Imperialist Neo-Keynesianism in Pandemic Times: Understanding and Fighting the Biden Government 

By Orlando Torres
As the economic and healthcare crises continue to rage across the United States, working people face a new boss in the White House. After four years of an openly bigoted and gleefully authoritarian government, the Democratic Party (DP) and its allies in the labor bureaucracies and middle-class leaderships of liberal non-profits are once again sowing illusions about a new “progressive” government. As with every DP administration, we are told by liberals and “progressives” that the working class has the opportunity to win major reforms by collaborating with and “putting pressure” on the Biden-Harris presidency.  But we have been through this tried-and-failed strategy many times before—most recently under an Obama government that presided over a massive bailout of Wall Street criminals while inequality, precarity, and deportations soared to unprecedented levels and imperialist intervention continued unabated. To actually win the reforms our class desperately needs, we must free ourselves from reformist illusions and rely on our own organizing power.
This requires us to understand the political character of the new government, the ways in which it continues and departs from the policies of previous governments, and why its project of capitalist and imperial refurbishment is anathema to the needs and aspirations of workers in the US and around the world. To this end, we open this article by situating the Biden White House within the context of US bourgeois democracy and the compounding crises of contemporary capitalism. Next, we analyze the political content of the Biden project, focusing on its flagship economic stimulus and infrastructure policies. Lastly, we put forward a strategy of self-organization and mass action to combat the new representative of the ruling class and actually win major reforms while advancing the struggle for a socialist society.

Contextualizing the Biden government: Bourgeois democracy in a time of compounding crises

Capitalism is rooted in the exploitation and oppression of the majority of the population by a tiny elite. Therefore, it requires a system of social control that can keep workers generating profits for their bosses and prevent or neutralize major revolts from below. In totalitarian or dictatorial regimes, the main mechanism of social control is coercive state and economic violence. As evidenced by the brutal repression of the mass, anti-racist demonstrations last summer and the huge and growing homeless population, there is plenty of coercive violence in bourgeois democracies like the United States. But the predominant vehicle of social control in this type of regime is the acquiescence or consent of subaltern classes to the economic system that exploits them. Capitalists achieve this through their ownership and control of cultural institutions (e.g. education, news, advertising, movies, etc.), which produce bourgeois ideas that become internalized over time as “common sense”. Chief amongst these is the myth that the United States is the pinnacle of freedom and democracy. This myth is repeated ad nauseaum, although there are 25 million non-citizen residents who cannot vote in the US (including 11 million undocumented); millions more are disenfranchised through convicted felony laws and voter suppression; campaign financing, access to debates, and media coverage of elections are overwhelmingly controlled by capitalists and their political representatives[1]; and capitalists’ ownership of the means of production, which gives them the ability to withhold investment (to stage a capital strike) and keeps state policy within boundaries that do not threaten capitalist rule (this is why we call the state in bourgeois democracies like the US, a “capitalist” state ). Moreover, the imperialist nature of the US state, which uses its military and economic power to extract wealth from much of the world, makes it the antithesis of democracy in its international relations.
The stability and  ideological authority of capitalist democracy rest on its ability to alternate power between bourgeois parties that, at least to some extent, represent different sectors of the ruling class. Since capitalist competition is inherent to the system, conflicts between bourgeois parties and the economic interests they represent are often acute and their expression in electoral contests gives the appearance of a vibrant democratic process. But behind intra-bourgeois electoral competition lies the fundamental point of unity among all capitalist parties—their commitment to an economic system rooted in exploitation and oppression, one that requires imperial plunder, obscene poverty and inequality, environmental destruction, and massive state violence to function and reproduce itself.
In addition to representing different sectors of the ruling class, capitalist parties mobilize different layers of the electorate in their competition for control of the state. For the last several decades, the Republican Party has courted the votes of the suburban middle class, conservative Christians, white rural regions, and a segment of downwardly mobile white workers. The electoral base of the Democratic Party (DP), on the other hand, is primarily made up of young voters, urban working- and middle-class layers, and communities of color. To mobilize votes—and to prevent widespread revolts and sustain people’s faith in bourgeois democratic institutions— both parties must make at least some concessions to their respective bases when they are in power. For the Republicans, this tends to look like tax cuts for the wealthy that benefit suburban upper-middle classes, the appointment of religious conservatives to the judiciary, and the stoking of white voters’ racist impulses through draconian immigration and police repression policies. For the Democrats, who rely on the labor bureaucracies and middle-class leaderships of “progressive” organizations to mobilize voters, concessions to layers of the working class, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the Affordable Care Act (which was also a huge handout to private insurance companies), are necessary. And, of course, for both parties, patriotic jingoism, war against purported enemies of “our way of life” and xenophobic nationalism against competing powers must be periodically agitated to mobilize votes and neutralize threats from below.
Aside from sustaining the myth of bourgeois democracy, some economic concessions can serve a purpose for the ruling class, especially during periods when workers are simply too destitute to sustain the demand for commodities that fuels profits and economic growth. And in a system of vast wealth and power, even minor concessions can have a major impact on working-class beneficiaries. Yet, as a rule—in the absence of militant mass mobilizations that threaten the profits and political rule of capitalists —concessions from above (especially economic ones) are negligible, leave the root of our class’ suffering intact, and are easily reversible by future governments. 
Although intra-bourgeois competition through the Democratic and Republican parties is real, the most powerful sectors of capital invest in both parties because, when it comes to the fundamental needs of the system—the profitability of capital, the repression or co-optation of working class threats, imperialist militarism around the world, etc.—liberalism and conservatism will inevitably converge. Moreover, the two currents of bourgeois politics have developed complementary roles for the reproduction of the system. When profits and growth stagnate under Democratic administrations, Republicans come to power to impose massive attacks on workers and an openly hawkish foreign policy under a discourse of racial scapegoating, market fundamentalism, law and order, and chauvinistic militarism. When this “ugly face” of US capitalism loses legitimacy and gives rise to mass resistance, the DP comes back to power, makes a handful of minor concessions to curb the most destabilizing excesses of capital and co-opt the movements opposing them, and continues to attack workers and prioritize profits and empire under a liberal discourse of compromise, multicultural diversity, and benevolent imperialism. Thus, through this good-cop-bad-cop cycle, the capitalist class maintains its hegemony.
Where does the Biden administration fit in this historical pattern?
After four years of Donald Trump—an unapologetically bigoted media mogul with strong bonapartist tendencies, who is perceived as an aberration by the establishment of both parties—Biden is supposed to bring the “nice” face back, restore the legitimacy of the bourgeois democratic system, and advance the agenda of the ruling class.  To do this, he is supposed restore bourgeois “norms” and reach compromises between major capitalist interests; raise illusions about meaningful reforms through a supposedly responsive and democratic system; and co-opt any threatening movements through minor concessions and deals with the social forces of reformism (social democratic politicians, labor bureaucrats, and the middle-class leaderships of progressive NGOs). But given the extraordinary depth of the economic, political, and health crises, it is far from clear that a Biden presidency that lacks the popularity and large congressional majorities of the first Obama government will be able to play the usual “good cop” role and restore business-as-usual for US capitalism.
The Covid-19 pandemic continues its devastating toll, with over 560,000 deaths (by far the highest death toll in the world), and only 22% of the population fully vaccinated (far behind Israel and the UK). Meanwhile, the country lost 227,000 jobs in December and added only 49,000 in January (of which a mere 6,000 come from the private sector). The official unemployment rate remains at 6% (9.2% for Black workers and 8.6% for Latino workers), although even the chair of the federal reserve has admitted it is actually 10%, even before accounting for the 2% of the labor force that has given up on finding jobs. Since most of the job losses are concentrated in low-wage industries, the economic downturn translates into extreme suffering for our class. According to the Center on Budget and Policy priorities, in the month of March, nearly 16% of Black and Latinx households reported food insufficiency and one in seven renters (and 22% of Black renters) said they are behind on rent payments.
The crisis has also affected the profits of the bourgeoisie. The sharp drop in employment during 2020 reflected a sharp contraction of output and investment driven by lockdowns, social isolation and collapsing international trade. After a 40% plunge following the initial pandemic shock, the stock market made a dramatic recovery that surpassed pre-pandemic levels. But this reflects the huge influx of credit and cash that the Federal Reserve injected into the banking system, which corporations have primarily used to speculate in financial assets (what Marx called “fictitious capital”),  not to keep staff or sustain production. Thus, the stock market is increasingly out of line with the rate of profit on productive investment, which has been declining for the past 50 years and remains stagnant (with the exception of Big Tech, finance, and Pharma). If profitability does not recover to at least pre-pandemic levels, capitalists will not invest sufficiently to restore employment. Without a full recovery in employment and wages to at least reach pre-pandemic levels, there will continue to be a crisis of demand and low economic growth. This could trigger the collapse of so-called “zombie companies” that have grown in number and sharply increased their debt levels through guaranteed, low-interest Covid-relief programs; cause mass defaults on mortgages; or burst the 1.71 trillion student debt bubble.
In addition to the public health and economic crises, the US bourgeoise faces the relative decline of US global hegemony amidst the rise of China as a new economic power and a deepening legitimacy crisis for the bipartisan system, expressed in the emergence of a social democratic wing in the DP and a Trumpian current that now threatens to split the GOP. This is all on top of climate change, environmental destruction, and the structural crises of immigration, housing and police violence. What will the Biden administration do to address the compounding crises of US capitalism?

The Political Project of the Biden White House 

Over more than four decades as a senator and eight years as vice-president, Joseph Biden demonstrated his commitment to capital and empire through his opposition to school busing in the 1970s, his leading role in the expansion of mass incarceration, as well as his support for the dismantling of welfare programs, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, free trade agreements, the bailout of Wall Street, Obama’s mass deportation policies, fracking, etc.[2] It is therefore hardly surprising that his policies and cabinet choices seek to restore the Washington establishment from the perceived “aberration” of Trump’s presidency.
The aggressively capitalist and imperialist character of the new government is easily illustrated by Biden’s cabinet. Let us give just a few examples. The nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, supported the invasions of Iraq and Libya and advocated for a more aggressive military  intervention in Syria before becoming a consultant for finance, tech, and weapon manufacturing corporations.[4] Ron Klain, Biden’s chosen chief of staff (and his former chief of staff during his time as vice president) has a long career as a venture capitalist[4]. Leading the effort for economic recovery, treasury secretary Janet Yellen is a former chair of the federal reserve who has repeatedly pushed for anti-worker “free trade” policies and received at least $7 million in speakers’ fees from financial institutions between 2018 and 2020.   Likewise, Brian Dessee, Biden’s pick for top white house economic adviser, was an executive at Blackrock, the largest investment-management corporation in the world. During a time when Black Lives Matter and other movements have challenged the criminal justice system like never before, Biden chose to nominate Merrick Garland for attorney general, a centrist judge who has ruled against detainees at Guantanamo Bay and in favor of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations unlimited influence over elections. What about the environmental crisis? The Special Presidential Envoy for Climate is none-other than former secretary of state, John Kerry, who supported the environmental (and human) catastrophe of the war in Iraq, does not even support the Green New Deal, and played a key role in blocking legally binding measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the Paris accords.
In a stark repudiation of the DP’s social democratic wing, Biden filled his team with Obama-era establishment figures and refused to nominate Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or people close to them to any positions. Rather, the President has tried to obfuscate the conservative records of his cabinet by nominating women and racial minorities who have no record of representing the interests of the oppressed. These include Avril Haines, the first woman Director of National Intelligence, and general Lloyd Austin, the first Black  secretary of defense. What have these appointees done for gender and racial justice? Haines was an architect of the legal justification for Obama’s targeted assassination program while Austin has served on the board of weapons manufacturer corporation, Raytheon.
What about Biden’s “progressive” reforms? 
If the bourgeoisie’s key mandates for the Obama and Trump administrations were, respectively, to bail out Wall Street and to impose a deeply reactionary tax reform, its task of the Biden regime is to stabilize capitalism after the pandemic slump by restoring both profitability and US imperial dominance in a rapidly-shifting geopolitical landscape. To this end, the administration has increased the resources allocated to vaccination and to stimulate economic growth through its $1.9 trillion stimulus package. However, as with previous stimulus legislation, top-down efforts by the capitalist state to restore profitability after an economic crisis are far more likely to favor corporations and large businesses over working people in the long term (and they often fail at restoring economic growth to pre-crisis levels).
We need to clarify that stimulus packages like the American Rescue Plan Act recently signed into law by President Biden (as well as the $3.1 trillion of the two Trump relief bills of 2020) are ultimately capitalist efforts to preserve their class rule—extraordinary measures to prevent the system from imploding out of its own contradictions. And this type of largess in the midst of an economic crisis is only possible because of the imperialist character of the US state, which allows it to reap much of the wealth produced by workers around the world (in fact, while the US relies on large stimulus spending, many countries in the Global South are approaching a new debt crisis or going bankrupt).
Given the failure of Obama’s neoliberal policies to restore profitability, investment, and productivity to pre-recession levels, the Biden government is taking a more Keynesian approach to the current slump, which is far more severe than the Great Recession of 2008-09. That means that rather than relying primarily on cheap credit as the Obama administration did, Biden is combining a huge injection of credit with deficit-financed government spending on both investments and direct handouts to companies or households. In addition to the federal reserve’s lowering of interest-rates to virtually zero, Biden’s 1.9 trillion stimulus includes spending for extending unemployment benefits, extending eviction moratoriums, vaccine testing and distribution, increasing the child tax credit, healthcare subsidies, one-time  $1400 checks for individuals, $50 billion in grants and loans for small businesses (in addition to the  $284 billion in loans of Trump’s Paycheck Protection Program), $350 billion to support state and local governments, among others. While some of these measures will certainly benefit working people and alleviate some of the worst aspects of the slump in the short term, they remain a far cry from what is needed to address the needs of our class in the long term. Moreover, the fact that the stimulus is funded by increasing public debt, as opposed to redistributing the wealth of billionaires and corporations, means that much of the money will have to come out of working class pockets at some point down the line.
The first thing to say about the actual legislation is that Biden already broke campaign promises by watering down some of the provisions that stood to benefit working people. After promising $2,000 pandemic-relief checks to individuals, the administration lowered it to $1,400 by cynically counting the $600 received under the Trump administration towards the $2000 figure. A few weeks later, it agreed to lower the income caps by $20,000, leaving millions of Americans who had qualified under Trump’s initial stimulus bill without relief payments. Although Biden accepted a provision to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour—the most minimum of demands given that inflation has largely eroded the purchasing power of a $15 wage since it was first put forward by the labor movement a decade ago—he quickly set it up for defeat by predicting (without putting up the slightest fight) that it would not make it through Congress. And sure enough, seven senate Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the minimum wage increase. The administration also paid lip-service to cancelling student debt (which, as mentioned above, is a huge source of financial instability) but, again, it sat back without raising a finger while congressional Democrats dropped it from the bill. Yet perhaps the most clear evidence that the White House’s priority was not working people’s health but propping up demand to restore bourgois profits is its aggressive push to reopen schools (in order to free up the labor of students’ parents for capital) before teachers and staff were fully vaccinated. Biden’s pressure campaign, which needlessly risks lives only a few months away from herd immunity, went as far as leveraging his cozy relationships with the labor bureaucracy to break the resistance of militant locals around the country.
Furthermore, the bulk of the spending, including most of the provisions that will provide economic relief to working people—the expansion of the child tax credit, the extension of healthcare services, the eviction moratorium,  the moratorium on federal student loans, unemployment benefits—are set to expire within six months to a year. If the stimulus fails to structurally restore growth and employment (and, as I argue below, there is good reason to expect such failure), the piling up of bills, rent, mortgages, student debt, government debt, and staggering private debt from zombie companies will still be there.
Aside from the predictable betrayals and exclusions, the stimulus package is unlikely to resolve the economic crisis for the simple reason that it fails to address its root cause. While Biden’s stimulus program (which will take years, not months to implement) could raise state investment to as much as 4% of GDP, private, capitalist investment averages 15 to 20% of GDP. This means that capitalist investment in the productive sector remains the decisive factor for restoring growth and therefore employment. But capitalists are only compelled to invest when they expect an adequate (read: very large) rate of profit and, as explained above, profitability remains historically low—a handful of corporations in Big Tech, Big Pharma, and finance are certainly making obscene profits but the vast majority of companies have very low profitability. Regardless of whether the bourgeois state proposes austerity policies, compromised ‘bipartisan’ ones, or Keynesian, social democratic ones, decision-making on investment and jobs would remain under the control of the capitalist class, not the state. In the words of Michael Pettis, a ‘firm Keynesian economist’:

If the government can spend additional funds in ways that make GDP grow faster than debt, politicians don’t have to worry about runaway inflation or the piling up of debt. But if this money isn’t used productively, the opposite is true [because] creating or borrowing money does not increase a country’s wealth unless doing so results directly or indirectly in an increase in productive investment […] If US companies are reluctant to invest not because the cost of capital is high but rather because expected profitability is low, they are unlikely to respond […] by investing more.

Again, If the stimulus fails to restore profitability and therefore capitalist investment, the low cost of capital will eventually drive up inflation and force the federal reserve to raise interest rates. This could trigger a stock market crash, bankruptcies, mass unemployment and the bursting of the three speculative bubbles: student debt, mortgages, and the corporate debt of ‘zombie companies’.
While the federal reserve is predicting a historic 6.5% growth rate for 2021, its long-term growth forecast is only 1.8% per year, which is about the same as the average GDP growth since the end of the Great Recession. This implies that even the federal reserve expects the so-called “multiplier effect” of the stimulus and pent-up demand will be nothing more than a sugar rush that will dissipate within a year or two—a view shared by the leading establishment economist Paul Krugman, of the New York Times. Aside from the challenge of low profitability, the stagnant prediction reflects the permanent scarring the pandemic has inflicted on most capitalist economies: bankrupt companies that will disappear (along with their jobs), leaving furloughed workers without employment to return to amidst staff cuts and hiring freezes.
This explains part of the impetus behind the Biden government’s new project, a $2 trillion proposal to upgrade US infrastructure and boost employment and economic growth. Unlike the deficit-funded stimulus bill, Biden proposes to pay for eight years of spending on infrastructure by raising the corporate tax rate from 21 to 28%. This is hardly “progressive”, as it does not even restore the 35% corporate tax rate that was in place before the Trump tax overhaul of 2017. And it is evident that both the infrastructure proposal and the administration’s push for a global minimum tax on multinationals are largely driven by 1) a need to stabilize the conditions for capitalism to reproduce itself (even if it requires a slightly higher level of corporate taxation) and 2) imperialist anxiety over rising economic and geopolitical competition from China, as Biden himself made crystal clear during his campaign and which his top economic advisor, Brian Deese has confirmed in a recent interview.[5]  Thus, the White House will not tap the most obvious resource to pay for its 4 trillion Keynesian experiment, a reduction of the US’s obscene military budget, because military superiority is a core part of US imperial strategy.
Although we all agree that the country’s physical and human infrastructure are in desperate need of massive investment, the problems of low profitability and growing financial bubbles remain unresolved. State investment in infrastructure could certainly raise profits for the firms that get the government contracts. But if it is funded by raising taxes on profits, then the profit rate will not rise as a whole. If it is paid for by adding to the deficit, it can raise inflation, which cuts into both wages and profits, forcing a rise in interest rates that is likely to trigger a new financial crisis. As Robert Brenner often wrote, so long as capitalists control the investment function—so long as capitalist property relations continue— the old saying that “what’s good for General Motors is good for everyone” will, tragically, contain an important grain of truth.
So if neither monetarist measures nor Keynesian government spending can resolve economic stagnation in the long term, how do capitalist economies recover from recurrent crises? By making labor pay. As Marxist economist, Michael Roberts explains, capitalism restores profitability by 1) firing “unproductive” workers to expand the reserve army of labor (i.e. the unemployed) and thereby drive wages down; 2) introducing labor saving technology to improve productivity of labor; 3) allowing zombie deadwood companies to be taken over or liquidated in order to cleanse the market and raise profits for the remaining entreprises. If this is what is required, then why doesn’t the Biden administration push for it? The answer points to the capitalist state’s need to balance two contradictory priorities: the legitimacy of the political and economic system (the ideological hegemony of bourgeois democracy) and the profitability of capital. After a devastating pandemic year, and given the antiracist uprising of 2020 and the growth of a far right movement that managed to storm the Capitol on January 6, any measure that significantly increases the economic pain of the masses would be electorally suicidal for the Democratic Party and trigger mass and unpredictable political turmoil. Because Biden’s project is first and foremost to stabilize capitalism, which entails stabilizing the capitalist state and restoring its legitimacy, the government is kicking the root of the crisis down the road, building its reelection on the “sugar-rush” of deficit spending (debt being piled on debt), and betting everything on the multiplying effect of neo-Keynesian policies.
Meanwhile,  the gears of the US empire continue to grind. ICE continues to violate people’s rights with impunity while the Biden government continues the mass detention and deportation of migrants and pressures the governments of Mexico and Guatemala use brute force against Central American caravans; the US government continues to support the murderous Saudi and Israeli regimes; US capital from giant food corporations continues to displace displace small farmers in the Global South by dumping subsidized crops on poor countries; 800 US military bases continue to police the world and protect the interests of US capital; etc. etc.

Fighting the Biden Government, Fighting for Socialism

It is clear from the above analysis that it is capitalism—the control of investment by a tiny propertied class through its ownership of the means of production—that creates these recurrent economic downturns. The only way to get at the root of the ever-compounding crises that confront working people and the planet is to replace this system of production for profit with one in which investment is democratically determined by human need. And to bring about this socialist society, we must fight for a program that combines the most pressing needs of the international working class—socialized medicine, free education, public housing for all, open borders, the dismantling of all US military bases, an immediate cap in greenhouse gas emissions and transition from fossil fuel extraction, etc.—with the ultimate need to expropriate the capitalist class and place investment under the democratic control of the working people who produce all societal wealth. What strategy can we pursue to fight for this transitional program?
Since we know that bourgeois politicians and the economic interests they represent will never support a program that threatens the source of their power and wealth, the first requirement to fight for what we need is mass action and political independence from the capitalist class. Yet given the speed with which the leading so-called “progressive” and social democratic forces have demobilized and jumped to praise the Biden government, it is clear that no such independence will come from that sector of the Left. Every four years, the United States goes through the ritual in which the so-called leadership of workers’ and social movements sell their constituents’ hopes to the Democratic Party in exchange for a ‘seat at the table.’ It is something of a cliche on the left to speak of the ‘betrayal’ of these movement leaders, but it would be naive to expect otherwise. The union bureaucracy, nonprofits (including the Sunrise Movement, Our Revolution), and student debt cancelation activists, along with Bernie Sanders and the so-called Squad of DP legislators have all made their peace with Biden. Indeed, there is a developing consensus among these organizations and politicians that the Biden administration has adopted an open attitude to considering progressive policy proposals, a stark contrast with Obama’s open disdain for progressives. Even before the passage of the stimulus bill, Politico reported that “Biden has collaborated with the left, co-opted it and, for the time being, won it over.” Larry Cohen, the chair of the Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution, told the New York Times that “none of the people we were afraid of got into this cabinet” and Sanders himself voted in favor of the nomination of Neera Tanden as Biden’s budget director, despite her history as a staunch Clinton loyalist and an implacable enemy of the left.
Aside from its lack of political independence, the social democratic current represented by the leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the left-wing of the Democratic Party has as its core strategy the election of politicians with “progressive” or social-democratic platforms in order to implement reforms. There are two fatal flaws with this strategy. First, in the words of Robert Brenner, the assumption that electing progressive politicians can win major reforms for the working class

“[fails] to distinguish between the immediate legislators of reforms and the creators of the mass political offensives which actually made reform legislation possible. They characteristically, and disastrously, neglect the tumultuous mass movements which transformed, willy-nilly, what hitherto had been do-nothing reformist politicians into agents of social and political change.”[6]

As Brenner’s classic essay, The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case, describes in detail that there have been two major waves of reforms in the United States—one in the 1930s and 40s and a second one in the 1960s. These reforms only became possible because of an explosion of independent working class and popular movements that were oriented towards direct action and away from electoralism and the social forces of reformism: the labor bureaucracies, the middle class leaderships of progressive organizations, and Democratic Party politicians. In the 1930s, there was an unprecedented wave of militant labor strikes and mobilizations (Workers’ Voice has written about these in previous articles), which developed outside and against the reformist, bureaucratic leadership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In the 1960s, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements relied primarily on direct action to challenge racist and economic structures, sparking a wave of militant organizing that included major mobilizations by students, women, and anti-imperialists. On the basis of this real challenge to ruling class interests, there was a corresponding rise in consciousness (both liberal and radical), which, coupled with the unprecedented prosperity and capitalist profitability that characterized the period from 1945 to 1970, enabled a series of reforms during the Johnson and Nixon administrations (i.e. the Civil Rights Acts, the Poverty Programs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and so on).
The second problem of the electoralist or reformist strategy is that, under capitalism, all pro-worker reforms are funded through tax revenue and the state’s ability to collect taxes depends on economic growth—that is, on capitalist profitability. This means that either an inevitable cyclical contraction of the capitalist economy or a politically deliberate withholding of investments on the part of capitalists (i.e. a capital strike) can trigger economic chaos, undermining the political legitimacy of any progressive government and forcing it to abandon reforms and embrace anti-worker measures to restore profits and growth. There are plenty of historical examples. During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, social-democratic governments in countries like England, France, Spain, and even Sweden implemented cuts and austerity policies. Likewise, the Syriza government in Greece, which rose to power on a radical anti-austerity platform in 2015, was forced to implement a humiliating package of austerity policies imposed by the European Union. And most recently, the ‘pink tide’ reformist governments of Dilma Rouseff in Brazil, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela rolled back previously won reforms and implemented the type of anti-worker measures (e.g. cuts to pensions and social services, attacks on collective bargaining, repression of popular mobilizations) that they were elected to reverse.
Overcoming these obstacles will require massive, militant, and independent working class movements that are tactically oriented towards direct action and willing, if necessary, to break the law and struggle against the Democratic Party, the labor officialdom, and the middle class leadership of progressive NGOs. The most sophisticated advocates of the reformist strategy acknowledge both the structural barriers confronting a future progressive government and the centrality of mass struggles to overcome them. So they appeal to a so-called “inside-outside” strategy that tries to productively combine building militant mass struggles with winning office through elections and administering the capitalist state. They have repeatedly pointed to Bernie Sanders’ rhetorical support for labor and social struggles and call for “a mass movement of ordinary people to exert its own pressure on politicians, rivaling the pressure exerted by capitalists [through] political strikes that tank profits or halt the normal functions of society.”[7] This is, of course, not new—most reformist projects have appealed to popular mobilizations, often with far more radical rhetoric (e.g., . Syriza in Greece or Chavez in Venezuela), as a necessary complement to parliamentary activity. But they fail to grapple with and resolve the inherent tensions and contradictions between electoralism and mass struggle.
The most obvious conflict between the two goals is one of priorities. If, as the historical record shows, it is the disruptive power of militant, mass movements and not that of elected reformist politicians that creates the conditions of possibility for winning reforms, then it follows that building such movements is the primary task of socialists (both reformist and revolutionary) today. Yet, when socialists are caught up playing the game of capitalist democracy, which requires investing extraordinary time and energy in campaigns that start months or years before voting takes place, it is hard to imagine how there will be enough resources to build a militant base in the workplaces and neighborhoods. Every hour a socialist spends canvassing for Democratic Party candidates, is an hour that is not spent building independent movements oriented towards direct action in the workplaces and streets.
More importantly, winning elections under capitalism involves a fundamentally different strategy than building mass movements. As Robert Brenner has explained, winning elections requires two basic things: appealing to 50% plus one of the electorate and getting supporters to perform the passive act of going to the polls and casting a vote. On the other hand, strikes and other militant, mass actions require not only a percentage of participants but a qualitatively deeper commitment from them. To win a battle against employers, workers must, in Brenner’s words,

“develop the most powerful solidarity; they must take risks; they have to make sacrifices; they must be prepared to take illegal actions and use force; and, in the end, they need to develop the ideas that explain and justify these actions to themselves and others. All this is necessary to win, because what is involved is a direct test of power with the employers and/or the state.”

Naturally, militant mass action is often alienating for middle class and moderate voters, who are overrepresented in the electorate. The more militant and independent a movement becomes, the greater the tension between building structural, working class power and winning elections to administer the capitalist state. What’s more, as described above, militant movements must often confront the social forces of reformism: the labor bureaucracy and the middle class leadership of progressive organizations. This poses a major contradiction for a strategy centered on electing progressives to office since unequivocally supporting a rank and file labor revolt risks alienating the powerful union bureaucracy, which spends massive resources in electing Democrats during every electoral cycle.
We put forward an alternative socialist strategy—one in which the indisputable center of gravity is the development of the democratically self-organized struggles of working people and their gradual unification and progression towards tactics of direct action. This does not, of course, mean that socialists should not participate in elections. It means we engage in independent, oppositional electoral campaigns, not with the primary goal of winning office and administering the capitalist state (though this is certainly a possibility in certain contexts), but rather to build, strengthen, and connect movements around a transitional program that clarifies the need to break with the state and move beyond the limits of what is possible under capitalism. This strategy is not only much more likely to win much-needed reforms, but also to win them in a way that builds the independence and organizational power of our class, rather than setting the stage for demobilization and counter-reform.
It is precisely the type of deep solidarity, creativity, and collective self-governance necessary to win strikes and analogous actions that can change the correlation of class forces and extract major reforms from the Biden government.  Challenging the bosses and the state gives workers concrete experience of their power and agency. It gives meaning to the idea that, as workers, we have the key to our own liberation and must rely on ourselves and our organizing power to transform the world.


[1] According to a recent study by Princeton scholars, there is zero correlation between public opinion and the likelihood of policy passing into law.
[5] In response to a question about why he changed his economic thinking since 2009, Deese tells the NYT that “A lot of this comes directly from how the president is thinking about the current moment and the direction that he’s providing to us. When he’s thinking about the infrastructure investments necessary, a lot of it is in contraposition to what he is seeing China doing in terms of strategic investments.”

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