Bernie Sanders, 2012, and fighting the oligarchy

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is the people’s tribune. In a recent appearance before a Senate committee where he spoke about the current assault on democracy, that quality of Sanders was on display. But before I elaborate on his speech, a few general observations on democracy are in order.

Democracy is a contested idea and practice. It was never a gift bestowed on the multitude by the top layers of our society, either at the country’s founding or in its subsequent history.

Historically speaking, the boundaries of freedom and democracy have been fluid. Gains in popular democracy secured in one period and thought to be permanent more than once were rolled back in the next period.

The movement toward a more inclusive democracy was never a smooth stroll forward. It always met resistance from entrenched power blocs, fixated on maintaining the status quo and the privileges therein.

In these battles each side attempted to appropriate and give content to the idea and practice of freedom and democracy (freedom for the slave, freedom for the slaveholder, etc.). Even those opposing inclusiveness claimed to be advocates of democracy and freedom.

The outcome ultimately rested on which side could amass enough power – political, economic, ideological, and sometimes military – to scatter, demoralize, and push back its opponents. In other words, force, not necessarily in its violent form, became the final arbiter in settling the conflict over the political content of democracy.

Compared with earlier pre-capitalist class systems, capitalism opened up some democratic space not formerly afforded to exploited classes of earlier times. But at the same time, its over-arching, unending, built-in drive for capital accumulation and profit-maximization inexorably and from the beginning gave rise to structural and social constraints on democratic development, including the democratic character of the state.

And yet, as restrictive and class-determined as the democratic space and institutions of capitalist society were and are, it would be a mistake either in the past or present to take a standoffish attitude toward them. Indeed, it is imperative for the forces of popular democracy to turn those democratic spaces and institutions that are available into a platform for expanding their limited content and narrow bounds. That ultimately includes getting rid of the capitalist shell in which democracy is now confined and restricted.

Which brings me back to Senator Bernie Sanders’ appearance before the Senate committee. In his speech, he warned the country of the increasing dangers to democracy in today’s political and economic climate.

” … we are now facing the most severe attacks, both economically and politically, that we have seen in the modern history of our country. Tragically … we are well on our way to seeing our great country move toward an oligarchic form of government – where virtually all economic and political power rests with a handful of very wealthy families.”  

How true!

He went on to say, “This is a trend we must reverse.”

Indeed, we must! But the vexing question is: how and where to begin?

In my view it won’t happen if the democratic movement does nothing but complain about the Obama administration and abandons the electoral arena of struggle in the name of political purity.

The stakes are too high to do either.

Let’s face it. The outcome of the November election will not simply determine who will occupy the White House and Congress.

This election is about more than that.

It is about the balance of power between the class and social forces of democracy and those of anti-democratic reaction. It is about which side gains the initiative and leverage in the post election period. It is about which outcome will best position the people’s movement to struggle against the economic crisis and for democracy and equality in the years ahead. And it is about striking an absolutely necessary blow against right-wing extremism – the main organizing vehicle of the oligarchic trend in U.S. politics.

To say that it makes no difference who wins in November is to take leave from reality. It amounts to substituting the politics of self-gratifying outrage and broad generalizations for solid class politics – that is, politics that makes a careful and concrete assessment of which political grouping is the main danger to democracy and class advance, given the balance of class and social forces at this moment.

Bernie Sanders, I suspect, is well aware of the dirty laundry on both sides of the aisle and of the motley character of the two-party system, just as he is undoubtedly fully conscious of the exploitative and oppressive nature of the system of capitalism and the 1 percent that it serves.

But he has also made it clear that he knows who the main political obstacle to social progress is in this era of unprecedented wealth-taking, and has no intention of sitting out this election on the basis of some “higher” political-class-moral principle. Neither should anyone else who is concerned about our country’s democracy and future.

Photo: America’s Power // CC 2.0


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.