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Which Side Are You On? AOC and the Met Gala

The Met Gala is a sign — a very blatant one — of whose side AOC is on.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

September 16, 2021
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On Monday, September 13, celebrities, politicians, and the wealthy and well connected attended the Met Gala in New York City. Known as “the jewel in New York City’s social crown,” it is as much a show of extravagance and wealth as it is a show of fashion. Designers and sponsors pay $35,000 for a ticket and up to $300,000 for a table. New York City politicians get in for free.

By now, everyone knows about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s publicity stunt at the Gala. The Bronx congressperson and DSA member showed up wearing a $10,000 dress that read “Tax the Rich” and then proceeded to socialize with the ultra wealthy. 

While AOC was hobnobbing with some of New York’s most elite, outside the Met Gala, Black Lives Matter activists were protesting outside the heavily policed perimeter of the event, speaking out against police violence, evictions, and the absurd show of wealth that the Gala represents. Several of those protesters were brutally arrested and spent multiple nights in jail while the wealthy celebrities inside drank champagne. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was mingling with the ultra-wealthy, performing her “wokeness”, Black people, activists, and protesters were being brutalized by the police right outside.

AOC’s absurd performance has drawn much richly deserved criticism from the Left, but there’s been plenty of pushback to this as well, and many have accused leftists who point out her hypocrisy of applying unreasonable “purity tests.” Bizarrely, AOC tried to paint this back-and-forth in the language of women’s rights, saying that her critics want to control her body. But that’s not what this is. The Met Gala is a sign — a very blatant one — of which side AOC is on.

The Met Gala Is Not Your Friend

The Met Gala is technically a fundraiser for the Costume Institute wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it’s not some lowly fundraiser for a struggling cultural institution. The Met currently sits atop a $3 billion endowment. The Gala is nothing but a display of wealth and extravagance for the ultra wealthy and influential elites who attend. It reminds me of a scene in the Hunger Games, where the foppishly overdressed residents of the Capitol bask in their wealth and privilege, flaunting and celebrating it, while the very poor fight and die for their entertainment. The New York Times explains that guests “typically include a quorum of Kardashians, Hollywood A-listers and supermodels. The star-studded event is often referred to as the Oscars of fashion.” Kim Kardashian is worth 1.2 billion. AOC sat at the table of Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor in chief, immortalized in The Devil Wears Prada, who approves all the outfits before the event, and who has an estimated worth of 35 million dollars. 

Like museums all over the world, the 150 year old Met is built upon many centuries’ pillage of art and culture from semi-colonial countries. During the BLM uprisings, leaders of the Met came out publicly against taking down racist monuments, only to have to backtrack later under immense public pressure. They happily collaborated with the murderous pharmaceutical Sackler family for years, leaving the family’s name on a wing well after their complicity in the opioid epidemic was public knowledge until, again, an intense public pressure campaign forced them to cut ties. The Met is run on the low-wage labor of workers — many of whom were laid off during the pandemic —  while the director of the Met has a yearly salary of $737,318. 

The Met hides these unsavory facts behind a cynical veneer of civic-mindedness. The Met claims to be “the people’s museum,” and although It is famously free to city residents, this winds up excluding hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who cannot prove their residency. Similarly, the Gala’s pretensions to progressivism as a fundraiser does the same ideological work as any charity, which is to paper over the history of inequality and violence that’s at the historical core of institutions like the Met. The city’s working class has the right to museums and art, but we want museums that are run by and for working class and oppressed communities, with respect and acknowledgement and a struggle against colonialist legacies and imperialist realities.

The Met ain’t it. 

Bring All the Classes Into the Conversation? 

As AOC walked into this year’s Met Gala, she said she wanted to bring all classes together to support increasing taxes on the wealthy. “When we talk about having a fair tax code, it’s a conversation happening between working and middle class people, and I think it’s time we bring all classes into the conversation of having a fairer country.”

The hypocrisy, of course, is staggering. How are you bringing all the classes into the conversation by attending an event for the mega wealthy, ignoring the protests going on right outside? The classes are being brought together at the Met Gala the same way they always are: with underpaid workers serving the ultra wealthy, while those who raise their voice in protest are carried away in cuffs. 

As socialists, our goal isn’t to “bring all the classes into the conversation.” We know that capitalists are nothing but vampires, living off the labor of the working class. As Marx explains, “[this] vampire will not lose its hold on him [the worker] so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” There is no way to “bring all classes into the conversation” in a way that is egalitarian, or where working class people have equal say. “Bringing everyone to the table” is just a nice way of papering over the real class antagonisms that exist in our society and undermining class struggle. It’s the most liberal notion of representation, willfully blind to the actually existing relations of power. 

We need to be clear and AOC needs to hear it: We don’t want capitalists “in the conversation” or “at the table” with us. We want to take back the wealth they have stolen from us and use it in the interests of the working class and oppressed majorities. 

Taxing the Rich

Do I want to tax the rich? Hell yes. After all, the rich often pay less taxes than most of the working class. The problem is that the version of “tax the rich” being proposed by AOC is actually a tepid plan endorsed by Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. Don’t take my word for it. Look at these tweets: 

Turns out that AOC’s “tax the rich” is nothing more than returning to Barack Obama’s tax levels — hardly radical, much less socialist, or even democratic-socialist. In fact, the proposal that House Democrats put forward is to the right of Joe Biden’s proposal. It refuses to close a loophole allowing the rich to pass large estates down to their heirs with nearly no taxation.

In fact, even the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post states clearly: “Let’s stop pretending Biden’s proposed tax increases on the rich are radical.” As the article explains, “In 1980, the top marginal income tax rate was 70 percent, about twice what it is now,” and the Democrats, with AOC now leading the charge, are just proposing to go back to 2017 levels.

So yes, let’s tax the rich, but we must demand and fight for more than Joe Biden’s minimal plan. 

Some might claim that AOC’s dress was a success because it got the whole country talking about taxing the rich. But in policy, it’s nothing more than a campaign stunt for the Biden administration and for Joe Biden’s policies. The fact that most public face of so-called “socialism” in the U.S. is doing publicity for this extremely tepid policy and dominating the news cycle, sucks all the oxygen from any discussion of tax reforms which would be meaningful for working people. This is now the limits of our political horizon, because the “radical” AOC wore it on a dress. 

And further, the question of what we spend those taxes on matters. I don’t want taxes on the wealthy  to fund the US imperialist military machine. And I don’t want it to be syphoned off to“green capital,” as a faux climate policy. We need to tax the rich for free healthcare, for free universities, for a free and expanded public transit system. We need to tax the rich for all the interests of the working class. 

AOC’s $10,000 dress and schmoozing with the rich and famous certainly won’t win us substantive taxation of the wealthy, and it does nothing to ensure that not a penny is used for the military. Rather than scaring folks like Jeff Bezos, seeing AOC at this kind of party must be a relief– she’s becoming more and more integrated into the club.

It’s true that AOC’s dress brought publicity to the idea of taxing the rich. But the reason that the rich are taxed at absurdly low rates isn’t lack of awareness. It’s because Republicans and AOC’s own party, the Democrats, protect and defend the interests of the wealthy.

You know what else would get people talking about taxing the rich? Organizing protests in cities across the country for more than Joe Biden’s tepid plan. That’s an approach which would have built class power, in addition to bringing attention to the demand to tax the rich. 

Whose Side Are You On? 

While AOC posed for the cameras, people were protesting outside. A small crowd spoke out against the murder of Mike Rosado, argued for the right to free housing, and highlighted that the Met Gala does nothing for the poor, working class and oppressed of New York City. Ella, a young activist said, “35,000 for a fucking ticket to show off your fucking robes while our people are still dying, our people are still being murdered.” 

These protesters, Ella included, were dragged away in handcuffs.  AOC hasn’t said anything about it since. She didn’t say anything about it for the multiple nights that protesters were held in jail.

This symbolizes everything AOC is about: transgressive rhetoric inside a literal and figurative party for the rich. It’s a party of empty gestures, adopting the language of radicalism to put down protests and assure capitalists that, as Joe Biden said “nothing fundamentally changes.” It’s the party of kente cloth-wearing Nancy Pelosi, who quickly increased police budgets and oversaw the repression of the very movement she sought to cash in on politically. It’s the party of children’s “overflow facilities” with “Bienvenidos” written in colorful paint, which we are assured are much better than Donald Trump’s “kids in cages.” But it’s all the same. That’s AOC’s party. 

And in the end, AOC is inside making headlines, while activists are being arrested outside. She’s ultimately doing nothing more than repping the party and program of Joe Biden. And while she talks the talk, she isn’t a real force for radical action in the streets. She isn’t forcing Medicare for All to be discussed in Congress, much less organizing mass protests for it. After all, Our Revolution, the progressive PAC that backed AOC, is now rebranding as “pragmatic progressives” — the folks who are just too “pragmatic” to get their hands dirty with protests, or with pesky demands like Medicare for All or cancelling student debt. 

The Met Gala is just one more example of exactly whose side AOC is on. And it’s not the first time she’s shown us. From supporting and then posing in Rolling Stone with Nancy Pelosi to her votes for the ICE budget and increased military budgets, she has made it clear.

And, unfortunately, the small protest outside the Met Gala was a sign of the times; with Biden in the White House, people are placated and demobilized. AOC is playing a role, not in getting people mobilized and riled up, but in keeping people on the sidelines. And the DSA seems to be following her lead. Instead of building a movement that fights with the slogan of making the rich pay for the crises they create, they fall meekly in line behind the Democratic party regime, again, cheerleading and arguing that “good Democrats” can be a way to bring about change.

But with the looming climate catastrophe, imperialist wars, and even the possible repeal of Roe v. Wade, we need to know which side we are on, and who will be on the other side opposing us. We will need to mobilize our side to fight in the streets, trusting the strength of mass mobilizations, like Black Lives Matter, and of the working class, like the ILWU port workers who shut down shipping across the West Coast. Time and again, AOC has shown that she is inside the party of the wealthy and powerful, not an outsider who will oppose it from within, and as such, she has made it clear that she is not on our side. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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