Though it appears that Biden has pulled off a revival of centrism amid an ‘organic crisis’, his honeymoon period will be short-lived as there is a crisis of legitimacy of the ideas, institutions, and coalitions that undergird U.S. neoliberal capitalism. During moments like this, the ruling class may attempt what Gramsci called a ‘passive revolution’ – implementing symbolic or limited change from above without fundamentally transforming social relations – to restore its hegemony and stave off challenges to its position within society. Key parts of this process include the co-optation of demands from below, new political coalitions, paying lip service to the goals of leading figures of the underclasses, all while keeping the underclasses in a subordinate position. Passive revolutions have successfully been implemented many times throughout U.S. history. Learning to recognize the strategy’s features will help the left determine tactics to circumvent it and build our forces.
For some figures and groups on the political left, Biden’s victory and the Democrats’ tenuous control of both houses provide the socialist movement with unique opportunities. According to journalist Zeeshan Aleem, socialists could ride into office on the coattails of Biden and the anti-Trump mood and be positioned to enact “policies that protect the poor and communities of color.” There’s a general feeling amongst some on the left that the Biden administration has presented us with an “Overton Window” – that reforms like a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, Abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other popular progressive reforms have a chance to be wholly or partially enacted. Biden’s executive orders highlight to some that even though Biden is a moderate, he represents a step in the right (or left) direction.
Others who favor breaking from the Democratic Party believe that there is an ongoing “civil war” in the Party between its insurgent progressive wing, which may grow more profound in the coming period. Since the Democrats hold the Presidency and both Houses and have made significant gains in local legislatures, the Party will have little excuse in the eyes of their social movement allies and working-class base not to implement a progressive agenda. If/when the Biden administration fails to deliver, so the argument goes, they will face their wrath. This may set the conditions for a split within the Democratic Party.
But these optimistic scenarios are simplistic – all too similar to previous certainties about the collapse of capitalism. Within the socialist tradition, this optimism was embodied in the 1st and 2nd Internationals. Both saw socialist revolution as the inevitable consequence of capitalism’s economic structure and the unfolding of contradictions at the heart of the system. The unfolding of these contradictions would result in left political consciousness leading to socialist political power. Though decades of capitalist crisis and revival since the early 20th century have tempered these beliefs, they still exist for some on the left who fail to consider how even during periods of organic crisis, the ruling class can resist or prevent opposition.
During this current period of organic crisis, the key challenge for the Biden Administration and the ruling elite is to address parts of the crisis that constrain capital’s ability to reap profit while containing popular demands from below and counter-hegemonic movements. Whether cyclical or organic, crises have a resetting characteristic to them, often spurring innovation and reducing the tendency towards overaccumulation and leading to the development of more ‘appropriate’ ruling coalitions and forms of social control governance. Organic crises, which occur at all levels of society – economic, social, political and ideological – demand the construction of new practices, coalitions and ‘norms.’
This was the case in the crisis periods of 1929 and 1945 and in the transition from Fordism and Keynesianism to neoliberalism beginning in the late 60’s and early 1970s. The crisis of representation and morbid symptoms caused by organic crises cannot be sufficiently managed through different modes of regulation. Though the capitalist class retains its leading position in society, it does not have the underclass’s active consent, leading to a long interregnum.
Organic Intellectuals and Civil Society
In the United States today, the ruling class precisely sees Biden as the last hope for neoliberalism because of his decades loyal service to capital and because of the support he has from the leadership of labor and social movements who will attempt to negotiate bargains with the administration and capitalist class and discipline their constituencies to stay within the constraints imposed by the crisis.
But how does the ruling class legitimize Biden, a centrist, who represents a system in crisis? Gramsci argued that hegemony needs the active support of civil society actors, or what Gramsci called “organic intellectuals,” for the ruling class and their ideas to be seen as natural and for them to be diffused throughout society. Hegemony after all relies on coercion as well as consent. Though neoliberalism has lost much of its support, by bringing in elements of the new black freedom movement like the organization, #BlackLivesMatter, into its political coalition for example, as well as adjusting its political discourse, media and political figures have argue that Biden is furthering the goals of the movement. The goal of the ruling class isn’t to further the aims of the movement but to use newly deployed and arranged political forms of representation to build active consent to restore its hegemony.
Because of the trust that ordinary people have in some nominally reformist nonprofits, union leaders, and liberal politicians, civil society is an essential part of the ruling class strategy for keeping power while its hegemony is in tatters. They ‘sell’ or legitimize the passive revolution despite its inability to fundamentally alleviate the misery experienced by the dominated classes.
Gramsci used the term trasformismo—“transformism”—to describe the process where the subaltern’s (actual or potential) leadership is incorporated into the restoration process to prevent the formation of a counter-hegemonic movement. These often called “progressive that get things done” occupy a political role where they are meant to compromise with the establishment (and give it legitimacy) and also not radicalize the underclasses.
This process occurs while the movement is kept in a subordinate position and as the ruling elite attempts to forge a resolution without popular challenges from below. Therefore, a passive revolution is a restoration of class power with new forms of governance and representation done in a more or less ‘peaceful’ way. Significantly, passive revolutions recognize that the subaltern does not have the organization and leadership to resolve the crisis on the basis of a transformation of the system. It is mainly preventative in effect.
Nationalism (with a ‘woke’ redemptive script) is essential in this period because it allows the elite to identify its own interests as the interests of the whole and depoliticize questions of economic and political aims. Organic intellectuals can help popularize these narratives. The seeming ‘popular frontism’ against Trump, fascism and the far right is an example of this. The anti-fascism of Biden consists of forces nominally against Trump – from George W. Bush era establishment Republicans to social democratic politicians, tasked with ‘restoring American values.’ Most importantly, its discourse leaves untouched questions of the conditions that brought Trumpism in the first place. Or when questions do come up about those conditions, organic intellectuals argue that they are meant for a later day – after the right is defeated.
A History of Passive Revolutions in the U.S.
The ruling class has responded to various crises through passive revolutions: the Great Depression, the end of the Golden Age of Capitalism, and the 2007/8 crisis.
In response to the Great Depression, the existence of the Soviet Union, and the organizing efforts by socialist and communist activists, FDR and a section of the ruling class attempted a ‘revolution from above.’ The Democratic Party opened its ranks and built what came to be known as the “New Deal Coalition” – a coalition primarily of northern and midwestern industrial workers and their unions and white southern farmers. As the Democratic Party took up some of the demands from the left, labor dramatically increased donations to them and bolstered affinity to the Party. This ended up curtailing a serious attempt to push forward the organization of the working class by building a labor party like those that were developing in Europe. For example, FDR took up demands to regulate child labor, and grant pension benefits and legal union rights from the Socialist and Progressive Party platforms. The result were new practices in management like Fordism, welfare systems and a more regulated capitalism.
The passive revolution helped bring about the ‘Golden Era of Capitalism’ from 1945 to the early 1970s, which was challenged significantly by the Black Power movements. The Black Power movements, which linked themselves to the national liberation movements in the peripheries, helped discredit U.S. capitalism and shift the balance of forces to the left during the late 1960s and early 70s. The U.S. ruling class initiated a two-part response: COINTELPRO, the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration (the stick) and black capitalism and integralist policies to appease the aspiration of the black middle class of the movement (the carrot). The latter resulted in more “black faces in high places” and funding for nonprofits below. The liberal, middle-class elements of the movement popularized a framework for analyzing ‘progressive’ attitudes towards racial justice that linked demographic representation in media, television and politics with social justice and political parity. Systemic critiques like socialism that sought to address class, race, and gender inequality were replaced by representative politics and diversity practices.
As Mario Candeias demonstrated in “Organic Crisis and Capitalist Transformation,” the transition to neoliberalism included the integration of trade unions and their political representatives into the project while keeping the subaltern in a subordinate position: “The first transnational wave of the neoliberal transformations weakened the power of workers, trade unions, social movements and Social Democracy; the second wave integrated their representatives into a social-democratic-neoliberal power bloc…; the third wave was an authoritarian turn, both with regard to international and to internal relations. The consensus faded away, but yet there is no visible alternative.”
Stuart Hall in his brilliant article “The Great Moving Right Show” explained how the working class anger at the economic crisis of the 1970s and the failure of the ‘socialist’ Labour Party to transform the conditions and instead work within the crisis’s political and ideological boundaries provided the backlash necessary for the rise of Thatcherism and a neoliberal ‘common sense’.
The 2007/8 Crisis, the second crisis of the 21st Century, brought with it a period of polarization and radicalization through which we are still living. It also brought an end to a decades-long passive revolution that utilized politics of representation and funding for nonprofits to quell social movements. The radicalization of this crisis period was expressed in Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movement of which the latter included wings that saw the link between neoliberalism and the prison industrial complex. Some saw the need for prison abolition, which was a demand given a wider hearing during the subsequent BLM wave last summer.
As Chris Harris and William Robinson showed, a section of the black community voted for Obama to help end the economic disfranchisement and mass incarceration politics pushed during the neoliberal period. The liberal ruling class saw Obama as an opportunity to contain the popular anger at the political establishment after the economic crisis and someone who could restore faith in neoliberalism and U.S. hegemony abroad. This was important, as in Europe the anti-austerity protests were leading to splits in establishment parties and the development of new political parties like SYRIZA and Podemos. When challenges to his neoliberal politics emerged, he used the coercive state to disciple them but particularly with BLM opened the ranks of the Party to the movement as well as corporate foundation funding.
Some Thoughts on a Left Political Strategy
Gramsci’s concept of the passive revolution is important because it shows how opportune conditions for the growth of the forces of revolutionary socialism can come to pass unfulfilled or how leaders of revolutionary movements can be co-opted into the project of restoration of capitalist rule. Passive revolutions and the reforms granted in their course don’t just imply a weak ruling hegemony but also a weak subaltern movement.
This is an important starting point for understanding the challenges socialists face today as they attempt to help to rebuild mass organizations and labor unions and help to increase the militancy and combativeness of the working class in order to challenge capitalist rule. Understanding the challenges socialists face as well as the opportunities and openings is integral to developing a political program, slogans, and strategy to guide a counterhegemonic movement from its current consciousness, militancy and levels of organization to the left’s ultimate goal and historic vision. In order for counter-hegemonic movements to succeed they need organization, ideology and action.
Though the left faces favorable circumstances in terms of a crisis of legitimacy, the uptick of class struggle from 2018-19 was short-lived; though we have seen dramatic increases in the membership of independent political organizations like Democratic Socialist of America (DSA), the electoral successes of left Democrats and the rightward drift of the Republican Party has popularized lesser-evilism and the realignment strategy within the Democratic Party. This does not mean that leftists outside of DSA should orient away from the organization. DSA after all is where a lot of the debates about independent politics and socialist strategy are happening on the left. We must acknowledge that there is an ongoing process to co-opt the ‘Squad’ and make DSA a trend within the Democratic Party. The continued leadership and lack of left challenges to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer may suggest that the process is farther along.
An understanding of the ongoing Passive Revolution shows that we have to rebuild the working class’s political organization and utilize united front style politics to expose ‘organic intellectuals’. The subaltern classes’ ability to successfully challenge the capitalist hegemony depends on their ability to develop new political practices that challenge and don’t reproduce capitalist social relations. Institutions like an independent political party are crucial towards this end since they can help organize and unite the subaltern classes in common struggle.
It is crucial that socialists orient towards and join the spontaneous protests that will arise during this crisis, but our tasks within them cannot be restricted to merely attending protests and/or cheering them on. It is important that socialists help develop democratic spaces within them to allow ordinary people to determine its course and goals instead of by reformist leaders at the top. As well, socialists can find ways of adding to those debates by showing whether particular political tactics will help win the movement’s goals. This can be done by bringing to the movement lessons from historical counterhegemonic struggles and an assessment of the immediate impacts of tactics.
Challenging organic intellectuals are crucial because although the passive revolution has temporarily calmed a section of the subaltern classes, many are not won over. Organic crises necessarily involve a de-legitimacy of establishment figures and institutions (crisis of legitimacy). Though this can provide openings for the left it does allow right wing authoritarian populists like Trump to claim to speak for the interests of the “forgotten” against a “corrupt political establishment”. Socialists have to acknowledge the ongoing threat of the populist right in this period, especially since the conditions that brought Trump and his ilk into prominence still exist.
The George Floyd protests in the summer and the siege at the capital in January presents an opportunity for the left that will be crucial as we enter a period of struggle once the ‘Biden Honeymoon’ ends. The siege reminded the masses of the threat posed by the far right and that racism is still a powerful organizing principle of which the police and other elements of the coercive state have a key role in upholding.
The radical wings of the George Floyd inspired protests re-popularized powerful anti-capitalist abolitionist critiques that can help provide the basis for a new ‘common sense’ and unite subaltern classes in common struggle in the coming period. Critiques that see mass incarceration and militarization of policing in neighborhoods and at national borders as a way for the ruling class to handle the increased surplus labor, inequality and political polarization that neoliberalism have a powerful explanatory and unifying quality.
But as we have seen, capitalism has proven to be an adaptive and resilient system and we have to aware of its successes at countering our movements if we are to be successful.