By Daniel Xie
In the world-renowned fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, Sauron, the demonic antagonist, forged the master ring to control all life, in his plan to dominate Middle Earth. The Free Peoples of Middle Earth banded together to overthrow him. Yet they could not truly kill him, for Sauron’s spirit cannot be destroyed unless the One Ring, personifying absolute power, is destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom. His survival was made possible by the fact that while his supposed killer, Isildur, while a well-meaning man, was tempted by the beauty of the ring, viewing it as a simple prize that could be taken as a trophy on his finger. Future generations of Gondorians such as Denethor and Boromir would seek to use the ring for good, believing that it can be used to destroy Sauron even though the ring only obeys Sauron alone. It was only by thinking outside the box, by opting to destroy the One Ring, that the Free Peoples were able to kill Sauron once and for all.
Tolkien’s message is clear: the levers of power that perpetuate injustice cannot be used to destroy injustice. While Lord of the Rings is just a story written by an Oxford professor with no interest in sociopolitical commentary, the theme of building an alternative to the powers of absolute evil with the goal of destroying it, rather than using absolute evil against those that wield it as Isildur and Boromir sought, is a relevant theme for our time. In the real world, we have the very real “Dark Lord” of capitalism, wielding the powers of the bourgeois state and the political establishment that pledges fealty to it. While many are calling for the creation of an alternative to capitalism, we have our own Isildurs and Boromirs, who are tragically mistaken in thinking they can work with the establishment to advance forward something transformative, and consequently end up appeasing and reinforcing capitalist power structures.
The Isildurs and Boromirs of the real world are sadly for many, represented by Bernie Sanders and the Progressive Squad as indicated by their recent actions. In an attempt to stimulate a flailing economy in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the U.S. Congress recently passed a massive $2 trillion stimulus bill known as the CARES act. It facilitated one of the largest transfers of wealth to the corporate elites in America. The stimulus bill proposes egregious corporate bailouts including:
$500 billion in loans to corporations (by contrast, hospitals, which should be top priority with regards to funding when it comes to a pandemic, received only $140 billion).
$367 billion in small business loans
$454 billion for the Federal Reserve to inject liquidity into flailing markets
$170 billion tax break for real estate investors (like Trump)
$25 billion for the airline industry
$17 billion for defense contractors
The bipartisan support for the bill contrasts an America increasingly in support of measures proposed by Bernie Sanders in his 2016 and 2020 elections such as universal single-payer healthcare. Opposition to the corporate consolidation of power falls on Bernie himself and the “Squad” (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Talib). When the bill was being debated in Congress, AOC warned that the bill would be one that would facilitate one of the largest transfers of wealth to the corporate elite in American history. She hinted that there would be a showdown between Bernie and his allies vs. the political duopoly in the US. For his part, Bernie has also expressed opposition to the contents of the bill in doing nothing to help ordinary Americans. It seemed the stage was set for Bernie to rally his supporters into opposing the bill; through online organizing if necessary.
Yet the showdown never came. The bill passed the Senate unanimously, being opposed in the House by only one politician; libertarian Republican, Thomas Massie. When it came time to vote, Bernie and The Squad simply folded rather than lead an opposition to the contents of the bill. Many Bernie supporters are left disappointed at this turn of events, and these disappointments furthered by the fact that even as more and more information came out proving Tara Reade’s allegations, Bernie has yet to retract his endorsement for his “dear friend Joe”.
Instead, he, along with AOC have decided to form a unity task force to push forward progressive policies working side-by-side with the Biden campaign. These task forces were criticized by Christo Aivalis as a shameless effort to co-opt left wing discourse and provide a publicity coup for Biden. Thereby legitimizing him as a progressive option even if he plans to do nothing about progressive policies but has every intention of pushing forward reactionary ones. Kyle Kulinski, whom refused to endorse Biden, also jokingly mocked the effectiveness of the task forces in facilitating any sort of progressive change.
Bernie and AOC aren’t the only ones that have disappointed progressives and leftists. Recently Ilhan Omar, has, apart from supporting the bailout, also signed onto an AIPAC-backed letter bolstering the Donald Trump administration’s efforts to extend the United Nations arms embargo on Iran. This is set to expire in October as the first sunset provision under the nuclear deal; this being despite initially opposing the militaristic foreign policy of both parties and being critical of Obama’s legacy as a president.
Why have Bernie and The Squad capitulated so easily to the establishment in the face of a massive corporate bailout, and by extension to Joe Biden? Some activists believe that it was because he was a flawed person that wants revolutionary change yet is too trusting of the establishment and the political process to muster a full-frontal assault on it. Others have written him off, and by extension, The Squad, as opportunistic charlatans who are only seeking power at all costs. The actual answer is a bit more complex than either of these explanations.
To write Sanders’ off as a power-hungry charlatan/career politician from day one ignores Sanders many years of activism before taking any political power. It writes off the lengths that the establishment went to block him and his movement from taking any power in 2016 and 2020. Had Sanders been a mere opportunist, I feel that they would have welcomed his campaign with open arms rather than try to sabotage him at every turn. Lastly, it ignores the many people and movements that have been radicalized thanks to him raising important issues to the forefront; chief among them being the DSA. Had it not been for Sanders tapping into discontent, we might not have socialism be something even considered by the youth of America, or the process would have taken much longer. This process may be in spite of Sanders’ efforts, but one cannot deny his role in bringing left wing politics to the discussion table.
Yet, it is also wrong to write Sanders off as a flawed revolutionary fully committed to revolutionary change, but betrayed from within by people like Jeff Weaver, who backstabbed him from behind in favor of Biden and created a superPAC without his permission. This whitewashes his own complicity in letting the establishment roll over him, and gives him as a free pass in endorsing Clinton and Biden. As well as emphasizing anti-republican politics over anti establishment ones putting both parties feet to the fire, putting the blame on Russia for getting Trump elected instead of Hillary’s shortcomings as a candidate in 2016, while having a spotty foreign policy record which has drawn the ire of various anti-war activists and many to his left. It also ignores the fact that while someone might start off as radical or engaged in activism and even revolutionary change, could potentially moderate into something more palatable for the sociopolitical establishment.
So what went wrong? Realistically it is an ideological shortcoming, along with a tactical one fermented on reformism over championing revolutionary and transformative action, rather than a supposed deficiency of moral character for all of Sanders and The Squad. I believe that Sanders genuinely believes that his path forward will result in a better America. Yet the path forwards envisioned by him involves seeking to convince figures totally opposed to his policies and changing the democratic party, which has been a graveyard for many movements seeking transformational change that they were able to co-opt. It was perhaps this desire to compromise that was Bernie Sanders’ fatal flaw. Perhaps this explains why he never felt the need to take up arms even when his supporters demanded justice for Tara Reade and every single moment that Bernie was screwed over by the DNC. While even when the LA chapter of Our Revolution are already making plans to break off from the democrats and form an independent left organization.
With regards to ideology, Bernie’s worldviews are further from socialism than what he wants us to believe. Rather, it is much closer to what we would call social democracy, or alternatively, New Deal Liberalism as undertaken under FDR. Bernie Sanders, in laying out his vision of socialism, cites the Nordic countries as what socialism ought to be. While switching to a Nordic model would be much better than what either party is planning economically, it is not socialism, and any well-versed socialist would tell you that.
Bernie Sanders is more acting in the tradition of social democracy in the sense that much like social democrats he is calling for “humane capitalism” in allowing for reforms weakening the power of corporations over the population and government, as well as enacting progressive reforms such as single payer healthcare. He never sought to completely destroy capitalism, but to save capitalism from its worst impulses. Indeed, The Squad is also thinking in the social democratic tradition rather than the revolutionary socialist tradition, with AOC claiming in the past that it is possible to be both a socialist and a capitalist. This being despite the fact that the preservation of power for the bourgeoisie and the ascent of worker power are inherently contradictory to each other.
With this in mind, it’s easy to piece together what went wrong. Bernie Sanders, more of a social democrat reformist than a socialist, felt that compromise with the democratic establishment was viable, deciding to fight a fair battle with them to not antagonize them despite the dirty tricks they used as a means to not antagonize them. This might be why he is happy to have changed the conversation and at least getting the establishment to consider his ideas, even when his supporters demanded more.
Sanders may have felt that simply working with the democrats through initiatives such as a task-force committee for Joe Biden is an opportunity to convince them of their political misgivings and eventually give him leverage; even through Joe Biden and the establishment are now using him as a pawn to co-opt a movement that increasingly won’t listen to the democrats. This is Bernie’s tragic flaw, as highlighted by Danny Haiphong in an interview with the This is Hell podcast. He might genuinely believe in doing good for the American people, but his compromising social democratic worldview revolves around trying to gain leverage with the democrats. This is done rather than building something new, instead herding activists into supporting the democrats so he can maintain leverage; even if said leverage is only an illusion projected by establishment elites hellbent on laying traps for him.
Consequently when the American people needed his ideas more than ever and when the DSA were refusing to endorse Joe Biden, Bernie backed down, being unwilling to truly challenge the capitalist power controlling the US, and the Democratic Party. That would’ve required him to stop seeking to convince the establishment, move beyond social democracy and come to terms with the fact that capitalism needs to be challenged at every turn. He refused to accept that the establishment has given no quarter in their dealings with him, which he was ultimately unwilling to carry forward.
Where does the Left go from Here?
Bernie’s capitulation to the establishment demonstrates the futility of democratic party entryism with the hopes of changing it from within. In trying to convince the democratic party to adapt his reforms, Bernie has chosen to compromise with the democratic establishment. He waged a clean campaign even when the establishment has sought to ensure he has no influence at all and played every dirty trick in the book in both 2016 and 2020. By supporting Trump’s stimulus, endorsing Biden even in the face of the increasing validity of Reade’s allegations, and by signing up to a joint task force that only exists as a publicity stunt for Biden, all the Bernie campaign’s efforts in order to reform the democratic party has culminated in, is an effort to appease the establishment and enable their efforts to co-opts progressive and left-leaning discourse.
While Bernie Sanders may have introduced the prospect of radical politics to a new generation that grew up in the shadows of economic recession, he has chosen to not build on the movement he has encouraged in favor of appeasement and seeking to use bourgeois state power to combat the injustices of capitalism. Activists must now reject Bernie Sanders’ social-democratic reformism and build an independent movement outside democratic party politics, very likely without him or The Squad if they continue to appease the establishment despite receiving nothing but seething contempt from them in return.
So where do we, as leftists and progressive activists go from here? It is clear that the democratic party only sees insurgents as a way to sheepdog voters into voting for them in the name of lesser evilism, and the various progressive reformists from Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kucinich to Bernie Sanders have been unwilling to break out of this electoral dead end. Perhaps the way forward is being shown not through appeasement but by the various rent strikes and being carried out by renters, the labour strikes carried out by workers in Amazon, Instacart, and Target, and the organizations seeking to challenge the capitalist duopoly such as Our Revolution LA and Howie Hawkins of the Green Party; whom always sought to build a strong grassroots movement outside the electoral arena.
It has been said that revolutionaries make the best reformists, because they are the ones advocating fully for the rights of workers to be upheld even when reformists end up appeasing the establishment and seeking to use bourgeois state power to reform capitalism from within. This sentiment is perhaps reflective of what the left must now do in the wake of Sanders and The Squad’s capitulation. As Sanders bends the knee to Biden, the left should act as the best reformists by organizing with the movements fighting against rent payments in the time of COVID-19, with workers fighting for better working conditions and health protections in essential industries, and with building the foundation for independent grassroots organizations working against the duopoly.
These tasks may seem slow and daunting in contrast to trying to install a social democratic into a corporate-dominated party, but Sanders’ capitulation has shown that to not be a viable possibility. Simply organizing for the cancellation of rent or better working conditions alone, or getting more viability for a third party, cannot change American society overnight. However, fighting for these reforms under the right leadership and organization, as Rosa Luxemburg in Reform and Revolution, allows the working class to build political power and push for further gains. Further gains which in our own time may involve creating a network of worker co-ops to uproot capitalist dominance over the means of production, or laying the foundation for an independent leftist party that can compete with the corporate duopoly dominating the United States.
Isildur and Boromir believed that the One Ring could be used against absolute evil; the consequences of that line of thinking was death at the hand of Orcish armies. In the real world, Bernie Sanders believed that working with and even appeasing the establishment could be used to usher in progressive reforms. The consequences of such an action only led to the establishment consolidating its power over him and his fellow reformists. Seeing the failure of Sanders-style reformism play out in front of us, it is imperative that we, rather than seek to appease an establishment hellbent on destroying us, work to build grassroots organization and working-class power. Dong so, will eventually lay the foundations for an independent leftist party that can effect genuine, transformative change within the American sociopolitical arena.