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“Freedom from Exploitation” and the American Dream: Interview with Jacobin Founder and Editor

Jacobin Founder Bhaskar Sunkara speaks about the complexities of left-of-center space in American politics.

Three years ago, Bhaskar Sunkara was a frustrated 20-year-old, fed up with what he calls, “the bloodless wonkery of Beltway liberals.” The economy was clearly in crisis, along with our system of government. Big questions needed to be asked, and yet most media outlets were still pumping out guff about recovery, and politicians were worse.

As he puts it in this interview, “We’ve been sold an ideology that’s based on the golden age of capitalism; based on the welfare state. We were told that if we work hard, if we keep our heads down, then we would be given, at the very least, a stable nine-to-five job, at the very least enough for a home, enough for a car, enough to raise a family. Workers for the last few decades have been finding out that that’s a lie. The question is, what happens then?”

To have a place to ask radical questions (questions that go to the root of things) and to suggest possible answers, Sunkara founded a magazine: Jacobin, of which he is now editor and publisher.

The name comes from the same French revolutionaries who brought us the Reign of Terror, but Sunkara’s not dusting off a guillotine just yet, only some sharp rhetoric.

You can watch the interview in full here.

Laura Flanders: Talk about Jacobin. The New York Times described it as “jargon-free, neo-Marxism for the masses” and a “long-shot prospect,” but maybe not so?

Bhaskar Sunkara: I think it was originally, but we’re doing quite well now, in part because of the unexpected attention from the mainstream media and other sources, but the neo-Marxism label kind of wearies me. I’m fine with just Marxism, even paleo-Marxism, but not the neo, that adds a bit of a weird vibe to it.

LF: Right. I think of DayGlo colors or something.

BS: (laughs) Right.

LF: What was wrong with MSNBC being the face of liberalism?

BS: Well, I think it’s a historic question. In America, social liberalism has always been our utmost left, and I think that’s a problem, and that’s one of the reasons why even at its peak in the ’60s and ’70s, our welfare state never matched the welfare state in England and Europe and anywhere else really, and I think partially because we never had a strong labor movement grounded in the working class. We never even had social democracy; we had social liberalism, the welfare state. We had palliatives meant to patch together this coalition, and we had to deal with the inadequacies of liberalism. I think it’s important to have coherent, visible, but also accessible, radical sources, and we’re one of them. We’re in a tradition of a long line of other radicals in the American context.

LF: You don’t think the New Deal that everybody harkens back to with such rosy glasses was the be-all-and-end-all of what we can aspire to as a nation?

BS: I don’t think so at all. There were good things about the New Deal, but from the very beginning it was meant to include, but also to exclude. If you looked at the way single parents, that minorities were treated by the New Deal, you would see that was a result. It had this original sin attached to it. That was partially related to the fact that the Democratic coalition, the liberal coalition, was connected to southern bigots, and other groups. We didn’t really see that in Europe when they developed their social democratic movement. They had many flaws, and it still wasn’t the be-all-end-all of what we could aspire to, but in America we have had to deal with the fact that our politics have been built on compromise in these naive, utopian ways. I know young people and radicals are both considered naive and utopian, but I’d like to throw that slur back upon the establishment forces, especially on the center left in America.

LF: So “Jacobin.” The word conjures up Reign of Terror, Robespierre, purity purges . . . are you out to purge anyone?

BS: The origins of the name Jacobin, I’ll give this just for you, and I’ve been too embarrassed to admit it at any other point in my life, but I thought of it one afternoon, the afternoon where I first brainstormed the project. It was in the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, and I was in my sister’s bedroom, and I walked to the kitchen, and I asked my mother, “I have three names for projects.” I forgot what the third one was, but one of them was “ramparts.” I found out that the trademark was available (I’ll have to try and snatch that up before this goes to air), and then there was Jacobin. My mother enjoyed it, she liked it, and I bought the domain that day.

LF: So the guillotine had nothing to do with it?

BS: I think partially I realized in the American context it’s bit of a floating signifier. We don’t know who the Jacobins are, but in their defense, I would say that for all of their flaws and excesses, I would rather the brief reign of terror than the centuries of monarchical oppression that came before or the decades of Napoleonic war that came after. For some reason everyone really fixated on this ten, twenty-thousand people, and I don’t want to sound callous, but it needs to be put into some kind of historical perspective.

LF: I just have to say that my uncle, Alexander Cockburn from Counterpunch, is somewhere beyond the grave smiling because he was a big fan of Robespierre, particularly the idea that there are some standards and some sort of margins for debate and discussion that need to be defended; maybe not the guillotine, but at least the defense of a line. Talk a little bit about the ideology as you understand it, that Jacobin airs?

BS: Well, I think the Jacobins had a democratic socialist tradition, and I am more than willing to incorporate other voices. So certain types of anarchists and also social democrats are more than willing to be a somewhat open tent. I think Jacobin is continuing a legacy of Michael Harrington and other American socialists, but also a Ralph Miliband tradition of independent Marxists and socialists in the UK; somewhere in that middle ground between Leninism and social democracy. There’s a lot of middle ground there, but I think the way the left has traditionally constructed its critiques, it’s been in a very polemical and less analytical way that just shades anywhere from between Leninism and social democracy – weak reformists of some type.

Partially, what we want to do, we want to be the inheritors of tradition. I think there were a lot of great old leftists, and there were a lot of great people in the New Left, but there happens to be this lost generation; maybe you’re a part, but I know Liza Featherstone, and Corey Robbins, and some other people we have on the masthead are part of this generation, but the rest of your peers were getting, I don’t know, English PhDs or doing whatever, studying post-structuralism, and they were really outside political struggle for a time, and I think Jacobin’s purpose is to try to reconnect these old debates and old struggles and bring them to our young, predominantly young, audience.

LF: No, I think you’re absolutely right in the way you described the generation thing, including mine. I’m glad you’re here, thanks for coming. Talk a bit about where you come from, how did you avoid going off into that mushy pit of liberalism?

BS: Well, my parents moved to America the same year I was born. I’m the youngest of five and I had the good fortune in many ways of being born in the United States. I’m not having to deal with some of the burdens that my siblings and my parents had to deal with, even something as simple as having an accent in the job market. Those things really matter, and they shape your life choices. I did have those good fortunes. I am from a middle-class background, from immigrant parents, and I was attracted to radical ideas kind of by accident by having access to good public goods: a good public school, a good public library; being curious, and then at that point connecting the things that I was reading with the things that I was seeing, and the life experience of members of my own family, and realizing that so many things that I had in my life was an accident of birth. I think a good radical tries to take the privilege that they do have, the accidents of birth that they do have, and apply it to their theory and try to get to a place where these things can be universally shared. I went to college, three of my siblings didn’t go to college, and that changed their life paths absolutely drastically.

LF: How do you make sense of our economy today? We’ve got 1 in 4 workers working for poverty or subpoverty wages, an official real unemployment rate in the 20s, and millions of people have simply dropped out of the labor force. What are they doing? What would you call the economy, or the many economies, that we have today?

BS: I would just call it capitalism. Essentially, we’ve been sold an ideology that’s based on the golden age of capitalism; based on the welfare state. We were told that if we work hard, if we keep our heads down, then we would be given at the very least a stable 9-to-5 job, at the very least enough for a home, enough for a car, enough to raise a family. Workers for the last few decades have been finding out that that’s a lie. The question is what happens then? What happens when students who are going to college right now are discovering that when they are out of college and they have sixty, 70,000 thousand dollars in student loans and that they are not going to get jobs. At that point the operative politics that they shifted to isn’t necessarily political or left wing in any sense; it’s most often apathy and dejection, and I think a lot of leftists forget that. But it leaves an opening for the left; it leaves an opportunity for us to make articulations, to coherently make critiques aimed at the general public for political action today. We shouldn’t necessarily despair, but we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the fact that there is chaos outside will lead in beneficial directions. I hate to say it, but we don’t live in the worst of all possible worlds. Things could get worse, and I feel that the crisis in Europe and other places, the crisis and the disaster of capitalism is really benefitting the right more than the left.

LF: Where do you see the Occupy Wall Street movement in that spectrum of apathy to anarchy to social change?

BS: I think it’s definitely in the social change direction. I would say that to some degree the reason why Occupy Wall Street really resonated deeply with the American people – and you could tell that from polling, you could tell that from general support – I think it’s because people interpreted it as a broad tent, an anti-austerity movement. They didn’t necessarily interpret [it] as some kind of harbinger of radical change because it takes steps to get people to that point. I think to some degree, the critiques of the Occupy Movement that we made at the time in Jacobin – and many of us were deeply involved in it – was that it needed a little bit of a clearer program, a little bit clearer demands, a little bit clearer and more democratic organization, but even then, you can’t expect a generation who has been in such a depoliticized environment to automatically latch onto the right critique.

LF: You mean the left critique . . .

BS: It was even open to debate whether the things that we were arguing for was the right critique, but I think that’s a discussion that we have been lucky enough to have, and we’d be more than willing to have.

LF: That gets to one of my other questions, which has to do with the period that we’ve just lived through, which was massively affected by McCarthyism, red-baiting. Anything having to do with an ideology, a worldview, change, was cast as communist. Can we overcome that? Have we moved on?

BS: I think we have. There’s this opinion poll that I hate to cite because everyone cites . . . that more Americans between the ages of 18-32 have favorable opinions of socialism than capitalism. The inevitable question is what do they mean when they say socialism? What do they mean when they say capitalism? These terms aren’t defined. I think that at the very least it says that even if they’re thinking about some sort of warm and fuzzy Scandinavians and a social welfare state, they’re not thinking about Uncle Joe in Russia. I think that is a very, very positive element that opens up lots of possibilities for the future. My generation just doesn’t have the connotations of the Cold War, and to the extent that some of us weren’t alive when the Cold War was still going, we were looking at in our youths – Mikhail Gorbachev next to Ronald Regan – and in that case, Russia might have looked like the more compassionate of the two ideologies.

LF: What does your socialism look like for the 21st century?

BS: Well, I think that freedom is an important problematic for the left to take back. I think somehow in the 20th century the left subscribed to this Hayekian discourse the right was peddling that counterpoised freedom [with] equality. In some sense, even something as drab and boring as a welfare state is freedom. Having a 9-to-5 job, having a 40-hour work week means that you have eight hours to sleep and eight hours to do whatever you want, and having universal childcare and having these other things means you’re free from certain kinds of forms of exploitation and domination. You’re free from the workplace in certain ways. I think the left needs to reclaim the language of freedom. I also think the future needs to be in a sense a democratic socialist future.

It might be a little bit of a throwback, but I’m still tied to the traditions that are very stern of their critiques of the Eastern Bloc states, very stern of their critiques of the Soviet Union, and to think that where it existed, Stalinism was in many senses even worse than western capitalist democracies and needs to be thoroughly critiqued. I think for my generation it’s not really a problem. You don’t see nostalgia for any of these states, but you also don’t see nostalgia for the heights of 20th century capitalism, and we realize the ways in which our societies – even when they are lauded by liberals -were racist, and sexist and exploitative at their core.

LF: Do you think we’ll ever get more leisure than the eight hours that was held up as a goal in the 1880s?

BS: I think, to quote Bill Haywood, I think nothing’s too good for the working class. There are actually technological shifts that leave open new political possibilities.

LF: It was supposed to be that with more technology and automatization, we would have more time off, but as far as I can see, most people believe they either work 60 hours a week or they don’t work.

BS: Right. I think part of the problem with that is that it’s a political question, first and foremost. Labor-saving technology could lead to more profits and more productivity, or it could lead to more abundance or more leisure and freedom for workers. There’s nothing necessarily inscribed into any of these new technologies and into any of the developments that necessarily says that this is going to benefit capitalism. That is a result of us being in a class society and also a result of workers not having the bargaining power they used to. So, it’s a slow process, and in the meantime, we are in the race against the clock, I hate to sound excessively pessimistic, but I think that the environmental chaos is something that looms, and it’s hard to speak of a future when we don’t even know if there is going to be a future to aspire to.

LF: So we may get more leisure, but it will be in the dark.

BS: Well, I think that there is a difference between misery and being completely laying about; being hungry and miserable and being in a condition of abundance, and having robots do things for us. That sounds ridiculous, but I do think . . . If there were different relations to production (to sound like a very vulgar Marxist), that the world could look very different. We’re already there. It’s not a matter of waiting for the future and holding off and hoping that our children’s children will live in a better future because of our exploitation in the present. It’s available now. The money is there, the resources are there, it’s a matter of taking it from the people who have it. My vision of socialism is very, very warm, and I think democratic, but it’s a matter of expropriation, taking it from people at its core.

LF: Sounds like that’s going to require some kind of agency of power. A third party; are you in favor of that? How will we exert the political influence that your ideological movement portends?

BS: I am for a third party in the future, but it’s very easy to say that we should just break with the Democrats, break immediately and form a third party. It’s a little bit more complex than that. There’s a reason why working people vote Democrat. There’s a reason why my parents, as they moved to this country, were firmly in the Democratic camp. They vaguely have the tenet that at least incorporates some interests and some pull from labor, from minorities . . . and the other guys are just that odious.

I think it’s a matter of rebuilding the idea of socialism, rebuilding the institutions that used to exist before – independent institutions on the left – that does mean independent of liberalism, then getting to the point where we can pose the question of having a third party and, you know, for the moment in America it’s not like we have a two-party system; we have a no-party system because, unlike in Europe, we don’t have dues paying, we don’t have membership parties in quite the same way, so it’s a little bit more complex. Eventually, we should break with the Democrats, eventually, we should look to (and I am in this sense – that’s why I said paleo-marxist – I am very old school). I think that the agency lies with the working class, and we just shouldn’t be so narrow as to sociologically describe it as the industrial working class. It means people earning a wage. It means 50, 60-plus percentage of the population are then allies among small business owners and other people getting exploited by the commanding heights of finance capitalism.

LF: Do Americans relate to that term: working class?

BS: Not at the moment, and I think part of that has to do with, first of all, how you are making articulations when you’re making articulations, in this middle-class ideology that America has just inscribed very deeply.

LF: We’re all small farmers; we’re all small business people; we’re all Donald Trump maybe down the road, so you shouldn’t tax us too hard [that’s the belief.]

BS: I think there are two cores to it, and one is deeply, deeply reactionary, and one’s potentially emancipatory. One is even in this very weird and very gendered bag of the man and his horse and this kind of 19th century sort of vision: that there is a man and his horse riding off westward to free himself from exploitation, and there is a man and his horse riding his horse westward to exploit others. Freedom from exploitation and the exploitation of others is the tension in this American Dream and this rhetoric of freedom. In some senses we are more progressive than more European discourse that are still tainted with the scum of feudalism and other things. America, in a sense, was born of a flawed republican revolution, and in the sense that we could see now that the Jeffersonian discourse was hollow because these same people owned slaves; we’re using the very same Jeffersonian discourse that they gifted to us to critique them, and I think it’s a little bit more complex. I know I’m probably losing lots and lots of viewers and support for that statement.

LF: I think people would say what about the rights of the horse? Finally, you did a panel recently with the Pen World Voices conference where you talked about the missteps of the mainstream media working to your benefit. What do you mean?

BS: I think essentially that the mainstream media – there’s a mix with Jacobin I would say of contempt and respect for our readership. The contempt is that as editors we try to publish what we want to read at that very moment, but the respect is that we think there is a higher level of discourse, there are more complex ideas that people can understand and parse through. I think that maybe the mainstream [media] has neither contempt nor respect for their readership: they’re just sauntering in some middle ground . . . There are certain discourses, liberal discourses of objectivity, that are very hollow and narrow and don’t take into account the fact that we all have first principles, and I think to some degree there is more honest and serious reporting in Jacobin, where people know where we are coming from, but people know that we are thorough and serious, and they can read and critique us.

LF: What is your subscription base right now, and how is it doing financially, dare I ask?

BS: Well, in November of 2012, we had 1,500 subscribers. Today we have almost 4,000. It’s an incredibly rate of growth, we’ve just hired our first couple of staffers, and that means that I get to sleep more than three hours a night. It’s been working well, and I think part of it is we’ve just been given support because I think we are very honest and upfront about what we produce. We don’t pay for all of our content and people support us because they want to support us. We are upfront about our ideology and what we stand for. People who disagree with us subscribe and donate because they like the honesty, and they like the discussions that we spark. It’s kind of surprised me, and it’s definitely, I imagine, surprised everyone else because I was the most arrogantly confident going in.

(You can get more information about Jacobin at