The Bernie Sanders Factor

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By Antonio Martins*

If Sanders' advance continues, as seems likely, dormant left parties will have to seriously examine ideas they now see as unrealistic or chimerical.

Part of the Brazilian left attributed its own weakness, in the fight against Bolsonarism, to a global phenomenon. We would be witnessing, all over the world, the advance of an irresistible conservative wave. The power of the avalanche would make it almost impossible to mobilize societies in the opposite direction. The most prudent thing would be to wait for the tide of devastation to run out of steam.

This interpretation was already incapable of explaining the revolts against neoliberalism that erupted throughout 2019 in countries such as Chile, France, Ecuador, Colombia, Algeria or Lebanon – or the electoral defeat that the system suffered in neighboring Argentina. Now, everything indicates that she will have to deal with another “uncomfortable” fact. In the United States itself, the presidential elections will be polarized by Bernie Sanders, who holds clearly post-capitalist positions.

Sanders' rise has widened in recent days. A series of polls gives the senator the lead over other Democratic Party candidates in the first two states to hold primaries: Iowa (February 3) and New Hampshire (February 11). A recent national survey conducted by CNN puts him in the lead with 27% against 24% for Joe Biden, the candidate most identified with the establishment. The advance is extraordinary: a few weeks ago, Bernie had only 15%.

An article by reporter and analyst Nate Cohn in the New York Times, search explain the demographic factors of this growth. Sanders took the lead among Latino voters. Although he is still behind Biden among blacks (whose tendency to follow the leadership of the Democratic Party is historic), the distance is much smaller than in 2016, in the face of Hillary Clinton – and Sanders is already 12 points ahead, among young blacks. Its greatest weakness is still among whites of European origin.

But the deeper causes of bernie wave are politics - and will have enormous international repercussions throughout the year. His candidacy exposes three major trends in current politics: (a) the crisis of representation – that is, the generalized perception that “democratic” institutions have submitted to the great economic power – opens space both for the ultra-right and for a radical critique of capitalism; (b) there is enormous discomfort in the face of inequality; to face it, the average voter is willing to listen and dialogue with proposals he has always rejected; (c) the traditional left, turned to the past and imprisoned by its tics, fails mainly because it does not understand these changes.

Examine Sanders' program and compare it, for example, with the postures that the Brazilian left has adopted at least since 2015. In the US, the post-capitalist candidate conquers crowds by saying that he will make public health (and free for all), it will control rents, develop a vast public works program to build a clean economy and, at the same time, generate 20 million jobs at all levels.

It is not ashamed to say that these actions will cost 13 trillion dollars. In Brazil, most of the “opposition” governors are committed to carrying out, in their states, Social Security “reforms” in a similar sense to the ones that Bolsonaro and Paulo Guedes imposed on the country. Five years after Dilma Rousseff's ruinous “fiscal adjustment”, there has been no reexamination of this policy, nor any indication of what a new left-wing government would do.

If Sanders' advance continues, as seems likely, dormant left parties will have to seriously examine ideas they now see as unrealistic or chimerical. Among them are the guarantee of formal occupations, to all who request them; Modern Monetary Theory, which expands the possibility of issuing currency by the State and, in doing so, expands its ability to distribute wealth and direct the economy; strict control of the financial system, with possible nationalization; the free circulation of knowledge, with limits to “intellectual property” and patents; the questioning of today's hegemonic models in industry (based on oil) and agriculture (supported by large properties and pesticides).

The rebellious US senator supports all of this and, contrary to the “sensible” left in other parts of the world, he dialogues with increasingly broader social sectors; mobilizes them (he is by far the candidate who holds the biggest rallies and raises the most, even though his average campaign contribution is only $18); it demonstrates to them that, faced with the crisis of democracy, there is the option of reinventing it in the name of the collective future – not just corroding it with the bile of resentment.

In acute civilizing crises, new spaces open up for chance and the unusual. It lacked an almost eighty-year-old senator, in the center of the empire, to open up certain horizons. May the renewing wind launched by Sanders spread throughout the world, dragging crowds and removing old wrinkled certainties.

* Antonio Martins, journalist, editor of the site Other words.

Originally published in Other words.

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