Published online 2 January 2016.
The present-day context of Sanders’ “revolution”
Once upon a time, back before the present-day paranoia became fashionable, there was such a thing as “antiglobalization protesters.” More recently, there were these individuals called “Occupiers.” Now it all seems like a myth, an intimation of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. What has filled the vacuum are three different political persuasions, as outlined in this diary:
1) Antipublic conservatives: these are the people who don’t believe in a public, or who don’t want us to believe in a public. Their conservatism is intentionally divisive, and they offer the world the ideological gloss now seen in the Republican Party in the “red states,” though not significantly in places such as California. They’re divisive and reactionary.
2) Corporate conservatives: this is the default setting for politics in America and most of the world today. Many of these people view themselves as “leftists” or “liberals” or “centrists”; insofar as they really have nothing in mind besides the preservation of a corporate order in which the working class is bought off, they are conservatives. These are the “pragmatists”: they preserve the profit rates for the corporations while buying off the working class. This is what everyone in power assumes is the main purpose of government in this era. The buyoff can be either ideological, by having everyone subscribe to an ideology (neoliberalism is still the fashion, as it has been since the late Seventies) or monetary, through social programs. Their political rhetoric can be as nice as you please; they can compare themselves to Gandhi or Nelson Mandela or whomever you please; but corporate conservatism is what they do. Corporate conservatism is so ubiquitous that there really isn’t a lot of use in putting anyone down for it; as Philip Mirowski points out in his book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste, neoliberalism dominates thinking about political economy in the world so thoroughly that there really isn’t a competing paradigm of thought about present-day political economy.
3) People looking for the exit door to the Matrix. This is really a philosophical culture more than a political grouping. (The sectarians of the Green, Socialist, and other such parties don’t count as “Left” political groupings — their proud claims to being “leftists” belied by their insignificant numbers — and the sell-outs belong in Category #2 above.) The “people looking for the exit door to the Matrix,” as a metaphorical category, was what the world saw in the antiglobalization protests and in Occupy, and perhaps also in Black Lives Matter, though as regards BLM we might imagine such a group as contributing to blogs such as Orchestrated Pulse. Such people, then, are in the vanguard of radical ideas, but without significant followings. There are also a few people looking for the exit door to the Matrix, in varying degrees of seriousness, in the universities — my friend Peter McLaren is one of them. I’m sure you can name a few others. This group is important to the political revolution not for their organization, nor for the most part for their beliefs, but rather for their collective search, for their willingness to engage a process that might lead to something radically better than what we have now.
This is where the Sanders pronouncement of “political revolution” comes in. “Right” and “Left” have lost their meanings in the US context. Sanders, all by himself, is merely a Right deviationist — he wishes to preserve the existing system while smartly proposing that universal entitlements be tacked onto neoliberal existence. His economic adviser Stephanie Kelton is a mainstay of Modern Monetary Theory — in economic terms a vast improvement over what the Important People in government are doing now, but still within the orbit of “more capitalism” — I elaborate on MMT in this comment. As regards climate change, Sanders’ call for a carbon tax is, as John Bellamy Foster and others have pointed out, the best that can be expected under the existing system ( if combined with a public refund) — and it’s still not the solution.
Sanders is of course not to be blamed for any of this. He is pushing the system to do as much as it can do at this time. His ideas will maximize the potential for American social democracy in this era — while at the same time he has yet to contest with any seriousness the austerian question of “how are you going to pay for it”? In reality, a Sanders government, should it win election, will pay for Sanders’ ideas in the same way the US government has paid for most everything for the past thirty-five years, in administrations Republican or Democratic — by issuing Treasury bills and having the Fed print some money to cover their costs. A Sanders presidency, by itself, will discover and test the strength of the oligarchy — the gatekeepers — the elite few who can say “if you want to save the capitalist system, you must fatten our portfolios.”
What has the most potential in the Sanders campaign, however, and the greatest possibility for transcending universal-Right politics, is the political revolution. The political revolution is Sanders’ main selling point, and the biggest piece of evidence we have that Sanders is not going to follow the “progressive give-up formula” that “Lambert Strether” sees in Democratic Party history. The Sanders political revolution will be the first preliminary step the United States as a whole can take to move away from the society of money. Who knows what will happen when people start standing up for their rights?
The revolution-phobes are completely wrong when they worry that a political revolution could get out of hand. The status quo is already out of hand — the political and economic powers that be are already perfectly happy with an everyday reality in the US which there are more mass shootings than days in the year, and nobody bats an eyelash anymore at war in 135 countries. (Meanwhile the North Pole is melting in midwinter.) There are no secure handholds in late capitalism –no absolute guarantees for your job or for economic prosperity or for the global ecosystem’s ability to produce you a decent meal. Revolution-phobes imagine an illusory stability to the existing order.
The scariest possibility as regards a political revolution is that it will merely offer a spectacle to distract from the real changes going on around us — that there will be a lot of nice marching and petitions and town hall meetings and nonviolent sit-ins and that when all of the action has ceased the social world will retain its commodified conservatism, brought to you by Kellogg’s or whomever, while the climate change emergency laid out in Sanders’ speeches continues unabated.
In future years, the main focus of the political revolution (which will have to run past the primary season if it is to be anything at all) will be climate change. Oh, sure, we can nominate candidates who hire bundlers for oil interests and pretend that somehow the problem will magically be solved by “cutting deals” with a Republican Congress full of deniers and with nice folks who paid for speaking engagements. Maybe it will do something. But the real alternative to more of the same is a political revolution that will wrest the whole issue away from the idea that the political status quo. The blueprint for all of this is of course Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything.”
At this early point in the discussion, however, climate change does not yet have the same political urgency that it will have in the future. The participants in American political culture still possesses a common tendency to split things up into “issues,” then imagining that said issues can be resolved in isolation, one from the other. So climate change is imagined as having nothing to do with the shrinking of the middle class, the still-dicey availability of affordable healthcare, the persistence of warfare, or any other important issue. The thing about “issues,” however, is that ultimately they all affect the same global human population, on the same planet!
In this regard, one of the most important observations of Jason W. Moore’s innovative book is that we can more easily understand interactions between “society” and “nature” if we see them as “bundled human and extra-human natures.” Climate change today is often portrayed as “nature” — but the commonly-expressed concern about climate change is that our human nature, as bundled with the extra-human natures of the physical world, will not be up to dealing with the problem. Once we really focus upon the problem of climate change holistically, and as a process, we should get some sort of resolution to the pressing questions of what can really be done.
One question concerning the Sanders political revolution which hasn’t been addressed so far is that of how the political revolution is to become something more than the Sanders campaign. This question isn’t really a matter of a problem with the Sanders campaign so much as it’s a matter of the logistics of a political revolution. A political revolution must happen everywhere; a primary campaign must start in Iowa and New Hampshire and a few other states, and will often have reached some sort of closure long before other states will “get their turn.” In 2008, for instance, Dennis Kucinich dropped out of the presidential race long before I could vote for him.t
The dominant trends point to a grim future because they don’t indicate that the necessary changes are being enacted, demanded, or even considered just yet. Mass society still constructs the illusion that the future will be like the present. (This is not “false consciousness,” or even “mass hypnosis, prostration, and indifference,” as suggested in this “left” endorsement of Sanders, because the radically different future, which will come with the certainty of climate change, is so far only available through extrapolation.) Meanwhile, the scientists have been caught downplaying the risks of climate change all along, and the economy is still badly overleveraged. The future is indeed coming. Gopal Balakrishnan calls our current situation the move toward the stationary state:
In the absence of organized political projects to build new forms of autonomous life, the ongoing crisis will be stalked by ecological fatalities that will not be evaded by faltering growth.
There isn’t the slightest guarantee that we will be able to overcome the hold that capitalism has over us (and in this instance, what some have proposed calling ”capitalocene,” and not anthropocene, will be a geological epoch that is extremely short). Nor do we know how, in the best of cases, we might live in the ruins that it will leave us: the window of opportunity in which, on paper, the measures to take were reasonably clear, is in the process of closing. It wasn’t necessary to be a prophet to write, as I have done, that we are more badly equipped than ever for putting to work the solutions defined as necessary.
In Stengers’ ideas of the future, either society will descend into chaos or government will “solve” the problem through geoengineering while leaving the working class at the mercy of predatory “green” capitalism. Neither outcome will prevent ecological disaster.
To remedy such a situation, there will need to be three dimensions to the political revolution: 1) the dimension of education, of questioning and learning, 2) the dimension of demand, without which power concedes nothing, and 3) the dimension of actual building, of organizations for popular subsistence and for world-improvement. The new world is going to construct us if we don’t construct it.
The political revolution’s strength will come from the ability of the people to rethink the world ecologically while at the same time assuring that the will to change continues to come from the people themselves and not from some alien force imposed upon everyone “behind their backs.” The eco-anarchists have meaningful tactical tools: Food Not Bombs, community gardens, and so on. I understand that the first task is to elect Bernie Sanders. It can’t be the only task.