Ben S, Boston Refoundation
“This race is about People. Versus. Money.”
These words, from an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign ad, encapsulate her campaign’s core message. A message that was strong enough to unseat one of the most powerful Democrats in the United States Congress.
As a revolutionary socialist who is opposed to the compromises necessary under current conditions to engage in “bourgeois parliaments,” I am excited by both her campaign and her victory. Why am I excited? Doesn’t this go against the politics I claim to believe in?
Her campaign proposals of job guarantees, Medicare for All, and free public higher education present real opportunities to reduce the harms of the capitalist system. They reduce the leverage held by employers over their workers. If they are implemented, people will no longer be held hostage in exploitative jobs by student debt, the threat of medical costs, or fear of long-term unemployment where they could lose their homes.
Next, her campaign grew out of the current socialist movement. Ocasio-Cortez was an organizer in her community (and at Standing Rock) before she ran, is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, and much of the support for her campaign came from DSA. Ocasio-Cortez emphasized her connection to her community of organizers, stating that she would defer her endorsement of Crowley post election to the decision of the movement. Her victory demonstrates that socialism has real political power, and the media attention it brings gives socialist demands a sense of legitimacy in mainstream discourse. An organization that can help elect a congressperson can in theory defeat one as well. This victory gives DSA something to point to when (and if) we choose to make demands of politicians.
Finally, I am most excited about the presence of class conflict as a central point in her campaign. Her victory shows a real appetite for explicitly socialist organizing, for political work that pits the working many against the wealthy few, the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The real driver behind the energy of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and victory is her highlighting the presence of class conflict, more so than any specific policy she proposed. There is a pattern, from Occupy to Bernie, of this kind of language mobilizing large numbers of people to take political action. Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of the Democratic Party machine is yet another example of this.
Despite my excitement, I have concerns. The first of which is that I feel her policies do not go nearly far enough to create the restructuring we need in our society. Her policies, while reducing harms, leave the capitalist power structure intact. Medicare for All and free college make the economy kinder, but they leave control over how goods are allocated in society in the hands of a wealthy elite. We are currently witnessing the harm reduction policies that were put in place during the ‘30s and ‘60s being systematically torn apart by the interests of the wealthy capitalists, demonstrating the danger of economic harm reduction without a restructuring of the entire economy. Additionally, while Ocasio-Cortez calls to abolish ICE, her discussion stops at only “criminal justice reform.” Though the call to abolish ICE is absolutely correct and necessary, the abolition of all forms of policing and imprisonment, not only at the border, is something that DSA has endorsed nationally and that community coalitions have been organizing around for decades. The criminal punishment system is a system of racial and class oppression that cannot be reformed; in practice reforms only further entrench the prison industrial complex. We must be concerned when a self-proclaimed socialist refuses to describe the means by which capitalist power is enforced.
I am also concerned that the class-based energy of her campaign is being funneled into the election of a single individual. As socialists, we must know that trusting individuals over collective organizing is dangerous. We are all human, no one is perfect. Bourgeois democracy elevates and separates individuals from the evolving work and thought of those engaged in the process of organizing. The two-year election cycle is much too long for there to be any hope of real accountability for elected officials. Unless Ocasio-Cortez fully commits to holding herself accountable to the working class (and not solely the electorate) I fear that we may ultimately be disappointed in her work.
My next concern comes down to something we must constantly ask ourselves as socialists. How will the actions we are taking help us accomplish our goals? In this case, taking the policies of the job guarantee, Medicare for All, and free college as the goals (however inadequate they are), how does the election of Ocasio-Cortez bring those goals into reality? In order to become reality, they will need to pass both chambers of Congress (in a system where money will control most elections for the foreseeable future), be signed by the president, and survive the inevitable court challenge before a Supreme Court promising to remain reactionary for decades. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I can’t foresee this happening in my lifetime. Imagine instead that Ocasio-Cortez uses her platform to both describe and demonstrate the class nature of the state, and to mobilize people into revolutionary forms of organizing. While some may say that a revolution is just as impossible as Congress passing free college, revolutionary organizing can, in the short term, create real shifts in power and material conditions on a local level (for example, the work being done by Cooperation Jackson).
My last concern is simple. The big D Democrats. The Democratic Party machine is structurally designed to oppose Ocasio-Cortez and people that share her politics. As we saw during Bernie’s campaign, and as we have seen since then, the establishment powers within the Democratic Party are willing to take whatever actions are necessary to prevent even the mildest form of socialism from gaining a foothold. Looking at this race, it appears that Crowley and the DNC never took the threat posed by Ocasio-Cortez seriously. Crowley skipped debates, appearing to think he could coast to victory on his name and 20-year incumbency without running a real campaign. And the DNC never took actions like those we saw taken against the Sanders campaign and Keith Ellison (despite both Sanders and Ellison being arguably to Ocasio-Cortez’s right). We must ask what this campaign would have looked like (and what future campaigns will look like) had Crowley (and his funders) seen Ocasio-Cortez as the force she is.
This election also exposes DSA to some political risks. Opportunists may see this election and think to themselves, “If I say the right things and take the right tone in front of DSA, they can mobilize their members and help put me in power.” As we have seen in the wake of Larry Krasner (who, despite his politics, is still a District Attorney), people with politics we should not support will clamor to claim the mantle of “the next A.O.C.”. I also fear that Democratic Party strategists will see DSA as a base of real power, and start attempting to co-opt the movement and its energy. Additionally DSA has a history that it has tried to shift away from in the last two years. The DSA leadership released statements in support of noted non-socialists Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama in 2000, 2004, and 2008 respectively (to be fair, I also supported some of those candidates at the time, although I am not a socialist organization). Rather than DSA pulling the Democratic Party left, as those who support working within it claim as their goal, the Democratic Party may end up pulling DSA right.
In conclusion, we must ask the question that all socialists must ask when examining political events. How can we use this to organize? First, we must acknowledge that her campaign genuinely excites people, we must not shy away from discussing it, and we should place particular focus on the elements of class conflict present in her messaging. Secondly, (assuming that she wins in the general election) we can use her work in Congress to demonstrate the challenges of working within the Democratic Party rather than in a revolutionary working class party. And finally, we must prepare to welcome the people brought into organizing by their excitement about Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas. We must make DSA a place where revolutionary praxis has space and discussion, and help bring people with developing class consciousness into the project of building a real revolutionary movement.