Is The Honeymoon Over? Stability and Crisis in the Biden Era
On November 7, Left Voice held a plenary to discuss the national political situation in the United States. The following is a slightly edited transcript of the opening remarks that laid the groundwork for the discussion.
After four years of anger and activism under the Trump administration, discontent and a desire for social change were channeled into electing Joe Biden. But the promise to “restore the soul of America” and bring about stability after four tumultuous years of the Trump administration is easier said than done. In this article, we will briefly discuss how elements of organic crisis, present since 2016, have become latent in the Biden era. A decisive factor for this temporary and relative stability was the active construction of what we call “strategic reserves” of the political regime, mainly via co-opting and quelling the Black Lives Matter movement. The storming of the Capitol on January 6 was at once the height of a potentially developing organic crisis and its turning point, since it united all but Trumpists in defense of “democracy.” Biden is at the end of his honeymoon period, and the elements of organic crisis remain in place. Both parties, however, though they have significant differences, have been relatively successful in keeping the political crisis within boundaries, attenuating the political crises of previous years.
What Is an Organic Crisis?
The term organic crisis comes from Antonio Gramsci, who used it to describe a situation that is neither revolutionary nor nonrevolutionary. Before we go to Gramsci, it’s helpful to look at how Lenin described a revolutionary situation:
(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes,” a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way;
(2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual;
(3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time,” but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.
Without these objective changes, which are independent of the will, not only of individual groups and parties but even of individual classes, a revolution, as a general rule, is impossible. The totality of all these objective changes is called a revolutionary situation.
An organic crisis has some elements in common with a revolutionary situation — especially the first two points. A full-scale organic crisis does include a moment when the ruling class cannot rule as it usually does. As Gramsci puts it, “The old is dying and the new is yet to be born.” That is, the representatives have become detached from their representatives. This can create “a great variety of morbid symptoms” — including strongmen who claim that they can resolve the crisis, like Trump.
But the main difference between a revolutionary situation and an organic crisis is the masses’ lack of “independent historical action.” That is, there is no mass class struggle to express the separation between the representatives and the represented.
In the United States, we are another step removed from this because we are not even in a full-scale organic crisis. There are latent elements of it — meaning that they may or may not develop and express themselves more fully in the future.
The Failure of a Capitalist Project
The 2008 economic crisis marked the failure of neoliberalism. In that sense, it was a “failure of a project” — a component of what Gramsci calls organic crisis.
Neoliberalism was a reactionary response to the exhaustion of the post–World War II cycle of capitalist growth. It was forced on the working class and oppressed in order to find a new cycle of growth after the crisis of capital accumulation of the 1970s, as well as to put down the revolutionary uprisings 1960s and 1970s around the world. Economic growth came, in part, from further squeezing the working class: extracting even more surplus value from workers, imposing privatizations, and attacking unions. And capitalist restoration in the former Soviet bloc provided capital some oxygen, as did the intense rate of exploitation in China.
Neoliberalism exacerbated wealth disparities between what Occupy Wall Street called the 1 percent and the vast majority of working-class people. It was accompanied by an ideological offensive that, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “there is no alternative” to capitalism. Perry Anderson claims that this was “the most successful ideology in history.”
All this created a neoliberal era of relative stability and some capitalist growth, although it was much lower than in the postwar boom and suffered periodic economic crises.
This found a limit in 2008, when the real estate bubble burst. This is the “failure of a capitalist project” that in the U.S. created the conditions for elements of organic crisis. The Obama administration averted some of the worst of the economic crisis with massive corporate bailouts. Yet the working class and poor took a huge hit, losing jobs and even their homes. Black and Latinx people were the hardest hit. The U.S. didn’t go into a 1930s-style depression, but capital hasn’t found a way to achieve sustained growth.
Economic crisis and organic crisis do not necessarily go hand in hand — the former doesn’t automatically put into motion a crisis of representatives and represented In 2008, for example, despite the economic crisis, the masses strongly identified with the U.S.’s traditional parties, specifically with the “change” promised by Barack Obama in the Democratic Party.
Organic crisis does not derive mechanically out of an economic crisis. The latter doesn’t automatically put into motion a crisis between representatives and represented. Yet, as we’ve stated before, 2008 did represent a “crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony,” resulting from the failure of “some major political undertaking.” The failure of this undertaking manifested itself, left and right, in a crisis of both the Democratic and Republican Parties, as we will discuss below.
Separation between Representatives and Represented
Even in the Obama years, Occupy Wall Street questioned the distribution of wealth, and the first Black Lives Matter questioned police violence while the first Black president was in office. On the Right, the Tea Party was a precursor of Trumpism.
By 2014 and 2015, mass left- and right-wing “antiestablishment” populism emerged in the electoral sphere represented by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both represented the crisis between the traditional political establishment and masses who sought something different. These were expressions of elements of organic crisis, which were deepened with Trump’s victory. And throughout Trump’s tenure, the elements of organic crisis were at times more and at times less acute.
Trump played a role in delegitimizing institutions of the regime — questioning the FBI, the Supreme Court, members of his own party, etc. He ran through cabinet members at an impossible pace, he fired FBI director Jim Comey, and positioned himself as the victim of all the regime’s institutions, especially the “very unfair” media. At the same time, Trump failed to push through all of his program or act on his every whim, since sectors of the regime were working to stop him, from the FBI to the courts to sectors of his own party who acted as “the adults in the room.” Yet, in the middle years of Trump’s tenure, much of the Republican establishment lined up behind him. The “Never Trumpers” became true believers.
On the foreign policy stage, Trump was a consistent source of tension and instability on a global scale, including the murder of Iranian official Quassem Solemani, consistent Twitter threats to foreign countries, escalating tensions with China and excessive friendliness with Russia. At the same time, Trump helped establish a near consensus among the capitalists on a pivot to China, since significant sectors of the U.S. bourgeoisie do not wish to see China strengthened.
The Trump years were also active years of protest among progressives and liberals. From the Women’s March, which brought millions of people to streets around the world, to the airport shutdowns against the Muslim ban, to protests against the migrant children kept in cages, they were four years of massive protests of many people who never took the streets before — and that was true even before the Black Lives Matter movement. People joined the DSA in tens of thousands, with millennials and Gen Z seeing socialism more favorably than capitalism.
The Democrats capitalized on the anger at Trump, with a new progressive wing winning seats in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections by channeling discontent to the ballot box. “The Squad” at once highlighted the antiestablishment and even socialist sentiment among some of the Democratic Party base, while at once bringing those people into the fold of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party primaries with Sanders at its helm expressed left polarization and funneled it into the Democratic Party. While in 2016, Sanders positioned himself as opposed to the Democratic Party establishment, in 2019 Sanders spoke as a party insider. While in 2016, some supporters erroneously believed that he would launch a third-party run if he lost the primary, in 2019 there were no such illusions. The campaign mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, especially young people across the country who were full of hope in a possible Sanders presidency. But with the help of the Democratic Party establishment, especially Obama and the bourgeois media, Sanders’s presidential campaign was quickly defeated in the primary. Making good on this promise in the primaries, he immediately became a Biden Democrat, almost seamlessly pushing his base into the Biden campaign. This time, there wasn’t an uproar against Sanders’s endorsement of the party establishment. Some even cheered the very small promises that the Biden administration made. The theme was unity against Trump.
This happened when the coronavirus pandemic began. To date, over 750,0000 people in the U.S. have died of this disease, giving the world’s richest country the highest death rate in the world. Even from a bourgeois perspective, Trump responded terribly to the pandemic; publicly recommending that people inject themselves with bleach captures his approach toward the pandemic. He was unable to get the pandemic under control and instead increased polarization by encouraging the Far Right to mobilize against lockdowns and promoting coronavirus conspiracy theories. The economy plummeted in the U.S. and around the world, although China recovered more quickly from the pandemic, in stark contrast to the United States. The pandemic highlighted the total failure of American politicians and institutions to deal with a health crisis. The pandemic played a key role in getting Biden elected, with the capitalists and much of the masses hoping that Biden could restore the country to “normal.” It also created a common sense that workers are essential, which we are seeing play out now in the strikes.
The Black Lives Matter movement further strengthened the elements of organic crisis, both from the Left and Right — with Minneapolis as the epicenter, where protesters burned down the police station, the idea of “ending the police” was forced onto the ballot. Clearly, real police abolition was not up for a vote. It was just a replacement with public safety. But either way, it was an expression of the depth of the masses’ questioning of the police as an institution. And around the country, millions took the streets. In the meantime, Trump strengthened a neofascist Right, including people like Kyle Rittenhouse, alienated a sector of the military and his own party.
But the Democrats, led by Obama, Kamala Harris, and Biden, were able to swoop in to quell the BLM movement and turn it into a movement to the polls, with mass voter registration and key roles played by groups like Black Voters Matter and Black Lives Matter (the nonprofit). In this sense, the regime could build up what we call “strategic reserves.” This is a term that comes from Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. He explains in military terms that “strategic reserves” can be accumulated for unforeseen events; they are “cards to play” in moments of crisis. In this case, the Biden administration was able to, with the help of nonprofit leaderships, become the political expression of the BLM movement.
And in this context, most of the capitalists, who were seeking stability after Trump, lined up behind Biden, who won the election with a strong anti-Trump message. Millions of Sanders supporters and people who had called to Defund and Abolish the Police ended up voting for Biden for fear of another Trump administration. “We’ll keep fighting under Biden,” they promised. “We’ll stay in the streets.” But as we will see, the leaderships of social movements had different plans.
Trump tried to get Republicans loyal to him to say that he won the election, and even tried to get government officials to tip the scales for him. It didn’t work — take the example of Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, who wouldn’t say Trump won the election.
January 6 was a historic moment for the United States. On the one hand, it was the highest expression of an organic crisis, which had only become more acute in the last months of Trump’s presidency. It was not, however, a fascist coup or even an attempted coup, as we’ve stated here. The storming of the Capitol was a profound expression of the elements of organic crisis, but a moment that nonetheless provided an opportunity for the establishment of the political regime and the media — including politicians in both parties — to begin to reestablish legitimacy through their rejection of the right-wing rioters.
January 6 put the regime in a position to use and capitalize on its “strategic reserves.” These “reserves” were consciously constructed, in the recent past, using different methods, via both parties, and were exercised in a decisive moment. In the Democratic Party, as we’ve mentioned above, it was marked by disciplining Sanders and the left wing of the party during the primaries. This victory of the establishment of the Democratic Party put the party in a better position to co-opt (and repress where necessary) the BLM movement, and channel the social discontent toward electing Biden. We saw the “strategic reserves” at work in that the masses who had been mobilizing against Trump for the past four years looked to Biden and the regime to respond — they were trusted to take care of it, and there was no response from the working class and oppressed.
On the other hand, if the non-Trumpist wing of the GOP has found itself in a difficult position since 2016. January 6 enabled this sector to distance itself from Trump. But the Trumpist elements in the party remain. As a result, only 33 percent of Republicans say they’ll trust 2024 elections if a Democrat wins, and almost 70 percent of Republicans don’t believe Biden won the election.
In this context, the elements of organic crisis take on a more latent character. But that doesn’t mean there is no crisis or no tension.
The Biden Administration
In the first months of the Biden administration economists were jubilant about the economy, which seemed on the up and up. And there was a partial recovery from the pandemic. But as it turns out, there were limits to this.
Despite vaccine imperialism, which means that the U.S. has thrown away 15 million vaccines (more than the entire population of Honduras), the coronavirus continues to kill thousands of people, reaching very high rates due to the Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy.
We are also seeing a slowdown of supply chains, creating problems for businesses. This is directly tied to “the great resignation.” Low wages and precarious work conditions have resulted in, for example, fewer truck drivers. People are leaving their jobs at high rates, although the October jobs report shows some rebound in hirings and fewer people dropping out of the labor force. Unemployment is at 4.6 percent, when in 2019 it was at 3.6 percent. And among people ages 25–54, 81 percent are working, as opposed to 83 percent in 2019.
The inflation rate can be felt at every trip to the supermarket — in September it was at 5.4 percent in the U.S., a 13-year high. The Fed claims that this is directly tied to the problems of the pandemic and is thus temporary. But “temporary” could drag on for another year, continuing to hurt working-class families.
None of these problems are catastrophic right now. Rather, we see a recovery with some important snags and a capitalist economy that since 2008 has been facing strong contradictions and has not recovered.
In initial assessments when Biden was still a candidate, some believed he would be an austerity president. It turned out not to be the case. On the other hand, social democrats happily heralded Biden as the next FDR, but that is also not the case.
The pandemic relief bill did immediately get money into people’s pockets, so Biden’s reforms did play a role in earning his administration high approval ratings. But the next big spending bills will be much harder to pass. The bipartisan infrastructure bill will pass as progressives cave after the recent election results. It remains to be seen what will be in the reconciliation bill, but it’s certainly going to be much smaller than the original proposal.
Biden wants to use the infrastructure bill to win support among some of Trump’s “populist” supporters — after all Trump also promised infrastructure. It’s also a way to take a pro-spending position that will appeal to some in the Democratic Party’s base. The infrastructure plan is a necessity to minimally keep productivity rates from falling even more, as well as to give capitalists better chances to compete with China. But in the end, due to massive cuts, it’s not an offensive plan to build U.S. infrastructure to compete on the world stage.
Biden’s policy toward China has more elements of continuity than rupture with Trump’s policy. Whereas, at the birth of the neoliberal era, China’s opening itself to capitalism was oxygen for a suffocating economy, now China is rising as a strategic competitor with the U.S. So essentially the entire U.S. capitalist class agrees that China’s influence must be restrained. But unlike Trump, Biden is establishing a foreign policy that is more multilateral, seeking to lean on “Western allies.”
This comes against the backdrop of declining U.S. imperialist hegemony on a global scale. The crisis in Afghanistan exemplified this and created problems for the Biden administration, despite the bourgeois consensus that U.S. foreign policy should no longer focus on the Middle East. In fact, the consensus among the military and capitalists is that the United States wasted too much time, energy, and money in the Middle East, leaving a flank open for China to grow into a strategic competitor.
Thus, we see the pieces being put into place for much greater geopolitical tensions in the future, although right now they are at a low hum, not a fever pitch.
An Uneven Crisis in the Parties
Both parties have been able to contain the elements of an organic crisis within their own ranks. But this comes at a cost for both parties. The Democratic Party is facing internal struggles that make it difficult to pass the Biden agenda, although it has been able to discipline the most progressive wing of the party. That meant going back on electoral promises and whittling down the bills to tepid plans that benefit the capitalists. Thanks to the lag in passing legislation, as well as the worsening inflation, the Democrats lost big on election night, and Biden’s approval rating has dropped 10 points since the start of his administration, to 43 percent. Trump’s was 36 percent at this point in his presidency.
The Democrats have the “advantage” of having mostly neutralized the anti-establishment wing into what Our Revolution calls “pragmatic progressives” who aren’t close to or attempting to win the leadership of the party right now. Instead, what was once the anti-establishment wing are holding themselves up as the “true warriors” for the Biden agenda. Gone is the Green New Deal, free public college, and free public healthcare. Now “the Squad” have become Biden’s “Build Back Better” Democrats.
And we see the mechanisms of the “integral state” playing a role in containing any struggles from the Left. As Gramsci argued, the state is not just an instrument of repression and coercion; its hegemonic mechanisms also include co-optation. In the Biden administration, the institutions of this “integral state” are playing a key role in containing any elements of struggle. While Biden keeps immigrant children in cages and the right to an abortion is very possibly being rolled back, the nonprofit bureaucracies refuse to organize any major struggles. We see how the union bureaucracy in the Amazon unionization campaign organized to prop up Biden as a labor defender and even now works to make sure that strikes remain within the narrow confines of bourgeois legality.
The Republican Party is in a more tricky scenario. A sector of the Republican Party is doing a dance perhaps best exemplified by Glenn Youngkin, governor-elect of Virginia. He takes up some anti-establishment and racist elements of Trumpism while putting at least some distance between himself and Trump. While capitalizing on being a “political outsider,” he doesn’t take up the most anti-establishment elements of Trumpism. And so Republicans like him play a role in containing some of the biggest elements of the organic crisis, but it’s a tough balance.
Others, though, are more fully made in the mold of Trump: at least seven people who attended the pro-Trump rally on January 6 in Washington, which preceded the storming of the U.S. Capitol, were elected to public office in the last election.
And Republicans continue to promote the myth that Biden didn’t win the election. This clearly expresses elements of organic crisis, given how many people do not trust the democratic process. As a result, we’re seeing an onslaught of attacks on voting rights all over the country, which primarily affect voters of color. Nineteen states have enacted 33 laws restricting voting rights. These laws roll back the basic rights won during the civil rights era and seek to make sure Republicans win elections by keeping Black and Latinx people from the polls. Even Youngkin, while saying that Biden did win the election, promised a committee to study election fraud.
Basic democratic rights are being attacked by Republicans in multiple spheres. This included the attacks on abortion rights, banned after six weeks in Texas — a law upheld by the Supreme Court. It includes the countless attacks on trans youth, including being barred from sports teams and barriers to gender-affirming healthcare. And it includes attacks on the teaching of history and “critical race theory.” There is almost no organized fightback against any of these attacks.
Vaccine hesitancy is an important expression of the continued distrust in the establishment, expressing itself in a backward and distorted way in distrust of science itself. While the right wing has capitalized politically on vaccine hesitancy, and Trump himself fostered much of those sentiments, there are also large swaths of non-Trumpist people who express those sentiments. As a result, despite hoarding vaccines, the U.S. continues to have a high death rate, although it has subsided some in recent weeks.
Trump himself is playing a role in national politics — he is holding events, taking credit for the recent Republican wins, and wants to launch a new social media platform named Truth. Some polls say that 78 percent of Republicans want him to run for president again.
Trump and Trumpism are thus creeping back. The pieces are being put into place for a greater crisis.
We were in Striketober and now we are in what is being called Strikesgiving. This is the “other side” of the Great Resignation: the current strikes that don’t seek an “individual” way out of the crisis and organize more broadly for better conditions. These strikes do not constitute a strike wave, but they do highlight that the working class is moving, that there is a sector of workers who are rejecting the shit work conditions imposed by neoliberalism, and that a newfound postpandemic consciousness among the working class is essential. This combines with a hatred for bosses and for the ultrawealthy, creating conditions for a deeper and longer process of class struggle.
We see strikes against the two-tier system, which was a centerpiece of neoliberal attacks on the working class — used to divide workers and bring down wages for everyone. The lowest tier is consistently made up of Black and Latinx workers; the bosses thus use racism to divide the working class within these formalized divisions. Workers at Kellogg’s, John Deere, and Kaiser Permanente, like the General Motor workers in 2018, are speaking out against the tier system, and this represents an important struggle against a pillar of neoliberalism in their workplace.
Many are on strike with the conviction that they will give no concessions, as Kellogg workers recently said. We are seeing a rejection of tentative agreements proposed by the bureaucracy, as we saw among the John Deere and Volvo workers, as well as the Alabama miners. At the same time, the union bureaucracy is playing a central role in containing these struggles, and in the case of IATSE, even stopping the strike.
These strikes highlight possibilities for the Left and potential in the subjectivity of the working class. But when we think about it from the perspective of organic crisis, we see Democratic Party operatives trying to frame these as a way to support Biden and the PRO Act. This idea of strikes as pressure campaigns for the Democrats, not as “schools of war” to build class power, is prevalent on the Left and in the DSA. This is a big weakness that will prevent these strikes from radicalizing and from politically opposing the capitalists in their parties. Further, it’s not out of the question that the sense of “don’t take our jobs to Mexico” could from the base of Trumpism. So it’s still an open question where this will go, whether there will be a real strike wave, and if it will become radicalized.
The Looming Threat of Climate Change
Another element that will play a destabilizing role is the issue of climate change. Biden was elected promising to be a climate-friendly president and to develop a “green capitalism” — and sectors of capitalism invested in that idea. Many on the Left voted for Biden as the “lesser evil” on climate change, hoping that he would take steps to curtail the worst of the U.S.’s massive role in climate change. These folks were deeply mistaken, as the Biden administration is showing.
While the infrastructure plan was meant to point to big solutions, in the end only $555 billion will go toward climate change issues over the next 10 years, which is not even one-10th the amount the U.S. is likely to put toward military funding during that time. And it is a plan that will likely increase carbon emissions, not bring them down. Further, Biden administration is making major giveaways to the world’s biggest polluters at COP26 and abandoning the goal of limiting warming to 1.5ºC.
No action has been taken to shut down Minnesota’s Line 3, the Dakota Access Pipeline, or other fossil fuel projects. And he is moving forward with deforestation projects.
The climate crisis is an existential one. Despite what the “radical” sector of the Dems might have us believe, it is impossible to avert climate disaster without a rational use of earth’s resources. Worker’s control of production is the only reasonable path toward averting climate disaster. Capitalism does not have real solutions to the climate crisis, and it will only create increasing crises, including climate refugees, infrastructure strains, drastic climate events, and more.
In broad strokes, this is some of the political scenario that we find ourselves in — the elements of organic crisis have receded to latency, which does not eliminate the possibility of crises to come, even in the near future. As the Left has become more integrated into the regime and the integral state plays a role in containing and diverting class struggle and discontent, Left Voice must think about our role in building a revolutionary socialist organization in the U.S., which starts with countering the role of the Democratic Party and all its tentacles. But it also includes converging and entering into dialogue with those young people turning to socialism, disillusioned with the Biden administration and willing to fight; it includes those workers currently on strike, but who see that the struggle goes further than the shop floor. In the tradition of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, which explains the role of the publication in the building of a group, we hope that Left Voice can play a role in the theoretical and political grounding for the emergence of a revolutionary party and the refounding of the Fourth International.