Anatomy of Bernie Sanders’ socialism

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By NICK BAKER

A 2019 Pew Research Center poll of Americans’ political views found that 42 percent support socialism, up from 31 percent found by Pew in 2010. Fully half of youth under 30 indicated their “positive or very positive impression” of socialism. The biggest change that the new poll registered was among those 30–49 years old, where 47 percent supported socialism today – up from 37 percent in 2010. Reporting the new figures with a bit of obfuscation in mind, the Washington Post headline read “New Poll: Capitalism More Popular than Socialism.” No doubt the Post editors, not to mention the corporate elite, were a bit concerned!

Over the past decade we have seen the effects of modern capitalism operating with full force, including its inability to provide decent, stable jobs, the crushing debt it imposes on students and the broader population, lack of health care, apocalyptic threat of climate change-induced destruction of the planet and endless imperialist wars. Fully aware that sending already radicalizing American youth to fight in unpopular wars around the world, the U.S. warmakers increasingly resort to “quiet” wars, to drone wars, secret CIA wars, privatized/mercenary army wars, proxy army wars, as well as sanction and trade embargo wars. These are accompanied by record levels of corporate profit at the expense of workers everywhere.

It’s no surprise that socialism is gaining in popularity in the face of this blatant expression of capitalism’s inherent evils. But what exactly does “socialism” mean to people who are now turning their eyes to it? They often aren’t sure exactly what socialism is, and the ruling class would like to keep it that way. Last month, Pew published a follow-up report about the reasons given by the 42 percent who said they support socialism. The most popular reasons: 31 percent said socialism creates a fairer, more just society while 20 percent said that it “builds on and improves capitalism,” with some indicating their belief that the U.S. already had “some socialism” in the form of social welfare programs. Others pointed to European “socialist” countries.

This kind of support for socialism, mixed with uncertainty about what exactly socialism is beyond better and broader social programs, will no doubt be exploited by the Democrats and Republicans, the two main parties of capitalism, in the 2020 presidential campaign. Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have already gotten the message. At a time when socialist ideas are gaining prominence, the Democratic Party, the historic “graveyard of social movements,” will once again aim to round up the disillusioned and disaffected with pledges of fealty to justice and fair play. While never neglecting to assert that their personal candidacy is the only surefire alternative to their incomparably evil Republican opponent, the corporate admission price exacted from all players in this “lesser evil” charade is an unconditional pledge in advance to support whichever Democrat emerges on top of the heap at the end of the primary process. Returning or delivering the disillusioned back into the fold of capitalist politics—a dead end for the working class that promises nothing but continued suffering—is the prime objective of the $8-9 billion election time operation underway today.

After the unexpected 2016 election defeat of Hillary Clinton, the Democrats have the Bernie Sanders campaign once again taking the temperature of the masses while providing an outlet to express their frustrations with the Democratic Party and the Obama administration for presiding over the jailing and torture of immigrants, the ongoing Afghanistan war of 18 years and the suffering during the Great Recession where the bankers, insurance companies and major corporation were bailed out to the tune of $32 trillion while mortgage foreclosures reached modern time highs. Former Republican and corporate attorney Elizabeth Warren has joined the field being posed as a progressive technocrat, while Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are assigned the role of safe centrist stalking horses.

The Sanders campaign has a clear message: the barrier to “socialism” is the “Democratic Party establishment,” not the capitalist class. Working people can “take back” the Democratic Party, according to Sanders – as if it were ever ours –­ and make it a vehicle for socialism that fights for the interests of the working class!

But this can never be. The Democratic Party is the institutional expression of a wing of the capitalist class, and is inherently opposed to the interests of working people. Its only “base” is that section of the capitalist class whose method for disciplining and controlling the workers is, at this time, to tell them that their concerns are valid and need to be addressed, all the while ensuring that these concerns are channeled away from independent mass protests in the streets and away from the formation of independent working class-controlled organizations and parties.

Sanders’ campaign proposals

Bernie Sanders’ supporters write articles with socialist-sounding titles like “Bernie Wants You to Own More of the Means of Production.” Real workers’ direct ownership and control of the means of production is at the core of revolutionary socialism—that is, Marxism. Its achievement requires the abolition of the capitalist system of private ownership and its associated exploitation of workers to ensure capitalist profit. Headlines like Sanders’ supporters employ are no accident. Offered as an “electoral road to socialism” and perhaps as a Marxist-oriented government, like his “political revolution,” they are aimed directly at people interested in socialism. But when it comes to “owning more of the means of production,” what does Sanders mean?

That headline referred to what Sanders calls his “Corporate Accountability and Democracy” plan, which he says will shift society’s wealth “back into the hands of the workers who create it.” In this plan, companies that record more than $100 million in revenue a year or are publicly traded would gradually transfer 20 percent of their stock into a trust held for the workers that pays dividends and provides voting rights at shareholder meetings. According to Sanders’ campaign estimate, this would provide an average dividend to all workers of $5000 per year. Not nothing for workers whose wages have been declining for decades, but a far cry from owning the means of production.

In the same plan, Sanders promotes limiting executive pay to merely 150 times that of the average worker. CEO’s currently make 278 times what the average worker earns, so 150 is certainly less—but it’s also a far cry from socialism. In 1965, CEOs made 20 times the average worker’s salary! Sanders’ figure of 150 times would be a return to mid-1990’s levels of CEO pay. In other words, the workers create the wealth and the CEOs should benefit 150 times more—only a modest amount.

The way Sanders proposes to promote this policy is telling as well – by penalizing companies that pay executives above that level by disfavoring them in the provisioning of federal contracts. That is, he poses his plan as a market-based reform, to be contested in the arena of the market, where the capitalist reigns supreme.

This isn’t socialism. It’s a light reform of the most obnoxious excesses of modern capitalism in the past few decades, totally acceptable to the boss class and especially so when it allows for the pretense of restricting them without disturbing in any way their right to lord over the workers.

Sanders’ plan for the military

Sanders, who voted for the largest military budgets in history during the Obama administration, today says he will ask Congress to “take a hard look at the military budget” and “try to pare it down.” He frequently says that the U.S. should not spend more on its military than the next 10 countries combined but declines to say anything more concrete about the military budget. These days asserting that the U.S. military budget should be cut at all sounds radical – but only because the preposterous profit-fueling growth of military spending has reached such incredible levels.

U.S. military spending has grown over 75 percent in the last 20 years – nearly doubling. And indeed it is more than the next ten countries combined. Including the hundreds of billions each year in the secret “black budget” and the CIA’s largely secret expenditures, total annual U.S. military expenditures exceed $1 trillion. After a 20 percent cut, the U.S. would spend more on the military than the next seven countries combined. Even after a 50 percent cut the figure would be far more than any other country in the world—and would only be slightly less than the war budgets of the Clinton administration.

No self-respecting Democrat would ever propose any kind of substantial cut to the most profitable business on the planet Earth. Anyone who even thought such a thing would be laughed out of the Democratic Party. Here again, Sanders only proposes to mildly pare back the absurdities of the last couple decades, to put American imperialist capitalism on a stronger footing by making it appear able to fix itself—without any fix involved.

Green New Deal

Not even under his Green New Deal plan does Sanders say anything about cutting the military, even though the U.S. military is the world’s largest polluter. Any plan that does not begin with eliminating the world’s largest polluter is a farce. Sanders talks a lot about “taking on” the fossil fuel companies. His Green New Deal plan says repeatedly that he will “end the fossil fuel industry’s greed.” How does he plan to do it? By nationalizing the energy industry and removing the profit motive?  Of course not. The main thrust of Sanders’ plan is the introduction of strong regulations and market-based reforms that will supposedly force the fossil fuel industry to convert itself to green energy.

But the real con in Sanders’ rhetoric is the idea that the Democratic Party, a party of the ruling class capitalist elites, has any interest in ending the use of fossil fuels. There are 1.73 trillion barrels of proven oil reserves in the world today, and capitalism is incapable of doing anything but using its already existing rigs and drills to get it out of the ground and turn it into profit. 

The U.S. is the world’s largest oil producer (17.94 million barrels per day, 18 percent of the world’s total production) and largest oil consumer (19.69 million barrels per day, 20 percent of total consumption—more than the next two, China and India, combined). The U.S. is the world’s largest natural gas producer and also has the largest oil refining capacity of any country. All of these facts led the head of the International Energy Agency in 2018 to project that the U.S. will be the “undisputed global gas and oil leader” for decades. Readers will forgive our irony in noting that this top official declined to add that a Sanders election victory in 2020 would render his estimates inaccurate. In truth, Sanders’ much touted Green New Deal pledge to allocate $16.3 trillion over the course of ten years to save the U.S., not to mention the earth itself, from climate Armageddon, is sheer bluster and bluff, unless, of course, he contemplates the abolition of capitalism itself, a proposition as absurd as the rest of his “socialist” hoopla.  

Much of U.S. warfare and trade policy is dedicated to securing control of oil in the countries with the largest proven reserves, such as Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, and Libya. Both Democrats and Republicans have dutifully refused to commit to any binding climate goals that might present even the smallest threat to the mega-profits of the fossil-fuel companies. The Obama administration ensured that the Paris Climate Agreement was non-binding and therefore meaningless, while overseeing the largest growth of fracking in U.S. history, making the U.S. the world’s greatest fracker. Since the Paris Climate Accords in 2015, 30 major banks have invested $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel companies, knowing that their investment was more than safe.

Working-class politics: the only way

Millions of people in the United States are recognizing that capitalism is at the heart of the problems that they face every day and see around the world. They believe that socialism would make things better, but they aren’t exactly sure what makes socialism different from capitalism. Some think of it as just a nicer form of capitalism.

The purpose of the Sanders campaign is to bring the confused and disaffected back into the embrace of the Democratic Party. Sanders is no socialist. He’s for keeping the ruling class in power through the Democratic Party and maintaining the means of production safely in the hands of the capitalists – while fostering illusions of real change to make the workers feel a little better about the whole thing in the hopes that they won’t cause any trouble.

In sharp contrast to Bernie Sanders and the whole range of today’s posturing Democratic Party contenders, the goals of socialists and the means to achieve them are fundamentally at odds with the rapacious capitalist system itself – a system of war, racism, sexism, LGBTQI discrimination, environmental destruction, and the ceaseless exploitation of human beings for the profit of the few.

That is why socialists fight for working-class opposition to and independence from all the institutional forms of ruling class rule, beginning with their twin parties. The only way forward to a just society – a truly socialist society – is to win ownership and control of society’s wealth by the revolutionary action of the working class itself. The prerequisite to achieving this is the construction of a mass revolutionary socialist party fully inclusive of the best fighters who have won the respect and confidence of the vast working-class majority. 

If working people who consider themselves socialists are convinced to support Sanders based on the words he utters rather than the class interests of the party he represents, they will inevitably be disappointed with the end result – yet another capitalist politician in power regardless of party, personality, and populist-sounding rhetoric. On the other hand, if the present broad interest in socialist ideas finds expression in serious fighters for a better world, they will in time find their way to Socialist Action. Join us! 

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