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Paralysis of will: Bernie Sanders's capitulation

Boris Kagarlitsky

Platypus Review #89 | September 2016

THE U.S. DEMOCRATIC PARTY CONVENTION in Philadelphia ended with a big schism that divides not only the supporters of Hillary Clinton from her opponents, but also Bernie Sanders from the movement he led until not very long ago.

The senator from Vermont who attracted thousands across America to his rallies and ignited them with his speeches looked helpless—even ridiculous—in Philadelphia. In a matter of seconds, his speech endorsing Hillary turned a charismatic leader who embodied the hopes of millions into a pathetic old man who does not understand what is happening around him. With a confused smile on his face, he repeated that Hillary would be an excellent president, that the party adopted the most progressive platform ever, coaxing his indignant supporters to, “live in the real world.”[1] Clearly, Sanders demonstrated a lack of connection with the new political reality that made possible his ascent to prominence in the national political arena.

Pitied at best, Sanders garners very little support now, yet young followers ask that he not be criticized too harshly, since it was he who awakened them and brought them together.

But it is a mistake to attribute their own accomplishments to him. In the last 20 years, a candidate similar to Sanders has appeared in almost every primary election, only to be filtered out in the early stages of the campaign. The fact that Bernie did not meet the same fate is not explained by his talents and merits but by the long overdue need for social change in American society, which accumulated over the years and suddenly burst out into the open. This need was generated by a systemic crisis and the unresolved contradictions of neoliberalism. Motivation was needed for this sentiment, particularly acute among young people, to turn into a political movement. Bernie’s decision to run for the Democratic nomination provided it. As long as his speeches reflected the mood of the people, they carried him along. But when the time for serious political decisions came, the senator from Vermont failed to lead, becoming completely helpless.

Of course, what happened cannot only be attributed to the personal qualities of one person. What can be characterized now as Bernie’s Philadelphia capitulation was prepared during his campaign by left intellectuals close and not so close to him. All of them—from Noam Chomsky to Michael Moore—unanimously repeated that Donald Trump, a brawler and a racist, is the main danger, and that support for Hillary is the only way to prevent the catastrophe that would happen if the Republican candidate were to win the election.

Now these people are in a panic: They managed to break up Sanders’ movement, forcing him to surrender, then suddenly realized that the most likely outcome would be a victory for Trump. Considering electoral fraud and corruption of the Democratic Party apparatus, millions of people reasonably concluded that Trump is not the "greater evil" today in America. Sanders’ capitulation tore the last moral excuse from the Democrats’ political rhetoric. For those who followed the campaign hoping for change and who realize how deep the impending crisis is, it became clear that nothing good can be expected from these politicians. After all, even the best, most honest candidate surrendered shamefully!

If Trump wins the election, we could argue with complete certainty that Sanders predestined this outcome the moment he expressed his support for Clinton, thereby betraying not only his supporters, but also American democracy. Now it is the moral duty of any decent American to punish the Democrats. All of them. Including Bernie. And they will do it, even if they do not vote for Trump: They will stay home, or vote for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, or the libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, clearing the way for Donald Trump.

This will be the beginning of a new epoch for the United States and the world, in which the neoliberal consensus will be replaced by the uncertainty of risk and freedom. In reality, we know very little about Trump today, aside from his politically incorrect statements, which do not really matter since they do not lead to any specific actions, except for the laughable project of building a border wall. But if Trump is really half as dangerous as the liberal mass media insists, he cannot be stopped by lackluster support for the “lesser evil.” Only the enthusiasm of a mass radical mobilization around an alternative program of transformation can stop him, the program Sanders proposed for a year, then abandoned in Philadelphia.

One cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs. And if concern for eggs is uppermost, the omelets cannot be made. The trouble is that all the efforts of the politically correct egg protectors are worthless. In the course of the story, eggs will be broken one way or another, however omelets will not be made.

The policy of a "lesser evil" is a recipe for disaster. In a period of crisis, minimizing risk does not work, but instead results in the worst possible outcomes. In the situation of a more than likely Trump victory, only those on the Left who did not support Hillary will survive politically. Everybody else will drown together with her. Attempts to preserve the integrity of a mechanism that does not work are fraught with apocalyptic disasters on a planetary scale. In the conditions of an unending crisis, the calls of the Left to accept the lesser evil to avoid the greater evil will lead us from one disaster to another.

Capitulations of the Left are not accidental. There is one reason behind all of them: rejection of the simple principles that define the left movement. Half a century ago, these principles were self-evident, but today it is time to recall them. The first is class interests. Not the abstract demagoguery of sympathy toward the weak, inclusiveness, and minority rights, but the specific interests of real working-class people, including the “white males” so despised by liberals. In fact, “white males” is a notion invented by liberals specifically to undermine class solidarity and discredit the labor movement. In reality, about half of “white males” are women, and no less than a third are representatives of non-white races. But it does not matter to the liberal discourse. The logic of unity in order to solve joint problems and achieve common goals is portrayed in this discourse as an attempt by “white males” to discriminate against minorities with their special interests. It does not matter that the defense of special interests leads not only to discrimination against majorities, but also generates a “war of all against all” in which minorities are the first to suffer. The goal of this politics is not to protect minorities, but to fragment society, while allowing the liberal elite to re-distribute resources among the minorities.

A recent Sanders supporter noted in an internet discussion of his capitulation: “The senator from Vermont had to decide what is more dangerous—Trump’s homophobic rhetoric or the dictatorship of financial capital promoted by Clinton. He concluded that homophobic rhetoric is worse.”

I have to admit that this is the most accurate description of the “real world” according to Sanders.


The second historic principle of the Left was the notion of historic perspective and building a strategy based on it. In the 1930’s, politicians as different as Roosevelt, Trotsky, and Stalin shared this definition, based on the urgent problems of development, whose resolution is the essence of progress. It is telling that the liberal left in the U.S. continues to identify itself as “progressive,” although currently they do not even discuss the essence of historical progress, aside from organizing a few humanistic events.

Meanwhile, the issue is more than clear. Overcoming neoliberalism is the urgent historic task of today—not because we do not like this system, or because it does not correspond to our values, but because it has exhausted its potential for development and can only survive by devouring the resources needed for the basic reproduction of society. In other words, the longer this system remains the more it will self-destruct and undermine our livelihoods.

The historic perspective is connected to class interests by the answers to simple pressing questions: Will jobs be created that not only allow survival, but also the cultural, professional, and moral development of workers? Will unions and other worker organizations be strengthened? In the course of the last two and a half decades, the Left in unison criticized neoliberalism, the World Trade Organization that weakens and de-solidarizes the working class. However, it is reluctant to admit that the opposite principle is also true: Under conditions of capitalism only protectionism strengthens workers’ positions in the labor market, labor unions and political organizations based on them. Western European protectionism gave birth to a powerful social-democratic movement, while support of domestic industry by the Russian governments of Witte and Stolypin created the conditions for the Revolution of 1917.

Without the old industrial countries transitioning to protectionism, consolidation of the labor movement in the countries of the Global South, which also need to protect their own markets and their own industry, is also impossible. Democratic control and a welfare state are also impossible without protectionism. Bernie’s campaign raised these issues, but when the question arose which is worse—Trump’s protectionist program with its anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican flavor, or Hillary’s anti-social agenda packed into a politically correct lexicon, the choice was made in favor of the latter. Millions of American workers regardless of the color of their skin, gender, or sexual orientation will make a completely different choice. By voting for Trump they are not reacting to his scandalous rhetoric, even if they like it, but rather making a thoughtful decision based on their interests as laborers under the conditions of capitalism.

Trump only needed his scandalous rhetoric to attract the attention of the lower classes of society, to send them a signal, to stand out from a homogenous mass of dull political figures. Now is the time for a substantive discussion. Neoliberal politics has to be dismantled; the societal model has to be changed. If protectionism becomes a fact, the preconditions for a new social state will be created, a basis for a new popular movement without Sanders and the liberal left will arise.

The third principle, which was always fundamental for left politics is the struggle for power. Precisely for power, not representation, influence or presence in the dominant discourse. It is telling that it was precisely Sanders’ attempt to start a real struggle for power that caused the indignation of many left radicals, who perceive this as completely obscene. On the contrary, when the Vermont senator abandoned his positions, he consoled himself and his supporters with the fact that the Democratic Party adopted the most progressive platform in its history, although anyone who knows how the American state really works knows that this program is not worth the paper it is written on. All the levers of power (not only in the administration, but also in the party) are in the hands of the people who will never allow these ideals to be realized.

The struggle for power requires an organization and much more rigid mechanisms of mobilization than network structures. But most of all, it requires a strong will and political independence. That is why, as frustrated and bitter as Sanders’ betrayed supporters are, the alternative for them should not be the support of Trump. The main problem with Trump is not that he is a misogynist, but that he is a capitalist. Sure, his victory may be a necessary step in order to overcome neoliberalism and dismantle the corrupt political system, but it will not lead to a positive social program. This can only happen with a consciously built progressive organization in the true historic meaning of this word. Will it be built around Jill Stein and her Green Party, or will it be created by the activists who came out of the Sanders’ movement, we will know the answer in the near future. However, it has to be built now, irrespective of its chances of prevailing in the current political cycle. Political struggle requires patience and perseverance.

The political transformation, which is currently under way in the United States and Western Europe, is changing the conditions under which people in the entire world live and struggle, opening new opportunities for them. The opposite is also true: Syriza’s betrayal, Sanders’ capitulation, Corbyn’s wavering are not just issues of Greek, American, or British politics respectively… These are failures for which not only the Left, but all of humanity will pay the price.

The neoliberal system, which the likes of Hillary Clinton and François Hollande are trying to preserve, is already so dysfunctional, so decayed that every day it survives undermines the basic means of societal reproduction. If we are not ready to fight for its deconstruction, it will break down naturally. But the alternative will not be a new social order imagined by anti-globalists, but rather chaos and barbarism growing spontaneously.

A paralysis of will, which struck the left movement during the epoch of neoliberalism, must be overcome. A global drama, in which everyone will have a role, is about to start. We must accept responsibility for risky decisions, understand that we cannot be nice to everybody, and that we cannot win without struggle and sacrifice.

[1] Sanders, Bernie. Prepared remarks for 2016 Democratic National Convention. Available online at <>.