January 31, 2021

The Changing Same: Biden and the False Promise of a “Return to Normalcy”

Kali Akuno

This article is part of our series “On the Precipice: A Progressive Agenda in the Biden Era.” Download a PDF of the full series here.

The Liberal Prescription

From the modern Liberal perspective, the presidency of Donald Trump was a gross departure from the norms of the American democratic tradition and a deep stain on the history of the nation that needed to be removed and cleansed. Following this logic, the centrist led Democratic party sought to remove Donald Trump from office an unprecedented two times and re-establish a sense of “normalcy” to the American political landscape.

The vast majority of the forces that constitute the left in the United States agreed with this narrative and the prioritization of the objectives derived from it. The question is why? A critical examination of U.S. history demonstrates that the Trump Presidency was in fact not an aberration, but a continuation of many fundamental policies and practices pursued by his predecessors over the course of the last 243 years. So, if it wasn’t a question of profound differences in policy and prescription, then what? The answer is that most who supported the Trump regime focused not on what it pursued, but the optics of how it pursued it.

Long before Donald Trump became president, there were clear signs that he possessed an authoritarian personality. Trump is a brazen misogynist, who politically and ideologically aligned with white supremacist, neo-confederate and neo-fascist forces. He wore these alliances proudly on his sleeve. However, in regards to the actual policies that his administration pursued, he demonstrated little in the realm of originality, just some colorful and unconventional flair in how he pursued them.

The agenda of the Trump regime was a hodgepodge of neo-nationalist, neoliberal, and ultra-conservative policies and positions that these right-wing constituencies were pushing, many for decades with mixed results (like recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and placing the US. Embassy there). The far right found an executive champion in Trump. Through his administration many of the minority and outright fringe positions and policies of the far-right forces such as the Tea Party movement became the animus of the U.S. government. This enabled Trump to govern from a position of strength, which he used unsparingly. Yet still, this was not unique. Ronald Reagan rose to power in 1980 riding similar waves of reaction.

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

What Trump did do that was rather unique was direct the awesome might of the U.S. government’s repressive apparatus internally, toward his elite opponents in the Democratic Party, who normally constitute the “loyal opposition” when not in power. The Trump regime pursued this agenda with a flare and fashion not seen since the days of his idol, Andrew Jackson. The ire and hatred of both Nixon and Reagan for their political opponents and enemies was no secret, but they did not brazenly display their views to the public, nor make consistent castigations and threats.

That said, repression on the domestic front is not new in American politics nor is systematically targeting, oppressing, and negating the rights of non-white populations, particularly Black, Indigenous and Latino communities, the militant left  and transgender individuals. Targeting white elites inside of the country, however, has fundamentally been considered beyond the pale.

For white liberal forces, the Trump regime represented blowback of the highest order. Further, he made it known without question over the course of his first 100 days in office that he had no regard for the “sanctity” of the constitution and that he was not planning on leaving power. He clearly had in mind the fashioning of some type of dictatorship, and he stated as much. Liberal denial was rampant throughout the duration of his regime, but this threat became more open and obvious to nearly everyone. The threat of a dictatorship fostered the aberration narrative advanced by mainstream, centrist Liberals and moved much of the progressive and left forces in the country to unite with them in the effort to defeat Trump at the ballot box.

This strategy harkens back to the Popular Front employed by the Communist Party and its allies in the fight against fascism in Europe and Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Then as now, this strategy was predicated on the notion that due to the asymmetry of power between the working class and the bourgeoisie in the favor of the bourgeoisie, the working class had to ally with those bourgeois forces willing to fight the forces of fascism and preserve the alleged aegis of bourgeois democracy.

This orientation deviates directly from the core principles and practices of others on the left who call for working class self-organization as the ultimate means of liberation. The Popular Front orientation foregoes class struggle for class collaboration, and relegates the question of a socialist transition to a distant and unspecified future, and surrenders the leadership of the social movement to bourgeois forces.

For many forces these concessions were—and are—warranted because of the organizational and positional weaknesses of the left, particularly it’s insufficient social base within the working class itself, when compared with the voting base and motley alliance that is the Democratic party. As a result, the dominant left assessment was that the broadest possible alliance was going to be needed and necessary to deal with the pending threat of an authoritarian coup and the enshrinement of fascism, and that this was the best that could be done for now to evade catastrophe and preserve some degree of democratic space.

The other left justification was that by defeating Trump and the movement enabling him, there could be a return to some semblance of “normalcy” and “decency” to the American body politic. In this thought, the left was clearly not alone. From the start, the Biden campaign staked its claim of legitimacy on his unique ability to “heal” the nation, restore bipartisanship, and return the country back to normal and restore its credibility in the eyes of its strategic allies internationally and the world at large.

A Presentation of False Hopes

Liberal and progressive forces throughout the U.S. rejoiced on Saturday, November 7th when Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential election. In the eyes of these forces, the record voter turnout that enabled this victory vindicated the “anybody but Trump” election strategy of the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The “return to normalcy” allure appeared to stop the advance of Trump’s revanchist politics, with its elan for white supremacy and the threat of authoritarian rule posed by the continuation of his regime and the forces it represents.

Not enough was done, however, to critically examine what this “return” would mean, particularly by the left. This will have some serious consequences in the future. President Biden’s “return to normalcy” entails the revival of the American bipartisan consensus, the resuscitation of NATO and the multilateral Bretton Wood institutions of global finance, trade regulation, security, and states’ rights, and the restoration of the dominance of neoliberal market regulations and dynamics.

Long before being elected, Biden made it known that it was not going to support a number of progressive demands and policy prescriptions like universal health care (even in the midst of a pandemic), the elimination of student debt, or the Green New Deal. He stubbornly continued to oppose them even as these policy prescriptions were supported by the overwhelming majority of people self-identified as Democrats. Over the course of the summer of 2020, in the midst of the George Floyd Rebellion, one of the largest social movements in U.S. history, The Biden campaign made it clear that it would not support one of the primary demands of the movement, which was to defund the police on the reformist end, or abolish them on the revolutionary end.

Instead, the Biden campaign brazenly promised to expand funding and training for the police. Since being elected, President Biden has not only doubled down on his rejection of these demands and positions, his team has gone on the offensive against the progressive wing of the party, alleging that it was these demands that cost the Democratic party its solid majority in the House and the opportunity to unquestionably control the Senate.

Despite promises of a “return to normal”, the hope it could be accomplished will be conditioned by the power and will of the loyal opposition of the Republican Party. This is evidenced by a number of hard facts from the November 2020 elections that liberals and progressives have to grapple with in regards to the quest to return to normalcy. For one, Trump secured the second highest vote count in U.S. history—more than 74 million votes.

In addition, the Blue wave that was supposed to accompany a Biden victory and usher in the restoration of normalcy not only didn’t manifest, it went in reverse. Democrats lost eight seats in the House for a total of 222 and will only have a slim four-vote margin of control. This the smallest majority for the Democrats in the House since World War II. Democrats in the Senate didn’t fare much better. Even though the Democrats secured a historic win in Georgia on January 5, picking up both Senate seats, giving them the slimmest of majorities, the Republicans retained the ability to stymie legislation.

Biden has made it known that he is going to try and work with the Republicans to restore civility and order. Therefore, Vice President Kamala Harris won’t be using her tie breaking vote to ramrod the Republicans into shape unless it’s absolutely necessary to uphold the dominance of the neoliberal program. This means that the strategic leader of the Republican party, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, will retain effective control over the Senate, even though Chuck Schumer will officially hold title of Senate Majority Leader.

What these results clearly indicate is that the current neo-confederate and economic nationalist (the “patriots” in Trump’s jargon) ideological and political variants of the Republican Party have widespread support and are not leaving the political landscape anytime soon. So, returning to the “normalcy” of the old American neoliberal bipartisan consensus to deepen capital accumulation and social control is in serious question.

And this is just on the “domestic” front. The gains of neo-fascists and far-right nationalist forces throughout the world, aiming to resort back to various types of import substitution and nationalistic economic programs, will also hinder, if not block, the revival of the neoliberal strategy of capital accumulation on a global scale. Given these dynamics, the question has to be raised, can the Biden regime guide the empire back to normalcy of neoliberalism and the secure position of hegemon of the capitalist world-system?

The clear answer is no. There is no going back. And if the 2020/2021 election results weren’t proof enough that the forces of the right aren’t going anywhere, the “insurrection” of January 6, 2021 confirmed this to the world. What is clear is that the crackdown and round up that is presently being conducted by the U.S. government against the far-right forces that conducted this insurrection is only proving many of their conspiracy theories about the “deep state” and widening the political divide. This is particularly true among the 67% of the Republicans who said they would vote for Trump again in 2024. This means that in the effort to try and “heal” the nation, Biden is may to have to govern to the right and grant it some serious concessions in order to fracture the movement’s pragmatists from its true believers.

The aforementioned political dynamics constitute one limitation. The more substantive limitation is economic, or more specifically, the transformation of the relationships of production within the capitalist world-system that have been developing over the last 50 years, but quickened over the past 10. Capitalism as a system is in deep crisis, and neither neoliberal nor nationalist strategies of accumulation can resolve its contradictions. Since Biden and his regime are aiming to resuscitate neoliberalism, that is the variant that will be addressed here.

The neoliberal strategy of capital accumulation and social control that the Biden regime is aiming to reinstate requires the occupation of new lands and resources to extract from, including novel resources like DNA and megadata. Further, it requires the opening of new markets and secure fields of investment, along with the privatization of state resources and reserves including potentially social security and Medicare. And finally, it requires the deregulation of financial and labor markets, the elimination of environmental protection standards and controls, and the proletarianization of new labor pools and/or the pauperization of existing ones.

Conditions within the capitalist world-system, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, restrain the realization of all of these requirements to varying degrees. Some, like the occupation of new lands, are either physically prohibitive, as for instance the wholesale colonization of Antarctica given its frigid conditions, or remain largely in the realm of science fiction, as is the case of the colonization of the Moon, Mars, or various asteroids and comets. Not that humanity doesn’t currently possess the means to reach these extraterrestrial bodies, but the costs to do so in a wholesale manner are still too prohibitive (in addition to the fact various technological aspects are not developed enough either).

Others, like the opening of new markets, are limited by the political dynamics of competition between capitalists, states and non-state actors contending for monopoly control over these resources. This is most evidenced in Africa, where a second scramble to control the resources of the continent (physical and human) is underway between the forces of the West (i.e. the US, Canada, the EU, and Australia) and those allied with China and its ruling class. This scramble is stimulating massive competition for investment (like the African side of China’s so-called “Silk Road”), foreign land grabs for the specific purpose of producing exclusive food crop exports for their home markets, unprecedented military build ups like AFRICOM, and numerous armed conflicts raging throughout the continent. All of these factors hinder capital’s ability to penetrate, expand, and realize a return on investment in these areas, limiting the system’s ability to reproduce itself.

And then there is China itself that the U.S. ruling class has to deal with. Although the Chinese and U.S. economies are deeply intertwined, China is expected to become the world’s commanding economy by 2028, if not sooner. It is by far and away the world’s largest industrial producer, exporter and consumer of raw materials. It is now the world’s largest creditor nation, the largest infrastructure builder, it commands the world’s largest army, and is the U.S. government’s only rival in terms of military expenditures. China is also challenging and transforming the rules of the accumulation game, particularly the interstate legal based norms of the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). One of the best examples of how China is changing the rules of the game is how it generally rearticulates the copyright rules of the system. As a matter of strategy, it turns them on their head, compelling transnational corporations to engage in technology transfers as a cost of doing business in China.

China is also strenuously challenging the monetary rules of the world capitalist system by politically and financially incentivizing its growing number of “partners” to trade in in the Yuan rather than the U.S. Dollar, which has been the standard measure of currency transactions since World War II. These are just some of the critical ways that China is challenging U.S. hegemony.

In order to sustain its position as the hegemon of the world-capitalist system, this challenge cannot be ignored by the U.S. state and capitalist class. Therefore, Biden, as Trump and Obama before him, is making the containment of China one of his administration’s primary strategic priorities. He and his team are going to try and tone down the tensions prompted by the Trump administration, particularly the war of words and sanctions. However, the Biden administration is planning on continuing the U.S. military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the multilateral trade and security agreements with China’s neighbors in an effort to contain China and forestall the inevitable war that both sides think is coming.

However, it is clear that this conflagration won’t be playing out on the same grounds as it was in 2017, when Obama departed office. China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated without question that it has the greatest industrial capacity on the planet and that is not without international allies of its own. 

Taking on China and the COVID-19 pandemic through unprecedented deficit spending is not sustainable, even for the U.S. government. The cycle of capital reproduction, both domestically and internationally, is too fractured for the standard fiscal stimulus devices to quickly correct. The Federal Reserve has already poured trillions into the banks and the stock market to sustain the capitalist pandemic during the health pandemic. So, Biden’s stimulus plans can and will be only short-term measures at best. Without the power of the Presidency, the Republicans are going to return to the politics of “fiscal responsibility” and place serious constraints on the Biden regime that will have a major impact on the midterm elections in 2022. The most likely outcome is that by early 2022, Biden will have to make a hard pivot towards imposing austerity on the country, which will only aggravate the growing social and political hostilities in the country.

A Way Forward

As all of this clearly indicates, there is no “going back to normal”. The left in the U.S. needs to get a firm grip on this reality sooner rather than later so that it can chart its own course of action, independent of the Biden regime and the Democratic party. This path must address the fundamental means for organizational and community self-defense in the face of the rising far-right threats, and push the movement for radical transformation that erupted in 2020 with the upsurge in worker strikes and the George Floyd rebellion even further ahead.

A volunteer watches protesters from a mutual aid van on August 14, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Our transformational program must rely on the self-organization and self-financing practices of the working class and oppressed communities themselves in order to exert maximum autonomy from the sway of the Democratic party and the legion of compromises it is going to have to make to preserve the empire. Some of the core elements of our program, given the structural dynamics at play, must entail elements of the following:

  • Extensive and transformational mutual aid to address the growing material and social needs of working class communities to address the food insecurities that many are now encountering, and the growing threat of homelessness confronting millions. Since the onset of the pandemic, millions have engaged in mutual aid efforts. The challenge is linking these efforts with the self-organized productive efforts of the working class to figure out how to sustain these efforts without having to rely on philanthropy and move beyond volunteerism. 
  • One of the first steps towards linking the necessary mutual aid work with the self-organized productive work of the working class is linking it with the existing food security and food sovereignty efforts in communities throughout the country. Our mutual aid work must determine the concrete caloric needs of our communities and encourage the millions of people now thrown out work to engage in farming and other forms of food production to expand this form of self-production to create a system of use exchange that will challenge the commodities market for food and provide more security for those in need.
  • Perhaps the most critical step will be expanding the degree of worker self-organization during this period. In addition to buttressing the mutual aid and food sovereignty work, this orientation also calls for millions of workers to engage in developing various types of cooperatives (worker, producer, consumer, community), solidarity economy institutions,  and perhaps most importantly organizing themselves within the existing points of production to exercise their full economic, social and cultural rights, as well as press the  struggle for the democratization of their workplaces and the overall economy.  
  • To link and coordinate all of these efforts, working class communities are going to have to develop new instruments of self-governance, like People’s Assemblies. These new forms of self-governance will have to create means of direct democracy that will be needed to administer the relief that our communities need in real time in an equitable manner that will be free from the limitations of the discriminatory bureaucracy of the state.

These practices of working class counter-hegemonic positioning offer a promising way forward in these times of transitional turbulence. In order to survive, the left must stop looking back the horrors of bourgeois democracy in the guise of “returning to normal”, and look instead towards forging an eco-socialist future we self-construct from the ground up.

Kali Akuno is a co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson.