BY PETER OLNEY AND RAND WILSON
The American presidential primaries began in earnest on February 3, 2020, with the now infamous Iowa caucuses. Iowa is a small mid-western state with a population of 3,155,070. Almost 85% of its residents are white – hardly representative of the U.S. as a whole, yet this is where the voting begins every four years to nominate candidates to the Democratic and Republican parties.
It is a process of thousands of local meetings held across the state where voters come together to “caucus” for their chosen candidates. While most American states have simple ballot voting for candidates, the Iowa system choses its delegates based on a complicated formula “initial alignment votes” and “final alignment votes” that are used to determine the statewide number of “state delegate equivalents” for Iowa’s 41 delegates to the Democrats nominating convention.
One thing is clear: democratic socialist Bernie Sanders won the popular vote with 42,672 first choice votes, about 6,000 votes more than former South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. However, the byzantine caucus system apportioned 13 delegates to Buttigieg and only 12 to Sanders.
Sanders’ strong showing in Iowa was followed by a narrow victory on February 11 in the New Hampshire primary — another small and racially unrepresentative state — but an important bellwether of voter sentiment on the road to the nomination. Sanders won with 25.7% of the vote, Pete Buttigieg came in second at 24.4%, followed by a surprising strong third place finish for Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar at 19.8%. The dismal fourth place finish for Senator Elizabeth Warren of neighboring Massachusetts at 9.2% is of concern to the left because she and Sanders represent the anti-corporate wing of the electoral field.
Support for Sanders’ is surging with a strong base of young people and working-class voters. Amazingly, more than 1.5 million people have donated to his campaign with an average contribution of only $18. Unlike other candidates, who rely on major donors from Wall Street and corporate America, Sanders’ grass roots effort has shattered all previous records by raising over $121 million dollars — $25 million in January 2020 alone.
Despite Bernie’s initial successes, many Democrats have raised concerns about whether Bernie is the best candidate to beat Republican President Donald Trump on November 3, 2020. Beating Trump will require a “united front” of voters who may not be ready to support Bernie’s more radical “social democratic” proposals. For example, Sanders has championed Medicare for All and free college tuition for all, policies that are long established in Europe but viewed as very radical in the United States.
The U.S. “winner-take-all” Electoral College system does not lend itself to building electoral support with your preferred candidate in the election and then making parliamentary alliances after the election to form a government. In the case of the U.S., it will require broad unity behind one candidate for the Democrats to defeat Trump.
While the corporate-controlled news media is constantly degrading Bernie’s chances, there is a strong argument that he is the best candidate to form the broad coalition needed to beat Trump. In a head-to-head match-up with Trump, Bernie Sanders is the best candidate to:
The Sanders’ candidacy — and his prospect of becoming president — seriously threaten the neo-liberal Wall Street regime and the military industrial complex that have so richly profited from America’s unbridled “frontier capitalism.” For that reason, the Democratic Party establishment will stop at nothing to prevent his nomination.
How Socialists Can Govern
Bill Fletcher Jr.
February 1, 2020
Many on the U.S. left fear governing power, in part because it has been so difficult to achieve. More recent optimism among socialists is a welcome development—but we need a middle ground between being cynical and naive.
Bernie Sanders’s presidential primary run in 2016 saw 13 million people vote for a democratic socialist. Two years later, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s underdog, grassroots-driven victory against one of Congress’s most powerful Democrats shook the political establishment. Combined with the election of Donald Trump, these two campaigns reignited interest in something many on the left had shied away from for the better part of a century: electoral power.
But what is electoral power? Many political theorists distinguish between “state power” and “governing power.” The “state”—as described here—is not simply a series of apparatuses but instead the representation of the balance of class forces, with a hegemonic bloc—made up of institutions like the police, Congress, and the Federal Reserve—looking out for the long-term interests of the dominant class—in our case, the 1 percent. There are different fractions in the 1 percent with interests that sometimes diverge. They might receive differing degrees of support from the state and sometimes have stronger relationships with one party over another. Overall, the capitalist state looks out for the long-term interests of capital rather than the particular interests of any one capitalist.
“Seizing state power” is therefore a process of fundamentally altering the balance of class forces and creating a new hegemonic bloc that moves us away from capitalism. Winning state power involves the domination and, over time, deconstruction and replacement of capitalist institutions.
“Governing power” is something altogether different—effectively, progressives or leftists winning political office within the context of a capitalist state. They may be elected to positions of leadership, but they do not control the state apparatuses and do not have the mandate or strength to carry out a full and thoroughgoing process of social transformation.
This might look like winning a mayor’s or governor’s office. This is also the situation Sanders or any other left-leaning candidate is likely to walk into should they make it to the White House. More crucially, this is the situation that has faced countless left-leaning politicians in the United States and abroad who have tried to make inroads toward a consistent democracy, let alone democratic socialism, at the local, state, and even federal level.
That governing power has been so difficult to achieve and exercise has led many on the left in United States to fear it, and not without reason. Domestically and internationally, there have been many examples of significant challenges faced by a left that has gained governing power only to become corrupted or checkmated. But too many have taken the wrong lesson from this history and fallen back on empty rhetoric to articulate a path to power: first, describe a list of capitalism’s atrocities; second, say that socialism will resolve said atrocities—no intermediary steps required.
read more. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/how-socialists-can-govern
By Bhaskar Sunkara
This has been a confusing 24 hours, to say the least. The Iowa caucus appeared to go fine, but then a tabulating fiasco delayed official results. We’re still waiting on them.
The problem, in part, was rooted in a “Shadow Inc” application used to help tally the votes. The app had gotten attention in the weeks before the caucus, with experts worrying that it could be vulnerable to hacking.
There’s no indication that happened, and since the results were also all recorded manually, we should have confidence in their integrity (if not the byzantine caucus system itself). But it’s just another reason why some voters might not trust election results. Liberals have at times made hysterical claims that Russia “hacked” the election results in 2016. Keith Olbermann even went as far as to say that the United States was the victim of a “Russian coup”.
On the right, Donald Trump pushed the idea that illegal voting could swing elections in 2016, paving the way for him to contest a potential Hillary Clinton victory that year. And he’s renewed those claims recently, stating last July that “You’ve got people voting that shouldn’t be voting. They vote many times. Not just two times, not just three times … It’s a rigged deal.” Of course, the widespread problem is not illegal voting, but voter suppression – the systematic effort by Republican officials to make it harder for poor people, particularly people of color, to participate in elections.
On the left, Bernie Sanders supporters have a more reasonable beef. The Democratic National Committee pushed its preferred candidate in 2016, helping the Hillary Clinton team beat Bernie Sanders through measures such as limiting the number of debates (25 in 2008, but down to six in 2016). But these actions have been inflated into a narrative that the DNC “rigged” an election that Sanders would have otherwise won.
The key reason why Sanders fell short by several million votes in the primaries – that he was a relatively unknown candidate who ran out of time as he was gaining momentum – doesn’t have the same visceral appeal as a “stolen” race.
With Iowa, these claims will only get more attention. With 62% of the vote released as of Tuesday night, it appears that Sanders won the first and second rounds of the popular vote, but is slightly behind Pete Buttigieg in the delegate count. But on Monday night Buttigieg was able to take the stage and prematurely claim victory, and more importantly Sanders’ main rival, Joe Biden, was able to escape to New Hampshire without having the media reckon with the fact that the presumptive national frontrunner probably placed fourth in Iowa.
Saying that elections are all 'hacked' or manipulated nowadays is a great way to encourage working people not to come out and vote.
It’s all quite convenient. And the name of the tech company that made the dubious app that caused much of the trouble is Shadow Inc!
But fellow Bernie Sanders supporters hear my plea – we gain nothing by playing into the idea that the process is so stacked against us that we can’t win. For one, saying that elections are all “hacked” or manipulated nowadays is a great way to encourage working people not to come out and vote. Why bother supporting an insurgent candidate, if the outcome is already assured?
Beyond that, this emphasis is a distraction from both the economic concerns that Bernie Sanders excels at talking about and the grassroots organizing that’s propelling him so far this campaign. Sanders placed well in Iowa, not because his Twitter warriors memed the DNC hard enough, but because his volunteers knocked on 500,000 doors in the state inJanuary alone. Despite only 4% of caucus attendees being Latino, they poured $1.5m into bilingual mailers. The campaign made so many phone calls (more than 7m) that they had to tell volunteers to stop – they had virtually no one left to call.
This unprecedented ground game was all in the service of a popular candidate running on a popular set of issues. There’s a reason why Democratic party elites like John Podesta are worried about the Sanders campaign – Bernie could very well win. With a dedicated base of supporters and turnout from lower-propensity voters, like working-class Latinos, Sanders has reliable votes and volunteers. And by the time the establishment coheres around Biden or some other candidate it will be too late.
We need to be vigilant for dirty tricks and rule changes meant to undermine us, but we should feel confident that victory is possible. And that means letting people know that their vote will be counted, and that even the flawed institutions of American democracy can sometimes deliver progress.
Thirty years of sophisticated attacks on runaway corporate power show that Elizabeth Warren would be a radical president
By Nathan Newman
January 30, 2020
Capitalism dumps its financial dead in corporate bankruptcy courts–-and Elizabeth Warren knows where the bodies are buried.
Over thirty years ago, Warren made it her academic mission to understand the intricacies of how companies die, how the law decides who inherits the assets of the corpse and how that process drives rising inequality in the economy.
There is a trope that Warren was a late convert to progressivism – itself a bit debunked since she voted against Reagan in 1980. But dismissing her as a “technocratic” proponent of “good capitalism,” as Jacobin’s editors do, misses the deep radicalism of her legal and economic analysis. If you really want to place the candidate on the political spectrum, you need to understand the critique of corporate bankruptcy she made over 30 years ago when she argued that government, not some objective “market,” decides who wins and who loses and detailed how the rules shape our broader economic system.
One key divide between liberalism and radicalism is whether politicians let the market produce inequality in the economy and then use taxation and public spending to clean up the mess afterwards–the paradigmatic liberal approach. This contrasts with the more radical approach of actively shaping the rules of the economy up front to prevent the wildly unequal distribution of wealth in the first place.
Warren’s writings and her stump speech advocacy for “big structural change” place her decidedly in the second camp. That is reflected in her policy proposals —from remaking the financial system to calling for putting workers on boards of directors to promoting the break-up of monopolies to reshaping housing markets to arguing for redistributing wealth itself through a tax on the net worths of the richest Americans rather than just raising taxes on high-earners’ incomes.
Over thirty years ago, Warren was arguing that economic redistribution should not be left to budget politics but that policymakers need to be “dealing with the distributive issues that bankruptcy policy implicates”—the issues that create lopsided distributions to begin with.
As early as 1987, Warren was trashing the economic models of law and economics with their “simple answers” where “economic analysis is utterly self-referential…within a confined, abstract scheme” with no empirical basis in reality.
Conservatives, she wrote, must assume a sufficiently imperfect market for businesses to fail, but a sufficiently perfect market for their “version of a ‘market based’ solution’ to be effective in dealing with those failures. I have difficulty envisioning that market.”
Warren’s diagnosis of the problem of inequality dates back thirty years in her writing and is remarkably similar to what she says on the campaign trail now: the solution is not just getting better technocrats running the system but reducing the power of financial interests and increasing the voice and organizing power of average workers and consumers to control what laws get written in the first place.
Why Bankruptcy Laws Matter
Your eyes may glaze over hearing the words “corporate bankruptcy” – and that’s the point. The media tell endless stories of the winners of capitalist competition – the Apples, the Googles, the Exxons – but most firms, especially smaller firms that are never listed on the stock market, don’t survive and the distribution of their assets in bankruptcy court matters. But that process is arcane and meant to be that way to the advantage of those who benefit from it.
Donald Trump epitomizes this reality since several firms that he has owned have gone through bankruptcy, stiffing creditors and contractors, even as Trump himself leveraged the legal system to shield most of his own personal assets. As Trump himself acknowledged when asked about his many bankruptcies, “I’ve taken advantage of the laws of this country.”
Documenting how wealthy operators like Trump take advantage of the bankruptcy laws to increase economic inequality and figuring out how to design the law to promote greater equity has been much of Warren’s life work.
Bankruptcy is actually at the center of our economy. as Warren wrote back in 1992, “The most difficult social problems get dumped into bankruptcy– mass torts, environmental disasters, the dashed expectations of retired employees.” The failures of capitalism have to be managed by bankruptcy court judges. That’s where, for example, kids in chemotherapy, union workers with empty pensions and bankers square off to divvy up the assets of a belly-up chemical company that poisoned the groundwater in multiple communities.
Economists and legal writers like to pretend that the economy is made up just of markets and contracts, but Warren dismisses this as a “fiction” which lasts until one party or the other no longer has the money to make good on those promises. At that point, bankruptcy courts navigate all the “normative issues of fairness ignored in contract law,” which Warren argues the business class pretends has no place in economic thinking.
Bankruptcy exists not to further markets but to correct the mistakes that led to bankruptcy happening in the first place – and brings active government concerns for distributional fairness into play. “It provides a forum for negotiating deals, and, ultimately, it allocates the value of a firm to all claimants, making difficult distributional decisions among competing parties.” Pension holders owed money long into the future get into the same court proceeding with the banks holding immediate debt–“both present and future claims at once,” as Warren highlights.
How Bankruptcy Law Shapes Markets and Economic Inequality
Every legal rule in bankruptcy, Warren argues, reverberates in the broader economy to shape market outcomes, sometimes to the good, more often to the advantage of the wealthy, but never in some “natural” way as conservative economic thinkers would have it.
Warren writes: “Any legal rule will cause some redistribution of wealth.”
This may be obvious to many progressives, but it challenges the core capitalist legal ideology that law can stand outside the market and be a neutral arbiter of contractual relationships. Instead, Warren sees legal rules as inherently favoring one group over another at every economic point of negotiation: “A rule of ownership, a rule of liability, or a rule of priority will relatively advantage or disadvantage competing parties.”
Stakeholders with explicit debt-based contracts with a firm, so-called “secured creditors”, consistently get priority by bankruptcy judges because, as Warren argues, they helped write most of the rules: “The group that profits from priority is well-funded and active…Their representatives are present at every drafting committee meeting and debate on the subject.”
Consumer debtors “have a perpetual problem” in Warren’s words: “they do not have money and they do not organize.” For more organized labor and civil rights groups “bankruptcy was never a top priority,” so, she argues, the monied interests with their singular focus and far deeper pockets dominate the process far more of the time- one reason Warren makes strengthening the organizing power of workers and consumers a priority to alter that dynamic in the setting of legal rules across the economy.
Bankruptcy as Backdoor Industrial Planning
Warren focuses relentlessly in her work on the role of firms not just as profit-maximizing machines for shareholders – the conservative ideal – but as institutions serving the broader economy, the perpetual focus of progressives who promote industrial planning.
Industrial planning by the government is usually talked about on the left only after firms have shut down in a community, but Warren focuses on why bankruptcy law brings the broader social values of industrial planning to bear before companies disappear, and argues that it must go further in this area.
One key goal in bankruptcy is keeping the firm going. Partly, this enhances the value of its assets to pay off its obligations, but it also serves broader political interests of those outside contract relationships in the market. As Warren wrote, “the revival of an otherwise failing business also serves the distributional interests of many who are not technically ‘creditors’ but who have an interest in a business’s continued existence.”Those interests include older employees who can’t be retrained for other jobs, customers losing key suppliers of goods and services, suppliers losing current customers, property owners suffering declining property values, and states or municipalities facing shrinking tax bases.”
While corporate law and general contract law studiously exclude those broader community stakeholders from legal consideration, federal bankruptcy statutes create a real role for those interests – and Warren makes clear that expanding the law’s focus on those broader community interests should be a priority.
Creditors may want to dismantle a firm so they can get paid quickly but bankruptcy court, Warren argues, is where government is mandated to step in to protect the social values the market ignores.
Warren’s Ideological Challenge to Market Economics
Warren’s focus on community interests beyond the narrow confines of the market reflects her deeper ideological challenge to traditional legal economics. Warren argues that markets ignores ”parties without legal rights” and that we need a legal system to “protect these parties [and] more than the goods that are traded by private contract.”
Thirty years ago, Warren was a very public combatant with conservative “law and economics” legal writers, quoting Duncan Kennedy of the quasi-Marxist Critical Legal Studies movement that “the insulation from value judgments that economic analysis offers is illusory.”
Warren openly mocked the idea that there was any “real” market that law was supposed to try to drive the economy towards. Any attempt to discuss policy “in a perfect market is a Zenlike exercise, much like imagining one hand clasping,” so attempts to imagine a “perfect market” were “worth little.”
Warren’s was an empirical critique of how markets function, but it was also a values-based statement that recognizing just the interests of those with property rights in the market would fundamentally be unjust. She rejected market-based bankruptcy schemes as one where those without direct contracts with a firm, including “tort victims, discrimination and harassment complainants, or antitrust plaintiffs, would be left out.” A market approach “is overtly distributional in a regressive sense” in moving wealth from those with weak or no property rights claims in the market to those with enough political power to shape the rules.
At the heart of Warren’s ideological vision is a clear demand that the market and property rights be subordinate to the human needs and democratic will of the community.
Warren as a Radical Leader
Even as the corporate Right has been determined to conquer the courts in order to shape the law to further corporate interests, the liberal movement has been remarkably unfocused on the role of law in promoting economic inequality through the rules of the market.
Liberals have tended to treat battles in the courts as the place where social issues like abortion and gay marriage play out, while reserving their energy fighting economic inequality for tax and budget battles. Based on her corporate bankruptcy writings and current proposals, a Warren Presidency, probably even more than a Sanders Presidency, would refocus the liberal-left on how legal rules decide winners and losers in the economy before a widget is produced or a line of code is written.
All her skepticism of markets is reflected in Warren’s array of economic plans in her Presidential run which systematically subordinates every market and property rights claim to regulatory supervision. Most on point is her proposed “Accountable Capitalism Act,” which would take supervision of large corporations away from the states and put them under federal regulation- and require them to “consider the interests of all corporate stakeholders – including employees, customers, shareholders, and the communities in which the company operates”– exactly the broader stakeholder interests usually considered only once companies have failed and gone into bankruptcy court.
Warren may call herself a “capitalist to my bones” but it is a “capitalism” in opposition to the systematic valorization of property rights and market solutions that is currently embedded in our economic and legal system.
Warren has spent decades arguing markets are the legal creation of government rules- and argues for far-reaching changes in how that government should design those rules. Whatever you call it, Warren’s analysis dating back thirty years, and the proposals she now promotes, reflect an ideology that would make her orders of magnitude more radical than any President in our history.
A lawyer, policy advocate and writer, Nathan Newman also teaches sociology and criminal justice at CUNY.