Class Struggle in the Biden Era

Jimena Vergara

February 7, 2021

Now is the time for bold working-class action, not class collaboration.

It’s been just over two weeks since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, and already the liberal establishment is gushing over his accomplishments. The New York Times, MSNBC, the Washington Post, and CNN have all heaped praise on the new president, and the by now almost obligatory comparisons to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) keep flooding in. Meanwhile, Democrats and bourgeois economists across the spectrum have lined up behind Biden’s proposed coronavirus relief bill, which, according to some polls, has the support of a whopping 74 percent of U.S. adults. All this suggests that the “honeymoon” period of Biden’s presidency has gotten off to a good start. This is in no small part thanks also to the chaos of the weeks preceding the inauguration and the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump’s riot mongering, rather than shaking the U.S. regime, united an important sector of the establishment around the incoming administration, providing Biden with a popular legitimacy that has largely obscured his relatively narrow electoral victory in November.

Unsurprisingly, the Biden administration has used this newfound legitimacy to quickly reverse many of the most controversial policies of the Trump era. Since January 21, Biden has signed dozens of executive orders. Most notably, the new president has rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change, ended the “Muslim ban” and the construction of the border wall with Mexico, fortified the program of deferred action for childhood immigrants (DACA), expanded access to the Affordable Care Act, and repealed the global gag rule that limited the use of federal funds for reproductive health measures abroad. At the same time, the president has also instituted a host of new orders to address the pandemic and the economic crisis, including an extension of the federal moratorium on evictions, increased access to food stamps, a move toward a $15 minimum wage (exclusively for federal employees), the continued deferral of student loan payments, mask requirements (on federal property), and increased Covid vaccinations and testing. At the same time, Biden has promised to aggressively push for a second $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that could include $1,400 direct payments to individuals, an increase in unemployment benefits, and billions of dollars in funding for state services.

It would, however, be a mistake to think Biden will prioritize the needs of the working class any more than he absolutely needs to or is forced to do. Most of the executive orders that he has signed so far are little more than an attempt to return the U.S. state to where it was before the 2016 elections, and they do almost nothing to actually address the systemic problems that led to the rise of Trump in the first place. Meanwhile, the proposed coronavirus relief package, though nearly twice as large as the previous bill passed by congress in December, is still $200 billion smaller than the first CARES Act signed by President Trump, which was itself only a fraction of what was needed. Although Biden likes to present himself as a working-class son of the Rust Belt, his primary task remains the speedy restoration of a capitalist stability in which the needs of working people will always remain secondary to those of capital.

While it is quite possible that the conditions created by the pandemic may force Biden in the short term to exert more pressure than usual over capital, it is only a matter of time before the administration tries to make the working class, both at home and abroad, pay for the costs of any economic recovery. The degree to which Biden can successfully achieve this will depend upon how the crisis and the class struggle develop — whether through workers’ struggles or the reemergence of the anti-racist or anti-imperialist movement — and how the relationship of forces will shape up in the future, both in relation to inter-bourgeois divisions and in relation to continued social polarization. And Biden has already signaled, under the guise of fighting the Far Right, that he is prepared to use the state to repress such movements. His refusal to address the problem of police violence and his proposed domestic terror bill point to the kind of repression the Left can expect to see in the future. And, of course, Biden has already shown that he is more than willing to continue the trade war with China and bloody imperialist interventions in order to protect the profits and interests of U.S. capital overseas.

This is why it is imperative that working people not fall into the trap of supporting or making common cause with the Biden administration. Instead, we must prepare the ground to fight both the capitalist state (including its leaders in government) and the reactionary Right, with the weapons of the working class.

Biden’s First Task Is Restoring Capitalist Stability

While the Biden administration has so far proved to be somewhat more progressive than anticipated, the real meaning behind Biden’s rejection of Trump’s policies and his so-far comparatively robust response to the pandemic and the recession can be understood only when considered within the context of the broader economic and political crises that continue to plague the United States and global capitalism more broadly.

Last year the global economy suffered one of the worst contractions since the Great Depression. Global economic growth fell an astounding 4.4 percent in 2020, while the U.S rate of growth dropped 3.5 percent, the worst performance since 1946. This economic crisis has been combined with a pandemic that has killed millions of people worldwide and at least 450,000 in the United States. As dire as the situation is, though, these crises have only exacerbated the larger political and economic crises that have afflicted the United States since the neoliberal project ran smack into the wall of reality in 2008. The long economic recession and growing inequality that followed the 2008 financial crisis, the decades-long privatization and destruction of social services, the downward mobility of the lower middle classes, and the continued suffering of the working classes — all this has led to increasing political polarization and a general distrust of institutions. The rise of Trump and the Far Right, the massive uprisings against police brutality, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol last month — these are but a few of the many morbid symptoms of this developing organic crisis that has threatened the very legitimacy of the U.S. regime both at home and around the world.

Considered within this bigger context, Biden’s actions to date, and even his proposed $1.9 trillion dollar relief package — which is already being challenged by House Republicans — are likely inadequate to address the real problems faced by the U.S. economy and the needs of the U.S. ruling class, which Biden represents. The long-term economic crisis, grounded in falling rates of profit and massive levels of corporate debt, will not be solved by a short-term injection of consumer spending. Like FDR before him, Biden is faced with the task of saving capitalism from its crisis, but Biden is no FDR. And even if he were, the political situation in 2021 is very different from that of 1933.

The economic crisis, for its part, has not yet reached the level of the first two years of the Great Depression, when the masses were subjected to extreme hardship and widespread starvation. Moreover, while FDR was faced with a strong union movement, massive workers’ struggles, and a confrontational and well-organized Left, the balance of forces exerting pressure on the Biden administration is much more balanced in favor of the needs of capital. On one side are the Wall Street bankers and the labor bureaucrats who supported his campaign, all of whom share the goal of restoring capitalist productivity as soon as possible. On the other side is the new reformist wing of the Democratic Party, which is pressuring Biden to adopt measures in line with Bernie Sanders’s platform. But “progressive” Democrats are trying to exert pressure in the halls of Congress, not by organizing mass struggles. This kind of horse-trading may lead to some short-term gains for working people, but it always ends in favorable agreements for the bosses and Wall Street.

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The Biden administration faces an even more fundamental dilemma, however. Unlike the period after the 2008 financial crisis, when corporate bailouts and quantitative easing were enough to stabilize the economy (though still insufficient to restore pre-2008 levels of productivity), the economic crisis that has been accelerated by the pandemic requires a much larger and broader level of investment and stimulus. This is why, after the election, the Biden administration immediately proposed yet another larger stimulus package focused on direct payments to individuals and families.

The purpose of the stimulus plan is not, as Paul Krugman would like you to believe, intended to help working people stay home until a vaccine is distributed. Instead, the primary goal of the coronavirus relief bill is to provide just enough aid to avoid further civil unrest, like what we saw this summer, while spurring consumer spending in order to keep the economy on life support until it fully reopens.

The United States, however, is already facing an almost $4 trillion deficit. Adding an additional $1.9 trillion in government spending will only push that higher. Although there is currently a general consensus among bourgeois economists that such deficits are acceptable in an emergency, as soon as the economy temporarily regains its footing, Republicans and Democrats alike will begin carping again about “reducing the debt,” which means attacking the working class. Such a situation will make it difficult to pass any new spending bills, such as Medicare for All or a Green New Deal. And it is not out of the question that social security and other essential services could be put on the chopping block after the midterm elections in 2022.

No Support for Capitalist Politicians

Despite Biden’s track record as a conservative Democrat and neoliberal deficit hawk, his administration has the overwhelming support of the trade unions and social movements. This includes the AFL-CIO and much of the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of these individuals and organizations — along with some self-described socialists and leading members of the DSA — put their full energy into Biden’s electoral campaign against Trump. While the unions and social movements do not, by any means, speak for all working people, they nonetheless represent a large section of what has passed for the organized Left in the United States for the last several decades. These groups see it as their obligation to critically support the Biden administration and the Democratic Party in order to push for more robust reforms. 

Unfortunately, this tendency to team up with the Democratic Party was only strengthened by the events of January 6. After the assault on the Capitol, much of the Left took a campist or semi-campist position, incorrectly following the regime’s line that the situation after January 6 constitutes a struggle between “fascism” and “democracy.” This led big sections of the Left and social movement leaders to identify the new government as their own, even if on the surface they maintained an appearance of independence from the Democratic Party. In other words, the Left (construed broadly) was blinded by the incidents of January 6. And they have so far been strategically unable to understand the implications of these events in class terms. This has only helped the regime generate a mass consensus against the “attempted coup” in order to legitimize (1) the elections themselves; (2) the bipartisan regime, which is supposedly “defending democracy and the Constitution”; and (3) the institutions of the state, including the police (as demonstrated by the gesture of having a Black cop from the Capitol escort Kamala Harris on Inauguration Day).

While it is fundamental to denounce the Far Right and the police who support them, it is no less vital to denounce the political operation underway to legitimize the incoming government. This operation gave the regime and the new government room to announce a series of Bonapartist measures like the domestic terror bill, which will be turned against the working class, the Black struggle, and the Left. Almost a month after the assault on the Capitol, the regime has successfully given new life to a neoliberal government with a program and a president that, at the time of the election, were still deeply unpopular. In other words, liberal talk of a “fascist threat” has been enough to drum up an uptick in support for the capitalist state and its new government.

Going forward, the left wing of the Democratic Party, as well as the leaders of the working class and the Black movement, will try to use the struggles of the exploited and the oppressed to negotiate their demands in Congress, always bargaining with the establishment, Wall Street, and its friends to water down those demands. We have to be clear that the Biden administration is not going to grant any concessions without a fight. We will not get anything in the coming months without mobilization in the streets and class struggle. Many activists, including the rank and file of the DSA, enthusiastically support the working class, as seen on the picket line at the Hunts Point strike. The task of the Left is to support these struggles unconditionally, bring the united front perspective to the forefront, and deepen every progressive struggle to win all our demands and raise the consciousness of the working class and oppressed.

Some leaders think we can win our demands by forming a “popular front” with the progressive wing of the ruling class — in this case, the Democratic Party. This strategy, however, only weakens the demands of the working class and prevents it from becoming an independent political force. The far-right assault on the Capitol showed that there is still strong support for the anti-working-class, anti-immigrant, anti-socialist politics of Donald Trump, and the Left needs to remain vigilant against the threat posed by neofascist groups. But for the short term at least, the Far Right is weakened, and the Left has a chance to shape the agenda going forward, but only through bold actions and independent class struggle. Forging an alliance with the capitalists and their representatives against the Right at this moment would be a mistake.

The Road to a United Front

To fight both the Biden administration and the Far Right, we will have to reorganize the forces of the working class and unify them with the anti-racist movement of the youth and the vanguard. This is why class struggle is so important in this moment, and there are indications that such struggle is again on the rise. The Hunts Point strike, the looming CTU strike, the unionization drive at Google, and efforts to organize Amazon — all these struggles point the way toward more class struggle in the workplace. In many cities, the movement against police brutality is still alive, and the flame of BLM has not faded from the consciousness of millions who took to the streets this summer. 

And we need to bring those struggles together around issues that unify the working class. Unions must come together to fight for immediate demands: a $15 minimum wage now, a national health care system with universal coverage, and education for all. We need to kick cops out of our unions. Money wasted on police departments must be put into education, health care, affordable housing, and public transport. Millions of people were left unemployed by the pandemic; it is essential to fight for a universal unemployment insurance that benefits all workers (citizens, immigrants, and undocumented workers) and to fight for the distribution of working hours among all available hands with guaranteed living wages for all. To stop the pandemic, we need to abolish patents on vaccines and nationalize production. Essential workers need hazard pay and shorter hours with no loss of pay; everyone else needs pandemic pay so they can stay home.

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The road to a united front, however, involves developing working-class self-organization. This means assemblies in workplaces, neighborhoods, and cities, to decide on what we need and how to get it. In the history of our class, there are thousands of examples of the power that the exploited and oppressed acquire when they manage to equip themselves with their own forms of self-organization. In many cases, it is in these processes that the working class can make leaps and bounds in its consciousness and organization: in more developed forms, such advances involve the working class identifying itself as a national class (and in the best of cases, as an international class), united by common interests in defiance of all the barriers that the capitalists and their representatives impose on us: divisions between race and gender, between the unemployed and employed, etc. It is in these processes that the working class discovers that it can rule in place of the bourgeoisie and learns how to organize itself to defend against the attacks of the state and its allies.

Leaders of unions and NGOs might believe that an alliance with Biden is the best way to implement parts of their program. But the opposite is the case: the Democratic Party is taking note that it can count on the unconditional support of these sectors, without granting them any real concessions. The way to win our most urgent demands is via a national movement around a common platform and a plan of struggle including mobilizations, pickets, and strikes, and mass demonstrations. Such a struggle, organized around a united front of the working class, will bring far more results than backroom negotiations with the new White House.

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.