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The Meaning Behind the Sanders Surge

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Reprinted from Consortium News

Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN.
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Sen. Bernie Sanders's candidacy raises the question of whether there can be a better system than free-market capitalism -- with its bloated income inequality and its hollowed-out middle class -- while Hillary Clinton's message is that the system needs only minor reforms at the edges, said economist Richard Wolff.

Wolff, a Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, taught economics for some 15 years and is currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School University, New York City, and author most recently of the book Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism.

DB: Let's just start off with the fact that there are about 45-million Americans who live in poverty now. And the word poverty or poor doesn't seem to exist in the lexicon of most of the debates. In the following interview, Wolff said the enthusiastic response to the Sanders campaign suggests that there is a growing public awareness that free-market capitalism -- left to its own devices -- doesn't fulfill the nation's needs. He also explored what a "socialist" administration under Sen. Sanders might look like.

RW: It's amazing that it doesn't exist. It's amazing that, indeed, the whole world's poverty story doesn't exist. One of the most revered anti-poverty agencies in the world, Oxfam in Great Britain, issued a report about 10 days ago timed to happen together with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And the point of their report was about poverty. And it had two basic statistics, which if there were any justice in the world would be the number one topic of the debates, and of the political campaigns in the United States and elsewhere.

The first statistic was that the 62 richest people, the 62 richest individuals, most of whom by the way, are Americans, own together more wealth than the bottom half of the population of this planet. That's 3.5 billion people. That is a level of inequality for which you'd have to go back to ancient Egypt and the pharaohs, to find comparable kinds of numbers.

The second statistic that they released was even worse, in a way. It said that 2015 was a banner year, a turning-point year, because in that year for the first time since records have been kept, the top 1% of wealth holders in the world, the richest 1% together own more than the total wealth of the other 99% in the world.

This is a level of inequality that is a product of an economic system that has dominated the world for 300 years, named capitalism. It's the one we live in. And any system with a result like that, with a level of inequality, and the poverty that goes with it, is a system that ought to be questioned and challenged.

And the significance of the Bernie Sanders campaign is that what it does is bring back into the American political life, into the American political discussion, the alternative to capitalism. He calls it democratic socialism, but the important thing is not the details of what he's proposing, but rather the opening of American politics to finally dealing with the topic it should have been discussing for the last 50 years, which is ... can we do better than capitalism? And, if we can, how do we go about it?

DB: Maybe we can hone in a little bit. What do you perceive, what do you see, what's your understanding of the bottom-line differences between what Bernie Sanders is saying about the economy, and what Hillary Clinton is saying. I'm not even getting into Trump, at this point.

RW: Sure, I think there are a number of ways of going at this. But let me try this one. Hillary Clinton [and] her husband Bill Clinton are people who came to their high political office, and indeed came to their ways of thinking, in a period of American history, the last three or four decades, when the governing ideology in this country was that capitalism is the greatest thing since sliced bread. That it's a magical, ultimate achievement of human civilization. That it provides growth and prosperity in an endless vista into the future. And that therefore anyone thinking about alternatives must have been asleep at the wheel, must be a backward-looking person, maybe even an evil person, but someone whose thinking and speech we don't have to take seriously.

So like everyone else in these dominant positions in America in the last 30-40 years, they spent no time worrying about how to do better than capitalism, no time learning or exploring the alternatives. That's no good anymore because capitalism has shown us its vulnerabilities: the inequality that I mentioned a few minutes ago, but we can go on ... the instability, the crash of 2008, and the failure of most Americans to recover in a significant way, from that crash. The uncertainty that now suggests we may have another recession this year, later.

This is a system whose inequality and instability, the injustice of everything we read about in the papers, from the scandal of the Flint water system, to Dupont's poisoning of the water, to the absurd prices of apartments in New York City. I mean, one could go on and on.

This is a system that has given us more than enough reason to think about alternatives. And the fundamental difference between Sanders and Clinton is Sanders is about alternatives, Clinton acts as if they are not necessary because that's been the way she, and the people she represents, have been thinking for 40 years.

DB: Now they say, we hear this again and again and again. Bernie Sanders, he is a great idea with what he wants to do, impossible to afford. $17 trillion, $18 trillion, Hillary Clinton sort of jumps on the bandwagon with the Wall Street Journal. Are these ideas that Bernie Sanders has that everybody deserves health care, and so on and so forth? Are they possible, or is it ridiculous?

RW: Well, they're absolutely possible. And there's a certain shame that should be attached to Mrs. Clinton using these arguments. It has been the standard trope, the standard argument of conservatives that anything that sounds good of the sort that liberals, socialists, radicals propose ... if they admit that they sound good, the way to get rid of the population's' interest is to suggest that they are either undoable or too expensive. This is so silly. And let me give the example from American history that proves the point. In the Great Depression of the 1930's, when the unemployment was much worse than it is today, when the bankruptcy and economic difficulties of cities, towns was much more severe than it is today, it was thought to be a crazy idea, in the midst of the Great Depression to come up with extraordinary new, expensive programs to help the mass of people, which is basically what Sanders is proposing, now.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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