Book Review from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
Our Revolution: A Future To Believe In by Bernie Sanders (Profile Books)
Bernie Sanders recently published a book outlining his agenda for transforming America. But the ‘political revolution’ he envisages leaves capitalism firmly in place.
Bernie Sanders, the self-described ‘democratic socialist’ who railed against the ‘billionaire class’ during the Democratic presidential primary, has written a book, titled Our Revolution. A promising title, which suggests he might lay out his vision for a socialist society to replace the capitalist profit system. But read the book from cover to cover and you’ll hardly find the words ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’—much less an explanation of their meaning.
Bernie does throw out the word ‘radical’ occasionally, but only to reassure readers that his proposals ‘are not radical ideas’. The more rational among them must wonder, though, how a revolution to uproot ‘the Establishment’ could be anything but radical, in the most literal sense of the word.
But there is no contradiction here: Bernie hasn’t the slightest intention of advocating a genuine social revolution. ‘Reasonable’ reform, not revolutionary change, is his agenda. In the book, as in his campaign speeches, he is careful to always place the adjective ‘political’ in front of the ‘revolution’ he is trying to foist on us as our own, which allows him to limit discussion to political policy reform.
Imagine how much stronger the simple title Revolution—or Revolution!—would have resounded among those sick of the status quo. But it would have been false advertising, given the book’s content, and Bernie is at least honest enough to not raise readers’ expectations that high.
What he’s not averse to doing, however, is making some outrageous claims for the benefits of his proposed reforms. In his introduction, for instance, Bernie claims that his book ‘lays out a new path for America based on principles of economic, social, racial, and environmental justice’. And he writes in the conclusion that it is possible to ‘overcome the insatiable greed that now exists and create an economy that ends poverty and provides a decent standard of living’.
Poverty-free capitalism? A society that remains capitalist but is motivated by justice, not profit? Is this the ‘future to believe in’ to which Bernie’s campaign slogan (and the book’s subtitle) is referring? I’ll believe it when I see it, Bernie, but frankly it’s very hard to imagine given capitalism’s track record and essential nature.
Bernie’s barrage of facts
Bernie’s book is divided into two parts. Part One, ‘Running for President’, presents information about his life and details his presidential campaign; while Part Two, ‘Agenda for a New America: How We Transform Our Country’, looks at pressing social problems in the United States and offers policy prescriptions.
We had hoped the book would present Bernie’s understanding of the fundamental causes of social problems, but most of it is taken up with the presentation of facts and statistics. Part Two lists many of the problems facing workers in the United States, such as poverty, income disparity, legal injustice, gender and racial discrimination, health-care inequities, unemployment, and environmental destruction. As a narrow-minded nationalist, Bernie strictly limits his discussion to the United States, but he is dealing with problems that exist, to a greater or lesser extent, in every country. These are clearly capitalist problems.
In that sense, it might seem that Bernie’s fact-bombardment could blast a few holes in the ideological bulwark of capitalism. Certainly, taken together, his statistics provide concrete evidence to support the idea that the current system must be replaced. But listing up facts about social and economic problems is not enough to threaten capitalism. Open any newspaper and you will be confronted with the problems of this system.
What truly worries the capitalist class is not simply the exposure of problems, which could hardly be concealed anyway, but when anyone starts to examine them too diligently, with an eye to locating essential causes. That path leads to the understanding that there is no solution to today’s social problems without uprooting and replacing capitalism. And Bernie Sanders, the US Senator from Vermont, is not about to travel too far down that path.
Bernie does suggest, early in the book, that he has (or once had) an interest in getting to the root of problems. He describes how joining the Young People’s Socialist League and other organisations taught him that ‘there was a cause-and-effect dynamic and an interconnectedness between all aspects of society’, and that, ‘things didn’t just happen by accident’.
But when Bernie gets around to addressing the causes of American social problems, in Part Two of his book, we see that his understanding of that ‘dynamic’ is astonishingly superficial. He is content to simply pin the blame for our social woes on the greed, corruption, and stupidity of billionaires (and their political lackeys), as if the problems of capitalism were arbitrary.
One gets no sense at all from his book that there might be deeper, systematic factors that determine the behavior of his culprits. One can’t help thinking that Bernie’s barrage of facts is necessary to conceal the poverty of his analysis. Senator Sanders seems to have regressed compared to Young Bernie, who at least knew that ‘things didn’t just happen by accident’.
There isn’t space here to present Bernie’s understanding of the ‘cause-and-effect dynamic’ for each of the problems he raises, so I will limit myself to two key issues: the deterioration of democracy and wealth and income inequality.
Drift toward oligarchy
In the first chapter of Part Two, Bernie discusses the narrowing of democracy and drift toward oligarchy in the United States. He sketches how American democracy started off as ‘revolutionary in its day’— albeit limited by ‘slavery and racism, rigid class lines, and a deeply rooted sexism’ — and was expanded over the next two centuries to become ‘more inclusive’.
This unfinished effort to ‘perfect our democracy’ has broken down in recent years, however, because ‘people of incredible wealth and power . . . want to undo the progress we have made and roll back the clock of history’. These are the ‘oligarchs’ who are ‘threatened by what ordinary people can accomplish through the democratic process’. This is Bernie’s basic view of the ‘cause’ of the deterioration of American democracy.
These oligarchs have pursued their goal of sabotaging democracy by pressuring politicians to change election laws so as to allow ‘big-money interests’ to contribute more freely to election campaigns. In particular, Bernie bemoans the ‘disastrous 5-4 Citizens United decision’ of the Supreme Court in 2010, which has allowed large corporations to spend ‘unlimited sums of money on “independent expenditures”’. The solution Bernie offers is as straightforward as the cause: We simply need to ‘pass real campaign finance reform and get big money out of politics’.
The point here is not to criticise campaign finance reform, but to draw attention to how superficially Bernie discusses democracy under capitalism. Bernie writes, for instance, that he ‘fears very much that . . . “government of the people, by the people, for the people” will perish in the United States’ due to a ‘political campaign finance system that is corrupt and increasingly controlled by billionaires and special interests’. But when did such an American government ever exist? And how could it ever exist under any class-divided social system?
Even if ‘big money’ were driven out of the electoral system, it would remain at the core of an economic system in which capitalists own the means of production and workers must hire out their labour-power to them to live. Democracy under capitalism will always be limited because of this reality, even if it does not deteriorate to the point of oligarchy.
In the same chapter, Bernie does throw out a broader and deeper definition of ‘democracy’ as ‘the right of a free people to control their destiny’. But it is just a passing remark. Perhaps he realised that examining the meaning of democracy too closely might raise awkward questions about its fundamental limits under capitalism.
In the second and third chapters of Part Two, Bernie looks at the shrinking ‘middle class’ in America and growing inequality. And here again he offers the same picture of a steady progress that was suddenly upended by greed. The period after World War II, he explains, was a ‘time of enormous economic growth’ when ‘the benefits of the economy were far more equitably shared with the working families that make up the broad middle’. Although it wasn’t a ‘utopian time’, there was far less ‘income and wealth inequality’.
So how was it that progress came to an end and is now being reversed? What ‘cause-and-effect dynamic’ was at play? It’s quite simple, really: Things were improving ‘until powerful special interests started demanding a bigger and bigger slice of the pie’.
Those must have been powerfully stupid special interests, because on the previous page Bernie had just told us that, during the period of growth, ‘the rich were doing well, the middle class was expanding, and fewer people were living in poverty’. Why would the rich dare to rock that pleasure boat? Surely slightly less wealth would be acceptable in return for social harmony.
But Bernie doesn’t trouble himself with such questions, or stop to consider how capitalism is rooted in inequality, leaving him free to blithely conclude that the greed of those special interests (who pushed deregulation, free-trade agreements, and anti-union legislation) is the reason the ‘great American class, once the envy of the world’ has been in decline ever since’.
But don’t despair! Bernie has a plan to reverse this decline so that we can ‘create an economy that works for all, not just the people on top’, promising he will ‘explain how we can do that’ in his chapter, ‘Ending the Rigged Economy’. (Some may be curious, to begin with, how an ‘economy that works for all’ would still have ‘people on top’!)
The plan, after Bernie’s big build-up, is a let-down. It amounts to little more than raising the minimum wage, based on his reasoning that ‘a major reason why more than 43 million Americans are living in poverty today’ is the ‘erosion of the federal minimum wage’. So, in case you didn’t follow his reasoning, a major cause of poverty is that workers don’t have enough money. (In other breaking news: Disease may be a major cause of illness). So the solution is equally straightforward. Raising the minimum raise, Bernie writes, ‘will lift millions of Americans out of poverty, and provide a much-needed boost to our economy’.
It should go without saying (but I’ll say it for the sake of ‘Berniecrats’) that workers naturally must fight for higher wages, as well as for shorter working hours and better conditions. And the fight for a higher minimum wage is part of that struggle. This is all good. The problem with Bernie’s argument is that it portrays poverty as an arbitrary phenomenon under capitalism, resulting from lower wages (tautology!), rather than from some deeper cause.
Moreover, Bernie’s claim that raising wages will ‘boost’ the economy reflects a profound ignorance of how capitalism operates. His assumption is based on the tired old ‘under-consumption theory’, so prevalent on the Left, which states that economic stagnation and crisis can be overcome by raising wages to stimulate mass consumption. Bernie lays out the theory in its crudest form:
‘When low-wage workers have money in their pockets they spend that money in grocery stores, restaurants, and businesses throughout the country. All this new demand gives companies a reason to expand and hire more workers. This is a win-win situation for our economy. Poverty is reduced. New jobs are created. And we reduce the sky-rocketing inequality that currently exists in this country’.
This is impeccable logic, except for the fact that the motive force of capitalism is profit. While capitalists are happy for the workers of their rivals to have more money, they fiercely resist wage increases among their own workers that would reduce profit margins. Indeed, if raising wages really was such a simple, win-win solution, why on earth would capitalists shun it? Is it simply because they are greedy, amoral, and stupid? Bernie sure seems to think so.
But for all his foaming rhetoric against the ‘billionaire class’, Bernie never goes so far as to say: No more billionaires! Instead, his ‘message to them’ is that, “they can’t have it all.” But we’d have to assume that ‘they’ would still have at least a billion dollars, the bare requirement for membership in their class. Maybe it’s not ‘having it all’, literally, but for the average worker it sure as hell seems like it!
Bernie’s rhetoric against billionaires is just a distraction from the more essential causes of social problems, thereby letting capitalism (and hence the billionaires themselves!) off the hook.
It’s not about him
During Bernie’s campaign, the sight of enthusiastic workers and students at the rallies, and the unfamiliar sound of words like ‘oligarchy’ and ‘billionaire class’ in the stump speeches, made his politics appear radical. And it was indeed encouraging to see that the ‘language of class war’ could be a vote-winner among the supposedly ‘conservative’ American working class.
But now that the crowds have dispersed and his ideas are lying flat on the page, it is obvious that behind the radical-sounding rhetoric lies a politician whose aim is to reform American political policy—not transform society. Moreover, by labeling his package of reforms a ‘revolution’, and selectively attacking certain sectors of the capitalist class, Bernie is channeling the anger of budding class warriors away from the capitalist system itself.
Rather than targeting capitalism, Bernie attacks the ‘billionaire class’, Wall Street, ‘Big Pharma’, and specific companies like Walmart. He blames free-trade agreements for worsening unemployment and intensifying competition, as if those phenomena were not inherent to the profit system. And, ignoring irreconcilable class differences, Bernie (like Trump) pushes the nationalist myth that American capitalists could be convinced or coerced to look out for the interests of American workers.
Bernie’s book reveals that his politics are incapable of meeting the hopes raised by his campaign rhetoric. In his stump speeches, he was fond of saying: ‘This is not about me—it’s about all of us’. Bernie was right. The time has come for workers to leave reformists like him to their tinkering with capitalism, while we carry out our revolution.