Sunday, June 21, 2015

Bernie Sanders Sucks — Now Love Him

Another guest post by John Wolfe, the theoretician behind the post that has been trending on Reddit since it was first published, and reigns as the second-most read BAMF post (behind my response to Federici) of all time. From the philosopher you love to love: 

Some Things We Know

Leftists usually display three personality traits: a certain romanticism, a deep cynicism, and boundless anger. Every time major elections roll around, the last two are deployed against the first. We all know the reasons—that elections in a capitalist republic amount to choosing which member of the ruling class will represent and oppress us, and that the choices involved are largely illusory and a poor way to affect real change. Further, simply participating in this tiresome ritual of the ballot box lends legitimacy to the illusion.

This cynicism has found a new target in Bernie Sanders. A number of articles devoted to informing leftists that Sanders is not one of us and his campaign promises no real change have been circulating lately. Given that the contemporary left has such a problem with overcoming sectarian bickering, it is almost a hopeful sign when the Ortho-Trots of the World Socialist Web Site, and the...whatever they are at Jacobin...can unite in denouncing the genial little socialist.

Of course, they are correct. Sanders is from the right flank of the Democratic Socialists of America. He is a card-carrying follower of the Socialist International. Who would expect this man could be anything other than a U.S. version of Hollande? Anybody who has looked into his stance on Israel knows that he is no anti-imperialist. The remarkable thing about the anti-Sanders commentary from the left is that people feel the need to so stridently point out the glaringly obvious.

Elections as Desire-Forming Events

Yet, I still think we have good reason to stump for Sanders. This is the case even though he is little more than a pre-Clintonian Democrat. This is the case even though he will most certainly lose the primary. This is the case even though, if by some miracle he wins the general election, he would most likely continue his party-line Democrat ways. This is the case even though, if by some greater miracle he becomes a radical, the political establishment would prevent him from doing much good. This is because elections should not be conceived as being about the candidates at all, but as about the people.

Presidential elections are marked events in the psychic life of the U.S. Elections of all sorts are frequent in the mess that is the U.S. political system. Local and state elections form the background noise of U.S. political life. However, no one cares much about these—and who can blame them? There is nothing in a school board or soil commissioner race that promises anything different. These elections are, for the most part, the equivalent of changing the oil in your car or flossing, and are neglected* in the same way.

But when presidential elections roll around, there is a real shift in the consciousness of the U.S. population. People become politicized. They feel a sense of agency and ownership over the political process. They begin looking to the future and thinking in terms of what a desirable society might be. The political imagination gets fired up, and new possibilities are disclosed. In short, they feel the intoxication of democracy.

This is, of course, largely an illusion. However nothing whets the appetite for the real thing like a good simulation.

Candidates succeed in elections, insofar as they do, by generating a vision of a possible future society which appeals to the public. Barack Obama did an excellent job of this. His 
half-African identity betokened an end to the traditional power structure. His vaguely progressive talk of change allowed people to see the possibility of a future without endless wars and assaults on the poor. The election of Obama legitimated a certain set of expectations for the future. He did not deliver, but the expectations remain entrenched in the public consciousness to such a degree that Hillary Rodham Clinton now has to unconvincingly attempt to portray herself as a populist who will uphold Obama's "legacy." 

But it is not the case that presidential campaigns merely appeal to existing voter preferences—presidential campaigns are rather desire forming. In this way they are much like advertising. No one wanted an iPhone until Steve Jobs unveiled them in a glitzy press conference; then half the population “discovered” that they had always wanted one. Likewise, as left-liberal as Seattle is, very few people there would have wanted an openly Leninist on the city council until Kshama Sawant mounted her effort and they discovered that they did. The visions presented by advertisers and politicians reveal new possibilities for the future which verify and reshape people's pre-existing desires.

Presidential elections are pure theater, it is true. But one of the main functions of this theater is to set the boundaries of what people can legitimately expect of their future. Between Clinton and the various Republican contenders, the boundaries are currently set at life under the boot of neoliberalism with a patriarchal and religious flavor, or a return to the days of Clintonian neoliberalism. 

Directive: Stump for Sanders, then for Stein

It is in this context that we can see the significance of a Sanders candidacy. He has the ability to portray a future outside the neoliberal consensus as both achievable and sensible, and he has the position and the funding to reach more people than a thousand Marxist bloggers. It is not much, but it pushes the political horizon further left. The anti-Sanders crowd seems to think that support for Sanders will transform genuine leftists into tepid reformists while there is very little, if any, actual danger of this. There is, however, a very real possibility that support for Sanders will cause the population as a whole to begin to accept some leftist goals as desirable and, more importantly, as achievable. More liberals will discover that they are actually socialists, a precondition to building any kind of mass movement in this country.

So support Sanders.

Then, when he loses the primary, stump for Jill Stein.

Then smash the bourgeois state. 

*BAMF fully supports flossing and does it regularly. Oral health affects total health, and we need our health optimized for the struggle. However, we do not disregard or discount the worth of those with poor dental or overall health.
**As always, this submission has been slightly altered stylistically by BAMF; this includes the addition of headers and links, among other slight changes.