Class Collaboration with AOC: You Can’t Wear a Movement

by Birrion Sondahl (originally published on An Appeal to Reason)

Class collaboration occurs when a member of one class is given special benefits by another class in order to contain or coopt revolutionary spirit. This happens in many different ways and is antithetical to the class struggle. The actions of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) at the Met Gala made quite the splash recently. Her “Tax the Rich” message at a multi-million dollar event only open to the rich was certainly cringeworthy. It is a good example of the larger systemic problem of class collaboration. As Earl Browder described, “It is not the personal corruption of an individual leader, but the ‘impersonal corruption’ of a whole section of workers that is involved. And it is far more important to understand such roots of class collaboration than the phase of direct bribery of individual leaders.” This is not an individual problem with AOC or other legislators, but rather a systemic problem which will require revolutionary system change to solve.

While this article will primarily be focused on class collaboration within the legislative caste, it is important to understand that this is an issue that impacts the entire United States proletariat. Because of exploitation of the global south, the United States’ proletariat enjoys a higher standard of living (even without healthcare) than most of the world. A quick glance at median incomes throughout the world shows how widespread this disparity really is. The working class in the United States receives better treatment from the capitalist class than the workers in Latin America, South America, or Africa. Indirectly we are benefitting from United States imperialism. This can make us unwilling class collaborators with the capitalist class because the comforts they give to us are taken directly from the working class of other countries. This is why an international perspective is so important to winning a better future.

Within the United States, there are varying degrees of class collaboration throughout the working class. A primary focus of socialists within the United States has been on revealing the class collaboration within labor movements which is especially prevalent within the leadership of many Trade Unions. The close relationship of the AFL-CIO leadership with the Democratic party is a good example of this. Union leadership are given benefits and privileges that are not shared by the rest of the working class and it is to their own personal benefit to collaborate with the ruling class. For example, the AFL-CIO president is given $292,140 in total yearly compensation while campaign coordinators salaries are rarely higher than $30,000. These added benefits given to leadership are one of the ways in which unions have been coopted and defanged by the capitalist class.

This brings us to the legislative caste. Members of Congress are paid $174,000 per year. The Senate and House Parliamentarians are also paid over $170,000, only slightly less than Congress. And in addition to this direct compensation, they are given direct access to the lobbyist caste – paid operators for capital. Cooperating with lobbyists gives legislators many benefits that they would not otherwise receive. This is a systemic problem – if a member of the working class is elected to Congress, they immediately start to receive benefits that differentiate them from their previous station as members of the proletariat. For this larger compensation, their work duties are quite light. For example, this month (September 2021) Congress is only in session for four days and the Senate for seven. Those are quite nice hours for the pay. It is only natural that given these privileges, legislators would begin to identify more with the bourgeoisie than the proletariat, no matter their origins. Class collaboration is different from corruption, of which there is plenty in Washington as well, but it is only by degree. These additional benefits and privileges are a more subtle form of control than direct bribery. When our legislators collaborate with the ruling class, this is still a betrayal.

Our movement has had experience with the timid progressives, who in words are loudly against the reactionary leaders, but who, when a decisive moment arrives, turn and run. In reality such progressives, if they deserve the name, are camouflaged followers and servants of the most reactionary officialdom. – Earl Browder

The Met Gala

These clips give us a blatant example of class collaboration. In the first clip, AOC identifies herself and her designer as members of the working class. Then in the second clip, AOC expresses that she wants to bring the conversation to all of the classes. But the class interests of the capitalist class are in direct opposition to those of the proletariat, so they do not deserve a seat at the table when any method of taking away their power is being discussed. This is not breaking the fourth wall, this is collaborating with the enemy and in fact playing along with the charade. These statements make AOC an easy target, but it is the entire system that feeds into this, not the actions of one individual.

The Met Gala is an elite event whose gate is kept by a $30,000 ticket. It is an event that is only accessible to the financial elite or those sponsored by the financial elite. According to the Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Householdsonly 64% of adults in the US could come up with an unexpected $400 expense in November of 2020. More than one fourth of adults were unable to pay all of their monthly bills in full. While the working class struggles, the elite are doing just fine. Billionaires gained 62% in their worth during the pandemic.

Gains are not going to be made in the class struggle at the Met Gala. Having a conversation with the elite about taxing the rich is not the way to achieve an equitable society. While AOC was hobnobbing with the rich and famous, the scene on the street outside was very different.

These protestors are some of the most oppressed by capitalism standing up against the ravages inflicted upon them by the ruling class. As Mayor Bill DiBlasio attended the gala, these Black Lives Matter protesters called for defunding the police. The NYPD budget for 2022 is planned to be $5.44 billion. This is greater than the entire defense budget of Chile. AOC could have stood with the protesters. She could have had a dress that said “Defund the Police” or “Abolish ICE.” Instead, she chose one of the weakest slogans available. Taxing the rich is a good thing, but it does not fundamentally challenge the capitalist power structure.

The basic reason for this concerted swing to the right of the officialdom, for this studied and systematic co-operation with all the varying forces and institutions of capitalism, is the fact that the masses are swinging to the left, are being disillusioned, are becoming radical. The reactionary officialdom cannot go along with the broad, sweeping radicalization of the masses, without making a clean break with their peaceful past. They are either corrupt agents of capitalism, or are timid bureaucrats seeking nothing but a peaceful office life with a secure salary. In either case, their reaction toward the seething rank and file unrest is one of fear, and retreat to the protecting arms of the masters, the capitalist employers. – Earl Browder

What is rich? What is class?

In this clip, AOC in somewhat vague terms indicates what she considers to be “rich.” A huge problem today comes from a misunderstanding of what class is. Class is not wealth. Class is the relationship one has to the means of production. Does one own the means of production or does one work the means of production? Rather than educating her followers on this basic element of Marxist theory, AOC is attempting to circumvent this issue of class by defining “rich” as someone with hundreds of millions of dollars. When she says “Tax the rich,” this is what she means. Rather than “Tax the rich” we should be crying “Expropriate the capitalist class!”

By her own definition, she wants to tax “like 10 people.” This is not some type of bold statement. This is not making the capitalist class uncomfortable. Rather it distracts from where the battle lines should be drawn – capitalist class vs. working class. Not nesting doll yacht rich vs. slightly less rich vs. less rich vs. wish they were rich. All capitalists have profited directly from exploitation of the working class. These are oppositional class interests, you do not collaborate with those who are directly opposed to you and expect to gain.

Lee Camp has one of the best takes on this weak slogan of “Tax the Rich.” This must be emphasized. Taxing the rich as part of a Democratic party approved plan to make incremental change is not going to save us from the ravages of capitalism. Rather than having a conversation about taxing the rich, we should be talking about class struggle and uniting the workers of the world.

There is one fundamental trouble with these progressive friends of ours-they want progress only if they can get it for nothing. They will not pay any price for it. In fact, they become as indignant at a suggestion of risking anything in a fight, as they do at a suggestion that they are not genuine progressives. But sadly it must be recorded, that these timid progressives are not progressives at all. Always, when they come up squarely against a situation that calls for decision and action, the only real test of progressivism, they halt, waver, and run· away. They fly to the “cover of the official oligarchy.” – Earl Browder

Class collaboration is a very pervasive tool used by the capitalist class to distract from the opposing interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. AOC is not the first legislator to fall for this trap. Kristen Sinema was once a Green Party progressive who wrote, “Until the average American realizes that capitalism damages her livelihood while augmenting the livelihoods of the wealthy, the Almighty Dollar will continue to rule.” Now she happily votes down a 15$ minimum wage. The ‘Almighty Dollar’ does indeed continue to rule. Nancy Pelosi once supported universal single payer healthcare and now she refuses to even put it up for a vote. Bernie was far more radical in 1989 and even said in 2011, “My suggestion was literally to the Democratic leadership, simply change the name of the party from the Democratic Party to the Republican-lite versus Republicans and say, ‘Yeah, we’re bad, but we’re not as bad as these guys.’” This is a long shot from his capitulations to corporate owned candidates in 2016 and 2020. Bernie hasn’t sold out, he’s not directly corrupt, but his years in Congress have led to him collaborating with the exploiting class. This is a systemic problem.

Lenin addressed class collaboration as he prepared for revolutionary action in Russia:

You want to have revolutionary enthusiasm in the army, Citizens Chernov and Tsereteli? But you cannot create it, because the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses is not begotten by a change of “leaders” in cabinets, by florid declarations, or by promises to take steps to revise the treaty with the British capitalists; it can be aroused only by acts of revolutionary policy patent to all and undertaken daily and everywhere against almighty Capital and against its making profits out of the war, a policy that will make for a radical improvement in the standard of living of the mass of the poor.

Even if you were to hand over all the land to the people immediately, this would not end the crisis unless revolutionary measures were taken against Capital.

In order to fight class collaboration, Lenin proposed that bureaucrats be paid the same as workers. As he wrote in The Dual Power:

officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service”, whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.

This would have prevented the creation of a bureaucratic caste, which happened under Stalin. In the US, if the legislators were paid the same as workers, it would prevent this class collaboration of the legislative caste with the capitalist class. Without the special privileges being accorded to them, Congress would be subject to the will of the people and would truly represent them. There would be no oligarchy, but a people’s government.

This is the heart of the matter. Wearing a gown to an exclusive gala will not build revolutionary enthusiasm. Capitalism is the enemy. This is the message that must be spread. Not tax the rich, abolish private property! Once the means of productions are back in the hands of labor, those who work will be rich from the fruits of their labor. No longer will their surplus value be leeched away by the bloodsuckers of the bourgeoisie. Only then will we be free.

We discuss and debate this topic further in the video below:

**To read more of Birrion Sondahl’s work, subscribe to his substack by clicking here.**

Photo: nkrbeta, SXSW 2019

Don’t Mourn, Organize: How to Respond to Nina Turner’s Defeat

by Birrion Sondahl (originally published on An Appeal to Reason)

Joe Hill wrote this in a telegram to Bill Haywood shortly before he was executed by the capitalist state on trumped up charges for murder:

Goodbye, Bill, I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!

As Joe Hill’s lawyer said:

The main thing the state had on Hill was that he was a Wobbly and therefore sure to be guilty.

The same is true of anyone who supports working class struggle today. While execution is generally the last resort of the ruling class and reserved for non citizens, it is not beyond them. The fate of progressives running in the Democrat Party is not death, but rather smear campaigns and lies, shunning and shaming. We saw this clearly with Bernie and we have seen it again with Nina. No lie is too much for the establishment when it comes to stopping progressive momentum. Nina Turner was willing to tell truth to power and this is an unforgiveable sin for the establishment. The biggest liars have the greatest success in the Democratic Party. The truth tellers do not last long.

I understand the pain of electoral losses. The Bernie campaigns were especially brutal, but every loss hits deeply for those who donated and campaigned with their hard earned money and time. I know the volunteers for Nina worked incredibly hard and put their souls into this fight. Yet all the Dems had to do was manipulate the media and spend a few million in attack ads (and perhaps use a little fraction magic) to defeat a very strong grassroots campaign. And this is one of the primary issues of running progressives in Democratic Primaries. No matter how many volunteers and how much dedication you have, the establishment controls the narrative. The people wanted Bernie – record breaking donations and volunteers showed that. We got Joe Biden. The people wanted Nina Turner and we get Shontel Brown, who is under investigation for ethics violation. The change the party from within strategy is clearly busted.

Even when progressives win, they are still treated as the enemy by the party. Nancy Pelosi disparaged and marginalized the squad and when they could have prevented her from being reelected as speaker, they still voted for her. This is the power of the party. What good are progressives when in order to be accepted by the party they have to support Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden? The end result of cooperating with corporate Democrats is embarrassing. Could anyone imagine in 2016 that Bernie Sanders would end up in this degrading interview?

The answer does not lie in corporate parties like the Democrats. They have shown us that they will spend more time and money defeating Medicare for All and a Green New Deal than on defeating neofascist Republicans. As the saying goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Democrats are not the lesser evil, they are simply a different flavor of evil.

What Nina does after her loss is up to her. What we do now is up to us. We need to be building real movements, not expending energy within a corrupt party. The Democratic Party has not moved left, all they have done is drag progressives right. The Democratic Party will block progress until it is destroyed. This could have been done from within if Bernie had been willing to be truly revolutionary. As Bernie did not take that step, it is now up to us to lead the way to a brighter future, a future free of corporate control.

Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. 

– Eugene V. Debs

It has always been the people that must free themselves. Working class solidarity is the answer. The Democratic Party does everything they can to prevent class consciousness and working class movements from gaining real traction. Do not mourn electoral losses, organize working class movements. Our future depends on it.

**To read more of Birrion Sondahl’s work, subscribe to his substack by clicking here.**

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Photo: Darrell Nance

As the Country Burns, Biden’s Climate Plan Comes Up Short

by Birrion Sondahl

As a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign, I canvassed in three states talking to voters about Bernie’s policies, including the Green New Deal. It was clear that the climate and environment was an important topic for many of the citizens with whom I spoke. These people wanted a clean future for themselves, for their children, and their grandchildren. Even if they were undecided on Bernie as a candidate, they agreed that the climate crisis was a top concern. And this was before a powerful derecho storm blew through Iowa, leaving areas that I had canvassed without power and destroying hundreds of homes. This was before the Pine Gulch fire became the largest in Colorado history and left the entire state in a smoke cloud. 

As I look out the window from my room in Colorado, I can see the haze of forest fire smoke obscuring the mountains. The skies of Oregon and California are orange and the air is hazardous to breathe. The climate crisis is not some vague far-off threat – wildfires have now burnt over 1 million acres in Oregon, killed ten people, and displaced tens of thousands more. The air quality index in my parents’ town in north Idaho is at a very unhealthy level of 212.  The total economic impact of the wildfires so far in California is estimated to be between 130-150 billion dollars and we are still early in the fire season.  

Yet amid all this climate destruction, Joe Biden has not embraced the Green New Deal that I campaigned for during the primaries, and fought for as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Biden still only pays lip service to the realities of the climate crisis. His plan comes up far short of what is necessary for halting the ongoing climate armageddon. His lack of support for a Green New Deal shows that he is still being influenced by oil and gas corporations and lobbyists.  A comparison between the Green New Deal and Joe Biden’s plan shows just how weak his climate agenda is.  

One easy way to get a big picture view of these differing climate plans is to compare their cost, which is to say, their investment in a green future. It is surely going to be expensive to transition away from fossil fuels, which is why Bernie’s Green New Deal stated that it would “directly invest an historic $16.3 trillion public investment toward these efforts…” This is a clear contrast to Biden’s plan, which proposes that “Biden will make a $2 trillion accelerated investment, with a plan to deploy those resources over his first term, setting us on an irreversible course to meet the ambitious climate progress that science demands.” Bernie’s plan spends $16.3 trillion over ten years while Biden’s spends $2 trillion over four years. This comes out to $1.63 trillion per year for the Green New Deal and $500 billion per year for Biden. In overall spending, the Green New Deal outspends Biden 8 to 1, over a much longer period of time.

The Biden plan calls for us to “move ambitiously to generate clean, American-made electricity to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.” In contrast, the Green New Deal calls for “Reaching 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030.” A five-year difference in decarbonizing the energy sector would be huge. Biden does not call for the entire transportation sector to be renewable, but rather “all new American-built buses [to] be zero-emissions by 2030.”  This is an extremely weak position compared to the Green New Deal. 

Another huge difference between the Biden plan and the Green New Deal is where they stand on fracking. Joe Biden has been very vocal on this subject, saying “I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking.” The Green New Deal is very clear that it will “ban fracking and mountaintop removal coal mining…They must be immediately banned.” A study by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson concluded that, “in terms of climate, natural gas causes greater global warming than other fossil fuels over 20 years across all applications.” It is not possible to achieve 100 percent renewable energy without banning fracking, yet Biden does not even mention it in his plan.  The reason for this lack is an attempt to save fracking jobs by the Biden campaign.  However, the Green New Deal has a solution for this job loss – a guaranteed “five years of a worker’s current salary, housing assistance, job training, health care, pension support, and priority job placement for any displaced worker, as well as early retirement support for those who choose it or can no longer work.”  All Biden’s plan has to offer is to “make sure coal miners and their families receive not only the respect they deserve but also the pensions and health benefits they have been promised.” These platitudes do not represent a just transition for coal workers.  

The Biden plan also falls short on research and development, spending $400 billion on clean energy technologies. The Green New Deal funds a “$500 billion effort to research technologies to fully decarbonize industry, and a $150 billion effort to fully decarbonize aviation and maritime shipping and transportation.” The GND also allocates $30 billion for StorageShot technology, and $100 billion on decreasing the cost of new electric vehicles to $18,000. In total, the GND spends almost two times the Biden plan on research and development.

The Biden plan does not once mention the military, which is the world’s largest polluter. In fact, Biden has called for potential increases in the defense budget, saying, “I’ve met with a number of my advisors, and some have suggested in certain areas the budget is going to have to be increased.” Meanwhile, Bernie’s Green New Deal “recognizes that the Pentagon is the largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and that the United States spends $81 billion annually to protect oil supplies and transport routes. We are uniquely positioned to lead the planet in a wholesale shift away from militarism.” No plan can be serious about addressing the climate crisis without taking on the military industrial complex.  

Unfortunately, Bernie’s Green New Deal is no longer an option. Obama claims that “Protecting our planet is on the ballot” but it certainly is not a priority for Biden. Howie Hawkins and the Green Party are not on the ballot in every state, but their eco-socialist GND calls for $4.3 trillion in spending per year. A vote for the Green Party is indeed a vote for a Green New Deal. Yet as the Green Party has no real hope of electoral victory, the best approach comes from the Red Nation, a coalition of activists devoted to Native American liberation issues, and exists outside of the electoral system.

In their Red Deal, they note, “We cannot vote harder and place all our hope in a few individuals in Congress. Climate change will kill us before any of these strategies liberate the planet from capitalism.” The oligarchic corporate duopoly has a death grip on electoral politics. Whether under a Biden or a Trump administration, only mass movements and class struggle can tackle the capitalist system and fully address the climate crisis. As the Red Deal tells us, “Political elites act in the interest of corporate bosses, not the people (or the earth).”  Whether Biden or Trump wins in November, the climate crisis will remain an existential threat to human civilization.  Scientists suggest that we are dangerously close or past several huge climate tipping points.  While there can be no going back, Biden’s milquetoast incrementalism that does not truly address the transportation sector, ban fracking, cut back on the military, or adequately fund research and development is no solution to this threat.  The United States electoral system has failed the people – the only path to real change must be through massive organization of people’s movements following the examples of the Red Nation, Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, and many others. The future livability of the planet is at stake, and the 2020 election offers no answers.

Photo: Noah Berger, AP