What would you do if Senator Bernie Sanders had died? What could you do–what would be your options, pathways to express your concerns and promote governmental actions you deem necessary? The recent heart surgery undergone by Senator Sanders–though relatively minor, by the standard of such things–brings into bright focus questions of mortality, the limitations of representative government, and the perennial problem of our money-drenched electoral process. There are some general, basic questions to consider as well as a number of specific, contemporary issues to address. Let’s begin with the more basic, general considerations as we reflect on this matter.
The problem with leaders is twofold: first, they are only individuals who are limited in their capacity for activity as is true for any individual–and secondly, leaders are mortal. These simple observations speak directly to the problem with investing one’s hopes, values, dreams, and fate in a leader and in a system that only offers and depends on a leadership model of resolving human problems. The more reliant we are upon any one person to do for us what we most urgently need to see come about, the greater the burden upon the leader and the more we are placed in a relationship role of passivity, once the leader has assumed a position of power. This is true whether we’re thinking of Czars, Caesars, kings, or queens, or those who fill offices via electoral methods. Hope is invested in the person who holds effective power, and those whose hopes are tied to her/him, are largely reduced to the role of cheerleaders/jeerleaders, depending on their disposition. This is the basic situation–and the core problem.
The New Left and more recently Occupy, attempted to address the issue of mass passivity and disempowerment by applying “direct democracy.” The problems cited in the opening sentence of this article do not go away when this approach is adopted, because any deliberative body is still limited in its capacities–and its own “mortality” is expressed as the limitations of time and energy most people can give to it, within the totality of their lives’ demands and interests. Still, efforts to create and do democracy as collaborative relation with others, has value–lessons are learned and connections made that otherwise would not occur, or would only be abstractions. Two books useful in providing real-life, anecdotal illustrations of direct democracy in a number of different national locales are They Can’t Represent Us! and Wobblies and Zapatistas. I won’t try to summarize the many methods adopted by people struggling to exert power outside the leader/follower frame, but encourage consideration of these two books as useful reference. One other volume, of a more theoretical nature, is Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s work, Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, originally issued shortly after the events of the student-led strike in France in 1968.
Our Situation Today
The poignancy of Senator Sanders’s (apparently transient) medical problem is that more than the usual degree of hope has been invested in the prospects of his candidacy and ultimate election to the White House. If he had died, his supporters would do what? Presumably, most of them would have to settle on “second best,” whoever that might be. Again, defining potential prospects strictly within the parameters of the quadrennial election process would ensure that the only thing altered would be the degree of hope felt by those who had identified with the Sanders campaign. The only action open to the millions who had favored him and his policies, would be to lend their money and ultimately their vote, to installing someone else. That would be the entirety of the matter.
What this brings home to us is something that Sanders has himself pointed out: we need a political revolution. Let’s take a moment to shed the slogan aspect of these words, and consider their content. If ‘revolution’ and ‘revolutionary’ are taken at their face value, they indicate a fundamental departure from precedents. We should ask ourselves what that means, what that might require from us–and what prospects might be opened to us. I suggest that it is specifically and especially the restriction of citizen activity to the traditional electoral process, that needs to be overthrown. Americans have been notoriously subservient, if not complacent, in their acceptance of 1% rule. By contrast, across the world we see mass, sustained actions aimed at forestalling attacks upon the lives and living standards of the 99%, plus the now-emergent and crucially necessary climate-salvation movement. There are encouraging trends in the form of our own participation in this last, plus its forerunner, the women’s marches. What we don’t see, is organizing and action that reaches beyond the spectacle–something to be seen, then disappear.
What needs to happen is that Americans, resident irrespective of whatever legal category might apply, must organize themselves for direct action. This includes networking for mutual assistance when activism brings establishment retaliation. We must think in terms both of survival and of victories that must be won. What has been lacking up to know are mass activities of people both within and outside the workplace, directly coupled with union strikes, slowdowns, and boycotts. Either one of itself would be insufficient; at the extremity of 1% rule is the fist that would smash either the power of unions much-diminished by decades of sellouts by Democratic Party labor “leaders,” or civic activists unaccustomed to the nitty gritty of winning actions in the face of corporate violence. It is impossible to think we can achieve anything of significance by just “showing up and milling around” á la the least effective actions of Occupy. Those who rule us do not care for our fate nor do they care about our opinions–they only care about effects on their power and wealth. Accordingly, targets should always be calibrated accordingly to cause maximum disruption, delay, and defeat of “business as usual.”
It is this that needs to be created and put in place, to support and if need be oppose the traditional power that is pushing us to environmental extinction. A Sanders presidency would be a great help, but even then, we can be sure the two parties will drag and evade, dilute and defeat, any policies distasteful to their 1% base. Only a powerful, organized, culture of mass action can support the efforts of those who have at least a modicum of sanity and humanity left in them…those who do not entertain notions of living in an imaginary world where climate change is not really occurring, or worse, those who simply figure they are old and rich, so the hell with everyone else.