At a time of increasing turmoil in the US and globally, Bernie Sanders has produced a devastating critique of capitalism, argues PETER TAAFFE. But unfortunately, not with a clear path to a real socialist and democratic alternative.
It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism
By Bernie Sanders
Published by Allen Lane, 2023, £22
This book is a devastating critique of American capitalism in all its shocking detail. Virtually every page teems with facts and figures indicting US and world capitalism. Bernie Sanders lays the groundwork for the reader to draw socialist and revolutionary conclusions. He explains that over the last fifty years we have seen public policies that benefit the very rich at the expense of everyone else. He warns that the American working class, indeed the world working class, has paid a heavy price already, and will face a terrible future if the millions of working-class people do not rise to put an end to this system.
He bluntly states: “They say the older you get the more conservative you become. Well, that’s not me. The older I get, the angrier I become about the uber-capitalist system under which we live, and the more I want to see transformational change in our country”.
At the same time, he outlines a vision of what could be a socialist future: “We can finally end austerity economics and achieve the long-sought human dream of providing a decent standard of living for all. In the 21st century we can end the vicious dog-eat-dog economy in which the vast majority struggle to survive, while a handful of billionaires have more wealth than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes”.
He underlines the decline of the middle class, and the enormous wealth of the oligarchs: “They have their mansions all over the world, their private islands… Some of them have spaceships that, someday, may take them to Mars. These oligarchs like the way things are going and, with unlimited resources at their disposal, will do everything possible to defend what they have and maintain the status quo”.
He also makes an important point when commenting on capitalist democracy: “Yes. We live in a ‘democracy’ – but they own that democracy. They spend tens of billions of dollars on campaign contributions to both major political parties, in order to buy politicians who will do their bidding. They spend billions more on lobbying firms to influence governmental decisions at the federal, state, and local levels”. Nominally we have freedom of speech and “a free press”. However, “oligarchs own that media… That’s why, despite the many thousands of television networks, radio stations, and websites they own, there is little public discussion about the power of corporate America and how oligarchs wield that power to benefit their interests at the expense of working families”.
But the good news is that increasingly the mass of the American working class are beginning to see through this elaborate charade.
Bernie Sanders had been an independent congressman for Vermont for many years. At the end of April 2015, he announced that he would be running for president, but in the Democratic Party’s primaries. Donald Trump’s popularity was increasing and he looked likely to win the Republican nomination. The possibility of a Trump win was chilling. Sanders’ ideas and approach were getting a huge response. Hillary Clinton eventually won the Democrat nomination at a skewed convention, but instead of taking any big new initiative to stand as an independent, Sanders endorsed Clinton.
In the 2020 presidential primaries Sanders again stood for the Democrat nomination, rather than stand as an independent or make an appeal to form a new workers’ party. He believed he had the best chance to win against Trump. He recounts: “In 2020 we won the popular vote against a huge field of candidates in the first three Democratic primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. The result: a panicked political establishment came together behind Joe Biden, the one candidate they thought could beat us”.
However: “In state after state, and in national polls, we won the support of young Americans by landslide proportions. These voters – Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American – understood from their lived experience that America’s uber-capitalist system was not working for them. It was not working for them economically, as they were experiencing a lower standard of living than their parents. It was not working for them from an environmental perspective, as they faced a planet that was growing increasingly unhealthy and uninhabitable as a result of climate change. It was not working for them in terms of ending the kind of systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia that they detested… Millions of young people in this country made it clear: they wanted change, real change”. Sanders concludes: “We have got to get to the root causes… we have got to change the system”.
Among Generation Z (those born from the mid-1990s onwards), 54% say they have a negative view of capitalism. Bernie explains: “We must also oppose the reactionary neo-fascist forces in this country that are undermining American democracy and moving us toward authoritarianism and violence, as they scapegoat minorities and attempt to divide us based on our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, or our ethnicity”.
Unfortunately, a major weakness of the book is that Bernie doesn’t spell out a clear path that would work towards a real socialist and democratic alternative; and yet he sufficiently indicates the limitations of the Democratic Party, trapped as it is within the framework of rotten US capitalism. He writes: “After almost 50 years of wage stagnation, Democrats were in charge – but did not raise wages for workers. After a massive amount of illegal corporate anti-union activity, we did not make it easier for workers to join unions… We did not provide healthcare for all or lower the cost of prescription drugs. We did not make childcare and higher education affordable. We did not address homelessness or the high cost of housing. We did not make it easier for working people to retire with security and dignity. We did not reform a corrupt campaign finance system. Today tens of millions of Americans feel deep anger towards the political, economic and media establishment”.
Moreover, Bernie Sanders concedes: “Today, in our ‘free’ country, 60% of our people live paycheck to paycheck – and real inflation-adjusted wages have not gone up for 50 years. Some 85 million of us are uninsured or underinsured, and 60,000 die each year because they don’t get the medical care they need. We have the highest childhood poverty rate of almost any major country on earth, disproportionately among Black and Brown families, and our childcare system is a disaster. Higher education is increasingly unaffordable, and we lag behind many other countries in the academic achievements of our students. Millions of seniors lack the resources to heat their homes in the winter or to buy the prescription drugs they need”.
“Meanwhile, while working families are falling further and further behind, the people on top have never had it so good. We now have more income and wealth inequality than ever before, with the richest three billionaires owning more wealth than the bottom half of our society – 165 million people. Today the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 92% and the CEOs of major corporations earn 400 times what their employees make”.
“In our rigged economy we also have more concentration of ownership and price fixing than ever before”.
From this blizzard of facts and figures, Sanders argues: “This book… is not just a critique of modern American society and the uber-capitalism that shapes our lives. It offers a blueprint for progressive change… It calls for a political revolution in which working people come together to fight for a government that represents all Americans, not just the 1%”.
Mass workers’ party
Although it’s certainly true that there are masses of devastating figures in the book, at the same time it is not overwhelmingly clear what exactly is this “blueprint for progressive change” that Bernie offers. He still sees change coming from within the Democratic Party. He speaks about a ‘political revolution’ – not an economic and social revolution.
He is careful to praise Joe Biden and does not call for a clear break with the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, he doesn’t sufficiently draw on the experiences of the international working class on how to construct a new mass workers’ party. In particular, the case of Britain is very striking and relevant because, like the American workers having illusions in the Democratic Party today, British workers in the past held similar illusions. For example, at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th century, as trade unions were involved in mass struggles, many British workers viewed the Liberal Party as the radical alternative. However, they discovered through bitter experience that the Liberals still remained tied to the capitalist system by a thousand threads.
This realisation led to the conclusion by British workers that they needed their own party, and they created the Labour Party. The great advantage of this Labour Party was that it was based on the well-organised trade unions with a history of struggle. Also, after the Russian revolution of 1917 they adopted a clause in the constitution which called for the public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. The Labour government elected in 1945 nationalised the mines and railways and other utilities; established the National Health Service where treatment was offered from the cradle-to-the-grave free of charge; and set about building masses of council housing at reasonable rents.
Unfortunately, the leaders did not at the same time manage to assemble a socialist revolutionary leadership able to combat capitalism in every field and take the fight to the finish. Almost from its inception it was opportunist leaders like Ramsey MacDonald who captured the leadership of Labour. Similar processes were experienced in other countries. But when the working class has a party and a voice of its own, it can achieve so much to enrich the lives of everyone. Surely it is time for the American working class to cut free from the two capitalist parties and establish its own party.
Struggle in the US
The American working class has a marvellous history of struggle against a most vicious ruling class. There was a time when strikes developed into mini-civil wars; so determined was the boss class to win that they employed Pinkerton agents to use violence and guns to defeat strikes. For example, such gangster methods were used against the Appalachian miners of Kentucky and West Virginia; also, in the magnificent battle of the Teamsters’ union (truck-drivers) in Minneapolis in the 1930s. And, let it not be forgotten that it was American workers who established the struggle for the eight-hour day, which was taken up throughout Europe and the world, with the campaign eventually leading to the annual commemoration of May Day.
Bernie Sanders gives the example of the great Eugene Debs, the railroad workers’ union leader, who was also an organiser for the Socialist Party of America and presidential contender in the first decade of the twentieth century. Debs declared that “the fruits of labour must be enjoyed by the working class”. Sanders states that Debs “has been my hero since I was a young man, when I took to heart his message that ‘the very moment a working man begins to do his own thinking he understands the paramount issue, parts company with the capitalist politician, and falls in line with his own class on the political battlefield. The political solidarity of the working class means the death of despotism, the birth of freedom, the sunrise of civilisation’.”
Debs was a magnificent trade union leader who laid the groundwork for the rise of industrial trade unionism in America and the eventual development of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO). He was a presidential candidate in the 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920 elections and received millions of votes. He was a man of great courage who spoke out against US participation in world war one, which resulted in him being sent to prison for three years. Bernie points out: “While he has been dead for almost a hundred years, his life, work, and ideology remain enough of a threat to the corporate world that he has been virtually wiped out of our historical consciousness. There is an important lesson to be learned from that erasure. Debs was a fervent believer in grassroots democracy and opposed to authoritarianism and the cult of personality”.
Debs had stated “I would not be a Moses to lead you into the Promised Land, because if I could lead you into it, someone else could lead you out of it”! Bernie declares, “I share his view. Real change only comes from the bottom up, when thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and then millions stand together and demand a better deal. Never from the top down. Elected officials should stand in solidarity with workers and do everything they can to empower them… That’s my mission… I have never been neutral when it comes to workers’ rights”.
“In the great struggle between the working class and the corporate class, I’m on the side of the workers. No real change in this country can take place unless working people are prepared to fight for their rights. Part of my job, as mayor, a member of Congress, a senator, and a presidential candidate, has always been to stand with workers who are fighting for economic justice. I don’t cross picket lines; I join them. It is a privilege to march with workers who have the courage to take on the powerful special interests that dominate the economic and political life of the country”.
He contrasts his own actions with those of Bill Clinton when he assumed the presidency and then, shamefully, “aligned with Wall Street to approve so-called free trade pacts, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Workers felt betrayed, and it cost the [Democratic] party dearly in the disastrous mid-term elections of 1994, when control of the House and Senate shifted to right-wing Republicans who cynically exploited the opening Clinton had given them. Workers understood that you couldn’t be both pro-Wall Street and pro-worker. For many working-class Americans, Clinton’s choice to side with Wall Street was the end of their allegiance to the Democratic Party, a trend which has only grown over the years”.
Bernie tells it like it is. Not only does he not fear the hostility of the likes of Trump and big business, but he welcomes their hatred, because it allows him to illuminate the class character of US society and raise what is necessary to decisively change the situation.
All workers who read this book should be inspired to join the struggle for a genuine mass party of the working class in America. How to harness the urge for change is the key question facing the American working class. It is clear Sanders has very widespread support and is recognised both nationally and internationally as a strong fighter. However, so far, he has unfortunately missed many opportunities to take initiatives towards assembling the forces necessary to establish an independent workers’ party. At present, and given the polarised situation with Trump, it now looks like Sanders will once again take a back seat to Joe Biden for the 2024 presidential election. He recently declared he “would do everything I can to see the president re-elected”.
However, the battle that Bernie describes so powerfully in this book is not over. It is a step along the way. As socialists, we say the urge for change can only be harnessed if the American workers follow Bernie’s message – but back it up with real action and go on to establish a mass socialist party with a fighting leadership that can take on the two capitalist parties of the oligarchs. This would be a giant step towards creating a democratic socialist USA that could become a beacon for the working classes of the world.