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Behind the Irish crisis

The new coalition government portrays the crushing defeat of Fianna Fail as a cathartic, revolutiona

The beginning of the economic transformation of Ireland announced itself to me one morning when I was living in Mexico City in 1995. It was there in a headline in the New York Times: "Irish economic growth lifts hopes". The article mentioned rapid growth, booming exports and high rates of new jobs - not what I usually associated with the country I'd left behind eight months before.

Mexico, too, had been the object of worldwide acclaim for its economic performance. Sweeping aside the protectionism that it had championed throughout its 60 years in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party had opened Mexico to globalisation. The country was booming and millions got hold of a credit card for the first time. Mexicans thought they were about to realise the dream of becoming a first-world country. Watching from the White House, George H W Bush said that Mexico was rising again like the Aztec eagle. The man credited with this wonder was President Carlos Salinas. But just as his six-year term was ending, in 1994, Mexico crashed into crisis: the value of the peso plunged and millions of investors pulled their money out. The International Monetary Fund intervened with a huge bailout. Salinas was blamed for the disaster. His humiliation was so great that he was forced into exile. He chose to live in Ireland.

A few months after settling in Dublin, Salinas gave an interview to the Irish Times, in which he enthused about his new home. He remarked on two national characteristics of his hosts that particularly appealed to him. One was how easily they put their faith in people. "They trust a lot, the Irish," he said admiringly (or perhaps incredulously). The other trait was the strength of the country's desire to be sovereign, which reminded him of Mexico. Sovereignty has a long pedigree in Ireland but, contrary to the impression of the exiled former Mexican president, people often saw it as fragile or unreal. In the New York Times article advertising what was to become the "Celtic Tiger", a young engineer at an American-owned computer chip company in the west of Ireland confided that it was only in the previous decade that the Irish had become "increasingly aware that we control our own destiny".

No longer. The major economic decisions to be taken by the new Irish coalition government will be framed by the interests of the IMF and the European Union, which, between them, have loaned Ireland €85bn. Trust has disappeared - trust in the banks but most of all in Fianna Fail, which used to regard itself not as a mere political party but as a national movement. (Éamon de Valera's granddaughter Síle told a party meeting in the early 1980s: "We all have our very special Fianna Fail faith, as it were, in which we all believe.")

Fianna Fail was so accustomed to power that, on the rare occasions it was consigned to opposition, it was, in the words of the historian Joe Lee, "psychologically orphaned". Nobody has been forced into exile but the scale of the defeat of Fianna Fail - Ireland's own institutional revolutionary party lost 51 of its 71 seats in the election on 25 February - is comparable to the scale of Salinas's humiliation in Mexico.

What is left? Even if the new government succeeds in renegotiating the interest rate on the IMF/EU loan (almost 6 per cent), the Irish will have to endure what Enda Kenny, the new Taoiseach, referred to during the election campaign as "an interminable night" of higher taxes, wage freezes, unemployment and emigration.

At the special conference where the Labour Party decided to join Fine Gael in coalition, delegates were forewarned by their leader, Eamon Gilmore, that at future conferences they would have to pass through "a forest of placards" because of the harsh policies the government would have to implement. Several speakers in favour of coalition recalled how people they had met while canvassing had broken down in tears as they attempted to describe how the crisis had affected their daily lives. Gilmore urged that Labour had to go into government for the sake of "the people who came on the doorsteps to us and cried".

Fine Gael presented the election as catharsis. Kenny described the result - his party's best ever - as a democratic revolution. It was an attempt to capture the zeitgeist, to insinuate that the removal of Fianna Fail from power was akin to the end of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. But the suggestion that what happened on polling day in Ireland amounted to an overturning of the established order was far from the truth.

Leaving aside gains for Sinn Fein and a loose alliance of left-wing independents, as well as Labour's strong showing, the major winner was a conservative party whose general outlook for most of the past 78 years has been barely distinguishable from that of the party it defeated. This is all the more puzzling because the crisis in Ireland, although part of the worldwide market failure in finance, had particular local roots. The major cause of the collapse of the Irish banks was not sub-prime mortgages or abstruse financial instruments, but reckless lending to property developers who, as a class, have long-standing connections with politicians. Given the depth of betrayal by the bankers and the fusillade of polemics against the political system over the past three years, why has the Irish electorate been so conservative?

The Irish economic crisis has been documented as a collective calamity affecting the entire population. Photo spreads of the ghost estates, shells of unfinished houses abruptly abandoned by builders when the money ran out and stories of those who remortgaged modest properties to buy now worthless apartments in Bulgarian resorts have suggested that heavy losses have touched everyone. They haven't.

During my visits to Dublin over the past three years, I have been puzzled to see fashionable restaurants still full not only on Fridays and Saturdays but on Sunday evenings and weekdays as well. Such resilience suggests that there is a stratum of Irish society for which the recession is an inconvenience, rather than a catastrophe.

In the last week of the election campaign, I spent an evening canvassing with Lucinda Creighton, a young, articulate, high-profile, right-leaning member of parliament for Fine Gael for the seat of Dublin South-East. In pre-boom Dublin, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the large Georgian houses in Belgrave Square in Ranelagh were given over to student flats. Now, one after another, they have been lavishly restored with polished granite steps, gleaming varnished doors and shining brass knockers. The front yards are strewn with tasteful gravel and likely to have parked in them BMWs and Jaguars. Fine Gael's eager body of canvassers attacked these streets with energy.

What was remarkable about that evening was how we heard no anger on the doorsteps. Nobody cried or broke down with a tale of burdens or hardship. At one door, a man in a pink shirt assured Creighton that she would get his vote even though he had previously voted for Fianna Fail. The candidate began to assure him that she understood it must be a hard decision. But he looked at her as if she were naive or misguided: to jump from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael would cause him no torment at all, he said.

A personal story opened a window on this serenity. It is the way of Irish politics that voters use their parliamentary representatives to solve their home problems, so the Fine Gael candidate was often presented with stories of individual difficulties. One man said he had heard that Fine Gael was proposing to introduce capital gains tax on house sales. He explained that he had recently developed epilepsy and would not be able to look after himself when his adult children finally left home. To pay for a place in a nursing home, he would have to sell his house. But a capital gains tax might deter him, and then where would he be? Creighton assured him not to worry; a capital gains tax on homes was not in the manifesto.

This man had bought his house in 1986. Despite the collapse in asset prices, anybody who bought a house in Ireland in the 1980s or 1990s is still sitting on a lot of wealth. Irish house prices quadrupled between 1996 and 2007. Just as many of those who survived the famine of the mid-19th century prospered and became more powerful among a greatly reduced population, this time there will be a substantial class of people who will benefit from the Irish crash.

The winners from the famine - strong farmers, the Catholic Church - formed the bedrock for the conservative society that Ireland is today. Because modern Ireland was born in difficult economic times, Irish politicians failed to develop an idea of what a wealthy Ireland should look like. Irish independence coincided with the destruction of a globalised economy during the First World War: it was the age of autarky.

The men who took power in the first gov­ernment in independent Ireland in 1922, the founders of Fine Gael, had given all their attention to political and cultural independence but little thought to the economic goals of the new state. For ten years, they ran Ireland with Vic­torian austerity, pursuing balanced budgets and sound money. Then came Fianna Fail, with its credo of self-sufficiency. Éamon de Valera, who was to dominate Irish politics for the next 30 years, questioned whether the standard of living in western Europe was "the right and proper one" and committed his country to what elsewhere would be regarded as righteous poverty. It was a policy that, for a moment, captivated John Maynard Keynes. In a celebrated lecture in Dublin in 1933, attended by de Valera, Keynes affirmed: "Were I an Irishman, I should find much to attract me in the economic outlook of your present government."

But the rapid advances all over Europe after the Second World War left Ireland falling farther behind. While the masses on the Continent had fridges, washing machines and Vespa scooters, in Ireland, as the visiting German writer Heinrich Böll noted, they made do with the Mass, movies and cigarettes. In 1956, the Irish Times summed up the differences in economic policies between the two civil-war parties for voters as: "You can drink a little more under Fine Gael or smoke a little more under Fianna Fail."

As the political scientist Tom Garvin argued with some brio in his provocatively titled book Preventing the Future: Why Was Ireland So Poor for So Long?, published in 2004, Ireland was held back by inadequate education, a reactionary Church and the dead hand of class and vested interests.

By the end of the 1950s, Ireland's population, at fewer than three million, was the lowest ever officially recorded. With hundreds of people leaving small towns every week to take the boat to England, contemporary commentators worried that the Irish nation might survive, as one writer put it, "only as an enervated remnant in a land occupied by foreigners".

In 1958, the Irish government made a momentous policy shift, opening the country up to trade and foreign investment and preparing to apply to join the European Economic Community. The man to carry out this policy was Seán Lemass of Fianna Fail. He was almost 60 when he came to power, having long laboured in the shadow of de Valera. In July 1963, a month after John F Kennedy made a journey to his ancestral home, Lemass appeared on the front cover of Time magazine. He was credited with "lifting the Green Curtain", as if the opening up of the Irish economy was the equivalent of a peek behind the Iron Curtain.

In prose that prefigured the future Celtic Tiger era, Time marvelled at the "new factories and office buildings, the Irish-assembled cars fighting for street space in Dublin, the well-dressed people shopping in supermarkets" and "the waning of national self pity". Even the movies were forcing change. The then justice minister, Charles Haughey - Lemass's son-in-law - revealed that sex had become so frequent on screen that the censors had been told to go easy with the scissors "or else our cinemas won't get any films at all".

The 1960s brought television and free edu­cation, as well as more titillating nights at the pictures. The decade also marked a watershed in political culture. Lemass, as one of his contemporaries from the independence struggle remarked, came into office a poor man and was poor when he retired as Taoiseach in November 1966. In a recently published study of his career, there is a photo of Lemass, son of a draper, looking dapper on his way to work in a dark woollen overcoat with white flecks.

In another picture from four years later, taken in the grounds of Stormont on the morning of his historic and unannounced visit to Belfast in 1965, the first by a prime minister from the Republic of Ireland to the North, he is wearing the same overcoat.

Such unconcern for style would never do for his son-in-law. Haughey epitomised a new relationship between politicians and men on the make; "the men in the mohair suits" became a catchphrase for those who occupied the intersection of politics and business in the 1960s. When he finally became Taoiseach, in December 1979, Haughey was as famous for the monogrammed shirts that he bought in Paris, with "donations" from his friends in business, as for any of his other accomplishments.

A pattern had been established in that first boom of the 1960s. Ireland had been so poor for so long, so consumed with issues of identity, sovereignty and language, that it neglected to develop a philosophy of the money culture.

In 1964, a year after Time's profile of Lemass, a young historian and future politician named David Thornley noted the death of the policy of economic nationalism. "What is remarkable to the point of incredibility," he wrote, "is the passiveness with which this change has been accepted inside a single generation."

Five years later, Conor Cruise O'Brien returned from the United States to contest the 1969 election for the Labour Party in Haughey's Dublin seat. During the campaign, he regularly drew attention to Haughey's dubious finances but the issue had little traction.

“I don't think my attacks on him did me any good or him any harm," O'Brien recalled later. "The electorate doesn't take in a thing like conflict of interest. They thought it was a straight case that I was envying this rich man - it seemed a kind of standard political exchange within
the system."

At the turn of the new century, when the Irish economy had experienced several years of remarkable growth, a celebratory book of interviews was published with business leaders who had made their mark. It was the moment when the boom - which was based on the convergence of sensible policies with a fortuitous demographic moment, when most people were of working age - was drawing to a natural close, and before the artificial boom that was based on property took off. Sober appraisal of fortuitous circumstances was out; self-congratulation was in.

The editor of the collection, a business consultant named John J Travers, praised "a distinctively Irish enterprise spirit"; one could only conclude, therefore, that its signature traits of "ability, imagination and passion" were in short supply in other nations. He put his faith in the morality of entrepreneurs: "While a government framework of regulation and law is essential in achieving the balance between individual and community interest," he wrote, "the ultimate determinant of that balance will be the culture, beliefs and value systems of the individual members of a society."

The events of the past few years have exposed how much of this faith was misplaced. The overwhelming sense in Ireland is that the wealth of the boom years that was not creamed off by a golden circle of initiates has been wasted and lost for a generation that should have inherited it. Regulation, law, culture and value systems all proved inadequate to prevent the elite from making spectacularly poor judgements.

Ireland faces years of austerity to pay off the debts of its banks. Some kind of managed default may yet be the only option, because it is difficult to see how ordinary taxpayers can continue to carry the burden. Ireland has limited options for generating wealth: it will have to continue to be open to the world, which is why keeping its corporate tax rate at 12.5 per cent has become such an unlikely symbol of sovereignty. Ireland's aim for 2016 - the centenary of the Easter Rising - is, according to Kenny, to be "the best small country in the world to do business in". But can the country's politics be reconstituted on the basis of such a narrow obsession?

The nearest thing to an articulation of the economic philosophy of the government that presided over the boom and bust was in a speech made in July 2000 by Mary Harney, then deputy prime minister, to an audience of visiting American lawyers in Dublin. Geographically, she said, Ireland was closer to Berlin than Boston but: "Spiritually, we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin."

The Irish economy that her government had shaped, Harney said, was created primarily to appeal to corporate America. "We have cut taxes on capital. We have cut taxes on corporate profits. We have cut taxes on personal incomes. The result has been an explosion in economic activity and Ireland is now the fastest-growing country in the developed world. And did we have to pay some very high price for pursuing this policy option? . . . The answer is no. We didn't. This model works. It allows us to achieve our full economic potential for the first time in our history as an independent state."

In his Dublin speech in 1933, in which he flattered de Valera, Keynes remarked that the Great Depression had made people disillusioned "not because we are poorer . . . but because other values seem to have been sacrificed unnecessarily". His words capture well a sense of the way many people in Ireland feel about their current ruin.

It is fashionable to ridicule de Valera for his pious notions about a frugal society and what Garvin called his anti-economic views. De Valera's Ireland was impoverished, Garvin argued, because its leaders thought "in static and rural ways and in ethical rather than scientific terms". It was necessary to jettison this thinking for Ireland to become rich. It may be necessary to think in ethical terms for Ireland to work out how to be rich once more.

Maurice Walsh is Alistair Horne visiting fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford and teaches at Kingston University. His latest book, "The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution", is newly published in paperback (IB Tauris, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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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