What Sanders Lacks

The problem with half-measures

Recently there was a chalk picture drawn on a particular sidewalk in Greenwich Village—a colorful image of Hillary Clinton. Her face was upturned, much like Obama’s starry gaze in 2008. Her cosmetic upgrades this summer—dutifully rendered in finely contoured jowls—returned to her cheeks a faint glow of youth. Her shut-lipped grin, a poor man’s Mona Lisa, gave her face a humble cast, almost grandmotherly in its saintliness. The picture got its point across: here was someone we could believe in. Had there been a companion portrait of Bernie Sanders gazing up at Hillary, it would have only been appropriate.

Like this well-drawn but studiously naïve portrait of Clinton, it is nauseating to see the liberal community in this country be successively duped by the notion that Bernie Sanders could actually win the White House short of a revolution in the streets, and that Hillary Clinton is a worthy presidential candidate with a natural proclivity for progressive policy positions. Watching whole segments of the population swoon beneath Sanders’ faux socialism and Clinton’s faux progressivism can give one the sense of history repeating itself–as farce. How poorly we comprehend the unassailable power of what Edward Herman called “the unelected dictatorship of money” that rules Washington.

Maintaining the Delusional Herd

A recent appearance of Bernie Sanders on the Charlie Rose Show, the clearinghouse of establishment pretensions, demonstrated yet again that he isn’t serious about defeating Hillary Clinton. Bruce Dixon from The Black Agenda Report wrote that Sanders was “sheepdogging” for Clinton, herding backslidden Democrats back within the fold of the two-party duopoly. It is easy to take issue with this idea because it sounds so deeply cynical, and Sanders seems so genuinely to believe the country needs to challenge the one percent. But when you listen to his interviews, it is equally easy to recognize how calculated they are. He should be launching salvo after salvo at Clinton, illuminating her miserable streak of misguided choices as a First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. But he doesn’t.

The combination of Sanders and Clinton as the twin challengers on the Democratic ticket for the 2016 presidency is intended to function like this: lip-service liberals—as though any position to the left of a Republican is liberal—will temporarily enjoy a thrilling flirtation with change, before getting ahold of themselves and comfortably settling for the status quo. After all, middle-class liberals are beneficiaries of the system as it stands. What’s important to them, consciously or not, is the ability to signal to others that they are charitably disposed toward the poor. They are not seriously interested in changing the system beyond transparently inadequate reforms. To that end, all Clinton need do is issue a few heartfelt platitudes about women, minorities, and the middle class, and it will pave a yellow-bricked road across which the Democratic faithful will fly—from the frumpy and avuncular Vermont Senator to the matronly Machiavelli. If it were any different, Bernie Sanders would be out for blood. But he’s not.

A genuine socialist interested in winning the White House wouldn’t open interviews by declaring how much he admires his opponent and what good friends they are. A socialist interested in winning would declare any neoliberal his avowed enemy and launch attacks on any that challenged his campaign, Hillary foremost among them. Instead he’s trying to attack an unfair system without pointing a finger at the very people that keep it unfair. Perhaps, instead of cozying up to the venal plutocrats in power, Sanders might begin:

Hillary, you call yourself a defender of children, yet your State Department fostered, sponsored, and sanctified the coup d’état in Honduras that has turned the country into the murder capital of the world, produced death squads that assassinate children, and driven tens of thousands of underage Honduran kids to America’s borders, only to be told by you that they need to be sent back, ‘as soon as possible.’ There are numerous foreign policy failures of yours worth discussing, but we might begin with this one. Would you mind explaining how destroying Honduran society is good for kids?

The War Budget

The point is not to say Sanders is doing anything good. He is. He is opening a space in the national dialogue for the topic of socialism, however misconstrued. In an era when criticism of the free market is routinely scorned, this is important. He is, on national television, articulating the grievances of millions with a sincerity Hillary Clinton could never summon. But Sanders compelling criticism of the domestic scene, though necessary, also illustrates the problem with half-measures. While Bernie gets it right on domestic policy, he deliberately avoids the heart of the issue: militarism. If there is ever going to be serious change in this country, such as deep electoral and economic reform or a thoroughgoing transition to socialism, or “democratic socialism” as Sanders terms it, it has to begin with the dismantling of empire. And empire thrives on war.

This is what Bernie Sanders is missing: an uncompromising critique of imperial violence. Of empire itself. Any serious critique of Hillary Clinton would lead directly to that kind of dialogue, since Hillary is an imperial shill par excellence. What Sanders could do, were he to launch such a debate, is connect the domestic—on which he’s excellent—to the foreign—on which he’s abysmal. That connection is critical. As interdependent planks of the economic elitism that is wrecking our economy with austerity and savaging other economies with bombs, we have to make common knowledge what Martin Luther King and Alexander Solzhenitsyn knew. King argued that we cannot build a great society while maintaining a state of imperial violence. Solzhenitsyn phrased it with equivalent candor: “A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.” Socialism, which pivots on worker ownership of the means of production, cannot be realized without first shutting down the means of imperial production.

Without a focus on militarism, we condemn ourselves to living with the fake progressive reformism of Hillary Clinton and her abettors in the Democratic National Committee (DNC). We condemn ourselves to living with what Barrington Moore called, “the predatory solution of token reform at home and counterrevolutionary imperialism abroad.”

What’s more, we condemn those living abroad to fates worse than death, and certainly fates worse than ours. More than a million people dead as a direct consequence of the War on Terror, more appropriately entitled the War of Terror. Millions exiled from their homes, across borders to live in overcrowded tent cities or line urban streets as desperate mendicants. Many ultimately wind up at the shuttered entry points of the Western coalition countries that produced the crisis in the first place. If Republicans complain of too many underage Hondurans on our border, it is because the Democrats sponsored and legitimized a coup d’état in Tegucigalpa. If Syrians appear en masse on Germany’s doorstep, it is because Berlin and Washington pushed for bloody regime change in Damascus (Germany has since abandoned our anti-Syria, anti-Putin alliance).  And if Syria and North Africa suffer from growing extremist infiltrations, it is because the security structures of Iraq and Libya have collapsed under the weight of imperial bombardment.

Eminent journalist and filmmaker John Pilger writes:

[S]ince 1945, more than a third of the membership of the United Nations–69 countries–have suffered some or all of the following at the hands of America’s modern fascism: they have been invaded, their governments overthrown, their popular movements suppressed, their elections subverted, their people bombed and their economies stripped of all protection, their societies subjected to a crippling siege known as ‘sanctions’.

Capitalism’s Secret Police

But what the State Department and White House do to undermine popular reform in Honduras and Egypt and elsewhere can always be traced back to capitalism and its profiteering mandate, or what Adam Smith called the “”the vile maxim of the masters of mankind, all for ourselves and nothing for other people.” In its modern formation, it was succinctly expressed by former CIA agent and whistleblower Philip Agee when he said, “…the CIA, after all, is nothing more than the secret police of American capitalism.”

Aside from gambling on derivatives, this is how elite capital makes its money. Accumulation by dispossession. War, then extraction. Sanctions, then exploitation. Agee was right: an unchecked profit mandate will eventually lead to war. And big business will not check itself. For that, we need government regulation driven by popular outrage. Corporations are legally bound to pursue profits. All checks on revenues are considered—in the cold eye of the shareholder—as costs to be externalized, overhead to be reduced, and obligations to be relinquished. Does anyone really believe Obama would have banned Arctic drilling or rejected Keystone XL had not both these ventures proven unprofitable in the current fossil fuels market?

As author Chris Hedges tells Abby Martin on Telesur’s Empire Files, when you roll veterans affairs and nuclear programs and black budgets into the “official” Pentagon budget, the U.S. spends something like $1.7 trillion a year on war. And we wonder why the economy sputters, or why we hear endless orations about debt reduction. And we wonder why half the country makes less than $30,000 a year, five grand above the household poverty line.

Sanders doesn’t affect a serious difference of opinion on foreign policy. He votes for war appropriations, then complains about the wars they fund. He is a staunch defender of Israel, affecting the standard pose that both parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are equally culpable, when it is Israel that is an occupying force in demonstrable violation of international law. Sanders votes for military contracts that improve the jobs forecast for his constituency, even though those jobs will build the machinery of imperial slaughter. He notably parrots State Department misguided rhetoric about Russia’s dangerous aggression. He has little to say about the font of extremism that is our vaunted ally Saudi Arabia, except that they should get busy exterminating the jihadi disease they spread. He has little to say about our other democracy-despising ally in Ankara, which is about to descend into a 19th century sultanate and proceed to ethnically cleanse the Kurds—again.

In the end, Sanders will kneel before the dynastic Clinton throne, rendering tribute and paying fealty to the only genuine candidate worthy of Wall Street, the defense industry, and the still-seething cabal of neoconservative power-mongers. As Hedges points out in a stirring recent speech, “Calling All Rebels”, if you don’t address the militarization of the state, then you aren’t a socialist. Sanders doesn’t, and isn’t.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, political commentator, and veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He is the recent author of Imperial Fictions, a collection of essays from between 2015-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.