It’s hard to get overly excited about Joe Biden on the Left.
The main reason to welcome his ascendance is no small matter but betrays an extremely low bar: he’s not a malignant fascist sociopath like Donald Trump, the single biggest asshole in American history.
Biden has a long and disturbing corporate, imperial, white-supremacist, and patriarchal record.
He didn’t just go along with George W(MD) Bush’s arch-criminal invasion of Iraq; he helped lead the charge.
He promised elite Manhattan donors in 2019 that “nothing would fundamentally change” when he became president – a noxious thing to be caught saying in a nation where (even before the upwardly distributive Covid-19 recession) the top thousandth had as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
A year before that he proclaimed that he had “no empathy, give me a break” for the plight of Millennials in the environmentally exterminist and racist-sexist plutocracy he’d helped create over four decades of Senatorial service to the rich and powerful.
He says stupid and insulting things to and about Black people, consistent with his early opposition to school desegregation.
He suggests that he’d veto Medicare for All – supported (in principle, at least) by 7 in 10 Americans (no surprise in the middle of an historic pandemic) – if it comes to his desk as president.
He can’t seem to end a single speech or talk without saying “God bless our troops” and talks repeatedly about “reaching across the aisle” to find unity with a party that has gone fascist.
I could say more about and against Joe Biden. I have said more about and against Joe Biden.
But all this and more that could be related in a negative light from the Left about Biden, I propose eight reasons to think he could turn out to be less awful, less evil than the nation’s last two Democratic presidents, the actual first Black president (Barack Obama) and the pretend one (Bill Clinton).
First there’s his age – 78. Unlike Obama and Clinton, he’s too old to be dreaming of years lived high in the economic oligarchy as the payoff for serving Wall Street while in the White House. Clinton and Obama got to set themselves up for multiple decades of late-middle age and senior hyper-opulence by being abject Citigroup and Goldman Sachs playthings. Biden will be lucky to outlive his time in the White House and, who knows, might be more prone to care about his legacy to humanity? At the same time, age is a great humbler, something that might soften Biden’s resistance to doing anything that might help the nation’s poor and oppressed.
Second, he’s not super-bright like Clinton and Obama and smarts can be overrated when they are developed within a ruling class world view. Biden’s not an A-student brainiac type who sucked up all the elegant intricacies of neoliberal ideology in the top Ivy League law schools like Obama (Harvard Law) and the Clintons (Yale Law) did. That could be a good and might garner vulnerable people some benefits when and if Biden shows himself “dumb” enough to fall off the path of holy Robert Rubinesque wisdom on some matters of policy.
Third, being white might help him do more against racism than Obama would. The Obama White House had so many Amerikaner whites freaked out by the fact of Obama’s Blackness that they were even less inclined to do anything against racism than they already were thanks to their and his deeply conservative world view.
Fourth, and this is amateur psychologizing, but Biden seems less plagued by narcissism than Clinton and Obama, both of whom were heavily caught up in that common politico affliction. Narcissism, over the top and off the charts with Trump, is an enemy of the heartfelt concern for others that decent policy requires.
Fifth, there’s the context. America is in deeper shit as Biden moves into the White House than it was when Clinton and Obama took up the reins of power. The economic, environmental, social, and other contradictions have deepened and there’s no hope of climbing out of them without concerted and positive government action. The first priority is of course a significant enhanced and expanded federal government commitment to public health amidst an epic epidemiological crisis that the pandemo-fascistic antichrist Trump and his ugly comrade Jair Bolsonaro blew up to potentially genocidal levels in the America’s two largest countries.
Sixth, reflecting the deepening of those contradictions over time, there’s more of a conscious and organized social-democratic Left – and more broad support for social-democratic and even socialist measures – in this country than there was in 1993 and 2009. That’s a low bar and the leftward development should not be exaggerated, but it is no small thing that young Americans in recent years have expressed preference for socialism over capitalism and that a presidential candidate who (falsely) called himself a socialist came close to winning the Democratic nominations in 2016 and 2020.
Seventh, the menace on the ever more mainstreamed far right has been rendered less mysterious and exposed as eliminationist and indeed fascistic like never before in recent years. It is clearer than it ever has been that the Amerikaner right-wing that has expanded like a cancer since the 1990s needs to be defeated, indeed crushed, not coddled and feared. The Trumpist-fascist experience has been instructive in that regard.
Eighth, internal conflict within the Republican Party, evident in Trump and Trumpism costing it control of the U.S. Senate, could deepen in coming months and years, opening more space for decent policy.
I’ve long advanced a rarely noted strategic and radical Left position behind preferring dismal Democrats in elected office. How, this position asks, are the Democrats best revealed as agents of the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire? Which is better for the development of serious and lasting, political action (grassroots, and non-co-opt-able citizen and workers’ activism and organization) beyond the corporate and financial masters’ quadrennial electoral extravaganzas—(A) radically regressive Republicans holding nominal power or (B) dismal dollar Democrats sitting atop the symbolic ship of state? The answer is clearly B. The presence of Republicans in the White House just encourages liberals and progressives and others to blame everything wrong in America on “those insane evil Republicans.” That just leaves elite power centers free to tamp down the resulting popular anger by bringing the Democrats back in the names of “hope” and “change”—the keywords of both Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and Obama’s 2008 campaign – and turn everything into a big Get Out the Vote project (as Obama tried to do with the George Floyd Rebellion).
I wanted Obama to win the 2008 election for what might strike some as a strange reason. I hoped Obama would triumph because I thought there was radical potential in U.S. voters and citizens, especially younger ones, experiencing the aforementioned dictatorships under a Democratic administration that seemed to offer special promise of progressive change. I wanted Americans (young ones above all) to come into more direct and visible contact with the bipartisan nature of the American imperial and business system and to confront the gap between their expectations of transformation and the harsh reality of persistent top-down corporate, financial, and military rule with the “dismal Dems” (Doug Henwood’s term) at the outward helm of the ship of state. I wanted them to be subjected to the reality that, to quote Doug Henwood twelve-plus years ago, “everything still pretty much sucks” when Democrats hold the top political offices—that the basic underlying institutional realities of capitalist and imperial rule stay the same. As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff noted in 2010, “I’m glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation.”
Radicals want workers and citizens to grasp that the real problem is not merely which of the two dominant U.S. parties holds political office but the rule of capital and Empire behind the charade that passes for democracy. Having Democrats in office is strategically preferable for the Left because it helps bring that lesson home.
But none of this matters without disciplined, courageous, and consistent through-thick-and thin Left organization, which, by the way (and not a list of policy proposals or a big vision of an alternative socialist society), was the subject matter of Lenin’s famous 1902 pamphlet What is to be Done?
Without an actually existing and powerful Left, tactical and strategic considerations relating to who holds capitalist state power end up being swept down the whirlpool of history as capital leads humanity to ecological ruin.
I assume I am not the only person who has noticed that the biggest issue of our or any time – environmental ruin, with capitalogenic climate change in the lead – has been pushed to the margins of political discourse and media coverage amidst the maddening and endlessly distractive if all too real Trump nightmare. Even with the global covid recession’s significant reduction of carbon emissions, 2020 was the second hottest year in recorded human history – a reflection of the climate crisis’s cumulative nature.
That crisis, sadly, is beyond the reach of liberal and progressive reform. The only solution is a wholesale revolution in our relationship to the web of life. That will mean, among other things, a final break with and transcendence of the frankly cancerous capitalist mode of production. Let us do the best we can with the breathing space afforded by Trump’s defeat and, we must demand, incarceration (if not more), to develop the organization and determination required to force that break and transcendence.