Mr. Sanders: Would You like Your Coffee Without Cream, or Without Milk?

Photograph Source: Phil Roeder – CC BY 2.0

“Indeed, you describe a complex social psychology. But politics IS simple. We choose policies and then hope they can be realized. If we are worthy participants, we watchdog it–or sheepdog it, if you will. I highly regard sheepdogs. They are intelligent and utterly dedicated. And if the politician disappoints, we try to elect a better one.

And probably the best way really is by majority rule (which is the narrow definition of ‘democracy’). Although western civilization has never allowed that before, Bernie is wanting to try it because so also do most Americans. I think the law of averages would dictate that the electorate is likely to make the best decisions in the face of real emergencies. ”

—Sidney Mitchell

“A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table and he says, ‘Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream.’ Five minutes later, the waiter comes back and says, ‘I’m sorry, sir, we have no cream. Can it be without milk?’”

—Slavoj Zizek

“The cheating has begun in earnest, and the only thing Democrats are resisting is any turn to the left. Even a little bit of reformism is off limits for the supposed leaders who are little more than errand boys and girls for the billionaires. The Bloomberg cash onslaught and the anti-Bernie conspiracy have laid bare the degree of collusion among the rulers.”

— Margaret Kimberly

“If you could see it from the front, wait ’til you see it from the back”

—Doja Cat

“I actually am a conservative—more so than other conservatives in the sense that I think you could go and cut 2 or 3 percent out of the budget in every agency.” —Mike Bloomberg

My friend and mentor John Helmeke always sees a little more than I see. John made me aware of Mike Bloomberg’s strategy of paying online influencers to make memes of him. John said, and I completely agree: “I’m so weary of the ordinary advertising (especially ordinary election campaign advertising) I will welcome an ironic, self-aware animated Bloomberg character even though I support Bernie for U.S. President.” Indeed, this was the specific request Bloomberg made to meme influencers: an ironic and self-aware Bloomberg who was trying too hard to be cool. If it sounds stupid, then stop and think a second. How else would the billionaire Republican Bloomberg convince the working class he was good for them?

This is exactly the Trump strategy. To be so grandiose and absurd that you don’t actually believe him, but you simply stop caring about the truth because his force of will and charisma are strong. Trump isn’t even skillful, nor does he provide the people with anything of use. In fact he is destroying humanity. Very rapidly. But the question, not asked enough, is how is he doing it and getting applauded for it? What is the logic of capital? This is where we have to take a serious look at ideology.

The materialist perspective would be that Trump benefits the right people at the top and that they are (almost) as heartless and toothless as he is. But how do they walk around without going insane? Trump has not escaped his own insanity. I am convinced that through all the fascism, Trump must still be a “free-thinking” liberal, given how the destruction of the world by his hands has led to uncontrollable narcissism and insecurity.

It is this, but we also should believe we live in a democracy, even if we don’t. The belief that democracy could kick Trump specifically out of office is not entirely naive. How does Trump get democratic support? It is actually through the same path that Bloomberg articulated: ironic and self-aware. It is precisely because Mr. Trump has stripped himself of all sincere ideology that he can simply be a proxy for the 1%. In some ways he has even astonished this ruthless class by the length he will go to destroy the world. It is because, quite simply, he does not believe in whatever good the billionaire claims he provides for the world. Trump in a word, believes in the process itself. Power is not for any goal besides power itself. Trump’s own existence is not for anything besides himself. Such has become the logic of the opposition to Trump, which may very well be led by another billionaire Republican, which believes in defeating Trump for its own sake.

In response to John’s Bloomberg post about irony and self-awareness, I replied: “Yes the irony here reminds of Slavoj Zizek’s take on modern ideology: you don’t believe it, but you are doing it anyway.” I thought I was talking about Bloomberg, who would cultivate an image that fails on purpose. He doesn’t believe he is the savior, but he will save us anyways. This is the sort of winning ideology necessary for today’s times. It goes beyond the “common touch” of the President. It it worse now. The democratic subject in today’s capitalist democracy is so far from being represented that the only thing that can be represented is the subject’s own negativity. Therefore, if Bloomberg is not cool, he also be like us: not cool. Not good enough to be represented, ironically, by Bloomberg himself. If Bloomberg was to represent anything he was, we could not relate. This is not just because Bloomberg isn’t us, it is because we are nothing. Bloomberg is something. But the democratic subject: we are nothing. We are not represented.

The division of the modern subject here has been wildly successful. On the one hand, there is enough knowledge, rights and so forth to believe in nothing—to have everything be proven false. In a capitalist democracy what is the point of rights but to remind us we don’t have them? Or more specifically, we can’t achieve them individually. Americans have a right to freedom, but you’re in prison. Americans have the right to prosperity, but you’re poor. Americans have the best country, but you’re illegal.

This is the scope of the American Dream: it’s a right everyone has a right to, but no one has. Rights, like dreams and property, are privately owned. What we have is a right to fail. But of course no one sees their rights as the right to fail. They see that their rights have failed. The blame for this failure varies, and at times, the blame can be very astute.

However the underlying point is this: the point of any sort of proposition to the masses is for it to be both a reminder that you won’t get it and a reminder that you failed to get it. If you believe you were failed by the system itself, it would no longer be democracy, so the blame must be turned inward, or downward.

This is the development away from strict authoritarianism which says you can’t and you won’t. This is democracy, under capitalism: you can, but you won’t. It is in this sense that Bloomberg, like Trump can become a sort of hapless figure. He, like us, is bound to a label, a derogatory label that can’t quite define him “rich guy” is no better for him than “poor person” is for us.

Now, through the vehicle of advertising, a new sort of Mad Men character rises out of this negativity. This was what worked for the TV show Mad Men. The reason it could convince you that you liked advertising was because the failure of Don Draper was sincere. In fact it was the only sincere thing about him. This is the same for Bloomberg. He really isn’t cool. And he really wants to be. Which is why he is buying the Presidency. Still, the great trick is something far more complex.

Memes are the young people language. The language of Sanders, the language of climate rebellion, but mostly the language of negation and humor. What Bloomberg taps into is that out of the gap of this negative—out of the insincerity—can arise something that is completely rejected, but because of this, it becomes sincere. There is a sincere rejection of Bloomberg on the one hand, but on the other hand this sort of nihilism is exactly what we assume will happen as we exit ideology completely and morph into a materialist dystopia. So Bloomberg confirms the theory and therefore can and will be promoted ironically. A meme page I like posted that Bloomberg paying for positive meme influences would have the opposite effect. But the meme page didn’t seem to be aware: Bloomberg was paying for your negativity, and this sucker was doing it for free.

What did John have to say to me bringing up Slavoj, as I so often do these days,,,’Yes the irony here reminds of Slavoj Zizek’s take on modern ideology: you don’t believe it, but you are doing it anyway.’ John, seeing beyond, replied:

“Which part?

1.) watching an ironic, self-aware animated Bloomberg character?

2.) supporting Bernie Sanders for U.S. President?

3.) or both?”

Which is here where I get into my favorite subject: Bernie Sanders. I do think that my support for Bernie Sanders, which is sincere, is exactly the modern ideology: you don’t believe it, but you are doing it anyway.

I replied: “Lol yes, well that was really sharp by you. I do support Bernie Sanders, and I don’t believe a word he says. I just like what he’s saying!” Which is not to say that I don’t believe Bernie could happen. In some ways, he is happening.

Take another fascinating reversal. Much was made of the MSNBC fan who became a Bernie Sanders supporter because MSNBC was so against Bernie. Now doesn’t that describe the MSNBC viewership perfectly? I would like to make a point here: that on the one hand, the corporate media trashes Bernie because they cannot have us support him, he will hurt their profit margin and save too many lives of poor people. I’m not that cynical, I do believe in Bernie to that extent.

It is though on the other hand that we find that MSNBC and others oppose Bernie exactly to channel this energy of opposition into this collapsing subject. Here we find the ultimate modern ideology. We, the ruling class, believe Bernie Sanders is trouble for us, so we will say he is trouble for you. And yet also: we the ruling class believe that whether you oppose us or support us it makes little difference—as long as we are the solution to your problems. It need not be a sincere solution, because who believes in those anyways these days? It can also be, and this is crucial: the channel for discontent, where you are heard, dismissed, you blame us, come back to us, we listen, you feel better, you’re dismissed, you feel worse, our power remains, and so on.

This goes back to the psychology of the negative. We often ask, how do you see the glass: half full or half empty? Although which actually would be more frightening, you leave your glass on the table and you come back, and it is half full (implying it was filled) or if it was half empty (it was drunk from). Now you would assume something about the glass here. If the glass was filled, you would assume it was done by a rich person in power who wanted something from you or wanted to do something to you or at least wanted to let you know who they were. If the glass was emptied, you are dealing with a poor person, who was thirsty, or even simply a so-called degenerate who is willing to steal. Which is more dangerous here? Clearly it is the one filling the glass. Emptying the glass is something done without malice. This is why Bloomberg is trying to frame himself as someone who empties the glass (searches for his identity, swagger, etc.). This is what Trump did: empty the glass, and there seemingly is no ill will by it, even if there are ill consequences.

If Bernie is coffee (the good life) then he is coffee without milk, and Trump is coffee (the good life) and he must be coffee without cream. This is the same subject of the good life but what it lacks is different. Bernie’s milk is billionaires. Trump’s cream is immigrants. Neither exists in the ideal world for each “coffee” but the difference in negativity does matter.

It is true though. The only support I have for Bernie Sanders is ironic. It doesn’t mean that sincere work hasn’t been done on my part and others. It does mean that it is a project that expects to fail. I am not saying it will either. It just is designed to, like Bloomberg and Trump. It is how the modern subject, perhaps all subjects, move a project forward—by sincerely believing in its failure. This, after all, is love itself. It is not when we believe in something for its own sake, it is when we believe in something in spite of itself (which is true belief).

Now the reason I am a Bernie Bro is this: I believe, with sincerity, that democratic socialism is a paradox, the Democratic Party is not democratic, and capital erodes the social. This is why, exactly, I believe in the paradox of democratic socialism. Not because it fails but because it exposes a contradiction which will bring forward society once it is revealed that it fails. However, it is sort of a win-win. Say the cynical belief is proven wrong. It’s hedging the bet. You are wrong. But you wanted to believe you were wrong. You wanted democratic socialism to succeed. So here, even in losing, you win.

Believing what you want to believe rather than what you actually believe may be the only way to change anything. It is in this sense that one can say a sincere belief in Sanders is not so much buying his revolution simply because of its negative relation to the mainstream press and establishment as a whole. Rather, sincere belief in the said revolution is to believe that the current iteration will fail and yet succeed in its goal, which of course, is a level of failure that makes its success possible. An ironic and self-aware calculation instead of “real” socialism. But it is not only believing that this will win. It is also believing that in loss, it will succeed to bring something that will never lose—a series of partial losses and reloading on the right side of things.

Here’s the case for this: Bernie Sanders is popular despite being almost the most left person who could run for President now. His colleagues are all right-wing and despite a claim that he is too far left, going further left only increases his support. Proof that he could succeed at all demonstrated that if anything, politics could move far to the left and be more representative. It is in this spirit that somehow society is brought leftward by this ever-increasing confrontation of class contradictions.

What does it mean to support Bernie Sanders then? One can and should exit ideological analysis and instead focus on the ways he makes all of our lives better. Still, I hope this is helpful in clarifying the path to revolution: we are drinking coffee without milk, without cream. But soon coffee without milk and cream will be possible. The material limitations of such counters will become even more glaring as the best job in town becomes making memes promoting billionaires. And yet, this disparity will only accelerate the class war. If a coffee knows it has no cream, no milk, etc. then it can certainly know what it wants.

It is here where the demands become ideological, to our great relief. So, still, I think the question remains, why support Bernie Sanders if you don’t believe a single thing he is saying? I think it is a reason: it is because if he fails, he succeeds, and if he succeeds, he succeeds. Take for example Bernie’s recent claim about his supporters “I hate harassment, I don’t stand for it, and so on.” No loyalty there to his base. Completely buying the lies of the ruling class. He could have said: “The media makes this up because we are challenging corporate rule” but no, it is always this collapsing of the opposition. Tell a lie and the lie itself isn’t refuted, you just present yourself as different from the lie, while accepting the general lie as true.

As appalling as this may be, it does present two splits that are positive: the first split is that the lie itself is seen as something different from its original authority of truth. The second possibility is that the lie is embraced and we become exactly who they thought we were, but aren’t ashamed of it. Here we have to fail and succeeding as well as succeeding and succeeding. I am a good boy, even though you say I’m bad. Good boy gets treats. I am a bad boy, and you say I’m bad. Bad boy becomes himself.

In a way, both endings seem impossible. The idea of the ruling class playing ball with Bernie seems overly idealistic. But the opposite is also true: the idea of capitalism truly collapsing within this grand compromise also seems overly idealistic. Therefore the tension in-between seems like the perfect stage—one pure of any commitment. John Helmeke has always noted Bernie strikes the perfect balance between left and liberal.

It is then not so much the final solution we are interested in, so to speak. Whatever we imagine—revolution, compromise, nothing, everything, will ultimately find it collides against something before its absolute. Such is the class war struggle that eludes material strategy. It is here where we find that stripped naked of all context that yes, the class struggle is far too serious to be ironic about. Is money then going to buy these elections, more and more, as inequality rises and rises? Yes, but who says that finding a new venue, free of the electoral politics spectacle, is not just what the doctor ordered.

Yes, the confounding thing about Mr. Sanders is he means what he says. What remains titillating about Sanders is how he doesn’t say. Ask him a direct question you will get a response that keeps him on the offensive side. There is never an engagement with anything outside of the focus of his campaign.

This is once again, a negative appeal. Ask Sanders something and what do you get? The same answer as if you asked him something else entirely. This is so far from the layers of irony in Mr. Bloomberg. Bloomberg could operate in reverse. Ask the same question and get a different answer, depending on the audience.

No it seems the focus and directness here is itself overwhelming for the postmodern subject. Sanders, in a word, drinks his coffee black. Extend the coffee metaphor. If the modern subject orders their own drink that is already customized on the menu (an option already available to them despite or even because of its individual complexity, alienation, allusiveness). Then when Sanders orders his coffee black it appears extremely simple but in reality it is disarming. Coffee black: so without cream, without milk, without caramel swirl, etc. Likely Sanders knows that his order is actually more customized because of this discipline. Therefore there is both a universality (everyone) and a limitation (establishment). This is the threading of the needle the Sanders campaign succeeds at: on the one hand be a universal for the anonymous masses, on the other hand be a universal against the anonymous norm.

It is here where true revolution is a waste of time for Sanders because it upends the universality necessary to confront the universal problem. A revolution would be far more controversial than so-called decency.

It is in this way that we can return to the self-aware irony here. When Sanders says “revolution” it is what Bloomberg says when he says “I’m cool”. You don’t believe it, but you like that they said it. You like that Sanders wants revolution (even if he doesn’t), and you like that Bloomberg makes fun of himself (even if he doesn’t). The difference though is key: Sanders engages with a political question, which is more than the identity playground popularity politics that Trump/Bloomberg ignites.

Thus I do see the inevitable failing of idealism to bring us forward either way. I love the Batman quote here: die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. Yes, either idealism will fail because it is tried and then squashed by material outside of it, or idealism will fail because it was tried and then sabotaged by itself. I think either way you have the act of the radical confrontation with established norms. Even in telegraphed failure, we see an eagerness to fail at the right question. This is a step forward, a point of class struggle with no return.

So we can trace the self-aware irony of both sides of the Democrats: I am the revolution, but I’m a Democrat, or I am the oligarchy, but I’m a Democrat. I would actually argue that both sides of the split demonstrate a crisis. Both sides present a clear path forward, a clearer strategy than incremental liberal capitalism but neither side can ever actually square its own contradiction the way that traditional neoliberalism could. Neoliberalism held no contradiction. It stated quite sincerely: I believe in your right to succeed, but I can’t guarantee it, only you can. That works as long as a certain number of middle-class people are winning. It held a radical distance, never willing to take responsibility, only asserting your own right to freedom.

A new system is what we want. One with help from someone who can help us: whether that be the rich guy who can overpower the political system or a communal government that can. These are disturbing times. The power of capital may be too great to achieve the latter. Our alienation and pessimism may be too strong. It is, however, an inevitable and worthwhile battle and the gains will for once, not be completely ironic.

The point, after all, is not revolution, but as Slavoj Zizek challenges us to think about: the day after. We seek to have our basic human rights met. Call it what you will, but the American people are saying: enough is enough. It is here where the positive formulation hardly matters. Our coffee has no cream, our coffee has no milk. Whether you want cream or milk, you have a right to it. The most important thing is to be engaging across the coffee spectrum here.

Donald Trump wants to make us believe that we are bound by some positive force. You are white, you are rich, you are male, you are American, you matter. This is false. These false categories are only true in the eyes of the ruling class who has the audacity to think they can pick and choose who matters. What we are bound by is our lack. The incompleteness of not just the human condition, but the political condition. It is time for us to come together, and demand milk for our neighbor, even if we want to cream ourselves.

This, Mr. Zizek notes, is something machines simply can’t quantify—this negative formulation. Capital can always determine our worth. It always has some excuse to dispose of us. But we can do something much greater. We can calculate our lack. For the ruling class, Trump, Bloomberg and company have a clear worth. They keep the machine coming. But we can see the lack. We feel the lack. We are not machines. We will fight back. No amount of money can have us believe in Bloomberg or Trump. No amount of irony can have us forget who we are.

The truth beats in each of our own hearts, and we ask for coffee WITH truth.

Democratic Subject: I would like coffee.

Capitalist: That will be two dollars.

Democratic Subject: I would like to add truth to my coffee.

Capitalist: That will be 1,000, 002 dollars.

Democratic Subject: Can I have my coffee without lies instead?

Capitalist: We don’t have lies. You can have your coffee without cream for two dollars. Or without milk (my favorite) for two dollars.

Democratic Subject: Ok, skip the coffee, I’ll just buy the truth.

Capitalist: No we cannot do that, what on earth would we hold the truth in?

Democratic Subject: I am a Marxist, I believe in materialism, hold the truth in a cup.

Capitalist: But what would you be drinking?

In this scenario, Mr. Sanders is the coffee. He is not the truth, but he is the symbol that the American public is holding truth in. The cup may be the electoral process itself, something we feel like we need even though what we actually seek is much more totalizing.

This is the crisis on clear display in American democracy. The limits and wonders of democracy are on display at the same time. The massive inequality makes democracy a near impossibility as one person has more money to play with than the entire American public. This is not an exaggeration, despite the fundraising of Mr. Sanders being historic (5 million-plus donations in 2019 alone) we see that one person can easily outspend him. Not only this, but this billionaire can buy labor to convince people he has the right ideas. However, the backbone of the American public is just as inspiring. Despite the constant propaganda against proposals such as Medicare For All, the popularity of these proposals remains near-universal. Even more, no amount of vote stealing and DNC sabotage of the Sanders campaign can totally derail his lead. The fix is in, but the game still hasn’t been fixed. This is a near miracle.

What else could explain this miracle besides the sheer will of millions of Americans taking the long and tiring road against fascism and oligarchy? This is not an easy choice, but most do so anyway, whether that be out of moral obligation, love for humanity or sheer necessity. Yes, God bless this wretched species. Love is a miracle, and it is a miracle witnessed every day.

Things will only get more calamitous for the ruling class as the inevitable arm of communism comes down upon them. As the phrase goes, if you can see it from the front, wait until you see it from the back. Right now the resistance is in front of the ruling class. They fear it now. But they haven’t begun their nightmare. Once the revolution has happened the ruling class will be in jail.

This jailing won’t even bother them. What will bother them is that the jails in this new society are so humane. Worse still, the ruling class will be offered coffee, despite being the lowest of the low criminals. There will be a cream shortage or a milk shortage, and the ruling class will lay awake at night, not wondering how their cruel regime was overthrown, but which coffee they had this morning: was it without cream, or without milk? The one jouissance we will maintain for ourselves is only giving them ironic answers to this existential question.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at