It’s okay to be angry about Bernie Sanders

The Vermont Senator has squandered left-wing populism for phoney anti-capitalism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books Politics USA

A couple of days before settling down to read Bernie Sanders’ new book, I saw one of those video clips of Jeffrey Marsh, the crazy they / them fella off TikTok. ‘It’s okay to be angry’, Marsh said, in his typically creepy style, like the lovechild of Norman Bates and Oprah Winfrey. And now here was Bernie, everyone’s favourite avuncular socialist, the mitten-wearing moral conscience of millennials the Western world over, also telling me it’s okay to be angry. It’s Okay To Be Angry About Capitalism, his new book is called. Would this be yet more TikTok-level therapy, only delivered by a he / him with principles rather than a they / them with issues? Sadly, yes, it kind of is.

Bernie’s tome feels like a self-help book for upwardly mobile leftists. It’s a book whose aim is not so much to radically change Western society as to flatter and inflame the moral revulsion that graduate radicals feel towards ‘dog-eat-dog’ capitalism. Or ‘vicious dog-eat-dog’ capitalism, as Bernie brands it. Anyone hoping for cool, Marx-style analysis of the social relations that pertain under capitalism will be sorely disappointed. This is less a study of the capitalist mode of production and its contradictory consequences and more an explosion of East Coast abhorrence at the ‘uncontrollable greed’ and ‘grossly immoral’ behaviour of the captains of our ‘uber-capitalist’ system who ‘lie, cheat, bribe and steal’ to make a buck. Sanders seems less interested in getting the working classes revolting than in massaging the middle classes’ belief that the hyper-rich are revolting people.

Bernie’s brimstone is relentless. It’s anti-capitalism as church sermon. He slams the ‘greed, corruption and rampant self-interest’ of the madly wealthy. He rages against the ‘excessive greed’ of Jeff Bezos, with ‘all of those mansions and all of those yachts and all of those rocket ships’. (Doesn’t Bernie own three houses? No judgement! Let’s just hope they aren’t glass houses.)

In one particularly odd bit, he outlines how different the super-rich are to the rest of us. ‘They don’t row boats on lakes or kayak on rivers… They cruise on yachts’, he says with horror. ‘They don’t go places in compact cars… They travel in chauffeur-driven limousines and private planes’, he continues. They ‘don’t settle into the Courtyard by Marriott… They “summer” in coastal enclaves’. ‘They don’t go to museums to see fine art. They buy up the great paintings and sculptures of the world for their own private enjoyment.’ They don’t ‘camp in a national park’ – they are ‘building spaceships so that they can vacation in the stratosphere’. Earth to Bernie! What is the point of this? Of these ceaseless descriptions of the decadent antics of the ‘phenomenally rich’? It can only be to arouse animus against individuals rather than against the system; against the moral failings of a handful of the hyper-rich, rather than against the social system of capitalism itself. And therein lies the entire problem with Bernie Bro anti-capitalism.

He isn’t anti-capitalist. He’s anti-some-capitalists. The really horrible ones. This book should have been called ‘It’s Okay to Be Angry About a Few Billionaires’. Every now and then, he – or perhaps one of his fresh-faced researchers who’s recently read Marx – recognises that he should say something about ‘the system’. ‘We harm the discourse when we get bogged down with personalities’, he says. Let’s remember this is a ‘systemic crisis’, he continues. And yet, just a few pages later, he says the hyper-rich are like ‘heroin addicts’. They’re ‘never satisfied with what they have. They need a new fix. More, more and more, no matter what the consequences of their greed.’ Only where ‘heroin addicts end up dead or in jail… greed addicts never end up in jail’. Instead of ‘destroying themselves’, they ‘destroy our communities, our institutions, our society’.

It’s like Nancy Reagan on steroids. ‘Greed addicts’? Bernie, come on. For all that his political education tries to drag him back to the realm of political economy, to a discourse of capitalism’s systemic errors rather than its moral ones, he just can’t help himself. His vicarious repugnance at the behaviour of the rich – ‘their private islands, their expensive art, their yachts, their private jets’ – overpowers his sadly waning instinct to issue a political critique rather than a moral damnation of capitalist society. He seems to hate the rich more than he feels solidarity with the poor. His tome contains more mentions of the word ‘yacht’ (six) than it does of the word ‘Marx’ (zero). Speaking of Marx, how telling that where The Communist Manifesto opens with praise for the capitalist class and its ‘rapid improvement of all instruments of production’, Bernie’s moralistic manifesto opens with the decree that our ‘uber-capitalist’ system is ‘not merely unjust. It is grossly immoral.’

I have long been wary of anti-capitalism that’s motored more by moral revulsion than by a clear-headed appreciation of capitalism’s contradictions and limits. Not because I think ‘Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Gates, Buffett, the Waltons, the Kochs’ (Bernie’s line-up of gruesome billionaires) need to be defended from criticism or anger. No, because anti-capitalism as cultural distaste, as moral objection, often ends up distracting attention from the big changes we need to make if we are to liberate more people from poverty and increase people’s clout in both politics and the workplace. It is not surprising, given the intensity of his moral disdain for the ‘dog-eat-dog, every-person-for-himself culture’ of capitalism, that Sanders’ solutions are expressed at the level of morality, too. ‘We need a new sense of morality’, he writes. A morality based on fairness, superseding the ‘greed, irresponsibility and brutality of the ruling class’. Okay. But presumably the exploitation of labour, capitalist accumulation and the tendency towards crisis would still exist? Or no?

Upper-middle-class abhorrence at the immorality of the hyper-rich – an abhorrence as pronounced among privileged Corbynistas in the UK as among Bernie Bros in the US – doesn’t only elevate the moral tinkering of society over revolutionary change. It also threatens to throw out things about capitalism that are good. Most notably its exploitation of nature’s bounty to the end of making more things (and more profits, I know). Bernie is a full-on climate-change alarmist. The book contains numerous references to the ‘existential threat’ of climate change. The hyper-rich are ‘destroying the planet’, he says. We urgently need to move ‘away from fossil fuels’, he cries. This is why he spearheaded a bill to ban fracking. It’s why, in this book, he even criticises the Biden administration – hardly hardcore Prometheans – for ‘opening up millions of new acres of public lands to oil and gas companies’ through the Inflation Reduction Act.

Bernie’s anti-capitalist moralism elevates the integrity of Mother Nature over mankind’s need for abundant sources of energy. It elevates the rights of shale gas to remain unsullied by human machinery over the right to work of thousands of Americans who could get jobs in fracking. This is where anti-capitalism as moral revulsion ends up – in a situation where the disdain for the ‘greed’ and ‘destructiveness’ of the hyper-rich becomes so overbearing that it trounces any ability to recognise that capitalism’s exploitation of nature has positive as well as destabilising consequences, especially in relation to job creation and energy creation. Bernie’s squandering of left populism for the fashionable anti-capitalism of the dejected managerial elites has led to a terrible scenario where he is effectively arguing to scrap certain jobs and certain industries because they might scar Gaia. We’re a far way from Trotsky, for whom revolutionary activism was about two things: ‘increasing the power of man over nature’ and ‘the abolition of the power of man over man’.

It isn’t only at the level of jobs that anti-capitalism as moral revulsion impacts negatively on the working classes. Culturally, too, Sanders and others seem mystified by the modern working class. There is a striking contradiction in this book. On one page, Bernie rightly challenges the snooty Democratic claim that working-class folk voted for Trump because they are ‘racists, sexists and homophobes’. Because they are ‘really “deplorable”’, he says, citing Hillary’s haughty barb. ‘Sorry. I don’t agree’, he writes. He explains that many working-class Americans simply feel that the Democrats have ‘abandoned them’ for ‘wealthy campaign contributors and the “beautiful people”’.Yet later on, he says Trump ‘played on [working-class voters’] anger and resentment’ with his ‘subtle but often overt appeals to racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia’. Isn’t that just a softer version of what Hillary said? She thinks working-class Trumpites are deplorables, Bernie thinks they have deplorable tendencies that demagogues can slyly milk. How depressing if Bernie is moving ever-closer to the classism of the Dem establishment.

Bernie’s book is not without merit. Far from it. It is spirited. It is fun in parts. And what’s not to like about an octogenarian activist and senator, a man who was on the actual March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, opening his new book by saying: ‘They say that the older you get, the more conservative you become. Well, that’s not me.’ His argument for universal healthcare in the US is very convincing. And I was won over – even a little touched – by his paean to the importance of work: ‘I believe that, very deep in the souls of most people, is a desire to be part of their community and to contribute to its wellbeing. People want to be productive and have a positive impact on the lives of their families, their friends, their neighbours, and, ultimately, on their country and their world. Work is a manifestation of this desire.’ What sweet relief that is from the lazy anti-work groupthink of the new left, whose vision is to put the masses out to pasture, on Universal Basic Income, where they might stew and play videogames and masturbate rather than fall in line with that dreadful ‘rat race’.

And yet, Bernie’s book has convinced me that he has squandered any chance of left-wing populism in favour of embracing the moralism of the new elites who hate capitalism not for its structural deficiencies, but for being too productive, too big, too much. One can’t help but feel that Bernie’s main audience now is those leisured classes of priestly loathers of capitalistic greed, rather than the working classes who have a vested interest in more job creation, more industry creation, more fracking, more oil and, let’s be honest about it, more capitalism. For now anyway. Those people don’t hate Jeff Bezos’ yacht – they want it. They’ll never get it, though, as long as the left is led by people whose opposition to capitalism has morphed tragically into opposition to modernity.

It’s Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism, by Bernie Sanders, is published by Allen Lane. Order it here.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Politics USA


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