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Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address: A Marxist Response

I have been told by liberals and progressives that the nation’s leading strikebreaker Joe Biden “knocked it out of the park” with his State of the Union Address last night. It was “Joe’s FDR moment,” marked by populist attacks on the under-taxed super-rich, a defense of Social Security and Medicare, a call-out of the Republicans for their abjectly partisan debt-ceiling hypocrisy, a call for police reform,  and more to pull at the heart strings of decent people who still believe in democracy and the common good.

I assume that the Republi-fascists are calling the speech socialist and “radical Left,” “Marxist” and the like.  Of course they are. That’s one of the many terrible things fascists do: tar liberals and centrists with the supposed evil of socialism so as better to eliminate them.  (Never mind that human beings here in the US and across the world desperately require the radical replacement of eco-exterminist capitalism-imperialism by, well, umm …socialism).

Well, I, an actual radical socialist  — unlike Joe (see point 3 below) — read the speech and watched a video of it this morning.

Here below is a response from a real-life Marxist after going through the oration.

Five things stood out to me.

1. Some High Points. There were some decent moments for sure.  “The defense of Social Security was a high point, without question,” a perceptive correspondent from Brooklyn writes, “getting nearly the entire Republican delegation to stand up, as was the presence of Tyre Nichols’s parents, and getting broad standing ovation support for police reform.” I concur.

2.  Silence on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There was a deafening void on what the nation’s leading left intellectual Noam Chomsky recently called the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” in the nation and world today: the heightened risk of thermonuclear war, ecocide, pandemicide, and fascism. Biden never frontally confronted any of these four existential threats to a decent and livable future.  Maybe that’s because he’s actively advancing each one of them by: waging an ever more menacing proxy war with imperialist Russian in Ukraine (a war that has lead the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move its Doomsday Clock to the most perilous point in its history); signing off on more oil and gas release and drilling than his openly eco-cidal and tangerine-tinted redecessor; shutting down public health protections for a still globally rampant and mutating pandemic; failing to seriously confront and counter the not-so “semi”-fascism of the Republicans, who he repeatedly called “my friends.”

Consistent with the last silence (on fascism), Biden naturally said nothing about the elementary need to indict, convict, and imprison Donald “Take Down the Metal Detectors Cuz the Guys with the AR-15s Don’t Want to Hurt Me” Trump for…you know, …um… trying to overthrow previously normative bourgeois democracy and rule of law (with some help from the openly fascist Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters).

I’ll mention some other silences under points 4 and 5.

3. Loving Capitalism/Competition.  Biden sadly proclaimed yet again his love for he soulless, anarchic, authoritarian, and eco-exterminist class rule system of capitalism, which just happens to be the domestic and world systemic taproot of each of Chomsky’s apocalyptic horsemen.  “Look, I’m a capitalist. I’m a capitalist,” Biden said, adding this: “Look, capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It’s extortion. It’s exploitation.”

Come on, man! Capitalism is exploitation driven in no small part by competition between capitals. It is ecologically exterminist and breeds pandemics and is the taproot of inter-imperialist wars with great potential to end life on Earth.

Let me say it like Biden: Listen, folks. Look, it’s like my dad always used to say.  He’d lay in bed and stare at the ceiling and say “Pauly, this capitalist system will be the death of us all.” Look it up. Check it out. It’s like Che used to say: it’s not my fault that reality is Marxist!

What does Joe think undermined the stable blue-collar communities he’s always mourning like Bruce Springsteen in his constant references to his working-class origins in Scranton, PA? Global capitalist competition and the endless capitalist pursuit of cheap labor and materials in the quest for a greater share of the total surplus value ripped from proletarianized human labor power and the rest of the Earth, for crying out loud. It’s like Marx and Engels said in 1848 for f*#k’s sake:

“The bourgeoisie…has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation….[capitalism] cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the [capitalist] epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Amazing how relevant that passage is 175 years after it was written.

With good reasons discussed across ten books and hundreds of essays and commentaries, I have long felt fully justified in saying this to people who repeatedl declatre their love for capitalism: “nothing personal, but f*#k you very much.”

4. Easy to Sound Progressive When Constitutionally Checkmated. I am struck by the fact that Biden gave the most populist, rabble-rousing, and angry, progressive-sounding speech of his presidency not in a time when his party held majorities in both chambers of Congress (as in 2021 and 2022) but after his dismal, dollar-drenched party lost the US House to the insurrectionist neo-fascist Christian white nationalist Republikaners.  It’s great to sound like “FDR” when you know that none of what you claim to passionately support – the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (already shot down by the Senate when the Dems held the House),  labor law reform (the Protect the Right to Organize Act, also shot down by the upper chamber when the Dems ran the House), an assault weapons ban (someone can check if that also got shot-down in the Senate after coming out of the Pelosi House), the codification of women’s right to an abortion as a national law, and more – has a snowballs’ chance in Hell of getting past the absurdly powerful, malapportioned, filibusted, and right-tilted Senate, where sixty of a hundred votes are required, or even now out of the newly Republi-fascist-controlled House in the first place. And then there’s the absurdly powerful lifetime-appointed Christian fascist Supreme Court crafted by Trump and the former Senate Majority Leader, Malevolent Mitch McConnell. The Handmaid Court is in place to find liberal and progressive measures “unconstitutional” without the slightest concern for the fact that they are backed by the majority of the populace.

Speaking of silences, it is unthinkable that Biden would have brought up the deeply embedded institutional cancellations of popular sovereignty that lay at the heart of the archaic US constitutional order and party and elections system: the authoritarian veto power of judicial review; the openly undemocratic and right-tilted Electoral College; the extreme power states possess to gerrymander House and state legislative district and to make key policies ( e.g. horrific sexist abortion bans and the white- nationalist outlawing of accurate US history and social studies instruction) that violate majority national public opinion; plutocratic campaign finance rules;  the noxious and reactionary granting of two US Senators to all 50 states regardless of their wildly divergent population sizes;  the winner-take-all first past-the-post (anti-proportional) elections regime that preempts power for progressive parties outside ruling class control and capture.

All of that is taboo – beyond the parameters of acceptable Democratic presidential oratory. So is the need for mass and militant social movements in the streets and public squares and for large scale direct popular action beneath and beyond the killing confines of US electoral politics and “parliamentary cretinism” (Lenin’s excellent phrase) if the US populace wants to ever see any more seriously progressive change. Keeping the masses off the streets is one of the top parts of the Democrats’ ruling class job description.

What was all the chest-pounding and progressive-sounding yapp’n about when Biden can’t actually get basic liberal and progressive measures passed (and probably doesn’t even want to since the essence of his political career has always been neoliberal corporate-imperial centrism in the name of bipartisanship)? It was a campaign speech. Biden’s 2023 SOTUA was above all an I think effective and somewhat surprisingly well-performed campaign speech -—  a de facto announcement of his candidacy for a second term.  Biden, who sincerely promised Wall Street campaign donors in 2019 that “nothing would fundamentally change” when he became president,  was showing some fire for the base.  He was trying to demonstrate that he’s not too old for another go – that he’s fit and feisty for what a still leftish narcissist rightly called in 1999 “the essence of American politics….the manipulation of populism by elitism.”

5. Imperial Understatement. Did I just say “imperial”? The fifth thing that stood out to me was how relatively silent Biden was on what in polite circles is called “United States foreign policy” and even “American diplomacy” – euphemisms for the mass-murderous imperialism of the world’s leading aggressor state, which possesses more than 800 military bases located in more than 100 countries and accounts for more than a third of global military spending even though it is home to 4 percent of the world’s population. Listening just to Biden last night you’d naturally never know that his administration helped provoke Vladimir Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine and has subsequently used that invasion to undertake a reckless proxy war that has so far killed as many as 200,000 human beings while exacerbating the deepening climate catastrophe and raising the specter of thermonuclear war.  Or that Biden’s military is positioning itself for a major war with the nuclear power China. Joe’s “foreign policy” comments were quite sparse, limited to almost passing reference to “Putin’s unfair and brutal war in Ukraine” and to how our “competition” China supposedly violated US sovereignty with a wayward weather balloon.

I was oddly reminded by Biden’s speech of the moment when  Dorothy peers behind the curtain to reveal the real Wizard of Oz: an old blustering man pretending to be a great, powerful, and benevolent leader with the help of sound, stage, and spectacle.

The Good Witch that can save us? There’s no magical wizardly involved. It’s us, we the people, shedding dreamy delusions about US electoral politics and bourgeois parliaments saving us, dropping the hopey-changey belief that the common good can be protected and preserved under the imperialist profits system, and taking to the streets and public squares for more than reform — for revolution.

This essay was initially published on The Paul Street Report last Wednesday, the day after Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union Address.