By Ella Mahony
This post originally appeared in the DSA Weekly on March 2nd.
Bernie Sanders has announced his run for the presidency of the United States in the midst of a decades-long assault from above on the international, multi-racial working class.
A ruthless campaign of upward redistribution of wealth has resulted in the top 1 percent of the United States owning 40 percent of U.S. wealth; the top 1 percent of the world’s population owning half the world’s wealth; and the bottom half of the world’s population owning the same amount as the world’s richest eight people.
Unions in the United States have gone from wielding the power of 30% of workers to less than 11% today. The vast majority of workers here have no protection against the authoritarian setup of the American workplace and can be put out onto the street at any time, for no reason. Our immigration enforcement system additionally works as the most terrifying and effective union-busting tool bosses have.
Meanwhile, the political reforms and social progress won in the twentieth century are becoming increasingly unstable. Abortion rights seem ready to be wiped off the map. The voting rights won in the Civil Rights Movement are under constant attack. Affirmative action is likely just as threatened as Roe v Wade under the new Supreme Court. The social rights that seemed ascendant in the Obama era now appear profoundly vulnerable.
At the same time, the vehicles for the working class to arrest these setbacks and get back on the offensive have almost completely broken down.
The mass parties that emerged in the twentieth century and collectively engaged hundreds of millions of people to fight to better their conditions, have all but collapsed. Some, like PASOK in Greece or the French Socialist Party, have been completely wiped off the electoral map after betraying their programs and imposing austerity on their own base.
Others, like the Workers Party in Brazil, are still fighting but have been deeply weakened. And the flash of revival we saw in the Middle East with the Arab Spring has been thoroughly, violently, and autocratically repressed.
This has generated a deep crisis of representation for working people across the world. In most countries, there is no meaningful political force speaking to workers’ needs, saying that their misery is not their own fault, and laying out a plan to win an alternative. There are very few forces that can credibly say, “We can protect your reproductive rights. We can protect LGBTQ rights. We can protect your civil rights.”
And this is the context in which the far Right is winning, both by breaking through into popular sectors by being the only ones talking about people’s pain and not blaming it on them, and because a large number of people have given up on change and their abstention allows the Right’s relatively minoritarian coalitions to have a disproportionate impact.
In addition, the Right uses the power it has accumulated in the state, such as the Supreme Court, the military, and enforcement apparatuses to ram through their proposals.
In the United States, the problem is compounded because we’ve never had a mass workers’ or socialist party. People here have very few reference points for what political representation of working-class people really means.
That said, we are at the beginning of a process that might reverse this deep defeat. And the Sanders campaign will be a key vehicle for socialists to further that process.
The ideological stranglehold of neoliberalism has been broken. The financial crisis and the movements it catalyzed destroyed the idea that capitalism and the rapid growth of profits at the top could generate any gains for ordinary people. And these movements created a new consensus about who was hurt by the status quo—the 99%—and who benefits—the 1%.
But there was still a profound malaise in the country because even though people were convinced that the status quo was wrong, they couldn’t perceive a viable alternative or a path to reach it.
What constituted the organized Left was forever on the defensive, mobilizing in silos against the worst excesses of the ruling class, such as the Iraq War or the post-recession bank bailouts. Sometimes we won; more often, we lost. More significantly, we couldn’t get on the offensive in a way that allowed us to change the rules of the game instead of just reacting to individual attacks.
That’s why Bernie Sanders’s campaign in 2016 was so important. It offered a positive program, one ambitious enough that people could actually get excited about it. He offered a blueprint for a different United States.
And in so doing, helped reverse-engineer working-class aspirations from within a howling vacuum of union disorganization and movement setbacks. This is very hard to do in a country where unlivable wages, mass displacement from urban areas, and means-testing in our few public programs keep many of us, particularly the poor, from staying in one place to build relationships and organization and to see one another through the lens of solidarity, not resentment.
Now, the teachers’ movement, thanks to a years-long effort from below to transform educators’ unions, has taken advantage of those raised expectations to demonstrate what the diverse working class can do when it sets a goal and unites to achieve it. And by not just fighting for their own wages, but for nurses in every school, for the end of racist police searches of their students, for sanctuary schools, they have demonstrated that labor is not only for itself. It is not a special interest or only for older white men. They’ve shown that labor is for humanity.
The combination of the Sanders campaign and the teachers’ strike wave has made our job as socialists so much easier. Now, we can go into our campuses or workplaces and find people willing to identify not just as union activists or as socially conscious but as democratic socialists.
Via these simple demands such as Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, we can help people to see beyond their workplace or their industry to the political sphere. We can move people to seeing themselves as political subjects: in other words, not as someone that things are done to, but as someone who can have a say in their own destiny.
It is our duty to take full advantage of this moment and run out the radicalizing processes happening in the formal political sphere, in labor, and in society as far as they can go.
Whatever the details of his program may mean to us, to the rest of the world, the Bernie Sanders campaign will be a referendum on socialist politics in the United States. It is a litmus test about whether a left program can be a viable project in this country.
If we fail, if we cannot win the 13 million Bernie votes of 2016 and go beyond them, this unique historical window will close. The name Bernie Sanders will be used like Ralph Nader’s: as an invocation of why left-wing politics are fundamentally unsuited to Americans.
By participating in the Bernie movement, we can multiply our forces, meet and build relationships with people who can run as socialist candidates at every level, plug into Labor For Bernie work to overcome the separation between labor and socialists, and transform DSA into something rooted in neighborhoods and workplaces of all kinds.
Finally, the divisions it will generate between Bernie and the Democratic establishment will be very useful as a popular education tool about why the differences between the Left and the center matter.
But, of course, the challenges ahead are immense. There is a chance that Bernie Sanders might actually become president of the United States. Wild, right?
We know how capital mobilizes when the Left gets into power. Especially if the Left makes the mistake of confusing formal power with real power.
Sanders himself posed this problem in the CBS interview where he announced his run for president. “We have a corrupt political system in which billionaires can contribute unlimited sums of money. That’s the power of the top 1% and the billionaire class,” he said. “So somebody could come before you and say ‘Look, I wanna do A and I wanna do B’ … but at the end of the day, the only way that real change takes place is when millions of people stand up, fight back.”
Sanders is talking about the elite opposition that even moderate politicians encounter when they want to implement reforms. Because capitalists have so much power over our economy and politics, they can hold our system hostage until politicians do what they want.
One tool they have for this is the capital strike. Just as workers can strike, so can capitalists. They can take their immense investment power and put it somewhere else. If they don’t want President Sanders and his allies to implement a Green New Deal, or if they simply believe that the United States is no longer a favorable investment climate because of it, they can take their money elsewhere and crash our economy in the process. Millions of people will be hurt and could blame socialists for their misery.
This is the primary reason why leftist politicians and parties have, once in office, reversed their programs or even imposed the Right’s policies.
The only way we can fight back against this class warfare from above, and save our democratic socialist program, is through a movement of millions in the streets, shutting down key production points and reproductive sectors like education, and disciplining politicians who cave to the billionaires’ pressure.
That might make you think that this is the wrong time for Bernie Sanders to be running at all. It doesn’t feel as if we’re strong enough now to weather that battle.
There are two things I would say to this. First, Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who can beat Donald Trump (or another Trump-esque) figure in 2020. Four more years of a Trump presidency might guarantee permanent defeat for the working class. A Sanders campaign is urgent in this moment.
Second, as students of Marx we know that we socialists do not get to choose the historical circumstances in which we organize. Marx wrote in 1852, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already.” Already, in a shockingly short span of time, organizers have taken advantage of the political environment since 2016 to build a powerful strike wave from practically nothing.
Bernie Sanders is running for president, and he might actually win. What we can do—what we must do—is use the organizing opportunity of the Sanders campaign to reach millions of people when they are most open to politics—and socialist politics particularly! We have to convert them into committed fighters for the democratic socialist program, and make sure they don’t recede into pessimism or inactivity after the presidential election is over.
We can do that through an independent DSA campaign for Bernie Sanders that focuses on converting the electoral energy of 2020 into durable social movement and labor organization.
In Bernie Sanders’ launch video, he features a news clip hailing a wage hike at Disney as a “victory for Bernie Sanders.” A voiceover from Bernie corrects the record: “It’s a victory for all of us.” That is the attitude we must take up as well. Our “north star” is not one person. It is, instead, this historic opportunity to build the confidence and ability of the working class to collectively win its own liberation.
Ella Mahony has been a member of DSA’s National Political Committee since 2017.