Things are different than they were six months ago. With the presidential election finally settled and the theatre of “first 100 days” policies out of the way we’re starting to get a sense of our new political moment. The first and most obvious is the changeup in the federal government: Biden’s in the White House and Democrats have narrow majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats in the House can project a progressive image by passing bills like the PRO Act, so long as the Senate can kill anything that comes its way. It’s a different configuration of power and creates new political realities that require adjustment.
Democrats, particularly “insurgents” like the Squad, have shifted quickly from the optics of an opposition party to a party in power managing expectations. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez softened her criticism of the border crisis now that Biden is at the helm: “What is happening here is not the same as what happened during the Trump administration where they took babies out of the arms of mothers and deported their families and permanently traumatized these children”. Talk of Medicare for All has seemingly disappeared (though the pandemic continues), and the Green New Deal has turned into an infrastructure bill. Things that were horrible six months ago are now said to be fine.
Managing Capitalism post-Trump
What’s been disorienting for some on the Left has been the seeming departure from neoliberalism coming out of Washington DC. The federal government approved major deficit spending and began direct support to families with children in poverty. Is Biden “being pushed left”? If “pushed left” means anything, it’s a no.
Biden and the 117th Congress inherited a pandemic, a shrinking economy made worse by COVID, and a number of political crises threatening basic legitimacy. They’ve moved to manage capitalism and the US imperial project at a scale paralleling the problems they face. But even still, the state’s response has been to support the interests of the class it represents.
Vaccine distribution has been aggressive and a major positive, but has been used to immediately pressure schools and restaurants to reopen and to begin a general return-to-work. The promised direct stimulus to all Americans was delayed, reduced, and available under certain conditions — no further stimulus is on the table. Among Biden’s massive spending bill, free-tuition at four-year institutions and student loan forgiveness are noticeably absent. It does include a massive $9 billion increase in military spending, as the state’s attention begins to turn away from emergency pandemic handling back towards imperial competition with China. The climate crisis looms, and while there are gestures to cutting carbon emissions by half, there is no serious plan put forward that addresses the urgent need to immediately reduce fossil fuel extraction as the main source of emissions, because this would have to confront capitalist property.
BIden’s job in the period is to manage capitalism in the wake of the Trump years, and to respond to the political challenges of popular and working class resistance that have developed over the last four years. How this happens will be uneven and difficult to parse out, but this has been the key role of the Democratic Party for almost a century, to incorporate popular demands in some limited, mutated form, while pursuing its class interests.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police the largest sustained protests in US history exploded in cities and towns across the country. The grievances took on the character of a political challenge to the legitimacy of the state. It took active counter-insurgency and propaganda efforts on the part of the state to dismantle the protests, including active repression and “soft” media campaigns and using surveillance to arrest leaders after the fact.
The consciousness over the fundamental racist character of the police became common sense, and led to a major political crisis over policing in America. This has become a key front of class struggle in the US, confronting the racial order, and any left worth its salt has to embrace the abolitionist movement as it unfolds. Even with all the protests and rioting (the language of the unheard), the state flatly refused to change — Minneapolis did not, in the end, disband their police department.
Murders by police went down immediately following the George Floyd protests, but a tiger don’t change it’s stripes. There’s already a string of new murders: Adam Toledo, Ma’Khia Bryant, Michael Leon Hughes, Iremamber Sykap, Anthony Thompson, Daunte Wright. The spectre of George Floyd looms. Something unusual happens. Derek Chauvin, Floyd’s killer, is guilty on all counts. Dispelled for a time, but not so easily exorcised.
The Workers’ Movement
For many workers finally recovering from the Great Recession in 2008, the pandemic has been an economic catastrophe. It’s been another “shock doctrine”, an enormous transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top as billionaires got 54% richer by the end of 2020.
Bosses have used the pandemic to weaken and destroy unions where they exist. Hospitality and union hotels have been pummeled. The airline industry was at a complete stop. For all the talk of honoring essential workers, hospitals have actually been closed during the pandemic to turn a higher profit and now management is demanding concessions, brushing aside the dangerous workplaces they kept and the thousands dead from exposure.
Workers at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama organized the US’s first union recognition vote at the world’s largest company. The union campaign was a cross section of some of the most important arenas: a majority Black workforce, in the largely non-union South, in the dominating warehousing and logistics industry. The defeat in Bessemer showed something else: the union movement is divided over what to do. Was the Retail, Warehouse, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) on the right track, but executed the campaign poorly? Was Amazon just too powerful and the law too broken? Are there bigger strategic issues with the organizing model?
The balance of forces is rough. Employers have managed to reorganize the workplace with the help of COVID-19, and it seems unlikely that after the last year they would simply accept a reform like the PRO Act, as useful as it could be to our side. Workers’ responses to reopening and going back to pre-pandemic wages has been to quit. Restaurants lament a “labor shortage”, which is code for a basic refusal to continue working for subminimum wages. That workers often make more on unemployment than they do showing up for a job creates a major problem for employers. How this plays out we can’t know.
Less frequently reported is the activity of immigrant workers.The back bone of the essential workforce, immigrants have organized new campaigns that are having an impact on working conditions and immigrant communities. From street vendors organizing to win demands against city and police harassment, to deliveristas – the app workers who have kept everyone fed during the worst points of the pandemic – banding together for decent pay and working conditions. While Biden is detaining or expelling to Mexico some 170,000 migrants per month seeking refuge in the United States, immigrant workers are organizing themselves to win relief and better working conditions. While these struggles are still localized, they are a crucial piece of a growing labor movement. The May Day actions taking place across the country — from Vermont, to Washington DC, to Chicago and LA, calling for amnesty and stopping deportations by Biden are important developments.
This is where we’re at. It’s a new political conjuncture. The Sanders challenge is definitely over, the Biden years are here. The world is being remade, but the question is for who?
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