In 2020, two social movements provided the clearest-yet answers to the ongoing crisis of U.S. capitalism: Black Lives Matter and Trump 2020. One was a multiracial upsurge of millions, mostly young, urban, and college-educated, that popularized demands to defund the police and reinvest in social need. It linked race and class, while targeting the capitalist state as enforcer of these oppressions. The other was a smaller but menacing series of protests against COVID shutdowns, in support of police violence and Trump’s claims of election fraud, as well as for the candidate himself. Its composition was overwhelmingly white, older and exurban, with large shares of officers, military personnel, and business owners. To the extent that it argued anything, it was for more state repression of Black people and immigrants, less democracy, and more freedom for business to exploit workers and flout public health.
As a Left that has grown and changed in important ways since the crisis of 2008, we need to make sense of these movements—not just in isolation but in their mutual opposition. The first presents the outlines of a mass left coalition, many of whose members can be won to an inclusive-struggle socialism, and a sizable share of whom already are. The second presents an inchoate fascism likely to persist throughout the Biden era, all talk of a “return to normalcy” notwithstanding. How did these forces come into being? What is their class composition? And what is their import for organizing in the 2020s?
I attempt to answer these questions with a schematic overview, examining the neoliberal period of change and the multiple sources of turbulence in the contemporary U.S. Necessarily, I make some leaps and deploy some generalizations to describe a complex situation. I also use a controversial concept—the “professional-managerial class”—that has been thrown around as an insult by others but is not used so here. The upshot of all this is that there is an emergent left coalition that can be cohered to advance the struggle for socialism. There is also a real threat in an emboldened far right. Consolidating the first and combating the second pose key challenges to contemporary left organizing—an ongoing debate to which this piece contributes.
A Multidimensional Crisis
Since 2008 it has become increasingly obvious that U.S. and global capitalism are in a transitional crisis. Two deep recessions now bookend more than a decade of anemic growth, stagnant wages, declining labor force participation, and (continually) soaring inequality. Michael Roberts points to a cratering of profit rates and refers to this period as a “long depression,” echoing the claims of Andrew Kliman and even, to a certain extent, those of Keynesians like Thomas Picketty. This timeframe has also been marked by considerable political volatility. Here are just some of the highlights: the Egyptian Revolution, Arab Spring, and Syrian war; Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government in India; Greece’s left-wing challenge to EU austerity; Catalonia’s attempted secession from Spain; the Middle-East-to-EU migration wave; Trump’s election; the Brexit vote; the downfall of the Workers’ Party in Brazil and election of Bolsonaro; China’s clampdown on Hong Kong and months-long mass resistance; the 2009 and 2019 protests in Iran; attempted genocide followed by a coup in Myanmar; the Russian war with Ukraine; the failed U.S.-backed coup in crisis-ridden Venezuela; the Bolivian coup of 2019. All of this took place on the eve of a once-a-century global pandemic and against the backdrop of increasingly severe climate change. To be sure, not all of these political events were directly caused by the economic crash of 2008, but their volume in a period of deep-seated capitalist doldrums is striking.
In the U.S., which is the primary focus here, this crisis has been multidimensional. Neoliberalism has played a big part, dovetailing with longer-term trends in the evolution of capital composition and average rates of profit. Rather than a binary conception as to which force caused the Great Recession, the former can be understood as a mode of governmentality pursued to shore up the latter (falling profits). The two processes combined to hollow out industry, neglect public infrastructure, drain rural areas of activity and population, while hobbling unions and concentrating wealth among an über-elite.
Racial, ethnic, and gender-relational changes are interconnected with these. Migration to the U.S. from less developed regions has greatly diversified the country, much to the consternation of reactionaries, while itself being driven by the “free trade” imperialism of the neoliberal state (and welcomed by domestic capital for providing cheaper workers). Yet nearly 11 million subsist in a state of abject non-citizenship while millions more face marginalization and vigilante violence. Mass incarceration, launched alongside militarized policing as a racialized program to contain surplus labor, became questionable even on bourgeois cost grounds by the early 2010s, dovetailing with rising resistance. And gendered reproduction has undergone seismic shifts: millions more women recruited into the paid workforce, typically at lower wages and greater threat of harassment, and although relatively freed from patriarchal dominance (though the advances of 1960s activism—no-fault divorce, anti-discimination law, and legal abortion), are now subject to a crisis of social reproduction due to underinvestment in public care, its continued privatization and “externaliz[ation]…onto families” that no longer fit the male-breadwinner model. On top of this are renewed and coordinated attacks on reproductive rights.
U.S. imperialism, which operates on a longer timeframe and is in secular decline, is also central. As Ashley Smith has argued, we are witnessing an increasingly “asymmetrical” (unbalanced) yet “unipolar” (single super-power) world order, the central tension of which is the U.S.-China face-off. This was itself created by the outsourcing of much domestic production during the finance-led period from 1980 to 2010, contributing to a growing imperial rival that transfixes both main capitalist parties. The military and diplomatic overhead wrapped up in this project, of which China is just one part, are a major barrier to social redistribution, the fundamental answer to the degradations of working-class life.
Finally, we are also in the midst of a worsening, capitalist-caused climate crisis. Increasingly frequent severe weather events—hurricanes, floods, doughts, fire, and others—threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions, while stretching emergency response capacities ever thinner. The timeframe to address its underlying cause (greenhouse gas emissions) is rapidly closing, and its effects are beginning to destabilize financial markets, as well as threaten bourgeois state stability.
These crises—of immigrant rights, racial oppression, gendered reproduction, late-stage imperialism, and climate change—are entwined with each other and the politico-economic changes of neoliberalism. They are imprinted on the new class matrix that period gave us, and through class struggle, broadly understood, they will ultimately be solved.
Class dynamics are neither simple nor “traditional” in the current U.S. conjuncture. We don’t just have a working class that is internally divided, outmaneuvered, and screwed over by a miniscule capitalist class, though that is a big part of the picture. There is also a small but politically significant petite bourgeoisie, defined as the self-employed who employ few if any others and compose about one tenth of the adult workforce. This group steadily lost income and relative stature throughout the neoliberal period. Its members, disproportionately white and male, have been at the forefront of reactionary movements in recent years—from the Tea Party of the early 2010s through two Trump campaigns to the Capitol riot.
And there is a large middle layer of professional-managerial employees in large-scale organizations—for-profit, nonprofit and public. They are also a minority of the workforce (about one third) but significantly bigger than the petite bourgeoisie and have grown considerably in size and relative income since the 1970s. This layer consists of all those employees who have institutional authority over others as part of their jobs—either direct, as in hiring, firing, arresting, or failing; or indirect, as in designing plans and processes that others carry out. Some call this group a professional-managerial class, or PMC, and distinguish it from the working class, which consists of all those remaining employees (55-60 percent of the workforce) and the unemployed who don’t have such authority.
The PMC has a part-antagonistic, part-collaborative relationship with the working class, on the one hand, and with capital, on the other. It is not a monolithic boogeyman “standing in the way of economic redistribution” by promoting “hashtag activism,” but an objective economic group created by the twentieth-century rise of state-regulated corporate capitalism. Some segments, particularly its lower or trainee ranks (e.g. college students, interns, early-career professionals) and liberal professionals—those less devoted to capitalist accumulation and order-maintenance (e.g. teachers, journalists, social workers, scientists)—are closer to labor and the oppressed in outlook. Others, particularly its more established ranks and those devoted to capitalist accumulation and order-maintenance (e.g. stock brokers, accountants, managers, cops) are closer to capital. The former are well represented—and often help lead—progressive social movements; the latter are more commonly seen in reaction. And the PMC as a whole has diversified considerably since the 1970s. It is still, however, disproportionately white.
Beneath the petite bourgeoisie and PMC in terms of power and income is the much larger U.S. working class. Consisting of industrial, agricultural, and distributive laborers, and a growing share of service and reproductive care workers, many of whom are employed in formally non-capitalist organizations—and only a small sliver of whom are unionized—this group is at least as heterogeneous as the PMC. Its sectoral divisions also intersect with gender, racial, and ethnic ones that have clear geographic dimensions: in large metropolitan areas, the working class has a far more immigrant and non-white profile than in exurban or rural ones. In big cities it is squeezed under a relatively larger, though partially supportive PMC, while in rural areas it is further removed from both, though familiar through media and travel, and likely closer to the petite bourgeoisie in outlook.
This changing class matrix, interdependent and interwoven as it is with evolving non-class divisions, has unsettled the traditional bases of the two main capitalist parties. The Republicans, having defined themselves as the party of white, exurban well-to-dos and patriarchy since the mid-twentieth century, are increasingly without a majoritarian base unless they stifle the vote and turn out reaction. The Democrats, once the would-be party of labor and the “enlightened” middle classes, have turned increasingly towards the latter with promises of bureaucratic stability and “reason.” They are also the sole bastion of hope for most non-white, non-male, and LGBTQ voters, who are justifiably frightened by Republican, and particularly Trumpian, authoritarianism. Though Democrats occasionally throw these groups a few bones, mostly symbolic, they struggle mightily to mobilize them to the polls with their own uninspiring or illusory campaign promises.
The neoliberal period has thus rendered not only a social and economic crisis, but a crisis of legitimacy for both main capitalist parties. Each has become an unwieldy cultivator of class, class-segment, and group-interest politics. They channel these groups’ diverse demands through the narrow furrows of capitalist acceptability and baroque (or simply broken) U.S. political institutions: the unrepresentative Senate and Electoral College, the unaccountable and unelected Supreme Court, the ridiculous Senate filibuster, and the bizarre ability for state legislatures to draw congressional districts and restrict voting, as well as the ongoing denial of Puerto Rican and D.C. statehood. This crisis is admittedly worse for Republicans, but severe for both parties, and is reflected in the absence of substantive progressive federal legislation since the Affordable Care Act—itself a capitulation to private insurance and a near-debacle in rollout.
No neat-and-clean expression of working-class resistance to capital exists at either the political or social levels. Myriad fragments based on class, race, gender, and geography ally with each other and oppose other fragments, refracted through a distorted political superstructure. None of this negates the centrality of class to the genesis and solution of the current crisis. It is simply a description of the actually existing, largely coalitional formation of forces at present. Two such coalitions have come increasingly into focus over the course of recent movements.
U.S. social movements since the late 2000s dwarf those of the preceding 30 years. On the left, and in rough chronological order, we have seen the immigrant rights movement, the Wisconsin occupation, Occupy Wall Street, Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter (round 1), Bernie Sanders’ first campaign (if counted as a movement), #MeToo, the teacher strike wave of 2018-2019, Bernie Sanders’s second campaign (less of a movement), Black Lives Matter (round 2), as well as targeted mobilizations against the far right and Trump’s anti-immigrant actions. On the right we have seen the Tea Party, Trump 2016, neo-fascist rallies during Trump’s term (turning deadly in Charlottesville), and the polyglot but interconnected Trump 2020/QAnon/anti-lockdown/”blue lives matter”/“stop the steal” actions that culminated in the January 6 Capitol riot.
Occupy Wall Street was perhaps the most symbolic on the left. It responded directly to neoliberal inequality and the dominance of finance capital while coalescing an alliance of younger, progressive PMC members and segments of the working class. It also generalized the use of mass civil disruption, particularly occupations, which had been reintroduced to the U.S. by the Wisconsin uprising of early 2011—itself inspired by the Egyptian occupation of Tahrir Square and the Indignados Movement in Spain. The Fight for $15 and Walmart walkouts were less disruptive and “spontaneous” on the national level (planned by two large staff-driven unions, SEIU and UFCW) but became mass movements in many localities, particularly Seattle. They were more clearly working-class in focus than Occupy, though also relied on many PMC actors, including union staff. The #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment arose primarily in upper-tier PMC (e.g. media) layers, but resonated far beyond and translated into historic turnout for the 2017 Women’s March and 2018 walkouts of McDonald’s workers. The immigrant rights movement, which preceded all of these as well as the 2008 crash and transformed into emergency defense actions under Trump, similarly displayed coordination and solidarity between overwhelmingly working-class immigrants and PMC activists, largely drawn from major urban centers. Both of Sanders’ campaigns showed an analogous, multi-ethnic, cross-class alliance, if perhaps younger, more PMC, and more urban for engaged activists than for passive supporters. These campaigns and popular support for the largely “red state” teacher strikes of 2018-2019 show the pull of social-democratic ideas even among large sections of exurban white workers—a group too often dismissed as irretrievably reactionary.
But Black Lives Matter, in two impressive waves (2012-2014 and 2020), displayed the potency of this coalition most clearly. Particularly in its most recent 2020 iteration, this movement not only was among the largest in U.S. history but also put forward demands to defund and abolish the police that went to the heart of racialized capitalist oppression. To be sure, there has been a concerted reaction to this movement, evidenced in the Democratic-led Senate voting 99-0 to withhold federal funds from localities that defund police. But at the level of demands to abolish or wind down state repression, including police, prisons, and post-carceral control, while reinvesting in social infrastructure such as schools, healthcare, and housing, as myriad movement leaders have called for, the movement is beyond reformist. A world without police or similar coercive forces would necessarily be a world without class or race as we know them. It is thus an implicitly revolutionary demand backed up by a massive social movement. And it has a clear social profile, echoed and presaged in other recent movements: a multiracial and broadly metropolitan coalition of younger, often liberal-professional PMC members with similarly situated and often specially-oppressed working-class members. In one representative survey conducted over the peak weeks of the June 2020 uprising, a clear plurality of protesters—46 percent—identified as “independents,” compared to 42 percent who identified as Democrats and only 6 percent as Republicans.
By contrast, recent movements on the right—the Tea Party and polyglot MAGA/Trump supporters, which include the anti-COVID-lockdown, “blue lives matter,” and January 6th protests—have been most identifiably petite-bourgeois, white and exurban, even if some arrestees from the January 6 Capitol riot came from broadly “blue” counties. The Tea Party had its genesis in the astro-turf maneuvering of arch-reactionary capital (e.g. the Koch brothers) and thinly-veiled racism directed at the first Black president. It posed archetypally petite-bourgeois demands, such as less regulation and smaller government. The later MAGA milieu has a nearly identical profile, with perhaps a larger share of police and former military members, and is more explicitly racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-democratic. It includes many white women, a handful of non-white people, and of course many workers, since this is the largest, most heterogeneous class in the country. But more centrally it is composed of the reactionary and capitalist-cozy elements of the PMC under what appears to be petite-bourgeois and lumpen-capitalist leadership. The former is an outgrowth of the bloated police state built up over the course of neoliberalism—the United States’’s unparalleled carceral apparatus that disproportionately targets people of color and immigrants. The latter, which is disproportionately white and male, has been enraged at least since the Tea Party at over 30 years of income stagnation and relative decline vis-à-vis the ruling class and an increasingly diverse PMC. The goals of this movement are explicitly anti-democratic, white-supremacist and proto- or simply petty-capitalist.
Before us are two increasingly discernible, if still inchoate, social forces—one a multiracial coalition of urbanized workers and progressive PMC, the other a white-led coalition of exurban petite-bourgeoisie, reactionary PMC and some workers. Capital, thus far and as a whole, has remained largely aloof. It made symbolic, “identitarian” concessions to Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, but equivocated on immigration and consistently opposed wage hikes, tax hikes, and new social programs. It welcomed the Trump tax cuts and deregulatory environment but rejected the candidate twice and his reactionary supporters even more forcefully. While we should not write off a neo-Keynesian, pro-regulatory revival among important sectors of capital—and support for Biden’s deficit spending and infrastructure plan seems to point in this direction—it should be clear that any such pseudo-progressive shift will take place on the foundations of continued U.S. imperialism, workplace exploitation, support for the police, racialized property ownership, and outdated models of gendered reproduction.
Elements of capital, through their political and media mouthpieces, will inevitably attempt to divide the emergent left of Black Lives Matter, likely fanning divisions at the PMC/working-class boundary as well as at the cross-cutting Black/non-Black boundary—a strategy honed since the 1960s. Capitalist class representatives will also continue to underestimate or even encourage the proto-fascist movement, pursuing an impossible return to “politics as usual.” It should be obvious that the tasks of the Left are to combat such division, confront the right, and cohere our coalition.
But how to do that? Some answers have already been given. Class-reductionists within DSA argue there simply is no coalition to be built. They believe the working class must be freed of “woke” PMC guidance and BLM participation, then organized independently through “universal” policy demands and Democratic Party electoralism. More mainstream DSA voices do not disavow such a coalition and indeed acknowledge affinity between their social-democratic initiatives and the struggle for Black lives. Their program for building it, however, is also centered on policy and electoralism within the Democratic Party, with little role for mobilization or race-specific demands. A third answer consists in the long-run strategy of various socialist micro-parties. These typically buck the reformism and in-Dem maneuvering of mainstream DSA, emphasizing mass action and revolutionary rupture instead. But they remain small with minimal broad-based influence. Then there are the movement organizations, Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGNF). Although closest to the kind of “national forums in which [BLM] activists can assess…set-backs and begin to develop strategies to overcome them,” as Haley Pessin argues, “both groups are intentionally decentralized and only loosely coordinated across the country.” They also don’t (yet) present the kind of organization that could weld a coordinated, multiracial, cross-class coalition.
And here the class question returns. We know the challenges and necessity of building organically multiracial organizations, even if we haven’t fully achieved them. But long-standing socialist ambivalence about the contours of the working class and whatever lies above it is rarely addressed. Case in point: only one of the groups listed above—the class reductionists—confronts this question, and they do so hypocritically and destructively. So the question becomes: what kind of organization(s) could effectively bridge both race and class divides to create a cohesive movement? Real-life examples are instructive.
Prior to 2016, DSA had about 5,000 official members; today it claims nearly 100,000. In the wake of the first Bernie Sanders campaign, it attracted many younger, college-educated people enthused by calls for free college, universal healthcare, cancelling student debt, and raising the minimum wage. Local chapters blossomed across the country, and many city, state, and congressional campaigns followed, some of which were led by DSA members, others of which were DSA-endorsed. The most high-profile were Cynthia Nixon’s bid for New York State governor in 2018 and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election to U.S. Congress the same year. In 2019, DSA chapters helped achieve a legislative breakthrough: New York’s Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act.
Despite its size, dynamism, and attractiveness, however, DSA has organizational features that inhibit its ability to unify a broad left activist movement. Its structure is similar to many NGOs, while its local chapters have little oversight or connection to the center. Monthly chapter meetings can sometimes be disorienting—consisting of fast-paced reports, sign-ups for leafleting or phone-banking, and speeches from electoral candidates, with little substantive discussion or unpacking of what “socialism” means. Such formats can demobilize those distrustful of electoral politics or seeking a deeper critical understanding. All of this is compounded by the national organization’s focus on elections and increasingly baroque and opaque caucus structure. As Andy Sernatinger painstakingly documents,
“[a]fter experimenting with direct action and other immediate mobilizations, DSA consolidated its approach [in 2019] to a certain rhythm of political time based on elections and medium-term campaigns… This political time crashed headlong into the George Floyd uprising. The revived Black Lives Matter movement operated on a very immediate, daily timing, while DSA had built its infrastructure on a routinized weekly and monthly timing without mechanisms for rapid response.”
The primary alternative to DSA in its large-but-nebulous form is what David McNally calls the “micro-party.” The International Socialist Organization (ISO), which collapsed in 2019, was a key example of this—and the explicit object of McNally’s 2009 critique—but so are many extant groups that also claim Trotskyist heritage. Their basic premise is a recreation, in smaller or “micro” form, of the Bolshevik Party that led the Russian Revolution of 1917 and operated as a democratic-centralist organization.
The limitations of a “mini” form of this in a late-capitalist period of retreat are somewhat obvious: mismatch with a demoralized working-class consciousness; an overwhelming imperative to recruit and maintain at the expense of more daring initiatives, either electoral or movement-based; and constraint in perspective due to the group’s size and an over-reliance on campus activity, given the atrophy of other arenas. These can generate both ideological chauvinism—high-bar “litmus tests” for inclusion—as well as organizational over-commitment that makes fully validated membership difficult for those with full-time jobs, dependents, etc. to achieve. And more so for those whose jobs don’t involve writing, public speaking, and abstract analysis.
Yet most micro-parties present the outlines of a substantive, democratic, action-oriented body, which DSA currently is not. The problem with micro parties is, as their name implies, they are not big enough to use these advantages to macro effect, while their pathologies erode such advantages over time. ISO members helped transform and rejuvenate the Chicago Teachers Union, forming it into a militant organization that inspired teacher strikes across the country. Socialist Alternative spearheaded the Fight for $15 in Seattle, which led to the election—and re-election—of socialist city councilor Kshama Sawant. These glimmers of hope are indeed significant when measured against DSA’s achievements thus far: elected officials at various levels, always Democratic and with little accountability to DSA members, plus supporting roles in the New York State rent reform and the 2018-2019 teacher strikes. It is also worth considering that during these respective campaigns, the ISO and Socialist Alternative each had around 1,000 members, while DSA had many tens of thousands. The more disciplined, movement-oriented party model, even in micro form, thus displays outsized effectivity.
Breaking out of the small-scale cul de sac, however, is not straightforward. The answer to the Left’s current challenge—uniting the BLM coalition to fight the right and a decrepit neoliberalism—isn’t “organize better micro parties,” even if new, pre-party formations may need to start small. It also isn’t indefinite Democratic Party electoralism through a large-but-loose federation. Both models, as well as M4BL and BLMGNF, have shown themselves largely incapable of incorporating broad layers of working-class activists who show up for protest but mostly abstain from organization-building. Why? Perhaps such activity, in its current offerings, doesn’t seem concretely relevant. Perhaps such organizations are also off-putting, if their internal dynamics reproduce aspects of the PMC-worker hierarchy they already know. Without systematic interrogation we can only speculate.
What does seem clear is that something else is needed. A network or collaborative left ecosystem would be a start, composed of groups from multiple standpoints and constituencies. This could provide the basis for what Salar Mohandesi calls a party as articulator and the DSA Emerge Caucus calls “an organization of organizers,” helping to cohere the multiracial working-class and progressive-PMC alliance seen in recent movements. But whatever the mechanism, confronting that task should be the primary focus of the U.S. Left. Retreating to our comfort zones of urban and campus-based organizing will not do the trick. Neither will renouncing these bases in pursuit of an imagined centrist working class. Acknowledging difference—even class difference, where it exists—is the first step towards overcoming it and building stronger forces to engage the crises we face.
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Peter Ikeler teaches sociology at SUNY Old Westbury. He is a founding member of the Member Action Coalition (rank-and-file caucus in the United University Professions - AFT) and a member of the Tempest Collective.