Published online 9 February 2016.
(Educated Marxists will recognize the title of this “new essay” as riffing off of Marx’s eleven Theses on Feuerbach. For Marx, writing in 1845, this text represents a final break from Feuerbach’s contemplative materialism and an embrace of historical materialism, a doctrine familiar in name but not in spirit to those for whom this “new essay” is written.)
1) The anti-Sanders sectarians, regardless of their claims to represent socialism as defined through historical materialism, would rather see the Sanders campaign die because they feel that they and they alone deserve to be at the front of the working class parade. In this regard no parade at all is better than a “pseudo-revolutionary” one. This position represents a vanguardist anti-materialism; having lost the war of position, the anti-Sanders sectarians offer a reformulation of historical materialism as being about them, in the same sense in which the feminism of the Hillary Clinton camp is about Hillary Clinton.
2) Historical materialism is not about contemplation of the vanguard in its mission to bring into being a revolution based on the correct political line. Historical materialism starts by reflecting upon the working class, as a product of the usual unities — history, ecology, Gaia, political economy, and so on. In this regard “Sanders” represents a specific piece in a much larger puzzle, for his ability to rouse the American working class at this time toward goals more meaningful in terms of their own well-being than those of, say, arena rock, televised sports, or even production for the greater glory and profits of the 1%. (Marxism thinks of these formations as the “relations of production”; Guy Debord thought of the phenomena as “spectacles,” Victor Turner called them “communitas.”) Historical materialism does not join Bernie Sanders in his particular struggle, but rather seeks a theoretical vantage point upon the whole, of which “Sanders” represents a part.
3) “Politics” is not obliged to be meaningful in terms recognizable by historical materialists. Neoliberal regimes, for instance, are mere caretakers of the profit margins of the owning class, flying the flag of the Mont Pelerin Society. In this regard the Reaganesque slogan “smaller government” really means “less meaningful government,” and neoliberalism represents a last hurrah of capitalism. “Sanders” is meaningful through Bernie Sanders’ best political promises: political revolution, College for All, single-payer health coverage, expansion of Social Security and so on. These promises can be encapsulated as expressions of a single term, social democracy, which Bernie Sanders characterizes as “socialism.”
4) Sanders, himself, is a Right deviationist — his career dotted by some ugly compromises here and there, his main proposals are in the mainstream of New Deal social democracy. Sanders’ earlier vogue in capitalist political economy (backed by “Modern Monetary Theory“) represents both the full flower of an earlier (mid 20th century) era of capital’s appropriation of the world and an attempt to rebrand some modest reforms as “socialism.” This is Right deviationism rather than historical materialism not because it isn’t humanistic, which it is, but because it is ultimately based upon nostalgia.
5) Nostalgia for the Golden Age of Capitalism (1948-1973) will play out dialectically with the other forces guaranteeing neoliberal hegemony. The most likely result of this dialectic, forecast through historical materialism, is a series of compromises within government resulting either in the disappearance of Sanders nostalgia or its replacement by something else.
6) The world is far more plagued by what Jason W. Moore calls “negative value” than it was when Sanders’ capitalist political economy was in vogue. It is far later in the game for capitalism than it was in the era of the New Deal or of the Great Society. Thus what is more likely to prove useful in the world to come is Sanders’ humanistic instincts rather than his ideas of political economy. We are not on the verge of a new era of economic growth reminiscent of the Sixties, because the “cheap nature” of the Sixties is not coming back. Rather, the struggle will be one of saving humanity while capitalism falters.
7) Sanders’ promises, then, are a mere starting point; their ending point, however, will not be seen through sectarian doctrine, but rather through historical materialism.
8) The Sanders campaign appears as a social-democratic revolt against neoliberal political economy, after that which once took shape in Venezuela with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan revolt faltered, however, amidst low oil prices after Chavez’ death; for Venezuela socialist power remained dependent upon the capitalist power of the oil economy. The Sanders “political revolution” will succeed to the extent to which it replaces capitalist power with socialist power, and falter when capitalist power reasserts itself.
9) If the “political revolution” fails to secure Sanders’ nomination, what will be left behind will be a surplus of political meaning above and beyond the usual neoliberal public relations show. Whether this surplus can be organized as a mass movement of any sort is anyone’s guess. One thing is clear in the context of historical materialism, though; the “revolt of nature” must attain some form of social organization if the capitalist system is not merely to attain its bad end in the exhaustion of nature.
10) The Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders’ temporary resting-place, is also a credible hub of discontent with the status quo. This discontent, however, is meaningful to the extent to which it is based on discontent with the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party as it exists today, then, is not the ultimate form of organization which will avert the exhaustion of nature.
11) The Sanders campaign has given America something resembling meaning to its political activity; the point, however, is to change the world.