Interview: 'There Is Now Racialised Thinking Not Only on the Right but Also on the Left'

An interview with Bhaskar Sunkara, publisher and editor-in-chief of Jacobin, on socialism and its possibilities in the US.

With a dorm-room origin story like the next big startup’s, Jacobin’s success has earned publisher and editor-in-chief Bhaskar Sunkara a place in Fortune’s 40 Under 40. It’s something to see the magazine that annually praises 500 of the world’s biggest companies’ tax evasions, commending the founder of a publication whose popularity it notes “has grown alongside the Democratic Socialist movement, ushered in by celebrity politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” Although the Sanders movement’s campaign to eliminate corporate money from elections, nationalise health insurance and implement a federal jobs program earned his support, Sunkara envisions a social democracy that goes farther than New Deal politics in his 2019 book The Socialist Manifesto, straying into areas where central banking and worker ownership of corporations are demanded through an electoral mandate. Central to Sunkara’s project, therefore, is the need to revitalise the labour movement that continues to systematically be assaulted, so as to reorient a working-class presently tribalised along identity and party lines, towards representing their economic interests at the ballot box.

As US president-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet continues to hide corruption and corporate interest behind diversity of staff – including Americans of Indian origin – centering discourse on identities of politicians and away from questionable policy positions, I was glad to catch up with Sunkara to ask him how the progressive left can pushback against this framing within this period of transition of power until January 20, 2021, as well as over the next four years, towards one that prioritises people vulnerable to the looming pandemic-induced economic crisis.

Thank you for doing this interview. You were on Fortune’s ’40 Under 40′ for founding Jacobin, which is sweet irony. But as someone acquainted with India’s startup ecosystem, I can also see a socialist magazine founded around the time of Occupy as a timely “blue ocean” venture. What would you say to that?

The key difference is, because we’re organisers and a nonprofit, we cannot take outside investments, so nobody owns equity. We’re much more like a traditional firm, in that we have to maintain short-term cash flow. Publications that start with a lot of startup money from grants or donations or from outside capital are sloppy as a result, because their first thought is not to make money or come up with a mechanism for bringing revenue, but to spend money in order to grow and improve the product, whereas Jacobin was able to grow organically like a traditional shop.

Have you got attention from India?

In general, no. The Hindu has covered Jacobin pieces, but most of our profiles have been in the mainstream American press like the New York Times, or in the European press. Besides, the time that Jacobin and the American left have been growing has been a deep retreat for the Indian left. I think a lot boils down to that. Obviously, we have strong stances against not only Hindu nationalism – which a large part of the secularists in India, the intelligentsia would agree with – but also about Kashmir and so on, which is more controversial in India than it should be. But yeah, not as much attention from the Indian press as I would like.

When you talk about the “Indian left,” as far as the national parties are concerned, there’s Congress, and there’s CPI(M). Do you think Jacobin would align with the latter on various issues because the Congress would more align with the Democrats? 

I don’t think the Congress party has represented the Indian left. It’s just a broad national party that has stood between centre-left and centre-right. I think because of the historical moment of its ascendancy during national liberation, it adopted policies that put more emphasis on planning. Because of the geopolitical environment, they developed ties with the Soviets, but I think in essence it was never really a force of the left. It was just a broad-based national liberation current.

Certainly, on the record of anti-communalism, the Congress’s record isn’t perfect, which anyone who knows the history of India especially in the 1980s knows that. My dad, who’s from Andhra [Pradesh], comes from a long line of Congress party supporters. However, even if they are anti-communalist in a narrow paternalistic way, on the whole they are a better force than the BJP.

When it comes to the Communist party, I would say our intellectual traditions and view of history are very different. There’s some affinity, however, with this current moment of left defeat. I can certainly sympathise with their dilemma trying to organise as a force in Indian politics where they have been increasingly squeezed, and they are increasingly a regional party than anything else. But there are such few voices of opposition in India that one should not be sectarian.

You should listen to whatever voices of opposition are emerging, from the student movement in Delhi to the Communist party, to even ex-Naxalite voices who I think can speak to both how Naxalbari movement has been a dead-end, but ultimately a lot of the grievances that gave birth to it are unaddressed—that’s quite different from the depiction of these movements in the mainstream Indian press

Even Arundhati Roy, one of India’s greatest cultural exports, got attacked for writing a piece that didn’t endorse the insurgencies but just tried to understand, explain and depict a rich picture of the people involved.

In addition to editing Jacobin, you organise for the Democratic Socialists of America. Can you talk a little bit about the formative years of your politics as well as those of the magazine?

From an early part of my life, I was essentially a social democrat. I’m the youngest of five. I think like a lot of people of Indian descent, my dad was de-classed when he came to the US. In the Caribbean, he was a doctor. Eventually, he got a job as a civil servant, but he made a middle-class salary at best, had five kids, and never practiced as a doctor in the US. My mom was from a much poorer background in Trinidad and Tobago. She’s Indo-Trinidadian. She got work as a telemarketer, often working nights, so very early on, I saw how much of the advantages I had were results of the state—good school, social services. I saw how accidents of birth dictate these opportunities, such as where you’re born, what citizenship status you have. So, it became easy to see the role politics can play in improving lives.

Eventually, I developed an academic interest in Marxism, but I think what democratic socialism is, is having the Marxist critique of capitalism, and the historical and analytical insights of Marxism, but ultimately not divorcing any of those insights from the struggle for day-to-day reforms. Marxism gives us something to contextualise those reforms in, but I think this reconciliation between the struggle for day-to-day reforms and a more radical intellectual tradition is part of the root of Jacobin.

Bhaskar Sunkara (on the left). Photo: rødt.no/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Would you say that we can’t have revolution and must settle for more day-to-day reform, as a point of difference between your politics and Marxist politics?

We’re not living in an era where there’s a lack of trust at the level that would spark a revolution in existing structures. If you conceive of so-called bourgeois democracy as being the product of workers’ struggles, then why would workers abandon these institutions willy-nilly? Reform or revolution are outcomes rather than processes. It might be that there’s something like a rupture that needs to happen between capitalism and socialism, but either way, it would need to get the support of the vast majority of the people, so you would have a majority in legislatures pushing for the creation of worker-owned firms. If they are unable to use their rightfully-won democratic mandate to accomplish these things, then maybe you would need a revolution to construct a new political system. But it would certainly be different from popular conceptions of revolution as done by a handful of conspirators. If we don’t have the class power to win support for something like Medicare For All, or the class power to end homelessness, or all these other social vices, why in the world would someone think that we have the class power to seize the means of production? That’s kind of a flight of fancy.

It’s interesting that you’re a person of Indian origin calling for more central planning in the US, years after India dropped its five-year plans.

I don’t think India had “central-planning” per se, but it did have a very bureaucratic system of capitalism. The state offered carrots to capitalists through a licensing system that was essentially captive markets, but it never had enough of a whip telling capitalists, “Let us shape your long-term development plan in the way that the state was able to in Taiwan or South Korea.”

In India, what you ended up having was the worst of both worlds. You neither had the dynamism you would have in a more liberalised system in terms of capital accumulation, nor a state strong enough to do what China did during the same period in terms of poverty reduction or basic primary education. This I’m not an expert on, but the big achievement of that period seems to be the end of famine, and ensuring food security with technological change, advances in agricultural productivity, fertilizer use and pesticide use, as opposed to government policy in and of itself.

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What’s the path towards the 2036 you envision in your book, The Socialist Manifesto, with central planning and workers owning companies, from where we are under Joe Biden?

I don’t believe in central planning; I believe in market socialism. So, I believe in the continued existence of most forms of markets for consumer goods. First, you envision the US as it is now, then you envision a social democratic version that at least has the welfare state structures you have in Scandinavian countries offering the guarantees of a good life for ordinary working-class people.

From there, imagine what brought about the downfall of these social democratic regimes at their peaks in the 1970s. What sparked the rollback of some, but not all, was the power of capitalists to say if I don’t like your regime, if I’m not making enough profit here, I’ll go somewhere else. If we think social democracy is a system that constructs a fair compromise at best between capital and labour, but ultimately leaves too many of the levers of control in the hands of capitalists, then we need to think about how we do social democracy without the capitalists.

And doing social democracy without the capitalists means transitioning a lot of these firms to worker-controlled firms connected to a public banking system that takes away this power of capital flight. So, I would see, in other words, the road to a more radical socialism as flowing through social democracy.

Democratic US presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris. Photo: Twitter/@joebiden

Among the Indian diaspora and in general marginalised American communities, I sense a tension between this tendency to agitate for social democracy and to get ahead in the neoliberal capitalist system where there’s a little bit of a path, if you do XYZ. How do you organise in these circumstances?

Neoliberalism is just policy. All the individual people, the immigrants – be they Latino or South Asian or wherever they’re from – they’re just trying to get by, playing within the rules of the system as it is. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are not organisable towards fighting for a different system. The real problem is politics is not really a thing in huge swathes of America. There’s not a lot of political engagement. Our goal is to create live political issues, and to create polarisations on the basis of class, not community.

For example, we talk often about a unified South Asian community, but there’s a huge difference between the class interests of an Indian capitalist in the US and that of a migrant worker here on a temporary Visa. We have got to break down thinking in terms of these discrete communities. As it becomes more entrenched in the US, you end up with a system like in the UK, where there is multiculturalism enforced from the top connected with patronage. If there’s a problem in your neighbourhood, if you’re a Bengali living in East London, you go to your local Imam, they will go to the local MP who would go to the state bureaucracy. Rather than these networks of patronage, I believe in a different basis of politics that has a class polarisation, in which we find ways to organise people regardless of their national origin or whatever else, together. Not only on the right but also on the left, there is now racialised thinking. In other words, we create a set of assumptions about people because they are white or persons of colour, whereas what we need to be doing is breaking down these racialisations and organise people based on something substantial.

This is a good place to discuss Joe Biden’s cabinet. Down from Kamala Harris, the first woman VP, the administration is hiding corporate interests behind marginalised identity. When asked how she would leverage her power for progressive policy, Harris laughed and said she would draw from “lived experience.” Recently, Neera Tanden talked about her journey from being on welfare to being appointed head of the White House Budget Office. From being an instrument against power, identity is becoming an instrument of power. You oppose powerful people for corruption, conflicts of interest, or warmongering, you get called a bigot. Even publications overseas celebrate Harris and Tanden as historic for their representation of Indian Americans. How do you reckon with the fact that you can’t deny the significance of these “historic” appointments, nor can you deny how inconsequential they are for the constituencies they claim to represent?

First of all, the appointments are what you would expect from Biden. I don’t think they are that significant in and of themselves, and are probably better than your average Obama appointment. For example, Janet Yellen, who has been appointed treasury secretary head, comes from a less neoclassical background, or has shown slightly more willingness to do deficit spending and other neo-Keynesian things.

When it comes to Harris, she’s perfectly qualified to be the VP. She was a senator, she has an extensive record, and I happen to disagree with a lot of her record.

For me, it’s telling that the Democratic party’s big sell in what they foreground is not the experience and qualifications of these people, but the identity as a selling point, and that shows how much of the Democratic party’s politics has become glib and symbolic. They are no longer promising to working-class people that they are going to deliver the goods and radically improve their lives. What they are telling working-class people is we’re going to represent you better by getting ahead ourselves. This intense and growing racialisation of American politics is being pushed not just by the centre-left, but even portions of the far-left, and the question is – who does this benefit? It doesn’t benefit, in my mind, working-class brown and black people, but it might benefit people who already have graduate degrees.

The truth of the legacy of racism in the US is that many black Americans – because of economic circumstance – are locked out of advancement, living in areas with the worst schools, the worst opportunities, and the most food insecurity. You wouldn’t hear a word about that, and these are obvious, solvable things. Instead, you get this song and dance from the Democratic party, and you can also imagine how this isn’t a particularly good pitch to win back working-class white voters either. Brown and black people at least get symbolic representation, if nothing else. White workers get literally nothing. I obviously think a Biden administration is going to be better than Trump’s in key ways, but presenting diversity of representation as progressive is a ridiculous way to sell it.

Neera Tanden. Photo: Reuters

When you say that the party is choosing to highlight these cabinet appointees’ identities rather than experience, you also have to ask what they have the most “experience” doing, what they got done, and for whom. Isn’t it laughable that Tanden, a Clinton loyalist who heads the think-tank Center for American Progress, is supposed to be a victory for both Indian-Americans and progressives?

This is a victory for Indian elites in India, who see themselves as connected to a world of business opportunities and culture in the US. You know, the type that would talk in English to a shopkeeper in South Delhi just to show their superiority? That type, I think, has real reasons to be happy with this, because symbolically it shows that we have these avenues of culture and commerce open with the US in ways that maybe China in the future won’t have.

There’s a class of people who do stand to benefit, and they are those who say our home is in Delhi or Mumbai, but our second home, metaphorically, is in New York. The question is, what does it mean to the mass of south Asians who are working-class, or more importantly, the hundreds of millions of Indians living in poverty? At the very least, you could say there used to be a sense of guilt among Indian elites. At least they would pretend that they are part of a national development project for the most downtrodden. Now, they support  Modi’s attempt to turn India into a Hindu Pakistan. If people want to take pride in another person’s achievements or say that it says something about meritocracy or what Indians in the US are achieving, I think that’s fine at a certain symbolic level.

Ultimately, the question is, who’s getting ahead and who isn’t. As more and more Indians get established in the US, you’ll see that their average experience is more that of a declassed immigrant who is a gas station attendant, or a Bangladeshi guy who’s working two jobs and driving a taxicab. These are more the working-class stories that we have, compared to these scions at the top of politics and industry. Would you go to a white person and say, I’m sorry you lost your job, I know life is tough for you, I know your family members are struggling too, but don’t worry, a member of the white community just got elected president of the US? But somehow, this is supposed to be solace for other people.

Ha! You could argue Fox News and Trump were playing the “white identity” card because he claims to represent the forgotten white workingman without doing anything for them.

Yeah, sure it’s a similar form of identity politics focused on the identity of this white working-class, and more petty bourgeois part of the population.

Petty bourgeois brings me to the phenomenon of “small-dollar” donations. In 2016, Bernie Sanders was the only one raising a ton of money by getting scraps from millions of working people, but this time it seems that the Democrats astroturfed this idea and targeted the bourgeoisie – who have advanced degrees, hold white-collar jobs, live in cities and suburbs – taking their money in exchange for performing resistance to Trump and the Republicans. This is a diverse enough coalition, and these are not corporate interests, so arguably it looks like just a more elite group dictating the direction of the Democratic party through “the power of the purse.” How does the social democrat left built on worker interests respond to this takeover?

Well, I think there’s a real problem on the progressive left. There’s a real division, I should say, between your Elizabeth Warren as a candidate, and Bernie Sanders who had actual mainstream appeal in more working-class districts. I think the problem with Sanders wasn’t his appeal, but rather getting these low-propensity voters to turn out and vote in a closed primary. It would have been different in a general election. Although a movement, Sanders campaign professionalised, which wasn’t a problem either. If anything, it could have done with more professional fundraising and big ad-buys.

Ultimately, one has to judge certain parts of the campaign as a measure of how it did when compared to other democratic party campaigns. There were a dozen people running and Sanders was second? It seems to me that a more approximate cause for Sanders’ shortfall is the fact that he ran up against a united establishment. The establishment quickly banded together and decimated him before Super Tuesday – he had almost no allies in mainstream media, and all the campaigns banded together behind Joe Biden even when some of them had a more credible case based on where the vote totals were at the time, like Pete Buttigieg’s, who could have stayed in the race saying Biden, you endorse me. Instead, I think there was a level of cohesion we could not have expected. In general, this is a real problem, because a lot of working-class voters aren’t being reached, and the response of the Democratic party is to say we can win without them.

This also leads to conversations about even progressives dismissing complaints about rhetoric. I believe in most of the demands around “defund the police,” but if it turns out working people don’t like the demand, it should be worthy of serious consideration and debate, on whatever side you come out in the end. The debate itself shouldn’t be controversial. Often, I think what we’re told is, just close your eyes and engage in pure rhetoric and close off avenues for debate, and that’s a product of the discourse not being organic but coming out of a small layer of professional middle-class people guiding and shaping these debates.

Also Read: The Spectre of Bernie Sanders Is Haunting the American Establishment

Whether you agreed or disagreed with Bernie Sanders, you could see that he was different from the other candidates because he was actually talking about material conditions rather than spewing talking points. In turn, this seems to be the point of distinction between the newly-elected Democratic Socialists in US Congress and their Democrat colleagues – that they are rare ones talking about policy. Indian-American Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna are also part of this small but growing group, even if they don’t self-identify as “democratic socialists.” Is this a path for the social democrat cause within the democratic party, where a multicultural group plays the identity + policy card, separating from others who are empty corporate shells hinging solely on identity, since this distinction has given them a sort of celebrity status?

Pramila Jayapal is a strong and savvy politician who tends to shy away from the more extreme versions of the identity stuff. Same with Kshama Sawant, the socialist Seattle City Council member; especially considering her background and the milieu she’s in, and all of the social activism in Seattle, I think it’s a delicate balance what she’s doing, trying to steer the rhetoric towards class lines. Becoming more deeply embedded in working-class life is the goal for anyone on the left in the US.

Pramila Jayapal. Photo: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein

That means centering on our most popular demands such as Medicare for All, popularising other demands such as the Green New Deal by explaining how it will improve people’s lives, trying to work with existing bastions of progressive strength such as the labour movement, creating new social movements and areas of strength. But the main thing is to be aware of how weak we are, instead of celebrating that we now have a slightly larger media footprint. People become satisfied when they have a few jobs and a little more attention, and lose sight of the broader ideological mission. Or they don’t actually believe it’s possible. If somebody tells you they want full communism, abolish everything as our goal, often that means that they don’t have to be serious about building a coalition forged in the here and now.

At Jacobin, our goal has always been to avoid the most fringe rhetoric while also not falling into the snake-pit of the democratic party establishment, which offers no solution either. We’re trying to carve a new path to the left of liberalism, but still find a mainstream niche. How do you be both radical and mainstream? That’s our dilemma.

The Democratic Socialists Association membership has surged in the past four years, and 20 out of 29 candidates it has endorsed and organised for, have won. Simultaneously, there is immense growth of leftist discourse with the emergence of Patreon and Substack. Leftist writers seem to be gaining more of a following and influence through the internet. How do you view this entire space, and what potential do you think it has?

I think it’s a good thing that we have almost a hundred-thousand self-identified democratic socialists in the US, but again they are going to have the same battle – how do you embed them into working-class struggles? If they are just a hundred-thousand alienated and isolated people talking to themselves, meeting to decide when the next meeting is, then it wouldn’t do any good, but if they continue to be involved in these broader campaigns for Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, and electoral campaigns, which have been their main source of success, then I have faith in them.

By nature, winning electoral campaigns means you’re knocking on doors and engaging in real-life conversations. A hundred-thousand people will generate a subculture for themselves, right? So, it’s natural that there would be podcasts and other media within the subculture. Some of them might be useful to the cause of politics and organising, some of them might not be, but I don’t think they can either help much or hurt much. They’re just floating around in this ether. I’m sure some people are continuing to be attracted to DSA through Jacobin or a podcast such as Chapo Trap House, but in general, we shouldn’t overstate how much good they can do, or on the other end, overstate how much harm they can do. They are just there.

The last thing you said is pretty significant, considering how the “Bernie bro” smear was based on rhetoric may be from one or two podcasts. I want to leave you with asking, aside from editing Jacobin and writing for The Guardian, what else are you working on?

I’m working on a second book with some co-writers, about markets versus planning, and some of the debates around what feasible socialism could look like. Marx was against blueprints, but in our current era, people need to know that socialism is technically possible. There’s a lot of jaded skepticism. Even a lot of people who call themselves “radical” only believe in the welfare state as what’s possible or feasible. So, let’s deal seriously with all the potential problems, constraints and possibilities of what a successor system to capitalism could be.

Karthik Purushothaman is a writer who grew up in Tamil Nadu and now lives in the United States. His work has appeared in journals such as BoulevardHyperallergic anRattle.