Bernie Sanders and the emerging populist alignment

you little shits

There’s a lot wrong with how pundits (among others) tend to talk about movements. They may say, for example, “Occupy Wall Street — what did it accomplish? It didn’t go anywhere. Where is it now?” And what they fail to see is that Occupy Wall Street was not about itself—was not about existing forever as a thing. The moment of Occupy Wall Street served to name crises that are still with us: unconscionable economic inequality and a political system that has been rigged to maintain the privilege, power, and concentrated wealth of the few, against the interests of the many. Solving these crisis was not the exclusive burden of occupiers in a public park in New York’s financial district; solving these crises is up to all of us. Along similar lines, “Is the movement fading?” is an imprecise and unhelpful question to ask about Black Lives Matter. We might instead inquire about the crises named by the movement: continuing anti-black racism in US society, police violence against communities of color, an out of control criminal justice system… How do we as a society remake our culture and our institutions to redress these grievances? That is what a ‘movement’ demands of each of us. And if a movement apparently fades prior to succeeding, that doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook, so long as the problems remain.

So when the physical occupation of Zuccotti Park came to an abrupt end in November 2011, ‘the movement’ was pronounced dead. But that’s not how long-term social movements work. If the crisis still exists and is still worsening, people will find a way to manifest a challenge to the structures that perpetuate the crisis. Maybe it lies under the surface for five years, and maybe it re-emerges in the form of an insurgent presidential campaign. The thing is, the point of a ‘social movement’ is not to exist in perpetuity; the point is the movement of the social fabric, the reshaping and restructuring of relationships of power and economic production and distribution. A movement is not a neatly delineated thing. Look for a movement’s edges and they will elude you. Rather a movement is a reflection of society itself, drawing attention to parts of society that are in need of attention. And it is also the collective vehicle for challenging entrenched power, and ultimately maneuvering the political terrain in order to remake society along different lines.

I do not know if Bernie Sanders will win the primary or the presidency. But I do know that the Sanders campaign is another notable symbol of the challenger political alignment that is still coming into being. It is an alignment that has fundamentally broken from the logic and mandates of Wall Street; an alignment that asserts that people are more important than profit, that the life and health of our communities is more important than the dictates of high finance. A fundamental step forward that this alignment has to figure out is how to articulate an economic populism that is not — by design or by neglect — for whites-only (a direction tragically taken by most other populist moments in our nation’s history). If it succeeds, this alignment will encompass many moments and perhaps even many movements.

We are finding a way forward. We will make many mistakes and flounder here and there. Many of us are political orphans who have come of age in an era which we were told was the “end of history.” We were told that “there is no alternative.” We have had to figure out an awful lot with too few mentors. What we have going for us is that progressive ideas are popular, despite the noise of the conservative media machine proclaiming the opposite. The conservative project of the past 3+ decades — the hegemonic alignment of Wall Street and socially conservative whites (many organized against their own economic self-interest) — came to fruition in the G. W. Bush years and it failed miserably. Progressive ideas are increasingly popular today. It’s just that progressives have been shut out from the political machinery. It will take time to rebuild the emaciated progressive infrastructure we have inherited. But so many of us — more and more each year, it seems — are ready to resume the project of building a society that is based on social justice; a society that is for all of us.

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