There are commentators on the left who acknowledge that the American Rescue Plan (ARP) represents a paradigm shift away from neoliberalism, and I would add Reaganomics – but what they won’t say is that its passage is, in the first place, the handiwork of the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats. The fact that Democratic Party policymakers in the Biden administration wrote the bill and every Democrat in the House and Senate, save one, voted for the ARP seems not to prompt any reconsideration.
What explains their refusal to give credit where credit is due? Or to put it differently, what is the theory of their case to give Biden and Democrats, at best, faint praise?
According to these commentators, the default position of Biden and Democrats, if allowed to follow their own inclinations, is corporate/neoliberal reformism. Left to their own devices, in their view, they would never champion a sweeping measure like the ARP. After all, a huge number, it is said, are neoliberals. What then accounts for Biden’s decision to write and champion this piece of progressive legislation that expands the role of the federal government? The answer, say these left critics, is simple. Biden wasn’t really its author, but he was smart enough to see the writing on the wall and claim authorship. The actual scribe was the surge of the class struggle from below. Or, as others might say, it was the Movement, stupid!
But is this really the case? Is it really that simple?
Set aside for the moment the rescue plan, if we think about major turning points in the country’s history – the Civil War? the New Deal? the Civil Rights Revolution? – is that the lesson we would draw? Were they simply driven from the ground up? The singular result of the intensification of the class struggle? It’s a strain to make that argument stick.
Each of these episodes in history were far more complex than such simplistic (one-sided) analyses would suggest. The participants and organizations in each case were socially and politically diverse, driven by democratic as well as class desires, engaged in alliances (strategic and tactical) with disparate social constituencies, traversed different stages of struggle, employed tactical flexibility in the interest of unity, and combined action at the top with action from below. The working class wasn’t AWOL, but working people and their organizations expressed themselves through a tangle of coalitions as well as independently and they were not necessarily the leading political actors in these coalitions. In other words, these popular movements in most instances were not labor led, although workers, whose identities and desires were many and varied, were very much a part of them, including in the leadership.
Returning to the American Rescue Plan, any explanation of its content and passage would include several factors, not simply the class struggle from below. To begin with, a deadly and devastating pandemic laid bare the class, racial, and gender insufficiencies and inequalities of our system of social provision. A second factor is the Democratic Party victory in November. Had that not happened, the ARP would be on the wish list of some progressive think tank and the rest of us would be fighting a rearguard action against an emboldened Trump and Trumpism. Another is – a surprise to many – the progessive posture of the Biden administration, something that was, I would argue, evident in his presidential campaign. Still another factor, which informed policy and lawmakers, is lessons from the Obama administration’s decision in its early days not to spend big in the face of a near economic collapse, which, in its effect, slowed the recovery and politically weakened Democrats. A fifth factor was the surge of democratic struggles, from the million strong Women’s March at the time of Trump’s Inauguration to the unprecedented in many ways spontaneous uprising led by BLM in the immediate aftermath of the heinous murder of George Flyod by Minniapolis police and not long before Trump’s drubbing in the elections. Finally, the receding of centrism and the emerging hegemony of a liberal-progressive bloc in the Democratic Party was a big factor too. In fact, a case can be made that the Democratic Party, which has a deep and diverse bench of able liberal and progressive legislators, including the “Squad” but by no means is limited to it, is at the center of a political coalition that is capable of decisively defeating Trumpism, further weakening neoliberalism, and ushering in a new era of progressive reforms.
None of this is to say that class struggles over the past decade, especially Bernie Sanders two presidential runs, didn’t leave their distinctive mark on the content and passage of the ARP, not to mention the dynamics and direction of politics generally. They did, but to elide other levels and forms of the political struggle and their reciprocal interaction with one another serves no good purpose, unless you’re attempting to fit life and politics into an ideological straightjacket, wherein the class struggle drives and decides everything.
Such a theory of the case, such an approach ends up over-simplifying the complexity of political change, while inadvertently revealing the inadequacies of class politics when narrowly and dogmatically constructed.
The challenge today is to practice a politics of class that possesses a wide-angled field of vision, understands the place of the struggle for democracy, and takes full stock of a political awakening that’s occurring across the country. This awakening arises out of a swelling insistence for equality and justice, existential crises that threaten planetary life and democratic governance, and a heightened sense that we are approaching a tipping point in which the future of the country hangs in balance and change is imperative. Neither the status quo nor yesterday’s solutions hold much currency in this awakening consciousness.
Fintan O’Toole writes in the New York Review of Books:
“Change happens when the cost of continuity outweighs the risk of transformation. Trumpism — its apotheosis on January 6 and its continuing hold over the GOP — has altered this calculation decisively. … What the footage exhibited at Trump’s trial so terrifyingly showed is not just a very recent past but a highly plausible future. Anarchy and despotism are not vague possibilities. They are the default option if society and the economy stay as they are.”
O’Toole’s insight is felt, if not fully articulated, across many layers of our society and constitutes the ideological ground for the American Rescue Plan, not to mention the willingness of the Biden administration, much of the Democratic Party and the still larger democratic coalition to look at and construct the world anew.
In this conjuncture progressive and left communities have an opportunity to leave their mark on a future that hovers between renewal on new foundations or descent into a never imagined horrifying future. Or, as Dr. King wrote, a choice between community or chaos. But only if they eschew simplified schemes, perfect the art of politics, champion expansive unity, and articulate a freedom and justice vision in a language that is readily understood by and draws from the life experiences of tens of millions.