Why did a Social Democrat make himself a target by calling himself a Democratic Socialist?

In 2016 Bernie Sanders declared himself a Democratic Socialist, and in doing so assured he’d never be president. The issue, then as now, was the “S-word.” Why would you label yourself a Socialist if you want to run for office in America?
Especially – and this part is key – if you aren’t one?
~Winter Smith

My suspicion is that Bernie Sanders never planned on winning. Either he didn’t think he could win or didn’t want to win. So, he purposely created a self-defeating campaign. Even when attacked, he would not attack back in kind or even strongly defend himself. He simply placed himself on the altar as sacrifice to the DNC gods.

Maybe he figured he never had a chance and that, no matter what he said, he was going to be attacked as a socialist. So, he decided to embrace it as rhetoric to push the Overton Window back to the left. To be fair, if not for his last campaign, there would be now far less political and public debate about many of the issues and policies he ran on.

If that was his only purpose, he succeeded on some basic level. But succeeded to what end? In a political situation where ideological rhetoric is already fairly meaningless, he further added to the confusion of labels. I’m not sure how that was clearly a net gain for society, particularly for the political left.

The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has pushed us far closer to healthcare reform than Sanders could ever hope to accomplish in all of his halfhearted campaign rhetoric. And calling it socialist healthcare reform probably wouldn’t be helpful. Most Americans already supported it. The problem was the political elite that Sanders is part of and the stranglehold of the two right wings of a one-party corporatocracy.

Sanders’ ultimate accomplishment, intentional or not, has been to act as a sheepdog to bring large segments of the political left back into the neocon fold. Did his doing so pull the Clinton Democrats from the precipice of the reactionary right-wing? Has the lesser evilism become less evil? Not that I can tell.

Now Sanders has thrown his weight behind Biden, a right-wing corporatist and deficit hawk, what could be called soft fascist, and certainly the complete opposite of socialist and (small ‘d’) democrat. You can dismiss the distinctions of social democracy and democratic socialism, as Biden is the enemy of both.

Anyway, what does this accomplish? Barring Trump dying from Covid-19 or the economy collapsing, Biden is almost guaranteed to lose bigly. For what gain did Sanders sell his soul? It might help Sanders’ career in getting favors from the DNC elite, but it won’t oust Trump from power, much less give a foothold to socialism or even moderate progressivism.

“What I really knew where Bernie, I think, has really overstepped his ground here is when his own staffers are not saying that they’re on board. Briahna Joy Gray openly tweeting, all respect in the world to Bernie Sanders, but I don’t endorse Joe. Same with David Sirota. And so my question is this. If Bernie Sanders can’t even get his own staff to vote for Joe Biden or endorse Joe Biden, what are they gonna do in the election? They don’t even have that personal loyalty and fealty to Bernie the way that his staffers do right.”
~Saagar Enjeti, co-host of The Hill’s Rising

* * *

Democratic Socialism, Social Democracy, and Bernie’s Big Mistake
by Winter Smith

Who can say what he was thinking as he tattooed the S-word on his forehead? Maybe, as Merelli suggests, he wanted to shock us – and we’re certainly a nation that could do with a little shocking. And given the practical concerns of reforming the American system it mattered not whether he called himself a Social Democrat, a Democratic Socialist or an ambisexual Martian. But from the perspective of winning, though…

In c. 2016 it would have been challenging enough to win by drawing a line to your candidacy from the New Deal, but it would have been considerably easier than dealing with the line your opponents were going to draw from Stalin. This is ‘Merica and labels matter a lot more than realities, more than policies, more than voting records, and Sanders had to know this.

For the love of Roosevelt, man, just call yourself a Social Democrat!

I was baffled in 2016 and still am, and despite my support for his candidacies I have to admit to a healthy dose of frustration. Sanders is a smart guy, so why would he do something so patently self-defeating? Is he playing eight-dimensional chess and I just don’t get it? Did he want to reframe the agenda and saw a Quixotean run at the White House as the best way of doing it? To be sure, much, if not most of what defined this cycle’s Democratic campaign revolved around issues he put on the table.

But … did he ever really want to be president?

I don’t have answers, but I suspect he did more damage to his bids than his opponents did.

Et Tu, Bernie?
by Chris Hedges

Sanders, who calls himself an independent, caucuses as a Democrat. The Democratic Party determines his assignments in the Senate. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who oversees Wall Street campaign donations to Democratic candidates, offered to make Sanders the head of the Senate Budget Committee if the Democrats won control of the Senate, in exchange for the Vermont senator’s support of Clinton and the hawkish, corporate neoliberal Democratic candidates running for the House and Senate. Sanders, swallowing whatever pride he has left, is now a loyal party apparatchik, squandering his legacy and his integrity. He routinely sends out appeals to raise money for party-selected candidates, including the 2016 Democratic senatorial candidates Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, Ted Strickland in Ohio and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. Sanders made a blanket endorsement of every Democrat running in the 2017 election, including the worst corporate Democrats.

There was about $6 million left from the Sanders campaign, and it was used to form an organization called Our Revolution in August 2016. The organization was set up ostensibly to fund and support progressive candidates. It was soon taken over by Weaver, who ensured that it was not registered as a political action committee (PAC), a group that can give money directly to campaigns. It was set up as a 501(c)(4), a group prohibited from having direct contact with candidates and giving donations directly to candidates. The 501(c)(4) status allowed it to take and mask donations from wealthy donors such as Tom Steyer. Sanders’ decision to quietly solicit contributions from the billionaire oligarchs who funded the Hillary Clinton campaign and control the Democratic Party betrayed the core promise of his campaign. Yet, even as he created a mechanism to take money from wealthy donors he continued to write at the bottom of his emails “Paid for by Bernie Sanders, not the billionaires.”

Eight of the 13 staffers of Our Revolution resigned in protest. The organization is now adding a PAC.

* * *

Here is another piece worth looking at. It’s by David Sirota, a speechwriter and senior adviser of the Sanders’ campaign. Even though Sanders took on the strong label of ‘socialist’, he did not fight strongly — not only having not fought hard for socialism but even for moderate progressivism; he simply did not fight. Sirota gives some reasons why. But more importantly he explains the negative consequences.

The Tyranny of Decorum
A look back on the 2020 primary
by David Sirota

Even though Biden at times pathologically lied about some of these facts (at one point he actually insisted he didn’t help write his own bankruptcy bill!), this record is verifiable, it is not in dispute. A group of us believed it was important for this record to be spotlighted — because it was good strategy and good for democracy.

We didn’t push Bernie to “attack” Biden in some sort of vicious way. We pushed him to instead simply and very explicitly cast the primary as a choice between a vision of progressive change, and Biden’s promise to his donors that “nothing will fundamentally change.”

To his credit, Bernie at times worked with us and embraced the strategy — and when he did, it was successful (see his Social Security contrast with Biden in Iowa, and see his contrast with Wine Cave Pete in New Hampshire).

At other times, though, the campaign backed off and did not seize opportunities to explicitly and continually spell out big differences between the candidates.

Ultimately, Biden was able to avoid having to constantly try to explain his offensive record. Instead, he was allowed to depict himself as a safe, electable “unity” candidate.

Was it fun to always be one of the people pushing the campaign to be more aggressive, and also eating shit on Twitter for supposedly being “toxic” for simply tweeting a few videos of Biden pushing some grotesquely retrograde policy? No, it was not fun. I have more gray hair and less stomach lining because I pushed. I’m no hero or a martyr, but I can tell you it was awful, excruciating and heartbreaking.

But it was necessary. […]

I am confident, however, that a stronger contrast would have at least put us in a better position to survive when Beto, Klobuchar, and Wine Cave Pete all fell in behind Biden to help him seal Super Tuesday.

In absence of a tough critique early on and with no day-to-day focus on his record, Biden was able to solidify an “electability” argument he didn’t deserve or earn.

According to exit polls, Biden was able to win the largest share of Democratic voters in 15 states who said health care was their top priority, even though a majority of Democratic voters in those states said they support replacing private insurance with a government run plan — a position Biden opposes.

Biden won Midwest states that have been ravaged by the trade deals that he himself supported.

Biden even won the most Democratic voters in 11 states who said climate was their top issue, despite his far weaker climate plan.

By the time our campaign was finally comfortable consistently making a strong case against him, it was after Super Tuesday and it was too late. […]

This attempt to scandalize policy criticism supposedly reflected heightened concerns about “electability” — the idea promoted by Democratic politicians and pundits being that sharp contrasts might weaken the eventual Democratic nominee against the existential threat of Trump.

And yet, history argues exactly the opposite — tough, brutal primaries often end up battle-testing nominees and making them stronger (see President Barack Obama). In the same way the minor leagues can prepare players for the major leagues, brutal intraparty contests subject the eventual standard-bearers to training, and they also suss out potential weaknesses at an early point when a party can still make a different nomination choice.

By contrast, primaries dominated by demands for “good decorum,” “unity” and “decency” create coronations — and coronations run the risk of creating nominees who are not adequately road-tested, and who are only publicly vetted in the high-stakes general election, well after the party could have made a different choice.

That is where we are now — a tyranny of decorum has given us a presumptive nominee whose record hasn’t been well scrutinized or challenged. […]

We’re in the midst of unpleasant, uncivil and impolite emergencies that threaten our country and our planet. A global pandemic won’t be stopped by niceties. The corporations profiting off the health care crisis won’t be thwarted with good manners. The fossil fuel giants intensifying the climate cataclysm won’t be deterred by gentility. And elections will not be won by prioritizing good decorum over everything else.

In short: preventing a real contrast and a real conflict over ideas only serves the establishment and its politicians who know that scrutiny will weaken their power to decide nomination contests and control the future.

But winning nomination contests without real vetting not only serves corporate power, it also jeopardizes that much-vaunted quality that parties claim to care so much about: general election “electability.”

jlalbrecht commented:

I enjoyed this long debrief, but you ignored the elephant in the room. Bernie constantly saying that any of his opponents – particularly Biden – could defeat Trump.

I don’t work in politics, but I’ve had my share of relationships in my not-so-short life, I’ve been running my own business and negotiating with clients for 25+ years, and I went through a 14-year VERY contentious child visitation/custody battle (that I won). No one in their right mind tells the girl they are trying to woo or the client they are trying to win that their competition can get the job done too. Bernie made a lot of tactical errors (IMHO) in his two presidential runs, but this was one of the biggest. In this primary, it would have been simple to point out that in 2016 everyone thought Clinton would win, and we saw how that turned out. Everyone except Bernie, and especially Joe Biden was running one version or another of Hillary 2.0.

I could list many other tactical errors, but will limit myself to one. Joe lying to Bernie’s face in the last debate, and Bernie not calling him out, made Bernie look weak af because it IS weak af. Saying people should look it up on YouTube and decide for themselves is not what people look for in a leader. Anyone who knew about their records had to think, “Is this how Bernie would handle Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi if he wins the WH?” Most of the viewers who didn’t know about their records would side with the guy who was lying confidently rather than the guy who was sheepishly deflecting to a third party (YouTube) and the viewer to decide for themselves if Biden was lying.

36 thoughts on “Why did a Social Democrat make himself a target by calling himself a Democratic Socialist?

  1. Perhaps because he doesn’t see himself as the old-school Social Democrat he has become over the years, but as a Socialist, which he was in his flaming youth and still is — at heart if not in the head.

    And while “socialist” is widely considered a wordy-dord in our society, one has to wonder why that is when we still have programs (though mostly gutted and shredded beyond recognition by the neoliberal crowd) that even the most staunch conservative among the populace still approves of left over from Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Of course, they have names like “Social Security” and are publicly administered by state and local government organizations called “Social Services.” For some reason, though, the “social” in those names doesn’t seem to register with many of us as indicating socialist ideas that were brought to the table during the Great Depression.

    It’s tempting to think that propaganda is stronger than we are, but it really isn’t.

    An online friend shared this on Facebook the other day: Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting. I took exception to a few notions, e.g. a “responsible free market,” of course, but only commented on one idea contained therein: the notion that “brilliant marketers know how to rewire your heart.”

    No, they don’t. As fervently as they might wish they did. Your brain? Maybe. (Thus, the importance of being as vigilant with our mental and spiritual diets as our physical diets.) But not your “heart” — that inviolable essence of ourselves that bards and poets sing about; philosophers muse about; and authors, screenwriters and producers bring sharp focus to again and again and again. Why? Perhaps, so we don’t forget. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YM7y5KrS4QI)

    • I tend to not see as strong of a distinction between social democracy and democratic socialism. There is much similarities and overlap between them, particularly in certain practical aspects, although they are ideologically separate.

      I’d argue that democratic socialism is actually far more democratic since, in challenging capitalism, it even applies democracy to the economy and workplace. That is relevant, such as how Sanders never comes close to such a radical position on economic democracy. Maybe he did when younger, though.

      I tend to agree with your view. Propaganda is powerful, but it isn’t everything. That is why I feel we need leaders who understand that and is willing to make the hard fight. I won’t fight for a candidate who won’t fight for me. But that kind of fight means fully appreciating the radicalism at the heart of democracy in how it applies to all aspects of society and life.

      That’s a good movie clip from a classic. I’ve watched it many times over the years. It’s an expression of a Christian ideal of the soul which the early Christians borrowed from the Stoics’ view of natural law. The Stoics believed in a liberty that transcended even outward slavery. No one could ever enslave your soul.

      That is why the Stoics were the first practitioners of martyrdom, another thing that was incorporated into Christianity, if more in narrative identity than in historical reality. At the heart of this vision of freedom is a powerful challenge to injustice. The Stoics would go out of their way to provoke authority to demonstrate the impotence of violent power.

      I’ve long been drawn to such a view of human freedom. The implication is freedom is not given to you by others, certainly not by a government. A government can’t be free nor can markets. Rather, people are free and when acting freely, a free government and free market can result.

      Freedom is a spiritual truth and reality that expresses itself through our psychology and culture. It is first and foremost a way of being in the world and relating to others. Freedom was never given and so it can’t be denied, can’t be taken away.

      • I tend to not see as strong of a distinction between social democracy and democratic socialism.

        The distinction here is not between social democracy and democratic socialism, but between the constitutions of an old-school social democrat (or, simply, Democrat if you prefer) and a socialist. There is definitely a distinction to be made there. Old school social democrats were you’re average, run-of-the-mill Democrats who (once upon a time) represented “the working class” — that is before they abandoned “the working class” in favor of identity politics and neoliberalism. Sanders has become, in this sense, an old-school social democrat with a few identity political overtones and not a full-blown socialist, if you get my meaning.

        That’s a good movie clip from a classic. I’ve watched it many times over the years. It’s an expression of a Christian ideal of the soul which the early Christians borrowed from the Stoics’ view of natural law.


        It’s too easy to miss the embedded message in that clip for the simple reason that the vast majority of our traditions never have gotten it right.

        If Andy Dufresne just hadn’t answered Red’s question, “What you talking about?” with “Hope.”

        That actually obscures the message that “there’s something…something inside that they can’t get to; that they can’t touch.” It’s nothing to do with hope or love or any human emotion one might name. It’s a “Thou Art That” reference to our essential nature.

        The character also opins “It’s yours.” Actually, it isn’t. One might consider one’s self the guardian at the gate, or some such, but it most certainly isn’t “yours.” (Or, even, “ours.”) Rather, “the Itself” (as Gebser put it) is the very essence of who we are. “The Itself” belongs to no one.)

        Perhaps that message will get through to all of us — undistorted — eventually.

        • I agree with what you say about the distinction being most basically about ‘Democrat’ vs ‘Socialist’. That is how to label them in common parlance. But I’d still note that democratic socialism is theoretically more democratic than social democracy, as the imperial and colonial history of the latter has been mired in Whiggish progressivism. Democratic socialism puts the power of governance of society and workplace in the hands of those most directly affected, i.e., the citizen-workers. The idea of a ‘Democrat’ has a long, mixed past with equal parts progressive and reactionary — something that maybe even shows up in how Sander’s social democratic stance so easily falls into complicity with establishment politics.

          Also, I get what you have to say about “essential nature”. That goes back to that Axial Age thought that arose in classical Greece and elsewhere, later shaping Stoics and then Christians. They didn’t think of it as an emotion, although I’m not sure hope is an emotion, but as natural law in being inherent to existence, everpresent to all within the world. I get it and yet can feel resistance to this view. As some would argue, it is a historically-contingent experience and culturally-dependent understanding. There is no clear evidence that this essential nature was known or even comprehensible to pre-Axial people. That thought is always on my mind, the persistent challenge of our WEIRD and other biases. Still, I grok the point your making.

          One could make the counter-argument that earlier people simply understood the same thing but with a different interpretation. Maybe or maybe not. I always feel divided on this point, as I’m heavily drawn to the universalistic vision that became so common and widespread in the post-Axial world. I just sense there are entirely alien experiences of reality. Anyway, we’ve been over this territory before. I can’t even say I disagree with you. There is simply this radical doubt that pesters me, something glimpsed at the edge of vision. It’s not merely rational skepticism but something that nags deep in the soul, essentialist or not. It makes me wonder. What could “Itself” possibly have meant to the bicameral mind? Even today, animistic cultures like the Piraha don’t seem to have any sense of an essential nature as you describe. I don’t know what to make of it and maybe there is no point in bringing it up.

          • One could make the counter-argument that earlier people simply understood the same thing but with a different interpretation.

            Oh, no arguing here. (I absolutely despise that shit.) No, no. I get it. I would just phrase it differently as they understood the same thing, but had a different way of saying it — a way that reflected the culture in which they lived.

          • That is what I’m not so sure about. It’s not clear that all cultures or even all individuals in the same culture really do understand the same thing, if phrased differently. I’ve had enough odd experiences that most other people don’t share with me that I’ve come to strongly suspect that the same phenomenon is true for many others as well. It’s a sense of the radical Other, not only in ‘others’ but in oneself and in the world. Not just a singular Other but a divergent multiplicity.

          • It’s not clear that all cultures or even all individuals in the same culture really do understand the same thing, if phrased differently.

            They rather obviously don’t. But I personally fault “the Scribes and Pharisees,” so to speak, for that and not “indivuated” indivuduals.

          • What do you mean by locating the cause among “the Scribes and Pharisees”? Who are they? And what did they do to cause this?

            If I’m to understand that in the historical sense, one might note that “the Scribes and Pharisees” were also a product of the Axial Age, as were ideals of individuation.

            The framing here seems to entirely be that of the Axial Age. But what if we used an entirely different paradigm of reality and identity? How would that change the discussion and what makes sense?

            I’m not asking these questions with any presumed conclusion in mind. I don’t have any grand answers to offer. Just lots of questions.

          • I did note what you were saying. But what I’m saying isn’t simply a different way of saying it. And I’m arguing that different ways of speaking, by way of linguistic relativity, powerfully shapes us and our experience.

            There is nothing simple about Jaynesian consciousness. It represents not only a psychology but an entire self-contained worldview that is the foundation of 3 millennia of civilization.

            It’s only a line of thought. But otherwise I have a hard time explaining the strangeness of how vastly different are cultures, as shown not only in linguistic relativity but also in anthropology, philology, and consciousness studies such as Jaynesian scholarship.

            That doesn’t mean I’m right. It more goes back to the questions themselves, even if a particular tentative answer is wrong. Something doesn’t otherwise seem to add up, at least so it seems to me.

            But if it doesn’t seem to you, we are at a divide maybe not in opinion and belief but in experience as well. I’ve looked for an essential self with deep longing and yet have never found it or not clearly. I’m not sure how to go forward with that.

          • we are at a divide maybe not in opinion and belief but in experience as well.

            We are?

            Actually, you’re talking about “Jaynesian consciousness” again and I’m referring to ways of life, egoic consciousness and the problem with it. Two different things.

            Stay well.

          • Sort of different, but sort of not. Jaynesian consciousness is basically referring to the same thing as egoic consciousness. The ego identity presumably didn’t exist with the bicameral mind or before it with the animistic mind. That is my own understanding. Why do you think Jaynesian consciousness and egoic consciousness are different? What distinguishes them?

          • Maybe we’re talking past one another. What do you mean by “egoic consciousness”? When I think of it, I assume it is identical to Jaynesian consciousness. The frame I go by is between the ego theory of mind/self and the bundle theory of mind/self. The former is more widespread in the West, but the latter has held on more in the East.

            Buddhism, as with Taoism, doesn’t posit an essential self, either for humans or for gods. Some suspect that David Hume got his own views on a bundle theory from Christian missionaries returning from the East. The bundle theory seems to fit bicameralism and animism. The ego theory stands out, especially in its extreme WEIRD form as hyper-individualism.

            The sense of an essential self seems to presuppose both Jaynesian consciousness and egoic consciousness, as opposed to bundle theory, bicameralism, and animism. But I’m not an either/or kind of person. Even with Jaynesian consciousness, the fundamental reality remains the bicameral-animistic complex. It’s all of the same mind and reality, of course. But the linguistic and cultural overlay can have a powerful influence over experience and behavior.

            That is most apparent in the anthropological record. I return to the Piraha so often because they stand out at the opposite extreme. I suspect there used to be many more cultures like theirs before disease and genocide. But we see plenty of other tribes with similar cultures of bundled, animistic, porous, extended, relational, and shifting identities.

            Also, the extant texts from archaic cultures such as the earliest Egyptians shows a much more complex identity. Even in the Bible, to carry the name of an ancestor meant to in a sense to be possessed by that ancestor. In names were power. This is why the sins of the father carried over onto the sons and on and on down the generations. This is why entire families would be punished or even exterminated for the wrongdoings of one individual.

            The idea of a universal essential self that unites all of humanity probably would’ve been beyond their comprehension and imagination. Understanding why this is the case is seen in the Piraha language. It’s not a matter of only belief for their language makes certain ideas near impossible to express and so to think about. Without the language to articulate an essential self, there can be no thought of a universal humanity or a survival after death, both concepts that the Piraha lack. Research in linguistic relativity shows how this alters perception itself, sometimes predetermining what seems real and relevant to us.

            All of that said, maybe you’re making an entirely other point. That is to say, maybe I’m missing the point. All I can say in my defense is that I stick closer to the sense of questions than to any given answer. Pointing to these other examples is not so much to express a counter-argument to prove anything as it is to open the mind to the radical other and hence open the mind to radical doubt and radical imagination. But as I often say, the etymology of ‘radical’ refers to going to the root.

            As with Eisenstein, I’m not necessarily interested in the debate as framed nor necessarily denying the frame either. I want to know what it means that we use this framing at all and what other framings might be possible. Shift perspective and everything else could shift in understanding. If the framing is unhelpful, then everything within that framing might be unnecessarily divisive or distracting. I’m not sure. Something simply feels off to me and it’s hard to put my finger on it.

            But I’ve said this all before. We’ve been down this same road on a number of occasions. I doubt whatever is at issue, something unclear to me, will be resolved this time around any more than it was in previous discussions. We both seem to be bumping up against something and we both struggle to communicate in a way the other understands. There appears to be a lack of a commonly agreed upon set of concepts, terminology, and definitions. So, we go round and round.

            That is precisely what fascinates me so much. It means something is eluding us. And that is something yet to be discovered. Or if already known to some extent, it’s too immense to see the edges of it like looking for the horizon when in a thick jungle at the bottom of a deep valley. What is a horizon that can’t be seen because of nearby obstructions of vision when a horizon is defined as the distant limits of what one can see?

          • I’ve looked for an essential self with deep longing and yet have never found it or not clearly. I’m not sure how to go forward with that.

            I’ve not said anything about an “essential self,” so I’m not sure where that’s coming from. I did mention the inviolable essence of who we are, but that is not a reference to a “self.”

            If you’ve looked for “essence,” on the other hand, and not found it, I’m not sure what to say or, even, if there is anything to say. The best I can do is point people in the same direction sages of all ages and cultures have since time immemorial: within. And, perhaps, further repeat that “the best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.” [Alexandra K. Trenfor] (I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but most everyone you’ll ever meet is preinclined to do precisely that: tell you what to “see” and “hear.”)

            We both seem to be bumping up against something and we both struggle to communicate in a way the other understands. There appears to be a lack of a commonly agreed upon set of concepts, terminology, and definitions.

            Perhaps there are no words to adequately express what we mean by “essence” or why it is inviolable, though artists certainly try. (See the clip above and perhaps any poetry, e.g. Rumi’s, that might approach it, etc.) Either the meaning of “inviolable essence” is intuited or it’s not, the primary obstacle being the human ego, which itself has no physical substance, but nonetheless can affect us physically.

            You cannot hurt anybody without hurting yourself. It is impossible to behave in a disgusting way with with anybody; you are at the same time behaving disgustingly with yourself. You cannot insult somebody without insulting yourself. — From In Love with Life: Reflections on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra

            Sound familiar?

            Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

            Because, of course, whatever you do unto others you are doing unto you, or the “inviolable essence of who we are” as I put it. “Namaste.”

            I certainly can’t match the masters in their ability to get that across to us and, so, don’t even try, most often choosing simply to point instead. In fact, the “finger pointing at the moon” analogy has taken on a whole new meaning for me when conversing with people on the Internet. For some reason, I don’t seem to have quite so much trouble being understood in person. It’s weird and more than a little frustrating, but I’m learning to just walk away when the timeless message I’m trying to get across is frustrated. It’s somewhat akin to shaking the dust from off your feet and moving on to the next town.

          • You are right that you didn’t speak of an essential self. But my point was about essentialism in general. I haven’t found anything essential nor have all sages. That was my point. Many sages, wise teachers of Buddhism, Taoism, and cerain schools of Hinduism spoke against essentialism. I don’t think that is a minor point, but I’m not trying to argue with you. What is real to you is real in your experience, as the same is true in my experience. That is also part of my point.

          • It is nice to finally clarify that point. That is where we diverge, on essentialism. That was fruiful in clearing that up. It’s simply a point of divergence, not only of opinion but of experience. And there is no way for either of us to ‘prove’ we are ‘right’. We could reference and quote sages who confirm our views, but that wouldn’t help. All we can say is we reached a fundamental issue.

          • For millennia, a wide variety of people, from spiritual teachers to philosophers, have been arguing over essentialism and non-/anti-essentialism. This debate has yet to end and the issue remains unresolved.

            Here is maybe the most interesting point. To the essentialist, the disagreement itself is over something essential. But to the non-essentialist, it is not. So, even the approach to the disagreement might be different.

            That is to say, is the seeming disagreement of essence or not? What if the seeming divergence of views is a further illusion? I’m not sure what that mean, other than to hold lightly even our views of essentialism or non-essentialism.

          • It is true that, at least since the Axial Age, more people have agreed than disagreed with essentialism.

            It is the conventional view, that there is something essential about the world, even if what is considered essential differs. But in non-essentialist thought, a distinction has sometimes been made between conventional truth (the appearance of essence) and ultimate truth (the non-reality of essence).

            So, even non-essentialists admit that essentialism is experientially compelling. That is part of the tnon-essentialist teaching, to see through it.


          • “Essence” is the word used both in my comments and in Almaas’ book to point to a “universal” human intuition — an intuition written about by everyone from “the desert fathers” to medieval monks to — yes, Taoists and Buddhists — to Friedrich Nietzsche to Stephen King and even a few quantum physicists; an intuition I came to myself and in my own way long before I ever learned that others had experienced it as well, even going so far as to name it; and not an “issue.” The word doesn’t point to an idea about that intuition and certainly not “essentialism,” which is an ideology. (Intuitions always go astray when and if they become solidified in the mind as unquestionable “-isms,” imho, and that includes the plethora of “integral consciousness” theories inspired by Gebser’s work.)

            Is it really a wonder that “whatever is at issue, something unclear to [you]” — something we’re “bumping up against,” as you put it — will be resolved this time around any more than it was in previous discussions?” From my perspective, you’re listening to the academic knowledge bouncing around in your head and questioning me about that academic knowledge rather than looking “within” for the kind of intuitive “knowledge” you’ve indicated you’ve looked for “with deep longing.”

            Quite obviously “emptiness” is required to access that inherent and intuitive “way of knowing” intrinsic to all human beings.

            Essence is emptiness.
            Everything else, accidental.
            Emptiness brings peace to loving.
            Everything else, disease.
            In this world of trickery
            Emptiness is what your soul wants.

            ~ Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks)

            The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. — From Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

            A pleasure speaking with you again. As you may have noticed, “essence” is my favorite subject (so to speak) — a subject I rarely get the opportunity to converse about with others without someone trying to drag me into an “argument” about it. The “divine spark” is what I look for in others and attempt to foreground in myself as a blazing fire. While I often fail at that — especially if another human being is going out of their way to make it might nigh impossible — I take solace in the fact that I am most certainly not alone in that failing. But, then, neither were the “masters,” as I recall.

          • Here is my position. This entire culture is essentialist. Most people, religious and spiritual or atheist and agnostic, believe/experience/perceive that something about the self, consciousness, the world, and/or reality is essential or of essence.

            I too was raised in this sociocultural system, ideological worldview, and religious theology. And as essentialists went, I was an idealist in that I longed to know the essential nature. I prayed, meditated, did mantras, yogic practices, psychedelics, and plain old introspection.

            I never could find anything that was essential. And the more I looked the more the layers of what at first appeared essentialist were stripped away. It wasn’t hard-nosed skepticism or over-intellectualiziing postmodernism that made me lose my faith.

            Yet I fully realize I’m in the minority position. Nonetheless, entire religions and religious traditions have been built on this non-/anti-essentialist understanding. It’s still a rare position to hold in our society, although presumably more common in the East. Then again, even in the East it’s probably a minority.

            I can’t fall back on consensus, either of the masses or the sages. I’m sure most wise teachers, gurus, and masters agree with you or else some similar essentialist view. Most, but not all.

            Yet I can’t even prove I’m right to myself, as non-essentialism is more of a non-experience than an experience. It’s not that I discovered something but the lack of something. The only comfort I can have is a significant number, however relatively small, came to similar insights.

            Maybe essentialism is wrong. Maybe I’m insane. Maybe some essentialist nature eludes me and other fools of my kind, including long lineages of certain ancient traditions. I concede that possibility, but that is part of the radical skepticism/curiosity/exploration/imagination that led me to non-essentialism in the first place.

            All I can go by is what I have and have not experienced. And that is true for everyone else as well. It creates a conundrum, which is interesting in its own right. Why has such a fundamental difference of experience persisted at least since the Axial Age? The best minds for millennia went on putting forth their best arguments and practices. Still, here we are.

            I do take the Axial Age as pivotal. Consider the comparison of the Piraha who apparently never went through an Axial Age. The entire debate is moot to them. By the in-built restrictions of their linguistic culture, they have no way of articulating essentialist anything and so neither can they articulate non-essentialism. For them, there is no conflict, no issue to resolve. It’s simply a non-debate.

            What if a similar situation was true of the pre-Axial people, especially earlier in the Bronze Age. The full bicameral mind, as with the full animistic mind, maybe simply couldn’t even comprehend the debate at all. That is a fascinating prospect.

            In that case, if the entire framing is a social construction on both sides, there can never be a right or wrong. Instead, the best we could do is to shift our thinking to an entirely other framework. That is to say, the problem can’t be resolved on the level that created it.

            In some ways, that is what non-essentialism is attempting to do, if imperfectly. It’s not trying to oppose essentialism. Even the idea of non-essentialism would be accordingly false, illusory, or however one wishes to describe it. The word ’empty’ is also empty.

            That gets us back to useful means. But that is a tricky topic. If we had an easy and reliable means of ascertaining ultimate truth, this disagreement wouldn’t exist at all. None of us can explain why certain individuals come to one experience while others come to something else altogether. It’s pure mystery. We are hitting the foundation of our civilization, whether or not we are coming anywhere near some ultimate core of reality in its totality.

          • I can’t speak for anyone else’s nature. But this dialogue of ours gets at my own nature. I don’t feel capable of ever leaving things well enough alone. Rather than dusting off my boots, I look down at the dirt I’m standing upon and dig down into it.

            It’s an obssession-compulsion. I’ve long associated it with the Buddhist Dukkha, an inherent dissatisfaction that both motivates clinging to what is false/illusory and an irritable awareness like groggily waking from sleep. Psychiatrists, of course, simply diagnose me as being depressed. Yet my depression has abated in recent years and a certain kind of dissatisfaction remains.

            Once again, it most definitely doesn’t prove anything other than I’m a dissatisfied person. I’ve yet to come across some ultimate answer that fully satisfies me. Non-essentialism only works for me because it is a non-answer and that does come closest to satisfying my odd personality.

          • After writing all my comments and looking back at your comment, it suddenly occurred to me that I don’t find our dialogue frustrating in the least. Some other recent discussions I’ve had about coronavirus have been on he frustrating side, but no a friendly conversation like this.

            If anything, I sort of find the essentialist/non-essentialist debate amusing, not a serious matter. I don’t find myself feeling strongly even about my own position.

            I guess my approach is different on this. As you know, I embrace the unknown and the idea of the unknowable. Our differing views indicates terra incognita. But that is a good thing. It means the unknown yet to be fully explored.

            Also, about this kind of thing, my attitude is more along the lines of Fortean curiosity (the world is strange) and Robert Anton Wilson’s guerrilla ontology (we jump out of one reality tunnel only to jump into another).

            How I see it, as I keep repeating, is that this isn’t about being right or wrong, isn’t about ultimate reality that can be decisively and finally concluded upon. Rather, what attitude and view is most useful, interesting, and compassionate.

            That is why I so appreciate Robert Anton Wilson’s playfulness. It’s a way an amusing way of learning to hold everything lightly, to not take oneself too seriously. I’ve found this important, as this is an important lesson that is extremely relevant to my own life.

            Taking a non-essentialist perspective is simply useful means. If there is nothing essential, then I have no strong position to defend or communicate and hence nothing to feel frustrated about, at least on that level.

            Non-essentialism takes a weight off of my shoulders. There is a release in emptiness. Regardless of truth claims, it simply makes me happier and more amused to hold this view, maybe even more content in a way in lessening the edge of that dissatisfaction.

            Does any of that make sense? Differences of experience aside, do you get why one might be attracted to non-essentialism?

          • “From my perspective, you’re listening to the academic knowledge bouncing around in your head and questioning me about that academic knowledge rather than looking “within” for the kind of intuitive “knowledge” you’ve indicated you’ve looked for “with deep longing.””

            Obviously, I disagree. It wasn’t intellectuality that brought me to non-essentialism, the seeing through of what some claimed to be an “essential nature”. The period of time when this became most clear to me was when I didn’t read any books at all for about a year and meditated for long hours.

            In my direct experience, I came to realize there was nothing there. Not an emptiness that was an essence. There simply was no there there. It wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but it was what I found. What does one do when one discovers the unexpected, when one experiences the unconventional, when one falls off the edge of the known?

          • “Essence” is just a word quite obviously strongly attached to philosophical “positions” of “essentialism” (whatever that is) and “non-essentialism.” Any other word (even a neologism) could be utilized to denote the same kind of intuited “knowledge” of which we speak. (The parenthetical denotes a concept that has become extremely narrow, perhaps especially in the West. There is more than one way — namely the “objective,” “burden of proof” — “way of “knowing” so highly valued in the West. We seem to have eliminated all the others from public consideration and conversation for the most part.)

            That’s one of the things I love about Rosenstock-Huessy’s work.

            In the most philosophical(?) of all his works, the first volume of his Soziologie, when contrasting the respective limits of theology with philosophy, he says that theology is guilty of reducing us to sinners and angels and thus not adequately accounting for our being flesh and blood, while philosophers tend to reduce us to objects and things in the dead space of the universe and ‘to mirror the objective world in their subjective world’ (1956, 286). ‘Religion,’ he says in that same section, ‘is unjust against nature and the human spirit (Geist)’; while philosophy is blind to ‘the time-endowing forces’ (‘die zeitstiftenden Gewalten’).[4]

            Thus the question mark I added to that quote. Rosenstock himself obviously wasn’t blind to “the time-endowing forces.” But all this goes back to what I was saying about the limits of language itself: that perhaps there are no words to adequately express the intuition of which we speak. Good thing there are forms of art other than the language-based arts.

            Why did pantomime just pop to mind? Doesn’t matter. Probably isn’t relevant, but I’m reminded that sign language strikes me as among the most beautiful and expressive languages in the world. Sure. The signs stand for letters and words, but no other language art — or any other form of art aside, perhaps, from dance –seems to involve the entirety of the human body in its expression unless, of course, one is a professional interpreter and confines movement primarily to the arms and hands so the signs are seen as directly proceeding from the mouth for the convenience of lip readers.

            Strange correlation to just pop in there out of the blue, I know, but it brings to mind that ideas that just pop in there out of the blue strike me as the most genius and original. The medievals had a word for that: “methinks,” indicating that we don’t “have” thoughts so much that thoughts occur to us. I like that idea.

          • I agree with all of that. All I can say is I’ve had experiences that were so completely ‘other’ that there is no real description of it. I can’t claim it was me or not me… nor both nor something in between… nor none of the above. It just was or wasn’t. There was nothing to identify it; i.e., there was no there there. And I feel fine to be befuddled by it.

            I’ve come to terms with it at this point. And it doesn’t bother me all that much to be inconsistent either. With Buddhist conventional truth, I’m like anyone else. I think and act as if there was something of essence, an essential nature or what have you, and yet I don’t ‘believe’ in it nor have I ever been able to discover this ‘essence’.

            It’s similar to my lacking belief in God, not that I have an active belief in a lack of God. That doesn’t stop me from sometimes praying/speaking to God, as God is no more nor less real than my ego, though neither being of essence when I go looking for them. Maybe I’m just confused. That is fine as well.

            I feel a kind of resistance to systems of thought, even of religious and spiritual language. I have a somewhat anarchistic mindset, but I’m not sure where it comes from. I’m not necessarily anarchist in a political sense. I just have this nagging sense about reality. It’s why, of all the Axial Age religions, I’m most strongly drawn to Gnosticism.

  2. Interesting post. Bernie Sanders’ radical past is baggage he couldn’t have gotten rid of. He could have called himself a New Deal Democrat, but his enemies would have brought up his radical past. So he decided to defend the word “socialism” instead of running away from it. I don’t know whether that was the right decision. I don’t think the public distinguishes between “social democrat” and “democratic socialist.”

    Another question is why he treated his Democratic opponents with kid gloves. Some say he was afraid of being branded a spoiler, like Ralph Nader. If that was his thought, he was wrong. He campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton and he’ll probably campaign hard for Joe Biden – probably harder than Joe Biden will campaign for himself. That didn’t shield him for being scapegoated for Clinton’s loss and it won’t shield him from being scapegoated for future Democratic losses.

    Maybe he actually feared doing anything that would have made Donald Trump’s election or re-election more likely. Maybe he thought Trump was different in some fundamental way from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. I don’t think so myself, but many people do. To seek to fundamentally change the Democratic Party power structure while not doing anything to diminish the Democratic Party’s chance of victory is a balancing act that may be impossible to bring off.

    • Your assessment makes sense. And I see nothing to disagree with.

      I get why Sanders would embrace socialist label, even as few socialists would see him as one of their own, not by a long shot. The point is that generations of Cold War propaganda and post-Cold War rhetoric effectively conflated democratic socialism and social democracy, further mixed with the red-baiting taint accusing the entire political left of being Commies.

      So, it is understandable, the urge to simply embrace the accusation in even mild, moderate progressives like Sanders becoming champions of ‘socialism’. But it sort of depresses me at the same time. It simply is not socialism. Whether one is for or against it, I do think that words matter, that distinctions matter — if we are to have meaningful public debate.

      What really bothered me was his constantly pulling his punches or sometimes never launching any punches at all. He often just stood there taking jab after jab, refusing to even hold up his fists to soften the blows. It looked like someone who was paid to take the fall in a fight. I don’t think he was paid in that manner, but it’s the same difference. He understood that his position as a professional politician depended on his taking a fall.

      But other than maintaining his career, what good does this accomplish? This is what I don’t get. On some level, I’m sure almost everyone knew that Sanders had a better chance than Clinton against Trump last election. And I suspect the same is true about this election. Clinton was an obviously weak candidate, but she looked positively impressive compared to Biden right now.

      How could Sanders not know in refusing to fight for the nomination he was quite likely giving the election away to Trump? Then even after supporting Clinton, she still kept attacking him in his recent campaign. She wasn’t going to return the favor nor will Biden, assuming his brain holds out that long before dementia takes him out of the game.

      It’s not only Sanders. For a long time now, large swaths of the political left have been engaged in such self-sabotage. It’s disheartening. Ever since the series of assassinations that took out MLK, the Kennedys, Fred Hampton, etc, the American left has been demoralized and lost its nerve. That is my hope for a younger generation that has no memory of that dark time.

      It’s true that if leftists fought hard again there likely would be more assassinations again. But is allowing the corruption, oppression, and injustice to rule without challenge better? Of course, that is easy to say hidden behind a computer screen. Sanders has been in politics a long time. He probably realizes that, if he did push too hard, he might be assassinated himself. Not many people would willingly put themselves on the firing line, even for a noble cause.

      That is a problem. It’s true that JFK probably wasn’t expecting an assassination, although one suspects RFK was shortly before his own death. Most definitely, MLK and Hampton always knew that it was a highly probable consequence, but it didn’t stop them. They knew that every time they stepped out the door in the morning they had a target on them. If anything, that inspired them to fight even harder.

      Sadly, Sanders doesn’t have that kind of courage and grit. But there are many others out there. Where are the potential leaders and activists who are trying to step up and fight the hard fight? What is keeping these people from being seen and heard? And what is keeping the political left from rallying around them?

    • The American left hasn’t been able to shake a sense of doom. That the left is doomed, that America is doomed, that the world is doomed. It’s not only the political left in the US but it feels more pressing when one finds oneself in the heart of the empire.

      I’m an idealist and a bit of a hopeless romantic. I want something worthy of fighting for, to be part of something with others who also are willing to fight. But it feels even further demoralizing to fight for a ‘leader’ who refuses to either fight or lead. I don’t think we can handle much more demoralization at this point.

      I might even throw my weight behind a lost cause, if it were a noble fight. As with many others, I’d do all kinds of things for a sense of meaning. Humans are paralyzed when they no longer have a clear and strong sense of meaning. It’s the reason why people cling to failed and corrupt systems, as long as they offer a semblance of meaning.

      That goes back to the point made above by InfiniteWarrior. People need hope. It’s why they’ll accept even false hope. To lose hope entirely is soul death.

    • Here is a major concern for me. People like Sanders and Chomsky talk a good game. But they are part of the comfortable classes.

      The problems they talk about are theoretical abstractions to them. They have no personal, tangible reality. So, in the end those like Sanders and Chomsky always end up telling Americans to vote for the next supposedly lesser-evil corporatist that the DNC puts up.

      Nothing will change until we feel that sense of urgency and act on it. There is no later time because later will be too late, especially since each “lesser evil” gets more and more evil with each election.


  3. In American political discourse, the contesants already muddied the water to the extent words no longer have any fixed specific meaning. Therefore, a word such as “socialist” is used to point to “people I don’t like” without a more clear definition necessary.

    All that is necessary is the 70+ years of post-WWII classical conditioning kick in when someone hears this term on FoxNews so they salivate like a Pavlov dog and throw the remote at the television. Even so-called sophisticated people do it on seeminly sophisticated media outlets such Forbes. Witness this chucklehead as exhibit A:


    • That is the only advantage I could see of Sanders calling himself a socialist. It has nothing to do with actual socialism, as he is not a socialist. But a major political leader openly and proudly claiming the label, even if falsely, takes some of the sting out of red-baiting. It’s a sign of how far we are moving away from the Cold War, in multiple generations having been born since.

      As calling someone a commie was typically empty rhetoric in the Cold War, identifying as a socialist is now often empty rhetoric as well. The difference is that it’s no longer a slur that can destroy lives as happened in McCarthyism. These terms have become so overused that they’re not even effective for attacking people. This could be a good thing in that actual left-wingers are given cover with the language becoming emotionally neutered.

      This maybe opens space for the discussion of actual ideas and policies. It’s become almost irrelevant if any particular thing is social democratic or democratic socialist. And maybe that is fundamentally true. Schools are operated by the government in the US and China. Some energy companies are nationalized in Scandinavia as they were in the Soviet Union.

      These individual issues can be thought of on their own terms. We can choose to socialize any given part of society or the economy, with or without socializing everything. It never was an all-or-nothing debate of ideological absolutism. The fact of the matter is a public school is socialist, but the important part is whether that socialism is operated within democracy or authoritarianism.

      This also separates the issue of socialism vs capitalism from the issue of decentralization vs statism. The fact of the matter is most authoritarian states in modern history were not communist. Varieties of corporatism, from fascism to inverted totalitarianism, have been more of the norm. If anarcho-capitalists and objectivist-libertarians want to attack the state as oppressive, their greatest enemies have always been on the political right.

      What made Obama dangerous was not that he was a socialist but that he was a capitalist. If you can’t get that straight, then you are part of the problem. The ideological fight in the United States has mostly been between varieties of capitalism. That is how capitalism dominates as ideological realism. All sides of the capitalist debate agree with the same basic capitalist framework and so they all defend the boundaries to maintain capitalist hegemony. It’s controlled opposition in all directions.

  4. You must have edited this one since I read it. I’d begun a response before I had to leave for work, but the relevant material is no longer present.

    I’ll just link this for consideration: The Polarization Trap

    PS Incidentally, I notice Charles has changed the title, among other things, since first publishing this. Makes sense. My, we do tend to edit ourselves these days.

    • I’m sorry about that. I added some stuff to the post and did some minor editing. But I don’t recall removing anything. What is it that you recall wanting to respond to?

      I read the Eisenstein piece. I’ve written similar thoughts over the years. And I’ve long noted that, according to polls, most Americans agree more than disagree.

      But I see one point differently. He writes that, “I don’t think the two abovementioned narratives are deliberately intended to polarize and distract.” Well, I do think they are designed and used that way.

      It’s related to the propaganda model of the media. The framing is an intentional part of social control, so it seems to me. That is the deeper issue that few want to admit to, as it is a depressing thought.

      • What is it that you recall wanting to respond to?

        Now that I’ve had a chance to sit down and go through all these posts, it was actually this one I felt compelled to write a novel about.)

        No worries, though. I won’t write it here. 🙂

        • Feel free to write a novel in response to any of my posts.

          I’ve never taken offense at long comments. If anything, I’d look at it as a compliment that someone would take the time to do so, even if it’s critical.

          But you could always write it as a post elsewhere and come back to offer the link to your insight and wisdom. I’d gladly read it.

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