Bernie Sanders, It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism (2023)
If you’re not angry about capitalism, Bernie Sanders hopes you will be by the time you get to the end of his new book, It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism. One thing that can be immediately said in favor of Sanders’ sweeping critique of the American economic and ideological system is that there’s no shilly-shallying or coyness about his presentation.
The introduction is bluntly titled “The Problem is Capitalism.” Unlike the stereotype of aging people becoming more conservative, the 81-year-old socialist U.S. Senator from Vermont says, “The older I get, the angrier I become about the uber-capitalist system under which we live, and the more I want to see transformational change in our country.” Sanders characterizes the American system with equal directness: “Here is the simple, straightforward reality: The uber-capitalist economic system, propelled by uncontrollable greed and contempt for human decency, is not merely unjust. It is grossly immoral.”
Nor is Sanders shy about pointing the finger at those who are actually in charge of American politics, culture, and business. As he told a recent interviewer, “Yeah, of course the oligarchs run Russia. But guess what? Oligarchs run the United States as well. And it’s not just the United States, it’s not just Russia; Europe, the UK, all over the world, we’re seeing a small number of incredibly wealthy people running things in their favor.” (1)
Before we get to Sanders’ plan to confront that “immorality,” just a brief word on terminology here. In the opening page or two of Sanders’ argument, he uses the term “uber-capitalism” several times, and he’ll continue to do so throughout the book. It’s a bit clunky, and of course he’s not referring to Uber, the auto ride company that invented a devious and successful end-around on the taxi industry. Sanders is using “über” in the German sense of “over” (where it comes with an umlaut over the “u” — über), which is slightly altered to mean “extreme” when it reappears in English slang (as in, for example, “ubergeek”). His unique employment of the term may sound a bit off-key without adding much adjectivally to the meaning of capitalism. He could probably accomplish as much by just calling it “unregulated” or “under-regulated” capitalism, or “extreme” or even “Cowboy capitalism,” a term that was popular a few years ago among analysts distinguishing American capitalism from the more social democratic versions of it found among the U.S.’s European neighbors. (2)
But “unregulated,” “extreme,” or “uber-capitalism” is admittedly just a stylistic quibble; more important is Sanders’ insistence on “immorality,” a reminder of philosophic fundamentals in an era characterized by alleged practical “realism,” which is all too often just a cover for outright cyncism and greed.
Sanders has been writing about American political and economic life through a long career in government, but more intensely in the last decade — he’s produced a half dozen books in as many years. The new one is this year’s edition of where one of America’s unique political activists thinks the U.S. is at, as of now, in the wake of a global Covid pandemic and in the midst of a war in Europe.
In the opening chapters of Angry About Capitalism, Sanders reprises his surprisingly competitive runs for the Democratic Party nomination for the U.S. presidency in 2016 and 2020, and his subsequent roles in the successful candidacy of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Sanders even pauses for a moment to bemusedly recall how his image unexpectedly went “viral” on the internet because of the oversized mittens he was wearing on a chilly day in Washington D.C. at the inauguration ceremony for Biden’s presidency. In no time flat the Sanders meme was not only at the inauguration but also everywhere from the moon to the Last Supper.
More importantly, Sanders recalls his often-frustrating position as Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee during the first half of Biden’s term as president. (I’ll come back to Sanders’ justifiably bitter account of his budget chairmanship in due course, but first let’s lay out some of the political program he offers to potential supporters.)
Sanders gets down to the business of presenting “an agenda for upending uber-capitalism” in a chapter (again) bluntly titled “Billionaires Should Not Exist.” People thought Sanders was kidding when he launched a plan in fall 2019 to tax extreme wealth in the U.S. When a New York Times reporter half-jokingly wondered whether the Brooklyn-born, gruff-voiced Sanders was trying to eliminate billionaires, Sanders un-jokingly replied, “I don’t think that billionaires should exist.”
“The very existence of a rapidly expanding billionaire class in the United States,” says Sanders, “is a manifestation of an unjust system that promotes massive income and wealth inequality.” How massive exactly is that wealth inequality? The U.S. Census Bureau estimated at the start of 2022 that there were more than 332 million people living in the U.S., Sanders notes. “Yet, roughly 90 percent of the wealth of the nation is owned by one-tenth of one percent of that total. So 332,403 Americans own more than the other 332,071,247. But that does not begin to tell the story of wealth inequality in America.” While Sanders doesn’t pretend to offer any solutions to that age-old conundrum, Can money buy you happiness?, he’s pretty persuasive that wealth can get you power.
“The oligarchy controls our economy,” Sanders asserts. “Three firms — BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street — now control assets of over $20 trillion, equivalent to the GDP” of the U.S. “They are the largest stockholders in the major banks… They are major shareholders in more than 96 percent of S&P 500 companies… they have significant influence over many hundreds of companies that employ millions of American workers…” They’re among the top owners of all four major airlines — American, Southwest, Delta and United. Together, they own an average of 20 percent of major drug companies. And when it comes to media, they’re among the largest stockholders in Comcast, Disney, and Warner Bros.
Further, says Sanders, “The rich are not merely consolidating their wealth, they are consolidating their influence over American government and political life.” Billionaire contributions to election campaigns spiked from $31 million in 2010 to $1.2 billion in 2020, or more than double that, to $2.6 billion, if you include billionaires who “self-fund” their own campaigns for high office. (The significant event that occurred in the interim was the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which, for all practical purposes, wiped out most barriers and regulations restraining limits on campaign contributions.) Sanders sums it up this way: “That is the power and influence of 0.0001 of 1 percent of our population. That is not democracy. That is oligarchy.”
A lot of us in the so-called intellectual classes already know much of the above, yet coming across these numbers in cold, hard print (as we used to say) is still something of a shock. For those of us who have the luxury of being aware of the extreme disparity in wealth, it’s nonetheless as though we suffer from a form of narcolepsy — we’re constantly forgetting the lopsided power of the oligarchy, and then are startled awake by periodically recalling the facts of that oligarchic rule. For the vast majority of the population who haven’t heard of most of this, and who are unlikely to see or hear it discussed even if they read newspapers and watch television (because the media seldom bring it up), even this bare-bones description of oligarchy in everyday action remains a mystery.
Sanders is perfectly happy to name the names of the usual billionaire suspects, but he advises not focusing on personalities. “Inequality isn’t about individuals; this is a systemic crisis,” Sanders declares. “It’s time to end a culture that not only accepts but actually creates the obscene degree of inequality, injustice, and uncontrollable greed that is so damaging to our nation and world.” To do that, Sanders says, we have to get used to acknowledging and discussing these facts and ideas.
We have to start saying, aloud and in the public forum, Sanders insists, that “Yes. It’s immoral and absurd that our country has more income and wealth inequality today that at any time since the 1920s, that 45 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent, that CEOs now make 350 times more than their average employees earn.” The litany of what Sanders thinks we should be saying is long and wide ranging. The transfer of wealth in the last 30 years from those who have too little to those who have too much is “unconscionable”; it is “disgraceful” that despite an explosion in technology and huge increases in productivity, “the average American worker today makes no more than he or she did fifty years ago in real inflation adjusted dollars.” We’re living in a system, Sanders reminds us, “where the top twenty-five hedge fund managers in the U.S. pocket more money than 350,000 kindergarten teachers combined. When did we the people make that determination?”
Sanders has been espousing ideas like this for most of a lifetime, but it’s only in the last decade, ever since he threw his hat in the ring as a presidential candidate (well, actually it was a toque that he cast into the public forum, given that he’s a sensible Vermonter with big winter mittens), that portions of the electorate have caught up with “Bernie’s” ideas, analyses, and proposals. Most of Sanders’ book is devoted to practical remedies for the inequalities and inadequacies of the American system. His calls for Healthcare for All, taxing the corporations more commensurately with their profits, substantially increasing the minimum wage, providing parental leave, eliminating tuition for higher education, vastly improving services to elderly people, reducing the cost of prescription drug prices, and much more are no longer novel. These are all ideas that have now become familiar to and often supported by the public that Sanders and his acolytes have been stumping the country to address.
A decade or two ago those ideas were considered marginal, radical, even “communistic.” Today, many people are more inclined to say, “Yeah, why shouldn’t new parents get a leave from work of several months to be with their newborns?” Or, when Sanders called for a $15-per-hour national minimum wage, more people wondered aloud why the $7.25-per-hour minimum wage, last increased in 2009, hasn’t been hiked to reflect the present cost-of-living. Even the term “socialism,” as a scareword promulgated by Republican Party members and further-right-wingers, no longer has as much negative impact as it had in the anti-communist mid-20th century, or even during the extreme capitalist reigns of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain during the 1980s. The ideas Sanders promotes haven’t changed all that much; it’s public consciousness that has changed, at least to a degree. What is interesting about Sander’s once-outlier ideas is that in most developed economies, particularly in Europe, healthcare for all, parental leave, minimal university tuition fees, and scores of similar notions are standard fare, and part of the social package available to everyone. The real question is, Why aren’t such policies and programs part of life in the U.S.?
Though, as noted, Sanders’ book is mostly devoted to practical proposals, I’ve focused here on the bigger picture that Sanders’ critique encompasses. That’s because that broader perspective asks fundamental questions about how human beings, given our nature as language-using socially-inclined creatures, should go about living together. The process of deciding how humans should live together is actually a pretty good definition of “politics,” notwithstanding our often-justified disillusionment with its hypocrisy, cynicism, and outright greed.
What makes Sanders the most interesting American politician of the 21st century so far is that he raises and boldly discusses the most basic questions of political philosophy, namely, What kind of society should we strive for? Other politicians perhaps commandeered more attention, but the ex-prez before Biden — let him go unnamed — was certainly not intellectually interesting. Much can be and has been said about Biden’s predecessor in the White House, the 45th president, and his chaotic reign. He was — and is — a vulgar blob of ceaseless narcissism; he was amazingly ignorant about the most fundamental features of politics, including the U.S. Constitution; he was a pathological liar and prone to neo-fascist violence. But, in terms of ideas about how to live together, he wasn’t interesting. Other figures, like the 44th president, Barack Obama (who was not uninteresting), were certainly more elegant and measured than Sanders.
But Sanders is the U.S. mainstream politician with the most coherent concept of a society and community, and the practical measures needed to attain them. He’s the one who is clearest that conceiving of society as merely a “market” is the road to ruin, and is a road paved with bad intentions, or more likely, potholed with bad intentions, unless there’s a shady profit to be made from infrastructure upkeep. (I’ll never forget having a long conversation with a devout “libertarian,” who believed everything should be “marketized,” explaining to me why the street in front of my apartment should be privatized. I offered to charge him 2 cents for the pleasure of his discourse.) Sanders, though a self-described “socialist,” is rather more nuanced than more fervid leftists who call for collective ownership of the means of production (calls that in the 20th century more often turned into ownership of the means of production by the Party’s Central Committee — but, of course, in the name of the proletariat).
I tend to think of Sanders as a left social democratic who genuinely wants to examine the boundaries between private and public sectors, and reform them towards the image social democrats have of society. It’s true that some of his more passionate followers — once known as the “Bernie or Bust” contingent — displayed signs of cultishness similar to the right-wing Make America Great Again (MAGA) Republican Party hardcore base of the ex-prez. And yes, they could be, uh, annoying. For rhetorical purposes, Sanders intentionally tosses around terms like “socialism” and “political revolution” a bit loosely, and is somewhat inclined to romanticism about the entity known as “the working class,” but when real-life compromises had to be made during the Biden administration, Sanders knew which side he was on, even when the proferred “solutions” fell far short of even moderately progressive aspirations.
One of the most interesting parts of Sanders’ jeremiad about capitalism concerns the aftermath of the 2020 election, in which Senator Sanders was elevated to the chairmanship of the influential Senate Budget Committee. Sanders lost the Democratic Party presidential nomination to Biden, but nonetheless, the unofficial factions of the party set up joint committees on policy, and it turned out that Biden and his team were more amenable to “go big” proposals than might be expected. The committees produced a party program that contained more intimations of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt “New Deal” or Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” than might have been predicted coming from a well-known “moderate” like Biden. (A couple of astute analysts discerned that Biden, affected by both the Covid pandemic, and the systemic racism revealed by the murder of George Floyd, was open to a more progressive platform than his past record would suggest.) (3)
But there were real limitations on the Democrats’ 2020 victory. Part of the prospect for substantial change was illusory. True, the Democrats technically controlled the White House and both houses of Congress as a result of the elections, but the margin of victory was extremely tight. The Democrats were technically the majority in a 50-50 Senate, but their ability to act was hedged in by venerable Senate rules that often required a 60-vote super-majority to get signifcant pieces of legislation into play. Sanders worked hard to use a loophole known as “reconciliation” that permitted certain spending bills to be enacted by a simple majority (with Vice-President Kamala Harris providing the 51st vote to achieve the actual majority).
There were some undeniable successes. A nearly $2 trillion “rescue plan” in response to the height of the Covid pandemic was passed, and provided tangible relief to the ranks of the suddenly unemployed, and families under the shadow of child poverty, as well as to the small business sector, many of whose stores and restaurants were shuttered by the requirements of the health crisis. A “bi-partisan” infrastructure package was cobbled together, and though it fell short of “go big” aspirations, it represented the most significant attention to the upkeep of bridges, roads, and other infrastructure in decades. However, the centerpiece of the full program, known as the “Build Back Better” plan, which addressed everything from childcare to climate catastrophe, as well as a lot of policies touching on parental leave, eldercare, college tuition, and prescription drug prices, came a cropper.
Though policies concerning voting rights, police reform, and gun control legislation didn’t stand a chance in the face of solid Republican Party oposition and the 60-vote requirement in the Senate for a bill to get a hearing, even the fiscal programs were dependent on the Democrats being able to get their ducks in absolute line. As it turned out, there were at least two “corporate” Democratic senators (as Sanders bitterly dubbed them), Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona who were unwilling to go along with the program (the latter, well after the fact of election, wasn’t even sure she was a Democrat). After more than a year of internal party haggling, mainly with Manchin, what began as a $5 or $6 trillion New Deal-type proposal was whittled down to an atrophied grabbag, and was passed under the rubric of being an “inflation reduction” bill. Sanders, despite deep disappointment, voted for this unsatisfactory package because it contained some “which side are you on” environmental and other provisions. The second time a Sanders’ meme went internet viral, it showed the elderly senator sprawled out on the steps of the Capitol after an unsuccessful all-nighter session in which he fruitlessly attempted to amend the Manchin-controlled package.
Sanders is expectedly contemptuous of both senators (Sinema, it turned out, was not a Democratic, and rebranded herself as an “independent”). But it’s frequently the case that a few members of a party caucus reveal themselves as absolute individualists and have little idea of what it is to be a member of a political party. Naturally, that doesn’t mean being a member of a party caucus means marching in lockstep, and it’s certainly within democratic tradition to refuse assent on principled grounds. In this particular case, the objections and untimely delays proved fatal to much of the program that Sanders and, yes, Biden, were backing. Sanders is justifiably pissed off with the defectors, and is not shy about letting us know how he feels.
However, the more important aspect of the situation that Sanders doesn’t adequately focus on is the matter of unyielding opposition party obstruction. When Obama proposed and passed an important health care reform, the Affordable Care Act, a decade ago, it became law in the teeth of unified Republican Party opposition to the act. That opposition was followed by a decade-long Republican effort, in Congress and in the courts, to “repeal and replace” what had become known as “Obamacare.” (Despite the promise to “replace,” the Republicans never came up with a coherent replacement proposal.)
The reason for raising the issue of unanimous Republican Party opposition to the Sanders-Biden “Build Back Better” package is two-fold. First, it’s become a commonplace (in the media, and elsewhere) to describe the Congress as “failing” to pass some piece of legislation or other, or as being paralyzed by legislative “gridlock.” What gets lost in the “Congress fails” narrative is that it obscures the real story of unanimous opposition by one party, in this case, the Republicans. The “failing” image contributes to the declining public status of Congress as an institution, but it doesn’t accurately identify the actual cause of the failure.
Second, a longstanding popular idea (or perhaps merely a cynical complaint about government) — the old shibboleth that all politicians are crooks, or that the two major U.S. political parties are “the same” — has only spread further in recent years. The false notion of the two parties’ sameness is also held by some more extreme leftists who claim that both parties are similar and pallid mouthpieces for their corporate masters. Neither the uninformed popular disdain (a sort of “plague on both your houses” dismissal), nor the more sophisticated leftist reductionism of both parties to the status of stooges for the true powers of the society are accurate or helpful.
In the real world, one party proposes action against global warning, the other denies pending environmental catastrophe. One party wants to tax the rich, the other wants to further enrich the oligarchs. One party wants to control the unquely American flood of weapons of war in the hands of private citizens, the other wants a Wild West shoot-out. One party is in favor of choice on individual reproductive rights, the other wants to ban all abortions. One party wants to forgive student debt, the other wants to maintain it. One party wants healthcare for all as a constitutional right, the other wants to… well, we don’t quite know what it wants. But the differences stretch out across a lengthy checklist of issues. Yet, what ought to be a self-evident truth, remains the subject of apparently serious debate, even among those on the liberal to far-left portion of the political spectrum. The tenaciousness with which the “no difference” thesis is held by some “progressives” defies logic as much as the QAnon conspiracies beloved on the right.
The reason for making a fuss about this essential feature of the American political dilemma is that, short of an armed revolution, neither progressive nor moderate programs will be enacted in the U.S. without large Democratic Party majorities, preferably led by Bernie Sanders-type politicians.
Sanders makes as good a case as is available for anger at capitalism. His remedies are detailed, reasonable, and increasingly acceptable to a general public. In terms of presentation, while there’s a certain amount of boilerplate and recitation from campaign stump speeches, Sanders maintains a passion for justice uncharacteristic of most of the gerontocracy that still rules much of American federal politics. For an angry man, Sanders is a surprisingly “happy warrior.”
1. Tim Adams, “Bernie Sanders: ‘Oligarchs run Russia. But guess what? They run the U.S. as well.’ ,” The Observer, Feb. 19, 2023.
2. Even as I write, the U.S. (and the global) financial sector has been having a “volatile” stock market rollercoaster month caused by the collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), a favorite money-parking institution of start-up tech firms. The fear of economic “contagion” of other banks was enough that the U.S. government performed a partial bank “bailout” by protecting the deposits of all the banks’ customers. (Normally, the U.S. government’s Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation only protects individual deposits of up to $250,000 when banks get in trouble, but not the billion-dollar stashes of corporate depositors.) Interestingly, SVB’s questionable behavior that led to its demise was predicated upon a successful bit of bank de-regulation approved by the Trump administration in 2018, and lobbied for by executives of SVB.
3. See Michael Tomasky, “Biden’s Journey Left,” New York Review of Books, July 2, 2020, written a half-year before the election and Biden’s ascendency to the presidency.