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Democrats of all stripes continue to funnel workers into dead-end reformism
Some night soon, after you’ve finished clanging your pots and pans in the streets, calling for regime change in Washington, take a stroll through your local chain bookstore. If you look in the right places, you’ll find quality reading, of political, literary, and spiritual varieties. Despite its emphasis of salability over quality, capitalism has not yet sundered literature. The good capitalist does not have time to read the books he hawks, and thus does not notice the subversive fictions or outright manuals for revolution that are dispersed among the general pulp. Unfortunately, few have embraced Voltaire’s admonition that it is better to be silent than to increase the quantity of bad books in the world.
Look at the tables proudly displayed in the open spaces, away from the ponderous shelves of deepthink. You won’t find Marx or Chomsky or even Zizek here. These tables are reserved for the big sellers, the saccharine stenographers of Silicon Valley triumphalism, the piffle-brained champions of positive thinking, luck-struck billionaires and their gasbag leadership handbooks. Titles like, “The 5 Languages of Appreciation: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People,” “The Motivation Manifesto: 9 Declarations to Claim Your Personal Power,” “Earn It! Know Your Value and Grow Your Career…,” “The Latte Factor: Why You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Live Rich,” “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” all play on emotion and inspiration, promising motivational tactics to inspire greater worker productivity and generate greater profits. Note how most of these don’t focus on money.
The sad reality is that these books never state plainly what most ails American workers. Firstly, not enough money (largely because massive productivity increases have been unhitched from wage increases). But also not enough meaningful work, not enough durable work, not enough programs of social uplift, and the consequent dependence on their corporate betters for their livelihood. They also often assign otherworldly agency to individuals without remotely representing structural inhibitors that often preclude people from achieving what they are incessantly being told they can achieve but for their own lack of motivation. In any event, these authors have little interest in system change, but rather better adapting workers to the existing system. Which is why they all spew senseless pop psychology solutions. This is nothing new. Sociologist Alex Carey revealed how numerous workplace studies in the 20th century all downplayed wages and salaries in their study of employee dissatisfaction. Capital knows what better wages do to profits, and it steers clear of the subject altogether.
If this is what Americans are being fed in the supposedly literate confines of the bookstore, it’s even worse when they flick on that necessary antidote to intellectualism, the television. There the promises they are fed are just as weightless and insubstantial as the spotlit tables of business literature. Like capitalists preaching corporate transformation, today’s democratic socialists preaching ‘radical change’ are offering nothing of the sort. It is worth looking at their promises through the lens of history and a more revolutionary perspective than the current candidates can muster.
Theater of the Banal
The Bernie “uprising” of 2016 had its moments. A crowded Washington Square with jubilant Millennials fueling the biting polemics of a surrogate FDR. There were the fear-filled eyes of establishment pundits gazing at their primary calculations with trembling uncertainty. Then there was the inevitable. The sleight of the Diebold hand. The heavy math of superdelegates. The graceless sidelining of the “loser’s” ideas. It was a cringeworthy charade watching Sanders’ proxies attempting to shovel their progressive reforms into the platform of the Democratic Party, a doomed prospect. The farce provided space for a few, like Cornell West, to eloquently exhibit their principals in refusing to lend their imprimatur to the final bourgeois document, all signs of progress papered over by vile Clintonite mediocrities.
One of the few changes Sanders was able to secure from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was banning superdelegates from voting in the first round of the DNC nominating convention. If a candidate fails to win a majority of pledged delegates, a second round is called for. Of course, the superdelegates can vote in the second round. Whether because of this or by mere coincidence, an ocean of candidates have suddenly crowded into the race for the Democratic nomination, and we’re not even a year out yet. Votes that might have gone to Sanders will be siphoned off by minor candidates posing as left-leaning reformers. Which means there will be a second vote, at which point superdelegates will again be permitted to sway the nomination in the direction of their choosing (i.e., whomever has bought them off). The field is so packed with pseudo-leftist poseurs that it has had to host two debates on back-to-back nights as it was impossible to reasonably stage manage a single debate of some twenty candidates.
New debates are coming on July 30th and 31st. The first set was bad enough. All the candidates spent time qualifying their particular bona fides. The first. The only. The best. The issues were predictable: immigration, climate change, healthcare, and the apocalyptic “defeat Trump” rhetoric. The exception to this generally blasé liberalism was, of course, the wizened scold, Sanders himself. Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” but is, in the end, more of a capitalist reformer in the mold of FDR, trying to conjure a populist rebellion by claiming one exists. The rueful reality is that there is nothing like the worker rebellion that frightened the ruling class into the New Deal. Everyone on stage for the Democrats was and will be a reformer quite amenable to capitalism.
The Long-Term Futility of Reformism
The banality of this kind of reformism is that it wants to reform its way to justice via the legislative and judicial and executive branches of a capitalist democracy that is, in essence, a plutocracy. These three branches are controlled by the very corporations that democratic socialism wants to reform. This appears to be the inevitable consequence of combining capitalism with democracy, with the former buying the latter and forestalling progressive challenges at nearly every turn.
Not only that, but a deeper look at the historical behaviors of “our democracy,” it becomes fairly obvious that radical democracy isn’t and was never the point of these institutions; they provide the illusion of popular control while in practice provide legislative pathways for corporate-friendly lawmaking; judicial avenues to protect property and lock in its profit-making potential; and executive routes to capitalist wars that generate new markets. The population hasn’t requested any of these measures; elite capital has. This disguise of democracy helps elites to keep wage and salary slaves pacified by the illusion of popular agency.
That’s why revolutionary socialists, tutored by the works of Karl Marx, Fredrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin, among others, argue that capsizing the capitalist class is an unavoidable step in the path to socialism. Only by the working class becoming a de facto dictatorship, Marxist-Leninists argue, can prosperity and health and education ever be realized on a mass scale, and that it simply isn’t in the DNA of capitalism to do this. The presence of a billionaire in the White House, three other billionaires owning as much wealth as 90 percent of the population, and an industrially induced extinction event, could be Exhibits A, B, and C in this case. The world picture shows where capitalism takes us. Mass wealth in few hands, mass poverty and near poverty for the masses.
The Certainty of Rollback
But this radical transformation is what democratic socialists deny. A program of that kind of revolutionary action seems almost unconscionable for democratic socialists like Sanders and AOC and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The limit of their vision is revision. The ceiling of their dreams is nonviolent reform that ameliorates but does not annihilate. But even the few poultices applied to the sick system, via the New Deal and the Great Society, have been ruthlessly clawed at by the paws of avarice, by capital itself. Think the eight-hour work day, the franchise, pro-union legislation, the EPA, banking legislation walling off investment banks from saving banks, programs like Social Security, Medicare, etc. These were all won in spite of capitalism, and often in spite of so-called democracy, by working class mobilization and the upward pressure it applied to its laconic but alarmed representation.
Yet all of these have been damaged by capital rollback. The work day has metastasized, erasing the border between work and home; voter rolls are massively shorn of citizens through incarceration and illegalization of status and by perverse practices like crosschecking and stringencies applied to personal identification; Glass-Steagall was repealed, entraining the 2007-2008 economic collapse; Social Security continues to lose ground to cost of living increases; the EPA and the SEC have been variously defunded.
Any yet, none of these ailing fixes even address the core target of genuine socialist resistance–the wage system itself. The democratic socialists address symptoms but not causes. Yet even successful attempts to ease the symptoms have been ruthlessly attacked by corporate capital. Why? Because working class uplift means ruling class decline. Profitability falls when wages rise. Profitability falls when corporate taxes rise. Profitability falls when regulations rise. When corporations are made to pay for their own externalized production costs, business models teeter in the wind.
Certainly hard-won freedoms are helpful for the working classes. Social Security has been a crucial safety net for American workers. Freedoms of speech and assembly are almost preconditions of revolutionary organization. But there is a limit to their efficacy. For low-wage earners, which are a majority of workers, Social Security pays out an annual total that’s beneath the poverty line.
Marx noted the core difference between socialists and democratic socialists simply by juxtaposing their slogans. One calls for, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” while the other calls for, “Abolition of the wage system.” Reformers like Sanders reject what Marx once declared, that “no improvement of machinery, no appliance of science to production, no contrivances of communication, no new colonies, no emigration, no opening of markets, no free trade, nor all these things put together, will do away with the miseries of the industrious masses.”
Plenty of examples abound, even at Barnes & Noble. Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” aggregated immense amounts of economic data and distilled its essence into the dictum that over time capitalism increases inequality. This joins the earlier Princeton study that declared “our democracy” to be a thinly veiled plutocracy. Add to that the present experience of Venezuela. Despite the enormous success of the Bolivarian Revolution under Chavez and Maduro, they did not overthrow the capitalist class, but left it smoldering in opposition, from which emerged coup d’états, violent attacks on the state, and capital strikes, all funded by Washington. The Maduro government staggers forward on unsure footing. Same story in Brazil. Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT, is a worker’s party that actually grew large and took power, but electorally, leaving the capitalist jackals in play. Lula hastily launched some fantastic programs for working poor, but where is he now? Sitting in a prison on a trumped-up charge produced by a fixed prosecution. His successor Dilma Rousseff was impeached on an equally risible indictment. Now a jackboot fascist rules, happily dispensing corporate handouts.
Where to Turn?
If liberals think overthrowing the bourgeoisie is beyond the pale, why is that? Is it a naïve faith in reformism, an understandable fear of violence, a deeply inculcated belief in private property, an insistence that no armed revolt could ever be won against today’s repressive state apparatus? Where does that leave them? One could perhaps credibly argue for a nonviolent attempt at transformation based on worker strikes and consumer boycotts, divestments, and sanctions of capitalist enterprises. Or incredibly for more harebrained schemes like accumulated worker funds that eventually (and theoretically) purchase all the shares in conglomerates so that they become worker owned. Aside from that, there appears to be merely the prospect of revolution and all of its uncomfortable realities. It should be remembered that the Bolshevik Revolution had to fight off an imperial invasion of 14 countries, and an internal reactionary rebellion launched by the land-owning kulaks when the Soviet Union began to collectivize agriculture. And when American worker strikes were cruelly suppressed in the early decades of the 20th century, it was the capitalist police and armed forces and hired hands that launched the brutality. Same again during the Civil Rights Movement. Who drew first blood, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Bull Connor? The repressive violence comes, again and again, from capitalists, not workers. It is usually reactionary violence by elites when their property is being expropriated, to be sure, capital having expropriated the wealth in the first place, in the Marxist view. (As one who has encountered a wide array of immigrant bourgeois displaced by popular revolts in their home countries, let me assure you that hell hath no fury like an elite scorned.) And if it isn’t civil war, it is class war by other means, namely using the deep coffers and vast network of corporate power to attack rising labor solidarity.
Yet liberals denounce thoroughgoing socialists as some bloodthirsty camp of rebel idealists (issuing this denunciation just before they side with the corporate fascists). They envision scraggly bearded Castros and Ches, hidden in the plantation hills, readying themselves to swoop down and demolish their casino lifestyles, appropriate their second homes, and slaughter everyone in sight. They are half right, but they misinterpret the acceptance by revolutionary socialists of the need for revolt as a kind of roiling impatience in need of medication, rather than a conclusion drawn from history. Instead, manning the barricades of their cul-de-sacs, the democratic reformers leave you voting for blind men whose prophecies of mass prosperity never materialize.
The working class is not ultimately represented by either the Democrats or the Democratic Socialists of America. They work for change, sometimes laudable change, within the system of corporate profits. Although the ACA provided healthcare for a good slice of neglected citizens, it only did so by promising outsized profits for the insurance industry first. Take care of the donor class, then look to the peasants to secure re-election votes. Now over half of Americans skip healthcare because they can’t afford it. At the same time, in spite of decades of reforms, United Way reports that 43 percent of American households are, “asset limited, income constrained, employed” (or ALICE). The “basics of modern living” are increasingly unaffordable.
In other words, even the employed are being run down. The ‘middle class’ and the ‘working class’ are atrophied and atomized, parched herds lurching through a heat-waved desert. Thank neoliberal austerity for that. And this is why, when using the term, ‘working class’, one might include a cross-section of American workers, from the unemployed to the manufacturing workers endlessly hectored by floor managers while their wages and benefits decline beneath 9 percent real inflation and 21 percent real unemployment; deadpan service workers in dead-end big box stores, cashiering an endless line of consumers clutching overpriced toiletries and cheap cosmetics; hustling hospital techs and exhausted physicians strong-armed into a breathless practice of turnstile medicine and pushing product for giant manufacturers; corporate drones completing their carpal-tunnel tasks with numb hands and bleary screen-eyes, in the sickly light of their corporate tombs; in fact, everyone laboring with their minds or hands under a system that numbs their souls, saps their creativity, and kills off their best years laboring on behalf of a faceless corporation they neither like nor believe in; in a word, the alienated.
The alienated, of course, are the very people being obsessed over and flattered by the latest cluster of New/Global/Gig Economy prophets on display at Barnes & Noble. And like Bernie, they see promise in the confines of a capital-controlled economy, where workers submit to owner dictates. The solution is for the owners to either become nicer guys, or to be variously disciplined for their misbehavior. How we unshackle the institutions from the corporations is vague. Forgotten is Engels great admonition for the alienated working class (in England, in that case), “to refuse any longer to serve as the fag-end of the ‘great Liberal Party’ and to form an independent party of their own.” Instead, we have the predictable proposals to better integrate workers into capitalist society, the better for their exploitation. (How did microfinance work out for peasants, when the great ‘unbanked’ were targeted by capital?) In the end, all these fraudulent champions of the working class have digested the fatal myth of ‘doing well by doing good.’ The cost of supporting true, radical change was chillingly summed up by Frankfurt School luminary Max Horkheimer when he wrote, “A revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison, and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.” Don’t tell Cory Booker.
It might be said that few of us have the revolutionary mettle to suffer such depredations, but that shouldn’t preclude us from building consensus for a worker’s party and critiquing the declared promises of a political class to do what they will not in the end do. Engels described the reformist agenda as one that pushes the toppling of the capitalist system into the far distant future, a revolutionary matter for another generation and time. Instead, it funnels working class energy, “…to those petty-bourgeois patchwork reforms which, by providing the old order of society with new props, may perhaps transform the ultimate catastrophe into a gradual, piecemeal and as far as possible peaceful process of dissolution.” Talk about utopian. And yet what more should one expect from a corrupt, complacent, irrevocably corporatized party of jaded millionaires who have, for the better part of three generations, had 90 percent of society on mute?