Fire Station Socialism: Sanders, Anarchism, and the Left

This weekend Libcom published a purported anarchist take on the 2016 election. The author, as well as most of those leaving comments, voiced direct or indirect support for Sanders.

The most hesitant support came from those who felt his voters would become "disillusioned" and thereby turn to radical politics. In effect, this amounts to tacitly allowing the Sanders campaign to continue its work of mystification unopposed. I call this the Rube Goldberg method of recruitment. It goes like this. Instead of telling potentially sympathetic listeners why capitalism has nothing to offer, you instead encourage them to believe that it can be improved and to participate in its management, all the while hoping that by some mechanism these people will suddenly become disillusioned and eager to embrace socialism. The idea that people will more readily accept an idea after you encourage them to believe its opposite -- this is the logic of Trotsky's transitional demands, and evidently the logic of many anarchists.

Indeed, one has to ask how these people become "disillusioned." Wouldn't their unquestioned-and-unopposed participation permanently reinforce their faith in capitalist democracy? If Sanders loses, everything he said becomes true -- everything depends on driving big money out of politics! And if he wins, isn't it just a reaffirmation that The People can make themselves heard through the vote? "Yes, we can!" Have eight years of Obama swelled the ranks of socialism with Democrats who failed to find Hope and Change? Has Obama's inability to live up to his promises created a single socialist?

Others claimed not to support Sanders themselves, of course, but were still encouraged that so many Americans would vote for a "socialist." They fail to see that this reflects a change in terminology rather than in political orientation. Over the last century socialism has gone from a synonym for communism (cf. Engels's book Socialism: Scientific and Utopian), to a kind of welfare state, to what Americans have been doing all along (i.e., "fire stations and roads are socialist").

I take no solace in the rise of Fire Station Socialism (or what has also been called sewer socialism). I am afraid that its rise is a symptom of our continuing irrelevance. From the 1930s until quite recently, socialism meant gulags and bread lines. Now it means schools and highways. In neither case have we reclaimed the word's original meaning. Socialism is neither Stalinist state capitalism nor the Scandinavian welfare state -- why should we care which it is conflated with?

Finally, some supported Sanders because "he'll move the country left," the proviso being that he naturally would not go "far enough" in the direction of actual socialism.

All of these approaches to the Sander's campaign share one thing: the idea that there is a left-wing that includes everyone from Democrats to marxists and anarchists. That increasing the minimum wage and abolishing private property are two points on one continuum.

Nothing that the left proposes is socialism writ small. None of its measures tend towards socialism. When those on the left ask for higher wages, labor laws, regulations, taxes on the rich, better health care, stricter rules for financial capital, etc., they are really asking for the state to take a greater role within the capitalist economy. Whether the state is laissez-faire or interventionist, whether wages are high or wages are low, capitalism is capitalism.

The basis of leftism is to conflate state intervention and state ownership with socialism. But this is not so.

None of the left's promises -- doubtfully attainable, in any case -- represents anything more than a rejiggering of the current order. Higher wages do not abolish the wages system. Regulated markets do not abolish the market system. Purging the state of "big money" does not abolish the state's nature as a power for and over capitalist society, against the working class. Engels reminds us that even under that most radical leftist demand, state ownership of the means of production, "the workers remain wage-workers -- proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with."

Thus the problem with Sanders, and Corbyn, and Syriza, and Trotskyism, etc., is not that they do not go "far enough" towards socialism. The problem is that they don't go at all.

But all of this Marx and Engels already said far more concisely 165 years ago:

Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.

And to quote Subversion, who wrote far more recently:

We in Subversion (and the wider movement of which we are a part) believe that left-wing politics are simply an updated version of the bourgeois democratic politics of the French revolution, supplemented by a state capitalist economic programme. ...

We believe that, despite the obstacles put in its way by both Right and Left, the working class has the power to destroy capitalism for real, and create a society without classes, without the state, national boundaries, oppression or inequality. A society not based on money or other forms of exchange, but on collective ownership of, and free access to, all society's goods on the part of the whole of humanity.

This society, which we call Communism or Socialism or Anarchism interchangeably, will be the first truly free society ever to exist.

Official Anarchism would apparently beg to differ.