Opening up possibilities
Leila Lilazi looks back at the Bernie Sanders phenomenon and can still feel the fire burning
To understand what is happening in USA today, we must look back to the roots of the current corporate onslaught directed against the working class, and how the liberals and their representative, the Democratic Party, ceased pretending to be the defenders of the middle class and more and more joined forces with the ever-growing corporate machine.
Strangely Ralph Nader says that Richard Nixon was the last president to take note of the “rumble from the people coming out of the 60s” and went for some “progressive” legislation in his first term.1 He proposed a better health insurance system than Bill Clinton did years later. He also adopted a minimum incomes policy, although Congress rejected it. But Ronald Reagan came along with his tax cuts and market deregulation, a doctrine of cold war and ‘trickle-down’ economics, taking the US and the world economy towards what we know today.
The US was once again the playground of corporations, pulling both parties in their direction. The Democrats did not want those trying to stand up for labour - people like Clinton and Obama spoke the traditional language of liberalism, pretending to defend the interests of working men and women and the poor, while serving corporate power.
According to Oxfam, the richest 85 people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion - or half the world’s entire population:
A recent US study presented compelling statistical evidence that the interests of the wealthy are overwhelmingly represented by the US government compared with those of the middle classes. The preferences of the poorest had no impact on the votes of elected officials.2
Occupy Wall Street
In this situation of extreme wealth and power - with the working class left behind and the poor drowning in misery - decades of non-stop war, followed by the 2008 market meltdown and bailouts that helped protect corporate profit, the Occupy movement hit the US like a tsunami.
But Occupy Wall Street, as exciting and unexpected as it was, could not organise the masses. I felt the excitement too and in 2011 spent a few nights with Occupy Toronto alongside defenders of native rights and young punks dancing and singing all night. But could the force of anarchy overcome giant and powerful structures? While anger and hope are potent elements, what about the solidarity of the working class? What about organisation, a coherent platform of ideas and unity in action? A movement targeting the system has to have one collective voice, one collective face and one collective fist. Occupy rapidly became confused and soon lost its attraction. Too soon, I would say.
It dreamt of stopping the system by building alternative, horizontal, participatory, democratic institutions based on a grassroots movement. But in the anti-communist US environment, its leaders tried to make sure there was a clear distance between Occupy and any type of Marxist ideology. There was, of course, no revolutionary structure - it was more like a giant wave that crashes against the wall and then subsides. We could see this in the way its leaders were thinking. In September 2013 Chris Hedges, one of Occupy Wall Street’s best known figures, wrote:
… our struggle [is] different from revolutionary struggles in industrial societies in the past. Our revolt will look more like what erupted in the less industrialised Slavic republics, Russia, Spain and China, and uprisings led by a disenfranchised rural and urban working class and peasantry in the liberation movements that swept through Africa and Latin America. The dispossessed working poor, along with unemployed college graduates and students, unemployed journalists, artists, lawyers and teachers, will form our movement. This is why the fight for a higher minimum wage is crucial to uniting service workers with the alienated college-educated sons and daughters of the old middle class. Bakunin, unlike Marx, considered déclassé intellectuals essential for successful revolt.3
As exciting as Occupy was, surely those “déclassé intellectuals” were the movement’s Achilles heel? However, I will leave that discussion for another time.
But next we had Barack Obama, with his promise of change. He took the world by surprise: black, young and well-educated, he was presented as the epitome of the new-found model of diversity and change in the US. But that ‘change’ was short and sweet. He was soon bailing out the corporations and banks, and building up hostility towards the remaining “rogue states” like Libya and Syria. He showed that, while the US could change face from the grumpy, unpopular George Bush to the hip and cool Obama, ‘reality is still reality’ and nothing was going to change.
If anything, Obama, with the absolute support of Wall Street, made things worse. He increased US domination through trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, stepped up the hysteria against the ‘Russian threat’ and donated the highest proportion of ‘aid’ in US history to the Netanyahu government in Israel. Record amounts of weaponry were sold to the Saudi royals, who were busy arming Islamist extremists in the Middle East and north Africa. Africom was empowered, starting a new era of modern, militaristic neocolonialism in Obama’s African fatherland. Not only did he not end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as he had promised, but new adventures in Libya and Syria worsened the situation in the Middle East dramatically. He built up Nato and took it to the very border of Russia.
Rise of Sanders
It was in this situation that the 2016 presidential election approached. But the Democratic Party had a setback: Joe Biden’s son had died and this potential candidate, who was closest to Obama, was not able to run against the party’s sweetheart, Hillary Clinton. In stepped Bernie Sanders, a principled congressman (as much as we can call any politician principled), who had run as an independent for decades, challenging the status quo here and there within the framework of the system. But at the same time he had always managed to act as a true patriot, helping to shore up the wall of the establishment brick by brick, albeit with a degree of honesty and independence.
It was rather a special time in world politics: Syriza in Greece and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK showed the possibility of an opening up in the public perception of socialism. Once more we all felt the buzz: maybe this time will be different? But it never is. Not through engineered elections under a system dominated by corporate-affiliated faces, committed to the policies of finance and war. I get frustrated reading my own text, but we all know that we cannot get change through taking what we are given - only through fighting to win it.
Sanders came out with that long-lost word in US politics: he was a ‘socialist’. ‘Socialism’ is, of course, a pejorative term in America, usually referring to increased government control over the economy, or policies that promote the redistribution of wealth. It is a fact that the US is decades behind what exists in Europe, where capitalist states provided welfare under social democratic governments. In the US we have a private healthcare and education system, low corporate taxation and high military spending, an industrial prison system and ever-growing class differences. Sanders took this all in and started a new narrative: ‘People! We need social democracy!’
It felt good. To all of us - working class, single mothers, immigrants and students - hearing the word ‘socialism’ in the context of US politics was like a breath of fresh air. Like the Occupy movement, Sanders attacked class differentiation and the power of Wall Street. He championed the ‘betrayed 99%’ against the 1% and called for universal healthcare, free post-secondary education and a protected environment. All this hit a chord with the youth and suddenly the idealist old social democrat became the centre of attention.
Sanders’ mistake from the beginning was in joining the Democratic Party. Of course, the Democrat establishment never dreamed of him gaining any momentum. In the absence of Biden, Sanders seemed like a harmless choice - good enough to build up interest in the primary. In fact, by giving voice to some progressive ideas, he could even provide the Democrats with something they needed: the appearance of a diverse party with room for minority voices.
But on the other side of the spectrum Donald Trump, strange as it seems, was going for a similar constituency - voicing the anger of the white working class and poor against neoliberal policies, the corporate machine and a corrupt government. The slogans of the two men had some interesting similarities: both were for a form of US protectionism, against trade agreements like TTIP and Nafta, as well as outsourcing and ‘excessive’ military spending. These policies all resonated with ordinary Americans and the rallies of both men brought the two parties onto unfamiliar and unpredictable territory. The corporate machine decisively rejected both candidates and gave huge support to Clinton.
In the primary elections, although everything had seemed to be in Hillary’s favour, she was barely ahead. Sanders was getting stronger by the day. Clinton benefited from huge donations from the pharma, oil, gas and defence industries, but in contrast the Sanders campaign received an unbelievable amount from ordinary people donating $20 or $30.
It may seem strange to those unfamiliar with US politics, but the unions mainly supported Clinton. While Sanders advocated a $15-an-hour minimum wage, she was content with $12 - and her position on the board of Walmart showed which side she was on. The role of the union bureaucracy could clearly be seen, but at the same time the excitement of the members grew during the primary election, with many going against the advice of the leadership and supporting the ‘wrong’ candidate.
Then there was the game of identity politics, in which Sanders was not a good player. But Clinton was targeting blacks, Latinos and women - the pillars of the Democratic Party’s popular vote. Statist and corporate feminists featured in the media and things got interesting. It seemed like the young, middle class women did not react to Hillary’s agenda as well as expected and Democratic national committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz came out in her defence, while former secretary of state Madeleine Albright had a special message for female voters who were not supporting Clinton: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
But where was Bernie? He did not respond to any of these dirty games, avoiding almost all confrontation within the Democratic Party. He focused more and more on Trump, ignoring the game of identity politics. He attacked Clinton on occasion, but not the Democrat establishment.
Things got messier when Wikileaks issued 20,000 emails showing that the party leadership was actively trying to undermine the Sanders campaign. Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign, but it was too late. Clinton was clearly heading for victory and the party was now secure once again.
Sanders had no trouble in condemning Henry Kissinger as “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country”, but, when asked to name his favourite politician, he plumped for … Winston Churchill! The man who once said: “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy. Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” The people of India must have felt the burn badly that night - as did all socialists, I suppose.
Sanders’ protectionist approach alienated immigrants, while at the same time his insistence on seeing black oppression only in terms of poverty, lack of education and alienation, and not as a systematic problem rooted in the core of capitalist ideology, alienated black voters. We should not forget that a network of black churches, social clubs and associations were firmly under the Democrats’ influence and they were rooting for Hillary from day one.
In foreign policy Sanders showed all the elements of a cold-war mentality. Although he had not voted in favour of the Iraq war, he had supported US/Nato attacks on Serbia and Afghanistan, and talked about the USA playing an ‘important part’ in the world, where no doubt its role as wise policeman could be improved under a Sanders presidency. Of course, in comparison to the horrifying language of Clinton, he seemed like a progressive, but it was the same old picture of the US ruling the world, only expressed in Sanders’ sweet language of hope.
His loss was not unexpected, but more interesting was the way he handled what he himself called a “revolution” after the primaries. There was a strong movement calling on him to break his ties with the Democrats and set up a rival organisation, even a new party. But it was not long before all such hopes were dashed. I remember the day I read this: “Bernie Sanders endorses Hillary Clinton, hoping to unify Democrats”4 and later on: “Sanders: ‘Clinton will make an outstanding president’.”5
And Clinton was not ungrateful: “Senator Sanders has brought people off the sidelines and into the political process,” she said. “He has energised and inspired a generation of young people who care deeply about our country.”6
It all seemed to confirm what the not so optimistic left had said from the beginning: the Democrats would aim to seize everything for themselves: they would try to bring the Sanders movement under control and use it for their own purposes.
Another election, another game of party politics, and another president. What happened was interesting, and even necessary. I still think of the energy and hope of those young men and women in the Sanders campaign, and feel the fire burning in the heart of this country. It is a fire that will shine bright and warm in the future - I strongly believe that its time will come.