Watching Bernie: The Voice in the Wilderness

From bitter searching of the heart,

Quickened with passion and with pain

We rise to play a greater part.

This is the faith from which we start:

Men shall know commonwealth again…

Not steering by the venal chart                     

That tricked the mass for private gain,

We rise to play a greater part.

Reshaping narrow law and art

Whose symbols are the millions slain,

From bitter searching of the heart

We rise to play a greater part.

These words of the Canadian poet-politician Frank Scott could be the Apostles’ Creed of the Bernie Sanders movement that is sweeping across the United States; a movement of countless thousands, millions, of people who have for so long been denied the fruits of their labour in the Land of Plenty. Denied decent wages, healthcare, education, denied representation and reform, denied the very hope promised to them by an endless line of prophets and preachers, these ordinary Americans have finally found a voice to express their anger, to argue their cause, to denounce their betrayers; and that voice’s name is Bernie.

Bernard Sanders – nominee for the Democratic Party presidential candidate – is not just another messiah to come to trick the masses into sacrificing their own blood and money for yet another crusade or yet another appeasement of the market gods. No, Sanders understands that in the age-old battle between agency and structure – between the shepherd and the flock – the ego has for too long held sway in his part of the world. He understands that the project of emancipatory politics must rig the means of power to favour structure – that is, to be sensitive to the weight of the mass and the force of movement. Only through this, through organising people power against the illegitimate power of money and aggression, can a flock of sheep ever seize the crook from their shepherd and make him not an extractor of profit but a protector of common wealth. Yes, Sanders understands this well, and hence he is forever trying to displace attention away from his own self and direct it toward the movement below him, even near to the point of self-negation.

But it’s to be expected that in a land that cursed the world with ‘presidential-style’ politics this man will be looked on curiously and accused of ‘populism’, whatever that means. It is revealing that in our societies such a word has become a dirty word, as if to express the will of the people – that is, to be a democrat – is something eccentric, foolish, dangerous even. It is a strange ‘democracy’ where the vox populi is censored, entirely absent from Capital-P politics. This cynicism that defines the discourse on Bernie Sanders is truly breathtaking: it is near impossible to find but one article which doesn’t disqualify the man from winning the nomination within its first paragraph. If this disqualification does not come early in the article it will almost certainly come in the final lines, treating Sanders as some kind of curious, exotic race which however beautiful will be forgotten about as the march of civilisation continues on into history. “Ah Bernie” they say, “yes, he is a good man, his cause is just and his heart is right” but he will not win, they say, he cannot win, they repeat. This cynicism, which is shared by as many on the left as on the right, is so strong that it cannot be anything but an institutional, cultural self-defence system wherein we all contribute to an immense self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity and inertia. This prophecy expands beyond phenomena like Sanders, Corbyn, Tsipras and Iglesias, but permeates our cultural and intellectual fabric to the point where to imagine even, say, a more or less civilised capitalism or a mild social democracy is now portrayed either as naïve idealism or reckless revolution (don’t even mention any of the many rich and varied -isms that don’t fit with capitalism, clientelism or electoralism).

But there is, as the Maestro Leonard Cohen tells us, a crack in everything, and that’s where the light gets in. Propaganda, however well-crafted and however deeply permeated into the culture, cannot be perfected, and there are always the lone voices crying out in the wilderness. As it happens, the Bernie Sanders campaign is echoing one of the most influential voices on the planet: none other than the Pope himself. The elevation of a scarlet-red pope to power is one of – if not the – most important developments in the international left in years, maybe decades, and the leaders and thinkers of the left should not, must not, can not, miss the opportunity that is an anti-capitalist pope by casting him aside for the sin of pretence that is inherent in his position as the earthly emissary of god. The importance of this pope has not been lost on Sanders, who is clearly inspired by Bergoglio – only five years his senior – and frequently tweets and posts quotations of the old Argentine’s wisdom: “I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth, not ruled by it”.

Sanders poses in front of photo of Eugene Debs (1855-1926): Founder of the Socialist Party of America, founding member of WWI, five-time presidential candidate (once from a jail cell), political prisoner

Aside from Sanders’ platform of getting money out of politics, of breaking up the banks, of revising free-trade deals, of abolishing tertiary education tuition, of supporting organised labour and workplace cooperatives, of raising corporate and personal taxation on the mega-rich, of ending the  bloody Pax Americana – the American Peace – that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan, there is also his truly unique character. The man has been involved in politics for decades; not as a career but as a passion. Just as Reagan was rescinding the New Deal, Sanders was elected as the United States’ only socialist mayor for the Vermont town of Burlington in 1981. Throughout his time in politics Sanders has consistently supported the causes which have either been vindicated by the passage of time or which have only just begun to gather momentum: he has long supported civil rights and gay marriage, and had bravely supported the Nicaraguan revolution when his own government was illegally funnelling money into the terrorist Contra rebellion, and he has long been an opponent of NAFTA while today he fights against the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement which was kept in total secrecy for five years from the public which it will affect. Yes, Bernie Sanders has consistently been on the right side of history.It is impossible to imagine Sanders’ contender, Hillary Rodham Clinton, enlisting Francis in her project of Wall Street appeasement, in her inspiring “let’s do nothing” approach to healthcare and education, and for her foreign policy belligerence. Her nearly $33 million dollars in donations – of which 80% are large donations of more than $200 – from the One Percent are a fairly good indication of her what her presidency would look like, and the mountain of money she has amassed is now beginning to look embarrassing when compared against Sanders’ war-chest made up nearly entirely of donations of $200 or less from ordinary Americans, with the average donation to the Sanders campaign somewhere around $30: that’s right, thirty big ones, which are very big ones for any American working two, three, four jobs on starvation wages. The remainder of his funds come from organised labour, whose donations in any case pale in comparison to the – literally – unlimited flow of money from Wall Street to Washington that has been allowed through the Citizens United case, a Supreme Court ruling which Sanders has promised to fight to overturn should he be elected.

This man is a socialist, a dove and a dreamer: his convictions have even been turned into song on a 1987 recording of American folk music, and you can listen to his stirring rendition of Woody Gutherie’s This Land is Your Land on youtube. Everything about this man is ordinary, in the best sense of the word: with his famously unkempt hair, his thick unpolished Brooklyn accent, his bent back, the man would surely be more comfortable with the name ‘Uncle Bern’ than the title President of the United States. But I predict he will have this title very soon: the momentum is there, his cause is just, the times are right – he will win. The ‘political revolution’ which this unlikely leader proposes is, perhaps, one of the few remaining chances the United States has before it is threatened with real revolution – an increasingly likely scenario in a world in which, according to Oxfam predictions, the top 1% will possess the same amount of wealth as the remaining 99%, and this is by 2016. This figure could very well represent the tipping point, and the further we push the limits of sanity and justice the more we will need men like Sanders to help give birth to a saner and more just social order.

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