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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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Saoirse McHugh: We need to talk about capitalism

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N HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.   

A most ludicrous situation is taking place in which we are disrupting weather systems we have relied on for centuries, poisoning drinking water, destroying habitats that provide food and fuel and pushing ourselves outside of the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed for the past few thousand years.

Despite all of this, most of our media and the great majority of our politicians refuse to talk about the reason why I believe this is happening. What is driving us to continue down such a grim and unpredictable path? The answer is capitalism.

Extracting profit from resources (often privately owned) and labour only to reinvest in further extraction has wreaked havoc on our world. The accumulation of profit as a shaping force in society leaves so much unaccounted for and undervalued.

In general, there is no cost given to implications such as resource use, pollution, and (much and all as I don’t like the term) ecosystem services such as air and water cleaning, pollination and nitrogen cycling.

When these are factored into cost it can have an alleviating impact, but of course the natural world does not trade in dollars and no amount of money can ever compensate for species extinction, coral reefs dying or the damage caused by oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The need for growth and the relentless expansion into and enclosing of new commons, such as carbon use and genetic information, means that capitalism is entirely incompatible with a finite planet and a just world.

Despite all this it is rare to hear our economic system discussed openly in Ireland outside of a few groups or lone politicians. It has developed the impression of being outside of our control, almost like some God imposed this system upon us.

When the conversation comes up politically, our elected representatives shy away from it and speak in vague terms about prosperity and growth. They do not delve into the idea that not only do we have the power to begin changing our economic system, but we have a moral and environmental imperative to do so.

‘But look at North Korea and Cuba’ 

I am not fully sure why there is such hesitancy to speak about capitalism. Is it because decades of American television have well and truly damaged the ability to talk about it without somebody bringing up the Soviet Union and communism?

I myself have had so many conversations where capitalism comes up and is met with: “But look at North Korea and Cuba, look at how many people died in Soviet Russia.” No doubt atrocities occurred in countries which were under a different economic system.

However, that argument ignores and minimises the atrocities that have been carried out in capitalist countries. The suffering and destruction capitalism has caused and is continuing to cause in the world is immeasurable.

It is a system with its origins in colonialism and to this very day there is a massive extraction of wealth from previously colonised countries. The social, physical, and economic violence used to keep these relationships in place is beyond comprehension and much of it has become accepted as normal.

It is ridiculous to talk about environmentalism without talking about capitalism, yet many people do so. Not only is it a part of our lives but it is the system within which we all operate.

It is all that most of us have ever known and for that reason people tend to avoid the conversation, perhaps for fear of looking radical or outside of the world of common sense.

The promises of green growth or sustainable capitalism are tempting, yet I fear that every year spent chasing these will-o-the-wisps is a year lost while continuing to worsen our predicament.

There will be no climate justice until we move to a different economic system. We need to halt the extraction of wealth from previously colonized countries and, more than that, repay and compensate these countries as fully as possible.

Obviously, it is not just capitalism that damages the environment. There are discussions of petroleum-based socialism and of communism focused on growth, which are extremely damaging too but we have arrived at a time where capitalism is the dominant economic model.

There is no point in skirting around the issue, we need to transform our economies and recognise that any politician who is not engaging in the conversation about our economic model and ways to change it is wasting everyone’s time. 

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Letter: Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness

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Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness. All Hanson offers is more of the same prescriptions that brought us to climate change, inequality, huge government, corporate and private debts, erosion of our infrastructure, a health care crisis, international turmoil, etc.

How about some ownership and something new? If we redefine the goal as sustainability instead of growth, universal equity in services and opportunity, building community instead of dominance, and building a world for the seventh generation in the future, then we must acknowledge that capitalism as we have known it is broken.

Rather than try to pigeonhole the opposition with a derogatory label, let’s find a way to utilize human character to fulfill the promise of a better world for all living creatures both now and in the future.

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Let’s restore our values, do away with capitalism

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One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures, the writer says.

In this past decade, we witnessed a degeneration of politics across the spectrum, with social media, notwithstanding its use, becoming the worst platform for corrosive politics.

We also witnessed moral degeneration and character assassination as influenced by capitalism.

The moral degeneration in SA is very high and that directly reflects the politics of our country.

This open letter is an invitation for us, more especially ANC and Alliance partners, to think critically about who we are as a society and perhaps champion ways in which we can restore some of the values that we have lost.

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Of all the feasts and feats of Top Billing in the past 23 years, there are perhaps not enough Gucci slides that can quite help it dodge its flip and …Opinion1 month ago

One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures. And one of our loopholes as the ANC from 1994 onwards was not to restore our values of ubuntu and revive the black family unit.

Twenty-five years into democracy, it is in our hands as ANC to dissociate ourselves with capitalism because capitalism is an evil that causes the corruption we are seeing now.

It is capitalist ideas that are behind killings of our comrades.

Capitalism is an inherently evil system that thrives on hate, jealousy and inhumanity.

Viwe Sidali, Duncan Village, East London

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