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Don’t Mistake the Finger for the Moon: Bernie Sanders and the Movement

Note from the LeftEast editors: Now, in the aftermath of the defeat of the Corbyn-led Labour party in the United Kingdom, the left’s hopes for an electoral path to power using the vehicle of some pre-existing mass, centre-left party have been reduced to just one name: Bernie Sanders. His populist, common-sense account of the problems plaguing American society (and their root cause, capitalism) as well as his proposed solutions have not only legitimized the hitherto tabooed word “socialism” but have also inspired hope among millions of ordinary Americans. Bernie still has a steep hill to climb: he first has to win the Democratic Party nomination to be its presidential candidate, by no means an easy feat given how desperate party elites are not to allow a self-identified democratic socialist to lead them. If he succeeds, he would face Trump and all the corporate interests he now threatens to take down if elected. But even as we should do our utmost to support his candidacy, a fixation with his figure, no matter how appealing it is, will not serve the cause. There is no denying Bernie’s personal role in condensing and expanding the diffuse American left. Yet his “political revolution” would lose its meaning without the movement behind it, a movement that needs to outlast the 2020 campaign and Bernie’s own political life (may he have a long one!). And if there is a lesson to take away from Corbynism, it is not to fully identify the leader with the movement. In the following lines, Seth Brodsky makes that point much more poignantly.

A friend, a wonderful and brilliant person whose politics are not naive and certainly no scandal to me, just said that they “like Sanders a lot but hate the movement,” and it really articulated something for me.

I also like a Sanders a lot. But I don’t take that like sooo seriously, nor consider it the prize and object of my vote, the moon my finger’s pointing at. There are many reasons to dislike him, plenty of bad and reactionary ones, but also some solid concerns on and to the left: he’s a social Democrat, he’s not so far left, and electoral politics is such a pitiless downer. How to overcome a plague of pessimisms about how Sanders will actually be able to govern? An impossible profession, yes, but that impossible? Still, I confess to finding Bernie an irascible dear.

Source: Bernie Sanders-inspired Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Splinter (see KnowYourMeme)

The movement, though. The movement is the moon. It seems impossible, but is actually where possibility is, where a future actually is, in that roil of hopeful and confused tumult where a war of position is confounding older assumptions about partisanship, coalition, and solidarity, and an utterly alienated narrating class is increasingly left with nothing but its husked stories—stories with no actual people, no populace, only language games, writing in air, mere wish and mouth breath. The movement, though, is exactly the other way around: a people, a populace, gradually realizing it is an “it,” trying to formulate a story, to become a story, about its own future, about owning its future. An insurgent universality, not so much grass-roots as unconscious, unthought, overcome by inklings that it is it once it names and thinks itself. It’s really not unlike the drama of individual subjectivity, of a child trying to understand what they are, and propelled, like any young human being, by this wonderful arrogance that it deserves to live, and that living is its own right and good. The idea that a child who is trying to learn how to exist as itself, as its own drive to narration, is something to hate, boggles me.

The idea that someone would hate a movement that went, in the sixth whitest state in the nation, to meatpacking plants staffed overwhelming by people of color and immigrants and spoke to them in Amharic (my amazing University of Chicago colleague Adom Getachew!); and to the Iowa satellite caucuses when no other candidate could bother; and that won the state’s popular vote by creating a coalition of middle- AND lower-class votes, Black AND white votes, multi-generational Iowan families and recent immigrants, and in that state of all states; and that won it in the candidate’s stead while he was stuck in DC for the trial (i.e., the movement, not the man)—boggles me. The idea that someone would hate a movement that is revitalizing—that is creating—young voters all over the country like nothing else in decades, that cares so much about them, driving them to spend months traveling back and forth and talking to new potential voters—boggles me. The idea that someone would hate a movement that is actually calling class politics by its name in a country founded on the institution of slavery and the disavowal of class, and that is still drowning in that history which it endlessly repeats BY endlessly disavowing—boggles me. Really? Because there are some assholes involved? Because this child is obstreperous and immature and sometimes even full of hatred, as if hatred were not entirely human, not a kind of constitutional glitch whose management is one of the great unending tasks of civilization? Social media is a universally acknowledged form of and for regression—at best, we are precocious teenagers, cutting each other when not preening in front of our lockers. But far more often, we’re infant beasts, oral and anal drives that think they rule a world they imagine themselves at the center of. This is not the forum for appraising the maturity of anything, better yet a movement.

I find such hatred of the movement a real admission of where people stand, a vital articulation of position—invaluable for everyone. But that admission is only one thing: an invitation to do more work. Contrary to the ceaseless liberal fantasies of Sanders voters tanking the election through abstention, so many, so so many more, say they will vote for Sanders, even if they hate the movement, if he is the nominee. But the aim really must be to cultivate an enthusiasm, almost in the sense of a hobby, a feeling of instantaneous zeal for something always there, as when you suddenly realize you can go to a movie, or a plant nursery, or for pizza. And, beyond this, we need to cultivate a love—to help ourselves and others recognize and feel the capacity to love the movement. Because the man is gruff, limited, and old, and no matter how dear, doesn’t himself have much of a future in a future that doesn’t yet promise much. He’s not naive, he knows he doesn’t have much time left. He will, at vital moments, disappoint and break hearts. But the movement is quite literally the only one we have. The rest is grim: either a purgatorial punditry, all Beckettian maw in its spotlit gnashing constancy, confiscating the idea of future in a spasm of bad faith because it cannot actually imagine a future; or else the farce-fascist (farscist?) fantasy of fascist antiquity, as a replacement for actual knowledge of history. These two hells are not so different, of course: both are locked in the car trunk of the present, unable to see ahead, unable to think ahead, and unwilling to hallucinate anything other than the intensification of a capitalism that got its start by destroying “other” worlds and now has no world left to destroy except its own, which is the whole world. Under pressure, each can turn only into the other. The movement, though. The movement is preposterous enough to propose a third position. In some ways this third position is the perfect opposite of the old “third way”: it is a return to the new, and the idea that the new might be possible, which on some level is what history has always meant. Behind hatred of the movement is the nursing of a generational humiliation. We know history didn’t end, but knowledge is not belief. The lingering and wounded belief that history ended is what the movement cuts into like a knife. And the hurt surely has something to do with a painful awareness of what could have happened if people hadn’t given up on the possible of the new. To confront this failure and move beyond it is to pass through a well of lost time, back into actual time.

In this actual time, the movement is doing such enormous and good things in addition to offending its haters, making them feel less relevant, or, often enough, turning the tables on the dictatorship of the “real existing” swing voter who no longer really exists. I surround myself, in person and digitally, with so many supporters of this movement who are kind, hopeful, intelligent, incredibly hard-working, and representative of a great variety of demographic categories. I encounter very few assholes among them. I sense this is not my friend’s reality. I would love for them to be able to imagine another, and even imagine it as the norm. Not least because it is not imaginary. It just won Iowa and New Hampshire.

Seth Brodsky teaches music at the University of Chicago, where he also directs the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry