The Sanders Antinomies: Strategic Questions for Uncertain Times

17th Apr, 2019

Bernie Sanders. Photo by Gage Skidmore

The Sanders Antinomies:

Strategic Questions for Uncertain Times

Michael Bray

Debates amongst socialists about Bernie Sanders's candidacy have, already, a kind of formulaic, antinomical character, both sides of which can lay claim to more or less true, but also relatively abstracted, arguments. For the most part, these debates, picking up from 2016, center on the relationship between electoral campaigns and popular movements: either the Democratic Party is a oligopolistic cesspool that will absorb all leftist deviations or this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ‘un-stick’ things; either center-left parties exist to co-opt and disaggregate critical movements or no radical left party has every prospered in an environment where there was not a vibrant center-left party. Each side of such antimonies can appeal to a set of authorities for justification, can score internet debate points off one another, but the whole thing often seems to circle around the same old posts, without a clear articulation of, let alone agreement on, what, in the current conjuncture, would count as a victory.

Further, the dogmatic oppositions involved in such debates tend to lead even the most productive responses to get stuck at an equally abstract level of ‘dialectic’. Resolution, it is revealed, lies in the synthesis of the contraries: electoral campaigns and popular movements or, as Nico Poulantzas (frequently invoked in these debates) put it in 1978: ‘the extension and deepening of political freedoms and the institutions of representative democracy…combined with the unfurling of forms of direct democracy and the mushrooming of self-management bodies’.[1] Posed at this level of abstraction, any productive effect, rhetorical or strategic, of such a synthesis is vitiated. Such a ‘resolution’, proffered, immediately triggers a resumption of the debate: Poulantzas’s position is reduced to ‘Eurocommunist’ electoral politics, popular anti-statism is invoked against him, and the circle turns again.

Lost in such debates is that, for Poulantzas, this supposed ‘resolution’ was nothing of the sort. It was, rather, a gesture towards a territory wherein, for any given social formation, such a resolution might conceivably lie. For there is, he insisted, ‘no easy recipe for a solution, since the answers to such questions do not exist – not even as a model theoretically guaranteed in some holy text or other’.[2] In that spirit, this essay does not attempt to resolve the antimonies of socialist strategy that Sanders’s campaign brings to the surface; rather, it attempts to think through them towards some of the specific dilemmas that define the present moment of socialist politics in the United States. Subtending the traditional strategic antinomies, I want to suggest, is an overarching transformation – one stretching far beyond the U.S., in variegated forms – produced by a series of transformations in the global accumulation of capital and the political offensives that helped secure them. A central manifestation of these transformations had been the disaggregation of the ‘popular classes’ and the dissolution of political class formations. That such a situation exists (amidst nascent signs, like the wave of teachers’ strikes, of change) alongside an upsurge in antagonistic and ostensibly socialist politics is a perhaps unprecedented situation in relation to the Marxist tradition. ‘Democratic socialism’ (if that's what it is) is leading, not following, the political formation of some newly articulated working class. Rather than attempt to resolve the antimonies of socialist strategy, then, this essay seeks to begin a process of reconsidering them in light of this conjuncture.


Electoral Questions

One thing all sides in the socialist debates over Sanders at least appear to agree upon is that an independent movement grounded in the working-class is the sine qua non of socialist politics. Such agreement, however, is often mobilized to support more or less dogmatic positions regarding whether such a movement is strengthened or weakened by his candidacy and by socialists' support for it. At the core of these positions is a disagreement about what independence means: must workers remain at a distance from the state – and mainstream parties as apparatuses of it – or can they operate within those crucibles to shift the balance of forces?

Framed in this way, the ‘anti-electoral’ position might stretch so far as to include Lenin’s strategy of ‘revolutionary parliamentarism’ in the build-up to October, one that has the benefit, at least according to its most devoted expositor, of having been successful. In his two-volume work, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy,[3] August H. Nimtz demonstrates that Lenin saw the Bolshevik party’s involvement in parliaments as indispensable and ceaselessly advocated for it, even in periods where severe restrictions on suffrage and disproportionate representation between classes led others to call for abstention. Yet, he also saw that involvement as a kind of adjunct to the real sites in which workers’ power would be consolidated. Entry into elections and presence in parliament could serve as key platforms for agitation and propaganda, as well as a vehicle for gauging the ‘maturity’ of the working class and the strength of the party’s position, but they could never provide direct vehicles for their ascension to power.

What defined revolutionary parliamentarism, then, was the electoral and parliamentary assertion of workers’ independence, an insistence on their own platform and party, a refusal to compromise or to govern the system for the ruling classes. Participation in the institutions of ‘bourgeois democracy’ was necessary but only because they provide forums for contact with workers who have not yet been politicized, allowing the party to operate outside the illegal underground. ‘What’s decisive, in other words, in the fate of the electoral process itself takes place outside its very parameters’.[4] One can be in the state, yet at a distance from it, at the same time. Even where a tide of popular politicization might seem poised to bring the party into government, the odds are, as Engels put it, that this ‘will drive the rulers to overthrow legality, that is, to put us in the most favorable position to make the revolution’.[5]

For Nimtz, the success of this strategy is taken to resolve the antimony of electoral participation: such participation is not fruitless, insofar as it provides occasion for propaganda and strength-gauging, but using electorally acquired positions for anything else, above all actual governance, is worse than useless. It is to descend into what Marx, Engels, and Lenin all diagnosed as ‘that incurable malady, parliamentary cretinism, a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honor to count them among its members’.[6] Already in 2014, Nimtz attributed that malady to Syriza and its supporters, and Tspiras’s subsequent capitulation seems to confirm that assessment: faith in Syriza represented a combination of ‘parliamentary cretinism’ and its ‘necessary complement…voting fetishism—that is, the modern but erroneous tendency to equate the right to register a preference for either a candidate or a policy in a public election with the actual exercise of political power’.[7] This could only be all the more so for faith in Sanders and the Democratic Party.

And yet, the full force of this argument seems to depend on something it implicitly assumes: the existence of a political class-formation that has some purchase in subaltern common sense, that can operate independently precisely insofar as it (or its avant-garde) can define its boundaries, render its interests coherent, and grow its ranks, possibilities that depend on it not being betrayed by parliamentary cretins. But does such a formation exist today, in a conjuncture where (at least in countries like the U.S.) the traditional workers’ political movement, grounded across most of the 20th century in industrial factory production, is weak, if not non-existent? Marxist theory, no doubt, persists, is beginning to flourish again, and provides a critical orientation, but how much of a hold does it have today on common sense? And what degree of consensus is there in such theory today regarding the character such a political formation might take, how it might be developed such a movement?[8] The abstract, structural coordinates of Capital, no matter how emphatically asserted, are not enough here: there is a orienting correctness to a definition of the working class as all those who are exploited or even ‘everyone in the producing classes who has in their lifetimes participated in the totality of reproduction of society’.[9] Yet a concept at that level of abstraction cannot, in and of itself, shape a political movement, lest all of Lenin’s worries after the civil war, and Gramsci’s in a fascist cell, about hegemony and the possibilities for proletarian leadership of the peasantry would have been pointless.

More concretely, one could ask: what if Tsipras had not capitulated? Was that capitulation a foregone conclusion? Certainly, the weakness of the left in Syriza was a key factor in that outcome but would its position relative to fundamental transformation – or just a break with the EU – have been stronger if Tsipras and Syriza had not risen to electoral popularity? Would the masses that voted for Syriza, rallied in the streets, and voted ‘Oxi’ overwhelmingly, have been there if Syriza and Tsipras had not, if the left had remained independent, organizing outside the electoral arena? There is no doubt that the events following the No vote disillusioned and disaggregated the mass resistance that had built up but, again, what if it had not happened that way? Would the successes and failures of a government openly resisting the triad and attempting to relieve some of effects of austerity have advanced the clarity of purpose and goals on the left or led it further into a kind of electoral fetishism? Or both? Do answers to such questions yet exist?

Do we, in other words, have a clear strategy for situations in which the political formation of a subaltern class identity lags behind the development of political-electoral antagonisms? To be clear – though I can only sketch the point here – I do not take the absence of such a formation to be a merely ideological effect of a temporarily victorious of ‘neoliberal politics’, but of the reordering of capitalist social relations that such politics has sought to defend and expand. The increasingly free global flows of capital, shadowed by militarized supply-chains, new ranks of warehouse and transportation workers, and halted flows of migrants; the off-shoring and increasing automation of industrial production; the growth in ‘service work’ as social reproduction labor becomes, to differing extents, privatized and a responsibility of the state; the individualizing, disaggregating submission of individuals to regimes of debt and risk assessment; and the increasing numbers of the gendered and racialized ‘reserve army of labor’, warehoused in ghettos, barrios, hinterlands, and refugee camps, consigned to what Stuart Hall called ‘the common experience of “worklessness”’,[10] have together produced a situation in which traditional political formations of class no longer cohere well with the contents of common sense. Class antagonisms, of course, remain and are clearly intensifying, but, without a coherent political formation, they are often expressed, to the extent they are politically expressed at all, electorally, in more or less incoherent fashion.

The dilemmas for such electoral expressions are exacerbated in the U.S. context: the lack of a parliamentary, percentage-based representative system means that to win 30% of the vote is not to gain a substantial parliamentary foothold for agitation but to fail spectacularly. What propagandistic function would such failures have relative to any nascent independent movement and should we cultivate or remain indifferent to them? Invest all of our energies in helping push a Democratic candidate like Bernie to a majority for the agitational benefits of such a victory, despite the dangerous counter-effects of the inevitable (and already existing) capitulations to party and political realities? Moreover, to the extent that the lack of political formation today rests, to some substantive degree, on the increasing disciplinary, debt-servicing, carceral, police and surveillance functions of the state, might not some alternative practice of governance – the loosening of controls and restrictions, the changing of anti-democratic electoral forms, at least – be an important adjunct or even prerequisite of any growing movement? In place of the old electoral antimonies, it might be more useful to start from a place that admits we do not know the answers.


Questions of Hegemony

With the dissolution of the specific ‘economic-corporative’ formation of the working class that defined it across much of the twentieth century, the electoral question can appear to subsume or exhaust the question of hegemony. This is the historical basis for the rise of the theory and practice of ‘left populism’ identified with Mouffe and Laclau. That these questions are not, in fact, identical explains the strategic dead-end towards which such a vision leads. Conceiving of hegemony as an ‘empty signifier’, without determinate grounds in productive and political relations becomes, in practice, the goal of articulating one’s principles vaguely enough to win electoral victories. But if such victories define a movement’s self-understanding, then, having won, it can only prepare to win again, forever chasing some other, actually hegemonic, force ever further to the right. For Gramsci, as Peter Thomas has shown, a proletariat form of hegemony was not a way of appealing to the masses exactly where they were, but one of rendering senso commune coherent, of increasing its grasp of its own determinate historical position, the extant possibilities for transformation, and, thereby, increasing the subaltern classes’ capacity to act.[11]

The lack of an existing political formation of subaltern classes can, then, also be grasped, in Gramscian terms, as an absence of alternative hegemonic apparatuses. The causes of this absence are the same transformations in accumulation sketched above, which inaugurated a long process of social and political disaggregation, molecularly dissolving whatever concrete apparatuses the Cold War had not destroyed or the new lefts had begun to build. As the state has instituted more and more forms of molecular competition across the landscape of civil society, everyone has had to become entrepreneurs and imperialists of themselves or else descend into an inchoate mass of the un- and under-employed, discredited by their very failure to promote themselves. The subaltern capacity to act in anything but more or less desperate acts of self-defense was attenuated to the point where even to think that there was an alternative, let alone to act to institute one, became immensely difficult. This was not a failure of thought as such but a symptom of the collapse of those alternative apparatuses that underpinned unifying thoughts and actions and made them possible. You cannot render coherent what barely exists, any more than an inchoate mass can act independently.

It is in this historical context that the Democratic Party undertook its long journey from the center to the right, under the increasing hegemony of professional knowledge workers, trained, precisely, in guiding ships going nowhere in particular, and empowered by increasingly triadic economies wherein elite knowledge workers are richly rewarded for wielding the power of a capital ever more distanced from the masses by massive inequalities, gated communities, and tax havens.[12] It is also in this context that reviving protest has often taken temporary, ephemeral forms, summoned by Facebook and dispersed by riot police, buttressed by discourses that also identified themselves with knowledge work, a fixed-capital infrastructure embedded in the mind itself, so that thought might become deed without needing to worry about anything so tedious as building coherence or constructing hegemonic apparatuses.

Thomas’s book runs counter to this, powerfully insisting on an identity of thought and practice for Gramsci that locates thought as one practice amongst others, caught up the mid-stream of history, reflecting on its own historical determinateness, and seeking out coherence amongst the contradictions of every mass action. Yet his book also deflates this insistence somewhat by having so little to say on how Gramsci’s thought might inform our practice in the present. At the very least, that seems a peculiarly un-Gramscian model of reading. ‘[A]waiting the energies and initiatives of a reviving working-class movement’[13] feels a bit like awaiting Godot. Will we even know him if we see him? For it seems doubtful that the reviving working-class movement in the contemporary U.S. will look like the one that Gramsci helped lead in Turin’s industrial sector.

Rather, in a period of disaggregation and potential re-formation, class struggles have tended to take the form of social reproduction struggles. When a large plurality of a population occupies a shifting position in the relations of production, one not fitting into a pre-existing class formation, the political form of those struggles is not a concretely articulated class politics, but, rather, a collective turn – often towards the state, in the form of “popular” demands – “to resolve the structural contradictions between the spheres of production and social reproduction,” to make life livable.[14] Where ‘labor unions agitating at the point of production (for wages) are weak or non-existent in large parts of the globe…we have rising social movements around issues of living conditions,’ struggles for water or over land eviction or housing.[15] Or electoral campaigns premised on Medicaid for All and the forgiveness of student and other debt.

These struggles can cross over with traditional union actions – as in the wave of teachers’ strikes – but also take forms addressed to the policy-making and economic functions of the state, rather than individual employers (or the state as employer), precisely because it is at those levels where the state has increasingly intervened in social reproduction in the interests of ‘capital-as-a-whole’, driving down the value of wage labor and disaggregating resistance.[16] Such struggles involve a kind of leap immediately to the political or hegemonic level, without a prior ‘corporative-economic’ one. On the one hand, they are vulnerable to various forms of electoral and state manipulations; on the other, they blur the line of where an alternative hegemony is contested and constructed, forming local organizations of struggle and forcing their claims within the apparatuses of the state, prior to the constitution of class-formation, often through an antagonistic figuring of ‘the people’.

In relation to struggles for hegemony, therefore, it is also difficult to define a clear line today based on traditional debates. There can be little argument that any long-term process of increasing the capacity of the subaltern to act must persist in (likely new and experimental) forms of direct organizing, finding sites where people can accomplish things together that give them a sense of their own potential power; yet, there also seems no question that hearing someone like Bernie speak, in a cable news interview, in an speech posted on-line, in a primary debate, can feel like a salutary shock to common sense, a suggestion or confirmation of ideas rarely expressed. In some ways, it was almost as difficult to imagine someone like Sanders appearing on cable news every night as it was to imagine the end of capitalism (as, all the while, the end of the world becomes increasingly easy to picture). In the face of that feeling, the stubborn insistence that supporting Bernie means destroying the working-class movement can sound like the groupuscule logic of the long interregnum, in which the purity of a thought tended to substitute for any hope of its efficacy.

And yet, when Bernie speaks, as he did in his first official interview as a candidate, of how the heart of his campaign has to be a rising social movement, a ‘revolution’, one also strains to grasp the coherence of such a thought. Is it really possible that an electoral campaign could be the vehicle for the consolidation of a movement of movements that could challenge its own candidate further to the left, could keep the failures of a candidate or an office-holder from being the collapse of the movement? It might be worth here revisiting and rethinking the long debate[17] over comunas in Venezuela: as local centers of political and social activity, partially formed and supported by the state, they do not seem to have been able to democratize Maduro’s torpid, corrupt extension of chavismo but they do seem to have played a critical role in the ability of his regime to resist an imperial-administered coup. Is that a sign of progress or regression? Here again, the old certainties do not seem much help.

To admit that we do not know must also be to experiment openly and widely. But in which way, in what directions? Can we answer any of these questions without a clearer sense of what ‘the proletariat’ today is or means (for itself, above all), or without a clearer sense of how social reproduction struggles might build towards something other than a demand directed to the state? Or can such demands themselves be rendered increasingly coherent in the building of new hegemonic apparatuses? We might do this better, in an experimental spirit, if, rather than deciding answers based on old antinomies, we attempt to reckon with new particularities.

Questions of identity

One set of such particularities, which have taken on a renewed urgency in recent years, also define a strategic antinomy regarding Sanders’s candidacy: gender and race. The antinomy regarding these issues is somewhat different than those discussed above, insofar as it arises only if one already intends to support, campaign, and vote for some candidate in the Democratic primaries. But the issues at stake have a more general relevance for moving beyond the antinomies of electoral politics and hegemony, while also reinstating some of the distinctions between them. That Bernie is an ‘old white guy’, in a nation founded on white, patriarchal settler colonialism, is not an idle or incidental fact.

The strategic antinomy here takes something like this form: either policies and program alone, not the person, should determine one’s support or supporting a white man within an unprecedentedly diverse field (as before, against the first woman with a legitimate chance of becoming president) tendentially functions, whatever one’s conscious intentions, as an endorsement of the white supremacist, patriarchal character of our political and social order. Admittedly, the second proposition is rarely expressed this directly; rather, it is manifested in particular judgments regarding some activity or statement by Sanders or his supporters (‘Bernie bros’) or in a defense of another candidate from slights or criticisms taken to suggest sexism and/or racism. The general implication is usually close to the surface however: a preference for Sanders is a preference for whiteness and maleness.

That this implication – especially in the context of a primary where the Democratic establishment seems determined to throw money at every viable moderate woman or nonwhite person who might disaggregate Sanders’s popularity– is not more often dismissed as a cynical ploy is a function of at least two historical processes:

1) The strategy of today’s Democratic power brokers is, essentially, an extension of the strategy by which liberals attempted to bring to a closure the radical anti-racist, feminist, and queer struggles of the 1970s. That strategy is epitomized in Karen Ferguson’s rendering of the liberal response to Black Power movements: ‘the African American community deserved representation in a pluralistic and meritocratic body politic, but such power should be exercised by the “best and brightest” of the black community as defined by the “best and brightest” of the white community’.[18] After the ensuing conservative onslaught, this vision of ‘diversity’ appears all the more progressive to the knowledge workers now in control of the Democratic Party.

2) At the same time, those struggles themselves embodied real and often fundamental conflicts within, and in reaction against, socialist and new left movements prone to multiple forms of class reductionism, misogyny, racism, and homophobia, both in their programs and, even more so, in their practice. Contemporary experiences make clear, to those who care to notice, that such structural biases have not been resolved within the radical left.

In this light, outright dismissals of such concerns are something worse than mere tone deafness. The idea that criticism of Clinton was driven solely by her gender and not by sober rejection of the New Democratic model of technocratic, tax-code ‘nudging’ of people in ‘progressive’ directions, while locking up ‘super-predators’ and throwing people off welfare, is difficult to take seriously. But there’s also no doubt that hostility to this model of social reproduction management is exacerbated when its spokesperson is a woman. That it’s called the ‘nanny state’ is not accidental and, as the success of Roma shows, even liberals tend to like their nannies more patient, submissive, and loving.

At the same time, the perverse intersectionality of today’s Democratic electoral politics (as with the Clintons’ chameleon-like capacity to support racist policies and, simultaneously, appeal to Black voters) highlights the hopeless decision-algorithms one would be led into if considering campaigning and voting for another candidate. Who to support? Harris, the Black female prosecutor who opposed criminal justice reform and criminalized truancy? Booker, the Black male lawyer who draws large donations from finance capital and backed charter schools on a stage with Betsy DeVos? Warren, the white female academic, might be the most serious alternative (at least for white academics), but her bizarre dalliance with genetic race theory and her disavowal of socialism hardly inspire confidence. If this is the possible that the art of today’s electoral politics summons, then one really might be better off bagging the whole thing.

That Bernie does lead some socialists to think otherwise is, certainly, a function of his policies. His focus on the economic inequities linked to race, gender, and sexuality are productive and it is almost certainly the case, as several have argued, that those policies would be better than any other for (most) Blacks, latinxs, women of all races, the ‘white working class’; basically, for anyone but capital and the ‘best and brightest’. The possibility that a Sanders campaign might help draw the public lines of antagonism along these coordinates is one good reason to consider supporting him.

But there is also, it should be acknowledged, a fundamental limit to this way of figuring the issue. Sanders is correct to reject the view that ‘all that we need is people who are candidates who are black or white, who are black or Latino or woman or gay, regardless of what they stand for, that the end result is diversity’.[19] And yet, if race, gender, and sexuality are all, increasingly, modalities through which class is experienced, they are always also something more, both in the sense that, as structural forms of violence, they long ago developed a degree of historical and political autonomy from class antagonisms, and that class antagonisms themselves are often articulated through these modalities for individuals and groups (both the victims of racism and those whose common sense is structured by it) in ways that cannot directly or easily be translated into some economic united front. ‘Universal’ policies enacted in such conditions will, of a kind of necessity, reproduce inequalities along lines of race, gender, and sexuality. There is a logic to this antinomy as well that resists either choosing one side or arriving at an abstract synthesis.

At play in this irresolution is a tension that still today sets the logics of electoral politics and the building of hegemony apart. A still predominantly white electorate (and one still more or less at home with patriarchal structures, if the votes of white women are any indication) might seem to counsel an ongoing appeal to interests expressed in the universalistic voice Sanders employs, one that addresses the marginalized, but predominantly in a voice that simultaneously speaks of and to the majority. A long-term vision of constructing hegemony, on the other hand, must recognize the need to build up coherence from within particular sites of experience and resistance, from the independent organization of the oppressed. Such coherence could not be strictly ‘economic’, color-blind, or gender-neutral. The specific forms of ‘excessive violence’ involved cannot be overcome by an appeal to the neutral abstractions of class forms in Capital, nor to the postracialism or ‘lean-in’ feminism of today’s professionals.. Efforts to nullify those violences in their specificities and develop communal forms of agency can translate across different groups – this was the promise, for example, of the Chicago Panthers’ original ‘Rainbow Coalition’ – but they cannot be effectively deracinated or neutered. The effort to do so leaves electoral universalism subject to the backlash of contradictory senso commune. In the era of Trumpism, as what John Narayan calls ‘a promise to re-supply the wages of whiteness in the absence of wages’,[20] the struggle of racialized outsiders, as of women, as of queers and trans, must be central to any politics that hopes to build towards revolutionary coherence (as likewise, to any construction of a truly internationalist or anti-imperialist ‘foreign policy’).

Even at a strategic level, the hegemonic apparatuses forming around these ‘modalities’ are likely amongst the most developed and developing today. They provide more or less independent starting points for new forms of politics. And yet, in history, there has rarely been a form of transformative, mass politics that actually put such issues at its center without rendering them in an abstracted, universalistic voice. The strategic potentials and dilemmas of forming such a politics should not be postponed (again, as always) for the sake of an electoral campaign. But this is not to say that involvement in such a campaign, in particular ways, to particular degrees, cannot be part of such a politics. Again, answers to such questions do not (yet) exist.

In place, then, of mobilizing the old strategic antimonies of debates around the question of the Sanders campaign, I propose we use it as one, amongst many, occasions for asking a series of questions, posed in an active, experimental voice, attentive to determinate histories, and analytically centered on the present balance of forces, their crystallizations in specific institutions and apparatuses, and the openings yet available: What can ‘independence’ mean in the absence of defined political formation of class? What are the possibilities and dangers posed by each specific form of engagement with electoral politics? What do we lose by engaging in them and what do we lose by not engaging? What are the possible forms of political class formations today? What are the possible sites for the building of anti-capitalist hegemonic apparatuses? How can these be grounded in, rather than abstracted from, the particularities of race, gender, and sexuality and struggles against oppression? I don’t pretend that these are the only questions that should be asked, nor that these are necessarily the best formulations of them. I only want to suggest that attempts to answer such questions must be derived from more careful analytic attention to specific existing social formations and to ongoing experimental practices within them. They will, for some time at least, remain provisional.

The old strategic antinomies are, at best, coordinates within which we can begin to develop such questions. The uncertainty here is, in part, an expression of the left’s weakness today: the transformations that capital accumulation and its productive and political relations have undergone, as well as the forces that militarized surveillance states have organized, were largely successful in the disaggregation and absorption of past formations and apparatuses of resistance and hegemony. The persistence of capitalism in a more or less unchanged form since the financial crisis is a symptom of the strengths they achieved. We are not on the cusp of a revolution, in which some set of clear strategic lines might need to be imposed lest the strategic opportunity fade. But we might be on the cusp of some kind of break or breaks in common sense after which a revolution, or a class formation enabling it, might begin to be thinkable.

In such a situation, it might be strategically prudent to welcome – to be open to collaboration with – any group of people whose vision is oriented towards some such break, at least until the possibility of some hegemonic apparatus(es) (‘party’ or otherwise) that might meaningfully allow for collective decision making at broader levels arises. We might think too much of ourselves if we think that every strategic decision we, or others, make today has world-making or world-destroying potential; we might think too little of ourselves if we think the old antinomies provide a ‘holy text’ of one form or another than can orient our choices a priori. The lingering crisis and rising antagonisms offer a chance for new forms that might eclipse the limits of the old, while the experience of an impending end of the world makes active engagement with an experimental range of practices and questions all the more imperative. The Sanders campaign may yet prove one retrospective sign that new and better things were still possible.


Bhattacharya, Tithi 2017, ‘How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class’, in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, edited by Tithi Bhattacharya, London: Pluto Press.

Bray, Michael 2019, Powers of the Mind: Mental and Manual Labor in the Contemporary Political Crisis, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick 2015, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, London: Pluto Press.

Ferguson, Karen 2013, Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Fernandes, Sujatha 2010, Who Can Stop the Drums?: Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela, Durham: Duke University Press.

Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, Brian Roberts 2013 [1978], Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, 35th Anniversary Edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hellinger, Daniel 2012, ‘Venezuela: movements for rent?’, in Social Movements in Latin America: Confrontation or Co-Optation?, edited by Gary Prevost, Carlos Oliva Campos and Harry E. Vanden, London: Zed Books.

Katsarova, Rada 2015, ‘Repression and Resistance on the Terrain of Social Reproduction: Historical Trajectories, Contemporary Openings,’ Viewpoint Magazine, Issue 5, available at:


McCarthy, Michael M. 2013, ‘The Possibilities and Limits of Politicized Participation: Community Councils, Coproduction, and Poder Popular in Chávez’s Venezuela’, in New Institutions for Participatory Democracy in Latin America: Voice and Consequence, edited by Maxwell A. Cameron, Eric Hershberg, and Kenneth E. Sharpe, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Moody, Kim 2017, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Murray, Mark 2019, ‘In interview, Bernie Sanders prioritizes class over race’, NBC News, 24 January, available at: <…;

Narayan, John 2017, ‘The wages of whiteness in the absence of wages: racial capitalism, reactionary intercommunalism and the rise of Trumpism’, Third World Quarterly, 38, 11: 2482-2500.

Nimtz, August H. 2014a, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nimtz, August H. 2014b, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Poulantzas, Nicos 1978, State, Power, Socialism, London: Verso.

Thomas, Peter D. 2009, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Wilpert, Gregory 2011, ‘Venezuela’s Experiment in Participatory Democracy’, in: The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez, edited by Thomas Ponniah and Jonathan Eastwood, Cambridge, MA: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. 


[1] Poulantzas 1978, p. 256.

[2] Ibid, p. 265.

[3] Nimtz 2014a, 2014b.

[4] Nimtz 2014a, p. 12.

[5] Nimtz 2014a, p. 27.

[6] Nimtz 2014a, p. 12.

[7] Nimtz 2014b, p. 182.

[8] I do not mean at all to imply that there is not critical work being done on these questions today, but as such work itself makes clear, a definitive problem today is the transformed and transforming character of any ‘proletariat’ today. See, amongst many others, Dyer-Witheford , Moody , Bhattacharya

[9] Bhattacharya 2017, p. 89.

[10] Hall et al., Policing the Crisis, p. 349.

[11] Thomas 2009.

[12] See Bray 2019 for an extended reflection on the political and social functions of ‘mental labor’ in the twentieth century and today, as well as a critique of leftist strategies premised on the universalization of knowledge work.

[13] Thomas 2009, p. 438.

[14] Katsarova 2015, np.

[15] Bhattacharya 2017.

[16] Bhattacharya 2017.

[17] See, for examples, Fernandes 2010, Wilpert 2011, Hellinger 2012, and McCarthy 2013.

[18] Ferguson 2013, p. 9.

[19] Murray 2019.

[20] Narayan 2017.