I am an upper-middle-class Columbia student trying haplessly to justify my leftism. I can count on one hand how many times my family has had money troubles. Once, I went to Ho Chi Minh City for spring break because my parents thought it would be “cool.” Our fridge was never without organic produce. My childhood home was large enough to accommodate a baby grand piano. When I look back at my life to date, I cannot help but wonder whether I should be grateful or revolted. After reading Bernie Sanders’ newest release, It’s OK to be Angry at Capitalism, I still don’t know.
Rife with statistics and value judgments, It’s OK to be Angry at Capitalism builds the moral case against unfettered capitalism, inequity and exploitation. Sanders writes the way he dresses, practically and in a style that is indifferent to what others think. He is nothing if not consistent. But, it was passages like these that were so quintessentially “Bernie” that they approached the banal:
Greed is not good.
Massive income and wealth inequality is not good.
Buying elections is not good.
Profiting from human illness is not good.
Charging people the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs is not good.
Exploiting workers is not good.
Monopolization of the economy by a handful of corporations is not good.
Ignoring the needs of the most vulnerable among us—children, elderly, and people with disabilities—is not good.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia are not good.
For-profit prisons that make money by locking up poor people are not good.
Wars and excessive military budgets are not good.
Carbon emissions that destroy our planet are not good.
I read this, and tears cinematically glistened in my eyes — not because I was enraged at the injustice of capitalism, but because I was so bored. And perhaps I was disappointed with Sanders too, because there is little more to glean from It’s OK to be Angry at Capitalism than what can be found in that paragraph.
Chapters flitted from denouncing for-profit health care to attacking billionaires to decrying corporate media without easily accessible solutions. Sanders proposes a Nordic social-democratic utopia for the United States, yet I expected him to chart more bottom-up courses of action in the pages of his tome. I feverishly searched for avenues to engage in the collective action necessary to realize an anticapitalist world. Instead, I found a didactic book catering to leftists who thrill to the sound of the rallying cry.
Sanders tells us that “we need a new sense of morality” and that “we must move towards a system of compassion, cooperation, and common interest.”
I do not disagree with him, but It’s OK to be Angry at Capitalism would have benefited from recommendations for concrete grassroots solutions to the urgent material inequalities that capitalism yields. Merely being content with the book’s value-based arguments hinders meaningful bottom-up change. And it is precisely this willful petty-bourgeois inertia that causes leftists from comfortable backgrounds to be seen, often correctly, as out of touch with the working class they wish to act on behalf of.
It is time to face it: Justice is inconvenient. And for many degree-holding upper-middle-class leftists, the maintenance of the status quo is not a life-or-death cause. For us, justice can exist in an imagination lab — it is a virtue that we tinker with, dream of. Some of us really do want to see it actualized. But how much anticapitalist heavy-lifting are we willing to do to challenge the unfair system that stirs within us such moral revulsion?
Liz Rathburn, a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, told The Indypendent that the upper-middle-class has a definitive place in anticapitalism. In Rathburn’s experience, this is best accomplished by forming a “united front against the ruling class, especially around cross-class issues like racism, the oppression of women and queer folks, and the struggle for democratic rights.” This cross-class action engenders mutually beneficial solidarity. Rathburn continues, “The petty bourgeoisie can be an important place for radical ideas to gain early adherents. It’s just a matter of linking those abstract ideas with the masses.”
It is undeniable that Sanders brought leftism from the fringe to the American mainstream. He has empowered unions, fought for minimum wage increases and championed Medicare for All. However, It’s OK to be Angry at Capitalism lacks the galvanizing momentum of his political career.
Despite that, the read remains rather enjoyable. Sanders’ gruffness is endearing; his career-long political stance against capitalism is inspiring; his Brooklynite staccato in the audiobook is positively delightful. Yet, his overreliance on moral solutions to problems that not only necessitate thoughtfulness, but spirited action, undermines the potency of his book’s message. Bernie confirms it’s okay to hate capitalism. But this reader is left asking the question — now what?
It’s OK to be Angry at Capitalism
By Bernie Sanders with John Nichols
Crown Publishing, 2023
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