Bernie Asked Us Which Side We’re On

Once you’ve realized society doesn’t have to be this way, that the exploitation you’ve experienced or witnessed isn't inevitable, you can't go back to thinking otherwise — the genie is out of the bottle. After Bernie Sanders's campaigns, millions of Americans won't go back.

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Under capitalism, most people spend their days working for corporations, hunched over tables in garment factories or lugging boxes in warehouses, standing at drive-thru windows or packed like sardines in call centers. Most of their time is spent at the complete mercy of managers, who are themselves following direct orders from CEOs, who are making millions or sometimes billions in profits and living in luxury.

People spend their one-of-a-kind, non-renewable lives this way because if they don’t, they won’t be able to afford what they need to survive. They relinquish their autonomy for most of their waking hours in exchange for the ability to continue to exist. And even when they make the trade, there’s no guarantee they won’t die for lack of funds, one way or another.

Socialists don’t think this is acceptable. People only get a few decades each to live, and should not have to spend them doing things they don’t enjoy for the ultimate benefit of others. In order to keep society running, people will have to perform unpleasant tasks, but it should be easy to explain how those tasks benefit the public and the person doing them, and they should have some say in what gets done and how. If we followed that guiding principle, people would be more free, and their lives would not be wasted. There are other dimensions to socialism, but to me these are the building blocks.

I didn’t know I was a socialist until Bernie Sanders’s first presidential campaign. I knew I was repulsed by exploitation and oppression, and I even understood that society’s capitalist structure drove much of the injustice I saw around me. But I had never even once considered the possibility that I myself was a socialist. No one had ever asked.

It was Bernie Sanders, eventually, who asked. He asked: Why should you tolerate a system that privileges the profit-making activities of a tiny minority over the liberation of the vast majority? He asked: Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know? He asked: Which side are you on?

These questions cut right to the core of what it means to even have a society: what we believe to be the purpose of the institutions we’ve erected to facilitate our existence, on whose terms they do and should operate, and to what ends. These are the questions that have always animated the socialist movement, from its utopian origins before Marx and Engels through the turbulent twentieth century to the present day.

They are also the questions that Bernie himself grappled with as a student when he first experienced a political awakening as a member of the Young People’s Socialist League.

“It helped me put two and two together, in my mind,” Sanders recalled of his time in the YPSL. “We don’t like poverty, we don’t like racism, we don’t like war, we don’t like exploitation. What do they all have in common? … What does wealth and power mean? How does it influence politics?”

Bernie encountered an institution dedicated to exploring those questions just in time, as the socialist movement was poised for decades of obscurity. During those dark decades, the questions were not routinely posed in politics or popular culture. They were in effect already answered.

This is what the theorist Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism,” the naturalization of the reign of profit and the total foreclosure on other possibilities, even in the imagination. It’s best exemplified by the words of Margaret Thatcher, who understood the deep unpopularity of her neoliberal agenda of austerity and privatization, but who leveled, “I believe people accept there is no real alternative.”

It is exemplified, too, by the accidental slogan of the Joe Biden campaign: “Nothing will fundamentally change.” Biden rose to prominence in this period of capitalist realism and fundamentally belongs to it. And now that Bernie Sanders has dropped out, we can take for granted that Biden has won the Democratic Party nomination.

There are many today who are stricken with grief. They take this turn of events as proof that the Bidens and the Thatchers of the world have stamped out the promise of the movement that coalesced around Bernie Sanders.

But Bernie Sanders’ two campaigns for the presidency have asked the unasked questions once again, and it’s unlikely, now that tens or even hundreds of millions of people have been put on the spot to answer them, that our political landscape will simply revert to its original state.

Tens of thousands of people like me have answered the questions by becoming organized socialists. Workers around the country have answered the questions by becoming union activists, or even going on strike without a union at their back. People who never cared about a political campaign before in their lives answered the question by becoming not just voters but active volunteers. Where they will apply that confidence and skill next is anybody’s guess — some of them will no doubt run for office themselves.

The period since Bernie’s first campaign to the present day has witnessed the five largest protests in US history. Not everyone who participated in these protests was a Bernie supporter, but the agitational mood is no doubt inflected by his message of transformational change through mass mobilization, or as he puts it “from the bottom on up.” His impact extends beyond his support base. His steady presence has fed a hunger for transformation in the American populace and a new willingness to fight for it.

We are living through one of the most unprecedented and volatile situations in modern political history. Nobody knows what happens now, concretely. But after half a decade of Bernie Sanders in the spotlight, the genie doesn’t go back in the bottle.

Once you’ve actually internalized that society doesn’t have to be this way, that none of the exploitation you’ve experienced or witnessed is actually inevitable, that human freedom is achievable, you don’t go back to thinking otherwise. Once you’ve been looked square in the eye and asked which side you’re on, you never take for granted your own neutrality again.

There will be many more struggles to come for democracy, equality, and human freedom, as there have always been. And from this point onward, wherever such struggles take place, we will find among the ranks of the resistors those who chose their side during the five pivotal years that Bernie Sanders could have led our nation. They heard: Will you fight for someone you don’t know? And their answer was yes.