Why Bernie lost (and how you can too)
by Sam Kriss
First hypothesis. (Humour: melancholia / Star: Saturn / Stone: topaz.)
Bernie lost because he lost the working class. He started his campaign marshalling what Amber Frost has described as the Busytown coalition: the postal workers, the firemen, the nurses; the people who, even now, are still in shops and warehouses, ensuring the continuation of human life. It’s a good coalition. It cuts across all lines of age, race, gender, and sexuality. There are a lot of these people, and what’s more, they have justice on their side. So what the hell happened? Why is it that, by Super Tuesday, places with lower average incomes, higher unemployment, more ethnic diversity, more people without health insurance, and fewer university degrees were tilting towards Biden? The answer is you. You did this.
If you’re reading this, I know what you’re like. You’re young, or young-ish; you’re well-educated and ever so smart, but your life didn’t turn out exactly how you hoped. Your parents are from the middle classes, but what are you? Column A: you’re currently tending to a sourdough starter, you lug around several suitcases of books whenever you move house, and you can talk about Debussy or drill with equal enthusiasm. Column B: you’re flat fucking broke. When you were a kid, you imagined what your life would be like at twenty-five, or thirty, or forty, and it didn’t look like this. You imagined yourself into An Adult, a mythological creature that never unfurled from your cocoon. You are a nymph. You’re the same kid, terrified of the passing time, but still waiting. It’s not too late for you, not yet, but so much would need to change in such a short time. We’d need to totally decarbonise the economy and end all interventions in the Middle East. We’d need to massively raise corporate taxes and someone would have to marry you. You believe passionately in that kind of change, and that’s why you supported Bernie. We are the same, you and I. We’re poison, absolute poison, for any democratic leftist movement. We corrode it from the inside out.
I watched the same thing happen in the UK: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party tried to reactivate the working class vote – and instead, working-class voters fled the party in droves, abandoning it to a rump of young people with advanced degrees and low prospects. Children are not the future. Young people are not a solid political constituency. Give us our due, though: we’re passionate, and committed, and we’re strivers. In a few short weeks, we had the Bernie campaign speaking our language and broadcasting our concerns. We turned ourselves into its faces and figureheads. Just in time to thoroughly alienate everyone who wasn’t already onside.
I don’t think socialism is always, by necessity, a bourgeois idea. On both sides of the Atlantic, left-populism did briefly enjoy a broad base of support. But we need to be smarter: we need to understand that ordinary people simply do not like us, and they’re not wrong to feel that way. We’re basically obnoxious, and to overcome that we need to meet the people where they are. This is how.
Step one is to place a permanent taboo on the following words, which we use too much, and which do nothing to help our cause:
- Kindness. A disgusting word. The watery eyes of some paedophile vicar, smacking his lips together as he dreams his gentle brutalities. Be kind to me, oh be kind to me, let’s all be kind to each other. You make me sick.
- Empathy. Even worse. The person who needs to put a name to fellow-feeling, who needs to adopt it as a regulative principle, has none of the stuff. The person who endlessly natters on about empathy is always, without exception, a bitter and spiteful toad, asking for the manager, making complaints, deplatforming: bottomlessly, abysmally cruel.
- Hope. The most vicious of the bunch. Hope is an ancient Greek curse. Hope is only a substitute for the thing you hope for; it’s what you’re left with after everything else has fled. Hope is always, always disappointed. No movement that bandies around words like hope ever delivers on its promises. No movement that talks about hope is ever trusted.
That’s step one. In step two, we embrace the values that actually matter to American voters. Namely, patriotism, the family, and badass overpowered military hardware. If you want to embark on a programme of economic nationalisation, why would you willingly give up a potent rhetorical tool like nationalism? If you want to build bonds of solidarity, why would you ignore the already-existing communism within a well-functioning family unit? And if you want the working classes to own the world their labour creates, should that not include the nightly livestreamed bombing runs over the Middle East? I made that, we could say, watching the fires consume an Afghan village. My hands tended this death.
Finally, with step three we build on the progress we made at the start, and gradually eliminate all words from our vocabulary. The working classes hate words. They’re all illiterate, probably; I assume they communicate in grunts and squeals. We must learn to squeal like they do. Roll around in the muck. Hide your delicate bourgeois face in a plastic snout. Lap up corn syrup from the trough. Drape yourself in a soiled flag and grunt the name of Jesus Christ. Squeal, piggy, squeal.
Second theory. (Humour: choler / Star: Jupiter / Beast: the Hog)
Bernie lost because, in the end, he wasn’t willing to fight. He set himself up rhetorically in opposition to a deeply corrupt and moribund Democratic establishment – but then he adopted all their dumbest talking points. He promised to support the nominee, whoever it was, because the greatest danger was another four years of Trump and his Russian cronies. No: the greatest danger to ordinary people is capitalism, whoever its figurehead. Trump won in 2016 by utterly eviscerating and then colonising a hated party structure. Bernie couldn’t bring himself to do the same. He talked about a revolution, but shrunk back from revolutionary agonisms. What he offered was, as he himself kept insisting, a political revolution – which is to say, not a social revolution, not a revolution in the forms of human life, but only in their superstructural expressions – and he couldn’t even do that. Imagine how differently things would have gone if, during one of the televised debates, Bernie had denounced Joe Biden as a kulak fattening himself on the misery of the American peasants. I don’t know why he didn’t do this; he should have been listening to me instead of his lib advisors. He should have pointed out this dazed, leathery man as a class enemy, and then two of his Blue Guards should have run out from the wings to beat Biden in the head with the butts of their rifles, until he was forced to kneel right in front of the MSNBC studio hosts and confess, with tears in his eyes, to being a capitalist roader and a traitor to the working masses. Execution should have followed instantly: a single nod from Bernie, and a single bullet in the back of Joe’s head. At this point the audience should have stood up and cheered as Biden’s blood congealed tackily over the pristine half-CGI debate stage – but the theatre of justice shouldn’t have ended there. More Blue Guards in Bernie caps with rifles slung over their shoulders should have poured out onto the stage and erected a guillotine, singing cheerful songs as they winched the enormous razor into place. Then Bernie should have puffed out his cheeks and wagged his finger and shouted ‘The people’s revenge is not yet whetted! Which of our enemies will hone this blade?’ and then he should have condemned his rivals to death and beheaded them one by one. One cannot serve as the Attorney General for California innocently! The Blue Guards should have blocked off all the exits to this philanthropically-funded theatre and arts space in a third-tier Midwestern city, to encourage patriotic feeling among the audience as the heads of one politician after another tumbled from the jaws of the guillotine, their faces frozen in expressions of unutterable horror – but if Bernie heard a murmur of discontent as the lifeless bodies were flung into the orchestra pit, limbs folded at unnatural angles, torsos crowned in red-rimmed stumps, he should have given the signal for one-tenth of the audience to be dispatched too, so a productive atmosphere of Blue Terror might set in among the workers and peasants live-streaming at home. Then, once the bloodshed was over, a gorgeous person of my preferred gender should have turned to me and said ‘We did it, comrade – we finally overthrew traditional beauty standards, and now I don’t mind that you’re obsessed with seedy violent revenge-fantasies and have a deeply unfortunate neck that just kinda melts clammily into your shoulders; at long last, you have become sexually viable,’ and then I should have never been alone again.
Third assertion. (Humour: blood / Planet: Mars / Curse: eternal)
Bernie lost because the 2020 Democratic primary was ssstolen.
You think you know what happened: Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropped out as if according to a script, dealsss were forged, rooms filled with sssmoke, polling sssstations were closed down in low-income and ethnic-minority areas, exit polls showed a marked dissscrepancy from the final result, there was some vast fuckery in Iowa, because They – the unnameable They – would never let Bernie Sssanders win.
This is not what I mean.
I know it was ssssstolen because I ssstole it myself.
For years now I have been sssneaking into Bernie’s house at night, quietly, sssilently, in through the windowsss to lick his furniture, up through the floorboards to wander through the objects of his life.
And one dark February night I sssaw it – I sssaw where he kept the election, hidden in his house.
It was an egg, an unformed thing.
He kept it in his fridge, in a carton with the other eggs, and nothing on its sssurface told how different this egg was from any of the otherssss – maybe he didn’t know himssself, but I knew; I felt what was waiting within its yolk, the thing that could hatch.
I conssssumed that egg there, in Bernie Sanders’ kitchen – I ate it whole, shell and all, unsocketing my jaw, engorging my gullet; hunger, straining againssst the wholenessss of this large cold egg.
And out of my throat black tendrils grew.
Fourth conjecture. (Humour: phlegm / Planet: Mercury / Leprosy: gleaming)
- Bernie lost because nobody – and I mean NOBODY – understands why people make the decisions they do.
- I mean, look at it. Look at the Biden voters who said they wanted Medicare for All. Or the Biden voters who said they thought radical – even revolutionary – change was necessary. But they still pulled the lever for ol’ Creepy Joe. They liked Bernie and they liked his policies, but they weren’t voting for them. You thought it would be easy? You thought you just had to present the right ideas in the right language? Nah. Something much stranger is at work.
- And please, I’m begging you, please don’t give me any guff about low-information voters. You seen what it’s like out there? You can’t move for information. The sky and the trees are information. It’s being poured into our eyes at one gigabyte per second, EVERY SECOND OF OUR LIVES. We eat pure information three meals a day. Chomp through it, metabolise, shit it out. We fuckin’ radiate data, and at night the tech companies come and gobble up whatever we’ve left behind. Like dust mites feasting on our sloughed-off skin. Maybe you wanna start talking about low-oxygen voters too while you’re at it?
- But you wanna hear a secret? Advertising is bunk. Market research is bunk. None of it works. All those urban legends about how gifted psychopaths are rearranging supermarkets to make you buy shit you don’t need – all fake. It’s the admen’s last con. Even marketing types don’t really understand why people make the decisions they do. Not in the market, not in relationships, not anywhere. Cuz what we have now is the data, man, THE DATA. We can see the chaos of everyone’s life in ten trillion consumer decisions, and none of it adds up. Like there’s some tiny chaotic imp burrowing around in the innermost folds of your brain, doing stuff for no reason. And everyone’s praying the truth of it never gets out, cuz if it does? Google, Facebook – worthless. Spent a decade collecting the whole global population’s shit, promising they could sift out some specks of gold. It ain’t there. Useless. Planetary midden. And yeah, it just so happens that we’ve premised the entire economy on online data-collection and advertising. Imagine if tomorrow morning, oil was as flammable as water. That’s the level of trouble we’re in.
- Unless there was a new science. Deleuze saw it, in the Postscript on the Societies of Control: ‘Can we already grasp the rough outlines of these coming forms, capable of threatening the joys of marketing?’ A science that could explain why people make the decisions they make, and accurately model long-term social changes. One that could inherit and abolish all the failed theories of the past. Shit like Marxism. Gramscianism. Freudianism. I’m talking politics, rhetoric, marketing. Marginal utility and rational-choice economics and von Neumann games. Hell, let’s chuck art in there too. It ain’t heavy. This theory would be huge. I’m not talking about a revolution in the human sciences. I’m talking about a revolution, full stop.
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Fifth derangement. (Humour: gelatine / Planet: Niburu / Destination: across the nameless sea to Knossos, where we are devoured)
Bernie lost because politics is not about power. It’s not about collective decision-making; it’s not even about representation. Try to imagine things differently. Try to imagine the 2020 election as a highly advanced form of vivisection.
Think of all the endless awful candidates invading your consciousness, one after another. Didn’t it feel like some kind of experiment was being performed? The system throws people and archetypes at you – A Woman, A Person Of Colour, A Rich Guy – and tries to find out what sticks. We might think the contenders are just a bunch of hollow-eyed narcissists vying for control of an enormous nuclear arsenal, and they might think it too, but they’re not. These are test subjects. In a sense, they’re victims.
A politician is shoved under the spotlight, and they tremble. Slowly, scientists peel back the skin so we can see their innards. We find out more about the personal histories and inner worlds of Beto O’Rourke or John Delaney than any sane person could possibly want to know. But someone, or something, somewhere, is learning. Slice through the flesh; get to the organs, the queasy, greasy, soft wobbling darkness in the creature’s furthest pit. See what’s there. Cory Booker’s kidneys. Julián Castro’s spleen. Scandals and corruption; dark money, racial epithets, sex scandals, and lies. The attrition rate is high; most test subjects don’t survive the procedure. Pour enough shampoo into Kamala Harris’s eyeballs, pump enough anti-depressants up Tom Steyer’s arsehole, and eventually the creature will just go limp.
For Baudrillard, new schemata of social control are always applied first to animals, and then to human beings. ‘Animals have preceded us on the path of liberal extermination.’ Couldn’t we say the same thing about politicians? What are electoral politics, if not a breeding-ground for affects and psychoses, a petri dish swarming with new and disordered ways of relating to the world? Forget policy. Forget the presidency. This is what it’s for.
Decades ago, politicians started being followed by people with cameras, monitoring their movements, looking for any hint of wrongness – a banana, for instance, held at an unusual angle. They had to perform, every minute of their waking lives. Forbidden from breaking character, they melted into their own personae. Politicians were the first to enter the world of inescapable digital surveillance, then celebrities, and then you and me. The innovation now, of course, is that the person following you around with the camera is yourself. We’re all public servants now.
Examples pile up. Politicians were the first humans to turn themselves into brands, to sell themselves not as a lump of labour-power but as a finished commodity, with the full fetishistic halo. Before there could be a Kim Kardashian, first there had to be a Tony Blair.
Of course, there’s another type, the Bernie-type. Politicians who sold themselves on the promise of what they could do rather than what they might mean. Politicians who offered something to the voting masses, a pact, a contract, not the possibility of representation or identification. Politicians who didn’t want to be your bff or your abuela, but who did want to build a big new canal. The heroic, promethean, reforming bourgeois politicians of the eighteenth century onwards, who set out to transform reality by their labour, not for themselves, not to rule the world, but only to remake it – these were the advance guards of proletarianisation. Their time has ended now. Like the organised proletariat, they survive – but lost in a whirlwind of new forms.
In fact, you could go further. The thing we call politics – in the sense of an ideological agonism, not just manoeuvring between personal factions – begins with the English and French revolutions. The birth of politics is also the birth of politicide, the idea that you can fix things by simply killing everyone with bad opinions. Both revolutions also featured, quite prominently, the removal of a royal head. The king becomes a politician – which is to say, a carcass, an animal test-subject – the moment the blade touches the hairs on the back of his neck. (This seems to hold across time. The ancient Greeks had their factional intrigues, and they thought a lot about systems of government, but they never managed to develop the political movement. The Romans, who executed their king, did.) He clears the way. Then the masses can follow him into the guillotine, or march off in vast conscript armies to the meat-grinder of the front.
This is why the nomination went to Joe Biden, a man who is clearly senile and dying, and not Bernie Sanders. He is our future, the herald of an exhausted and forgetful age. Digital archives are already eating away at our ability to remember. Automation enfeebles our bodies. The frenzy of communications puts a stammer in our speech. Senseless and dependent, passive in a meshwork of machines. In the crypt of the Capuchin friars in Rome, stacks of grinning skulls bear a motto. Quello che voi siete, noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo, voi sarete. What we are, you will be; what you are, we once were. Look on Joe Biden’s empty face, and be afraid.