Why a Biden/Harris White House can only disappoint expectations

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Brian Richardson looks at the hope for real change raised by BLM

I t has often been observed that the US vice-president is just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Constitutionally the post holds little power. Indeed one incumbent, John Nance Garner is reported to have described it as “not worth a bucket of warm spit”. Given the age and obvious infirmity of Biden, there is a very real possibility that Kamala Harris will be more than merely a ceremonial VP. Much has been made of the fact that she is the first woman and the first Asian-American to be elected to the post. It is being hailed as a triumph for minorities and for the agenda of stitching together a coalition around identity politics. It was Harris who first appeared on the stage in Wilmington, Delaware when the networks finally declared Biden’s victory and the choreography was impressive and carefully crafted.
She swept onstage to the strains of hip-hop superstar Mary J Blige’s feminist anthem Work That. Harris can certainly talk a good game. Her autobiography The Truths We Hold was published in 2019, perhaps timed to coincide with her run for the Democratic nomination. In its pages and on the campaign trail she hailed the importance of Black Lives Matter and the ongoing fight for women’s equality. She reminded us that when she was the attorney general of California she not only fought for the legalisation of lesbian and gay marriage but having done so, presided over the first ceremony. It is this apparent allyship that has persuaded many on the left to express hope that Harris will be a progressive force in the White House. No less a figure than Angela Davis said that she was “excited” when Biden chose Harris as his running mate, and Cornel West has described her as “a brilliant black sister”.
Meanwhile in the wake of their victory, BLM founder Patrice Cullers wrote Biden and Harris a letter requesting a meeting with the declaration ‘Let’s get to work!” Davis, West and Cullors are all well aware however that Harris is far from the radical that her Republican opponents seek to portray her as. Prior to her six years as attorney general of the country’s biggest state she spent seven years as district attorney in San Francisco. As former lawyer Briahna Gray notes, “To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system.” Gray points out that Harris criminalised truancy — an act that disproportionately affected the poor and marginalised — fought to uphold wrongly secured convictions and defended a decision to deny gender reassignment surgery to inmates. Gray concedes that Harris, was not “an especially bad prosecutor” and acknowledges that she introduced education programmes for ex-offenders. Her negotiation of a $20bn settlement with banks to support California mortgage holders affected by the 2008 economic crash is regarded as her landmark achievement.
Reformists would argue that such outcomes are proof of what can be achieved by those that wield real power. Clearly this should not be sniffed at, but as progressives warned at the time, there is little evidence that Harris’s deal ultimately benefited those most in need. The same was of course true of Barack Obama’s major presidential achievement, the 2010 Affordable Care Act. It is true that Obamacare extended health insurance to over 20 million people. Against that however inequality fell back to where it had been in the late 1960s, Obama continued to wage foreign wars and in the words of Keaanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “the black political establishment led by Obama… was not capable of the most basic task: keeping black children alive”. Obama could talk the talk more eloquently than most, and as the BBC’s north American editor Jon Sopel says of Obama’s autobiography A Promised Land the pen “sits easily in his hand”. And yet for all the wonderful words, it was on Obama’s watch that BLM was born.
There is more than a hint of Obama about Harris’s book. Subtitled “An American Journey” it has the same aspirational feel as his pre-presidency publications, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope. “No drama Obama” was a term used to describe the president’s apparent coolness under pressure. It could equally be applied to the conservatism of his administration however. In similar vein before Biden had even begun assembling his transition team it was suggested that Harris should be deployed to keep radicals such as Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders under control. Beyond the confines of the Democratic Party, Cullors’s letter asserts that BLM “invested heavily in this election” and that its efforts reached “more than 60 million voters”. Her request for the meeting is because “we want something for our vote”. The speed with which Obama moved to discipline and demobilise the movement that projected him into office has obviously acted as a warning. It is to be hoped that organisations such as BLM don’t invest too much expectation in Harris. Polarisation Trump’s legitimisation of fascists and far right militias is alarming and poses a serious continuous threat but the political polarisation has not all gone to the right. From the outset Trump faced huge opposition.
By comparison with an attendance of between 300,000 and 600,000 in Washington at his inauguration in January 2017, an estimated two million people joined the Women’s Marches that were held the following day. That included half a million in Washington, 400,000 sweeping past Trump Tower in New York and over 100,000 each in Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston. Since then there has been industrial action notably among teachers, over 1,000 wildcat strikes in 2020 and the spectacular re-emergence of BLM as a major presence on the streets. Over 26 million people are estimated to have been involved in the protests that erupted in the months following George Floyd’s murder in May. The diversity on display on those demonstrations is remarkable. What happens to all of that is the key question. The call for unity across the racial divide can seem abstract in a society as segregated as that of the US but this summer’s protests showed that it is possible. Furthermore there are organisations that have the capacity to take the struggle forward. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has over 70,000 members.
It declares itself to be a “political and activist organisation, not a party” and as Claire Lemlich from Marx21 has indicated it is “a hugely heterogeneous organisation, ranging from right-wing social democrats to anarchists and revolutionary socialists”. There is a space in which socialists can operate and the momentum from movements that can be built on if workers are to avoid bearing the brunt of capitalist catastrophe. These initiatives give the lie to those that claim that the working class in the US is dead or that socialism is such a dirty word that all hope of its mobilising capacity is futile. The future lies in building these coalitions and struggle in the streets, communities and workplaces not in the sandstone walls of the White House or the wider Democratic Party.