Saturday, July 18, 2015

What class-first politics would actually look like

But other progressives argue that Sanders’ laser-like focus on economic inequality is too narrow—not just because he talks about it to the exclusion of other issues, but because the way he talks about it only tells part of the story. They say he tends to pursue a one-size-fits-all populist message that ignores race and gender... 
Clinton, dismissed by many on the left as “corporate,” has still put some race and gender issues front and center in her campaign. - Emily Crockett

This is a telling line of criticism once you notice that it's exclusively concerned with the way Sanders "talks about" issues. Compare, for example, his response to police brutality with Clinton's. Short-term, their plans are virtually identical: both have called for body cameras, training initiatives, and end to police militarization, and so on. Long-term, both see it, in the words of Clinton, as "a symptom, not a cause, of what ails us today": inequality. Both propose different tactics to tackle the issue -- Sanders focusing on modest welfare expansions and taxing the rich, Clinton on economic growth -- but their basic conception of the problem is precisely the same.

The similarity is puzzling, because the implication here is that the "laser-like focus on economic inequality" in Sanders stump speeches reflects some kind of radical "class-first" agenda. That's quite obviously not in the cards, and the suggestion that Sanders would even consider it says more about his critics than it says about him. A quick sketch of what a "class-first" approach to police brutality would actually look like:

  1. THE ABOLITION OF PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS - As dramatic as this sounds, it does nothing to necessarily change the status quo; everyone still possesses everything they already own. The difference is that now, continued ownership is subject to democratic referendum; the state can seize, manage and redefine property rights through all ordinary legislative, executive and judicial procedures, without rigid and absolute Constitutional prohibitions. One immediate consequence is that property laws are fewer and more flexible, therefore requiring less policing. There are significant second-order consequences as well, since it paves the way for nearly everything that follows.
  2. THE MASS REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH - Lots of ways to implement this, but the gist is that you're seizing most of the assets of the super-rich and giving them to everyone else until each American has around $300,000. The elimination of inequality destroys a major source of social conflict, and thus another major need for policing.
  3. THE REDISTRIBUTION OF LAND - This is implicit in (2), but is significant enough that it should be addressed specifically. One way that capitalism has maintained stability amid inequality is by segregating classes; the major pathologies of poverty are dealt with by ghetto-izing them into discrete slums and trailer parks. This is a major source of police violence, because on one hand it concentrates the dysfunctions of capitalism into a confined space where it feeds on itself; and on the other, because it gives the police a specific place to target their brutality and operate with impunity. The redistribution of land would in practice give people stuck in high-crime locations the opportunity to move almost anywhere they like, even if it means seizing control of property formerly owned by the rich. It would simultaneously short-circuit many of the police's large-scale-kettling tactics while diffusing some of the more sinister dynamics that cultivate social conflict.
  4. EXPANSIVE, GUARANTEED WELFARE - The basic framework described here by Matt Bruenig is an adequate start. The universal guarantee of a basic, decent standard of welfare immediately undercuts the fears of want and destitution that account for a significant amount of crime. Free health care, including mental health, addiction treatment and rehab programs, ameliorates another major contributor to crime.
  5. PROGRESSIVE TAXATION - The specifics are negotiable and there are other methods to accomplish the same thing without taxation, but in general you just establish some basic mechanisms to prevent the return of significant inequality. One obvious start would be a 100% estate tax to eliminate inheritances altogether. I would also establish a wealth tax that increases exponentially to 100% at around $5-10 million. This constrains inequality, which will inevitably produce social conflict, to socially acceptable levels.
  6. THE RECONSTITUTION OF POLICE - Police ranks are dramatically downsized and divided into two forces. The first force, which polices persons of below-average wealth, is completely disarmed. The second force, which polices persons of above-average wealth, is armed. This significantly impairs the ability of the rich to use the police as a weapon against the poor.
  7. COLLECTIVE MANAGEMENT - Workers control the means of production. This mostly prevents a bourgeoisie from rolling back the above reforms, and also curbs the possibility of workplace conflict.
This is just a back-of-the-napkin sketch, but it gives at least a basic idea of what class-first politics would actually look like. Note that every proposal here revolves around establishing and enforcing a particular economic regime; even the police reforms revolve around wealth, with the force that polices the rich actually growing more powerful than it is today.

Personally, it seems obvious to me that this platform is far better than anything being advanced by the Democrats, and that it would profoundly reduce if not completely eliminate the problem of police brutality. But one doesn't even have to agree with class-first politics to notice that it has little if anything to do with Bernie Sanders; and it's a testament to how far to the right our politics have drifted that anyone takes the comparison seriously.