I wholeheartedly support the populist programs that Bernie Sanders advocates—from single-payer healthcare, to free college tuition, to taxing the rich and more. But borrowing from Malcolm X, Bernie is a house socialist and I’m a field socialist.
Bernie doesn’t want to replace or overthrow capitalism. Like all house socialists, he thinks capitalism can be fixed or tamed with reforms. By contrast, we field socialists understand that the essence of capitalism—private ownership of major industry, resources, banks, and the exploitation of labor by appropriating surplus value (profit)—is antithetical to democracy. In fact, for all of Bernie’s talk about “democratic socialism”, he and other house socialists turn a blind eye to the lack of economic democracy that is the very hallmark of the capitalist system. Because Bernie is in favor of tweaking capitalism but opposed to dismantling it, he ignores the systemic lack of democracy in the workplace and the economy—the very aspects that most affects people’s lives.
Bernie rightly denounces the unequal distribution of wealth, wherethe top 1% owns more than the rest combined. But like all house socialists, Bernie fails to identify important institutions as being controlled by and serving the interests of the 1%. Congress, the Democratic and Republican parties, the national media, the police and the military are all captives of the 1%. In a class-divided society, all important institutions are wielded as tools of the dominant class. Field socialists understand that these institutions answer only to the needs of the 1%, even though much effort is made by official propagandists to convince us that they serve us all. Bernie and other house socialists aid the 1% in the criminal charade of pretending that government institutions, the police and the military exist and operate independent of the class divisions in our society.
This is why it’s no surprise that Bernie and other like-minded house socialists are military hawks. They see the US army as “our” army rather than a weapon of the 1%. This is why Bernie has voted for nearly every war appropriations bill. This is why Bernie supports drones and US military involvement in the Middle East; why he supported military action in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. This is why Bernie supported sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s that caused the deaths of more than half a million children and he supported US military action in Kosovo in 1999. This is why Bernie refuses to denounce the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine but supports billions in military aid for Israel, Saudi Arabia and other brutal US client states that serve to extend the reach and protect the interests of the 1% overseas.
Field socialists oppose imperial war-making, understanding that the individuals and institutions of the 1% that exploit us here at home cannot be trusted to defend our interests abroad. In contrast to the hawkish house socialists, field socialists demand: “All US Troops Out Now!” “Dismantle All US Military Bases Abroad!” “Not One Bomb, Not One Bullet for the Wars of the One Percent!” “Money for Jobs, Not for War!” (For a complete field socialist election platform, see here.)
Because house socialists like Bernie limit their critique to reforms of the existing system, they are unable to propose concrete, workable solutions for the big problems we face. Take climate change, for example. Sure, house socialists say we must do more. But they emphasize tweaking economic incentives in the hope of persuading energy monopolies to change their behavior. House socialists support keeping the energy industry in the hands of private, profit-mad corporations. But gentle persuasion hasn’t changed corporate behavior up to now and we shouldn’t expect it to succeed in the future. As long as there are profits to be made by disregarding rules and incentives, corporations will do so. No incentives and no amount of persuasion can induce a leopard to change its spots; you have to replace the leopard. (For a field socialist analysis of climate change and the energy monopolies, see here.)
Few Americans realize that there are different kinds of socialists. Since house socialists are less of a threat to the powers-that-be, they tend to get a wider hearing than field socialists. In many European countries, house socialist parties have mass followings. House socialists have served as prime ministers in France, Sweden, Portugal, Norway, Luxemburg and elsewhere. Yet, capitalism hums merrily along in Europe as in most of the rest of the world. If electing house socialists to high office made a crucial difference to addressing global injustice, climate change or endless war, we would have seen it by now.
Unfortunately, there’s no field socialist to vote for in the upcoming presidential election. Nor do we in the US yet have a mass labor party—rooted in the working class and linked to fighting trade unions—which could serve as a real alternative to the parties of the 1%. Given this void, it’s not surprising that those fed up with the status quo might put their hopes in Bernie Sanders, a house socialist seeking to be the leader of a big-business party. But beware: while a vote for the house socialist candidate of a capitalist party might make some people feel good, no one should expect it to change much.