Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

Image: Luiz Armando Bagolin


The left's best strategy is not to ignore the rise of this new Biden, nor to insist that the old one is gone for good.

Joe Biden, let's be frank, is a very unlikely figure to sustain a political agenda that aims at transformation. He is deeply implicated in much of what is wrong with America and the world today: he worked happily with segregationists in the 1970s, then became a parliamentary criminal, a fact that resulted in mass incarceration, and was also a champion of the Iraq war, who killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and US soldiers. In Yesterday's Man (Verso, 2020), the new book by Branko Marcetic, you can learn more about this depressing public figure of conservatism.

Why, then, given this background and context, does Biden's new policy agenda seem surprisingly decent? Part of this is explained by the attempt to undo the damage and critical failures of the last four years; we know that his predecessor, a would-be dictator adored by fascists around the world, ended any measure. However, this is not the whole story.

Yesterday, during his first day in office, Biden signed a series of executive decrees. Some of them nod to what any Democrat would do, but still, they're noteworthy since they're crucial to human survival: He signed a decree mandating the wearing of masks on all public property, returned to the Paris accord, and the World Health Organization (WHO), and restored this government's capacity to deal with the pandemic in a coordinated manner.

It also ended Trump's racist and anti-intellectual commission, the 1776 Commission, and moved immigrants closer to permanent residence again. The other decrees are aimed at reversing the barbaric attack on the international working class employed by the Trump administration: the end of the “Muslim ban” (barring the entry of people from certain countries, all Muslims), the resumption of applications for visas from these countries, in a movement to reunite families separated at the border, create protections against racial profiling, stop wall construction, and reinsert US non-citizens into the national census.

Yet, some of these decrees went even further, embodying a more decided departure from Reagan-era bipartisan economic policy than we might expect. He shut down the Keystone pipeline, revoked fuel and gas permits at all national monuments, extended eviction orders and ended moratoriums, paused student loan payments and froze Donald Trump's environmental regulations.

His legislative agenda also moves away from the austerity many of us expected from him a year ago. Any sane Democrat would – we hope – reject the anti-scientific, sexist bullshit that was Trump's response to the pandemic and at least try half-assed economic stimulus to weather the recession.

The thing is, Biden is proposing to spend real money on these urgencies. And he asked Congress for $1.9 trillion to vaccinate everyone as quickly as possible, invest in helping American families, help schools open safely, help state governments address vital public problems, and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He named Janet Yellen Secretary of the Treasury, not some capitalist vulture. Biden seems open to the idea of ​​taxing the rich. He says he wants to expand access to health.

He also placed unprecedented emphasis on climate change, even in the midst of other crises that voters at the time considered more urgent, and appointed a team of climate experts to his White House staff, setting a goal of decarbonizing the electrical system in fifteen years, a move that surprised both the fossil fuel industry and climate activists.

Biden's plans are not the same thing as Bernie Sanders' social democratic agenda. He's not pushing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal for real, or free higher education. Sanders would promote the cancellation of rent and student debt – the latter, for good. Still, after the unthinkable turnaround, Joe Biden is looking, for now, like a good liberal.

This long-extinct species tends to flourish when its habitat embraces two historical conditions at once: deep crisis and an organized social movement. Without the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt would probably be remembered now as a well-regarded middle-class white man with a socially conscious wife and an unconventional life.

Can you imagine Joe Biden without the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the recession, the mass protests against police brutality last summer, or Bernie Sanders' two presidential campaigns and their aftermath (the enabling of new democratic socialist politicians like Alexandria Ocasio -Cortez, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, new priorities within social democracy such as health and housing and the growth of left-wing organized militancy)?

Of course you can! We all know this Joe Biden.

The left's best strategy is not to ignore the rise of this new Biden, nor to insist that the old one is gone for good. Instead, we must claim credit for this good-natured liberal who is now beginning his tenure in the White House and create the necessary conditions to ensure that he does everything he promised and more. Mainly on the climate, an agenda where there is no time to be wasted and has a lot of potential for action.

We on the left seem to be more intelligent and realistic with our comrades when we roll our eyes and dismiss the possibility of getting anything out of these Democrats, when we ignore these nuances and call our opponents neoliberals as if nothing is happening. We also need to claim the victories of the left and understand the dramatic global crisis that produced the new incarnation of Joe Biden.

Giving up pressure on the government would be a mistake; we need to demand that Biden keep his promises, while also explaining to us why our world needs something more than good liberalism: if history teaches us anything, it is that Biden's foreign policy will tend to be deeply anti-socialist and bloody interventionist.

Above all, we need to build socialism, the left, and workers' power from the grassroots, focusing on local and state governments and our workplaces. This is the only way to guarantee that future generations can expect something better than the liberal version of Joe Biden. We cannot allow this chaotic and complicated moment to go to waste.

*Liza Featherstone is a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University (USA). She is the author, among other books, of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart.

Translation: William Ziggy for the magazine Jacobin Brazil.



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