“Soon we find out who is the real revolutionary“—Bob Marley, “Zimbabwe”
The Bernie Sanders movement is being heralded as a social revolution. What does that mean?
So here comes US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders calling for social revolution. It would seem imperative we understand what that means, look at the words and platform carefully and try to smoke outwhat is implied and what isn’t. Perhaps in the process we’ll learn more about Bob Marley’s “realrevolutionaries” and whether Sanders fits the bill.
Words can be elusive. There isn’t much to quibble over “zebra” or “flashlight,” but many embody concepts that have mystified since the dawn of Homo erectus — grand notions like “love” or “truth” or “justice,” which, on the surface, might not seem so complicated at all; shouldn’t “justice” be obvious to everybody? (Take it up with the Supreme Court.)
“Revolutionary” is a slippery word. As a noun, it signifies a person who wages revolution (leaving us with a tautology); as an adjective, the signification is of the embodiment, in some sense or multiple senses, of radical change (not much better than a tautology). The adjectival meaning often devolves into silliness.The ’63 Corvette Stingray and ’58 Cadillac, with its flying tailfins, may have been revolutionary new designs, but they were still automobiles with four wheels and rubber tires, steering wheel and internal combustion engine. Their “genes,” if you will, were overwhelmingly in common with nearly every other car that’s ever been made, rendering the moniker “revolutionary” advertising double-talk.
We might use the convention of little r and capital R to help us here. Small r revolutionary can deal with tail fins and “Common Core” type changes to the educational system (a clear indication that changes aren’t always for the better). Capital R Revolutionary we might reserve for people like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro — both of whom wanted to tear down the existing system and put something more humane in its place — though even here, we run into complications: Che pleaded at the United Nations for fair treatment of Cuba by the United States and Fidel (and Ho Chi Minh as well) turned to the United States to see what agreements and accommodations might be worked out that would produce the best outcomes for their peoples (making them seem much more reasonable than the leftist “bogeymen” they are made out to be).
Is the Bernie Sanders movement a small r or capital r Revolution? Possibly to the right wing, which eschews even the slightest “socialist” program to improve the lives of people, Sanders is a Capital R ghoul who will end life as we know it. We might fairly ask what programs would constitute the Sanders R/revolution. (As a hypothetical, assume the following are within his power.)
Bernie might break up the big banks; would he then nationalize them and end the privatization of theindustry, so bankers no longer make obscene incomes? Of course not. Will he work to bring down the cost of prescription drugs, or will he eliminate the profit motive from the pharmaceutical industry entirely? Thelatter is unthinkable. Will he mandate that all corporations be worker-owned? Don’t think so. Will he demand that automobiles be made of hemp and run on cow-fart methane? Doubtful. Will he issue an executive order stipulating that janitors make the same salary as college professors? No.
Will he require that celebrity athletes and movie stars earn no more than $3 million a year? Not gonna happen. Will he decry rich people who own multiple houses, all except one sitting vacant at any one time, and seize their dwellings? Ya think? Will he shut down the Pentagon, CIA and NSA, disband the military and use the freed-up resources to institute kibbutzim across the nation? No. Will he confiscate theplantations of agribusiness and distribute small farms to millions of Americans? Not too likely (as much as it would likely help fight global warming). Will he demand reparations be paid to African Americans and First Nations peoples? Chances are slim (as much as it would wash our bloodied souls). Will he extend such reparations to the many countries which have been devastated by our CIA or military forces? That seems unlikely to the point of science fiction. Will he raise taxes on multimillionaires to 80 percent and billionaires to 95 percent (after all, the remainder would be more than sufficient to live sumptuous lives)? Sanders’ proposed tax increases are nowhere near those levels (as reasonable as they may seem toanyone who is not among the super-rich).
It seems clear Bernie Sanders is not a Capital R Revolutionary. Apple Inc. is not going to become worker-owned. Exxon will not soon devote all its resources to distributing solar cookers to African villagers. Thehighways will not be paved in CO2-absorbing flowers. This point could help to allay the fears of those who cry “I want my country back!” in the face of progressive change (but then they have always been a radical minority, deluded by the jingoist cheerleading that fills the airwaves).
Not only is Bernie Sanders not a Capital R Revolutionary — he might not even be a socialist. Noam Chomsky says he is not. But when the system overwhelmingly proselytizes that 2 + 2 = 5, one conforms and adjusts his/her slide rule or risks becoming a pariah.
What is Bernie Sanders? Chomsky says he is simply an honest, decent man, a New Deal throwback — a man trying to solve the huge problems facing us through common sense and humanity and with concern for effecting the most good for the most people — in particular, those who are hurting the most. His small r social revolution can accomplish great things by preserving a habitable environment, lifting up the suffering masses and making the world safer for all its citizens. That would be pretty doggone Revolutionary in thebest sense one could ever hope for.
Sanders cannot do it alone. The people will have to stand up and say enough is enough, that they are tired of endless war when every moral code that has ever come into existence demands that we love our neighbor as ourselves. When they realize that sharing is more humane and more reasonable than greed. When they vote not just for a moral and decent president, but educate themselves beyond the biases ofthe mainstream and demand their voices be heard on all important issues. When they throw themselves into electing state and local officials who stand for humane principles, not ideology and corporate greed. When they shout their love not just for their children and those of their neighbors, but for the children of thehomeless and wealthy alike, of neoliberals and conservatives and those in foreign lands, who equally deserve a habitable world to grow up in and a chance to lead happy, productive lives. When, of course, “they” becomes “we.”
These bestirred masses will truly be Bob Marley’s real Revolutionaries — magnificent capital R.