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Bernie Sanders and the Burden of Empire


One of the main challenges for Left political economy is that the whole of Western political and economic infrastructure has been crafted to serve the goals of capitalist imperialism. Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz can fit their programs into the domestic and global frames of militarized capitalism because they proceed from within these logics and organizational forms. Few supporters would expect with the election of either that economic justice would suddenly prevail, that wars for resources would be diminished, that environmental resolution would be placed ahead of narrowly distributed economic gains or that racial reconciliation would be made a formal part of any establishment program.

In a very real sense the struggle is between conscious optimism that death, greed and destruction aren’t the base modes of human existence against dismal resignation that they are. The institutional backdrop is in no sense a neutral arbiter. It is the product of a Western id borne of war and strife as if they were facts of nature rather than human determination. This id feeds on manufactured fear, reflexively opposes alternative social visions and stands against efforts to forge a different path forward. The political choice is to work within this established set of social constraints or to push the contribution of human determination in a different direction from outside of it.

As a device of established social relations, electoral politics reflect the choices that support these relations. In a strategic sense the moment for Bernie Sanders’ program was 2009, not 2016. The establishment ‘success,’ and evidence of the defensive nature of the Western id, is that total collapse, whatever that might man, was avoided after 2008. Manufactured social vulnerability was resolved by recovering the mechanisms of this very same manufactured social vulnerability. The result: any program that is intended to produce more than superficial reforms that quickly revert to existing institutional prerogatives must confront not just the prerogatives, but the institutions themselves.

One of the tensions on display is abstract representation versus participation, in superficial terms related to competing democratic forms. Left undefined in both frames is the political population of interest. Hillary Clinton and assorted Republicans promise competent representation while Bernie Sanders offers in words and frame-of-reference a participatory ‘process’ that references a broader, but still only partially defined, population. The political economy that all seek to lead is a developed patronage system posed as an artifact of ‘natural’ organization through the intersection of state and economy. The shortcomings of all of these campaigns centers on their imperial frames as they relate to the relevant communities as they are conceived and put forward by the candidates.

In less abstract terms, when Hillary Clinton recently addressed AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) she did so as prospective (and retrospective) representative of a narrow community (supporters of the state of Israel) that ties her to U.S. foreign policy of the last four decades, to Western imperial history, to U.S. militarism and to the narrow interests of the Israeli hard-right. Mrs. Clinton is putting herself forward as representing the interests of empire whether or not history chooses to agree with her. Significant populations in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and other large American cities find themselves on the wrong side of this imperial reach much as Palestinians living under Israeli occupation do. Bernie Sanders straddles this paradox without an explicitly defined imperial ‘community.’

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 4.29.41 PM-1

This paradox is expressed as policy disjunction around Mr. Sanders’ proposed, and to a limited extent accomplished, domestic policies in conjunction with his imperial-lite foreign policies. As an establishment Democrat Hillary Clinton’s ‘appeal,’ as well as her policies, unites the interests of Goldman Sachs and Bank of America with those of repressive right-wing regimes around the globe, including Israel. In this context it is hardly incidental that Democrat Barack Obama acted as broker for the largest increase in arms sales since WWII as he supported Wall Street through massive bailouts and guarantees. Class interests that are framed in nationalistic terms reduce to economic nationalism. Global capitalists benefit from economic nationalism because it keeps trans-national working class interests hidden behind contrived boundaries.

Whether or not Bernie Sanders’ choice to run as a Democrat is ‘pragmatic’ depends on what his ultimate goals are. It is by now a cliché that international capital prefers politically repressive environs that keep labor weak and dependent. The flip side is the ready supply of customers for military arms and repressive forces that political repression provides. It simply isn’t possible to separate domestic and foreign policy when state and economic relations are global. Hillary Clinton is a dedicated imperialist and American ‘progressives’ make a deal with the devil when they dissociate Mrs. Clinton’s support for Wall Street from her hawkish foreign policy and her opportunistic (and structurally racist) carceral policies. Bernie Sanders’ effort to keep his options open understates the interrelation of state and economic power in affecting domestic policy, hence the internal / external paradox of his policies.

This problem has been framed by liberals as a requirement for ideological purity from the Left when it is in fact fundamental when viewed through global economic relations. The so-called trade agreements which establishment Democrats have been so effective in getting enacted are about securing economic power through lopsided legal arrangements like ‘investor’ tribunals, patents and other legal mechanisms for economic rent extraction. Establishment Democrats claim that these agreements benefit ‘American’ corporations as if American corporations earned fewer profits by screwing American labor and consumers than by doing so overseas. Given that American, as well as non-American, workers work for American based multi-national corporations, the relevant frame of analysis is of economic, rather than national, interests.

This relates to the economic malpractice of taking ‘initial’ economic distribution as given to debate policies of redistribution. American banks ‘create’ money through lending which places them in the middle of capitalist distribution and gives them control over what gets funded. The ‘political’ substance of this relation can be seen most straightforwardly through IMF ‘workout’ programs like the hostile takeover of Greece by corrupt creditors. A related strategy can be seen in the corporate stock buybacks that are funded by debt. Corporations borrow money to buy stock to raise its price so that executives can sell the stock that they have granted themselves at a higher price. In a broader social sense this is analogous to borrowing against your neighbor’s house to pay for a vacation. When the bill comes due corporate executives have the proceeds in their pockets while labor gets squeezed to repay the debt.

Mr. Sanders has articulated the ‘internal’ class dimensions of this patronage system— the state as an expression of capitalist interests, without effectively expanding the analysis to global capitalism. Creating a ‘kinder, gentler’ empire while leaving in place the major levers of capitalist imperialism like multi-national corporations and (crony) capitalist banking ignores how these became central to Western political economy in the first place. ‘Nature’ didn’t place them there. They grew through the integration of state and economic power. The relationships are made visible in Hillary Clinton’s program of ‘muscular’ militarism combined with state-corporatism implemented through an international alliance of repressive (by degree) governments. America leads the ‘international community’ in carceral repression.

The question of why these global political and economic powers would acquiesce to the political will of the American electorate is left unaddressed begging the follow-on question of how Mr. Sanders would move his program from here to there. In 2009 Barack Obama was in position to affect the re-emergence of New Deal style ‘managed’ capitalism of the sort that Mr. Sanders envisions but he dedicated his efforts instead to reconstructing the patronage system that supports establishment Democrats. The popular storyline centers on Mr. Obama’s personality, that he is constitutionally conservative. Left unaddressed in this explanation is that Mr. Obama rebuilt the crucial infrastructure of capitalist imperialism— there was nothing either conservative or incremental about doing so.

In contrast to Hillary Clinton and the Republican candidates Bernie Sanders is likely the last, best hope for reviving FDR-style New Deal capitalism. The pragmatic argument that making the lives of (American) working people incrementally better outweighs more encompassing solutions gets to the heart of Mr. Sanders’ program. With notable lapses like ‘progressive’ racial discrimination in housing and educational policies, FDR salved the economic travails of domestic populations while American imperialism ran roughshod over the lives of its neo- imperial subjects globally. Additionally, the pragmatic amalgam that FDR achieved required both a plausible alternative to capitalism in the form of the Soviet Union and an American populace ready to take matters into their own hands if FDR hadn’t made the necessary reforms.

This isn’t to suggest that Mr. Sanders is so shortsighted as to not understand, in a general sense, this predicament. However, in contrast to capitalist mythology, relocation of wealth has played an equal or greater role in its accumulation than has wealth ‘creation.’ ‘Fictitious’ capital links ‘wealth’ to economic production through the money system. American capitalists have long understood that the easier route to ‘acquiring’ real wealth in the form of economic product is through economic imperialism backed by state resources. This is to argue that part of the ‘shared’ American bounty that steadied managed capitalism under FDR’s New Deal came through imperialism. The ‘post-War’ boom existed in part because the ‘winners’ of World Wars I and II exerted control over the economic resources that were key motivations for the wars. Ending the deeply instantiated consumer culture premised on cheap goods is a necessary step to uniting class interests across national borders.

Mr. Sanders’ program could possibly work, but not as it is currently conceived. To his credit, Mr. Sanders appears to see himself more as a vehicle for re-emergent Leftish politics than as its motivation. The necessary counter to capitalist imperialism is a global, Left-working class movement that forces Mr. Sanders to address the imperial dimensions of his existing economic populist program. While no such movement is currently on the horizon, there is little possibility of voluntary capitulation by the forces of global capitalism without one. A starting point might be persistence and growth of a global Left movement after Mr. Sanders has been moved aside by the Democratic establishment. The smart move by this establishment would be to let Mr. Sanders prevail and then neuter his program through ‘reforms.’ Odds are it isn’t that smart.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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