Common Dreams - March 1, 2020

"Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way. Around the world we have witnessed the rise of demagogues who once in power use their positions to loot the state of its resources. These kleptocrats, like Putin in Russia, use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them." - Bernie Sanders

Only days after firmly establishing himself as the clear Democratic nominee frontrunner with a decisive victory in the Nevada caucus last week, Bernie Sanders found himself mired in a fresh controversy. In a widely watched and shared primetime interview he appeared to partially support recently deceased former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, condemning his authoritarianism while praising his mass literacy campaign and health program. Whatever the historical veracity of these arguments, it raised fears again of Sanders supposed "communist" sympathies as a self-described "democratic socialist."

The onslaught by Republicans and establishment Democrats was as swift as it was predictable. Florida Democrats were particularly strong in their criticisms. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powel (D-Fla.) tweeted "as the first South American immigrant member of Congress who proudly represents thousands of Cuban Americans, I find Senator Bernie Sanders' comments on Castro’s Cuba absolutely unacceptable."

The larger worry is that this will be a preview of the general election if Sanders is the nominee. According to conventional thinking, the chance to stop Trump will be halted in its tracks by a Republican-led "red scare." However, it also offers Sanders an opportunity to fundamentally change the debate to show that the biggest threat to freedom is capitalist oligarchy and militarism not progressives or socialism.

Beyond Damage Control

The obvious and understandable first instinct of the Sanders campaign is to go into damage control mode. In a town hall following the interview, Sanders reiterated once again his rejection of authoritarianism of all types while still highlighting the benefits of mass literacy campaigns—proclaiming "truth is truth." This commitment to freedom is backed up by his 100% legislative score from the ACLU and the fact that he is the only candidate to completely reject the Patriot Act

Further, Sanders has sought to shift the discussion into a larger one about the dangers of right-wing authoritarianism, often backed by U.S. imperialism past and present. At the last debate before the South Caroline primary, he declared: "Occasionally it might be good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world in Chile and Guatemala in Iran." While the effects of this tactic remains ambiguous, it represents a substantive and strategically important attempt to put into question the actual cause of authoritarianism both at home and abroad. 

It is almost gospel in mainstream U.S. political discourse that socialism and Communism are the greatest threats to liberty. Yet the actual historical record suggests otherwise. While recognizing the death and misery caused by past totalitarian Communist regimes, too often ignored is the role of the free market for spreading oligarchy, dictatorship, and illiberalism across the world. If Sanders wants to win the nomination and generation election, he must go beyond damage control and show progressive values and his brand of democratic socialism is the best defense against such tyranny.

The Global Threat of Authoritarian Capitalism

A huge problem, in this respect, is the narrowness of traditional U.S. popular understandings of authoritarianism and fascism—and the distinctions between such terms as socialism, democratic socialism, and communism. Mounting fears of a Trump dictatorship, for instance, have brought renewed historical attention to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Tellingly, the emphasis has been on the increase in mass intolerance (especially anti-Semitism) and even the "authoritarian personality" both of which are thought to have resonances with the present day situation. While all these factors had a role to play, conveniently forgotten is how economic and social elites supported Nazism to protect their own wealth and status. ...
Read full commentary at Common Dreams