For progressives across the planet, the defeat of Donald Trump in the recent election in the United States was a moment of deep and shared joy. Trump summoned the dark forces of racism to the fore in a large chunk of the white population in the US and elsewhere in the world.
His anti-science position and penchant for conspiracy theories encouraged dangerous currents of reactionary populism. His new Cold War with China, an attempt to sustain American and white power over the planet, took a nasty racialised form and did real damage to the global economy. Trump also posed an existential threat to humanity as a whole with his rejection of science on the escalating climate emergency.
The kind of dogmatic leftism that says that there is no difference between Trump and the corporate faction of the Democratic Party is not to be taken seriously. But while the defeat of Trump was a celebratory moment, we need to take seriously the dangers of the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket.
Biden and Harris are aligned to the establishment in the Democratic Party and stand for a return to the pre-Trump status quo, to the politics of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They do not offer any sort of progressive vision.
Some years ago Tariq Ali, the prolific and brilliant British-Pakistani intellectual, argued that in electoral politics in North America and in a number of countries in Europe, two-party systems had emerged in which the old political projects of the Left and the Right had been replaced by bipartisan support for the “extreme centre”, which is pro-corporate and for austerity at home while supporting imperialist wars abroad.
In the United States, this was the politics of Clinton, George W Bush and Obama. Not only did it increase inequality and poverty in the imperialist core, it also wreaked havoc across significant parts of the global periphery. The combination of the damage it did to the working class at home and the lack of a progressive alternative for voters paved the way for a right-wing demagogue like Trump to emerge.
Many liberals see the defeat of Trump as enabling a return to “politics as normal”, which means going back to the “extreme centre”. With Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn defeated by the pro-corporate establishment in their respective parties, the old parties of labour and the working class more widely are now firmly in the hands of the “extreme centre”. The only electoral alternative is the new demagogic Right in the old parties of the elites, which now also speaks to working-class voters using crude nationalism, xenophobia and racism.
The perils of the Biden-Harris win
We must have no illusions about Biden and Harris. They will continue in the mould of Clinton and Obama in supporting an economy that works for the elite at home and imperialism abroad. They are both pro-corporate, both personally implicated in the development of the American gulag – the racist system of mass incarceration – and both committed to violent forms of American imperialism.
Biden was a central figure in the push for mass incarceration in the name of the “war on drugs”, a failed policy that jailed vast numbers of African-American men. On this issue, he was more conservative than President George HW Bush. Biden personally wrote some of the laws that built the carceral system. He sponsored and partially wrote the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which mandated a sentencing disparity for people caught with crack and powder cocaine, a law that resulted in gross disparities in sentencing in terms of race.
As a prosecutor, Harris argued that non-violent offenders should be kept in prison because they were an important source of cheap labour. She also supported the death penalty and went so far as to fight to keep people who had been proven innocent in prison.
Biden’s personal record on the question of imperialism makes for bleak reading. His support for Israel is framed in explicitly imperialist terms. He said in 1986, “It’s about time we stop apologising for our support for Israel. It is the best $3 billon investment we make. If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”
Speaking in 1994, Biden said, “If Haiti quietly sunk into the Caribbean or rose 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter to our interests.” That was three years after Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been deposed in a US-backed coup, thousands of Haitians had been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and thousands more had been murdered by the Central Intelligence Agency linked Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti.
Continuing the US military partnership with Israel
During his election campaign, Biden’s foreign policy advisors were largely Washington insiders directly involved with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the US interventions in Syria and Libya, and with drone strikes in many countries. Some of these people have personal financial interests in the arms industry and the firms that consult to the Pentagon.
Harris is just as reactionary on international questions. During the recent election campaign, she said, “I pledge to you the Biden-Harris administration will sustain our unbreakable commitment to Israel’s security, including the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation pioneered during the Obama-Biden administration and the guarantee that Israel will always maintain its qualitative military edge.”
Biden and Harris are not Trump, but they are also not progressives. The treatment of Sanders by Democratic Party elites has made it clear that it is unlikely a progressive candidate will ever win a nomination for the presidency. There are some progressives in the party, such as the famous “squad” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. But they are on the margins and unlikely to advance towards real power in the context of the current Democratic Party realities.
There is a similar situation in the UK where, despite huge popular support for Corbyn among Labour Party supporters, the party elite has moved it back to the “extreme centre”.
What happens in US politics affects the whole world. In South Africa, we have seen how Trump embodied and emboldened the Right, from AfriForum to the Democratic Alliance and Herman Mashaba. The same thing happened in Brazil, India and elsewhere. Our historic colonial ties to the UK mean that what happens in British politics also affects our country.
Today, socialism is more popular in the US than at any point since the 1930s. It has attracted the best intellectuals and real popular support, especially among younger people. If the growing movement for socialism in the US wishes to move from the margins of society towards actual power, it may have to abandon any residual hope in the Democratic Party and build a new political instrument from the ground up.
This will be arduous work, but without real change in the US, much of the world will remain stuck between the “extreme centre” and the new demagogic Right.
In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa leads the “extreme centre” and Mashaba and his ilk the new demagogic Right. Neither of these are credible options. We too need to build a progressive political instrument from scratch.