Two American Dreams: how a dumbed-down nation lost sight of a great idea


As Clinton and Trump prepare to debate next week, noble ideals are overwhelmed in a culture where most Americans do not know what is real anymore and the dream of equal opportunity is a fantasy


Every child had a pretty good shot

To get at least as far as their old man got

But something happened on the way to that place

They threw an American flag in our face.

Billy Joel, Allentown

We know it today as the American Dream. The now-obscure historian James Truslow Adams coined the term in his book The Epic of America, defining “the American dream” as:

a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Adams was writing in 1931, but the dream was there from the start, in Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” formulation in the Declaration of Independence, “happiness” residing in its 18th-century sense of prosperity, thriving, wellbeing.

Nobody ever came to America with a starry-eyed dream of working for starvation wages. Plenty of that available in the old country, and that’s precisely why we left, escaping serfdom, peonage, tenancy, indenture – all different iterations of what was essentially a “rigged system”, to put it in current political verbiage – that channeled the profits of our labor upstream to the Man. We came to America to do better, to secure for ourselves the liberation that economic security brings, and for millions – mostly white males at first, and then slowly, sputteringly, women and people of color – that’s the way it worked out, nothing less than a revolution in the human condition.

Upward mobility is indispensable to the American Dream, the notion that people can rise from working to middle class, and middle to upper and even higher on the model of a (fictional) Horatio Alger or an (actual) Andrew Carnegie. Upward mobility across classes peaked in the US in the late 19th century. Most of the gains of the 20th century were achieved en masse; it wasn’t so much a phenomenon of great numbers of people rising from one class to the next as it was standards of living rising sharply for all classes. You didn’t have to be exceptional to rise. Opportunity was sufficiently broad that hard work and steadiness would do, along with tacit buy-in to the social contract, allegiance to the system proceeding on the assumption that the system was basically fair.

The biggest gains occurred in the post-second world war era of the GI Bill, affordable higher education, strong labor unions, and a progressive tax code. Between the late 1940s and early 1970s, median household income in the US doubled. Income inequality reached historic lows. The average CEO salary was approximately 30 times that of the lowest-paid employee, compared with today’s gold-plated multiple of 370. The top tax bracket ranged in the neighborhood of 70% to 90%. Granted, there were far fewer billionaires in those days. Somehow the nation survived.

“America is a dream of greater justice and opportunity for the average man and, if we can not obtain it, all our other achievements amount to nothing.” So wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in her syndicated column of 6 January 1941, an apt lead-in to her husband’s State of the Union address later that day in which he enumerated the four freedoms essential to American democracy, among them “freedom from want”. In his State of the Union address three years later, FDR expanded on this concept of freedom from want with his proposal for a “Second Bill of Rights”, an “economic” bill of rights to counteract what he viewed as the growing tyranny of the modern economic order:

This Republic had at its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship … As our nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy has expanded – these political rights have proved inadequate to assure us equality. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.

Political rights notwithstanding, “freedom” rings awfully hollow when you’re getting nickel-and-dimed to death in your everyday life. The Roosevelts recognized that wage peonage, or any system that inclines toward subsistence level, is simply incompatible with self-determination. Subsistence is, by definition, a constrained, desperate state; one’s horizon is necessarily limited to the present day, to getting enough of what the body needs to make it to the next. These days a minimum wage worker in New York City clocking 40 hours a week (at $9 per hour) earns $18,720 a year, well under the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That’s a scrambling, anxious existence, narrowly bounded. Close to impossible to decently feed, clothe, and shelter yourself on a wage like that, much less a family; much less buy health insurance, or save for your kid’s college, or participate in any of those other good American things. Down at peon level, the pursuit of happiness sounds like a bad joke. “It’s called the American dream,” George Carlin cracked, “because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

“Necessitous men are not free men,” said FDR in that 1944 State of the Union speech. “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” A dire statement, demonstrably true, and especially unsettling in 2016, a point in time when the American Dream seems more viable as nostalgia than a lived phenomenon. Income inequality, wealth distribution, mortality rates: by every measure, the average individual that Eleanor Roosevelt celebrated is sinking. Exceptional people continue to rise, but overall mobility is stagnant at best. If you’re born poor in Ferguson or Appalachia, chances are you’re going to stay that way. Ditto if your early memories include the swimming pool at the Houston Country Club or ski lessons at Deer Valley, you’re likely going to keep your perch at the top of the heap.

Income inequality, gross disparities in wealth: we’re told daily, incessantly, that these are the necessary consequences of a free market, as if the market was a force of nature on the order of weather or tides, and not the entirely manmade construct that it is. In light of recent history, blind acceptance of this sort of economics would seem to require a firm commitment to stupidity, but let’s assume for the moment that it’s true, that the free market exists as a universe unto itself, as immutable in its workings as the laws of physics. Does that universe include some ironclad rule that requires inequality of opportunity? I’ve yet to hear the case for that, though doubtless some enterprising thinktanker could manufacture one out of this same free-market economics, along with whiffs of genetic determinism as it relates to qualities of discipline and character. And it would be bogus, that case. And more than that, immoral. That we should allow for wildly divergent opportunities due to accidents of birth ought to strike us as a crime equal in violence to child abuse or molestation.

Franklin Roosevelt: “[F]reedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.” The proposition goes deeper than sentiment, deeper than policy, deeper even than adherence to equality and “the pursuit of happiness” as set forth in the Declaration. It cuts all the way to the nature of democracy, and to the prospects for its continued existence in America. “We may have democracy in this country,” wrote supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, “or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Those few, in Brandeis’s judgment, would inevitably use their power to subvert the free will of the majority; the super-rich as a class simply couldn’t be trusted to do otherwise, a thesis that’s being starkly acted out in the current era of Citizens United, Super Pacs, and truckloads of dark money.

But the case for economic equality goes beyond even equations of power politics. Democracy’s premise rests on the notion that the collective wisdom of the majority will prove right more often than it’s wrong. That given sufficient opportunity in the pursuit of happiness, your population will develop its talents, its intellect, its better judgment; that over time its capacity for discernment and self-correction will be enlarged. Life will improve. The form of your union will be more perfect, to borrow a phrase. But if a critical mass of your population is kept in peonage? All its vitality spent in the trenches of day-to-day survival, with scant opportunity to develop the full range of its faculties? Then how much poorer the prospects for your democracy will be.

Economic equality can no more be divorced from the functioning of democracy than the ballot. Jefferson, Brandeis, the Roosevelts all recognized this home truth. The American Dream has to be the lived reality of the country, not just a pretty story we tell ourselves.

I have always gotten much more publicity than anybody else.

Donald Trump

Then there’s that other American dream, the numbed-out, dumbed-down, make-believe world where much of the national consciousness resides, the sum product of our mighty Fantasy Industrial Complex: movies, TV, internet, texts, tweets, ad saturation, celebrity obsession, sports obsession, Amazonian sewers of porn and political bullshit, the entire onslaught of media and messaging that strives to separate us from our brains. September 11, 2001 blasted us out of that dream for about two minutes, but the dream is so elastic, so all-encompassing, that 9/11 was quickly absorbed into the the matrix of FIC. This exceedingly complex event – horribly direct in the result, but a swamp when it comes to explanations – was stripped down and binaried into a reliable fantasy narrative of us against them, good versus evil, Christian against Muslim. The week after 9/11, Susan Sontag was virtually crucified for pointing out that “a few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand how we came to this point”. For this modest proposal, no small number of her fellow Americans wished her dead. But if we’d followed her lead – if we’d done the hard work of digging down to the roots of the whole awful thing – perhaps we wouldn’t still be fighting al-Qaida and its offspring 15 years later.

Here’s a hypothesis, ugly, uncharitable, but given our recent history it begs inquiry: most of the time most Americans don’t know what’s real any more. How else to explain Trump, a billionaire on an ego trip capturing a major party’s nomination for president? Another blunt-speaking billionaire tried twice for the presidency in the 1990s and went out in flames, but he made the mistake of running as himself, a recognizably flesh-and-blood human being, whereas Trump comes to us as the ultimate creature, and indisputable maestro, of the Fantasy Industrial Complex. For much of his career – until 2004, to be exact – he held status in our lives as a more or less normal celebrity. Larger than life, to be sure, cartoonishly grandiose, shamelessly self-promoting, and reliably obnoxious, but Trump didn’t become Trump until “The Apprentice” debuted in January 2004. The first episode drew 20.7 million viewers. By comparison, Ross Perot received 19,742,000 votes in the 1992 presidential election – yes, I’m comparing vote totals with Nielsen ratings – but Trump kept drawing that robust 20 million week after week. The season finale that year reached 28 million viewers, and over the next decade, for 13 more seasons, this was how America came to know him, in that weirdly intimate way TV has of delivering celebrity into the very center of our lives.

It was this same Trump that 24 million viewers – a record, of course – tuned in to watch at the first Republican debate last year, the glowering, blustering, swaggering boardroom action figure who gave every promise of shredding the pols. One wonders if Trump would have ever been Trump if there hadn’t been a JR Ewing to pave the way, to show just how dear and real a dealmaking TV rogue could be to our hearts. Trump’s performance on that night did not disappoint, nor through all the debates in the long march that followed, and if his regard for the truth has proved more erratic even than that of professional politicians, we should expect as much. In the realm of the Fantasy Industrial Complex, reality happens on a sliding scale. The truth is just another possibility.

I speak the password primeval.

I would give the sign of democracy;

By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

In nine days Trump and Hillary will take the stage for their first face-to-face debate. There will be blood. The knives are going to be out, and the ratings are bound to be, need it be said, yuge. The American Dream will no doubt be invoked from both podiums, for what true-blue patriot was ever against the American Dream? And yet for the past 30 years the Democratic candidate has worked comfortably within a party establishment that’s battered the working and middle classes down to the bone. The “new” Democrats of the Clinton era are always strong for political rights, as long as they don’t upset corporate America’s bottom line. Strong for racial and gender equality, strong for LGBT rights (though that took time). Meanwhile this same Democratic establishment joined with the GOP to push a market- and finance-driven economic order that enriches the already rich and leaves the rest of us sucking wind.

That’s the very real anger Trump is speaking to, no fantasy there. Bernie as well; small wonder their constituencies overlapped, though Trump’s professed devotion to the common man stumbles over even the simplest proofs. On whether to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, Trump’s moral compass has spun from an implied no (wages are already “too high”), to implied yes (wages are “too low”), to weasel words (leave it up to the states), to yes and no in the same breath (“I would leave it and raise it somewhat”), and, finally, when pressed by Bill O’Reilly in July, to yes-but (raise it to $10, but it’s still best left to the states). All this from the candidate who’s firmly in favor of abolishing the estate tax, to the great benefit of heirs of multimillionaires and none at all to the vast majority of us.

Meanwhile, the Fantasy Industrial Complex is doing just fine this election season, thank you. Speaking at a Morgan Stanley investors’ conference in March, one of the commanders of the FIC, Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS and a man whose 2015 compensation totaled $56.8m, had this to say about the Trump campaign. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in and this is fun … this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Che Guevara: A flawed revolutionary icon

Mike Gonzalez looks at the important lessons to be drawn from Samuel Farber’s new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, in a review first published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

FOR TWO generations of activists, Ernesto Che Guevara has symbolized a kind of selfless heroism. His relative youth at his death in 1967 (he was 38) conserved his air of rebelliousness and the image of a man interested only in the struggle, rather than in power.

Yet Sam Farber who acknowledges these qualities, describes him early in his new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, as “irremediably undemocratic.” The contradiction is striking and central to Farber’s critical analysis of Che’s life as a revolutionary.

Farber’s starting point is the understanding of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working classes, with the emphasis on self. In other words, revolution is, as Marx says (in his Theses on Feuerbach) the “coincidence of the changing of self and the changing of circumstances.” It is in acting collectively in the world that the majority come to recognize their own power and become subjects of history rather than merely its objects. That is the central idea of Marxism.

Yet Che Guevara’s politics and his practice were based on a very different idea–that it is revolutionaries who make the revolution. And they do so irrespective of the circumstances in which they operate, because it is the will of the revolutionary vanguard that is the key.

This voluntarist view is not just misguided; it is alien to the revolutionary tradition to which Farber (and myself) belong. The substitution of the leaders for the mass movement, points ahead to a very different future prefigured in the guerrilla method.

Farber explains that Edward Bellamy’s 19th century utopian novel Looking Backward was one of Guevara’s inspirations. Interestingly the future state that Bellamy imagines was modeled on an army.

Farber reminds us that revolutions do not automatically lead either to dictatorship or democracy; their outcome will depend on the “leading politics” of the movement. In the case of Cuba after 1959, the state was shaped around the command model–a pyramid of orders delivered from above and accepted without question–in which democracy appeared as a risk to the authority of leadership.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IT SEEMS curious at first that someone with Guevara’s background should have come not just to accept, but to vigorously advocate that inescapably Stalinist project–to dismiss the right to strike and the independent organization of workers as mere obstacles on the road to revolution and to scorn the “false prophets of mass democracy”.

Born in Argentina to left wing parents influenced by the especially Stalinist Argentine communist party, Guevara grew up as a radical Bohemian, a life-style rebel who spurned what he saw as bourgeois habits, from cleanliness to ostentatious consumption. His protest against that culture took the form of a kind of a puritanical asceticism.

The politics would come later, though he was a visceral anti-imperialist from early on. And by the time he reached Mexico, where he met the Cuban rebels for the first time, he had begun to steep himself in Marxism. But it was a Marxism in the abstract, not linked to activism of any kind.

The members of the 26th July Movement with whom Che landed in Cuba in December 1956 to launch the guerrilla campaign were, as Farber describes them, rightly in my view, “déclassé”–political rebels from mainly middle class backgrounds with few roots in the mass movement. Guevara shared that dislocation.

With the victory of the revolution in January 1959, Che joined the Castro brothers in its leadership. It may surprise many readers that Che was–and Farber marshals a powerful body of evidence to prove his case–together with Raúl, the architect of the new state, though ultimately the political skills of Fidel carried him to the top of the pyramid.

It was not a search for personal power that made Che the unconditional supporter of a one-party state–unlike Fidel, for whom it was his driving impulse. But it reflected an admiration for the Stalinist state in its most sectarian and undemocratic manifestations–the state as the exclusive vanguard.

That model drove Che’s critically important interventions in the economy in the early years, based on rapid industrialization, but taking no account of the realities of the Cuban economy. By 1962, Che acknowledged how mistaken those economic policies were, but by then it was too late to turn the clock back.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WHAT THIS “economic voluntarism”, as Farber calls it, illustrated was not just the single-minded dedication to the immediate creation of a communist state along Stalinist lines, but also a central feature of Guevara’s politics that Farber calls his “political tone-deafness” or his “schematism”.

It was already implicit in his early (1960) manual on Guerrilla Warfare, and definitive especially in his later activities in the Congo and Bolivia. For Guevara, political strategy was not shaped by the specific circumstances in which it unfolded.

So in a Bolivia with an extraordinary tradition of working-class militancy, and which was in the throes of a bitter strike wave when he arrived in 1966, he was insistent on creating a rural guerrilla force and paid no attention to the working-class movement except to call on its militants to join the guerrillas (which no more than a handful did). A year later Che was dead, together with most of his comrades.

In the Congo the failure of the movement there was attributed by Guevara to the lack of a vanguard leadership. And in his arguments with the French agronomist Rene Dumont over the right to strike, Guevara angrily rejected Dumont’s insistence that it was fundamental to a socialist democracy, just as he did in his famous essay Socialism and man in Cuba, insisting that “a mass party was only possible when the masses have attained vanguard consciousness”.

By the mid-sixties Che was increasingly critical of the Soviet economy’s drift towards capitalism, but at no point did that lead him to a criticism of the bureaucratic state. How could it, after all, when he had been an architect of the one-party state in Cuba?

What impresses in Farber’s book is the way in which he interweaves a critical assessment of Guevara’s politics with general arguments about the meaning of socialism. And at its heart, that socialism is democracy of the most radical and profound kind.

The one-party state that Che forged with Raúl Castro continues in Cuba today, overseeing the restoration of a capitalist economy. The lack of resistance to its inevitable effects are a product of a one-party regime that denied the diversity of working-class politics and imposed a system in which the majority had no freedom to act, criticize or generate alternative socialist projects.

Would Che have been happy with the outcome, and the corruption and manipulation of power it has produced? His role in creating the system suggests that he would, albeit perhaps with some misgivings. And he would have despised the yearning for a materially better life among the majority as the unacceptable infiltration of capitalist values.

So what should we do with this flawed revolutionary icon? Recognize that his high moral standards, his resolute internationalism, and his egalitarianism were qualities to cherish. But the one-party state he favored and its repression of democracy consigned the subjects of revolution to a position in which self-emancipation became impossible, as the self-proclaimed vanguard usurped their role, at first in the name of revolution but soon, and in the absence of any possibility of control from below, in their own self-interest.

First published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

“Star Trek” in the age of Trump

Why we need to embrace its 50-year mission now more than ever

The doomsday pessimism and defensiveness peddled by Donald Trump could use a dose of Enterprise hope and harmony

"Star Trek" in the age of Trump: Why we need to embrace its 50-year mission now more than ever
(Credit: Getty/Alex Wong/CBS/Photo montage by Salon)

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission, no, wait, 50-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life for itself, to boldly remain relevant across space and time.

And it has. Especially today, in the age of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the message of “Star Trek” — openness, harmony and the spirit of exploration — feels more applicable than ever.

The unstoppable science-fiction franchise turns 50 tomorrow, with the first episode having hit NBC airwaves on Sept. 8, 1966. Over its subsequent half-century run, “Star Trek” has spanned 13 movies, including a new installment, “Star Trek Beyond,” which opened in July. There have been six TV series (a seventh comes in 2017), plus a handful of fan-created homages. The “Trek” phenomenon has also inspired Trekkers to dress in costume, collect merchandise, buy comic books, adopt the Vulcan salute “Live long and prosper” and quote lines from movies as daily parlance.

But unlike Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and their shipmates, who traveled to new worlds every week, Americans remain, like Khan, the show’s recurrent fictional villain, marooned on a somewhat hostile planet. Just as Khan was exiled to Ceti Alpha V, where he forged a new society, most of us — for the time being at least — are stuck on planet Earth. Here in 2016, our nation is engaged in its own terrestrial wars between alien-like political foes — Democrats versus Republicans, conservative Christians against Muslims, police supporters against Black Lives Matter activists, the haves battling the have-nots.

In these contentious times, the spirit of “Star Trek” still speaks to us.

What the show has always boldly declared is this: Disregard the doomsayers, those who predict our species’ demise, those who look to disharmony. Instead, the goofy, awkward optimism of the “Star Trek” franchise suggested, Aim forward into a future of cooperation and harmony.

Sure, if you’re gold-shirted officer Kirk, you get to sleep with wayward crew and alien species from time to time. If his bedroom shenanigans were a bit self-serving, didn’t that amorous touch also foster interspecies understanding? By and large, he came in peace.

This fall as the presidential race hits warp speed, “Star Trek” still offers a vision of how we could and should be. (Depending on which Romulans or Changelings you speak to, Hillary Clinton is either one of the gold-shirted good guys or a nefarious Orion slave girl bent on revenge; Trump is either a warmongering Klingon or a disposable Redshirt who doesn’t survive the episode.)

“Star Trek” first launched during a time of great unrest: the 1960s. The ground war in Vietnam had been launched in an effort to stop Communist expansion in Asia. On the homefront, racial tensions flared and violence erupted. Fears about overpopulation and environmental destruction haunted Americans. Yet here was a show whose multiracial, multiethnic, multinational and, yes, multispecies crew worked together. From Spock to Uhura, Chekov to Sulu, “Star Trek” proposed a melting pot of humans, male and female, white and black, Asian and Russian — and even Vulcan — who all work together toward a common goal. In “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the diverse crew even included a robot, Data, and a member of a onetime enemy species, the Klingon Worf.

That mission was the exploration of space, “the final frontier,” in the spirit of knowledge and science.

This vision is a powerful counter to Trump’s demagoguery, which places the problems of our country at the feet of “bad people” from foreign lands, who have darker skin, who practice alien customs and who, we are told, mean us harm. For Trump and the supporters he engages, our differences aren’t outweighed by what we share. Trump’s vision of the future depends on having enemies to attack — Hillary Clinton, Mexican immigrants, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. What would make America great again, in his mind, is more mistrust and taller walls.

This hive mind-like approach is not unlike that of the cybernetic Borg of “Star Trek” who want to assimilate every foreigner they encounter.

Imagine a son or daughter of an undocumented immigrant on Trump’s crew. That’s not the galaxy Trump that lives in. Perhaps in an alternative universe, he might embrace these ideals, and the legions of white nationalist, neo-reactionary, alt-right nativists might be less afraid of “the other.” But until we invent a way to travel through a wormhole — or send Trump and his ilk through one — making his supporters feel less paranoid and less likely to blame anyone but themselves for their problems isn’t going happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, walls keep rising between African-Americans and police, veterans and civilians, Wal-Mart workers and billionaires.

We must remember the immortal words of Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”

The four-year mission of the U.S.S. Trump could not be more opposed than the original five-year “Star Trek” mission of cooperation, adventure and hope.

Let us hope that it is Trump who is the alien species, not those of us who believe in science, exploration and a peaceful universe. After all, you can’t build a wall in space.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” He can be reached and onTwitter.

How Consumer Culture Is Killing Citizenship

We live in a society where market values spread without limit, in which we are branding and selling ourselves along with everything else, including public office. How do we stop it?

NEW YORK CITY – MAY 13: Times Square May 13, 2012 in New York, NY. Times Square is the most visited tourist attraction in the world with over 39 million visitors annually.
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone /

Donald Trump’s candidacy gives rise to many descriptors — authoritarian, bigoted, divisive. It is also the culmination of long-developing dysfunctions of a culture where market values have spread beyond appropriate limits and radically eroded citizenship.

Though many feel hopeless about changing this culture, resources are appearing for revitalizing citizenship and for building a movement for a deeper democracy, across party lines, after this sour and dispiriting election.

Susan Faludi describes the consumer culture well in her 1999 book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Drawing on interviews with groups of men from African-American shipyard workers to veterans to evangelical Christians, she shows how ideals of loyalty, team play and the mastery of a vocation were replaced by “a competitive individualism… robbed of craft or utility and ruled by commercial values that revolve around who has the most, the best, the biggest, the fastest.” Masculinity became something “to drape over the body, not draw from inner resources, to be displayed not demonstrated.”

Trump’s public persona, winner-in-chief, is a poster child for Faludi’s male. He surrounds himself with gold-plated trinkets. He seeks to brand everything he touches. He is also a snake oil salesman, a figure familiar from American history.

All these traits might be called Trumpism, not simply Trump. Trumpism represents a model of public life which replaces citizens as makers of democratic society with a transactional politics that asks only “what’s in it for me?” It is the mark of a society where market values spread without limit, in which we are branding and selling ourselves along with everything else.

Out-of-control consumerism sets in early these days. A decade ago, the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Advertising and Children found that children viewed more than 40,000 commercials each year. Our entire society is swamped with advertising, as Louise Story described in her New York Times article, “Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad.” Research by the Yankelovich group finds that people living in cities see up to 5,000 ads a day.

Targeted advertising in the age of the internet can dissolve crucial distinctions between evidence and image. As the American Psychological Association Task Force warns, “Comprehension involves not only the recognition that the advertiser has a perspective different from the viewer and that advertisers intend to persuade their audiences to buy their products, but also that such persuasive communication is biased.”

Trump’s posture — his constant pivots, his protean notion of “truth,” his bait-and-switch changes in policy — embody the logic of a culture where differences between salesmanship and leadership disappear.

If Trump is the outgrowth of an everything-is-for-sale culture, his flaws dramatize the need for revitalized citizenship. In American history, robust understandings of citizenship were associated with the language of commonwealth.

Growing from English traditions, commonwealth citizenship meant popular government based on the common consent of the people. John Adams proposed the designation for every state. Four states today are official commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The term also encompassed the shared public good that settlers created in communities across the country. For instance, Benjamin Franklin’s Leather Apron Club in Philadelphia in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was dedicated to “doing well by doing good.” It included tradesmen, artisans and shopkeepers who combined enterprise with commitments to civic products and generated a street-sweeping corps; volunteer firefighters; tax-supported neighborhood constables; health and life insurance groups; a library; a hospital; an academy for educating young people; a society for sharing scientific discoveries; and a postal system.

Commonwealth, as a word and a sentiment, was a theme not only for civic leaders and community builders but also for radicals and activists who sought a more egalitarian and inclusive democracy, challenging the nation in a prophetic voice. In Minnesota, for instance, “The Cooperative Commonwealth Program” of the Farmer-Labor Party in 1932, growing out of populist farmer, labor and cooperative movements, helped elect candidates for governor, the state legislature and Congress.

The freedom movement against segregation, which I participated in as a young man in the 1960s, was suffused with such citizenship, a sense of responsibility for the fate of the nation as a whole. Even the angriest of critics sometimes acknowledged the fact. “It’s ironical that the people who were slaves, the most beaten and despised people here, are to be at this moment the only hope that this country has,” said the fiery writer James Baldwin after the church bombing in Birmingham, Sept. 15, 1963, which killed four young girls. “The only people in the country at the moment who believe either in Christianity or in the country are the most despised minority.”

As people made the commonwealth and took responsibility for their communities, they became active citizens and gained power and authority.

Young people’s response to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, championing public goods — from schools to parks, infrastructure to health provision — suggests a generation hungry for the commonwealth. On the Republican side, the number of leaders who refuse to back Trump because of their commitments to values of civility and inclusion suggests there’s hope for a revitalized politics of common decency and the commonwealth, as well.

In our own work at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, we constantly see not only young people’s hunger for a public world beyond “everything for sale” but also their desire to help make such a world. In Public Achievement (PA), the youth civic education and empowerment initiative I co-founded in 1990, we saw a way to join the spirit, civics and political insights of the civil rights movement with the lessons of broad-based organizing and bring them to today’s youth. Such organizing creates “universities of public life,” in the words of organizer Ernesto Cortes, where people learned to work across the most bitter partisan, racial, economic and other divides on public projects.

PA is active in communities across America, as well as in other countries. In PA, young people work as teams coached by adults (often college students), learning skills to make change on public issues they choose. From Minnesota and Colorado to Texas and Georgia, young people are fighting demeaning depictions of blacks and Latinos and Asians. They champion the dignity of women, LGBT people, poor people and those with disabilities. They campaign for immigrant rights and against bullying. They create videos, songs and plays that convey the overlooked talents of our youth. And they make many public resources, from playgrounds to recycling centers.

The response to PA shows that young people want to be citizens every day, not only in preparation for voting or on voting day — citizens who are co-creators of communities in an ongoing way.

This idea of citizens as co-creators of communities is central to the transdisciplinary field of “Civic Studies,” recently supported by a $15 million endowment to the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.

Tisch College is a leader in the field of civic studies, and it has been central to the growing movement for civic education and citizenship that points beyond elections. Working with the White House Domestic Policy Council, it hosted a conference for higher education leaders in 2014. Last July, it helped to support a meeting of social studies teachers in the White House.

The House 2017 Appropriations bill includes the first funding for civics and American history in years. The bill includes $6.5 million in competitive grants to improve instruction in American history, civics and geography, with a particular emphasis on schools in under-served rural and urban communities. The bill also provides for American history and civics academies that will offer professional development opportunities for teachers.

These are intimations of a movement for citizenship and renewed democracy across party lines.

For all its dysfunctions, the Trump campaign can be a wake-up call. Only such a movement will reverse public squalor in the midst of private affluence and revitalize a democracy for the 21stcentury worthy of our country’s ideals.


Harry Boyte is is an architect of the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship’s public work approach to civic engagement and democracy, and the creator of Public Achievement. Boyte served as a senior advisor to the National Commission on Civic Renewal and presented research findings at a Camp David seminar on the future of democracy. He is the author of nine books on citizenship, democracy and community organizing, including The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference (2008) and Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life (2004). Follow him on Twitter: @HarryBoyte.

Beyond Bernie: What’s next for the left?


Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president came to an end with the self-declared socialist calling on his supporters to back the choice of the Democratic Party establishment. But the campaign will have a continuing effect on the millions of people who were energized by Sanders’ challenge to the U.S. political status quo–and by his open advocacy of socialism.

With the general election campaign underway, asked leading writers and activists for their thoughts on the aftermath of the Sanders campaign and the job of the left in the post-Sanders period. Here’s what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Bhaskar Sunkara, Jen Roesch, Sarah Jaffe, Howie Hawkins and Amy Muldoon had to say.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders at a town meeting in Phoenix (Gage Skidmore)

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

With each passing week, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign reaches a new low, and the liberal establishment’s coalescence around Hillary Clinton’s candidacy becomes even firmer.

Of course, Trump is a frightening thug who should be relentlessly resisted, but the overwhelming focus on him threatens to give Hillary Clinton a blank check as president.

Since the two parties’ conventions in July, Trump’s unraveling has meant little attention has been paid to developments in the Clinton campaign. Not only have a rogue’s gallery of war criminals come out to endorse her, but the campaign is actively soliciting the support of Republicans who are jumping Trump’s sinking ship. The concerns of skeptical Sanders supporters are validated with each conservative embrace by Clinton’s campaign.

But more troublesome than Clinton courting Republicans is how the crisis within the Republican Party apparatus is used to discipline liberals into passive complicity with Clinton’s–sometimes anemic and other times reactionary–political program. The pressure to keep Trump out of office also works to silence people who would otherwise be wholly critical of Clinton’s neoliberal political agenda.

For example, Clinton has promised to spend $120 billion to reinvest in urban centers with high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. But on further review, what Clinton is actually promising is to create “empowerment zones” in these cities.

This is an old approach to urban reinvestment that gives massive tax breaks to corporations on the promise that they will create jobs. This, of course, has never worked in the 60 years that it has been proposed as a solution to urban problems.

Clinton, however, gets a pass because she is not Donald Trump. And the problem isn’t just during the election, but that this passivity, if Clinton wins, will carry over into her presidency.

The pressure will be even greater once Clinton is in office to “give her time” to carry out her agenda. There are already stories being floated in the media by Clinton supporters about how difficult it will be for her to get parts of her agenda through a Republican-dominated Congress–including her much-touted pledge to raise taxes on the rich.

Sanders was denigrated as unserious for proposing universal health care and free public college tuition, but the idea that Clinton will convince Congress to hike taxes on the rich is pure fantasy.

The Democratic Party will then insist that we turn our attention to the midterm elections, just in time for a fresh crop of Republican boogeymen to arise, as a reminder to liberals that whatever faults Clinton may have, we must, once again, rally around her lukewarm campaign to stop the “greater evil.”

And so the important work of building social movements is also delayed or put on hold while we work to continue to put Democrats in office in what we are always told is the “most important election of our lifetime.”

This is a vicious cycle that has paralyzed the broad left from forming independent organizations and political parties that can weather the ups and downs of the election season.

It has also circumscribed our political imaginations in terms of what is possible in the realm of political struggle. Too often our conception of politics begins and ends with the question of which political candidate will cause the least harm, when what we really need to be asking is “how do we get free?”

This isn’t to say that elections are unimportant, but we should also not overestimate their importance. The reason that most Americans don’t vote is because voting in these elections has almost no impact on their day-to-day lives.

Millions of people in this country are already living in the nightmarish world we are told would be unleashed if Trump were to become president. Millions live in poverty; millions toil in underpaid service jobs; millions cannot afford health care coverage; millions suffer the indignity and terror of eviction and homelessness; millions live in fear of police abuse and violence; millions fear the turmoil of deportation and fractured families.

But these are the issues that are systematically ignored during election season, because in the contest to see who will run the American empire, the needs of the poor, oppressed and exploited aren’t even secondary–they don’t register at all.

And so the task of the existing left is to continue to build the developing movements against police terror, for immigrant rights, for workers’ rights, for education justice and beyond. Not only do we have to build these movements in their own right, but we also must work harder to connect them and show how these issues all overlap and influence each other.

We need a larger movement in general to stop the roaring freight train of gross economic inequality, privatization and the impoverishment of millions of people in this country. Another world is possible, but we have to organize and fight for it.

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Bhaskar Sunkara

Founding editor, Jacobin magazine

I think that fundamentally, the Sanders campaign was a huge triumph.

It may sound funny to say that at this moment, when a lot of people are rightly disappointed by Bernie Sanders’ decision to endorse Hillary Clinton in such a full-throated way. But the reason why I supported Bernie Sanders from the beginning–and I obviously had disagreements with comrades in the International Socialist Organization and others on this issue–was because I thought a self-described democratic socialist pushing a social democratic program could open political space and possibilities.

I really think that’s been accomplished. For one, we’ve shown that there’s a real majority for our politics, and in the short term, for a social democratic program.

We’ve also shown that there is a fissure–and I think it’s been opened further–within the Democratic Party between the base of the party, especially young people who supported Bernie Sanders, and the party establishment. Obviously, a lot of the wounds that were opened up will be healed by the relentless drive of lesser evilism to support Hillary Clinton and the fearmongering about the prospects of a Trump presidency.

Nonetheless, I think that things have shifted in a certain direction which will leave some sort of base to the left of Clintonite liberalism in the Democratic Party. And that base is our future constituency for any sort of left politics.

If you combine that with the development of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and of other activity such as within trade unions, there have been some promising developments. Thus, I think all of us can say that as of August 2016, the prospects for building a left and a socialist opposition in the United States is stronger than it was one year ago today.

That said, the success in energizing people around the Sanders campaign may not translate immediately and directly in marshaling all these people and directing them toward the left and various non-electoral struggles right away. Instead, it represents a kind of terrain for the left for some time to come. These people will be the raw material and a receptive audience for us to continually engage with over the next five or 10 years.

It’s important that the left learn to relate to everyone. We have to figure out how to connect to the Bernie supporters who are following Sanders and will critically support Hillary Clinton. And I think it’s very important to relate to young people who are basically saying, for lack of a better term, fuck it, and refusing to support any establishment candidate, whether they are voting for Jill Stein or are staying home,

I think we need to relate to all those people while trying to keep alive the vision of the politics we want, which is independent class organization. We have the opportunity to push that line wherever we can.

I think there’s a real opportunity–particularly at the local level, in cities like New York and Chicago–to challenge Democrats. And it’s there that I think we need to aggressively push against the idea that the Democratic Party can be transformed and used in any shape or form.

Often, we rightly criticize attempts to transform the Democratic Party from within at the national level, so we rightly criticize, for example, Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton. But I think it’s a better use of the left’s efforts to organize independent political challenges at the local level, because we can actually, in many places, run viable, competitive campaigns for the City Council or for state Senate, and challenge the Democrats there.

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Jen Roesch contributor and member of the International Socialist Organization

Since the end of the primaries–and long before, actually–there has been a chorus of complaints from liberals about Bernie Sanders supporters who hesitated to fall in line behind Hillary Clinton. They have been derided as ridiculous, childish and entitled for failing to understand the realities of the system.

But their anger is fueled precisely by the fact that they do understand those realities.

Sanders spent the last year exposing the Democrats as a party of the wealthy and powerful. His supporters are right to be skeptical, even bitter, at the idea that a vote for Clinton will have any meaningful impact on their lives.

It isn’t simply that Clinton is the candidate of Wall Street. The inequality in this country is so widely felt that people instinctively understand this election will do little to change things–even those who hope that Clinton will at least do less damage than Trump.

There is a growing sense that the “radical political change” dismissed as unrealistic by Sanders critics is the only solution to the multiple crises we face. It is this deeper vein of anger–one that goes far beyond this election cycle–that Sanders tapped into. But for the generation of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, the Sanders campaign wasn’t its first attempt to fight for that change.

The last five years have seen many struggles that emerged seemingly out of nowhere, but receded just as quickly. It has been difficult to translate these into sustained movements capable of winning lasting reforms, let alone posing a challenge to the system. But theyhave had a cumulative impact on consciousness.

The Sanders campaign amplified this, but it also gave it a language–that of socialism. Interest in socialism has been growing for years, but few could have predicted how forcefully it would burst onto the political stage this year. Even if Sanders’ socialism is far from my vision of socialism from below, for millions of people, it has created a new way of thinking about the problems we face.

This provides a framework for talking about the interconnected nature of our struggles and the potential for solidarity. By putting forward demands for the redistribution of wealth, it can provide a bridge between the massive anger that people feel and the kinds of struggles that could bring them into organized activity.

But the question remains: With Sanders abandoning his call for a “political revolution” and joining in the celebration of Democratic Party unity, where do we go next?

Many people, including Sanders himself, believe we should draw the lesson that a socialist came close to winning the Democratic presidential nomination, and we should focus on running other progressive candidates.

But despite running arguably the most successful insurgent campaign the Democratic Party has seen, Sanders was unable to shift the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential campaign and message even slightly to the left.

Instead, Clinton boasts about her endorsements from war criminals, campaigns for Republicans votes and assures Wall Street that she is their best friend. Sanders has been relegated to using his popularity to shore up the left vote for everything he campaigned against.

To build on the radical potential of Sanders’ campaign, we must break from the Democrats. Jill Stein’s Green Party campaign is an important opportunity to register opposition to a system that tells us we deserve nothing better than the lesser of two evils.

But the most important steps lie outside the electoral arena. This year showed that there are massive numbers of people open to socialism who aren’t yet organized. We need to bring them into discussion and activity. Those who were inspired by Sanders are, in many ways, the potential future of a new socialist movement in this country.

But there is nothing inevitable about the conclusions people draw from their experiences–whether they become active and are convinced that their own self-activity is indispensable. The process of discussion, debate and organization is critical.

The austerity, racism and repression that have driven the radicalization haven’t gone away. They will continue to deepen, regardless of who wins the election. Fighting these will require sustained, democratic struggles involving masses of people around concrete demands. It will also require stronger and larger socialist organizations that can provide an alternative to the system as a whole.

None of this will be easy to accomplish. But we do know the best aspirations raised by Sanders’ campaign can’t be realized through the Democratic Party. The goal of the left should be to engage this new generation and create a political home for those who are ready to fight.

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Sarah Jaffe

Journalist and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt

In the last week or so, I’ve had several conversations with people who had spent a lot of time and energy on the Sanders campaign, wondering where to go next.

It’s a fair question. Presidential elections suck up all the air in the political space for the years that they take up, and as big donors spend more and more money on them, they expand to take up more and more time.

But actually, I think the most important work is done outside of the presidential arena. Sanders stepped into a space that had been created by tens of thousands of movement activists around the country, striking workers and Occupiers, and members of the movement for Black lives, and articulated something that had been in the air: Capitalism is not working for most people.

I think it’s worth saying that any campaign you put your heart into that loses will leave you feeling the need to grieve. That’s a human response.

But after that, where do we go? The genie, as they say, isn’t going back in the bottle. The anger and frustration and, most of all, hope for something better that people are feeling, the raised expectations, are still here, and they need to go somewhere.

That might be into local elections in cities and towns like the one where I live in New York’s Hudson Valley, where the energy that Sanders tapped into can go into making real change on a community level, electing people who see outside of the narrow choices that are on offer.

But more importantly, at least in my opinion, that energy can go into existing movements or into creating a new political force within the community that demands better of the power structures that exist.

People who just began to think about the way power is wielded in the workplace can come together to support workers struggles, walk picket lines, adopt stores as groups did during the Verizon workers strike. The demand for free college can go into organizing around student debt and for reinvestment in public higher education.

As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) continues to stumble and to be insufficient, Sanders’ call for single-payer health care can be renewed on a state level and in a national push for a public option, which is once again on the public mind as yet another private insurer pulls out of the ACA exchanges.

Even as the Sanders campaign grew and won millions of votes, plenty of movement activists continued to do work that had nothing to do with the presidential race.

Around the country, organizers with the movement for Black lives worked on local issues, defeated prosecutors who gave carte blanche to police who kill and also put together a platform, the Vision for Black Lives, that lays out demands for a truly free society, one in which not only state violence, but the economic violence of capitalism comes to an end.

The Sanders campaign was something we should understand as another iteration of the social movements that have rocked the U.S. and the world in the last several years.

It was not the beginning of the political revolution, and it will not be the end, as I have said elsewhere. But like every other part of the struggle that has happened, it has brought in new people who are frustrated with the world as it is and ready to take some risks to make it better.

Regardless of how they vote in November, what really matters is that they find ways to connect to the struggles that will continue no matter who is in the White House.

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Howie Hawkins

Green Party member and former Green candidate for governor of New York

The Sanders campaign revealed two realities that demonstrated the socialist left can build an independent mass party of the left.

First, the big Sanders vote demonstrated mass support for progressive social and economic policies. Second, the 2.5 million contributors who gave $230 million to Sanders’ campaign in small contributions revealed that the ordinary people will finance a political movement for progressive change on a scale that can compete with corporate candidates of the two-party system.

The Democratic Party will be a graveyard for Sanders’ demands. The Democratic Party is not only ideologically capitalist; it is structurally capitalist. The real power structure of the Democratic Party is a shifting coalition of entrepreneurial candidates and their campaign organizations that compete for donations (investments) from the corporate rich.

These campaign organizations trump party committees and platforms. Democratic candidates and politicians owe their investors, not formal party structures. If Sanders supporters enter this swamp, they will lose their very identity as an alternative.

The other swamp to avoid is a retreat to single-issue movements that try to pressure, instead of replace, the politicians of the two-corporate-party system.

The nonprofit industrial complex is another capitalist market where professional staffs compete for foundation and government grants whose ultimate source of funding is rich corporate donors to the foundations and the politicians. The power over who gets the grants pacifies these advocacy organizations, reducing them to supporting and lobbying Democrats for minor ameliorations. It is a divide-and-rule process that pits issues and constituencies against each other.

The Sanders campaign demonstrated that there is a mass base for different kind of politics–for a mass-membership party where party candidates and leaders are accountable to the membership and the platform they approve. Such a party can participate in or initiate movements demanding reforms with significant resources and organization that are accountable to a popular base, not corporate funders.

The mass-membership party, where formal members are organized into locals and finance the party with their dues, was an invention of the socialist left in the late 19th century. It was how the workers’ movement and its small farmer allies were able to build movements to win the universal franchise, to organize labor unions and cooperatives, and to effectively compete in elections against the older top-down parties of the landed and business elites that were based on their legislative caucuses and wealthy sponsors rather than a formal membership with democratic rights in their party.

The Democrats and Republicans are organized on the old top-down model favored by business elites. It is time to organize a democratic mass-membership party in opposition.

Supporting the Green Party presidential campaign of Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka should be next step in building a mass-membership party and the next step for Sanders supporters who want the “political revolution” to continue. A sizable Green vote will yield real gains.

First, the Green campaign is fulfilling is the traditional influential role of left third parties in American politics, which is to force popular demands that the two major parties are ignoring on to the legislative agenda. The Stein/Baraka campaign is keeping the Sanders’ domestic program in the national debate and adding the crucial missing piece in Sanders program, an anti-imperialist foreign policy.

Second, there are 37 state ballots where the Greens are up for qualification, needing 1 to 3 percent of the vote in most of those states. These ballots can be used by local candidates for municipal, county, state and federal office in coming elections. Most electoral districts in the U.S. are one-party districts due to bipartisan gerrymandering of safe seats for members of both corporate parties. The minority major party doesn’t compete seriously, if at all, in most of these districts. A left third party, with a relatively small core of activists, can quickly become the second party, the primary opposition party, in these districts and determine the policy debate.

Third, 5 percent of the vote qualifies the Green Party for public funding in the 2020 presidential general election. It starts at about $10 million for 5 percent and increases the higher the vote.

Fourth, the experience, organization and supporter lists developed in canvassing voters in support of the Stein/Baraka ticket can be used to build local movements and party organizations starting right after the November 8 election. The fight to defeat Trans-Pacific Partnership in the lame duck session of Congress begins on November 9. The process of building a mass party of the left from the bottom up continues right after the election.

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Amy Muldoon

Communications Workers of America member at Verizon and shop steward in New York City

The strike of 39,000 union members at Verizon in April and May got an invigorating boost from the attention that Bernie Sanders brought to it with his presidential campaign. But the strike in turn contributed something critical to the discussion of socialism that Sanders helped opened up: class struggle.

The Sanders campaign highlighted the progressive role that government could play in curtailing corporate greed and closing the wealth gap, but our strike showed how ordinary people could directly confront–and stop–the bosses’ assault on our living standards.

Since the strike, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to multiple audiences about how and why we were able to win. What I’ve seen is a serious interest in class politics, especially from young people who form the heart of the Sanders demographic.

However, people coming to politics today don’t have the experience or exposure to strikes and class struggle that earlier generations did. Unfortunately, there isn’t a wave of copycat strikes that can push a discussion forward about class power as the avenue for challenging the bosses and politicians that work for them.

I don’t think the radicalization that drove the Sanders campaign will evaporate, but it could go in many different directions.

Within the labor movement, the pointless loyalty to the Democrats is as thick as ever at the national leadership level. My union, the Communication Workers of America, was probably the largest labor organization to endorse Sanders. There was widespread support for Sanders, some of it very enthusiastic. The feeling that finally someone was talking class politics and actually walking the walk inspired more interest in the election than I’ve seen in years.

Since Clinton won the nomination, I’ve seen a lot of frustration with the attitude coming from the leadership–and liberal forces everywhere–that we have to vote for Clinton. More politically savvy members see voting for Clinton as a short-term stop in a longer fight to turn the Democrats back into a “party of the people.”

I doubt Clinton will have any kind of “honeymoon,” given how disliked she is pre-election. The strike and the Sanders campaign raised people’s expectations, and I don’t think you can put that genie back in the bottle. The nomination process may have blunted some of the optimism that the campaign inspired, but it sharpened the anger and clarity among a portion of Bernie supporters.

Unfortunately, the unions tend to be some of the most loyal adherents to the Democratic Party machine. Rumor has it that unions left the Working Families Party (WFP) in New York after the CWA–a driving force within the WFP–endorsed Sanders, even though Sanders voted with the Democratic Party line as an independent in the Senate more than many formal party members.

There has been a wave of leadership changes across local unions in the last five years, but the Democrats are still hegemonic, even among reformers. Assuming Clinton wins, she can expect a rocky term of office. Will the unions sit on the sidelines during protests? When, not if, the Trans-Pacific Partnership economic deal is approved, how will unions react?

We can’t answer these questions today, but we know the dissatisfaction with establishment politics that was exposed during the Sanders campaign lives on. Within the labor movement, this inevitably raises questions not only about the status quo in formal politics, but organizing the unorganized and negotiating contracts.

Raised expectations can turn into real change, if the left continues to transmit the lessons of actions like the Verizon strike to the broadest audience.

Radical new economic system will emerge from collapse of capitalism

Political adviser and author Jeremy Rifkin believes that the creation of a super internet heralds new economic system that could solve society’s sustainability challenges

Domino effect
Current economic system is headed for collapse says Jeremy Rifkin. Photograph: Linda Nylind

At the very moment of its ultimate triumph, capitalism will experience the most exquisite of deaths.

This is the belief of political adviser and author Jeremy Rifkin, who argues the current economic system has become so successful at lowering the costs of production that it has created the very conditions for the destruction of the traditional vertically integrated corporation.

Rifkin, who has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and heads of state, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, says:

No one in their wildest imagination, including economists and business people, ever imagined the possibility of a technology revolution so extreme in its productivity that it could actually reduce marginal costs to near zero, making products nearly free, abundant and absolutely no longer subject to market forces.

With many manufacturing companies surviving only on razor thin margins, they will buckle under competition from small operators with virtually no fixed costs.

“We are seeing the final triumph of capitalism followed by its exit off the world stage and the entrance of the collaborative commons,” Rifkin predicts.

The creation of the collaborative commons

From the ashes of the current economic system, he believes, will emerge a radical new model powered by the extraordinary pace of innovation in energy, communication and transport.

“This is the first new economic system since the advent of capitalism and socialism in the early 19th century so it’s a remarkable historical event and it’s going to transform our way of life fundamentally over the coming years,” Rifkin says. “It already is; we just haven’t framed it.”

Some sectors, such as music and media, have already been disrupted as a result of the internet’s ability to let individuals and small groups compete with the major established players. Meanwhile, the mainstreaming of 3D printing and tech advances in logistics – such as the installation of billions of intelligent sensors across supply chains – means this phenomenon is now spreading from the virtual to the physical world, Rifkin says.

Climate change

The creation of a new economic system, Rifkin argues, will help alleviate key sustainability challenges, such as climate change and resource scarcity, and take pressure off the natural world. That’s because it will need only a minimum amount of energy, materials, labour and capital.

He says few people are aware of the scale of danger the human race is facing, particularly the growing levels of precipitation in the atmosphere, which is leading to extreme weather.

“Ecosystems can’t catch up with the shift in the planet’s water cycle and we’re in the sixth extinction pattern,” he warns. “We could lose 70% of our species by the end of this century and may be imperilling our ability to survive on this planet.”

Convergence of communication, energy and transport

Every economy in history has relied for its success on the three pillars of communication, energy, and transportation, but what Rifkin says makes this age unique is that we are seeing them converge to create a super internet.

While the radical changes in communication are already well known, he claims a revolution in transport is just around the corner. “You’ll have near zero marginal cost electricity with the probability of printed out cars within 10 or 15 years,” he says. “Add to this GPS guidance and driverless vehicles and you will see the marginal costs of transport on this automated logistics internet falling pretty sharply.”

Rifkin is particularly interested in the upheaval currently rippling through the energy sector and points to the millions of small and medium sized enterprises, homeowners and neighbourhoods already producing their own green electricity.

The momentum will only gather pace as the price of renewable technology plummets. Rifkin predicts the cost of harvesting energy will one day be as cheap as buying a phone:

You can create your own green electricity and then go up on the emerging energy internet and programme your apps to share your surpluses across that energy internet. You can also use all the big data across that value chain to see how the energy is flowing. That’s not theoretical. It’s just starting.

He says the German energy company E.ON has already recognised that the traditional centralised energy company model is going to disappear and is following his advice to move towards becoming a service provider, finding value by helping others manage their energy flows.

He urges large companies across all sectors to follow suit and, rather than resist change, use their impressive scale and organisational capabilities to help aggregate emerging networks.

Network neutrality: key to success

While Rifkin believes the economic revolution is likely to be unstoppable, he warns that it could be distorted if individual countries and corporations succeed in their intensifying battle for control of the internet:

If the old industries can monopolise the pipes, the structure, and destroy network neutrality, then you have global monopolies and Big Brother for sure.

But if we are able to maintain network neutrality, it would mean that any consumer who turns prosumer, with their mobile and their apps, already can begin to feed into this expanded internet of things that’s developing.

People think this is off on the horizon but if I had said in 1989, before the web came, that 25 years later we’d have democratised communication and 40% of the human race would be sending information goods of all kinds to each other, they’d have said that couldn’t happen.

The paradox of over-consumption

Isn’t Rifkin concerned that the ability to produce goods so cheaply will just lead to more strain on the planet’s limited resources as a growing global population go on a buying frenzy?

He believes there is a paradox operating here, which is that over consumption results from our fear of scarcity, so will go away when we know we can have what we want.

Millennials are already seeing through the false notion that the more we accumulate, the more we are autonomous and free. It seems they are more interested in developing networks and joining the sharing economy than in consumption for consumption’s sake.

Nonprofit sector to become preeminent

What about the concern that the end of capitalism would lead to chaos? Rifkin believes the gap left by the disappearance of major corporations will be filled by the nonprofit sector.

For anyone who doubts this, Rifkin points to the hundreds of millions of people who are already involved in a vast network of co-operatives around the world:

There’s an institution in our life that we all rely on every day that provides all sorts of goods and services that have nothing to do with profit or government entitlement and without it we couldn’t live and that’s the social commons. There’s millions of organisations that provide healthcare, education, ministering to the poor, culture, arts, sports, recreation, and it goes on and on.

This isn’t considered by economists because it creates social capital which is essential to all three of the internets, but doesn’t create market capital. But as a revenue producer, it’s huge and what’s interesting is it’s growing faster than the GDP in the private market system.

At the age of 69, Rifkin admits he may not live long enough to see his hope for a better future materialise, but says the collaborative commons offers the only viable way forward to deal with the sustainability challenges faced by humanity.

“We’ve got a new potential platform to get us to where we need to go”, he says. “I don’t know if it’s in time, but if there’s an alternative plan I have no idea what it could be. What I do know is that staying with a vertically integrated system – based on large corporations with fossil fuels, nuclear power and centralised telecommunications, alongside growing unemployment, a narrowing of GDP and technologies that are moribund – is not the answer.”

To Beat Trump, Clinton Resurrects Triangulation and the Politics of Fear


The enduring cliche of the 2016 election is a comment by Trump that provokes outrage, rebukes, and the declaration, “He’s gone too far.” This happened the moment Trump declared his presidential bid by denigrating Mexicans, then when he attacked veterans, women, the disabled, Muslims, and the judiciary among others, and most recently with his vendetta against Khizr and Ghazala Khan.

Trump’s attack on the Khans seems curious as he had nothing to gain. The couple grabbed the moral high ground at the Democratic National Convention by pointedly telling Trump, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one,” in reference to the death of their son as a U.S. Army officer in Iraq in 2004.

The self-inflicted wounds are unlikely to cause Trump permanent harm, however. The New York Times found his attacks on military members and families mainly affected the opinion of undecided veterans, a sliver of voters. Trump also recovered after a similar racist tirade against a U.S.-born judge overseeing lawsuits against the defunct Trump University. Republicans inside the Beltway freaked out in private over Trump’s antics, but in public they are loathe to break with him when polls show 81 percent of the party supports him along with 41 percent of the public overall.

Moreover, Trump’s ranting about the Khans is consistent with his trickle-down revenge and nativism that’s congealed a white nationalist rebellion around him. It shows little sign of faltering. In battlegrounds like Ohio, North Carolina, and Iowa, Trump trails Clinton by less than 1 percent. And while Democrats have opened up new fronts in Arizona and Georgia, Trump lags by 6 percent or less in delegate-rich states such as Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Nevada.

Digging into local data in Ohio and Pennsylvania exposes the seismic shifts in public attitudes that Trump capitalized on. In Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, a white working-class enclave Obama won by five points in 2012, Trump has a 23-point lead over Clinton. Ohio’s Mahoning and Trumbull counties are the heart of now-vanished “Little Steel” that Obama handily won in 2012 with more than 60 percent of the vote. But with voters flocking to him, Trump is poised to flip these former union strongholds. Even if many working-class whites are intoxicated by Trump’s racism, they are equally embittered by their declining economic fortunes under Obama.

These whites are America’s Brexit voters, battered workers distrustful of politicians, media, and business leaders who have hoodwinked them for decades about the benefits of globalization and empire, even if their anger is nursed on a diet of bigotry and bizarre conspiracies. So they shrug off Trump’s tantrums or spread slander such as Khan is an “al Qaeda double agent.” As some have told Telesur, they support Trump because they want him “to blow up the system.”

Trump’s allegiance to the Republican Party is limited to hijacking it for his outsized ego and ambitions. But he has a death grip on the wheel of the GOP and is blase about driving it off a cliff. Even in defeat Trump will emerge victorious with an army of aggrieved whites, a fundraising machine, and a megaphone to foment trouble. He is already spinning racially tinged yarns that if he loses it’s because the election is rigged. If Clinton triumphs as seems likely, the Trumpian hordes will treat her as delegitimized even before she assumes office.

Given elite antipathy toward Trump there is a danger of underestimating his chances. In July his campaign and the Republican National Committee hauled in $82 million, mostly in small contributions that indicate the depth and breadth of his support. Fine-tuned demographic analysis reveals up to 10 million more white voters over 45 who lack a college degree—Trump’s bedrock—than previously estimated nationwide. If Trump sticks within a point of Clinton in the polls, this subterranean force could tip the election his way, just like Brexit passed despite consistently trailing in surveys.

Hillary Clinton’s strategy is to revert to Clintonian form. In 1994, congressional Democrats were shellacked by Newt Gingrich’s mob of bigots, bomb-throwers, and conspiracists who established right-wing rule of the House that has lasted for all but four of the last 22 years. Bill Clinton responded with “triangulation,” treating unions and progressives as the left counterpart to the rabid right. He staked out the center with insipid initiatives like a “national conversation on race” and a push for school uniforms meant to distract from his anti-poor agenda that rivaled Reagan’s. Meanwhile, Clinton spent his second-term political capital on free trade, loosening banking and commodities regulations, and supercharging media monopolies.

Fast forward a couple of decades to the 2016 DNC. To their credit, Sanders and his rebellious supporters wrested concessions from the Democrats. But Hillary Clinton’s vague calls for raising Social Security benefits, a living wage, tuition-free college, and a jobs program for infrastructure served a purpose other than placating the left. Her proposals sugar-coated the triangulation at the DNC. Nods to social justice and Black Lives Matter were drowned out by bigwigs extolling patriotism, God, militarism, and American exceptionalism. Gen. John Allen said with Clinton as commander-in-chief, the United States would continue to be the “indispensable, transformational power in the world” with a military that would “defeat ISIS … defeat evil” while equipped with “the finest weapons, the greatest equipment.”

Likewise, the Democrats calculated they could insult their base by featuring Michael Bloomberg as a prime-time speaker with little backlash. As New York City mayor, Bloomberg bitterly fought attempts to end racist stop-and-frisk, had police spy on every mosquein a 100-mile radius, imposed big rent increases on millions, and attacked public schools, social programs, and unions with gusto. Bloomberg was only the first billionaire for Clinton, with Mark Cuban, Meg Whitman, and Warren Buffet trotted out after the convention.Whitman is doubly notable as Clinton had courted the right-wing tech executive and she was joined by other prominent Republicans in backing Clinton.

Then in an utterly cynical maneuver, Obama announced days after the DNC he would push the lame-duck Congress to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership this year. It showed the dishonesty of Clinton and her V.P. pick Tim Kaine in suddenly claiming they were opposed to the trade deal after consistently championing it.

New Deal liberals like Thomas Frank fret that Clinton’s right-wing swerves risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But this is a misreading of history. The elite are aware that the Democrats are more capable managers of capitalist globalization, diplomacy, and war than the Republicans. It’s why Clinton is attracting a bipartisan cast of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the mainstream media, and the military and foreign policy establishment.

Clinton also has unions, feminists, and civil rights groups behind her. They serve as progressive window dressing and troops for swing-state trench warfare in return for a “seat at the table” but no real say. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told me at the DNC that organized labor is with Clinton because the Democratic agenda “is our agenda.” When I pressed Trumka about Clinton’s record of supporting nearly every free-trade deal that came before her, he responded, “I’m not worried at all, she’s against TPP” (before smacking me in the face with a cardboard sign).

Trumka is covering for Clinton, and misleading workers, because organized labor has no strategy other than clinging to the globalization express and begging for crumbs off the banquet table. The Democratic election strategy is to win the Rust Belt through micro-targeting of uncommitted whites, a massive canvassing and get-out-the-vote operation, deploying the good ol’ boy band of Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Kaine, and pounding Trump in the media from every imaginable angle—including harkening back a half-century to the infamous daisy ad to ring the alarm about Trump with the nuclear codes. Clinton is also counting on Trump to keep shooting himself in the foot, and he looks likely to oblige. Big business, celebrities, and Obama will throw their full weight behind Clinton. Democrats need to peel off only a small percentage of whites in the industrial Midwest to decisively defeat Trump.

Overall, Democrats are happy to paint white workers as irredeemably racist so they can reject working-class politics. If determined, Democrats could enact legal and regulatory changes that provide unions with the tools to rebuild the labor movement. But that would alienate the corporate constituency the Democratic Party belongs to and relies on for its core support. The logical path, then, for the Clintons, Obama, and the rest is to look to the right for votes.

The Democrats are seeking a historic triangulation by trying to occupy the center for a generation. They will then berate the left, telling them there is nowhere else to go, and watch the radical right flail around with guns and sinister ideas, damaging society but not elite power. The Democrats think they can deliver a fatal blow both to Trump and Trumpism with a blowout victory this election, while demographics takes care of any lingering threat. But this is a fantasy as Clinton’s right-wing policies will produce new white nationalist threats, as they did during the 1990s. And elements on the right are taking advantage of the Democrats’ disdain for workers by scheming on how to turn the GOP into “a (white) workers’ party.”

From this viewpoint, the left response is simple: it should do nothing to help Clinton, not even push people to vote for her in swing states. If Clinton can’t beat Trump with the combined might of capital and labor, then a tiny, disorganized, threadbare left is not going to make any difference. Instead, the left should affirm people’s right to decide if they want to vote and then whom to vote for, such as Jill Stein, Sanders, Vermin Supreme (my favorite), or Clinton. And it should denounce Clinton apologists working feverishly to bully or scare people into voting for her. Fear-based politics makes a mockery of any democratic claims.

Jill Stein will far outstrip her 2012 vote total of 469,000 as she harvests the anti-Clinton vote on the left. But her current polling average of 4 percent will shrink by election day, which is typical of third-party candidates. Stein serves a vital role by blasting Clinton for a “terrifying track record” on the economy, foreign policy, and climate change. She reminds voters Clinton is distinctly dangerous. But pouring energy into Stein’s bid replicates the mistake of prioritizing electoral politics above all else. Third-party presidential runs measure discontent that exists. They do little to build radical movements and often divert energy and resources from organizing. (Though local elections can create space and provide aid for movements.)

But there should also be no illusions about a Trump presidency. It would be open season for the police, state, and vigilantes on Black Lives Matter, Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans, and the left. Left forces would be on their heels, fighting limited defensive battles and grateful to survive, even in a weakened state. Whatever remains of Sanders political revolution would dry up and blow away.

But climbing on the Clinton train means muting criticism of her right-wing policies. It would hobble the left going into four years of more war, more free trade, more oil and gas drilling under Clinton. And that’s exactly what the Wall Street Democrats want.

The left should concentrate on what it does best: laying the groundwork for new movements such as the antiwar and global justice movements, Occupy Wall Street, union, immigrant, and low-wage worker organizing, and Black Lives Matter. Clinton has bankers and liberals, pundits and billionaires, hawks and Republicans all advocating for her. Someone needs to advocate for people.

Originally published by Telesur English.

Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, Salon, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste” (The New Press).