The contrast between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren
First things first: Should the Left participate in bourgeois democratic elections? Yes—for the following reasons.
1) Parliamentarianism is a living, politically alive form in the functioning of American democracy. Although I agree with Borges that in the next life we should commit more errors, given the present conditions of the nation, it would be a mistake to vacate this political space and leave it to the exclusive control of the dominant classes. Granted, elections in a liberal democracy like ours tend to legitimize the power and interests of big corporations and capital to the detriment of the needs and interests of most working or unemployed people. On the other hand, we must go where the masses are (130 million Americans went to the polls in the 2016 elections, which represents 58% of eligible voters).
We must occupy the spaces in which working people fight their battles, even if many battles have proved to be futile, misguided, frustrating, and conducted in conditions of social adversity. It is up to us — to paraphrase Lenin — to “tell them the bitter truth” and to unveil the parliamentary prejudices of the electoral system. At the same time we “must soberly follow the actual state of class-consciousness and preparedness … of all the working people” in a given historical time. In other words, given that in this current moment, more working people are focused on using elections to fight battles rather than picking up arms, we can’t afford to ignore electoral politics (See Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder).
2) Voter suppression. Although both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of gerrymandering and imposing electoral restrictions, in the last decade these dubious practices have become almost exclusively the solitary pleasure of the Republican Party. According to Michael D. Reagan, writing for PBS, over 14 states in the union “installed new restrictive voting laws hurting the turnout of high-poverty districts.”
This type of legislation implemented by Republicans aims consciously to force the masses into political somnolence and disenfranchisement. In this context, forsaking voter registration campaigns and avoiding promoting cognizant electoral participation creates a disturbing bed-fellowship between the Left and the most conservative forces of the country. There will be no ‘morning-after pill’ available in the political medicine cabinet after such a questionable affair.
3) Parliamentary participation. When combined with higher forms of struggle this becomes a useful and indispensable tool used by the masses to press for higher and more egalitarian forms of socio-economic organization. The most notorious example in current American history of ‘playing the piano with both hands’ are the large variety of oppositional actions leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the anti-war movement. Using parliamentary elections does not exclude the struggle for socialism; rather, it gives the left an opportunity to unveil the contradictions of the capital system.
On to measurements and perspectives
The political measurement of any political party, single candidate, group, organization, PAC, lobbyist, newspaper, media network, etc. is taken by asking two simple, related yet distinct questions: First, which class interests does the party, candidate, or group in question represent? And second, who are or will be the main beneficiaries of the policies proposed by that entity? If improvements in the material living conditions of working people are not addressed, and the main beneficiaries are not, or have not been, the majority of the people, it becomes imperative that we not support that candidate, organization, or policy.
The mass line. Progressive political leadership primarily uses what is known as the mass line, and the mass perspective. “Mass line” aims for the continuous advancement of the living conditions of the masses by taking three steps: first, gathering the needs and ideas of the people; second, processing those ideas and needs into a political form; and finally, returning those collected ideas and popular needs to the masses in the form of a doable political platform meant to advance and improve the conditions of the masses.
Mass perspective. This, in contrast, is more of a political-philosophical standpoint but it can also be summarized in three points. First, it acknowledges that the masses are the makers of history and that social change cannot take place unless it is made by the masses themselves. In other words, the course of history is not determined by isolated individuals or politicians regardless of their assumed importance but rather it is determined by the people. Second, mass perspective assumes that the masses must come to realize through their own experience and political struggle that change is not only necessary but possible. Finally, mass perspective assumes that the role of progressive and revolutionary people is to actively join the struggle of the people in order to help shift the struggle to higher political levels.
The specter of socialism and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
In spite of what Fox News may broadcast, socialism is not just around the corner holding hands with the revolution. Nonetheless, it is a growing living reality in the political unconscious of many Americans. This is illustrated by the 28-year-old Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez’s shocking victory against longstanding Democrat Representative Joe Crowley, causing what the ‘Business Insider’ calls “the biggest political upset of the year.” Alexandria’s victory, followed by other similar political nominations strengthened by her support in other states, shows that her success did not start and end in New York. Add to this the growing number of Democrats and anti-Trump activists willing to identify with social reforms advocated by the Democratic Socialists of America. It is not surprising then that the Democratic Party finds itself in internal disarray, trying to exorcise the specter of socialism within its ranks, while trying to keep some level of credibility among voters.
According to Anne McElvoy in The Guardian, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Democratic Socialist of America has galvanized disillusioned voters.” The DSA, in McElvoy’s opinion “is the afterlife of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, but with roots in a movement reaching back a century that peaked in a post-Depression quest for a New Deal.” In a Gallup poll published early this month, 57% of Democrats have a positive view of socialism, while only 47% of them perceive capitalism as positive, down from 56% in 2016. The same poll indicates that fewer than half (45%) of young Americans view capitalism positively.
Alexandria’s victory cannot be explained within the traditional logic and modus operandi of the Democratic Party establishment. This was evident in Obama’s ‘first wave’ of 2018 midterm endorsements that did not include Ocasio-Cortez. Her victory belongs to her efforts, ingenuity and dedication and not to the political or monetary generosity of a fossilized party apparatus. She is a Bronx native, and this was her first time running for office. While running her campaign (and to help to finance it), she was working as a bartender. Writing for “Business Insider,” John Haltiwanger noted that she started her unconventional campaign literally “out of a Trader Joe’s bag,” What “Business Insider” didn’t report was that to a great extent, Ocasio-Cortez’s political success constitutes a creative example of applying the mass line concepts to her political leadership.
Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Alexandria said, “it was speaking with constituents about issues instead of focusing on President Donald Trump that helped me win.” She also mentioned that her platform and political message aimed at the working class, independently of race, ethnicity, or political affiliation (her constituency is located in the Bronx and part of Queens). Consequently, she indicated, it wasn’t important to introduce her political identity-label (Democratic-Socialist) first when interacting with voters, but rather she led with real issues felt by the people and that was what made a difference. In her own words:
We have to stick to the message: What are we proposing to the American people? Not, ‘what are we fighting against’ … We understand that we are under an antagonistic administration, but what is the vision that is going to earn and deserve the support of working-class Americans? And we need to be explicit in that vision and legislation, not just ‘better,’ but what exactly is our plan.
What are the elements of Ocasio-Cortez’s plan?
Medicare for All: a single payer health care system that would cover medicine, vision, dental, and mental health care.
Fully funded public schools and universities: Ocasio-Cortez is still paying off student loans, and she advocates tuition-free college and trade school, and cancelling all student debt.
Universal jobs guarantee: a Federal Jobs Guaranty, establishing a “baseline quality” for employment that guarantees a minimum $15 wage (pegged to inflation), full health care, and paid child and sick leave for all.
Housing as a human right: “Congress must tip the balance away from housing as a gambling chip for Wall Street banks and fight for accessible housing that’s actually within working families reach,’
Justice-system reform: end the war on drugs, demilitarize police departments and abolish for-profit prisons. Legalize marijuana at the federal level and release individuals sentenced for non-violent drug offences.
Immigration Reform: abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Clear a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants and create more protections for “Dreamers.”
Climate Change: this is the “single biggest national security threat for the United States and the single biggest threat to worldwide industrialized civilization.” Implement a carbon-free 100% renewable energy system and a fully modernized electrical grid in the US by 2035.
Campaign-finance reform: Ocasio-Cortez set an example by running a low budget campaign, raising about $200,000 and refusing to accept donations from lobbyists. She calls for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United.
“Of course, I am a capitalist!”
The political specter of socialism disturbs not only the Democratic Party. Republicans and the right-wing media have embarked upon a holy crusade to exorcise socialism. Few figures or parties opposing the current status quo have not been branded as socialists. Among these oppositional figures we find Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a liberal Democrat who all of a sudden finds herself categorized as socialist. It’s an ideological label for which she is far from prepared, a label that fits her like an oversize hat.
Warren’s capital sin, in the cross-eyed view of the far right, is her most recent attempt to ameliorate capitalism via the Accountable Capitalism Act. Among other things, this would require big companies to recognize obligations to society. The problem with Senator Warren’s position is not that all her intentions are bad, but that her thinking ignores the fact that the social problems of American society are not due to a simple malfunction of the market but rather to the very essence of the market functions.
Candidly, or perhaps, defensively, in a video interview with John Harwood, Warren promptly reassured viewers that “Of course I am a capitalist, come on!”
You shouldn’t worry much Senator Warren, we always knew you were a capitalist. The constant of her 13 years in congress is that Elizabeth Warren has always seen the failures of capitalism as simple distortions in need of timely reform. Ironically, she seems to see the Democratic Party as an entity that does not need to be reformed, but rather as a well-functioning apparatus that for unknown reasons is not part of capitalism nor of its ideological political machinery. In contrast to Ocasio-Cortez’s practice that can be described as “from the masses, to the masses,”Warren’s political practice seems to reflect a deep-seated belief that a group of enlightened elites should change the course of history.
Unleashing a demon?
In a recent article in Fox News, Newt Gingrich catastrophically announced that “Democrats have no idea what demons they are unleashing.” His article is mostly aimed against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most recent public ‘demon’ of American socialism. In contrast to Gingrich’s assertion, Ocasio-Cortez appears to be well-aware of the nature and direction of her political practice. She shows that parliamentarianism is a politically alive form in the functioning of American democracy. She also demonstrates that parliamentary participation — particularly when combined with more advanced forms of struggle — can becomes a useful and indispensable tool used by the masses to press for higher and more egalitarian forms of socio-economic organization.
Enrique Quintero is a member of the WIP Publishing Committee.