PART’s Perspective: All Power to the Imagination!
All Power to the Imagination
by Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles/People Against Racist Terror (ARA-LA/PART)
The so-called left in the US continues to be in the grip of defeatism and acceptance of the parameters and limits of US imperialism. This is becoming evident again in the response to the Biden-Harris administration, and in the labor movement. This extended quote from David Klion of “Jewish Currents” is indicative:
“In a review of NeverTrumper David Frum’s book Trumpocalypse for The New Republic last spring, I wrote, “Should Biden defeat Trump this fall, the resulting administration is at least as likely to consult with . . . avowed conservatives on policy as with anyone who supported the democratic socialist runner-up in the primaries.” But the centrist conservatives I was referring to, organized around the now-disgraced Lincoln Project, have had no apparent influence on Biden’s domestic policy thus far, while the young progressive wonks who would have staffed up a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren administration have been unleashed. No one is happier to have been wrong about this than I am.
“The question I’m left with is this: Amid this paradigm shift from four decades of neoliberalism to what will hopefully be a similarly prolonged epoch of robust progressive governance, what’s the role for the leftist critic? Many of us are used to operating in a context in which the Democratic establishment is feckless, corrupt, and powerless against an ascendant far right. But presented with an administration that has so far proved committed to large, active, forward-looking government programs designed to improve the lives of ordinary people, we face a new kind of intellectual and rhetorical challenge: how to hold the Biden administration accountable while still registering welcome progress, and how to fairly describe that progress without abandoning radical demands.
“One area where the left is likely to maintain an antagonistic posture toward Biden’s team is on immigration and border security; the administration’s openness to expanding parts of Trump’s wall and the ongoing horror of conditions for refugee children along the border represent intolerable continuity.
“Another is foreign policy; as I reported for Jewish Currents last month, many leading critics of US militarism in the Middle East have been sounding the alarm about the administration’s initial approach. To be fair, two of my sources for that article, Trita Parsi and Joe Cirincione, have since expressed cautious optimism that, after an initial period of foot-dragging, the administration is moving forward with diplomacy to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. And yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US would restore foreign assistance to Palestinians slashed by the Trump administration. But the administration appears less than fully committed to drawing down troops from Afghanistan, or to cutting the Pentagon budget, as Jewish Currents Editor-at-Large Peter Beinart suggested in The New York Times this week.
“Overall, there is still little evidence that Biden will broadly repudiate the failed bipartisan foreign policy establishment of the past several decades, as he is rejecting the failed bipartisan economic consensus. Should the US become mired in new major wars on his watch, analogies to Lyndon Johnson—who expanded the welfare state and civil rights alongside the military quagmire in Vietnam—will become disturbingly apt.
“But at least on domestic economic policy, the left will need to find ways to register the significance of the administration’s break with the recent past while still contrasting it with a more radical horizon. In Jacobin, the leftist historian Matt Karp modeled this approach well last month in a piece that acknowledged Biden’s generous new spending programs, while drawing a useful distinction between them and true worker-led social democracy, the latter a distant dream that Democrats don’t even pretend to share.
“Even as we acknowledge these differing political aims, we can likewise acknowledge where our aims intersect: It is precisely because the Biden administration is putting pressure on corporations and expanding worker protections that the next few years have the potential to be a golden age of labor organizing everywhere from Amazon’s warehouses to highbrow magazines and elite universities—much as the New Deal era represented the peak of organized labor’s power to date. The administration of Franklin Roosevelt responded to the unprecedented crisis of the Great Depression with unprecedented experiments in boosting the size and role of government, and it did so egged on by a generation of labor activists and left-wing intellectuals who seized the opportunity to remake the American economy, however imperfectly.”
Or consider this from avowed anarcho-socialist Noam Chomsky: “”I must say that what Biden has done so far is a rather pleasant surprise to me,” Chomsky told Barsamian. “It’s better than I would have expected. He’s pretty sharply criticized on the left for flaws and omissions in the domestic policy; these criticisms are, in my view, correct but a little bit unfair. There’s only so much you can do when half of the Senate is — no matter what you say — is going to be 100% against it.”
Chomsky, during the interview, addressed the “major Republican assault on voting rights” and Democratic efforts to counter it via House Resolution 1, a.k.a. the For the People Act — a voting rights bill that was recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but now faces in a steep uphill battle in the U.S. Senate because of the filibuster. Chomsky doubts that Democrats will be able to get rid of the filibuster. And he lamented that although Republicans are a “minority party,” they have a “structural advantage” over Democrats in elections.
These remarks, and the attitudes of many others, particularly on the so-called white left, and even in the multi-racial organized labor movement, reflect a defeatist willingness to sell ourselves cheap. Right now within Pacifica Radio (see article elsewhere in this issue) there is an effort afoot by well-financed forces aligned with the mainstream Democratic Party to eviscerate small-d democracy within Pacifica and its five potentially powerful stations in NY, DC, Houston, Los Angeles and the SF/Oakland Bay Area, and limit perspectives listeners can access to New Cold War liberalism, even though Pacifica was built as a free speech alternative to the original Cold War liberals of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon eras.
Thankfully, this is type of ideological straitjacket and surrender is not uniform, and is becoming a struggle issue in many organizations, including Pacifica, where one similar Bylaws replacement was voted down a little over a year ago. In the Democratic Socialists of America’s L.A. chapter, an Afro-Socialist and Socialists of Color caucus has pushed forward a process of self-criticism within the organization. They won the adoption of a major resolution to rethink the chapter’s priorities and practice, with the support of a Black Liberation Task Force that includes DSA-LA members of European descent. This will inevitably raise contradictions with complacency, reformism and electoralism within DSA. Prison and police abolitionists are continuing to struggle for abolition, not piecemeal ameliorative reforms that do not change the fundamental role of police and prisons in upholding and enforcing white supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalist, imperialist exploitation.
Here in Los Angeles, DSA is involved in Street Watch projects and building mutual aid networks, and a sharp critique of the liberal hegemony of local politicians like Mayor Garcetti who serve to reinforce the carceral state and the power of the LAPD. They have begun to criticize and question how to hold accountable even the local office holders they have backed successfully on the City Council and the Neighborhood Councils.
Another example from DSA-LA of how these struggles play out is in their campaign for the PRO Act, the labor-backed initiative to adopt new national labor rights legislation that would aid unions in winning recognition to represent currently unorganized workers. But it’s impossible to understand the weakness of the labor movement in the US without a deep, self-critical understanding of the way racism and the impact of an imperial bribe and complicity with white supremacy and US empire has weakened and shaped the so-called labor movement here, even compared to other advanced capitalist societies in Europe. The labor rights legislation of the New Deal era specifically excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers, the two sectors at that time in which Black labor was predominantly engaged. And even those limited gains were won only as concessions to a militant and often communist-led actual labor movement, engaged in tactics like sit down strikes. The PRO Act will not be passed by lobbying efforts or a campaign against the filibuster, but by the threat of a powerful grassroots, bottom up, anti-racist labor movement. And just as in the 30s, the labor legislation did not apply to domestic or farm workers, today’s legislation is not written to cover prison labor or sex workers or other marginalized, oppressed and exploited sectors of the working class. These issues are being raised by DSA-LA’s Black Liberation Task Force, in struggle with a narrower and more economist, reformist line among DSA-LA labor organizers.
So the question of prison abolition and opposition to the carceral state is a burning question for some, prisoners and their families in the first place, and more conscious and revolutionary minded sectors of the working classes and the left in the U.S. The people like Chomsky who find themselves “pleasantly surprised” by Biden’s stimulus package (passed) or his infrastructure improvement budget (hanging fire) need to ask themselves why they are not engaging with state by state efforts now underway to finally and irrevocably eliminate and abolish slavery, which still persists under the 13th amendment, that allowed slavery or involuntary servitude in the case of a criminal penalty, transferring slave ownership from individuals to the (white supremacist) state. Why not demand action on defunding the police, or an environmentally sound and racially just transformation of the US economy?
People like David Klion, who think the highest aspirations of Biden should be to reproduce in a new era the “big government” solutions of the New Deal, need to examine how Roosevelt thereby actually reinforced racial segregation, particularly in the areas of the Black Belt South, in which beginning then and subsequently Black subsistence farmers were virtually eliminated and dispersed as a class. They need to look at FDR’s long standing and intense anti-Japanese bias, his belief Japanese-Americans were an “unassimilable” element of US society, and his plans going back before his presidency to naval domination to eliminate the threat of the “Empire of Japan” to US imperial interests in Asia and the Pacific. Such a review would have important lessons with which to address Biden’s embrace of Pentagon and finance capital’s view of China as the main adversary of and threat to US imperial domination in the coming period, and its impact in both war planning and in anti-Asian racism and violence inside the US.
We do not need “left critics” of the Biden administration pushing for a few more concessions or engaging primarily in effort to paint the Republicans as the main source of racism in this society, or the main obstacle to “progressive” legislation. We need a movement committed to internationalism, solidarity with societies around the world that Biden, like Trump, is trying to stifle or crush through “hybrid war,” using economic tools like sanctions even against third parties, in an effort to destroy the Cuban, Bolivarian Venezuelan, or Sandinista Nicaraguan revolutionary processes. We need opposition not only to the police state, but to the social welfare state based on military Keynesianism, which the Democrats have always been wedded to, and which LBJ, another “surprising” Democratic Party reformer who thought big on civil rights legislation and “the War on Poverty”, referred to as “Guns and Butter.” People who wanted the domestic butter, had to support the international and domestic guns, in which the US military served as “cops of the world”, and the Feds reinforced and modernized policing and incarceration at the state and local level.
In 1964, some in SDS (who later went on to become Democratic Party office-holders themselves) put forward the slogan, “Part of the way with LBJ”. (Johnson’s official election slogan was “All the Way with LBJ.”) This corrupt and compromised position stunted the development of SDS as one element of an authentic, anticapitalist resistance and a component of a revolutionary minded united front of forces including the leadership coming from Black liberation, Puerto Rican independence, American Indian, Chicano-Mexicano and Asian/Pacific Islander communities at the time, as well as radical, anti-capitalist elements of women’s liberation and gay liberation activists. As a result, the state was given a free hand to carry out COINTELPRO and the criminalization of Black, indigenous and “Latino” resistance, SDS collapsed into irrelevance, bourgeois (white) feminism was able to dominate the women’s movement, and the gay movement turned from liberation to demands for gays in the military and marriage equality. Similarly, the radical environmental movement of the 60-70s, and the anti-nuclear movement, came to be dominated by corporate sponsors and Senatorial spokespeople. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.
Revolutionary anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist leadership is again developing and strengthening, particularly among indigenous people and in communities of color and BIPOC resistance, and it must not be allowed to get coopted or denatured by the inducements of the Bidens and Harrises, or even the Sanderses and Warrens. Mostly white insurrectionary anarchists need to think about a more protracted and specifically anti-racist “protracted peoples’ war” approach in which important leadership will come from revolutionary-minded elements in the Black community and other colonized and oppressed peoples’ resistance movements. Weak-tea mostly white democrat socialists need to learn those same lessons and respond to that same leadership in their priorities for action and rooted organizing. Doctrinaire sectarians who think Trotsky, Lenin, Mao or Baba Avakian have all the answers need to get over themselves. Radical “planetary survival” environmentalists need to think beyond the confines of the Democratic Party, absorb the critical importance and interconnectedness of struggles for racial and environmental justice. Failing to do so will mean blowing what may be our last chance to create a humanitarian, egalitarian, liberatory and sustainable future.