Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair
For students of political history, a cottage industry has grown in recent years around identifying the historical circumstances and intellectual origins of neoliberalism. While the initial conditions have been identified in the post-WWII effort to cleave German fascism from its American roots, what hasn’t been explained is the hold it has over a broad range of Western political ideology.
This background has bearing on the current effort by the American political establishment to crush ‘the squad’ of left House Democrats whose apparent trespass was to mean what they said about representing the interests of the American public. Establishment incredulity centers on the question: why enact policies when signaling shared beliefs (‘virtue’) has maintained the social order for this long?
The problem that AOC and company created was to put forward popular programs like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and a Job Guarantee in concert with plausible explanations of how to pay for them. Each of these represent well-considered responses to profound market failures. What their establishment colleagues have yet to come to terms with is that neoliberalism has left a plurality of Americans living in a ‘shithole country.’
Party leaders joining forces to charge ‘the squad’ and their supporters with being un-American is to assert an imagined community. In legal, institutional and historical terms, ‘the squad’ is as American as any of their establishment accusers. What is meant by the charge is that the American ‘community’ is defined by a set of beliefs, not citizenship, geography or institutional affiliations.
Who it is who gets to define this set of beliefs is the point of contention. Given that ‘the squad’ and their supporters are factually Americans, the onus could in theory be reversed to ask: why don’t the establishment politicians and their supporters leave? The answer gets to the self-legitimating nature of representative democracy. The establishment was elected to represent the people, which gives it legitimacy of place, goes the theory.
But the same could be claimed for ‘the squad.’ Its members were elected to represent their respective constituencies. This gets to the deeper question of legitimacy that establishment interests don’t want raised. Understood by the establishment is that ‘the squad’ must get around both party leaderships to get its programs enacted. In this sense, opposition to ‘the squad’ appears as it is: opposition to the public interest.
Lest this be less than evident, if this is played well it is a political gift to the left. As circumstances stand, there is zero likelihood of getting these and like policies past the establishment gatekeepers in both parties. The establishment’s move to join forces to ‘other’ left opposition relies on the Democrats’ conceit that in the eyes of the public they, and the establishment they claim to defend, are worth keeping. Maybe, maybe not.
This same Democratic party establishment has facilitated Donald Trump’s presidency every step of the way. The Russia! scam was a competition for strategic assets. The dirty industries were Mr. Trump’s from the get-go. If he brought over Goldman Sachs and tech to his side, the Democrats would be screwed. This ‘insider-ball’ works only so long as material conditions remain conducive to political somnambulance. The ‘love it or leave it’ gambit suggests rising insecurity within the establishment.
In 2018 establishment Democrats used the #resistance to ‘sheepdog’ the left back into the fold going into the mid-term elections. ‘The squad’ was elected and the House Democrats, who lack the power to enact legislation, set about virtue signaling by passing policies they have no intention of pursuing if returned to power. ‘The squad’ was useful in this regard up to the point it continued pushing an actual agenda.
To support this assertion, soon after being returned to power House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a lieutenant to assure health insurance executives that House Democrats had no intention of enacting Medicare for All. This follows Barack Obama’s move to assure Canadian legislators that his promise to renegotiate NAFTA was just campaign rhetoric. Establishment Democrats quickly tired of ‘the squad’ once it became evident that they are serious.
Much as it was intended when it was used to attack anti-Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s and 1970s, the ‘America, love it or leave it’ slogan is a call-to-arms for an imagined community in the same way that Mr. Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ refers to an imagined past. The ‘othering’ it embodies goes beyond racism to imply that supporters of social democratic policies are anti-American.
Lost on the left is that this gimmick is intended to stir mutual fear and hatred between rural and suburban flag-wavers and urban democratic socialists. ‘The squad’ understands this tactic— this is what makes them a threat. Bernie Sanders went on Fox News to sell Medicare for All as a universal benefit. AOC offered to speak with coal miners in Kentucky who feared being left unemployed and penniless if a Green New Deal were passed.
While public opinion has it that Donald Trump has been more effective at rallying nationalistic rage, establishment Democrats used Russiagate to precisely this same end. Americans were either with the Democrats or they were with Putin, went the chide. With Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump joining forces to construct a nationalist wedge against the left, the political use-value of ‘identity’ politics is on the side of the political establishment— exactly where it has always been.
Another way of framing this is through the question: are Democrats ignorant of their history, or does faith guide their interpretation of the party’s policies? Arch segregationist Joe Biden is converted to a ‘friend of segregationists’ by Democrats who use his words to interpret his acts. The man built a political career advocating for the racial segregation of public schools. He went on to demonize poor blacks as he played a key role in building the racialized gulag system of mass incarceration.
The issue of identity gets to the heart of the neoliberal basis of Democratic politics. Grant for the moment that racism, patriarchy, xenophobia and gender bias describe real social phenomena. (I believe they do). The question then becomes: what, if anything, should be done about them? Each of these describes an aspect of social power. ‘The squad’s’ programs are intended to redistribute power democratically in the dimensions of healthcare, environmental justice and guaranteed employment that pays a living wage.
Given the existing distribution of power, those with the least stand to gain the most from these programs. To the extent that racism, patriarchy and gender bias have determined the existing distribution of power, correcting these would be accomplished via the size of the benefit matching the degree of the disparity. This is the nature of universal benefits. And it is what makes ‘the squad’s’ programs so politically potent.
Asked reverse-wise, why wouldn’t establishment Republicans be overcome with joy at an internecine squabble that threatens to tear the Democrats apart? Donald Trump ran and won as an opposition candidate. The establishment Democrats are running as the viable political alternative to Mr. Trump. Faux opposition between the parties is the mechanism by which establishment interests have long been perpetuated.
Should the left prevail, Mr. Trump would be stripped of his insurgent status. Establishment Democrats have proclaimed themselves guardians of the status quo. It is in their joint interest to ‘other’ the left, which is what they are doing. Otherwise, the Democrats have spent four decades demonstrating that they are fine with racism, xenophobia, patriarchy and gender bias if it serves their political ends. But where is the public interest to be found in any of this?
The faith versus acts divide that Democrats have relied on politically is a carryover from Christian theology. The rationale of the party faithful is that Democrats use racial appeals like the 1994 Crime Bill, opposing school busing and ‘ending welfare as we know it’ to win elections. In contrast, Republicans hold racist opinions, which makes them racists. However, committing racist acts makes people racists, regardless of their beliefs about race.
The subtext of these establishment machinations is that the American political system exists to provide cover for rule by capital. The posture of the political center as the locus of reason is belied by the willingness of establishment forces to risk killing everyone on the planet with nuclear weapons, environmental decline, genocidal wars and dysfunctional economics. It is this political center that is extreme, willing to risk everything to maintain control.
While it may be simplistic to posit a singularity of capitalist interests, is it also true that the manufacture of nuclear weapons is a business, that environmental decline is a by-product of capitalist production, that wars are undertaken both to control resources and to use up military inventory and that the level of economic dysfunction is proportional to the concentration of income and wealth amongst the oligarchs.
One could grant— improbably, that the collective ‘we’ were brought to this place in history honestly, that the world is complicated and that through genocide, slavery and wars too numerous to count, we did the best we could. But this wouldn’t have one iota of relevance to where we take it from here. In this sense, ‘the squad’ exists amongst the potential heroes of this moment.
Possibly of value here is Noam Chomsky’s functional definition of class as who it is that gets to decide. Capitalism has always been ‘authoritarian,’ with owners and bosses doing the deciding. Ironically, from the bourgeois perspective, politics finds these same authoritarians determining public policy through their surrogates in the political realm. Donald Trump’s existence is an argument against concentrated power, not who wields it.
An argument could be made that ‘the squad’ was elected on precisely this point. Policies that promote economic democracy are the best way to achieve political democracy. Conversely, the greatest threat to political democracy is concentrated economic power. The Federal government spent at least a few trillion dollars on gratuitous wars in recent years, and several trillion more on bailing out financial interests. The money has always been there to meet social needs.
From the lips of my Democratic congressman in a recent town hall meeting, ‘prosperity’ is the first order of business for serious Democrats. Through this prism Medicare for All is Obamacare with higher payouts to insurance company executives and the Green New Deal is a public / private partnership to restore Central Park views to apartments along Fifth Avenue. The official lack of urgency surrounding climate change and species loss is profound, even heroic.
The disconnect between believing and acting is just as profound. Given his connections to the Democratic party establishment, it is certain that these views come straight from the top. Democrats ‘believe’ (have faith in) the science regarding climate change just as they believe that ‘prosperity’ has bearing on the lives of the little people who elect them. What more is there to be done after one believes the science? What matters is believing, having faith.
The progressive commentariat has knives out for Nancy Pelosi, much as it has long had for Donald Trump. The question is need of an answer: is the goal better representation for the oligarchs or some semblance of democratic control? The American political establishment exists to serve monied interests. The way to restore democratic control is to de-concentrate wealth. The insistence that ‘the problem’ is a personnel issue only serves to perpetuate concentrated power.
The ‘love it or leave it’ chide suggests that political tensions are rising. This is the time for the left to press on. The public supports programs that make their lives better. AOC can bring in people to credibly explain how we can afford these programs, and how we can’t afford not to implement them. Class, the 0.1%., 9.9% and 90% in income and wealth terms, is a good proxy for the distribution of political power. Universal benefits like ‘the squad’ is proposing would go far toward restoring the power people have over their own lives. The ultimate goal is economic democracy.