GUEST POST BY SIMON COPLAND
Last weekend dealt a blow to the Bernie Sanders juggernaut. Pipped at the post by rival Hillary Clinton in Nevada and crushed by her in South Carolina, Sanders’s route to the Democratic nomination is looking tougher than ever.
Many will mourn this potential loss. Yet I am not feeling the pain. In fact, whilst I think there has been some value to Sanders’s campaign, as it has gone on it has been a significant diversion from the types of social movements we need to build. Going any further would have been a disaster.
The Role of the President
I have a lot of affinity with Bernie Sanders. In fact I align with him significantly more closely than I do with Hillary Clinton on the majority of issues (although I don’t think the gap between the two is as significant as Sanders’s fans like to make it out to be). Despite this I’ve never been that excited about his campaign, and in particular I have little desire to see him enter the White House.
My reasoning for this has nothing to do with the man, but instead is all about the role of the president in modern US Government. While Sanders may be the most progressive in the current presidential race, the role of the president would limit any actual change he may be able to make.
Many have already pointed this out. Hillary Clinton likes to call herself a “progressive who likes to get things done”, a not-so-subtle attack on Sanders’s bigger-than-life demands. Others have pointed to the dominance of Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, arguing he will never get his reforms through Congress. But the limits on him go well beyond this, and sit with the very nature of modern government itself.
Our political system under capitalism is designed specifically to stop any form of socially progressive governance. The modern state as we understand it, as well as all of its apparatuses, were designed and maintained to ensure the integrity of the system. Just as capitalist social relations underpin the state, so the state underpins capitalism. In turn, when elected, politicians become entrenched within the “political class”, a class that looks after its own interests first.
Marx and Engels described this, saying that “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The owning class relies on the power of the state, even when arguing for smaller government. As Engels described in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, “the law is sacred to the bourgeois, for it is his own composition, enacted with his consent, and for his benefit and protection. He knows that, even if an individual law should injure him, the whole fabric protects his interests.” In turn, the system shapes the way in which politicians act. As Marx argued, as soon as “the deputies” of civil society are authorised by their constituents to enter the state they stop being deputies and instead become part of the state apparatus. Their status, role, and more importantly their class changes — they are now part of the political class, disconnected from the interests of the social group whose members elected them.
When entering positions of power within the modern state, therefore, politicians are forced to preserve the capitalist society on which the state depends for survival. While Sanders rails against “Wall Street” and the big banks, in reality the very structures of the presidency are based on the survival of these economic interests. Politicians, in turn, make active choices to reinforce the power of these structures, in order to ensure their own survival. Jolasmo describes this best in their response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the UK Labour Party:
Governments, of any political stripe, can act only by wielding the power of the state. To maintain a powerful state, governments need a strong economy, and that means managing capitalism and maintaining a capitalist social order. Different governments can try to do this in different ways, but they’re all bound by the same basic logic, and none of them offer any real hope of a way out of the cycle of capitalist domination and human misery. That’s why left wing and socialist governments routinely disappoint us.
Survival within government means maintaining the strength of capitalism. Otherwise you risk bringing the whole system (and your role in it) down. In turn government becomes an impossible place to create change — one that is inherently slow, conservative and a resistant on any progress.
A history of betrayal
We can see this play out in a history of betrayal by progressive politicians and governments.
Current US President Barack Obama, for example, represents two terms of progressive failure. Obama was heralded as a progressive champion when elected in 2008 but has largely not lived up to that hype. This has been particularly true in the areas of international security, where Obama has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, overseen a system of forced deportations for illegal immigrants and implemented a drone war that has killed many civilians.
It could be easily argued that Obama was never truly a progressive and that these moves were expected. But recent evidence of true “socialist” parties points to similar problems.
Since his election to the leadership of the UK Labour Party for example, Jeremy Corbyn has begun to disappoint followers. Corbyn and his economic team for example have bought into the myth of the need to tackle the UK’s budget deficit, starting to use conservative lexicon to look more “serious” on economic matters. Corbyn has already signalled a backtrack on his policy of making university free, a move designed to ease the concerns of his more conservative MPs.
But potentially the best example of this is Syriza in Greece. Elected on an anti-austerity position Syriza backtracked within less than a year, ushering in a huge austerity package. In its attempts to play the game by the rules Syriza was faced with a stark choice — stay in the EU and stay in power, or stick with its policies and feel the full brunt of that decision. The choice was simple — the system simply did not allow for anything different. Syriza pursued a “failed strategy” that focused too heavily on the mechanisms of government, instead of building real social movements to create change.
These betrayals are not ones necessarily done due to cravenness or because people have necessarily changed their ideological views. They are part of our system of governance — a part of our system that we cannot escape, no matter what kind of “movement” there is behind a progressive candidacy.
The problem with a Sanders presidency
It is here where we can see the potential problem with a hypothetical Sanders presidency. While we may not like to believe it, it’s inevitable that if he were to win the nomination Sanders would start to moderate his views in order to improve his chances of election. In fact we’ve already seen this. Commentators have noted for example that Sanders’s history of support for gay rights is not as strong as it seems, and in fact has often been shaped by political calculations. The same is happening on his position over Israel-Palestine, with Sanders dampening his views throughout the campaign. More recently the Vermont senator has gotten into a fight with Hillary Clinton over who would best continue the Obama legacy, with Sanders backing away from previous criticisms he’s made of the current President.
As Sanders goes further into the campaign this could have a real impact on left-wing politics.
In particular as Sanders inevitably starts to moderate his positions he will give left-wing credibility to this moderation. The best example of this is Syriza. As the anti-austerity party that soon embraced a harsh austerity package, Syriza legitimised the policy more than anyone else could have possibly done. As a self-proclaimed “socialist” Bernie Sanders would likely do the same — making support for Israel or the Obama legacy (and all the problems it entails) “socialist ideals”.
Here is why I’m quickly cooling on the value of Sanders’ campaign (even though I’ve never been excited about him potentially winning the nomination). When he entered the campaign Sanders had the potential to do some work to disrupt the Democratic political order. He’s pushed these themes throughout the nomination race, in particular with his focus on Wall Street. For Democrats he became a much-needed symbol of dissatisfaction with the political class.
This I think has potential value, but that value is limited. As Sanders and his supporters have started speaking more openly about winning the nomination he has shifted from challenging the political order to trying to get access to it. In doing so he has given it credibility it simply does not deserve. This is a credibility that many Democratic voters have already given up on. Turnout numbers have been way down in 2016 compared with 2008 levels, suggesting people have given up on the Obama “hope for change” formula. For those who are left, if Sanders continues further it is entirely likely he will reinforce this political credibility, pulling momentum away from other social movements and pushing it in to a political process that will ultimately disappoint.
I think Sanders has played an important role in this nomination fight. He has made important issues part of the debate and given voice to dissatisfaction with the Democratic political class. Importantly he has also given himself a stronger voice, allowing him to continue his advocacy through the campaign and in the years that follow. But I don’t want him to go any further. Otherwise he will give increasing Leftist credibility to a system that does not deserve it.
Sanders will probably be done after Super Tuesday. Hillary Clinton will be on the march to the nomination. But we shouldn’t be too sad. He’s played a vital role and will continue to do so.