This issue of Catalyst focuses on the United State and Britain. More specifically, it examines the political economy of democratic advance, past and present.
In our lead article, Jared Abbott and Dustin Guastella offer an ambitious but practical proposal for a viable socialist electoral strategy. The anticapitalist left in the United States has, for decades, wrestled with the dilemma of building a party in an institutional setting that is perhaps the most forbidding in the world. Confronted by the obstacles imposed by a winner-take-all electoral system, a highly federated state structure, two parties that are entirely owned and operated by capital, and the oceans of money that overwhelm any popular control, the Left has never found a way of sustained electoral success.
For many, the obvious choice is to abandon the electoral arena altogether and to opt for a permanent “movementism.” But it should be clear by now that this is no solution. Abbott and Guastella soberly address the constraints that have thus far derailed all attempts to forge an electoral vehicle for the Left, and then propose a strategy that centers on building a “party surrogate” in the short run, so that it might create a base for itself among the millions of working-class voters who have given up on the system and have dropped out of it altogether. They see this as the first step toward building a socialist party, distinct from workplace organizing, but vitally important to building popular power.
Across the Atlantic, British politics is in a state not seen since the birth of the Labour Party. On the one hand, Jeremy Corbyn has revitalized a Left that seemed to have been reduced to insignificance. And despite the unrelenting attacks upon him by his own party and the British establishment, Corbyn has not only held on to the leadership, but is in the process of turning the party into a force for the working class. But at the same time, Brexit has splintered British politics across class lines, thereby complicating the situation for the Labour left. Not only does Corbyn have to navigate the very muddy political waters in Brexit’s wake, but he also inherits perhaps the most forbidding economic situation of any political leader over the past century. If he comes to power at all, it will be at the helm of an economy with a stagnant manufacturing sector, flatlining wages, and a currency in a downward spiral.
To place the current scene in context, Simon Mohun offers a sweeping analysis of the British economy since the Second World War. He shows that the neoliberal era witnessed a profound restructuring of the economy, toward one in which employers rely more on low wages and work intensification, rather than on a steady upgrading of equipment. Hence, a Corbyn government would have to confront an incredibly hostile economic environment, not to mention a recalcitrant capitalist class.
To assess how prepared he might be for this situation, we offer an interview with Grace Blakeley, a UK-based economics commentator. Blakeley discusses both how Corbyn and the Left are positioned to deal with the very complex political conjuncture, and whether the Left within the Labour Party can survive if Corbyn were forced to resign in the wake of electoral defeat.
Interestingly, the political scene today is reminiscent in many ways of the years leading up to one of the most important shifts in American political history 150 years ago. In a bracing new analysis of the Civil War era, historian Matt Karp revisits the dynamics leading up to the abolition of slavery. Karp argues that while the nineteenth century witnessed the demise of slavery across the Americas and the Caribbean, the United States was alone in that its road to abolition led through a massive electoral movement.
Whereas in other countries, abolition came through war and revolution, or was elite-led, the American story was one in which an electoral victory preceded any military or elite action. Lincoln’s Republican Party came to power on a platform dedicated to slavery abolition. Furthermore, it built a massive social base for its policy even in the North, by linking it to the class interests of Northern workers and farmers. Karp’s article joins a growing wave of scholarship forcing us to rethink the origins of emancipation in the United States, but adds to it a critical dimension of class politics not sufficiently appreciated.
Whereas slavery abolition represented a massive victory for democratic forces, our current drift to oligarchy rides on their retreat. Chris Maisano takes stock of the current scholarship on this subject. He observes that there is a growing sense of a “crisis of democracy,” in a manner reminiscent of the early 1970s, when the Trilateral Commission issued its famous report on the crisis then. But as he notes, the crisis then was explained by elites as a result of “democratic excesses,” i.e., as caused by their loss of control over the political process. But today, nobody tries to make such a claim. Instead, it is widely understood that democracy is dying in the grip of an emerging oligarchy. Maisano makes a forceful case that the most effective antidote is not in tinkering with this or that element of the political process, but changing the balance of class power.