Regardless of the outcome of November’s U.S. elections, what will count most is what happens in the streets. As Frederick Douglass put it plainly a century and a half ago, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.”
All the advances of the 20th century (most of which are being steadily eroded in these early years of the 21st century) came about through organized movements, forcing elected officials to react.
I know that what I’ve written above is something that most of you reading this already know. But it does seem that we need to remind ourselves of this as United Statesians ponder a choice of two of the most unpopular candidates in the history of U.S. presidential campaigns, a choice reflecting the growing crisis of capitalism. The technocratic corporate war monger versus the proudly ignorant misogynist egomaniac. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that a ready-made alternative exists on the November ballot, and not simply because either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next president.
Revolutions are made in the street, not in the election booth. Bernie Sanders can promise a “revolution” all he wants, but no matter how fervently some of his followers wish it, the Vermont senator offered no revolution. Significant reforms that would be welcome should they be realized, certainly. But Senator Sanders offered merely to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism, not transcend them. His example, Sweden, is not a socialist country, even if it is a county that is much more humane. The Swedish government didn’t keep its banks in public hands after nationalizing them during an early 1990s crisis; instead it re-privatized them.
Secretary Clinton supports every U.S. imperial adventure, while Senator Sanders supports only some of them. Moreover, Senator Sanders’ main complaint about NATO isn’t its imperial mission but rather that Europeans don’t pay more. Why should I get worked up over this difference?
And that brings us to Jill Stein, about to receive the Green Party’s presidential nomination. Or, rather, to the Green Party itself. Those who see the Greens as an anti-capitalist alternative are, sad to say, destined for disappointment. Here I can speak from personal experience, having been highly active in the New York State Green Party more than a decade ago, and even serving as the editor of state party’s newspaper for two years. There are Greens who are sincerely socialists, and who would like to see the party be socialist, but these folks represent the left wing of the party, not the party as a whole.
Contradictory trends among Greens
The New York Green Party at the time I was active was filled with liberals and ex-Democrats; the latter joined when the Greens earned ballot status in New York because they had not risen in the Democratic Party and believed they could be big fish in a small pond. Many of these folks wished for nothing more than to tug the Democrats a bit to the left and to cross-endorse Democratic candidates deemed sufficiently progressive. But as Democrats thoroughly dominate state politics and have no need for Green support, such cross-endorsements were worth nothing and these dreams of influence proved empty. At the national level, shortly before I ceased active involvement, a bureaucratic structure calling itself Green Party US was created, further cutting off the party’s rank and file from decision-making.
The center and right wings of the party (more oriented toward electoral politics than activism) generally supported the creation of Green Party US; unfortunately they were supported by a minority of activism-oriented Greens, one of whom, a sincere life-long activist who should have known better, argued on the floor of a state party assembly against me that “the train is leaving the station and we have to be on board.” That the Green Party’s national committee this year approved an “ecological economics” plank that declares the party “anti-capitalist and in favor of a decentralized vision [of] socialism” does not magically turn a “big tent” party into a socialist one.
The party’s platform has stated that “Greens support small business, responsible stakeholder capitalism, and broad and diverse forms of economic cooperation.” The new language, to be formally approved at this week’s national convention, states that the party “seeks to build an alternative economic system based on ecology and decentralization of power” and seeks to instead “build an economy based on large-scale green public works, municipalization, and workplace and community democracy.” Further, the new language states that “Production is best for people and planet when democratically owned and operated by those who do the work and those most affected by production decisions. This model of worker and community empowerment will ensure that decisions that greatly affect our lives are made in the interests of our communities, not at the whim of centralized power structures of state administrators or of capitalist CEOs and distant boards of directors.”
Yes, a significant step forward from the thinly disguised “green capitalism” that the party previously had stood for. Green capitalism, the hope of liberals and social democrats that the same system that has brought the world to economic, political and environmental crisis will somehow solve these problems, is a fantasy, one best given no quarter. I certainly do not wish to discourage Greens, or anybody else, from moving beyond the chimera of “green capitalism.” But does an organization declaring itself “socialist” — or, in this case, “anti-capitalist” — make it so? A measure of caution is warranted.
The record of the Green Party is not particularly strong. In 2004, maneuvering by David Cobb’s supporters wrested the presidential nomination from Ralph Nader (although national-convention attendees I talked to told me that had Mr. Nader campaigned for the nomination rather than expecting it to be handed to him by right he would have been the nominee). Mr. Cobb ran a “safe states” campaign, whereby he would only ask for votes in states that were firmly in the hands of one of the major parties, unmistakably implying that voters in states that were up for grabs should vote for pro-war Democrat John Kerry. I should note that when I had a chance to ask him about this intellectually dishonest campaign, he, with a straight face, told me that he was running a 50-state campaign. But his slick “professional politician” personality told a different story.
Mistaking Bernie Sanders for a savior
That mistake hasn’t been repeated. But Dr. Stein committed a serious strategic error when she offered to cede the presidential nomination to Senator Sanders if only he would abandon the Democratic Party and instead become his vice presidential running mate. Why a person as serious as she is would indulge in such a fantasy I do not know. There was no possibility of Senator Sanders doing anything other than endorsing Secretary Clinton; he not only said so clearly from the start but political reality (i.e., his ability to retain any influence in the party) mandated that he do so. Complaining that he is a “sellout” for doing so is naïve.
Here, I would strongly disagree with the analysis of Chris Hedges that it was a mistake for him to have run as a Democrat instead of as an independent — his impact would have been minuscule had he done so. Whatever criticisms we have of Senator Sanders, he galvanized millions of people and put socialism into a national conversation, even if he wasn’t actually offering socialism. These are positive steps.
Dr. Stein does offer a more progressive vision than that of Senator Sanders. And let us note the new anti-capitalist plank in the Green platform. But there is a world of difference between an abstract idea and practical work to make that idea a reality. The history of social democracy, theoretically parties working toward a form of socialism, provides ample evidence.
Germany’s former Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, pushed through his “Agenda 2010” legislation in 2003 that imposed austerity. The so-called “German miracle” has been so only for German multi-national capital. The “secret” to Germany’s economic dominance within the European Union is cuts to German wages. Germany has undercut other countries that use the euro as their currency by suppressing wages, while the common currency has the effect of making German exports cheaper.
In France, the “Socialist” government of Francois Hollande has resorted to bypassing parliament to impose rules speeding up layoffs and cutting wages. And then there is Tony Blair in Britain, Jean Chrétien in Canada and so on.
German Greens invert definition of imperialism
The Greens are not the Social Democrats. But does that make them genuinely different? Recall that when the German Greens attained power, joining a Social Democratic government as a junior partner, they found themselves administrating Germany’s nuclear power plants despite their anti-nuclear stance, and eagerly joined in the bombing of Yugoslavia, a particularly unfortunate place for Germany to intervene militarily given the history of World War II in the Balkans. This was the handiwork of Joschka Fischer and his wing of the German Green Party, who liked to call themselves “realos” (realists) while dismissing those who sought to uphold the party’s ideals as “fundis” (fundamentalists).
The “realos” did not engage in Germany’s first post-World War II imperial adventure unwillingly. I was one of a small group of New York Greens who sent a letter to the German Green leadership asking them to honor party principal and not participate in the U.S.-led bombing of Yugoslavia. We received a response calling us arrogant and imperialists for daring to discuss their policies. Separately, a letter sent from The Greens/Green Party USA, the more progressive of the then two U.S. national organizations, asked the German Greens to “set an example” by opposing the bombing of Yugoslavia or participating in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. German Green leadership responded by dismissing the request as “a terrific exercise in ‘green imperialist’ thinking,” as “sectarian propaganda from afar” and as an “attempt to lecture and bully other parties.”
A U.S. sister organization asks for support of its opposition to U.S. war-mongering waged to open new lands for U.S. multi-national corporations to exploit and for this they are called imperialists and bullies!
Expecting socialism from such a party is futile. Remember, that swatted-away criticism wasn’t from U.S. Greens as a whole, but rather from the party’s left wing. The Greens are not a revolutionary grouping, and are and will be moved in the directions that social democratic parties are moved. That Dr. Stein in effect declared that a Democratic candidate who is in favor of many imperialist adventures and who supported the stationing of air force bombers against the will of his constituents is the savior of the United States amply demonstrates that the party has not shaken itself free of capitalism or properly analyzed the nature of imperialism.
One of the underlying reasons for that is its lack of strongly defined principals. The “10 Key Values” on which the party bases itself are vague, a lowest common denominator representing what could be agreed upon. Much of the party is led by middle class people who tend to vacillate. For now, the campaign of Senator Sanders has helped put socialism in a national conversation, so the switch to anti-capitalism in the party’s program can be interpreted more as a weather vane than a sudden move leftward. If the wind shifts, it can not be excluded that the platform will as well.
Expediency over principle
Senator Sanders simply fails to make the connection between austerity at home and imperialism abroad, and that is a serious error reflecting his lingering nationalistic thinking and an inability to make a proper critique of capitalism. Dr. Stein, I believe, does not share these deficiencies, but that she was willing to indulge them for the sake of an ill-fated, chimeric short-term expediency reflects an organization that is groping toward some version of a kinder and gentler capitalism, not one working toward socialism no matter what its platform states. And thus not a party that genuinely offers an alternative to the detested two-party system, one deeply rooted in the winner-take-all, single-seat district U.S. electoral structure.
And what choice is there between those two parties? One the surface, it would appear that there are drastic differences between the two. The demagogue Donald Trump offers a dark vision of turning back to the 19th century, when everybody not a White male possessing wealth knew their place. The technocrat Hillary Clinton, and other speakers at the Democratic Party national convention, offered soaring visions of a coming world of equality and hope, a kinder and gentler capitalism that will bring prosperity to all. President Barack Obama, in particular, gave a bravura performance. As I watched some of this, I couldn’t help but think “If only they meant it.”
However outstanding the oratory, the dismal results speak for themselves. Bill Clinton was the most effective Republican president the U.S. ever had, putting into law policies that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush could only dream of doing. The Obama administration organized repression against Occupy Wall Street, unilaterally kills people with drones and protects Wall Street. Given her record as a senator, her pathetic foot-dragging on same-sex marriage until it was absolutely safe to be in favor, her role as the leading hawk of the Obama administration and her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the “gold standard” of trade agreements until political pressure forced her into carefully worded opposition that leaves her maneuvering room, can it be reasonable to believe her administration will be substantially different?
The only route to a better world is through mass movements articulating clear goals. But instead of settling for reforms, the only way out of our present crises is to push beyond what is possible in the world’s present political systems. There are only two reasons for voting for Secretary Clinton instead of Mr. Trump — one, that voting for the latter is a vote for open racism, misogyny and immigrant-bashing embodied in a candidacy that carries with it the seeds of a potential fascist movement and, two, that it would be better to be on the offensive than the defensive. A Trump presidency would necessitate a multi-pronged movement against an all-around assault on civil rights just to maintain the crumbs left to us. Although a Clinton presidency is hardly destined to be a golden age, mass movements would be better able to go on the offensive as she will have to give lip service to the campaign promises she has been forced, through gritted teeth, to make to fend off Senator Sanders’ primary challenge.
Either way, what we do in the streets, what pressure movements bring to bear, will be decisive. Vote for a lesser evil if your conscience dictates (although I can’t bring myself to do so), but then get in the streets to push hard that lesser evil. There are no saviors on the ballot, not Bernie Sanders, not the Green Party. Some day we will have candidates we can vote for rather than against, but there is much work to do before we arrive at that day. That work is up to us.
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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.