Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher, Jr. are Thorne Dreyer‘s guests on Rag Radio, KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin and streamed at KOOP.org, Friday, December 4, 2-3 p.m. (CT). They will discuss this article and the larger issues it raises. This is Carl Davidson’s ninth visit to Rag Radio and Bill Fletcher, Jr.’s second. If you miss it live, go here anytime for the podcast.
Hypothesis No. 1. One cannot understand this election unless one begins with a recognition of voter suppression: Since 2008, the Republican strategy has increasingly focused on voter suppression. The weakening, if not evisceration, of the Voting Rights Act was one significant piece of that. In the lead-up to 2020, the Republicans, under Trump, have pushed this further by undermining the basic right to vote; making it more difficult; encouraging intimidation; undermining the U.S. Postal Service, long voting lines, fewer polls in Black neighborhoods, and so on.
1.1 Thus this election was about racism and revanchism: The politics of this race do not make any sense unless one factors in racism and revanchism, the seeking of revenge. The Trump message of allegedly keeping America great, was a message against traditionally marginalized populations, including but not limited to African Americans, non-immigrant Latin@s, women, and immigrants from the global South. Trump continued to stoke fear among whites, while also playing to “colonial mentality” among some populations of color. His message to Latin@ immigrants seemed to imply that a vote for him was a vote for them having the chance of becoming “white.” But the election was about a broader sense of revanchism. There was anti-communism aimed at Cuba and Venezuela. It was also a revanchism aimed at shifting gender roles.
There is a right-wing movement
Hypothesis No. 2. There is no doubt that there is a right-wing mass movement: Much of the U.S. Left has attempted to deny or equivocate on the existence and strength of the right-wing populist movement. One can no longer debate this. This movement exists and it has an armed wing. Along with overtly fascist groups in its core. It is a movement against the 20th century victories of progress. The fact that anyone could be convinced that Biden was a socialist not only illustrates the irrationality of the movement, but also should remind us that Sanders would not have had it any easier had he been the nominee. The right-wing movement sees any progressive reforms as equaling socialism. While many on the Left have fallen into the trap of thinking or wishing that were true, we must be in touch with reality and recognize that reforms under democratic capitalism do not equal socialism.
2.1 The Trump vote was a vote against reality: This is one of the most difficult conclusions from this election. In the face of the worst global pandemic since 1918-1919; one in which the total incompetence of the Trump administration has been on display, millions were willing to live in absolute denial, many of them continuing to believe that COVID-19 is nothing more than a bad flu. This rejection of reality translates into other areas including, but not limited to, racial relations, foreign policy, and the environmental catastrophe. This is a movement whose slogan really should be the closing line of the comedian George Wallace who would say: “That’s the way I see it, and that’s the way that it ought to be.”
2.2 Every vote must be counted: In the context of massive voter suppression, every vote must be counted, whether the vote was offered in person, through the mail, or in drop-boxes. There is no constitutional reason that a vote count should be stopped.
2.3 There is no monolithic Latin@ vote; there are Latin@ voters: The election results illustrate that there is no cohesive Latin@ vote. The Puerto Rican vote in Florida, for instance, bore absolutely no resemblance to the Cuban or Venezuelan vote. The reasons that various populations have come to the U.S.A. and the class character of many of those who have arrived here, have helped to shape their politics. Trump played to the fear among many Floridian Latin@ immigrants regarding socialism and communism. That did not work so well with Puerto Ricans. They also played to social conservatism among Chican@ voters in Texas. Though this was shrewd politics on Trump’s part, we on the Left must not fall into the trap of believing that there is a monolithic population out there. That said, the Democrats made a significant error in their work in Florida and Texas in their work in Florida and Texas in not putting greater resources into reaching and mobilizing Latin@ voters.
Assessing the Democratic Party campaign
Hypothesis No. 3. The main problem in this election was not the Democratic Party leadership; the strategic situation has become far more complicated: There are already those on the Left who believe that the main problem in this election was the leadership by the Democratic Party establishment. While there were many errors made, including the matter of polling (which needs to be studied in order to understand the errors), and insufficient support and vetting of statehouse candidates (no gains were made), to a broader array of mass initiatives, the explanation for why there were not greater victories in the election cannot be dropped simply on the D.P. The factors noted above are far more significant, especially the power of right-wing populism at the base.
That said, there must be major changes made, including a DP rural organizing project, continuous outreach, stronger organization at the county level, and support of electoral efforts among traditionally marginalized groups (including but not limited to African Americans and Latin@s). Though the D.P. platform was probably among the most progressive in D.P. history, the party must champion a progressive, populist message that is both anti-neo-liberal but also anti-right-wing populist. This is a critical fight to wage within the D.P., and it’s one that will strengthen the Bernie-inspired forces at the base over the Third Wave centrists.
3.1 This is a moment where we must initiate a mass campaign of “one person, one vote”: The Electoral College was created in order to support the slave-owning states and to limit the strength of the nation-state. It is an archaic institution that must be brought to an end. In almost any other country on this planet, the person who receives the most votes wins…period. Our reliance on the Electoral College means that, in effect, only certain states really matter. The struggle for “one person, one vote” needs to be a national campaign for the expansion of democracy. This includes alternative methods for allocating votes, e.g., proportional delegates rather than a state committing all of its delegates to the top vote getter, as well as new and concrete efforts to undermine voter suppression.
Hypothesis No. 4. We need to think through this election in a wider context of ideas related to strategy and tactics. We can start with “movement-building.”
4.1 ‘Building a Movement’ is a flawed concept. But you can find it at the end of nearly every article or speech. It appears so often that it has more uses than aspirin as a cure for our ills. But we need to set it aside, or get a deeper understanding. Why? Because we don’t build them. Mass movements are largely built by capitalist outrages inflicted upon us, and capitalism will continue to do so, whether it’s another police murder, and invasion abroad, or a poisoning of a city water system. At most, we can fan the flames, which is fine but secondary. Our real task is to build organizations and campaigns within mass movements.
4.2 But we need to know the terrain. The ground of the current conjuncture is in motion. Like everything else in the universe, social movements move in waves. They flow and they ebb. You can count on it. What’s important is to know when to cast our nets out, making wide alliances and broad agitation when they are flowing, and when to pull our nets in, gathering new recruits and doing deeper education as they start to ebb. This way, with each wave, riding from the peak of one to the next, we grow stronger or stronger as an organization, gaining many new friends, until we shift the balance of forces for victories.
4.3 ‘Taking to the streets’ has serious limitations. We love street heat tactically. But as strategy it sucks. Why? Because its hidden subtext has one of two flaws. First, it has the aim of mass pressure on liberals in government to do the right thing. This often works, but as strategy, liberals approve of it. Why? Because it avoids the tasks of taking political power for ourselves, of replacing liberals in government with socialists of the AOC and her “squad” variety. Moreover, “street heat” is often advocated as an alternative to electoral strategy, rather than a vital part of it. In short, it becomes a variety of militant liberalism.
Second, if “street heat” is held up as strategy, it then becomes what can be called “the street syndicalist deviation.” Its projected means of taking power is mainly through the mass political strike or general strike. It seeks to avoid exhausting existing parliamentary means by bypassing them with embryonic instruments of dual power that will draw the masses away from elections and into local mass assemblies. If the current conjuncture were one of being on the cusp of armed insurrection, this would be useful. But most often, it’s not, and in these conditions, it’s simply the myth of the general strike as a cover to skip the organization of the means to take power in government. Gaining government seats, in and of themselves, is likewise limited. But holding them enables us to sharpen contradictions and wage battles on a much higher level.
4.4 Neither movement-building nor street heat are minor matters. They have been the default position of the left and wider progressive forces for at least 50 years. One major reason is the tax code, allowing exemptions to 501C3-designated groups. The catch is they are not allowed to tell people to vote for this or that candidate, or this or that piece of legislation. They have to pull their punches to the “education but no endorsement” boundary. This amounts to a backhanded federal subsidy to the street-syndicalist deviation, keeping people in their separate silo and always short of forming an instrument that can win elections and place socialists and their close allies in seats of power. We can still form and work with 501C3 group, but we have to escape the cul-de-sac that can keep us without alternative forms of organizations.
Who are our friends? Who are our adversaries?
Hypothesis No. 5. The key question of strategy, “who are our friends, who are our adversaries,” when read closely, demands three answers. The one often overlooked is “Who” is “the We” implied by “Our”? Is it simply the revolutionary party? The left more widely? The working class? It can be all of these, but a workable answer is “the forces demanding change and a new order.” Then we divide it into two, the critical force and the main force.
5.1 The critical force is a militant minority, usually young, that takes a radical action, often disruptive, against an injustice, and holds a mirror up to society, stating “this is what you have become. Is this what you want to uphold? Or take down?” Think of the original Woolworth sit-ins, or John Lewis on the bridge, or Vietnam vets taking over the Statue of Liberty, or throwing their medals back at Congress. They can be a powerful expression, even a spectacle that spans the globe.
5.2 But when all is said and done, the militant minority is not yet the main force, the millions of the all the oppressed, alongside the workers and their close allies. Step by step, these come to form an insurgent and awakening progressive majority, one that ceases to be the object of history and begins to find their agency, to make history. They start with less drama, mainly going to meetings, debating, and voting in elections. But they begin to be protagonists. The critical force that unites with them will thrive. If they can’t, they will be trapped in a cul-de-sac and fade away.
5.3 Now, let’s turn to the two obvious questions about adversaries and friends. Our adversary is usually defined as capitalism in its neoliberal mode. This is fine, but it’s at a very high level of abstraction. It’s useful to analyze capitalism at various levels of abstraction, as Marx does with genius in Capital. But we’re doing something different. We want to overthrow a particular capitalism as rooted in our country and as its current forms hold us down today where we are. There are a variety of capitalisms in our world, and while they have much in common, they vary from place to place. Our capitalism in the U.S. started as a racialized capitalism from the start, and one that spent at least half its life growing from a settler-colonial slave republic into today’s hybrid of racialized neoliberal capitalism with both global and national dimensions.
5.4 But how does that break down on the terrain today? One certainty is we do not want to fight all our adversaries at once. Where to make the first cut? One prominent feature of our last 40 years and its miseries is the vast expansion of the financial sector, where capitalism often ‘makes money’ while not creating new wealth. Think of financial capital as a globalized cannibal devouring other sectors and as a vampire feasting of the blood of the wealth creators, the working classes, here and elsewhere. So we make the first cut between finance capital and productive capital.
5.5 Productive capital also divides into two, high road and low road. Low-road capital is familiar to us as an adversary. They are the ones who brought us the Rust Belt, exported jobs, the climate crisis, unions at less than 10 percent of the workforce, and flat wages for 40 years. High road capital is less familiar but it exists. They want to make money from a stable, skilled, and unionized workforce. They don’t mind protecting the environment, and will even try to find ways to make money doing it through green innovation. But they still will drive a hard bargain with their workers for their own profits.
What begins to take shape as our key adversary, then, is racialized finance capital and its low road partners here and around the globe. High road capital in many instances – creating jobs for a Green New Deal – can be a tactical ally. Likewise, in the financial sector, a recent “Green Bloc” has taken shape that thinks a green industrial revolution is a wise bet for future long-term investors. Even if most of their kind are wrapped up in the day-trading casinos of pure speculation without investment, they are willing to explore a new venture. To take on the climate change emergencies quickly, they will have to be part of the solution.
5.6 So why does ‘racialized’ matter? It’s not simply that capitalism on this continent started with the expropriation of African labor and natives’ lands, alongside the exploitation of indentured European laborers. It’s that every feature of capitalist production was shaped by “race” — chain gangs for “vagrants” after the defeat of reconstruction, debt peonage for Blacks and Mexicans and Chicanos, Chinese “coolie” labor on the railroads followed by exclusion, resource confiscation from Native lands, and Jim Crow extending up to the 1960s and beyond. Abstractly, there is only one working class here. But in daily life, racialized hierarchies existed and still exist in major industries and workplaces, not to mention neighborhoods and schools. It’s not the distant past, but the past persisting in various ways, old and new, well into the present day.
The ‘white race’
Hypothesis No. 6. Our adversaries, as Gramsci has taught us, don’t like to rule by force alone. They aim to combine coercion with consent, using persuasion, direct and hidden. In our racialized capitalism, the primary way was through the “invention” or social construction of the “white race” along with all the subaltern “color races” that partnered with it. By ceding undue advantages to European laborers early on, making them “white” as something they shared with the upper crust, the colonial elite was able to form a white united front with labor in the white-skin.
So as long as you could maintain the “common sense” that there was such a thing as the “white race” and those with pale European skin were members of it, the ruling elites had a form of social control. They had a form of consent, conscious or unconscious, that could divide the whites from the rest, and even the “red,” “yellow,” and “brown” against each other as well. The “common sense” of the white race enabled African slavery and Native dispersal to grow and thrive. Even after the 13th Amendment partially abolishing slavery, the “white race” continued its grip in the conflicted consciousness of the masses, and allowed the reformation of slavery in other forms and names up to the present.
6.1 If we abolish the “white race,” don’t we abolish the “Black race” too? It’s a fruitful question often asked. The straightforward answer is “yes.” The descendants of Africans here are no more a “race” than the descendants of Europeans. Biologically speaking, there is only one race, the human. But this opens an important question. What are African Americans? Due to their conditions of bondage and oppression in the Deep South, Africans brought here from diverse tribes, languages, and religions developed into a new and distinct people with their own culture, language, economic stations, and religion. They have been variously called Colored, Negro, Black, and now African American. But just as Irish-Americans are no longer much like their Irish ancestors, the same is true of Blacks and Chicanos. They are all components of the demographic of the United States of America, but they are also distinct nationalities within a multi-national country. Original national ancestry, from here or elsewhere, is not a “race.” And the sooner we can get rid of this old order category in our thinking, the easier a more democratic class and national consciousness can emerge from what Marx called ‘all the old muck.’
[Carl Davidson is a national committee member of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a Left Roots Compa and a member of Steel Valley DSA. He edits LeftLinks and founded the Online University of the Left, He lives in Beaver County, Western PA, and is also a member of the United Steel Workers activist local for retirees. Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the executive editor of globalafricanworker.com, a past president of TransAfrica Forum, and a long-time leftist and trade unionist.]