US socialist Charlie Post discussed the political landscape in the US on the eve of the presidential election, and the need for socialists to build independent power and organisation, in an interview originally published on the website of Marx21. Charlie Post is a long-time socialist active in the faculty union at the City University of New York, an editor of Spectre: A Marxist Journal, and a member of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Labor Branch and the Tempest collective.
On November 3, people in the USA will have the choice between a right-wing radical billionaire and a neoliberal hypocrite. How difficult is the decision for Joe Biden for you?
I am not voting for Biden, and will instead case a socialist protest vote for the Green-Socialist candidate, Howie Hawkins. I do so without any illusion that the Greens will have much of an impact on the elections or that they are the nucleus of an independent socialist or labor party in the US. My vote is merely a placeholder for class political independence in the future.
Nor do I want to engage in vote shaming this year. I understand many on the left’s fears about a second Trump administration and their belief they have no choice but to vote for Biden. While I disagree with that decision, this is not a question that debate alone with resolve in 2020. I am much more concerned at the idea that the new US socialist left spends a microgram of its political capital – and a millisecond of its political time and energy – campaigning for Biden. What comrades do for the minute it takes them to fill out a mail-in ballot or go to the polls is much less important than whether we spend our time, energy and political credibility on behalf of the ‘lesser of two rapists’ who promises to return us to the neo-liberal ‘normalcy’ of the Obama administration – more wars, austerity, privatisation of public services, hostility to unions and continued police violence against people of color.
As Ashley Smith and I have argued at some length, the revival of socialism and the sharp rise on workplace and anti-racist struggles of the past few years cannot be again derailed into Democratic Party lesser-evilism. Unlike some on the left, including many folks from the ostensibly revolutionary left, we do not believe that we can campaign for Biden and prepare to oppose his administration after January 20th.
Comrades have only so much time and energy to devote to politics. Time devoted to getting out the vote for ‘Shoot ‘em in the leg’ Joe is time that is not being used building resistance among your co-workers to returning to workplaces in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, organising continued actions against police murders of Black men and women, or helping create militant actions against evictions, foreclosures and unemployment. Even more importantly, how do you simultaneously try to convince someone to vote for Biden – which involves presenting him in the best possible light – and tell them they must prepare to fight his administration?
The Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd and the backlash from Trump and the political right have led to a new level of escalation. For a while one could get the impression that the USA is heading for a civil war. Where does the country stand immediately before the 59th presidential election?
The past few months have deepened the political polarisation that has marked the US, and the entire capitalist world, since the onset of the global slump in 2008. On the one hand, there are massive explosions of popular, class anger. In the US, we saw the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011, Occupy in 2012, the Women’s Strike of 2017, and the wave of mostly illegal teachers’ strikes in 2018 and 2019 – and the attempt to give electoral expression to these movements through the Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020. In 2020, we saw a significant deepening and widening of this class movement. In the Spring we saw dozens of unofficial strikes and literally hundreds of workplace demonstrations against demands to return to work during the pandemic. The fact that tens of thousands of workers were willing to risk their jobs rather than their health and lives was even more amazing given a nearly 30% real unemployment rate in the US. The multi-racial, black led class upsurge against racist police murders was clearly the high point of this struggle, with literally millions of people in tens of thousands of cities, suburbs and small towns rallying around the demand that ‘Black Lives Matter.’
The rise of right-wing nationalist-populism has also marked the political polarisation since 2008. First we saw the growth of the Tea Party in 2010-14, which laid the basis for Trump’s capture of the Republican Party and election in 2020. Since his elections, we have seen the growth in numbers and confidence of the fascist right, leading to the murder of Heather Hayer at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the armed ‘reopen the economy’ demonstrations of the Spring, and the extra-judicial murders in Kenosha and right-wing mobilisations in defense of police racism in the Summer and Fall.
While this political polarisation is real, I do not think the US is on the verge of civil war. Despite my greatest hopes, the US working class and left is not yet a real threat to capitalist political power in the US. As I will argue below, no significant sector of the capitalist class is willing to countenance a disruption of the ‘constitutional order.’ Nor is the emerging fascist movement large enough or sufficiently united to pose an independent threat to capitalist democracy. Given Trump’s erratic behavior at the first Presidential debate and now falling victim to Covid-19, whose severity he has consistently denied, it is unlikely he will retain the support of the ‘moderate’ suburban voters he will need to be reelected.
Capitalist states are characterised by the fact that much of the state power apparatus is largely beyond democratic control: bureaucracy, police, military, justice. When asked, Trump has left it open whether he would accept an electoral defeat. How serious a possibility is this?
Trump would like to be a Bonapartist dictator – he might even aspire to be an open fascist ruler. However, the social and political conditions that would allow him and his supporters to dismantle the highly undemocratic form of capitalist democracy that has existed in the US since 1789 do not exist. While Trump, like other right-wing, national-populists, has attempted to circumvent the structures of capitalist democracy and the rule of law, he has faced considerable push back from within the capitalist state apparatus. Trump has succeeded in alienating most of the permanent, high-level, professional bureaucracy of the Federal government, especially in the State, Commerce, Treasury and Defense Departments. His support in the repressive apparatus is very weak – neither the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI – the US secret police) nor the heads of the military are willing to be used against anti-racist demonstrators (they knew Democratic Governors and Mayors could handle the repression more effectively) no less keep Trump in office if he loses in November. The fact that Trump had to send the Border Patrol and other Federal Marshals to various ‘anarchist jurisdictions’ was a sign of his weakness, not his strength in the state apparatus.
Nor does Trump have significant and enduring support among the US capitalist class. We should remember that 92% of capitalist contributions in the 2016 elections went to Clinton, not Trump. Trump clearly won the temporary support of capital with his massive 2018 tax giveaway to the corporate rich. However, his handling of both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter rebellion has resulted in a swing back to Biden among US capitalists. Of the record breaking nearly $11 billion raised and spent in the 2020 campaign, the Democrats have raised and spent nearly 55%. With the exception of the energy sector, Democrats lead Republicans in raising funds from every other sector of the capitalist class.
Clearly, Trump and his supporters among the older, white, suburban and exurban middle classes and a minority of the working class will do everything in their power to depress voter turnout, especially in the urban centers among working class people of color. They are also likely to try to dismiss a Biden victory (in either the popular vote or Electoral College) as the result of voter fraud. However, Trump and his minions do not have the support in either the state apparatus nor among the capitalist class to hold on to power in the case (seemingly more likely every day) of a clear Biden victory in both the popular and Electoral College vote.
Trump’s election victory four years ago was also a consequence of the crisis of the traditional political establishment and political liberalism as a whole. How has this process developed during his term of office?
Trump’s incompetence as a capitalist politician (and, according to his tax returns, as a capitalist entrepreneur) has helped to temporarily rehabilitate mainstream, Democratic Party neo-liberalism. The Democrats, running on nothing other than ‘we are not Trump’ swept the 2018 off-year elections, reestablishing their majority in the House of Representatives and increasing the number of their Senators. The Democratic establishment was able to quickly dispatch the left challenge from Sanders in 2020 and unite around the candidacy of Joe Biden. While Biden has been described as a Zombie candidate, he and [running mate Kamala] Harris promise a return to normalcy that has resonance among broad layers of an increasingly upper middle class electorate in the US.
The problem will come, however, when Biden and the Democrats take power again in 2021. They have even less to offer the vast majority of working and oppressed people in the US than Obama did in his eight years in office. Biden and Harris are not only opposed to all the popular reforms championed by Sanders (Medicare for All, abolishing student debt, etc.), but have pledged to increase funding for the police and are promising savage austerity in social spending in the face of a continuing pandemic and deepening recession. Put simply, a Biden-Harris administration will continue and deepen the neo-liberal offensive that will bring greater insecurity and poverty to the vast majority of people in the US.
The realities of neo-liberal policies make the left’s lesser-evilism even more self-defeating. If the US left, once again, folds its tents to campaign for Biden, our ability to pose an alternative to the incoming administration will be even further weakened. Not only will there be even less pressure on the Democrats not to move further to the ‘centre’ but the main voices condemning the failures of neo-liberalism will be those of the nationalist-populist right.
The left in the USA has experienced a noticeable upswing in recent years. However, with the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidacy, the great hope has been shattered. Where does the US left stand today? What scenarios do you think are conceivable after the election?
The defeat of the Sanders’ campaign left the main organisation of the US left, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), on the back foot. Despite claims that they were building an ‘independent’ campaign in support of Sanders, one that would help recruit to DSA and organise activists for non-electoral struggles, DSA’s campaign was thoroughly integrated into Sanders’ Democratic primary operation. Sanders’ rapid elimination from the primary race left the DSA without a clear perspective of what to do next. It was, in most places, unprepared for the massive, extra-parliamentary upsurge that followed the police murder of George Floyd. Nor is it preparing for mobilisations to defend the results of the election against either voter suppression or Trump’s ultimately futile efforts to stay in office.
DSA and the rest of the socialist left in the US are at a cross-road. In the immediate aftermath of the election, we may very well need to build demonstrations to demand that Trump respects the outcome of the election. DSA is the only organisation with the capacity to initiate such demonstrations, in major cities across the US and possibly in Washington, DC. We can’t expect the Democrats (remember their capitulation in 2000) nor the union officialdom to take this step – DSA will have to.
Once the dust settles after the election, the left will be faced with a number of challenges. The first is continuing the movement to defund, disarm and dismantle the police. Capital and its political representatives were caught back-footed by the rebellion. They are attempting to retake the initiative – granting demands that cost little (removing statutes and flags, renaming teams and stadiums) or help expand the middle class of color as a moderating force on working people, while resisting the radical and redistributive demands for defunding the cops, funding social services, health care, schools and jobs. We need a new organisation, similar to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, that can continue to build a disruptive social movement for the radical politics of police abolition.
The next priority will be organising against making working people pay for the pandemic and depression. These dual crises have hit racialised people and women, who are over represented among low-wage, unorganised ‘essential workers’ and bear much of the responsibility for privatised social reproduction, the hardest. Not only are we faced with being compelled to return to unsafe workplaces, sacrificing our lives for our employers’ profits, but massive evictions and foreclosures and new plague of homelessness looms. In the 1930s, anti-capitalists organised mass demonstrations, occupations of government offices and direct resistance to evictions and foreclosures, demanding union jobs or unemployment benefits and a permanent moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. We need to do the same today.
We need to bring the uprising into our workplaces. Millions of people have learned that if you ‘fuck things up’ you win. Nothing scares the capitalist class more than the prospect of a new generation of multi-racial agitators reorganising warehouses, factories, schools, hospitals and offices across the US.
Through these struggles, and to build new ones, the US left will need a new socialist party to organise in the mass movements and to educate for socialism. Such a party can and should begin, today, running independent candidates for local and state offices, especially in one-party areas where we can easily avoid accusations of being wreckers. Only campaigns independent of the Democrats have the potential of holding candidates accountable to our socialist organisations so they trumpet the demands of our movement, rather than ‘go along to get along’ in office. The question is whether the DSA is capable of transforming itself into that sort of a party in the next year or so.