5 Things the Sanders Revolution is Not
The next President of the United States will not be a self-described democratic socialist at the head of a political revolution. Bernie Sanders and his supporters will close ranks and work for a Clinton victory, at any rate, an estimated 80% of them who will follow his lead. This does not in any way reduce the significance of the Sanders vote in the 2016 Democratic primaries. It represents something close to half of the Democratic vote and something like ¾ of the Democratic voters under 30 years of age. Over a million of Sanders supporters cheered him on in rallies in nearly every state. When this is taken together with the evidence of similar expressions throughout Western Europe and other parts of the world, it becomes clear that the dialogue on the left and center left in American politics has been fundamentally changed, perhaps permanently. We now have a social democratic movement capable of quickly becoming a majority and leading a government. It will seem to be submerged for a time; it will only express itself in a small grouping of personalities in Congress; it may only cause a ripple or two in the Congressional election of 2018; it may only indirectly affect the actions of the next administration. Yet candidates will know from now on that they can appeal to a set of ideas similar to the ones that were aired in the primaries this year and that there will be a constituency ready to listen to them. The emergence of social democracy is now a fact of life.
Let’s not say that this happens all the time: that left-wing ideas pop up occasionally and are usually absorbed, according to the old saw, into the programs of the major parties. This time the whole thing will not be turned into an ephemeral campaign for free silver and cheap money. What we heard this year was not a prairie rising of smallholders, but the voice of a new stratum, the intelligentsia. I use this term not merely to describe a class of intellectuals and café types. I use instead an economic definition: a class of white collar workers and professional people, civil servants and clerical employees of various kinds, those who manage, guide, organize, sell, record, write code, plan, nurse, teach, and superintend, who provide the intellectual work which defines and shapes modern society. For the most part they do not meet a payroll; nor do they usually wear overalls and punch a time clock. In the traditional Marxist imagery of class struggle they are in the middle, between Capital and Labor. And they enjoy no real ideological legitimacy. They have no John Locke or Karl Marx to speak for them. And they are a class under fire at the present. Guy Standing likes to call them the Precariat.
They are better informed than the mass electorates of the past, especially so in the age of the internet. We have to ask what ideas and programs, what political and economic debates, what ideology expresses the historical mission of the intelligentsia. Are we talking about a return to the American populist and socialist traditions? If not, what is new and what is old in the ideas of the new movement? What should the debates and discussions in its articles and books of the future center on? It would be easy to draw up a long list, but I would like to suggest here just a few things that the social democracy of the intelligentsia is not. We could call it a little list of the 5 Nots.
It is not a repetition on American soil of the founding experience of the British Labor Party or any other Social Democratic Party of the nineteenth century. In those days the first desideratum of Friedrich Engels and the father of Russian Marxism Georgi Plekhanov was to politically segregate the working classes from their employers and to have them form on the basis of their trade unions a party of the proletariat. This happened in Britain by 1905 with the formation of the Labour Party. But today Globalism has outsourced the factory proletariat. Rust belt cities and towns are full of former factory proletarians who are no longer led by trade unions and can be induced to vote for anyone on the right or left who speaks to their economic plight or even to their resentments. Trade unions are still prominent in the public sector as defenders of the alimentary needs of all wage workers, but just as often they are called upon to defend professional standards, for example in education, or the public stake in health care, pensions, and the commons in general. The political revolution is not an attempt to segregate them politically but to join them to the population as a whole to promote the public interest.
You might even say that the attempt to segregate the working classes politically did not turn out well for the Social Democratic parties in the first half of the twentieth century. As an electoral force factory workers and their close allies did not turn out to be a majority anywhere. Marxist economics had taught them about the monopoly tendency in capital, the idea that “one capitalist kills many.” Marching to socialism, they expected to face only a dwindling number of frightened capitalists. Instead they got a dynamic fascist movement often arguing an economic case superficially like theirs and sometimes even calling itself “socialist.” Today they face right wing populism arguing the national cause in protectionist and anti-immigrant terms. Adolph Sturmthal, in The Tragedy of European Labor, argued that, when it was a question of class against class, the workers were hopelessly outgunned. He thought they needed broader alliances that transcended class and gave a lead to society in the midst of economic crisis. Sturmthal may have been wrong. Maybe nothing could have stopped fascism in the interwar period except war and nothing can stop right wing populism today. Society might be committed to go to the mat with all its old social prejudices. Elites might insist to the end on the most unreconstructed version of the most extreme ideas of the last forty years. Austerity à outrance! And the only “alternative” to the present austerity might be rightist national populism. But social democracy should offer a way out of this “choice” as Roosevelt’s liberalism offered a way between the ideological poles in the thirties. No reason to promote illusions about the record of social democracy of the era of Tony Blair. Yet the way forward might still come from this part of the political spectrum, as it has in the past.
It is not an “anti-authoritarian” revolt of youth against the state or of radicals against the mainstream. It is the mainstream offering an alternative to the radical extremism of the last several decades, the extremism that Barry Goldwater talked about when he insisted in 1964 that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Once you accept an extreme proposition like that it is only a short step to Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society.” That turned a capitalism that had been on board for the recovery of the New Deal, the great adventure of winning world war two, and reordering the world economy toward the bizarre theology of pitting the market against society and the state. The 2016 candidacy of the presumed wildman Bernie Sanders, when you look at it rationally, is only a call to restore the former progressive path under which the great victories were won.
Leaving social democracy out of Francis Fukuyama’s formulations in the 1989 tract on the “End of History” helped turn the argument in a direction that was extremist. Fukuyama observed that alternatives to liberal democracy, Fascism and Communism, had risen and fallen. All societies accepted a multi-party democracy and a market economy. He called up Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel to underpin the historical necessity of modernity. Kojève, however, also included fascism and Communism as part of that modernity. He meant every kind of urbanized society. For Fukuyama, however, history had ended more narrowly with liberal democracy. He allowed liberal to be understood as capitalist and did not stress the larger more traditional conception of democracy as an arena of class collaboration, that is, a mediation of conflicting conceptions of society. It was easy to assume that the “liberal” part of liberal democracy was the same thing as a primitive Manchester liberalism, neo-liberalism, and that there was no alternative, for example in the form of social democracy. Fukuyama has never been entirely comfortable with the neoliberal interpretation of his idea and has called for a “non-Marxist party of the left” to provide sanity to the democratic alternance. Well, it is here.
Nor is the Bernie Sanders political revolution a revival of the libertarian ideas of the sixties, especially not in the form given to them by the writings of Murray Bookchin. To be sure, everyone who reads Bookchin today will justly admire his imaginative suggestions about the environment. Bookchin’s post-scarcity anarchism, on the other hand, came up in an atmosphere of national prosperity that quickly declined with the end of the Bretton Woods system and the American departure from the gold standard. Bookchin was best known for his widely read and debated pamphlet, “Listen Marxist!” where he expressed alarm at the thought that radicals might want to make common cause with industrial workers. Instead, he thought, the class of the future was “dropout youth.” He probably did not consider that, no matter how much radical students might have wanted to stir the proletariat into rebellion against capitalism and into solidarity with a China in the throes of the cultural revolution, the most radical thing that could have resulted at the time was a social democratic tendency in what was soon to become the rust belt. Bookchin was speaking directly to the thousands of students in SDS and warning them about Marxist ideas of leading the working class, but SDS could probably never have become more than a social democratic youth movement. Bookchin promoted hostility to the state and many students felt the same way, but many also read Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition with its ideal of political activity that might be outside economic interests. For that you need the state. There is nothing odd or sinister for thinking people to think about the state, and even perhaps to think that the state must help to reshape society and that society must purify and replenish the state, not necessarily to improve their material condition but the condition of society.
It is not even a fundamental revolt against capitalism as such. Today, social democracy starts from a recognition that the reshaping of the world that took place in the last five decades, usually understood under the rubric of Globalism or Neoliberalism, is no interlude. We are not going to revoke the present global division of labor it has introduced. We are not going to bring back smokestack industry or the industrial trade unionism that came out of it. The world will continue to be organized economically around a few industrial powerhouses, countries that still make their own machine tools, Germany, India, China, Japan. Russia will continue to make for its own use and for export superb weapons of every type. The rest of the North Atlantic world will be led by mature rentier economies financialized to the hilt and committed to a massive web of world debt, inherently unstable because of the frenzied speculation that is their reason for being, and in the end dependent on Qualitative Easing to ward off, with what success we will soon see, repeated catastrophic plunges like that of 2008. Those who provide its globalist ideology are beginning to exhibit a tragic sense about the whole Globalism thing winding down or even coming to an end in an uncertain resort to Right Populism or something worse. They are even entertaining a ghoulish disillusionment with democracy as such, in fact their (and the world’s) best hope.
Social democracy is left with the historic task up cleaning up after the bacchanalia, or really, while it is still going on. It has to turn back the hysterical attacks against the public sector, attacks driven by the hope that insensate enclosure of the public sphere, wrecking public education, privatizing the parks, destroying the professions, ending the dream of a career open to the talents, that these constitute the next frontier of profit-making. A new vision of state initiative and investment in the real economy has to replace the old vision of passionate self-devouring.
What is your own view of this, intellectuals of the future? What is the best relation between society and the market? Can speculation in derivatives make a creative contribution if properly regulated? That is the idea of Barney Frank. Isn’t that too much to expect from the regulators? Would it not be better if the market were left alone to make or not to make its contribution while the state saves and develops society? Instead of depending on the continuously recapitalized biggest banks to provide loans to the real economy’s recovery, shouldn’t the state provide a platform for the real economy by its own resources, that is, by public works supported by money creation? Instead of a guaranteed income to every citizen, as is being suggested in some countries now, an infrastructure bank on the scale of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that supported the New Deal recovery and world war two, financing large and small projects of every sort and the jobs and careers that go with them. QE certainly announces to the world that this is not a crazy utopian idea. As economic historian Charles Kindleberger once remarked, “Anything that can be produced can be financed.”
We have been waiting for the market to do what the market was never meant to do, or never meant to do alone, to build the green industrial revolution that can save us from the depredations of global warming. Consider the thoughts in Marianna Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State on this theme. She shows how the state investments have been present at the creation of the digital revolution. As Adam Smith once extolled the seventeen operations required to produce a pin she gives us the twelve state projects that went into Apple’s iPhone. Mazzucato assures us that, after all, this is not socialism. All right, we can call it something else. Let us call it “banana.” But it looks like what we need.
The campaign of Bernie Sanders may have given the impression that all there is to social democracy today is the impulse for vengeful economic redistribution. It is certainly no mystery why the image of an indignant America with the pitchforks out has become so prominent. After all, the idea is built into democracy. Aristotle called democracy the rule of the poor against the rich. When the hoplites and the “fleet rabble” got the vote in fifth century Athens, all they could think about was voting in a moratorium on debts. No doubt we will see a certain spirit of Jubilee in the Atlantic democracies in the next ten years. But this alone will not regenerate them. The main point, it would seem, is drop austerity and get business going again, to revive society’s sense of direction, conscious transcendent public interest in the shaping of the most developed states.
It is not, despite the contretemps between Sanders and Clinton on the matter of consulting Henry Kissinger, an option to reject realism in foreign policy. Has social democracy ever had a theory alternate to that? In searching for ways to avoid war and seek the amity of nations it is obliged to consider all the ways and means to that end that might be considered by any other party. Its diplomacy should be at least as able as any other party’s and hopefully much better, but it would not inherit a new country, nor a new world situation.
It cannot begin with the idea that the USA is an evil empire whose defeat is always in the general interest of humanity. Some may have the impression that the international role of our country has been nothing other than that of a slaveholders’ empire and a curse on the rest of the world. This has the presumed corollary that the rest of the world of great powers has been more virtuous and has only wanted to be left alone. Not that there would be any point in denying the darker aspects of a position of overwhelming military hegemony in world politics. On the other hand, consider that the present power of the USA in the world owes to the wholesome role it played in the defeat of fascism, when the general sentiment in the other democracies was to appease and even see benefit in fascism’s assault on the Soviet Union. This great triumph was not the work of an American social democracy but of American liberalism with the New Deal and FDR’s foreign policy in the lead. For years many on the left took this fact to mean that liberalism had eclipsed and outmoded social democracy. Sociologist Daniel Bell said that we had reached the “end of ideology.” And this might certainly have been the case if all the impulses of FDR and the New Deal had continued to drive policy up to the present. It would have assumed the space on the spectrum where, in a European country, you would normally see social democracy. But in the last half century the main leadership of American liberalism has gone in the opposite direction and taken the view that the New Deal must have been some kind of excess, an embarrassment that must be lived down.
This illusion could have been maintained in the nineteen nineties with a patch of economic growth covering for the speculative mania of what Susan Strange called an international “casino economy.” The fall of the Soviet Union seemed to silence all doubters. NATO opened its doors to a host of new members and closed them to post-Soviet Russia. If this state of affairs had been permanent, anyone who found fault with the goal of rapidly transforming Russia into a federalized Muscovy and opening the Middle East to the rule of neo-liberalism would not have been taken seriously. The unique historical moment is now over. The revolutionary transformation of Russia and the Middle East now seems like a mad dream, as does an indefinite period of expanse of speculative prosperity. Instead we have austerity and political crisis in Europe, amorphous war in the Middle East, and the threat of nuclear war as we advance against Russia.
It would be outlandish to claim that a new social democratic model will fix all of this. Yet it may allow us to part with a few of the towering illusions that have bought us to this point. It was probably an illusion to think that a rentier economy could enjoy any better success at organizing the world than the British had in the nineteenth century. It is probably an illusion to think that robots can replace the intelligentsia and the wage earning classes and that the latter can be somehow dispersed. Probably also a mistake to assume that Russia only backs down, as Germany and Austria found out in 1914. A mistake, as well, to think that Nelson Rockefeller, the Solvency school and the rest of the country who suggested at the end of the Vietnam war that US foreign policy should confine itself to that which it is able to accomplish—were a bunch of sissies and appeasers. A double and triple mistake to think that only ruthlessness succeeds and that elites can rule the world by an ideology that amounts to a thaumaturgy of the will.
5) Lastly, it, that is, the social democracy that has emerged in the Bernie Sanders campaign, is not to be feared. True, Sanders has been called “dangerous.” But this makes no sense at all, no matter what perspective the accuser might have. The primary season in the Democratic party in 2016 saw an exercise in the reshaping and renewal of democracy, something we can see taking form in all the developed societies in the Atlantic world. Any presumed threat this may make against the beati possidentes of the western world is as nothing against the failure to keep democracy alive and healthy. It would be absurd for the wealthy to suppose that they have never made any money under the vigorous democracies of the past, and when one considers the New Deal, it would be especially wrong not to realize that a flourishing democracy once saved civilization from fascism and provided the foundation of the economic progress made so far. Am I preaching class collaboration? Do I not realize that no elite ever yields an inch without the bitterest and most disproportionate fight? To this I have no real answer. Machiavelli said that politics could be conducted either according to the ways of men or those of the animals. If we must proceed according to the ways of the animals, we are in for very exciting times. Before we go down that road, however, we can hope, perhaps naively, for at least an element of reason to prevail. The point is that social democracy may be the only way to save democracy. Allowing it to wither is the real danger.
The highly sophisticated theoretical critique of the excesses of neoliberalism has prepared us to confront a cartoon image of banksters and casino capitalists as a beleaguered and retreating circle of frightened men in top hats. Instead we confront the rise of Right Populism as a huge mass movement capable of winning power, and speaking much of the language of anti-neoliberalism, in a false way, of course. Right Populism is at bottom a swindle and capable of speaking any language to anyone. Not to call it fascism, but only to note that it takes up the space on the political spectrum in Europe that fascism occupied in the interwar period. Fascism was a swindle for the hapless “little men” whose votes it wanted, but also for the elites to whom it appealed in Nietzschean language. It was the white knight against social democracy, communism, Catholic trade unions, democracy, freemasons. Today it would be scourge of the terrorists, the immigrants, the globalists, as Mr. Trump has put it, “big businesses, elite media, wealthy donors.”
How confusing! As Mephistopheles says to Faust, “Where to turn for a wholesome balm?” People are looking for it all over Europe and especially in the USA. Who knows where the remedy will be found? But this year the search has begun.
Anthony D’Agostino is a professor of European History at San Francisco State. He has written five books dealing with international politics and Soviet and Russian themes. The latest is The Rise of Global Powers: International Politics in the Era of the World Wars (Cambridge U. Press, 2012).