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A Bernie-ist Manifesto for the Jobless Future

A new book embodies the flaws in the Bernie Sanders theory of history.

Getty / John MacDougall

People Get Ready: The Fight Against A Jobless Economy And A Citizenless Democracy by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols could have been titled “A Bernie-ist Manifesto.” The book makes many of the same arguments as the Sanders campaign and seems calculated to appeal to and inspire primary voters who are feeling the Bern, but since it’s a book we are spared the horse race and the soundbites. The authors offer a strong analysis of automation and labor looking forward into the twenty-first century. They weigh all the claims of “disruptive” tech-utopians both past and present against the best statistics and come to an unfortunate conclusion. “What we are comfortable saying—and what we believe must be said loudly and emphatically,” they write, “is that the present course is taking all the trends toward increased inequality and poverty already in existence and making them worse.” Machines are replacing jobs, and capitalism ensures that workers pay the price.

The proposition that things are getting worse for workers as machines get better for owners is backed up by pages of graphs and is relatively uncontroversial on its face, but that doesn’t make it any less a radical insight. If five people build a machine that can do the work of 50 other people, that should eliminate jobs. At the very least, it lowers the amount of labor required from a society in order to produce the same standard of living. The historical period America is entering is defined perhaps principally by this rapid reduction in the need for labor. But the effects of that reduction not surprisingly benefit the machines’ proprietors rather than the workers. Overabundance of labor reduces its value, and owners reap the profits. “In our view, the evidence points in one direction,” the authors write. “The economy needs to be fundamentally reformed, if not replaced. Capitalism as we know it is the wrong economic system for the material world that is emerging.” It’s quite an idea, and it’s just as urgent as the authors convey.

But it is tempting to read the book as the product of two distinct minds, one perceptive and thoughtful, the other incredibly foolish. And here is where the dumb author takes over: Instead of the book people deserve, about changes in the mode of production and the coming struggle for control over them, we get transitioned to a haphazard mishmash of revisionist history and naive liberal politics, culminating in proposed solutions that are impractical and insufficient at the same time. After concluding that capitalism and the wage-labor system are incompatible with a desirable future, the authors duck the implications of their insight. The section “What Does This Mean for Jobs?” ends:

It is not even an economic problem so much as it is a political one, because the only plausible way to solve the great structural problems facing the economy will be through politics. 

This is Bernie’s “political revolution” theory in a nutshell—that a popular outcry will replace our capitalist politicians with people who will be compelled to make the transition to a more equitable economy. First we do the democracy, then we get the socialism. What they are proposing is not in fact a revolution at all but a program of radical reform. The reasoning behind this vision is weak: Just because something seems plausible doesn’t mean it’s actually possible. Instead of trying to determine what is necessary to bring an end to capitalism in America, they assume that this can be achieved through so-called democratic means. 

To make the case for this radical reformism, the authors mine American history for instances in which progressive reforms were made—or nearly made—under the restrictions of liberal capitalist democracy. It’s a good instinct: If the authors are right and this political system can be peacefully changed into the political system we need, perhaps they can find evidence in American roads imagined but not taken. This is, however, a very different method than tracing the theoretical and practical lineages of struggle and class conflict. It’s much easier, more akin to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure than an actual history book. And as they journey through America’s past, the authors are extremely careless in their choice of historical allies.

Nation Books, 368 pp., $26.99

Their first task is to redeem the Constitution, and to do so they have to first remove the stain of slavery. “Most of the founders of the nation were well aware that slavery was morally wrong and indefensible,” they write. That’s debatable, I suppose, but what’s not is that they all enabled it to persist. But once the authors identify a split on the ethics of breeding children for profit, they feel free to declare fidelity only to the strain of thought within the Constitution that opposed the institution (slavery) that provided the basis for the nation’s wealth. It’s a precarious position rhetorically, and untenable intellectually.

On their side they place Thomas Jefferson, whom they frame as an agrarian anti-capitalist avant la lettre. They allude (presumably) to his slave-breeding, -raping, and -selling by calling him “an impulsive and often contradictory figure” with “flaws.” But on-balance they side with Jefferson’s ostensible commitment to enlightenment values, and in his presidential victory over John Adams in 1800 they see the possibility of transition of power from proponents of one economic system to another within the American Constitutional framework. “Jefferson,” they write, “understood precisely what was required for those who are disempowered to achieve a political revolution.” That Jefferson’s election was a victory first and foremost for slave-power is unmentioned. No matter how one cherry-picks from Jefferson’s writing, portraying him as a people’s revolutionary of any sort is an insult, both to people’s revolutionaries and to the memory of the people Jefferson enslaved.

To Jefferson the authors add a couple of Roosevelts (Teddy and Franklin Delano), whom they see as standing against monopoly capitalism and for a strong social safety net. This may be the leftward bound of American presidents, but you have to overlook a lot of terrible beliefs, actions, and consequences to tag in a U.S. executive for a twenty-first-century progressive argument. But the authors are cool with that. In the most egregious example, they lend credibility to early America’s anti-imperial pretensions: “Aside from the numerous continental campaigns to seize lands from the indigenous populations as well as Mexico, the United States heeded the spirit of the Constitution and its framers for much of its history, generally demobilizing immediately after a declared war.” Never say never when it comes to writing a sentence, but the construction “aside from the numerous” is probably not a great way to frame an argument.

There’s a style of political argument—mostly involving quotations superimposed on pictures and posted on Facebook—that tries to demonstrate the validity of unconventional policies and perspectives by attributing them to universally acclaimed figures. Socialists often use it to combat red-baiting, pointing to figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, and even Jesus. The Sanders campaign has taken it a step further, calling institutions like the police and the military “socialist” because they’re paid for by taxes and ostensibly serve the public. It’s a rhetorical trick that might be good for a meme here and there, but as the basis for an ideology it’s noticeably weak. The authors’ vehicle forward is a left-liberal Frankenstein made up of American history fragments. Did you know President Eisenhower didn’t think anyone should mess with Social Security? It’s the kind of muttering liberals did during the George W. Bush administration to remind themselves that they were not the deluded ones.

If People Get Ready were half as long—excising the middle—it would be twice as good. In the conclusion, the authors give the most concise account I’ve read of the “political revolution” strategy and goals. After dismissing the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, which, since it would be paid in cash, would, they believe, further the privatization of public services, they explain how they think society should handle the benefits of enhanced productivity:

A more humane approach would be to go in the opposite direction and simply remove certain functions from the market altogether as the society grows wealthier … Make broadband Internet access free and ubiquitous. Make healthcare free and ubiquitous. Make extensive public transportation within cities and between them free and ubiquitous. Make all education free and ubiquitous. The list goes on and on. At some point, down the road, inequality is eliminated and humans enter an entirely new phase of their history. The economic problem will have been solved.

Someone who has been purposefully misled about the theories of Karl Marx might think this is a communist agenda, but it’s not. This program is only “socialist” if you detach the term “socialism” from its legacy of historical struggle and reduce socialism to the idea that “the government should own stuff.” The authors don’t want to win the class struggle, they want to find a bundle of policy solutions that attenuates the tension between owners and workers until the two can cohabitate without anyone starving in the street.

They should know better, and the author I imagine as the “good author” of the two seems to. In the introduction, they write:

There is something wrong, something that is destructive rather than disruptive, something that is simply absurd about engaging in the wishful thinking that says a capitalistic system that by its nature prioritizes profit will somehow evolve for the better. It does not work like that. It never has and it never will.

The authors are more correct than they seem to realize; the “capitalistic system”—one of several weaselly ways the authors decline to say “capitalism” without qualification—includes American democracy and always has. Surely the tech utopians the authors are criticizing haven’t done anything so absurd as look for socialist inspiration from a slaveowner.

Bernie-ists like McChesney and Nichols are, at the end of the day, exactly as naive as the Silicon Valley optimists who think that capitalism will fix democracy. Instead, they imagine democracy will fix capitalism, but the fundamental mistake is the same. There is no way to reform capitalism into socialism, even if that is easier to imagine than the actual overthrow of the ownership class.