“If you’re going to shoot the king, don’t miss,” Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in The Prince (1505). “The injury that is to be done,” Machiavelli added, “ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote something similar in his journal in September of 1843: “Never strike a king unless you are sure you shall kill him.”
I first ran across a version of this sentiment many years ago (exactly where I do not recall) while I was researching some U.S. Black and labor history. As I recall it was more class-specific, something along these lines: “if a peasant takes up arms against the king, he’d better well kill him.” The idea was that a high noble might be able to get away with challenging the king but a peasant certainly could not. If peasants and artisans were going to rebel, they’d better make a full revolution of it.
“No Desire to Get Rid of the Profit Motive”
Nowadays I think the aphorism applies to capital and the capitalist class. Take Bernie Sanders. He has called himself a “democratic socialist” and campaigns against “the billionaire class,” drawing large and approving crowds. He has taken more than a few at least rhetorical shots at the king, which in the U.S. is big capitalist and corporate-financial power – what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson have called the “the unelected dictatorship of money.”
In reality, however, Sanders, for all his sloganeering about “revolution,” has not remotely proposed that we figure out how to kill the king of capitalism. Sanders is at most a social democratically inclined New Deal liberal. His vision for America is one in which commanding heights economic decisions and ownership remain firmly in private, profit-taking hands while the government intervenes to a limited extent with the purpose of partially regulating some business activities and distributing income and wealth and social benefits in a more egalitarian and humane – less neoliberal – way. And as Bill Blum recently argued:
“Social democrats and democratic socialists [like Bernie Sanders] have no desire to get rid of the profit motive. Last November, Sanders gave a speech at Georgetown University in Washington about his positive view of democratic socialism, including its place in the policies of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. In defining what democratic socialism means to him, Sanders said: ‘I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.’”
“I personally could live with the neighborhood grocery store remaining in private hands, but larger institutions are always a threat; the larger and richer they are the more tempting and easier it is for them to put profit ahead of the public’s welfare, and to purchase politicians. The question of socialism is inseparable from the question of public ownership of the means of production. The question thus facing ‘socialists’ like Sanders is this: When all your idealistic visions for a more humane, more just, more equitable, and more rational society run head-first into the stone wall of the profit motive … which of the two gives way?” (William Blum, “Is Bernie Sanders a Socialist?”)
Answer: the profit motive. The “private sector” (I use quote markets because Big Business draws heavily on public subsidy and protection while wreaking monumental and multi-dimensional havoc on public experience) still rules under Bernie’s recommended “political revolution.” He can call himself a socialist but he says nothing about the need for a social revolution to expropriate the expropriators and remove the masters of wealth and property from the disastrous private ownership and control of economy, society, politics, and culture – from private/corporate ownership and control of the means of production, finance, distribution, and communication.
The vast global U.S. military Empire – intimately bound up with American capitalist class power at home and abroad – also continues under Sanders’ “revolution.” He doesn’t even take rhetorical shots at King Capital’s evil twin imperialism. Sanders is strikingly mute on the Pentagon system, no small silence given the devastatingly destructive impact of the nation’s giant military industrial complex on social and environmental well-being within and beyond the U.S. “homeland.”
“A Threat to Socialism”
The problem isn’t merely that Sanders isn’t actually a socialist. It is also that his social-democratic policies could actually pose a genuine danger to the socialism that we all desperately need (more on that below) if they were actually enacted – a rather fantastic possibility under the currently existing balance of class forces in U.S. politics and policy. As Gary Leech recently noted on CounterPunch:
“There is little doubt that the social democratic policies advocated by Sanders will redistribute some wealth to benefit poorer Americans…. the Keynesian policies that he is advocating are by far the most progressive that have been put forth by a serious presidential contender for many decades. Furthermore, his campaign has pulled the word ‘socialism’ out of the garbage can, dusted it off and initiated a healthy debate about both capitalism and socialism in the United States…Sanders’ policy proposals represent a welcome and long overdue challenge to the right-wing neoliberal rhetoric and policy agenda that has dominated US politics since the Reagan years. But not only aren’t Sanders’ policies socialist, they actually pose a threat to socialism. If elected, Sanders’ policies would likely moderate the capitalist model both domestically and globally, but they would leave intact the fundamental global injustices inherent in the capitalist system. And when those capitalist policies implemented by a self-proclaimed socialist ultimately fail to address these global injustices in any meaningful way, it will be socialism that will be discredited.” (G. Leech, “Why America’s Next President Will Not be a Socialist,” CounterPunch, January 25, 2016)
Partial, socialism-lite “revolutions” grease the path to counterrevolution via capitalist politicians’ and capitalist media’s smearing of “socialism” when social democrats are stuck with societal and policy messes imposed by private ownership of the means of production, investment, distribution, communication and more.
Pink Tide vs. Blood Red-Green
Look at Venezuela. Last year, Bernie referred idiotically to the figurehead of that nation’s outwardly socialist Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, as a “dead communist dictator.” In reality, Chavez’s “pink-tide” revolution was social democratic, more anti-neoliberal than anti-capitalist. It was also of course largely “extractivist,” dependent on the environmentally disastrous extraction, sale, and burning of oil – and on high global oil prices (recently in free fall, causing huge problems for the Venezuelan political revolution) – to fund its noble anti-poverty efforts. The U.S.-allied pro-business right there has been predictably able to exploit extractivist social democracy’s inherent inability to deal effectively with grave difficulties rooted in national and global capitalism.
I’m not saying that the Bolivarian Revolution necessarily could have killed the king – capitalism – in Venezuela. Capitalism and its great destructive agent and protector the U.S. Empire are global forces that make socialism or even social democracy, much less environmental sustainability, difficult indeed in any one country or region. My point is simply that his is what happens when you shoot in the king’s direction but don’t or can’t take him out.
The socialist revolution lives on with a vital green, environmentally sustainable, permaculturalist dimension in Cuba, where King Capital and the Yankee Empire were pushed and kept out with a blood-red revolution sustained with some help from the geopolitics of the Cold War. (A refurbished U.S. Cuba policy under the stealth imperialist Barack Obama seeks new ways to bring the king back to the island nation in new ways). The Cuban permaculturalist Roberto Pérez told Leech last year that Cuba laid the basis for an environmentally sustainable society “when the [Cuban] revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and the minerals…You cannot think about sustainability,” Perez explains, “if your resources are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability” (G.Leech, “Redefining Socialism in Cuba, CounterPunch, September 18, 2015).
This is a critical point. As the New York City-based Marxist writer Louis Proyect noted last May, “capitalism and capitalist politics have to be superseded if humanity and nature are to survive. Once we can eliminate the profit motive, the door is open to rational use of natural resources for the first time in human history. How we make use of such resources will naturally be informed by our understanding that reason governs the outcome and not quarterly earnings. The alternative,” Proyect reminds us, “to this is a descent into savagery, if not extinction” (L. Proyect, “The Life, Loves, Wars, and Foibles of Edward Abbey,” CounterPunch, May 15, 2015).
Taking the Risk Out of Democracy
Partial popular victories that do not prevent or overthrow the rise of King Capital can be worse than merely insufficient. Take “free speech” in the United States. The U.S. has long been heralded for the attainment of considerable free speech rights. The triumph is exaggerated: how many millions of Americans muzzle their beliefs because they fear losing jobs, promotions, and health care (strongly tied to employment in the U.S.?) And what is the free speech of ordinary citizens compared to the free speech of vast corporate media complexes and other great political and ideological forces funded by concentrated wealth? The bigger point here, however, is that the comparatively high level of free speech that has in fact enjoyed by many U.S. citizens over the decades has come with a big dark, authoritarian, and dialectical downside because it has been combined with the existence of a robust capitalism and a rich and powerful business class. It has encouraged the emergence in the United States of powerful private institutions, methods and tools of propaganda and thought control: “the manufacture of consent.”
The power-serving doctrinal mission and nature of dominant U.S. corporate mass (so-called mainstream) media – far more sophisticated, and potent than any media the Soviet Union created (propaganda organs the West never called “mainstream Russian media”) to control its populace– might seem ironic and even paradoxical in light of the United States’ relatively strong free speech and democratic traditions. In fact, as Alex Carey, Edward S. Herman, and Noam Chomsky noted many years ago, the former makes perfect sense in light of the latter. In nations where popular expression and dissent are routinely crushed with violent repression, elites have less incentive to shape popular perceptions in accord with elite interests. The population is controlled primarily through physical coercion. In societies where it is not generally considered legitimate to put down popular expression with the iron heel of armed force and where dissenting opinion is granted a significant measure of freedom of expression, elites are heavily and dangerously incentivized to seek to manufacture mass popular consent and idiocy. The danger is deepened by the United States’ status as the pioneer in the development of mass consumer capitalism, advertising, film, and television. Thanks to that history, corporate America has long stood in the global vanguard when it comes to developing the technologies, methods, art, and science of mass persuasion and thought control designed for what Carey chillingly called “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy.” America’s free speech tradition might seem to be an unqualified positive in the abstract but it is no such thing – indeed it becomes something of a maddening double-edged sword – under conditions of capitalist and related imperial power.
Me and What Army
I know this all sounds rather grandiose coming from a marginal Left author like myself. “Kill capitalism, you say? You and what army? Away with you, ridiculous serf!” It’s an almost understandable response. Serious left anti-capitalist organization is shockingly and tragically weak, marginal, and divided in the U.S, no small part of what a social-democratic capitalist like Bernie Sanders (who can get away with taking carefully calibrated rhetorical swipes at King Capital from his aristocratic perch as Senator for Life from Vermont) can get away with calling himself a socialist. That said, this is an intolerable situation for the common good and life on Earth. Instead of shrugging your shoulders and writing me off as another hopeless radical tilting at windmills, dear reader, you might want to start thinking about how to build the army you are right to note that I lack.
Capitalism, by all indications, is hard-wired to destroy decent life on Earth in the not so distant future. Humanity has perhaps 20 years, maybe less, to move off fossil fuels and onto renewable sources or it will ruin all prospects for a decent future. This is not merely the judgment of apocalyptic cranks and “catastrophist” worry warts. It is the consensus finding of a vast scientific literature on the environmental cataclysm that is certain to take hold in coming decades and centuries if Homo sapiens does not get off fossil fuels. For many years now, the preponderant majority of earth and climate scientists have been telling us that the planet we all share is being made progressively uninhabitable for human and other sentient beings (and living things) by capitalism’s relentlessly wasteful, growth- and profit-addicted burning of fossil fuels.
Can that transition occur and the climate and related environmental crisis be solved and a livable Earth saved under the competitive, chaotic, hierarchical, regressive, imperial, authoritarian, and growth-and accumulation-addicted capitalist system? Absolutely not. Not a chance. As Naomi Klein notes in her important book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Earth (2014), “The task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.” (p.462) That alternative world view can never prevail – never, fellow workers and citizens – under the reign of the profits system, dedicated by its very nature to savage and relentless exploitation, inequality, competition, and the endless war of each against all. 
So, you can laugh me off if you want but it’s a mistake. We either figure how to kill King Capital and follow through with a radically reconstructed and ecologically sustainable post-capitalist society or we can forget about a decent future. It’s not about incremental change and letter grades, moving forward at three or four yards per down. Capital is driving humanity and other living things off the cliff. We are approaching an existential chasm: we either take the revolutionary leap or its game over. The need for an eco-socialist revolution is humanity’s pass-fail moment.
This isn’t about hysterical and neurotic “catastrophism.” It’s the definitely indicated diagnosis and treatment plan for a brilliant but gravely ill species.
1 I was trying to figure out how and why so many Black workers went from being outwardly company-loyal and paternalized “strike insurance” to being the best and most militant union members in Chicago’s meatpacking industry during the 1930s. One reason among many, I determined, was that the insidious racism of the employer class left them much little leeway between outward company loyalty and militant unionism. It was one way or the other and once they sided with a Left-led and anti-racist union [Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, later to be the United Packinghouse Workers of America], many of those workers really needed that union to win. For the results of this research see Paul Street, “The ‘Best Union Members’: Race, Class, Culture, and Black Worker Militancy in Chicago’s Meatpacking Industry, 1920-1940,” Journal of American Ethnic History (Fall 2000): 18-49.
2 Despite her book’s title, Klein hedges on this radical diagnosis and treatment plan. What does Klein mean, exactly, when she says “capitalism?” Here, as in her earlier bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, she grants the system freedom to modify itself away from “free market fundamentalism” in a fashion that might seem acceptable to squishy progressives and cautious liberals. Listen to the following passage from This Changes Everything: “What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far simpler than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets” (This Changes Everything, p.18, emphasis added). The third sentence in this passage is consistent with Klein’s radical statement about “the really inconvenient truth” (that the problem is capitalism). Not so the second sentence, which attaches the moderating description “deregulated” to the overall system supposedly in the docket. The problem recurs across This Changes Everything. As Sam Gindin has rightly noted, “Klein… leaves too much wiggle room for capitalism to escape a definitive condemnation. There is already great confusion and division among social activists over what ‘anti-capitalism’ means. For many if not most, it is not the capitalist system that is at issue but particular sub-categories of villains: big business, banks, foreign companies, multinationals…Klein is contradictory on this score. She seems clear enough in the analysis that pervades the book that it is capitalism, yet she repeatedly qualifies this position by decrying ‘the kind of capitalism we now have,’ ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, ‘deregulated’ capitalism, ‘unfettered’ capitalism, ‘predatory’ capitalism, ‘extractive’ capitalism, and so on. These adjectives undermine the powerful logic of Klein’s more convincing arguments elsewhere that the issue isn’t creating a better capitalism but confronting capitalism as a social system.” This is not a new difficulty in Klein’s writing. Her previous blockbuster The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) was directed primarily at neoliberalism, at (Milton) “Friedmanite capitalism” and at so-called disaster capitalism, not at capitalism itself, It exhibited no small nostalgia for the Keynesian “regulated” and “welfare” capitalism that reigned across much of the rich world in the post-World War II “Golden Age” – a capitalism that (among its many terrible consequences) pushed the world into environmental crisis by the last quarter of the last century. As Marxist commentator Doug Henwood noted in a critical review, “Using words like ‘Friedmanite’ and ‘neoliberalism’ is a way to avoid talking about capitalism in any systemic fashion.”