This issue goes to press in the wake of the 2020 presidential elections. The outcome is significant in many respects. The most important, of course, is the very fact of Donald Trump’s defeat — a welcome event and also a portentous one for the revitalized US left.
Joe Biden’s ascension opens up a far more hospitable terrain for progressive forces to gain strength, especially the socialist wing. But his victory comes with several caveats that need to be appreciated. The first is that even while Biden won, it was by a surprisingly thin margin. Not, of course, if we go by the national total — on that score, he eclipsed Trump’s tally by more than 6 million votes. But the fact — however odious — is that it is the Electoral College that matters, and on that score, Trump’s performance was stronger than any of the respected polling agencies had predicted.
During a pandemic, in the depths of a wrenching economic recession, a corrupt, tax-avoiding, and openly racist president came surprisingly close to retaining his office. Further, he managed to increase his vote share among the very groups that were expected to bolster Biden’s predicted victory: blacks, Latinos, and women. Biden, for his part, did better than Hillary Clinton had with the white working-class vote, but it was the suburbs that lifted him to victory. Even more, the expected gains in the legislature turned into defeats. Whereas Democrats had expected to build on their majority in the House, they ended up losing seats; and rather than gaining a majority in the Senate, they appear set to remain a minority. So, instead of riding into office with a sweeping mandate bolstered by majorities in both chambers, Biden limps to victory with a divided legislature and a party on its heels.
These developments need careful analysis, and the next issue of Catalyst will be devoted entirely to the current conjuncture in US politics. We will look at the election results in some depth and examine their significance for the Left. We will have detailed analyses of the economic situation, as well as the implications of Biden’s victory for American foreign policy, the labor movement, the environmental movement, immigration, and the Democratic Party. It is impossible to predict in detail what lies in store over the next four years. But we must, at the very least, take stock of what we have inherited from the Trump years, and gauge the strengths and weakness of the emerging Left as it confronts the challenges before it.
As we await the transfer of power to Biden, this issue of Catalyst looks outward, mainly to the Global South. One of the most crippling developments of the neoliberal era was the rise of a kind of cultural essentialism in the study of the colonial world. The mainstream area studies had always traded in a highly exoticized and reified view of colonial peoples. But by the 1990s, a variant of this approach had also become dominant among the self-styled Left, under the banner of postcolonial theory.
In the opening essay, I examine perhaps the most influential text in postcolonial studies: Edward Said’s classic book, Orientalism. In my essay, I show that while Said’s deeply researched work rightly located Orientalist dogma as legitimizing ideology in the service of Western imperialism, his argument rested on the very essentialism he claimed to be criticizing. His legacy was correspondingly mixed: a highly effective rhetorical condemnation of imperial power, but an analytical framework incapable of analyzing it or overturning it. As I note, these flaws were exposed and criticized by intellectuals in the Global South very soon after Orientalism was published, but they were either ignored or roundly attacked by the academic establishment.
One of the lasting legacies of postcolonial theory has been a flight away from political economy and class analysis. The next three essays in the issue deploy just such a framework, as a kind of demonstration of its indispensability. Jeff Goodwin interviews Gilbert Achcar on the dynamics behind, and the legacy of, the Arab Spring. In the decade since the uprisings swept across the Middle East, the optimism of its early months has largely been dashed by the combined force of American machinations and the successful regrouping of domestic ruling classes, which Achcar brilliantly analyzes.
Deepankar Basu looks further east to the Indian behemoth, examining both the sources of growth and the abiding constraints on the Indian growth model. As Basu shows, the initial acceleration in growth after the dismantling of the License Raj in the 1990s seems to have run up against enduring class constraints: a stagnant agrarian sector, a small middle class, and a seemingly infinite pool of informal labor. And René Rojas reports on the spectacular citizens revolt in Chile against the neoliberal constitution established after Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Back in the capitalist core, the turn away from class politics is expressed most directly in the race reductionism so common within academia and the professional classes. Reviewing Touré F. Reed’s important critique of this trend, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism, Preston H. Smith II calls for a return to the universalist commitments that were once a staple of the anti-racist Left, but that are now openly pilloried — ironically, in the name of racial justice. This is the domestic counterpart to the exoticization of race in the Orientalist tradition.
If we are ever going to address the needs of working-class minorities in the West, it will only be through a recovery of the socialist tradition. In the United Sates, that battle has barely begun. In Britain, it seemed for a brief spell that the Labour Party might steer a course to some kind of socialism under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But Corbyn’s defeat is even more complete and abject than Bernie Sanders’s in the United States. Keir Starmer has unleashed a wide-ranging attack on the Labour left, clearing the way for a return to the disastrous Blairism of the recent past. Grace Blakeley offers an analysis of the Corbyn moment, its rise and its legacy, via an engagement with Leo Panitch and Colin Leys’s indispensable book on the Labour Party since the 1970s, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn. As Blakeley notes, Corbyn’s defeat is a huge setback for the Left, but the forces it gathered and the interests it expressed are still very much alive. They can be harnessed toward a better future if socialists are up to the challenge.