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Invisible subjects: the men who fuel the demand for prostitution

If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, then punting is the oldest consumer activity. Yet it remains broadly unexamined, perhaps because the questions it raises are too uncomfortable.

In the UK, policing of prostitution targets sex workers far more often than punters. Photo: Christopher Churchill/Gallery Stock


It is 1am on a late summer’s night in Tower Hamlets in east London, and the Metropolitan Police vice squad is out on patrol. Police CCTV operators have alerted the team that a street walker has climbed into a man’s car. He had paid her but is stopped before any sexual acts can occur. The woman’s name is Jessica. She is 36. Her right eye socket is heavily bruised. Swigging vodka from an old plastic bottle, she tells me that she is a crack and heroin addict and has been a prostitute since running away from her children’s home in Paddington at the age of 12. “I’ve had every bad experience you can think of – gun to my head, raped, stabbed twice,” she says.

The would-be punter is in his late thirties. He is tanned and wears a peach polo shirt, blue shorts, white Havaianas flip-flops and a wedding ring. Sitting on the bonnet of his smart estate car, he is close to tears. “I’ve had the worst three weeks of my life and this was just a mistake, the cherry on the cake.” This married, middle-class man, who has taken to the streets in the twilight hours to pay for sex with a visibly ill woman, may or may not be a typical buyer of sex. As Jessica explains, there is no one type of man. “Society seems to think that: they’ve got this perception that all punters are dirty old men in raincoats. They ain’t, they’re from all walks of life. Black, white, thin, fat, young, old – all types.” She twirls her chestnut hair around a long, petrol-blue false fingernail. “Maybe they’ve had a bad relationship, or they’re going through a bad patch in their marriage, or they just get a full-on hit: it’s dangerous, there’s the thrill of getting caught.”

If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, then punting is the oldest consumer activity. Yet it remains broadly unexamined, perhaps because the questions it raises – about male desire and power, about society – are too uncomfortable.

Instead, organisations that monitor prostitution, from the police to NGOs and feminist lobby groups, usually focus on the sex workers, whose situation is more easily categorisable. One view is that prostitutes are victims who need help to get off the streets. Others argue that many sex workers are empowered individuals exercising their autonomy and that they simply need greater legal rights. But to consider prostitution only from the perspective of the sex worker is to obscure the economic and social power dynamics that govern the prostitute’s position. Where demand exists, supply will emerge – and it is a fact that men’s demand for sex fuels prostitution. (There are, of course, male and transsexual prostitutes and also women who buy sex, but as they are in the minority and present a different range of problems, male punters are the focus of this article.) The motivations behind paying for sex are varied and various; the punting community is a wide one, as is that of the estimated 100,000 sex workers in the UK – most of whom work indoors rather than on the streets.

Who are the men who pay for sex with women in Britain? Research is thin. Eaves, a charity that supports women at risk of violence, is one of the few organisations that has conducted a study of punters. Men Who Buy Sex: Who They Buy and What They Know, published in 2009, was based on interviews with 103 men in London who had paid for sex with trafficked and non-trafficked prostitutes. The authors noted: “Many [punters] reported that they were aware of pimping, trafficking and other coercive control over those in massage parlour, brothel and escort prostitution. These men were frequently aware of the vulnerability and risk factors for entry into prostitution including childhood abuse, lack of alternative job choices, coercive control and homelessness.”

The demographics of the self-selecting participants – who replied to advertisements for the study – were nearly equally split between three age groups: 18-to-29-year-olds, 30-to-40-year-olds, and 41-to-70-year-olds. Almost half the participants were white, 20 per cent were Asian, 11 per cent were black, and the rest were of other ethnicities. Most were in a relationship; the report did not distinguish between short-term and long-term relationships, but this finding nonetheless supports other research showing that a man seldom decides to buy sex just because he lacks a partner.

As the marketing of the commercial sex industry has moved from classified adverts in the back of newspapers to online forums, it has become possible to garner a clearer view of punters’ attitudes. A wide range of these can be inferred from PunterNet, the “premier online community for Patrons and Providers of Adult Personal Services in the UK”. The web metrics site profiles the most frequent PunterNet users as being men aged between 35 and 44, who are educated to graduate level and are more likely to have children than the average internet user. The posts on the PunterNet site range from obscenely violent and misogynistic descriptions of experiences with prostitutes to mundane notes on the easy availability of off-road parking.

In 2011 Jon Millward, a self-described “ideas detective” who analyses information relating to prostitution and pornography, data-crunched 5,000 reviews posted on PunterNet. He found that “nice”, “lovely” and “lady” were among the top five words the punters used to describe prostitutes; “breasts” was the only overtly sexual word in the top ten. Location was commonly discussed, with “clean” and “safe” among the most popular review terms. The banality of some of the most commonly recurring words cannot obscure the brutal behaviour frequently described by punters on the site.

A blog called the Invisible Men Project was set up last year to record some of the most extreme reviews from PunterNet, further illuminating the behaviour of the “invisible subjects of the sex industry”, as Eaves describes them. Most of the comments posted on the site are too lewd and disturbing to reproduce here, but the scornful tone is well captured by this contribution: “Yes she will endure hard penetration. I say endure because she does not engage with you on any level, to her it is just a matter of going through the motions . . . I was not successful in trying to animate her beyond her cold mechanical stupor.”

Millward wrote: “I don’t think punters are lacking the emotional circuitry necessary for experiencing genuine love and affection. They have just decided to bypass the usual steps men must take to go from not knowing a woman to having sex with her.” While the posts betray the dehumanising view many punters take of the women they pay for sex, 71 per cent of the men in the Eaves study admitted experiencing some degree of guilt or negative feelings about paying for sex. Almost 80 per cent viewed their use of women involved in prostitution to be an addiction – that is, uncontrollable behaviour. But over half thought that prostitution decreases the incidence of rape, because prospective rapists can be satisfied by paying for sex. Looking for further insights into punting, I contacted several men through PunterNet about their personal prostitution habits: their motivation for participating in the British sex industry, and their views on the ethics and legality of it. From these conversations, a gamut of opinions emerged – from shame, through wilful blindness, to defiance – but few agreed with one common interpretation of prostitution: as a form of commercial sexual exploitation and violence against women.

Keith, a regular contributor to PunterNet, replies to my request for an interview with an alacrity that hints at the regularity with which he views the site. He is a retired professional in his late sixties. Reflective but unapologetic about buying sex, he says over the phone: “This sounds dreadful, but I suppose I like the variety. The excitement, too.” He refuses to countenance ethical issues around paying to have sex with women, justifying his actions by saying that he only visits brothels, rather than engaging in outdoor prostitution with street walkers. “I’ve never felt sorry for working girls, because I’ve never been with one who shows she’s in a bad state. I’ve never been with a girl who looks really ill, coughing. A street walker wouldn’t appeal to me at all.

“I want to feel I’m giving pleasure to the woman. That wouldn’t be the case with a girl on the street, someone who had been trafficked or had a heavy drug dependency.”

Keith, who lives in Manchester, has a wife and grown-up children. He defends cash for sex as “a positive for my marriage” – his once “adventurous” sex life with his wife faded after she had their first child and now he views prostitutes as an acceptable stand-in. “It means I’m not forever pestering my wife and feeling resentful about her not giving me sex . . .” He adds quietly: “She makes me feel like a pervert for asking.”

He can remember the exact date he last had sex with his wife; it was over a year ago. Using sports sessions and outings with friends as false alibis, he has attempted to keep his trips to the brothel a secret from her, although he is “paranoid” that she has suspicions. It is his “greatest fear”, he says, that she would find out for certain.

Like some other punters I contacted, Keith believes that men have both a biological imperative and a right to have sex. If a man is not getting it from his wife or girlfriend, or from casual hook-ups, it is “natural” that he should desire, and be able to pay for, sex. “I try to limit myself to once every two weeks and not spend more than £80 a go,” he says. Sanguine on the subject of punters in general, he adds: “I don’t go [to a brothel] in a local part of the city, so I’m quite happy chatting to the other men in the reception area. But we wouldn’t sit there talking about which girls we see.

“Most men have regulars, but occasionally see someone new for that bit of variety. I saw one girl for about a dozen visits. Most men advise against that because you can get obsessed. I was obsessed, in love, with this lady. I’m more sensible about it now.”

Another man I contact through PunterNet, Jim, points out that some men have difficulty finding a sexual partner. Now in his mid-thirties and working in law, he recalls, with a stammer, that he was 29 years old and desperate to lose his virginity when he first sought the services of a prostitute.

“I was very nervous the first time. It didn’t go very well because she clearly wasn’t into it, but I was so excited that that went over my head at the time,” he says. Without the easy confidence to walk into a bar or nightclub and try his luck, he justifies paying for sex and has developed a routine. He travels an hour away to visit the same working girl once every three weeks, paying £300 for a two-hour session. “She is very attractive, so I know what I’m getting, and she’s also very enthusiastic. I feel very nervous meeting a new working girl.”

The woman he visits is British, the mother of a one-year-old, and although her online profile says she is 25, she has told Jim that she is 30. He has paid her for sex for more than two years.

Despite working in the legal profession, Jim says he has no opinions on the legality of prostitution and will not be drawn on the merits and drawbacks of various legal models across the globe. He has observed, however, that in the flat his “regular” shares with other sex workers, “only one of them uses it at a time, in order to try and stay within the law”. In English law, any property used by more than one prostitute at a time counts as a brothel, which is illegal. He says they talk openly when he visits, but the “sex is the be all and end all for me”.

“I do feel guilty about doing it,” he says hesitantly. “I just feel it’s bad emotionally for women. She doesn’t seem depressed, but I don’t know. Maybe that’s an act. I sometimes think, though, it’s just one more person at the end of the day, and I do treat escorts better than a lot of other customers do.”

Right to desire: the International Union of Sex Workers joins a May Day march in Soho, London

The prevailing view of the punters I contacted for this article was that, in one way or another, a man always “pays” for sex. Many viewed marriage and relationships as intrinsically economic relationships, in which the man provided financial security in return for sex, among other rewards. Some justified their use of prostitutes as merely an equivalent transaction. One man notes: “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Why pay for sex?’ It should be: ‘Why not pay for sex?’ We pay for lots of things in life. Sex is just another commodity.”

Many prostitutes who view themselves as empowered rather than exploited might agree that sex work is a simple financial transaction for services rendered and assert their right to sell it. In her 1997 essay “Inventing Sex Work”, the prostitutes’ rights activist Carol Leigh argued from her own experience that it could be both interesting and good fun. She wrote: “Sex in my personal life became very exciting. Sex with clients annoyed me sometimes and interested me other times.”

Several of the men with whom I spoke reflected the view that the financial transaction was beneficial to women as well as to men. Some went further and appeared to endorse the old myth that prostituted women somehow manipulate men, with their “biological” or “intrinsic” need and desire for sex, for financial gain.

Some women view the work of a prostitute as no different from other forms of exploitation entailed by a rapacious capitalist system, which they claim is itself inherently demeaning. In her book The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti (who blogged as Belle de Jour about selling sex) argues that sex work is no different from, say, deep-sea fishing in the Atlantic; both are physically dangerous, high-risk jobs. So why, the argument goes, view prostitution as a special case?

Certainly many punters offer justifications akin to that of a sweatshop boss: they hold the economic and social power, and they believe the exploitation of that power – using it over another person – is legitimate. If a woman is poor and “wants” to sell her body, they see nothing wrong with purchasing it for sex. As one punter says: “Some of them on PunterNet talk about women like they’re a commodity, that’s true. I don’t think it makes any difference as long as you treat the lady well. At the end of the day, it is a business.”

In August the Economist, usually better known for its sobriety rather than salacious­ness, splashed “The sex business” on its cover. The magazine examined the ways in which technology is “liberating” the cash-for-sex industry and it noted, “For many, both male and female, sex work is just that: work.” It argued further that prostitution looks “more and more like a normal service industry”. Decrying the ban on the sale and purchase of sex as “illiberal”, the Economist called for the legalisation of prostitution.

A society must determine its moral stance on selling and buying sex and whether it respects the rights of those sex workers who exhibit choice rather than coercion, and agency rather than victimhood, to sell it. The crucial question is this: is the commoditisation of sex merely the logical – and permissible – conclusion of capitalism; or is there something special about sex and related acts which gives us a duty to hold them above the bounds of financial transactions?

Obtaining sex by purchasing it is easy, convenient and relatively cheap (some prostitutes in London charge as little as £15, according to a 2008 report by the Poppy Project, the advocacy and support group for trafficked women; this was corroborated by Jessica, the sex worker I met in Tower Hamlets). But beyond that, there appears to be an intrinsic value to paid-for sex for some men, who are sexually aroused by the danger, thrill and power dynamics of an encounter with a prostitute.

This is especially true of men who engage with outdoor prostitution. Out on the night patrol with the vice unit in Tower Hamlets, Sergeant David Deal says: “You can’t imagine how unwell some of these women are and you can’t understand how men still take advantage of them . . . I think they like risky sex. Doing it in a car. Quickly.” He describes the wide range of punters his team frequently sees. “Blokes in suits, scumbags, rough sleepers. Most are 50 or over.”

PC James Coxshall adds: “The majority are white.” He also debunks the myth that prostitution is most common around midnight. Most brothels close by 10pm, and outdoor prostitution is common in the morning. “At 5am, when it begins to get a bit clearer, the cars begin to circle and circle. Many men use prostitutes on their way to work,” he says.

Patrolling in an unmarked police car, we stop a man in a silver Transit van after CCTV records him picking up Amanda, a 49-year-old street walker known to the vice team. Paul is 60, a slightly built south Asian Brit with sad, rheumy brown eyes, close-cropped grey hair and a beard. “I don’t have sex with her ever,” he tells me, motioning towards Amanda and acknowledging that he knows her well. “I picked her up because I just wanted to talk.” They also shared a wrap of cocaine, payment in kind for Amanda’s time. Paul admits that he pays to have sex with another street walker. “I wouldn’t know how to describe that relationship. She’s a liar and a thief, a very difficult person to be associated with . . .

“One of the things I get out of these women is just kind of a weird friendship. But these women are really disturbed socially. It’s quite a difficult thing. I don’t know why I choose to associate with her; I suppose it’s just habit. She’s attractive sexually.”

Exchanging money for sex is not illegal in the UK, although many activities associated with it are. Causing or inciting prostitution and controlling it for personal gain are offences. Kerb-crawling is technically illegal, but it must be shown that the individual was causing persistent annoyance. This month, MPs debated an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill that would have criminalised “the buying of sex acts”. The proposed law linked prostitution to slavery and was designed to “discourage demand” for trafficked people. But the amendment, which was brought forward by the Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart and gained cross-party support, was dropped following uproar from pressure groups. Women Against Rape and the Royal College of Nursing, among other organisations, argued that banning punters would drive prostitution underground and force sex workers to move to more dangerous, remote premises. Some women’s rights groups supported the proposed change in the law, however, including Women’s Aid and the End Violence Against Women coalition, and it is unlikely to be long until proposals to implement the so-called Nordic system, which bans the purchase rather than sale of sex, resurface.

The model was first implemented in Sweden in 1999. According to a study by the Swedish Institute, a state information agency that promotes Sweden abroad, the statistics for sex buyers decreased from 13.6 per cent of the active adult male population in 1996 to 7.9 per cent in 2008, suggesting it was an effective deterrent. The ban on paying for sex reportedly made it harder for customers to seek out prostitutes openly.

Norway and Iceland implemented the model in 2009, France made the first moves to copy it in 2013 and the Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of it last month. Yet critics argue that the Nordic system requires excessive police investigation time to secure arrests and, worse, can increase the danger to prostitutes, as punters are more likely to conceal their identity from them. Others claim that the Nordic model is inappropriate in the UK, which has a far larger vice problem than Sweden and Norway.

In Sweden the National Police Board estimated in 2009 that there were 1,000 sex workers, down from about 2,500 before the Nordic model was implemented. In Norway, which has a population of five million, there were about 2,200 sex workers in 2010, according to Pro Sentret, a Norwegian government-funded organisation that collates information about prostitution. By contrast, the Home Office put the number of women working in on-street prostitution in the UK at 80,000 in 2004, based on an earlier Europap-UK survey. NGOs estimate that today there are between 60,000 and 100,000 sex workers in Britain. Recent studies show that 80 per cent of sex workers are female, while 15 per cent identify as male and 5 per cent as transsexual. Alex Feis-Bryce, director of services at the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, says: “The reason figures are so difficult to predict is that much of sex work takes place underground due to legislation and the numbers of sex workers in the trade are fluid. Some may have one or two clients a week or month, while for others it may be full-time work.” Feis-Bryce explains that the indoor sex work sector is “far larger” than that on the street. “Escorts, who work independently, make up the largest proportion of off-street sex work.”

Proponents of the Nordic model point out that whatever the challenges to implementation, criminalising punters, rather than prostituted women, sends a strong message. The human rights group Equality Now argues: “The commercial sex industry perpetuates the notion that the purchase of women and girls’ bodies is acceptable so long as a buyer can pay for it. The Nordic model challenges this construct and tries to redress these inequalities by promoting women’s and girls’ right to safety, health and non-discrimination, and by challenging men’s perceived – but non-existent – ‘right’ to buy women’s bodies for sex.” As Jessica’s story illustrates, sex workers in the UK often discover they can expect few rights to safety, especially on the street. Talking about the physical harm, fear and threats to her life in 24 years of prostitution, she said: “It’s just part of the job, unfortunately; there are some horrible men out there.” 

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.


This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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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