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For Carib News 4/13/16

Michael Manley, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, aptly stated that in a capitalist society the people are guests in the house of capitalists but in a socialist society, capitalists are guests in the house of the people.  Michael Manley revived the People’s National Party’s commitment to democratic socialism in an attempt to create a more just society in Jamaica.  Much was accomplished during the terms 1972-1980.  The educational system was expanded to provide every child with a high school education.  There were attempts to establish co-operatives and workers were given the right to establish unions and there was talk of profit-sharing.

Manley also highlighted the asymmetrical nature of the global trading system.  Countries producing primary products like sugar or bananas were at a disadvantage as the prices on the world market fluctuated as the price of imported machinery escalated.  Michael Manley characterized this unfair trading relationship as walking up the down escalator.

All this was taking place at the height of the Cold War, and democratic socialism triggered hysteria among the privileged in Jamaica and in the United States.  The furor of the class conflict in Jamaica became so contentious and violent that the economy was plunged into a recession.  In this atmosphere of destabilization, the Jamaican electorate in 1980 opted for the more conservative Jamaica Labor Party much to the delight of the American government.

Three and a half decades after those tumultuous years in Jamaica, one of the leading candidates in a major party in the United States is a strong advocate of democratic socialism.  The term socialism has not triggered the hysterical reaction that it had in the height of the Cold War.  Bernice Sanders, the Democratic Party candidate, has captured the imagination of young people and has thousands of supporters attending his mass rallies.

Sanders has raised critical issues concerning America’s drift away from democracy and the gravitation to plutocracy. Sanders’ stump speech highlights income inequality in America and how wealth is being concentrated in the coffers of America’s upper 1 percent.  He excoriates the Supreme Court for the decision Citizens United that has allowed money to further vulgarize the democratic system.  Sanders points out that America is the only industrialized country that does not have universal health care.  He has indicated his desire to break up the megabanks and make public colleges free.

In contrast to the Manley years, Bernie Sanders argues that the global economic system is unfair to American workers and is beneficial to developing countries like Viet-Nam, China and Mexico.

Although Sanders’ campaign has pinpointed many of the issues that have been damaging to American democracy and to the working middle class, Sanders’ strength is more as a protest leader rather than someone who has carefully thought through how his democratic and socially just principles can be converted into public policy.

On the question of trade, Sanders rejects trade agreements beginning with NAFTA in 1995 those signed thereafter, and the pending Trans Pacific Partnership.  The democratic socialist stipulates that the trade agreements have been damaging to American workers as they are not able to compete against countries that pay their workers “peanuts” and abuse environmental standards.  There is no question as Michael Manley stated in the 1970s that the impact of global trade needs to be studied and to ensure that countries are not adversely affected.

The world economy has undergone fundamental changes in recent decades.  Developed countries like Germany which has a robust trade with China has been able to make world trade work for their economy and it has had no detrimental impact on the standard of living of German workers.  Japan has had a thriving trade relationship with the United States but their economy has suffered from stagnant growth, over-indebtedness and an aging population.

The de-industrialization of America started from the late 1960s, early 1970s, long before the NAFTA Treaty of 1995.  There has been a decline in American manufacturing as the American economy has turned to high tech and with a service-orientation.  Legislation passed by Congress often encourages American companies to invest abroad.  These are complex issues and America does not solve the problem of trade imbalances by opting for economic isolationism.  The delicate nature of the economic social order means that rash policies could precipitate a worldwide protectionism and ultimately a contraction in world economic growth.

Similarly, as was made evident in Bernie Sanders’ interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, he was not clear on the presidential authority to break up the big banks.  The financial sector has become more concentrated in the post-2008 economic recession.  But that is the nature of capitalist production to invariably move towards oligopolies, if not monopolies.  Breaking up the banks would only lead to a further consolidation in later years.  Also breaking up the banks could send the wrong signal to the financial markets and be damaging to pensions and stock portfolios invested in these financial markets.

Bernie Sanders has shaken up the American political system.  He has transformed the country’s understanding of democratic socialism.  But America is a deeply divided society with a complex form of government that makes revolutionary change nigh impossible.  The Senator from Vermont has helped set the stage for democratic reforms within this labyrinth-like political system. Sanders’ real attributes are more that of a protest leader than a policy wonk who has grasped the nuances of public policy.

Dr. Basil Wilson