On Tuesday night I attended a Democratic caucus in a ballroom at the University of Colorado Boulder, where hundreds of college students rallied for the man they hope will become the oldest president in history. Speeches for Hillary Clinton received polite applause, while any reference to Bernie Sanders caused a short period of rapture.
Those students helped Sanders win Colorado. But in most other Super Tuesday states, his bid for the Democratic nomination sputtered. I’m worried about what will become of the sense of possibility that this candidacy created – and the millions of young people who are done bowing to the dictates of capitalism. I’m worried about the fate – and the future – of the Bern.
All along, Sanders himself has promised a “political revolution”, not just a candidate. Yet what he has delivered, at least so far, is pretty much just a candidacy. As winning looks less likely for Sanders, the possibility of cascading disappointment is nigh.
I feel a bit of deja vu. In my book Thank You, Anarchy, I charted the rise and fall of Occupy Wall Street – a phenomenon with more than a passing resemblance to the Bern, and some of the same leaders. Much of that experience was rapturous, too, for those who experienced it. But after a coordinated crackdown cleared the encampments, I watched that rapture collapse in on itself. The movement-in-the-making turned out to be just a moment. Many of those who experienced it came away frustrated and fragmented.
Consider, in contrast, the 15-M movement in Spain, which spread across that country several months before Occupy in 2011, and which partly inspired it. After occupying their city squares for a few weeks, the 15-M activists in many cases decided to close down their encampments on their own, and to take the movement to their neighborhoods. They continued meeting in assemblies, and created cooperative enterprises to help support themselves. In the process they built power. Less than five years later, cities like Madrid and Barcelona have elected candidates drawn, in part, from the ranks of the protests, promulgating policies that would make a protester proud – like cutting perks for city officials, crowdsourcing ideas from neighborhood assemblies, and penalizing companies like Airbnb. It’s an electoral strategy built on durable organizing.
How could this translate to the United States? There’s a hint in Bernie Sanders’ own past, such as a set of proposals that he published in late 2014, before announcing his campaign. “Instead of giving huge tax breaks to corporations which ship our jobs to China and other low-wage countries,” he wrote, “we need to provide assistance to workers who want to purchase their own businesses by establishing worker-owned cooperatives.” Long before that, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders supported the use of community land trusts (CLTs) to keep housing affordable.
Cooperatives and CLTs are both time-tested forms of enterprise that share ownership and control among the people who depend on them. They bring democracy out of the voting booth and into daily life. They don’t rely on big banks or secretive trade deals. With or without a president on your side, one way to dethrone the 1% is to build an economy that doesn’t need them. That’s the start of a revolution, as well as a livelihood for the revolutionaries.
The Next System project, for instance, is an effort to envision this kind of inclusive, ecologically sustainable and just economy. With backers like Annie Leonard and Danny Glover, it’s holding a three-day gathering in New York next week and teach-ins across the country.
“Bernie has opened the door to a bigger conversation on what a next system could look like,” says political economist Gar Alperovitz, a co-chair of the Next System Project. “We hope to open up a serious and sophisticated discussion about what that means.”
They’re not the only ones. Detroit will be host next month to the North American Social Solidarity Economy Forum, drawing on the legacy of Black Power activists James and Grace Lee Boggs. In July, the New Economy Coalition will hold its CommonBound conference in Buffalo. I’m helping to organize sessions about technology there, as part of a broader effort to create a new generation of cooperative online businesses – a real sharing economy.
Sanders’ political revolution may be on the rocks right now, but it doesn’t need to be. It requires more than a presidential candidate anyway – always did. We can build strength by bringing democracy to our schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and smartphones. With that foundation, whatever revolution comes will be not a candidate’s, but ours.