By A. AL TARIQI
Sectors of the liberal and reformist left greeted the early months of the Joe Biden presidency with optimism. Most prominent among these was Bernie Sanders, who folded his 2020 primary campaign into Biden’s, watered down his social democratic program and received in return the scraps of a Democratic Convention platform that gutted all of his most progressive demands. The Vermont democratic socialist then anointed this steaming mess “the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.”
Like Sanders, most other reformist sectors looked past Biden’s history as a creature of five decades at the pinnacles of the U.S. bourgeois state, enthusiastic warmonger, deployer of racist rhetoric, good friend of segregationists, and accused sexual assaulter, and saw instead “the most progressive president since FDR.” However, with the modest re-emergence over the past two years of a fighting working-class movement, along with a labor supply crunch, Biden, invoking the specter of “inflation,” has returned to form as a labor busting, law and order, ruling-class politician.
In this article, we look at how this turn will impact domestic policy and, in particular, the living conditions and potential for self-activity of the working class in the United States. Biden’s foreign policy, from his intensification of economic confrontation, and potential military conflict, with China, to his party’s related use of anti-Chinese jingoist rhetoric, to his continued enabling of Israeli settler colonialism, to his expansion of NATO imperialism, is beyond the scope of this article but will be addressed in the future.
Inflation talk as class warfare
The American Rescue Plan, Build Back Better (BBB), and more recently, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), have been Biden’s most ambitious domestic reform policies. Initially, they—more precisely, BBB—did indeed contain some notable progressive reforms: a national $15 minimum wage, erasure of student debt, paid family and medical leave, free or cheap free preschool and child care, $600 a week in unemployment payments, $300 per-month child tax credit, along with expansion of Medicare, free community college, a repeal of Trump’s tax breaks for the rich, funds to repair public housing and to expand affordable housing, and money for the unhoused. All have been dropped. Biden also pressured progressives, including Sanders, to agree to separate the infrastructure bill from Build Back Better in an effort to destroy the latter, which they did.
These moves come in the context of the administration’s attempts, via the Federal Reserve, to engineer a recession. Why might this be? Capitalists and their intellectual defenders claim that increasing labor costs are pushing up costs of consumer commodities and threatening inflation, even a recession. They minimize or fail to mention the more obvious sources of rising costs, such as supply-chain disruptions during the COVID pandemic and rising food prices resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In fact, invocations of inflation are a ruling-class response to what they perceive as a “labor crisis”: increasing strike activity among unionized workers, non-unionized workers voting to unionize, and others moving to higher paying work—“an epidemic of job switching,” in the words of the bourgeois press—or leaving the labor market entirely. Moreover, capital confronts a predicted shrinking workforce over the next decade and a half. Fewer available workers translates into higher wages—so the ruling class devises, in the words of comrade Shamus Cooke at Tempest, an “ambush.” This comes in the form of the Fed raising interest rates, which increases unemployment, thus exerting downward pressure on wages. Indeed, some sectors of the bourgeoisie, such as the financial press, openly admit that the Fed’s inflationary policies are driven by capital’s desire to discipline labor.
Increasing poverty, attacks on workers’ capacity to self-organize
This context helps us understand Biden’s and the Democrats’ recent moves to more openly attack the working class. Take, for example, costs of food. Grocery costs in January 2023 were over 11 percent higher than a year earlier. Yet on March 1, the federal government ended enhanced SNAP or “food stamp” benefits. This was approved by Biden after congressional Democrats agreed, in a backroom deal with Republicans in December, to avoid a government shutdown, to cut the benefit program. The program had been serving 42 million people at that time.
As reported in Slate, recipients “will get about $90 less per month in food aid than they’d been getting for over two years; a family of four could see their monthly benefit cut by about $328 a month; and seniors could see their benefits drop from $281 a month to just $23.” Around 31 million will fall off a “the hunger cliff.” Many food banks, especially in Republican “red” states, already report a crisis more severe than at the peak of the COVID pandemic in 2020.
Moreover, in the fall and winter of 2021, Biden allowed enhanced unemployment benefits and his own American Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit, which had cut child poverty in half, to expire. Also, the COVID reform known as the “continuous enrollment provision,” which removed onerous eligibility reassessments by Medicaid, expired on March 31. This means that between 5 million and 14 million people will lose Medicaid coverage. As Alexander Sammon comments in the aforementioned Slate article, “despite the fact that these programs are effective and popular, there has been shockingly little vocal opposition from Democrats to the expiration of these benefits.”
Biden and his defenders characterized the climate provisions of the IRA—mainly funds for renewable energy and electric vehicle subsidies—as the “biggest step forward on climate ever.” Setting aside the enormously negative environmental impacts and renewed cycles of settler colonialism unleashed by EV production (their batteries require lithium and cobalt mining, thus toxification and deforestation of already deeply colonized countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo), the IRA also allowed for large areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska to be opened up to fossil fuel drilling.
And so it was that in March Biden lobbed two ruinous salvos at the climate. First, under pressure from ConocoPhillips, Biden approved the $8 billion Willow oil-drilling project in Alaska, breaking a 2020 campaign promise to block oil drilling on federal land. “No more drilling on federal lands, period,” said Biden during the 2020 campaign. Empty words. The project has been called a “carbon bomb” by environmental and Indigenous groups. Indeed, Willow represents the biggest oil and gas project on public land in the U.S. and would encircle the Nuiqsut Indigenous community along with doubling the amount of emitted carbon that Biden promised to reduce.
Later in March, Biden’s Interior Department put up for auction a swathe of the Gulf of Mexico the size of Italy for oil and gas drilling, a project that will stretch over decades and which scientists warn will worsen the already unfolding climate crisis. This operation will extract over 1 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of gas over the next 50 years, according to U.S. government projections.
On immigration, Biden has been equally treacherous. As our comrade Una Tolca reminds us, from the perspective of immigrants, there is no qualitative difference between the two capitalist parties in the U.S.: “There is an overall bipartisan agreement on maintaining the flow of controlled immigration, with the flexibility to deport when pushed by domestic economic pressures, but generally aiming to keep migrants coming.” The regime exhibits “a dual tendency toward increasing the flow of immigration while restricting the legal rights of immigrant workers.”
Moments of increased porousness and restriction are keyed to the demands of major sectors of U.S. capital, in particular tech and agribusiness, which depend more than others on migrant labor. Furthermore, the regime of national borders intensifies exploitation of both citizen and non-citizen workers. Another source of pressure on any government, Republican or Democrat, comes from regions of the country not as keyed into the tech and agribusiness sectors and where reactionary forces are freer to clamor for draconian immigration restrictions.
So Biden’s recent right turn on immigration, after years of denouncing Trump’s barbarity, is no surprise given that he’s heading into a re-election campaign, thus attempting to present the “tougher” face of immigration control. That is no surprise, but it’s tragic in its consequences, as we saw with the deaths of 39 migrants at a detention center in Ciudad Juarez on March 27. Immigrants’ rights groups put much of the blame on the Biden administration for its expansion of the Trump-era law known as Title 42, which prevents immigrants from seeking asylum in the United States. Moreover, after denouncing Trump’s family detention policy, Biden is now considering reinstating it. According to a recent report in NPR, “Such a move would be a significant reversal from late 2021, when Biden stopped holding families in detention facilities.”
Openings for the far right; the strike is our only weapon
The drawing down of the imperialist-Keynesean early phase of the Biden program means deteriorating material conditions for the working class and an intensification of attacks on its self-activity. Workers will suffer from shrinking incomes, more onerous obstacles to medical care—already the most inaccessible in the industrialized countries before the pandemic—and more emboldened attacks on the lives of the most oppressed sectors, including women and Black, Brown, and particularly queer people. The Democratic Party’s slow, muted response to the East Palestine train derailment catastrophe was telling in this respect, a self-inflicted opening for the far right.
In Britain, France, and even in the United States, workers, youth, and students have been showing the way. Mass strikes have shut down transport, the schools and universities, civil services in Britain; transport unions supported by spontaneous urban uprisings have shaken the Macron government in a manner not seen in many decades in France, and have posed revolutionary questions such as workers’ seizure of transport, the universities, and of the government itself. Here in the United States, Los Angeles school workers went on strike last month and won a 30 percent raise.
Meet the old Democrat, same as the New Democrats
Of course, none of Biden’s policy shifts are particularly surprising. His “failure” to advance progressive policies echoes the legacy of every Democrat to date. Far from being “democratic,” the Democratic Party is controlled from the top down, answering to the whims of capitalist donors and bureaucrats whose top priority is the continuation of the status quo, not reform. A bourgeois republic like the U.S. has no true democracy for the working class: there is no viable path to constitutional reform, let alone socialism, that passes through the gerrymandered Congress and electoral college or the patrician Supreme Court.
Despite the worldwide, life-ending threats facing us today, the Democratic Party leadership is not going to change course, and there is no way for the working class to win inside the kangaroo court of the U.S. electoral system. The path to our liberation requires us to realize the power of the organized working class at the point of production and to build a revolutionary party that actually fights for true democracy and a path to a better future.
Photo: Getty Images