Who can forget the drunken revelries of 2008? After eight years that saw the neocons’ costly, aggressive interventions in the Middle East, historic attacks on democratic rights at home and abroad in the name of a “global war on terror,” advent of the modern national security state, rollbacks of the historic gains of the working class and the worst economic crisis of the capitalist epoch bar the Great Depression, the hearts and minds of America voted for hope and change. The election of our first black president signaled for many an incipient end to social inequality and victory for democratic rights.
As time wore on the truly reactionary character of this administration became more and more apparent to all but the most casual of observers. In every meaningful sense, Obama yielded a shameless continuation of Bush-era policy. Overseas we saw an expansion of hostilities and the introduction of drone strikes – in a handful of instances against United States citizens – subject to no public oversight or due process and culminating in the extrajudicial killing of Bin Laden. That he will never be held to answer for his crimes is perhaps the highest profile casualty to bourgeois imperialism of the past several decades.
At home we saw an unprecedented expansion of the surveillance state and national security apparatus. The world looked on in horror at what Manning, Assange, and Snowden revealed and the sheer ruthlessness of the official response in equal measure – both of which were orchestrated by the Obama administration. Assange himself remains in de facto arbitrary detention since 2012 (as confirmed by the UN working group,) unable to leave Ecuador’s London embassy over trumped-up allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden – where he would certainly face extradition to the US as a political prisoner.
These realities speak for themselves and bear discussion only insofar as they confirm the predictions the left at large not only should – but could – have made. The character of the administration was apparent from the moment the president-elect named his cabinet appointees: Robert Gates retained as Secretary of Defense from the Bush tenure. New York Federal Reserve President and major architect of the bailout Tim Geithner – also tapped by the prospective McCain – for Secretary of the Treasury. Hillary Clinton, taken to task by Obama in the primary for her vote on the Iraq invasion, for his Secretary of State. The unprecedented appointment of three retired four-star military officers James Jones, Erik Shinseki, and Dennis Blair to the positions of National Security Adviser, Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, and Director of National Intelligence respectively. Rahm Emanuel, millionaire investment banker and right-wing democrat, for Chief of Staff. No less on record with the Wall Street Journal claiming Obama would “stand up to” the liberal majorities in the House and Senate and praising his colleagues who put “pragmatism” over “philosophy” just days after accepting his nomination.
Or, perhaps, it was apparent to anyone who took seriously his support for the $700 billion bailout, his vote to expand domestic spying, his support for legal immunity for telecom companies that cooperate with warantless wiretapping, his admission that the withdrawal plan would have its pace set by commanders on the ground in Iraq and leave behind a large “residual force,” his threatening statements regarding Pakistan and Iran, and staunch support for the actions of Israel, all during the campaign itself.
And yet, as weeks became months, as we strode towards and over the hundred day mark, as I picked myself up off the floor and nursed my pounding head with coffee and asprin, I noticed the party still going strong around me. I saw the better part of my companions fight off their hangovers with hair of the dog and turn the stereo up to eleven to quiet the pounding in their heads.
The 2008 election was enormously successful in mobilizing vast sections of discouraged and apathetic voters, who afterwards grew to cope with their abject political failure by denial. By retreating into hero worship, misplaced senses of in-group loyalty and the lesser-of-two-evils trope, all mainstays of establishment politics. All reliable devices to divert the proletariat into political action against its own interests. Obama in this sense represents not a tangible, realizable, or measurable political goal but a shared idea that the mainstream left’s collective consciousness could not renege upon. Meaningful opposition from the far left was regularly shouted down as a utopian rejection of “the gains we’ve made thus far” by those actual utopians willfully blind to an objectively gainless political reality.
That is, when criticism of his policies didn’t peg you as some kind of conservative to rousing choruses of “you didn’t care when Bush did it” or “the Republicans are obstructing him, that’s why” (indeed, on matters so wholly within the executive’s control!) The sentiments behind “never question the president in wartime” and “if you don’t support the war, you’re not American” were dusted off, given a fresh coat of paint and fancy new packaging, and resold en masse.
This, in barest terms, is the folly of modern idealism. When we as societal actors privilege unmeasurable, abstract ideas over ironclad understanding of concrete and observable material conditions, coercive property relations, and nature of the bourgeois state as a device of class rule, our violent yet bloodless suppression is inevitable. We need only be fed the idea we’ve agitated for, divorced however far from objective reality, to become the unwitting jailers of our own prisons. By the bourgeois-held media, by the handful of contending bourgeois parties, by the myriad other class gatekeepers of political discourse. Thus, to ask whether Obama sold the nation a lie or was merely “corrupted by the office” is to ask entirely the wrong question.
As historical materialists, we have a distinctive advantage in our scientific understanding of society which defies equally Fukuyama’s post-historical fantasy and Critical Theory’s postmodern irrationality. Our intellectual birthright – and burden – is to make a science of history. A truly effective revolution presupposes theories with great predictive ability built on close observations of historical phenomena. Being surprised or caught unaware by current events is in general our litmus test for untempered ideology. Robust foresight on the “false gods” of today is just as important as robust analysis of the revolutionary movements of the past. Indeed, they are one and the same exercise.
Syriza’s betrayal should be just that litmus test for the radical mind in today’s world. That it managed with 2008 still in the rearview mirror to take so many active leftists by surprise attests to a sweeping intellectual rot. Moreover, to an ever greater need for critical self-examination, to tell workers the truth, and to resist urges to contour “revolution” around the fashions and consciousness of the day. A driving analysis here: The Political Lessons of Syriza’s Betrayal in Greece – note the ICFI was vocal and essentially alone in its correct prediction.
In Trotsky’s words, “For us as a small minority this whole thing is objective including the mood of the workers. But we must analyze and classify those elements of the objective situation which can be changed by our paper and those which cannot be changed. That is why we say that the program is adapted to the fundamental stable elements of the objective situation and the task is to adapt the mentality of the masses to those objective factors. … The crisis of society is given as the base of our activity. The mentality is the political arena of our activity. We must change it. We must give a scientific explanation of society, and clearly explain it to the masses. That is the difference between Marxism and reformism.”
“The reformists have good smell for what the audience wants… that is not serious revolutionary activity. … it must be scientific, not bent to the moods of the masses. We are the most realistic people because we reckon with facts which cannot be changed.”
That the moods of working people may be changed by the ruling class as a device of class rule, and the sand foundation of reformist idealism are certainly fundamental to the lessons of both 2008 and Syriza. What does recent history have to tell about the bourgeois structures themselves?
Roughly diagnosing the collapse of the Occupy movement is a simple task, painfully so for Big Tent Leftists brought together by a shared rejection of identity politics, and I hardly need be explicit on this point. Hell, some of us were right there in the middle of it. More interesting is tracing the movement’s momentary successes. The stubborn repudiation of the Democratic party is noteworthy. The bourgeois media predictably had a field day – “wow, they don’t even know what they’re protesting for/against!” – a frightened mode of damage control.
Tactically speaking, subjecting the movement to Democrat leadership, policies, and candidates would have spelled a death sentence as discontent and attempts at organization are funneled back into the dead end of bourgeois establishment politics. It was not merely political expression by those newly aware of the diversionary nature of these politics and those radicals left behind in 2009, but clear evidence that many workers and youth saw the bourgeois parties as essentially incapable of solving and providing for their most immediate concerns altogether.
Occupy brought to the fore however briefly not the armchair skepticism of Marxist intellectuals but a serious undercurrent of outright rejection by working poor of this system of palliatives and pressure-valves. The section that, social democrats allege, stands to gain the very most from it.
The regular Bunkermag reader or the astute socialist will need no introduction to the leftist case against identity politics, particularly in that the intersectionalists share the historical role of classically “right wing” ethnonationalism and the tenor of post-Carter evangelical politics. Particularly after the demise of Occupy reaffirmed that political independence of the working class, however necessary, is not a sufficient condition: the crisis of revolutionary leadership. Briefly entertain, however, the perils of conflating cause and effect. “Divide and conquer,” while an obvious result, cannot be stated as a self-evident cause of the sway this ideology holds, any more authoritatively than the conspiratorial ramblings of your average Stormfronter. For that, we must understand the stacking of Western academia and news media as a mechanical process. We must see speaking platforms as the real but abstract private property they largely are. This is rather “selectively obvious” to liberals chest-pounding to Rachel Maddow or Bill Maher’s latest segment about the Koch media empire (and the reverse: the liberal media bias denounced by the everyman conservative in the Breitbart and Fox comments sections.) Our task is to take a complete inventory. These mechanisms apply just as well to bureaucrat class rule, academic and media discourse in the better part of self-professed “communist” states.
Broadly, they are of two types. Promoting certain views and policies within the workplace or university holds an immediate “local” advantage to individual members of a ruling class and the managers or administrators representing them (cause,) with a certain “global” advantage to all members as a secondary and desirable but possibly unintended result (effect.) The mass cultural taboo against discussing wages/salary with coworkers is of this type – a simple aggregate of individual cases of management strategy – as is the more neutral “global” effect of many individual capitalists taking advantage of the financial security provided by diversified investments and the efficiency in collaborative use of capital. Modern stock exchanges emerged in just such an organic, unplanned manner.
The second is only slightly more complicated and involves a coarser but deliberate aggregation. It is the sort in remedying the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Tragedy of the Commons. In both cases, all agents have an incentive, independent of the actual choices of others, to themselves choose the most collectively destructive option. Their solution is then collective agreement backed by collective force for all parties to eat a certain minor disadvantage to save everyone from catastrophic disadvantage. This is the sort underlying the mob boss that fucks up snitches, the minimum wage, the 40-hour week and the modern welfare state in its entirety.
Of course, the “catastrophe” here is not conscious, self-actualized proletarian revolution with a satisfactory program and leadership that genuinely abolishes class rule, but any and all serious challenges to local or global bourgeois hegemony. World wars expressed bourgeois intra-class conflict along nation-state lines. McCarthy purged Stalinists. And of course, as we see, the proletarian force they react to in aggregate does not depend on effective revolutionary leadership or independent organization but on amorphous, general discontent. This is what lures the social democrat away from the former and into the latter, convinced of the possibility for substantial and lasting social change.
The historic gains of the working class are indeed that – gains. Deep as they are within the bourgeois mechanism and however insubstantial they may be, concessions would not be given without the bourgeois’ clear and present need to give concessions. We do not dispute the social democrats on this point. Questions must be raised, however, as to the substance and endurance of these changes as the equilibria of class rule steadily reassert themselves. The petty-bourgeois radical’s insistence that half of global poverty would end if women were paid the same as men everywhere in the world and the business owner’s insistence that a minimum wage hike would drive him out of business and millions out of work find their echoes throughout history. Cap wage hours at forty a week and there will be no workers left to employ! Prohibit child labor and half of working families would starve! Employ women in men’s jobs for the same wage and men everywhere will be left unemployed! The doomsayers and cheerleaders of reformism both stood unvindicated as unprecedented and seemingly major perturbations to the system left much the same essential reality as before in their wake.
But the bourgeois diversion is twofold: a struggle for hearts and minds and a program of minimal concessions.
To be explicit, intersectionality does two things: first, it rejects the reality of property relations and material conditions as root causes and second it horrendously overstates and misrepresents actual identity oppression to where you could not possibly explain it materialistically. The gender wage gap is perhaps the most illustrative example. The paper was an ideological fishing trip for preordained conclusions and media response both severely challenged by the data itself. This has the effect of pointing out just such illusory problems which cannot be predicted or explained by critiques of capitalist class rule and which require the introduction of a separate and independently functioning mechanism of patriarchy which women and their friends are then encouraged to mobilize against. Separate from material conditions! Indeed! That this party line has escaped more serious, overt challenge within the halls of the academy is by the ideology of individuals, but the cross-section of individuals assumed into these positions depends in turn on intervention by class forces, as in the mass media. And that the wage gap does not exist as presented means chiefly that a real solution can not be found and that the diversionary struggle is potentially an indefinite one.
Simply put, to imaginary problems there are no solutions. The social democrat is a truly insidious creature in his turning this paradigm on its head. To a subjective, consciousness-dependent problem (no problem) there is every solution. Victory – or the experience of victory – is a dick’s length away at all times. As in 2008, as with Syriza, cosmetic changes heralded for him just such a victory.
But where have we ever seen the ruling class surrender more than necessary to quiet the better part of its opposition? And where have we seen it last forever? Where has it stood immune to changing contexts and fortunes and market forces? Moreover, and much more importantly, can it?
Can we ever see a mutualistic rather than parasitic relationship between these two inherently antagonistic classes? To say yes is to deny historical materialism. It is to fall to a post-historical view or a nonlinear, subjective, irrationalist conception of history. It is certainly a position, but in no substantial sense is it a Marxist or a scientific one.
It is not surprising on close analysis that Bernie Sanders’ campaign combined heavy use of identity politics with promises of insubstantial reform. To his credit, his campaign has indeed been instrumental in popularizing vulgar notions of “socialism,” where the same have been so often and so effectively used to shut down debate and dismiss our critiques out of hand. Make no mistake, this marks a historic gain in class-consciousness among the traditionally backwards American worker. But undisciplined ideas, an end-goal detached from rigorous theory, and goodwill by themselves do nothing in a world ultimately driven by substance – as the social justice warriors have more than demonstrated. In this sense, his two ideologies are partners in crime. Two sides of the same coin.
His flagship call for universal free college was obsolete as soon as the last concessions of mass public funding for universities and subsidized student loans created a vast oversupply of qualified graduates for the jobs they were meant to take, closed the historical chapter on postsecondary education as a driver of equal social opportunity and spiked tuition rates in the first place through artificial liquidity. Indeed, well before he proposed it. He would have preferred you ignore this detail.
He would have preferred you ignore such patently outrageous statements as “when you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto; you don’t know what it’s like to be poor.” He would have preferred you ignore his repeated insistence, either grossly, irresponsibly uncritical or outright cynical, that women currently make 78% of what a man does for identical work. He would have preferred you to see his ceding the stage to Black Lives Matter in Seattle as a fluke, and to shrug off the emergency press secretary that introduced him just days later in Portland as “giving everyone a voice.”
He’d have preferred you gloss over the matter, most damning of all, of his extensive nativist opposition to guest worker visa programs. His rationale? Mass inflow of unskilled labor depresses American wages and working conditions, increases American unemployment and harms the American working poor. “Cheap and easy labor, which makes us cheap and easy,” the identical nationalism of Combo’s titular speech from This is England and of Trump’s platform, couched in socialist rather than racialized rhetoric. Ditto with their shared emphasis on opposition to the Transpacific Trade Partnership. Locally treating symptoms of the contradiction between global, free-floating capital and local, land-locked labor with bourgeois policy positions – a clear-cut repudiation of socialist substance that favors “rights” handed down from the state to some workers over others on the basis of nationality. The inconsistency of these positions with his professed support for immigration reform and a Path to Citizenship is not based on any serious program to cure this contradiction itself and may only be chalked up to opportunistic deference to mainstream respectability within the pseudo-left.
That is, Senator Sanders is a milquetoast so bent to the mood of the times that he cannot effectively or consistently presume to advance the interests of the native working class even within the false premise of bourgeois politics and even after treating the antagonistic relationship between workers of different countries as more fundamental than that between classes. He’d have preferred you overlook quite a lot, and evidently you did not.
His social democrat apologists will often argue that he is misrepresenting his views to take office, presenting himself carefully as “less radical” than he really is. This in itself is a crap shoot. The same line could be – and was – applied just as well to those with advance misgivings during Obama’s first campaign. This popular defense carried over through the entirety of his term. Kafkaesque, no? That the radical politician should need to forever misrepresent himself through policy as “bipartisan” or de facto lose the power he took to enact radical policy in the first place?
This line of thought is self-defeating. Moreover, it glibly assumes that such a tactic is something we should condone. That the real costs of misleading others, ineffectual political mobilization and consciousness, and the chance of being ourselves misled, are calculated risks worth taking to make a sympathetic politician the head of a bourgeois state. This view is utopian and underestimates the mechanical and structural limitations the state presents against “good ideas” while it overestimates the importance and benefit of putting a genuine socialist in the White House, even putting aside the matter of whether or not Sanders is indeed one. Would a genuinely socialist president be a good thing? Sure. But is it as a political achievement worth subducting beneath the bourgeois state apparatus our task of building revolutionary leadership and independent, democratic power structures? If blood be the price of admiralty…
Perhaps most critically of all, the major stated goal underlying his bid for the presidency was protecting and restoring “faith in the political system” among workers and young people. In our own, genuine bid to create a truly just world, this faith is the first enemy we must lay to rest.
The oft-repeated claim that Sanders and his ilk represent giving bandages to cancer patients is indeed a half-truth, but not in the way social democrats allege. There are neither bandages nor bread nor roses to be found in entertaining this clique. They presume to treat our cancer with baking soda and essential oils.