstone, the proponent of Greens teaming up with the alt-right to take on the ‘deep state’.

With these developments within the two major groupings of socialist electoral politics in the past few months, the supposed conclusion would be that I would argue for a revised Leninism, perhaps a logic equivalent to what Slavoj Zizek suggests. For those who are unclear (something I don’t blame them for), the Slovenian philosopher has indicated the following coordinates for future politics to emerge from:

+ The social democratic welfare state is finished as a project and cannot be revived through the various schemes suggested by thinkers like Thomas Piketty. In the grand scheme of things, Keynesians like Bernie Sanders but also the Greens and DSA are fundamentally utopian in thinking that finance capital will allow for the reconstruction of the welfare state.

+ The Communist project of the twentieth century was objectively a failure despite its efforts to the contrary because of not just the well-known humanitarian issues but because the leadership of the movement, from Stalin onwards, was unable to maintain the forward propulsion necessary to achieve the actualization of the goal. As such, substitutional efforts like Trotskyism or Maoism, which swap in a figurehead-totem to be worshipped by the cultists, are stillborn.

+ The notion of replacing a welfare state with a direct democratic order that has no alienation of the basic necessities of life (i.e. an autonomous water authority, medical system, and other elements of infrastructure that is wholly self-sustaining) is a fool’s errand. The municipal assembly systems espoused by both Murray Bookchin and Ralph Nader are only able to function properly because of an intricate network of alienated utilities that do not require a daily plebiscite to organize them.

+ Religion and particularly the radical, subversive core of the Judeo-Christian tradition, borne out in the Book of Job and the moment during the crucifixion when Christ says ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’, provides a window onto the realm of uncertainty which can and will be where these political projects emerge from as radical emancipatory praxis.

However, in American contexts, I would argue that a successful materialization of these coordinates must be cognizant of the national question and its history, which is done by centering in such a project the writings of the Black radical tradition. The dialectics of such a centering must include on the one hand the firsthand slave narratives of women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and on the other the analysis of thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and Richard Wright as presented by Cedric J. Robinson’s magisterial Black Marxism.

Particularly relevant to this discussion and the antithesis of Bannon’s white ethno-nationalist welfare state is what Du Bois called ‘abolition democracy’. In other words, following the line of Jameson, the struggle must be for the recreation of the Reconstruction revolution. Only by going through the antithesis of Bannon’s utopianism shall it be possible to be victorious against the Trump project.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.