Eight Lessons From Bernie Sanders’s New Book
It’s an exciting and frustrating time to be a socialist in the United States of America. On the one hand, the two presidential bids launched by Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 helped precipitate a resurgence of anti-capitalist political organization and labor militancy, with organizations like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Starbucks Workers United racking up electoral and unionization wins across the nation. On the other hand, economic inequality still plagues us, and there’s no sign of meaningful change coming from Congress anytime soon.
Sanders, who now serves as the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has a new book out this week that wants to assure you that you’re right to be angry.
It’s OK To Be Angry About Capitalism covers everything from the limitations of the Senate when it comes to passing legislation like Build Back Better, to the intense struggle for a Medicare for All system that enshrines health as a right to all, to the challenges of the future like automation and mobilizing a working-class coalition for change. Here are eight highlights from the book that drive home the challenges of the day and what Bernie Sanders thinks we ought to do about them.
1. The Capitalist Economic System Is the Problem
Here is the simple, straightforward reality: The uber-capitalist economic system that has taken hold in the United States in recent years, propelled by uncontrollable greed and contempt for human decency, is not merely unjust. It is grossly immoral.
Right from the get-go, Bernie rejects the phrase “the older you get, the more conservative you become” as an outright falsehood. In fact, for Sanders, it’s very much the opposite. As time goes on, the capitalist system only makes Bernie angrier. A consistent theme throughout the 2016 and 2020 campaigns was that the very system we live under is an abjectly immoral one.
It may seem like something we’ve heard before, but it ought to be repeated, since it grounds our argument for a better future in a normative objection to the inequality and hierarchies of capitalism.
2. Demand More, Demand the World
I don’t tell people to be satisfied with what they get — or to accept that some things will never be gotten. I tell people to demand more.
While campaigning for the Democratic nomination in the state of Wisconsin in 2016, Clinton derided Sanders’s political agenda as “pie in the sky stuff” in an attempt to portray herself as the sensible candidate. Evidently, the Democratic voters of Wisconsin did not find pie in the sky to be all that bad. Sanders writes in his new book that he doesn’t think it his responsibility to tell the working class what it can and cannot achieve, but instead that it’s his, and a much broader movement’s, responsibility to push for more and more, for “upending uber-capitalism” as he puts it.
3. The Problem of Inequality Is Systematic
The fight against American oligarchy — and the plutocratic arrangements that foster it — has nothing to do with personalities. Inequality isn’t about individuals; this is a systemic crisis.
There is an ongoing class war in the United States, and the billionaire class is unquestionably on the offensive. In Sanders’s view, it’s important not to get bogged down in the individual quirks and idiosyncrasies of men like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, but rather to stay focused on the very system that allows them to accumulate their wealth in the first place. It is a system that exploits the worker, it’s a system that erodes democracy, and it’s a system that, as Bernie argues, goes against values of human decency.
4. Medicare for All Is a Central Demand of Our Time
Too often, Americans lack the sense of safety and belonging that people enjoy in countries with a robust health care system that, in every case, is based around a universal health care program. No wonder so many of us succumb to diseases of despair.
The cornerstone plank of both the 2016 and 2020 presidential bids launched by Bernie was Medicare for All, so it’s no surprise that he dedicates an entire chapter to assailing the disaster that is American health care. Not only do we as a country spend more for less per capita on health care, we are also witnessing a marked decrease in life expectancy. Sanders even goes on to say that, because of these conditions, Medicare for All might be the most integral part of a political revolution in the United States. In a very literal sense, the fight for Medicare for All is a fight not just for decency in one of the richest countries in the world, but a fight for our very lives.
5. You’re Either on the Side of Workers or You’re on the Side of Their Bosses
Which side are you on? These days, corporations like Starbucks and Amazon don’t hire gun-toting thugs. Instead they hire anti-union consultants and pollsters and politically connected lobbyists — many of them Democrats — to thwart union organizing. But the fundamental premise remains: you’re either on the side of workers and organized labor, or you’re not.
Invoking the famous labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” written by Florence Reece of Tennessee, Bernie draws a clear line in the sand on the issue of labor. Either one is with the working class, or they’re against the working class. Sanders hits this note repeatedly throughout the book, that there is a class war ongoing in this country, and in the sixth chapter he does not flinch from how this applies to our struggle today. To be clear-sighted is to acknowledge what Amazon, Starbucks, and a plethora of politicians from across the two-party system are trying to do, which is keep the workers down.
6. New Technology Won’t Solve the Old Problems of Ownership and Control
The machinery may have changed, but the imbalance between economic elites and the working class has not. Nor has the injustice that extends from that imbalance.
In a chapter largely focused on the future of the economy as it pertains to technology, Bernie centers an important question that doesn’t get asked very often. When it comes to how automation might occur, or how artificial intelligence affects certain jobs, who actually gets to decide how this develops? Do workers have a say? Will workers still have dignity? Who should actually be in charge of industries and the broader economy?
These are questions that Eugene V. Debs asked one hundred years ago, and while we’ve certainly evolved technologically since then, the questions are yet to be answered.
7. A Democratic Society Demands Equal Education for All
Historically, progressives were at the forefront of education debates, battling to establish free public education, to open schools to all students, to build great schools in urban and rural areas, and to fully fund them. There was a forward motion to our activism.
In a chapter on education, Sanders takes a look at the advances we’ve made since the modern era began. We’ve achieved public education for children up to roughly eighteen years of age, but is that education working? Are our teachers treated fairly? What about those who want to go to college? For those who want to advance the struggle for a prosperous and democratic society, we must return to our roots and seek not only to reform but also to expand education and access to it.
8. There Is No Middle Ground in the Struggles to Come
There is not a middle ground between the insatiable greed of uber-capitalism and a fair deal for the working class. There is not a middle ground as to whether or not we save the planet. There is not a middle ground about whether or not we preserve our democracy and remain a society based on equal protection for all.
Toward the end of the book, Bernie threads the needle on all the aforementioned issues and much more by making the case in as certain terms as possible: there is no middle ground between the dignity of the working class and the wants of the capitalist class, and there is in fact no middle ground between democracy and extreme inequality.
Sanders not only wants people already engaged in politics to move toward his program, but he wants millions of people to organize wherever they are: in their neighborhoods, in their workplaces, and on the electoral and educational planes as well.
A Legacy That Will Continue
Regardless of whatever Bernie Sanders might choose to do in 2024, whether that be retire, run for reelection, or launch a third bid for the presidency, he wants you to not only be angry, but energized to do more. Ever since he won his mayoral bid in Burlington in 1979 as an open socialist against the entrenched political establishment of both parties, Bernie has stressed the centrality of mass movements to political change.
This centrality of the working class to his theory of change is what inspired the phrase “Not Me, Us” and it’s still what fuels him close to half a century later. So yes, it is okay to be angry about capitalism, and it’s even better to do something about it.
Yaseen Al-Sheikh is a writer, activist, and a student at the University of Texas at Tyler.
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