Sniping at the Sandernistas: Left Perfectionism in the Belly of the Beast

I am writing this essay on the Sunday at the end of August 2015, the day on which Bernie Sanders began to articulate his foreign and military policy positions. What did I hear in the positions Bernie described during an interview on ABC television? An approach to US foreign and military affairs that falls far short of my own predilections. As a longtime peace activist from the 1960s forward and as the descendent of Quaker and other war resistors from the time of King Philip’s War in 1675 through Obama’s latest crazy effort to create a war with Syria, I find the perspective that the United States should obviously remain the world’s military hegemon and that limited use of drones may be warranted in the so-called “war against terror” to be far less than a fully ethical and sensible foreign and military policy. I found especially distasteful the endorsement of Saudi military intervention in the Middle East. I heard Sen. Sanders articulate a willingness to use American military force in a context of Great Power muscle flexing and jockeying for position. And about none of these things can I agree with Bernie Sanders. I heard Bernie Sanders talk about military action to prevent genocide. Even if Bernie does not understand this, I and many others have heeded the critiques of “military humanism” and appreciate that occupation by UN or multinational armies is still occupation with its attendant oppression, rape, humiliation and general disempowerment.

But here’s what I also heard. Bernie Sanders articulated a position on foreign and military affairs that is more sensible, restrained and humane in comparison to any foreign policy pursued by any American president from FDR to the present. He clearly stated as his major principle that “War is the last resort.” He acknowledged that drone strikes are frequently counterproductive. He effectively stated that America is addicted to military intervention rather than constructive alternatives. While I am well aware of the pitfalls of multilateral military intervention, I found Bernie Sanders talking about multilateral approaches and the use of world opinion as primary mechanisms in American foreign policy to be a major advance over the crude interventionism of practically all American presidential administrations since World War II. This is a politician who has voted against many more wars than he has voted for. It is credible that he would substantially reduce US military budgets and avoid most military adventures overseas. His statements about US military readiness and having a large military are likely the least bellicose stance that could be considered responsible and “electable” within the range of discourse tolerated in the hegemon polity. The ABC television commentator, of course, did not mention Bernie’s support of Israel’s Gaza incursions, but that would likely be the first line of criticism from Progressive thinkers, and has been a main point of criticism of Sanders by Cornel West and many others.   I understood immediately while listening to Senator Sanders being interviewed what long-term advocates of peace and demilitarization in ANSWER, AFSC, CPUSA and Code Pink would think of Senator Sanders “half-way” approach to these issues. I respect and will join their arguments that Bernie Sanders move farther toward advocating demilitarization and a humane foreign policy.

So what will I do with these two perspectives that I have on the foreign and military policies articulated by Bernie Sanders? Will I continue to encourage and sustain his candidacy for the United States presidency or will I recoil in dismay at the extent to which his views fall very short of what I not only think, but deeply know within my strongest personal conscience are the truly correct path to American demilitarization and joining (at long last) the community of our sister peoples throughout the world. I am aware at all times of the extent to which America’s position as world hegemon, as the bully and boss of the world system, forms my life and the lives of those around me. All Americans have been bought off with the old pottage of hegemonic privilege. The majority of Americans (particularly those of us outside what Steve Lerner and Chris Hedges have aptly termed “sacrifice zones”) partake of the enhanced physical security, material prosperity, and smug ignorance and apathy that comes with hegemonic status. These matters fill me with loathing and disgust, and I am tempted to simply lump Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign in with the world-destroying system of inequity and oppression whose existence I oppose and whose repellant barbarity causes repugnance in my very bones. I wish the hegemony would die.

At the same time, I am also aware of the great suffering spreading among the lesser beneficiaries of the hegemony. During the many phases of the peace protests, during the Occupy movement, and now during the Bernie Sanders campaign, I meet people who are unemployed, who have unbearable student debt, who have never had a chance at a career or who have been ruined financially by health care costs for themselves or loved ones, or who have lost or will lose their homes due to the burst of the “housing bubble.” I see many people with lots of missing teeth due to lack of access to dental care. Many are unable to afford a now $2 to $5 dollar cup of coffee. Then there are the physical problems stemming from surgeries that cannot be performed for lack of payment and that poor heath and unnecessary early death are spreading. I have worked with military veterans and others who are political activists who know poignantly that their mental health problems are partly caused by social oppression and that they are not receiving the services they need to keep their minds and lives stable. These are people I know and care about. Their numbers are increasing. Most of them are white. Most of them do not live in sacrifice zones. They face declining expectations, falling living standards, and an increasingly bleak existence for themselves and their children.

Even though they live amidst the blinking of the Internet and the seductions of free pornography and hook-ups, these people have become the exploited internal proletariat of the Empire. Their equivalents in Russia are the men who die early from alcohol and drug use and poor nutrition and the women who troll the Internet for escape as brides and sex partners overseas. Their equivalents in China are the rural poor who exist in massive sacrifice zones and the hundred million illegal internal migrants to urban areas. The empires turn upon their own populations and mine them for soldiers and base consumers of base products and could give a damn about their having health or education or any hope for their personal futures. Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia have emerged fully and bleakly and oppressively, and they blight their own people as they preside over the extermination of populations in marginal areas such as the central third of Africa and the war zones of the Middle East.

What are we to say about the white American debt servants with little access to health care who are slowly being driven mad by austerity cut backs and the holes in the shrinking “safety net? Believe it or not, in my experience such people constitute half or more of the so-called Sandernistas.  Yes, there people recently vilified by many on the American Left are not mainly privileged, affluent folks. They are hurting folks. The term Sandernista, of course, derives from the 1980s when Bernie Sanders, the socialist mayor of miniscule Burlington, Vermont excoriated Reagan’s policy of supporting genocidal military governments in Central America and Reagan’s efforts to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. Bernie Sanders made Burlington a sister city of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. Of couse, Mayor Sanders had his enemies on the Left as well as on the Right. Many of his enemies on the Left recount credible stories of Bernie being insensitive to their concerns and accommodating himself to the local power structure. Bernie’s blind spot to military industrial production appears well documented and long-term in nature. But Bernie as “populist” or “socialist” endeared himself to the great majority of people in Vermont while espousing and consistently pursuing political aims drastically beyond the comfort region of the hegemon’s political discourse. (I have consciously adopted the term Sandernista for Sanders supporters, in part to destigmatize this term recently invoked as a term of derision and in part to honor the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua and Bernie Sanders who rose to its defense a generation ago.)

And what of those who somewhat more secure at this time but who can clearly see they are next on the menu. College teachers who will never advance beyond obscenely low pay per courses taught. Retired people with barely enough money for themselves, and worried about their children who still live at home and float (through no fault of their own) through a succession of unsatisfying and poorly paying jobs of short duration. And what of these “children” themselves, the generation in their twenties and thirties that looks like it has generally become the object of a disposal strategy by the powers that be. That generation, by the way, is producing vast numbers of committed Sandernistas.   What of the actively hurting folks and what of the people who understand they are next to be sacrificed?

They are all in the Belly of the Beast: Hegemonic privilege persists as a relative matter, but they are “still on the menu” as a pressing matter of reality. Because they are white, because they are Americans, must they cede their right to organize and demand the right to health care and education as a right? Because they represent only the relatively less intensively oppressed portion of the internal proletariat, do they deserve no sympathy, no support from Chris Hedges and Jeffrey St. Clair? Everyone appreciates Howard Zinn’s majestic analysis of the way in which the established powers in the United States maintain control by pitting white workers against black workers. When American Leftists refer derisively to Sanders audiences as mainly white, has it occurred to them that they may be fomenting and propagating the divisive strategy of the master class? Not all whites are privileged, and truly privileged whites have no use for Bernie Sanders and the Sandernistas. Here in Connecticut, Sanders supporters hail mainly from the less stylish addresses in the less stylish towns. The “Gold Coast” towns of lower Fairfield County are not organizing for Bernie Sanders. Sandernistas are middle income and poorer whites, for the most part. Their privilege is relative, diminishing and hardly a just cause of questioning their sense of grievance or their right to organize.

Of course, there are many grassroots African America and Latino supporters of Bernie Sanders. To its credit, the Sanders campaign depends upon people in each community organizing themselves. African American and Latino groups for Sanders are currently smaller than those for whites, but they are growing. Bernie Sanders himself has articulated that African Americans and other ethnic minorities experience particularly intense problems with respect to unfairness in law enforcement. This is far from a full articulation of the United States use of both class and caste dynamics to ensure the control of its elite. African Americans in particular have to deal with a rigid level of oppression that practically no white person has to experience. But once again, the white privilege in itself is relative and diminishing. Adam Nasser has recently argued, in fact, that from a historical perspective the “middle class” of white Americans is largely a matter of smoke a mirrors and mainly just a prelude to the trap of massive personal indebtedness snapping shut on tens of millions of “middle class” wannabes who may have delayed, but never meaningfully escaped working class immiseration.

This raises another serious question: Is Bernie Sanders merely leading the working class in itself but (essentially) against itself? Are the Sandernistas merely hurtling into the void of Democratic Party politics. Is that not some sort of outrage? Why can’t Sanders run a proper third party Presidential bid with its predictable third party marginalization and predictable defeat, recrimination and marginalization in the lower single digits of the United States electoral circus? Should we wait, as Chris Hedges has suggested, until the perfect alignment of political party and mass movement of the oppressed takes place as he belies (or perhaps believed) had occurred when Greek lighting struck the Earth and Syriza arose? The aftermath of Syriza rise to power has perhaps led Chris Hedges to rethink his analysis. Any involvement in electoral politics is a risky venture in a modern state, but the commitment to a completely non-electoral strategy or to electoral involvement only under perfect conditions or with the perfect candidate is obviously throwing away opportunities that might have brought about positive results

Rethinking on the part of other recent snipers against the Sandernistas is surely appropriate as the Sanders campaign takes on the scopre and character of a mass movement. In reality, there are no perfect political conditions, no perfect political strategies. No Left intellectual has the right to dictate to the Sandernistas that they cannot organize themselves under the Bernie Sanders banner. How long are these people to wait until the perfect alignment of ideological planets takes place for the Magi intelligentsia to give their assent to them to organize? And as to flying into the void, no halfway sentient Sandernista believes this is the millennium. Such Left millennial thinking seems really to be most fully on display among those Left intellectuals sniping at the Sandernistas. Perfectionism is actually not a privilege honestly possessed by anyone who inhabits the Belly of the Beast. There is no permanent solution for those of us who attempt to operate as a poltical countertendency to the master class of the hegemon nation. We fight and live to fight another day. Protest against the Iraq War gives way to the Occupy movement which gives way to the Sanders campaign which give way to we know not yet what. Many of the Sanders organizers received their radical political initiations during the Occupy movement. They will further hone their political skills in some context yet unforseen.

The visionary Irish nationalist leader Charles Parnell famously insisted: No man has the right to say to his country, “Thus far shalt thou go and no further.” Let me paraphrase: No Left perfectionist has the right to snipe at Sanders supporters unless they have serious accessible alternatives and a real motif for a mass movement of the Left which is growing and coalescing and coming into its own. Please consider the constructive stances of fully mature Progressives such as Ralph Nader and Cornell West who offer their support, advice and criticism to candidate Sanders as he temporarily assumes leadership of the American Left in its electoral manifestation. Time is short. Perfect solutions are not at hand. The physical climate worsens and the environment is starting to return the insult humans have inflicted on it. The electronic and other means of repression are highly developed and ready for deployment. Millions of refugees are in motion and in horrific need as a result of wars in the boundary areas between the Great Powers.

I live in the Belly of the Beast. I am 65 years old. I grew up in anti-Communist, anti-Socialist post-war America. All of the left and peace movements to which I have belonged have been temporary, situation-driven, and ad hoc. And yet these seemingly “reformist” and evanescent “blows against the Empire” have been worthwhile. The Nuclear Freeze movement in particular stands out as an ad hoc, one-issue movement that was successful out of all proportion to its expectations and its strength of active membership. A temporary whirlwind of agitation that oddly preceded a US administration’s unexpected effort to reverse its policy of nuclear first-strike to one of partial nuclear disarmament. Was the Nuclear Freeze movement worthy of condemnation because it did not meet Left perfectionist criteria as ideal permanent and fully transformative mass movement?

The term “Belly of the Beast” derives, of course, from the Biblical prophesy of Jonah. His story is precisely applicable to the situation of American Leftists in late 2015 as they teeter ambivalently between critically supporting the Sanders candidacy or moving from sniping at it to openly obstructing it or simply running for the hills for the duration, waiting for the hundreds of thousands of dreaded Sandernistas to fade back into the hegemonic landscape. According to the Biblical account, Jonah was a reluctant prophet to the inhabitants of a detested imperial hegemon, to be precise the inhabitants of the Assyrian royal capitol of Nineveh.   Jonah feared and detested the Assyrian Empire and wished a bad fate to the inhabitants of its metropole. He also feared the Ninevites, and this increased his resistance to do his duty to fully confront them with the proof of their wickedness and the imminent likelihood that this wickedness would bring about their destruction. His mission to bring them to repentance repelled Jonah before, during and after he successfully preached repentance to the imperialist populace. At the beginning of the Biblical account, Jonah takes ship to a distant city to escape the task of preaching to the inhabitants of a terrible empire. As fate and the ironic dictates of mythic semiotics would have it, his efforts to escape chastising the imperial metropole caused him to be confined in the Belly of the Beast, which gave him sufficient time to clarify his sense of mission. He then went to Nineveh and preached and the SOBs were (amazingly enough) receptive, and even some of their equivalent of one-percenters got the message and began to live more righteously. Jonah’s prophetic equivalent of Left perfectionism, however, held on despite the success of the mass movement in which he participated. The fact that the Ninevites had given up violence and evil unto others so displeased Jonah he was on the point of suicide until it was revealed to him that he really did not understand the big picture of things in which even imperialist toadies get a chance to change their ways.

Following the prophetic metaphor, even the USA and even its white population have a chance to respond to a call to stop oppressing others and doing violence to them. Perhaps even some portions of the ruling sectors may be moved by this call. But, of course, the story of Jonah is a myth, and the imperial capitol of Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire as a whole were destroyed anyway by a coalition of enemies in 612 BCE.  The future, in short, is closed to our knowledge, but the metaphorical linkage remains of physical confinement in the innards of an overwhelmingly powerful wild beast and ambivalence about organizing a mass movement of the inhabitants of an aggressive empire to change their habits of violence and oppression of others.

If you find that the Sanders campaign only fills you with outrage and despair and you are unable to give any assistance whatever, you are a Left Perfectionist and lost in the Belly of the Beast. If you are in partial sympathy with the Sanders campaign but find yourself called to criticize it from the standpoint of an ally and a fellow sufferer, you are a Leftist and a Progressive, and you may have started to work your way out of the political and psychological paradoxes imposed on those of us who live in the Belly of the Beast.

Jim Connolly can be reached at: