The Not-So-Radical “Socialist” From Vermont

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Time as a Democracy and Socialist Movement Issue

Working-class and pro-working-class socialists and left anarchists have long fought for shorter working hours (with no reductions in pay) for some very good radically democratic reasons.  It isn’t just that workers’ everyday lives and collective marketplace and workplace bargaining power are enhanced when they are freed from the scourge of over-work and when working hours are spread more evenly across the workforce.  Beyond these real and meaningful gains, rank-and-file socialists and left anarchists have long supported decent working hours so that workers can have enough time to develop tastes and build knowledge and organizations to fight for a world beyond the rule of capitalism, the profit- and accumulation-addicted system that, in Karl Marx’s famous 1848 words, “resolve[s] personal worth into exchange value” and “le[aves] no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”

During the late 1860s, the U.S. machinist and Eight Hour Day activist Ira Steward did not advocate a shorter work day as an end in-itself.  “For him,” the Socialist Appeal explained in 1939, “it was the focal point for an attack on the whole system of capitalist society.”  Steward’s movement was meant to culminate in worker-self-managed socialism.

The founders of the American labor movement understood time and working hours as democracy issues.  How, they asked, during their early struggles for a Ten-Hour Day, were wage earners supposed to participate in the popular democracy purportedly introduced by the American Revolution when they were stuck at workbenches and in factories for endless stretches of time, too exhausted to do anything else but try to recover off the job?

For Marx, writing his magnum opus around the time Steward’s Eight Hour League emerged in New England, the goal of popular and working-class struggle was to achieve the revolutionary and post-capitalist “realm of freedom,” which “begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.”  For Marx, “freedom… can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind force of Nature, and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”

Marx’s passage on the “true realm of freedom” ended with the following short sentence: “The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.”  (Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole [New York: International, 1967], p. 820).

Shorter Hours to “Boost Productivity and Worker Loyalty”

Things are a little different with the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, who goes out of his way to deny any allegiance to “radical ideas.” He has a much less (well) radical and democratic take on American workers’ need for shorter hours. Look at this passage from his recently published book Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution:

Millions of Americans are overworked, underpaid, and under enormous stress. Some are working two or three jobs to try to care for their families.  Research shows that vacations reduce stress, strengthen family relationships, increase productivity, and even prevent illness.  But 41 percent of workers didn’t take one day of vacation in 2015… Americans are working more hours than the people of any major developed country…They need time to rest and recuperate, travel the country, visit loved ones, or simply spend time at home with their families…In my view we need legislation to require employers to provide at least ten days of paid vacation to workers in this country every year.  This is not a radical idea.  It’s already being done in almost every country in the world.  This would not only demonstrate our national commitment to family values but also make good economic sense.  Studies show that paid-vacation policies boost productivity and worker loyalty” (pp. 23-24, emphasis added).

It’s good to see Bernie raising the all-too neglected issue of working hours (thank you, Senator), but this selection from his new book is quite conservative. Sanders fails to mention that workers need time to undertake informed and collective popular resistance and class struggle and to resist and indeed (sorry to get so radical) overthrow the system that has turned the United States into an abject plutocracy while putting livable ecology at grave peril. Then Sanders goes out of his way to describe his modest call for ten days (how about forty?) paid vacation “not a radical idea” and – the real kicker – says that paid vacations would be great because they would “boost productivity and worker loyalty.”

“Boost productivity” for whose benefit, Senator?  Under capitalism, in a largely de-unionized society like the U.S., that would be primarily for the advantage of capitalist employers, as Sanders surely knows.

“Worker loyalty” to whom?  To the working-class and its struggle to build unions, democracy, and social movements and to reach “the true realm of freedom” as self-determining “associated producers” and “socialized” men and women enjoying conditions favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature”?

No.  Bernie obviously means loyalty to their capitalist employers – a curious thing for a “socialist” to want to enhance.  If he was honest, the Bernie would replace the phrase “worker loyalty” with the old anti-union “welfare capitalist,” corporate-paternalist term “company loyalty” (sometimes also termed “plant loyalty”).

What’s Wrong with Radical Ideas?

And what, by the way, would be wrong with having a democratic and “radical idea”? In his last and posthumously published essay, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., argued that “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters is “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” This was a sentiment shared by Bernie’s purported hero Eugene Debs, whose poster hangs in Sanders’ U.S. Senate office.  Meanwhile, the ascendant and in-power right-wing has no inhibitions about pursuing an openly radical – radically reactionary and regressive – agenda in the Washington D.C. and the fifty state capitals.

Single Payer to “Unleash the Entrepreneurial Spirit”

The same problem recurs with the health-care chapter in Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution.  There Bernie makes sure to describe his call for single-payer health insurance as “not particularly radical” and describes his “Health Care for All” program as, guess what, “a major boon for our economy” and its “productivity” and “efficiency.”  By Sanders’ “socialist” reckoning:

“When we talk about our current health care system, what is often overlooked is the negative impact it has on our entrepreneurial spirit.  Millions of Americans remain in their jobs today not because they want to be there, not because they enjoy their work, but because their current employer provides decent health care benefits for them and their family…Universal health care would provide a major boon to our economy, unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of millions of people” (p.90, emphasis added).

Take that, Eugene Debs!  What does Bernie mean by “our economy”?  Didn’t he quite properly note during his campaign that the U.S. economic system is rigged for the benefit of the wealthy Few, including a top tenth of an upper U.S. One Percent that owns as much wealth as the bottom Ninety Percent?

“Entrepreneurial spirit”? Seriously? So, we should support Single Payer because it would supposedly free up American workers to become capitalists, not socialists? This guy is a “socialist” like I’m the starting point guard of the New York Knicks.

If he was seriously Left, Sanders would have mentioned something else that is completely missing in his Guide to Political Revolution.  I’ve got a better and more radical reason than “unleashing entrepreneurial spirits” for getting behind Single-Payer.  As I argued in a recent Truthdig column:

…. there’s [also] the significant and rarely noted democracy dividend that would ensue from single-payer. Millions of U.S. workers are frightened, for good reason, to say or do anything their bosses might disapprove of on or off the job. The national working-class majority’s dependence on the employer class for health insurance has chilling authoritarian implications. This is a country in which you put not just your job but also your health care coverage and often your family’s health coverage at risk by saying, writing or doing anything your workplace superiors find objectionable.

The kinds of transgressions that can jeopardize you and your loved ones’ medical coverage are endless. They include trying to form a union, participating in a work stoppage, putting up a Facebook post against racism, backing a political candidate your employer dislikes, attending an environmentalist protest or even just dressing in a way that irritates a boss or letting it be known that you have a better way to perform some work task. First Amendment rights of free speech and public assembly don’t mean all that much when exercising them can cost you your job, or your health care and that of your family.

It isn’t just about health care. There’s an intimate relationship between the strength of a nation’s social welfare state and working people’s capacity and readiness to fight for their own interests and the common good on and off the job. It’s not for nothing that you can’t receive food stamps while engaged in a labor strike in the U.S. The American business class used its influence to prohibit state food assistance to striking workers long ago. Capitalists know that working people’s marketplace and workplace bargaining power are enhanced by the existence of a strong government safety net, which reduces the hazard workers face when they challenge boss-class authority. Big business has pushed through the dismantlement and delegitimization of social welfare programs for decades, in no small part because capitalists-as-employers want, in political science professor Frances Fox Piven’s words, ‘to make long hours of low-wage work the only available option for many.’

Rolling back and pre-empting the social safety net carries a triple boon for the U.S. capitalist class. The first dividend-boosting attraction is that slashing social expenditures and programs save the rich tax payments to support the common good. The second lure is that reducing social spending reduces inflationary pressures, which helps protect the real value of interest payments from debtors (most of us) to wealthy creditors. The third draw is that we-the-working-class majority have less power to resist and challenge their profit-seeking authority within and beyond the workplace when there’s no strong welfare state backing us up. Along with the related collapse of unions and collective bargaining, the comparative weakness of the U.S. welfare state is a key factor behind the long stagnation of wages and the nation’s extreme economic inequality.

But, then, I actually am a democratic socialist – one of many.

Too Radical

There is, of course, much in the way of basic and longstanding progressive reform that any decent leftist can support in the short-term in Sanders’ book: an increased minimum wage (though Bernie’s goal of $15 an hour is too low), equal pay for equal work, the re-legalization of union organizing (though here Bernie fails to mention the relevant legislation), paid medical, pregnancy/childbirth, and sick time for all workers, giant federal jobs programs to guarantee employment and meet social and environmental needs, affordable housing, energy efficiency, child care, public education, free college (Sanders’ reflections on the rising cost of higher education are spot-on),  Health Care as a Human Right, prescription drug price restrictions, genuinely progressive and fully enforced taxation of the wealthy Few and their corporations, limits on executive compensation, public financing of elections, police reform, gay rights, real Civil Rights enforcement, the rollback of racist mass incarceration and the racist police state, support for women’s right to choose, expanded health care services, and (last but not at all least), the de-escalation of the Greenhouse Gassing of the planet – an epic shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

This last topic deserves and gets a full chapter (“Combatting Climate Change”) in Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution.  Good for Sanders.  As Noam Chomsky told Occupy Boston more than five years ago, if the global environmental catastrophe created by anthropogenic (really capitalogenic) climate change “isn’t going to be averted” soon, then “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.”

Unfortunately, Sanders does not call for the nationalization of the country’s leading arch-parasitic and eco-cidal financial institutions.  He wants to “reform Wall Street.”

Good luck with that: I’d like to be able to guard LeBron James – and to turn the Democratic Party into a socialist workers’ party.

And I’m afraid I must agree with eco-socialists like Joel Kovel that there is no chance of averting the environmental catastrophe under the continued and inherently destructive and amoral reign of even “reformed” capital. But there I go again, being too radical.

The Timeworn Guns and Butter Hang-Up

Sadly and predictably enough,  Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution says nothing – and I really mean nothing – about the giant U.S. Pentagon System, which carries the world’s single largest institutional carbon footprint while paying for  at least 800 military bases spread across more than 80 foreign countries and  keeping (in David Vine’s words) “troops or other military personnel in about 160 foreign countries and territories.”  You will search the book’s index and text in vain for the following words and phrases: “Pentagon,” “Pentagon System,” “Empire,” “imperialism,” “military,” “militarism,” “military-industrial complex,” or even just “foreign policy” (also absent, by the way, is “capitalism”). And here’s a missing term from the Guide’s “Glossary of Economic Terms”: “Military Keynesianism.”

These are all-too predictable if major deletions.  Bernie “F-35” Sanders (the epically wasteful F-35 was a “job creator” in his home state) remains dysfunctionally wedded to the U.S. Empire, which accounts for more than 40 percent of homo sapiens’ blood-drenched military budget. The Empire attachment is a huge mistake, both morally and practically.  As the leading and unabashedly radical writer, speaker and activist Glen Ford noted on Black Agenda Report last June:

“The United States does not have a national health care system worthy of the name, because it is in the war business, not the health business or the social equality business. … In the U.S., progress is defined by global dominance of the U.S. State—chiefly in military terms—rather than domestic social development. … War is not a side issue in the United States; it is the central political issue, on which all the others turn. War mania is the enemy of all social progress—especially so, when it unites disparate social forces, in opposition to their own interests, in the service of an imperialist state that is the tool of a rapacious white capitalist elite.”

U.S. war spending steals vast resources that are required to build a real and lasting social-democratic safety net and a people’s economy. We can’t have imperial guns and social-democratic (much less democratic-socialist) butter at the same time. We must choose between them. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained in his famous Riverside Church speech on April 4, 1967, America will “never invest the necessary funds or energies” to end poverty and domestic economic insecurity so long as its military machine “continue[s] to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”

Like the mid-1960s “democratic socialists” Michael Harrington, Max Shachtman, and Bayard Rustin (see this excellent study), “Bernie the Bomber” Sanders (as Burlington, Vt., peace activists dubbed him when he lined up forcefully behind Bill Clinton’s criminal air war on Serbia) is still stuck trying to straddle the fence between opposition to poverty and support for the American war machine. He is far from alone in being plagued by this dilemma. It is a common affliction among “progressive Democrats,” the left-most major party force in a militantly imperial nation where honest discussion of what its giant and destructive military system really does at home and abroad is taboo.

Sanders leaves something else out – that he’s not really all that much of a Single Payer champion.  His recently released lame-duck “single-payer” bill, S. 1804, falls well short of U.S. House members John Conyers’ longstanding Single Payer measure, HR 676.  Sanders’ bill leaves health-care profiteering alive to an excessive degree and seems (with its unnecessary four-year delay and highly flawed “public option” bridge) seems fundamentally “designed to fail,” as the leading Single Payer expert and activist Dr. Margaret Flowers recently told me.

I saw Sanders just two nights ago on CNN, debating the right-wing lunatic Ted Cruz on tax policy. As during his presidential campaign, Sanders trumpeted Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as his social-democratic role models without mentioning that those nations spend comparatively miniscule portions of their national budgets on the military.  In the parts of the debate I saw, Bernie went back and forth with Cruz on the considerable and cost-reducing benefits that would flow to most Americans from the tax-supported social-democratic programs he is calling for without saying one word about the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower left the White House warning Americans about.

The great anti-imperialist Eugene Debs would not be impressed.  Surely a modern-day Debs would rail against Bernie’s social democracy-negating failure to take on the giant U.S. military system and empire.

We don’t just need a “political revolution,” Debs would add: we need a social revolution.


After finishing this essay, I saw a line in Sanders’ book that I’d apparently missed the first time through.  “All in all,” Sanders writes, “the key purpose of the [U.S.] Constitution and the Bill of Rights is to ensure that the voice of the individual citizen is both heard and counted through the election process and the tripart system of checks and balances” (pp. 204-5).  That is a mostly false statement. Pease see my essay “Impeach the U.S. Constitution” from last June here.  Sanders might also want to read Daniel Lazarre’s classic 1997 study Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy.

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Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).