Bernie’s Amorphous Axis

Bernie Sanders has a new article in The Guardian that presents his vision of an “international progressive movement that mobilizes behind a vision of shared prosperity, security and dignity for all people, and that addresses the massive global inequality that exists, not only in wealth but in political power.” The piece is followed by an appreciative concurring comment written by Yanis Varoufakis.

There are some fine, and even inspiring, thoughts in this piece, but I personally found it muddled and dispiriting. It reads, in part, as a determined effort by Sanders to unite the fractious U.S. Democratic Party he seeks to lead by building some new crusading left-liberal global policy consensus around the confused notion of an “axis of authoritarianism.”

Sanders discusses concerns such as massive wealth and income inequality, the stashing of trillions of dollars in offshore bank accounts to avoid taxes, and the rise of illiberal regimes and practices, and seeks to tie all of these nefarious actors and problems together into a single united global front. He says, “We must understand that these authoritarians are part of a common front. They are in close contact with each other, share tactics and, as in the case of European and American rightwing movements, even share some of the same funders.”

This is all very worrisome.

First, hasn’t Bernie learned how dangerous it is to declare everything one fears or doesn’t like to be part of a unified axis of evil? We’ve just been down that road in our recent history, and it hasn’t gone well. The world is complex and complicated, and any attempt to reduce it all of its negative political aspects to a single unified opposition is misguided, lending itself to fanaticism and paranoid fantasies of plots and connections linking every worrisome dot, and elevating every challenging foreign problem into just one battle in a single crusade.

One problem with Sanders’s analysis is that it seeks to combine the left’s concern about anti-democratic and plutocratic domination of the world by concentrated centers of wealth and military power, on the one hand, with mainstream liberal concerns about threats to liberal institutions, or to the interests of states possessing liberal institutions, on the other. The problem with that linkage is that some of those states with liberal domestic institutions are themselves the dominant protectors of concentrated private capital, and the promoters of militarism, democracy-suppression and brutal imperial force.

I have some questions about membership in the Axis of Authoritarianism:

Is Nicolás Maduro part of the authoritarian “Axis”, or is he resisting it by challenging North American capitalist imperialism and the traditional systems of privilege and class hierarchy in his own country?

What about Daniel Ortega? Is he the Axis, or are his Washington-backed, right-wing opponents the Axis?

How about Syria? Is Assad in the Axis, or are the Saudi-backed, religiously reactionary and ultra-violent al-Qaeda insurgents he’s fighting the Axis?

Speaking of Saudi Arabia: Is its head-lopping, dissident-imprisoning, far right, patriarchal monarchy the Axis? Or are the Saudis fighting the Axis because they are helping the US and Israel counter Iranian influence in Yemen and Syria?

Is Israel only in the Axis this year because of the new nation-state law, and because Netanyahu keeps making fascist-sounding statements? Or would their apartheid system, and inherent nature as a colonial settler state, qualify them for permanent Axis membership, even absent those factors?

Are Ukraine’s nationalist Nazis the axis? Or are the Russians they are in conflict with the Axis?

Is South Korea’s popular left-leaning government part of the Axis, because they are attempting to build bridges with North Korea’s despotic dynasty to build toward peace and reconciliation in Korea? Or are the authoritarian Axistarians instead the foreign military generals who would prefer Korea remain divided so that South Korea can be a perpetual military outpost in their empire?

I wanted to like this article, but Bernie lost me at “axis.” There is no authoritarian axis. Many of the world’s authoritarians are actually fighting and in competition against one another. On the other hand, many plutocratic and militarist oppressors and anti-democrats are perfectly happy to use the liberal institutions of liberal capitalist society to carry out their agenda. Attempts to build the intellectual and political foundations of a new, unified international left are worthwhile. But I think Bernie can count me out of any attempt to unify the Democrats’ opposing factions around some agenda for Cold War II, or a pseudo-left reboot of the Axis of Evil.

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