A New Left Future: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

“Women like me aren’t meant to run for office.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s remarkable victory in yesterday’s Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional district shocked people around the world. The sense of euphoria that followed demonstrates a strong desire for a new, ambitious form of socialist, universalist politics that has formed the foundation of countless electoral upsets around the world.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory marks another victory for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Justice Democrats - an insurgent wing of the Democrats formed out of the enthusiasm from Bernie Sanders’ run against Clinton in the presidential primaries.

If you read most mainstream American news, you’d think Ocasio-Cortez won either out of luck or purely because she was a woman of colour running against a straight white man. But that would be to completely misinterpret what drove Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. When asked in an interview with Vogue what drew her to the DSA and socialism more broadly, Ocasio-Cortez responded that:

… We need to really examine the historical inequities that have created much of the inequalities—both in terms of economics and social and racial justice—because they are intertwined. This idea of, like, race or class is a false choice. Even if you wanted to separate those two things, you can’t separate the two, they are intrinsically and inextricably tied. There is no other force [than socialism], there is no other party, there is no other real ideology out there right now that is asserting the minimum elements necessary to lead a dignified American life.

Ocasio-Cortez’s politics is, in my view, far more than a basic form of intersectionality. It understands that the primary experience of poor African-American and Latinx people is one of structural economic inequality - that the history of capitalism in America is racialized and gendered - but that this experience of a common set of material conditions unites people across racial and gendered lines.

In Asad Haider’s new book “Mistaken Identity”, he calls for a new “insurgent universality” which, as the Guardian notes, is

“created and recreated in the act of insurgency,” as people come together to combat the common enemy lurking behind their particular oppressions. Freedom for ourselves – whoever “we” are – is inseparable from freedom for everyone. If emancipation is always self-emancipation, self-emancipation is always a collective endeavour.

Similarly, in Inventing the Future,  Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue that “capitalism...is an expansionary universal that weaves itself through multiple cultural fabrics, reworking them as it goes along. Anything less than a competing universal will end up being smothered by an all-embracing series of capitalist relations.”

It’s a form of universality embraced by Ocasio-Cortez that recognises and understands racial and gendered difference as it exists in society, but identifies a set of common material interests as those which unite a disparate and complex working class. The act of creating political identity builds a powerful new class capable of confronting the enormous power of capitalism and its representatives.

It’s important to note that Ocasio-Cortez’s structural understanding of inequality allowed her to identify a common enemy: corporations and the politicians who take money from them. Constant references to ‘the wealthiest few’ and ‘big money PACs’ functioned as a shorthand for an analysis of society where a small corporate elite holds almost all the power. As noted by Íñigo Errejón, one of the co-founders of Podemos, this form of ‘us and them’ allows this form of politics to constitute a new collective identity where a young Puerto Rican women has more in common with a white American working in hospitality than she ever will with a CEO.

It was this focus on a common set of material conditions which formed the foundation of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. Much like the decision to run against the fourth most senior Democrat in the US, her platform was ambitious and transformative. Some of her major demands included housing as a human right, Medicare for all, free university education, abolish ICE, demilitarise the police and a federal job guarantee. For those in Australia, it’s interesting to note that fighting luxury real estate development formed a key plank of the campaign. In an area where rapid gentrification is putting pressure on residents as rents and house prices soar, this is hardly surprising - but a sign that capitalism creates common experiences across national borders.

This wasn’t to say she ignored the unique, racialised experience of her own upbringing, or her constituents. Indeed, over 70% of her congressional district are people of colour, and her viral campaign video foregrounds her Puerto Rican heritage. In an interview with The Nation, she argued that,

I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications, and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications. The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.

It was this focus on material ‘implications’ that gave her campaign its strength. On her website you find that the opening paragraph focuses entirely on the direct material lives of the voters she was trying to win over.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is running for Congress to create an America that works for all of us–not just the wealthiest few.

Ocasio2018 is a campaign that brings New Yorkers together to champion the needs of working families in the Bronx and Queens. Together we will create a nation of dignified healthcare, tuition-free higher education, quality employment, and justice for all - and we’re the only ones to do it without corporate money …

We’re the only campaign running the right way: no corrupt political machines, no big money PACs, and no back-door lobbyists. We put all our faith and effort into everyday people, families, and communities.

In fact, scouring her website you find this message repeated again and again. Her ‘About’ section includes an unabashed and unapologetic focus on her identity as working class:

The Bronx and Queens deserve a working class leader. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an educator, organizer, and working-class New Yorker who has championed the needs of children, families, and working New Yorkers both on the streets and with policymakers.

It’s possible to place Ocasio-Cortez within a growing lineage of insurgent socialist candidates and electoral projects, from Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of UK Labour. Indeed Ocasio-Cortez was an organiser on the Sanders campaign. What’s important about this movement, which has spread like wildfire across America, is that it is manifesting, strategically, through electoral politics.

After the enormous failure of the anti-Iraq War marches and the exhaustion of the ‘movement of the squares’ (like Occupy Wall Street), the left had reached somewhat of a strategic impasse. However, with the rise of Syrizia in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and an insurgent group of Democrats post-Sanders, it’s clear that this electoral project represents a new, popular, strategy amongst the broader left. This is not to say that insurgent left wing, electoral groups haven’t emerged before - but this time it is occuring in relatively unique political and social circumstances. For this reason this new form of radical, left electoralism has its own unique identity.

Much like the decision to run against the fourth most senior Democrat in the US, her platform was ambitious and transformative.

Unlike in the 20th century when dominant social democratic and conservative parties defined politics, this new movement has occurred in tandem with the slow, but inexorable disintegration of the existing political order. Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphries identify this phenomenon as a part of a broader political trend they call ‘anti-politics’. In more ways the one, the old major political parties are undergoing a process of hollowing out, as they lose their once very real and powerful connection to civil society. In direct terms this manifests in rapidly declining party membership, declining union membership, volatile voting patterns and a resulting political crisis as once powerful political parties prove incapable of substantially affecting society and the economy.

In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, her challenge to Joseph Crowley was the first time the senior Democrat had a faced a primary challenge in 14 years. Crowley outspent Ocasio-Cortez by 10-1 and hadn’t even bothered to live in the District, such was the establishment Democrat’s previous dominance.

This new form of left electoral strategy is ambitious and strategic, with a complex and sophisticated understanding of building and winning power - in this sense, it’s a refreshing shift for the broader left.

Like so many of these campaigns, Ocasio-Cortez’s election was built off the back of an enormous ‘field campaign’ where hundreds of volunteers hit the streets to have one-on-one conversations with voters, to find out about people’s issues and deliver a powerful message. It’s no coincidence that Ocasio-Cortez had been an organiser for Sanders. Her direct communication style - and her sophisticated understanding of the issues people in her district face - likely come from actually talking to ordinary people about politics. Indeed over 1 in 10 people in her district live below the poverty line and have no healthcare coverage, while the median wage of $53,512 is close to $10,000 below the New York statewide median wage of $62 909.  

In an interview with with MSNBC, Ocasio-Cortez subtly poured scorn on the online outrage consuming sections of the liberal left:

What is the vision that will earn the support of working-class Americans – what we need to do is lay out a plan and a vision and getting into twitter fights with the president is not where we’re going to find progress.

On broader structural level, Ocasio-Cortez’s type of politics understands that while civil society movements are at a relatively low ebb, with unions weakened and traditional protest movements largely failing to gain ground, it makes strategic sense to attack the existing system where it is weakest and most in crisis: in the political sphere. This isn’t to say that this strategy precludes organising within civil society - far from it. In her interview with Vogue, Ocasio-Cortez noted how seeing the DSA at Black Lives Matter protests helped inspire her to join. But this strategy is perhaps historically unique in that it is seeking to help resuscitate and build social movements while working to create scalable, permanent bases of power across the country via electoral politics.

When asked what her socialism meant to her, Ocasio-Cortez responded, “to me, what socialism means is to guarantee a basic level of dignity.” She went on to cite her numerous transformative demands around housing, Medicare Care for all and civil rights. Nothing more than giving people the basics they need to unlock their enormous human potential - to allow everyone to live a good life.

What’s exciting about this form of politics is its ambition combined with ruthless strategic thinking. A new movement is coming for the old order - and all they want is everything.

Max Chandler-Mather is a political organiser based in Brisbane. He's worked for trade unions and for the Greens. He is currently the Greens candidate for the Federal seat of Griffith.