Bernie Sanders’ Fossil Socialism

Column: It’s class politics versus identity politics in the Democratic primary

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders / AP
May 29, 2015

Picturesque: a large, celebratory crowd listens to inspiring oratory near the shore of Lake Champlain. The speaker is Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, announcing his candidacy for president of the United States. It’s a fiery, detailed, leftwing speech—about what you’d expect from this 73-year-old self-described democratic socialist and grandpa.

But columnist Byron York noticed something odd. "The racial issues that have dominated the news at various times in the past year were nowhere to be found." Trayvon, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray went unmentioned. The words "Dreamers" and "executive order"—they weren’t said. No resounding endorsement of same-sex marriage, no call to the barricades in support of trans rights. "It struck me as a missed opportunity," said MSNBC host Chris Hayes.

Maybe for today’s left, which puts identity politics ahead of class politics. Sanders? He actually believes in the international labor movement, in socialist economics. Other than an aside in favor of equal pay for equal work, and the assertion that "we can live in a country" where "every person, no matter their race, their religion, their disability, or their sexual orientation realizes the full promise of equality that is our birthright as Americans," and a section on "reversing climate change"—break out your sweaters—his speech was devoted to the traditional left-wing question of who gets how much when.

"The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time," he said. And "for the last 40 years the great middle class of our country—once the envy of the world—has been disappearing." This economic imbalance creates a political imbalance in favor of billionaire donors. "This is not democracy. This is oligarchy."

What to do? Publicly fund elections. Oppose trade agreements. Break up the banks. Raise the minimum wage to $15. Spend $1 trillion over five years on infrastructure. Raise taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. Establish Medicare-for-All. Expand Social Security, legislate universal pre-K, "make tuition in public colleges and universities free."

It’s an old left-winger’s dream: a larger government, a more equal—and in all likelihood poorer—country. But whether the country is poorer doesn’t matter to Sanders, because his critique of capitalism is fundamentally moral. The market might make us rich, but it doesn’t make us good, or kind, or just.

Indeed, it distracts us with options, entices us with pleasures we never knew we wanted (and maybe don’t require). Hence Sanders’s admonition to CNBC this week: "You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants when children are hungry in this country."

The generation gap between Bernie Sanders and Chris Hayes is measured not only in years. It’s evident in their politics. While Sanders and Hayes probably agree on most everything, Sanders hails from a different sort of leftism, a universal, internationalist strain founded on the brotherhood of man, an ideology that treats social conflict ultimately as the consequence of an unjust economic system.

For the old socialists, you had to mobilize politically to command the economy, and then issues of race and ethnicity and religion would disappear. Since we’re all equal, the only relevant dispute was between classes. And once that dispute was settled—workers of the world, blah blah blah—we’d have nothing to worry about.

At least that’s the way it was supposed to happen. But socialism failed to achieve its goals—a planned economy, a classless society, economic growth with equal distribution—and the left shifted emphasis. Revolutionary transformation of the market wasn’t achievable, and perhaps not all that desirable. The left would have to make its peace with capitalism: more like a truce, with the welfare state keeping the market at bay.

What mattered to this new generation of leftists was the distribution of cultural power among groups—not the fortunes and universal rights of "working men" in the abstract but the fortunes and rights of specific types of men and women, whose race or gender or sect was "privileged" and whose was not. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the absurdities of planned economies settled one question. But the political and social and cultural questions—who was on top, what spoils would they reap—remained open.

Bernie Sanders, for reasons of age and experience, is an old-school socialist, more concerned with quantitative justice than with the hierarchy of grievances. He didn’t mention Baltimore in his announcement speech because he thinks it’s just a symptom of economic breakdown. Or as an article on the World Socialist Website recently put it: "The fundamental division in Baltimore—as in American society as a whole—is class, not race."

It’s fitting that Sanders’s opponent Hillary Clinton has decided on the opposite strategy. Petrified of once again losing the nomination unexpectedly, she’s pandering to the constituencies that reelected President Obama. So she’s called for an end to "mass incarceration," she’s pledged to "go further" than Obama’s unconstitutional executive amnesty, she’s playing the gender card, and her aides deny she ever changed her position on same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile she’s coy on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the unions oppose, and on the Keystone Pipeline, which the unions support. Her 200 policy advisers haven’t come up with an economic plan as detailed or coherent as Sanders’s because she’s far less antagonistic to the market than he is, and she doesn’t see our social and political dysfunction as a reflection of material imbalances, like he does.

And how could she—she’s a millionaire many times over, a featured speaker at Goldman Sachs, a jet-setter who decided to run for president while vacationing at Oscar de la Renta’s villa in Punta Cana. She may have authorized a leak to the New York Times in which she fantasized about "toppling" the One Percent, but no one really believes her. (No one really believes anything she says.) The Clintons aren’t revolutionaries, they’re bounders who have no problem with affluence as long as they get theirs. And if practicing a politics that highlights and exacerbates and manipulates the animosities between groups, between minorities and the government, is what’s necessary to "pay our bills"—well, they’ll do it.

In his policies and his idealism, Bernie Sanders is something of a fossil: a relic of socialism past. I disagree with his conclusions and prescriptions, but I admire his honesty and his goal of helping all Americans regardless of race or ethnicity or religion. What I can’t stand are the liberals who disguise their profit-seeking and social prominence by claiming to stand with the oppressed, who never miss an opportunity to signal their allegiance to the cause of the day, but who would never set foot in Baltimore without a security detail, and have never lost a job because an undocumented worker priced them out of the market.

Hillary Clinton’s mask of sincerity is faded, worn, paper-thin. You’ve got to wonder whether at some point the more idealistic liberals will ask why they’re settling for a dissembling, grating, insincere resume-goddess who voted for Iraq when they can have an honest-to-god anti-capitalist peacenik. When that happens, Bernie’s fossil socialism will be dug up, recovered. He'll have his moment—however brief. Better stock up on deodorant while you can.