Don't Throw Elizabeth Warren Under the Bus

Image result for snake emoji
Proud Snake

This is not a pep rally.

On breadbook and breadtube and breadtwitter (i.e. the leftist subcultures within facebook, youtube, and twitter) these days, you'll see a lot of people complaining about Elizabeth Warren's base.  They say that her constituency tends to be, on average, better educated, that they tend to have a slightly higher income than the national median, that they are disproportionately white, English-speaking, etc., etc..  In short, her leftist critics say that Warren's constituency is the PMC: the professional-managerial class, as described by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in their famous 1977 article printed in the book Between Labor and Capital (1979), which argued that a new class had emerged neither bourgeois nor proletariat.  This has, in turn, set off a renewed debate over the Ehrenreichs' thesis, its defenders pitted against more traditional Marxists, who assert that no such third class exists, that the Ehrenreichs proceeded from an unsound theoretical basis rooted in liberal politics, that the Ehrenreichs themselves had since revisited the topic and decided that the PMC was no longer ascendant but that this class, or pseudo-class, was quickly collapsing and becoming reproletarianized (as indeed they did in "Death of a Yuppie Dream" (2013)), and that this innovative deviation from Marx's class analysis only muddles political divisions and ultimately serves the interests of capital.

All of these are important and interesting questions, worthy of further study.  For those who want to examine these issues further, I am particularly impressed with the work of the Ehrenreichs' colleague Erik Olin Wright, who also contributed an essay to Between Labor and Capital, and who has been continuing and deepening this research in the intervening decades.

But none of this says very much about Elizabeth Warren herself, as a person, or as a potential president.  After all, constituencies change; in a few months time, it may be a completely different segment of the public that supports Warren.  It may be half the country, or it may be no one at all.

As an illustration of how these kinds of fortunes can change, ironically enough, this same accusation of having a PMC constituency used to be used against Bernie Sanders himself, for instance in Murray Bookchin's 1986 essay, "The Bernie Sanders Paradox: When Socialism Grows Old," where he criticizes Bernie not for any personal foibles but for the Burlington milieu that produced him and sustained him: "The fact is that Sanders’ problems, personal as they seem, really reflect problems that exist in Burlington itself. [...] Basically middle-class in work and values, they form a pepper mix of old Vermonters and “new professionals,” a term that embraces anyone from insurance brokers, real-estate operators, and retailers to doctors, lawyers, and professors. Hippies still mingle freely with Yuppies...." yadda yadda yadda.

So when Bernie supporters talk about Warren and foam starts dripping from their canine teeth, this is only the narcissism of small difference:

So before we get too carried away with this line of thinking, let's look at Elizabeth Warren herself.

In the run-up to the Great Recession of 2007-2008, this Harvard law professor was one of very few voices warning about the dangers of bundled sub-prime mortgages and other financial debt instruments.  As early as 1989, she and her colleagues were coming out with books like "As We Forgive Our Debtors" (1989, with another edition in 1999), "The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt" (2000), as well as dryer academic papers like "Financial Characteristics of Businesses in Bankruptcy" (1999), and along the way she was becoming increasingly vocally critical of Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was, as she saw it, recklessly advocating mortgage-backed debt in a way that would maximize profit for banks, while exposing massive numbers of working families to the danger of foreclosure - and mass foreclosures, of course, could cause property values of entire neighborhoods to collapse.  Sure, after 2008, it was easy for everyone to denounce "predatory lending," but before 2007, one was hard pressed to find anyone but Warren and her colleagues calling on the government to, as she put it, "bring our debt industry back under some control.  It's been effectively deregulated now since the early 1980s.  It's never had the opportunity to make the kinds of loans and sell the kinds of loans that it's been selling for nearly 25 years, and we're starting to see the costs with an industry run wild."  Watch "Flashback: Elizabeth Warren (Basically) Predicts the Great Recession," an interview on Bill Moyers from 2004.  See also this PolitiFact page that confirms that Warren was making these warnings.  

In the 90s, Warren had been a Republican.  By the 2000s, she had moved to what many regard as the most progressive wing of the Democrats - partly because Greenspan and other Republican federal regulators refused to listen to her repeated warnings.  Some leftists see this conversion as a weakness, as though our tribe cannot trust her because she's not "one of us."  I see it in just the opposite way.  As a recent convert, Warren has more to prove.  I can understand a distrust for people who constantly switch back and forth among political parties, opportunistically going with whatever happens to be politically expedient for their careers in that particular moment, like Donald Trump, Mike Bloomberg, and Joe Lieberman.  But people who switch political parties once and for all are typically more principled than people who happen to be born into a particular political coalition, because they have made an intellectual decision, based on their own reason, evidence, beliefs, and emotions, and sometimes have to make sacrifices in terms of friendships and alliances to stay true to their personal ideals.  Like people who convert to a religion, they often have a "missionary complex," otherwise known as the "zeal of the convert," and become more extreme in the beliefs of the group they've joined than the people who have always been there.

In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, Warren went into battle-mode.  When millions went "underwater" in the parlance of the time, the banks were bailed out, and not a single employee of Goldman-Sachs or any of the other major firms were arrested or faced any major legal consequences of any kind - indeed, many absorbed the bail-out money in massive personal bonuses.  Everyone was outraged both at Wall Street's malfeasance and the federal government's prosecutorial neglect, and by 2011 we hit the streets in the famous "Occupy" protests, starting with "Occupy Wall Street".  One of very few allies the protestors had in Washington in trying to hold Wall St. execs accountable was Elizabeth Warren, who was advocating hard for the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  (This included making the case for the creation of such an organization in Michael Moore's 2009 movie, "Capitalism: a Love Story".)  When it was finally created, everyone expected Obama to name her as the director, but he passed her over, perhaps because she was calling for prosecution too aggressively.  And soon the CFPB was collapsing into compromise and complacency.

So in 2012 she ran for the Senate.  And once she was sworn in, in 2013, she made it her personal mission to take these and other regulators to task for failing to take the major Wall Street firms to trial.  (By the way, she later pushed for criminal proceedings against John Stumpf, the head of Wells Fargo.) This is Warren at her best.  You can see that Warren is most at ease when she's toughest, when she is on offense, not when she's trying to put forward a positive, unifying message.  (Let's face it, positivity never looks good.)

I'm not the only one who was impressed with her toughness.  By 2015, Bernie Sanders decided to try to convince Elizabeth Warren to run for President.  It was only after she refused that Bernie decided to run, as the media faithfully reported at the time.

It's understandable why Sanders wanted Warren to run.  Warren has a set of skills that are unmatched and unapproached by any other candidate of which I am aware (the only candidate that comes anywhere close is Andrew Yang). She understands Wall Street better than most traders.  During the debates, they should have just asked every candidate to tell the camera how a credit default swap works, or to explain the difference between IFRS and private enterprise GAAP and all the other candidates would suddenly be examining the dust on their shoes while Warren jumped up and down waving her hand and shouting "Oo! Oo! Me! Me!" 

In a society where financial structures are more fiendishly complex than they ever have been in all of human history, we need a savvy, highly knowledgeable combatant like Warren, who has been keeping up with all the innovations and schemes of financial capital and its instruments (unlike, not to put too fine a point on it, Sanders, who has been delivering exactly the same speeches since the early 70s, as if nothing had changed in the interim).  She understands macroeconomics, she understands banking and finance, she knows the law backwards, forwards, and inside out.  Her specialized knowledge on debt is particularly relevant to the issues of student loans (she introduced the Bank on Student Loans Fairness Act, about which Bernie Sanders said, "The only thing wrong with this bill is that she thought of it and I didn't") and, of course, healthcare - as she pointed out in her books in the eighties, nineties, and early zeroes, health problems and the debts they create are the number one cause of bankruptcy.  A powerful soldier like Warren is someone we want on our side.

What particularly impresses me about Warren, though, is this: not only has she proven that she is brave enough to take on Wall Street, making some very powerful enemies in the process, but more importantly she is now focused on taking on the real center of power in the 21st century, Silicon Valley.  Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, etc., are the loci of the development of artificial intelligence, which will make nuclear powers look weak to the point of insignificance by comparison.  She's planning on changing the way that monopoly is legally defined, so that we can do some trust-busting, which might be a good step in the right direction (though then again it might not).  If she becomes president, we need to hold her feet to the fire and make sure she goes hard after Amazon.

Just because I respect Warren doesn't mean I can't be critical of her, though.  I think she took a misstep when she suggested that it should be a crime to spread false information on the internet.  I'm a free speech fundamentalist, and I think that companies like facebook are more dangerous to a free society than the US government is - I'm much more concerned about corporate censorship than I am about government censorship.

Another criticism I have about Warren: she has been surrounding herself with a fairly hawkish foreign policy team, like Ilan Goldenberg from the Center for a New American Century, Richard Nephew of the Brookings Institute, or Ken Sofer of the International Rescue Committee, which is overseen by Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, among others.  To be sure, this team is much less dangerous, and much more diverse than, say, Pete Buttigieg's team.  But the foreign policy page on her website is frustratingly vague.

Some soi-disant socialists oppose Warren because she has said that she supports capitalism "in her bones".  It's true: this reflects a real difference between her and Sanders.  But this difference is a moralistic, ideological difference, not the decisive difference for a materialist analysis.  Let's be real: we cannot actually know what the deep, inner beliefs of a politician are.  Indeed, politicians themselves cannot know what their own inner beliefs are.  What does the phrase "inner beliefs" even mean?  For a materialist, they do not, in the final analysis, matter.  It doesn't matter whether Warren thinks she is supporting capitalism; what matters is whether she can actually support capitalism.  If you hate Warren because of your moral opposition to capitalism and everyone who believes in it, then I don't know what you are, but you certainly aren't a Marxist.  Marxism is not a set of moral values.  Gáspár Miklós Tamás once observed that "It is emotionally and intellectually difficult to be a Marxist since it goes against the grain of moral indignation, which is, of course, the main reason people become socialists."

Moral passion, that tell-tale symptom of liberalism, obfuscates patient political analysis in two ways: either through enthusiasm, which is easily cured, or through resentment, which settles into the marrow and metastasizes into something inoperable.  To achieve radical theory is not simply to act out, venting one's enthusiasm or resentment; on the contrary, it is to clarify economic interests.

I don't think there's much enthusiasm around Warren - that's not what we have to worry about.  But there certainly is a lot of resentment. I can't help sensing that many supposed leftists have come to resent Elizabeth Warren not in spite of her intelligence and expertise, but because of it.  It is as if they believe that mere understanding of the complex inner workings of the financial structures that dominate our society implicates one, in a kind of guilt-by-contagion.  For such moralists, it is better to be ignorant, to allow the capitalists to slip around in an invisible world unknown and unseen, for knowledge of them is forbidden knowledge.  Thus the constant attacks on Warren that she is a "technocrat".  Her education, and the fact that she would use this education to combat the powers that be, is construed as a liability or a moral failing.

From the starting point of this resentment, they twist themselves into knots.  They portray her with a "snake" emoji.  At the same time, a trending tweet - I can't find it now, but I think it was by someone called "jimmyjazz" - read, "Elizabeth Warren has all of the cringe of Hillary Clinton, with none of the ruthlessness."  Well, which is it?  Is Warren a vicious snake, or does she lack the necessary ruthlessness?  You can't have it both ways.

Anyone who thinks that Elizabeth Warren is somehow the same as Hillary Clinton has no material economic analysis of American politics and has rendered it completely obvious that they are ignorant idiots brainwashed by spectacle who do not deserve to be listened to about anything.  And by the way, the grandiose pseudo-chivalry of the New York Times's double-endorsement of Warren and Klobuchar, implying that they are the same, equally good, interchangeable, just because they both happen to be women, was deeply insulting to both of them and sexist.

Sanders isn't really a socialist, but people think he is; Warren isn't a socialist either, but everyone knows she's not. In this sense, at least, a vote for Warren is a vote for material reality.

What Sanders promises is a doomed, reactionary attempt to return to the era of Fordism, and what Warren promises is a doomed, reactionary attempt to return to the era of neoliberalism.  Both will fail.  There's no going back.  So then the question becomes: what kind of failure do we want?

I told you this wasn't a pep rally.

No matter who is in office, we are heading into utterly unknown economic territory.  No one has the economic equipment to describe this territory, let alone to "fix" it, whatever that would mean.  But Warren has proven herself highly intelligent, detail-oriented, and adaptable.  

I went door to door for Sanders in 2016.   He's my first choice again in 2020.  But let's not burn our bridges with Warren.  Ultimately, I don't care which one of them becomes president.

But here's what I do care about: what makes Sanders's campaign great is that through it, millions of American workers are becoming conscious of themselves as a movement.  What matters now is how they become conscious.  "Those who refuse to renounce the potential consciousness of our time" (as the anonymous author in Internationale Situationniste #10 put it) must work to make sure that this potential consciousness is without illusions.

So let's face some truths.

Neither Sanders nor Warren can end capitalism.

Neither Sanders nor Warren wants to end capitalism.

But capitalism will end, completely irrespective of what they want.


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