Whether to DemExit or to primary centrist Democrats and elect progressives within the party has been a contentious debate in Left circles since the 2016 election. Those in the latter camp argue that the party can be reformed from within if enough insurgent candidates can successfully defeat incumbent moderates. A common retort among the former is some version of the phrase, “You don’t change the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party changes you.”
Those words loom large this week, as on Thursday evening, Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez switched her vote on the funding of Israel’s “Iron Dome” from ‘no’ to ‘present’ just moments before the tally was finalized. Fellow Squad members Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Cori Bush, were among only 9 representatives who voted against the $1 billion investment in Israeli’s military defense.
Among the possible explanations for AOC’s last minute change of heart is that she is considering mounting a primary challenge against Chuck Schumer for his Senate seat in 2022, and that were she to be perceived as anti-Israel, it would sink her chances. There’s also some speculation that her district will be redrawn to include Riverdale, a section of the Bronx with a sizable Jewish population.
Whether these political conundrums occurred to her just in time to change her vote, and whether or not they factored into her decision, are unknowable unless she herself offers her own explanation (she was also spotted exchanging words with Nancy Pelosi shortly before the vote). In any case, it’s fairly obvious that she wanted to vote ‘no,’ but ultimately lacked the conviction to do so, and that this was a purely political decision and not a moral one.
Of course, the #FraudSquad contingent of the online Left will have a field day with this, as they’ll point to yet another instance of AOC waffling on issues of importance to her progressive base (another recent example was her ‘present’ vote on $2 billion of Capitol Police funding).
And while it’s easy to sympathize with their disgust, we should also see this as a profoundly sad story. Reportedly, AOC had to be consoled by her colleagues on the House floor, as she seemed to have broken down in tears in the moments before and after the vote.
Perhaps she cried because she finally realized that the pressures of Washington had actually changed her. Once a renegade firebrand set to spearhead the progressive takeover of the Democratic Party, she now found herself having to break from her fellow Squad members and betray her values for purposes of protecting her own power. At just 31 years old, less than a year into her sophomore term, she had already compromised her principles in such an obvious way on an issue of particular importance, not only to her, but to her closest allies in Congress as well. Rashida Tlaib, the United States’ first Palestinian Congressperson and friend of AOC, gave a powerful floor speech against the funding bill, denouncing the Israeli government as an “apartheid regime.”
Parting with her most trusted and esteemed colleagues, especially on a matter as personal to them as this one, could not have been easy for her, which much better explains her emotional reaction than that her tears were somehow fake, as has been alleged by some in both Right and Left wing media circles.
Let’s not forget that in the wake of the 2020 election, when progressives were being blamed for Democrats’ House losses, AOC gave an interview to The New York Times in which she openly floated the possibility of quitting politics altogether. She lamented that Washington was “extremely hostile to anything that even smells progressive,” and said that “the odds of me running for higher office and the odds of me just going off trying to start a homestead somewhere — they’re probably the same.”
This is one of many examples when AOC has spoken publicly about the challenges of overcoming institutional and political pressures as a progressive Congresswoman.
We should also recall her statement in the aftermath of her 2018 victory in which she expressed a willingness to buck the system to the point where it might cost her her seat. In a video for Justice Democrats released in January of 2019, she proclaimed, “If you’re a one-term Congress member, so what? You can make 10 years’ worth of change in one term if you’re not afraid.”
Unfortunately, it seems now that she is afraid – afraid of party leadership, afraid of her own electorate, and afraid of what the future has in store for her as a politician.
And so rather than bludgeon her with #FraudSquad hashtags and accusations that she’s “sold out” her base, I think we ought to encourage her to ask herself that very same question: if you’re a one-term Congress member, so what?
Is she cut out for this, or would she be of greater service in some other capacity (we know from her previous quotes that she’s asked herself this same question from time to time)? She’s a giant star at this point who undoubtedly has a plethora of options in terms of how she can best influence the world she hopes to change. Is Congress the best place for her to do that, or is it not? She needs to revisit this question. Because right now, it seems she’s on the all-too-familiar path of young starry-eyed idealists who think they can change the system, only to find years later that the system has changed them.
At this rate, it won’t be too long before she sounds just like Nancy Pelosi did in her September 2019 interview, where she said, regarding progressives’ push for Medicare For All, “All of these issues – single payer and all that – I have those signs in my basement from 30 years ago.”
Will AOC be singing that same tune sooner than later? It sure looks that way. But as a young woman with a massive following and bona fide celebrity status, there’s no need for her to resign herself to such a depressing fate. Perhaps she should quit, as she suggested she might last year, and try to affect change from outside the system.
At the very least, she needs to rediscover her cavalier spirit as an activist who’s not afraid to lose an election or upset party brass. Because by casting such a blatantly hypocritical vote as this one, she’s betrayed the very coalition that propelled her to power in the first place – something for which she instantly felt remorse the moment she did it. She doesn’t have to do this anymore; the decision is hers to make.
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. Households, only 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.
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.**
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stole the show at Monday night’s Met Gala when she appeared in a white dress with bright red lettering that read “Tax the Rich.” Immediately, “Tax the Rich” was trending on Twitter (at this writing, it still is), as well as – of course – AOC herself.
The backlash from the Right was predictable. They honed in on the irony of wearing a “Tax the Rich” dress to a gala which is itself an embarrassment of riches, as if said irony was lost on AOC herself – as if that obvious contradiction wasn’t in fact the very inspiration for her outfit in the first place.
But many in online Left circles were also quick to criticize her for her attendance at the gala, and dismissed her wardrobe design as “performative.”
For starters, I think we can all agree the point of electing AOC in 2018 – an effort borne of Bernie’s historic presidential run two years prior – was to send one of our own to Congress.
The 2016 Sanders campaign fell short of its ultimate goal, but was nonetheless hugely successful in helping to destigmatize Leftist political ideology. Suddenly, large swaths of the population were no longer afraid or ashamed to call themselves socialists. This was itself a major victory which made AOC’s candidacy possible.
Then, upon her unlikely triumph over Joe Crowley, we were poised to permeate the mainstream in a way we hadn’t been able to do before. We had sent a democratic socialist to Washington who was bound to become a bona fide star – yes, a “celebrity,” if you will – and we would finally have someone representing our interests not only in the halls of Congress, but on television shows, social media, and, indeed, the occasional red carpet at extravagant soirees like the Met Gala.
In this sense, AOC’s celebrity status as the most famous member of Congress is itself a boon to Left politics, because it creates an opportunity for Leftists to puncture elite bubbles that were long considered impenetrable by ordinary people.
The fact that Leftist politicians are now on invite lists to events like the Met Gala ought to be seen as a good sign – a sign that the Left is gaining influence among elite cultural circles from which we’ve always been deliberately excluded. Those who lament AOC’s legitimization of elite institutions like the Met Gala should have probably thought twice about electing her to Congress, because guess what: Congress is itself an elite institution.
The entire point of electing progressives to Congress is so that ordinary people can finally have representation in echelons of society formerly reserved for elites. This is the premise of representative democracy – that regular folks can have a seat at the fat cats’ table if they garner enough popular support.
To say that her attendance at the gala wasn’t “revolutionary” is fair enough, but it also misunderstands her role in the progressive movement. Elected officials, almost by definition, are not revolutionary figures. Notice, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X never ran for political office. AOC, on the other hand, is not a revolutionary, she’s a representative. As such, her job is to “represent” working class people in places where working class people rarely gain access.
In other words, the main point of electing Left politicians is to infiltrate elite circles with people we feel will use their esteemed position to do our bidding. In the context of the Met Gala, this is precisely what AOC did. She accepted the invitation, and then used her participation to “break the fourth wall,” as she puts it, and to “have a conversation” about the very nature of the event she’s attending.
To begrudge her appearance at the gala is to take the position that she ought not take advantage of this access to the elites which we granted her in the first place by sending her to Congress.
If that’s our attitude, then why did we bother voting her in? Why bother with electoral politics at all? Why not just be activists? There are many on the Left who feel that electoral politics is a waste of time and energy. This is a legitimate position. What’s not a legitimate position is to espouse the importance of electing Leftists to Congress, and then lambast them when they participate in the very bourgeois pageantry that defines much of what being a Congressperson definitionally entails.
After all, a gathering of elites in an opulent building with too many stairs describes both the Met Gala and a House committee hearing. Why is it acceptable for AOC to attend one but not the other?
To the extent that AOC has failed to live up to her obligations to represent the working class, she has attracted some much deserved blowback from her base. If she and her fellow squad members cave on the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package currently being negotiated (so far, there’s no indication that they will), progressives will be rightfully furious. But trolling the 1% at their own party, calling out the elites in their own house, is a big part of what she was elected to do, and not a bad use of time on what would otherwise be an unremarkable Monday evening in New York.