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No Need to Abandon All Hope … Yet

by Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

It now looks all but certain that the 2016 election will put Hillary Clinton in the White House and produce a House and Senate that will make her seem almost bearable in comparison. Americans will elect the same old, same old — only worse.

In time, even the Age of Obama may look good.

However, with the primary season just beginning to take shape, it is still possible to hope that some good will come out of the election ahead.

One result could be that the extent to which our politics is corrupted by corporate and plutocratic money will come to seem too grotesque for even the meekest and most acquiescent among us to accept, and that public pressure will force Congressional troglodytes and retrograde Supreme Court Justices to change course.

Don’t count on it, though. Billionaires don’t give up without a fight.

It is also possible, while the primary season is on, that the horizons of mainstream politics will expand; that ideas that were once considered reasonable, and even obvious, will come back in from the margins, where they have languished since the dawn of the Neoliberal Age.

A few new ideas might even percolate up into mainstream political awareness.

This has always been the hope of Third Parties and other outliers. The Greens survive on this possibility; it is what led Ralph Nader to run for the presidency three times.

This hope is seldom realized, however; at least in ways that anyone can see. Even so, it is worth trying — again and again.

There are also sometimes nationally prominent, or at least recognizable, politicians who take a notion to challenge the rot from within the duopoly party system itself.

This time around, the prospects for accomplishing something worthwhile along these lines seem slightly better than usual – not because conditions are particularly favorable, but because of the people involved.

There is even a chance – a small one – that, thanks to their efforts, this election season will accelerate the slow but inevitable decline of the Democratic and Republican Parties. To the extent this happens, it could do a world of good.

On the Republican side, Rand Paul’s campaign could help undo the unholy alliances that keep the GOP together. And the Democrats have Jim Webb. Were he to run, it could change the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity, beyond recognition.

These are long shots, to say the least; but this is the hand we’ve been dealt.

If it starts to look like Paul could actually become the Republican nominee, expect the GOP establishment to come down hard against him. As George Bush might say, don’t “misunderestimate” their power.

And, at this point, it isn’t even clear that Webb will run. In our “democracy” these days, a candidate needs a billionaire or two to get a campaign off the ground. Webb doesn’t seem to have one.

If he doesn’t run, it will be a pity. Though hardly the leftmost Democratic contender, he is the only Democrat whose name has so far come up in connection with the 2016 election who has any chance at all of reversing – or trying to reverse — the conditions that have set the Democratic Party on its rightward course.

Then, of course, there is Bernie Sanders.

Even were Elizabeth Warren to run — which she will not, despite the efforts of her diehard supporters – Bernie would still be the leftmost candidate in the Democratic field.

For the time being, the poltroons who run the Democratic Party tolerate him; some of them even think that by challenging Hillary Clinton in the primaries, he will help make her a stronger candidate in the general election.

They may be right; Hillary needs help getting her arguments straight. But she will do well enough even if she stays true to form because, as in 2012, the GOP will be unable to field a candidate who can keep the party’s base on board without scaring everyone else away.

So long as the Democratic Party establishment does not see Sanders as a threat to Clinton’s nomination, they will go easier on him than their counterparts will go on Paul.

But Paul’s (vanishingly small) chance of leading the GOP is better than Sanders’ chance of becoming the Democrats’ nominee.

* * *

It would be churlish of me to disparage Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. We both hail from the same tribe, after all; indeed, from the same rebel branch. In the age of High Stalinism, Eastern European anti-Semites would have called both of us, along with other irreligious, non-conforming Jews, “rootless cosmopolitans.”

We are both also eligible for “senior” discounts everywhere we go. How can I – or, for that matter, anyone – not root for a rumpled septuagenarian who, instead of winding down, is actively winding up?

The main thing, though, is that, as a politician, he has been doing something like what I used to do as an academic – arguing for “socialism” at a time when the current is running the opposite way.

The difference is that when I wrote Arguing for Socialism (1984; second edition 1988) and other books and articles that elaborated on the issues involved, I meant socialism – an economic order in which the ownership of most productive assets is social (collective, communal), not private.

To own something is to have rights to control it and to gain revenue from its deployment.

State ownership is the best-known form of social ownership, the one of which there is the most experience. But it is not the only form; workers’ control is another. These are broad designations that encompass many variations, and they hardly exhaust the possibilities.

But the general idea — that in a socialist economy there is (mainly) social, not private, ownership – and, along with it, the understanding that socialist societies are built upon socialist economic structures, was, and still is, broadly accepted by nearly all self-identified socialists.

The Marxist purchase on socialism is part of this general consensus.

According to Marx’s account of history’s structure and direction, history’s epochal social divisions rest upon distinct economic structures, each of which deprivatizes productive assets that were privately owned in preceding economic structures.

In feudal and other pre-capitalist societies, persons owned (had control and revenue rights over) other persons. Under capitalism, persons may be thought of as owning themselves – as having control and revenue rights over their own bodies and powers — but no one owns the bodies and powers of anyone else.

Therefore, if a capitalist wants to make use of the bodies and powers of others, he (or she) has to offer a wage which others are at least nominally free to reject.

There are exceptions, of course; but the exceptions depend upon historically contingent circumstances that do not reflect capitalism’s essential nature.

Thus the fact that, for several centuries, New World chattel slavery, and the larger Atlantic slave trade of which it was an integral part, flourished within the integuments of a social order that was basically capitalist, need not embarrass Marxist accounts of the formation of the capitalist world system.

Slavery played a role in capitalism’s actual history, but not in the underlying developmental logic of capitalism itself.

In the same way, the transition from capitalism to socialism can be seen as an epochal historical transformation marked by the deprivatization of ownership of (most) external productive assets.

Obviously, this is not what Bernie Sanders means by “socialism.” He means something more like “capitalism with a human face.” It certainly needs one; Sanders’ goal is not to be despised. But this is not what socialism is about.

When pushed to explain, Sanders references Scandinavian social democracy.

The Scandinavians have indeed managed to achieve many socialist objectives, but their social democracy has never involved fundamental alterations of capitalism’s underlying property relations. Neither would Sanders’.

It is not even clear precisely what Sanders has in mind when he identifies socialism with what the Scandinavians have achieved.

Before the Nordic countries got swept up into the maelstrom of neoliberal globalization — and before one of globalization’s more noxious byproducts, racist-tinged xenophobia, took root even there — there were Social Democrats in Sweden and elsewhere who envisioned a time when the commodification of everything, the hallmark of capitalist civilization, would be reversed, as welfare state programs progressively replace market relations.

They foresaw a gradual (reformist, not revolutionary) transition to a radically free and egalitarian society based on social solidarites, not market relations, coordinated through democratic mechanisms — a world in which the visible, but benign, hand of the state would replace the merciless invisible hand of the market.

No one still thinks that anything like this will come to pass any time soon. Instead of advancing towards real socialism, Scandinavian socialists have their hands full retaining what they can from the gains of the past.

Their lot is much like what the lot of liberal Democrats would be under a President Sanders.

Were he somehow to win the nomination and then the presidency, his main task, and the task of his allies in Congress, would be to retain New Deal and Great Society advances, not to move beyond them.

The New Deal was a complicated phenomenon; and, like the Great Society, its authors genuinely did want to make peoples’ lives better. But there is no denying that most of them wanted to save capitalism, not overcome it. This is what the “socialism” Sanders speaks of come to.

Media pundits make it seem that Sanders is way out in left field; compared to Democrats like Hillary Clinton, he surely is. But, like socialists in Scandinavia and elsewhere, he is playing a defensive game.

The difference is that, in the past, Scandinavian social democrats, along with many others throughout the world, got a lot farther than New Deal and Great Society Democrats.

This is why Sanders’ references to their welfare state programs and institutions seem radical – when “milquetoast” would be a better description.

However, on this too, it would be churlish of me – or of anyone else who is not an irrelevant sectarian dinosaur — to complain about the defensiveness of Scandinavian socialists.   Over the past several decades, we have all backtracked, and gone into a defensive mode.

For reasons that are still not clear, at least to me, the end of Soviet-style socialism (or whatever it was that they had there), rather than liberating socialism from its associations with a form of society that no one could any longer abide, instead dealt the entire socialist project a severe blow. The worldwide neoliberal offensive did the rest.

In short order, it became unfashionable to talk about “socialism” at all.

Socialist values survived; but the words used to describe them, and therefore the concepts they articulated, changed in subtle ways. Where once there had been socialists, only “egalitarians” remained.

Socialists are indeed egalitarians, though some, Marxist socialists for example, have a complicated relation to the idea. But socialism always involved more than just equality. Of the old revolutionary triad, “liberty, equality, fraternity,” fraternity (community) was at least as high on the list.

However, as the Reagan-Bush eighties turned into the Clinton nineties, and as talk of “socialism” began to seem quaint, that thought effectively disappeared. Liberal egalitarianism became the only game in town.

Well, not quite; there was an unlikely exception to the rule — libertarianism, the Paul family philosophy, a nineteenth century relic formerly on life support, somehow came back to life.   By now, it is a force to be reckoned with – or at least argued with.

Meanwhile, their cogency undiminished, traditional understandings of socialism were largely forgotten.   And the body of theory within which the traditional understanding received its most incisive expression fell into a seemingly permanent eclipse as well.

For most of the twentieth century, Marxism had been effectively excluded from the academy in the English-speaking world, but nowhere more than in the United States. Then, in the seventies and eighties, it enjoyed a certain succès d’estime among philosophers, economists and social scientists in leading universities.

The reasons for this turn of events had almost nothing to do with Marxist politics, which, by then, was already in decline. It was an academic phenomenon with almost no impact beyond the walls of elite academic institutions. Before long, it too disappeared, almost without a trace, into the mainstream liberal egalitarian fold.

How nice it is, therefore, for those of us who miss the livelier and more fecund political and intellectual atmosphere of decades past, that a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States is talking about “socialism.”  It hardly matters that what he means, and what the word means, are, at most, only tenuously connected.

More power to him! If he succeeds in getting notions of socialism back in peoples’ minds, he might even succeed in sowing seeds of thought that will someday in some constructive way again take hold.

If only for this reason, I could see voting for him if his name is on the ballot when primary time comes to my state. It would be a welcome, though not especially meaningful, way to cast a protest vote against Hillary Clinton — and against the base and servile Democratic Party that the Clintons did so much to shape.

But, apart from providing that outlet for myself and others, and from the possible, though unlikely, long term beneficial consequences that could come from his campaign, the most Bernie’s candidacy can do is push Hillary a tad to the left of her comfort zone — for as long as she sees some percentage in positioning herself there.

Big deal! Even were she to find it expedient to stay in a “populist” mode after her nomination is secured, it would hardly matter — because, in real world politics in a neoliberal age, what candidates say or allow people to believe when they are running for office has almost nothing to do with what they will do after they are elected.

The Obama presidency has not been good for much, but it has made this sad but obvious truth impossible for intellectually honest liberals, or anyone else, to deny.

* * *

I rather like Bernie; like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, though not quite to the same extent, he is a decent enough New Dealer, born too late for the New Deal.

Rand is another story, but I like him too – as much as I could anyone whose name conjures up the specter of Ayn Rand.

To be sure, most of the time, he holds garden-variety Republican views. But his politics comes with a libertarian tinge. This is what distinguishes him from most of his colleagues.

Paul’s libertarianism makes his take on Republican issues a tad more principled than is usual in a party comprised of ruling class toadies who pander to a mindless base afflicted with false consciousness and a raft of racial and social anxieties.

With him vying for the nomination, ideas are bound to matter somewhat; intra-party Republican debates might almost be interesting – not just comical.

On the other hand, Rand’s libertarianism inclines him to want to turn back the clock even farther than is usual for a Republican.

Libertarian principles lead Rand — like Ron, his father — to evince a certain nostalgia for nineteenth century economic nostrums like the gold standard that were abandoned long ago in part because of the miseries they inflicted upon ordinary Americans.

On foreign affairs, though, and especially on matters pertaining to individuals’ rights and liberties, it is a different story.

Neither Ron nor Rand are bona fide anti-imperialists. But whether for libertarian reasons or because they are “isolationists” at heart, or just from simple common sense, both the father and the son have been among the foremost critics in official Washington of America’s post-9/11 imperialist machinations.

On war and peace, Rand is better than Bernie and as good as any Democrat in Congress. Unlike others in Congress, the Pauls seem to have retained some of the common sense they were born with.

Anyone with common sense would realize that the Bush-Obama “war on terror” – in reality, a war on the historically Muslim world — generates blowback that puts Americans in more, not less, danger.

And anyone with common sense would realize that using that war to undermine privacy rights and other traditional liberties poses a graver a threat to Americans’ freedom than anything a “terrorist” is likely to do.

Three cheers, therefore, to Rand Paul for leading the fight to let some of the more outrageous provisions of the (bipartisan) Patriot Act, including its patently unconstitutional telephone surveillance program, lapse.

Thanks to Obama and most other Democrats and Republicans, 24/7 surveillance of everyone and everything is nevertheless back. But thanks to Paul, and a few liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans, some of the worst features of the surveillance regime that Bush and Cheney, and then Obama, installed are gone.

Even Edward Snowden, the real hero behind this change, agrees. It would not have happened but for Snowden’s revelations, but it was Paul who forced Congress to come as close to doing the right thing as anyone could have reasonably expected that it would.

On military and foreign affairs – and on “homeland security” — Sanders, like mainstream Democrats and Republicans, is closer to Bush or Obama than to Ron or Rand Paul.

On civil liberties, Paul is as good as the ACLU; Sanders, not so much.

There are limits, however, to how far the Paul family, father and son, are willing to go.

They have always been afraid of the Israel lobby; Rand seems very afraid.

Perhaps this is just because, for Republicans these days, that’s where the money is. Sheldon Adelson is not the only rabidly ethnocratic plutocrat who is busily spending his ill-gotten gains turning the Republican Party into an adjunct of the Israeli settlers’ movement.

Also, the Pauls, like other Republican politicians, needs to placate Christians who think that “the nation state of the Jewish people” is part of God’s plan for the End Times. Along with other sectors of the religious Right, Christian Zionists are part of the Republican base. Rand cannot afford to alienate them too blatantly.

It is possible too that he isn’t just pandering. The Pauls venerate Ayn Rand, but they don’t go along with her militant atheism. Neither the father nor the son are Christian Zionists, but they both have fundamentalist leanings that somehow coexist in their minds with the market theology that is their greatest passion.

Or maybe Rand just wants to choose his battles. The man has a lot of courage – no one else in the House or Senate has been quite so out front in standing up against liars in the intelligence community or in resisting the Obama administration’s most egregious assaults on privacy rights. But his supply is not inexhaustible.

Some of that courage is now being expended doing battle with the War Party in the GOP.   This includes more than just such visible blowhards as John McCain and (fellow candidate) Lindsey Graham; it encompasses almost the entire Republican crew.

Could his efforts lead the GOP to implode?   Time will tell.

By rights, the GOP should have collapsed long ago under the weight of its cultural contradictions. Perhaps this would have happened in the past six and a half years, had a white man or even a white woman – someone whose very being didn’t rattle the good old boy’s cages — been in the White House.

But it hasn’t happened yet. Instead, for the time being, it looks like the WASP aristocracy, the useful idiots they’ve recruited from the boondocks and the burbs, and the schmendrick plutocrats who see the GOP as Israel’s best hope for securing a “one state solution” for the master race, don’t yet repel each other enough to overcome the several deplorable factors that bring them together.

But what cultural contradictions cannot undo, internal challenges to the party’s warmongers and privacy rights bashers just might.

On this, Rand Paul is leading the way. I wouldn’t bet on him prevailing, but the more boldly he attacks the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the Republican world, the weaker the bonds that tie the GOP’s component parts together become. This is all for the good.

* * *

Paul is not afraid to go for the jugular — bravo to him for that. Sanders, on the other hand, is too nice to do anything of the sort. He has said that, come what may, he won’t badmouth Hillary Clinton; this is his way.

Too bad – not just because nobody deserves badmouthing more, but because, like the GOP, the Democratic Party could also use a good bashing.

Jim Webb may not be the one to give it to them, any more than Sanders is. But, if he runs, and if his candidacy catches on, he could achieve something even more useful. He could bring working class whites and the white rural South back into the Democratic fold.

This might not mean much to liberals who think that Obama and the Clintons would be God’s gifts to the human race but for the obduracy of Republican obstructionists, but it would be great for the country and the world.

This was a role that John Edwards might have played in 2008 – had his bid for the Democratic nomination not tanked just weeks before it would have been undone anyway by the kind of “Monkey Business” that, twenty years earlier, did in Gary Hart.

But even had Edwards been made of better mettle, the times weren’t right for a Southern white boy to get the nod over a woman or an African-American; and, though he did run to Obama’s and Clinton’s left, Edwards’ politics was not up to snuff either.

Rural white Southerners could have identified with him, progressive trade unionists might have rallied around him, and he did present himself as a tribune of the poor. But if he was any less a corporate Democrat than Obama or Clinton, or any less likely than they to continue the bellicose drift of American foreign policy, there was scant evidence of it.

His appeal to progressives, like Obama’s and Clinton’s, depended on his identity more than his politics. Obama’s and Clinton’s claims were more compelling.

As a proud son of the rural South, Webb is everything Edwards was. But six and a half years later, with Obama’s dismal presidency dragging on, and in light of Clinton’s manifest failures as Secretary of State, the times are more propitious.

Of vastly greater importance, though, is the likelihood that, were Webb to become a contender, his politics, not his identity, would be the basis for his appeal.

I don’t mean that Webb is another Sanders or Warren. Frankly, I don’t know where he stands on “the issues”; I doubt anyone does. Perhaps he doesn’t know himself.

I’d bet the ranch, though, that, on most, if not all, issues liberals care about, he is no worse than Clinton or, God forbid, Joe Biden – how could he be! Compared to Martin O’Malley, I haven’t a clue.

And I’d also wager that, for those who, like me, think that the best thing about Bernie Sanders is that he talks about “socialism” even if he really means something else by the word, and who cheer on Elizabeth Warren when she goes after Wall Street predators, that, on domestic issues, he’d lose out to those two in a minute.

But, so long as he doesn’t pass over into Republican territory, holding views like Paul’s on domestic matters as well as foreign affairs, this hardly matters – because, barring a miraculous transformation of the political landscape in the next year and a half, the people whom Presidents years ago called “economic royalists” and “malefactors of great wealth” – and whom Barack Obama calls “savvy businessmen” – are bound to get their way on issues that affect their bottom lines, no matter who the President is.

That’s how it is: in a globalized, neoliberal world, billionaires rule.

But on foreign policy matters and issues of war and peace, Presidents are still able, within limits, to set their own course.   If they are bold enough, they can take charge of the “intelligence community” too.

Rand Paul has hardly any chance of winning the Republican nomination, but to the extent that, by running, he can use his position to impede the forward march of America’s bipartisan perpetual war regime, and to block bipartisan efforts to undo Constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties, he will have made a valuable contribution.

So would Jim Webb, if, consistent with positions he has taken in the past, he too opposes the general foreign policy line of the Bush-Obama era.

And, unlike Paul, Webb could actually be elected President. Were he the Democratic nominee, his chances of beating whichever buffoon the Republicans settle on would be excellent — better, than Hillary Clinton’s.

There is another difference too: on issues that do not pertain to foreign and military affairs, Webb’s views, though almost certainly less sensible than Sanders’, are at least not off the deep end, the way that Rand Paul’s are.

Like Paul, Webb is no anti-imperialist. He is just an intelligent, well-informed professional military man, who, like Paul, realizes the obvious: that American foreign policy in the Age of Obama makes no sense – and that the nation and the world would be better off if it did.

It is the longest of long shots, and the odds only get worse the longer he remains on the sidelines, out of the media’s attention.   But his winning the nomination is not impossible; not yet.

We should relish the moment. Once it becomes absolutely certain that 2016 will be a Hillary v. Jeb (or someone equally noxious and risible) year, there will be plenty of time to despair.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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