Bernie's loss, and two theories of capitalism

The two dominant explanations tell us a lot about how people think about power.

It has been about a year since Joe Biden won South Carolina in the 2020 primaries, marking the beginning of the end of the Sanders campaign. Since then, two competing explanations for his loss have come to dominate the discourse:

  1. The machine beat him. Capitalism creates an endless gauntlet of systematic and deliberate obstacles to socialism and the Sanders campaign was simply unable to overcome its superiority in resources and its control of strategically crucial institutions. An unusually large field of contenders who stayed in the race for an unusually large period of time, fueled by corporate donations and free publicity in the media, prevented him from consolidating opposition to the frontrunner as he did in 2016. The media also damaged his campaign with extraordinarily negative coverage — or just as often, no coverage at all. Ostensibly left-flank NGOs and public figures, often sponsored by wealthy donors or intimidated by capitalism’s efforts to smear Sanders as “unelectable”, often denied him their endorsement and resources, or delayed them for far too long. The dumb luck of heart problems, while providing him with a comeback narrative that helped him to get back in the race, may have also contributed to these electability concerns. Sanders also appears to have made significant strategic mistakes in his campaign investments in post-Nevada primary states. Finally, it’s possible that efforts to address identitarian concerns, driven in part by ruling class attacks on this front in 2016, repelled more voters than it won, though the evidence for this remains suspect. Regardless, even if Sanders had not had heart problems, or made strategic operational mistakes, or done idpol, the machine would have probably squashed him. He was always a long-shot.

  2. Sanders lost because idpol. Sanders lost because his efforts to address identitarian concerns repelled more voters than it won. Other obstacles may have stood in his way, but they would not have succeeded if Sanders had avoided idpol.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year litigating which explanation is correct, but here I want to do something a little different: I want to talk about what these explanations tell us about how we think about capitalism.

The first explanation is consistent with an understanding of capitalism in which the operation of power is extraordinarily complex, adaptive, and instrumental. Ultimately, the explanation is material — the bourgeoisie controls the means of production, and this allows it to leverage its control over workers and resources in all kinds of different ways in order to maintain their power. This could mean pouring money into the existing opposition, or even launching election campaigns with the explicit intention to stop a particular candidate. This could mean coordinated messaging campaigns on multiple corporate platforms arguing that the candidate is unelectable. This could mean fostering a liberal ideology which subordinates class warfare to various identitarian concerns, and which does this so perniciously that even candidates inclined to fight class warfare self-destructively internalize it.

In this conception of capitalism, what ultimately matters is the bourgeoisie’s material power. There is no one institutional mechanism or political strategy or rhetoric of mystification or internalized psychology that it has to rely upon. And in fact, we make a dangerous analytical error — misunderstanding the instrumentality, adaptiveness, and diversity of capitalism’s strategies of control — if we fixate on any particular one that it happens to have deployed at any particular moment as if it is the only trick the bourgeoisie has up their sleeves.

The second explanation for Bernie’s defeat, meanwhile, seems to rely on a much different understand of capitalism. In this conception, “wokeness” is understood as the essential weapon of capitalism. Even something as complex and overdetermined as a political primary can be understood exclusively through that lens, so you don’t have to spend much time looking at other considerations. And tellingly, if you reject the second explanation, it is not simply because you have a different assessment of which factors and strategies capitalism relied on in this particular case; it’s necessarily because you misunderstand something about capitalism, and have clearly been captured by it.

I don’t think that you can look at the discourse surrounding “woke capital” today and not notice the tension between these two perspectives on capitalism. One will entertain the possibility that, in a particular situation, some deployment of identitarianism against class struggle may have become capitalism’s primary mechanism of control — but it remains open to other explanations as well, and will examine the evidence accordingly. The other, meanwhile, is intellectually wedded to understanding capitalism exclusively through the lense of wokeness — to the point that one might suspect that they are less opposed to one than the other.