Stay the Course: Why the Popular Front is Permanent and Why Maximalism is Always a Mistake

Introduction

As we celebrate the victory of the Democratic Party in the 2020 US General Election —and the end of the disastrous Trump government— it is important to be clear regarding what has and what has not changed —not because the change is not significant, because it is, but because many of our most important tasks nonetheless remain the same, and where they have changed addressing them requires a correct reading of the objective situation. Specifically, there is a grave danger that those on the Left will assume that the need for a broad popular front against fascism has ended and begin to polarize on the new government at a time when it needs our support and creativity in addressing critical challenges such as the pandemic and climate change and the continuing assault from the New Axis and the Dark Enlightenment.

In attempting to provide clarity regarding our tasks in the current conjuncture we will begin by asking what happened. What factors shaped the Democratic victory? And why did Trump do as well as he did? We will then go on to analyze what has and has not changed in the objective situation, and draw out the implications of this analysis for both  our longue duree strategy and for the way in which we understand the principal tasks of this period and conjuncture.

What Happened?

The victory of the Democratic Party in the 2020 US General Election is a product of the following factors:

  1. broad popular rejection of Trump’s fascism, racism, patriarchy, climate denial, and his handling of the pandemic,
  2. broad popular support for effective action to address these problems, even if there is also significant disagreement regarding just how to do so, and
  3. improved election security which made it impossible for the FSB/Republican axis to steal the election.

Campaign funding data (Open Secrets 2020) shows overwhelming support for the Democrats across all of the most advanced sectors of Capital, including information, technology, and investment banking as well as  philantropocapitalists, the clergy, and the humanistic intelligentsia as represented in the education, civil service, and nonprofit sectors as well as organized labor. The Republicans, on the other hand command energy and natural resources (except sustainable energy production), forestry, agriculture, construction, transportation, and some lower and mid-technology and low manufacturing activity such as textiles and steel. Other sectors, including defense, and the technical and business intelligentsia (think engineers and accountants) , are sharply divided.

Demographic data (Frey 2020) show at most small shifts from 2016, with major divisions along the lines of race, gender, religion, education, and urban versus rural location, with some evidence that urbanization is actually a substitute for linkage to the global market, which is difficult to measure. Shifts occurred to the Democrats most especially in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas. Shifts towards the Republicans took place among men, including Black, Latino, and Asian men, and among Latinos generally, especially those of Cuban descent and those who identify as having multigenerational roots in the US as opposed to those who identify as immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants.

The Democratic victory in the election was assisted by improved election security which made it more difficult for the FSB and their Republican allies to steal the election and by a generally strong campaign in spite of the limitations on the ground game imposed by the pandemic.

But what of Trump’s continued strong support? In the wake of the 2016 general election there was a great deal of analysis claiming that Trump’s victory represented the economic anxiety of something called the “white working class.” The numbers then, as now, do little to support this claim, at least if we understand the working class to mean those who must sell their labor power in order to survive.  And even if we use a broader definition, lower income is consistently associated with votes for the Democratic Party.  What is actually at issue here is a reassertion of racist and patriarchal identities in response to the alienation which accompanies proletarianization.

Marx expected that the process of proletarianization would generate a revolutionary class which would, with little more than organizing and strategic leadership, struggle to transcend capitalism and decommodify labor power (Marx and Engels 1848/2000). This has turned out to be a fundamental mistake. The alienation engendered by the commodification of labor power is real and results in a radical de-humanization and de-moralization of the proletariat. In response to this, as Fromm and others have demonstrated (Fromm 1941/1994), people develop authoritarian personality structures centered on submitting to those above them and dominating those below them. This is, by itself, not confined just to “white” workers. It happens to everyone to the extent to which they lose creative control over their own labor, are ripped from communities of shared meaning,  and are not able to find a way to resist at a spiritual level. But when it happens to white people, and white men in particular, the authoritarian psychological dynamics that take shape are expressed by way of racist and patriarchal ideologies, creating a massive strategic reserve for the Right. We see a lesser form of this playing out with Black and Latino men, who have actually turned towards Trump since 2016.

These contradictions are further exacerbated by status contradictions within the working classes. Status refers to the prestige, honor, or mana attaching to a person or thing, and Marx and his interpreters have ignored it at their peril, though Weber (Weber 1920/1968) analyzed it in depth, and Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1983/1986) considered it under the category of “cultural capital.” First, there are sharp contradictions between those who have a university level education and those who do not, and especially between those who have a liberal arts education and those who do not. In the multidimensional status hierarchy which exists in the US, higher education education generally has emerged as a substitute for older forms of ascribed status such as race and gender and authentic liberal education in particular confers nominal gentry status. Increased access to higher education has enabled both women and members of historically oppressed communities to gain status in relation to “white” men who do not have a university degree.

Indeed, the term “white working class” must be understood as referring not to an intersection of actual class and ethnicity — people of European descent who are forced to sell their labor power in order to survive— but rather to a constructed identity, and a racist and patriarchal one at that, that dates back to Kevin Phillips “southern strategy” for the Republican Party (Phillips 1969, Grosghal and Kruse 2019). Many so called “white workers” are not proletarianized at all but are small proprietors of low status but often very lucrative businesses such as automobile dealerships, sometimes making millions of dollars a year. And of course the symbols of “white working class” identity are not symbols of proletarianization or even, for that matter, of manual labor, but rather of racism (the Confederate Flag) and machismo (an oversized pick-up that allows one to rule the road, or a large collection of rifles).

The basis for the formation of this sort of identity is spontaneous, a direct and inevitable result of the alienation of labor, but it is cultivated, crafted, and mobilized by a conscious leadership on the Right, beginning with the theoreticians of the Southern strategy and continuing today with the interventions of the New Axis consisting of right accelerationist/transhumanist sectors of Capital (Peter Thiel) backed by the more usual members of the reactionary bourgeoisie (the extractive, agrarian, construction, transportation, and manufacturing sectors), along with reterritorializing state actors such as Russia,  and at least some elements of the leadership in Turkey, India (under the BJP) and China (under Xi).  This Axis has determined that the “libertarian” policies they favor (i.e. policies which give them the right to do whatever they please, even if it harms others) will never be implemented in a democratic setting and have made the struggle against democracy, explicitly in the case of the Dark Enlightenment and indirectly, by undercutting the democratic claims of immigrants and those not of European origin among the ethnonationalists, their central priority. They have at their disposal a vast political apparatus including major media outlets such as Fox News and a network of alternative media sources, as well as large “sock puppet” farms around the world working to shape identities and mobilize political actors.

Finally, something must be said about the claim of the so-called Justice Democrats and democratic socialists that the Democratic campaign would have been more effective had it been led by Sanders rather than Biden and had the platform included certain “left” litmus-test positions such as ”medicare for all” and “defund the police.”  There is absolutely no evidence to support these claims. Justice Democrats almost uniformly underperformed Biden even in some of the most progressive districts in the country. And this is what we would expect.  The alienation of labor which follows on proletarianization effectively destroys any spontaneous mass base for what the Justice Democrats are calling “socialism.”  Rebuilding it requires protracted intervention on the part of a conscious leadership which must effectively resocialize the entire population.  Simply surfacing more radical demands does not contribute to this. This why the position of the so called “democratic socialists,” a position historically known as maximalism, was rejected by the nominally more “leftist” communists a century ago and must be rejected now.

Has the Objective Situation Changed?

This question has two different dimensions. First, does the Democratic victory indicate that the broader underlying situation has changed, i.e. have we entered a new period or regime of accumulation?  Second, to what extent does the Democratic victory itself alter the objective situation?

The answer to the first question is, at the broadest level, no. On the one hand the balance of power does not and has not actually favored global fascism. Trump’s victory in 2016 depended on significant levels of interference by the FSB and related actors.  On the other hand, as we have noted, fascism represents a permanent danger under capitalism and one that deepens as the process of proletarianization advances.  More broadly, we remain in the early stages of a  generalized crisis of technocratic capitalist civilization, marked by profound ecological crisis and a systematic destruction of the social fabric and a resulting dehumanization as a result of the alienation of labor.  We are also in the early stages of the emergence of Capital as an autonomous intelligence independent of the historic bourgeoisie, pointing towards a possible transhuman or posthuman future for the planet.

With respect to the second question, the Democratic victory clearly matters.  We will see a return to a more “normal” pattern of government focused on pragmatic solutions to global problems such as climate change and the pandemic, a more open policy towards immigrants and refugees, at least some effort to address police violence, and modest efforts to come to terms with the dislocations caused by technological progress and globalization by improving the social safety net and perhaps even beginning to experiment with initiatives such as the Universal Basic Income. These are all changes which will save lives, quite possibly prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable, and make modest but real contributions to restraining racism, sexism, and possibly even market pressures.  But it does not, for the reasons we have already noted, undercut the deeper social basis for fascism nor does it all by itself disarm the Dark Enlightenment/Ethnonationalist New Axis.

Strategic and Operational Directions

What are the implications of this analysis at the strategic, operational, and tactical level?

Strategic Directions

At the strategic level, our principal directions remain unchanged. We must identify, cultivate, mentor, and deploy organizers who are capable of catalyzing and guiding a longue duree civilizational transition, with the capacity to act across multiple trajectories of transition —reform, revolution, decadence, and collapse. These leaders must, in turn, be deployed in the arduous work of healing the damage that Capital has done to our planet and its peoples, creating a new way of life on the margins of and within the womb of the old, building the critical mass of power to stand against Capital effectively as it increasingly takes the form of an autonomous intelligence, independent of humanity, and establishing and exercising the cultural hegemony necessary to legitimate and sustain this struggle over what may be an arbitrarily long period.

What do we look for in organizers? An organizer must be spiritually and politically mature, capable of a broad vision and an unshakeable revolutionary commitment. They must be dedicated to the work of ripening being and specifically of promoting the full development of human capacities. They must be capable of understanding the need to transcend capitalism in order to do this. And they must fully understand that this is a protracted, multigenerational process. Neither they, nor their children, nor their children’s children will enjoy the fruit of their labor. They must have the potential to develop extraordinary relational skills, learning to engage potential leaders one on one, map out their interests, networks, and capacities, and mentor them as they themselves have been mentored. And they must be self-aware, reflective, self-critical, able to learn from mistakes and grow in ways that can often be painful.

What do we mean when we say that they must be deployed in healing the damage which Capital has done to the planet and its peoples? This means, first of all, creating the technological basis for a new way of being that is in harmony with the laws of nature and which, rather than breaking down existing forms of organization to release energy and do work, instead taps into the underlying self-organizing dynamic within matter to promote the emergence of new and more complex forms. We call such technologies hortic, alchemical, or synergistic. Second, it means repairing the alienation produced by the commodification of labor power, and especially the authoritarian personality structures which emerge as this alienation is channeled through racist and patriarchal structures. This work is spiritual in nature: ideological, therapeutic, and pastoral. We must challenge and demonstrate the internal contradictions of capitalist, racist, and patriarchal ideologies but we must also cultivate generative personality structures to which these ideologies will not appeal. And we must show skillful means in doing so. We must understand that some individuals need to be approached intellectually and others affectively. And in all cases, building communities which sustain spiritual healing and the cultivation of generative personalities is of foundational importance.

What does it mean to cultivate a new way of life on the margins and in the womb of the old?  Cultivating a new way of life on the margins of the old means building intentional communities using hortic, alchemical, or synergistic technologies, an economic base where people cooperate in a way which respects their rational and creative autonomy, deliberative structures which engage in reflection around ends as well as means, and which promote the full development of their members, intellectually, morally, spiritually, and politically.  Cultivating a new way of life in the womb of the old means creating or protecting sanctuaries or “liberated zones” within existing institutions which share as many of these characteristics as possible.

Together these two forms of institutional organizing will, over a protracted period, build the critical mass of power necessary to confront Capital effectively. In this sense the work of building a core of organizers and the work that these organizers do when deployed is not entirely distinct. Organizers constitute a conscious leadership, but aim to engage emerging leaders in as profound a way as possible, drawing them into processes of deliberation, and growing them into organizers themselves. Organizing in this sense is the principal responsibility of every revolutionary. Whatever other work we undertake we must organize in our workplace and/or local community. Otherwise we will never build the power to confront Capital.

What do we mean by confronting Capital? Confronting Capital itself will be a multidimensional process, involving an as yet indeterminate mixture of electoral struggle, direct action, armed struggle, building and exercising cultural hegemony, and in all probability a significant measure of  cyberwarfare. It must always be our aim to limit violence as much as possible and to do as much as we can without it. And we should never believe that large numbers of people can be forced to embrace communism. They must grow into it. Where armed struggle is required, it must be defensive, aimed at protecting electoral and other gains from Capital acting e illegally, extra legally, or in contradiction with natural law.

The mention of cyberwarfare may seem strange here, but one of our central claims is that Capital is an emergent intelligence independent of humanity. While parts of the bourgeoisie may ally themselves with Capital, others will ally themselves with us —with humanity— as this struggle takes shape. And even those elements of the bourgeoisie which ally themselves with Capital are not Capital itself. Defeating them does not defeat Capital, which is a formal relation not a group of people. What we are attempting to do is to re-program a system, not destroy a piece of machinery or kill a group of people. To the extent that this system increasingly runs on computers and other electronic networks, cyberwarfare is integral to that reprogramming. And to the extent that it still “runs” on physical, biological, and social systems, it is an important metaphor for the forms of struggle we must develop.

What do we mean by establishing cultural hegemony? Cultural hegemony consists in defining the terms of public deliberation around what it means to be human —around the ends of human life— and around the means to these ends. It does not require imposing a single unified ideology. What it does require is regulating the way in which ideological claims are framed and evaluated. Specifically, we need for there to be deliberation around the question of what it means to be human and around how to promote the full development of all human beings, and indeed on how to ripen being generally. Within this context pluralism is not only possible but essential. We do not even need to prevent people from advocating capitalism, as long as the resulting debate asks whether or not capitalism promotes human development. It does not. Because capitalism quite literally incinerates planets and people it can never gain a following where ripening being, even if understood in many different ways, is the shared purpose of the community.

Cultural hegemony is exercised through institutions.  Thus the priority we place on organizing cultural institutions, on building, conserving, and transforming them. Cultural hegemony is never about having a charismatic leader who everyone follows (the great mistake of the Russian and Chinese revolutions), but about creating structures that actually ripen Being, so that there are always many leaders operating in diverse ways across diverse dimensions.

Operational Directions

These strategic imperatives are more or less permanent, though they may be inflected significantly by the way in which the transition from capitalism to what comes next unfolds.  But there are other imperatives which pertain specifically to our period and conjuncture.  Even here, however,  our principal tasks have changed only a little. As we have seen, while the victory of the Democratic Party in the 2020 US General Election is significant, it does not represent a definitive defeat of fascism. On the contrary, we have shown that capitalism constantly and permanently generates fascistic tendencies, resistance to which thus always constitutes our principal task in any given (capitalist) period. This is because a fascist victory could well spell the end of humanity and end of our planet.

Because of this, all of the activities outlined above must be carried out in the context of the popular front against fascism. This means that we must always give priority to defeating fascism over struggle with our allies in the liberal bourgeoisie. This does not mean that internal struggle within the popular front is never permissible, but our struggle against capitalism takes place in the context of our basic organizing work, not in the context of the popular front. i.e. not in the electoral arena.

This said, the specific work of the popular front, because the election brings a Democratic government to power in the US, has changed. Before we were focused primarily on impeaching Trump and then on winning the election. Now we must focus on making the Democratic government successful, both because the work it will undertake is important for the planet and for humanity and because we want to avoid another Republican presidency. This means ensuring the success of the new government in:

  1. containing the pandemic and supporting an economic recovery,
  2. restarting and intensifying efforts to contain climate change and promote the use of sustainable energy sources,
  3. returning to a more open immigrant and refugee policy,
  4. confronting systemic racism, especially in the criminal justice system by purging police departments of the white nationalists who have intentionally infiltrated them, ending sentencing rules which lead to the mass incarceration of historically oppressed peoples,  and reforming the drug laws which are instrumental in those incarcerations, and
  5. expanding access to and public subsidies for health care and, if possible, expanding the social safety net generally.

Internationally the Democratic government will need to carry out some tasks which may well be unpopular on the Left. First, it will need to repair the fabric of global trade on which most economies on the planet now depend.  This is the only way to prevent the mass impoverishment which would result from a turn to autarchy just as climate change is altering comparative advantages and the only context in which we will be able to struggle effectively for ecological protections and labor rights at the global level. Second, it will need to rebuild and restructure our international alliance system and our military to contain and combat what I have called the New Axis of reterritorializing and ethnonationalist powers and Dark Enlightenment nonstate actors.  This in turn will require rebuilding and expanding our intelligence capacity in the areas of both human intelligence and signals intelligence, as well as developing new capacities in the area of information and cyberwarfare, which are emerging as principal forms of military conflict on the global stage.

Both of these moves will be difficult for those of us who came of age politically in the era of anti-imperialist struggles.  But frankly anti-imperialism long ago became intertwined with the geopolitical imperatives of states like Russia and China which are themselves imperial formations and remained so after their respective revolutions. Anti-imperialist struggles were also always inter-imperialist struggles, making a pure revolutionary defeatism problematic at the very least.  And in spite of the efforts of Russia, China and some other emerging powers, the era of not just territorial empire but of classical imperialism based on the export of what is meaningfully “national” Capital is long past. The global hegemon is no longer the United States acting on behalf of “its” capitalists. It is Capital itself. All states, including “superpowers”and “great powers” are terrains of struggle like any other institution. In the wake of the rise of the New Axis and especially in the light of Russian support for fascism in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, and taking into account the progressive role of the intelligence community in the resistance to the Trump government over the past four years, the Left needs to regard support for and participation in the intelligence community and the US military in much the same way we understood participation in the OSS and WWII —as part of the antifascist struggle.

***

Fascism will not be defeated until capitalism has been defeated.  But capitalism will not be defeated by a small group of maximalists who have a very limited political base at best, and very little grasp of the history of anticapitalist struggles and its strategic, operational, and tactical lessons. Maximalism, because it does not take into account the alienation of labor and the constant production and reproduction of racist and patriarchal identities, always creates an opening for fascism.  This is because it does not prioritize combating racism and patriarchy and because it assumes that people understand their self interest in a (generative, creative) way which capitalism makes accessible to them. We must actually heal humanity before humanity will act on its own behalf. In the meanwhile we must act to protect our freedom to do that work, and to defend the most vulnerable from those who annihilate them. And this means doing the hard work of organizing hidden the shadows, while maintaining the popular front.

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