Missing the Socialist Moment

Bernie Sanders blew it.

I’m not talking about his apparent failure to wrest the nomination of the Democratic Party from consummate insider Hillary Clinton (I write this after his landslide loss in the New York primary), but about something much more important than a single nomination fight.

Bernie Sanders has blown what may have been the best chance we have had in decades to revive the word “socialism,” to reclaim it from the awful history of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and to reinvigorate its connection not just to income equality but to individual liberty and the fulfillment of human potential.

Sanders has focused his attention this campaign on the redistributive powers of government and the legalized corruption of our campaign system. These are important focuses – but they play into a decades-long narrative crafted by the right and the neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party that grants absolute authority to the market.

This is not to say that Sanders is a neo-liberal or that his program has any resemblance to the faux-liberalism of Bill Clinton or the incremental New Dealism of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Sanders, after all, is calling for universal health care via a single-payer, Medicare-for-All model, significantly higher taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, free college, universal child care, paid leave and a host of other family-friendly policies that would go a long way toward addressing income inequality.

But Sanders has continued to frame the discussion in the same tired language that historically has stalled progress toward a more egalitarian society.

Sanders’ Keynes-plus story advocates reining in the big banks, building a stronger social safety net, and deepening democracy. Fine. No disagreement there.

Nicole Aschoff, writing in The Jacobin in November, called Sanders a “flawed representative of the Left,” citing his unwillingness to actually discuss the 600-pound gorilla in the room: American capitalism. Focusing on a November speech, she points out that “Sanders never mentioned the word capitalism,” which “sidesteps the systemic basis of inequality and poverty, both in the US and globally.”

“Instead of the imperatives of class and competition,” she writes, “he decries greed and corruption in a narrative that sits uncomfortably close to ‘crony capitalism,’ the Right’s favorite villain.”

Sanders’ argument, essentially, is that the economy is rigged by and for the rich – which is true – and that unrigging it will address most of its ills. But that ignores the way American corporate capitalism creates and assigns value and apportions loss. Our focus is on capital creation and amassing wealth through profit, which is created by maximizing revenues, through sales, and minimizing the cost of production, through suppression of wages and benefits and the passing along of some of the costs to the society at large.

Consider climate change – pollution is a by-product of production and of energy use, but instead of asking producers to account for it in the cost of production, we ask the general public to pick up much of the tab. Homelessness, poverty, drug use, etc., are all sometimes expressed as questions of productivity, as if the loss of profit-making capacity is all that matters.

Sanders’ program hints at a better way of looking at the issues. His calls for free college and Medicare-for-All are about universality. A living wage – or wage floor – offers the same focus.

But he has avoided making this universality the cornerstone of his rhetoric – see my column on his college plan ( — and that has allowed Hillary Clinton to frame his proposals as giveaways to those who are not in need.

His rhetoric, in this way, plays to the prevailing mindset – that we have to help the less fortunate and that government aid is analogous to charity. I admit I’ve made similar arguments in the past, but I think we have to alter the debate, reframe it.

Socialism is not just about lifting up the poor, or redistributing wealth or power. Those material gains are important, but our lives are about more than materialistic concerns.

This is the point of Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Wilde said our “proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”

The reason for doing so, he said, is because poverty degrades the human soul. Private property – which for him was synonymous with capitalism – is an end in and of itself. Acquisition, he said, becomes its own goal. Man, he says, has mistaken having for being, which has led to a diminution of human potential. However, he explains, “The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is.”

Wilde believed that through a democratic socialism – as opposed to Authoritarian Socialism, or socialism imposed from above – mankind could be relieved of poverty and freed from the fear of want or hunger, allowing him to be more of himself and less of a cog, allowing him to reach his full potential.

That, ultimately, is the goal of socialism, and we should be talking about it in these terms. Socialism, as Wilde explains, is about liberty, about freedom of conscience and creativity. Capitalism is about acquisition and profit, and ultimately suppresses potential and ties creativity to cash.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email; blog,; Twitter @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Instagram @Kaletwrites;

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2016

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