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Cultural and Ideological Struggle in the US: a Final Comment on Ocasio-Cortez


There is no question that there is an acute, ongoing social, political, and economic crisis in the United States and the colonial/capitalist world. Liberal democracy along with the institutions and ideological justifications for the neoliberal order are under tremendous strain in the U.S.  In the cultural and ideological sphere commonsense assumptions that provided meaning and societal unity are now contested. Politically, intra-ruling class contradictions sharpened with the election of Donald Trump and the social and class forces he represents. Those intensifying contradictions are being played out within the terrain of the duopoly with both parties and most governmental institutions suffering a precipitous loss of legitimacy.

This is the specific context that must inform how we apprehend political developments and the war of ideas unfolding in the U.S. and throughout the capitalist world. It is the context that must inform how we come to understand the meaning of the Ocasio-Cortez win in New York and similar developments in the two parties, but especially what is being called an insurgency within the democrat party.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seemingly came out of nowhere to knock off an entrenched member of the democrat party establishment in what had been considered an uncontested and thus safe seat for twenty years. I don’t need to go into the details of the story because most of the obvious details are now known. However, what was not known in the first few hours after her victory was the specifics of how a candidate running as a socialist who had criticized Israel, had what appeared to be a grassroots operation with a platform calling for a Federal jobs guarantee, Medicare for all as a human right, abolishing ICE, and support for a “peace economy,” came to defeat a ten-time incumbent who outspent her campaign 10 to 1.

With her victory, one would have thought that for radical forces, especially those forces that made the strategic decision to participate in the electoral arena, an interest in a deep analysis of the campaign and what it might mean for electoral and radical politics beyond NYC would be in order. But even more importantly, one would have thought that left forces would have attempted to advance its own narrative on the meaning of the campaign.

Unfortunately, what we got instead in some quarters was a pre-mature and bizarre campaign of invectives directed at the campaign and Ocasio-Cortez personally, not from the right but from the left!

For some who claim to be committed to building independent left power, the fact that she ran as a democrat cancelled out any interest in analyzing the experience. And any push-back on that position suggesting instead that a win like that required a serious analysis, was strangely interpreted as a position in support of the democrat party, as though thinking had now been colonized by the democrats!

Therefore, instead of looking at serious questions that the campaign should have raised like the strategy employed, whether or not it include a long-term voter registration process, what forces did the campaign pull together in the district, how did the campaign overcome the spending disadvantage, what parts of the campaign platform tended to resonate the most in her district, what could we learn from how folks responded to the political message, what might be applicable for other insurgent campaigns even beyond the democrat party – the thrust of many people’s energy was on proving that she was a fraud, her win a fluke or incredibly “no big deal.”

Her platform, the working-class folks from her district that supported her, her gender and nationality as a member of an oppressed and colonized people were all negated, erased, marginalized as meaningless, because as someone who should have known better put it – we have elected progressives before and it didn’t mean anything.

The meaning and consequence of any action is determined by the specific conditions and circumstances of the present moment.  It is both elitist and subjectivist nonsense to suggest that the conditions and politics of 1988 are the same as the existential crisis facing the colonial/capitalist order in 2018. Yet, it is precisely this kind of anti-dialectical and idealistic framework that characterizes so much of left “analysis” and consequently continues to bedevil creative left opposition in the U.S.

The capitalist elite understand that they are facing new and dangerous conditions. That is why despite the intense struggle that is going on within their ranks, they will close ranks using Russia-gate to limit the range of information and analysis available to the public. It is why they will also close ranks on the left tendency in the democrat party and by extension against left electoral expressions and formations in general. The democrat party bosses already demonstrated that they would rather lose than concede any institutional power to their left pole.

The Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders’s tendency in the democrat party potentially represents a legitimate insurgency. Therefore, I have always been curious about why those who believe that the democrat party is beyond reform opposed the internal struggle that those forces are waging. The implication of their position is that since they (the enlightened) understand the limitations of the democrat party, the uninformed millions who still participate in democrat party politics will, through some spontaneous and mysterious process, also arrive at this advance position. Strategically, a more correct position should be to encourage those forces and take advantage of every opportunity to inject into those struggles the message of independence from the duopoly.

The democrat party will not implode on its own. It has serious internal fissures. It continues to prove that it is still unwilling to address its issues of institutional racism, sexism, and neoliberal capitalist commitment. Therefore, there are only three possible outcomes for the insurgency, all which would be favorable for the development of independent working class-oriented mass electoral partie(s) in the U.S.

1) the insurgency is able to take power from the hegemonic corporate and financial bloc that controls the money and national institutions – that is unlikely to happen so instead it will result in, 2) the party splitting with its progressive wing attempting to run as insurgent democrats on state ballot lines but with the likely outcome that those forces would abandon the democrats for new electoral formations, or 3) the insurgent forces become fully co-opted junior partners, denied real power and only expected to mobilize for party candidates still largely determined by corporate party bosses – a role very similar to the Congressional Black Caucus nationally and black party members on state levels. There are no more center politics so the more honest of those forces will abandon the party along with all illusions that the democrat party can be reformed into a non-capitalist, working class oriented, anti-imperialist party.

So, let me be clear. This is not about the personalities but the tendency the Bernie-Ocasio-Cortez wing represents within the democrat party, a wing that has serious issues that it also must address. This wing must decide if it is willing to content for power or to strengthen the party apparatus. If it wants to content for power it must drop reactionary talking points such as the Russia-gate BS and it must take consistent anti-imperialist, anti-war positions. If not, option three will be its fate as its language and program is co-opted rhetorically and it finds itself trapped in an ideological corner that it painted itself into, much like the social democrat left in Europe that can’t find a way to differentiate itself enough to hold-off the advances of the right.

In this complex and dangerous moment, the battle over ideas is crucial because ideas are the basis and weapons for transforming consciousness. But there is a dialectical relationship between the ascendency of certain ideas and objective material realities. There is a reason that more people are curious about socialism. Like the incorporation of the concept of the 1% into popular discourse, the growing popularity of the concept of socialism, even in its social democratic expressions, provides ideological space to build on. Having young radicals helping to normalize a discourse on socialism is a significant development.

Ocasio-Cortez and the tendency she represents may end-up being the ultimate short-term sheep dogs, especially for millennials, that critical demographic most open to socialism. But if that becomes the case, it will not be because of the power and skill of this tendency but the failure on the part of those of us who are attempting to build an independent alternative to win over those elements. Don’t tell me about DSA’s 40,000 members when the Green Party has close to 300,000 members.

Ideas have consequences, the cultural and ideological struggle is central. The reactionary forces understand this simple fact. It is past the time for leftists in the U.S. to come to terms with this area of struggle and learn to execute it much better than we have up to now.

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Ajamu Baraka is the national organizer of the Black Alliance for Peace and was the 2016 candidate for vice president on the Green Party ticket. He is an editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report and contributing columnist for Counterpunch magazine. 

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