Thoughts on Bernie Sanders, Global Economic Crisis, the Crisis of the Earth, and Social Disintegration

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 16: Senate Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. holds a news conference on the budget on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Featured image courtesy Huffington Post

During the past months the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic Party (DP) nominee for US president has ignited interest around the country and globally. It is a contest noteworthy for the challenges being made: to the entrenched DP powers and their financial backers, to conventional wisdom on the current national and global economic crisis, to people everywhere about the priority now being given to the crises of our planet – misleadingly termed as ‘climate change,’ and to us all as individuals in contributing or not to social disintegration. The crises are there to see, they are being felt globally, there is fear, and not for nothing, but out of this can come a common agenda. It is time to resist the status quo.

The growing popularity of self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders must be seen as due to the issues being addressed and his perceived sincerity in this. The resonance of his economic message shows the success of the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement – We Are the 99% – which was already noted by election organisers on the ground during the 2012 presidential campaign. Sanders’ positions include: fair taxation so that the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share; a large rise in the minimum wage (to $15 per hour); break-up of the large banks; health care as a right under a single-payer insurance system, and for retirees to not live in poverty; an energy policy not based on fossil fuels and geared to creating jobs in green energy; against private prisons and the incarceration of (disproportionately) blacks, Latinos and others for minor offenses; audit of the military; a route to citizenship for illegal aliens, with no break-up of families and no border fence; equal pay for women and protection of the right to choose; and campaign finance reform to exclude big money.

In foreign policy Sanders is against the new Pacific free trade agreement (TPP), as he opposed the similar North American agreement – as both sending US jobs abroad and as uprooting people in other countries from land and jobs due to the import of cheaper US goods. He is for a two-state solution in Palestine. And in perhaps the sharpest exchanges with Clinton he has repeatedly questioned her vote for the 2003 war in Iraq, which he as a member of the US House opposed from the start. One of his most significant positions in contrast to Clinton is to be against the US strategy of regime change, noting the disastrous consequences in Iraq, Libya, Syria and other places. And in one startling segment of his recent second debate with Clinton, he pointed to the similar case of Iran in 1953, stating that the US had deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in order to support (largely) British oil interests, installing the Shah, and leading to his overthrow and more recent well-known consequences. This is not the kind of information or message that the US public is used to hearing on national TV during a presidential election campaign; Sanders has broken the ‘acceptable’ information barrier.

The threat of the Sanders campaign is shaking up the established powers. The Clinton campaign has had to continually shift its positions to the progressive side. And while her main selling point is her long record, and experience in working for children’s and women’s rights, and as a senator and secretary of state, she cannot get away from her longstanding position as an insider in political and economic elite circles. Many people do not see her as being honest, or as being in touch with issues that affect normal people – and she is finding it difficult to come across as sincere.

In spite of relentless efforts by many actors to convince the world that the present global economic crisis is a short one, or that the US is already in recovery, these are just myths. With the western liberal democracies skirting with deflation, the emerging markets stalled, China with bursting asset bubbles, and the continued shift in wealth both to elites within countries and to elites/big business based in the wealthy countries, it is clear that such features are intrinsic to the present global system. The policies of the World Bank and IMF have not worked to counter these trends in any country. And even establishment economists have been shaken; indeed, the findings of insider Thomas Piketty on wealth/income inequality actually refute the two basic claims of capitalism: that left alone the system will generate full employment, and that inequality in income/wealth is produced merely by problems in productivity or mismatches in the education/skills that are available/required.[1]

In terms of agendas, there is likely no issue that is more important than the deterioration of the planet Earth. It affects all people, in every country, and its handling will likely determine the survival of the human species, as well as many other species. It is crucial to clearly educate on the multiple aspects of this problem, for a concern merely for climate change (the effects of higher temperatures due to CO2 in the atmosphere) misses the mark, and serves to absolve states and individuals from the responsibility we all share. A useful framework to look at this is in terms of the nine planetary boundaries, each with a tipping point, as outlined by Johan Rockstrom [2]

The other eight boundaries are: biodiversity loss (species extinction); biogeochemical (nitrogen removed from the atmosphere and phosphorous addition into the oceans); acidification of the oceans; change in land cover (converted to cropland/deforestation); availability of fresh water (including pollution of ground water); depletion of the ozone layer; aerosol contamination of the atmosphere; and chemical pollution (toxic substances, plastics, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, radioactive elements). The boundaries that have already reached a tipping point are climate change, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle aspect of the biogeochemical.

In light of the current global economic and Earth crises, and their consequences, Karen Armstrong has provided a useful construct of human violence, which is applicable from the early agrarian civilisations to the present. She views war/physical violence and institutional/structural violence as being two sides of the same coin. The latter includes compelling people to live in wretchedness, systemic oppression and the unequal distribution of resources and power. When surpluses are produced and allocated to a small group, that group gains a monopoly on violence. When such a group adopts an ethical tradition (for example, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam), the clergy in that tradition adapt the ideology to support the structural violence of the state.[3] Clearly this is the situation in almost every country.

A final important analysis comes from Prabhat Patnaik, in a January update on the current, protracted global economic crisis. At the end of the article he warns of the promotion by corporate and financial oligarchies of “divisive, fascist, and semi-fascist movements, so that while the shell of democracy is preserved, their own rule is not threatened by any concerted class action.” There is a move towards the fascification of society, with resulting counter-fascistic movements; “… the net result is social disintegration.” [4]

The above has been written in an attempt to shift the analysis in terms of creating new agendas – agendas that may have different aspects for various countries and peoples, but which have a core of similarities, in economic situation, in the planetary situation, and in the consideration of violence. There is clearly a need to set goals that go beyond what is considered to be immediately achievable.

There is a need to redefine violence, nationalism, patriotism and national unity. There is a need to reject status quo characterisations of people by nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender or skin colour. During one recent, televised media session Sanders was asked about his ‘faith.’ A Jewish person from Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, who never speaks of his religion, he stated that his faith is that “we are all in this together.”

The experience of the US in this primary campaign shows that major breaks can be made in political systems, but that these are based on longstanding trends in shift in sentiment based on the availability of different information. The critique of the system makes sense to what are viewed, and sometimes derided, as ordinary people. The primaries in the next four months will show how resonant the message actually is. In this sense, in the contest now between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, even if he does not win the nomination, he has already produced a bigger win. There is a need to redefine victory.

[1] John Bellamy Foster and Michael D. Yates, “Piketty and the Crisis of Neoclassical Economics,” Monthly Review, vol. 66, no. 6, November 2014.
[3] Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood – Religion and the History of Violence, London: Vintage, 2014, 10-12.
[4] Prabhat Patnaik, “Capitalism and Its Current Crisis,” Monthly Review, vol. 67, no. 8, 12.