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The global pandemic of COVID-19 has brought long gestating political, economic, and social contradictions to a head far more rapidly than any of us expected by. Despite its sharp class and racial distributions, the highly infectious, border-crossing virus confounds both centrist and right-wing politics by wreaking havoc on conventional distinctions between the deserving and the disposable, striking potentially at any person. Suddenly the need for basic income and universal health care, to say nothing of minimally adequate public health infrastructure, threatens to overwhelm the governing order.
While the U.S. government’s CARES Act has been keyed to shoring up asset prices, its unprecedented expansion of unemployment insurance and direct cash assistance reluctantly abandoned strictures of wage discipline and moral hazard historically applied to ordinary working and poor people alike. We can be certain that these measures will be the first to fall under renewed deficit alarmism, demands for austerity and efforts to deflect reservoirs of popular rage and loss into retributive demands and racist scapegoating as the immediate crisis recedes.
It is a grim picture to be sure, and it will deteriorate further if those committed to a more rational and humane socialization of resources, international cooperation, ecological preservation and economic fairness do not become central to the post-pandemic planning. Can the egalitarian, politically transformative majority that many on the left have fitfully struggled to build since the 2008 financial crisis emerge from the cycle of economic and social ruin we are facing?
The answer is likely to be no if we once again avoid historical reckoning with how we arrived at this moment. Despite dire warnings that the Trump administration represents an unprecedented descent into quasi-fascism, the more compelling truth is that we have been living through a long period of plutocratic ascendancy and democratic devolution, intensifying governmental graft and international predation, and proliferating failed and failing states, including our own. Over several decades, major crisis fronts have widened, fracturing an already fragile, flawed and unequal domestic and international order: transnational terrorism and permanent war, off-shore tax evasion and criminal money laundering, ecological deterioration and extreme weather, civil wars and new genocides, with accompanying waves of migrant and refugee emergencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this timetable of crisis. The progressive politico-geographic dream of the postwar Pax Americana—a world unified at “the end of history” under the apex of U.S. affluence—is dead. What will replace it is far less certain.
Exiting the cataclysm of World War II, U.S. liberal elites embarked upon an ambitious attempt to establish a secure, rule-bound capitalist world system. Leading the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation-state and building on the political and institutional legacy of the New Deal, they emphasized a politics of class compromise and sought renewal of industrial production, capital accumulation, and political authority throughout the world. They advanced a strategic consensus around rebuilding Europe and Japan, and “containing” Soviet influence, which included violent, often covert, counter-insurgency operations against communist and national liberation movements, particularly in the decolonizing global south. Domestic policy, in turn, sought to balance interests of big capital and big labor, organized through high marginal tax rates, high union density, home ownership, and normative emphasis on the family wage, meritocratic mobility, and interest group pluralism, co-existing in an uneasy alliance with the decentralized racial despotism of southern Jim Crow.
The racial fissure—running through the majoritarian Democratic electoral coalition and shaping new patterns of postwar migration and settlement—meant that although globalist liberalism bolstered and gained support from organized labor and reformist struggles against racial exclusion, it did not generate—either domestically or in the decolonizing world—the strong redistributive, labor-centered politics of the kind that underpinned social democratic welfare-states in Europe. It also left U.S. politics subject to a uniquely volatile type of elite fracture defined around different regional, legal and political conceptions of national and international racial order. This was evident at the onset of the cold war, as the nationalist far-right, much of which opposed U.S. entry into World War II and remained sympathetic to racial hierarchy and European fascism, entered into competition over the future of U.S. foreign policy, accusing leading government officials of suborning communist betrayal and “the loss of China.” Thenceforth, inflation of foreign threats and messianic anti-communism retained the potential to roil partisan politics at home and provoke military adventurism overseas.
Lyndon Johnson, who viewed his untimely succession to the presidency in 1963 as an opportunity to expand the promise of the New Deal to full employment, basic income support, and racial inclusion in “the Great Society,” instead saw his office consumed by reckless escalation of the Vietnam War and by conflagrations in segregated central cities populated by postwar black migrants. Ostensibly fought to preserve U.S. credibility as “guarantor” of the international system it designed and viewed as a cornerstone of rising affluence, war overseas and riots at home marked the onset of the erosion of both, even if the Reagan surge and the end of the Cold War two decades on, augured a kind of false dawn. The imperial center no longer held. Class compromise and racial reform at home and rule bound order throughout the capitalist world was fatally decomposing as the economic and political settlement on which it grew, foundered.
Since that time, low growth, or “secular stagnation,” has become the norm, persisting now for half a century. Industrial overcapacity, international competition, and weak aggregate demand the world over, spurred decisive shifts in capital-seeking profitability to low wage, producer countries under globally networked finance and a parallel (neoliberal) reorientation of government priorities away from regulation, redistribution, and corporate accountability, toward capital mobility, market discipline, and personal responsibility. In the face of the so-called “China shock,” the seismic global economic event at the center of this period, U.S. governing elites embraced the global re-ordering of production and trade under the World Trade Organization, and sought to maintain U.S. comparative advantages through financial and military means and muscular unilateralism, particularly in oil-producing regions. Domestically, the U.S. moved steadily toward a more coercive and predatory labor market built on stagnant wages, under-employment, undocumented and service work, now comprising almost two thirds of the economy.
Bear in mind, this was the moment the United States had finally—formally—became a non-racial, liberal democracy. Ironically, this landmark democratic achievement marked the collapsing horizon of collective political agency. Political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 1975 warning that newly activated labor, environmental, feminist, anti-war and civil rights advocates represented a dangerous “excess of democracy” proved more prescient than anyone could have imagined at the time. “The people,” Huntington lamented, “no longer felt the same obligation to obey those they previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, and talents,” lamenting that it was no longer possible to “govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers.”
Stoking popular fears of racial unrest, global disorder and social decay, elites responded to a wider and deeper democracy by engendering decisive shifts in governing conception—from seeking consent to facilitating coercion—and sharply foreclosing potential confluence of emancipatory politics, particularly around race and gender, with intensifying labor struggle on the shop floor (the latter, a mostly forgotten element of the political ferment of the 1960s and 1970s). New obstacles to political action emerged in the form of more elastic, expansive and discretionary uses of state violence at home and abroad—the unprecedented and ongoing U.S. experiment with mass criminalization and incarceration, and the routinization of emergency, executive war powers, which Congress limited after the Vietnam debacle, but reasserted in a new round of proxy wars and foreign policy scandals during the Reagan administration. Reactionary efforts to reshape the judiciary around a new Constitutional fetishism paralleled these developments, rolling back not only hard won rights and administrative regulations around health, safety, occupational and environmental protection, but also gains that limited police powers, wealth in politics and most recently, barriers to voting.
In the face of revanchist consolidation, the U.S. left has endeavored to reanimate and recompose the energies of organized social movement—labor, civil rights, feminist, anti-war and environmental—into a political mobilization capable of moving national politics and public commitments toward collective flourishing: high quality public health care and education, remunerative employment and adequate leisure time for all, neighborhood welfare and comity, just and peaceful international security.
Hopeful beginnings have time and again proved to be false starts. In the mid-1980s, the Rainbow Coalition, led by Jesse Jackson, heir apparent to residually active 1960s social movements, presented a flickering of left renewal before ceding to the Clinton-led Democratic Leadership Council’s neoliberal reconstitution of the Democratic party. Campaigning in progressive populist tones, Barack Obama, elected as the nation’s first black President during a grinding war and financial crisis, accessed the residual prestige of democratic inclusivity: “struggle,” “hope” and “change”—only to enlist it for the battered precincts of corporate liberalism and imperial order. The upsurge of left electoralism, inspired by Bernie Sanders’s insurgent 2016 campaign in the Democratic presidential primary, appeared more promising, combining a bold electoral gambit with an oppositional vision of class struggle, more egalitarian and redistributive in its aspirations than any political campaign in recent memory. Sanders defeat, however, has again vacated the electoral field to rising nationalist conservatism welding populist themes to racial and xenophobic animus and resilient boardroom progressivism mobilizing race, gender, and humanitarian sensitivity as tokens of benign, elite rule.
Hearkening back to the mobilizing vision of a bygone New Deal order, centered upon the universal health, economic needs and political agency of ordinary working people, but now inclusive of all colors and genders, the Sanders movement not only struggled to find a form of ideological messaging to break the grip of partisan elite and cultural polarization, but also confronted a substantively changed field of nationally organized class and race relations that rendered the postwar “golden age” formulas—with its union shops, interest group pluralism, meritocratic mobility, welfare expansion and civil rights reform—largely irrelevant. The deindustrialization, declining unionization, spatial apartheid, hyper-incarceration, low-wage work, underemployment, lack of affordable healthcare, and criminalization of unauthorized immigration that defines our period, requires a fundamentally different political imaginary and policy response than the one offered by New Deal politics.
What some on the left—including those in the Sanders campaign—decry as a progressive neoliberal “retreat from class” should be understood in this light. It reflects less an abdication of a materialist politics of economic distribution in favor of a symbolic politics of group-based recognition, (i.e., class politics versus “identity politics”), than the obsolescence of the older paradigm that sought to stabilize quasi-universalist, employment-based programs of redistribution and social insurance with formal remediation of historic race and gender discrimination and poverty. What has emerged in its place, however, has proven particularly destructive to the development of durable political solidarities on the left. Today a panoply of group-based justice claims defined by anti-discrimination norms and legality (underwritten by a non-profit sector), often oppose or compete with labor-centered, workplace demands. Where the former have become anchored to meritocratic aspiration in shrinking arenas of professional employment, the latter have been hollowed out by anemic organizational strength and decades of stingy, more punitive means-tested state support for the employed and unemployed.
Challenging white supremacy and patriarchal sexual prerogatives, once a hallmark of a broad emancipatory politics on the left, has been captured by political, university, and media professionals in a narrower and more formidably encased class hierarchy. Such politics now mainly plays out in individualized rituals of shaming and accusation, and in cynical and opportunistic efforts to take down political opponents or advance careers. Within this milieu, downwardly mobile, white voters without college degrees are often casually depicted as the font of dangerous racism and reactionary politics, an approach that hinges progressive gender and anti-racist discourse to class contempt. An interminable debate about whether economic anxiety or racism and sexism were key to understanding working-class, poor, and rural swing voters who chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, for example, diverts attention from enduring links between racial denigration, gendered violence and economic precarity in U.S. life, and also the extent to which neoliberal progressives, no less than conservatives, have designed policies widening economic inequality and expanding police, surveillance, and war powers, accelerating social decay and contributing to the rise of protean racial animus.
This situation nevertheless poses challenges for revival of a politics centered on the needs of ordinary working and poor people. Solidarity will prove elusive as long as super-exploitation and labor disposability—charged by race, gender, felony, and immigration status—is effectively made the enemy of “working-class” politics. Overcoming structural, spatial and political barriers to solidarity within a narrowing national labor market divided and decomposed into the criminalized and undocumented, the contracted and precarious, the fully employed and under-employed is no simple matter. At the very least, advancing toward a post mass-incarceration society, decriminalizing immigration policy, establishing economic and social rights for undocumented workers, are as important as campaigns for a higher national minimum wage, universal healthcare, and shoring up forms of labor organization and wage demands for more secure workers. Nor can any viable coalition politics afford to merely scorn the humanitarian sensibilities and expertise of progressive elites, particularly in matters of environmental remediation and design of equitable public finance and health care systems, even if emphasis on technocratic fixes to political challenges should be decentered in any vision of left majoritarian social reconstruction.
Above all, a new politics will have to resist forcefully any temptation to follow upon the successes of the right in recent years, for example, hinging working-class rehabilitation to racial-nationalist renovation defined against migrant enemies at the border, multicultural “elites” at home, and nation-state competitors overseas (trade wars). The Trumpian promise after all, is not simply about crude reassertions of racial prerogatives, but the claim to put the United States (and Americans) first, globally and domestically, through fanciful promises that the nation can once again be a vital manufacturing center, and more importantly, by ensuring that the corporate giants of a new age of zero-sum capitalism need not be restrained by public health and environmental regulations, humanitarian appeals and multilateral globalism. We would be laboring under an enormous delusion to think that the United States can solve for itself challenges of stagnant economic growth, class decomposition, climate decay, and now pandemic emergency. But more than this, a left that is myopically focused on the national politics of economic distribution and labor organization, will have great difficulty distinguishing itself in a context where the center and right grow accustomed to welding emergency spending to greater concentrations of corporate power and increasingly aggressive nationalism.
The COVID-19 pandemic will not create the social transformation we need, but it will set the terms for it. Recovery from what is likely to be a prolonged economic downturn will be hampered by the very conditions that defined and exacerbated the crisis. Premature efforts to get people “back to work” as illness recedes and resurges again, are likely to persist, belying the fact that low wage, emergency, service and health care workers, never stopped working, and illuminating the outlines of an intensifying class hierarchy defined at one pole by remote, highly remunerated work in information and finance buttressed by fast internet connections inside comfortable homes, set against a backdrop of mass unemployment, lengthening breadlines, rising social unrest, and uncounted deaths among the elderly, poor and most vulnerable, both in the Untied States and overseas.
The core of the problem is a society organized around extreme and precarious market dependency and a weak and exclusionary public health care system—one that has seen U.S. life expectancy drift to the bottom of the world’s wealthy nations since the 1980s. The biopolitical calculus of late capitalism has long calibrated minimal thresholds of human existence to an always enlivened marketplace and logic of accumulation. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s recent call for willingness to die to save “the economy” merely exposed this truth, one generally kept from view. Despite falling short, the Sanders campaign has already illuminated for millions of people what needs to change. Nothing short of what Martin Luther King, Jr., called a revolution in values will do—one that prioritizes the work of care for others, our communities, and the environment, and that puts an end to the tyranny of market rule, speculative finance, and endless war that has held us captive since before we were born.
There are few straightforward answers to how to bring about the egalitarian reconstruction of our society that many now seek and that all of us desperately need, but there is little doubt that the path runs through renewed forms of collective politics. Living under conditions in which the institutional basis and social ecology of collective politics has been fundamentally degraded, fragmented and atomized, the burning question remains: how do we get there? Removing Trump from office is an important and immediate short-term goal. But what are likely to be at best incremental gains from the current electoral season will once again prove inadequate to addressing the long unwinding of U.S. affluence, community health and welfare, and individual life chances. The structural, racial, and spatial divisions that distribute, fraction, and subordinate the different segments and regions of U.S. working-class life across a party duopoly catering to different sets of plutocratic elites needs to be broken. That task remains for the next iteration of the U.S. left.
Nikhil Pal Singh is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University and Faculty Diretor of the NYU Prison Education Program. His most recent book is Race and America’s Long War.
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