From The Michigan Independent
On the eve of the 2006 midterm elections, the Michigan Union lawn was littered with the tiny billboards of a few dozen candidates. A rented truck shot four giant rotating light beams from its chassis to the sky, publicizing a midnight campus visit by Governor Granholm. Giddy Democrats packed the ballroom inside, but outside something was askew. Campaign knick-knacks generally sport some variation of the stars and stripes theme followed by vague promises of a hopeful dawn. But there, drowning in a sea of red white and blue, sat Matt Erard’s campaign sign for the Michigan House of Representatives 53rd District seat. Erard’s Socialist campaign cut costs on their yard-signs - sporting a smaller dimension, black and white print, and neither stars nor stripes - but this one stood out amid the glare of high-beam, two party fanfare.
Though our generation is involved with politics, much of this energy gets funneled into organizations like the College Democrats, which push for reform within a free enterprise framework. Though Marxist theory is a staple of most liberal arts educations, many students fail to see how revolutionary change can happen, or refuse to believe that such drastic measures are necessary. Instead, many liberals choose the gradualist strategies of election activism, which carry the appeal of a short term framework and tangible results, not to mention a row of glossy candidates, slogans, and policy promises which students can latch on to. For Socialists, this is not satisfying enough; no matter who wins within today’s political framework, corporate capitalism remains the central actor and beneficiary.
Erard recognized this early on, joining the Socialist party at age 15. His predominantly black attire accentuates the white anti-Bush slogan on his t-shirt and the button on his jacket complaining: “U.S. military spending is killing US.” Currently an Undergrad at the University of Michigan, Matt ran his 2006 campaign to expand the Socialist presence more than to actually win. “It would be great if it were possible to come to power through the American electoral system, but for a variety of reasons it’s likely to be impossible,” he says. Radicals in America constantly recite an ambivalent mantra. Erard’s pessimistic view of the capitalist behemoth is balanced by a resolute optimism of will - the belief that organized voices of a working majority can overcome seemingly insuperable barriers to Socialist transformation.
The American system won’t ban Socialists from running, nor keep Erard from planting his sign. But monied adherents to the two-party paradigm have mechanisms for protecting their monopoly from those who seek entrance. One small example is ballot access. Erard, just like any aspiring third party candidate, faces outrageous requirements. “It’s very difficult for Socialists to get on the ballots,” he says. “And the reason for these restrictive laws is because of past Socialist and Communist victories.” In Michigan, some 40,000 valid signatures, collected throughout the state within a 180-day period, are needed to get on the ballot with minor party affiliation. The two dominant parties are beholden to lower ballot access requirements and use federal and corporate aid to mobilize signature campaigns. There is also a virtual blackout from major media outlets, which operate on a foolish tautology: contending voices deserve little coverage because they don’t get any to begin with. Virtually every aspect of capitalist society becomes a commodity available to the highest bidder. America’s ideology of fairness is corrupted by those who can purchase a soapbox sufficiently large to dominate discourse with amplified voices.
Within a hostile political climate, Erard believes a movement can be built from the workplace. The establishment of radical democracy starts with organized worker’s associations to regain control over the value that their labor produces. Economic democracy is the necessary prerequisite to political democracy, says Erard: “As long as you have a ruling class controlling most of society’s institutions, that class will use its clout to control the state.” Socialists don’t merely battle an exploitative relation between “capital and labor” but a cultural milieu that normalizes capitalism as conventional wisdom. The Cold War witnessed a blitz of what Erard calls “capitalist propaganda” that made the thought of communism almost criminal. The intensity of that campaign has faded, leaving a residue of triumphalism. The fall of the Soviet state, and with it the relevance of Marx, came at the hands of a superior free market model, so the story goes. Socialist ideas sound foreign in a society where every facet of our lives is filtered through an ideological lens that frames existence in capitalist terms.
So what sets radicals like Erard apart from liberals? The substantive differences become clear where bi-partisan consensus thrives. The two-party discussion of “national security” lacks debate over imperialism. Democrats and Republicans largely presuppose American primacy in the world, with tactical disagreements over how best to manage and police it. Liberal opposition to the ravaging of Iraq was largely muted until Bush’s nation-building strategy began producing American body bags. Even as Democrats take a stronger stance against troop levels, very few question the legitimacy of the 14 U.S. bases now being primed for a permanent stay in Iraq. Bi-partisan expansionism cradled the American arms industry in its formative years; now it’s a manufacturing hub and a core American export unto the world. While over 50 percent of the Federal discretionary budget goes to the Department of Defense, and the U.S. military budget is larger than that of the next 14 highest countries combined, America’s social safety net is in tatters. Both parties are more or less willing to work within the artificial budgetary constraints imposed by frivolous military buildup.
In the face of yet another fear-mongering blitz from government and a brand of open force not seen since Vietnam, the Socialist appeal to anti-imperialism is more prescient than ever. The deployment of a post-WWII global military presence is, for Socialists, evidence of capitalism’s appetite for control over foreign spheres. America’s comparative advantage is weapons production, and the arms industry has a giant stake in preserving the militarized status quo. General Electric, a major weapons producer, also owns NBC and gives large PAC donations to both parties (on a consistent 60/40 split between Republicans and Democrats), illustrating the central role of corporate power on the ideological and material fronts of America’s hegemony project.
But not everyone follows in lock step. In 2006, Bernie Sanders was elected to the U.S. Senate as the first self-described Socialist Senator in American history. Sanders has spent decades in Vermont politics, first as mayor of Burlington, then spent 15 years in Congress. Though the Socialist Party does not recognize him, and actually ran a candidate against him this year (Sanders ran as an Independent), his work within the system of American capitalism carries radical strains.
One might dismiss Sanders as an aberration, a Vermont progressive whose message could never hold weight in the heartland. But Sanders’ focus on economic struggle is far from elitist. In a July interview with The Nation, Bernie lamented that the liberal establishment allows Republicans to steal working class votes with divisive cultural issues: "The Republicans jump in and say, 'OK, look. Democrats are not talking about your economic issues. We're not either, but at least we're telling you about the Ten Commandments, we're telling you about abortion, we're telling you about gay rights.' The biggest mistake Democrats make is to take economics off the table.” His advocacy for working class America is in striking contrast to most Democratic elites who embrace the myth of economic fairness rather than affect the changes necessary to realize it.
Erard reminds me that Sanders does not advocate basic Socialist tenets like “social ownership, or worker control of basic economic institutions,” but Sanders is an infiltrator, pushing the envelope from within a restrictive system. Entering the electoral world has required him to adapt. Even so, he remains unafraid of addressing America’s class crisis: “The richest one percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The richest 13,000 families earn more income than the bottom 20 million families. We are moving toward an oligarchic form of society.” While so many have so little, Sanders wonders aloud why we don’t hear about this inequality on the nightly news. He blames not only failed government policies, but the cynical refusal by large media conglomerates to broadcast pressing American realities.
Still, among Socialists, Sanders has earned the nickname “Bernie the Bomber” for his support of the NATO intervention in Kosovo and the US-led UN Sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s. This conflict with Sanders represents a larger tactical crisis for Socialists. Operating within our electoral system requires compromise, something that doesn’t mix well with the resolute Socialist camp. Infighting also threatens Socialist unity, as every splinter group claims to be more radical than the next. Erard is currently engaged in an initiative which would incorporate such groups under a decision making model called democratic de-centralism, thus creating a more unified umbrella organization. But splinter groups fight for autonomy, often at the expense of substantial common ground. According to Erard, some 30 Trotskyist groups are currently alive in the United States, many of whom insist on being the vanguard of the American socialist movement. As they figure out how best to engage the American political system, Socialists struggle simultaneously to avoid painting themselves into a corner.
A hundred years ago, American Socialists organized in reaction to a “rags to riches” myth which proved to be more exception than rule. Eugene Debs ran for President several times in the early 20th century to expose capitalism’s affinity for conquest: “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose - especially their lives.” Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for these words, which violated the Espionage Act of 1917. In prison or not, Debs knew that he and American workers were incarcerated by the confines of industrial capitalism. The poor were squeezed of their labor and sent to the front lines of America’s expanding imperialist frontier. And Debs’ persecution validated his message; the master class would not tolerate opposition to a war (or an economic model) which required the participation of the working majority.
These struggles are not distant lore. According to Sanders, American wealth inequality today is comparable to that of the infamous “roaring twenties,” when Debs warned against America’s unsustainable productive drive. By the end of the decade, American capitalism was in shambles, and the Socialist prophecy was redeemed, if only to be co-opted by Roosevelt’s New Deal which saved capitalism from itself. Today, the injunction to embrace capitalism infiltrates our conceptions of human nature to such a degree that divergent impulses seem perverse. In a time when the hegemony of market ideology coincides with increasing inequality on a global scale, embattled Socialist critiques are needed more urgently than ever.