Bernie Sanders: Preaching the Gospel of Class Struggle

Josh Lopez/Flickr

By Dustin Guastella 

Recently, when I was coming home from work, I overheard a conversation on the bus. Usually these two guys talk sports – the Phillies did this, the Eagles that – but today they got into politics. They were talking about how a local Democratic representative, the Honorable Chaka Fattah, while in the midst of a huge corruption scandal, managed to get re-elected.

Both were frustrated, “but that’s what they do, that’s the name of the game,” one sighed. Anti-politician rhetoric is normal but the conversation took an interesting turn:

“You know, I learned a new word recently.”

“What’s that?”

“Plutocracy, government by the rich. You see, we don’t live in a democracy anymore, we live in a plutocracy.”

“You know … you’re right. I think you’re right.” 

At this point I jumped in, and we talked about how to change our political system. We settled on the idea that pols’ salaries should be tied to the median wage in their district or even nationwide.

At first I thought there was nothing remarkable about two Philadelphians coming to the conclusion that we live in a plutocracy. There are more than enough statistics to back up the claim and the day-to-day experience of living in this city – where we intend to give Comcast another bundle of tax breaks and grants to build a new and uglier tower adjacent to the first, all while our school district suffocates from a lack of funding – would make anyone question whether “democracy” was an accurate descriptor.

But isn’t it just as likely that they wouldn’t come to that conclusion? Why did my co-commuter suddenly click into a systemic critique instead of simply pointing out that politicians are corrupt and so goes the world? There might be something valuable in his preface that gives us a hint. Plutocracy was a new word to him. And indeed, it was much more than that; it was a new concept, a new theoretical apparatus. I have no idea where he learned it but I am glad he did.

Leftists have been busy exposing corporate and political malfeasance for years. We have set ourselves to the special task of airing the dirty laundry of the ruling class on a regular basis. And yet a thousand articles about the horrible working conditions in West Virginia mines, or Amazon’s mega-warehouses in Arizona, or the fast-food joint up the street have little impact without a convincing conceptual framework that helps tie it all together. A theoretical apparatus, if skillfully and eloquently deployed, can convert a conservative into a leftist in moments. “Plutocracy” resonated with my fellow traveler and I suspect it will resonate with millions more. After all, most people are aware that the world is a cruel and unfair place, but without a narrative – and sometimes even a single word – that explains why the world is cruel and unfair, we are left feeling hopeless and probably confused.

Employing such a narrative has been – and should continue to be – a key part of Bernie’s success thus far. Bernie preaches the gospel of class struggle and uses words like oligarchy and plutocracy to describe the current state of affairs for just this reason. These words are radicalizing. Using a consistent and powerful conceptual narrative is one of the strongest assets Bernie has, and doing so has the potential not simply to win votes but to impart a new way of thinking about and understanding politics and society. Socialists should not be in the business of selling empty slogans, well-massaged talking points, impressive info graphics or “political brands”; instead, we should be arming people with a way to understand the world.

Presented with the concept of class struggle in a speech, listeners are forced to question several unspoken assumptions about American society. For one, the concept relies on the premise that we indeed have classes here in the US. This alone is a huge achievement and it puts miles of political space between Bernie and Clinton. But even more important is the observation that these classes are not voluntary associations, or cultural groups that cooperate in a seamless way to make society work. They are essentially antagonistic and are fundamentally at war.

A few years back, when Occupy was still fresh in the minds of the ruling elite, there were several hysterical (in the double sense of the word) accounts of wealthy people sounding off about class warfare and how anti-American those violent anarchists were for “introducing” such a vile ideology into the pure mind of the American worker. Some even claimed that they felt we were approaching a sort of Kristallnacht for the rich. The ruling class isn’t stupid; they know when something is genuinely dangerous, and their hysteria was somewhat justified. They can manage individual scandals involving one or a few corporations and elite personalities – the BP oil spill, hundreds of fracking accidents, even the collapse of Wall Street can be blamed on a few irresponsible banks – but when challenged as a class they get nervous. And they should be very scared of Sanderistas.

If we socialists are going to succeed in transforming millions of citizens into soldiers for the class struggle, we need a tribune capable of offering a conceptual narrative to all those willing to listen. In other words, Bernie needs to be a candidate who isn’t afraid of theory and deploying it skillfully. If he learns one thing from his hero Eugene Debs it should be how to take socialist concepts and translate them into powerful speeches. Bernie has spoken a lot lately about how we need to focus on the issues and on policies and not on the candidates’ personalities. He has called for early and frequent debates with Clinton and other Democratic contenders (but mostly Clinton); presumably he would shine in such a format. This is a smart strategy and should be applauded, although it is only one side of the rhetorical battle. Bernie must also develop his famously consistent speech into a war cry, emphatically affirming class struggle (and all social struggle) as the real goal of politics. All the political strategists who tell him otherwise be damned.

In today’s political discourse there is a lot of noise about “ideology” and how detrimental it is to our political process. Centrists would like to see “unbiased assessments” of policy and not let “dogma” or “partisanship” get in the way of supposedly “rational” politics. This has been the foundation of Obama’s attacks on the principled reactionaries of the Tea Party movement. But politics cannot be anything but ideological. The right knows this and has exploited it with aplomb. In the late 1970’s, conservatives embarked on a brilliant campaign to demonize “big government.” Today, their disciples can easily suggest a political fix for every major social problem without ever bogging themselves down with the complexities or details of the issue at hand. The rightwing re-education initiative did not rely on showing voters every example of government overreach, nor did they have to explain their complicated privatization schemes. Instead, they deployed an ideological weapon that played on existing anxieties about the state and offered a convincing narrative. Bernie has the potential to do the same for the left. If he is able to elucidate why capitalism and the “billionaire class” – not just corporations, or the Republicans, or money in politics – are responsible for so many of our social ills, he could win voters not just for this campaign cycle but for life.

Finally, I have to admit that I am disappointed that Bernie has shied away from using the phrase “working class” as much as he used to. Today he favors phrases like “working people” and “middle class.” This may seem like a small rhetorical tweak but it has consequences. For one, it introduces some logical inconsistencies in his speeches. Bernie seems to hold a contradictory view about the middle class: it is both disappearing and ubiquitous. Such logic is not the product of thinking but rather of mainstream political strategists who have told us for years that “middle class” is an easier sell. This is a mistake, not just factually but politically. The phrase “working class” is in itself a radicalizing force in the US because it suggests that there exists another class that in fact does not work and merely exploits the work of others. Bernie, for his own part, is famous for calling out the policies that destroyed the fabled middle class in this country. He would do well to explain to voters that if that analysis is indeed correct they are probably positioned on the opposite side of the ruling elite and do not occupy some amorphous conciliatory middle ground.

Nevertheless, Bernie’s open acknowledgement of class-conflict is a marked and refreshing departure from the centrist ‘opportunity’-hucksters in the Democratic Party. And while Bernie’s positions will force other candidates to take a firm stand on this or that issue it’s his narrative that has the potential to radically change how we talk about politics. Bernie’s speeches can arm voters with the ability to push candidates further, to actually demand “which side are you on?” and to think critically about the political and economic order in the United States. Viewed in this light plutocracy, oligarchy and class struggle – as well as patriarchy, and white supremacy – are not just empty phrases or rhetorical flourishes, they are ideological weapons. Democratic socialists and Bernie himself should use them as much as we can in order to equip people with a new way of interpreting the world and, crucially, with a strategy for how to change it.

  Dustin Guastella is co-chair of Philadelphia DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.