By Todd St Hill
Tonight Americans will finally have the chance to watch Joe Bidden go head to head with Donald Trump in the first debate of the 2020 general elections. The debate comes on the heels of revelations-reported from the New York Times-of Trump’s tax avoidance and his ten year fight with the Internal Revenue service over a $72.9 million tax claim. This bombshell is merely an addition to the legacy of the Trump presidency, affixing him and his administration in America’s history as the closest representation of US facism.
These past four years have seemed like a see-saw, teetering from social and political repression of every flavor and variety-to inspiring, and at times, system shaking social and political upheaval from below. The long awaited 2020 elections barrels toward a crisis burdened America, a crisis of its own making. Trump and his administration face an unavoidable reckoning after so many-mostly theatrical-attempts by Democratic Party-style ‘resistance.’
For their part, the many Democratic leaders at the federal, state, and local levels have moved forward (like their Republican counterparts) reopening the country’s economy while doctors, scientists continue to urge people to stay at home, wear masks and maintain social distancing practices. Furthermore, as the Guardian reported, the World Health Organization is projecting that a viable vaccine will be developed within the next 12-18 months, well into 2021 or possibly 2022. Few projections take into account the racial dynamics that facilitate racist inequities within the healthcare system, particularly among Black communities, that will slow vaccination likely in the same way COVID testing was disproportionately withheld from working class and poor Black communities across the US.
The presidential elections once a backdrop to the global pandemic, global uprising against racism (particularly anti-Blackness), and a national economic crisis whose recovery is projected to move at a snail’s pace-if there is a recovery for working class Black people-has been forced to the forefront of the news cycle. All of the social and political issues fermenting in society, exacerbated by the Trump administration have been-as they often do-subsumed into the election cycle. Similarly, the struggle and demands from social movements and worker place actions from the last 5 years to the last 5 months risk being subsumed into elections.
The importance of the 2020 elections is indeed pivotal if not historic. If the last 4 years of the Trump Administration didn’t make that obvious an October 2018 New York Times article noted Trump and his administration have had significant success pushing through some of his biggest goals, including sweeping tax overhauls for the rich and rolling back Obama-era policies across labor, Environmental, education, civil rights, health care, and most glaringly immigration. What does any of this have to do with Black people? As Princeton Professor, Author and Columnist for The New Yorker Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor predicted in her 2017 contributing piece in “US Politics In An Age of Uncertainty,” “The already anemic and fragile remnants of social welfare and public services, intended to protect the general public from the ravages of the free market status quo, will be further shredded. Trump has put a fox in every henhouse with regards to the individuals he has chosen to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Education…”
Suffice to say their pillaging has yielded rewards for themselves and their wealthy family and friends. For working class Americans particularly working class Black people , the impact of growing inequality and the slash-and-burn approach to public services and programs were felt long before the Trump administration won the White House. And yet, the country’s latest administration has set out from its early days to deepen working class suffering by adding insult to growing economic injury and continuing cuts to our social safety net, increasing tax cuts for the rich, targeting undocumented people-many of whom are from countries from across the diaspora seeking asylum from violence and climate disaster-for deportation, scapegoating Muslim-American communities in the name of fighting terrorism, stacking the courts against women’s rights, LGBQT rights, and doubling down on law and order policies that disproportionately impact communities of color.
These are issues that impact working class and poor Black people directly and disproportionately. On top of this Trumps vitriolic racism has emboldened a layer of far-right racists and-in effect- deputized-those most reactionary and racist elements of our society, giving approval in rhetoric and law to targeted violence against antiracist protesters in particular, facilitating a rightward creep towards a more authoritative and facist state. Trump has done this while successfully-albeit clumsily-dodging revelations of sexual assault, and a wide range of corruption and abuse of power charges. But in the face of the political maelstrom that is the Trump administration, the working class has not seen rescue from the Democratic party.
In fact, it was their myopic focus on the possibilities of sweeping the midterms to the multiple-and technocratic-attempts to investigate, impeach and discredit Trump-all of which obviously led to deadends, and left establishment democrats looking especially incapable of mounting the “resistance” their party leadership so eagerly co opted from grassroots movements in the very early days of the Trump administration. That myopic focus on ‘getting rid of Trump’, though correct in spirit, created a significant barrier to turning multiple years of rolling grassroots movements (and a resuscitated labor struggle) into a successful grassroots resistance to Trump and the continuation for grassroots social and workers movement towards the fundamental transformations our society so desperately needs.
It is in this context of status quo party politics-from Democrats and Trump’s Republican party touting their achievements for Black americans in the form of federal prison reform (truly serving to help a fraction of the Balck prison population in the US) and a superficial drop in Black unemployment (eroded by the current economic and health crisis with little hope of return) that distorts and confuse perceptions of democracy, and particularly for Black people, the possibilities of actual equality, repair, racial justice and recognition of our humanity. Further the democrats, the so-called party of the people, have been the ones to impose some of the most repressive policies of our generation (e.g. The Clinton administration’s omnibus crime bill and Obama administration’s continuation of the Wall st. bailouts, deportation and drone programs). And when Black people demand an end to mass incarceration and police Brutality, and a shifting of federal and local funding (like the federal 1033 program-ended by the pressure applied by the BLM movement-and the 38-40% allocations of city funding to police departments in cities like Chicago) from police departments and prison expansion to services like healthcare, housing, education, childcare etc. to be universally available.
These things are seen as radical, too radical for the democratic party to fight for or even for the democratic party nominee to incorporate into his platform. Universal healthcare was on the table during the early days of the Obama administration, and the Sanders campaign helped to give new life by making it one of the central pillars of the campaign, helping to build popular support for it.
Fully funded neighborhood schools have been one the most popular demands made to the local elected officials in Chicago since the 2012 teachers strike that preceded the mass school closures. In early 2018 former Education Director of Kenwood-Oaklawn Community Organization (KOCO)-a long-standing and trusted Chicago South side community organizations-turned City Council member Ald. Jeanette Taylor dared to challenge the Obama Foundation officials (and Obama himself as it turns out) about the impending presidential center, insisting there be a community Benefits Agreement pointing out:
“The first time investment comes to black communities, the first to get kicked out is low-income and working-class people. Why wouldn’t you sign a CBA to protect us?”
Obama with all the typical cynicism-masked as essential pragmatism-of the Democratic party replied that his experience as a community organizer showed him that:
“…the minute you start saying, ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that’ … next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork.”
Several months earlier in a community meeting held in a High School in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood Ald. Taylor, then community organizer with Kenwood Oaklawn Community Organization reminded -the at the time president-Obama:
“Remember that it was people from communities of color who helped you get into office,” she said. “That was your Senate seat. That was you being an organizer. That was you being the President. Don’t forget where you came from.”
The mistrust and lack of faith and dismissal of community voices in Obama’s retort illustrates a relationship between Black people and so-called “the party of the people” (including the Black representatives inside of it). Since slavery was abolished and Black poeple were granted entrance into the electoral arena the Black vote has always been desired by the party but not the Black political opinion, not the Black body politic as a whole. Much like Black labor the political opinions of Black people have been and continue to be treated like a commodity-detached from their humanity.
The 2016 elections marked a decided turning point in the BLM movement-for obvious-toward the democratic party. The Obama presidency did not translate to much relief for Black Americans. Aside from the Affordable Care Act, which still left significant disparities in healthcare coverage among Black Americans working class Black people were still struggling with high unemployment rates and increasing housing instability and cuts to public education. By 2016 Black communities were still experiencing violent police interactions with promised intensification by Trump, and no sign of relief or accountability from the Clinton campaign.
The political stakes are undoubtedly high now, but they were high in 2016 as well. The need to reduce harm in response to Trump’s election is understandable though it blocks us from fully assessing the opportunities that Trump’s election have presented to the Black Lives Matter movement. The fact that the 2016 elections clearly resulted in a split in the party is understandable that one conclusion is the the party-and the overall american terrain-was ripe for transformative change and it was the movements of the past 10 years most rooted in working class and poor peoples struggles that have proven that to be true.
In order to validate these conclusions we have to incorporate a stronger assessment of the history of this effort as well as the current strategy of the struggle. We also have to reconcile with the realities of the democratic party. The democratic party is the party of the ruling class, the bosses and their political partners and functionaries. One could argue that the realignment strategy-developed and advocated by Bayard Rustin-was only able to oust the conservative dixiecrat element of the Democratic party for a period of time. The realignment strategy was incomplete in its focus on the racist conservative element of the democratic party for their defense of racist policies instead of squarely focussing on the relationship the party as a whole had-and still has-with the financial and business class. Rustin was correct when he said:
“…the political party is not only the product of social relations, but an instrument of change as well.”
This statement while true is an abstraction that requires strong objective assessments of the strength of those social relations, and to whom they are related. While southern racism and disenfranchisement of Black people was politically restrictive and violent northern urban centers like New York, Chicago, Baltimore etc. too were restrictive socially and politically. Black schools in NYC never experienced the promise of a move toward equality through desegregation. In chicago redlining effectively demarcated sections of the city for economic divestment and state-sponsored violence against working and poor black families, and later, the political disenfranchisement of Blacks by electoral means. The realignment strategy did not seem to take into account the strength the Democratic party machine and apparatus had at that time in its geographic totality.
The liberal-labor coalition formulation Bayard Rustin and Max Shachtman envisioned failed to account for the depths to which liberal’s obedience to capital ran. The banks that realigned themselves with the Democrats represented internationally oriented financial capital (backers and architects of an emerging free-market neoliberal project of capitalism). This business class left the Republican party and entered the Democratic party during the Great Depression because the Republican strategy of anti-labor repression and protectionism had failed to prevent or curtail the downturn (the strength of the labor movement growing in that time and becoming an increasingly formidable opponent to labor exploitation). And even though the growing power of labor in that time gave the capitalist class much to worry about they were still willing to except-measured-reforms because they new knew they could bare the ‘financial burden’ of them not necessarily becasue they were in moral agreement with the demands coming from labor or the anti-racist element of labor for that matter, nor was it because financial capital could not have weathered an assault from the labor movement then.
Along with its roots in (southern) reactionary racism, the Democratic Party also has an intimate and submissive relationship to capital. Though the ruling class (in the form of multibillionaires, transnational corporations, banks and other financial institutions) is willing to negotiate the parameters of how racial capitalism is maintained and facilitated with two parties the Democratic party (often in competition with the republicans) has been-until recent years-willing and able to work with and many times for the ruling class at the expense and immiseration of the working class. Often first in the line for this kind of exploitation and immiseration are working class Black families.
Furthermore, international intensive capital (some, the architects of neoliberalism)-though able to withstand concessions made to movements-(to a limit) cannot govern itself because of competition, so it needs a political apparatus (two party government) to mediate conflict between capitalist forces while still being able to dictate governance. The extent to which capital is willing to make concessions is extremely limited (that is to the extent it does not interrupt or limit its continual accumulation of wealth). Paul Heideman, PhD Candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University described the modern Democratic party; as
“a strange marriage between the most advanced and reform-minded sections of american capital and the most economically backward sections of the country…” Heideman adds that “This unity of interests, however, was accompanied by real tensions, particularly over civil rights and labor.”
It was the movement however, and its strategy of disruption through nonviolent civil disobedience that put the federal government on the defensive and with it their partners in capitalism.
I would argue that the problems that the proponents of the Realignment Strategy ran into are recurring problems, and moreover, are problems rooted in fundamental principles that unite the business class and the party, not the party and working class people, and certainly not working class and poor Black people. Demanding concessions from either of the dominant parties of capital becomes nonsensical and unattainable. This is most clear with respect to oppressed peoples. Capital requires competition, disorganization, and surplus among labor. Its most racist and oppressive edge develops ideology, policy, and law implemented (and managed) through its two parties.
The central problem of the Democratic Party is that it upholds and perpetuates racist and antiBlack policies with and for racist institutions thus nurturing the institution of racial capitalism itself. So, as the country, especially Black communities, stand on a precipice of another “most important election” It seems we have finally reached an American dilemma in the most racist races for the power of the White House.
Trump promises more law and order and a growing commitment to authoritarianism and facist repression. While Biden offers a tacit and woefully unplanned commitment to tired trickle down economics via an investment in a Black business class that is largely silent-accept to say ‘protect Black businesses’- on issues of racist state sactioned brutality and murder of Black people, and racial and economic inequality. Meanwhile, the demand from the streets to the workplaces of frontline workers has been for safer workplaces for workers amid a global pandemic and guaranteed livable wages regardless of health or economic crisis, a reinvestment and fortification of Healthcare infrastructure from the national to neighborhood level, and to abolish policing, defunding the police departments, and reinvest those budgetary funds into local infrastructure, social programs and services.
Gaining political power via the more liberal-and still conservative in relation to some of the most inspirational peoples movements-of the two parties (the democratic party) is thus futile. Today, The Democratic centralist element that has reemerged-post 2016 election-has in fact reasserted a conservative and racist front within the democratic party, flexing its political might-backed by financiers, billionaires and multinationals-and has since waged a fight, discrediting, silencing and ousting the progressive wing of the party out of the DNC, disciplining any progressive and social democratic candidates that have won (with the measured exceptions), and retained leadership in the form of Nancy Pelosi as majority speaker of the house.
The tensions that once accompanied the lines of unity between new deal democrats and capital intensive businesses (overwhelming funding and powers of the state, the ever growing war machine and the undying support for the occupation of Palestine)-are now hardened and demarcated fault lines of which the party will never cross. There is another barrier that is most important to those most committed the anti-racist struggle in particular. To be an anti-racist today is to acknowledge the role that the state plays in maintaining structural and institutional racism and operationalizing racist ideas as well as the role the military industrial complex plays (now more than ever) in supplying law enforcement with militarized weaponry and tools for surveillance and to be actively against it. If one can acknowledge this one must also recognize the state apparatus’ inseparable relationship to capital produced by and controlling institutions like the military, prisons and policing, and thus must acknowledge an intrinsic incompatibility of anti-racist struggle (as well as any demand for liberation from oppression) to racial capitalism. History has shown the narrow liberal ideas that lead activists down the road of elections-and ultimately-into the democratic party every election cycle have always been hostile to radical ideas for social, political and economic transformation that movements of struggle from below often produce.
Furthermore, candidates that dare to challenge the centrist democratic party lines (candidates of the republican party are non-starters) during election cycles, co-opting movement demands, are quickly disciplined by the party establishment (an establishment both Biden as well as Kamala Harris themselves are a part of and are aligning themselves with respectively) and the wealthy elite that controls and bank-rolls their campaigns and the party itself.
For the Realignment strategists failing to challenge this liberalism sharply meant giving up radical/transformative demands (those demands that would fundamentally and irreversibly restructure laws and institutions of our society to the benefit of the most marginalized in our society and strengthen the working class as a whole) and shrinking from even the most mainstream demands like affirmative action. Movement activists and leaders are right coming around to this. Charlene Carruthers, Author, organizer and former National director of Black Youth Project 100 is correct in pointing out in a 2018 op-ed for Truthout.org:
“The types of power our communities require to win on issues including universal healthcare; free college tuition; abolition of student loans; and abolition of prisons, policing and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), will not come from the act of voting alone.”
Elections that lead the movements born out of our collective struggle from below in the democratic party lead those movements to the graveyard of political struggle and social change. To quote Audre Lorde’s timeless words. ‘The master’s tools will not destroy the masters house.’ In much the same way the two parties of the ruling class will not destroy their house of exploitation and oppression, neither republican nor democratic party are safe for our movements or tools for our liberation.
The confluency of issues that have risen to the surface of a crumbling democracy in 2020 alone have reafied a union of racism and capitalism in the eyes of millions of Americans that has been just below the surface of society from the nation’s conception. The ruling class and its two parties will at best-seek to break an unbreakable union in a futile attempt to save itself, and at worst-and most likely-their policies and rhetoric will further stratify the workings class starting with Black workers and poor people reinforcing the chaotic and violently racist social order that we are currently experiencing.
So what’s the alternative and how do we get there? The radical alternatives to policing, to prisons, to homelessness and housing instability, healthcare, our increasingly fragile and illegitimate electoral system, and to capitalism itself-put forward from below by grassroots movement after movement all frighten the ruling class, and frustrates the ideological and political control over us tenuously held by both parties.
This is why the Biden-Harris ticket attempts to woo the Black capitalist class while rejecting openly the demands to defund police coming from the Black Lives Matter movement, and say little to nothing about demands for universal healthcare, one of the most popular demands from Black communities and working class communities. However, it is these alternatives that unapologetically prioritize human life-Black life at that-over the property of the banks, businesses, and profit margins. For committed revolutionaries like Rustin a strategic pragmatism won the day in their minds, but ultimately failed them in practice when it came to achieving their ultimate goal of social and political revolution.
We can only provide a left alternative if we are willing to move beyond pragmatic thinking. We need to come to realistic and honest conclusions, not just about the limitations of continuing to engage in the two party system, and about building Black and working class power. We won’t hold any elected official accountable without mass movement from below, that is to say rooted in the working class and poor peoples struggles, aspirations and demands for a better more equal and anti-racist society.
So we should nurture our movements disproportionately and the organizations that are born out of those movements and the leaders these movements have developed so we are on the best footing as possible to hold OUR candidates accountable. Black political power, especially Black political power of the working class variety, can only be achieved through political independence. To ensure representation WITH actual political power, Black radicals and revolutionaries must take part in building our own party, “our” being a party of the left.
This requires that we get on the same page about what the fundamental objective will be of said party. This alternative will inevitably frighten the business class and their two parties especially when the alternative includes an unflinching and unapologetic prioritization of human life, the lives of people of color especially Black lives, over that of property, profit margins, and the expansion of military dominance across the globe. Embarking-in earnest-on a project like this will likely invoke violent disdain toward Black people especially, and however unfortunate, it will not be unfamiliar.
Such an alternative party should provide the masses of disenfranchised and disillusioned voters the antithesis of a facist authoritarian in Trump whose financial and business career is mired bankruptcy claims and tax “avoidance”, and more than a poorly veiled racial opportunist whose political career is punctuated by passing policies that have been central in facilitating the mass incarceration of Black people (their subsequent political disenfranchisement) and who is demonstrating his commitment policing and racial inequality by refusing to hold the institution of policing accountable for their crimes against working and poor Black communities.
Ultimately the full power of the Black vote-let alone the full power of the working class-cannot be realized through the democratic party, and certainly not through the two party system. Thus our inclusion in American democracy will always be partial, its entirety remaining out of reach. Entry into such a democracy requires a type of political party rooted firmly and principally in the struggles of this countries oppressed and working class fearless in its defense of Black life and a vehicle for the true democracy and democratic decision making for the working families and oppressed people of this country facilitated by working class and oppressed people. Such an aspirational project is possible and necessary for a polarized nation to be whole again and made whole on the basis of the expansion of democracy and emancipatory will of working class people.