By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
In capitalist societies, most people most of the time, are chronically and justifiably discontent – if not with capitalism itself, then with its consequences. Therefore, the story is as old as capitalism itself.
When sufficient numbers of people become sufficiently fed up with what the capitalist system is doing to them, they resist, expectations rise, and nothing changes – not for the better, anyway. One way or another, what C. Wright Mills called “the power structure” wins.
This is how it goes in core regions of the capitalist world. In peripheral areas dominated and bled dry by capitalist states, corporations and banks, the discontent is more intense and the outcomes are more varied. In the end, though, the empire always strikes back. One way or another, it usually wins.
Thanks to globalization and new means of communication, the dynamics of change and stasis in core and peripheral areas have become less distinct than they used to be. Eruptions of discontent in the one seep out into the other, and vice versa.
In core areas especially, synchronization is an old story; think of 1848, 1917, and 1968. But the pace is quickening, and the range now extends to the four corners of the earth.
However, there are still important variations from country to country.
In the United States, there was Obamamania in 2008, despair over Obama’s presidency in 2009, and an eruption of rightwing craziness in 2010. In the elections that year, the Democrats got “shellacked” (Obama’s word). Then, in short order, the reactionaries elected into state and national offices seized the moment – declaring war on the labor movement and on many of the progressive achievements of the twentieth century.
The dynamics varied from place to place but it was the same all over the world. With a global financial meltdown barely averted two years before – and with the bankers, but not their victims bailed out at the public’s expense — 2011 became a pivotal year, a year in which resistance burst forth.
It started with the Arab Spring emanating out from Tunisia to other countries in North Africa and the Near East. The spirit of indignation stirred in Europe too, especially in its southern regions.
The American contribution was, of course, the Occupy Movement that erupted late in the year. It fizzled out, along with many of its counterparts around the world.
One reason why it did has become painfully obvious in retrospect: Occupy never made the leap from creative disorganization to effective political struggle.
That things like this happen is not exactly news; it has been that way from time immemorial. The lesson — that disorganized spontaneity is easily put down by the powers that be — has been learned countless times, and forgotten nearly as often.
Lately, in southern Europe, the people fighting back seem to have gotten the point. But the forces arrayed against them are disabling. This too is an old story.
We Americans, with our “exceptional” institutions and traditions – and with our Democrats and Republicans — are less able than, say, Greeks or Spaniards, to resist in politically effective ways. On the plus side, though, because we live in the belly of the monster, the bullies bossing us around are, for the most part, our fellow citizens; in principle, if not in practice, we can put them in their place.
So far, 2015 is shaping up to be a good year for fighting back; maybe even better than 2011. Fed up with what neoliberal capitalism was doing to them, the Greeks took the lead and did the best they could. They elected a government comprised of genuine Leftists, determined to end the austerity regime imposed upon their country. But with the weak hand they had to play, there was little they could do.
Naturally, demoralization followed. Even so, Syriza, the governing party for the past seven months, managed to get itself reelected last week. Evidently, many Greeks decided that even an inadequate resistance is better than no resistance at all.
Fed up Brits who elected Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labor Party in the UK are on safer ground – because finance capitalists (many of them British themselves) cannot call the shots for Great Britain in the way that they can in Greece, and because the Labor Party is a more deeply entrenched component of the political scene in the UK than the recently formed Syriza Party is in Greece.
But the post-Blair Parliamentary Labor Party is an execrable lot, much like the post-Clinton Democratic Party in the United States; and national and international media have been doing their best to defeat this challenge from the Left.
There was a media onslaught in Greece too; but there all they succeeded in doing was blowing air. Time will tell whether it will be the same in the UK.
Because the Labor Party began its rightward plunge from a higher plateau than the Democrats, Corbyn was not as much of an outlier in the British Parliament as someone cut from similar cloth would be in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. He was not quite the last of the Mohicans; only nearly so.
And yet, he won. No one, probably not even Corbyn himself, would have believed it a few months ago. But then nobody would have believed the “Oxi” vote in Greece last summer either. When enough people are enough fed up, unbelievable things happen.
America’s Syriza-Corbyn counterpart is, of course, the Bernie Sanders campaign. The comparison is invidious, however; the differences outweigh the similarities.
For one thing, Corbyn taps into a more authentic leftwing tradition than any Democrat could.
The British Labor Party has had a long and complicated relation to socialism but, throughout its history, it did provide a home for genuine socialists; and it did once favor public ownership of major means of production.
Therefore, as an anti-austerity socialist, Corbyn can allude to models within the traditions of his party; Sanders, running as a Democrat, cannot.
There is an American socialist tradition too, though it largely expired after the First World War. But, even in its heyday, American socialism never had a home within the Democratic Party. This is surely one reason why Sanders describes his socialism as “Scandinavian.”
What Sanders sees in Scandinavia are welfare states, strong labor movements, and high degrees of economic equality. He also sees that the Scandinavian countries have, for the first time in human history, effectively eliminated the scourge of poverty.
What he sees less clearly is how they too have been affected by neoliberal globalization, and by the consequences of the Bush-Obama wars.
And, of course, he does not see – no one yet can — what the impact of the global refugee crisis, perhaps the bitterest consequence so far of those wars, will be on the Scandinavian countries’ traditionally harmonious societies.
But even if all is not as good as it seems in Europe’s north, Sanders is certainly on to something. Whether what he is on to is socialism – or only capitalism with some of its kinks ironed out and some of its worst features cast aside — is a different question.
In the near term, it hardly matters, but it is worth pointing out that the Scandinavian model does not so much replace capitalism as tame it. In the sixties and seventies, there was talk, in Sweden especially, of transcending capitalism’s frontiers, but no Scandinavian country has yet, in practice, done much of anything to replace private with social ownership of major means of production.
Sanders is not for that either. His views are left liberal, certainly; and egalitarian. But his socialism falls short of anything like the real deal.
Anywhere else in the world, not being a real socialist, but playing one on TV, would be a bad thing. In the United States, it is a wonderful development – if only for breaking a longstanding taboo and, in doing so, expanding the ambient culture’s universe of discourse just a little.
But, from a broadly progressive point of view, the genuineness – or not – of Sanders’ socialism is among the least important of the problems that his candidacy raises.
A more glaring problem is that Sanders’ radicalism stops at America’s borders. If he has a problem with the way America conducts itself abroad, he keeps it to himself.
Indeed, Sanders’ foreign policy views are indistinguishable from any garden variety Democrat’s. He sees the United States the way that Madeleine Albright did, “as the indispensable nation.”
If he has any quarrel with the Obama administration’s foreign policy in recent years, it is that it is not pro-Saudi enough. Close ties with Saudi Arabia help America’s energy and “defense” industries; Saudi Arabia, in turn, is, and long has been, the main source of ideological inspiration and financial backing for jihadis around the world.
Meanwhile, on keeping American diplomatic, military and economic support for Israel coming, Sanders is barely less awful than such prominent Democrats as Ben Cardin and Chuck Schumer.
The contrast with Corbyn is striking. The new leader of the Labor Party is an internationalist and an anti-imperialist.
Ironically, in this respect, Sanders is actually the better Laborite of the two.
Just as there have been anti-war Democrats, there have been anti-imperialist and anti-nuclear activists who found a home under the Labor Party’s broad tent; Corbyn himself is an example. But the Labor Party’s record on British imperialism is easily as bad as the Democrats’ on American imperialism; and the Labor Party’s willingness after World War II to become a servile junior partner of the United States has been deplorable.
It would therefore be a mistake to give Corbyn’s party affiliation credit for the superiority of his politics over Sanders’. Corbyn shines brighter because he has been a lifelong dissident within the Party he was just elected to lead; not because he stands on its shoulders.
To be sure, Sanders is, or was, an “independent,” not a Democrat. But he caucused with the Democrats, and voted with the Democrats more often than most bona fide Democrats did. As the saying goes, “if it quacks like a duck…”
Of course, no true blue Democrat these days would adopt a “socialist” label the way that Sanders has, but it is worth recalling that it was not always so. In the sixties and seventies, there were many “democratic socialists” who identified with the Democratic Party. The Party leadership tolerated them; they may even have been glad that they were there.
Why wouldn’t they be? The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and later the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), along with other groups and individuals, helped keep independent political forces that might otherwise challenge Democratic candidates from the left at bay.
Like Sanders now, they were both in and not in the Democratic Party. The ambiguity was useful.
When the Clintons took over and remade the Party in their image, this stopped; the Clintons made pandering to plutocrats, not placating leftists, the Democratic Party’s be-all and end-all. It is only in the past few months, thanks mainly to the Sanders campaign, that Democrats again think it makes sense for them not to go out of their way to alienate potential voters to their left. Even Hillary Clinton now seems to have seen the light.
But throughout the many years that the Democratic Party saw fit to shunt aside anyone to the left of, say, Rahm Emanuel or Donna Shalala, Sanders kept at it — from his “independent” perch.
Inasmuch as he has said repeatedly that he would willingly fold his campaign into Hillary Clinton’s – or into some other neoliberal imperialist’s, like Joe Biden’s — if and when it becomes clear that he will not be the nominee himself, his role still seems to be keeping potential dissidents and defectors on board.
Sanders’ willingness to support corporate America’s best friends puts even his vaunted commitment to Scandinavian socialism – or rather to an anti-austerity inflected version of left liberalism — in question.
The New Deal embodied contradictory elements, but its aim was to save capitalism, not to replace it with more rational and humane ways of organizing economic and social affairs. Scandinavian socialists, the vast majority of them, had more ambitious goals in mind. By force of circumstances, they accommodated to the capitalist order, but, in the end, their aim was to transcend its horizons.
If this is what Sanders wants, he has kept his wishes well hidden.
The frequency and geographical range of expressions of popular anger – left, right, and center – has picked up in the Age of Obama, but this is not the only change in recent years. The ways that the power structures of the world now counter challenges to their dominance have changed too.
The empire is policed as brutally as ever. Indeed, neoconservative and humanitarian interventionist ideology – plus cluelessness and ineptitude in the highest reaches of the American government — have made matters worse outside the capitalist core.
But within the core, and even at its peripheries, repression nowadays takes a kinder, gentler form.
Not long ago, even mild rumblings of disobedience from states like Greece, or from Latin American countries asserting independence, would bring out the tanks and the colonels.
The coups these days are silent – executed by bankers and bureaucrats in distant lands. Instead of guns, they use computer screens. The empire gets its way, but hardly anyone gets killed or rounded up.
Evidently, the authorities have decided that with cameras on cell phones and social media everywhere, it is better that way.
Will Corbyn have to deal with intra-party coup mongers the way that the Greeks have had to deal with German bankers and EU bureaucrats? It is beginning to look that way. So far, though, the worst he has had to withstand is a barrage of hysterical media diatribes.
Sanders has not had to deal even with that. There could be nastiness ahead, if it looks like Clinton is floundering and that Biden is unable or unwilling to take her place. So far, though, the opposition has been gentle as can be.
It is likely that the Party establishment and their media hacks will continue to pull their punches – maybe even for the duration. Why not? Sanders’ radicalism is hardly threatening, even to the Democratic Party’s paymasters.
He rails against the ravages of neoliberal austerity, but he would be nearly powerless to do anything about it, even were he somehow to be elected. Meanwhile, if Sanders’ stump speeches and television interviews help keep Democratic voters on board, what is the harm in that?
It would be different, of course, if, as he claims he is, Sanders really were leading a “political revolution.” But political revolutions involve bottom up organizing and collective struggles, not top-down electoral campaigns.
Electing someone new to sit in the White House would be, at most only a small part of a political revolution; and electing someone who is in line with the status quo on matters where Presidents can do a great deal on their own, matters of war and peace, would not be part of a political revolution at all.
There is, of course, the possibility that some of Sanders’ radical talk about inequality will catch on and fire up a movement that the powerful will indeed come to fear. To the extent that happens, Bravo Bernie. But would he then still stay on board?
Quashing stirrings of resistance is one of the few things that the current occupant of the White House is good at. He knows how to let events play out until they exhaust their protagonists, and then how to channel them into dead end electoral follies.
This is what Obama did to the Occupy movement; he did it so well that it would be fair to compare his studied indifference to Charles de Gaulle’s magisterial aloofness as he successfully defused the revolutionary expectations generated throughout France by the student and worker uprisings of May 68.
Evidently, Obama learned something from his days as a community organizer. He learned how movements fail. Now that he is on the other side, it is only natural for him to put those lessons to use.
Indeed, it looked for many months that he had learned this lesson too well.
In the late winter and early spring of 2011, long before Occupy Wall Street emerged, there was a massive outpouring of resistance in Wisconsin to Governor Scott Walker’s assault on public sector unions.
There was spill over too, of course – in the first instance to other traditionally strong union states nearby where, as in Wisconsin, disgust with Obama’s presidency enabled Republicans to take over state houses and state legislatures.
The plutocracy was salivating at the prospect of doing organized labor in, but also fearful that the fight back would spin out of control. They were wrong to worry. As if by instinct, Obama knew what to do.
That would be – nothing. In Wisconsin and similarly afflicted states, that strategy worked to a tee.
Thanks to Wisconsin’s electoral laws, Walker could not be recalled for an entire year. For the thousands of people occupying the State Capitol, and for their allies around the state, there was therefore a stark choice: escalate the struggle or let it subside. But escalate to what?
A general strike was the obvious answer, but the impossibility of organizing one and sustaining it seemed equally obvious – in much the way that the simultaneous desirability and practical impossibility of a Grexit seemed to most of Syriza’s leaders this past summer. This was America’s Syriza moment.
By the time Walker could be recalled, enthusiasm had faded and the Democratic Party had taken the recall movement over. They nominated the same lackluster Milwaukee mayor that Walker had defeated the year before, while the national Party, chaired by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, withheld funds that she thought better spent reelecting Barack Obama.
Wasserman Schultz’s nefarious role in keeping the Democratic Party in its Clintonite straightjacket is now widely understood, but it was already evident to anyone following events in Wisconsin four years ago.
The real villain, though, was Obama himself, the past master of malign neglect.
Had he campaigned against Walker in heavily African American areas of Milwaukee and in the industrial cities along Lake Michigan – where, for reasons that don’t exactly confer credit upon their residents, he was still popular – Obama could almost certainly have made a decisive difference.
He was even nearby as the recall election began, hobnobbing with zillionaire donors in Minnesota and Illinois. But all he could be bothered to do was send an encouraging tweet the night before Election Day.
Were Obama not preternaturally lucky, this sin of omission could have done the Democratic Party and the larger world a great deal of harm. Obama put Scott Walker on the map; he made the GOP’s most nefarious donors – not just the Koch brothers – think that Walker was God’s gift to them, the very flunky who would serve their interests best.
Obama could have nipped the Walker phenomenon in the bud. Instead, he made that risible simpleton a leading candidate for the Republican nomination.
Thank God, yet again, for Donald Trump! It was he, not Obama, who did Walker in.
The Democrats’ lucky spell continues too – because although Trump is one scary dude, he is actually the least scary of the entire Republican lot.
Nothing could be scarier than the prospect of another Bush let loose upon the world, except perhaps the thought that the two non-politicians currently biting at Trump’s heels – Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson – might win.
Fiorina is a failed anti-abortion businesswoman even more bellicose, clueless and inept than Hillary Clinton. Carson is a fundamentalist brain surgeon – don’t ask how or why! – an unabashed Islamophobe, and, on matters pertaining to governance, a certifiable ignoramus.
Walker would have been as bad or worse. We dodged that bullet, but no thanks to Obama or Wasserman Schultz. With the Trump phenomenon sucking in all the air, Walker imploded in upon himself, taking a whole lot of Koch brothers’ money with him. Maybe there is a God, after all.
Because the other buffoons in the running are not significantly less awful, and because most Americans outside the Republican base aren’t stark raving mad, the presidency will almost certainly stay in Democratic hands in 2016.
Therefore, if, in his heart of hearts, Sanders actually were more like Corbyn and less like Clinton or Obama, he could easily get away with taking principled progressive positions on foreign and military matters. There are a lot of people out there who would have his back; and many more who would urge him on.
Sanders’ progressivism is bifurcated: leftish, by American standards, on economic issues; dead center on foreign affairs. It is hard to take someone like that seriously, no matter how heartfelt his passion for diminishing inequality.
If nothing else, a more coherent political orientation would make his candidacy more credible, enhancing his ability to take neoliberal austerity on with more than just idle words.
Lyndon Johnson had extraordinary political skills, and he assumed the presidency at a propitious moment, when the stars were aligned just right for constructing a Great Society. But even he discovered, to his regret, what happens when you try to combine guns and butter.
If he failed, back at a time when America really was strong enough, economically and militarily, to call the shots around the world, what could Sanders do now? The short answer is: not much – not so long as he and the Democrats’ foreign policy establishment continue to see eye to eye.
But were Sanders’ foreign and domestic politics more of a piece – were he more of a Corbyn and less of a Clinton — perhaps he really could get something like the political revolution he talks about going.
He couldn’t lead it, no one could, but he could help catalyze it – by breaking free from the clutches of hapless Democratic Party poobahs, accepting leadership instead from the people they purport to represent.
Don’t count on it, though; it’s not his way.
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).