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Bloomberg: What Is He Good For?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

After winning big in Nevada and withstanding the efforts of Democratic “moderates” to throw him off track at last Tuesday’s South Carolina “debate,” Bernie Sanders is now enjoying what George H.W. Bush called “the big Mo.” He has the wind at his back.

Those moderates – Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and, worst of all, Joe Biden – are defenders of their party’s old regime, even as they pretend to be more “progressive” than that.  Their opportunism and inauthenticity, and their relentless attacks on each other, should do all of them in before long, notwithstanding the unstinting support they garner from “liberal” corporate media hellbent on spewing nonsense about Sanders’ “unelectability.”

The other candidates still in the running, Elizabeth Warren and Tom Steyer, genuinely are at least on the same page as Sanders, but their campaigns seem unable to gain enough traction to hold him back.  Sanders is therefore now the undisputed front runner in the race to become the Democratic nominee.

However, the Bloombergian menace, all sixty-two billion dollars of it, is still out there, as threatening, not just to Sanders, but also to (small-d) democracy and progressive social change as ever.  Now is therefore not a time to become complacent.

What is Bloomberg good for? The short answer is: not much.  He is a certifiable, Grade A, Republican-lite good-for-nothing.

He is also a relic of the bygone era that Donald Trump and his supporters would like to restore, and that a majority of Americans nowadays consider too overtly patriarchal, white supremacist, and self-seeking to abide.

To his credit, Bloomberg hates Trump and the gun lobby, and he throws heaps of money at efforts to defeat them both.  Beyond that, the kindest thing one could say about him is that he aspires to restore as much pre-Trumpian normalcy as is still possible. That would be an improvement over Trumpian normalcy, but it is also what made Trump and Trumpism all but inevitable.

Nevertheless, when we come down to it, Bloomberg is good for something, after all: actually, for two things.  And, should the Democratic Party’s grandees and their donors decide that he is their last best hope for holding back the radical reconstruction of their party, he may be good for a third as well.

He is good for keeping defenders of neoliberalism and liberal imperialism from uniting against Sanders, the candidate they despise and want to defeat the most.

Warren threatens their power and wealth too, but not in quite the same way or to the same extent because she is more of a technocrat than, like Sanders, a proponent of working-class empowerment.  The powers-that-be in the Democratic Party and in respectable corporate media  probably feel that there is no need to bother with her at this point because her campaign seems to be going nowhere.  The same goes for Steyer only more so.

Bloomberg is also good for winning the public over to socialism: not so much the social democratic–New Deal liberal kind that Sanders champions, but the genuine article.  How ironic is that!

Sanders’ “socialism” would be many times better for the vast majority, the ninety-nine percent, than what we now have.  However, it bears only a conflictual and highly attenuated connection to what would be qualitatively better still: real socialism of the kind envisioned by the majority of socialist militants over the past century and a half.

Finally, should Bloomberg become the Great Moderate Hope of the Democratic Party’s leaders and  media flacks – MSNBC isn’t called “MSDNC” for nothing – he may even be good for doing in the Democratic Party “as we know it”; and, better still, for setting a process in motion that could finally end the disabling duopoly party system that has afflicted the American political scene since the end of the Civil War.

For these two or three things, we have what might be called “the Law of Unintended Consequences” to thank.  And, inasmuch as context and timing are all, if all goes as well as we have any right to expect, we should also thank our luck.

***

In 2016, of the roughly fifty-two percent of eligible Americans who actually bothered to vote, more — some three million more – voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump.  Trump won, “fair and square” sort of, because there were enough Trump voters in the right places for the Electoral College, the most undemocratic of our several undemocratic, constitutionally mandated institutions, to put him on top.

Many Trump voters held their noses and voted for a vile buffoon simply because they loathed Clinton, and supposed that Trump could hardly be a whole lot worse than she.  This was an unforgivable miscalculation, but an understandable one.

Many Trump voters were also fed up with Wall Street and corporate domination of the political scene, the imperialist orthodoxies of our foreign policy establishment, and the tepid and opportunistic social liberalism that the Clintons, Bill and Hillary both, espoused.  They voted for Trump because they loathed Clintonism; not that what they got was all that different in ways they cared about.

What they cared about was their own well-being and sense of dignity.  What they got was a president and administration hellbent on undermining the rule of law, degrading the moral and intellectual level of public discourse, reinforcing white supremacy, empowering inept and servile “public servants,” reviving defunct rightwing ideologies, enriching plutocrats, and stuffing the pockets of Trump cronies, the Trump family, and Trump himself.

There were also some who were enough fed up with the status quo to want to give a new guy who said that he wanted to tear the old regime down, to “drain the swamp,” a chance.  It hardly mattered to them that he was vile and ignorant or that his candidacy was preposterous on its face.  This only made him more popular.

Quite a few others thought that Trump was worth taking a chance on because, like most Americans even now, they were, at least to some extent, in thrall to the unjustified, false, belief that the rich are smarter and more capable than everyone else.

Bloomberg benefits from that delusion too.  It is about the only thing, besides his “philanthropy,” that he has going for him.

Needless to say, he is a lot less vile and ignorant than Trump; how could he not be?  He is also a lot richer.

Indeed, he is rich enough to be able easily to buy off potential critics – not all of them, of course, but the more weak willed or mercenary among them — and to keep local and national media friendly.  His candidacy is a godsend for their bottom lines.

Even so, the idea that, in our time and place, a moderate would be more electable than Sanders, or that, in Trump’s America, it takes a plutocrat, Bloomberg, to beat a plutocrat, Trump, is so fundamentally wrong-headed that its chances of prevailing through this electoral season are poor.

There should be no need, at this point, to belabor how wrong-headed that notion is.

It misses the mark conceptually because what will matter for electability in 2020 is turnout, and therefore enthusiasm; not how close to the center of some notional or actual political spectrum a candidate’s positions happen to be.

It misses the mark empirically because it fails to take the lessons of the 2016 Clinton fiasco into account.  Sanders could probably have defeated Trump four years ago, while Clinton lost; her moderation – back then it was called “progressive pragmatism” — was at least partly to blame.

Corporate pundits this year remain as determined as ever to have people think that moderation is key for keeping Trump from winning a second term.  However, from a perspective that puts MSNBC-CNN-NPR inanity in its proper place, there really is no need to engage with them about that yet again.  The wiser course is to ignore their inane jibber-jabber.

There is a need, however, to reflect on what the consequences could be if Bloomberg is the moderate Sanders will have to defeat.  His candidacy could well make the coming election a lot  more consequential than it would otherwise be.

***

Bloomberg’s politics are more retrograde than Klobuchar’s, Buttigieg’s, and even Biden’s.  Moreover, he was a card-carrying Republican, a supporter of George W. Bush, the worst American president in modern times before Trump.

Worst of all, he is trying to buy the election; shamelessly, unreservedly, and in plain view.  If he succeeds, (small-d) democracy, what little of it we have, will be finished; oligarchs and oligarch wannabes will run the whole show.

And yet he claims that he alone can defeat Trump and that, even if others could too, he should be the one to take control because, having a greater net worth than the GDP of several entire countries, he knows best.

He does at least have the good sense and common decency not to flaunt his riches when arguing for himself.  Instead, the case he makes is essentially the one that all the moderates advance.  It is that except for diehard Bernie fans and unsalvageable Trumpians, he can unite everybody – from anti-Trump Republicans to all but the most naïve, pie-in-the-sky Democrats.

Before Bloomberg, opposition to this line of thinking was necessarily theoretical.  With Bloomberg in the race, reasons to rebut moderates’ contentions are unfolding in plain sight and for all to see.  So far from uniting all but the most intransigent voters, Bloomberg’s candidacy – not the ideas behind it, but the money propelling it — is throwing the voting public, its middle regions above all, into chaos and disarray.

This is the first thing he is good for: dividing the anti-Sanders forces, rendering them less harmful than they would otherwise be.

***

The spiritual heirs of the “economic royalists” whose hatred FDR said he welcomed are now mobilizing full-throttle against Sanders.  With the South Carolina primary just hours away, they are calling in all their chips, causing more than a few of the palmetto state’s vaunted “civil rights icons” to come to the aid of hapless Joe Biden; Jim Clyburn is only the best known of the whole sorry, Clintonite lot.

If Biden does better than polls suggest he will, and especially if he actually gets more votes than Sanders in the primary, this will be the reason why.  But all this will show is that “conservative” Democrats are not yet ready to abandon him.  This is no more an argument against Sanders’ electability than the machinations of “conservative” Democrats were against Roosevelt’s.

A better argument, perhaps the most compelling of the lot, is that we Americans are capitalists by sympathy and conviction, and that aversion to socialism is, if not quite in our genes, then it might as well be.

This is a better argument, but it is hardly compelling.  Even mainstream Democrats nowadays acknowledge that Americans’ opposition to socialism is not nearly as widespread or deep as it used to be.  Moreover, as they know full well, in so-called millennial circles, and among those younger still, it is rapidly becoming extinct.

Nevertheless, the argument goes, a self-described socialist candidate for the White House has no chance of winning enough votes, especially in “battleground states,” actually to prevail.

Thus, even Warren, whose “plans” for everything are nearly as social democratic as Bernie’s, calls herself “capitalist to the core.”  This is surely part of the reason why “liberal” media vilify her less vociferously than they do Sanders.

Some commentators — Paul Krugman, for example — have written about how odd it is that Sanders would call himself a “socialist,” inasmuch as he is not really one at all.  With “socialism” still practically a curse word for older voters, why take on the burden when it isn’t even true?

Why does Sanders not just say that he is a “social democrat” or, better yet, a twenty-first century version of a New Deal liberal?  These descriptions would be more accurate by far.

I would venture that this line of argument has merit.  On balance, though, I would insist that it is a good thing that Sanders describes himself as he does.  By calling himself a “socialist,” he has brought “socialism,” the word and perhaps someday also the idea, back into the political mainstream.

At some point, however, distinctions must be made, and lines of demarcation drawn.  Without intending to do anything of the sort, Bloomberg is helping with that.

Social democrats, unlike the true socialists, are not much interested in changing real property relations — replacing private ownership of major productive assets with one or another form of social ownership.

Ownership involves rights to control and to benefit financially from productive assets.  Social ownership could be, and usually is, state ownership, but it could also involve other, more inherently democratic, collective, but non- or sub-state, entities.

Social democrats are seldom intent on socializing, or rather de-privatizing, anything.  What they want instead is to get states in capitalist societies to adopt redistributive fiscal policies that diminish inequality.  They also want to enhance public provision of such societal necessities as health care, education, childcare, and public transport.

For them, as for those whose more radical socialist convictions accord better with traditional understandings of the term, a good society is one without poverty or extreme inequality – a society in which no one is obscenely rich and in which poverty no longer exists, a society in which everyone has equal access to means that would enable them to become all that they can be.

For Sanders, as he tells one and all whenever the opportunity arises, Denmark gets it about right.  Denmark, of course, is, just as capitalist to its core as Elizabeth Warren.

How ironic, therefore, that Bloomberg, a capitalist paragon, is a living, breathing argument for the real deal.

Progressives should demand that he make his taxes public, just as they have been demanding, not nearly vociferously enough, that Trump do the same.

What Bloomberg’s taxes would likely make clear to everyone is the utter irrationality, at this stage of capitalist development, of a political economic system organized around capitalist – that is, private – ownership.

When the militantly pro-capitalist  Andrew Yang was still a candidate, going on about how the rise of Artificial Intelligence and other technological developments put unconditional Basic Income on the agenda, he was inadvertently talking about the inherent irrationality of the capitalist mode of production in societies like our own, where productive forces are developed beyond the point at which further development would enhance individuals’ well-being.

Developed capitalist societies reached that stage a long time ago.  Capitalism in developed countries nowadays is overripe; and becoming yet riper still at an astonishing pace.

Thus, even now, much of the work done in paid employment could be done by robots and other machines.  Were there the political will, burdensome and unpleasant labor could be largely eliminated, effectively ending economic coercion, leaving everyone, or nearly everyone, free to deploy their talents and skills, creatively or not, as they please.

Without intending anything of the kind, Bloomberg is making a case for that kind of socialism, not by force of argument, but by casting a negative example.  He is demonstrating how private ownership generates obscene levels of inequality in ways that are unconnected to socially useful labor.

Not coincidentally, the type and degree of inequality that Bloomberg personifies diminishes the well-being and life prospects of the vast majority of humankind.

The former New York City mayor is estimated to have a net worth of some sixty-two billion dollars.  These riches did not come to him the way that Trump’s wealth came to him – through inheritance, corruption, and political juice.   Bloomberg enriched himself egregiously by doing good, “honest” work in “the financial services industry.”

What an industry that is!  It produces no “use values,” as Marx called them, no socially useful objects of labor; all it produces is money, very little of which is put to any socially useful purpose.  Most of it instead is hoarded or used for private consumption.  In our day and age, this is the principal source of inequality and its discontents.

Thus, over the past ten years, Bloomberg’s fortune has nearly quadrupled – from a net worth of roughly sixteen billion dollars to more than sixty-two billion, moving him, according to Forbes, from being the one-hundred-forty-second richest person on earth in 2009 to the twelfth ten years later.

Corporate media are not going to point out how egregious this is nearly enough; not so long as a lot of that money will be going to them, as Bloomberg buys seemingly limitless streams of campaign advertisements.

Soft liberal organizations that work with constituencies that would normally find Bloomberg’s words and deeds objectionable – Emily’s List, for example, and African American political machines like the ones in South Carolina – will not object either, for much the same reason.

Are the benighted folk Trump cons – especially the ones who know that Trump does them more harm than good, but who are willing, as they say, “to take one for the team” anyway – really that much more deplorable?

***

Finally, the chances are slim, but far from trivial, that the introduction of Bloomberg and his money into the race for the Democratic nomination this year just might be good for leading, sooner or later, to far-reaching, potentially beneficial, changes in the America political scene — by radically transforming, and perhaps actually splitting, the Democratic Party, and by setting in motion a process that could lead to the demise or the radical transformation of our disabling duopoly party system.

Unfortunately, that system is remarkably robust. The Republican Party, so far at least, has even survived the Trumpian maelstrom, and the Democratic Party is doing just fine despite the food fights and pissing contests at its candidates’ debates.

The transformations Trump wrought in the course of placing the GOP under his thumb have been under development for decades.  The Republican Party is still the party of the rich and heinous, and not all social elites have abandoned it.  Quite to the contrary, there are still respectable places where the GOP is practically the only game in town.

Trump has massively accelerated its transformation into a party of, by, and for middle aged and older men who are emphatically not “of color,” and who lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation.  But the party is still left standing.

Whether, after Trump, it somehow manages to resume its Marco Rubio – Mitt Romney ways, or instead continues along its present track, is, for now, an open question.  The GOP could revert back to its kinder, gentler, but nevertheless utterly foul Bush era ways because its basic structures remain basically intact, Trump’s kakistocratic depredations notwithstanding.

It is also still more likely than not that the Democratic Party “as we know it,” will survive the coming election, and perhaps its aftermath as well.

Thus, our duopoly party system will likely continue to afflict us in the years immediately ahead.

But now, more than ever before in living memory, it would be fair to say, and to hope, that maybe all of this, or some of it, will finally change.  Bloomberg could also be good for that.

Leading mainstream Democrats are not about to change their ways, but it is not inconceivable that they would bolt were Sanders and his supporters to take hold of the party.  It is also possible that they would remain in control, but that large segments of the Democratic Party’s base would draw the very plausible conclusion that their party is hopeless and would then go on to organize an alternative.  Thanks to the sheer awfulness of Trump, this is at least as likely as that they would fall back into some form of apolitical quiescence.

In other words, thanks to Bloomberg, two very different scenarios have now become at least non-negligibly possible.

Scenario #1: were Sanders to lock up the nomination soon, perhaps even on Super Tuesday, the party’s grandees, bolstered by Bloomberg’s money, just might decide to run Bloomberg or some other bulwark of the pre-Trumpian status quo independently.

America’s duopoly system is so deeply entrenched that it is unlikely and hard to imagine, but it is no longer as inconceivable as it would have been even just a month or two ago that they would then go on to create structures that could serve as the nucleus of a new political party.

In other circumstances, the party’s establishment figures and the donors who bankroll them, appalled by the very thought of a Sanders presidency, might just toddle over to the GOP.  However, by turning that wretched party into his very own personality cult, Trump has made that harder for them to do.

It is more likely, therefore, that they would try to do what their counterparts did nearly a half century ago when mainstream Democrats wanted to keep George McGovern out of the White House, even though that meant reelecting Richard Nixon to a second term.  They could, so to speak, shelter in place, by doing as little as they could get away with to support their party’s nominee.

Too bad for them, however, that this is not as viable a strategy as it was in 1972 — in part because the Democratic Party’s electoral apparatus matters less than it was in the days before social media and other internet dependent innovations transformed electoral politics, and in part because, unlike McGovern, Sanders has a large, competent, politically sophisticated, party-independent electoral apparatus of his own.

Trump had to take over the GOP to defeat Clinton; Sanders could go far, perhaps far enough, with little or no support from Democratic Party apparatchiks.

It is therefore not inconceivable that they would leave the Democratic Party to Sanders and his base, in order to strike out on their own, creating reliably “centrist” political structures outside the Democratic Party’s ambit.

Another possible scenario is that Sanders’ supporters would be the ones that bolt, leaving the Democratic Party’s movers and shakers to age in place under the banner of the old party label.

This could be the most welcome outcome of all; it could lead to a situation in which, for the first time ever, a genuinely leftwing political party would join the political mainstream.

Should Sanders come to the convention in Milwaukee without quite enough delegates actually to secure the nomination on the first ballot, but with a sizeable plurality, and after having won the most primaries and caucuses, and should Bloombergians and their moderate co-thinkers then try to broker the convention away from him, giving the nomination either to Bloomberg himself or to one or another likeminded retrograde, this outcome could actually become more likely than not.

It is therefore quite conceivable that what Bloomberg’s money might ultimately end up buying is not, as he would like, a world that is even safer for plutocrats than the world already is, but instead a world in which the conditions that sustain bipartisan servility to the Almighty Dollar is challenged like never before.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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