This is a column about Bernie Sanders, democratic socialism and Philip K. Dick.
Bernie Sanders gave his “democratic socialism” speech at Georgetown University on November 19. Then, at midnight, all 10 episodes of PKD’s The Man In The High Castle were released. For better or worse, the two are now indelibly connected in my mind.
There was something about Bernie’s Georgetown speech that felt like he had been called to the principal’s office to explain himself. What is this “democratic socialism” thing you’re bandying about? Is it safe for children? Should we allow the news media to broadcast it to the masses? The whole exercise made me feel queasy. I couldn’t wait to watch it.
There was something new in his speech — a revolutionary spirit that I’d not heard in his public comments before. Specifically, he worked up to this key point: we have a power structure built around inequality. He talks around this notion before he introduces Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, which states that there can be no freedom without economic security.
Taken together, these ideas amount to his definition and defense of democratic socialism: if our power structure is built around inequality, then the promise of American Democracy is broken.
It’s a remarkable observation. If power derives from inequality, then what is left of Democracy? In a system of enforced inequality, where is the justice and freedom? How does this square with any notion “the American dream”? It’s not radical to point this out. On the contrary, it’s radical to participate in a system that reinforces this. By invoking democratic socialism as a palliative to inequalities that threaten Democracy, Sanders is trying save what little threads of Democracy we still have left, in order that we may weave them back into the fabric of a working society again. That’s about as radical as mending your sweater.
He’s probably been saying this all along, and it’s been flying right over most people’s heads, mine included. We hear the laundry list of familiar misdeeds and nod our heads, while failing to make the final connection that we’re losing our ability to do anything about it: “tens of millions of American families continue to lack the basic necessities of life, while millions more struggle every day to provide a minimal standard of living for their families. The reality is that for the last 40 years the great middle class of this country has been in decline, and faith in our political system is now extremely low. The rich get much richer. Almost everyone else gets poorer. Super PACs funded by billionaires buy elections. Ordinary people don’t vote. We have an economic and political crisis in this country, and the same old, same old establishment politics and economics will not effectively address it.” Blah blah blah.
In the Georgetown speech Sanders said that if regular Americans must work 80-90 hours a week to barely stay afloat, we are not free — now we’re getting somewhere. If we don’t have adequate time with our families, or access to healthcare services, we are not free. If we can’t compete with monopolies on a fair playing field either as small business owners or as consumers, then we are not free.
We are slaves to a system that proclaims “rugged individualism” is the only right and moral course for working people, while the ruling class who enjoys the full benefits of socialism in the form of tax loopholes, trade deals and bailouts. This is nothing less than corrupt. No wonder no one wants to participate by voting. It’s all rigged to support the 1 percent.
As I listened I wondered if any of this was getting though to anyone.
And that’s where I think fiction is especially important. By showing us the worst of all possible worlds, The Man In The High Castle can help us remember why we should fight for the seemingly abstract principles of equality, freedom and democracy. In The Man In The High Castle, Philip K. Dick specifically imagines an alternative history in which the Axis Powers win World War II, and partition the United States into the Greater Nazi Reich, and the Japanese Pacific States.
As a tale of United States living under fascist regimes, The Man In The High Castle shows why we often don’t take action when faced with blatant injustice. A system of institutionalized inequality and injustice will provide all the reasons you need as to why you shouldn’t intervene on someone’s behalf, or why you should snitch, or why you will comply. You learn not to see injustice — because to see it means you might have to do something about it. If you did something about it, you might wind up on the wrong side of The Authority. It’s simply not pragmatic to do so.
But, Philip K. Dick is not so dystopian that he leaves us without hope. He also shows us why people break free — either in the search for Truth, or to be a good friend, or simply because defiance can be an end in itself. The heroes of this story think for themselves in a world that demands blind complicity.
He also argues that speculative fiction, when successful, has the power to interrupt what seems to be necessary narratives. In the story, the Nazis are hunting down mysterious films which show alternate endings to the war. The Nazis are concerned that if a critical mass of people know of their existence, it would threaten the Reich. Imagining other worlds, and sharing that information, threatens the status quo. It is a revolutionary act to show people what could be. Sounds familiar.
In the imaginary world of TMITHC, institutionalized inequality and institutionalized injustice are the same thing. Injustice enforces inequality. The world built by Philip K. Dick runs on the familiar set of Nazi rules. If you’re not in a protected class of citizens, there’s no security. Ethnic identity, physical handicaps, cultural “degeneracy” (such as producing contemporary art) can all move one from the uncertainty of a ghetto to the finality of a mass grave. These are the cliché trappings of fascism. They’re so familiar that we have a predictable reaction to them. We’re deeply disturbed by the image of the American flag with the stars replaced by a swastika. It’s extremely uncomfortable to see American tableaus littered with Nazi imagery and casually woven into a theme reflecting the principles of the Reich rather than Democracy. That’s the power of this narrative.
That’s what Dick wanted us to contemplate in 1962 when he wrote The Man In The High Castle, and it’s something we should be thinking about right now. There was a time when the subversion of Democracy through institutionalized inequality and injustice would have also seemed unreal. Not anymore. There was a time when calling for the government to spread Christian propaganda would be simply beyond the pale. Not anymore. There was a time when armed militias intimidating a house of worship on US soil would seem unthinkable. Not anymore. Maybe we haven’t yet crossed the Rubicon, but I feel our feet getting wet.
That Bernie Sanders couches his campaign in the language of “revolution” is deeply significant. He’s signaling that the social contract has been broken, and it’s our responsibility to fix it. Additionally, he’s optimistic that there’s still time to have one of those little revolutions that Jean-Jacques Rousseau talked about, rather than one of those big revolutions Marx advocated for. It’s time to take our government back, bloodlessly, the way civilized people do. Otherwise we risk losing this moment forever and falling into a new Hobbesian “state of nature,” which will nonetheless be “nasty, brutish and short.” And also privatized and expensive.
Like I mentioned above, I found it grotesque that there was a need to call Bernie Sanders to account for his principles, as if “democratic socialism” — that which brought us Social Security, the 40-hour work week, and the minimum wage — were radical. What’s radical is that we allow our laws to be crafted by businesses with pecuniary interests who then have “their people” in State Houses and Congress rubber-stamp them. It’s radical that our government subsidizes the wealthiest CEOs on the planet with taxpayer money, in order to pay workers slave wages. It’s radical to demand that our kids go into debt for life in order to get an education, and have the hope to get a shot at a job. It’s radical, that if you get sick, you will lose everything, even if you have insurance, through medical bankruptcy. These are the truly radical conditions that threaten our Democracy.
Why do we accept these radical destinies so readily, while demanding that a true partisan of Democracy stand up and account for his principles? Why do we not demand that Hillary Clinton stand and deliver her defense for the truly radical positions she holds, such as encouraging the monopolization of financial interests? Why is it okay that there are only six media companies and six financial institutions? These monopolies have control over what information and financial resources we have access to. It’s time to break them up. Since she disagrees perhaps she should have to explain that radical position to the entire nation.
Bernie Sanders shows us how to put an end to institutionalized inequality and promote economic security for Americans again, and it’s not a radical vision. FDR did it after the Depression, and Eisenhower followed in his footsteps. We must stop this ludicrous parroting of talking points, that fixing things is somehow radical, and letting it all go to hell is reasonable.
Something has gone horribly wrong with America. Corporate interests have subverted the American Dream, and they’re threatened by leaders like Bernie Sanders who share knowledge of our alternative, but very real history that they’d rather we all forget. They’re threatened that he encourages us to imagine an alternate future in which Hillary Clinton isn’t coronated. And, they’re especially threatened by the notion that we might finally wake up, because once we do we’re going to reject the Divine Right of Corporate Profit, the same way we rejected the Divine Right of Kings.
Brook Hines is a writer, photographer, activist and former alt-weekly publisher, as well as an award-winning advertising creative with more than 20 years’ experience crafting strategy for clients ranging from healthcare companies to museums. She’s the Senior Political Correspondent for Progressive News Network (tune this Sunday at 7:30 pm or download the podcast anytime), and the Communications Chair for the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida. All opinions offered here are her own, delivered from the perspective of social theory, cultural criticism, and near constant stream of caffeine. Political and media analysis through a Progressive lens. Read all of Brook’s articles here. Check out brookhines.com.
These are her Italian Greyhounds, Trouble and Daphne. Trouble is Mr. Persnickety this week, insisting that things be “just so.”
Daphne has let us know she would like it if we could make her food could run around the bowl and squeak.