July 26, 2014

The "Socialist Senator" Speaks in Philadelphia

On July 24, 2014, two Philly SA comrades attended Senator Bernie Sanders’ talk at the 1199 Union hall. Bernie Sanders is an independent senator from Vermont, a member of the Senate Committees on Energy and the Environment, and the chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs—and a self-described democratic socialist. The event, drawing on interest in a speculated Sanders bid for the presidency, was well-attended by a diverse but generally older audience, including veteran unionists, social-movement activists, Democratic Party organizers and independent leftists.

Two organizations made their presence felt at the event. Outside the union building, the Democratic Socialists of America collected signatures on a petition calling for Sanders to run for President (with the nature of the ticket, Democrat or independent, unspecified), while inside, the Progressive Democrats of America petitioned and handed out stickers calling for Sander to run as a Democrat.

Sanders began his speech with a powerful description of the dismal state of economy inequality in America’s so-called “recovery”. He alluded to underreported rates of unemployment (as high as 40% for African American youth), the increasing concentration of wealth and especially financial wealth (of which the top 1% holds over a third, while the bottom 60% holds just 2.5%!), and the increasing precariousness of those new jobs which have been created. He made reference to the reproduction of this inequality by the infamous “school-to-prison pipeline” in working-class communities, and to the fact that the U.S. has the highest childhood poverty rate in the developed world. He pointed out the 40 million who remain uninsured despite what he called the “modest gains” of the Affordable Care Act, and insisted that healthcare must be regarded as a right of citizenship. He also discussed the country’s comparative lagging in college graduation rates, attributing to it to high tuition rates and student debt burdens compared to other developed countries with subsidized higher education.

Sanders cited three rationales for fighting economic inequality: moral, political, and economic. The moral rationale is perhaps too obvious to state for those of us who must work for a year to earn what many hedge-fund managers earn in a day. The political rationale concerned the vicious cycle by which the concentration of wealth allows powerful capitalists to control the political process and undermine democracy, which in turn fosters that very same concentration of wealth. Sanders reserved special ire for the recent Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United”, which upon naming elicited near-universal “boos”. “Citizens United” eliminated caps on corporate donations to political campaigns, which, Sanders argued, means that “the U.S. government is now for sale” to “oligarchs”. These same oligarchs also have disproportionate influence in the media, through their funding of “experts” who can sell an ideological program as a neutral, purely economic agenda.

Sanders’ economic rationale relied on a classical social-democratic trope: that inequality undermines the smooth functioning of capitalism. His drew attention to capitalism’s need for a broad base of consumption in order to provide demand for goods. He argued that the decline of the working “middle class” created by the labor-capital compact of the post-war years meant that the economy would find insufficient demand for its goods, an insufficiency which could not be shored up by the increased private consumption of the rich. The result: unemployment.

What goes unquestioned in this narrative is the fact that our jobs are dependent for their very existence on the ability of capital to find profitable outlets for investment, i.e. that capitalism is the necessary form of organization of our economy. However, from a socialist viewpoint, Sanders’ analysis does contain an important insight. Essentially, Sanders’ narrative tells us that the capture of the U.S. state by private financial interests, symbolically crowned by “Citizens United”, means that the capitalist state is no longer able to function in its “proper role” as, in Engels’ phrase, the “ideal personification of the total national capital” which looks out for the system’s long-term needs. We have a paradoxical situation where the short-term profit-seeking of individual capitalists, by undermining aggregate demand, has actually undermined the long-term stability of the system, and hence their own long-term profits—and, more importantly, our livelihoods. One cannot help but note the irony that that perhaps the most sane proposal for a “rational” management of capitalism in the U.S. legislature today is coming from a self-described socialist.

At the climax of the night, Sanders called for a “political revolution” of the working class against the oligarchs. It was clear, however, that what Sanders meant by this was more along the lines of a broad political realignment driven by a popular movement for social-democratic reforms than the destruction of the existing state as such. Hence, his calls to action centered around consciousness-raising and voter mobilization, aiming to create a movement that could put pressure on progressive politicians from below for key demands.

Sanders’ policy proposals might best be characterized as a broad platform of social-democratic reforms. They included:

  • a massive, federally-funded jobs program, paying living wages;
  • expansion of Medicare into a single-payer healthcare system;
  • a federal minimum wage set at the level of the living wage, beginning with a fight for $10.10 followed by fights for higher levels;
  • a Constitutional amendment (which Sanders recently introduced to Congress) to overturn “Citizens United”, and public funding of elections;
  • regulations on the energy industry to promote a shift from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, providing green jobs at living wages;
  • expansion of Social Security, and opposition to all attempts to privatize Social Security and the Postal Service

While this program hardly represents the overthrow of capitalism, it would undeniably mean a marked improvement in the lives of many working people across the country, and a welcome fightback to the unmitigated neoliberalism of the bipartisan establishment and the radical Tea Party right alike.

There was a conspicuous absence of discussion around foreign policy, especially the deteriorating situation in the Gaza strip. Sanders has drawn criticism from the left for voting, along with every other member of the Senate, for a resolution supporting the State of Israel as it defends itself against unprovoked rocket attacks from the Hamas terrorist organization”. In fact, it is precisely the financial and political support of U.S. imperialism for the Netanyahu government that allows the terrible violence of the occupation to continue. As a socialist, Sanders would do well to dissociate himself from such gestures of support for a vicious government of capital and settlements.

Those in the audience looking for a clear statement from Sanders on his much speculated-upon presidential campaign were disappointed. When pressed on the question by an audience member, he stated that he was “considering” such a campaign, but would only go ahead if he felt that he had a strong base of activists to support him. He made no mention of whether, if he chose to pursue a presidential campaign, he would run an independent socialist campaign or run as a Democrat.

Philadelphia Socialist Alternative calls on Senator Bernie Sanders to run an independent progressive campaign for the presidency. We believe that, as a prominent and independent progressive, Sanders is in a unique position to launch the kind of mass campaign that could crystallize progressive and working-class discontent with the system into a fighting, genuinely grassroots popular movement for a democratic political process and economic justice. We also believe that a decisive break with the parties of the 1% is necessary for the “political revolution” of the 99% Sanders has called for to come into its own.