Not An Alternative*
Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be the Democratic Party’s nominee in the 2016 US presidential election presents the left in the United States with some hard questions. Is this the revolution we’ve been hoping for? Or is it just more of the same, another effort to generate and mobilize enthusiasm that is destined to break our hearts?
Those convinced that the electoral process is a vehicle through which the capitalist class enlists the rest of us in consenting to our own subjection doubt that there is anything different about the Sanders’ campaign. Those focused on internationalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, and worker control of the means of production see no principled reason to support Sanders.
But these aren’t the hard questions. They are cynicism in the guise of radicality – the far left’s version of the cynicism in the guise of practicality that leads many in the center left to stroke their chins as they ponder “electability” and the capacity “to get things done.” In each case, acting as if all we can expect is more of the same contributes to the conditions that produce more of the same.
The hard questions involve how, exactly, the left conceives of political change and what we are willing to do to stop the status quo from reproducing itself. The hard questions involve the relations between principle and practice. The more we uphold left principles, the less likely we are to have the capacity to implement them. Our principles become barriers to their own realization. Conversely, the more we get our hands dirty by engaging in the processes that might bring about significant political change, the less left and less significant these changes are likely to be. We will have had to compromise, water down, rank, and involve ourselves with strange bedfellows. The dilemma of left politics is that we appear stuck between beautiful souls and dirty hands.
Politics involves knots of principle, compromise, tactics, and opportunity. Their push and pull against one another accounts for much of what many dislike about politics: banal rhetoric, betrayals, splits. Finding a candidate or party with which one fully agrees is impossible. Something is always missing, always off.
This is not (only) the fault of the political system. It’s (also) a manifestation of the ways people are internally split, with conflicting, irreconcilable, political commitments and desires. After the tragic capitulation of Syriza to the coercion of the European institutions last summer, for example, a taxi driver in Athens explained with a shrug of his shoulders, “What could they do? We wanted two things and couldn’t have both: eliminating our debt and staying with the euro.” Politics forces us to confront conflicting goals: guns or butter, security or freedom, now or later. The conflicts are within us, between us, and between us and the settings in which we seek to intervene.
The institutions through and in which we might intervene are also split. They are not uniform or self-identical. There is disagreement between members and flanks, between candidates and platform, between aspirations and actions. No institution is a uniform whole. It’s always divided, the site of myriad conflicts and struggles always threatening to tear it apart.
A question for left politics, indeed any politics, is the terrain on which to fight. We have to be in the fight if we want to affect its outcome.
For many of us, the terrain of political struggle is the streets and the squares, the insistent push of protest. Emphasizing the power of political movements, we push to demonstrate the power of the people, to confront those who seek to control, imprison, and coerce us with the force of our number.
In the US, the most recent examples of such movements are Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. Not only did both refuse the status quo but both have changed the conditions of political possibility. Because of the advances of these movements, inequality and incarceration, and the racist capitalist structures that intertwine them, are driving the mainstream political conversation in ways that we haven’t seen in a generation.
How do we extend the force of the movements? How do we make them endure? One way is to occupy institutions that have the capacity to realize movement aims. Party and state institutions can be tools and terrains that we seize in order to push our ends. The party isn’t opposed to the movement. It’s a terrain that the movement can occupy.
With regard to Occupy, we all knew that no one could speak for the movement. We all knew that the movement could not be reduced to one group of people in one park. The power of the movement was its capacity to replicate and extend itself, to be more than any city or practice.
The Sanders’ campaign extends the fight to the terrain of the Democratic Party. Since Bill Clinton’s co-creation and occupation of the Democratic Leadership Council in the eighties, the Democratic Party has shifted ever rightward, jettisoning any commitment to the working class it might once have had, courting the finance sector and other elements of the corporate elite, and adorning itself with just enough cultural politics to placate its base. No wonder most of the left left the party. Like the other institutions of extreme capitalism, the Democratic Party is not for us. But we can treat it as a site of struggle. Black Lives Matter activists have recognized this crucial fact.
Just as Occupy was never about one group, so is the Sanders’ campaign not about him. It’s about changing the conditions of political possibility. The Democrats are terrified of this, which is why they dismantled the rules barring PAC donations to the party.
In his recent essay, “The Sanders’ Campaign and ‘Political Revolution,’” Jeffrey Isaacs observes Sanders’ “peculiar relationship” to the Democratic Party – Sanders is not a member and many of his supporters have very little involvement with the party. The campaign is an open attempt to seize the party apparatus from the interests that control it.
The Sanders’ campaign is forcing a split in the Democratic Party. Sanders is confronting the Democrats’ claim to democracy with the party’s practice as an instrument of oligarchic political control. He is doing this with the language of social democracy, reintroducing socialism into a political setting based on its disavowal.
The political question this poses for the far left is whether we want to join the battle tearing apart the Democratic Party. Instead of treating the party as some kind of authority with the power to co-opt our message, we need to treat it like any street or park and occupy it. The more we engage, the more damage we can do, at every turn demonstrating the gap between people and practice. If we win, that is, if Sanders gets the nomination, we have access to a political apparatus that extends throughout the United States, into every state and community. If we lose, we have gained valuable political experience and created an opportunity for building a new political organization for and of the left.
The left has been alienated from the Democrats yet now their elite is terrified that the left will take it over. We should give them reason to be afraid. When we occupy the party, we continue the movement, pushing the power of the people.
Can “socialism” be part of the mainstream political vocabulary in the US? Can it displace the hegemonic sense of “no new taxes,” “there is no alternative,” and “the era of big government is over”? Is it a term we can fight over and through in the context of a national politics or is it relegated to the sectarian struggle over twentieth century failures? Sanders’ “political revolution” consists in the attempt to change the ideological matrix that has entrapped US politics for over thirty years, a matrix that the Clintons helped to construct.
The only way we can be adequate to our principles is if we are willing to fight for them. This means taking on the battles that present themselves. For now, the battle is over the Democratic Party. Can it be an extension of the movements, a vehicle for dismantling the neoliberal corporate consensus? Isaacs argues that if Clinton ultimately takes the nomination, this is not because the establishment made war on Sanders or elites defeated a “noble man of justice.” It’s just because of the bias toward the status quo built into the system. In other words, it’s not personal; it’s strictly business.” From our perspective, this is what class hegemony looks like: the construction of a status quo that determines the way issues can be considered. Are they considered in terms of the fundamental social and economic inequality that is tearing the country apart or in terms of what’s good for business? If Clinton is the Democratic nominee, it will not be because “public opinion” isn’t ready for socialism. It will be because the capitalist class won this round
The far left should support the Sanders’ campaign not in order to broaden or energize the Democratic Party but because this party, for now, is a site of struggle over the horizon of US politics.
* Not An Alternative is a Brooklyn-based arts, politics, and theory collective with a mission to affect popular understandings of events, symbols, institutions, and history. Through engaged critical research and design, the group curates and produces interventions on material and immaterial space, bringing together tools from art, architecture, exhibition, and political organizing.