After the US election, challenges and possibilities for the Left: A Society for Socialist Studies event
by jonkle, loljapes
On November 13, 2020, the Society for Socialist Studies (who have the somewhat serpentine acronym: SSS) hosted a webinar titled ‘After the US election, challenges and possibilities for the Left’. The event consisted of speeches from six speakers. Jonkle and loljapes both attended and give a summary of what was said, and their general thoughts on the event, here.
Kimberley said that the world stops for American elections, and especially this one, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. The result was and is an American horror show: high unemployment; mediocre outcomes from the world’s most expensive healthcare system; a divided government; and a new president compromised by corporate influence.
This is a trend for the Left—being disappointed and having to settle for a lesser evil, while comforting themselves with lies about “holding feet to fire.” According to Kimberley, most of the Left is a biased Democrat illusion that convinces people to not want what they actually do want, especially with regards to foreign policy.
Kimberley recommends that the Left’s first job should be to strictly define who we are and what we stand for—we cannot allow people who act in opposition to us to claim to support the same causes.
She found examples of this challenge in the George Floyd protests, which she viewed as a huge accomplishment, but which unfortunately happened during an election year. This meant that instead of the protests having a material impact, they got sucked into the general horror show. Kimberly believes elections take the life out of movements, and to prevent our adversaries—because all people-politician relationships are adversarial—from co-opting our movements we have to maintain them outside of electoral years.
Kimberley’s example of a success is Bolivia, which proved imperialism can be stopped through organization outside of election years, even when the mainstream Western media lied and people usually considered progressives supported the coup.
Lascaris reflected on his experience volunteering on Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 as a canvasser in poor black neighbourhoods, only to realize near election night that he had been duped. Despite his initially progressive appearance, Obama said nothing on Operation Cast Lead in Israel, but spoke vociferously in support of bank bailouts.
Lascaris got duped again in 2015 with the election of Alexei Tsipras in Greece. The country had been facing crippling austerity at the time, and despite public demand to end it Tsipras instead pushed harder austerity measures into effect.
In 2020 Lascaris was not duped. Lascaris regards Joe Biden as a fraud without a progressive bone in his body. He is basically Trump, but smarter—he adheres to American exceptionalism so much that he could be even worse than Trump in terms of foreign policy. During his time as Obama’s vice-president he supported a nuclear modernization program despite the US being under a de-armament agreement, which prompted the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than anytime other than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Basically, Lascaris said, America is not turning away from any of the Trump administration’s decisions. Lascaris is frustrated and worried about how Canadians are succumbing to complacency just because Biden won. The fight has only begun—we got rid of Trump, now we must get rid of Biden.
Dimski described four aspects of the election and what they mean. First, there has been a separation of financial markets from reality—despite being initially rocked by COVID and facing lots of volatility trading, markets are doing fine. They have kept up a steady flow of crocodile tears about credit risk, though.
Second, Dimski reminded the audience that trade war is class war. There has been no positive change in trade policy between the Obama and Trump years. Portsmouth, Ohio, was a region struggling with high unemployment—presumably from jobs getting offshored—and massive opioid issues, yet it cheered when Trump was elected because he had promised to rejuvenate Appalachia. Dimski said Portsmouth had improved over the last four years, but this was due to local community organizing, not because of the Trump administration.
Dimski’s third point was that the American Civil war is not over. Riding maps between 2020 and 1860 are surprisingly similar. FDR’s election flipped most of the country, but a particular belt through the Southern states has remained Democrat. Nixon took control of this region in the 1960s through his Southern Strategy, which appealed to poor white southerners angry about black voting rights. But the Democratic belt has been maintained—because it’s predominantly black. But because regions like these are so consistent, they were often under-supported by democrats—in Obama’s administration, he did next to nothing over foreclosures in California because he knew they’d vote for him anyways.
Dimski closed by describing the moment we are in as a moment where the contradictions in the financial regime of global capitalism are laid bare. As Gramsci said, “the old order is dead; the new order cannot yet be born. In the interregnum, all manner of morbid things occur.”
Prashad used his speech to analyze the foreign policy legacy left by Trump and make some guesses about what we can expect under a Biden presidency. He began by pointing out that although Trump is usually presented as an anomalous president, his foreign policy has essentially been a continuation of the interventionist policies of his predecessors. Prashad cited America’s response to the India/Pakistan bombings, the actions taken by America against Venezuela and the resumption of the activities of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as evidence that Trump had not meaningfully shrank America’s global footprint.
Turning to the future, Prashad predicted that Biden will step-up efforts to contain China, which will likely lead to increased tensions between China and the US. Prashad noted that this would be consistent with Obama-era policies such as the ‘pivot to Asia’ and the TPP, which both sought to isolate China. Prashad believes Biden will pick up these initiatives and take them farther than Obama managed to. Following this logic, Prashad also believes that Biden will continue to pressure to Venezuela, as it was Obama who first imposed sanctions on the country in 2015.
Prashad saw some silver linings on the topics of the Iran nuclear deal and climate change. He said that Trump’s inaction on climate change had frayed America’s relations with the rest of the world and predicted Biden will attempt to implement climate change action in order to patch up these relations. He also predicted that Biden will take attempt to reinstate the JCPOA (a treaty which limits Iran’s capability to produce nuclear weapons) partially because the JCPOA is regarded as a signature Obama achievement, and partially because Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the treaty was widely regarded as illegitimate.
Prashad finished by focusing on the role Canada will play in Biden’s presidency. He noted that Canada often takes the lead on US-backed diplomatic initiatives in South America. He predicted “more shenanigans from Ottawa” in the form of a “Lima Group Part 2” effort to bring about regime change in Venezuela. He said the left in Canada should attempt to block these initiatives.
Pilon began his talk with an analysis of the voting results from across America. He said that although the youth and overall turnout were high, the turnout of working class people had gone down compared to the last election. Pilon highlighted that although state-level maps make America seem as though states are deeply polarized between Democrat and Republican, the distinction he found more important was the fact that urban areas tended to lean Democratic while rural areas tended to lean Republican.
Continuing his analysis of the vote, Pilon said that while there is a media narrative that Trump won the 2016 election due to the support of the white working class, the data aren’t particularly clear on whether this is true. Pilon said that in general, the white working class have dropped out of the political process altogether, although its possible that the Republican party has managed to maintain slightly more white working class voters than the Democrats by making cultural appeals to the group
Rangwala began by referencing the claim from the the book Undoing the Demos (by Wendy Brown) that under neoliberalism people are atomized into individuals of exchange, this was a theme she returned to a number of times in her talk. She said that she believed that politics in America is “intrinsically centrist” and therefore predicted that Biden will seek to reach across the aisle to Republicans more than he will consult the left of the Democratic party. Rangwala said that she had been surprised by the level of support for Biden given the fact there had been so little emphasis in his campaign on policies that would materially benefit people. She highlighted what she called the “spectacle of vote counting” saying that the TV coverage of the vote counting process served to comfort people in spite of the fact that the fragmented nature of election regulations in the US made voter suppression increasingly easy. She also commented on the use of ‘I Voted’ stickers saying that in America the electoral process is a “hyper-visible fetish that serves to cover foundational necro-politics of the US constitution” and claimed that the purpose of the stickers is to mark individuals as part of an in-group, which serves to create a group illusion of a demos.
Rangwala concluded by saying that in the previous presidential election Trump had managed to create a demos arranged around himself and said that the left should seek to build a true demos.
This Society for Socialist Studies event promised to analyze the challenges and possibilities for the left following the election of Joe Biden. A lot of time was spent reviewing the legacy Trump leaves behind him, and prognosticating on what can be expected from a Biden presidency (in the view of most panelists; not much). In other words, the challenges that the left must overcome received the lion’s share of attention at the event.
The possibilities for the left (such that they are) received less airtime during the event. Some individual policies from the standard grab bag of lefty causes and concerns were mentioned by panelists, but no attempt was made to outline what a cohesive political program for the left might look like. In the Q&A session Vijay Prashad touched on this issue very briefly when he mentioned that in contrast to Canada, India has an active Communist party with around one million members. However, very little time was spent discussing how to build a movement of this magnitude in Canada.
In hindsight, framing the event around the American election seems like a misstep. Although the socialist left in the US is probably larger now than it has been for a few decades, ultimately, its not a particularly powerful actor in American electoral politics. The Canadian left is even smaller, and even less likely to be able to influence whatever policies Biden’s transition team are currently planning. Because the US election was used as the jumping off point for discussion, the speakers tended to go into sportscaster mode, analyzing and predicting what various players might do next, instead of discussing how the Canadian left might actively shape future events. The final speech of the night came from Shama Rangwala, who said she believed electoral democracy in America was degenerating into a spectacle, rather than being a way for people to actually change their material circumstances. It was hard not to feel that this event hadn’t fallen into the same trap.
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