This is What “Democracy” Looks Like

In New York City, the wave of protests against racist police terror that began in late May found its natural culmination in Occupy City Hall, the problem of city finances, and now — after the 32:17 passage of the de Blasio–Johnson austerity budget on Wednesday — the pledge by protesters to punish the officials who approved the budget… next year, in the June 2021 primaries. This has been a fine demonstration, in real time, of the relation between the “streets” and the “ballot box” in a democratic republic, the best of all possible political shells for maintaining capitalist rule.

Those who imagined any other potential course of events, given the absence of a revolutionary, independent working-class pole in society, have been proven mistaken by these disappointing results. Those who complain that the ‘endless possibilities’ of the pure movement are being cooped by nefarious politicians do not understand the nature of the revolt itself. Every aspect of the movement as such — its demands (democratic rights and equality under the law, the shrinking of the police budget), its immediate horizons (the recovery of the municipal welfare state), its ideologues (on the right: promoters of civic engagement and welfare statism, on the left: ‘abolitionists’), and its institutional basis (the ‘insurgent’ wing of the Democratic Party) — inevitably led to this outcome. The politically novel elements which have emerged from the protests are located not on the side of the movement, but on the side of the State, where the contradictions between the ‘establishment’ Democrats and the ‘insurgent’ wing of the party have sharpened around the demand to defund (or “abolish”) the police.

The intensity of the long-simmering attacks launched by ‘establishment’ Black Democrats against the dissident current represented by the Black leaders of Occupy City Hall is a lesson to all on racial demagoguery—keep in mind that this same ‘establishment’ faction, who mayoral aspirant Corey Johnson called his “north star,” was central to the negotiations around the “$1 billion” scheme and the final approval of the deal. The ‘establishment’ has characterized the ‘dissidents’ as “Uncle Toms” (in 2019), “nobody in our community knows them”, “a white lynch mob”, “45s [= Trumpians] running around Brooklyn with Black Lives Matter shirts”, “c—n“ and “n—” (directed personally against Jabari Brisport), “gentrifiers”, a movement that “feels like colonization”, and so on. All this for the crime of having the audacity to propose a few modest reforms.

The universal characteristics of the minority petty bourgeoisie are on full display by the ‘establishment’ in this situation: its identification of self-advancement with the advancement of the people as a whole, its jealous guarding of its turf, and its easy recourse to demagoguery to keep its social base in line. Perhaps this time they have overreached, immunizing those who are usually easily cowed with rhetoric of this type (a step that would represent the achievement of a certain political maturity by progressives of all backgrounds), as well as planting seeds of doubt in the minds of their own more thoughtful constituents. At the same time, we should be clear that the Democratic ‘insurgents’ who scored some victories in the primaries last month essentially represent no more than the hopes and the social vision of the downwardly-mobile petty bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy which has been in revolt since 2011. They do not represent a break with bourgeois politics, but have only added another actor to the existing scene. Against both the ‘establishment’ and the ‘dissidents,’ revolutionary socialists must develop our own program.

It is not difficult to anticipate the imminent effects of the municipal budget, amid the continuing pandemic and economic crisis. While progressives proceed from the relative distribution of funds between the “bad” repressive state (police, jails) and the “good” welfare state (schools, social workers), socialists must proceed from the concrete conditions of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class. See the city hiring freeze, from which the police are naturally exempt—the capitalists will need their police to corral and beat strikers and picketers, and to control the neighborhoods of the working people of the city. See the $65 million cut to Fair Fares, a program for providing half-price MetroCards to low-income riders. See the $1 billion in “labor savings” which will undoubtedly be extracted by going to war against the working people, through mass layoffs and reduced wages and benefits.

What should we learn from the results of this round of budget negotiations, which are an insult to and a direct attack upon working people? Certainly not that the best course of struggle available to us is the road to the June 2021 primaries! Leaning upon the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party, at best, results only in marginal gains which do nothing to fundamentally transform the conditions of working people. In order to put a real imprint upon the course of events, we must constitute an independent working-class politics, beginning not with the recovery of the municipal welfare state, but the recovery of the horizon of socialist revolution.