The Legitimization Machine: Elizabeth Warren
Since the crash of 2008, the neoliberal structures that have dominated our political lives and discourse for the last 40 years have been fending off a legitimization crisis. Obama spent eight years using his award-winning brand of progressive neoliberalism to hope and change it away for one portion of the populace. Then, when that left 43% of Americans unable to afford the basics and 78% living paycheck to paycheck, Trump promised to make America great again for the other half… With a nativist, racist take on the same essential neoliberal approach.
If neoliberalism has been brilliant at anything, it’s been its ability to morph, rebrand and integrate different aesthetics into the process of justifying its perpetuation. Only now, with accelerating economic precarity and UN scientists giving us 12 years to get our climate act together, neoliberal institutions are marshaling every tool at their disposal to stave off a growing, existential threat to its dominance.
And what ominous specter has DEM-leaning billionaires, corporations, media, politicians and think tanks caballing behind closed doors to beat it back? That’s right, the ghoul is a septuagenarian social democratic Senator from Vermont, running a campaign fueled by small individual donations that average a whopping $16/per, promising to fight for monstrous public goods, like universal healthcare.
But make no mistake, Bernie Sanders is a threat. And he’s a threat precisely because his movement stands in clear antagonistic opposition to the material depravity of current structures. Sanders has been making the same analysis and argument for his entire political career. He understands that the ability to challenge entrenched power arises out of class solidarity and movement muscle catalyzed by the commonality of material needs.
“It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.” — Leonard Cohen
Sanders begins with a commitment to universal policies that guarantee public goods and thus feed a movement-driven, bottom-up theory of change. Then, by putting his million-plus volunteers to work supporting union actions, he demonstrates the way he plans to run an unprecedented activist presidency. As organizer in chief, Sanders will use the bully pulpit to clarify the stakes, policy solutions and enemies, as he continues to grow and direct our movement toward the actions needed to win. He will incite protest of every recalcitrant REPUB + DEM representative at home and in DC to make them fear for their careers. Then he/we will primary all who don’t fall in line in 2022 & 2024.
“Politics is a game of fear. Those who do not have the ability to make power elites afraid do not succeed. The movements that opened up the democratic space in America — the abolitionists, suffragists, labor movement, communists, socialists, anarchists and civil rights and labor movements — developed a critical mass and militancy that forced the centers of power to respond.” — Chris Hedges
In contrast, any candidate who calls to gather stakeholders together for civil conversation is practicing deception. At a moment where our political structures routinely ignore democratic will, the stakeholders are not our friends. This is war. Sanders is the only candidate willing to arm us to fight and win that war. Nobody else comes close.
Still, while stark differences between Sanders, Biden and the rest seem obvious to most, when it comes to Elizabeth Warren, many on the alleged left have taken to collapsing distinctions. They argue that Warren’s just as, or even more progressive, equal but a woman and therefore better, not quite as good but still a fundamental shift to the left, or at the very least, a serious opponent of neoliberalism. Some have even fantasized that Sanders and Warren function as allies, despite the obvious fact that they are, you know…running against each other.
All of these claims obscure the fundamental truth that Sanders and Warren are different in kind, not degree. Warren has always been a market-first neoliberal and nothing she’s doing now suggests deviation. Despite her barrage of plans and recent adoption of left rhetorical shibboleths like “grassroots movements” and “structural change,” Warren remains a neoliberal legitimization machine. Anybody who’s serious about amending and expanding the social contract and/or preserving the habitability of the planet needs to oppose her candidacy now.
Let’s begin with the fact that Warren was a registered Republican during Reagan’s neoliberal revolution, because she “thought that those were the people who best supported markets.” She has recently counter-claimed that she was actually apolitical at the time, though her simultaneous anti-regulatory academic scholarship proves that defense dishonest. In any case, by 1996 at the age of 47, Warren finally became a registered Democrat, just in time to align with the Clinton Third Way, as it completed the neoliberal deregulation that lead to the 2008 financial crash.
Claims of Warren’s conversion into a progressive firebrand, who knows how to work the levers of power, rely on her chairmanship of The Congressional Oversight Panel on TARP and subsequent founding of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While Warren did provide symbolic bluster as chairperson, COP did nothing to alter TARP’s commitment to funneling relief money through banks or prevent 10 million people from losing their homes. Whether COP was powerless to do more or not is immaterial. What Warren and COP provided was an illusion of oversight, which legitimized TARP’s efforts to make banks whole on the backs of millions of everyday Americans.
The CFPB, on the other hand, is Warren’s “tough on banks” baby, heralded for extracting nearly “$12 billion for 29 million consumers in refunds and canceled debts.” Those numbers sound impressive, until one realizes that credit card interest rates and payments have not diminished but exploded since the CFPB’s creation in 2011. In fact, Americans paid $113 billion in credit card interest in 2018 alone, a 50% percent payment and 4% interest increase over the last five years.
Despite Warren’s claim that the CFPB was “about making markets work for people, not making markets work for a handful of companies that scrape all the value off to themselves,” the agency’s cop schtick has functioned as performative cover for escalating bank industry power, with profits of 236.7 billion in 2018, a record increase from 2017 of 44%-72.4 billion. The CFPB’s individualist “bad-actor” approach has also made it vulnerable to rollback under Trump, because it has done nothing for the majority of millions impacted by usurious but legal practices.
Both COP and CFPB are textbook examples of neoliberal legitimization. They brag about punching the big bad bully in the arm, while allowing him to smash his other elbow into our face, take our wallet, and leave us lying on the blacktop, breathing blood. Yet, Warren recently insisted:
“I took on giant banks, and I beat them. I took on Wall Street C.E.O.s, and I beat them… When we fight, we win — and I’m not afraid of a fight.” — Elizabeth Warren
This delusional disconnect from material reality boggles the damn mind.
Furthermore, Warren’s complete inconsistency on keystone structural reform like Medicare-for-All reveals the jive behind her recent zeitgeist calls for “big structural change.” While Warren has at moments voiced support for M4A, most notably during the second Democratic debate, support and a commitment to win the legislative fight of our lifetime are not nearly the same thing. Warren not only conspicuously neglects M4A in her stump speeches, she still doesn’t have a healthcare section on her website… Six months into her campaign. Read that again. Given the unprecedented scale of the opposition, Warren’s clear lack of commitment makes it certain that M4A would never happen under her presidency.
It gets worse. Warren has on many occasions deliberately undermined the healthcare discourse: “When we talk about Medicare for All, there are a lot of different pathways. What we’re all looking for is the lowest cost way to make sure that everybody gets covered.” This is a lie. M4A is existing legislation, with slightly different House and Senate versions, both of which feature specific, guaranteed paths to a single-payer, M4A system. M4A is not, as Warren claims, a “concept” that people interpret in different ways. Nor does the legislation include any of the radically insufficient options she goes on to describe. Warren’s simply making things up to mask her inevitable retreat.
She doubled down on this different-paths nonsense in the NY Times in June. Then, after she pivoted back to support during the second debate, she once again positioned M4A as a “goal” at a subsequent campaign stop… And went into full equivocation mode in an interview with David Axelrod, where she talked about negotiating “the pieces to get there” with “everyone at the table.” Remember what I said about stakeholders and civil conversations? And now, while I’ve been typing, Warren just Tweeted about expanding “access” to healthcare, which is blatant, ACA-era code for abandoning universal guarantees.
Warren is a high-powered attorney trained to be specific in her speech. We can be certain that her pivots and obfuscations aren’t rhetorical errors. She leveraged the debate stage to signal support for M4A to a mass audience and has since used less publicized occasions to signal retreat to power donors and brokers. Warren’s blatant dishonesty not only confuses many into believing incorrectly that she supports M4A, it makes more work for those of us committed to winning it. She is in no uncertain terms an enemy of the movement for Medicare-for-All.
The fundamental problem with Warren, as with all of the other DEM contenders, from Biden, to Harris, to Mayor Pete is that she begins with the neoliberal assumption that one can prioritize markets and business, while still serving the public good with the right set of incentives and regulations. As Warren puts it: “The question is whether we maintain good rules and an effective cop to enforce those rules.”
Warren’s faith in competition blinds her to the fact that averting climate catastrophe will require unprecedented international cooperation. See China and India’s massive expanding carbon footprint. Everything in Warren’s last-minute climate change plan would be rendered meaningless by her Trumpian “economic patriotism” competition with China as well as her incoherent attempt to “green” the military industrial complex.
Warren’s recent rhetorical calls toward building a “grassroots movement” reveal a similar incoherence. While Warren’s clearly attempting to counter criticisms that her policy onslaught lacks a credible theory of change, the “coalition” of White college graduates that her means-tested policies attract is neither broad nor materially motivated enough to win a national election, never mind the greater war for policy. It’s not the magic words that get it done. It’s the universalist commitments that attract the solidaristic coalitions, that turn the words into movement power, that fight and force change.
It’s no wonder that neoliberals like Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress and the Third Way have been fluffing Warren, or that Wall Street is starting to come around to her. Sure, they would have preferred a fresher face, with less baggage, who might at least deliver some working-class affect. But Harris, then Beto, then Mayor Pete all tanked out of the gate, while Biden’s mental lapses have him teetering on the edge of implosion.
So now, it’s down to Liz. Warren’s already broken her pledge, by underwriting her primary campaign with big donor money from her $10.4 million Senate slush fund. She’s made it clear that she’ll welcome dark money during the general election. She’s wooing DEM insiders. She’s meeting behind the scenes with Hillary Clinton. Warren’s the one.
It’s blue pill time, people. DEM power has made it abundantly clear that they will do anything and back anyone to defeat Sanders. We should be more certain than ever that nobody but Sanders will do.
We should demand solidarity from allegedly left politicians, organizations and publications. It’s time for AOC and the Squad, Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, Sunrise Movement, Jacobin, Current Affairs and more to endorse Sanders and divorce themselves from this Warren farce. As I told a very kind BNC candidate, who called the other day, our movement goes nowhere without a Sanders presidency. I will only support those who endorse him and us.