Democracy and the Working-Class: An Introduction to Reed, Macnair, and Gindin
Some years ago, Adolph Reed coined the neat formulation that neoliberalism is simply capitalism without a working-class resistance. Rather than obsessing over which branch of central European para-Academia one should focus on in order to provide a genealogy of the Reagan/Thatcher project, Reed’s formulation instead sought to separate the technical question of the means through which elites extract a surplus from the political one of which kinds of social organization exist within society in the first place. Viewed from a high altitude, the value of this simplification might initially be hard to glean.
However, the political tossing and turning, especially in the Anglophone world over the last decade, have brought into relief the importance of this distinction. Starting with the genuine upset of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the head of Britain’s Labour Party in 2015 and culminating, for now, with Biden’s at least rhetorical embrace of industrial policy, protectionism, organized labor, and other challenges to the formerly-dominant ideas of liberalism, it has felt as if some challenge to the four-decade-long consensus was emerging. In the latter case, the focus on the part of the cautiously optimistic on the technical questions such as the quantity of state funding issued out by the IRA and the incentives that such funding creates has provoked the rejoinder that such funding is being doled out in the form of tax credits, rather than direct state investment. This move, the pessimists argue, evinces an abandonment of attempts to take control of investment away from capitalist: in short, such shifts are steps backwards misinterpreted as progress.
Undeniably, the political horizon in which debates around state investment is being conducted today is narrower than it was, say, in the mid-1970s. Nothing like the Humphrey-Jarvit bill attempting to institute anything close to economic planning is on the cards in the U.S. But the top-down focus on the means through which Biden’s industrial policy is being conducted has had the effect of obscuring the political question of which social changes have occurred so as to create a world in which the means through which the state can seek to ameliorate the conditions of normal people has been so thoroughly narrowed. Viewed as simply an objection to the technical solutions on offer to deal with regional inequality, deindustrialization, and climate change, pessimists run the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth. Of course, the optimist would point out, Biden’s IRA is a cash handout to billionaires which will respond to climate change chaotically, directing more investment into electric vehicles than public transport, but it will lead to the creation of good well-paying jobs for many, and that is undoubtably an improvement. Even if we ignore for a moment the continued secular decline in manufacturing jobs, unhalted by Biden’s efforts, it still feels as if something has been lost in this debate. It has taken a caricatured form of the recurring argument between revolutionaries and reformists. Optimists about Bidenism point to the tangible improvements to people’s lives whilst pessimists scream “you can’t get to socialism from there” into the darkness.
Lost in this whole discussion is any attempt to link the narrowness of technical options for responses to climate change and inequality—tax exceptions to corporations; cash handouts to citizens, viewed as consumers, to stimulate demand—to the transformations of working-class politics and, with it, the means through which democratic polities have attempted to legitimize themselves. If one assumes that in a properly functioning democracy there exists some link between political power and mediating institutions which serve to shape people’s wills and instill in them a worldview, in both the U.K. and U.S. such a link has been broken. In its absence, partisans have been forced to do politics without a polity. This, directed at different levels of society, is the thesis of Gindin, MacNair, and Reed who each diagnose the political pathologies we face as the result of a crisis caused by a lack of mediation. Such an approach has the value of drawing a connection between the valiant, albeit failed, efforts of Corbyn and his supporters and the sea changing, albeit limited, initiatives advanced by Biden. That is, they explain why attempts at reform have taken the milquetoast form of what we could call redistributive liberalism from above. Provisionally, we could characterize these three authors’ diagnosis of the causes of what Peter Mair has termed the hollowing out of political institutions as taking place on three levels.
Reed focuses on the level of civil society, arguing that liberal attempts to understand the social basis of voter suppression is ill-fated because it assumes a confused understanding of the groups that make up the society. Macnair focuses on the level of political will formation, turning his attention to the only institution capable of performing this task, the political party. And finally, Gindin looks at the state and the options it sees as reasonable within this context of a weak civil society and hollowed out political parties. Although the focus of their analyses varies across geographies and times, the problems diagnosed are symptomatic of broader shifts that have taken place within the U.S. and U.K.
First: Reed. Looking at the failed effort to push for a recall of LaToya Cantrell, Reed observes that attempts to interpret such efforts as merely seeking to suppress black voters out of racism has the unfortunate consequences of dismissing the actual political basis of white supremacy and the economic interests which motivate it. We are, he shows, so used to interpreting society as composed of groups defined on the basis of racial markers that we fail to understand that the attack on black voters, almost always dressed up in euphemisms, is merely a means of attacking the right’s real enemy, popular democracy and any challenge to the rule of corporations. As with the Redeemers before them, advocates of white supremacy have as their ultimate target a political populism whose possibility they obscure by insisting on an interpretation of the world as divided along racial rather than class lines. It is—and Reed only teases at this point—the absence of working-class institutions capable of engaging in the work of political will formation which has allowed these confused ideas—ideas which do not even have a foothold amongst the majority of the white working class—to become so influential. Their thoroughly anti-majoritarian character should inspire a Janus-faced response: optimism about how easily these ideas be dislodged given how weak of a basis they have in social life, and pessimism about the inability of this challenge to emerge.
Macnair’s analysis, which focuses on Britain’s left and its failed attempts to build institutions during and after Corbyn’s time as head of the Labour Party, seeks to address this problem of the absence of political mediation. Essentially, his analysis starts with the assumption that the core institutions of the Left in the U.K. are what Mair would describe as hard and hollow. They are durable in part because of their institutional memory and their embeddedness within the structure of the state, but they do not have a means of mobilizing the people that justify their existence. Politics is then caught in the trap of what he terms possibilism, observed in the interventions of leading lights of the Labour Left. This is an outlook which restricts political action to the options available to institutions which have little organic connection to their members. What Macnair advocates instead is for the British left to recognize its independence, a move prevented by the long-standing fear of being blamed for losing elections. Commitment to electoralism as Sir Keir Starmer’s willingness to sabotage Corbyn’s chances of victory in 2017 by pushing for a second referendum on Brexit that he was not himself committed to, is not shared by the right. Sir Keir, for all his faults, is a principled ideologue willing to bring down his party rather than have it run by his enemies.
Finally, Gindin’s analysis, which focuses on Bidenomics and sections of the left’s response to it stresses how far away the left is from the driving seat. Hawkish anti-China policy and the interests of corporations, coaxed into a mild industrial policy by billions of cash handouts in the context of low union membership, are the preconditions for the president’s apparent Zeitenwende. Rhetorically, Bidenism is, Gindin argues, an attempt to respond to a crisis of legitimation caused by a decline in American living standards coinciding with the growth of China, propelled by its ability to take advantage of the global free trade order whilst domestically implementing a vigorous industrial policy which spat in the face its rules. Biden’s attempt to do the same has, Gindin claims, largely focused on sectors such as microchip production which are part and parcel of the U.S.’s broader geopolitical project of facing off against a China that does not in any way risk challenging its hegemony. Outside of these key sectors, real private non-industrial investment has not increased at a pace that breaks with the trend of the past two decades. Meanwhile, despite all of the hysterical talk of a wage-price spiral from liberals and the right, hourly wages after inflation fell by 3 percent between 2021 and 2023. Gindin concludes by stressing that Biden’s programs are clearly a response, a meagre and uncoordinated response, but a response nevertheless, to the restructuring of the U.S. economy in the 1970s. However, its defining feature is the absence of working-class organization which has meant that redistributive liberalism from above has been the only option available.
The causes of this relatively bleak state of affairs is, as Reed and Macnair show, that at the level of civil society the dominant political institutions, parties, or NGO-like formations like BLM only allow citizens with a means of engaging in political life by assuming a standpoint reliant on confused and obfuscatory concepts which preclude an understanding of society in class terms. The Cantrell recall exemplifies the form that this closing off of political options has taken within the American context. Faced with a direct attack on voter rights, the dominant language through complaints against these moves that could be voiced was one which saw racial animus, unalloyed by any broader political aims, as the sole source of attacks against democracy. This, of course, did not mean that ordinary people also accepted this outlook. As Reed shows, the majority of whites, blacks, and other minorities were uninvested in the project of race entrepreneurs on either side of the color line. However, the absence of any political organization which could give voice to a more rational interpretation of the causes of inequality and disenfranchisement meant that the left-wing of neoliberalism could become a stand-in for a genuine left. It is an idiosyncrasy of the U.S., which has its origin in the historical memory of a civil rights movement deprived of purpose, that metaphysical notions about race are the means through which class politics is obscured; in the U.K., identitarian understandings of class perform this function. Here Macnair’s contributions are essential. The function of political parties throughout the twentieth century was not merely to provide an electoral platform for the Left. They emerged in a response to a problem which Bernstein had diagnosed in his writings on reformism. It is a sign of the generally technocratic worldview of the contemporary Left—composed of writers who have thoroughly imbued the intellectual standards and orientation of the academy—that Bernstein’s economic, rather than political, arguments for reformism have received most attention. However, his arguments for the stability of capitalism are insignificant when compared to his claim that the complexity of capitalist society created class positions which did not fall readily into the dichotomy between exploited and exploiter. Participating in democratic politics, which has as its aim the hegemonic project of governing the whole of society, poses, as Przeworski argued in his classic Capitalism and Social Democracy, a fundamental challenge to working class politics. Democracy puts a strain on attempts to construct an independent working-class outlook and identity because within the context of a polity composed of people with conflicting class positions, such a project will always run the risk of adding a combinative and conflictual dynamic alien to the harmonious liberal view of politics as the aggregation of different interests. In the last century, political parties helped to create, within the void of liberal democracies, an island in which working-class identity formation could take place. The successes of the UAW show that there are still some organizations with the U.S. capable of performing this task, but absent an institution capable of cultivating a broader outlook not restricted to economic demands, the cold war saber rattling thus far inextricable from Bidenism will remain unchallenged. Judging from the contributions of Reed, Macnair, and Gindin it would seem that we are, despite undeniable progress, moving further away rather than closer to a politics which can bring these problems into view.