“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” – Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress
Since Bernie Sanders’ win in the Nevada primaries there have been remarkable, yet totally expected spasms within the American ruling class. They are justifiably fearful since they have enjoyed decades of unfettered capitalism in the form of neoliberal economics that have lined their coffers. And they see Sanders as the biggest threat to that amassed wealth. Now, to be clear, the senator from Vermont is not a socialist by any stretch. He has consistently voted in favor of military actions and for sanctions against nations like Nicaragua and Venezuela, and for budgets which increase American imperialism among other things. Things which are antithetical to the basic tenets of socialism. And he defines himself as a democratic socialist more in line with the policies of countries like Norway or Sweden. But besides Eugene V. Debs, Sanders ideologies are the closest to socialism any presidential candidate has ever come in the US, at least from either dominant political party.
Sanders ascendancy in the polls has caused some rather odd meltdowns among the American elite. Chris Matthews, the gaseous, bloviating talk show host, compared Sanders win to the Nazi invasion of France. Aside from the sheer odiousness of this and that the comparison callously ignores the fact that Sanders is Jewish and lost a significant portion of his family to the Holocaust, it is an incredibly over the top thing to say. But other talking heads have made similar comparisons. Chuck Todd, for instance, likened Sanders supporters to Brown Shirts. Indeed, this phenomenon exposes the true inclinations of the corporate media and the panic they feel over having to cover a candidate who stands very much apart from the rest of them. The imagery they are evoking is clearly meant to stoke fear. It is the imagery of terror and war.
After being ignored by the press since well before the current primaries began, Sanders successes can no longer be pushed aside. It is a breath of fresh air to see some coverage of a politician with an impressive career, rather than meaningless puff pieces about the socks Pete Buttigieg prefers or ‘gotcha’ clickbait like Joe Biden’s latest inappropriate grope. But we shouldn’t expect too much more from the mainstream press. For decades, the corporate media has acted to reinforce the status quo. They are in the business of manufacturing images, feelings and spectacle, not substance. And this goes beyond the news. American pop culture is drenched in a mythology about how great America is. Here, every injustice or atrocity, no matter how horrific or ongoing, becomes a footnote to its supposed inclusivity, innovation, ideals and aspirations.
Movies and television are inundated in themes that glorify the rich. The working poor are rarely represented, and when they are it is generally done in a supremely unrealistic fashion. These characters are usually struggling to make ends meet, but quick to praise the “American way of life.” Seldom, if ever, are subjects of class even approached. In addition to this, egregious and anti-democratic institutions like the CIA, DHS, and the Department of Defense are endlessly lauded. Shows where secret or special agents are the protagonist are nothing new in American pop culture, but in an era where information is readily available it is quite remarkable that these tropes can survive, much less thrive. These characters may have some endearing or troublesome personal flaws, but in the end their mission and core values are presented as unassailable. They will fight to the death to preserve the “American way of life.” It is never questioned why the supposed threat to this way of life seems to lie most frequently in the Middle East, or in Cuba, or North Korea, or Venezuela. They protect American “freedom” which seems to always reside in oil rich, ‘socialist’ countries elsewhere. But otherizing and externalizing is classic American style distraction. The real threat to ordinary Americans can never be discussed because, of course, that threat is the ruling class establishment itself. But it begs the question, what is the American way of life?
There is no other country on the planet where a billionaire with a detestable personality and a past littered with racism, misogyny and disdain for the poor, could seamlessly buy himself into a prominent spot in the election cycle. Not one. But this is rarely, if ever, questioned in the mainstream. Michael Bloomberg, who ran New York City in a manner the likes of Chile’s Pinochet would have been proud of, was able to sweep into the national spotlight with little to no objection in the media. And this is because the wealth class in the US is still lauded for their supposed “success.” The myth is rather simple and banal: the poor are poor because they simply do not work hard enough, or they are getting hand outs that make them lazy. The reality, of course, is that more and more Americans are working two to three low wage jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, using payday loans to pay for groceries, living in their cars or vans, and are perpetually terrified of getting sick because they understand all too well that getting sick in America can turn you into a life time debtor, just kill you, or both.
But the American ruling class live in a bubble unto themselves. Take the case of celebrity “judge” Judy Sheindlin who has been stumping for billionaire Bloomberg. Her disdain for Sanders and those who support him is quite palpable in this quote: “America doesn’t need a revolution… It’s the most perfect country in the world and those people that are trying to change it and revolutionize it, don’t have a chance, because I’ll fight them to the death.” The “judge,” who no longer is a judge but plays one on television, is emblematic of this bubble. She has made a career out of denigrating the poor. In fact, her program would not have been a success without a large pool of them in America. The rich don’t go to small claims court. The rich don’t care about paltry sums like $200 or even $1000. The poor do. And they get paid a small amount to appear on her kangaroo court stage set and humiliate themselves for the pleasure of their peers and those who might be better off at the moment. Sheindlin’s net worth is $420 million. She has several mansions and a private jet; so it stands to reason why she would think the US is “the most perfect country in the world” or why she would fight to the death to save that kind of ostentatious privilege and obscene wealth. Bloomberg is, understandably, her last best hope. But I have a feeling she would be just as comfortable with another four years of his golfing buddy Donald Trump, since under his regime her wealth and privilege would be just as preserved.
As Bernie Sanders campaign gains momentum so too will the smears and slander against him. Establishment centrist and moderate Democrats, a term which in and of itself is laughable since the needle on this spectrum has been pushed drastically to the right, perhaps loathe the senator even more than the far right itself. Capitalism, after all, has been quite good to them. Hiding away in ‘wine caves’ for the past several decades, attending high priced galas and rubbing elbows with the uber wealthy and jet set has numbed them to the crushing reality of the majority of the world. To them the working poor are maids that clean their condos when they are off at a DNC fundraising luncheon or the guys that park their BMWs when they go to an exclusive club. And while they might employ the well-timed virtue signal or post a meme to indicate that they care about economic injustice, they generally see the poor as a “basket of deplorables.” The kind that get ridiculed and denigrated by Judge Judy in her fake tv courtroom. Unfit to lead or even vote for that matter. Best kept in the shadows, invisible except to be occasionally trotted out on stage behind one of their Wall Street endorsed candidates carrying a sign, and especially if they happen to be wearing a hijab, or are a member of the LGBTQ community, or are a person of color.
From its inception, the United States has been a nation founded upon inequality, racism and oppression. The land was seized violently from its original inhabitants who were then systematically ethnically cleansed from it. African slaves and indentured servants from Ireland, China and beyond built its plantations, dug its mines and built its railroads. Wealthy, white, male land and slave owners, unsatisfied with an allegiance to a monarch an ocean away, were the only ones permitted to vote for their chosen oligarch. And they never intended for this arrangement to be altered. Their “revolution” was not one for democracy, but one to retain wealth for their own class. Every single gain that ordinary people made in the US was due to a struggle against this ruling class, a struggle that often led to their deaths. Today, that struggle continues but thanks to the behemoth corporate surveillance/police state and a media that acts as a mouthpiece for that same class, it has become hobbled, muted and crushed. The poor have been encouraged to identify not with each other, but with a system that largely views them as subhuman or simply doesn’t see them at all.
Sanders popularity signifies a small cry against the ongoing assault against working people. An assault that began before the nation’s founding and that has been sustained ever since. To be sure, the ruling class, whose power has become ensconced in every single institution from the Supreme Court on down, will stop at nothing to silence this lamentation. If distraction does not work, chicanery might. And if all else fails they will rely on state violence to guard their vaults. One look at France at the moment and we can get a glimpse of how far they will go to protect their “interests.” They may not personally fight to the death to hold on to their status, but we would be fools to think that they wouldn’t bat an eye killing any one of us, or even the biosphere on which we all rely, to keep it.
Kenn Orphan, February 2020