by Gary Olson
After several weeks of intensive reading and discussion on class, capitalism, and socialism in my undergraduate course, The Politics of Labor, we would do the following exercise: Standing before the blackboard, I encouraged the students to list existing, objective, and determining conditions that might prompt the American working class to seek the abolition of capitalism. As the response flowed there wasn’t enough space on the left side of the board to write down all the urgent unmet needs, egregious grievances, and vanquished hopes. And the fact that these young people were aware of being the first generation that won’t live as well as their parents was not lost on me. We labeled the list “Determining Conditions.”
Then, leaving a space between, we moved to the right side to enumerate all the “Determined Responses” aggrieved citizens could take to satisfy their demands. Again, the space was insufficient to list all the options which ranged from letter-writing, boycotts and voting to civil disobedience, mass movements and revolution. I then posed the question: “What’s preventing the determining conditions from eventuating in a successful determined response?” After a lengthy and sometimes contentious debate that went on for two periods, we (mostly) agreed to fill in the remaining empty space with the words “Class Consciousness.” To summarize and paraphrase political theorist Bertell Ollman, class consciousness is when the objective, general, and rational interests of a class become its recognized goals.
Further, and with a special bearing on our current situation in the United States, class consciousness is the growing recognition that the capitalist framework will never allow the collectivity to realize its needs, that the existing economic and political system must be transformed at its roots. Finally, and equally germane today, is the realization that the people themselves, not a Knight in Shining Armor, can bring about this change through their own actions. Put another way, ordinary people learn that a history of carefully cultivated class unconsciousness is what permits the predatory class and its enablers to rule.
What about today? We know there are no magic elixirs for arriving at class consciousness – an extraordinary mass achievement by any measure – but certain experiences can enhance understanding and on rare occasions provide a quantum leap. I might be letting my heart overrule my intellect but I sense that a confluence of favorable factors is emerging that offers a pivotal point in terms of increasing class consciousness.
For example, some folks have wondered aloud if the brazen perfidy in Iowa and those likely to follow (like Bloomberg buying his way into the debate) will bring Sanders supporters into the streets. But in all likelihood, they will remain seated until the convention in Milwaukee. At that point, if Sanders is denied the nomination, much depends on whether he abides by his signed DNC pledge to support any nominee and resumes his sheepdog role from 2016 or he denounces and bolts the DP to lead a new movement. That would be revolutionary and many of us would get behind it. How many would do so is impossible to predict and really depends on as yet unknown events.
While the radical option cannot be ruled out, there is nothing in Sanders’ background to suggest that he would take this step. He has been totally consistent in his convictions as a loyal Democrat in all but his self-designated title as an Independent. As such, any “Et tu Bernie” taunting would be unfair and inaccurate. Further, I would never deny that Sanders has played an incalculably valuable role in contributions in broadening the national political dialogue and energizing people, including the previous nonvoters. For younger Americans with greatly diminished futures, Sanders has given traction to socialism (albeit an abstraction) to the point where fully half now embrace it over capitalism.
So, what might happen? It might be fruitful to engage in some blue-sky thinking and hypothesize that the DNC’s machinations are beaten back and Sanders wins the nomination and the general election. The day following his acceptance speech, the powerful predator class/deep state forces aligned against him will insure that his “political revolution” is stillborn. In the adroit words of left political scientist William Grover, he’ll be simultaneously confronted by a “capitol strike” and a “capital strike.” After issuing a few of his promised executive orders, Sanders will face intransigent political reality. At that critical juncture his opponents might find reason to grant some severely circumscribed, modest New Deal-type reforms. This would be contingent upon his agreement not to alter the nation’s imperialist foreign policy. Again, there is little in Sanders’ history to indicate he would try to close the 1,000 U.S. military bases and begin bringing home the 450,000 troops enforcing the empire.
Further, Sanders has said “I am not only going to be commander-in-chief, I am going to be organizer-in-chief.” This sounds promising but as political analyst James Dennis Hoff notes, in practice this “…will send those potential activists right into the Democratic Party where social movement go to die.” While capitulating, Sanders will (sincerely) claim fealty to his principles, utter some democratic socialist rhetoric, and encourage folks to vote in more Democrats in the 2022 bye-election. Here, we can sketch two possible scenarios with some possible overlap.
The first, my ultimate political fantasy, is that a few weeks after the inauguration, President Sanders undergoes a Saul-to-Paul conversion and schedules two hours on primetime television. He combines his new role as Political-Educator-in-Chief with a consummate, unparalleled teachable moment to carefully explain what he is up against and why the people’s democratic will is not being carried out and won’t be under our existing political structures.
Assuming he is not yanked off the air (remember, it’s a fantasy) President Sanders goes on to say that it is not only about some “billionaires” but about the capitalist system itself. The fact that this admission resembles a heartfelt mea culpa only serves to heighten the urgent need for the people themselves to assume responsibility for their future. Just prior to his speech, he offers his vast organizational apparatus to creating a new movement and political party. This includes fund-raising lists, state by state contacts, social media expertise and links to thousands of progressive discussion groups. What happens next is unknowable but the continuum ranges from the most dire to the potentially transformative.
The second and slightly less fanciful scenario is that if Sanders capitulates, even his most loyal followers will realize the flock is now being (unintentionally) herded toward the metaphorical abattoir. The “us” in “not me, us” takes on a radical, self-emancipatory meaning and this, in turn, ignites the aforementioned street action – sustained, obstructive, non-violent civil disobedience. In this case, the role assumed by his national organization remains unclear. Most importantly, “the people united,” not the White House occupant or the Democratic Party, are credited with forcing adoption of an interim program that will mark the first stage of actual political and economic democracy, in a word, socialism.
Finally, imagine that if instead of squandering so much time and energy over the years on reforming the Democratic Party, those efforts had been expended on political education and organizing a serious mass movement. The developing situation in 2020 may provide a chance to make amends with whatever means are available and all the creativity we can muster. The onus is on us if we do not take advantage of this opportunity.
Gary Olson is professor emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College. His most recent book is Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain.