A Party of Lemmings Led by a Zombie: Why We Need to Keep Bernie Sanders’ Vision Alive

Aug 1, 2016 by

By Alan Minsky  TRUTHDIG

  Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gives a thumbs-up as she appears on stage Thursday during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

Well, I guess I won’t be working in the Clinton White House.

I ran into Truthdig Editor in Chief Bob Scheer at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last week. I asked about his take on the Clinton delegates. I explained that I wanted to engage them on matters of policy, but I could hardly get an honest peep out of them. Bob looked at me, shrugged off my question as if to suggest that they’re not interested in that stuff, and quipped, “This is a job fair to them.”

Indeed, just as Thomas Frank portrays in his magisterial new book “Listen, Liberal,” the core of the Clintonite Democratic Party is the American aspirational class, and they’ve transformed the Democratic National Convention into their natural habitat, the job market.

Somehow, I missed the memo. Look, I have no illusions. I’m from the same social strata as many of the Clinton delegates—middle- and upper-middle class, well-educated, soccer over NASCAR. Almost all of my longtime friends dutifully support the Democratic Party, and while my pals went for Bernie Sanders in the spring, they will probably fall back in line for “Her” in November.

Neither, I hope, am I naïve. I understand why the Clintonite ideology is attractive to this post graduate-degree, upper 10 percent, caste. They’ve all worked very hard their entire lives for the right to continue overworking. Yet, simultaneously, I am appalled that so many people who have shared so many of my life experiences cannot recognize that the Clintons and their clique are the primary architects of the contemporary national and global economic order that has made such a mess of this country and has us hurtling toward a rendezvous with apocalypse.

There is no denying the usefulness of a Marxian class analysis here (with capital, invisible yet omnipresent, calling the shots), but I fear that Sigmund Freud’s terrifying theory of the human death drive is equally relevant.

Before we go there, let’s review the requisite backdrop to this moment:

By the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, an increasing majority of people in “advanced” technological societies have grown aware that the macroeconomy—i.e., the web of social relations they rely upon for their very existence—is no longer working for them. This has led to a revolt against the political status quo (Hillary Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President François Hollande), with two primary variations: 1) the right-wing xenophobic response (Donald Trump, the UK Independence Party, Marie Le Pen), and 2) a left social-democratic response (Sanders, British MP Jeremy Corbyn, Syriza in Greece/Podemos in Spain).

Since option 1 posits a world that no decent person should countenance, and for the most part is void of coherent proposals (the most fully elaborated example, Le Pen’s, posits a society in which the national population maintains a social contract that slightly benefits them through the ever-more-egregious oppression of the minority but in no way represents a fundamental challenge to current socio-economic relations); and since option “status quo” represents only the unacceptable more-of-the-same, only option 2 represents a sincere attempt to respond to this crisis that actually addresses people’s needs and concerns.

Sooner or later, the left is going to get a crack at this—and until that point, we’ll be stranded in ever-deepening crises.

Tragically, it is just as clear that the status quo will fight, with all of its overwhelming advantage in terms of resources, against the left’s ever having an opportunity to rectify the situation. Even as the leaders and supporters of the status quo mouth platitudes that imply solidarity with the left—the convention that just ended in Philadelphia is now the most elaborate confirmation of this transparently deceptive behavior—they’ve yet to meet the corporate lobbyist they’re willing to shun.

Let’s return now to the small issue of humanity’s insatiable appetite for self-destruction.

From what I can garner from the internet, lemmings are truly adorable—and no, they do not have an innate “Logan’s Run”/“Heathers”-esque suicide drive. Rather, it is our phenomenally creative (and destructive) species that has made lemmings into such a powerful metaphor for our current condition. (Lemmings have earned their reputation because they are willing to suffer tremendous casualties for a higher purpose, much like Grant’s Army, which, of course, is anathema to Clinton’s supporters.) Apologies to all real lemmings for the insulting association, but the metaphor is too useful to abandon.

It is slightly strange to dub Clinton a zombie. There’s been much delicious writing on how contemporary “zombie mania” (“The Walking Dead,” et al) reflects our world of soulless 70-hour workweeks. But this is no paradox. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presidential candidate, refuses ever to die; as such, she is the perfect queen zombie.

After all, it was the Clintons who, at the very time that they claimed to be progressive, designed this deathlike life for the American middle and working classes. Sadly, Hillary’s nomination is proof that historical fact cannot “gain traction” without active assistance from “old” media. No amount of reiteration, on digital outlets and alt-media alike, of simple historical truths—like that the Clintons are the all-time greatest heavyweight champions of neoliberalism—has been able derail her.

Remember, it’s not just NAFTA that the Clintons pushed; not just the welfare bill or the reordering of criminal sentencing in the ’90s that exploded the prison population, or the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, or the killing of Glass-Steagall—it’s also the 1994 Communications Act that deregulated the media (wonder why CNN is overrun with stealth Clinton surrogates? And why Debbie Wasserman Schultz is in league with MSNBC?) Just about every other successful shrinking of the social safety net and deregulation of business you can think of was advanced by the Clintons, their allies or the state and local GOP, who were swept into power with the collapse of the Democratic Party at those levels after the Clintons’ conquest of the party.

Indeed, no amount of proof that the Clintons’ public policy agenda has heaped misery upon 90 percent of the population will dilute the mainstream media’s representation of Hillary as one of history’s greatest champions of progressive causes—even if very real social advances in race, gender and sexual-orientation equality, which have become associated with the Clinton brand, reflects the political establishment’s key co-optation strategy: minority inclusion on the team in exchange for minority “markets.”

So here we have the 2016 Democratic convention: The “talented 10th” from all strata of society, marching lemming-like behind an undead leader in support of ever more income inequality, the maintenance of the prison-industrial complex and a planet on fire.

Surely, you say, the checklist of progressive domestic policy positions in HRC’s acceptance speech proves she has turned a page. My dear liberal-apologist friends, please know your history. Your fellow Hillary fan, Bob Woodward, showed in “The Agenda,” his 1994 book on the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, that Bill campaigned as a progressive populist and knowingly did an about-face once he took office—with his economic policy team dissuading the president-elect of any impulse to be seduced by his campaign rhetoric at the notorious economic retreat held in Arkansas in the weeks after the election. Since that day, the Clintons have understood their formula: flowery language for the masses, legislation by corporate committee (with legions of lawyers).

Want more proof that Hillary is a zombie? She lives off others’ brains. I suspect this is achieved through an elaborate network, probably channeled through the Clinton Foundation’s Canadian front organizations. Clearly her supporters have abandoned the critical-thinking capacity associated with the frontal lobe.

How else to explain their belief in such nonsense as the idea that a subsidiary of Comcast (MSNBC) gives voice to left progressive ideals? Even more worrying is the prospect that these folks are so stupefied that they’re intellectually incapable of recognizing that their beloved champion is a full-regalia oligarch, rightly despised by tens of millions of Americans because she and her husband sold out the middle class (let alone the working class and the poor) and who recognize that she has no intention of doing anything different this time around. And, thus, she’s on the brink of losing this election to a terrifying proto-fascist buffoon, hellbent on empowering the most retrograde, reactionary/racist pockets of an increasingly Godforsaken land.

Two Philadelphia stories: The Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia is one of the most distraught and shattered in the entire United States. It’s like a war zone, and has one of the highest infant mortality rates, suicide rates and now homicide rates in U.S. history. I went to a political rally there, and at one point I strayed from the crowd, wanting to check out more of the neighborhood. Someone ran over from the demonstration, pulled me back and warned me, “Don’t be silly. It’s not safe to wander. You are not welcome here.”

Driving out of town at the end of the convention, I passed through Main Line Philadelphia. It also took my breath away, but for the opposite reasons. There can be few neighborhoods in the world that are so lavishly wealthy. Mansion after mansion on gorgeous grounds, betraying something that must be lost on the vast majority of the American people: This remains the richest country in the history of humanity. On any given day, I have very little desire to accumulate vast wealth; but driving through Main Line Philadelphia, I can’t help but imagine what life would be like living in these sprawling estates. I came upon a narrow street; my instinct told me there’d be more beautiful properties ahead, but the sign read simply, “Private Street: Only Residents Allowed.” You are not welcome here.

So while the number of very poor exceeds the very rich, the large majority of the American population lives in between. Main Line is the unattainable dream; Kensington represents the fear that renders those between the two extremes subservient. The very thought of falling into the hell of Kensington keeps them running ever faster on their gerbil treadmill of death. It is an insufferable, meaningless existence; no wonder so many join their army of lemmings on their death march to the cliffs, a zombie drum majorette in the lead.

The English philosopher John Gray, like his kindred spirit Truthdig’s Chris Hedges, is a scathing critic of the “myth of progress.” In his breakthrough 2002 work “Straw Dogs,” Gray pointed out that progressives’ use of the term “evolution” is a bastardization of Darwin’s theory of random selection. Like Hedges, Gray points to Freud’s theory of the death drive to help clarify how humanity is not on an inevitable path to greater social harmony, but rather how we as a species are just as prone to inevitable bouts of horrific destruction (let alone daily, hourly acts that undermine). Freud’s theory posits that just as humanity possesses a “tendency toward survival, propagation, sex and other creative, life-producing drives” (dubbed Eros), we also have a drive toward death and self-destruction (Thanatos).

Yet Gray points out how science—in contrast to social and political organization—achieves consistent advancement of knowledge through the acceptance of the scientific process by a tightly coordinated and regulated network of well-populated international institutions. So there is progress on that front.

In contrast to Gray, I am not so certain that our social and political condition is so dire. I point to the option 2 group I mentioned earlier as a source of hope. In particular, I felt that Bernie Sanders produced one of the most hopeful and compelling visions for how Thanatos could be contained and Eros flourish that I’ve heard in my lifetime.

Indeed, one of the things that struck me as most persuasive about Sanders’ program was how, almost like a scientist, he began his campaign explaining that in the realm of the social organization of “advanced” technological societies, we know where to look to find positive examples, and he pointed to the social democracies of Western Europe. While Sanders’ embrace of Scandinavia was dropped as a talking point pretty early in the campaign, his program remained firmly rooted in the idea that a truly democratic state is the most powerful instrument available at the moment to contain the destructive forces (think Thanatos) unleashed in our era of globalized capitalism and to initiate positive programs (think Eros) that benefit people and the planet. Sanders remained unwavering in his radical commitment to this project throughout a year-long campaign that ended with him as, far and away, the most popular politician in the country.

Will the realization of Sanders’ political program chase Thanatos from the human soul? No, Gray and Freud have that right—all evidence confirms that’s part of who we are—at least until the next transformational random mutation. But Sanders’ program does promise to accent those “better angels of our nature” by utilizing pre-existing institutions of the state to balance economic and political power (no guillotines required).

As I wrote above, Sanders’ vision for utilizing the state to redistribute (and balance) socio-economic and political power is gaining traction across many of the major world economies; but as we see from Germany’s (almost sadistic) suffocation of Syriza in Greece and the British establishment’s hysterical response to Jeremy Corbyn’s victory as leader of the Labour Party, there is tremendous resistance on behalf of the allies of capital to allowing this political tendency to implement its program.

At the same time, I don’t think there’s any other political proposal on the table that will come close to satisfying the public. And so, while I could be wrong, I foresee us stranded in a myriad of crises until such a left formation gets a go at leading a major government. Not that simply winning an election will produce magic. Indeed, you can foresee the right wing’s counteroffensive from Paul Ryan’s words in Cleveland recently, as he railed on how the left wants to give out free stuff in a world designed by faceless bureaucrats. Indeed, if a government with a Sanders agenda comes to power in the coming decade or so, it will be tasked with instantly improving government institutions that have fallen into disrepair during the current regime of austerity. In order to achieve such a transformation, the masses in support of such an agenda will have to be well-informed about the task ahead.

One thing I certainly worry about after the convention I just left is just how well Sanders supporters understand what they’re up against and what it will take to achieve their goals. It’s clear to me that he understands these things—but, hey, I’m a program director of a radio station that Sanders spoke on once a week until his presidential campaign overwhelmed his schedule. (Note to Bernie: Please come back to the airwaves.)

In contrast, there was a tangible sense of frustration, and even desperation, amongst many Sanders delegates at the convention. In contrast to the Clinton lemmings, the Sanders delegates were always happy to talk policy; but, at least last week, their favorite subject was the corruption of the Democratic National Convention. Yes, Team Clinton stacked the deck, and this merited exposure, but it wasn’t surprising. Achieving a true 21st-century social democracy through the electoral realm would mean an incredible struggle. We need to build toward it using every asset we the people posses. As such, nothing could be more important than helping everyone gain the kind of sophisticated sense of what we’re up against that Bernie Sanders possesses, since we can expect fierce resistance from the social, political and economic elites and their lemming-like allies.

Lastly, this essay is itself an experiment in the political value of “contempt.” As it were, it’s a kind of weapons test. I must confess: I am a product of the punk rock era. I grew up believing Sid Vicious an intellectual paragon.

Malcolm Gladwell (for whom, you can imagine, I have tremendous contempt) writes in his best-selling book “Blink” that research into romantic relationships has shown that they can survive fighting and all sorts of other negative components; but if either partner in the relationship has contempt for the other, then the couple is doomed. Lovers, beware contempt.

Per Hillary Clinton, this is good news for me, as I have no desire to be enmeshed in a romantic relationship with any member of the Clinton tribe (strikes me as awfully messy). But I wonder if, perhaps, contempt might be a necessary instrument to be deployed, especially if she does become the next president. Hillary Clinton is very hard to reach. You may not have noticed, but she is unique among recent presidential candidates in absolutely refusing to give news conferences. In other words, we may be on the brink of electing a president distinctly unaccountable to the public, with a predilection for pursuing public policy in stark contrast to her public promises (see the Clintons’ track record). And given the myriad severe crises afflicting the country and the world, pray tell: How do we influence such a chief executive?

My theory, and the inspiration for the condescending tone of this essay, is that the contemporary American professional class, the meritocrats—the very core of people Hillary Clinton relies upon for maintaining any semblance of support—will not be immune to scathingly caustic (and yet charmingly playful) truth-telling. They think they’re both cool and (somehow) pro-justice, and thus invulnerable to attack on this front.

Seriously, though, they have got to wake up. All evidence suggests that they believe they can persist with the charade that somehow, simply because they are not Republicans, they are opposing the reign of the 1 percent, when it is clear to anyone with more brains than a rodent that Hillary’s election will ensure the continued unabated rule of the oligarchs, which leads working people and the environment (and thus the meritocrats themselves) to their doom.

Unless Jill Stein’s Green Party candidacy defies expectations, catches fire and makes this a three- or four-person race (which I am praying for), we’ve got to break through the meritocrats’ lemming consciousness, first in time to defeat Donald Trump, and then, if that goal is achieved, by not dropping the attitude when Zombie Presidents 42 and 45 move back into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Otherwise, we’re doomed to four more years of rampant and unaddressed economic, judicial and environmental crises.

So, bring the contempt. It’s what our political class and its sycophants deserve; and if it’s combined with constructive activism, it just might save the world.

Worst-case scenario, it will help us cope, as gallows humor will be the spirit of the times. Certainly, it helped me survive the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

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