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Democrats' Refusal to Challenge Capitalism Undermines the Fight for Economic and Racial Justice

President Barack Obama, left, and Vice President Joe Biden wave to delegates at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo: AP)

A brutal class war is being waged by the rich in the United States and, as billionaire Warren Buffett has so bluntly recognized, they are winning.

Republicans, for their part, tend to deny that such a war is taking place — except, of course, when someone observes the obscene wealth that has been absorbed by the top one percent over the last several decades. Then class war, they quickly argue, is being waged by the poor, against the rich.

And Democrats, for all their soaring rhetoric, have failed to muster more than a complacent shrug in response to the corporate assault on those they claim to represent.

Indeed, far from combating the class war from above, Democrats have often found themselves on the side of the winners — that is, those who have seen their incomes skyrocket thanks to neoliberal globalization.

Largely due to both their acceptance of an ideological system that runs counter to the needs of the masses and "pragmatic" commitments to the needs of organized wealth, gradually during the late 20th century Democrats abandoned the language of class, instead adopting the seemingly high-minded — but often diversionary and empty, particularly when put to use by elites — language of identity politics.

Having shifted allegiances from the working class to the professional class since the 1970s, Democrats have had to adjust their tone accordingly: No longer could they use the provocative language of class conflict; no longer could they condemn, as FDR did, the nation's "economic royalists" who "maintained" a system of "economic slavery." Their new constituency would not take kindly to such language.

And with the language of class went the politics of class — the politics that transformed the Democratic Party throughout the post-Depression years into a party that, while not entirely sympathetic to the working class, pushed through changes that improved the material well-being of millions.

But now, in the face of levels of income and wealth inequality matched only by those of the year prior to the Great Depression, the "New" Democrats have proven unable — even unwilling — to confront the problem.

This lack of ability or willingness has less to do with the personal failings of individual Democrats and more to do with the ideological bent of the party they pay allegiance to.

"Unwilling to fight for an ambitious social agenda in the name of "pragmatism" and eagerly receptive to floods of corporate money... Democrats have lost both the language necessary to fight systemic economic and racial injustices and the platform necessary to resist the class war being waged from above."

As Touré Reed and many others have argued, Democrats' success in separating the language of identity — race, gender, sexual orientation — from the language of class has allowed the prevailing economic order to escape unscathed, depriving the party of the means necessary to take on soaring inequality.

This is a political shift that, as Reed notes, black radicals from A. Philip Randolph to Martin Luther King Jr. wholeheartedly rejected. They viewed "economic opportunity for all — decent-paying jobs and social-democratic policies — as essential to racial equality" and believed that only a combination of anti-discrimination legislation and social democracy would be sufficient to achieve racial justice (not merely one or the other).

Many Democratic Party liberals of today recognize no such overlap between race and class. And their cynical deployment of identity politics to undermine class-conscious critiques of the American economic order is often quite startling.

See, for instance, Hillary Clinton's remarks on the campaign trail in February, during which she attempted to paint her opponent, Bernie Sanders, as a "single issue" candidate.

"Not everything is about an economic theory, right?" Clinton said to an approving crowd. "If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?"

Putting aside the fact that this statement is a straw man from the beginning — Sanders is far from a "single issue" candidate, and he has never argued that breaking up the banks would end racism — Clinton, in one flourish, missed an opportunity to link the struggle for racial justice to the financial crisis, sparked by the very institutions that Sanders wants to break up, tax, and heavily regulate.

"I think it's very cynical," historian Donna Murch said of Clinton's comment. "Saying that political economy doesn’t matter to black people, I think that that is terrible. Especially when you look at the impact of what happened with the subprime crisis."

As The American Prospect reported in 2013, people of color were disproportionately targeted by predatory lenders — and people of color were, as a result, disproportionately harmed when the system came crashing down.

Here we have both clear-cut racism — as the Prospect noted, "some of the loan officers at Wells Fargo spoke of these subprime loans as 'ghetto loans,' and referred to their black customers as 'mud people'" — and widespread, systemic economic exploitation.

(See, also, the recent Demos report on how the assault on public pensions is disproportionately harming black workers.)

But as Connor Kilpatrick has summarized the Democratic attitude, "when racism can be blamed, capitalism can be exonerated."

When Democrats refuse, as Clinton so often does, to recognize that those fighting for racial justice and those fighting for economic justice are engaged in a common project — and against a common enemy — they grant legitimacy to the economic order that has produced the profound inequities we see today.

Thus Clinton-style identity politics has become, to quote Adolph Reed, "neoliberalism’s version of a left."

It is a politics that places what Reed terms "antidiscrimination" at the center and often downplays or ignores economic matters that have profound effects on black and Latino communities. At its core, then, this deep commitment to identity politics is "the path Democrats have taken in retreating from a commitment to economic justice."

In that sense, as Reed has argued, identity politics is, itself, "a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism."

It is a political framework that legitimizes capitalism by separating racial justice from economic justice and arguing that fighting for the latter will do nothing to move us closer to the former; it is a framework that argues not for more equality, but for more diversity among elite sectors of the population.

"So the model of social justice" for the neoliberal, Walter Benn Michaels writes, "is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women."

This approach ultimately harms not only poor people of color, but also the white working class — a group many Democrats now gleefully dismiss as racists unworthy of attention — by discrediting those who push for the radical changes necessary to combat the horrific economic scene at hand.

"Liberals can delude themselves into believing that it is nothing more than the accumulation of individual prejudices stashed away in the minds of powerful white people that has destroyed black and brown communities in Detroit, Ferguson, and Chicago's South Side," notes Kilpatrick. "Class stratification, capital flight, and the war against organized labor are thus sidestepped completely. The liberal elite is spared from having to question the fundamental injustices of capitalism."

Often this unwillingness to question capitalism spawns pernicious, and often influential, narratives, most notably the liberal elite's nasty tendency to blame black people, and black culture more broadly, for the poverty of black communities, thereby exonerating societal and economic forces.

Now, far from simply ignoring class concerns in favor of identity politics, Democratic Party liberals have become fond of condemning and ridiculing those who dare to include a class critique in their political agenda, and have thus brought to the fore their own opposition to "even mild social democracy."

This year, the scorn has been directed at Bernie Sanders (who has repeatedly been attacked, in a variety of ways, as a class/economic reductionist) and his supporters, who have been denigrated (falsely) as angry, white "Bernie bros" who don't actually care about improving the material conditions of the population.

But it is Sanders who has revitalized otherwise stale discourse by issuing condemnations of the "billionaire class" — the "economic royalists" of our time — and calling for a "political revolution" from below to fundamentally change a broken system. And it is Sanders who has exposed the now-dominant wing of the Democratic Party that favors party unity over justice and the status quo over even the most basic progressive reforms.

"Economic demands and specifically antiracist demands should not be counterposed," concludes Jennifer Roesch, "they should be brought together." Far from being a "class reductionist," Sanders has offered a critique of both economic and political power that does precisely that.

Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Bernie Sanders repeatedly addressed issues of great concern to black and Latino communities: The fact, for instance, that "the African American community lost half of their wealth as a result of the Wall Street collapse." Or that black youth unemployment rate is at around 51%. Or that the poverty rate among minority children is staggering. Or that, in some Baltimore neighborhoods, the life expectancy is comparable to that of North Korea.

"It is Sanders who has exposed the now-dominant wing of the Democratic Party that favors party unity over justice and the status quo over even the most basic progressive reforms."

And Sanders has both put forward a far-reaching progressive platform and persistently fought back against a Democratic establishment that refuses to stand firm in opposition to disastrous "trade" agreements and that has, over the past several decades, consistently capitulated to the interests of the wealthy.

Indeed, Democrats have in many cases celebrated policy achievements like NAFTA and welfare reform that, in the words of Touré Reed, "targeted poor and working-class people."

The Democratic Party's adoption of identity politics as an agenda entirely separate from issues of class exploitation has only served to obscure this reality, allowing the economic order that produced these trends to persist.

The point, as Walter Benn Michaels has put it, is "not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things." Rather, it is that, as a "substitute" for a broad progressive political project, they fail to address the "increased inequalities of neoliberalism."

Of late, Democrats have gone far beyond failing to address these inequities; they seem bent on perpetuating them.

Unwilling to fight for an ambitious social agenda in the name of "pragmatism" and eagerly receptive to floods of corporate money — these two things are not unrelated — Democrats have lost both the language necessary to fight systemic economic and racial injustices and the platform necessary to resist the class war being waged from above.

Their party is now one that is content to, in the words of one commentator, use "its accumulated power to compensate for its complete lack of compelling answers to contemporary political questions."

If it wasn't obvious enough already, the Democratic Party's refusal to recognize capitalism as an impediment to both economic and racial justice highlights the necessity of building coalitions and movements outside of the party system. After all, as Michelle Alexander has argued, "it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself."

Jake Johnson, staff writer

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow him on Twitter: @johnsonjakep

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