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The Organic Crisis in 2024: This Year’s Election Is a Battle for the Hearts and Minds of U.S. Workers

The battle between Trump and Biden is being shaped by a crisis of the political regime, requiring the intervention of both the judiciary and the union bureaucracy. The battle for the presidency is a battle for the working class and a battle over which approach to imperialism is best for competing with China and reestablishing US hegemony. As usual, the Democrats are taking up the cudgel of democratic rights in order to rally disaffected voters.

Sybil Davis

February 23, 2024
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Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

The 2024 election is shaping up to be a rematch of 2020 with two incredibly unpopular candidates vying to be president. On the one hand, Donald Trump is handily dispatching his Republican challengers, with only Nikki Haley left standing. Trump’s base — the so-called MAGA movement — has taken over the Republican Party and seems unbeatable, even as Trump’s legal challenges hang over his candidacy. On the other hand, President Joe Biden is bruised and battered, facing not only widespread concern about his mental faculties but also a social movement for Palestine that has named him “Genocide Joe.” Unlike in 2020, the path for Biden to drive the movement to the polls is much narrower, and his status as a sitting president rather than a challenger leaves him in a much more precarious position.

Behind this election lies a crisis in the U.S. political regime — an example of what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called the “organic crisis,” a crisis in which constituents no longer see themselves as represented by their representatives. Organic crises weaken regimes and lead traditional political parties to grapple with new political phenomena, as the masses lose faith in their traditional political parties and the institutions of the regime. Today’s organic crisis in the U.S. reached its peak on January 6, 2021 — after a year of heightened crisis escalated by COVID and the uprisings of the Black Lives Matter movement — and then receded as Biden forced the crisis back into latency for the first few years of his term. Biden, however, was unable to resolve the crisis, and, as we defined it in early 2023, the crisis has reemerged and is increasingly playing a key role in national politics. Trump’s reemergence is one sign of this.

In this crisis between “the represented and the representatives,” in which important institutions of the regime are under increased suspicion and loss of legitimacy, the judiciary and the union bureaucracy are playing an outsized role. It has been clear for some time that the judiciary is mobilizing to stop — or at least hinder — Trump’s candidacy, which would greatly destabilize the regime if Trump takes power again, especially after January 6. Trump’s various court cases and indictments not only reflect his criminality — something that hardly anyone who has followed Trump’s career can deny — but also represent an attempt to turn the masses against Trump. More bold attempts to ban Trump from the ballot — like those in Colorado and Maine — seem to have overstepped what the political situation will allow, and it seems increasingly likely that the Supreme Court will not uphold these ballot bans. In this sense, the organic crisis and the loss of institutional legitimacy — including the that of the Supreme Court, which took a big hit after the Dobbs decision striking down the right to an abortion — are both driving and mediating the judiciary’s assault. To put this a different way, the organic crisis is why we are seeing an increasingly “Bonapartist” judiciary — acting in a more explicitly political way, on its own, without the backing of either Congress or the masses — yet the crisis is also placing limits on how much the judiciary can advance into the terrain of politics. Imagine, for example, if the Supreme Court upheld Colorado’s ban on Trump. Surely that would produce an intense reaction from Trump’s base and harm the standing of the judiciary even more than it already has — since the court would have just kicked the leading candidate off the ballot without any democratic input from the masses.

The judiciary has its limits, then, yet it is playing an outsized role in the national situation. This is not limited to the advance against Trump. It can also be seen in the Supreme Court’s increasingly politicized rulings. Striking down the right to abortion was a significant attack on democratic rights, reversing the court’s role during much of the neoliberal period, in which it conceded democratic rights to social movements as a way of showing that, because the state can support the oppressed, uprisings against the state are unnecessary. But the Dobbs decision changed this, revealing the judiciary’s more politicized role and its need to act “bonpartistically,” that is, on its own, without the backing of voters. As the organic crisis deepens, this politicized and Bonapartist role will likely only continue.

The Union Bureaucracy: Biden’s Key Ally

Another major factor this election year will be the union bureaucracy. As we have written, the past few years have been defined by a resurgence of an increasingly politicized labor movement. Labor is now, unevenly, injecting itself into more political debates, going beyond fighting for “bread and butter” demands like higher wages. Building off the teachers’ strikes of the early Trump era and the experience the masses had with the Black Lives Matter movement, rank-and-file union members increasingly see themselves as organically connected to a variety of political issues, such as the defense of democratic rights and the struggle against oppression that the traditional union leaderships have tried to disconnect them from. This new energy in the labor movement has pushed the working class back to the center of politics — most notably seen during the UAW strike, in which both Biden and Trump had explicitly appeal to the strikers. This has also affected the traditional union leaderships, causing them to fall to reform caucuses in the case of the Teamsters and the UAW, and forcing them to become more responsive to the rank-and-file organizing around political issues.

The movement for Palestine is a good example of this. The mass opposition to Israel’s assault on Gaza has forced even deeply Zionist union leaderships, like those of the AFT and the AFL-CIO, to come out in favor of a ceasefire. This demonstrates that the union bureaucracies can no longer lead as the “police of the working class,” ignoring the demands of their rank and file, and doing all they can to keep them in line without giving concessions. Now the union leaderships, to maintain their legitimacy, have to politicize their unions around the question of Palestine. The politicization and growing fighting spirit of labor — a major victory for the Gen U phenomenon, seen most acutely in young unions like Starbucks Workers United — has put the working class in a more prominent position. Even the bourgeois media, which usually likes to just talk about “the middle class,” has to talk about the working class now. This is a direct result of the injection of militancy by a new generation that was shaped by BLM, a generation that has revitalized labor, helped lead a social movement for Palestine, and has forced labor bureaucrats to support the movement, however reluctantly. This uptick of class struggle has reshaped the political situation and created a crisis for the Democratic Party, one that it now must contain through its usual tactics of co-optation.

This phenomenon complements what political scientists have called “dealignment” — in which the working class no longer strongly identifies with the Democratic Party. As we have previously written, this creates a battle for the heart and soul of the working class, and elections are the battleground. Both Trump and Biden are explicitly fighting to portray themselves as champions of the working class and are, to different degrees, seeking support from labor.

In this context, the union bureaucracies will likely play an outsized role in driving labor back to the Democratic Party. While they are unable to lead as the police of the working class, they strive to lead instead with ideology. The UAW is a good example of this. The UAW leaders — most notably their top dog, Shawn Fain — fill their speeches with inspiring and progressive rhetoric, post on social media about the continuity between the struggle for Black rights and the UAW today, and launch bold organizing initiatives aimed at organizing the unorganized. All this combines to legitimize the UAW leadership among rank-and-file workers, who are then driven back toward Biden, as indicated by the UAW’s recent endorsement of him.

The AFL-CIO ceasefire statement is another example of this phenomenon. Despite calling for a ceasefire, the statement read like Biden administration talking points. It stressed the need for a two-state solution, denounced the violence “on both sides,” and called for a negotiated stop to the fighting. All this is part and parcel of the Biden administration’s Gaza policy. The statement, then, is a clear attempt to stanch the bleeding of support caused by “Genocide Joe” Biden’s support for Israel’s war on Gaza. It sets up the labor bureaucracies’ standard preelection push to mobilize their memberships to support the Democratic Party. The situation, however, is far from standard, and so the union leaderships must take a new approach, trying to convince their members rather than just directing them.

Foreign Policy and Immigration: The Election’s Two Axes

This election will be a battle not only to win the working class but also to shape foreign policy. Biden has become the figurehead of both Israel’s war on Gaza and the war in Ukraine — two quite unpopular conflicts. There is also the debate, among U.S. capitalists, of how best to compete with China and thus to reverse the decline in U.S. hegemony. Trump has always put forward a different approach on foreign policy from the establishment’s — favoring a unilateral policy with protectionist measures and even opposing NATO — and he is trying to use this to tap in to the masses’ frustration with constant foreign intervention. Trump and a sector of right-wing Republicans are putting forward the line that the “real” war is at home on the southern border and that the U.S. shouldn’t be intervening in conflicts overseas. But this “anti-interventionist” mask cannot hide Trump’s policy record as president, which shows that he was quite willing to militarily intervene.

The real distinction between Trump and Biden on foreign policy is over how unilateral to be. Biden favors relying on international alliances to strengthen U.S. hegemony abroad and better compete with China, while Trump favors more unilateral actions that might include abandoning traditional alliances — as indicated by his recent statements on NATO. Trump supporters are drawn to his foreign policy because it gives the illusion of being anti-interventionist, and the “America First” rhetoric is gaining ground among those who have seen their living conditions worsen over the neoliberal period and question why there is always money to send to conflicts overseas.

Immigration and “border security” are coming to the fore in the run-up to the election. Trump and the Republicans are striving to present the situation at the border as an “invasion” that Biden and the Democrats have failed to stop. In reality, the Biden administration has, for the most part, marked complete continuity with Trump’s immigration policies which has set the foundation for the Republicans to go ever further to the right on immigration. In response to these political attacks, the Democrats are trying to turn to the right — from an already quite right-wing position — on immigration, as the recent proposed border deal in Congress indicates. Biden himself has said that he is prepared to “shut down the border right now,” in another sign of the Democratic Party’s right turn on this issue.

A dramatic example of organic crisis is the stand-off in Texas, where every GOP governor but one has sided with Governor Greg Abbott to resist the federal government’s attempts to take down razor wire placed at the border. Trump and the Far Right are using this conflict to advance their political position. As the election draws closer, it seems likely that immigration — along with foreign policy and the working class — will be one of the election’s axes, as the Biden campaign runs to the right in an attempt to compete with Trump’s explicitly anti-immigrant nationalism. Democrat Tom Suozzi’s recent win in the race to replace George Santos in the House represented one possible model of how Democrats could run a right-wing campaign on immigration and beat the Republicans at their own game. What this means for the overall political situation is that immigration policy is increasingly and quickly shifting to the right as both parties compete to be “hard” on immigration.

Playacting a Defense of Democratic Rights and Relying on the Progressives: The Democrats Hope for Victory

If immigration and foreign policy are where Trump hopes to hold the debate, Biden and the Democrats hope to shift the discussion back toward more solid terrain for them: the protection of democratic rights, most specifically the right to abortion. Running on abortion rights helped the Democrats push back the “red wave” of 2022 and triumph in some tough elections in 2023. They are hoping to use the same playbook again, as the recently unveiled “abortion rights tour” indicates. In their speeches, Democrats will boldly defend democratic rights — both in the specific case of abortion and more broadly in the “defense of democracy,” which the Biden camp so often talks about. This, they hope, will help turn out voters who may otherwise sit out the election because, among other things, they dislike both candidates or  oppose Biden’s policy on Israel.

From 2016 to 2021, Left Voice analyzed the “civil war” inside the Democratic Party between the party establishment and an increasingly prominent progressive wing. In our analysis, we strove to point out that the opposition posed by the “Democratic Socialists” of the Squad was always doomed to fail, given their position within the Democratic Party, which had far more resources and strategic reserves to co-opt them into its mainstream. This is borne out by even a cursory look at the current political situation. After Bernie Sanders’ defeat in the 2020 Democratic primaries, the progressives fell in line behind Biden, and they have held that line throughout his term in the White House. Even now, as a new movement accuses him of genocide, politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are going on the news to defend Biden’s candidacy — AOC recently called him “one of the most successful presidents in modern history.” In a recent piece for the New York Times, Ezra Klein writes that “the reality, in recent years, has been that Democrats fall in line and Republicans fall apart. The Democratic Party’s establishment has held, even as the Republican Party’s establishment has buckled.” The Democratic Party establishment — which looked so weak after Clinton’s loss and the rise of the Squad — has incorporated its dissenters into the mainstream, using these so-called socialists as pawns to connect to the movement’s vanguard and drive it back into the Democratic Party.

We can see the progessives’ value to the Democratic Party establishment in Michigan, a key state for Biden. The state’s voters, many of whom are of Arab descent, oppose Biden’s support for the Gaza genocide. In response, a campaign called Vote Uncommitted has been launched by Our Revolution and DSA, with the vocal support of Rashida Tlaib, a key figure in the Squad and one of the only high-profile Democrats who has strongly supported a ceasefire. The campaign is tapping in to voters’ anger but pointing it back to the Democratic Party, encouraging voters to vote in the state’s Democratic primary but withhold support for Biden. This is intended to pressure Biden to change his position on Gaza. But what it really does is frame the movement for Palestine as a pressure campaign on Biden. It drives disillusioned voters back into the Democratic primary and opens up space for Biden to make slight changes to his position on Gaza while claiming that he is listening to voters. This is in keeping with the politics of the Democratic Party’s Left, which tries to use mass movements as pressure campaigns to force politicians to take different positions without questioning the key relationship with the Democratic Party. While the Vote Uncommitted campaign is a sign of popular opposition to Biden, it is being used to co-opt the movement for Palestine.

The Democratic Party’s defense of democratic rights is an act, a political maneuver to drum up support. In reality, the Democrats have overseen many attacks on basic democratic rights. They have denounced pro-Palestine protests and helped pave the way for more attacks on the movement. Biden’s term in the White House has seen not only the rollback of abortion rights but also a virulent anti-trans campaign, and the Biden administration and the Democrats have done nothing to stop either of these. Rather, they hope their empty words will inspire the masses. But this is the same hamster wheel that the Democratic Party has kept us on for decades. Democratic rights on the chopping block is a boon to the Democrats because it makes their lesser-evil campaigns more effective. Their concern for democracy and for our rights are ploys to get us to accept more of the same in hopes of defeating the Right.

We can’t defeat the Right by voting in an election — just look at how Biden’s victory didn’t defeat Trumpism. Rather, we have to defeat the Right by organizing in our unions, in our workplaces, and on the streets to build a combative movement. Only this can stop the rise of the right and defend our democratic rights. More broadly, we need to break the cycle of lesser evilism. We need to build a party, one that truly represents the militant labor movement, that represents the movement for Palestine, and that represents the millions who are waking up to the fact that the capitalist system has nothing to offer us. We won’t build this party by staying tied to the Democrats, and we can’t do it without confronting the union and social movement bureaucracies, which are vital allies of the Democratic Party. Rather, we will build this party by relying on ourselves and organizing ourselves to confront the Right, defend our democratic rights, and build an institution of our own that can unite all our struggles.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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