Joe Biden came into office with twin, competing promises. On one hand, he promised his corporate donors that “nothing would fundamentally change,” warding off fears that he might give in to an ascendant progressive wing in his party. Biden would bring back the capitalist stability that was so badly shaken by Black Lives Matter and by the Trumpist Far Right that stormed the Capitol on January 6. But he also promised to be a transformative President — the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of our era.
In the first months of his Presidency, it seemed that there was a decisive break with neoliberalism. Joan Walsh gushed that Biden “wrapped up FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, plus Obama’s good ideas and some of Senator Bernie Sanders’ better ones, into a Scranton-inflected agenda for racial and economic justice.” The Sanders wing of the Democratic party trumpeted these promises triumphantly: Faiz Shakir, Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager, praised Biden for making an “investment in working people on a scale we have not seen since FDR.”
Indeed, after the passage of a coronavirus stimulus package and an infrastructure bill, it seemed that a sort of Keynesianism was possible. Notably, it was part of an imperialist plan to compete with China, which whole sectors of the capitalist class could line up behind. And it was a way to appeal to the Trump voters who wanted infrastructure spending and the creation of American jobs.
A year later, it seems that Biden will only keep one of his two promises: Nothing will fundamentally change.
While his promises for parental leave, canceling student debt, voting rights, and expansive climate provisions aren’t going to happen, he has increased the military budget more than any president since World War II. And while on the international stage, Biden is able to triumphantly say “America is back” and rally allies against China. Even Biden must admit the reticence of former allies who say “for how long,” pointing to Trump’s popularity and Biden’s own domestic crises. Further, his Build Back Better bill was torpedoed by his own party, along with voting rights legislation.
And it’s not just that his big plans didn’t pass. Biden’s approach to the pandemic has revealed him as more of a neoliberal than just a frustrated Keynesian. His entire approach is based on placing responsibility for the pandemic on individuals, literally saying that this would be a “winter of illness and death” for unvaccinated people. He initially backed away from any federal response, instead putting all the onus on the states, similar to Trump’s approach to the pandemic. Like Trump, Biden has acted to protect the mega profits of the pharmaceutical companies by refusing to lift the vaccine patents that maintain global vaccine apartheid. He even blatantly changed CDC guidelines to serve Delta and other big corporations, while at the same time stating clearly that “Hospitals in some places are going to be overrun both in terms of equipment and staff.” And due to the “stability” that Biden won over the past few months, he is able to force workers back to work without enough PPE or testing.
Meanwhile, capitalist wealth has ballooned during the pandemic. The wealth of the world’s ten richest men doubled since March 2020. While Biden promised to tax the rich, that didn’t happen.
In many respects, we are going backwards under Biden. After all, while Trump and the capitalists wanted to reopen the economy despite massive hospitalizations and deaths, this dream was mostly realized by Biden. While Trump is a disgusting, explicit misogynist, Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned under Biden. While Trump was a law and order President, police budgets are skyrocketing under Biden. And under Biden, we’ve seen the building of new migrant detention centers, the detention of more people under Biden than under Trump, and border patrol literally whipping and then deporting Haitian migrants. We’ve seen continued support and funding for the apartheid state of Israel, despite the murder of over 250 Palestinians last spring.
And worse still, the streets are empty: the mass mobilizations that we saw for immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, Black lives, and more have essentially disappeared or become mere shadows of their former selves. Of course, there were victories, like the jailing of Derek Chauvin. And a new generation of activists was forged and will play a role in future struggle. But in the short term, the graveyard of social movements has claimed another victim.
This is exactly what the Democratic Party does. As mass movements emerge, they begin to question the Democrats and institutions of capitalism. Democrats and their proxies swoop in with big promises, and the leaders of unions and non-profits mobilize to get out the vote for the Democrats. Once they are in office, the party feigns incompetence so some people will believe they tried.
But the Democrats aren’t bad at politics — they have bad politics. They move forward with the insidious plans of capital against workers and the oppressed, while the misleaders in social movements and labor tweet their dissatisfaction and organize small symbolic actions instead of using their immense resources to fight for progressive demands. And it’s true: many people “went back to brunch.” After all, the progressive media told them that things would be better under the Democrats.
The Democratic Party had an insurgent left wing which, with Bernie Sanders at the helm, really gave the Democratic Party establishment a run for its money during the primary elections. However, Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) eventually played an integral role in shepherding people into the Democratic Party. When asked about people who don’t believe that progress will be made during the Biden Presidency, AOC indignantly responded,
Well, I think it’s a really privileged critique … For anyone who brings [opposition to the Biden administration] up , we really have to ask ourselves, what is the message that you are sending to your Black and brown and undocumented members of your community, to your friends, when you say nothing has changed? … When you say ‘nothing has changed,’ you are calling the people who are now protected from deportation ‘no one.’ And we cannot allow for that in our movement.
In other words, anyone who criticizes the Biden administration, who correctly points out that “nothing will fundamentally change,” is not, according to AOC, allowed in the movement. That was precisely the opposite of what we were saying in Left Voice — we said we should not support Biden or trust Biden’s promises because the primary mission of the Democrats is to ensure profits for the capitalists and the maintenance of US imperialist hegemony.
And Sanders is now in Biden’s inner circle, with that whole wing rebranding into “pragmatic progressives.” But that whole strategy was a complete failure. The Washington Post isn’t wrong when it says, “The left dreamed of remaking America. Now, it stares into the abyss as Biden’s plans wither.”
The DSA, which in the early Trump years served as a hub for activists and new socialists has both shifted to the right and become an electoral machine for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The organization of almost 100,000 has a growth crisis and is struggling to garner new members
In the meantime, we are seeing the resurgence of the Far Right. They are storming school board meetings, passing laws to restrict voting rights, and taking away trans rights all over the country. Biden’s incompetence in handling the pandemic is sure to push people further into the arms of the Far Right. Trump is already saying, “We gave Biden every tool he could want, yet he completely failed. The virus evolved and the strategy failed to evolve. He’s incapable of keeping up.”
At the same time, this year we’ve also seen the working class rise up. We see the seeds of class hatred in the indignant resignations of workers all over the country, documented on social media in particular, including on TikTok and on the anti-work Subreddit. Even the Financial Times has had to take notice.
But the Great Resignation is also a sign of the horrible conditions at workplaces that have been increasingly attacked throughout the neoliberal era. It’s an expression of the lack of unions in most places and in the lack of fighting unions in others. We’re seeing historic resignations in healthcare and education. It’s an expression of the crisis of social reproduction, where women workers who are disproportionately responsible for childcare are dropping out of the workforce in droves.
Contrary to what Robert Reich says, this isn’t a general strike — it’s an individual expression of anger that has not found a way to express itself in labor struggle.
While the Bessemer Amazon union failed thanks in large part to reliance on Democratic Party figureheads instead of rank-and-file organization, we are currently seeing a wave of Starbucks workers filing to unionize.
And there have been strikes this year — at Kellogg, John Deere, Columbia University, and dozens of smaller strikes. As Marcos, a worker from Hunts Point Market who went on strike in January, said, “We kept this place open [in the pandemic], and a lot of guys died here. … While the bosses were home, I was here working for them. We are essential workers. They got money, they got millions. They didn’t share it with us. We deserve more.” This sentiment is echoed on every picket line in 2021. Even though we are essential, the bosses, the Democrats, and the Republicans treat us as disposable. The pandemic has without a doubt changed the consciousness of the working class. Between the Great Resignation, the supply chain crisis and this change in consciousness, Rani Molla in Vox claims this is a “new era for the American worker.”
In this context, there has been a dynamic struggle over unsafe school reopenings, with the Chicago Teachers Union taking an initial stand on behalf of Chicago teachers and all educators around the country. While the union leadership undemocratically retreated, students have taken up the struggle with hundreds around the country walking out of unsafe schools and thousands mobilizing in protest.
As the government completely fails to address the pandemic and Biden turns back towards neoliberalism, the youth are taking notice. There is no lack of tweets, TikToks, and memes roasting the Biden administration for all of its failures. These are the same young people that prefer socialism to capitalism, and who joined the DSA and voted for Sanders. But they are no longer active and mobilized in the streets like they were during the Trump administration. And they no longer have a central organizational hub, which was the DSA.
As we enter year two of the Biden administration and near year three of pandemic, the completely illogical and brutal nature of capitalism has never been so apparent. And every few weeks a “once in a lifetime” climate event reminds us that the capitalists are destroying the planet. It’s socialism or barbarism, and barbarism seems within sight.
It is infuriating and it’s easy to fall into despair.
But let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.
We hope the articles in series for Biden’s first year– and more broadly the articles on Left Voice– are useful to learn from and use as a basis for socialist strategy in the upcoming year. We hope they are an impetus to take the streets and to organize in your community and with your co-workers, steering clear of the Democrats’ empty promises. And we hope that these conclusions, far from despair, lead you to want to organize what we really need: a revolutionary socialist organization made up of working class and oppressed people to overthrow this whole rotten system.
If you’re interested in this project, please reach out to Left Voice.
And please join our online event to discuss these ideas and more on Saturday, January 22, at 3pm.