When capitalism crashes, the ambulances first come for the wealthy. The next wave of ambulances comes for their luggage and their attendants. When it is time to come for the working-class victims, there is a budget crisis and the ambulance corps is decommissioned. The walking wounded are left to fend for themselves, dazed and disoriented.
Where is the outrage? Where is the fightback? Where is the left? It is not that the American left lacks a sophisticated understanding of power, of how wealth subverts democracy or how it domesticates the media and pollutes public opinion. It is not that the left lacks an understanding of Obama’s failings, of the Democrats’ stunningly miserable record of compromise and sell-out — all the more contemptible insofar as this was accomplished while holding the presidency and both houses of Congress. It’s just that the liberal left can’t offer an alternative and the broad radical left won’t.
In the American scene, only the Tea Party right showed up. Yes they, like everyone else, were outraged at the Wall Street bailout. But they had the field all to themselves. All the more remarkable since the bailout was a Republican lash-up, continued under the Democrats. Still, if sections of the working class wished to register their anger and indignation they had nowhere else to go. And what was the Tea Party’s message? They came to the crash scene to scream —innocent of the open invitation to self-parody — that the rich and the poor, the ruling elite and the working class, should equally find their own way out of this mess and stop looking to the government for a handout or a hand-up. This, they insist with a patriotic fervor bordering on the rhapsodic, is what the founding fathers had in mind when they drafted the Constitution.
And what of the left? For the liberals, it is the perpetual struggle to wrest the Democratic Party from its wealthy financiers. If only Obama had not relied on the usual claque of Wall Street advisors, ideologues and hangers on. But then how does a capitalist party reassure the bond holders that their investments will be properly administered?
The Democrats are the party of reconciliation — of advancing capitalist interests, while diffusing working class discontent by granting strategic reforms. When faced with a wave of working class insurgencies, as was Franklin Roosevelt, the Democrats, it is true, “welcomed” the hatred of Wall Street. That hatred strengthened Roosevelt’s hand in diffusing labor movement rage and housebreaking the left. Were today’s liberals, who are likewise in no sense socialists, actually able to “wrest” the Democratic Party from its patrons — motivated only by their sense of betrayal, rather than street heat — the ruling class would simply establish a new party of the “responsible” center, hand that party a few quick, cheap victories and — in short order — demobilise what was left of the independent Democratic Party of liberals.
The ruling class after all has no overarching need of a third capitalist party. And the labour movement bureaucracy — the hollow shell of a dwindling movement — has no need of a capitalist party that lacks the power to advance a reform agenda needed to fortify that bureaucracy’s continued existence.
It is the response of the broad radical left, such as it is, that is the most frustrating. What did it learn from the debacle of Stalinism? That Stalinism grew out of Leninism, which grew out of Marxism that found its roots in the Enlightenment. The “task” of the left is to make a clean sweep of all these influences and start anew by renouncing “vanguardism”, “decentering authority”, establishing “affinity groups” and networking these groups on the basis, not of democracy, but of consensus.
The socialist movement should become not a laboratory of struggle vying for power by offering an alternative social agenda and a framework through which organic leaderships can emerge and adapt or be replaced. Oh no, this would be elitism. It should rather be a large “study group” where no one opinion is more valid than another; a comfortable place where a fighting working class can repose on evenings and weekends.
But a radical left, no matter how cogent its critique of capitalism is — that renounces the struggle for power — that resists jumping into the fray for fear of substituting its voice for that of the oppressed, has, in the end, nothing to offer the working class. It contributes just as surely as liberalism and the Tea Party to the rightward lurch of American politics.