I attended a speaker series in Oakland last Saturday and saw avowed Socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, Chris Hedges, and Richmond progressive city council member Gayle McGlaughlin (who spoke in exactly the opposite order). What I didn’t realize from reading the posters strewn about Oakland is that it was put on by a new party (I think) called the Socialist Alternative [http://www.socialistalternative.org/about/]. It had the look and feel of a new party and perhaps will become a force but it was rather surprising to see a big organization (or at least an organization with big plans) appear in my region for a fairly big leftist event without my foreknowledge of its existence. Maybe I’ve grown slightly out of touch, but this experience had some teachable moments that go a long way to demonstrate the political deadlock and new hope that we are living through at the moment in terms getting to a moment of transformation in the most powerful country on earth.
There is no doubt in my mind that Socialists are getting bigger and bolder in their actions since Bernie Sanders has gained so much popularity recently, which is due to his decision to run a few months ago, which is in turn due to an assessment of the dissatisfaction with politics in the US brought on by… Yet, especially in Chris Hedges’ speech, the posturing against Bernie was direct and adamant – Bernie was like ghost haunting the baptists-church-become-temporary-leftist-venue in the way he was being denounced. During the question and answer period, someone had the courage to ask (with audible fear-induced voice-cracking) about infighting among the left and the inability for relatively closely allied, say “~80% agreement” vs near-zero percent agreement with fully captured capitalist politicians, to say any kind words or offer endorsement. Instead of giving a little and saying that Sen. Sanders has helped push Socialism into the national spotlight, which directly benefits the organizers of the event, or has a few important planks in his platform, Hedges blasted Sanders for his support for Israel and said something to the tune of his aggressive foreign policy fundamentally discrediting him – with some morally infused rhetoric befitting the venue. It wouldn’t be the first time Hedges has intervened to drive a condemning wedge into an upstart popular group [Chris Hedges debates Crimethinc on Black Bloc Tactics]. It is as if a battle for the *soul of the left has to accompany every surge of power.
Kshama Sawant as well had to correct a questioner (falsely accusing the organizers of censorship in the most tense moment of the night mind you) that she dos not support Bernie Sanders. Her fight has been in Seattle over the raising of the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour (now) and against public sector budget cuts; although, to be fair, there are nods to feminism, anti-colonialism, occupy, and the rest of the gamut that comes out of the left. Sawant’s Socialist Alternative touts the grassroots in its organizational form, sighting how they do not accept money from corporations and rely on small(er) donations from individuals and local activists in their regional offices. They are principled far-leftists but it remains to be seen if they have enough organizational prowess to get good candidates elected without big money from corporations that will need a back scratching. It’s still in the infant stage and is trying to ride Sawant’s recent popularity, with a charismatic speaker still needed to collect donations from the crowd before the Q&A.
But make no mistake, the one who is putting Socialism on the map is Bernie Sanders. He is actually starting to look like the front-runner for the primary candidate of the Democratic Party, routinely filling in stadiums full of thousands of people who can sense the turning of the tide. By comparison, this event looked like a small contingent running behind a big parade saying both “hey, we belong too!” and “you’re doing it all wrong!” at the same time. And it is not that the Socailist Alternative is doing anything wrong on their own projects here, the fight for fifteen would go a great distance for working people and correct a great deal of poverty rotting out the empire from the inside. It’s the issue of infighting, dissension within the ranks that worries me more than any Donald Trump buggyman that the pool of undecided and uncommitted voters will come to their senses about come election time. The left has a habit of eating itself up with over-moralizing, holding it’s own figure heads up to a ridiculously high standard while shunning realpolitik. Bernie is striking a chord with the population who is ready for something new – he can win.
Having everyone fall in line behind him would be counterproductive though, a lively discussion and debate is crucial to attract those skeptics who are immediately turned off by strict adherence to slogans and mantras – especially after Obama’s empty rhetoric yielded almost nothing except ’not going to war with Iran’ (plus the war in whistleblowers, coddled banksters, etc.). Though much derided for his imperial stance, Bernie did not vote for the Iraq war and supported the Iran sanctions/nuclear deal, though he talks tough against Russia in the geopolitical freezing-cold war that the US absolutely must not win. Yeah this is bad news and a good time to interject into a political debate with your family and friends some geopolitical facts and strategy-motives behind America’s empire, but consider this: Bernie Sanders (the Socialist) Actually Is in a Position to Win. The US (and now the UK) can actually have socialists as the face of the nation and signify a major world politics that could a) transform the economy into sustainability and heal the earth’s fever, b) end the Wall Street free-lunch-parasite and the de facto exemption from the rule of law they enjoy, and c) prosecute cops and end the impunity they enjoy to kill black and brown people. The calculus that the Bernie campaign has performed says that he gets more votes and could actually become president if he doesn’t appear weak and unfit to be the commander in chief. This is how politics in America works, no matter how unsavory it tastes.
The kind of local, grassroots direct action can have the luxury of satisfying the moral demands that the most fierce radicals make on their organizations but things change when you jump up into the sphere of governing. These people apply reasoning far in advance, have a strict playbook on what can be said and done, and are willing to break promises and manipulate their constituents. These are things all politicians must be able to do to retain power. But anyone who has a political intelligence that extends beyond their moral suppositions and understands what it means to have and hold real power and influence across a gigantic region (which has major international ripple effects by being the most powerful nation on earth) has to feel excited at this development. Voting for and openly supporting a candidate, any candidate, is a relatively small thing in the big game of electoral politics and their are good reasons to take a principled stance against voting at all – there is so much more we could all do by organizing locally and engaging in direct action at a distance from the state and/or other sanctioned institutions. This is the kind of mentality that the Socialist Alternative wants to tap into and mobilize for its local battles in a nominally decentralized-yet-networked fashion (another ugly conglomeration of buzz-words, I know). But getting a card carrying Socialist elected to the POTUS isn’t just another battle, this is turning the tide of a war – the enemy being neoliberalism and neo-con hawks who would sooner see half of the population starved, homeless, and unemployed than have structural reforms to strip financiers and other mega-corporations from their aristocratic privilege.
The popular fervor this early in the electoral campaign is unprecedented but we have seen something like this before back in 2008. The only thing that ensures “we don’t get fooled again” will be the continued pressure that a more dispersed populism can enact on an elected Bernie without winding down. This is a kind of extended populism that Sanders encourages: [https://www.reddit.com/r/NeutralPolitics/comments/3jiiwn/bernie_sanders_mass_movements_and_political/]. So criticism and borderline infighting is part of what makes the left the left, as Gayle McGlaughlin put it so well during the Q&A. This is only my contribution to greater debate about how to actually win and achieve a left turn in politics: just support the guy, don’t let the critics obscure the fact that we are *this close* to actually empowering Socialism.
Compare this piece: Sandersphobia and Its Discontents
([http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/21/sandersphobia-and-its-discontents/] – “To be clear, this in no way constitutes a defense of Sanders’s position. Rather it is simply an analysis of the kind of brute force strategic calculation probably necessary for a candidate serious about winning to assemble the required coalition.”)
with this one: Don’t Get Berned Again! The Sanders Bribe
([http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/21/dont-get-berned-again-the-sanders-bribe/] – “So the question must be put. Is it moral to support a candidate to get some more goodies in return for the sacrifice of ever more lives by the US military machine? Or if this moral appeal does not move the Sanders supporters, then the prospect of a new World War with Russia and/or China should give them pause.”)
appearing right next to each other in counterpunch.
So is Bernie’s the kind of Socialism we want or just the illusion of Socialism? If we are still stuck in the revolutionary red-and-black occupy hangover (like the Solidarity group that had the usual table, t-shirts, amd Marxist literature for sale) then nothing will satisfy us. Only a colossal sacking of the White House and subsequent supermassive black hole of a power vacum would fit their idea of good political strategy. These people would never admit it, but having an Socialist president would be a boon to their efforts and advance their agenda as well. Some of us other leftists in the Bay Area though were attracted to this big holy Socialist assembly with the feeling of a collective nation-wide empowerment, only to find that the first order of business was killing the goose that laid the golden egg. But I suspect some of the more impression all in the audience were convinced that Bernie is just more of the same when there is a real opportunity here.
As for the very real worries about imperialism, consider this: could anyone become president by officially stating they want to make America geopolitically weaker? Sanders has already come out for diplomatic solutions in recent history, all that he has not done is denounced the war-machine that he will be at the helm of if he wins. For all of his disastrous policies, Obama should be (*cringes*) applauded for standing up to the warhawks and their five-year-plan-to-take-over-the-world when the Iran deal was hammered through. There, I said it. Nobody could survive Washington by bashing long-time allies on top of that. So now we have the Socialist Sanders looking like a real winner and there are problems with his base support because he is not a perfect pacifist saint? We have every reason to believe that all other candidates would keep up the hawkish imperialism internationally, but since Bernie doesn’t denounce using force he gets the cold-shoulder?
There is nothing preventing us from engaging in direct action, practicing consensus-based organizing, reading Marx and Proudhon, and feeling a bit more optimistic about the future because a Socialist is surging in the polls [http://www.salon.com/2015/09/15/the_big_secret_behind_bernie_sanders_surge_in_the_polls_partner/]. It’s even worth vocalizing – our revolutionary organizations and safe spaces could use a dose of realpolitik. It feels good and there is nothing to be ashamed of in optimism.
After the speeches I went to go see the new Mad Max movie, which (if you haven’t seen it) is a piercing dystopian portrayal of a climate change devastated land with a vital-resource hogging despot controlling the war machine with his bro-cult. It was a perfect contrast: what will it be America, Socialism or Barbasism?