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Sanders, American Socialism and the Legacy of the Occupy Movement

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Four out of 10 people who went to participate in the Iowa Democratic Caucus told pollsters at the door that they identified themselves as socialists. It was perhaps this segment that gave Bernie Sanders, running for the Democratic Party nomination for President, a boost. The final result from Iowa was virtually a tie between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who represents the more established wing of the party. Socialism is not typically associated with the United States. In fact, the U.S. is seen generally as antithetical to socialism.

None of this seems to matter to those who support Sanders. When he announced his candidacy for the presidency, few reporters came for the announcement. They expected him to be the protest candidate with little momentum beyond the fringes of the country. What happened next was not predicted. Sanders travelled around the country, filling massive halls and drawing in ecstatic audiences. He raised money outside the channels of Wall Street, largely from small donors (average contribution $27). Millions of people are enthused by Sanders, and millions of dollars came into his campaign coffers. The tag line for this passion is “Feel the Bern”, meaning experience the jouissance of the Sanders wave.

Sanders calls himself a socialist. He began his political career in the early 1960s at the University of Chicago in the Young People’s Socialist League and the Socialist Party of America. When he moved to Vermont, Sanders ran for political office in that State’s socialist front, the Liberty Union Party. His roots in the American socialist movement are clear. So is his commitment to the idea itself. Early in his career, Sanders avoided the term “socialism”.

In 1976, he told The Vermont Cynic: “I myself don’t use the word socialism because people have been brainwashed into thinking socialism automatically means slave-labour camps, dictatorship and lack of freedom of speech.” Forty years later, and with the Soviet Union gone for the past 30, Sanders is less chary. “Do they think I’m afraid of the word?” he said to The Nation magazine. “I’m not afraid of the word.”

The legacy of Occupy

Sanders’ rallies are vibrant and enthusiastic. The message of income inequality draws people who have been frustrated with the decline in basic social conditions. Wages have remained stagnant for decades; jobs have been hard to find. The rich have gone on strike, refusing to pay taxes and insisting on balanced budget amendments that drain government revenues. This has meant that social welfare programmes have deteriorated and basic infrastructure has not been maintained. Everyone sees this reality, which is rarely talked about in clear terms.

What the Democratic Party generally addresses is the surface deterioration—President Barack Obama, for example, often speaks of the decline in infrastructure and the need for more robust anti-poverty measures. But few link this to the tax strike by the rich and the growth of income inequality. Sanders borrows the vocabulary of the Occupy Movement, pointing fingers at the 1 per cent and its domination of the economy and polity through a corrupt campaign finance system and tax code.

Not all of Sanders’ politics is driven by moral outrage at inequality. There is also political intelligence at work here. A large section of the youth in the U.S. has been disenchanted with politics. Obama’s election drew in large numbers of young people who believed in his message and his persona. They wanted Obama to go to the White House and fix what they saw as a country broken by the long reign of George W. Bush and his regime. Sanders is drawing some of that energy but not in the same way. Few people at Sanders’ rallies believe that he can fix things. They feel as if they are part of a movement, drawn to Sanders for his adoption of ideas that appeal to their anxieties. Some worry that since the movement is being built within the Democratic Party, it will not have any independent character when the election campaign ends.

The main plank of Sanders’ campaign that appeals to young college students, a key constituency, is his attack on student debt (now at over $1 trillion) and his fight for free higher education. These young people like the idea that the rich should pay more tax so that they can go to school. They are not rich, so the tax will not affect them. But they are students, so they would benefit from such a campaign. It is this combination of idealism, the chance to be part of a movement for change and the hope for pragmatic improvement in their lives that brings young people, in this case, to Sanders.

One part of the American progressive movement is concerned with matters of wealth and income inequality. This is the way people talk about “class”, a word that is rarely used in American political conversations.

But the other part of the progressive movement has to do with social concerns, such as racism and misogyny. Vermont, where Sanders is the Senator, is a mostly white state. Sanders does not have sufficient exposure to the pressing social problems of this time, namely police brutality and violence against women. These have not been his arenas of interest. It is here that Hillary Clinton, being the first woman with a real chance of winning the presidency, comes in. It is not merely that she would break that glass ceiling that draws her support; it is that she is genuinely more linked to some of these fights (for instance, the defence of a woman’s right to control her reproductive health). Sanders is not opposed to any of this; it is merely that he is more at home talking about Wall Street than about “Black Lives Matter”, women’s rights or Islamophobia.

Socialist Presidents

American socialists are not new to the electoral process in the U.S. In 1895, Eugene V. Debs read The Communist Manifesto in prison, after being sentenced for his leadership of the American Railroad Union. Leaving jail, Debs gravitated to the Socialist Party, which he led as its presidential candidate five times. In 1912, Debs won a million votes, about 6 per cent of the ballot. He was in prison again when he ran for president in 1920. “There are no bars and no walls for the man who in his heart is free,” he wrote. His followers wore buttons that read, “Vote for Prisoner 9653”. He once again won almost a million votes.

The next standard bearer of American socialism was Norman Thomas, a journalist who took the Socialist Party to near a million votes in 1932. As with the Sanders’ campaign, young people dominated his rallies and took refuge in his campaign. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 hung over the country. Thomas had an antidote to the extremism of the rich. These were heady times for the Left. The American Communist Party leader William Z. Foster wrote a book in 1932 called Toward Soviet America. The Communist Party itself would grow to about a hundred thousand members in that decade.

What sidelined Thomas was the Democratic Party, whose leader Franklin D. Roosevelt seized key parts of the socialist agenda but emptied out its radical content. Harsh state repression of communists in the Cold War years frightened the tradition into submission. Socialists pinned their hopes on influencing the Democratic Party, which had absorbed much of the support of the trade union movement.

The socialist Michael Harrington, author of The Other America (1962), offered his anti-poverty assessment for the use of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. They did not see any hope in building an independent Left in the U.S. What remained of the Left had a sectarian flavour. It did not seem capable of building a mass presence. Sanders comes squarely out of Michael Harrington’s tradition, which is why he is not uncomfortable running for the presidency on the Democratic Party ticket.

Whatever the outcome of this race, Sanders has certainly brought the idea of “socialism” back on to the table in American homes. His is a Scandinavian form of socialism. In 2006, Sanders told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! about how in Scandinavia, “poverty has almost been eliminated. All people have health care as a right of citizenship. College education is available to all people, regardless of income, virtually free.” This is his vision. It is a far sight more humane than what passes for liberalism in the U.S. It is what appeals to the common sense of people who have found their own wealth disappear and their incomes deteriorate, who see children flounder with debt and their credit cards provide the means to maintain their standard of living.

The “Feel the Bern” movement speaks to those anxieties. Whether this is socialism or not is beside the point. It has rejuvenated a politics that had fallen into acute depression, one that allowed the Far Right—Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—to tear into the social fabric with hatred of minorities and women as the solution to the crisis. What Sanders has done is to speak directly about the woes of people and offer an alternative that is not hatred. In a way, that is part of the socialist inheritance.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

This article originally appeared in Frontline (India).

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Top US admiral bristles at criticism of ‘woke’ military: ‘We are not weak’

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Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, rebuffed pointed interrogations by GOP lawmakers who grilled him over his decision to recommend sailors read a book deemed by some conservatives as anti-American.

The U.S. Navy’s top admiral also defended moves to address and root out racism and extremism in the forces as well as its efforts to bolster inclusion and diversity, which have prompted criticism from some conservatives and Republican lawmakers.

“Do you personally consider advocating for the destruction of American capitalism to be extremist?” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., asked Gilday during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, referring to a passage from Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” which argues capitalism and racism are interlinked.

Banks continued to interrogate the admiral over specific quotes from Kendi’s book, which was a No. 1 New York Times best seller in 2020, and statements he had made elsewhere in the past.

Visibly distraught, Gilday fired back:

“I am not going to sit here and defend cherry-picked quotes from somebody’s book,” he said. “This is a bigger issue than Kendi’s book. What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military, and the United States Navy, as weak, as woke.”

He added that sailors had spent 341 days at sea last year with minimal port visits — the longest deployments the Navy has done, he said.

“We are not weak. We are strong,” Gilday said.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., also challenged the admiral by citing specific quotes from the book and asked him how those ideas laid out by Kendi would further advance or improve the Navy’s power.

Gilday responded by arguing the importance of transparency and open dialogue about racism.

“There is racism in the Navy just as there is racism in our country, and the way we are going to get out of it is by being honest and not to sweep it under the rug,” he expounded, adding that he does not agree with everything the author says in the book.

The key point however, he said, is for sailors “to be able to think critically.”

The exchange was the latest in vociferous complaints from some conservative leaders and lawmakers who suggest the armed forces are becoming a pawn for the country’s culture wars and “wokeness” ideology, as the military takes steps to address issues of racial inclusion, extremism, racism and white supremacy.

And only last week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accosted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about Kendi’s book, which Cotton said promoted “critical race theories” at a different Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Austin was testifying.

Days earlier, Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas — two combat veterans — launched a “whistleblowers” online platform to report examples of “woke ideology” in the military.

“Enough is enough. We won’t let our military fall to woke ideology,” Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, said in a tweet.

Also in February, Austin instructed a one-day stand-down across the Defense Department pausing regular activities to address extremism and white nationalism in the ranks — an issue Austin declared as a priority after a number of rioters at the U.S. Capitol in January were found to have military backgrounds.

The stand down completed in April was an effort to better understand the scope of the problem of extremism in the ranks, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a briefing then.

Earlier, Austin had revoked a ban on diversity training for the military.

More recently, in May, a U.S. Army animated ad focused on soldier diversity — featuring the real story of a soldier who enlisted after being raised by two mothers in California — drew criticism and political backlash from some conservative lawmakers.

“Holy crap,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a tweet. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea. . . .”

Cruz was referring to a TikTok video that compared the U.S. Army ad with a Russia campaign that showed buff soldiers doing push-ups and leaping out of airplanes, adding that the contrast made the American soldiers “into pansies.”

The confrontation Tuesday is also the latest in reproaches by Rep. Banks, who is a Naval Reserve officer, and other GOP members over Gilday’s recommendation to include Kendi’s book in the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program.

In February, Banks sent a letter to Gilday arguing that the views promoted in the book are “explicitly anti-American” and demanded Gilday explain the Navy’s decision to include it on the reading list or remove it.

Gilday responded to Banks in a letter obtained by Fox News saying that the book was included on the list because “it evokes the author’s own personal journey in understanding barriers to true inclusion, the deep nuances of racism and racial inequalities.”

Lamborn and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, D-Mo., also wrote a letter to the admiral to convey their concern about the inclusion of Kendi’s book as well as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Jason Pierceson’s “Sexual Minorities and Politics.”

The GOP lawmakers argued the books “reinforce a view that America is a confederation of identity categories of the oppressed and their oppressors rather than a common homeland of individual citizens who are united by common purposes,“ Lamborn and Hartzler wrote, according to Fox News.

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Looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021

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Our understanding of events refines with time. New developments reframe the issues, and prompt reassessment of the solutions applied, their design and outcomes. What does looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021 tell us?

For three decades, India celebrated and criticised the 1991 reforms. The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout. The reforms, they insist, were ‘home-grown’. In the years leading up to 1991, technocrats in government had been thinking and writing about how India’s economic policies had been blocking the country’s rise to potential and the structural changes needed. If the broad range of reforms—including tearing down the industrial license permit raj, an exchange rate correction, and liberalising foreign direct investment and trade policies—could be launched within a matter of days of a new government joining office, they argue, it is because the blueprints were ready, waiting for the go-ahead from the political leadership.

The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout.

At least two well-regarded technocrats that were important in the 1991 reforms disagree—publicly and in off-the-record conversations. In a media interview last month, one of them, the economic adviser in the reforms team, Dr Ashok Desai, suggested that if there were any reformers in government before the IMF “forced” India to liberalise in 1991, “they hid themselves very well”. According to him, after the BOP crisis was resolved, finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh turned “dead against reforms”.

The multiple versions of the reforms story make it difficult to separate fact from romance. It cannot be disputed, though, that the 1991 BOP crisis was a turning point for the economy. India had tided over BOP crises earlier with loans from the IMF, repaid them prematurely, and avoided going through with the bailout’s conditionalities. 1991 was singularly different because India was on the brink of default, which is likely to have forced politicians to set politics aside and listen to technocrats. Any default on external obligations would have meant hurting India’s credibility grievously and an inescapable sense of national shame. The government probably took the view that there was no choice other than to take corrective steps. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao named Dr Manmohan Singh, who had been a technocrat in government and was well regarded in global policy circles, as his finance minister. Dr Singh clearly had the Prime Minister’s, his party’s and the IMF’s trust. Records irrefutably show that the Congress party’s acceptance of the reversals in the interventionist economic policies of the first four post-Independence decades was not secured by the Prime Minister. He had delegated the task of tackling doubts and resistance within the party to his ministers, in particular, the finance minister and the commerce minister, and an aide in his office. The finance minister defended the reforms on the floor of the house in Parliament.

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Taxpayer-funded NPR mocks ‘CaPitAliSm,’ prompting calls to ‘defund’ media outlet

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National Public Radio (NPR) ignited a social media firestorm Thursday night over a tweet that appears to mock capitalism, despite taxpayer dollars accounting for much of the organization’s annual budget.

The outlet posted a story titled “And Now, Crocs With Stiletto Heels” that explores a curious new collaboration between luxury fashion brand Balenciaga and Crocs, the rubber slipper company responsible for fashion faux pas among the millions of comfort-clinging owners nationwide.

The caption accompanying the article, which was written in both uppercase and lowercase letters, appears to mock the collaboration: “CaPitAliSm bReEds InNovAtiOn,” it reads. 

The tweet’s language sparked outrage on social media, with figures like conservative Tim Young calling out the irony in NPR’s three-word post.

“You wouldn’t exist without capitalism, clown who is tweeting on behalf of NPR,” he wrote.

“Job at public news station wouldn’t exist wo capitalism,” another user echoed. “Are you guys ok?”

“Our tax money shouldn’t pay for this,” one person expressed.

“It’s still a hell of a lot better than communism at breeding innovation, even if some of the products are silly,” one woman fired back.

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