30 December 2013

Notes on Party Politics

The shutdown of the federal government by right-wing fanatics last October triggered a rare bout of fresh thinking among progressives. Whatever else it was, it was also an object lesson in the capability of a relatively small but tightly organized, militant political faction to effectively—if temporarily—seize control of one of the major mass parties in the United States. Throughout the first half of October establishment Republicans and bewildered liberals helplessly looked on as the entrenched leadership of the Republican Party was utterly dominated by a well-funded and—more importantly—well articulated form of reactionary populism. The main liberal complaint against the shutdown—“but the Affordable Care Act is already the law!”—was of course entirely trivial, because it assumed that the whole affair could be reduced to a mere question of a positive legal fact.

The ideological extremism of the Tea Party goes beyond the dissatisfaction felt by rich people about the prospect of paying higher taxes. It taps into a deep well of existential dread about the fate of the country that is as fiercely ingenuous as it is dangerously delusional, and it channels this energy into a seething anti-government mass politics.

Although it may seem as if the radical elements of the Republican Party lost their great battle over the “Affordable Care Act,” it has been clear for some time that they have been winning the larger war. With each Tea-Party-orchestrated freakout in Washington, the political center of gravity shifts further to the right, and the lesson that ideological radicalization brings home the goods is further hammered home into the torpid brains of establishment Republicans.

This dynamic is not lost on keen observers from the left. If the American far-right can be motivated with the numbers and the organization to take the government hostage and impose their narrative upon public discourse for the better part of a month, then it seems plausible to suggest that a similar tactic might be deployed from the political left for progressive ends.

In the wake of the Tea Party’s government shutdown there has been no shortage of debate over whether or not emulating their tactics would be effective or even desirable for progressive objectives. Within this debate, the question of just what role the Democratic Party should play, if any, has loomed large, as have questions about the viability of third party electoral alternatives. Others argue that engagement with the U.S. electoral system amounts to political suicide, since it is basically like joining a game of cards in which the rules are rigged for the house to always win. Yet just last month we witnessed the election, for the first time in almost a century, of a dyed-in-the-wool socialist to the municipal government of a major U.S. city, along with a nearly-successful socialist victory in another major city. What might this portend?

As has been widely recognized for some time, “socialism,” as an idea, is increasingly shedding the terrifying connotations that it carried for so long as a result of Cold-War engendered hysteria and ideological domination in the United States. In a demonstration of the ruse of history, Francis Fukuyamas asinine notion that the fall of twentieth century communism represented the “end of history” is being partially validated, but, of course, in an entirely different sense from what Fukuyama himself meant by this. How so?

An entire generation has come of age within a social universe that is in a real sense post-ideological: since 1989, the apparently uncontested reign of neoliberal capitalism has paradoxically resulted in the evaporation of ideological & affective investments in “capitalism,” as the social formation in which people live is increasingly seen as simply a natural, given economic reality, rather than as any historically specific type of social organization. In a key subjective contradiction of late neoliberalism, the very status of capitalism as an uncontested way of life subverts its own ideological hegemony: the more that the past existence of a communist alternative falls down the memory hole, the more that radical remedies for the obvious failures of the present order can be proposed without much fear of reflexive, anti-socialist hysteria. Indeed, what the previous era, recoiling in horror, would have seen as “socialistic tyranny” now simply appears as the pragmatic, sensible thing to do.

As I mentioned before, we have already seen some practical results of this general shift in attitudes in municipal elections in two major U.S. cities, and now there are even whisperings of a potential socialist candidate for the Chicago city council as well. In addition to this, there has been much chatter about a potentially genuine shift leftward in the politics of the Democratic Party in the U.S. which, if true, would mark an abrupt halt to the party’s steady, decades-long drift rightward. These are signs of the interesting times in which we live.

If it is true that the historical disintegration of an economic system is bound to produce a major political reaction in some form, then the shifts of the last few years portend a coming, greater political reaction that will coalesce around the eventual exhaustion of neoliberal capitalism as a viable economic order. (If you need evidence that neoliberalism as a global economic order is not long for this earth, see here, here, and/or here). If and when this happens, we will have moved from what Gramsci calls a “war of position”—which, for our purposes, could roughly be understood as movement-building and organizing - to a “war of maneuver,” or the period of open confrontation between different class forces in a situation of crisis and for which the war of position is essentially preparation. To continue the metaphor, some of the most pressing issues at the present moment could be seen as: a) what form should be taken by the “regiment,” or “regiments” in this war; and b) how will we get there?

When Gramsci was writing, the left existed in a powerful, organized form such that it made sense to speak of “the left” as a coherent concept and social force. Our conditions are different. We cannot really speak of a “war of position” in a meaningful way, or at least in the way Gramsci originally intended, since there isn’t really any well-organized, disciplined political left that could be “positioned” effectively. In this context, the impulse to see the way forward either in terms of the Democratic Party, or in terms of a fully independent left alternative is misguided and self-defeating. Rather, they must be seen as historical forces that interact with and act upon one another in a complex historical process. That is, if we see the way forward in terms of two mutually exclusive choices, then we will obscure the larger historical situation whose outcome will most likely be determined by how these forces are related to and mutually shape one another.

Assuming current trends continue, it is probable that viable alternative party campaigns will continue to emerge, and maybe at a higher level than what we’ve seen so far. Within the shrinking number of people who still take the political system seriously, the fact that self-identified independents now outnumber self-identified Democrats and Republicans indicates that large majorities are clearly sick of both of the major political parties, while at the same time more people are open to new political ideas than has been the case in the U.S. for a very long while. This atmosphere could easily produce further victories by purported socialists, especially if the Democrats enthusiastically continue to embrace their primary role as the sedate administrators of austerity and economic immiseration.

Historically, the rising popularity and visibility of alternative mass parties has forced the Democrats to list sharply to the left, doubtless more so than the bulk of them would prefer, out of fear that their competitors to the left might siphon off too large a chunk of their electoral base. As Richard Hofstadter observes:

[T]hird party leaders in the United States must look for success in terms different from those that apply to the major parties, for in those terms third parties always fail...Third parties have often played an important role in our politics, but it is different in kind from the role of governing parties. Major parties have lived more for patronage than for principles; their goal has been to bind together a sufficiently large coalition of diverse interests to get into power; and once in power, to arrange sufficiently satisfactory compromises of interests to remain there. Minor parties have been attached to some special idea or interest, and they have generally expressed their positions through firm and identifiable programs and principles. Their function has not been to win or govern, but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the dynamic element in our political life. When a third party’s demands become popular enough, they are appropriated by one or both of the major parties and the third party disappears. Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die. (The Age of Reform, p. 97).
Though we may wish to discard the finality of Hofstadter’s tone, the insight is valuable: from a historical perspective, the major mass-parties and their third party challengers should probably not be seen as true electoral competitors, but rather as two forces that are dynamically related to one another in a definite historical context.

In the famous “Silver Campaign” of 1896, for example, the establishment parties were widely perceived to be incapable of adequately addressing the fears and needs engendered by the long, grinding industrial crisis of the late nineteenth century. This created an enormous gap between public sentiment and the existing system, which was eventually occupied by the Peoples Party, the original “populists.” Their agitation catalyzed an enormous anti-establishment movement that spread over a huge part of the country during the early 1890s, culminating in the presidential election of 1896.

The fervor and reach of the People’s Party, or the “Populists” as they are usually known, was such that the Democrats basically were compelled to adopt the core of their platform in order to appear legitimate. This, in turn, forced a decision on the Populists: either continue as an independent party, thereby splitting the electorate and virtually assuring defeat; or, alternatively, opt for unity by “fusing” with the Democratic Party. They chose the latter in a decision that lead to the common ruin of both parties, as the Republicans won the election by a decisive margin. Indeed, the Republicans would control the Presidency until the election of Wilson in 1912.

However, many of the Populist’s key demands regarding industrial and financial regulation, tariff reform, and democratic participation would eventually be adopted—and made “respectable”—by Roosevelt and Wilson’s middle-class “Progressives” a couple of decades later. Despite the Populist’s electoral defeat, the circulation and availability of their ideas during the next major burst of social activism should be seen as a certain kind of victory, however belated. (There were, of course, deeply problematic aspects of the Populist movement that also should be taken into account; my next post will offer a more detailed analysis that addresses some of the most important of these).

Returning to the present, it is hard, if only from a logistical perspective, to imagine how an independent left alternative party with the scale and organization necessary to carry out a radical policy agenda at the national level could materialize in the near future. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, a hypothetical yet plausible scenario: in 2014 the anemic economic “recovery” is brought to an abrupt halt after everyone realizes that most of the so-called growth from the last couple of years is basically just a giant speculative bubble. This triggers a massive financial panic and market crash. The Obama administration does what it has always done and goes to bat for its primary benefactors on Wall Street, while Republicans, much as they did in 2008–2009, just run around like decapitated chickens. This could conceivably amount to a massive legitimation crisis for both parties and open the door for a major organizing campaign around an independent alternative.

Even if it would be exceedingly difficult to develop the organizing muscle, ideological unity, and technical infrastructure necessary to get on the ballot for the presidential election of 2016, a growing and increasingly visible third party movement could have a sizeable effect on its outcome and consequences. For instance, another economic meltdown in 2014 would raise the already considerable pressure on Elizabeth Warren to run for president to a fever-pitch. If she were to run, then we would have a progressive candidate who may have the resolve to carry out some truly bold domestic reforms, and who also assumes a non-negotiable connection between the national economic health of the U.S. and its capacity to globally project its military power. In the senators own words:
Our economic power at home is linked to our strength around the world. A strong economy at home enables us to have the best-trained and most advanced military in the world—and the standing in the world such that we don’t always need to use it. A strong economy at home enables us to export goods to foreign customers. A strong economy at home gives us influence over events occurring all around the world. And a strong economy at home enables us to spread the values of democracy and human rights. We are one of the most powerful countries in the history of the world precisely because we are one of the strongest economies in the history of the world.

As a Senator, I will never forget the link between our economic power and our global power, and I will fight to make sure we build a strong economy, so we can remain a powerful force for good around the world.
Not very specific, sure, but its implications are clear enough. The utterly obvious connection between economic and military might is washed in a moralistic mishmash sanctifying America’s unique, unquestionable, and heroic role in the world. Warren’s thoughts on foreign policy classically exhibit what C. Wright Mills calls “crackpot realism,” an unreflective fusion of idealistic moralism and pragmatic certainty that animates the typical American politician’s understanding of global affairs. In this view, it makes sense to think that a vital function of economic prosperity and equality at home would be to prop up the international military hegemony and war-making potential of the U.S. abroad. It is not very hard to imagine how dangerous it would be to have this kind of unreconstructed imperialism guiding key foreign policy decisions during a period of global instability and rising geopolitical tension.

As part of a larger movement, the existence of a well-organized, internationalist third party on the left could play a vital role in forcing the Democratic candidate to renounce or at least question the destructive nationalism of the imperial unconscious. Warren’s strident populist streak in matters of domestic economy has proven that she will take positions unpopular with elites if a sufficiently visible public consensus supports it; the looming threat of an electoral encroachment from the left, combined with a widely visible and vociferous media campaign, could be considerably helpful in compelling her to reevaluate her understanding of and attitude towards foreign affairs.

This is a rather speculative exercise, but it suffices to suggest, I think, that from a strategic perspective the exclusive opposition between the Democrats and a possible third party is a false choice. Going forward we should see these elements more like pieces on a chessboard, or as parts of a larger, dynamic whole—namely, the ongoing crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the possibility of its progressive resolution.

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