Bernie Sanders and the (Deadly) Illusion of Painless Progress

February 15, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


Let’s say you have a lot of pain. You go to a doctor, and after doing lots of tests and examining you, she gives you the bad news. You’ve got a really serious disease and unless you have major, radical surgery to get rid of what’s causing all the horrible pain—you’re not only gonna keep having that pain, but you’re gonna die. The problem is, the surgery itself is very dangerous and not guaranteed to be successful. You can’t deal with the thought of going through all this so you leave the doctor’s office and start searching the Internet for other “cures” to the disease you have. You try different kinds of things like herbal remedies, you change your diet, you take lots of pain medication, etc. And these things DO help to make you feel better for a while. Some of the pills you take are actually just placebos and don’t actually have any effect on your condition, but they have the effect of making you feel better. None of these things will make the disease go away and eventually, if you don’t have that surgery to get rid of the root cause of your pain, you’re gonna die.

OK, so what does this analogy have to do with Bernie Sanders?

Well, many people, especially lots of youths, are attracted to his campaign because they look out at the world and see a tremendous amount of pain and suffering. They see endless wars and the destruction of the planet. They see police murder and all kinds of injustices here in the U.S. And they think Bernie Sanders has some solutions to these problems.

So what is the “disease,” the root cause, behind the problems here? What kind of “remedies” is Sanders delivering? Is there a need for radical surgery? And if so, what kind?

Let’s take a central plank of Sanders’ platform. Sanders says “tackling structural inequality” is at the heart of his campaign. He vows to change the fact that “Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent,” and says his policies, like “fixing the tax code for citizens, corporations, and banks” and “creating and keeping better jobs” address the root causes of these inequities.

But where did all this wealth come from that Sanders says needs to be spread out more equally among people in the United States?

A Bangladeshi woman cries holding a photograph of her son, a victim of the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed 1,129 people on June 29, 2013. The garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh made clothing for foreign retailers like Walmart. Photo: AP

Look at Walmart, the largest U.S. corporation, #1 in the Fortune 500. This is a company that has grown, expanded, and thrived on the basis of a network of global super exploitation—contracting, sub-contracting, and sub-sub-contracting to sweatshops; using child labor, slave labor all over the world. Walmart has sold clothes made by women and children in Bangladesh sweatshops, forced to work 14 hours a day, often seven days a week. Some of the shrimp you get at Walmart is harvested by men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand. There is a good chance the Nike soccer ball you get at Walmart has been stitched by the hands of children. And this is true of virtually all the major capitalist corporations.

So when Sanders says we should “Use revenue from progressive taxation [higher taxes on wealthy people and corporations] to expand and create programs to help alleviate poverty and help Americans move forward and contribute to a more robust, equitable economy,” this is what it basically comes down to: more people in America having a share in the spoils of U.S. imperialism—the wealth that comes from the blood and wasted lives of millions of people around the world, from the tears of children consigned to a life of slave labor, from the women who die in factory fires in places like Bangladesh.

Further, electing Sanders will not change—and he does not even promise to change—the fact that under the capitalist mode of production, a small class of people, the capitalist class, OWNS the means of production—the land, raw materials, and other resources, technology, and physical structures like factories needed to produce all the things people and society need to exist and grow. Redistributing the income wouldn’t change the fact that the capitalist mode of production is based on private ownership—where there is the anarchy of capitalist production with individual capitalists all producing with the aim of trying to capture a bigger and bigger share of the market. It couldn’t change the dog-eat-dog economy where different capitalists have to compete with each other in order to survive and in doing this, must find ways to cut costs—whether it means cutting wages and benefits of workers here in the U.S. or just picking up and moving operations to a Third World country where people can be more ruthlessly exploited. Or completely ignoring measures necessary to stop killing the environment because this will just cut into profits and make a company less competitive vis-à-vis other capitalists, and hence drive them under. And this takes you back to the compulsion that these capitalists face to expand and brutally exploit people all over the world, and to back that up with military power and violence.

So, to the extent that any of what Bernie Sanders promises would even be possible, it would be possible on THIS foundation. And this foundation is enforced with all the terror that the U.S. rains down on the world. This is the real meaning of Sanders constantly saying that the U.S. should have the “strongest military in the world.” This military exists to protect, enforce, and extend the interests of U.S. capital all over the world, and this is behind every single war and every single military action it undertakes.

And, very important and central to this society, the U.S. empire has been embedded with white supremacy since its beginning with the enslavement of Africans and the slaughter of the Native Indian peoples, as well as its subjugation of Latin America. All this plays out in a million terrible ways every day. It is so “baked into” the functioning of this system and the psyche and culture of this society that no simple program of economic reforms (even with “add-ons” of promises to deal with mass incarceration and some forms of discrimination) can get anywhere close to the roots of it—and participating in the illusion that it can will only perpetuate it, whatever people’s intentions.

As Bob Avakian says:

Choosing between oppressive rulers will not stop them from ruling over and oppressing you and committing horrific crimes against humanity. This is true of all the major presidential candidates, of both the Republican and Democratic parties, and it will be true of anyone who becomes president, or occupies any major political office, under this system. What supporting these people does accomplish is making you complicit with these crimes.

Illusions of Painless Progress

Bernie Sanders himself has said, “What I am trying to do in this campaign, with some success, is to call for what I call a political revolution, to rally millions of people, many of whom have given up on the political process, young people who have never been involved before.” (Face the Nation, November 15, 2015)

In fact, the Sanders candidacy comes at a time when there has been a major upsurge against police murder, widespread questioning of the racism and white supremacy endemic in all parts of American life, concern over the environment, as well as struggle over income inequality. Thousands have participated in these struggles and millions have been moved by them and many have been stirred to question the very legitimacy of this country. The movement against police murder and, earlier, the Occupy movement, came up against the violence of the state. Now here comes Sanders to promise a more painless progress—one which does not require breaking with patriotic American chauvinism, let alone going up against the violence of the state.

Do you know anyone else—any person or organization—that has managed to bring forth an actual PLAN for a radically different society, in all its dimensions, and a CONSTITUTION to codify all this? — A different world IS possible — Check out and order online the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal).

But any real struggle, even one short of all-out, for-real revolution, very quickly comes up against the repressive forces of the state. At the same time, and working hand-in-glove with that state violence, the system has always sent and will always send representatives into these struggles to channel them back into the “normal channels” and “proper procedures.” They do this to blunt the sharp edge of these struggles and “bring people back into the fold”— and there is in fact a pull on people to “go there,” even as the very system that generates the problems cannot ultimately solve them. Sooner or later, if you are serious about really stopping these outrages, you will have to rupture with the institutions, representatives, and thinking of the system. This was a lesson painfully learned in the last great wave of revolutionary struggle in the country in the 1960s—and it remains true today.

So on two fundamental counts voting for Sanders is actually harmful. One, because it reinforces belief in and allegiance to the very system of U.S. imperialism that is the source of all the suffering, of all the big problems that people are losing sleep over. And two, because it siphons people out of meaningful resistance against the system and deep engagement over the sources of the problem and the solution of revolution into rituals designed to restore faith in that very system.

The Change We Really Need

In fact we DO need a revolution—but a real revolution, not another election campaign that calls itself a “revolution,” even with a phony so-called socialist. If you are getting caught up in this Sanders campaign because you want to see change, you need to look at and get into the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal), by Bob Avakian, and get into a vision of what a society on the road to ending exploitation and oppression and all social antagonisms would actually look like. If you think that such a revolution could not be won, you need to get into “On the Possibility of Revolution.” And if you think that millions could not actually be called forth and mobilized to fight for this, then you need to read our Party’s statement, “On the Strategy for Revolution.”

The point is that there IS a solution to the problem—and you need to get into it and engage with that. A better world IS possible. And Bernie Sanders is part of the problem standing in the way of that better world—and NOT part of the solution.


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