All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
– Pink Floyd
Recently on a trip to San Diego State University, a left political scientist raised with me an interesting question regarding the age demographics of Bernie Sanders’ most fervent supporters. The Sandernista enthusiasm of Bernie’s younger backers made more sense to the political scientist than did that of many of Sanders’ older fans, including a fair number of middle-aged and senior lefties. For many youthful voters, the 2016 presidential carnival is their first encounter with an election cycle including a leftish progressive Democrat campaigning (or claiming to campaign) for good social and democratic things like free college, big green jobs programs, decent wages, and progressive taxation. Those young citizens, workers, and voters have to go through the disillusionment that follows when this Democrat folds and lines up behind his party’s corporate and imperial candidate in the name of “realistic” Lesser Evilism. The electoral newcomers need to see the great progressive hope exposed as just another brick in the wall of the corporate party duopoly, his “sheepdog” role revealed: to herd reasonably alienated voters back into the corporate-managed social movement cemetery and radicalism-butchering slaughterhouse that is the Democratic Party.
Every Four Years
Older U.S. progressives have been through this quadrennial drill before. Listen, for example, to the left commentator John Stauber (63 years old) reflecting on CounterPunch last week about the beginning of Bernie Sanders’ surrender to Hillary Clinton. Stauber knows it’s an old story. “It’s the Democrat’s political equivalent of the Bill Murray movie classic Groundhog Day,” Stauber writes, “except the progressive candidate never wins the girlfriend, that is, the nomination, in the end. Instead, the Bernie Sanders, the Howard Deans, the Pat Browns, and the Jesse Jacksons, the progressive champions of their election cycle, change themselves from watchdogs and guard dogs to lap dogs, ensuring that cynical and outraged progressives follow their champion-cum-Pied Piper to become advocates for defeating the Republicans in November…The Democratic apparatchiks who run Bernie’s campaign,” Stauber adds, “are preparing their masses for the inevitable, pulling them into the ceremony that, not unlike a religious grieving event, prepares them for death and as a saintly rationalizing army of Hillary Clinton supporters (emphasis added).” Same as it ever was.
I’m sure the veteran and leading U.S. Marxist thinker Michael Yate (70 years old) isn’t surprised by Bernie’s inevitable submission to the Clinton machine and the Democratic National Committee. In his latest book The Great Inequality, Yates writes that:
“Money calls the tune in U.S. politics. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every four years by presidential candidates…Getting access to this cash necessitates a close relationship between almost all persons seeking high political office and potential wealthy donors, as well as cash-rich corporations…It is now nearly impossible to either get a man or woman dedicated to popular democracy elected or to secure passage of progressive legislation. What chance would an office-seeker dedicated to a robust expansion of social security, universally publicly-funded healthcare, better labor laws, sustainable, publicly-subsidized small-scale organic farming, and an end to fracking and other environmentally calamitous practices [i.e., Bernie Sanders] have of winning an election? Candidates are thoroughly vetted before any money is forthcoming. ‘Troublemakers’ are eliminated from the start.”
Also unsurprised by Sanders’ inevitable surrender, surely, is the veteran Left historian and activist Laurence Shoup (72 years old). Shoup wrote the following in the spring of 2008:
“Every four years many Americans put their hopes in an electoral process, hopes that a savior can be elected – someone who will make their daily lives more livable, someone who will raise wages, create well-paying jobs, enforce union rights, provide adequate health care, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and end war and militarism. In actuality, the leading ‘electable’ presidential candidates have all been well vetted by the hidden primary of the ruling class and are tied to corporate power in multiple ways. They will stay safely within the bounds set by those who rule America behind the scenes, making sure that members of the plutocracy continue to be the main beneficiaries of the system…It is clear that, at best, U.S. ‘democracy’ is a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population objects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process.”
This is the kind of the thing that veteran Leftists, Old and New, have long said, based on many years of often painful experience and observation.
“Only a Small Part of Politics”
Many of Sanders’ older fans are disappointed that Sanders will clearly end up as another episode in the bigger stories told by Stauber, Yates, Shoup and other veteran radical intellectuals (myself included). But I doubt that the nation’s leading left intellectual Noam Chomsky (87 years old) is losing much sleep about the Sanders fade. As Chomsky noted nearly 12 years ago, on the eve of the 2004 presidential election:
“Americans may be encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is a method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics…The urgency is for popular progressive groups to grow and become strong enough so that centers of power can’t ignore them. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…sensible [electoral] choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome” (emphasis added).
Chomsky’s sentiments were echoed four years later by his good friend Howard Zinn, who reflected on the “the election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left.” It was nothing new, Zinn observed:
“the election frenzy…seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls… And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. … But before and after …two minutes [in a voting booth], our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”
Chomsky has said some polite and supportive-sounding things about the Sanders campaign but always with two key qualifications: (i) Bernie had little chance of winning the Democratic Party presidential nomination because of big money’s influence and related institutional barriers in the party; (ii) progressive change isn’t achieved primarily through the nation’s mass marketed and candidate-centered once-every-4-years presidential election spectacles. Last Fall, in a teleSur English interview that Left Liberal progressive Democrats misleadingly touted as a ringing endorsement of Sanders’ campaign, Chomsky said the following:
“Take, say, the Bernie Sanders campaign, which I think is important, impressive. He’s doing good and courageous things. He’s organizing a lot of people. That campaign ought to be directed to sustaining a popular movement that will use the election as a kind of an incentive and then go on, and unfortunately it’s not. When the election’s over, the movement is going to die. And that’s a serious error. The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle.”
What explains the willingness of so many more smart, serious, and mature U.S. lefties than usual to jump on board the latest doomed progressive-Democrat electoral train this time around – and then to feel angry and disappointed by the latest progressive “could a been a contender’s” predictable and predicted downfall …this even though the Sanders adventure sucked up (as usual) vast quantities of energy and resources that would have been better invested in building capacities for Chomsky and Zinn’s “more urgent” and serious political action beneath and beyond the “personalized quadrennial extravaganzas”? My sense is that it comes down to sixteen basic considerations, sentiments, and calculations in the minds of such older lefties:
1/ A considerable (I think excessive) degree of respect for the fact that Sanders has been willing to (deceptively) describe himself as a democratic socialist – this even though Sanders is at leftmost a social-democratically inclined New Deal liberal who refuses to fundamentally criticize the capitalist profits system and its evil twin imperialism.
2/ The “realistic” conclusion that real, radical socialist revolution is simply off the historical table in the “conservative” United States and that the most one can possibly expect to achieve in the U.S. is a moderate reform. (Too bad if it’s becoming increasingly clear that a radical eco-socialist reconstruction of U.S. and global society is required if humanity is to have any shot at a decent future).
3/ A sense that the depth and degree of misery, inequality, and environmental degradation imposed by U.S. and global capitalism on the American people might combine with the terrible and transparently right-wing record and flaws of Hillary Clinton and her campaign – and with Sanders’ laser-like focus on the unifying issue of inequality – to make it more realistic than ever before to dream about a leftish liberal progressive getting the Democratic presidential nomination and winning the White House.
4/ Sheer horror at the long hideous arch-corporatist and aggressive imperialist record of Hillary and Bill Clinton and at the Clinton team’s socio-pathological capacity for fake-progressive/-liberal posing.
5/ Surprise at the degree of Sanders’ early success with voters (I have been unsurprised: Bernie has done about as well I expected given the savage inequalities that so badly disfigure New Gilded Age America and the many uninspiring and indeed disturbing, even terrifying aspects of Hillary Clinton’s horrid personality, career, and campaign).
6/ Surprise at Sanders’ remarkable success in raising large amounts of campaign money on the basis of small middle and working class contributions (that is something that I, for one, did not anticipate, and that got many Sandernistas fantasizing about Bernie doing a campaign finance end run around the “hidden primary of the ruling class”)
7/ An absence of faith in the capacity of non-affluent Americans to form the bottom-up social movements and direct action capacities Chomsky, Zinn, and others (the present writer included) have tended to privilege over electoral efforts.
8/ A belief that the Sanders’ campaign might prove to be a vehicle for such grassroots movements, capacity, and disruption.
9/ A “try anything” sense of desperation regarding the states of the nation, democracy, the world, and livable ecology – something that can predispose one to look for progressive hope in major party presidential candidate and/or a Roman Catholic Pope who seems to want to roll back the worst excesses of capitalism.
10/ A lack of faith in the relevance and power of third and fourth party challenges to the reigning plutocratic U.S. party system and the economic oligarchy it serves and protects.
11/ A belief that the Sanders campaign might contribute to the unravelling and even implosion of the Democratic Party – this despite the fact that Sanders repeatedly and from the beginning stated his deep and abiding allegiance to that deeply conservative organization (which he didn’t really “come into” for the presidential campaign since he’d been a de facto Democrat since at least the early 1990s) and to its eventual nominee (Bernie’s “good friend” Hillary).
12/ A desire to stick it to the evil Clintons and Clintonites and expose them for the deeply conservative corporatists that they are.
13/ A desire not to look like cynical and bitter old nay-saying curmudgeons in relation to the Bernie enthusiasm of many younger, and newly turned-on voters.
14/ A sense that Sanders couldn’t be any more critical of U.S. foreign policy (imperialism, that is) than he has been (which is hardly at all) given the fact that “hey, he’s running for president of the American Empire.”
15/ A belief that Sanders would stand a better chance than the highly unpopular Hillary of defeating the lunatic Republican candidate (Trump or Cruz) in November.
16/ A belief that Sanders has helped advance positive discussion of socialism in the U.S.
Kernels of Understandability
While I have been sternly critical of the Sanders from the supposedly “perfectionist,” “ultra-radical,” and “sectarian” Left from the start, I think there has been what I might call a kernel of understandability in most of these considerations or rationales for Sandernista sentiment. It is a big deal that millions of voters and especially young ones have been willing to mark ballots for a “socialist.” Even if Bernie isn’t actually a socialist, that simple fact reflects mass hunger for substantive radical-democratic politics and change. It is a good and hopeful sign in the world’s most powerful capitalist state, where anti-socialism has long been something like a national religion. (The main credit here goes to the terrible performance of U.S. and global capitalism, not of course to Bernie. The ubiquitous misery and precarity – economic, political, and especially environmental – generated by the living bourgeois dictatorship has been creating new openness to socialism on the part of younger Americans for many years now.)
Hillary and the Clinton machine are in fact hideously corporatist, evil, neoliberal, imperialist, and militaristic. They have a long and bloody track record. They should elicit horror.
Hillary is a deeply flawed and unpopular candidate with a closet full of skeletons. She’s no match for her husband or even for Barack Obama when it comes to playing that great game of major party American politics: “the manipulation of populism by elitism” (Christopher Hitchens). And Sanders has in fact been out-performing her in match-up polls with Trump and Cruz.
The inequality of wealth and income that Sanders has been talking about more directly and insistently than any major party presidential record in memory is shockingly advanced. It carries numerous terrible and interrelated consequences for the nation’s (and indeed the world’s) social, economic, political, physical, mental, and environmental health.
It has been remarkable how much money Sanders has raised outside the elite corporate and financial donor networks that tend to dominate elections for higher office in the U.S.
Sanders did become something of a potential “troublemaker” for Wall Street Democrats. He came too close for big money comfort. He was certainly “eliminated [further] from the start” than those Democrats would have preferred.
As Ralph Nader has acknowledged, Sanders could not have achieved the success he did anywhere but through the Democratic Party’s caucus and primary system. Declaring for the White House as a third party candidate would have relegated him to the margins thanks to the American System’s steep constitutional and institutional biases (including media discrimination) against third and fourth parties.
Third party campaigns and candidates do have very little to show for themselves in recent or overall U.S. history.
Labor, civil rights, environmental, and other social movements outside and beneath electoral politics do not have a lot of institutional, cultural, and political presence in American life. They cannot point to very many substantive victories for ordinary people in the U.S. right now.
It is very much to be desired than the Sanders campaign or experience provide impetus to grassroots social movement formation beneath and beyond the latest quadrennial electoral extravaganza. Sanders has said some things that seem to suggest that he understands that.
Desperation certainly is understandable, especially on ecological grounds, as the global warming jet(stream) taxis on to the takeoff run[a]way. A carbon-fueled environmental catastrophe brought to us by the extreme global capitalism of the last seven decades is already underway and that made it difficult to completely dismiss a major party presidential candidate who opposed fracking and said that climate change was the nation’s “top security threat.”
It has at times been interesting, enjoyable, and instructive to see the Sanders campaign shed light on contradictions in the Democratic Party. It’s been useful, for example, to see Paul Krugman, Paul Starr, Tom Hayden, John Lewis, Gloria Steinem, and other purported progressive heroes exposed as power-serving shills for the right-wing fanatic Hillary Clinton. It’s been educationally helpful for radicals to note elite Democrats being forced to make vicious and idiotic arguments against candidate (Sanders) who has run in accord with majority progressive policy sentiments on numerous basic policy issues.
It would, of course, be a big deal – a significant progressive victory with many-sided positive implications – to win single-payer national health insurance (Improved Medicare for All) in the U.S.
It has been nice and hopeful to hear some of leftish things that Bernie’s new friend Pope Francis says about and against capitalism, war, and climate change.
Grab Some Bench
Okay, so it all seemed to make a certain amount of progressive sense for many seasoned lefties. I get that. What now – now that Bernie is laying off staffers, saying that he’s going to the Democratic Convention to fight over the party’s irrelevant platform (NOT the party nomination), and going on CBS’s “Face the Nation” (last Sunday) to say (as promised from day one of the Sanders “insurgency”) that “of course the [unmentionably arch-capitalist and imperialist] Democratic Party needs to be unified” (under Neocon Hillary)? It’s time for seasoned Left Liberal Sandernistas to eat some humble pie. They should say “hey, we had our shot” and then step aside for more militant and radical activists who are more immune to election madness and to what I call Mad Candidate Disease come to the fore.
I’ll never forget the moment on March 12, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin, when one of that state’s “progressive” Democrat senators got up in front of at least 30,000 angry marchers and told them to take down their protest posters and pick up their (doomed) Scott Walker Recall Election clipboards. A leading Marxist activist in my vicinity could be heard saying, “he means ‘thanks a lot, you can all go home now. We’ll take it from here.’”
We all know how well that worked out for the great people’s revolution. Now it’s time progressive electoralists to sit back and let others pick up the ball. They don’t necessarily have to quit or leave the team, but it’s time – if I might use a sports analogy – for them to “grab some bench” and to reflect on how to shift their approach for the new radical times. It’s time to them to be taken off the starting team and become comfortable with a different, supportive, and second-string role: back up those who have shown their ability to resist the deadly siren song of U.S. electoral politics.
The people’s and workers’ struggle needs a more serious and radical starting lineup and game plan. The 2015-16 squad went about as far as people can go playing by the reigning major league and party system rules. It was fairly impressive. They took some good swings up at the plate. But, well, guess what? It wasn’t even in the revolutionary ballpark. The ruling class sent them back to the bench with their bat in their hands, as usual.
Enough with the bourgeois electoral-ism for now, please. “If voting made any difference,” the great American left anarchist Emma Goldman once said, “they’d make it illegal.” Elections, candidates, and parties come and go, though now the quadrennial extravaganza seems to last forever (it kind of does, actually, especially on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News). Their outcomes are largely beyond our control. What is not outside our sphere of influence is the ability to build genuinely radical and lasting through-thick-and thin peoples’ and workers’ power organizations to build a serious movement for what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced”: “the radical reconstruction of society itself.”
Beyond “Left” Astroturf
It’s long past time for Democratic Party-linked and electoral politics-addicted activists and NGOs to be discredited as social movement leaders. The People for Bernie PAC and its allies in the top-down activist community – Progressive Democrats of America, Democratic Socialists of America, 350.org, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (the Bill Moyers-heralded citizen action group that invited Bernie to come as a Democrat to the first-in-the-nation presidential Caucus when it should have been pouring all its energies into blocking a hideous eco-cidal project [the recently approved Bakken Pipeline] in their state) – want to run grassroots activism between elections. They have called for a two-day so-called People’s Summit to be held in Chicago sometime between the California primary in early June and the Democratic National Convention’s Hillary coronation in late July.
It’s not enough for the Left Liberal electoral progressives to suck up most of the progressive energy in the national room across the seemingly interminable (disclosure: I live in Iowa) primary season. No, they want to own and run “the popular movement” so as to keep it locked down for the Democrats and the permanent major party and election-obsessed mind game into the general election and beyond – before, during, and after the next debasing candidate extravaganza, and the next one and…forever and anon
This is very much to be shunned. A perceptive report by the Left journalist and commentator Arun Gupta is titled “Democracy Sleepwalking.” It tells the depressing story of how the establishment U.S. Democratic Party-affiliated progressive Liberal Left – the AFL-CIO, MoveOn, NOW, NAACP, SEIU, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Common Cause, Public Citizen, Codepink, Jobs with Justice, People for the American Way (“many of which will throw their weight behind [Hillary Clinton and rest of] the Democratic Party in this year’s election”) – recently staged a restrained series of so-called Democracy Awakening protests in Washington. The purpose of the event was to buttress Sanders’ calls for campaign finance reform, enhanced voter rights, increased voter registration, and a constitutional amendment to end the dominance of private money in public elections.
“The gathering was a throwback to soporific pre-Occupy Wall Street protests,” Gupta writes. “There was the laundry list of speakers and causes. Lefty celebrities present, the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays, and past, commentator Jim Hightower, and the house protest band, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Pete Seeger was spared no rest, namechecked by a tin-eared warbler at the closing event.” Attending the protests and interviewing (and trying to interview) participants, Gupta found:
— Modest turnout on the part of “subdued” retirees, staff, and interns who stuck to tightly scripted talking points on behalf of moderate and “pragmatic” demands centered on reforming the U.S. political process.
— A strange disconnect between the event organizers’ power-friendly “pragmatism” and their call “the impossible: that [campaign finance reform] bills be passed by a Republican majority that has tied up Washington until November’s vote determines who wins control of all three federal branches at stake.”
— Movement “field generals” and communications officers policing interviews to make sure that younger marchers stick to the official moderate-liberal talking points.
— A curious disconnect between “high-stakes rhetoric” bemoaning the death of democracy and livable ecology on one hand and consistent calls for remarkably restrained reform gained by working within the system on the other hand.
— Grandiose and historically inappropriate references to the modest gathering as being in the vein and tradition of great past Civil Rights confrontations like Selma and like the Occupy Movement of late 2011.
— A widespread misplaced faith in the progressive relevance of voting combined with standard claims of readiness to mark ballots for “whoever was the nominee in the fall, meaning Hillary Clinton.”
“It seemed churlish,” Gupta writes, “to point out that Clinton is the most consistent Republican in the race, protector of Wall Street, enthusiastic war-monger, enemy of workers, and supporter of free-trade deals, austerity, and the war on terror.”
This is the same kind of dismal fake-progressivism and Democratic Party-captive Astroturfery we can expect at “the People’s Summit” next June. As currently planned, the gathering will be an exercise in upper-middle class- and NGO-coordinated Astroturf: fake-grassroots movement-building captive to the partisan and electoral agenda of the Democratic Party, which means subordinated to the arch-neoliberal and militaristic Clinton machine and the corporatist, populism-manipulating DNC. It will be absurdly over-focused on the irrelevant Democratic Party platform, not actual rank-and-file movement-building.
For a Radical Education Project
My favorite part of Gupta’s must-read essay comes near its end, where he reflects on his interaction with some young and radical and direct-actionist class-struggle activists who attended the Democracy Awakening events:
“Some of the most perceptive protesters at the Democracy Awakening were three teenagers decked out with a red-and-black flag, Wobbly t-shirts, and anarchist class-war politics. But they were not there to rain on the parade. Rob said, ‘I love to see people out here and standing up for democracy, but I wish there were more.’ Richie said, ‘We have to treat the root cause,’ adding that the liberal groups involved were ‘fighting the symptoms.’ For Stefan, who supported the effort as it was ‘pushing politics to the left,’ the missing ingredient was “worker power.”
“They don’t have the answers, but they understand how power works better than the paid strategists, communications specialists, social media experts, lawyers, and organizers behind Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening. If liberals wanted to build a movement, one that could create the type of social disruption and defiance that would lead to significant political reforms, they would fund radical, visionary organizers and give them free reign to experiment. But that movement would quickly spiral out of the control of liberal groups and unions that have been deeply invested in and reliant upon existing political and economic structures.” (emphasis added)
Indeed. We need more radical Robs, Richies, and Stefans (and Rhondas, Julie, and Susans) and fewer establishment left pragmatic electoralists like Jim Hightower, Rev, Barber, Katrina Vanden-Heuvel, John Nichols, and Bernie Sanders in the vanguard of popular struggle in the U.S. As Yates recently argued in Truthout: titled “Let’s Get Serious About Inequality and Socialism”:
“If we are serious about socialism, we must say, as often as possible, what it is. We must initiate and engage in a radical education project, in our organizations, in our conversations and in writing. And we must take steps now to begin to move toward socialism, divorcing ourselves from the tyranny of the marketplace. Commit ourselves to radical communal self-help measures, in the spirit of Freedom Summer during the civil rights movement; the community social service programs of the Black Panther Party; the housing projects of some labor unions; the collective cleaning, food provisioning and educating of Occupy Wall Street; the community gardens being constructed in Detroit; urban farming in Cuba and thousands of other contemporary and historical examples. Work to reduce our own unnecessary consumption. Offer solidarity to all oppressed people. Refuse to join the military. Demand control of our unions and all levels of government. And of great importance, begin to build independent and unabashedly radical political organizations, including a working-class political party.”
Beyond Nationalist War Socialism
It isn’t only that radical anti-capitalists (of all ages) are more likely to actually win things for working class people (the U.S. majority) and to carry struggles down to the “root cause” (capitalist class rule). It’s also that real, non-Astroturf radicals (young and old) understand the need to forthrightly oppose U.S. capitalism’s evil twin, U.S. imperialism. Anti-imperialism (shockingly absent from the Sanders’ “insurgency”) is imperative for any meaningful Left revival in the U.S. for reasons moral and practical. The moral imperative is obvious: the U.S. Pentagon and its vast “empire of bases” (Chalmers Johnson) is the world’s biggest murdering and maiming machine (it is also the world’s leading carbon-emitter, by the way) and it remains switched on Kill. It is spiritually indefensible for the United States to spend many hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars each year on Washington’s giant planetary network of slaughter, occupation, regime-change, and mayhem. The U.S. “defense” (empire) budget accounts for half the world’s military spending. It is disgraceful for the U.S. to spend public money on war and war preparations when nearly half the world’s population, 2.8 billion people, try to survive on less than $2 a day; when 16 million U.S. children – 22% of all U.S. children (including 38% of Black U.S. children) – live in families with income below the federal government’s notoriously Dickensian poverty level.
The practical imperative for any social-democratic progressive worth his or her salt to oppose their nation’s giant military-industrial complex and global Empire arises from some very basic facts. The progressive domestic programs that candidate Sanders claimed to passionately want are fiscally pre-empted by the giant Pentagon budget, which eats up 54% of federal discretionary spending. The Pentagon System is a vast, wealth-concentrating state-capitalist racket for high-tech “defense” firms (Lockheed Martin and Raytheon et al.). It provides the protection, chaos, and punishment muscle behind the U.S.-run neoliberal global-capitalist order – the world profits system that is destroying lives, communities, and livable ecology at home and abroad. It’s a global system, something that makes the “narrow nationalism” (Yates) of Sanders’ campaign ill-suited to serious socialist struggle.
The least understandable and defensible aspect of older “Berniebros’” Sanders enthusiasm has been their depressing unwillingness to challenge their candidate’s chilling embrace of the criminal American Empire Project. Surely the spiritual and budgetary bankruptcy of “war socialism” is one of the key lessons of the New Left experience during the 1960s, when the “war on poverty” was strangled in its cradle by the costs of Washington’s “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Chomsky’s term at the time) and when a cadre of U.S. “democratic socialists” (including Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, and the truly despicable Max Shachtman) achieved well-deserved radical disgrace by failing to forthrightly oppose the mass-murderous U.S. War on Indochina and failing to make a call for the reduction of “defense” spending part of their “peoples’ agenda” to “end poverty in America.” Their reiteration of this past war-socialist (“social chauvinist” in Lenin’s terminology) error (crime, really) is one of the three top reasons I have to say, paraphrasing Pink Floyd, “Hey, Berniebro, leave them kids alone.”
Beyond Letter Grades
The second reason is their dismal, dogged, and dangerous, de-radicalizing dilution of the meaning of the terms “socialism” and “democratic socialism.” As Yates reminds us:
“How does Sanders define socialism? Rather peculiarly. Eugene Debs, one of Sanders’ heroes, understood socialism to mean social ownership of society’s productive wealth and democratic planning of economic activity. It meant the abolition – through class struggle – of the wage system and a radical divorce from the entire complex web of markets that are capitalism’s face and façade, beneath which lie brutally exploitative relations of production and the debasement of the natural world. Debs’ socialism intended an end to the debilitating division of labor that guarantees most workers a lifetime of alienation and stultifying work. It demanded production for use and not for profit. It supposed, in other words, the abolition of capitalism…. Sanders, to the contrary, sees socialism as social democracy, with capitalism intact, although with a stronger, more aggressive and progressive role for the government.”
“Socialism” with “capitalism intact” – with capitalist wealth still in power – is a deadly Orwellian absurdity.
The third reason is older Sandernistas’ belief that a real socialist revolution – one that would NOT leave “capitalism intact” – is off the historical table. That is a conclusion we simply cannot afford. Capitalism properly understood – as the private, for-profit, and accumulation- and growth-addicted ownership and control of productive wealth and the political economy – is pushing humanity over the edge of an environmental catastrophe from which it will be unable to recover. The profits system is by all indications hard-wired to destroy decent life on Earth in the not so distant future. Can an urgently required transition to a sustainable civilization occur and the climate and related environmental crisis be solved and a livable Earth saved under the competitive, chaotic, hierarchical, regressive, imperial, authoritarian, and growth-and accumulation-addicted capitalist system? Not a chance. Pink populist and social-democratish tides won’t save us. Only great red-green revolutionary waves of radical reconstruction can do the job. Capital is driving humanity and other living things off the cliff.
We are far beyond the incremental letter grades of social democrats and Left Liberals. We are at an existential chasm: we either take the revolutionary leap or its game over. The need for an eco-socialist revolution is humanity’s pass-fail moment. (This isn’t about hysterical and neurotic “catastrophism.” It’s the realistic diagnosis and treatment plan for a gravely endangered species.)
Bernie is Not Our Convener
In a recent interview with Chris Hedges (an early and consistent Left critic of Sanders), Seattle’s Socialist Alternative city council member Kshama Sawant “call[s] on Bernie to convene a conference of activists, organizers, his campaign supporters, to discuss building a new left party for the 99 percent, free of corporate money and independent of the Democrats and the Republicans. We may have to do this. We cannot fold up and go home if Bernie does not do it.”
Would it really be suitable for the Left Liberal and narrow nationalist Empire Man, capitalist, and longstanding de facto Democrat Bernie Sanders to summon such a gathering? Ms. Sawant surely knows that Sanders will convene no such summit – that there’s really no “if he does it” about it. Her call is likely a tactical move meant to move young Sanders supporters over to a third party as Bernie fulfills his promise to back Hillary this late spring and summer. I get that and why it’s a clever move. But why the over-strong emphasis on a “new party,” as if electoral politics and voting are the main things American leftists need to be focused on right now? Does Sawant wish to call for a new Constitutional Convention to alter the nation’s party and elections system so that third and fourth parties might actually have a fighting chance and U.S. electoral politics might actually become worthy of passionate citizen-worker engagement? (It’s interesting to me how rarely U.S. left intellectuals and activists look seriously at the arch-authoritarian obsolescence of the U.S. Constitution. Under the rules of the U.S. political game, constitutional and otherwise, electoralism is a dead end for serious leftists when it comes to higher officers. It isn’t just or only about campaign finance.)
In the meantime, whatever positive contribution Sanders has made to the radical education project is coming to a close in accord with his original sheepdog promise. Let’s thank him and ask him now to go home. He played his role and it was interesting to see that the dosage necessary to sustain U.S. progressive’s dysfunctional addiction to the major party quadrennial extravaganza (“that’s politics”) his primary season had to be increased like no time in historical memory: a candidate who let himself be called a democratic socialist! There’s radical meaning and potential contained in and advanced by that stimulating development. Now let us get actually serious about capitalism, imperialism, inequality, eco-cide, and socialism and begin before it’s too late to act on the urgent, posthumously published wisdom of the martyred Dr. King’s admonition on “the real issue to be faced.” Surely the debasing spectacle of the 2016 presidential selection – shaping up as “a contest between the two most hated people in America – should be an apt teachable moment for serious radicals who advocate a revolutionary politics more concerned with who’s sitting in the streets than who’s sitting in the White House.