OPINION | Inequality & the Future: Some Thoughts on Bernie Sanders

OPINION | Inequality & the Future: Some Thoughts on Bernie Sanders

By Imre Bártfai 
Global Security Analyst - EU & North America, IndraStra Global

OPINION | Inequality & the Future: Some Thoughts on Bernie Sanders

Image Attribute: The source image for this illustration of Bernie Sanders is a photo in the public domain from the U.S. Senate. Caricature by DonkeyHotey, Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

There is scarcely a day without someone calling Senator (Sen.) Bernie Sanders is a Stalinist. No wonder, is it?

There is a lot of confusion on how people perceive about Sen. Sanders, for many people he is an unlikely candidate: he is an “underdog”, he is not charismatic and not an establishment oriented politician, and he is too much of a left-winger to run for presidential office in a country so zealously capitalist, where socialism will never come to power. (Or at least it failed in America as Seymour Martin Lipset explained in the book ‘It Didn't Happen Here. Why Socialism Failed in the United States’)

Sen. Sanders provocatively chose the term "democratic socialism" to describe his political philosophy. What does this mean? Some are suggesting that he is a communist, like Lenin or Stalin, who ruthlessly schemes to destroy liberty and property[1], just like the Trotsky-like figure in the classic anti-communist cold-war comics Is this tomorrow[2]The fact that Sen. Sanders puts ‘democratic’ besides ‘socialism’ in this term should help us.

The term Socialism (in its modern meaning) was first used in France.[3] Mostly it was used interchangeably with the term "communism". Marx and Engels made a difference between social-democrats, whom they considered to be traitors and the "real socialists". Mostly the difference between Marxism and Socialism was the project of the total abolishment of capital and the transformation of class-based social order, because socialists wanted either less radical forms of change, or in some cases, a state-controlled capitalism.[4] (Ferdinand Lassalle) Marx on the other hand fused German Hegelian philosophy, English (Ricardo-based) political economy & its theory of labor, and French utopian communism into a new theory, which was basically indigestible for many English and French revolutionaries.[5] Marx thought that the dialectical laws of history which determine the fate of humanity revolve around the alienation of human labor. Various, advancing forms of labor’s exploitation culminate in the all-powerful capitalism, which creates the proletariat, the most exploited and most homogeneous class of history.

At this stage of history – according to him, it is inevitable that current class will understand the source of its misery, and thus the most developed social consciousness will be one with the most oppressed (and the most numerous) class. As workers recognize their international unity and their power they will rise against the then very thin oppressor class. They like the Hegelian spirit will reach absolute knowledge, the recognition of themselves, as the living antagonism of existing society: they, the creators of all wealth are also the poorest and the most powerless class of society. This moment of inevitable revolution will happen in the most advanced capitalist countries. (Most likely in Great Britain, which had a strong and miserable working class already.) But history cheated Marx: the first communist country was created in the agricultural, backward, half-feudal Russia by a handful of intellectuals. (Supported by Imperial Germany in order to wreak havoc in Russia.)

When the Soviets failed to  create a global revolution they reassured people that they are still building socialism, especially after Stalin proclaimed the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ which stated, unlike Marx thought, that it is possible to abolish capital and start the development toward communism locally, instead on a global scale.

How did that socialism look like? Nationalization of industry and market, central planning in economy, development by prescribed five years plans, full employment, government-controlled prices and salaries, one-party rule and not to forget it also incorporated the façade of democratic institutions but no checks and balances and no real representation for the people. This is a very rough historical picture, but it gives us the essentials about Soviet-type socialism. Nothing like this can be found in the program of Bernie Sanders.

The language and ideas used by Sen. Sanders are by no means new in American politics and they are not radical at all. Already Jefferson and Hamilton fought over American future, when the former protected his vision of rural democracy, that of the small landholder, while Hamilton envisaged the magnificent, rich country of the entrepreneur class. America was destined to be Hamilton’s industrial giant. Already Lincoln remarked, that “labor is superior to capital”, and as economic development filled the chests of businessmen and filled the cities with poor; the desolate people, an entire branch of progressives emerged: muckraker journalists, philosophers and dreamers, and finally, progressive politicians.[6]

One of them, Theodore Roosevelt, right before he launched his attack on trusts, delivered this verbal blow as a definition of progressivism: “At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress.” [7]

The question was how to separate economic power from political power: “The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.”-said he.  Wilson, his rival, had his own ideas but he showed himself not much restrained: No country can afford to have its prosperity originated by a small controlling class. The treasury of America does not lie in the brains of the small body of men now in control of the great enterprises that have been concentrated under the direction of a very small number of person.”[8]

Literally I could quote these fantastic sentences for hundreds of pages, and each one of them could have come from Sen. Sanders today. For someone, who sought to understand the plight of modern societies for some time I was astonished by the depth of these early progressive ideas.

Let us remember, how Roosevelt warned against a "government run by organized money" And :"we had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering."[9] Harry S. Truman, a popular president indeed, said: "The Wall Street reactionaries are not satisfied with being rich, they want to increase their power and their privileges, regardless of what happens to the other fellow. They are gluttons of privilege."[10] He had even the audacity to remind people of the importance of checking the hammer which is hitting on their heads. The progressive movements brought a profound change to America, even if Roosevelt’s Bill of Economic Freedom fell and the New Deal-consensus along with Keynesian economy policies were shattered in the Reaganite revolution.

This was the Democratic party before our time. Not even that long ago. And these people were staunch anti-communists. (With the exception of FDR, who was still –according to Robert H. Jackson ready to turn against the communists should the need arose.[11]) While some New Dealers were naive about the USSR (like H. Wallace) and many others were simply anti-communist crusaders like James F. Brynes or Dean Acheson. Truman summarized their opinion all too well in a one sentence "Communism thrives on human misery".

What is the origin of their progressive ideas? Imagine a game of Monopoly in which you are a player, but you are the bank too. And you make the rules. I actually played monopoly such a way once, and let me tell you, I enjoyed it mightily, until the tables were turned on me. Capitalism is fueled by the belief that you can be anything if you set your mind to it. That free individuals are competing against free individuals, and this competition teaches fortitude, willpower and strategic thinking. The winner, who emerges from the contest is the best individual, but the game starts again, and you get a new deck of cards.  Prove yourself.

There were situations in which this was mainly true. This was the frontier, the rugged individualism of early capitalism in America. But even then, sometimes the game was underhanded and sordid.[12] Today, when the gross wealth produced by society goes into the hands of the few, because they have the property which rules over labor, the game ends before it could start. Should they only own the means of production perhaps it won’t be that horrible.

But they make the rules too. Vested interests learned once again to wrestle power from the government by buying political tools and investing in politics, and the unregulated market economy created bubble and a form of unproductive and off-shore capitalism. Big corporations pay tiny tax and send work abroad.  A biased and manipulative media serves those, who have the money to keep the clockwork oiled. Super PACKs and professional organizations of political, media and marketing experts can influence millions and create immense political capital. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”- as once Wilson remarked.

The common worker of most developed countries must compete with countries in which social safety and environmental protection are basically unknown, and leadership lies in the hand of authoritarian bureaucrats. The armies of the tyrants are ready to take over democracy even in the "Empire of Liberty" which America once was.

"One on the one hand is an immense power on the other material and spiritual powerlessness"- Exact words Max Horkheimer used more than half a century before. And today the result is in the form of an American Wal-Mart worker, who needs food stamps to survive, despite working 40 hours a week. Ever wondered, there might be some genuine nostalgia in the resurgent interest in rockabilly clothes and the pin-up world? That was the time in which the American commoner was the envy of the world.  The US. won the Cold War because it was able to maintain a leading position in the arms race simultaneously with maintaining good living standards and liberty. The American victory was both a material and a moral one.

Since the 18th century many philosophers explicated the idea that civil society must be protected from the destructive forces of chaotic markets and abstract individualism, together both may destroy political unity and morals.[13] Max Weber and some other social scientists argued that behind the fall of ancient polities like the polis or the Roman states lies inequality, the vanishing of middle class, the basis of political stability and manpower in war. Inequality disintegrates political stability and social ties: this was the experience of mankind ever since Aristotle up to our own age.

We can choose to ignore the multitude of proofs which point into this direction, or we can choose to learn from them. So…am I suggesting that a form of Marxism or communism is the answer?

Of course, not at all.  I think everyone knows this already. Marxism failed to understand liberal democracy by categorizing it as a superstructure of bourgeois oppression and class dominance. Marxism failed to understand the motivation of individuals. Marxism falsely tried to predict the future on the basis of the theory of class struggle, which is, frankly spoken, a trivialization of Hegel. Central planning is ineffective and by abolishing free market entirely it leads to tyranny.

And we didn't mention that wherever the communists took power they did it by violence and the first task they performed was the total destruction of democracy and every system of representation in which people had any voice. Cold War-America was right: communism is a failure, and a dangerous one. But what is more American than checking power before it could become absolute? Economic power is just a form of power, like political power, and it must be checked and limited the same way.

Fortunately, various forms of progressivism showed us already in the beginning of the 20th century that we have a treasure chest of ideas to draw inspiration from. Just as the ideology of absolutely free markets, paired with the night-watch state is essentially a fundamentalist and dogmatic idea, the ideology of the far left, be it Maoism or Marxism is just a confinement for the mind.[14] Those, who fear-monger against progressive ideas are simply sectarians engaging in guerrilla politics. They want to suppress free thought in the disguise of noble conservatism or traditional American-Western values. The Soviets did the same when they ‘protected’ people from the ‘bourgeois reactionaries’ a.k.a. Liberal democrats. Let us face it: if people would had showed the same attitude against new ideas in the last five centuries as the fundamentalists of Wall street-capitalism show now then we would still live in rural counties administered by royal bailiffs.

The real questions of 21st century will be whether we can turn the evolution of technology into a source of welfare and freedom for all humankind, or it will continue to take people’s jobs? Will technical development revolutionize other areas of human existence as much as it revolutionized information technology and mass communication? Is there a way back to the aspiring vision of Star Trek and classic sci-fi which envisaged a more human future instead of the cyberpunk slums of Blade Runner? Can the project of democracy conquer new areas, or future is finally and hopelessly engaged to authoritarian forms of politics? Will people believe in a future in which all are one from many, or many are for one?

Either global inequality, the destruction of eco-sphere, the decay of democracy and its institutions will shape the future, and there is nothing one can do about it. Or there is an insight, an idea, or better yet, an arsenal of ideas which will tackle the misfortune of the arrested development of recent decades and present new routes to take. It is very important now to know the past, but no remnant of past will provide enough insights for this struggle. Therefore one must learn to step forward and leave behind the confines of rigid ideologies (like the demand of absolutely free markets or its nemesis, the strict central planning.) Sen. Sanders had some radical views in his youth, in the sixties and seventies, but that was the time in which the otherwise brilliant Philip K. Dick could have written a novel about somebody, obviously a Nixon-lookalike, taking the presidency and reshaping the US as a totalitarian dictatorship. That was a rebellious and radical age. Whenever people feel aimless, betrayed and clueless about their future, radicalism appears and sometime reappears too.

On personal front, I don’t like the word "socialism". It reminds me of the past, as it comes with the taste of 20th century communism, 19th century social struggles and bitter Cold War propaganda contests. But now we must think of the future. We must think again of the future. If you refuse to be led into fear-mongering or dogmatism, that’s already the first step.

About The Author:

Global Security Analyst - EU & North America
Area of Research : US politics, European issues with special regard to Central Europe
Location: Budapest, Hungary
Thomson Reuters Researcher ID: N-9214-2015
Twitter Id: @Imre_Bartfai
Google+ : +Imre Bártfai 

Cite This Article:

Bártfai ,Imre "OPINION | Inequality & the Future: Some Thoughts on Bernie Sanders" IndraStra Global 002 No: 03 (2016) 0009,  http://www.indrastra.com/2016/03/OPINION-Inequality-Future-Some-Thoughts-on-Bernie-Sanders-002-03-2016-0009.html | ISSN 2381-3652


[1] ’Don’t be fooled by Bernie Sanders –he’s a diehard communist.’ http://nypost.com/2016/01/16/dont-be-fooled-by-bernie-sanders-hes-a-diehard-communist/

[2] Check this comics here: 

[3] Klaus Von Beyme: Sozialismus.Theorien des Sozialismus, Anarchismus und Kommunismus im Zeitalter der Ideologien 1789 – 1945. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2013. 1-10.

[4]Robert Owen (1771–1858), Charles Fourier (1772–1837), and other early socialist thinkers saw the need to reform rather than destroy capitalism” –New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Vol I. , ed. by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Thomson Gale, 2227.

[5] Marx remains generally a bit more obscure for the most American readers than he is for the European ones. For his theory see ’Economic-philosophic Manuscript from 1844’, the populist propaganda brochure ’Communist Manifesto’.

[6] About this see Daniel Aaron’s Men of Good Hope: a Story of American Progressives.

[7]New Nationalism Speech. Theodore Roosevelt August 31, 1910. 

[8] The New Freedom, by Wodrow Wilson. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14811/14811-h/14811-h.html 

[9] Speech at Madison Square Garden. Franklin D. 

[10] Address at Dexter, Iowa, on the Occasion of the National Plowing Match. September 18, 1948. Harry S. Truman. http://www.trumanlibrary.org/publicpapers/index.php?pid=1814

[11] Robert H. Jackson: That man. An Insider’s Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Oxford UP, 2003. 73

[12] H. W. Brands: American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900. Anchor Books, NY 2011.

[13] Laurence Dickey: Hegel: Religion, Economics, and the Politics of Spirit, 186-205 o.

[14] George Soros once compared free market fundamentalism with Marxism, and I think this comparison stands.

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