Feel the bern: a machine moves across the USA
“Excuse me, I’m talking!” Bernie Sanders’ reply to Hillary Clinton in early March couldn’t be clearer: do not try to interrupt or silence us; we are going to be heard; we are not giving up this race. With his decisiveness and his introduction of a “socialist” alternative for America, Sanders – or “Bernie” – has made his mark. He not only challenges Clinton, but the entrenched interests of the American political elite.
American presidential elections are usually entertaining, and this year is no exception. In the Democratic debates in January-March 2016 Clinton’s messaging was often categorically challenged by Bernie, who showed that the game could be about more than finely-tuned political rhetoric that buries progressive ideals under a mass of slogans and platitudes. For the first time in years, it’s exhilarating to be a member of the political Left the United States. Working class people are finally being presented with a political alternative to the neoliberal welfare-cuts of the last 30 years. Many are responding massively to it: not only is does Bernie enjoy support for his program to counter the dismantling of welfare and the increasing precariousness of the middle and working classes, he also sets a standard for a public, non-hierarchical political dignity that many Americans endorse in a time marked by dominance of political dynasties, such as the Bushs and the Clintons, and the increasingly base campaigns among the republicans (some of which are voting for Bernie for these reasons). Sanders’ populist momentum is formidable—he has received the most individual donations of any candidate in history—but it will probably not be enough to topple the DNC, the pro-Clinton super-PAC’s, and the finely-tuned Clinton political machine. The question is not only one of gaining the largest support in the number of possible votes. Complicated rules for voter registration (depending on in which state) and the support of the “superdelegates” both give Clinton an advantage that will most likely make the difference. However, with the courage to challenge Wall Street and the Super-PAC’s, and with a resonant populist agenda, Bernie has proven to be both a vote for a people’s America and a vote against the status quo, which Clinton cautiously defends. The opening of this space has led Bernie’s campaign to emerge as a political “counter-resonance” machine1 that moves across the country to connect people from all kinds of situations and contexts into an ever greater resonance that builds its own possibilities besides, and not only against, neoliberalism.
There are some obvious reasons for the momentum of Bernie’s campaign, or what he calls his “political revolution”. First, it has articulated a clear strategy and a concrete program for the working and middle classes that rests on a convincing analysis of the accelerating class antagonisms in American society since the 1970’s and the advent of neoliberal policy. While the cost of living has risen, economic opportunity for lower middle and working classes has sharply diminished, leading to increasing precarity and indebtedness for average families. Questions of student debt, free college and a universal healthcare are easy to politicize with examples taken from Europe or elsewhere to undermine any claim that the current situation is the only possible one. Furthermore, Sanders is reminding Americans what the democratic process is supposed to be like, through his incredible grassroots fundraising efforts and exuberant rallies, which are always filled with tens of thousands of [mostly young] voters. At a time when American democracy is buried in the plutocratic machineries of both parties, a platform based on a huge number of individual, smaller contributions and a vivid civic debate have not only been a question about involving the many, but a clearly political issue – of the actual power of the people – of building a whole different relation between money, the capacity and power of ordinary people and politics. No doubt, discontent with the established political candidates and parties have contributed to the force of this machine’s momentum (on the other side of the political spectrum, a right-wing turn has incorporated a similar discontent in the Republican party, whose main candidates, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz [now out], are both disdained by the party establishment). In less than a year, Bernie has gone from being viewed as a mild nuisance, to a clear and present danger to the ruling elite. Whether or not he defeats Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he has shifted the political mood and rhetoric about money and politics, and renewed the Left with a sense of agency and immediacy.
A leftist-dissensual space
To be sure, the presidential elections and the movements that have emerged over the last years are about more than foreign policy, jobs and other traditional electoral questions. The presidential elections are important not only for the political programs that are proposed, but also for the symbolic power of having a president that can incorporate dignity and hope for the years to come. The presidential in this sense frame the politics at large in a specifically symbolic way. With the election of Obama, this symbolic aspect is still very tangible. But the elections, and Bernie’s candidature, are also linked to question of the very space of politics in a neoliberalized societal environment. Bernie’s campaign is related to and resonates with larger popular movements and symbolical appearances of popular power that have emerged from 2010 until today. With movements like Occupy Wallstreet (fall of 2011), Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15 minimum-wage campaign (since 2012) alongside a multiplicity of local movements, American public life has grown more “dissensual”2 than in very long. By actively problematizing the ways in which agendas are set and how politics has been privatized, these movements in different ways overlap with, and are part of, the “political revolution” that is the heart of Bernie’s campaign.
The dissensual spaces that the movements open and work in have reintroduced agonistic division and conflict into American politics in several different ways with different strategies. Bernie’s strategy, that has to operate in the circumscribed context of the nominations, is always polemical but hardly ever rhetorical or aggressive. In reintroducing conflict into American politics, Bernie combines the polemical stance with a required high moral standard and “politeness” (this combination is best summarized in his “Excuse me, I’m talking!” above). Being polite also means to let the nomination be about politics and the public’s capacity to be involved in matters that are important for the society and thereby avoiding the campaign to be about personal details or “scandals”. Bernie has therefore also made it a strategy to re-introduce facts to the nomination process as a public matter for people to actually be able to compare alternatives. Conflict and morals as part in the ways in which Bernie’s campaign resonates with a larger dissensual space, are very clearly articulated through the hypothesis of a democratic America in which the main subject is always a “we” and never Bernie himself (with the now famous “Not me – us” slogan as a result). In this way, Bernie’s movement has “collectivized” the personcentered presidential race into a public and collective matter.
Movements like Black Lives Matter stage conflict and open a dissensual space in a different way. For them, it is first of all a matter of opening a space that is always already foreclosed. Since there is no scene on which they can be visible and since being “polite” is not really any viable strategy for the advancement of black and poor people’s rights, conflict and creativity in the ways in which it can be waged, is the main resource. By combining the use of social media and polemical slogans under which a number of people can gather (“Black lives matter” was first a slogan before it became a movement), and by using public urban spaces to make visible the political character of class, race and gender related matters have been effectively staged in a way that media and powerful interests have had difficulties to ignore and misrepresent.
Even if Occupy Wallstreet was a passing event, the legacy of the movement and its perseverance is still very strong in the sense that the light is put on Wallstreet and the financial sector (which is one of the main targets of Bernie’s campaign) and in the sense that there has been a multiplication of occupations, “sit-ins”, “die-ins”, blocking highways and other collective modes of turning streets, offices, meetings, squares, etc. into political spaces. It seems that there is a spread awareness of the importance of waging a minimum degree of conflict and division on the terms of the situation in which one understands a political question in order open political spaces in neoliberalism.
A continued momentum?
The “political revolution” that Bernie refers to is hence taking place before, beyond, beside, and most probably after his movement, in particular in poor urban environments where the struggles concern questions of daily struggle. By connecting how police violence, neoliberal austerity measures, outsourced jobs, racism, pollution and the class-related difficulties of students, working and middle classes relate, a rich debate pared with spectacular protests have manage to set up (counter-resonance) machines that work in the margins of party politics. They have for example put the light on how the toxic combination of police violence, segregation, racism and neoliberalism relate and how a social focus on job creation and investments in urban environments could easily diminish the costs and increasing harm that this combination yields (in Baltimore for example, where the “Baltimore uprising” took place last year, budgetary costs for policing have increased by 300% since 1990)3. However, most certainly these movements are dependent on a larger framework in which they can inscribe their claims and construct a sense of a shared struggle across the nation (and possibly in concert with other countries). With the hostility of the Democratic Party to Bernie’s campaign4, a post-Bernie movement has to continuously build a platform that can make the different movements and questions resonate.
What will happen after Bernie’s movement, whether he wins or looses (but in particular if he looses, which is also more probable) is therefore largely a matter of how these local movements and energies can construct a shared framework and possibly become more influential both by ways of the formal political system (including Mayoral elections), and by constructing a strong platform for social movements to continue to act outside the formal system.
In many respects, the declining economic fortunes of the working and middle classes and the concomitant militarization of community police forces has coalesced in the current frenetic state of American politics. Recent examples of this tipping point abound, in the overcrowded prisons of the “carceral state” and such as during the events in Ferguson in 2014 and the protests in Baltimore in 2015, both of which resulted after police murder of young black males. In a different way, this is also the case when neoliberal governance of cities leads to a situation of unseen urban decay, such as with Detroit, or in the case of the polluted public water in Flynt, Michigan. The ways in which protests against police murder, which started as peaceful protests, were met by a militarized police and the use of the “National Guard” have also led to an increased awareness of the importance to create national political movements to connect the related factors that sustain and legitimize systematic oppression. As an example, the resistance of protestors to the bigotry of the candidates of the republican nomination campaigns to the presidential elections has been more outspoken and visible than in long.
With Bernie and the rejection of powerlessness, an American leftist space has re-opened. It remains to be seen if this space will remain viable and make possible a turn in American politics that was not even imaginable only a couple of years ago. If such a turn happens through the “democratization of the Democratic Party”5, through an improbable presidential victory or through a contestation beyond any of these two paths remains to be seen – and done
- See William F. Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity American Style, Durham: Duke University Press 2008. ↩
- See Jacques Rancière, Disagreement Minnesota Press 1999 ↩
- According to an unpublished document by the Black Baltimore Paper. ↩
- https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/bernie-sanders-democratic-party-primary-president-iowa-caucus-newhampshire- primary/ ↩
- http://inthesetimes.com/article/19071/bernie-sanders-hillary-clinton-new-york-primary ↩