The Left-Wing Rift is a Question of Tactics

Warren revealed her Medicare for All (M4A) plan that did not include an increase in middle-class taxes, as she had consistently pseudo-promised over the past few months. The plan attracted criticism from both the centrist wing of the Democratic party and – most distressing for me – the left-wing. Any previous perusal of left-wing spaces, both virtual and online, would have revealed a quiet, although sometimes outspoken, distrust and dislike of Warren’s campaign in general. Warren is found to be a carpet-bagger, sweeping in on Bernie’s coat-tails and appropriating the language of Bernie and his base of support. This is a fair assessment from the left, for it is certainly Warren’s political strategy. I also understand the distrust of Warren; her refusal to step in during Bernie’s original run in 2016 was cold and disheartening to the left-wing’s last attempt at a coup of the Democratic establishment. A perusal on the left-wing internet reveals a more outspoken aggression towards Warren Now, following the trail of blood drawn from the reveal of her M4A path from the moderate wing, some in the left-wing have taken to more outspoken aggression towards Warren in general.

Before I ramble any further, I should make my objective here clear, as my intention isn’t to bury the lede. I am an open anti-capitalist; I hate the way the US economy is managed and believe it to be inhumane and disorienting. But I still have ties to the practical: the idea that this system can be obliterated in one election is nonsense– destroying capitalism will take years, decades, centuries. Anyone truly committed to exorcising the rooted terror of capitalism will need to be thinking with a mind to the organs of the system, and will need to act strategically to counter them. Declaring Housing for All will not make housing for all – ensuring that the machinations of government can be mobilized, and ensuring that there are governmental machinations to be mobilized in the first place, will be what delivers a more socialized country.  

To these ends, I believe Warren has a mind for the plots that need to actually occur to undermine the system as it exists. Warren’s base is undoubtedly left-wing in its philosophy and conception of governance, but her less-radical approach has drawn appeal from disaffected Democratic Moderates as well. Just as any left-wing plot will not arise from one election, it will also not arise without significant concurrence between the two specialties of these left-wing camps: technocratic spells, prolific in the Warren Cabal, to untangle the web of capitalism; and movement-based mass politics, which define the Bernie Coalition, to will enough Americans to enter the gnosis state necessary to  bring about true socio-economic change. Any anti-capitalist movement will not occur without the successful orchestration of these two tactics.

This is where my distress stems: the Warren Cabal and Bernie Coalition cannot afford to attack each other during the primary races. Even if one of these two candidates emerge victorious from the primary, reconciliation and assimilation between these camps will be necessary to deliver not just electoral victory, but government action on the left-wing plots desired. Although it will be tempting for the left to partake in the blood drawn from the ongoing moderate attack on Warren, the left-wing movement will not hold unless the left is unified in fighting the Capitalist Regime. It is one thing to have a healthy competition between plans. And to be clear, the criticisms from the Bernie Coalition have been generally fair disagreements levied in a responsible way (although titles such as this one pushed by Jacobin engage in nastier language that widens the rift rather than engage in more serious discussion of plan differentials). Luckily, left-wing infighting has been temporarily stymied by an uprising from the Billionaire-wing of the Democratic party. This must hold.

Warren has a clear history that should satiate any concerns of her being insufficiently left-wing. Warren wrote the book on working and middle-class travails, so to accuse her of not understanding the pains of the working class are arbitrary and suspect. Her legislative history is less concrete than Bernie’s but far from trivial. She conceptually developed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a government agency whose authority to hunt down actors inside the US Financial System – the engine of global capitalism – will undoubtedly need to be weaponized to strike at entrenched wealth. During her time in Senate, she has a track-record of progressive support – voting 93% of the time with Bernie Sanders (a perusal of the record reveals almost no dissent between the two on any major issues). Her time as a lawyer (not without some legitimate controversy) reveals an extensive knowledge of the entrenched legalese that underwrites the grip of capitalism. Her campaign has been consistent and detailed – she has released clear, thorough plans on what needs to be changed and procedurally how to do so. Even if one were to gripe with some aspects of reform or their feasibility, Warren and her campaign at least deserve due credit for releasing a clear and detailed roadmap for fundamentally restructuring our economic system. Given these histories, I implore even the most ardent Bernie supporter to acknowledge that Warren isn’t a neo-liberal in disguise. She can call herself a capitalist until she croaks – but if it looks like a left-wing attack on structural capitalism, and it sounds like a left-wing attack on structural capitalism, we should feel safe to say that Warren is no ally of structural capitalism as it exists today.

So then, why the tension? It is a disagreement over tactics. I believe, fundamentally, that both candidates have at least a general vision for the future that exist in tandem of one another. The difference is the roadmap they have drawn to take us there. I believe these differences in tactics and strategy define the biggest gulf between the two groups.

Warren’s approach is technocratic and in the weeds. Around the country, there is a class of progressive professionals’ who have had to hide their left-wing leanings in order to appease the apparatus of capital. These are policy makers, administrators, organizers, and other white-collar workers who are sick to death of this system and have been looking for a feasible path to achieve a more intentionally designed socio-economic system. Warren has provided these folks a venue for political engagement. Warren’s show-the-work approach oozes of the sort of prose cooked up in policy-schools across the country, and has certainly built appeal and trust among this ilk. Where many of these individuals have political dreams in line with the Socialists underpinning the Bernie Coalition, this group has certainly been off-put by Bernie’s lack of detail or clarity in what actually needs to get done to achieve his stated ends. Warren satiates this hole left in Bernie’s plot.

Warren’s tactics have been effective at luring Democratic moderates into her Cabal. Her knowledge of the system, and her ability to weave folksy narratives about the need for reform, have been successful in building trust with Democratic technocrats and a broader Democratic base eager for change but scared of the unknown that would come with a true left-wing approach to governance. Her technocratic knowledge has been deployed in debates to beat back attacks from Moderates, and her appropriation of sometimes Trumpian language has allowed her to avoid being easily typecast as a left-wing discontent in the national media.

Bernie’s approach is fundamentally demagogic: an exercise in mass messaging through means typically ignored by mainstream political leaders.  Go to any protest in a major city and you will find left-wing members of this Coalition cheering for a new vision of the future. None of this should be read sardonically. Bernie has given a voice to people who are frustrated with everything, and have been working and preparing to bring new perspectives to governance. These voices are energetic, authentic, and essential. I often wondered where everyone went following the Occupy protests that erupted in 2011, and I see now the fruit of all that struggle: well-connected organizations, activists, and individuals ready to storm the gates of the White House and build something new and real. Bernie’s approach is simple: the minutiae of this theoretical barnstorm isn’t important – it will get done because the people can will it into being. If Trump proved anything about our system, it’s that one man (no matter how profoundly idiotic or incompetent) can will strange, fringe ideas into being with just a twitter handle and a catchy slogan.

Bernie’s strategy has been effective for two reasons. First, Bernie is a skilled orator and leader: he is able to weave an anti-capitalist message using simple but engaging language that is compelling. His insistence on keeping to the “not me, us” message masks that the movement is largely, if not solely, built around his personality. Second, his consistency as a legislator has empowered his claim as an honest and forthright legislator. He has never pretended to be a capitalist, or a neo-liberal, or a centrist: for some (all?) time, he has been the few national legislators holding space in the government for the left. This authority is well-earned, and has prevented other figures from finding the space to attack or criticize him or his movement as disingenuous.

The difference in tactics between the two leaders is shared by their supporters. I believe both camps fundamentally want to see a destruction of the capitalist state (even if not capitalism in general), but is this achieved by doing battle in the realm of technocracy, with a first-step defined as defanging the weapons of high-finance and capital? Or is it done by rejecting the academic reforms proposed by left-wing technocrats and the legal, financial, and political premises that have stymied left-wing proposals in the past?  This is probably the largest source of tension between the two groups, and the purpose of this primary should be a battle for which strategy is to be pursued come 2020.

I find Warren’s approach better here. Doing battle with the wealthy, breaking up large corporations, and building infrastructure within the government to combat capital’s power is the essential first step that will build a path for bolder left-wing plans proposed by Bernie. In fact, my gripe with the Bernie campaign is in feasibility – I just don’t see how, even if he were to somehow emerge victorious following the inevitable deluge of socialist-smearing propaganda that will come from the right-wing should he win the nomination, his plans would come to fruition. Nothing in Bernie’s plots outline an actual battle-plan for combating and challenging the influence of capital as it exists today. This isn’t to say his plans are nonsense – I just have trouble seeing how an old curmudgeon from Vermont will find the allies in Senate and Congress he needs to vote for his ideas. I also ask how he will mobilize the no-nonsense pencil pushers who actually implement the will of the government to institutionalize even one of his large plans should he win, let alone any multiple of them.

But then, the same could be said of Warren. It doesn’t matter how technically feasible her policies are if she cannot overcome the moderates who hold stake in the Democratic party, let alone any mobilized Republican opposition. If Warren is not capable of inspiring activists, progressives, moderates, and socialists across the country to demand their legislators accept her proposals, her technocratic prose will wither in policy binders across Washington. This is why both camps must be ready to unify following the primary – they will both need each other’s skills and tactics to do battle for left-wing priorities. If both camps begin sniping at each other, rather than making a case for their individual tactical approaches, I fear that unification will be too arduous to overcome.

Right now, both Warren and Bernie control close to half of the Democratic electorate. We’ll see if one of the centrist candidates will be able to swallow enough of the support that idle behind the handful of also-rans to challenge both candidates, but it is clear that Bernie and Warren have created large and distinct paths for progressive politics to enter mainstream political culture. This is inspiring even if both candidates fail – the curation of activists, organizers, and policy makers around legitimate left-wing policies deliver experience and new infrastructures for future plotters to jump from in the future. We must be very careful not to poison the well, especially when our enemies are so powerfully organized.