The election and inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris does not represent the defeat of the far right, as even the most mainstream Democrats must rhetorically acknowledge. The more critical question, however, is whether those same Democrats are willing to support the changes necessary to actually achieve this victory: not through the introduction of new domestic terror legislation and the expansion of the security state, but through passing laws that allow poor and working people to build power for themselves, in their own organizations and institutions, on their own terms.
The incoming administration has already signaled its sensitivity to the urgency of the moment: within hours of taking office, Biden signed a slew of executive orders on the pandemic, immigration, and the climate that began the work of undoing some of what the Trump administration was able to accomplish without congressional involvement. But many of these orders only return federal policy to the pre-Trump status quo, which was already insufficient; those that go beyond that previous status quo do so in the most minimal or superficial of ways. If the Biden administration is serious about legislating towards a more just and equitable society, it must not only pursue reforms to the way that Congress itself works – abolishing the filibuster, for example – but it must prioritize structural reforms like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would open the door to a transformation of the US labor movement.
Mostly overshadowed by the storming of the US Capitol, the second impeachment of Donald Trump, and the inauguration of Joe Biden, a slew of worker struggles in the United States are entering critical phases. On Martin Luther King Day in New York, in two very different parts of the city, the New York police department descended upon peaceful demonstrators who had taken to the streets in support of separate, but related causes: in an encore of their performance this summer, hundreds of cops beat and arrested dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters marching through downtown Manhattan, near city hall; 11 miles and an hour’s subway ride away, in the Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood, hundreds more NYPD cops swarmed a picket line of workers on strike for a $1-an-hour raise, arresting six. The co-op that runs the market has reportedly hired a private security firm to keep fruits and vegetables moving, with help from the NYPD. Six workers at the market, mostly members of the striking Teamsters Local 202, have died since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Without a robust labor movement, the sole bulwark against far-right violence will be the state
This month alone, in addition to the workers who keep New York supplied with fresh produce going on strike, white-collar workers at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, announced the formation of a union, which grew from 225 members to more than 700 within a week. Elsewhere in California, gig workers, supported by the Service Employees International Union, are suing to overturn a ballot measure stripping them of their rights as workers that platform companies like Uber and Lyft spent $200m to get passed last year. Chicago’s formidable teachers’ union is threatening to strike over school reopenings. And a union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is headed to a vote beginning next month. Nearly half a million unionized essential workers’ contracts will be up for renegotiation this year, Luis Feliz Leon reports in the New Republic, setting the stage for a potential strike wave.
Victory is not only necessary to improve the conditions of the workers engaged in these particular struggles, but because an organized working class that can fight (and win) is our only hope to defeat an increasingly militant far right. Without a robust labor movement, guided by the principles of anti-fascism and anti-racism, the sole bulwark against far-right violence will be the state – specifically, the law enforcement agencies whose repressive power has grown exponentially in the last few decades, and is inevitably turned against workers, the poor, the racialized and the left.
In the weeks and months since the election, Washington’s liberal establishment dissuaded anyone from counter-demonstrating against the fascists who repeatedly marched through the city to protest Donald Trump’s election loss. The momentum those fascists were able to build carried them up the steps of the US Capitol, leaving five dead; consequently, tens of thousands of national guards members and police were ordered into DC.
“Their America has always done this elsewhere,” the writer and army veteran Matt Gallagher told the Guardian, speaking of the young troops occupying the city. “Now it’s happening here.” Even though leftwing organizations weren’t actively targeted, leftwing organizing efforts were disrupted as a result, with mutual-aid networks disrupted by blockades and checkpoints.
The point is not to attempt to win over people who would take up arms to oppose a multiracial, socially equitable democracy; the point is to build a movement that can fight for a society where the appeal of such ideologies is obviated. The more successful any fascist or far-right populist movement is, the more working-class people will be absorbed into it, won over by its subversiveness, its superficial anti-capitalism, and its appeals to blood and soil. But at their core, these movements are not for working people and the poor; they are based in the reactionary middle classes: the heirs to suburban fortunes; the cops and prison guards and border patrol agents; the serial entrepreneurs who never have to suffer the consequences of their failures.
The struggle against fascism does not begin or end with fighting fascists in the street. In fact, the most successful antifascist mobilization is not one in which the fascists get beaten up, but one that is so well-organized, publicized, and receives such popular support that the fascists never show up at all. Admittedly, this does not make for dramatic photography or videos. It deprives journalists of the spectacle of violence, but it also keeps people safe.
Sustaining such mobilization over time will not be possible without a dynamic, vital labor movement, freed to experiment with new organizational forms that reach new layers of the American working class – a movement that can also lead the fight against climate change, police violence and mass incarceration, and against the capitalist order that, when in crisis, gives rise to fascism in the first place.
Brendan O’Connor is a freelance journalist and the author of Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right