Bernie Sanders: Real resistance and the steep learning curve

Bill Martin

Clinton/Warren 2020! Please mark my words, this is where things are heading.

Most of what calls itself “the Resistance” in present U.S. society is complete nonsense, of course — LARPing, for the most part, and not even good for that.

Any person engaged in serious praxis aimed at real systemic change knows this, though it seems even the majority of such practitioners in present circumstances have subordinated whatever critical acumen they may have previously possessed to the seemingly omnipotent god of hatred toward Trump.

In what is happening right now around the Bernie Sanders camp and the Elizabeth Warren camp, there is an opportunity for these supposed ResistanceTM-people to step up their game significantly.

After all, in this moment, the anti-Berners are certainly stepping up their own game. The problem is that there is a large asymmetry here: it is a lot easier to take someone like Bernie down than it is to build him up, in part because the former can rely on every aspect of the system, from call-out culture and Title IX-type methods to the most nefarious elements of the Deep State, while the latter has to actually confront these elements for a change.

For the most part, the ResistanceTM hasn’t done this, and doesn’t even think about doing this—that is why most of it is set up to accept whatever the power-players in the Democratic Party come up with, and to avoid any sorts of tests, trials, and tribulations (and therefore also the opportunities) that any real resistance would encounter.

There’s that expression, that a person has been “steeled in the resistance.” Especially because I came up, philosophically, as a Sartrean, and have been a part of the North American Sartre Society for a long time (since 1990, when I gave my first talk at the annual conference, with Hazel Barnes — translator of Being and Nothingness and Search for a Method, and excellent Sartrean philosopher in her own right — sitting not three feet from me), and have participated in various meetings with members of the French Groupe Sartrean, I have heard talks by people who were actually in the French Resistance, and had conversations with them.

It’s not a far-fetched idea that anyone who enters into real resistance to a powerful system expects and hopes to be “steeled”; by modus tolens (denying the consequent), then, it appears that the current Left is not interested in anything that is very difficult.

Or it could be that one of my terms here is wrong, and that what calls itself the “Left” these days is not interested in addressing things at the systemic level.

There is a failure here that goes quite beyond any question of “reform vs revolution.” Any struggle for real change, even such a struggle that aims somewhat short of a thoroughgoing break with the existing order, will mean going against the time. What this tells us in present circumstances is that the “easy resistance” is not against the time, not against the current, but instead is a part of the current and operating within the broad parameters of the current (if perhaps on the “left side” of things, though even this is not clear).

Still, we are in a moment when those who really do want to engage in a resistance that hopes to address systemic questions and to bring about substantive change, and not just the restoration of neoliberal normalcy, are confronted by both a test and an opportunity, and I honestly hope they will go for some real steel.

After the kerfuffle between Warren and Sanders at the last Democratic candidates debate (January 15), there has of course been a good deal of back and forth in social media, both pro- and anti-Bernie.

In the former camp, it has been excellent to see many women take on the rhetoric of “Bernie Bros,” which has the effect of cancelling their voices and engagement. What follows originates in some notes I made in response to one such woman who supports Bernie. There are two main points.

1. What’s going on right now with Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton is the beginning of sticking the knife back into Bernie’s back. These two played a major role in doing that in 2016, and now they’re getting the band back together again. Okay, that’s no mystery.

The real question is, What are Bernie supporters and those who (one way or another) support the Democrats, going to do about it? When and if Warren and Clinton succeed in taking Bernie down–and of course Biden and the Obamas are onboard for this, as well–will Democrats (and Dem-supporting “leftists,” etc.) be so blinded by TDS that they’ll just say, “Oh well, we still have to vote for …” Warren, Biden, etc.?

I think this runs parallel to what some have said about “letting the CIA help with the impeachment”–it’s truly delusional, reactionary stuff. Likewise, people getting in a huff because “Bernie called her a liar on national television.” No problem, apparently, that Warren first called Bernie a liar. Even more, no problem that Warren’s whole life and career is based on a lie–a lie that, even now, she justifies with bullshit about how she “just loves her family so much.”

Indeed, Hillary’s intervention in the following days was very likely intended to take attention away from Warren’s attack on Sanders, as well as, of course, to once again put HRC out there as the potential savior at the convention.

It seems to me that the lesson here is that, if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination, no other candidate (from among the frontrunners) is acceptable, especially because of the role they will have played in taking down Bernie and his movement.

(Of course, with only a very few exceptions, I find the Democratic Party–and the Republican Party–completely unacceptable anyway. They are both steering media for capitalist power and money. However, unlike my leftist friends who presently justify supporting the Democrats, in impeachment and in re-taking the White House, “because they are the lesser evil,” I argue that the Democrats are the greater evil, the “best representatives” of the current form of capitalism, that the Republicans are in at least some cases the lesser evil, and that Trump is something different from either one.)

2. Accordingly, I think a Trump/Sanders election would be a very good thing. You may know that I have been writing a long series of articles, since March 2016, at counterpunch.org and now at off-guardian.org. These articles have been fairly controversial, especially with my many liberal and leftist friends, in academia and otherwise.

In any case, I started with an article with the subtitle, “Hoping for a Trump/Sanders election,” and now things have come somewhat full circle, at least in that we are looking at the possibility of this again. I have all kinds of issues with Bernie Sanders, though I have many more issues, and at least something close to qualitatively different issues, with the other frontrunners, and with those who may step in at the convention—very likely Hillary Clinton, and quite possibly Michelle Obama. I have two basic reasons for hoping Sanders can get the nomination and that there could be a Trump/Sanders election:

  • i. For Sanders to get the nomination there will have to be a very strong, dedicated, and focused movement, which will essentially have to defeat the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party and in whatever one wants to call the agglomeration of power mechanisms that form the establishment and the State. Sanders will have to do what Trump did with the Republican Party in 2016, except with Sanders and the power structures he will be up against (and with which he is more compromised than Trump ever was), this will be much, much harder. I really don’t think it can happen — and we’re seeing major moves in this effort toward eliminating Bernie just in the week that has passed since I started writing this. However, this does mean that, if Bernie can build (much further) and lead the movement to seriously address these power structures, and even beat them in some significant ways, then something tremendous will have been accomplished—“the harder they come, the harder they fall,” or at least I hope so.
  • ii. Despite what you and many others say and (I feel) are a bit too desperate to think, Sanders does have some things in common with Trump, at least thematically—and a lot of my arguments in my articles have to do with the importance of these themes being out there, in a way that they never would have been with any other Republican, Hillary Clinton or any of the other current frontrunners besides Sanders, and any of the other media with the very important exceptions of Tucker Carlson, Steve Hilton, and perhaps a couple others on Fox News (perhaps Laura Ingram)—and this is not only something that the anti-Trumpers absolutely hate, they hate it so much that they can’t even think about it.

That is, Trump and Sanders have in common that they 1) profess that they want to do things that improve the lives of ordinary working people, and 2) profess that they want to draw back militarism.

What I emphasize is that these terms would not even be on the table if it weren’t for Trump—and yes, to some extent if it weren’t for Bernie, but there is a way in which Bernie can only be out there at all because Trump has put these things on the table.

A lot of blowback against my articles has been against my argument that getting these terms and the discourse around them on the table is very important, a real breakthrough, and a breakthrough that both clarifies the larger terms of things and disrupts the “smooth functioning” (I take this from Marcuse) of the neoliberal-neoconservative compact around economics and military intervention.

Okay, maybe I’m right about this importance, maybe I’m not—that’s an argument I’ve dealt with extensively in my articles and that I’ll try to deal with definitively in further writing—but certainly a very important part of not letting Sanders be taken down by the other frontrunners (and HRC, and other nefarious forces, with Warren playing a special “feminist” and Identity Politics role here—a role that does nothing to help, and indeed does much to hurt, ordinary working people of all colors, genders, etc.) will be to further sharpen the general understanding of the importance of these themes.

Significantly, there is a third theme which has emerged since the unexpected election of Donald Trump—unexpected at least by the establishment and the nefarious powers (though they were thinking of an “insurance policy”); on this theme, I don’t know that Sanders can do much—working with the Democratic Party, he is too implicated in this issue, and he does not have whatever “protection” Trump has here.

What I am referring to are those nefarious powers behind the establishment and the ruling class, and that have taken on a life of their own — I don’t mind calling this the Deep State, but one can just think about the “intelligence community” and especially the CIA.

Whatever — the point is that Trump has had to call them out and expose them in ways that they obviously do not like, and also his agenda of a world where the U.S. gets along well-enough with China and Russia at least not to risk WWIII, or, perhaps more realistically, not to tip the balance of things such that Russia goes completely over to a full alliance with China, a “Eurasian Union,” which both Putin and Xi have spoken about, is not to their liking.

Whether Sanders would call out these nefarious factors if he were in a position to do so, I don’t know—I don’t have great confidence that he would—but it is also the case that he is not in a position to do so, these powers can easily dispose of Sanders in ways that they haven’t been able to, so far, with Trump.

If one does think these themes are important, especially the first two (with further discussion reserved regarding the powers-behind-the-powers), then I wish that Trump-haters would open their minds for a moment and think about what it apparently takes in our social system to even begin to get these themes on the table.

In any case, regarding Sanders, the movement he is building will have to go even further with the first two themes if Sanders is nominated, and at least go some distance in taking on the third theme. This applies even more if Sanders were to be elected. (This is where you might take a look at the 1988 mini-series, A Very British Coup — except that how things go down in the U.S. will not be so “British.”) Here again, though, if Sanders is to build a movement that can openly address these questions, this will be tremendous, a great thing.

So this is it in a nutshell: If Sanders were to be nominated, then there is the possibility, which everyone ought to work to make a reality, that we could have an election based around the questions, What can be done to improve the lives of ordinary working people?, and, What can be done to curb militarism and end the endless interventions and wars?

This would be a truly great thing.

In the terms I’ve used, this would create a much more general clarification of the terms of things and a further, major disruption at the edge of the system, a disruption to neoliberal economic and neoconservative military business-as-usual (and neither of these things are aligned with only one of the two so-called mainstream political parties, and thus this would be a disruption to this bullshit “two-party system,” too), and possibly there would be an even much larger opening to “real politics,” in other words radical systemic change.

Therefore, of course, no one should be surprised that the establishment and the nefarious powers will do absolutely anything to prevent things going this way—and they will do things both subtle and brutal, both completely behind-the-scenes and completely out in the open, and everything in-between.

With all this against even the possibility (the risk, for the powers-that-be) of real politics emerging against the anti-political social structures and ideologies, the last thing people ought to do is to get caught up in this bullshit that Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton are peddling — with Biden and Buttigieg letting them take point for the time being.

Yes, there are some obnoxious jerks around Bernie — so what? For one thing, they are on the edge of the system, trying to do something.

This doesn’t mean these types should be accepted or supported regardless of what they say or do, but does anyone think there is a shortage of obnoxious jerks around Warren and Biden?

This is so important that I would even recommend that people who are determined anti-Trumpers not worry for the time being about my arguments about Trump and my view that, in the end, Trump has done and actually will do more on the themes that I take to be of most importance.

For those determined to get someone other than Trump in the White House, I don’t think it’s that important to talk about all the issues you have with Trump right now. I don’t think many of you are “reachable” on these points anyway—which doesn’t mean that I won’t still be out here making the argument for the Trump Clarification and the Trump Disruption.

For now, and until November, there is something much more important that anti-Trumpers need to be doing. (I mean at least those who are working with and working inside of the system, including with the impeachment stuff—and this includes all but a very small portion of the Left.)

There needs to be a concentrated effort to recognize that the themes discussed here, at least the economic and military themes, in their multi-faceted and complex ways, are the most important questions that have to be addressed if any substantial change is going to be made to our society.

There needs to be a concentrated effort to make it clear that, on the anti-Trump side, the only one who is pushing these themes is Bernie Sanders.

(Sorry — not to belabor the point, or, okay, to belabor it — but, yes, I do think the third theme, of the Deep State or whatever one wants to call it, is thoroughly integrated into what can actually be done on the first two themes, and beyond, and this is where I really wish that anti-Trump Democratic-Party supporters would interrogate their own extraordinary resistance to getting into this theme and deflecting consideration of this theme with picayune “questions” about precise definitions of what, by definition, is hidden behind many layers of power, the huge budget for which is itself a secret.)

There needs to be a concentrated effort to make it clear that the open efforts of Warren, CNN (to Sanders: “Did you say that?” To Warren, “How did it make you feel when Bernie said that?”—incredible), HRC, etc., to take down Bernie, are not acceptable; that the idea of just watching Bernie go down and then saying, “Oh well, let’s get back to the only thing in the world that matters” is not acceptable.

Much less is it acceptable to watch the Warren-Clinton tag-team (who are obviously preparing for a brokered convention, with Warren in the VP slot) not only take down Bernie but also do everything they can to move things away from all three of these themes and back to the “normalcy” of the neoliberal-neoconservative compact, covered over with some Identity-Politics rhetoric.

And don’t kid yourselves about the fact that this is what they are doing. Don’t let your hatred of Trump find you standing around twiddling your thumbs and saying, “Well, Warren does have a point.” That’s fine if you’re one of the liberal Democrats who isn’t bothered with “having the CIA help with the impeachment.”

If, instead, you really think you are part of some sort of resistance, and if you actually do think working people and militarism (and perhaps even a country that is under no definition “democratic,” even if you don’t accept that this is a question of the Deep State), then it’s time to hunker down and get working.

I think you’ll find that this work is not going to be nearly so easy as what has passed for “resistance” among the anti-Trump crowd thus far.

Brace yourselves for a steep learning curve. Truly good and creative human endeavors are never easy.

Bill Martin is a philosopher and musician, retired from DePaul University. He is completing a book with the title, “The Trump Clarification: Disruption at the Edge of the System (toward a theory).” His most recent albums are “Raga Chaturanga” (Bill Martin + Zugzwang; Avant-Bass 3) and “Emptiness, Garden: String Quartets nos. 1 and 2 (Ryokucha Bass Guitar Quartet; Avant-Bass 4). He lives in Salina, Kansas, and plays bass guitar with The Radicles