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A Socialist Surge in the U.S.? Bernie Sanders Draws Record Crowds, Praises Greek Anti-Austerity Vote

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The Greek election has also factored into the U.S. presidential race. On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “I applaud the people of Greece for saying 'no' to more austerity for the poor, the children, the sick and the elderly. In a world of massive wealth and income inequality, Europe must support Greece’s efforts to build an economy which creates more jobs and income, not more unemployment and suffering.” Sanders’ anti-austerity platform is resonating with voters. On Monday, Sanders spoke before 9,000 in Portland, Maine. Last week he drew more than 10,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin, the largest crowd for any presidential candidate in the 2016 race. We speak to Richard Wolff about Bernie Sanders and what it means to be a socialist.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Last week, Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, drew the largest crowd of any presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, so far this election season, when he spoke to 10,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We can. We can provide healthcare to every man, woman and child as a right. We can make certain that every person in this country can get all of the education he or she needs, regardless of the income. We can create millions of decent-paying jobs. We can have the best child care system in the world. In the last 30 years, there has been a huge redistribution of wealth from the middle class and working families to the top one-tenth of 1 percent. Our job is to reverse that, redistribute wealth back into the hands of working families.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement released on Sunday, Senator Sanders praised the Greek referendum. He said, quote, “I applaud the people of Greece for saying 'no' to more austerity for the poor, the children, the sick and the elderly. In a world of massive wealth and income inequality, Europe must support Greece’s efforts to build an economy which creates more jobs and income, not more unemployment and suffering.” That’s Bernie Sanders’ comment. Yesterday at Portland, Maine, he drew something like 9,000 people. The country hasn’t seen this kind of crowds before. Front page of The New York Times today headlined “Sanders’ Momentum in Iowa Leaves Clinton Camp on Edge.” Talk about how Sanders fits into this bigger picture, Richard.

RICHARD WOLFF: I think what Syriza shows in Greece is the potential of a mass popular resistance, not only to the austerity policies that came in after the crisis of 2008, but even to the very basic system of the countries of Europe that divide people into a tiny number of very wealthy and a mass of poor, that the system is producing outcomes that more and more people are hurt by, are critical of and want to change. But the conventional politics, the Republican and Democratic parties here and their equivalents all across Europe, don’t see it, don’t act on it, don’t even speak about it. So it becomes a kind of a vacuum, where there’s no political expression of what a growing mass of people feel, both about austerity and about capitalism as a system. And so it’s like a solution into which you drop that last little bit of hard material and everything crystallizes. Everybody is waiting for the new political voice to emerge that speaks to and represents what the traditional politics have failed to do.

Bernie Sanders is doing that in this country, and he’s doing it very well, exactly like Syriza surprised everybody. Indeed, in England, there’s a struggle going on right now inside the Labour Party, where a candidate like Bernie Sanders, named Corbyn, is surprising everybody by the support he’s getting inside the struggle for who will be the new leader of the Labour Party. So you see everywhere the signs of an emerging left wing, not because of some political maneuver, but because of the enormous vacuum that a left leadership can take advantage of, given what has happened in the last eight years of this capitalist global system.

AMY GOODMAN: How does Bernie Sanders compare to Hillary Clinton?

RICHARD WOLFF: Well, she’s the old. She is the staid, do it by the books, the old rules, as Paul said so nicely. She is playing the game the way the game has been played now for decades. Bernie Sanders is saying the unthinkable, saying it out loud, saying it with passion, putting himself forward, even though the name “socialist,” which was supposed to be a political death sentence—as if it weren’t there. And he’s showing that for the mass of the American people, it’s not the bad word it once was. It’s sort of a kind of position in which the conventional parties are so out of touch with how things have changed, that they make it easy for Mr. Sanders to have the kind of response he’s getting. And my hat’s off to him for doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what socialism means.

RICHARD WOLFF: Well, that’s a big one. Socialism has traditionally meant one thing, but it’s changing, as well. Traditionally, it meant that instead of private ownership of means of production, of factories and land and offices, you socialize it. The government takes it over. And instead of having bargaining in the market, buying and selling goods to one another, we work from a governmental plan. So it gives the government an enormous power. But the idea was, if the government owns and operates the businesses, and if the government plans how we distribute goods and services, it will all be done more democratically, more egalitarian, etc., etc., than capitalism. That was always the idea.

The problem was, socialists have to admit, that giving the government that much power raises a whole new set of problems, which the Soviet Union and China and so on illustrate. So the question is: Are there other ways of understanding socialism that gets us the benefits without the negatives? And I think the new direction is the whole focus at the enterprise level, of changing the way we organize enterprises, so they stop being top-down, hierarchical, board of directors makes all the decisions, and we move to this idea which is now catching on: cooperation, workers owning and operating collectively and democratically their economy and their enterprise.

AMY GOODMAN: When Senator Sanders talks about it, he talks about the example of Scandinavia.

RICHARD WOLFF: Scandinavia is one example. He also sometimes talks about co-ops. And I think there’s the hint of what he is hopefully going to say more about, that if we believe in democracy, as we claim to do, then we should have instituted democracy, from the beginning, in the workplace. It’s where, after all, most adults spend most of their lives, at work, five out of seven days, 9:00 to 5:00. If you believe in democracy, then why haven’t we made our workplaces democratic, or cooperative, just another way of saying it? I think the new direction that socialism is taking, and that will make it extremely powerful, both in the United States and in Europe, is a system in which, yes, the government is given a whole set of roles, but the base that will control the government are workers who now own and operate enterprises, and therefore will have the power to constrain that government. That’s a way of fixing and learning from socialism’s history.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernie Sanders is also talking about taxing the rich. Now, taxes in the U.S., the standard wisdom is you can’t talk about it. But we’re seeing a level of wealth going from the bottom to the top like we’ve never seen in history. Can you talk about what that would look like?

RICHARD WOLFF: Yes. In one way, it’s easy to talk about it, because it’s going back to something we in America once had. I often have to explain to people, because of our strange way of—I don’t know—amnesia about our economic history, what we once had. I’ll give you an example. At the end of World War II, for every dollar paid into the federal government by individuals in personal income tax, corporations paid $1.50. In other words, corporations as a whole paid 50 percent more than individuals as a whole. Today the relationship is, for every dollar that we as individuals pay, corporations pay 25 cents. In other words, there’s been a change in the taxes. I’ll give you another example. In the ’50s and ’60s, the richest people paid an income tax rate of 90 percent or above. Today they pay 39 percent, is the maximum.

So, what we’ve seen—and Bernie said it quite right—is a massive change in the tax structure, benefiting the richest and putting the burden on the middle and the bottom. And all we are asking—people like Bernie Sanders or, for that matter, me—is that we go back to what we had, especially when you remember that the '50s and ’60s, when we taxed the rich, we had rates of economic growth much faster than we've had now that we don’t tax them anymore. We have lower kinds of economic development, because we help the rich, which is bizarre, because the argument for helping the rich has always been that’s what you need to do to get economic growth, but the actual history of the United States is the reverse.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Richard Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visiting professor at New School University, has written a number of books. Among his latest is the book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism. Also has a radio show that broadcasts on Pacifica radio stations and community radio stations around the country, called Economic Update.

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