Bootstraps ideology and the 2020 primaries
Capitalism always downplays the challenges faced by the working class.
I’m tempted to say that it was Marx who taught us that there are limits to our political agency — that we make our own history, but do not make it as we please — but that is not quite right. This is a lesson that we learn when we’re children. For Freud, it was the lesson: you want your mother, but the world tells you that you cannot have her, and you either learn to accept this or you spend the rest of your life with frustrated delusions of omnipotence. Making it through the Oedipus complex means learning that you can’t always get what you want.
It takes an extraordinarily sick culture to get people to unlearn that lesson, but that’s precisely what capitalism tries to do. Capitalism tells us that no matter what, the poor can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Capitalism tells us that if you just try hard enough, you can be a billionaire — and that if you aren’t a billionaire, it’s probably because you didn’t try hard enough. Capitalism tells us that no matter how powerful the rich are in your democracy, and no matter how much they have stacked the deck against you, you are still in control if you just do politics just right.
Let’s unpack that last point. Here are some specific things that the ideology of the ruling class tells us about our politics:
Ideology tells us that the media gives us an equal-opportunity “marketplace of ideas” that lets different political agendas complete on a level playing field. The old version of this was that anyone could get a job in mass-media, or at least get published, or that failing this you could always start up your own major corporate outlet. The new version of this is that the internet has given everyone a platform, either on social media or with their own online startups, and that you can use this to compete (either directly, or with elaborate influencing-the-influencer effects). This is all hogwash, of course: giant media conglomerates backed by major industries still dominate our information ecosystem, and they can easily spin or drown out anything that’s at odds with their interests.
Ideology tells us that the massive structural disadvantages baked into our two-party system do not really exist, or that they are at the most an inconvenience that can be overcome if you are clever enough and try hard enough. Thus if you want to advance a socialist agenda, all you really need to do is take an entryist approach, or run third party; and if these approaches don’t work, it’s probably just because you went about it the wrong way. This is all hogwash, of course: third parties face massive legal and economic handicaps, and entryists are in many ways at the mercy of the private tyrannies of our political parties.
Ideology tells us that voters are easy to mobilize, and that if you fail to mobilize them it is simply because you have failed to present them with a compelling agenda. This is hogwash, of course: capital in our country has spent centuries cultivating a culture of widespread cynicism towards state power, teaching people that the government cannot do anything to make their lives better. Capital has also spent centuries making it very difficult for poor and working class people to participate in democracy, particularly by burdening them with labor and raising information costs. Both of these are extraordinary obstacles to overcome if you want to mobilize voters, even in the course of organizing and capacity-building over several years.
These are just some of the most familiar and well-attested barriers to power that even modest socialist movements in the US inevitably face. But to defend the legitimacy of the reigning political order, liberal capitalism tells us that these barriers do not really exist. We live in an “open society” where everyone has a democratic voice and everyone participates in power; to win, all it really takes is some basic political competence and the right ideas. Thus if our country is overrun with injustice and dysfunction, we can only blame ourselves.
I think that this dynamic is worth bearing in mind as socialists reflect on the defeat of the Sanders campaign in the 2020 primaries — because in the discourse, I’ve detected a recurring framing that goes something like this:
Socialists lost, and this is proof that you made strategic mistakes, or failed in execution, or got the politics wrong. These are the only possible explanations, since obviously if you got the strategy and the execution and the politics right you would have won. This means that socialists who have a different assessment of what happened than I do are simply being lazy, or naive, or are trying to shirk their personal responsibility.
Obviously socialists have to take responsibility for their failures, but this is an empty truism that gives us no actual information about what actually happened. And when the discourse dwells on this point at the cost of debating what actually happened, we should at least consider the role that bootstraps ideology is playing in downplaying the real obstacles that capitalism sets before the working class.
We do not live in a culture where the rich proudly admit that they have stacked the deck against the working class; where corporate media gloats that it gives unfair coverage to socialists; and where the Democratic Party is open about the way that it systematically and intentionally squashes its left flank. The 21st century United States is not a society where all of this is adequately recognized, and where it is socialists who are off the hook for their mistakes and failures. The truth is the exact opposite: everything about our political discourse conspires to downplay the entrenched advantages of the powerful and to exaggerate the mistakes and failures of the working class. If you try to do so, you may find yourselves at odds with a miniscule faction of socialist activists and media personalities, but you will have the whole of ruling class at your back.
None of this is to absolve socialists or the Sanders campaign of responsibility for its defeat — but it should seriously challenge this framing which spins as a cop-out any discussion of the institutional and systematic barriers to socialism in the US. Elsewhere, I have argued that it was the crowded primary field, which denied Sanders any opportunity to consolidate opposition against Biden, which was the primary obstacle to his success. Perhaps this assessment is wrong. But if it is wrong, it needs to be dismissed on the merits, not simply shrugged off by pretending that the Democratic Party makes it easy for socialists to win. If socialism means anything, it means accepting that under capitalism you can’t always get what you want.