The Pitfalls of Liberals’ Focus on “Taking Back” the House

Written by Florence Oppen

The Democratic Party (DP) is still trying to recover from the deep crisis that erupted after the stinging defeat in the 2016 elections. The elections showed that the past decades of neoliberal policies under the Clinton and Obama administrations had led them to lose most of their traditional working class base, and become increasingly unattractive to radicalizing youth and poor people. The DP’s defeat was in part the result of the handling of the economic crisis (bailout of the banks, housing and foreclosure crisis, continued depreciation of wages) and the Obama era’s broken promises (comprehensive immigration reform, minimum wage regulation and pro-unionization reform).[1]  The result of that crisis was an increased division and disarray inside the party, which is still “searching for its soul.” Liberals are looking in vain for a DP that fights for the working class within the contradictory class wings – its left-leaning mass base and its neoliberal donor base.

            In the meantime, however, the DP has completely failed to put up a real “resistance” to Trump’s policies, and has focused instead on cheap arguments regarding “Russian meddling” in the past election, and now the multiple corruption cases of Trump led by Robert Mueller III. DP leaders are flirting with the idea of winning the House to begin the impeachment process of Trump, which would still leave the ultra-reactionary Pence and his cabinet in power. There is no light between both parties’ resource-plundering, ecologically-devastating, imperialist foreign policy (war on terror, nuclear arms race, and unconditional support for Israel). In the balance, the DP has offered nothing substantial and concrete to working people in the many states and cities in which the party is still dominant.

Warren’s Plan to Make Capitalism More “Accountable”

            The main focus of the DP currently is on an electoral strategy of “Taking Back the House” in the midterm. Yet the truth is that the DP has never been a party of grassroots organizing to improve working class living conditions. In order to win back its lost electorate, the establishment of the DP, who still controls the party, has decided to focus on “bread and butter” issues of everyday Americans, meaning economic issues, staying away from what they perceive as “controversial” issues, or so called “identity politics” – which have to do mainly with confronting racism, police brutality, mass incarceration, ICE raids and deportations, immigration reform beyond DACA, and demands by Native American demands for autonomy and control of their lands and resources. Among these are also the demands of LGBTQIA rights and of women, who are facing a historic retreat in access to reproductive rights. By refusing to take a stand or even center anti-oppression politics, the DP is in fact addressing an imaginary working class, that is to say the minority of working people who identify as White males.

            Some DP cadre believe that since the 1970’s, the party broke with the “liberal consensus” it had established in the 1930’s when it championed social reform through the New Deal and advocated a “fair” distribution of a share of profits. The DP’s concessions to anti-war mass protest and resistance against the Vietnam war and to the Civil Rights movement made the party the target of reactionary attacks from the GOP. Michael A. Cohen, a professional political analyst, argues that since 1972, “the Democrats continued to move away from their traditional defence of labour towards social issues, and they hemorrhaged voters,” and moved away from “working class Americans”.[1] In order to win the ordinary folk back, the DP should, according to Cohen, refocus on “real issues that mean a lot to young people: education debt relief; steady employment; healthcare that makes it possible for them to afford to start families.

According to this view, in order to find its “soul” (and the recapture millions of votes lost) , the DP should go back to being the party of FDR. And this is precisely what Elizabeth Warren strives to do as she positions herself for the 2020 election by appealing both to the progressive base that supports Sanders, and also courting and the centrist faction of the party. Warren is proposing two major reforms, the Accountable Capitalism Act and an anti-corruption bill. She’s proposing that corporations which make more than $1 billion in profits (around 3,500 publicly traded US companies) be held more “accountable” to employees, and not only to shareholders. As she herself noted, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in April of this year, “between 2007 and 2016, large American companies dedicated 93% of their earnings to shareholders,” ignoring the welfare of workers.[2] Warren’s proposal coincides with the release of an Economic Policy Institute report, which showed that in 2017 the “CEO-to-worker compensation ratio of 312-to-1 was far greater than the 20-to-1 ratio in 1965 and more than five times greater than the 58-to-1 ratio in 1989”.[3] The Accountable Capitalism Act reform calls for the following:

1. Transfer of ongoing regulation mechanisms from the state to the federal level,

2. Employees of these corporations elect 40% of the Board of Directors, and

3. Their companies will become “benefit companies”, with fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders and potentially beyond.

However, Warren’s timid reform does not question the right of corporations to make billions on the back of workers or to evade paying taxes. All that she is proposing is to reverse  “change(s) in business practices dating back to the 1980s.” As she puts it, she wants to “go back” to the time when American capitalism “worked” for the working class: “For much of U.S. history, the answers were clear. Corporations sought to succeed in the marketplace, but they also recognized their obligations to employees, customers and the community…This approach worked. American companies and workers thrived”.[4] Obviously we would contend that “this approach,” a supposedly fair and pro-worker capitalism, has never existed, because capitalism itself has never really worked for us but only because of us and against us.

There are, however, minority voices in the party that disagree with Warren’s view.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, agrees with going back to a “New Deal,” which contrary to Warren includes improved access to healthcare and higher education, and also supports reforms regarding ICE (to replace ICE by a more “humane” agency) and mass incarceration. Another progressive Democrat, Stacey Abrams, who recently won the DP nomination for the Georgia gubernatorial race, is proposing to reconnect with those who do not show up to vote rather than appealing to potential Trump or GOP voters. In Georgia, a state where 30% of the population is Black, there are 1.1 million registered Black voters and 700,000 unregistered.[5] Those “progressive” candidates, however, are trapped in the conservative logic of the money-rigged electoral system and the top-down functioning of the DP, and this is why, as we argue in this article, they will either have to increasingly water down their platform (and become closer to centrist liberals) or split to form a social-democratic party.

What Liberals Get Wrong About the Economy and Working People

Not only is Warren’s flagship reform insufficient, it won’t work. Michael Roberts, a leading Marxist economist, criticized Warren’s proposals[6], as well as all of the attempts to “fix” capitalism by only looking at income redistribution and timid regulation, as “hardly radical”. Economic inequality is not the cause but the effect of capitalist functioning, which always sought “to raise profitability during the 1980s and 1990s by raising the rate of surplus value through unemployment, demolishing labour rights, shackling the trade unions, privatising state assets, ‘freeing’ up product markets, deregulating industry, reducing corporate tax etc – in other words, the neo-liberal agenda.”[7] Contrary to Warren’s argument, the neoliberal offensive against workers is not an “exception” of American capitalism, but the unveiling of its true character. The capitalist system of production is based on the increased exploitation and oppression of workers all over the world and the destruction of the planet; it is anarchistic in its functioning and instability, for it is marked by a low and/or falling rate of return on capital over time. It’s nature is to generate periodic destructive crises and wars. The question for us is to know whether we will use the devastating effects of the last crisis to reflect on its root causes and propose durable solutions, or will we continue toiling and believing in delusional sugar-coated promises of economic reform.

Warren’s ideas are indeed old ideas that never worked, marketed in a new way.  The attempts to regulate major trusts and corporations through “charters” already failed in the early 1900s, and there is no indication that they will succeed today, given that these corporations are even more powerful now. For example, the idea of giving to workers some representation in large companies’ boards, such as the historical workers councils in Germany, has resulted in little to no reduction of inequality.[8]

This leaves, however, big unanswered questions to the Liberals and Progressives like Sanders and Warren, and their followers, who are proposing an easy fix: how do they propose to expropriate significant wealth from the 1% in order to redistribute among the people most in need without open class struggle? And further, we ask: even if they succeed in creating a viable social safety net for the 99% (and protect the environment from ruin), how will they manage capitalism’s inevitable, periodic market crashes, let alone curb the moral atrocity that is the exploitation and oppression of the Global South?[9]     

Working People’s Needs Go Beyond “Bread and Butter” Issues

            The overall problems of the DP strategy to win back the house is that their proposed reforms in no way address the growing needs of the working class. Let’s take their economic package, for they are deciding to focus on that at the expense of other vital needs of the class: while they are supporting a bill to lower the cost of drugs, they are not united around a campaign for Medicare for All, though the majority of Americans and 74% of Democrats support a national health plan. In California, where there is a strong campaign by the nurses union (CNA) and other labor and community groups to support single payer health care (SB562), it was a Democratic assemblyman, Anthony Rendon, who killed the bill in committee in 2017, preventing it from going up for a vote in 2018.

It is true that the DP is lending timid support to Prop. 10 in California, a bill that would repeal the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Housing Act, which places limits on municipal rent control legislation, and at this time bipartisan support. The DP, which could have simply enacted repeal of Costa-Hawkins through legislation, for it controls both of the state houses, only started expressing this support after a massive grassroots campaign of community organizations who gathered the necessary signatures to get it on the 2018 ballot. Further, there is no sign of interest from the DP leadership at the state and national levels to enact a real plan of affordable public housing and end or even slow the rise of houselessness. Even more astonishing is that the DNC has given up on supporting the enforcement of a real living wage at the federal level and has broken its promise to the unions to enact labor legislation that would protect the right to join or form a union without fear of retaliation. The two latter small reforms would drastically improve the living and working conditions of our class.

            Another big problem is liberals’ approach to racial justice and women’s rights policy issues. The lesson drawn by the DNC in 2016 is that they lost the election because they were “too focused” on “identity politics” issues. This is a very dangerous mistake. It is a capitulation to the GOP and Trump’s racist and sexist offensive and the reactionary idea that so-called identity issues are not “working class issues”. Thus, regarding immigration, DP midterm election candidates (even those like Ocasio-Cortez who support “abolishing ICE”) are not arguing for an immediate end to deportations and detention centers and a real path for citizenship for all immigrants living, working and paying taxes in this country, let alone for the only goal worthy of socialists: the abolition of all national borders. Nor is there any proposal coming from the likely top candidates regarding the now well-known issue of police brutality against communities of color and more generally regarding mass incarceration. This is not to mention the fact that since Obama, the DP has embraced the pro-Charter and pro-Voucher agenda to deal with the increasingly defunded K-12 system, while embracing standardized testing and the neoliberal logic to assess and manage public education institutions. Leading Democrats – liberal or otherwise – are either silent or, at best, timid, on all of these issues.

We Need More Than a “Resistance”, We Need a Real Alternative

            While liberals and the DP have been talking about launching a “Resistance” in the aftermath of the Women’s March, the historic demonstrations of 2017, they pulled the plug right after that and refused to continue the mobilizations in the streets. After encouraging action in the streets, the DP-led organizations are proposing to replace substitute mass action for voting in November. This was very clear at the 2018 Women’s March this year when the slogan liberal organizing platforms tried to impose from above was “today we march, tomorrow we vote.”

            The Democratic Party has always had an opportunist relation with working people’s struggles: it has only supported them and mobilized for them if it could control their politics and leadership and channel them into the electoral process. This empty performance of “Resistance” will not stop and reverse Trump’s atrocities.

            The Muslim ban was temporarily reversed, and the policy of family separations revoked, only because thousands of people took to the streets in a united, massive, and independent actions to oppose Trump’s executive orders. The same goes for the teachers’ impressive strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky, actions that won important wage and funding concessions from Republican governors. This is the kind of resistance we need, a grassroots resistance that keeps the eyes on the prize, on meeting working class needs, and on continuing and growing our mobilization until we win our demands, uniting our struggles to build a power force for change. There, in the daily struggles and organizing of our class, is where you will find us and many other socialists, as we bring about real hope and change for the 99%, that is working people.










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