Bernie Sanders is the first avowedly socialist presidential candidate in American politics. Whether or not he wins the Democratic Party’s nomination and goes on to become President, his emergence signals a major ideological change in global politics. The credible challenge he has mounted on the global stage has hastened the end of the fraying Reagan-Thatcher model of laissez-faire economics. The main reason free-market economics came under a cloud was because it spawned the Washington Consensus, a set of policy prescriptions proffered to developing countries by Western politicians, government officials, scholars and executives of multinational corporations and multilateral institutions.
The prescriptions were actually very sensible but not the inflexible approach of those pushing them. The Washington Consensus stirred opposition from the Left-dominated bureaucracy and academies in developing countries, especially India, and around the world. It was disparaged as “neoliberalism” and “market fundamentalism.”
Early protests were led in the US during the mid-1990s by a coalition of NGOs, labor unions, student groups and assorted pacifists and anarchists. They initially targeted meetings of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a group of Pacific Rim countries that advocated free trade in the region. Fast forward to 1999, similar protests rocked the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. These were on a much larger scale and immediately drew global attention.
From what came to be known as “The Battle of Seattle” to the Occupy Movement seemed a logical extension of the activism against globalization. The 2008 global economic meltdown that led to the bailout of large transnational banks was the spark that lit the fire. Starting out of New York City in September 2011, the Occupy protest spread to 951 cities in 82 countries. Its method was simply to take over chunks of real estate in vital areas of major cities, much like the Arab Spring protesters. A similar “Indignants” movement erupted in Spain that October to challenge the government’s “austerity measures” including welfare cuts, joblessness and changes in labor laws. The Indignants movement counted for nearly seven million participants.
The scope of the protests grew to encompass not just “neoliberal” policies and multi-national corporations but the entire phenomenon of globalization and targeted capitalism itself. Pointing to the growing economic disparities in the world, the demonstrators used a catchy slogan: “We are the 99 %!” This was reinforced by a report issued in October 2011 by the US Congressional Budget Office which said, among other things, that the income of the top one per cent of the population grew 275 per cent in the three decades since the late 1970s. The slogan was instantly popular; that’s because concerns about the distribution of wealth go back a long way to the late 19th century to Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist who established the 80-20 principle based on his observation that 80 per cent of Italy’s land was by 20 per cent of the population.
For example, in the US, distribution of wealth was fairly stable from the 1940s through 1980, income gains remained roughly the same; after that the gap widened to where today the income of the top one per cent shows 200 per cent growth whereas the bottom 20 per cent report just a 48 per cent increase. Worse, the middle 60 per cent have to be satisfied with just a 40 per cent growth in income.
What research could likely show in understanding the Sanders phenomenon is that the middle 60 per cent, solid supporters of the status quo, have taken a beating in the globalized economy and bought into the 99% slogan. These are level-headed, middle-class people, the bedrock of support for the “American way of life.” Clearly, they won’t buy into the maddening Donald Trump war cry of “making America great again” that appeals largely to the working class. Looking for “change they can believe in,” an aspiration Barack Obama gifted voters; they seem unmoved by Hillary Clinton’s experience and worried by her ties to multinational companies and Wall Street.
This unrest seems only to grow. Just in the past week, France has been rocked by “Nuit Debout” (Standing Night), a massive protest against the Hollande government’s proposal to amend labor laws and promote business-friendly hire-and-fire practices. Echoing the Occupy movement, the French demonstrations have spread to nearly 30 cities involving anywhere from 400,000 to a million people. Already, with the debut of the hash tag #nuitdebout and a television link, TV Debout, live from the Place de la Republique, which the protesters have occupied for over a week, the message has broadened in scope to include a revolt against capitalism.
In mainstream as well as digital media, you can sense a sharp Left turn. The difference is there is no Soviet Union, the orthodoxy; only a growing indignation against inequality, the demonization of the corporate world and a steadfast belief that capitalism is an exploitative system. The current mood is eloquently captured by the slogan of Spain’s Indignants: “We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.”
Into this souped-up ambience of protest, enter 75-year-old Bernie Sanders, junior US senator from Vermont. Three things are noteworthy about his ascent to highs never before allowed to professed socialists: one, in all the primaries so far, he has claimed more than 70 per cent of the vote of voters between the ages of 19 and 35; two, his emergence is every bit as radical as that of Obama, the first black presidents; at 75, he is five years older than Ronald Reagan when he was elected; he is the first Jewish candidate. Is it any wonder that he’s giving Hillary Clinton nightmares: first woman president pales in comparison to Sanders’ firsts? The third feature is that the platform on which Sanders is articulating a socialist message is unprecedented. It is simply the biggest, most prominent, most widely recognized in the world: the US presidential election campaign.
(An edited version of this post will appear in http://http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com, April 8, 2016.)