|They drink the neoliberal Kool-Aid, but maybe we could crash their party?|
My use of the word "engage" is deliberately indeterminate because the manner of this engagement is something I think ought to be debated. For now, let me stress that to engage with is not the same thing as to collaborate with. I am by no means recommending the left tow the Democratic Party leadership's line or do their bidding on the ground.
I am, however, asserting that the left should find a way to use the Democratic Party to force a public debate over crucial economic issues, such as collapsing private investment, lack of public services, regressive taxation and corporate welfare, mass unemployment and underemployment, and epoch-making wealth and income inequality. Presently, the right's anti-tax rhetoric reigns supreme. Where is the mainstream left's rhetoric of jobs? Where is its full-throated defense of popular social programs such as Social Security and Medicare?
These issues have been distorted, obscured, or ignored in mainstream political debate because of modern conservatism's tremendous success over roughly the last 30-45 years at pushing the public conversation and policy agenda steadily to the right.
The extent of the rightward shift was painstakingly clear earlier this month when the Tea Party forced the Republicans to shut down the government and risk default over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
While the Tea Party failed to achieve its stated goal of repealing Obama's signature health care law - one that was all but impossible in light of the fact that the ACA, essentially the Heritage Foundation's health reform scheme, was voted into law in 2010 and publicly ratified with Obama's reelection in 2012 - it did succeed in preserving the deep budget cuts Republicans secured with the same tactics in 2011. As a result, the government is being funded at levels far below those preferred by Democrats and only slightly above those proposed by Paul Ryan.
The anti-government right's strategy of imposing arbitrary fiscal deadlines and then using them to extort major spending concessions from the Democratic leadership and their supine colleagues in the House and Senate is obviously working. With more fiscal deadlines looming, the right will no doubt attempt to secure even deeper cuts.
Since the Nixon administration, big business has collaborated through a network of think-tanks and lobbying organizations to define the public debate on economic issues in terms of a free-market, anti-government ideology. Big business has successfully implemented a policy agenda of deregulation, privatization, wage-repression and the destruction of organized labor based on this ideology through its influence within and control over the Republican Party.
It is this agenda and the reckless regime of private wealth accumulation it made temporarily possible that is responsible for the dismal economic situation confronting American and global society today, as well as the ideological frames available for understanding them.
This agenda was abetted by the complicity of the Democrats, of course, insofar as they remained essentially friendly to big business and under the illusion that the capitalist market economy could be effectively tamed and stabilized through enlightened fiscal and monetary policies. Nevertheless, the true architects and executors of the successful free-market offensive have overwhelmingly been allied with the Republicans, not the Democrats.
Even now, amidst talk of the breakdown of the modern GOP and proof that its most radical elements are willing to put the global economy at risk in the name of ideological purity, big business is far from being so confident that the Democratic Party will be the faithful political servant of capital that it is ready to jump ship and cut the GOP loose.
If we can't stop austerity and the social breakdown it is precipitating, then we stand a small chance of putting alternatives to capitalism back on the public agenda. Instead, we'll be forced into a defensive fight against reactionary threats from the right that stand to gain strength in conditions of continuing social dislocation, at which point we will have already lost.
There may be many on the left who, publicly or secretly, welcome crisis as an opportunity to throw into sharp relief the deep continuities underlying both parties. Clear exposure of this fact, it is hoped, will finally lift the fog from people's eyes and lead them to the conclusion that an "authentic" alternative organized outside the corrupting influence of the electoral system is the only solution to the inevitable social contradictions created by capitalism.
But although it is tempting to see economic crisis and social breakdown as an opportunity for revolutionary transformation, a climate of crisis is rarely conducive to clear thinking and social solidarity. Crisis intensifies competition among workers and foments alienation and scapegoating, ripening the conditions for forms of mass hysteria and paranoia that are decidedly anti-social.
In order to avert the worst consequences of crisis and put socialism back on the agenda, therefore, it is first necessary to stop the onslaught of the market unleashed by the conservative offensive and create conditions in which thinking beyond the market is possible.
With organized labor the weakest it's ever been and in the absence of a viable third party with a mass base, the Democratic Party appears the only force on the left organized enough to counter the massive threat coming from the right.
The conclusion I draw from this is that there is simply no way to turn back the austerity agenda that is being dictated by the right-wing of the Republican Party and accepted by the leadership of the Democratic Party without somehow engaging the Democratic Party and forcing its leadership sharply to the left, thereby wresting power and control over the public debate from the far right and tilting the conversation back toward some kind of genuine center.
Elements of such a left-ward realignment already exist within the Democratic Party. For example, the "Back to Work Budget" proposed by the House Progressive Caucus would be practically revolutionary in our current climate of austerity. Moreover, the budget puts job creation front and center, a perfect antidote to the anti-tax nonsense demanded by the "Job Creators" and their political allies. A serious push from the left in support of such measures could have the same effect on Democrats as the Tea Party is having on Republicans.
It could even hasten the breakdown of the Democratic Party and encourage the emergence of a real third party alternative, something I know many on the anti-capitalist left have long dreamed of.
Furthermore, the logic and rhetoric of the economic policy measures proposed by House progressives can be strengthened and radicalized by the left. During the Occupy Wall Street movement, activists in New York debated adopting a "Jobs for All" demand arguably more radical in scope than the budget proposed by House progressives. An organized, grassroots movement working in support of such a demand has serious potential to resonate with the country's silent progressive majority and force the Democrats' hand.
If we are serious about wanting socialist and other non-capitalist ways of thinking to go mainstream, then we must strategically support those initiatives within the Democratic Party that have the potential of breaking down the neoliberal consensus among the leaderships of both parties. If we leave establishment Democrats unchallenged, we risk losing the whole game to the right.