Idiots of Empire: From the “Freedom Budget” to Bernie Sanders

A Jeffersonian New Dealer Who Hated Ronald Reagan
My paternal grandfather, may he rest in peace, was, along with many millions of other Americans past and present, an idiot – an idiot of Empire. Don’t get me wrong.  William Paul Street (1907-2000) wasn’t stupid. Far from it.  He was the clever and well-spoken son – one of a large number of brothers and sisters – of an itinerant Missouri Methodist preacher. The family would travel from town to town, down around Hannibal, Missouri, and other parts of Mark Twain’s America in the years before World War I.  The preacher (my great-grandfather) had received his religious conversion while attending a tent revival meeting to which he had been sentenced as punishment for committing the crime of playing baseball on Sunday.

My grandfather knew his New Testament inside and out.  He knew his Mark Twain and his John Steinbeck and his John Dewey.  He also knew how to live off the land through hunting and fly fishing.

Reflecting the ministerial upbringing, my grandfather was a fine public speaker.  He even won an oratorical prize during high school, the first sign of a skill that would serve him well years later in his teaching career. He had a fine baritone speaking, singing, and preaching voice that commanded attention. He never lost his Missouri drawl.

But such skills did not free him from the experience of wage labor.  Lacking the money for college at first, he worked in a General Motors plant in St. Louis in the late 1920s. He toiled on an agricultural labor gang in rural Missouri. He paid his way through college by working as a janitor at Northern Illinois Teachers State College (NITSC – later to become Northern Illinois University) in DeKalb. Illinois in the 1930s.  There he met my grandmother Lina Luhtala, daughter of Finnish steelworkers and secretary to the college’s president.  He went on to get a doctorate (Ed.D) at Northwestern University and became an Education professor in the college whose bathrooms and hallways he had formerly cleaned.  During WWII, he worked summers and weekends in DeKalb’s Del Monte cannery (where I would work four decades later) to help pack food rations or U.S. troops.
My grandfather was an ardent and intensely moral New Deal Democrat – an identity he maintained until his death at the age of 93 in 2000.  His Democratic Party liberalism and pro-labor sympathies and his encouragement of editorial freedom at NITSC’s student newspaper (The Northern Star) got him absurdly labelled a “red” by the college’s ridiculous president Leslie Holmes – a charge that encouraged him to move to the University of Kentucky in the early 1960s.  During the middle-1960s, he was heavily involved in Lyndon Johnson’s short-lived War on Poverty.  He held an administrative post in the program in the poorest section of Appalachian Kentucky.

Two decades later, my grandfather was appalled by what he called “the false Christianity” of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the religious right.  He could hardly stand to look at Reagan on the television.  When I did an oral history of him in the middle 1990s, he spoke in support of “Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the establishment of a wealthy aristocracy.”  That “Jeffersonian” sentiment was part of why I received more money in the will of my widowed working class aunt Liz Munson (Luhtala) than I did (as the only child son of an only child son) from my paternal grandfather. That and the Protestant moralism that compelled William Paul Street to leave most of his inheritance to the Salvation Army and the Lutheran Church.

Vietnam and the Moral and Economic Absurdity of Cold War Liberalism
William Paul Street’s Achilles Heel was the same as Lyndon Johnson’s and as that of countless other Cold War liberals and even a contingent of U.S. Cold War socialists.   It was the American Empire.  Looking back on his life when I interviewed him in the 1990s, he bemoaned two terrible facts.  First, he’d been “too young to fight in World War I.” Second, unlike his younger brother Harold, who went on to become an FBI agent and then a wealthy lawyer and Republican in Michigan, he’d been “too old for WWII.” In fact, at age 35 in 1942, he was not technically too old.  As the father of a child with significant health problems (my father was afflicted with a rare blood disease), however, his enlistment was discouraged.

Still, reflecting perhaps a certain of guilt about his military non-“service,” Dr. William Paul Street aligned his loyalties strongly with the US military across the long Cold War era.   It would never have his crossed my mind that U.S. foreign policy during or after each of the last century’s World Wars might have been motivated by anything but the most noble, democratic and benevolent of aims.

(My guess is that the same could be said of my maternal grandfather, Ursa Freed.  Ursa was a noted architect in Aberdeen, South Dakota.  [He once helped design new construction at the notorious Sioux Indian reservations at Pine Ridge.] Grandpa Freed (who died before I was born) really was too old – and [by my mother’s recollection] too alcoholic – for fighting in WWII.  His son Connie was in the U.S. Army even before Pearl Harbor, however.  After the Japanese attack, Ursa told Connie in a letter that he “envied” his son’s coming participation in the next Great War.  The following June, Ursa received a short government telegram informing him that Connie was missing in action. Connie never saw more than brief and fatal moment of military action. He was almost immediately killed by French fascist forces off the coast of North Africa.)

I learned from my mother that my father (David Street, who became a left-liberal sociologist at the University of Chicago in 1963) and his father “did not speak for two years” in the late 1960s “because of Vietnam” – that is, because of my grandfather’s firm commitment to the mass-murderous US war on Southeast Asia.  “We made a promise to the government of South Vietnam,” my grandfather would tell my father (by my mother’s recollection), “and it would be wrong to renege.”  The “Vietnam War” – a curious name for a one-sided assault on a poor peasant nation by the most powerful military-industrial state in world history – was necessary, William Paul Street believed, to defend “freedom” against Soviet-directed “communism.”

As I discovered going through my paternal grandfather’s files after he died, he was no mild or passive supporter of Kennedy, McNamara, Johnson, and Nixon’s assault on Southeast Asia.  William Paul Street was an avid public War Hawk. He was a faculty spokesman for Johnson’s criminal Vietnam policy in public debates held with antiwar SDS activists on the University of Kentucky (UK) campus.  No administrators at UK were going to accuse him of Communist leanings!

There were two huge problems with his pro-war position.  The first one was that the policy he supported was a massively immoral imperialist onslaught.  Washington’s “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (as the early Vietnam War critic Noam Chomsky aptly described it that time) killed from 3 to 5 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians between 1962 and 1975, turning Vietnam into a devastated land so that Washington could send an ugly message to the Third World: don’t defy Uncle Sam by trying follow a path of national independence and social equality.  The “war” (the one-sided US-imperial attack) also needlessly slaughtered 57,000 mostly young American men – one of whom might have been my grandfather’s brilliant nephew Bill Street (Harold Street’s son, who would go on to become a heroic Civil Rights and poor peoples’ attorney in Saginaw, Michigan) if Bill (who died suddenly last year) had not been able to parlay his years in the University of Michigan Marching Band into a hitch with the US Army Band after he was drafted. (Bill returned to Michigan as an antiwar activist) During the time when my father and his father were not speaking, a preached named Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke against the war at New York City’s Riverside Church. The Vietnamese, King said,

“must see Americans as strange liberators…the people read our leaflets and receive regular promises of peace and democracy – and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs….as we he herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps. They know they must move or be destroyed by bombs. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops [with chemical weapons]. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one ‘Vietcong’-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them – mostly children… What do the peasant think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicines and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? We have destroyed their tow most cherished institutions: the family and the village.  We have destroyed their land and their crops.”

The second big problem with my grandfather’s support for the U.S. war on Vietnam and for the U.S. Empire more broadly was the nation’s giant expenditure of taxpayer dollars on the Indochinese crime and on the US war machine as a whole strangled his cherished liberal War on Poverty in its cradle. It stole federal money that would have been required to fund a serious federal effort to undo poverty in the nation.  As King noted in his Riverside pulpit:

“There is…a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging [against poverty and racism] in America. A few years ago, there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor – both black and white – through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

Budgetary matters and the particulars of Vietnam aside, King added that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Social Keynesianism v. Military Keynesianism
This pre-emption of social welfare by warfare, it is important to realize, was very much a central point behind the giant U.S. military budget that Washington kept going after the “Good War” that killed my uncle on his first day in combat.  The (state-) capitalist function of the nation’s giant post-WWII war and empire budget went far beyond lining the pockets of “defense” contractors. Massive spending on empire, war and the preparation for war provides a useful way for government to stimulate demand and sustain the corporate political economy without fueling threats to business class power and the unequal distribution of wealth. Business Week explained in February 1949 the economic elite’s preference for guns over butter when it comes to government stimulus. It observed that:

“there’s a tremendous social and economic difference between welfare pump-priming and military pump-priming….Military spending doesn’t really alter the structure of the economy.  It goes through the regular channels.  As far as a businessman is concerned, a munitions order from the government is much like an order from a private customer.  But the kind of welfare and public works spending that [liberals and leftists favor]…does alter the economy.  It makes new channels of its own.  It creates new institutions.  It redistributes wealth….It changes the whole economic pattern.”

As Noam Chomsky noted in the early 1990s, elaborating on Business Week’s post-WWII reflections in explaining why there would be no “peace dividend” ( no major shift of resources from military to social spending) in the U.S. ever after the demise of the Soviet bloc, the Cold War enemy:

“Business leaders recognized that social spending could stimulate the economy, but much preferred the military Keynesian alternative – for reasons having to do with privilege and power, not ‘economic rationality.’….The Pentagon system[‘s]….form of industrial policy does not have the undesirable side-effects of social spending directed at human needs.  Apart from unwelcome redistributive effects, the latter policies tend to interfere with managerial prerogatives; useful production may undercut private gain, while state-subsidized waste production (arms, Man-on-the-Moon extravaganzas, etc.) is a gift to the owner and managers, to whom any marketable spin-offs will be promptly delivered.  Social spending may also arouse public interest and participation, thus enhancing the threat of democracy; the public cares about hospitals, roads, neighborhoods, but has no opinions about the choice of missile and high-tech fighter planes.”

It was with these sorts of considerations in mind, perhaps, that former and future General Electric President and serving War Production Board executive Charles Edward Wilson warned in 1944 about what later became known as “the Vietnam syndrome” – the reluctance of ordinary citizens to support the open-ended commitment of American troops and resources to military conflict abroad.   “The revulsion against war not too long hence,” Wilson cautioned fellow U.S. industrialists and policymakers in an internal memo, “will be an almost insuperable obstacle for us to overcome.  For that reason, I am convinced that we must now begin to set the machinery in motion for a permanent war economy.” (Quoted in Joel Bleifuss, “INSHORT…Leader of the PAC,” In These Times, December 16-23, 1986, p. 4)

The Freedom Budget (1966) At War With Itself [1]
My grandfather was hardly alone among liberal and progressive Americans in his idiotic failure to confront the at once moral and practical contradiction between the social Keynesian welfare state he (sincerely) supported and the military-Keynesian warfare state and the Vietnam War he also embraced during the middle 1960s.  In the fall of 1966, the civil rights and social justice champions Martin Luther King, Jr., A Phillip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin—and more than 200 prominent academics, religious leaders, trade unionists, and civil rights figures—put forth an ambitious Freedom Budget for All Americans. Their people’s budget built on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s calls (in 1941) for “freedom from want” (the third of Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”) and (in 1944) for an “Economic Bill of Rights,” including the rights to “a useful and remunerative job,” to “earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,” to “decent homes,” to “a good education” and to “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accidents, and unemployment.” It was designed to abolish poverty and provide a decent living within ten years by:

  • Providing full employment for all who are willing and able to work
  • Assuring decent and adequate wages to all who work
  • Providing adequate income to all unable to work
  • Guaranteeing modern health services and adequate education for all
  • Guaranteeing decent homes for every family
  • “Purify[ing] our air and water and develop[ing] our transportation and natural resources on a scale suitable to our growing needs”
  • “Unit[ing] sustained full employment with sustained full production and high economic growth”
  • Updating social security and welfare programs to provide full economic security against old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment

If the Freedom Budget had been successfully adopted and implemented in its time, “a majority of voters would not have responded positively to candidate Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter where the conservative hopeful asked the American people…. Are you better off than you were four years ago?” My grandfather’s nemesis and contemporary Ronald Reagan would not have ascended to the White House. As the socialist scholars Paul LeBlanc and Michael Yates argue in their important book, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (Monthly Review, 2013):

“The history of the United States and the world would have been qualitatively different from the way things have turned out from the 1980s until now….poverty in the United States would have been abolished. Everyone who wanted a job would have had a job… The very young, the elderly, and everyone in-between would enjoy greater care, greater security, greater dignity…. There would be universal health care as a matter of right…quality education…available to all as a matter of right, without students amassing exorbitant debt in the process…decent housing for all…no slums. Our social and economic infrastructure…would have been improved…environmental and ecological concerns would have been incorporated into the re-building of our economy and society…Crime would have diminished….Institutional racism would be gone.”

The Freedom Budget was defeated and pushed to the margins of historical memory. Mention it to most Americans and expect blank stares.  One main culprit behind its rapid trip down Orwell’s memory hole was of course my grandfather’s supposedly noble “Vietnam War,” which diverted massive federal resources and national energy away from potential use in a federal campaign against poverty.  A second culprit was the war-accommodating position of many of the Freedom Budget’s key champions, including Rustin, Randolph, Tom Kahn, and Michael Harrington. Unlike my grandfather, these and other leading “democratic socialists” of the time had no special love for Lyndon Johnson’s criminal escalation in Vietnam. Rustin, Randolph, and Harrington felt that the war was immoral and disgraceful. Still, they found it pragmatically necessary to stand back from the furious criticism and protest of the war undertaken by the 1960s New Left.  As LeBlanc told the academic journal Inside Higher Ed two summers ago, they “concluded that the Democratic Party was the pathway to political relevance” and “identified the working class and organized labor movement with the person of the relatively bureaucratic and conservative AFL-CIO President George Meany. And they went along with (or at least didn’t organize opposition to) the Vietnam War, which was promoted by the Democratic Party leadership and fully supported by Meany. …Most Democrats saw the Freedom Budget as too radical, especially given the spending priorities associated with the Vietnam War.”

This key “pragmatic” Randolph-Harrington-Rustin calculation was reflected in the language of the Freedom Budget document.  The authors announced that their proposals could be implemented with “No skimping on national defense” (!) In his introduction to the Freedom Budget, Randolph argued that Vietnam and the Pentagon budget should not be seen as in conflict with anti-poverty spending. “The Freedom Budget, Randolph wrote, “is not predicated on cutbacks in national defense nor on one or another position regarding the Vietnam conflict, which is basically a thorny question to be viewed on its own terms.”  In a Q&A section attached to the document’s summary, the authors argued that their program required no slashing of the Pentagon budget – or even any reduction in the annual increases of that so-called defense budget:

“Q. Does the ‘Freedom Budget’ Assume That National Defense Expenditures Would Not Rise? A. No. For national defense, space technology and all international outlays, the federal budget in 1967 was $64.6 billion.  The ‘Freedom Budget’ assumes this figure would rise to $87.5 billion in 1975. In making this estimate, the Freedom Budget neither endorses nor condemns present military sending policies. It relies on the judgement of informed experts.  Obviously, if the international situation improves and a reduction in military spending is in order, so much more money will be available for social needs.”

No wonder the radical MIT economist Seymour Melman denounced The Freedom Budget as “a war budget.”

Dr. King, an original Freedom Budget champion, would break with its reluctance to take on the Pentagon system. By the spring of 1967, he openly and eloquently linked opposition to the Vietnam atrocity to the struggle for economic justice because of moral opposition to the nation’s criminal, mass-murderous assault on Southeast Asia and from an understanding that a serious federal war on poverty was economically impossible as long as the nation’ privileged hateful spending on the guns and bombs of war over loving investment in the meeting of human and social needs.

The Sanders Silence
Nearly half a century King’s assassination or execution – an operation conducted exactly one year to the day after he spoke out against the Vietnam War in New York City’s Riverside Church – King’s warnings seems hauntingly germane. Forty-seven years after King’s death and despite the disappearance of any credible military rival to the US with the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon budget today accounts for more than half of US federal discretionary spending (symptomatic of “a society gone mad on war”). The US generates nearly half of all military spending on the planet. This giant war and empire (“defense”) expenditure ($1.2-1.4 trillion or more each year) maintains (among other things) more than 1000 US military installations spread across more than 100 “sovereign” nations.

“Financially,” the U.S. peace and justice activist David Swanson writes, “war is what the U.S. government does. Everything else is a side show.” Military outlays on the current U.S. scale carry enormous social, human, and environmental, opportunity costs. They cancel out spending to address massively unmet social, human, and environmental needs.  The trade-offs are disturbing. As Swanson observed last December:

“The cost of one weapons system that doesn’t work could provide every homeless person with a large house. A tiny fraction of military spending could end starvation at home and abroad. The Great Student Loan Struggle takes place in the shadow of military spending unseen in countries that simply make college free, countries that don’t tax more than the United States, countries that just don’t do wars the way the U.S. does. You can find lots of other little differences between those countries and the U.S. but none of them on the unfathomable scale of military spending or even remotely close to it”(emphasis added).

If King’s call for funding human needs over warfare finds contemporary echoes in the writing and speeches of peace and justice activists like Swanson today, the cowardice and myopia of Harrington, Randolph, and Rustin (and the different but overlapping cowardice of my Cold War liberal grandfather) lives on in the presidential candidacy of the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders.  Like the aforementioned “democratic socialists” of the 1960s, Sanders has decided that the corporate and imperial Democratic Party is the only “pathway to political relevance” (Sanders has sacrificed his prior technically “independent” status to run in the Democratic presidential caucus and primary contest) and has refused to call either for an end to the United States’ leading imperialist campaigns of the day (in the Middle East, Ukraine, and East Asia) or for any steep reductions in the oversized U.S. military budget.  This grand moral and political-economic failure mocks his claim to embrace Scandinavian “socialism,” practiced by countries with comparatively tiny military budgets.

Sanders v. Rustin, Harrington, Randolph – and King
There are three policy and political areas in which Sanders might be thought to deserve higher marks than The Freedom Budget. First, Sanders is calling for significant enhanced progressive taxation of the U.S. rich leading to a downward distribution of wealth and income. This is something the Freedom Budget’s failed to do. They argued instead that poverty could be ended simply by accelerating the expansion of the U.S. economy, yielding a wonderful “growth dividend” for anti-poverty expenditures – something its authors anticipated would result from the increase of effective consumer demand by rising government antipoverty expenditures.

Second, Sanders is not standing down from his longstanding identification of himself as a “democratic socialist” (whatever precisely he means by that term).  He calls again and again for Americans to undertake “a political revolution.” By contrast, the Freedom Budget, while originally developed by people who considered themselves democratic socialists, went out of its way to avoid any identification with socialism or any kind of radical change.  The documents authors were very explicit in this regard: “The ‘Freedom Budget’ does not contemplate that this ‘growth dividend’ be achieved by revolutionary nor even drastic changes in the division of responsibility between private enterprise and government under our free institutions.”

That was a pathetically over-conciliatory statement in a time when America’s “free enterprise system” generated giant economic disparities and crushing poverty for millions upon millions of Michael Harrington’s “other Americans. Across the whole postwar period, Howard Zinn noted in his forgotten classic study Postwar America: 1945-1971, the bottom tenth of the U.S. population – 20 million poor Americans – experienced no increase whatsoever in the share of the national income (a paltry one percent). Corporate profits and CEO salaries rose significantly across the 60s boom as steep U.S. poverty remained firmly entrenched in “the world’s richest nation.” As Zinn elaborated on middle and late 1960s America:

“Being rich or poor was more than a statistic; it profoundly determined how an American lived. In the postwar United States, how much money Americans had determined whether or not they lived in a home with rats or vermin…whether or not they could get adequate medical and dental care; whether or not they got arrested, and, if they did, whether or not they spent time in jail before trial, whether they got a fair trial, a long or a short sentence…whether or not their children would be born alive. It determined whether or not Americans had a vacation; whether they needed to hold down more than one job; whether or not they had enough to eat; whether or not they could influence a congressman or run for office; whether or not a man was drafted, and what chances a man had that he would die in combat.”

As the nation spent billions to put astronauts on the moon, millions of 1960s Americans remained ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The median U.S. family income in 1968 was US $8,362, less than what the Bureau of Labor Statistics defined as a “modest but adequate” income for an urban family of four. The Bureau found that 30 percent of the nation’s working class families were living in poverty and another 30 percent were living under highly “austere” conditions. “Affluence,” historian Judith Stein notes, “was as much as an ideology as a description of U.S. society” in the 1960s.

Third, Sanders is campaigning fairly hard on environmental issues, specifically (good for him) on climate change, arguably the single gravest threat to a decent future at present.  While the Freedom Budget made reference to environmental concerns, ecology was a secondary concern for its authors. And much worse, the Freedom Budget’s Keynesian commitment to economic growth (as opposed to the downward redistribution of wealth, income, and power) as the solution to poverty aligned it firmly western capitalism’s longstanding assault on livable ecology.  As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite]—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.” Growth, the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”

Still, Sanders doesn’t deserves all that much credit for being more progressive than the 1966 Freedom Budget on these three scores.  Reflecting the significant upward distribution of wealth and income that has occurred since the onset of the neoliberal era in the 1970s, any and all serious progressives, not to mention democratic socialists, advocate progressive taxation in the U.S. today.  How could they not in a time when (as Sanders likes to note on the campaign trail) the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of the nation (thanks in part to regressive measures passed since the 1960s)?

At the same time, climate change had not emerged as a leading existential and ecological issue in the middle 1960s.  If you took Randolph, Harrington, and Rustin and dropped them in the current era, it is very likely that they would be calling for a Green New Deal to put millions to work on wind, water, and solar power and green infrastructure in general.

As for being willing to be identified publicly as a democratic socialist, that’s much easier today – after the end of the Cold War and four plus decades of crisis-prone neoliberal capitalist misery and upward wealth distribution consistent with the long-term essence of capitalism.  At the same time, Sanders does not explicitly attack the profits system as such, preferring to direct his populist ire at greedy billionaires like the Koch brothers and the dastardly Republican Party.  One does not hear (Eugene) Debsian denunciations of American or global capitalism fall from the lips of Bernie Sanders as he barnstorms and blusters – largely against the Koch brothers and the Republican Party – across Iowa and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile there is Sanders’ damning silence on the Pentagon System, shared with my publicly pro Vietnam War liberal grandfather and the more privately anti-Vietnam War socialist leaders of the Freedom Budget.  As Swanson has noted about Sanders’ 12-point policy platform, which includes calls for major investments in infrastructure and related efforts to reverse climate change:

“All wonderful stuff. Some of it quite courageous outside-the-acceptable stuff. But what do you spend on reversing climate change? And do you also keep spending on the single biggest contributor to climate change, namely the military? What do you invest in infrastructure? It’s not as though Sanders doesn’t know about the trade-offs…he blames ‘the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq’ for costing $3 trillion. He says he wants infrastructure instead of wars. But routine ‘base’ military spending is $1.3 trillion or so each and every year. It’s been far more in recent years than all the recent wars, and it generates the wars as Eisenhower warned it would. It also erodes the economy, as the studies of U-Mass Amherst document. The same dollars moved to infrastructure would produce many more jobs and better paying ones. Why not propose moving some money? Why not include it in the list of proposals?”

No doubt many of Sanders’ supporters will claim that it is political suicide, “pragmatically” speaking, for Sanders to take on the giant military-industrial complex that “Bernie really doesn’t like.”  But it is highly questionable whether he really does in fact dislike the Pentagon system given his long record of supporting numerous U.S. military actions. Swanson understandably observes that Sanders is at least “partly a true believer in militarism” who “wants good wars instead of bad wars (whatever that means).” And it is both moral and practical political-economic anti-poverty suicide not to call for a massive re-direction of U.S. taxpayer resources away from the spiritual death of endless global war to the meeting of human and social needs at home and abroad.

There’s another point: if you can’t make a viable run for the U.S. presidency while opposing the Pentagon system, then why should a serious “democratic socialist” make a serious bid for the U.S. presidency at all? It would be far better, both morally and practically, to focus instead on building a mass grassroots popular movement against the interrelated evils of capitalism, corporate-financial plutocracy, militarism, ecocide, racism, and sexism.  That’s the path that was taken by Dr. King, who very politely but firmly declined when progressive electoralists tried to entice him to run for the U.S. presidency. It’s also the path that has done the most to win progressive victories in U.S. history.  As the great radical American historian Zinn told Socialist Worker in early 2001, “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

1. The subsection relies heavily and throughout on Paul LeBlanc and Michael Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (Monthly Review, 2013).


  1. Morton k. Brussel June 24, 2015 3:55 am 

    “War is what the U.S. government does. Everything else is a side show.” This is the most compelling of your (Swanson’s) words. All the social programs, our national infrastructure, all our states’ debts, all our federal education spending, all spending on the environment is relatively peanuts compared to what goes to the military security war state. How much better we could do if only…
    So Sanders is missing the obvious, although with this nation’s fabulous wealth, the peanuts which he wants to manage domestically can be significant to many.
    Albert is happy to redistribute the peanuts in the hope of creating a bottom up new movement.
    All this does not even mention the terrible threat hanging over “our” war posture against Russia, China

  2. avatar
    Michael June 19, 2015 8:55 pm 

    And, thus, if we have eyes willing to see, this is what spiritual death looks like in 2015, to use King’s words.

  3. avatar
    Paul Street June 19, 2015 4:42 pm 

    Mike …without having the time to address all of this here, I will add something that I’ve argued on Z (I think) earlier: I think a saving grace would be if he could use the platform to expose the absurdity of how he’s going to lose even though he is articulating positions that the progressive majority actually supports. And then point people to the need to form great popular and grassroots social movements beneath and beyond the quadrennial extravaganzas and the major party elections racket — movements that fight among other things for a political system actually worthy of passionate citizen engagement. That would be a sort of anti-presidential campaign. And actually a few weeks ago, in Iowa City, Sanders told people that (a) it really wouldn’t matter all that much who the president is in 2017 under the current rule of “the billionaire class” and (b) history shows that people can and do rise up against the wealthy few (words to that effect). (There was time after his talk for a local activist to take the mike and zero in on the military budget issue, which was useful I suppose.) There’s a piece from Counterpunch on Z today which talks about what will Sanders do after he’s defeated in the primaries: throw his support to the lesser evil (Hillary by all indications) or urge backing for the Green candidate (and as the author points out, Sanders has pretty much already announced that its going to be the standard Lesser Evil-ist choice). But another choice perhaps s more about whether to use electoral politics for near-term electoral purposes or whether to at least try to exploit it for the purposes of developing the longer-term grassroots Zinnian politics beneath and beyond the quadrennial spectacle.. There’s another choice that rarely gets mentioned: why not run for Governor of Vermont as a third party candidate and very likely win and then redeem single payer health insurance in that state? But I guess that’s already water under the bridge

  4. avatar
    Michael Albert June 19, 2015 2:07 pm 

    Hi Paul,

    We agree on most of this, of course – but the conclusion – as well as the tone – I think we may disagree about. I may try to write a bit about it, too, and perhaps then we can see if there is something to debate, so to speak….

    Consider this. Sanders sits in a room. He asks himself, what should I do now. Let’s say he has exactly your views – he doesn’t, of course, but let’s say he did – about war and peace, and so on…

    So he thinks, we can only guess, of course,, but let’s say this: if I run I can speak to audiences of thousands upon thousands of people, maybe a lot more if all unfolds well, who otherwise almost no one on the left has any access to. I can try to convey to them information and views that will not only edify but perhaps galvanize, too.

    Alternatively if I forget about the election and try to more directly build grass roots movements, not by speaking out, but by doing grassroots organizing, I am adding one more person to that agenda, but one who has only very modest capacity to aid it.

    So I will run…it seems the more productive choice for me, personally. And if my campaign thrusts those working on it into proximity of large swaths of mainstream population again conveying valuable information and insights, that is good too. Indeed, isn’t that contact precisely what is essential for people to help others move toward real movement activism and organization?

    The above seems perfectly reasonable to me, not mandatory, but quite sensible. The choice to work with him or not, also seems plausible, both ways… different strokes for different folks.

    Of course he should speak out about war and military spending and so on…we agree there. And likewise that it would be better as well if he critiqued the democratic party even while running in it, and if he did, x, y, and z too – and so writing about the situation, isn’t our task not to suggest he not run, or that his doing so is worse than not doing so, or that working for him is not worthy, etc.,, but to instead offer ideas for how the campaign can be most beneficial? Urging attention to war and the pentagon budget do that, I agree…

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