The Argument Bernie Sanders Needs to Make About Capitalism

Bernie SandersBy Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, the progressive Jewish interfaith magazine based in Berkeley, California, and the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, in Salon, March 4

Despite the media’s proclaiming the election over, Bernie Sanders still has another 35 states in which to compete – and he could still win, despite the media’s attempt to discourage his supporters. But he needs to expand his message. Here’s how.

Bernie has been the most articulate and effective elected official critic of capitalism’s negative impact on America’s poor and middle class since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Those who are moved by that critique will rally to him. Sadly, that is not even a majority of voting Democrats, much less of the country as a whole, which explains why he hasn’t captured the hearts of a majority of Democratic Party presidential primary voters.

Bernie uses every public opportunity to show how unjust the economic system is toward the most vulnerable. And he is right.

What he fails to do is help the rest of the American public understanding that some of their biggest heartaches are also tied to capitalism – not because it doesn’t give them enough economic returns or the ability to consume more, but because it promotes values that are destructive to human relationships and families, popularizes an ethos of “looking out for number one” and popularizes materialism and self-destructive self-blaming.

I learned about this as principle investigator of an NIMH-sponsored research project on stress at work and stress in family life. What my team heard from thousands of middle-income working-class people was that there was a huge spiritual crisis in American society generated by the experience most middle-income non-professional people have in the world of work.

It’s hard for professionals and the upper-middle class to believe this, but most people spend most of their awake hours each work day doing work that feels meaningless and unfulfilling. They quickly learn that their sole value in the marketplace is the degree to which they can contribute directly or indirectly to the old “bottom line” of money and power of those who own and manage the corporations, businesses and other institutions where they find employment. Moreover, they learn that those who are most successful are those who have learned best how to maximize their own advantage without regard to the well being of others in the work world outside their particular work unit, or the well being of those buying their goods or services.

What we learned was that most working-class people (not all, just most) come away from their work with a complex set of seemingly contradictory feelings. On the one hand, they hate the values of selfishness and materialism they see surrounding them at work and brought home by everyone they know. On the other hand, they believe that everyone is so completely enmeshed in those values that selfishness just is “the real world” and that they themselves have no choice but to seek to maximize their own advantage wherever they can. They find relief from this when they go to church, synagogue or mosque, identify with those spiritual or religious values, but are so depressed by their daily work-world experience that they feel those alternative values have no chance of working in the “real world.”

Moreover, from their earliest experiences in school they have been immersed in the capitalist indoctrination into the fantasy that they live in a meritocracy, and that “anyone can make it if they deserve to.” As a result, they blame themselves for the lack of fulfillment in their lives. And they blame themselves for not being better at “looking out for number one” and maximizing their own self-interest.

The result is a society increasingly filled with people who see each other through the framework of capitalist values: other people are valuable primarily to the extent that they can satisfy our own needs and desires, rather than seeing them as intrinsically valuable just for who they are regardless of what they can deliver for us.

No wonder, then, that so many people feel lonely and scared. They see themselves as surrounded by people who have internalized the “look out for number one” ethos of the capitalist marketplace. Many notice these same attitudes in friends, even in one’s spouse. Some report that their children have picked up these same values and look at their parent with a “what have you done for me lately” attitude. So increasing numbers of people feel afraid not only because there is no effective societal mechanism to protect them should they be out of money or in need of too-expensive-to-afford health care and pharmaceuticals, but also because they fear that no one will really be there for them when they are most vulnerable and in need of caring from others. Of course these dynamics play out differently depending on one’s own circumstances, but they are prevalent enough to make many people feel bad about themselves and worried about the enduring quality of their most important relationships.

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3 responses to “The Argument Bernie Sanders Needs to Make About Capitalism

  1. As implied by the excerpt, the populist appeal of Bernie Sanders’ line of reasoning seems to reflect neomarxist analysis of the working class’s ‘angst’ as stemming from systemic ‘alienation’. Although from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, revolting against ‘the framework of capitalist values’ seems aligned with the battlecry of ‘righteousness’ invoked by Donald Trump’s message among his followers.

  2. Accepting, for the sake of argument, Lerner’s premise, is it reasonable to believe, in today’s climate, that Sanders, or anyone else, can persuade American voters to reject capitalism?