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In the lead-up to Biden’s inauguration, Kate O’Neil asks DSA activist and author Saman Sepehri what this month’s historic events in the US mean for the American left

Saman Sepehri is an Iranian-American socialist, who has been active on the international left since the 1970s. He has written extensively on US foreign policy in the Middle East and lives in Chicago, where he helped found the Chicago Socialist Campaign Electoral Project in 2013 and is currently a member of the DSA.

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Let’s start with what’s on everyone’s mind right now: the storming of the Capitol building on January 6 by right-wing Trump supporters, hoping to disrupt Congress’s confirmation of Joe Biden as the next president. Biden, the Democrats and much of the mainstream media have labelled the event an ‘insurrection’ or a ‘coup attempt’ and its participants as ‘domestic terrorists.’ Do you agree with these characterisations?

In their own heads, those who took over the Capitol may have seen this as an insurrection or a coup. Some of them also posted that their crowd of 15,000 to 20,000 were “300,000 strong marching!” So, theirs cannot be our measuring stick.

Trump did say he wanted them to delay the election certification. But no, it was not a coup attempt. Trump was not trying to overturn the government. There was no military involvement to do so. On so many grounds, no.

What was it? It was a show of strength by a core of fascists, neo-Nazis, Boogaloo and National Alliance types who believe in creating a race war as a means to overthrow the government, replacing it with a white nationalist government. It was white supremacists like the Proud Boys and fascist types who have been sporting “Camp Auschwitz” and 6MWNE [6 Million (Jews killed in the Holocaust) Was Not Enough] T-shirts.

That core pulled in other racists and another disaffected frenzied layer who have become more and more disjointed from reality, since reality is not the best thing going today. Many of these are middle-class business owners, not poor by any means - small shop and restaurant owners, real estate agents etc, hard hit by the Cocvid-induced collapse - but also police and ex-military. This is the “human dust” which Trotsky talks about as the core base for fascism to draw from. There are also layers of the working class that can get pulled into this.

It was also an attempt by Trump - megalomaniacal tendencies and all aside - to actually activate and shore up a base and flex his muscle, in the face of not just the Democrats but the Republican Party, for his future escapades. And whether he miscalculated or not, whether he will continue this or not, the base is now there as a much more cohesive pool for fascism and others after him to draw from. And this pool will get replenished as long as the crisis of the system, the crisis of capitalism which is now manifesting itself as a crisis of neoliberalism, is not solved.

Part of the dynamics of developing fascism are: an intractable crisis; frenzied masses of the middle class being ruined and pulling other layers in; armed parts of the state providing support; the connective and supporting fascia for the “human dust”.

But for fascism to become a serious alternative it also needs backing from sections of capital, and we do not have this. There has been an argument about whether Trump is fascist, or whether we have fascism in the U.S. This completely misses the immediate task at hand.

The most important issue is that the violence of fascists does not come only after they take power. It is also before: as a means to exert their power; to terrorise immigrants, people of colour, workers; as a means to organise themselves and recruit; and to pose themselves as a pole of attraction and an alternative. This is what January 6 was.

You asked about words like “domestic terrorists.” For four decades, since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the label “terrorist” has been used by the US and other governments who have labelled Muslims, Arabs, and Iranians as such, in order to subject them to racism, travel bans, invasions, bombings, sanctions, and actually terrorising and destroying their lives. Saying fascists and white supremacists who would love to actually nuke my family in Iran, or kill me here in the U.S. are just a “domestic” version of what I am labelled as, is disturbing to say the least.

It is obtuse, and tone deaf to the experience of those in Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities. Case in point is Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, a ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. I am not sure which is more disturbing: the fact that, when the Capitol was taken over with her inside, she thought it was “the Iranians” attacking the Capitol, or the fact that she is perfectly happy giving an interview about it and repeating it. One might expect people like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who themselves have been labelled as such, to condemn such labels.

Using the label “domestic terrorist” is reinforcing the stereotypes, and upholds the rhetoric of the post-9/11 “War on Terror.” But, just as importantly, it is labelling anything outside of “official” parties and the norms of what they deem acceptable as dangerous and extreme, like the rhetoric Biden repeated over and over again during the George Floyd protests this summer, when he condemned the “extreme left” as well as the extreme right.

We should also remember that historically national liberation movements and resistance in many countries were also labelled “terrorists.” The FLN in Algeria were “terrorists”, the ANC in South Africa and Nelson Mandela were in effect “domestic terrorists”. Much of the left in Latin America, under the military rule of right-wing generals, installed or supported by the U.S. and coups, was labelled “terrorist.” This label shores up the authoritarian apparatus of the state, which ironically is where the extreme right in the U.S. has gained a footing.

The House of Representatives, led by Ilhan Omar and the Democratic Party’s left wing, has now impeached Trump for a second time. Did you think this was the right move for progressives within the party, and should the broader left be behind the push for conviction in the Senate?

I will be very glad to see Trump go, as will millions of others here, but it will not be through impeachment. His impeachment trial in the Senate will be post-facto. Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina even raised the possibility that they may sit on the articles of impeachment for a hundred days, so that it does not interfere with Biden implementing his agenda.

So where is the urgency then? The argument is that he needs to be punished and that doing nothing would only embolden him and his base. I can understand that. Not taking any action would have emboldened the extreme right and Trump. Just as if none of the neo-Nazis at the Capitol had been prosecuted, it certainly would have emboldened them. In fact, part of the narrative now in this case is over how the extreme right was treated in D.C. compared to how the anti-racist and BLM protesters were over the summer, and that is a good narrative to pursue. But that cannot be our focus and task.

Then there is also the push to see what can be done to make sure Trump will not run again. A conviction in the Senate, which is unlikely, would ensure that. And even some Republicans have their own reasons for backing that.

This brings us to what Democrats, and Ilhan Omar, AOC, Tlaib, Cori Bush etc should have done. I will not advise the Democrats on what they should do. The DSA, and to some extent AOC et al, have made it clear that they are not mere “progressives”, but socialists. After all, that was Bernie Sanders’ great contribution. He was not just a progressive Democrat, but a “democratic socialist.”

As far as whether Ilhan Omar and AOC should have been pressing for impeachment, I do not really have a problem with that. The question is: what do you do with it? What do you do in the hearings? How you use the opportunity and what questions do you raise on the floor?

Most importantly, is this the only line of attack, which then limits everything to the electoral arena, to speeches in Congress and so on? Or is this connected to actually helping build something on the ground to fight the right? Are you consolidating and organising your base, just like Trump and the extreme right did, to take the fight to where it will take place, outside of Congress?

I get emails from the Ilhan Omar, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez apparatus daily, asking to send money to help their fight against the right and Trump. One email, one call from Omar, AOC, Sanders to organise our side, in neighbourhoods, in our cities, to build networks, to try and build against the danger of the extreme right - a call for what would be effectively an anti-fascist network - could transform the terrain.

We could build in neighbourhoods, workplaces, possibly pull figures like Sarah Nelson, President of the Flight Attendants’ Union, and left-wing academics like Cornel West and Robin Kelley into this. We could raise it locally in teachers’ unions, which have been quite active, and amongst nurses who faced off against fascists attempting to re-open everything in May during Covid lockdowns. This can all be tried.

If the project is to build something on the ground, then there can be calls from the “squad”. Or if they do not want to do so directly, there can at least be a call from them saying we need to have people act and then coordinate with DSA nationally to do the groundwork of answering the call for the need to act: picking up the torch to build something.

The issue is not whether or not to back impeachment but that, unfortunately, discussions are limited at the moment to the electoral arena, the “electeds”, when the right is mobilising on the ground. We are missing a moment. The proto-fascist extreme right is a bit off-balance. They are not quite sure whether to push through or lay low a bit, since some are afraid they may get arrested after January 6. They will regain their footing and normalise. If this moment is lost and they do, this will be dangerous. 

The other big news from this month, of course, is the victory of both Democratic contenders in Georgia’s runoff Senate race, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, which gave the party control over both houses of Congress as well as the presidency. What changes can we expect the Democrats to deliver in this new context?

This is effectively two related but separate questions. Firstly, the Georgia election result and its significance and, secondly, the national significance of taking the Senate for the Democrats and what to expect.

As for Georgia, I will not go through in great detail the extremely important demographic changes which have led to this, but I will outline a few. There has been Black migration to Atlanta from other cities - other Democratic party strongholds like Chicago - which are being hollowed out under neoliberalism and migration from the west as the Atlanta metro area has become the economic hub of the South.

There have also been changes in the U.S. South as a whole through globalisation. More and more corporations have set up large manufacturing plants there. With its anti-union laws and racist legacy, it is prime ground to destroy any organising, and it is now a cheaper option than unionised Germany and Japan. For example, we see Mercedes Benz in Alabama; BMW in South Carolina; Nissan and VW in Tennessee; and Toyota in Mississippi, Kentucky, and Texas.

The victory in Georgia is significant on a number of fronts. There had been a concerted and very effective effort by the Republican Party to disenfranchise voters, especially Black voters in Georgia and Florida, very recently. Stacey Abrams, a prominent Black Democrat, lost the election for Governor of Georgia in 2018 due to a very effective voter suppression campaign by Republicans. This victory was a rebuke to that, with thousands turning out to fight for their right to vote - something that has resonance, given the history of fighting for voting rights in the South during the Civil Rights movement.

Also, the Republican Party in Georgia effectively broke under the weight of Trump and its own contradictions. The Republican Party has been the status quo. And so the status quo is broken. The victory highlights the deep demographic changes in Georgia, but also the broader economic shifts happening in the South, and their political ramifications.

As for the Democrats nationally, I am extremely happy that they did win. This ties the senate 50-50, with the Democrats controlling the Senate via the tie-breaker vote of the Vice President, Kamala Harris. This is a great outcome.

It gave a boost to so many as not just a victory against Trump. Biden was a candidate that many barely tolerated, but his victory was seen as a victory against fascism, regardless of whether or not this was actually the case. Georgia allowed the possibility of having hope and expectation for more, not just a bunker against Trump and “creeping fascism”. The Democrats now have control of the House, the Senate and the Presidency. There is no “gridlock”, with one chamber or the presidency blocking the others, and no excuses.

There is hope for change, for relief from Covid, and from the Trump administration and its rhetoric of hatred coming from the White House. But there is also a massive health and economic crisis due to Covid and its abysmal handling, even by capitalist standards, by the Trump administration. Additionally, there is also the problem of how this has hit Black and Brown people and women workers hardest.

Moreover, politically, there is a nascent proto-fascist, extreme right on the ground and also all the underlying problems which led to the explosion after the George Floyd killing. There are the problems of race, the police, ICE, and the militarised repressive authoritarian state with its capricious and unaccountable character.

So what can we expect from the Democrats? A historical look at them is an interesting starting point. The two most recent times that they controlled both the House and the Senate and the Presidency, were for two years under Clinton in 1993, and then again for two years under Obama in 2009.

Clinton’s presidency was highlighted by the full codification of neoliberal and globalisation policies in the US. The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in December 1993, and there was massive restructuring of social safety nets: “ending welfare as we know it” was a campaign cornerstone. Then came the 1994 Crime Bill, which was the way to use prison to deal with the poverty and misery the above two produced, and which Joe Biden boasted he had virtually written himself.

Obama’s presidency was tasked with dealing with the crisis of neoliberalism, which caused a near economic meltdown in 2008. His presidency was highlighted by massive emergency aid to prop up the system. Granted, much of this did go to banks, leaving those with failing mortgages mostly unaided. But it still raised hopes of a lifeline to many and buoyed his popularity, as a change from the past, the spirit of “Yes we can”. His presidency was also marked by an attempt to introduce a national health insurance scheme in the face of the crisis, although it was not a national healthcare plan. The rest has been a return to the previous status quo: continuation of deportations, drone attacks, and a return to managing capital.

If Clinton was neoliberalism unleashed, in both the Obama and Biden cases, dealing with the crisis of neoliberalism has been, and is still, the task. The Biden administration has to deal with a massive Covid crisis and its economic repercussions. He has just released his plan with massive spending to contain Covid and provide aid to small businesses, small landlords, rent aid etc.

This may have been a surprise, if one expected Biden, due to the Democrats’ past record, to have a mediocre response. We’ll see how this works its way through Congress. But it is not a surprise to see Biden respond to a crisis, just like Obama did. This can be disarming, especially as Bernie Sanders is praising his plan.

But I think the important thing to keep in mind is the other issues on the table, the underlying currents, historical context and precedent. I already mentioned all the issues still facing Biden and the Democrats, but just as important is that the reason for the crisis today, the crisis of neoliberalism, is still the issue of a falling rate of profit which neoliberalism was to solve but only mitigated and pushed down the road, and all the socio-economic and race problems which it exacerbated. And now neoliberalism itself is in crisis.

The short-term massive emergency plan by Biden may stabilise the patient. But what then? A year from now or two? And this is the best-case scenario. We are still facing all the problems unleashed by neoliberalism. And we now have the far right in the wings and a more populist and conservative Republican Party as the opposition party.

 A question has come up as to whether Biden and the Democrats will make it easier to join a trade union. It is really a question which is asking: is Biden going to be mimicking Roosevelt? This is a reference to when, in the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt loosened trade union regulations which led to a rapid growth in unions.

It is an interesting question, because that is a good measure of how far this administration will go, and it actually runs counter to dealing with the underlying crisis of the falling rate of profit. If it happens, this can have profound effects on workplace organising for anything from warehouse and logistics workers - such as at Fedex and Amazon - to fast food and service workers, to the new manufacturing plants in the South.

They have also pledged to tax corporations at a higher rate, which would be welcome, but taxing corporations is very different and safer, than unleashing the trade union movement.

In conclusion, and most importantly, I think we need to look at the victory in Georgia and the Senate on January 3, and the takeover of the Capitol on January 6 together. January 6 was a response to January 3. It also highlights where the right is organising and where the Democrats - and our side by extension, unfortunately - are organising.

The Democrats won Georgia and took control of the Senate: that was an electoral victory.

The extreme right took over the Capitol and the national political scene: that was a political victory. Despite the arrests that will come, the extreme right were attempting to consolidate their base outside of the electoral arena, and they to some extent succeeded in doing this.

The question for the left is whether all the organisation that went into fighting for voting rights - in essence a revival of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s - can be preserved in an organisational form to fight beyond the polls: on the ground against the right, against police brutality, against Ice, for housing, health etc. The Democrats will not do this. If the sentiment and actual networks are not preserved in some organisational form by DSA, BLM or other organisations, they will dissipate. The right is doing this. The question is: can the left? 

Everyone is in agreement that Trumpism will continue without Trump. Can we say the same about the organising to get the vote out in Georgia continuing after the January 3 election? That is the question and the challenge.

Read part two of the interview here

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