It’s been 2018 for less than a week, but that’s apparently long enough to gin up a faux scandal about Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ allegedly lavish spending habits.
This time Sanders is in trouble for sporting a winter coat at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s swearing-in ceremony on New Year’s Day that a gumshoe reporter at the conservative Daily Wire discovered retails for $690.
Mainstream news outlets were quick to jump on the item with their own well-perfected sanctimonious outrage.
Sanders’ supposed hypocrisy is a favorite topic of Newsweek, which used a similar formulation in June to call out Sanders for raking in more than $1 million in 2016, largely thanks to book royalties.
Back in August 2016, we were meant to be absolutely furious that Sanders and his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders purchased a $600,000 summer home on Lake Champlain in Vermont.
The point of all of the handwringing is to claim that a person with modest wealth effectively has no right to denounce the greedy behavior of America’s wealthiest people or indict the economic and political system that generates vast income and wealth inequality.
As it turns out, Sanders received the coat as a gift from his stepson Dave, who used to work for the Vermont-based clothing company Burton, according to Sanders’ staff.
But even if he hadn’t, this subgenre of journalism gets progressive politics, let alone Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism, all wrong.
When Sanders asks “how many yachts do billionaires need?” he does so in the context of attacking a billionaire-funded GOP political program that would cut taxes for the wealthy even as it deprives millions of Americans of health insurance coverage.
It is not so much that Sanders is attacking wealth per se, as he is attacking those who prioritize extravagant wealth above ensuring that all people have access to a decent living standard.
“This is sort of in the category of the press looking obsessively at what Hillary Clinton wears and buys,” said Christine Riddiough, a member of the national political committee of the Democratic Socialists of America. “What’s important is not having a debate about that but about why so many people are not getting health care is this country.”
More to the point, democratic socialism is an ideology that seeks systemic change and rejects the idea that individual consumer choices can correct a system centered on economic exploitation.
In a capitalist economy, the small class of people who finance and own industries pay workers less than the value of their labor and take the “surplus value” ― the value left over ― as profit.
No amount of progressive purchasing habits ― whether it’s buying a Toyota Prius or fair-trade coffee ― can change that.
“There is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” said Micah Uetricht, associate editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin. “Exploitation is baked into the system.”
In fact, Uetricht, a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, argues that dwelling on individual consumption decisions could serve as a “distraction” from more meaningful forms of political struggle.
Riddiough offered a largely similar assessment. She nonetheless included the caveat that if “company X is exploiting child labor, then a concerted consumer boycott might have an impact, but that’s a whole different story.”
The society Riddiough, Uetricht and their fellow democratic socialists are fighting for is one in which, as Uetricht puts it, there is broad worker ownership of industries “rather than investment being determined by a small handful of people who are running it for their own enrichment.”
“There is this idea that some people seem to have that socialists believe we should all be walking around wearing burlap sacks. That’s not true.”
To get there, democratic socialists often spend their time helping workers form unions and low-income tenants fight eviction, as well as electing left-wing politicians, including some Democrats, who they believe move the country closer to their vision. Uetricht and many of his colleagues at Jacobin also believe that social democracy ― a free-market capitalist system with a more robust social welfare state akin to the ones that exist in Scandinavia ― is a necessary waystation on the road to a society where worker-owned industries predominate.
But democratic socialists emphasize that the ideal world they envision is not some kind of ascetic space bereft of pleasant material objects. Instead, they merely want to democratize access to those nice things.
“There is this idea that some people seem to have that socialists believe we should all be walking around wearing burlap sacks,” Uetricht said. “That’s not true.”
“Everyone deserves to be wearing a nice coat like Bernie Sanders,” he added with a chuckle.
Although Uetricht is living on student loans as he pursues a masters degree in sociology, he revealed that he too enjoys occasional luxuries. He recently splurged on an “incredibly fresh” pair of $70 red, suede Nike sneakers, and a $180 pair of Timberland boots.
In that sense, Sanders’ much-lauded $16 New Year’s eve dinner date in Manhattan is as irrelevant to the struggle against global capitalism as his $700 coat.
HuffPost asked Uetricht whether there wasn’t still some level of personal extravagance that would undermine Sanders’ message as a crusader against inequality. Perhaps buying a new Lamborghini (which sells for upwards of $200,000)?
“Nobody needs a Lamborghini. If Bernie bought a Lamborghini, I might have to reconsider my support for him,” he said.
This article has been updated to reflect that Sanders’ staff said he received the coat as a gift.