- Interview by
- Grace Blakeley
Even by the standards of US politics, recent years have been tumultuous. But last week’s events at the US Capitol – when pro-Trump rioters stormed the building, leading to five deaths – were almost certainly the most dramatic of all.
After months of President Trump baselessly disputing the US election results, and the Democrats winning control of the Senate with victories in Georgia, the violence in Washington D.C. seemed to give clear expression of the deep divisions which define the contemporary United States.
To discuss the riot and its fallout on this week’s instalment of A World to Win, Grace Blakeley was joined by Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara. They discuss the nature of the violence, its intention, the culture war which is polarising US politics – and how socialists should respond.
We’re talking the day after right-wing extremists and white supremacists stormed the US Capitol Building. There are images of them – of people basically doing what looks like looting. A woman has been shot. It’s reported that several other people have died of what’s been called ‘medical emergencies’. There’s been some arrests.
And Trump has released this completely bizarre video telling his supporters that the election has been stolen, but also calling on them to go home anyway – allegedly he’s trying to defuse the situation. So I want to start by asking you the question that’s been a bit of a live debate online recently: is this a coup?
I don’t want to get into the pedantic debate. But there’s the old joke, which I first heard as a young boy from my dad: there can’t be a coup in the US, because it doesn’t have a US embassy. I think that rings very true in the Americas.
These people didn’t really have much of a programme, other than keeping their leader in power. There was no leadership, and there wasn’t any attempt to seize the government. There was the attempt to seize a building and wreak chaos. Obviously it’s a sign of a certain wing of the Trump coalition, a pretty large chunk, turning to violence through action – turning to these sorts of extra-parliamentary tactics that are dangerous in the way that the far right is dangerous.
I don’t like the coup language, because I think that implies an attempt to seize the machinery of government. I guess if you want to use it, that’s fine, but it’s necessary for us to be honest and sober about how strong our opponents are, and also about how strong the public institutions and republican institutions of the US government are. And I think there’s still a lot of stability there, despite the events of the last few days.
I’m inclined to agree with you on most of that. But I think there is one relevant point from the ‘this is a coup’ crowd that’s worth addressing. Usually a coup would involve some element of mass protest, and then one wing of the state, generally the military, would forcefully seize power over the government.
Clearly that isn’t what’s happened here. But it’s also clear that the police—and sometimes it’s hard to differentiate the US police from the army, but that’s a whole other issue—were complicit. So it does seem that there’s been an element of support, or at least capitulation, by one part of the US state. So even if this isn’t a coup, that’s pretty significant, right?
There’s definitely complicity, it seems, by some of the Capitol Hill police. We’re not sure of their rationale. Some might have been ideologically supportive; some might have just been overwhelmed. But it was, at the very least, a terrible exercise in crowd control. There’s longstanding links between the far right and police departments in the United States – that’s true the world over. We should pay attention to these links between police forces and the Right.
I’m not sure I’d make the leap of saying that at an institutional level, the police forces were complicit in a coup, though, which is a lot of the language of the existing Left. To me, that would mean a statement from police officers saying, ‘We are supporting our elected president. We’re armed, and we’re in solidarity with these protests.’
You didn’t see anything like that. You saw the deploying of the National Guard, which apparently was initiated by the Secretary of Defense and the Vice President in consultation with the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi – and without any conversation with Donald Trump. I’m not sure if that’s true, that was just spur-of-the-moment reporting yesterday. If it is, it seems to me that that would be potentially the biggest and most unprecedented constitutional break yesterday.
The police definitely enabled the far-right mob to storm the Capitol Building. And they definitely are embedded with the Right, generally, across the Unites States, which is something we should always be aware of. But I don’t think it rises to the level where we would say that the police and sections of the military actively supported a coup.
In terms of the question of the level of institutional support, or just capitulation, something came out from the Intercept recently saying that there are FBI documents that shed light on white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement.
Now that, to me, seems like one of the biggest issues here. Even if there isn’t an institutional level of support from the police for what’s going on here, if this had of been a different kind of protest—if this had been protests against white supremacy, or even against anti-capitalist protest, or environmentalist protest—there probably would have been more deaths and more arrests, perhaps because there are elements of the police that are actively sympathetic with the cause being promoted by these people.
Also, the messaging comes from the top down. If the President of the United States seems to be in favour of a protest or demonstration, it’s going to be treated differently than if the President of the United States is against it. So I don’t think a protest on the left, or a protest for racial justice, would have made it up to the Capitol. We would have been kettled far before.
We don’t want to cheer on state violence either. It seems to me that there was state neglect and incompetence. I’m no fan of any of these protestors or what they’re protesting for, and obviously, many of them were just engaged in a violent right-wing riot. But we should also look into how these people died, and whether any shootings might have come from the police.
I don’t think it’s really a thing on the left, but I have some liberal friends who were posting a photo of the woman who was shot with the word ‘traitor’ written on it. That’s a sign of just the insane polarization of US politics between liberalism and the far right around Trump. What we need to do is provide a real political alternative.
That means protecting against the far right, but also offering a substantive alternative. All these people, both liberals and conservatives, are engaging in this sometimes disruptive—and in this case, violent—theatre. What we on the left need to constantly offer is a programme, something that speaks to people’s bread-and-butter basic economic needs, speaks to their experience with depression – speaks to all these things.
It just seems to me that American politics is going off the rails, and the only thing that can get us back on track is some old-fashioned class struggle. But that’s been my line about everything in every context for the past decade, plus. So I’m not saying anything new.
It seems like the really important point to emerge out of this is that it’s so easy to treat what’s going on right now as an exceptional situation that’s suddenly emerged, because 2020 was a really bad year, or because this one is going to be just as bad, or because there’s something in the water right now that’s making everyone go a bit mad.
But actually, we know that this kind of weakening of democratic institutions is systematic of a far deeper problem stemming from a capitalist system which actively creates and deepens all sorts of divisions: class divisions, racial divisions, geographical divisions. And we’re entering a point where it’s becoming harder and harder for democratic institutions to withstand the turmoil resulting from the persistent crises generated by capitalism.
Liberals just seem completely unable to wrap their heads around that. Here in the UK, there have been some right-wing commentators saying, ‘This is what we could have expected from someone like Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell.’ It’s becoming slightly unhinged. You do wonder where liberalism goes from here.
Yes. I also think it’s worth thinking about what happens if politics becomes polarised in this way, dictated by the liberal pundits, who feel that when there’s a fascist threat the most important thing—the only important thing—is preserving existing institutions. There’s talk that feeds into Biden’s point – that we just need to go back to the way things were in 2015, in 2016, back to that old normal. The job of the Left is to say, ‘What was going on before was unacceptable’. What we want to do is take the private miseries, the day-to-day hardships that people feel, all these injustices, and turn them into a political movement with political expression – making the old way and the status-quo ungovernable.
In a way, we’re pushing for a different sort of polarisation, but we’re not pushing for a return to the norms. I think a lot of the people that would have us in coalition together against a fascist threat would want to go back to that. We’re seeing that with pundits now talking about the need for us to band together and avoid sectarian squabbling.
Again, those are things that might make sense in some contexts. If we were under Nazi occupation, we would support Joe Biden as our de Gaulle figure – as the leader of our resistance. But now we’re in a situation where the neoliberal centre of Joe Biden is only going to continue to fuel this far right. We on the left need to think about how to undermine their social base.
Their social base isn’t necessarily the hard core of people storming the Capitol Building, or engaging in right-wing violence. Their social base includes millions of working-class people, including working-class black and Latino people, many of whom voted for Donald Trump in November, and many of whom didn’t turn out for Joe Biden because they weren’t excited by his programme. This is the future base that we’re fighting for. I don’t think we need to overstate how progressive or winnable the hardcore Trumpers are—because I don’t think they necessarily are—to say that we are engaging in a very different sort of politics from the liberal centre.
When you think about it in those terms, it’s the liberal centre that becomes dangerous. Looking at the discourse that was being pumped out by the Right during the last election, it was very much attempting to do what has been successful historically in these contexts, which is stoke populist anger – but rather than stoking it against a capitalist elite, conflating that capitalist elite with a cultural elite: the people in the big cities, the people who have a university education, the people who look down on the rest of the country.
And as you say, the absence of any real class politics in the political debate is something that unites liberals and the Right, and it’s something that the Left is consistently fighting for – often not particularly successfully.
Without the reinsertion of these discussions of class into American politics, this is just going to continue to degenerate, either into some sort of culture war bullshit—similar to what we have in the UK.
I would say culture war is definitely rampant here, and extremely polarised. I would also say that race is not a major consideration for a lot of working-class people. There were certainly movements for racial justice that had majoritarian support, and obviously there was a backlash to them on some parts of the right, who were already on the right before Black Lives Matter, and will remain on the right in the future.
But on the whole, if you look at the main priorities of black workers, white workers, Latino workers, what they tell us in polling are their main concerns, it’s the same top five things. It’s just in slightly different orders. This should give us solace as we’re trying to build some sort of left opposition.
And I should say I’m glad to be in opposition to Joe Biden, compared to being in opposition to Donald Trump. It gives us more of an opportunity to start demanding real change, to start demanding that we expand the welfare state, instead of constantly just being on guard, defending what we’ve already won, and on the lookout for further erosions of democratic rights. Generally, the exhaustion of the Trump years—insult after insult, terrible court appointments—all these things set the broader cause of progress back in the United States.
So I’m not saying that the worse it gets the better, or that I don’t care that the US President has no respect for the outcome of elections, or that somehow this chaos will benefit the Left. That’s not my position. My position is that as we oppose what the far right is doing, we need to be careful to continue to foreground our message of economic justice and change. Also, we need to be careful to distinguish ourselves from the main currents of American liberalism.
That doesn’t mean being antagonistic and saying, ‘You care about this, so therefore, I don’t care about it, I care about something else.’ But it does mean being associated with key demands, like Medicare For All, or the fight for a national health insurance system, the Green New Deal, jobs, a different arrangement on trade, a different orientation towards foreign policy – something that shows the substantive difference between left-wing socialist politicians and activists, and more centrist and liberal ones. Because right now, it often seems that Liberals and radicals—self-described radicals—are one and the same, except the radicals are demanding things more stridently. That’s the popular perception of the difference between a left-wing Squad member and an ordinary mainstream Democrat. It might be reduced in the popular imagination to just tactics and tone, and ‘respect for decorum’, rather than issues of substance.
You raised an important point there – the difference between liberals and the Left, as we’ve been discussing, has to be whether or not they centre a class antagonism of one form or another, not just in the policies that they’re talking about, but in the discourse, and in the language that they’re using.
You said that black workers and white workers want the same thing. That’s hardly surprising, because a lot of the interests that they’re going to have are going to be defined by their class position. But the question is and always has been whether or not that class coalition can be changed from something that’s latent into something that’s an active part of people’s identity.
Biden’s not going to do that. How can the Left, in that context, have the kind of impact that you’re talking about? Do we need to be talking more about getting active in the labour movement, about direct action, about media and communication strategy? Where do you think the Left should be focusing its energies right now?
Obviously, I think our focus should be in the labour movement. But that’s not something we can really will into being ourselves. I think a lot of the reason for the decline in the labour movement in the US is structural, and it’s not very clear what the way out of our bind is. The labour movement is large enough that it hasn’t completely vanished – it just plateaued, and stagnated.
A lot of those changes need to come from within the labour movement. A strong labour movement needs a strong Left, and vice versa. But it really is striking to me how, in the big story of the November election, the dealignment of the working class from the Democratic Party continued. Biden won with this extremely affluent, highly educated base.
November 2020 was a historic turnout, but the turnout wasn’t even at all across class and race. Working-class black neighbourhoods saw less of an increase in turnout than any other. The Democratic Party claimed the mantle of Black Lives Matter and racial justice to try to win over those voters – but they weren’t as interested in the message being offered by Biden as wealthier and more educated people were.
So our main task is trying to prevent further consolidation of centre-left politics in the US in just the high-income, highly-educated suburban coalition, at the expense of the traditional base of this politics. Even the Democratic Party, from the New Deal onward, had a base in a multiracial working class.
For us, that means that we have to look carefully at the candidates we’re running. We need to run working-class candidates. We need to run candidates who are bound together by a platform that focuses on economic egalitarianism. And we need to make sure that US politics doesn’t become solely motivated around cultural conflicts, and regional identities.
In a way, the route to this is through electoral politics, just because this is the only immediate avenue for your average DSA member or your average Jacobin reader to actually plug into politics, to actually engage with their neighbours in that struggle – in a campaign to actually talk about Medicare For All, and the Green New Deal. You need a reason to knock on someone’s door.
For most Americans, in such a depoliticized, depressing context, our engagement with politics is limited to those elections every two years or every four years. I used to have the view—and I still believe in the abstract—that elections were just something of a litmus test. They measure how much organising we’ve done; they measure class consciousness; they measure a lot of things. But the real work happens with the base-building outside of election.
Anyone who knows my work knows I spend way too much time thinking about the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century social democratic movement. That’s still my worldview, and what I think. But in our current context, a lot of the route to bringing back working-class politics and bringing back a class-oriented politics in civil society will take place through elections.
We just need to continue to run candidates that are distinct, and we need to really avoid the most narrow kind of cultural conflict in the US, particularly those centred on the media cycle-driven regional identities which see people saying, ‘Oh, forget about the South’, or, ‘All these red states, people are voting in their economic interests, and the blue states are subsidizing them. So fuck them.’
This is the narrative you’ll hear increasingly from ordinary, respectable liberals. It’s overheated, it’s insane, and it really leaves behind millions of working-class people: some of the most oppressed people in the United States, who aren’t engaged with politics, and need to be engaged. That’s the biggest bloc out there – non-voters and semi-regular voters. Those are the people we need to activate. We won’t activate them through lazy appeals like that.
I want to go into this point a little bit more, about the relative importance of elections. Obviously, it’s different in the US – you have many, many more elections at many, many different levels. They can be tied into community issues in a way that it’s less easy to do in the UK. But the big issue there is surely that Biden’s got four years. Maybe he’ll get a second term; if he doesn’t, that will be somewhat surprising. But it doesn’t look like he’s going to be challenged really from the left in terms of his position during that period.
You’re right to say that the way that most people engage with politics is through elections. Again, maybe there’s a chance to do that more frequently, and at a more grassroots level, in the US than there is in other parts of the world. But surely a big part of what the Left should be doing is trying to encourage people to see many, many more areas of their lives as political – particularly their employment relationships, their relationship with their landlord, with their bank.
We talk in vague terms about what it means to do community organising, and organising within the labour movement, all the time. But to me, it feels like that should be a big priority for people who are looking to expand people’s conception of what’s possible, because that often feels like the biggest constraint. If you ask a working-class person, or you ask someone who is in one of those states that you were talking about, ‘What is getting in the way of your visions for what you know you want?’, they just say, ‘Well, change is basically impossible. The elites don’t listen to me, no one ever really listens to me, there’s no point voting.’
So getting them from that space to thinking not only that elections are important, but to knowing that politics is happening in all these different places, and power is being exercised in all these different ways. That seems like a pretty big sine qua non for socialist organising in the US.
There’s a William Morris line that goes something like, ‘Workers think they are a class, they ought to think they are a society.’ I’m bastardizing it. But now we’re at the point where many people don’t think they’re a part of a class, right? We’re at the point where our main mission is a class reformation. And there’s going to be many different routes to do this.
In the UK, obviously you have a more recent tradition of large-scale trade union struggle. And for all its faults, you’ve got the Labour Party and CLPs. You have mass membership organisations. You have unions that are very politicised, and are big players in UK politics, and are relatively more willing to take industrial action, at least given their constraints.
In a way, if you consider the fact that there might be more constraints in the UK, less at the legal level, but more at the structural economic level, the working class has been, through periods, quite militant. So one major area where I think the US can make advances is with the transformation of the existing labour movement.
We had these big waves of teacher strikes in 2018. They seem like so long ago, because that was a completely different period in the struggle. But they just happened. We had all of the states, red states, in a wave of public sector strikes, with popular support. And in places like West Virginia, and Arizona, and Oklahoma even, they were led in part by socialists.
Why are we so strong among teachers, and relatively strong among nurses? In part, that’s because the Left is not much rooted in a class base anymore. To the extent we still have bastions of strength, it’s just in highly-educated white-collar professions. But if that’s what we have to start with, let’s start there. And those are expanding sectors, education and health.
Jane McAlevey talks a lot about the need to emphasise logistics as well. Strategically, I like her work because she’s thinking about what the choke points are in the US economy. We used to have a particular strength, even in the US, in the West Coast – our ILWU, our longshore workers were communists, and radicals, and socialists.
A few hundred people can shut down a large swath of the economy if they’re well-positioned. I think this idea of strategic weight, this idea of having a labour strategy and focusing on certain sectors makes a lot of sense. There’s really smart thinking coming out of the Democratic Socialists of America around this.
That’s a great compliment to electoral politics. In the US, we have debates around the Democratic Party and what strategy to pursue within it. The controversy has been somewhat resolved in the point of whether we should run in Democratic Party primaries. The experience of Bernie Sanders, the experience of all these DSA-elected officials means yes, absolutely, we should run.
The question then is: should we run and try to transform the Democratic Party? Or run and just use the voting pulpit? On that question, I’m more on the latter side, whereas in the UK I think there’s no reason not to continue to organise and fight in the Labour Party, even as things get weaker, and weaker, and we rue the missed opportunities the last five years.
But all this essentially means is that we need to be working at different levels. We need to be working internally to train a new generation of Marxists, and do that cadre building. But we also need to be doing mass work through these electoral campaigns, and through crafting appeals that don’t alienate ordinary people. I don’t think there’s a contradiction at all in this, but there’s a lot to be done.
Ralph Miliband used this term ‘Marxist reformism’. What that means today is fighting for class struggle, fighting for day-to-day reforms, fighting even through candidates, and movements like Sanders, or Corbyn, that are operatively social democratic – but doing it in a way that opens up the horizons for more radical transformations down the road. And doing it in such a way that we’re pursuing our politics, and that it leads to an extension of democratic participation, and civic life, and continues to push to transform the character of the state, and the character of politics, putting us on a firmer footing so that we can have the kind of mass-based class politics that we want to see in places like the US and UK.
But that’s a process. And we can’t just pretend that our base is already here. One potential fear that I see in some quarters of even my own milieu around Jacobin, and around DSA, is that there are some people who might think that we’re already there as far as having a base for our politics, because we are popular on individual issues, like Medicare For All, or the Green New Deal.
But these policy preferences can’t express themselves until we have a class base and class vehicles. In other words, when we look at something like Podemos, or the Corbyn experience, or the Sanders experience, they were shortcuts not just to enacting a bunch of progressive policies, but to class reformation. And that class reformation is going to create the base from which we can actually build our politics. It’s not either-or: I’m looking for any shortcuts possible along those routes. But I have a feeling that the next cycle of politics for the US Left is going to be a slower grind. A lot of people are going to be demoralised.
I want to talk now about the item of news that probably should have been number one on our agenda: the fact that the Democrats have taken the Senate after the results coming out of Georgia. Can you tell us a little bit about the two candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff? What are their politics? And just how is this going to change the strategies that are pursued by the Democrats in the coming years?
Warnock is quite a bit more progressive. He has roots in the black church, he has an agenda that is a generally progressive centre-left agenda. Certainly not a Berniecrat, but he’s a progressive Democrat.
Ossoff is very explicitly a centrist Democrat – the second coming of Joe Biden, or Bill Clinton. He refused to even say he was for the Green New Deal or Medicare For All. He tried to distance himself from the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, at the same time, he’s quite polished. He’s almost too polished. I think that was unnerving for a lot of people.
Fundamentally, the most important thing is that they are caucusing with the Democrats. And they now give control of the Senate to the Democratic party. So it’s fifty-fifty. But the Vice President of the United States is the President of the Senate. And the President of the Senate has the tie-breaking vote.
So everyone is focused on the Supreme Court. I don’t think we’re going to get court packing, or any change there. But the most important thing is that there’s federal court appointments that can now be pushed through. This also helps with budget reconciliations, where the change is really made.
But it’s still ten senators less than what Barack Obama had when he took power in 2008. Ten senators. It’s really staggering what happened in the Obama years. Obama oversaw more seat losses than any other president in the history of his party; the Democratic Party, by 2016, was at its lowest point since the 1920s, nationwide, in terms of number of elected seats. And not all of that’s strategy – part of it has to do with that structural problem of the geographic concentration of the party in urban and suburban areas, given how undemocratic the US system is.
So in a way, this suburban strategy of Biden might be good enough to win a presidential election, or win the electoral college. But I think there are practical—as well as, for us, ideological—reasons for the party to try to restore more of its working-class base.
I do think the Left deserves a lot of the credit for the victory, despite the fact that the candidates, especially Ossoff, are not of the Left. There was a lot of grassroots organising, and DSA chapters were activated – more importantly, there were efforts from trade unions and others to turn out the vote. It was a referendum on Trump, and Trump is just very unpopular. He never had a majoritarian base. He lost to even Hillary Clinton, who ran a comic—or tragic, or maybe both—campaign in 2016, and got three million more votes than him.
That’s one silver lining of the last four years: the Right in the US hasn’t had the majoritarian base of the right populists we’ve seen in Turkey, in India, in Brazil, and so on. And this is the real danger of the next few years. What happens if we get Trump, but he’s competent? Or a Trump figure that actually delivers the goods, like one big infrastructure project, or a jobs programme? In defeat, Trump’s base actually did become less white, and more working-class.
So now that Georgia is won, when can we expect those much-talked-about $2,000 stimulus cheques from the Biden administration?
I think there will be movement on a big relief bill. And I think they will include the cheques. I think this priority can be pushed through the budget reconciliation process, but I’m not positive.
The more important part of the legislation at the national level is the funding for states, and local city governments. Because at our federal system, we have all these states and cities that can’t properly deposit finance. Yet a lot of the burden—entitlements, and infrastructure, and other stuff—falls upon these areas. So they need help from the federal government. They’ve been hit very hard. We’re seeing drops in tax bases in some areas, and so on.
So there’s a lot in the bill that should booster the US economy, that seems to have quite a bit of support. And Biden has the mandate to do that. He, I think, would be unable to do a lot of other things, in part because out of those 50 Democrats, two you’d consider conservative, or centre-right: one senator in Arizona, and another in West Virginia.
That means that there is no margin for error. The party will be in a tough situation not being able to blame everything on the Republicans, which has worked quite well for them for the past four years, especially because the Republicans were doing many blameworthy things. And the Democratic party revived itself in opposition. So we’ll see what happens when they’re in power. Traditionally, the incumbent president’s party loses in midterm elections – so the next two years are really crucial.