Bernie Sanders will probably lose the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton, after his impressive but inadequate showing on March 15th. But the left still won that night.
The Sanders campaign has energized and galvanized a big chunk of people, especially young people. And it has made it routine to talk about “socialism” in polite company. So as someone who has been out in the wilderness talking about Marxism and socialism for 20 years, I can’t but love it for those reasons.
But inevitably, there’s a layer of inexperienced activists who have such an affective investment in the campaign that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They make out this one politician to be more significant than he is, while at the same time misunderstanding his real value. Not just because Sanders’ “socialism” is no more than what would, in many other contexts, be considered a tepid kind of European welfare capitalism. To really appreciate the significance of Sanders, you have to see his candidacy as something other than just an electoral campaign, something that’s about more than just the ability of one guy from Vermont to win a certain number of delegates and prevail at a convention.
Recently, Corey Robin wrote about the campaign and encouraged Sanders supporters to keep up the fight. Rather than “get too caught up in the question of delegate counts,” he advised, we should “educate, agitate, and organize the body politic.” And we should specifically do that through the Sanders campaign because while “the Left loves social movements,” such movements are “not immune to the mood and medium of electoral politics,” which he portrays as a way of concentrating and focusing the Left’s energy.
I’d put it a bit differently. The Sanders campaign is a “social movement,” and it would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on the fact that this particular movement is occurring through the medium of electoral politics. Certainly at the level of infrastructure and personnel, Sanders draws on the remains of prior organizing around politicians like Howard Dean and Barack Obama. But Bernie as an unexpected social phenomenon and dank meme inspiration is just as much a successor to recent non-electoral movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
It’s in the ebbing and flowing of these interconnected movements that we can see the evolving components of a resurgent left, a nascent challenge to capitalism that takes multiple forms, some electoral and some not. Partisans of political candidates, especially presidential candidates, have a tendency to hype up every election as the key turning point upon which all politics depends. But it’s probably better to see things like the Sanders campaign as part of what the Italian “workerist” Marxist tradition called the process of “class composition.”
Class composition, as the historian of workerism Steve Wright puts it, deals with “the relationship between the material structure of the working class, and its behaviour as a subject autonomous from the dictates of both the labour movement and capital.” The activists who developed the concept, like Raniero Panzieri and Mario Tronti, where struggling with an old Marxist problem: transforming a working class “in itself” into one “for itself.” That is, how can atomized individuals, exploited in capitalism, become part of a self-conscious collective, with a shared identity linked to social transformation?
For the original workerists, class composition was closely tied to the experiences of industrial workers in the factory. But later users of the concept, including Antonio Negri, began to expand the concept more broadly. They insisted that the experience of class reached out into the city, and into the family, so that the process of class composition had to take into account the fullness of a worker’s life rather than just his or her experience in wage labor itself. Which means that the forces of class composition can include not just the minimum wage you make at McDonalds, but the police officer who harrasses you on the way home from your shift.
To take this all back to the concrete, and to the voting on March 15th, it’s most illuminating to look not at the presidential primary, but to something else that happened in Illinois and Ohio. In Illinois, state’s attorney Anita Alvarez lost her primary by a huge margin, while at the same time Tim McGinty was losing his race in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland. Like the Sanders phenomenon, neither of these were expected results until very recently.
What linked Alvarez and McGinty was their connections to notorious recent police murders: Alvarez waited 400 days to file charges against the officer who killed 17 year old Lacquan McDonald, and McGinty failed to indict the officers involved in the death of 12 year old Tamir Rice. Both of their losses are being seen, correctly, as wins for Black Lives Matter and related movements that have agitated and organized against state violence against people of color.
Chicago, in particular, is instructive, and really needs a detailed case study far beyond what I can offer here. To use the workerist terms, the class composition in Chicago is far more advanced than what’s found almost anywhere else in the country. From afar, it’s difficult to even untangle all the various strands. But they range from black feminist formations like Assata’s Daughters (who were central to the anti-Alvarez campaign) to the Chicago Teachers Union, whose successful strike in 2012 made them a powerful institutional force for the broader Chicago left.
Even in Chicago, the left hasn’t yet won its big prize, the removal of mayor Rahm Emanuel. But that may be yet to come, as the working class there gains power and coherence. And that should be a source of reassurance for Sanders supporters as well, giving confidence that his campaign isn’t the end, but only one step in a much longer process.