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Bernie, Hillary, and the Legacy of Socialism

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The Legacy of Michael Harrington, Hillary Clinton, and the Marxist Critique, Part III

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”—Karl Marx, The German Ideology

Capitalism, Michael Harrington argued, is characterized by a never-ending struggle between labor on one hand and the capitalists and their allies (co-opted government and legal system) on the other. For Harrington this constituted class struggle, a struggle waged over the cost of labor, safety and conditions at work, healthcare, education, living-wage work, public transport, etc. The conflict is created when workers are paid less than the value they produce. This is exacerbated by the fact that capitalists are locked into competition with each other and are always seeking ways to cut costs and maximize profits. This design is perpetuated by elites in order to maintain their wealth and status, foremost.  In two of his great works, Socialism (1972) and The New American Poverty (1985), Harrington argued similarly to Marx in The German Ideology, where the bourgeoisie use their “free speech” to buy politicians, judges, and religious functionaries in order to craft an ideology to legitimize their status. This legitimized status then becomes an economic dogma, taking on an almost divine status. Nevertheless, this interpretation of capitalism became popular in the 1950s with the Frankfurt School exiles now located at the New School for Social Research in New York City. One of these scholars, Jürgen Habermas, later formalized this phenomenon in his Legitimation Crisis, 1975, along with other scholars such as Robert Dahl, Who Governs? C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, Ted Lowi, The End of Liberalism and William Domhoff, Who Rules America?

In Socialism: Past and Future (1989), Harrington posthumously argued that another key weapon in ideological domination was the attempt by elites to “normalize” their privileges in the minds of the majority and to make the majority understand that it is in their best interests to subordinate their interests to elites. Today “elites” translates into the 1%. The “proletariat” (99%) must be conditioned to the idea that nothing else is possible and that the most effective means for this indoctrination must come through education, government, media, etc., as platforms for disseminating and promoting dominant ideas and values. Harrington uses the mass media as an example in which he argues that the media has the capacity to shape public debate on a national scale. They are far from neutral observers. To deflect attention away from the real problems – underemployment, unemployment, poverty, elite control, unjust distributions of economic wealth, etc., – the media help stoke anti-egalitarian sentiments whenever they decide to give primetime coverage to elites who simultaneously reinforce elitist values. Nevertheless, few underemployed, unemployed, or poverty stricken people are interviewed regarding their personal experiences and analysis of their own poverty since this would invariably lead to more penetrating questions on the causes of the cycle of poverty. And according to Harrington’s insights, this clearly explains why major media outlets such as MSNBC, FOX News, CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS refuse any significant exposure to Bernie Sanders, and why the critical underlying issues that he represents – specifically that class conflict is an inherent dimension of market capitalism – is completely disregarded. That is, real human beings are expendable in market economies. What do the major media outlets care as long as their profit margins and their massive financial investments are performing for their shareholders?

Democratic socialism

In alignment with Marx and socialism itself, the solution Harrington argued was that people have fundamental democratic rights, both politically and economically. Political and economic rights are therefore both inseparable parts and essential for a democratic society and a democratic economy. Harrington, like Marx, was an Enlightenment democrat, as in small “d.” Workers have a democratic and economic right to the profits and “surplus value” they create in any economic relationship. Moreover, Harrington argued that democratic economic rights must also be extended to a democratic welfare state as well, one where welfare is understood as government sponsored living wage work – to replace the welfare handouts. Harrington urged the following goals for democratic socialism: dignified living-wage work, environmental sustainability, progressive tax policies, democratic participation in the economy, local community empowerment, global non-violence, and social justice with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, and social class. The transformation into a democratic socialist society for Harrington has to do with confronting those institutions within society who have an overabundance of power, while simultaneously redistributing this power democratically into the political and economic dimension of people’s lives. All of this for Harrington demands legislative reform and is the key to: (1) bridging the labor-capital schism in the United States, and (2) transforming a market economy into an economy that prioritizes economic rights. This is what The Other America was really driving at, not simply a critique of society but a democratic transformation.

The legacy of socialism is not utopian.

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Is there anything we could possibly learn from socialism and socialist thinkers such as Robert Owen, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Albert Einstein, that would benefit the United States? None of what they offer is utopian; they offer a strategic plan to remediate inequalities, such as the 1% hammering the 99%. FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights and the foundation of any democratic socialist or social democratic society, such as those in Northern and Western Europe, is based precisely on realistic and pragmatic solutions, and these are derived from progressive tax schemes by making the rich pay their “fair share.”

This is exactly where the funding will come from, and those who have suffered financially over the past several years do not mind at all that wealth is redistributed. And this is why Hillary Clinton is irrelevant. Her husband’s appearances on her behalf will not help even as Hillary attempts to sound more and more like Bernie. The new sound and fury in her voice is hollow. There is no real fire in her belly because she is personally aligned with Wall Street—not the middle class and poor.

The social and existential distance that exits between Hillary and her 1% allies in the media and Congress is one major reason for the misanalysis of why the Bern is scorching the field. But the other more formidable reason is that they do not care to know, really, what it is like to lose a home, a job, a car, have a son killed in Iraq, have massive debt from a health care emergency, have manic stress from inability to pay creditors just to stay solvent in America. Hillary is not there for them—and never will be. She now claims that she will go after the hedge fund moguls. But do you really think Hillary would go after her son-in-law’s hedge fund? That’s how her son-in-law and daughter earn a very lucrative income. And if her son-in-law’s hedge fund closes in on some public pension funds and carves it up for Wall Street, do you think she really cares if retirees get screwed in the process? It is the trust factor that matters principally because of all the contradictions. For example, while in office, Hillary has nodded her approval of labor, but functioned as a corporate centrist, serving on the board of trustees for Wal-Mart, one of the ugliest, union-busting corporations in the country whose workers depend on a food stamps. She talks the relevant environmental lingo, yet as Secretary of State she supports fracking and the Keystone Pipeline, the Transpacific Partnership, and remains silent in the face of crippling trade embargos on Venezuela. She mentions human rights in terms of LGBT and women’s reproductive rights but no protest of the right-wing coups on Haiti and Honduras. And the devastating foreign policy outcomes where Palestine is still living in virtual reservation in Gaza, the Benghazi disaster leaving Libya in a state of anarchy, the Iraq War with over 4,000 dead Americans, one million dead and wounded civilians, and the resulting birth of ISIS in reaction to these foreign policy blunder. Bernie is correct regarding foreign policy. It is not a matter of experience but of judgment.

Now Hillary is starting to change these positions. Who cares if she called herself a moderate democrat months ago, and now after a couple narrow victories over Bernie, a progressive. She has proven track record of having people like Ruppert Murdock do a fund raiser for her and proudly claim “you can hardly be a lawyer and not represent banks.” Ann Coulter said it best on Bill Maher, Hillary “cares more about the Chamber of Commerce than the American people.” And that is true for Ann Coulter and the Republicans as well.

Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality.. Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at www.guerrillaprose.info.

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