By Ted Fertik and Maurice Mitchell, Published in Boston Review
Populist visions must reckon with the realities of racial capitalism.
Clearheaded discussions of strategy have to begin with an analysis of objective conditions. Right now, those conditions are alarming.Whether we call it populism, radical interracial democracy, or democratic socialism, an orientation toward building a majority alignment of working people—across all of their differences—must define our politics.
The connection between climate change-induced migration from poor, predominantly black and brown countries in the Global South and ascendant white nationalism in Europe and the European settler colonies foretells a future of climate catastrophe, democratic collapse, and globalized race war. Trump’s rhetoric once appeared intended to convince working people that he would fight for their economic interests, but no longer: ever since he turned over his policy agenda to Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and an army of lobbyists, he has revealed himself to be motivated by only two things. First of all, his own personal enrichment and celebrity. And second, a fulminating white grievance politics, anchored in ideas about what Leith Mullings has labeled “white replacement,” which shades easily into open white supremacism.
For Trump and for other right-wing parties across the globe, their “populism” increasingly assumes overtly racist forms, often in the guise of so-called “welfare chauvinism”—a blatant ranking of human life based on race and citizenship status. Like the Anglo-Saxon racialists of the Teddy Roosevelt era, white nationalism will take nature’s limits to justify the use of force to hoard whatever resources we can command. It will threaten wars, especially with China. And while it may still traffic in denunciations of a shadowy, presumably Jewish, “globalist” elite, any material improvements it offers its adherents’ will be paltry. Far greater will be the psychic compensations of racial and gender violence.
Unless the interface of white nationalism with the climate and migration crises is interrupted, these conditions will lead more and more to authoritarian rule and the militarization of everyday life, with dire consequences for those of us who are either marked as outsiders from the start or choose never to submit to such a system. All the while, the billionaires will continue their looting. They will sooner invest in private armies and Martian colonies than consent to their wealth being appropriated for the sake of the planet and the people on it.
We know that centrism can’t save us. Most mainstream Democratic politicians have come to realize that neoliberalism is an electoral dead-end, yet they continue to play to elite audiences. Even in the midst of a pandemic which has already killed more Americans than died in the Vietnam War, and which is unleashing economic devastation on tens of millions, the mainstream Democratic Party has no program for meaningfully improving the diminished life prospects of the majority of Americans. Voters are not dumb; they see this. If we have four years of Democratic control and no significant material improvement in the lives of most Americans, it could easily be followed by a right-wing presidency even scarier than the one we currently have.
In this context, those of us who consider ourselves part of the left need to be very clear about our task. In our view, the task at this juncture is to build and lead the broadest possible front of popular forces in a project of transforming the U.S. state from one organized around capital accumulation without limit to one organized around mobilizing our collective capacities to green the earth and ensure the well-being of all people. In the depths of a pandemic that is destroying every fixed coordinate of our economy and politics (except, of course, the requirement that capital must be made whole), the left must offer a vision of a society that is more resilient because it is more just.
Where does multiracial populism fit into this? We see the phrase as shorthand for one hypothesis about how the left should undertake that task. Consider its two components in turn: the populist part, and the multiracial part.
First, “populism”: the word carries significant baggage, as our comrade Barbara Ransby has pointed out. Throughout U.S. history, “the people” of which populists spoke were often assumed to be white and male. Those who articulate claims that do not speak to this experience have often been treated as inconvenient or unwelcome. In our own moment, liberal critics have produced an outpouring of books arguing that populism—left and right—poses a threat to democracy.Unless the interface of white nationalism with the climate and migration crises is interrupted, the conditions we live under will lead more and more to authoritarian rule and the militarization of everyday life.
Despite all this baggage, it should at least be possible to stipulate that we’re in a “populist moment,” a result of the abject failure of a whole series of ruling class projects, from neoliberal deregulation and globalization to the Iraq War. It is now common sense across an extremely broad swath of the U.S. population that the economy and the government are rigged in favor of the wealthy and the most powerful corporations, with ordinary people having next to no say. The human toll of COVID-19 and the class-biased response to it are all but certain to deepen that conviction. The collapse in the credibility of our rulers brings with it a collapse in our rulers’ ideas. It presents an opening for new ideas—the possibility for a shift in popular consciousness—that the left should be working to widen.
A populist approach to politics means working to build broad, durable majorities of working people around a political program that does two things: directly challenges the power of the ruling class and their white, Christian, nationalist allies, and points toward liberation for everyone else. Whether we call it populism, radical interracial democracy, or democratic socialism, an orientation toward building a majority alignment of working people—across all of their differences—must define our politics.
How do we do that? What demands create unity across difference? What approaches to organizing and movement building bring more and more people into a long-term commitment to building power for the sake of saving the world?
We think part of the answer involves shifting our orientation. The task of the left should not be to organize the left, but to organize the working class. Honest political struggle within the left is of course vital, but we shouldn’t mistake it for building popular power. Sometimes our investment in arguing with others on the left is an outward symptom of a deeper malaise: we may doubt whether our politics are actually majority politics. But if we’re serious about saving the world, we have to believe that they are. Holding onto that conviction when many of the people we need to organize hold beliefs we reject can be deeply challenging.
The task of organizing working people in a project of economic, social, and political reconstruction just became all the most urgent, and, perhaps, easier to imagine. The coronavirus hit a United States where, despite a decade of job growth, 40 percent of the country could not easily weather a $400 emergency. We do not yet know the depths of suffering that Americans and people around the world will endure in the months ahead, but we do know that tens of millions will go from scraping by, to desperation. In response, one major party is offering nothing but continued corporate looting, and the other appears to desire above all a return to a pre-COVID, pre-Trump status quo. Under these conditions, there will be wide open space in our politics for forces able to articulate a program that promises to deliver needed relief, hold profiteers accountable, and carry out a program of reconstruction that will make America and the world more resilient in the face of future challenges. To succeed, we will need to speak to people in words they can hear—words that speak to the real experiences of this crisis.
There are more and less obvious things to say to people in this moment. Among the more obvious concerns health care: if a virus can cost you your job, and losing your job can cost you your health care, maybe you should have health care as a right, not as a “benefit” attached to your employment. Other things are perhaps less obvious, but equally transformative. If the public will bail out the entire economy in a moment of crisis, maybe We the People should have a claim on their profits, instead of just carrying all of the downside risk. If during a pandemic a handful of billionaires can see their wealth mushroom while tens of millions face destitution, maybe we should tax away all of that excess wealth. If our systems are so fragile, maybe we should invest in their resilience, since this is not the last crisis we will face. Above all, it is the responsibility of the left in this moment to find words to capture the pervasive sense that the pre-COVID status quo bears enormous responsibility for the depth of suffering so many are experiencing.It is a good bet that the greatest obstacle to the construction of a majority coalition in favor of a transformative program is the cleavages within the broad working class characteristic of a society built on a foundation of racial capitalism.
It is a good bet that the greatest obstacle to the construction of a majority coalition in favor of a transformative program is the cleavages within the broad working class characteristic of a society built on a foundation of racial capitalism. This concept gets invoked more and more, not always with precision. Our view, influenced by scholars such as Robin D. G. Kelley, Nancy Fraser, and Michael Dawson, is that white supremacy and capitalism have been co-constitutive. Specifically, racial capitalism is a system in which race functions to establish material and status hierarchies within the broad working class. Under racial capitalism, all workers are exploited, but black and brown workers are exploited, excluded, surveilled, dispossessed, incarcerated, and sometimes killed. White workers are treated as full citizens, with the protection of laws, and large apparatuses devoted to facilitating their participation in at least some of the material benefits of U.S. capitalism.
The material discrepancies such a system produces are vast, and accrue over generations: witness the racial wealth gap. But they also generate particular political pathologies. Specifically, as Katherine Cramer argues in The Politics of Resentment (2016), they give rise to the profound conviction on the part of many white Americans that any program that would uplift all working people must inevitably come at their expense. This fear that equality for all represents a loss for some—even if it would make them materially better off—is an acute challenge, especially when a majority of white Americans are seeing their living standards erode. Not coincidentally, throughout American history these pathologies have been of tremendous use to the (overwhelmingly white) ruling class.
Under racial capitalism, the solidarities of whiteness and patriarchy, saturated with chauvinistic nationalism, always compete with the solidarity of class. Trump’s explicit targeting of immigrants and minorities represent open invitations to participate in the solidarity of whiteness. With them Trump has exploited this latent conflict like few other politicians in our history, and in the process he has shown just how powerful the solidarity of whiteness really can be. Its appeal cuts right through the electoral coalition we need to build if we have any hope of saving this country and this planet. The profound racial disparities in suffering that we are already seeing in this pandemic might awaken some to the realities of structural racism. But it is equally possible that the concentration of suffering especially among black people will generate narratives of the crisis that reproduce racist notions of black pathology and serve to convince everyone else that only the already sick died from this virus, and the already sick have only themselves to blame for being sick.
Among many liberals and some leftists, there is a feeling that no one who has ever been tempted by the siren song of Trump can be allowed into our coalition. We do not believe that we can afford such a stance, if for no other reason than the counter-majoritarian institution known as the U.S. Senate, which gives disproportionate power to rural, predominantly white states. The Republican Party has used this advantage to stack courts with reactionaries. Right-wing control of the Senate and the judiciary presents an enormous obstacle to any transformative political program. It also leaves white nationalists in control of levers they can use to continue to weaken majoritarian democracy. We can’t cede that ground to the right, and that means we will have to win votes in places where people don’t automatically share our politics, especially on questions of race and racism. How do we do that without sacrificing our commitments to anti-racist politics? How do we ensure that people of color don’t get thrown under the bus or even scapegoated, as has happened with populist movements in this country’s past?
This brings us to the “multiracial” component of multiracial populism. We take it to mean that we will only build a powerful working class majority in this country by talking honestly about race and racism, not by avoiding the subject. As Aziz Rana and Jedediah Britton-Purdy have argued, we will never build meaningful solidarity by demanding that Black, Latinx, Native and other historically oppressed and marginalized peoples suppress their own experiences and traditions as the price of admission into a majority coalition in which whiteness is presumed to be the norm. Nor can we build a big enough coalition if we only include those white people already committed to anti-racist politics, many of whom (though of course not all) are middle class and above, and whose commitment to anti-racism is not so much an expression of solidarity as it is of sympathy. We must have more to offer to working class white people than the good feelings that accompany “allyship.”We need to marry the creative brilliance of movements—their ability to render the invisible visible and make the impossible possible—to the power, rigor, and leadership development of labor and people’s organizations.
The political strategist Heather McGhee makes this point with a memorable story. In the South during the civil rights era, segregationists defunded, drained, and closed public swimming pools rather than allow black people to swim together with whites. Now, no one can swim in them—white or black. Those pools, literally and metaphorically, have never been refilled. Now only the wealthy, with a private pool or a country club, can go swimming. This happens all the time, in less visible ways. White people as well as black people have suffered the consequences of this decades-long program of starving public goods for private gain. And yet today many would be just as likely to blame immigrants for an impoverished commons as they would a ruling class that excels at strategies of divide and conquer. When we are silent and people are insecure—scared about what their slice looks like as the pie shrinks—the outcome isn’t good for our side.
We have no choice but to expose the right’s racist tactics—to show how they’ve used divide and conquer—to drain the public pool for all of us. There’s a view in some parts of the left that we can win downwardly mobile white voters on the basis of economic self-interest, so long as we avoid questions of “identity politics,” and especially race. But the problem with this is that racial capitalism structures every aspect of our society, and affects the way all voters understand who deserves what. If you oppose free health care because you don’t want to pay taxes to those you consider less deserving, then not talking about race means not talking about why someone opposes free health care in the first place. If we don’t address it with our own story, the ones told by Trump and Fox News will prevail. The one we need to tell is that they are stealing what belongs to all of us, and pitting us against each other so we ignore what we have in common. In the moment of this pandemic, black people are dying at wildly disproportionate rates, and working class Americans of all races are being forced to withstand the gale force winds of a health and economic crisis under conditions of insecurity that racism has done so much to foster.
In the very beginning, “Black Lives Matter” was a controversial chant even among progressives. Some people said “All Lives Matter” might be more inclusive. And if we had poll tested, we might have found that the latter appealed to more people. But Black Lives Matter was a clear and succinct description of the problem we faced—that our society wasn’t valuing black lives—and the change we wanted to see. That is what inspired millions to make a choice and get involved, and it changed the conversation. We are not in the business of making people comfortable. We’re in the business of transforming people’s consciousness, changing people’s behaviors. Motivating them to vote, to volunteer, to give.
That isn’t to say there aren’t foolish ways to communicate about race and there aren’t a myriad of ways to alienate white voters when talking about race—just as there are plenty of ways to alienate Black, Native, and Latinx voters when discussing race. We need to be intentional, thoughtful, rigorous, and nuanced. We need to tell a complete, honest story that all our people can see themselves in.
Our political moment has created unusually favorable conditions for this political transformation. The Trump presidency has radicalized liberals and electoralized radicals. Our view is that we need to marry the creative brilliance of movements—their ability to render the invisible visible and make the impossible possible—to the power, rigor, and leadership development of labor and people’s organizations. We need to give that marriage a political home, built on deep trust, that they can bring their whole selves into, one that doesn’t ask them to sacrifice their politics. That home needs to be a place where all of these forces can fashion non-delusional strategies for winning elections, everywhere in America.
That, in any event, is what we are aspiring to do at the Working Families Party. We’d be the first to acknowledge that there are built-in contradictions to such an enterprise. Still, it now seems unavoidable that the left must either discover a vocation for governing or face an agenda set by an alliance of billionaires and white nationalists.
The path should be clear.