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Conversations About Inequality

Why I spent my morning handing out Bernie Sanders fliers — even though I’m probably* far more radical than he is

I like to say that I’m a realist, but the truth is that I’m pretty cynical when it comes to politics. I don’t believe that many politicians are able to go against their own interests for the good of the people they are supposed to represent, I don’t think candidates get elected because they are the most qualified people, and I don’t think many better-qualified people could get elected within the current system. But I actually think Bernie is different, and I decided I needed to hold up my end of the bargain. So this is why I spent this morning handing out Feel The Bern fliers:

One: It allowed me to have conversations about inequality.

As I spoke to passersby on the sidewalk, extending my arm with a small yellow piece of paper — asking some variation of “Can I talk to you about Bernie Sanders?” while trying not to sound like I was asking if I could talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — many people ignored me as best they could, keeping their heads down and pushing forward against the pull that always exists when another human asks you for something you don’t want to give. There were also a number of people who responded with a sort of knowing chuckle, some adding something like, “Oh, I know about Bernie,” as if to make clear that they know… enough to know they’d never vote for him.

But a surprising number of people responded that they were already on board, and an even more surprising number were interested in having a conversation with me. And in each of those interactions, I got a chance to do something I’ve been longing to do, even though I didn’t know I had been missing it: have real conversations with people about inequality. Bernie’s platform is all about inequality, and I know that a lot of people who follow politics somewhat closely are already getting sick of hearing what he has to say. But for a lot of people, especially people who understand the experience of inequality, it is really exciting to realize that someone in a suit is talking about it. And what I realized as I stood there and got to have those conversations is that I love it too. It’s incredibly satisfying to connect with people and talk about the kinds of things we don’t normally know how to discuss with others — which leads into my next point.

Two: Bernie Sanders is bringing rhetoric that has been reserved for the political ‘fringe’ into mainstream usage.

A lot of the current commentary about socialism might be entirely wrong — and, it’s worth reiterating here: Bernie is no ‘real’ socialist** — but the fact that we’re able to be having something resembling a public discourse around the value of capitalism, issues of class and wealth distribution, and systematic injustice is a huge step. We aren’t going to address the inherent problems of capital by talking about them on social media, but we certainly won’t ever be able to create any change when the majority of working people haven’t even been exposed to any alternatives.

Three: The idea of instantaneous change — the kind that people talk about when they advocate overthrowing capital— is ahistorical.

You hear this idea that we can only make significant and lasting change through revolutionary action a lot, and I’m quite sympathetic to it. I completely agree that capitalism is inherently flawed, and I don’t believe that a system that keeps the means of production in the hands of a small group of people can ever be sufficiently equitable; as long as we have capitalism, the majority of people will continue to be exploited. But here’s the thing: there isn’t any evidence to suggest that such a transformation is possible. I hear people talk about revolution, and I just wonder if they’ve read their Marx. In part eight of Capital, Volume I, Marx details the centuries-long transition to capitalism in England,*** and the mountains of scholarship on the subject allow us to see that transition occur in various places around the world. But when you look for specific moments where things change, dramatic turning points connected to single events, you don’t find much. The theoretical idea of clearly delineated stages of history, where we move from slavery to feudalism to capitalism, is blatantly ahistorical.

That may be disappointing to people, but I find it to be wholly encouraging. When we recognize that people drive change — that some of the most important revolutionaries ever didn’t even recognize that they were participating in revolutionary behavior — it becomes clear that we have the power to actually affect the world in a positive way. Historians might later see that this was a revolutionary step, a moment that pushed us further towards a different future, even if it doesn’t match our expectations for what that process of change would look like. I’ve been told that pushing for reforms is choosing to be complicit in the perpetuation of capital, but personally, I can’t imagine anything the capitalist class would prefer to a bunch of leftists waiting for just the right moment to rise up together.**** And for another related point:

Four: A presidential Bernie Sanders may be able to generate tangible, meaningful improvement in the day-to-day lives of working people.

I spend a lot of my time engaging with theory, but here’s something practical I know for sure: when you are concerned with your basic subsistence, that will always come first. This is why unions are so important; without that support structure in place, strikes could never been successful. As problematic as solutions within government are, they’re comparable to a union. It would certainly be preferable to be able to do it without them, but their existence creates the possibility of change. Without unions/government reform, we can’t see further than our basic needs. With them, the possibility of something else at least becomes reasonable.

Additionally, it’s important that we consider something more basic: people’s lives would get better. If we consider why we want change in the first place — a more equitable world, less exploitation, the improvement of people’s lives—this seems like one of the better options we have. That’s a pretty compelling argument to me.


Notes:

*I guess it’s possible that Bernie could actually be significantly more radical than the democratic socialist policies he advocates, but I feel pretty comfortable assuming that isn’t the case for these purposes.

**We can’t call Bernie a ‘real’ socialist since none of his policies seek to address the fundamental feature of capitalism: capitalist ownership of the means of production. Although it would certainly be preferable if he wanted to return the means of production to the working class, it would have been totally impossible for him to reach this point in his career as a politician if he did. He’s radical in terms of American politics, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about his position on the broader political spectrum.

***Part eight is entitled, “So-Called Primitive Accumulation,” a name that I believe is telling. Marx understood that nothing about the process that David Harvey has since called ‘accumulation by dispossession’ was actually ‘primitive.’ Rather, expropriation is a constant process, with capital perpetually seeking new ways to dispossess, and thus exploit, new sets of people.

****To be clear, this is not an argument for accepting piecemeal reforms as they are offered. If we wait until the ‘right time’ for reforms, they will never come; they can only be taken. But, I believe the idea that reforms cannot be revolutionary is flawed. As (radical and critic of capital) Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Why We Can’t Wait, “The conservatives who say, ‘Let us not move so fast,’ and the extremists who say, ‘Let us go out and whip the world,’ would tell you that they are as far apart as the poles. But there is a striking parallel: They accomplish nothing; for they do not reach the people who have a crying need to be free.”