Learning to live after Bernie Sanders

by Sam Kriss

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It’s OK to feel helpless, because you are, and evil is triumphant. Whatever else he says, Bernie Sanders has lost the world. Trump versus Clinton is not the contest of two creatures in a ruined city; it’s Miltonian chaos, eternal anarchy amidst the noise of endless wars. Of course one of them is better than the other; you can even pull out your utilitarian calculator and work out which one it is – but these are not fungible quantities, but endlessly different, and therefore the same. Hillary Clinton is, as her supporters like to put it, imperfect – a mass murderer, a wrecker of nations and peoples, the political expression of biophagous finance, a ruthless cynic who will fling millions into whatever ravine presents itself to get what she wants, which is power. Donald Trump doesn’t want power; he’s far more dangerous than that. He wants attention. How can you really measure her long list of abuses against the sheer potential for disaster coiled in his stupid, stocky body? Measure so many thousands of dead Libyans, so many tens of thousands of dead Syrians, so many hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis against the peril of a waddling baby in charge of the world? Still it’s not impossible, we can quantify anything. Say two million excess deaths under President Clinton – from financial predation, from disease, from war – and ten million excess deaths under President Trump – all those plus racist violence, malfeasance, and incompetence – and there’s your moral case for voting for Clinton. It’s not nice, it never is, but you vote for the lesser of two evils, refining the selection process again and again until you find something good. Except you never will; there’s a sameness beyond magnitude. This is where the evil comes from: quantification, ethics as a series of numbers, human life as a data-point. The least bad option, which represents the systematisation of evil, is always worse than the worst.

Bernie Sanders lost, and he was supposed to replace this logic: you didn’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils, you could vote for the good. When someone makes that claim it’s important to evaluate it properly, and for those of us who still call ourselves communists and socialists it was always clear that he wasn’t really on our side. After all, he had efficiently managed a decent-sized town under capitalism. He was never a serious anti-imperialist or internationalist, happy to vote for bombs and occasionally implying that American workers were being cheated by greedy Vietnamese sweatshop labourers; his analysis was not a real class analysis, slumping over the lazy shorthand of big banks and the 1%; his vaunted democratic socialism was only social democracy, not phase one in the sliding scale of communism but a distinct ideology, a postwar class compromise designed to ward off the real thing, and discarded by capital when it was no longer necessary. Bernie Sanders was also a compromise candidate, the lesser of two evils, but a very diminished evil, a tiny evil whose domed sand-speck of a forehead might sparkle in the palm of your hand. And there were plenty of reasons to support him, even if only in that ropey old Leninist sense. For the calmer, milder, saner types among us, his candidacy might pull the Democratic party gently to the left, letting them know that there was a voter base out there for more progressive politics. The semi-official line at Jacobin magazine was that a few Sanders successes would help to distigmatise the name ‘socialism,’ to get more people interested in radical ideas, so they might go further than he could. More then anything, when there’s a vaguely decent man fighting a monster like Hillary Clinton, you support him, however passively, whatever it means to do so, in the full knowledge that he’ll never win, with the solidarity of the doomed.

But then he did something unexpected: he started to win, he started to surge in the polls, he started to look like someone who might actually do what he was pretending to be doing. The terror from media liberals, the paranoiac’s pervert-train of cloistered idiots, was thick: witless vultures, flapping and colliding, people who really thought that accusing Bernie’s supporters of being rude on Twitter would make normal non-psychotic voters switch to Clinton. Whatever stopped his rise, it wasn’t that; I’ll leave it to the numbers-sadists to work out what it was. The point is that as soon as President Bernie Sanders became an actual possibility, it became meaningless: building that idol towered over any other goal. Forming a government is not seizing the state; and we don’t want the state because that’s where power lives, but so we can use it as a crowbar for its real nexuses. Say Bernie really was a good anti-imperialist – why would you want him to become Commander in Chief? Say he really was a good anti-capitalist – why put him in charge of a capitalist economy? Stuff a pacifist in the warhead of a ballistic missile, so they can stop the violence. Take a good person and dunk them in a vat of boiling acid, so they can reform the acid from within.

Fielding candidates can be useful for radical movements, but you won’t build socialism out of ballot boxes. The vote and its deployment of passive helpless majorities is another piece of arithmetical logic, the quantification of humanity, structurally inimical to the good. Having the lesser evil in office can ameliorate some ills, but it can’t do it alone. Where good things have happened, it’s always through mechanisms other than the vote – including the extension of the vote itself to people who were denied it, in causes that would have lost if they’d been put to a referendum. As Badiou asks, why would number have any political virtue? As the Bolsheviks knew, a true majority has nothing to do with a mere headcount. Bernie Sanders losing the popular vote – and he did lose it, more narrowly than we might have expected, more crushingly than we might have hoped – has abandoned us powerless to the monsters, but him winning would have done the same: on the terrain of the vote we’re always powerless, able to lift a pencil, barely, but that’s all. Our strength lies elsewhere, in the places where politics actually takes place. This isn’t a call to the stupid ceremonies and grimly coerced cheerfulness of political voluntarism; this isn’t to pretend that we’re not all deeply fucked. For now, we can’t stop them. Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States, which is bad enough; what’s worse is that the President of the United States has always been the President of the United States. I won’t tell you how to vote (I’ll just hint) because that’s not the point. Vote for Clinton to stop Trump; save the eight million, nobody will blame you. But the task isn’t to stop this or that person from becoming President, but to find the President itself, that lifeless shambling thing with so many bodies, and put something pointy through its heart.