A man paddles his canoe down the flooded main A361 road as it enters the village of East Lyng, 13 February 2014. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.
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The storm factory: climate change and the winter floods

In Somerset, the novelty of canoes has long since worn off.

I reached Burrow Mump two hours after the soldiers. Major Al Robinson and Sergeant Leigh Robinson of 24 Commando Engineer Regiment were the first representatives of the military sent to the Somerset Levels, and, having climbed the granite-topped outcrop that stands above the village of Burrowbridge and surveyed the expanse of water below on the morning of 30 January, they came to the conclusion that there was nothing they could do to help.

Burrow Mump, like its better-known counterpart Glastonbury Tor, is a rare high spot in the low-lying basins of moorland known as the Somerset Levels: Burrow Mump stands in the western half, between the Quantock and Polden Hills, and Glastonbury Tor overlooks its eastern reaches, which are known to those of a certain disposition as “the Vale of Avalon”. Neither would seem particularly imposing anywhere – it takes no longer to scramble up the muddy slopes of Burrow Mump than it does to climb Primrose Hill in north London – but in the flat, sparsely inhabited lands of the Levels, they have acquired a quasi-mystical significance: both are topped by ruined chapels, and both draw visits from sight­seers and pilgrims of all kinds, including an increasing numbers of tourists drawn to the Levels by reports of an inundation routinely described as biblical in scale.

The sheet of water that lapped at the edge of the car park and rose halfway up the trunks of trees on the lower slopes of Burrow Mump was broken here and there by trees and gateposts – the dots and dashes of a visual Morse code indicating the outlines of the fields below. To the east, it was enclosed by the Polden Hills and to the west it stretched far beyond Burrowbridge. The only dry land to the south was the dark green verges of the embankment that hems in the conjoined waters of the Rivers Parrett and Tone, carrying them towards the town: as most of the moors lie below sea level, the waterways have been built higher than the surrounding land to allow them to drain.

The diversion of the Tone was the first significant step in the unending task of draining the Levels. It used to run further west, between the village of East Lyng and the “island” of Athelney, to which King Alfred retreated before defeating the Danish invaders at the Battle of Edington in 878, but in the 14th century it was diverted into a man-made channel that joins the Parrett just north of Burrowbridge.

When I had walked across the bridge in the middle of the village half an hour earlier, the water was barely passing beneath the arches, and an improvised wall of sandbags and tarpaulin built along the east bank was protecting the houses that are separated from the river by only a narrow road. One of the homeowners, who was leaning on the gate, said that his house was always damp but didn’t often flood: paradoxically, the houses closest to the river are less vulnerable than most. The situation on the west side of the village, where the flood water had gathered, was worse: two of the three roads that diverged from the road across the bridge were closed and there were emergency crews working in the yard of a house in an attempt to save it from the encroaching lake.

The Parrett, which rises in Dorset, drains an area of 660 square miles, or about half of Somerset’s land area, and last month, according to the Environment Agency, it received the highest January rainfall on record – twice the normal average for this time of year. Yet the locals believed there was a simple solution to the crisis, as the banner slung across the bridge made plain: “Stop the Flooding – Dredge the Rivers!” They claim the Parrett is operating at less than full capacity because the Environment Agency has allowed it to silt up; they say it used to be dredged regularly and was wider and deeper, so that it flowed more freely even when swelled by winter rains.

The current orthodoxy maintains that “canalising” rivers and encouraging them to flow faster and straighter, as we did in the postwar years, only encourages more flooding downstream; it is considered more effective to trap water in the hills and allow rivers to braid and meander in a more natural way, but the people here do not agree. They acknowledge that the Levels have always flooded. In the winter of 1872-73, 107 square miles of land lay under water for six months, and there have been other occasions in living memory when the rivers have burst their banks. Dredging would not prevent flooding altogether, they say, but it would help: the water would not come up so high or stay up so long.

One local farmer, Julian Temperley, said that the Parrett in Bridgwater was “ten feet below its banks, while five miles upstream it was overflowing”. Temperley was particularly concerned about his 98-year-old father, who lives in Thorney House, a Georgian mansion in the village of Thorney, eight miles upstream from Burrowbridge and a mile from its celebrated neighbour Muchelney. The Anglo-Saxon suffix “ey” means “island”, and many of the villages on the Levels were built on the high ground that remained dry all year round. For the past six weeks, Muchelney has been an island again, but its houses have not flooded. Thorney’s have.

When I visited Thorney in early January, a week after the waters rose for the first time, the high street had become a lagoon and the villagers had resorted to getting about by canoe. I met two of them at the curve in the road where the water began. The kerb had become an impromptu pontoon. One of them paddled me down the high street, past the empty, flooded houses that were mirrored in the stream. The water was dark and cold, thickened with grass and filled with apples – the Parrett had swept through an orchard when it burst its banks. There were no lights on, but the steady hum of pumps confirmed that people had not abandoned their homes.

The pumps were a temporary measure: the householders were trying to keep the water levels down until the officials of the Environment Agency turned on its much larger pumps. Residents of the Levels like to remind visitors that many parts of London, including the “Island of Thorns” that became Westminster, would have flooded many times this winter if it wasn’t for the Thames Barrier, which has been closed 28 times. But even the title of the Environment Agency’s chairman, Lord Smith of Finsbury, strengthens the perception that it is composed of urban sophisticates with a fondness for expensive Land Rovers and no sense of the realities of rural life. They also point to a conflict in the Environment Agency’s role – does it regard rivers as waterways, or habitats? Is it helping wildlife, or people? When I walked in to the King Alfred pub, which overlooks the swollen Parrett in Burrowbridge, the drinkers gathered at the bar were complaining that the EA had found £31m for a nature reserve on the coast but couldn’t find £5m to drain the river. The same complaint has been heard in pubs and houses throughout Somerset in the past six weeks.

The situation on the Levels has become so extreme that extra EA staff have been brought in from other parts of the country. They do not seem to attract the same resentment as the management. I was walking along the edge of the Parrett with a farmer one afternoon when we met an EA worker who attempted to pre-empt the anticipated abuse by saying he lived near Alton Towers, as if no one could pick a fight with someone who claimed a tangential connection with a funfair. Further downstream, another man from the Midlands was stationed by one of the many pumps that are draining water from the moors. He said he was there only to stop people stealing diesel, and offered a conciliatory assessment of the river flowing past in the dusk. “That’s just a big drain,” he said, gesturing at the Parrett.


The risk of flooding from the rivers is compounded by the threat from the sea: 2,000 people were said to have drowned in the Bristol Channel floods of 1607, when the waters reached the foot of Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles inland. On 26 November 1703, the sea defences were breached in West Huntspill, near Burnham-on-Sea, close to where the Parrett enters the Bristol Channel: “… there was Four or Five small vessels drove a-shoar which remain there still, and ’tis supposed cannot be got off,” said one of the eyewitness reports that Daniel Defoe collected in The Storm, his brilliant account of the events of that night; “and in the same Parish, the Tide broke in Breast high; but all the People escap’d only one Woman, who was drowned.”

At West Huntspill the sea defences held firm this winter but in other parts of the country they were severely tested. The storm surge that travelled down the east coast of England on the night of 5-6 December generated the highest tide since the North Sea flood of 31 January 1953, in which 307 people drowned. Early-warning systems and improved defences prevented a repeat of the catastrophe, but there was still extensive damage: sections of Norfolk’s crumbling cliffs collapsed and thousands of homes were flooded. Boston and Hull were particularly badly affected.

That storm was the first of several that have pounded the coastline and, in some cases, reshaped it: natural features such as the Pom Pom Rock, a stack off Portland Bill, have been destroyed, and man-made structures such as the promenade in Aberystwyth have been damaged. In early January, the waves breached coastal defences in Chiswell, a village on Portland that stands exposed to the Atlantic, and drastically altered the contours of Chesil Beach. When the storms returned this month, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway line, which has carried passengers along the south coast since 1847, was severed at Dawlish in Devon, leaving Cornwall cut off from the national rail. Wave-watching suddenly became a national pastime.


In the meantime, a month of unprecedented rainfall has caused extensive flooding inland. Over Christmas, towns and villages in the Cotswolds, Berkshire and Kent were flooded, sometimes more than once. When I went to Yalding, near Maidstone, in early January, the people were beginning to recover from a catastrophic flood that struck the village on Christmas Day. This past week it flooded again. There has been flooding in Dorset, Essex and Lambourn Valley. Even Hertfordshire, which has been the driest county this winter, has been affected. The EA estimates that more than 5,000 properties have flooded since December and its defences have protected a further 1.3 million properties. People died, including a seven-year-old boy, apparently overcome by fumes from a pump draining flood water from his house in Chertsey, Surrey – one of many places where the Thames has burst its banks.

On Monday 10 February the EA issued 16 severe flood warnings on the River Thames. Yet the problems had begun much earlier.

One day in early January, I caught the train to Cookham in Berkshire and walked into the village that the artist Stanley Spencer depicted as a kind of Thameside Jerusalem. I was told that the causeway across the flooded moor was the only way in, but I decided to test the claim that the roads were impassable and walked out of town on the A4094. Inevitably, it was raining, and the road was deserted: the only car in sight was one that had been abandoned at the point where the flood water began.

The White Brook had burst its banks and spread out across Widbrook Common in a wide lake: its further reaches were very still but the knee-deep water was flowing fast across a stretch of the road, 100 metres wide, which had become a kind of weir. Halfway across, I met a teenage boy cycling home from school: he was soaked to the waist, his schoolbag a dripping sack, and his back wheel kept slipping sideways in the current yet he kept going. The British have always had a defiant attitude towards our unpredictable weather, and some of us, at least, are still determined to confront it.

Yet accommodations will have to be made, because we are witnessing record-breaking weather. Last month the Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University, which began monitoring daily weather in 1767, recorded a total rainfall that was three times the average for January – it recorded 146.9 millimetres of rain, beating the previous record of 138.7 millimetres set in 1852. This was also the wettest winter month on record, beating December 1914, when 143.3 millimetres fell. The south and the Midlands suffered their wettest January since Met Office records began in 1910.

The immediate causes of the turbulent winter are hard to establish, but the Met Office’s chief scientist says that “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”. Speaking at the launch of a report on the storms, Dame Julia Slingo said: “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

More than 130 severe flood warnings – indicating a threat to life – have been issued since December. Only 12 were issued in 2012. The Met Office report links the extreme conditions in Europe and North America this winter to “perturbations” in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, caused in part by changing weather patterns in south-east Asia. Recently, meteorologists have said there is a “storm factory” over the Atlantic, caused by cold polar air meeting warm tropical air, and they are considering whether the melting of the Arctic ice cap has made the jet stream track further south, channelling more storms across the UK.

The Met Office report also says the sea level along the English Channel has risen by about 12 centimetres in the past hundred years, and that a rise of between 11 centimetres and 16 centimetres “is likely by 2030”, given “the warming we are already committed to”. Most experts acknowledge that we will not be able to defend areas such as the Levels indefinitely: more resources will be expended on defending low-lying cities such as Hull, but in other places a policy of managed retreat is already being put into practice. Medmerry in West Sussex is one example: the Environment Agency has cut a gap in the sea wall and allowed farmland to revert to salt marsh, where the winter floods wasted their destructive force.

Yet there are costs to choosing such “soft defences” over sea walls and other solid structures that brace the UK’s 17,381 kilometres of coastline. According to the National Farmers Union, 58 per cent of England’s most productive farmland lies within a floodplain, so surrendering land to water presents a threat to food production. Lord Smith has said the Environment Agency has to make a choice between protecting “front rooms or farmland” and the Commons select committee on the environment has warned that we may have strayed too far in one direction: as most of the spending on flood defences is allocated to urban areas, a high proportion of the most valuable agricultural land is at risk. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also estimates that 35,000 hectares of high-quality horticultural and arable land will be flooded at least once every three years by the 2020s.

On the Somerset Levels, the novelty of paddling around in canoes has long since worn off, and the long process of cleaning up has not even begun. The government says it is pumping off 2.9 million tonnes of water a day, but in some places the situation is getting worse. In the first week of February, heavy rainfall hit the Levels again and the emergency services finally found a use for the soldiers who had surveyed the drowned landscape from Burrow Mump. On the night of 6 February water levels rose in the village of Moorland, two miles north of Burrowbridge on the west bank of the Parrett, and the marines of 40 Commando were sent in to evacuate the residents.

David Cameron arrived on the Somerset Levels the next day – no doubt he appreciated the photographs of the marines at work and the muscular urgency they conveyed. He gave in to the local people’s most insistent demand, saying that dredging would begin as soon as possible, and reinforcing the view that the remote, incompetent bureaucrats of the Environment Agency were to blame for the crisis on the Levels. The political name-calling had begun, as the storm factory over the North Atlantic prepared to send another bout of the winter’s unprecedented weather our way.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror