By DANIEL ADAM
If history records any gains for working people in the coming electoral season, the term “sheepdog” might well appear at the top. Its author (or at least, its popularizer), Bruce Dixon, describes with it those leftish candidates who appear in presidential primaries to corral the radicalizing or disillusioned back to the flock with soaring rhetoric and “movement” trappings. The sheepdogs have an unbroken record of losing the party nomination and then turning their followers over to a more overt representative of big business.
For decades primaries have been used to help raise the hopes of working people that the parties of their bosses have some place for their aspirations, that corporate party machines are subject to popular control, and even that they can be transformed into instruments of liberation and progress.
The expectations are inflated each cycle by a Eugene McCarthy, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, Al Sharpton, Howard Dean, or Dennis Kucinich. Those who take the bait find themselves without any political vehicle of their own when the show is over. They move from one pragmatic step to another, finally backing the next Humphrey, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, or Obama.
This time around, the position of sheepdog is filled by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is attracting a following with talk of income inequality, calls for economic and political reforms, a slogan of “political revolution,” and a reputation for admiring the great socialist, Eugene V. Debs.
Aside from the socialist identification, there is something more routine about Sanders than his predecessors.
Jesse Jackson, remember, had worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated only 15 years before Jackson’s candidacy. While formally an independent, Sanders has collaborated with the Democratic Party for decades now—endorsing their candidates, shielding them from social movements, taking their endorsements, their committee seats, and their campaign contributions ($10,000 from Hillary Clinton’s PAC, no less!), and voting for almost every ruling-class policy.
While taking a few token votes of opposition that never blocked anything of consequence, he has voted for the bombing of Yugoslavia, the war in Afghanistan, funding for the Iraq war, full support to Israel—and he recently makes a point of defending the F-35 fighter jet.
Sanders has even made his non-oppositional role clear from the beginning. Early on he told the press, “If I decide to run, I’m not running against Hillary Clinton, I’m running for a declining middle class.” He has repeated often that he will not be a “spoiler,” and so will not pursue a campaign outside the Democratic Party when he most likely loses their nomination. Tad Devine, a major Democratic Party strategist (who worked for Kerry, Gore, and Dukakis) is running Sanders’ campaign, which indicates a blessing from the party establishment.
Nonetheless, Sanders’ campaign is winning substantial support in its beginning stages, with tens of thousands pledging to volunteer, and millions of dollars in contributions coming through. With its focus on economic inequality, it is likely attracting former participants and supporters of the Occupy movement.
To better understand how to relate to this campaign, it is helpful to examine the principle of class independence. This principle and its mandate to firmly oppose the parties of big business (including the Democratic Party) are often ridiculed as purist, finicky, or idealist. But this principle is derived from material relationships between people, not moralistic ideals. It begins with the relationship between a worker and her employer.
On the surface, the relationship between employer and employed is one of equality. The employer freely offers a job, and the employee freely takes it. Beneath this appearance lies direct domination. Once employed, the worker’s time and activity is the property of the boss just as much as any other commodity. Unauthorized breaks are literally (not figuratively!) considered “time theft.”
The profit of the employer, and thus the existence of his business, comes from unpaid labor squeezed from the workers. This surplus expands the social power of employers and strengthens their hold over society as a whole.
The conflict between owners and laborers does not end with the close of the workday. Without intervention in every aspect of life, capitalists could not expect their employees to return to work every day. They could not rely upon the next generation to enter the workforce, or secure the necessary markets or the needed resources, or fulfill a great many other concerns.
For all this they need a state with a monopoly on legitimate violence, a vast bureaucracy, and an array of other institutions, including schools, churches, charitable foundations, NGOS, and media outlets that are under their control. Thus, workplace struggles do not occur in isolation from the broader political context. Likewise, no political question floats above the struggle between classes.
Elections serve to conceal the role of a state in a similar way that the free market conceals the relationship between bosses and their workers. While elections allow each individual the right to vote for one politician or another, the state does its real work through the most undemocratic and rigid hierarchies in human history: military and police forces. The commanders of these hierarchies are deeply loyal to the capitalist class and its order—a fact that many, like Chilean socialist Salvador Allende, have learned all too late.
This is why the police can do no wrong in the view of capitalist courts. They are the constant staff upon which the social order rests. Behind the police and military is an apparatus that is also unelected, including numerous judges and functionaries.
With a monopoly of force in the hands of this hierarchy, and a radical monopoly of private property directly in the hands of capitalists, the ability of elected politicians to vote away the power of the capitalist class (should they be so inclined) is nonexistent.
The power of the capitalist class is directly at odds with the power of working people. The social order required by capitalists for their rule is directly at odds with the social order required by working people for their emancipation. Any unity forged between workers and their bosses is like the unity of the proverbial chicken and the roach: it takes place in the belly of the chicken. Every struggle by working people lives and dies on the degree to which its fighters stand on their own strength and act against the interests, values, and institutions of the capitalist class.
No labor movement has ever gained an inch that respected bourgeois property rights or the bourgeois monopoly on violence. The rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore frighten the establishment because they show disdain for the capitalist monopoly of property and force. The movement against the war in Vietnam succeeded to the degree that it made possible a soldier rebellion that produced half a million desertions, and a fear in the Pentagon of a collapsing command chain.
The recent Chicago teachers’ strike won important victories because its leaders recognized the Democratic Party power structure for the deadly opponent that it is. The fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage is winning gains because it has been infused with the idea that workers can only win the demand through their own power.
Democratic Party campaigns like Sanders’ are so disastrous for our movements not simply because they take up our time, but because they teach people to trust in the power and the values of the capitalist class. Before he convinces supporters to re-enter the Democratic Party, Sanders will teach them to place faith in the bourgeois state and its institutions. These are the ideas he will spread in the coming months. Countering this sophistry is reason enough to oppose Sanders’ campaign.