By Jan Rehmann
Reflecting on the Bernie Sanders campaign from the perspective of an underlying crisis of hegemony, I’d like to show basically two things. 1. The astonishing appeal of the campaign can only be fully grasped if we take into account that today’s neoliberal capitalism is in a hegemonic crisis,2 with corresponding impacts on people’s attitudes and expectations. 2. The Sanders campaign intervened effectively into this hegemonic crisis by shifting the coordinates of people’s common sense to the left. Even though Sanders did not become the nominee of the Democratic Party, his campaign changed the US ideological landscape in a remarkable way, opening the possibility of establishing a sustainable democratic-socialist presence.
What is a hegemonic crisis?
The term goes back to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who in the 1930s in the Fascist prison developed the concept of hegemony in order to conceptualize the fact that modern capitalist societies are not only protected by military and police repression or by the “silent compulsion of economic relations” analyzed by Marx (Marx 1976: 899), but also held together by a set of hegemonic apparatuses that manufacture the consent of subaltern classes. In the most developed Western countries, coercion is skillfully combined and interwoven with consensus: “hegemony protected by the armor of coercion” (Gramsci 1971: 263). By means of its ideological apparatuses and organic intellectuals, capitalism is usually capable of producing the ideological subjects who accept and support the system that exploits and oppresses them, or of co-opting the emerging oppositional movements into the system by a modernization from above (what he calls a “passive revolution”).
A hegemonic crisis emerges when this mass support cannot be produced on a sustainable scale, when the ideological integration of the working and middle classes into the system does not work anymore. This can lead to a situation of dys-hegemony, where the ruling power bloc is split on relevant questions. The “old is dying and the new cannot be born”: the ruling class “has lost consensus,” is no longer “leading,” but only “ruling,” whereas the masses are skeptical towards all general formulas (Gramsci 1996: 32-33). It is important to note that for Gramsci a hegemonic crisis is not an immediate and necessary outcome of an economic crisis. Contrary to widespread theories of a necessary collapse of capitalism, Gramsci argued that economic crises cannot by themselves produce fundamental historical events, but only “create a terrain more favorable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought.” He even expected the ruling class to be able, with its “numerous trained cadres,” to adapt to the situation, to make some sacrifices, and to “reabsorb the control that was slipping from its grasp,” to reinforce power for the time being and “use it to crush its adversary and disperse its leading cadres” (Gramsci 1971: 184, 210-11, 235). A revolution or any progressive transformation can only succeed if the subaltern classes and their organic intellectuals intervene successfully into the contradictions of civil society and build up a sustainable counter-hegemony. They need to gain the consent of the people, and for that, they need to be in touch with people’s common sense.
How and in what sense is there a hegemonic crisis now?
Let me look a few years back. When the economic crisis hit in September 2008, the neoliberal cornerstones deregulation, privatization, “austerity” and “free trade” seemed discredited. Obama could win the elections with the help of an enormous charisma of people’s empowerment and change, which dissimulated that his centrist platform did not challenge the neoliberal framework. His administration turned economic policy over to Wall Street friends Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and started huge bailouts of big banks and financial institutions, which created enormous popular discontent. Thomas Frank characterized it as a “populist moment” (Frank 2012: 34, 39, 167-68). But this populist anger was immediately occupied by the Tea Party, which redirected people’s resentment from “Wall Street” to “Washington,” from banks “too big to fail” to the federal government. Up to the beginning of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in September 2011, it seemed to be set in stone that the Tea Party was the only vibrant and expanding social movement in the US. Liberals and leftists could not imagine that a mass movement like OWS could emerge and spread in such a short time. Shortly after, the hegemonic landscape had changed considerably. According to a poll of late October 2011, 43% of US citizens agreed with the views of OWS, compared to an approval rating of 9% for Congress at the time. Another five years later, we would experience the enormous success of the primary campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
This volatile situation is indicative for a hegemonic crisis of neoliberal capitalism. The honeymoon of neoliberal ideology is long over. Of course, neoliberalism was violent from the outset, not only during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, but also, for example, when Thatcher and Reagan brutally destroyed the trade unions. However, based on the new computer technologies, neoliberal ideology was also able to capture the imagination of large parts of the young generation that fancied getting nice and creative jobs in the dot.com economy. After the stock market crash of 2000-02 and then even more after the economic crisis of 2008, this enthusiasm evaporated. Survey after survey on people’s expectations provides a picture of bleak pessimism. Neoliberal capitalism has lost its ideological capacity for subject-mobilization. This is not to say that it survives only by repression, but its coercive, disciplinary and panoptic tendencies became predominant. Bakker and Gill capture this tendency with their concept of a “disciplinary neoliberalism” (Bakker and Gill 2003: 116ff). To the extent that there is still a consensus, it is for the most part a passive consensus, a consensus by default, which reflects primarily the perceived absence of an appealing democratic-socialist alternative.
The hegemonic crisis is also visible as a crisis of political representation. The so-called political middle has been shrinking considerably. It has lost hegemonic traction. The representatives of the neoliberal status quo in the primaries were not able to engender any kind of popular enthusiasm or mass mobilization. This applies not only to the mainstream candidates of the Republican Party like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, but also to Hillary Clinton, whose electoral campaign was unanimously characterized as “joyless.” It’s rather Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump that filled the stadiums with huge crowds of highly motivated followers. We can see this contradictory tendency in many “developed” capitalist countries. It is either the populist right or a new leftist populism that is benefiting from the hegemonic crisis of neoliberalism: extreme rightwing and islamophobic parties are on the rise in France, in Austria, in Switzerland, and also in Germany, but in Greece, Syriza developed from a small 3%-party in 2004 into the largest party in the Hellenic Parliament in 2015, and in Spain Podemos developed out of the Indignados movement and effectively mobilized the people against the oligarchy, la gente against la casta. My assumption is that rightwing populism can in the long run only be beaten by an aggressive leftist populism of the 99%. And my concern is that the strategy of the Democratic Party establishment to defeat Trump’s populist appeal with Hillary Clinton’s middle-of-the-road neoliberalism is a very risky and dangerous wager that could open the way to an extreme authoritarian and racist variety of neoliberalism.3
Different Layers in People’s Common Sense
Let me try to describe the current hegemonic landscape with the help of Gramsci’s concept of common sense. For Gramsci, common sense is characterized by its contradictory and incoherent composition of which people are usually unaware. It is “strangely composite,” containing “Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history and intuitions of a future philosophy” (Gramsci 1971: 324). The critique of common sense is the starting point of a philosophy of praxis, which must at the same time base itself on common sense (330-1). For that, the organic intellectuals of the subaltern classes need to identify the “healthy nucleus” of common sense, what Gramsci calls good sense, characterized by a sense of “experimentalism” and of attentive observation of reality (328, 348), and to work from there to make common sense more coherent.4 Gramsci’s approach to people’s common sense is both deconstructive and (re)constructive and can be seen as an early democratic-socialist alternative to the then prevailing notion developed by Kautsky and Lenin that political class-consciousness “can be brought to the workers only from without” (see Rehmann 2014: 64-65, 130-31).
Without simplifying too much, one can say that there are three major ways by which the experiences of the economic crisis are being translated into popular common sense. The first is an increasingly authoritarian version of neoliberalism that turns the popular discontent into a resentment against the weaker “others,” against immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, LGBT communities, against the poor, against unionized employees in the public sector etc. A second layer of common sense, more akin to Gramsci’s “good sense,” manifests itself as awareness of the increasing income polarity between rich and poor, which it considers unsustainable and morally scandalous. The moral outrage is mainly directed against the financial sector; it resents the fact that the 1% pays so little taxes while their own kids leave college with a pile of debt. It was particularly this layer of common sense that was successfully articulated and strengthened by “Occupy Wall Street” and its slogan “We are the 99%” (cf. Rehmann 2013a: 10). As a third layer, there is a growing suspicion that the capitalist mode of production, reproduction and lifestyle might itself not be sustainable, but this insight still remains mostly latent, blocked from consciousness by fear of being ostracized as radical lunacy, and by the lack of an appealing democratic-socialist alternative.
If this is approximately correct, we have at least some criteria for assessing the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Sanders’ contribution to a leftist counter-hegemony
At times, Left Forum panels exhibit the bad habit of transforming a debate on the most efficacious progressive strategies into a competition about the most radical rhetoric. But a leftist politics cannot be designed on a drawing board without accounting for the subjects that would carry it through. This is however what Chris Hedges does when he denounces Bernie Sanders as a stooge of the political establishment, and this in the name of a “truly socialist” revolution that destroys the corporate establishment in the “streets,” not in a convention hall.5 Well roared, Lion. This is a hyper-revolutionary but also empty discourse without any consideration of the hegemonic constellations on the ground and the subjects that are supposed to carry through the proclaimed revolution. If Sanders had abstained from participating in the Democratic primaries and instead campaigned as an independent, as for example Kshama Sawant of the Socialist Alternative had demanded, he would have been blocked out by the mainstream media so efficiently that the conjured masses would not have learned anything about him. It is of course also true that Sanders’ participation in the Democratic primaries obliged him to follow the “rules of the game” (for example, to support the eventual winner of the primaries), which induced certain contradictions and discursive limits to the campaign.6 But to pit the mythical revolutionary “streets” against the convention hall is to forget that the fundamental question for any serious transformation of the system is how to effectively connect social movements to the struggles within the institutions of civil society, including the domain of political representation.
It is not difficult to point out shortcomings in Bernie Sanders’ platform. His program for worker cooperatives could be more concrete and more comprehensive,7 and there was no convincing strategy against gentrification and skyrocketing rent increases.8 The parts on foreign policy were particularly weak (good points against interventionist “regime changes,” but no fundamental critique of US imperialism), and there was an interesting debate about whether it makes sense to “break up” the big banks into smaller ones, as Sanders demanded, or to transform them right away into “public utilities,” as Leo Panitch and others proposed.9
These programmatic questions are certainly relevant for further theoretical and strategic debates, but they are less important for the imminent task of finding initial anchor-points for building a leftist counter-hegemony. In this regard, the Sanders campaign’s achievements were extraordinary. It expressed and articulated what I just characterized as the second layer of people’s common sense, the moral outrage against an economic system that produces an increasing income and wealth polarity between the 1% and the 99%. This is the message that Sanders was hammering home to his audience, regardless of the concrete questions he was asked by the anchors and journalists of the corporate media. And by doing so, he was actually attacking neoliberal capitalism at the “weakest link in the imperialist chain,” to use a famous expression of Lenin in a different context. Some academics might have been bored by the repetitiveness of Sanders’ pronouncements, but this was actually an effective tactic to counteract the diversionary maneuvers of the media industry, to express the broadest popular discontent, to mobilize it relentlessly against a radical minority on the top, and thus to spread the message in a way that sticks. Bernie Sanders operated as an organic intellectual who did not lose touch with people’s common sense, but rather shifted it to the left. This is much more revolutionary than the many hyper-radical discourses that have no consequences outside narrow academic circles and only create “individual ‘movements’ and polemics” (Gramsci 1971: 376-77).
That Sanders’ economic demands moved mostly within a progressive social-democratic framework, is not a convincing objection. What such a label actually means is to be determined from the given context, and under the current hegemonic conditions in the US a leftist-social-democratic approach, which like that of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK challenges the neoliberal “third way” à la Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, is a landmark accomplishment. To invoke the New Deal of the Roosevelt presidency is an indispensable reference point for any attempt at a progressive counter-hegemony in the US, notwithstanding that such a progressive project must of course go beyond Roosevelt’s reforms. If Sanders’ platform can be described as economic “populism,” it needs to be specified that this has nothing to do with a romanticized notion of a homogenous “people,” but is based on a broad and of course multiracial coalition consisting of multiple social subjects – not populus, but plebs! It can be described in Gramscian terms as a project to construct a new and broad “historic bloc” of different subaltern classes and groups, and it is particularly aiming at an alliance between working and middle classes.
Hillary Clinton’s portrayal of Sanders as an economistic “single-issue” candidate who does not account for the “intersectionality” of different forms of oppression alongside race, gender and sexuality is implausible for at least two reaons: for one, Clinton herself repressed one of the main axes of intersectional oppression, the “class question,” so that the gender and race issues got dis-embedded and disconnected and could thus be re-integrated into the neoliberal mainstream;10 for two, Bernie Sanders conceptualized his class-politics in the widest sense of a class alliance of the 99% and was able – after some initial difficulties – to connect it more and more organically with issues of racism, sexism and LGBT-discrimination. It is true that he did not make substantial inroads into the African-American constituency, which is still largely co-opted into the clientelism of the Democratic establishment.11 But he was much more successful with Hispanics and Native Americans.12 The Sanders campaign obviously did not have enough time to overcome the difficulty that any focus on class is still perceived as a white issue, as if poor blacks and women were not part of the working class. The question of how to overcome the fragmentation of social movements by a coherent unity, with and through manifold differences and contradictions, remains a difficult and urgent task for the left in general.
Can the Sandernista coalition stay together?
That the Democratic Party establishment under Debbie Wasserman Schultz massively and illegally influenced the primaries to the benefit of Hillary Clinton could be seen from the outset and was finally confirmed by the emails published by WikiLeaks. At the same time it is clear that Clinton’s victory cannot be reduced to manipulations. The political apparatus of the Democratic Party was still stable enough to sit out the hegemonic crisis, to hold its cadre firmly in the Clinton camp and to fend off the popular assault by the Sanders campaign: only 8 members of Congress and one single senator supported Sanders; only 43 super-delegates voted for him (570 for Clinton).
What will be the short-term and long-term reaction of the Sandernista movement to the nomination of Hillary Clinton? The short-term reaction was more or less foreseeable. A majority of the activists and voters for Sanders will overcome their reluctance and cast their vote for Hillary Clinton in order to prevent a “New Confederacy” under Donald Trump;13 another, probably smaller part, will decide to vote for Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party. The electoral alternative risks placing the “political revolution” between Scylla and Charybdis: either subjugation to the logic of “lesser evilism,” which threatens to impede its independence and paralyze its enthusiasm as a movement, or an electoral campaign that claims to maintain the movement’s consistency and stamina and at the same time might be blamed for risking Trump’s victory (the “Ralph Nader trap”).
A certain polarization of the strategic assessments and options might be unavoidable during the electoral campaign, and we can only hope (and try to make sure) that the controversies do not destroy the bridges that are needed for future cooperation. The decisive question for the Sandernista movement is how it will orient itself for the long run after the November elections. I think the only way to overcome the tendencies of split, fragmentation and resignation lies in a combined “inside-outside” strategy: foundation of an independent and broad political formation of the left, which at the same time does not present itself as a general electoral alternative to the Democratic Party. This does not, of course, preclude alternative candidates on the state or local level, if these candidates can make a real difference. This new formation should be designed from the beginning as a network-like and connective organization of the 99% that comprises the different strategic approaches of a transformation inside and outside the Democratic Party.14 For this to happen, a seemingly paradoxical decision has to be made: those who intend to change the Democratic Party from the inside and those who see their primary task in breaking up the undemocratic two-party system altogether must decide not to be split alongside this very question. It means a fundamental and strategic decision not to allow ourselves to be defined by a divisive electoral system imposed from above. This presupposes the capacity to acknowledge the existing contradictions, to analyze their rationales and to deal with them in a cautious and wise manner. Whether Bernie Sanders’ announcement of a new organization Our Revolution can lead to such a connective network is still an open question.
Bakker, Isabella and Stephen Gill. 2003. Power and Resistance in the New World Order, London: Macmillan-Palgrave.
Candeias, Mario. 2013. “Creating a Situation that does not yet exist”
Frank, Thomas. 2012. Pity the Billionaire. The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and transl. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Novell Smith. New York: International Publishers.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1975. Quaderni del carcere, 4 vols. critical edition of the Gramsci Institute, ed. V. Gerratana. Torino: Einaudi.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1996. Prison Notebooks, Vol. II, ed. and transl. Joseph Buttigieg, New York: Columbia University Press.
Haug, Wolfgang Fritz. 2003. High-Tech-Kapitalismus. Analyse zur Produktionsweise, Arbeit, Sexualität, Krieg und Hegemonie, Hamburg: Argument Verlag.
Hedges, Chris, “Bernie Sanders’ Phantom Movement,” in: Truthdig, February 14, 2016
Jehle, Peter. 1994. “Alltagsverstand,” in: Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (HKWM), Vol. 1, 1994, 162–67.
Jehle, Peter. 2001. “Gesunder Menschenverstand,” in: in: Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (HKWM), Vol. 5, 2001, 680–693.
Porcaro, Mimmo. 2011. “A Number of Possible Developments of the Connective Party”
Rehmann, Jan 2013. “Occupy Wall Street and the Question of Hegemony: A Gramscian Analysis,” in: Socialism and Democracy, 27:1, March 2013, 1-18.
Rehmann Jan 2013b. “Connective Party or Return to a ‘War of Maneuver’?”
Rehmann, Jan. 2014. Theories of Ideology. The Powers of Alienation and Subjection, Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Wallis, Victor. 2015. “Intersectionality’s Binding Agent: The Political Primacy of Class,” in: New Political Science, 37:4, 2015, 604-619.
Wallis, Victor. 2016. “Sanders’ Campaign in the Balance.”
1. Updated and modified version of a presentation at a panel discussion “Bernie, Capitalism’s Crisis and Democratic Socialism: What Next?” with Rick Wolff, Harriet Fraad and Betsy Avila at the Left Forum, New York, May 22, 2016. A German version has been published in Das Argument 317.
2. I use the concept of “neoliberal capitalism” with the understanding that it would be premature and thus illusory to proclaim a hegemonic crisis of capitalism as such. On the other hand, it could be potentially misleading to talk about a crisis of neoliberalism as though neoliberalism were just a set of political ideas. In reality, it is a material political and ideological formation that has the function of managing the new mode of production of a transnational High-Tech Capitalism (see Haug 2003: 41). This “organic” connection might help explain why neoliberal economic policy emerged again and again in different political conjunctures, from Bush to Bill Clinton to Obama, from conservative to social-democratic or even red-green governments as in Germany (Rehmann 2014: 272-274, 296).
3. As confirmed by many polls, Sanders could probably have defeated Trump by a much higher margin than Hillary Clinton. See the compilation at
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/h-a-goodman/bernie-sanders-will-save-democrats-from-a-trump_b_10255294.html; also the pessimistic forecast of Michael Moore,
4. See also Gramsci 1975: Q 10.II, §48; Q 11, §12; cf. Jehle 1994 and 2001.
http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/bernie_sanders_phantom_movement_20160214 Hedges posted this condemnation of Sanders already on February 14, 2016, long before Sanders announced his support for Hillary Clinton.
6. Cf. Victor Wallis’s nuanced analysis in:
8. Just a small section in his platform for racial justice — http://feelthebern.org/bernie-sanders-on-racial-justice/
10. Regarding the role of “class” in the ensemble of intersectional discriminations, cf. Wallis 2015.
11. According to Cornel West, the co-opted Afro-American leaders and parliamentarians have given up on the “freedom train” of the civil rights movement and follow the “gravy train” instead. It also became clear that the Afro-American bloc began to experience fissures: geographically between southern states, where Clinton could get up to 85% of the votes, and northern states. Among black voters under 30, Sanders won 52% of the votes to Clinton’s 47%
12. Note the nomination of Tara Houska as the new Native American advisor to the Sanders campaign.
13. See the analysis of Bill Fletcher: http://freedomroad.org/2016/08/crush-trump-build-our-movements/.
14. Referring to the European context, which of course has different electoral systems, Mimmo Porcaro has conceptualized such a strategic perspective with the concept of a “connective mass party,” which responded to two opposite shortcomings of progressive movements: on the one hand, the failure of the traditional communist model of a vanguard party; on the other, the limits of “horizontal” social movement networks loosely assembled under the umbrella of the World Social Forum. Instead of avoiding the contested question of political leadership, Porcaro re-conceptualized it as a democratically controlled cross-sectional leadership with the goal of reconstituting the left as a heterogeneous collective agent (Porcaro 2011; for the ensuing debate, Candeias 2013 and Rehmann 2013b).