Following the rise of democratic socialism and the explosive Black Lives Matter protests Clare Lemlich discusses the prospects for the left in the US under Joe Biden’s presidency
The main question here in the US is: can Joe Biden deliver?
We were told during the elections last year that this was going to be the most progressive administration in US history—a strange fantasy when Biden’s record is extremely conservative as far as Democrats go and he’s been an enthusiastic bipartisan compromiser throughout his career. And that’s to say nothing of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s record in racist law enforcement as California’s “top cop” while the state’s attorney-general (as she called herself).
What we’re seeing from the Biden administration are high-profile policy proposals that sound progressive and even include measures that could help improve working people’s lives.
But beneath the surface, everything Biden implements is a calculation about how best to restore the profitability of US capitalism, reassert the US as an imperial power and contain the enormous discontent that exists here and that made Bernie Sanders so popular.
Those are precisely the reasons the ruling class overwhelmingly backed Biden’s campaign last year — and why the Democrats raised nearly double the amount in funding that Trump did. The capitalists knew they were making an investment in a president they could rely on after four years of Trump’s instability.
Congress recently passed a new COVID relief bill that is a bit better for working people than Trump hurling money at corporations, which is what happened last year.
But the package’s primary aim is to provide just enough relief to get everyone vaccinated and pull them just enough out of homelessness and poverty to get back to work. And it doesn’t include the $2000 stimulus cheques Biden promised us all on day one.
Biden is also proposing an ambitious $2 trillion infrastructure plan that goes further than any administration’s spending proposal since at least the 1960s.
It includes some fine renewable energy proposals, but mostly implemented through the private sector rather than as state investment in renewables.
This again is designed to get the economy moving while appeasing concern about climate change. But Biden has made it very clear that he is opposed to a Green New Deal or any fundamental shift to a sustainable economy.
Immigration issues are also a live discussion right now because there’s a surge of arrivals at the US/Mexico border and Biden has reopened Trump’s infamous cages for children to detain unaccompanied minors. Biden promised no deportations in his first 100 days. We haven’t even hit that mark yet and he’s deported more than 20,000 people so far.
At the same time, Biden is proposing a significant overhaul of the immigration system that includes some of the best reforms we’ve seen in decades, in particular a pathway to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented people currently living in the US as second-class citizens.
But the bill also includes border enforcement measures like expanded definitions of what is considered a crime so that immigrants can get deported as “criminals” more easily.
Trump’s border wall became a symbol of anti-immigrant racism over the last four years. Biden wants to pour money into a “smart technology strategy” along the border to turn people away. But a high-tech closed border is as much a border “wall” as a concrete one.
Another problem is that the pathway to citizenship in the bill is on an eight-year timetable, so what happens if Biden doesn’t get re-elected in four years and the policy gets repealed?
Immigration policy is also a test case for how the left responds to Biden. The coalition I’m part of, the Alliance to Defend Immigrants, called a demonstration the week after the election saying: we’re putting Biden on notice, he won the pro-immigrant vote and we demand he follow through on welcoming migrants.
Our demo was a couple of hundred people at most. But it was an example of the kind of politics I think the left needs to put forward under Biden. Mass movements holding this line and refusing to budge on it are the only way we’re going to get the best parts of that immigration bill implemented.
But when the bill came out, the non-profits and mainstream pro-immigrant forces simply celebrated the policy and very few were prepared to acknowledge its limitations.
Worse, everyone backing the bill knows that it’s unlikely to get passed in full, after negotiations with the Republicans. What eventually gets passed will water down the humane parts of it and beef up the enforcement measures.
This is an example of the larger process by which the Democrats systematically lower everyone’s expectations about what is politically possible. Whatever limited policies they end up passing, we’ll be told they were the absolute best we can get because of Republican intransigence. In this way, the Democrats get away with lurching rightward, all while knowing that ordinary people have no electoral alternative.
But if we can start to cohere an organised, fighting left then we can not only win better policies around immigration and other issues, we can start to crack this vicious political logic.
In a lot of ways, the kind of left that develops under Biden hinges on the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
With nearly 100,000 members it’s by far the largest left-wing organisation in the country. And it’s a big tent organization that includes everyone from social democrats to anarchists to revolutionary socialists.
Although it’s been around since the 1980s its recent growth is associated with Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns. But the biggest bounce in membership actually came when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) ran as a progressive Democrat for Congress in New York.
And I would say for the bulk of members, she’s the template for what the DSA is trying to do.
She unseated a corporate Democrat and is now one of the few federally elected politicians who says that we need to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), that we need a Green New Deal, Medicare for all, and so on.
The DSA’s main strategy for turning the political tide in the US has been to either run or endorse left-wing Democrats at all levels of government, from city councils to the presidency.
There are a number of problems with this strategy: the first being that DSA-backed candidates are not accountable to the organisation. There are no recall mechanisms.
Last year in Chicago a DSA member who had won a city council seat thanks to the DSA’s campaign voted to give more money to the police—in the middle of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement calling to defund them!
The Chicago DSA put out a statement censuring that councillor but he’s still a DSA member and there’s nothing to stop this happening again. This is quite a pickle if your organisation is devoting the majority of its resources to election campaigns.
There’s lots of other work that goes on in the DSA besides electioneering. There’s the Medicare for all movement, strike solidarity, work at a local level in labour struggles and so on. But the electoral work is the most prominent nationally, is pursued by the elected leadership bodies across the organisation, and, in my first-hand experience in Los Angeles, this is the kind of work that’s prioritised.
When I talk to DSA comrades, no one disagrees about the need for non-electoral organising. Everyone agrees we need to build a broad, mass movement in the streets for immigrant rights in the abstract. But it comes down to a question of political priorities and which priority disciplines the other.
I think there are three key tasks for the DSA, and the wider left, under Biden. We need to prioritise building movements against exploitation and oppression, and see any electoral work as supporting that, not as an end unto itself. We need to build serious movement coalitions, and work to shape and lead them.
And we need to fight for legislative changes without becoming absorbed into the legislative machine of the Democratic Party. Our independence from them is crucial.
What kind of left
I heard recently from a DSA comrade in another city that when the BLM revolt started last summer, his chapter really struggled to pivot to the uprising, partly because it was so enmeshed in getting out the vote at the time.
DSA members attended the protests everywhere across the country, for obvious reasons: it was the most significant anti-racist rebellion in recent memory, driven by the murderous violence of the police, but also taking place in the context of the COVID health and economic crises.
But as an organisation, the DSA didn’t have a coordinated presence at the BLM protests. It hadn’t built the political credibility to offer any leadership to the movement and it didn’t forge the alliances necessary to create lasting organising spaces to push forward with defunding the police. As a result the movement has declined in most places, leaving behind a base of support for the demand to defund the police, but not a sustained movement to win that.
Similarly, we would be in a better position to fight the far right that Trump has left behind if the DSA and the broader left had done more to build up anti-fascist coalitions.
If we were prepared, we might have been able to call mass counter-demonstrations after the far right occupied the Capitol building in January. DSA voted in 2019 to create a national anti-fascist working group in recognition of the rise of the far right. But until very recently that working group existed in name only.
The DSA has a lot of resources. The organisation showed this very clearly in its impressive and organised campaign operation for Sanders in the primaries.
If even a fraction of that organisational energy was turned instead to movement building, I think we’d be a much stronger left, and much better prepared to fight this new Biden administration.
This is an edited version of Clare’s speech to the Keep Left 2021 conference