Biden’s government spending increase won’t affect capitalist power


Joe Biden’s turn to support large-scale government spending, after rallying the Democratic Party establishment to defeat Bernie Sanders in the primaries, has stunned much of the left. After signing a $ 1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, he is now putting forward an additional $ 1.7 trillion infrastructure bill, to be spent over the next eight years. These bills include much more than the basic steps needed to fight the pandemic or just fix highways and bridges. Surprisingly, Biden sought to broaden the definition of infrastructure to include spending on elderly care, housing, schools, child care, and other social programs.

This level of social spending goes beyond anything we’ve seen in the neoliberal era. Obama’s stimulus package, enacted immediately after the 2008 crisis, was worth $ 831 billion. All of the social programs funded by these bills would make America a nicer, more civilized place to live.

It is therefore understandable that the left, still prickly of Sanders’ defeat, have been pushed back by this offensive – especially since Biden at first appeared to show an unexpected willingness to avoid bipartisanship (although even this limited boldness fades over time).

While impressive, this spending will always leave America’s meager safety net a long way from the less generous European welfare states. And Biden has not embraced the left’s basic demand for universal health care or aggressively supported a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour. Despite his campaign promises and the explicit support of a wide range of Congressional Democrats, he also refused to support lowering the age of Medicare eligibility, expanding benefits or even allowing the program to negotiate lower drug costs with pharmaceutical companies. Likewise, its “green” measures fall far short of what is necessary to deal with the climate emergency.

But the problem with Biden’s “stimulus” bills is not that they will fail to bring social democracy to the United States, nor that they are “not big enough”. Just calling for more spending, given the size of the bills and the stark contrast to the Republican backlash, is not enough.

For socialists, social democracy and reforms within capitalism itself are not the goal. Socialists are striving for reforms aimed at improving the lives of working class people, as well as building capacity and organization to fundamentally transform society – to evolve into a democratic economic system organized to meet human needs rather than to serve private profit. Biden’s spending does little to move us towards that goal.

The inability of social democracy to meet human and ecological needs – and even to win lasting reforms – is not simply a matter of speculation, but of historical experience. In the decades following World War II, social democratic parties around the world achieved significant victories, expanding welfare states to include universal health care, pensions, unemployment insurance and nationalization of certain industries.

Yet by the end of the 1970s it was clear that these parties could not effect a fundamental transformation of the social order. They integrated into the capitalist states, disciplining the workers and limiting their horizons to what was possible in capitalism.

It had a lot to do with the fact that these social democratic parties were hierarchical and bureaucratic, relegating workers to a passive role in activities such as voting and knocking on doors. Once elected, party leaders would be expected to guarantee the best possible deal for workers. They remained firmly attached to a policy of “class compromise”, systematically marginalizing the socialists and the left as “not very serious”. Such parties were unable to cultivate the democratic capacities, the creative energies and the organizational strength of the working class that would be necessary to move to socialism. Rather than struggling to democratize the state, they disciplined workers to adapt to its capitalist constraints.

Social democracy supposedly reduces the “market dependence” of workers, allowing them to fall back on social programs rather than hire an underpaid or otherwise unwanted workforce to survive. Yet the Social Democrats also agreed to depend on the competitiveness of businesses and the accumulation of private capital to sustain the reforms they had won.

As a result, when the post-war boom collapsed in the 1970s into a state fiscal crisis and a crisis in corporate profitability, the Social Democrats saw little alternative to embrace. cuts and restructuring. These parties made a marked shift to the right and in the 1990s openly embraced market reforms through the neoliberal “third way”.

The only way to hope to make permanent gains is to go further. Reforms within capitalism are vitally important to improving the lives of people at this time. But the left must articulate a larger project – which requires educating workers about the need for socialism, preparing them for the challenges ahead, and building a layer of activists and organizers ready to demand more. Above all, it requires a sober analysis of the limits of reforms and the scale of the challenges we face, to build the organizational strength, confidence and cohesion of the working class to push for transformation. more fundamental social.

The policies Biden put forward today, while helpful in ameliorating some of the worst miseries average Americans face, will not help us do so. They do not pave the way for challenging private ownership of capital, democratizing the state or changing the balance of class forces. Far from increasing popular awareness of the need to move beyond capitalism and strengthen the strength and independence of the working class, Biden’s policies are calculated to avoid a confrontation with capital. Aside from a few grunts about his proposed tax hikes – which wouldn’t even completely reverse Trump’s cuts – businesses have responded positively to his stimulus.

Undoubtedly, this is partly due to the fact that these programs do not include elements that could encourage workers to become more active. The fact that the mobilization of the working class remains at its lowest is in part what makes such stimulus spending possible: there seems little reason to fear that workers will push up inflation with further demands.

Even the limited pro-union policies Biden supported, such as the PRO Act, will require an organized and independent left to represent more than very narrow supports for conservative and undemocratic unions. A sustained and organized struggle of the socialists is necessary for the unions to become vehicles for the construction of classify, rather than simply seeking earnings for particular groups of workers.

Only a strong socialist left can wage a struggle for what André Gorz called the famous, in a 1968 Socialist register essay, “non-reformist reforms”. The challenge for socialists today is to link the struggle for universal health care with a longer-term struggle for a fundamental transformation of the political and economic system.

This requires more than the mere proclamation of socialist good faith. This implies a concrete commitment to building the organizations, consciousness and democratic capacities of the working class to eventually effect a socialist transition. Whether the reforms can serve as the basis for a larger struggle still depends on the lessons learned and the capacities developed along the way. The struggle for universal health care must therefore also be a struggle to democratize unions, develop networks of community activists and build a base for socialist ideas among workers.

The need for universal health care has become more evident with the pandemic. But the public health crisis has also made it clear that this demand must be expanded to encompass more public control over pharmaceutical companies, which have reaped huge profits due to their ownership of publicly funded medical technologies. And the ecological emergency in the context of the pandemic heightens the urgency to transform our political and economic institutions to enable democratic planning of what we produce and how we produce it.

The ever-present danger is that by focusing on securing particular reforms, the question of socialism is indefinitely postponed and becomes empty rhetoric. The threat of “social democratization” is also very real: rather than transform state, socialist parties and movements are more likely to be transformed by he. The immensity of the task of overcoming the constraints of capitalism and state disciplines paves the way for accepting these constraints as immutable, while limiting our political vision to marginal gains.

Recent attempts to build new left parties – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Bloco in Portugal – clearly illustrate these dangers. Although they had a promising start and many good Socialists remain with them, their potential for transformation now seems to have faded. These experiences should serve as warning stories for Democratic Socialists of America in the United States and Momentum in the United Kingdom.

Even though they are decorated with socialist slogans, individual reforms can too easily be seen as an end in themselves, rather than steps towards wider and deeper change. And there is nothing intrinsically radical on specific reforms. Universal health care can be a way for American businesses to socialize the costs of health care, or it could become a first step in a larger progressive struggle. In itself, it does not pose a threat to the ruling class, except to the extent that it serves to raise expectations and inspire workers to go further.

Social democracy says that these expectations must conform to the limits imposed by capitalism and the capitalist state. Socialism seeks to use reforms as a springboard for a deeper and broader transformation.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that we will ever achieve socialism – in fact, if we are honest we have to recognize that the odds are against it. But only by maintaining what Leo Panitch called our “revolutionary optimism of the intellect” in the face of uncertainty and defeat – by imagining a concrete utopia, thinking strategically and creatively seeking openings. within our historic present – that we have every hope of building a better future.


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