Ep. 12: Bhaskar on Bernie: Talking Democratic Socialism with Jacobin Editor Bhaskar Sunkara

Ep. 12: Bhaskar on Bernie: Talking Democratic Socialism with Jacobin Editor Bhaskar Sunkara

We dive back into Bernie's speech on democratic socialism with the help of Bhaskar Sunkara, founder and editor-in-chief of Jacobin magazine. Bhaskar explains why it makes sense for Bernie to call himself a democratic socialist and traces the long history of democratic socialism in America. Plus, we hear from a few more parents what democratic socialism means to them.

Bhaskar's book, The Socialist Manifesto: https://www.versobooks.com/books/2939-the-socialist-manifesto


Bernie Sanders:  Now, when we talk about oligarchy, let us be clear about what we mean.

Briahna Joy Gray:  When Bernie talks about wealth inequality, he likes to throw around some pretty striking numbers.

Bernie Sanders:  Right now, in the United States of America, three families control more wealth than the bottom half of our country, some 160 million Americans. The top 1% own more wealth than the bottom 92%, and 49% of all new income generated today goes to the top 1%. In fact, income and wealth inequality today is greater in the United States than in any time since the 1920s.

Briahna Joy Gray:  But wealth isn’t just wealth, it’s power. It’s the power to decide what gets built and where. Whether a key measure passes in your state’s legislature. How many minutes you, as an employee, are allowed for lunch, or to use the bathroom. Yes, we as Americans are free to voice our opinions, to vote in elections, and to pick up and move to a new neighborhood, if you can afford it.

But take a moment to think about all the things that affect your life, often profoundly, over which you have no power at all. A basic economic presumption is that willingness to pay equals ability to pay, but anyone who’s ever been faced with an exorbitant bill for life-saving medical treatment knows that that’s less a maxim than a taunt.

This is Hear the Bern, a podcast about the people, ideas, and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders 2020 Campaign, and the movement to secure a dignified life for everyone living in this country. My name is Briahna Joy Gray, and I’m coming to you from campaign headquarters in Washington, DC.

Last week, on the heels of Bernie’s big democratic socialism speech, we talked democratic socialism with our parents, and I felt like we made some progress in explaining why we’ve chosen to define our movement as a democratic socialist one.

Many of you asked to hear more of Bernie’s speech, so for this episode, we’re diving back in, this time with the help of Bhaskar Sunkara, who as founder and editor-in-chief of Jacobin magazine, has done much to familiarize folks with democratic socialism in recent years.

I’m probably not telling you anything new, but Bernie Sanders likes to talk a lot about the economy. Like a lot, a lot.

Bernie Sanders:  We now have an economy that is fundamentally broken and grotesquely unfair. Even while macro-economic numbers like GDP, the stock market, and the unemployment rate are strong, millions of middle class and working class people struggle to keep their heads above water, while at the same time the billionaire class consumes the lion’s share of the wealth that we are collectively creating as a nation.

In the midst of a so-called booming economy, real wages for the average worker have barely risen at all, and despite an explosion in technology and worker productivity, the average wage of the American worker in real dollars is no higher than it was 46 years ago. And millions of people in our country today are forced to work two or three jobs, just to survive.

Briahna Joy Gray:  His point is that although we live in a productive, wealthy country, the hard work of Americans isn’t translating into tangible gains, at least not for the 99%. The reason people are struggling isn’t because they’re lazy or undeserving, as certain politicians have argued over the years

Paul Ryan:  We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working, or learning the value and the culture of work.

Briahna Joy Gray:  It’s because the profits of their labor are being stolen by the rich. This concept is intuitive to working people, and it even went over well with Jaime Marquez, the father of my coworker, Bianca Marquez, who we spoke with on last week’s democratic socialism episode. Mr. Marquez was born in Venezuela and was generally opposed to the label democratic socialism, though he generally likes Bernie Sanders. But when it came to basic labor theory, we were all on the same page. 

I am a capitalist, let’s… in this hypothetical.

Bianca Marquez: Oh, I thought you were about to make a self-proclamation there and like break that on this podcast, and I was really excited.

Briahna Joy Gray:  No, I feel like my Twitter following would have some thoughts and feelings about that. But let’s say that I’ve got a bunch of wood. I’m in the business of making tables, okay. You are a laborer. You’re worker. I have $10 worth of wood products because I have capital for reasons historically, maybe I colonized someone who knows, but I have capital. So, I have $10 worth of wood and I say to you, can you make this into a table? You are able to do so. You fashion this table for me, and now I’m able to sell it to Bianca for $20. There is $10 worth of profit there. You made those $10 worth of profit.

I provided $10 worth of materials. You provided $10 worth of profit through the work of your labor. And now I’m selling it to Bianca for 20 bucks. Now for me to recoup my investment, I have to take $10, right? And for me to make any profit at all, I’ve got to take some of the profit that you put into this table, right? You put in $10, but you can’t get $10 back or I don’t have any incentives to do this, right?

The issue isn’t that we shouldn’t incentivize people to make tables, but imagine if you had an ownership stake in my business, so that all of the profit that I make, some of it goes back to you as well. The question isn’t, should the government own my business? Should the government take the wood and make you work for the government? The question is, should the people who are laboring, people who are working and actually generating the profit in this country, generating all of the goods that make America actually great, should they get a bigger share of the pie? Instead of me saying, hm, you’re poor. You would take $1, you would take 50 cents, you would take 25 cents, right? That’s the squeeze we’re trying to stop.

Jaime Marquez: I agree with that.

Briahna Joy Gray:  When it’s presented this way, it’s clear to lots of folks that income inequality is a moral issue. Access to capital isn’t just about fancy cars or nice houses, it’s about life itself.

Bernie Sanders:  And here is something quite incredible that tells you all that you need to know about the results of unfettered capitalism. All of us want to live long, happy, and productive lives, but in America today, the very rich live on average 15 years longer than the poorest Americans.

In 2014, for example, in McDowell County, West Virginia, one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Virginia, a wealthy county just 350 miles away, life expectancy for men was nearly 82 years, an 18-year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.

In other words, the issue of unfettered capitalism is not just an academic debate. Poverty, economic distress and despair are life threatening issues for millions of working people in this country. While the rich get richer, they live longer lives. While poor and working families struggle economically and often lack adequate health care, their life expectancy is declining for the first time in modern American history.

Briahna Joy Gray:  The fact that your wealth dictates your lifespan should be something out of a dystopian novel, not something we’re resigned to as a fact of American life. And yet, the corporate media, concerned with more pressing things like a candidate’s comfort food choice or their favorite TV show, treats Bernie’s emphasis on these issues as obsessive.

Speaker: What he’s trying to make happen in the country, things like, well, the government’s going to work for everybody. It’s not going to belong to the billionaires anymore. The billionaire class. The millionaires, the billionaires. I mean, this is the broken record of Bernie Sanders.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  Why does Bernie keep talking about the economy? Because the economy impacts almost every aspect of our lives. People are constantly thinking about the economy when they feel they have no cash in their pockets and they know it’s the end of the month is coming up.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Right. That was Bhaskar Sunkara, who has been editing leading democratic socialist writers since he founded the Jacobin magazine nine years ago as an undergraduate at George Washington University. Bhaskar argued that what the media sometimes paints as an obsessive distraction is actually at the core of why Bernie’s message resonated so unexpectedly in 2016.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  This is on people’s minds and we just need to convince them that it’s actually worthwhile to go out there and not only vote but organize and campaign and actually come out because I think that a lot of working class Americans like our message, but there is a degree of cynicism that creeps in after decades of politics not doing anything for you.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah, yeah, understandable cynicism.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  Yeah, especially you don’t even get the day off.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Right, right.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  It’s like, is it worth standing in line for an hour and a half to vote?

Briahna Joy Gray:  Right. That’s what you heard from a lot of these, the parts of the country that historically were these democratic socialist bastions in which also were the turning point for 2016, places where people didn’t turn out to vote. When you go and you get narrative accounts instead of just looking at polls, when you ask them why it was that they didn’t vote, these are often not apolitical people. These aren’t people that didn’t care. These are people who said after decades and decades of voting for politicians who may… gave us a lot of lip service and didn’t seem to be offering anything constructive. How many generations of us are going to have to live as second- and third-class citizens?

Bhaskar Sunkara:  That’s why we need a candidate that doesn’t waffle and equivocate but actually says, here’s what I’m for. You might disagree with it, but this is what I believe in. I think that’ll really work.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah. Maybe a candidate who decides on a random Wednesday to give a 40-minute speech on democratic socialism.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  It just might be.

Briahna Joy Gray:  In his speech, Bernie argued an important point. Democratic socialism isn’t just a good in and of itself. It’s a unique antidote to the kind of fascism that’s taking root all over the world. Bernie looked to the 20th century for parallels to our current moment of unbridled capitalism and the related rise of right-wing extremism. He reminded us that fascism was not only a European phenomenon. It showed its face in this country, too.

Bernie Sanders:  The challenge we confront today as a nation and as a world is in many ways not different from the one we faced a little less than a century ago during and after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then as now, deeply rooted and seemingly intractable economic and social disparities led to the rise of right-wing nationalist forces all over the world.

In Europe, the anger and despair was ultimately harnessed by authoritarians, demagogues who fused corporatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia into a political movement that amassed totalitarian power, destroyed democracy, and ultimately murdered millions of people, including members of my own family. But we must remember that those were not the only places where dark forces tried to rise up and capture power.

Today we are all rightly repulsed by the sight of Neo Nazis and Klansman openly marching in Charlottesville, Virginia. And we are horrified by houses of worship being shot up by right-wing terrorists. But on February 20th, 1939, over 20,000 Nazis held a mass rally, not in Berlin, not in Rome, but in Madison Square Garden in front of a 30-foot banner of George Washington, bordered with swastikas in New York City, New York City.

Briahna Joy Gray:  If America had its own homegrown fascists, Bhaskar explained that we had our own democratic socialists, too.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  American democratic socialists have been around for a very, very long time. About a hundred years ago, the mayors of cities like Berkeley, Troy, Milwaukee, were all socialists. We had members of Congress, like Victor Berger was a socialist. Eugene Debs got 1 million votes. In some places like Oklahoma it was really one of the largest parties around was a Socialist Party, so you could say that socialism was maybe not the mass force that it was in Europe, but in certain parts of the US it was, and it seemed like it was becoming that way.

Socialists themselves embedded themselves as part of much larger reform efforts, and this was true throughout the 20th century. In the early years, socialists were fighting for things like women’s suffrage. They were fighting to create labor unions then to democratize and integrate those labor unions. You have this massive expansion of industry and westward movement, but life out there in the west and these mining towns and places like that where it’s extremely precarious, so often one company would be the largest company that would run basically a town. And then all these workers would be herded together in the worst conditions possible.

You have the perfect moment where people realize that they’re either going to starve in this country, many of them are immigrants, in this place that was completely new to them, or they were gonna figure out a way to band together and organize collectively. They did organize across different nationalities, people who spoke different languages, across different races. They figured out a way to fight together and socialists were there with a very confident and simple appeal.

The appeal is something that’s been very consistent from the time of Eugene Debs to Norm Thomas to now Bernie Sanders, which is that, you work hard, you’re playing by the rules, so you deserve more. But it’s not just a matter of us banding together and getting more because we’re asking nicely, but in fact there is powerful people that have a benefit from the status quo. We’re going to have to take wealth and power away from them if we’re going to build a better world for everyone.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  And that message has been consistent.

Briahna Joy Gray:  While democratic socialists never came close to controlling Congress or the presidency, their ideas influence the New Deal, which in turn steered the country away from the dead ends of oligarchy and fascism.

Bernie Sanders:  We in the United States, thank God, made a different choice than Europe did in responding to the era’s social and economic crisis. We rejected the ideology of Mussolini and Hitler, and we instead embrace the bold and visionary leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Together with organized labor, leaders in the African American community, and progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party, Roosevelt led a transformation of the American government and the American economy. Like today, the quest for transformative change was opposed by big business, by Wall Street, by the political establishment, by the Republican Party, and by the conservative wing of FDR’s own Democratic Party. He faced the same scare tactics then that we experience today: red baiting, xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism.

In a famous 1936 campaign speech, Roosevelt stated, and I quote, “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace, business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob,” and Roosevelt concluded, and I quote, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.”

Briahna Joy Gray:  Now, FDR never described himself as a democratic socialist, and many today ask if Bernie is hearkening back to the politics of FDR and the New Deal, why call himself a democratic socialist when other terms are perhaps more familiar to the American public? Bhaskar explained that the label makes sense for Bernie, both personally and strategically.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  Well first of all, it’s what he is since his… in the early 1960s he got politicized in the Young People’s Socialist League. This is his tradition, his background. His world view was forged by communicating with socialists, by taking part in the socialist movement and Civil Rights Movement and the Labor movement, so there’s that. Why would he lie about how he came to these ideas, and how he identifies himself? I think first of all, his credibility is the most important thing that Sanders has going for him because even people who disagree with his policies at least say, “Oh, that’s an honest guy.”

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  He has that going for him. That’s the reason why even a lot of self-described moderates vote for Sanders over other politicians.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  And will support him in this coming election. Beyond that, they’re going to call him a socialist anyway.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  They called Obama a socialist.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Right.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  For the most mild reform program possible, a program that many of us on the left thought was in part there was good aspects to it like Medicaid expansion. They called that radical socialism. They’re going to call us socialists anyway. We might as well define and explain what it’s about.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Bhaskar also argued that the label democratic socialism describes something unique and significant about Bernie’s approach, his theory of change. How real political growth actually happens in this country beyond individual policy proposals or incremental ideas. Even good ideas don’t go very far without an appetite for conflict and the backing of a whole lot of people.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  We actually have a vision of change. We have a vision of politics. That’s why Sanders always talks about the need for us to band together and organize. So, it’s not just a matter of passing good policy or releasing policy papers, and things like that. Though of course that’s important, but we actually need to figure out how to join in unions, join tenant unions to figure out how to talk to our neighbors. Politics can’t just be the internet, even though the Internet is great. There is lots of great stuff out there. Also, lots of terrifying stuff out there.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Facts.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  I think that world view that has a vision of conflict has to be there. It’s not that we like conflict, but when some people are hungry, and some people don’t have health insurance, and some people are in danger losing their jobs, it’s, there’s already a conflict going on. There is already a class war being waged by the elites on ordinary people. We just are trying to wage it in the other direction to improve our conditions.

Briahna Joy Gray:  As we talked about a little last week, Bernie’s DemSoc roots influenced not just his commitment to economic freedoms, but to racial justice as well. Civil rights leaders from A. Philip Randolph to Martin Luther King Jr. all embraced democratic socialism and were skeptical of the prospect of racial equality emerging under unfettered capitalism.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  Bosses across, not just the south but the north too, benefited from the fact that workers are split into different groups. And you have, in the case of black Americans, this group of people that are the most exploited and marginalized group. You could be a boss and not be personally a racist, but still say if I could get away with paying this person $5 an hour instead of $8 an hour, I’m going to pay them $5 an hour.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  I think they understood that connection. That in fact, there were real economic interests that had a vested interest in continuing this stratification of people and in other places, other contexts, that stratification happens differently, so in India there might be cast or whatever else. But capitalism everywhere has seemed to produce or at the very least benefit from this division.

And beyond that they realized that if you’re talking about helping the most marginalized groups in the country, so in this case black Americans, you have to be talking about distributing power and wealth. And if you’re talking about distributing power and wealth, you’re talking about class conflict, you’re talking about class, you’re talking about all these other things that socialists had a really useful analysis for.

Beyond that, there was a social connection, which was simply from the 1920s and 30s onwards, socialists were at the forefront of the struggle, so to the extent that you could find white Americans that were putting their neck on the line to organize black workers and to participate in these struggles, a lot of them identified as socialists. There is a lot of credibility built up among socialists and communists in these communities. But I think we often forget they… You had to the march for jobs and justice.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  The March on Washington was about more than just formal equality.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  Because we’re seeing today that the Civil Rights Movement what we ended up with was a partial victory.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  There was real advances made, but also if you consider mass incarceration, poverty rates, unemployment, all these things are the result of not being able to finish the revolution, not being able to use the power of the state to do things like guarantee jobs to everyone who wants to work.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  And all these other programs, Medicare For All, these things we sometimes think of as, oh, this is a good program, but it won’t really help with racism, or it won’t really help with sexism. Actually, in fact, relieving the precarity and the hardship that people find themselves in will in fact help with these other forms of oppression, too.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  Even though we need separate campaigns about them as well. Right now, we have this image of the Rustbelt for instance, that just… angry white workers who lost their jobs. And obviously there is a lot of those people too. We need to organize them. But we forget that a lot of these manufacturing jobs were unionized jobs that black workers had that actually closed the racial wealth gap that propelled people to the middle class, that and the combination with public sector employment. I know it’s not a very sexy socialist topic, but the United States Postal Service is fantastic.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yep.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  And also, they have far less discriminatory hiring practices and other things, so they’ve been a huge pathway to the middle-class for black families.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yep.

Bhaskar Sunkara:  When we talk about fighting against austerity, fighting med cuts, when we talk about restoring jobs to American cities that have been disinvested from we are also talking about these issues, too.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Last week we spoke to Dr. Greg Carr, a professor of African American studies at Howard University who echoed that refrain.

Dr. Greg Carr:  World War II, A. Philip Randolph who starts a union. And people know about the brotherhood of sleeping car porters and chambermaids, these black men and women who were working on these trains. What we don’t always pause to remember is that the brotherhood extended past the United States. There were chapters in Canada. This union movement isn’t just localized. That’s one reason why Black people could understand socialism and what we now call, democratic socialism or even communism. Because they didn’t see it as an American issue. They saw it as a fairness issue, and part of the threat in America always to the specter of something like democratic socialism is the idea that there are values that somehow transcend the United States.

Briahna Joy Gray:  And as Bernie has always made exceedingly clear, some of the most powerful forces in this country and in the world are going to oppose us every step of the way, just as they did FDR.

Bernie Sanders:  By rallying the American people, FDR and his progressive coalition created the New Deal, one for terms and created an economy that worked for all and not just the few. Today, New Deal initiatives like Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, the right to form a union, the minimum wage, protection for farmers, regulation of Wall Street, and massive infrastructure improvements are considered pillars of American society. But while he stood up for the working families of our country, we can never forget that President Roosevelt was reviled by the oligarchs of his time who berated these extremely popular programs as socialism.

Similarly, in the 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson brought about Medicare, Medicaid, and other extremely popular and important programs, he was also viciously attacked by the ruling class of this country.

And here is the point, it is no exaggeration to state that not only did FDR’s agenda improve the lives of millions of Americans, but the new deal was enormously popular politically and help defeat far right extremism. 

For a time. Today, America and the world are once again moving toward authoritarianism, and the same right-wing forces of oligarchy, corporatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia are on the march pushing us to make the wrong choice that Europe made in the last century.

Today, we now see a handful of billionaires with unprecedented wealth and power. We see huge private monopolies operating outside of any real democratic oversight and often subsidized by taxpayers with the power to control almost every aspect of our lives. They are the profit-taking gatekeepers of our health care, our technology, our finance system, our food supply, and almost all of the other basic necessities of life, and let us name them. They are Wall Street, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry, the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex and giant agribusiness. They are the entities with unlimited wealth who surround our nation’s capital with thousands of well-paid lobbyists who to a very significant degree write the laws that we live under.

Briahna Joy Gray:  And so, Bernie called for us to finish what the New Deal started.

Bernie Sanders:  Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion. This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we together must accomplish. In order to accomplish that goal, it means committing ourselves to protecting political rights, to protecting civil rights, and to protect economic rights for all of the people in our country.

Briahna Joy Gray:  As I sometimes like to tweet, “The people get it.” This is Tyler Evans, a digital media coordinator for the campaign, talking to his mom, Donna, a home health nurse from Fort Worth, Texas. He interviewed her last week for last week’s podcast, but his tape came in a little too late to include with all the other parents. Still, it’s worth listening to.

Tyler Evans:  When I say the words democratic socialism, what comes to mind and what does it mean to you?

Donna:  I really don’t know what socialism is, but when I hear socialism I think of Canada and health care for all.

Tyler Evans:  Would you say that’s a good thing?

Donna:  Yes.

Tyler Evans:  Okay, so it sounds like you have a good view of socialism then.

Donna:  Yes.

Tyler Evans:  All right. Would you describe yourself then as a democratic socialist?

Donna:  Yes.

Tyler Evans:  Okay. Why would you say that?

Donna:  I just believe in health care for all because I just see too many people going without because they don’t have the healthcare, and can’t afford health care, all the deductibles and the copays. It’s just when these people would have to choose between food and medicine, they usually go with the food. I just think it should be equal for everybody.

Briahna Joy Gray:  For many Americans like Donna who have seen a health crisis up close, it’s as simple as that. We choose life.

If we can dish, based on the comments, you and I both know that this podcast has got something going on. I think it’s the kind of podcast you can share with people who aren’t necessarily committed to the Bernie Sanders campaign, but who generally share progressive politics and they’d actually enjoy it. We try not to be too propagandistic. We try to keep an open mind and just be informative broadly and generally movement oriented.

So, if you haven’t already and you have friends or family who maybe listen to other popular pods that’s save and might like a different perspective, may we suggest they listen to one or two episodes to Hear the Bern and see how they like it. Let us know how this goes at our email address or on Twitter. I’d love to know how that turns out.

My favorite episode? Oh, that’s hard. I’d have to say episode three because the busting the black Bernie bro mythology is something that’s very near and dear to my heart. So, my second favorite is probably last week’s largely because I think it is really important message-wise. It tells a story that I think is really foundational to the reason why I came over to left politics. I hope that it has the same effect on at least one listener. Let us know what your favorite episodes are by rating and reviewing us at iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts.