Bernie Sanders: ‘Real fundamental change never comes easily’
Political firebrand Bernie Sanders talks about the rich, the powerful and the exploited with author, rapper and social commentator Darren McGarvey
by: Darren McGarvey
21 Feb 2023
The choice is organise or be exploited, says Bernie Sanders. Image: The Big Issue
Bernie Sanders believes the capitalist game is up. In his new and rather furious book, It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism, he argues that until working-class people get organised in the face of corporate tyranny, they’ll exist for the sole purpose of exploitation by the rich and powerful.
The Vermont senator believes capitalism is eating itself and consuming democracy in the process. It’s a conviction Sanders holds deeply and couldn’t conceal beneath comforting centrist-dad platitudes, even if he wanted to.
“People remember the gilded ages where the rich were very rich and children were working in factories,” booms Sanders down the line, in that unmistakable Brooklynite baritone. “The fact is,” he assures me, “we have more income and wealth inequality than we did then.”
According to the World Economic Forum, since the onset of the pandemic, geopolitical turbulence and the resulting economic fallout, the richest one per cent have hoovered up nearly twice as much of the newly generated wealth as the other 99 per cent of humanity.
Unshackled by the constraints of a presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders is spoiling for a showdown with a US oligarchy that would sooner see a capitalist sociopath like Donald Trump back in the White House than a mentally sound socialist of his own variety anywhere near it.
“In the United States we have a political system which is corrupt,” Sanders explains, “dominated by billionaires who can spend unlimited amounts of money trying to elect the candidates they’d like, and a media of which 90 per cent of what the American people see and hear, and read, is owned by eight large media conglomerates.”
Residing on the British side of the Atlantic – where the only thing standing between us and the jaws of corporate tyranny is Carol Vorderman – this distinctly American nightmare sounds eerily familiar, but we’ll get to that later.
After two respectable presidential bids in 2016 and 2020, you get the impression the good people of Vermont – who Sanders has served in various capacities since 1981 – wouldn’t begrudge him a few more daytime naps. But for Sanders, the enemy never sleeps, so why should he? In his mind, the situation is clear. He says: “We have three people in America owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society.
“We have to deal with the fact that we are seeing an unprecedented concentration of ownership.”
Ownership is what capitalism is all about though. It’s from the seemingly inalienable right to acquire anything we want (if we can stump up the cash and someone is willing to sell) that capitalists believe all other human liberty springs. In principle, the right to property seems fairly harmless; in practice, it means a millionaire’s right to own multiple homes and leave them empty trumps the rights of homeless people to roofs over their heads.
When the rights of the rich to get richer come to supersede the rights of the poor to make ends meet, democracy naturally rigs itself in favour of the wealthy. But Bernie Sanders is keen to remind those currently numbed to the swindle that low pay is just the tip of the iceberg where corporate greed is concerned. He says: “I mean you got the tobacco industry, killed millions, knowingly, they knew what they were doing. You got drugs companies, in this country, literally denying life-saving drugs to people.”
The Capitol Hill riots of 2021 rightly shocked the world. But truth be told, Washington DC was overrun long ago by an insurgency of special interests invited through the front door by politicians. Sanders believes the solution lies in the American working class getting off its knees and wresting control from the puppeteers pulling the strings of government.
“We need sweeping changes in which democracy goes into the workplace where people have power over what they produce and how they produce it,” he says. “Where we get rid of big money in politics, so ordinary people can elect the leaders who are responding to their needs.”
Many like Sanders, who’ve been arguing for a more fundamental economic transition for decades, seemed hopeful for a time that the devastation caused by Covid would be a sufficient pretext for a ‘new deal’-style settlement. But despite the vast assistance made available by western governments during the crisis, more profound reform addressing the root-drivers of inequality failed to materialise. If we couldn’t rewire the system post-Covid, what chance does Sanders think there is now?
“Well, I think, real fundamental change never comes easily. And it’s going to require the building of a very, very strong grassroots movement. What encourages me is that, in the United States, a lot more people are prepared to think big and talk about structural changes to the system than was the case just a few years ago. What I’m also encouraged about is that, while there are deep political divisions within the United States – and everybody knows that – there are many economic issues that conservatives and progressives actually agree upon.”
Bernie Sanders is a rare political creature. One who enjoys an unusual level of popularity while being precisely what the average American today is inclined to passionately dislike – a politician. He’s practically part of the furniture in Washington DC, successfully trading on his outsider status despite counting President Joe Biden as a longtime friend.
Given Biden’s more moderate tendencies, which arguably fall short of facing down the real power in the States – the super-rich – how does Sanders reconcile his own radicalism with his powerful pal’s centrist instincts?
“I’ve known Joe Biden for many, many years. Uh, and, you know, my views, my political views are very, very different from Biden’s and everybody understands that. What I respect about Biden is when he came in, what he was willing to do, which no president in modern history has been prepared to do, was to take a real look at the problems facing this country. And, as a result of that, we passed what we call The American Rescue Plan, which was a $1.9 trillion piece of legislation which I think went a long way to getting us out of the economic crisis caused by Covid.”
He’s perhaps overstating his friend’s achievements, but a man of Sanders’ age can be forgiven for picking his battles. Despite being older than some of the trees on Capitol Hill, at 81 Sanders remains sharper and vastly more informed on the forces shaping working people’s lives than a great many preening, careerist hacks currently being air-dropped in behind him.
Being quick on the draw in the US also helps when you’re as radical as a mainstream presidential prospect is permitted to be without being gunned down in broad daylight. While there’s far less chance of being shot at this side of the water, here in the UK a fragile body politic remains prey to the same corrosive forces which, in Sanders’ view, bedevil democracy stateside.
Once salient grievances that could bring down governments in the past seem quaint in today’s capitalist clusterfuck of a context. Like many worrying trends in 21st-century Britain, we partly have our greatest colonial tearaway to thank for it.
He says, “In America, and around the world, there are a lot of people who are giving up on democracy. Because democracy, the current democratic structures, are not providing for them. In America, tens of millions of people can’t afford healthcare; they can’t afford childcare; they can’t afford to send their kids to college and they’re looking around and saying, you know, this government, this style of government, the structure of this government hasn’t done anything for me. It doesn’t work for me.”
When people grow tired of cookie-cutter politicians reading off a script as the country falls down around them, a straight-shooter who speaks their mind becomes transfixing. Mass anger in the face of a system many feel is rotten to the core is why radical voices like Sanders gain traction – and why utter bellends like Donald Trump (or Nigel Farage for that matter) begin to appear vaguely plausible. Every populist explosion begins with a tiny spark of truth.
The Trumpian assertion that Washington DC was a swamp needing drained was not entirely baseless. Sanders knows it. “What Trump and his extreme right-wing allies have done is picked up on that,” he says. “So, I think that, when we talk about the economic needs of working people it’s not just improving their quality of life and creating a more just society. It is also fighting to preserve democracy. Because people are not gonna want to participate in a system that does not work for them, that they understand is rigged.”
Sanders may as well be talking about the UK, where similar trends are reaching their logical conclusions in myriad scandals at the top of politics, while the right-wing press assures us the real problem is sociology students who want to cancel everything. The threat of so-called ‘identity politics’ is often overstated for political effect, with the anti-woke agenda acting mainly as the right’s new go-to folk-devil. That said, the fight for ethnic minorities, LGBT+ people and other marginalised groups doesn’t always sit comfortably alongside traditional left-wing class politics either.
Today, the claim that social class remains the defining factor shaping outcomes in education, health, employment and earnings may invite a charge of ‘class reductionism’ from the left’s identity focused flank. This is the idea that class politics, with its focus on material conditions, often excludes the experiences of minorities because it is unconsciously centred around white working people’s interests and grievances.
It’s a valid if politically inconvenient criticism that must be handled delicately. Bernie Sanders, a lifelong anti-racist and equality campaigner, is sensitive to such concern but isn’t shy to assert that economic justice and equality for minorities are, in his view, one and the same.
He says: “At the end of the day, if we’re going to create the kind of just society which deals with economic inequalities, we have got to deal with class. But when we deal with class, when we talk about the need of healthcare as a human right, when we talk about the need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, when we talk about the need to grow the trade union movement, when we talk about making public colleges and universities – to wish them free, in every instance – the major beneficiaries of those changes will be minority communities.”
While fewer white toffs at the top is good news for any democracy, if ethnic diversity was all that mattered, the UK would be one of the best countries in the world. The UK government’s frontbench under Boris Johnson was the most ethnically diverse ever, but also set new records for fuckery. Johnson’s gone for now, but the daily pantomime continues, starring a highly networked, ethnically diverse hive of privately educated, ministerial code-breaking bullshitters, bullies and tax avoiders.
The dearth of accountability and overabundance of hypocrisy at the heart of the UK government is, it would seem, the only thing the ‘woke brigade’ can’t cancel. Sanders thinks conservatism, generally, has lost its way – a belief shared by moderate Republicans he feels he can still do business with.
He states: “Conservatism, generally speaking historically, has been about smaller government; more free enterprise; less regulation. That is what the Republican Party used to be about before it was captured by Trumpism. And I think there always can be a good debate about how much money we spend on this or that programme, and different ways to go forward. But historically, conservatism has understood that democracy and the rule of law is what the United States is about. And so that is very different from where Trump and his allies are coming from. They do not believe in democracy; they do not believe in the rule of law. We’ve got to combat that mentality very surely.”
Bernie Sanders understands that democracy is about more than voting every few years. The right to organise, to withdraw your labour and to protest are cornerstones of any healthy democratic system. Any democrat on this side of the water will rightly be alarmed by the UK government’s recent anti-union legislation which brings Britain closer to Putin’s Russia where industrial relations are concerned. Like the unions in the UK, fighting not only for the people they represent but a fairer society for all, Sanders has his work cut out for him.
Sanders’ fame is such that in the twilight of his life it would be fairly easy to cash in and leave the world’s problems for some other generation to sort out. Unlike many of his peers, however, the veteran politician seems driven by a force greater than himself. “It’s not easy, but we got to keep our eyes on the prize,” he concludes. “Gotta know where we want to go if we’re gonna ever get there.”
While It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism isn’t as sentimental as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, nor as onerously comprehensive as Marx’s Das Kapital, Bernie Sanders’ 320-page pamphlet is a damn sight more readable. It won’t trigger a revolution, but may just contain the populist spark that one day triggers an explosion of economic common sense.
Urgent action is needed to prevent even more people being pushed into homelessness. A secure home is the first step in addressing the cruel cycle of poverty to ensure people can fulfil their potential. Join us to keep people in their homes.