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Terra Infirma:
Berning Questions

The sheer tonnage of talk about the Sanders campaign qua extra-terrestrial phenomenon is so tsunami-like I wonder if there’s anything left to say. Not that all the questions raised by that literary inundation have been settled—far from it. Socialist or New Deal Democrat; Race and the erasure of race; electoral campaign or movement; Stay with the Donkey, Re-saddle the Donkey, or Get off the Donkey; inequality as a single issue; imperialism. All of these are matters of great strategic significance. They puzzle me as they must everybody who takes heart from the Sanders upsurge and wants it to continue somehow, in some hard-to-define form, no matter what the outcome of the electoral process. 

Gage Skidmore, Bernie Sanders ( used under (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Instead of adding my less than two cents’ worth to these debates, I want to speak about some less-visited aspects of what’s been happening that do bear on these issues, if not always directly.

Where did the miracle come from? Some might see that as more or less self-evident: not a miracle at all: the Crash happened and Occupy followed and was in turn followed by low-wage-work uprisings, coast-to-coast minimum/living wage campaigns, immigrant mobilizations, elections of progressive mayors, and finally Black Lives Matter. Then came Bernie. Clear enough and right enough—as far as it goes.

But for someone who recently published a book called The Age of Acquiescence,1 which ended by pointing to some faint signs that the times might be changing (including some of those just noted), but was otherwise considered a grim read by many, I must confess I’ve been stunned, still am. I think it fair to say that even as recently as six or nine months ago the probability that an avowed socialist could seriously contend for the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency, would have seemed to most of us to range between slim and none. A half century and more of Cold-War New Deal liberalism and then neo-liberalism had buried that toxic notion deeper than nuclear waste.

 True, history can turn on a dime, relatively speaking. I often point out that if one took a snapshot of the country in 1932, at the depths of the Great Depression, it would have resembled a social mortuary, a place of deep demoralization, fatalistic and cynical, an end times minus the hallelujahs. Taken two years later that picture would be unrecognizable, as the country was alive with mass strikes, sit-down strikes, general strikes, farm rebellions, unemployed leagues, labor and farmer-labor parties, tenant group repossessions, popular seizures of closed coal mines and public utilities, and so on. Nonetheless, all of that might be considered the culmination of what I think of as a “long 19th century” of resistance, of mass mobilizations and organization of diverse parts of the population—industrial workers, farmers facing dispossession, small business people going under, middle-class intellectuals, writers, and artists, clerics and their congregants among both Protestants and Catholics, appalled by the barbarism of laissez-faire capitalism. That resistance was not shy about interrogating capitalism itself, explicitly, by name, indicting it not merely as an economy but as a way of life. However, that culture of anti-capitalist resistance then went to ground for two generations, for reasons I explore in my book but won’t here. 

Is it back? I think it is one reason it has now become possible again to use the word “socialist” in polite conversation (even the liberal media has, at least for the moment, caught on and has developed a locution that suits the moment: Bernie Sanders is, they say, a “socialist;” this is followed by an “ahem” and then modified to “a democratic socialist”—the always belated adjective functioning as a self-administered form of political Dramamine to quiet the instinctive nausea). Anti-capitalism is back, brought to you by the crisis of neo-liberal, flexible, and now disaster-prone capitalism. For me, this is first of all what is striking and inspirational about the Sanders phenomenon: the return of the repressed.

 Is Sanders really a hyped-up New Dealer, not a socialist? Programmatically that seems accurate. But is that the main point? I don’t think so, not now anyway. Politics is always about something more than program. It is a deeply emotional arena, full of fears, prohibitions, stigmata, dreams, exaltations, utopias, and dystopias, about empathy and solidarity, domination, and acquiescence (along with the meat and potatoes). The Sanders campaign, together with its helpmates outside the electoral world, has made it possible again to say the unsayable, to break taboos, to reverse generations of linguistic cleansing and impoverishment of the imagination, to call the system by its right name. That is its liberation, its opening to a future.

Even as it was enunciated, “Yes, we can” revealed, precisely by virtue of its studied banality, that in translation it meant, “No, we can’t.” After all, some of the same anti-capitalist sentiments were already abroad in the land as the system imploded. But it was perhaps naïve to assume anything more than vaporous invocation from an elite politician with deep ties to the prevailing order. Those sentiments have now found a voice, but also something more important than that, namely a language or at least the beginning of one that can carry us beyond the horizon of neo-liberal capitalism.

Does this mean program should recede into insignificance? Certainly all of us could think and have thought more adventurously than Sanders, even if remaining within the boundaries of a revivified New-Deal liberalism: nationalizing the banks or a guaranteed income for all or a shorter work day or a national development bank to redirect capital investment or a dismantling of the national security state, both domestically and abroad, or democratic forms of economic planning or rescuing the environment through national and local mechanisms of alternative energy investment, or the recapture of public services from their private sector predators, or a root and branch tear-down of the carceral state and de-racialization of the criminal justice system. More could be offered up to undermine the hegemony of the free market, to trespass on private property, to level the hierarchies of race and class and gender. However, what feels even more liberating and exciting and worth assiduously cultivating now is the anti-capitalist sentiments let loose by Sanders and others.

Others? Who might they be? Well, there are the usual suspects. We know them, we are them, they are working for or voting for Sanders already. But some are not so obvious. Arguably, should Sanders actually face off against Trump they would be competing for the votes of white, working-class men. Although I think Sanders would win in any event (and the election won’t pivot around that cohort) this is a pregnant emerging fact of political life. It is enormously encouraging to me that at least so far Sanders attracts blue-collars to his camp in considerable numbers—and against someone who felt sure she had them in her corner of the Democratic Party.

I mention this because I believe that a kind of anti-capitalism has been brewing in those precincts for some time, alongside noxious racial, homophobic, and revanchist emotions. I think it’s why during the 2012 primary campaign, it made sense for his Republican rivals to condemn Mitt Romney as a “vulture capitalist.” It helps explain why the Tea Party surfaced in public life by denouncing the “bail-out” of the big banks. It’s why that same milieu hates free trade bills as well as immigration reform, why it wants to put the Export-Import Bank out of business, why it thinks of the Federal Reserve as a “conspiracy so immense” on behalf of Goldman Sachs and corporate America, why politicians like Santorum and Rubio and Scott Walker find mileage in condemning the Fortune 500 for their political correctness. This more plebian world, Trump’s world to some degree, and even elements of what one writer has called the Christian populism of the evangelical movement, have helped tear apart the Republican Party. There is a version of capitalism they don’t like and they have a name for it. It’s called limousine liberalism and it has indeed done a lot of damage—not only economic but also by way of cultural insult—to working and lower middle class Americans.

Racial phobias deliberately nurtured by political elites and otherwise inlaid in the American grain at the “birth of the nation” have often pre-occupied these social circles and have commanded, for every good reason, the attention of the progressive community. Not by eliding the race and immigration questions, as the Sanders campaign tended to do at the outset, but by a so far fruitless effort, not nearly muscular enough, to point out what may strike some as self-evident. This political insight is as old as the hills: namely, that race-baiting not only divides and conquers, but counts its victims in black and white and counts the proceeds in green.

Hibernating underground for a long generation or two, the Sanders phenomenon may allow these elementary truths about just who stands to gain and who to lose to surface again with some strategic traction. 

Indeed, one way to look at what’s been happening at both “extremes” of the party system is the fall-out from the collapse of the neo-liberal consensus. The center cannot hold and working classes are fissioning off. Trump’s emergence as a front-runner was only slightly less improbable than Sanders’s just a short while ago. Once confined within the suffocating embrace of an establishment that treats these working people with consummate cynicism, they yearn to breathe free (to coin another phrase). Does that make blood sisters and brothers of the armies of Trump and Sanders? What could be crazier! Given half a chance they might just as well commit fratricide. Still, they share a common enemy. They have been dissed and manipulated, lied to and exploited by elites in both parties.

Right-wing populism is a real, not a confected movement, no matter how much it may get subsidized by kingpins of dynastic capitalism like the Koch brothers. In this context it is worth remembering, however scary the memory, that fascism also originated as a popular movement and had deep roots among working and lower-middle classes. Trump is not Hitler. Sanders is not Lenin. But before the Nazi party triumphed, it competed with the Communist Party for members and activists, people moved back and forth between the two parties, and even staged joint demonstrations when they weren’t busy killing each other. 

Upcoming primaries will tell more about the prospect of building bridges to the other shore. Perhaps that’s a fool’s errand. Another outreach ought to be easier, but so far has not really been made (despite the collecting of endorsements by Spike Lee and Killer Mike), which is puzzling. African-Americans remain, as of this writing, wedded to Hillary. Why? Bill did little to help and plenty to hurt the well-being of working-class and superannuated black people. Hillary talks about her “undercover” civil rights work as if it were the soon-to-be released next installment in the James Bond eterniquel, and forgets to mention, while wringing her hands over mass incarceration, that she and her husband were leading architects of the national security state. Oh, yes, Bill runs his charities out of an office in Harlem. Meanwhile there are the real facts on the ground about the deteriorating circumstances of African-Americans, which hardly need rehearsing here.

So what’s up? I think in part there’s a kind of reverse racism at work that may obscure answers. Often progressives will say we have to raise a discomforting question. That question turns out to not be so discomforting after all. It runs like this: Why does the Sanders campaign, or this or that movement of the left, fail to make contact with the black mudsills of American life? The answer is supposed to be painful: those movements are crippled by their own unarticulated, even unconscious racism. But since that answer is already known in advance of the question by those who raise it and by those to whom it is posed, it really turns out to be a kind of consolation; a little breast-beating (not to say undeserved) and off we go to do good. But here’s a different kind of discomforting question: Why in this electoral contest are African-Americans showing up on the wrong side? Here’s where reverse racism makes it appearance. We—the white progressive “we”—assume that by virtue of their protracted oppression and exploitation, blacks are inherent insurgents, racially disposed to rebel, radical in the bone. But of course this is not so about any class or “race” of people. It is instead a romance, one that has on historic occasions taken on flesh and blood, when African-Americans have demonstrated extraordinary courage and stamina in standing up to the most brutal forms of domination. But it is a romance still, which at this moment inhibits raising and answering this discomforting question.

People point to Obama, with the idea that Hillary is protected by his shadow. That may be so. To come out of that shadow would mean confronting openly the failure of the Obama régime on matters closest to the future freedom and well-being of black people. That is something Sanders has stayed away from, and one can sympathize with that caution. Nonetheless, others in the orbit of the campaign might raise such questions without committing political suicide, if only by stressing the anti-capitalism Sanders has licensed and Hillary never will.

Who might those “others” be? The black leadership class—politicians, ministers, and other notables—comes to mind. But an irony intrudes. One of the great achievements of the civil rights movement has been the creation of a sizeable segment of African-American professionals, community organizing entrepreneurs, government bureaucrats, middle managers, and Democratic Party influentials. That’s both a victory for them, and also a problem. Many identify with and some owe their ascendancy to liberal establishments, both local and national. Superficial appearances notwithstanding, this positions this new black middle class at some distance from the needs and interests of working-class black Americans. In these precincts, Obama’s “race to the top” has greater resonance than the “beloved community.” During this electoral season, they have lined up pretty uniformly behind Clinton, although fissures have already appeared and may grow wider (especially among prominent cultural and intellectual leaders like Spike Lee, Michelle Alexander, and even Ta-Nehisi Coates). Indeed, just because establishment-affiliated figures from the African-American community command headlines and photo ops on behalf of Clinton doesn’t automatically mean the working people they purportedly speak for are unreachable. Where might that outreach come from?

If the Obama mystique obscures more tangible realities, more tangible realities have inhibited what might have been the gravitational pull of the Sanders campaign in Afro-America. Here I’m thinking of the labor movement. First of all, it has so far missed a practically unique opportunity to become part of a movement that speaks directly to the woeful state of the American working class, organized and unorganized and in all its multicultural, multiracial variety. Instead, most of the major unions (with the honorable exception of the CWA, the Nurses, and Postal Workers, plus more independent-minded locals) have done what they have been conditioned to do for decades; queue up behind the Democratic Party establishment front-runner hoping to do a deal post-election—still hoping after all these years, in the face of all previous experience to the contrary.

What has this to do with how African-Americans vote? Anemic as it is, the labor movement is still a voting-turnout juggernaut. More than that it is a lab school, or could be, for all those emotions and ideas Sanders has helped give life to. It is, even in its current inert state, the institutional embodiment of solidarity. And African-Americans belong to unions in very considerable and probably disproportionate numbers. The largest union in the country, and one often at the forefront of organizing, the SEIU, is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. Yet it dutifully genuflected before Clinton—perhaps because the leadership was still engaged in that quixotic quest to have a real say in what happens after November, or perhaps because the membership was divided, or both. Second thoughts are already apparent in the unexpected decision of the AFL-CIO not to endorse anybody at this time after everyone took for granted they would salute Hillary. The hospitality local, which carries great weight in Las Vegas and is also composed of Hispanic and black workers, stayed neutral in the Nevada primary which may account in part for how relatively close that election, once thought to be a walk-over for Clinton, turned out to be.

The black vote might look different today and can look different down the road if the labor movement—in all its organized and organizing forms—smells the aroma of anti-capitalism. That might be true as well among immigrants, especially those of Hispanic origin. Again, the expectation has been and still is that Clinton can count on them, even though Nevada seemed to indicate that might be yet another case of the Clinton dynasty’s over-confidence. While the dilemma of immigrants first of all entails their legal status, it is simultaneously a class question. The bifurcated nature of the American economy is defined by a vast low-wage sector (thirty to forty million people who work full time bring home less than the Federal poverty level income), in which the sweatshop (white and blue-collar), once considered an aberration, is now the new normal. Many of those millions are immigrants. In theory, the Sanders message ought to play well there. That’s in theory. How does it travel into those barrios? The campaign apparatus has its means. But a reinvigorated labor movement is the more natural, organic medium. Again: how lamentable the SEIU’s short-sightedness.

Or perhaps that’s not the apt response. For a long time, elements of the progressive community have looked to the labor movement to play a role it’s not really suited to perform. This has functioned as a kind of default position in the absence of anything resembling broader movements that might challenge not only the economic but also the political and even cultural prerogatives of ruling elites and the system they administer. However, under most—although not all—circumstances, trade unions are there to bargain, negotiate, and strike for the best possible contract for their members; nothing more. Capitalism, wage labor, the market are all taken for granted. Operating under those constraints, composed of a heterogeneous mix of people with a wide variety of political viewpoints, desires, needs, and prejudices, labor unions are not political parties or even ginger groups that might give rise to one. 

So then we have the conundrum many are pondering. Let’s say Bernie doesn’t make it (or even if he does). How do the energies his campaign has unleashed get transfused into a more lasting movement? An electoral machine is not a movement. It has different priorities and objectives. Nor is it entirely clear that Sanders would have much interest in that; in that regard he is a long-time politician, an unconventional one to be sure, but not a movement builder. One of the political perversities of our times is that we live inside a faux democracy in which an utterly degraded electoral system—the weakest form of democracy even under the best of conditions—has become a last resort to popular participation in what is supposed to be the commonwealth. Somehow we need to escape from that padded cell.

Where to start? A convocation of anti-capitalists might be a first step. All those groups “feeling the Bern” could assemble: unions, Black Lives Matter, worker centers, Latino organizations, the Working Families Party and others like it, campus groups for Sanders, environmental activists, the Fight for $15 movement, Queers for Economic Justice, and more. This is hardly a novel idea. What’s novel is the moment. What’s been tried before, with mixed success at best, might work now. And arguably a revived anti-capitalist movement, spearheaded by labor and others, might reach across the great divide that now separates it from the incipient rebels of the white working class gathering around Trump.

  1. Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence (New York: Little Brown, 2015); see the interview by Gary Roth, “A Tale of Two Ages,” The Brooklyn Rail (April 2015).


Steve Fraser

STEVE FRASER's latest book is The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (New York: Basic Books, 2016).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2016

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