Magazine founder Bhaskar Sunkara

Originally aired on July 24, 2014
Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Sunkara discusses how his magazine, Jacobin—dedicated to shaking up the status quo—has caught the attention of thought-leaders across the media landscape.

In a piece he wrote for last year, Bhaskar Sunkara described himself as having "a hustler spirit fitting with my immigrant roots." In that spirit, he set out on an improbable mission of starting a successful magazine. He created Jacobin in 2009, during a medical leave from his sophomore year at George Washington University. It originally began as an online publication, but later expanded into a print journal characterized as a "leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics and culture."


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation about whether or not a truly progressive agenda can thrive in this country with Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor of Jacobin Magazine, which is seeking to redefine socialism for a new generation of Americans.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Bhaskar Sunkara about capitalism, democracy and economic justice coming up right now.

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Tavis: Just how far the left in this country, the political left in this country, has strayed from its more radical roots is a conundrum that prompted Bhaskar Sunkara to found a new quarterly magazine called Jacobin Magazine which is dedicated to redefining socialism for a new generation.

He started just before the Occupied movement. Jacobin attracts over 300,000 unique online visits each month. In addition to its print version, it has caught the attention of thought-leaders all across the media landscape. Bhaskar, good to have you on this program.

Bhaskar Sunkara: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: You were a colleague of Adolph Reed who wrote a piece that I read and a lot of other people read that was talked about not long ago in Harper’s about the left where you basically argue that there’s no left left in America. What’s your sense of what has happened? First of all, is he right? And if he’s right, what’s happened to the left as we once knew it?

Sunkara: Well, I think Professor Reed, as usual, is normally right and he’s mostly right on this one. I would say that he does do one thing that I disagree with. I think he’s a little bit more pessimistic and he doesn’t call enough attention to the Chicago Teachers Union, low wage worker organizing, the immigrant right movements.

So I think we’re seeing the steady decline especially on issues of political economy. We’re seeing a shift rightward, but there is inspired organizing done at the grassroots level. So I don’t think he focuses enough on that. But other than that, you know, I think his general thrust is more or less right.

Tavis: Can the work being done by this radical left, if you will, at the grassroots level, can that translate into anything politically or is it destined to stay at the grassroots level?

Sunkara: I think it can and it will. I think when we talk about changing society, something that grand and that important, and even winning small reforms in the day-to-day, we have to acknowledge how difficult it is. You know, the forces against us are so strong and so well-organized and so well-funded that we really like need to put the burden on those structural forces to explain why we’re not winning.

So I don’t think the problem is internal to the left, and maybe this is where I disagree a little bit with Professor Reed. I think the problem is more that we’re just in a very difficult situation because of broader, historical factors.

Tavis: So the funding might be – and these two things are, you know, I guess, inextricably linked. I take your point before you even answer my question. But the funding is one thing. The organization is something else.

And my sense is that, while these two things go hand in hand, the better funded you are, there’s a chance that you can be better organized, although I’ve seen peoples waste a whole bunch of money and strategically make bad decisions about how to spend the money. So funding doesn’t always lead to better organizing.

But funding and organizing are two different things, so the left might not have the money, might not have the funds, but what’s happened to the lack of organization and the unity, for lack of a better word, on the left?

Sunkara: Well, plenty of the organizations have been crushed by force, and you can look at what happened to the New Left, you can look at what happened to the Black Nationalist movement. These were organizations that really confronted state power and also corporate power and were crushed in the process.

I also think that beyond that in the 80s and 90s, we went through a period where the left retreated – and this is a point that Professor Reed makes very eloquently in that Harper’s piece -retreated from class analysis and drifted away from really the core of the critique of capitalism, which is that we want more democracy in societies.

We see where we have political democracy and we see that it’s being eroded, but we want more social and more economic democracy. And this basic point that we want more for more people should really be an easier sell than austerity.

But somehow the right is convincing even seniors and these other people that have a lot to lose from inroads into social security and other inroads against pensions that right is winning them over, whereas the left’s message is, hey, you have a bunch of stuff and you won it for struggle before and you deserve more.

So, if anything, our message should be the one getting across, but we’re really struggling. And I think that partially has to do with just political defeat.

Tavis: But if the Democratic Party has run like a rabbit to the center over the past few years, certainly back to the Clinton administration with the whole DLC, the Democratic Leadership Council, if the Democratic Party has rushed to the center, then who speaks for Progressives? Who speaks for the radical left in these political circles, certainly in Washington?

Sunkara: Right. Well, I think that, for one thing, we need to draw a line and separate the rank and file of Democrats with the thought-leaders in the Democratic Party, the Ezra Kleins of the world and also the political leadership of the Democratic Party, especially the Democratic Leadership Council.

So my mom, for example, she’s an immigrant from Trinidad. She’s a public sector worker. She’s someone who’s not ready to break with the Democratic Party because she knows that they’re the lesser evil and, in her life, it makes every bit of difference.

But as a whole, she hasn’t changed her views of the past decades. She was against welfare reform. She was against all these things, but the leadership of the Democratic Party has drifted in technocratic directions. So at the moment, there are elements of the Democratic Party that are significantly better on these issues.

You can’t lump in John Conyers with Barack Obama, but at the bottom line, the Democratic Party is still a corporate party. It’s still rooted in – unlike even European parties which are rooted in labor movements or something else, it has no structural tie to these people that are in their tent.

So it’s a loose relationship and it’s a relationship where the Democrats will, if left to their own devices, always move right. And it’s really difficult to keep up the pressure constantly, especially with a globalized economy and the defeat of those political movements that we discussed before.

Tavis: And now you’ve hit the nail on the head. If both parties are bought and bossed by big money and big business, how do we ever, any of us, have a voice who don’t have money, much less the Progressive left?

Sunkara: Right. Well, I think, for example, if you look at Seattle and the rise of Kshama Sawant and also the victory over the $15 minimum wage, you see a left that’s confident enough to run its own candidates, to really say decisively, hey, we should break with the Democratic Party and here’s a real alternative that could work. Now it’s difficult to do that and, in some situations, it’s not necessarily the thing that we need to do right away.

Electorally, you can’t exactly put the cart in front of the horse. So electorally, I wouldn’t say that immediately we should be running local, independent candidates disconnected to a social base everywhere. And in some places, it makes sense to run in Democratic primaries, but I think the emphasis in Seattle and what’s really important is running explicitly as socialist.

So, in other words, you have a lot of good elected officials who have social Democratic and Democratic socialist views, but in their day-to-day lives, they’re not really living it. They’re not pushing those policies. At night, maybe they pray to the altar of socialism. They say the right things at dinner parties. They read the right books. But I think there’s really an importance to build an open and visible socialist movement.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not you ever see, even with the examples that you’ve offered in this conversation, whether you see, Bhaskar, that narrative changing? I’m just trying to figure out how we get to a meaningful conversation about what our options are beyond these two parties if even the phrase, Democratic socialist, shuts everything down.

Sunkara: Well, it might be a generational thing, but I actually have found in my experience organizing and espousing these politics – I’ve been espousing these politics since I was way too young to be making these lifelong decisions [laugh], since maybe I was seventh or eighth grade or something.

But in the period, the generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the Eastern Block, I think you have that stigma, that authoritarianism and other things removed from socialism. And beyond that, you could even look at the polling, the Pew polling, for people age 18 to 36. They have more favorable impressions of the word socialism than capitalism.

So, obviously, there’s no like what does that mean? They’re probably referring to Scandinavian welfare states or something or the other. But I think the stigma is gone from the word and we have partially the Tea Party right to thank for that.

So if Grover Norquist and all these guys keep calling Barack Obama a centrist, they keep calling him a socialist, then eventually the word loses its potency and threat and there’s a void that opens up for people like me to actually say, no, here’s what we mean by socialism. Here’s the tradition. It has a past and it has a future and it’s firmly rooted in the American tradition.

Tavis: Speaking of the American tradition, how big a problem, to your mind, is capitalism?

Sunkara: Well, I think by nature, we could say that capitalism’s unleashed tremendous productive forces around the world. It’s really gotten us to the point that something else is possible. But even by nature, even at its best, capitalism restrained by the welfare state, restrained by certain safety nets, it’s still a system based on exploitation and a lack of democracy.

If I’m working for you and you’re paying me $10 an hour, there’s one thing that we could do this by that relationship with just that information. That’s that I’m probably producing more than $10 an hour worth of labor.

Now nine to five, I’m working for you. You’re telling me what to do. You’re telling me how to do my job. I’m just saying that maybe if we still need markets in certain areas, I can see that. Maybe there’s a need for markets.

At the very least, me as an employee, I could decide what to do with all these profits that the corporation is creating and also I could decide how to structure and manage democratically my other workers in the workplace.

And I think that fundamental push for more democracy is one that’s really rooted in the arc of the enlightenments. You know, we’re really trying to fulfill what was at the heart of the French Revolution and these other revolutions, and capitalism has kind of denied us that final push from just political democracy to economic and social democracy as well.

Tavis: I wonder, given your answer now, Bhaskar, whether or not you think that there’s something happening in the ether, in our body politic, that makes this pseudo – my phrase, not yours – this pseudo conversation which, I guess, is better than the alternative, but this pseudo conversation about income inequality and about poverty that seems to be building a groundswell.

You’re a part of it, I’m a part of it, a whole lot of people are a part of it. Even Obama got into the act in December when he said it’s the issue of our time, income inequality, again, those words. But I wonder whether or not you sense that something is happening right now that gives this conversation about poverty some real traction at the moment.

Sunkara: Right. Well, I think for a whole generation, Americans during the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, even when my parents immigrated to the country in the late 80s, they were sold a bill of goods.

They were told that if you work hard, if you put your kids in a good school, if you keep your head down, you’ll be given a nine to five, a pension, a safe retirement. You’ll be given something. Now more and more, people are working harder and harder. Worker productivity is up, but real wages have stagnated or even declined in some sectors.

And people are filling the gap with loans, with credit, and now they’re dealing with the double pinch of losing employment and working two or three jobs and also having massive debt. So people are realizing that it’s not their fault, and that’s the message, I think, the left really needs to push to people. You know, austerity, cutbacks, layoffs, it’s not your fault.

And I think that’s really at the core of what this discussion about inequality is around, which is that people know they’re not doing anything wrong. They know that they’re following the rule book, but they’re seeing generationally them not getting even what their parents and grandparents got.

Tavis: To your point about it’s not your fault, that would be lambasted. That would be just pilloried for being not just wrong, but indeed anti-American that we’re not taking responsibility for our own lives, for our own futures. I’m just trying to imagine how you think that slogan, a campaign like that, would actually roll out successfully.

Sunkara: Well, I think we need to bring it back maybe to freedom is a problematic of socialism and the real political thing we’re pushing for is freedom, if anything, is more stooped in the American political discourse.

So what I described before and what I think we should think about, even stuff like the welfare state has, is freedom, freedom from an employer being able to just fire you for whatever, God knows, reasons, freedom from having to deal with the insecurity of having to work two jobs, but also having to take care of a kid. So universal child care, that’s freedom. So I think maybe that’s a better way to frame this discussion.

Tavis: But now you’re going to the Republican talking point. Turn on FOX News any night and what are they talking about? Freedom. That we have to live in a nation where the government does not infringe upon your freedom. So maybe the problem is that we just have a fundamental disconnect on how we define the word freedom in this country.

Sunkara: Right. I think the left has ceded a lot of ground, so we’ve made it seem like a tradeoff. We bought this Hayekian tradeoff where you could either have equality or freedom. So what we need to push for is sort of an equality and freedom.

We need to push for new set of Bill of Rights, for example, that has economic rights, positive rights, not just the negative rights and not just freedom of press and the things like that which are obviously under increasing attack in every dimension.

But we need to push for something more positive that says you have the right to control your workplace. You have the right to control the fruits of your labor. You have the right to be free of government harassment when it comes to stop and frisk and other things.

These Republicans will lambast the government when they’re trying to tax them at 30 or 40%, pretty reasonable marginal tax rates, but they’ll be fine with the government running amok, stopping and frisking people, shooting people, mass incarceration and whatnot.

Tavis: I am struck by – and I couldn’t agree more, could not concur more – with your notion that what this country needs now is an economic Bill of Rights for too many Americans, as my friend Suze Orman says, who find their way into poverty on this highway into poverty, but can’t even find a sidewalk out. The highway into poverty, not even a sidewalk out.

So I concur with you on this notion of an economic Bill of Rights and it occurs to me – ’cause I’ve just turned in a book about this coming out this summer – that the last person to talk about an economic Bill of Rights was a guy named Martin Luther King, Jr. and they shot him in the head when he did that.

When King talked about the triple threat that this country faced, racism, poverty and militarism, where poverty is concerned, he called then almost 50 years ago as you are calling and others are calling for now, an economic Bill of Rights and he couldn’t get liftoff on that issue.

His effort to organize this Poor People’s Campaign, if he had succeeded at that, he would have been the original Occupy and he wasn’t going to Zuccotti Park. He was going to the National Mall in Washington. They were going to set up a tent city. They were going to stay there for days and weeks on end until Congress took the issue of poverty seriously.

I wonder how we ever get again traction on a real conversation about an economic Bill of Rights. CEO pay is through the roof, but we can’t get a real conversation about the rights that people have in this country to have meaningful employment. Not minimum wage, but a living wage.

But if King couldn’t get that conversation off the ground, this is a Nobel Laureate who now has a holiday and a postage stamp and a monument in Washington. He’s almost deity right about now, but we demonized him when he talked about that very issue.

Sunkara: Right. So he’s a deity now, but he’s been stripped away by his politics because he’s been co-opted by these people who he would have nothing to do with.

Tavis: High five [laugh]. You read him right. And that’s the problem with Martin. That’s the reason why – not talking about the book. But that’s the reason why I’ve written this book because I’m afraid that, if we don’t recover quickly who he really was, it’s going to be lost forever and irrecoverable ’cause he’s been so sanitized and so sterilized and so, in some ways, lionized that we don’t really want to deal with the ultimate message he was trying to deliver.

But back to my question. If King couldn’t get liftoff on a conversation about an economic Bill of Rights for fellow citizens, how do we do that?

Sunkara: Well, the thing about Dr. King and what he was trying to do, it wasn’t just changing a discourse. It’s not just at that level. It’s not what I can do or even what you could do from your platform.

It’s about slow, patient organization and he knew the power of slow, patient organization ’cause he knew the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the late 50s, when people thought it was dead and it was gonna take decades and a generation to resuscitate itself.

You know, there was plenty of people before Rosa Parks that tried a very similar protest and they were ignored, thrown in jail and ignored. Now what Dr. King was trying to do is he was trying to slowly build organizational capacity.

He was trying to slowly create alliances between different groups on the left and he was pushing a very explicit socialist program that understood the ways in which, you know, the war in Vietnam was connected with the war at home, the way racism was connected with capitalism. And he was a self-described Democratic socialist.

Tavis: That’s right.

Sunkara: So I think that we just need patience and clarity. And that’s one thing that maybe I did disagree with Professor Reed that part of it’s just a tone, where I think if we’re really socialists and we’re really progressives and we should think in the grand scope of history, we should think just like the right did when they saw in 1964 what happened to Goldwater.

They saw that massive defeat and, instead of mourning, they organized and the ultimate defeat of the ’64, it’s lessened and completely changed 20 years later when they were able to push in Reagan and completely shift and redefine what America’s all about.

So obviously we could lament what that actually meant for working and poor people around this country, but we could admire in a way the resilience and vision and long scope of history, and that’s the national’s remain of the left.

We need to get back to thinking that way. We can’t just go from defeat to defeat to defeat to despair. We really need to figure out how to build these long-term organizational movements and also how to connect them to a real social base.

Tavis: Speaking of a real social base, one would argue that party of that real social base has itself waned in its own power and prestige, that being the union movement. What do you make of that?

Sunkara: Well, I think there’s positive little blips around the union movement. So one of them is the Chicago Teachers Union. We just did a class action with the Chicago Teachers Union’s core caucus. And what they really pushed was membership engagements.

So they’re not only saying the right things, they’re not only endorsing the right candidates, they’re not only having the right policies, but they’re actually a type of union that’s run from the bottom up.

So the membership actually feels engaged and they feel like they’re each political actors. All these teachers in Chicago, if you want to have an informed discussion about education and reform policy, don’t go to Washington. Go and speak to a Chicago teacher and that’s because of the efforts of the Chicago Teachers Union.

But beyond that, they’re also building links with the community. So if a union member has a pothole in her lawn, that’s a union problem, you know. So there’s not just this narrow bread and butter business unionism. There’s really a vision connected to that.

And also in other issues, I think the AFL-CIO and other unions have gotten better on the environment, a little bit uneven on the environment, but way better on immigration. Now in the 80s when you saw plant closings and whatnot, a lot of the rhetoric was, you know, buy American cars, don’t ship them overseas and whatnot. It played into the right’s terrain.

Nowadays, the unions are much better on issues of immigration, of internationalism, of solidarity. So I do think there’s really bright, promising things there, but we need to fight for militant unions that fight for their members.

Tavis: See, I’m glad you said a fight for militant unions that fight for their members. First of all, before I give you my assessment of that, I’ve got a wonderful copy of this report you guys did called “Class Action” about the work the Chicago Teachers Union has done.

I have such great love for Karen Lewis, their president there and all that these teachers are doing in Chicago against all the odds even when Democratic politicians, you know, are after them tooth and nail in the City of Chicago.

I digress on that. They’re still standing their ground in Chicago. But to your point about unions fighting for their members and being more militant in their approach, see, some will take this the wrong way.

But my sense of this is that too many of these unions because they, like your mother, find themselves in a position of the lesser, having to deal with the lesser of two evils, the Obama administration has gotten off way too easy on what it ought to have been doing and what it could have been doing legislatively to advance the union agenda in this country. But the unions won’t say bleep about it publicly because they’re sort of hogtied by this lesser of two evils model.

Sunkara: Right. The unions get their power from the threat of withholding labor, the threat of the strike. That’s where they get their power in the workplace. So in the workplace, if they’re engaged in these sweetheart deals with businesses, even if in the short-term, it’s the safest thing to do with their members as far as pensions and whatnot. In the long-term, it’s crippling their ability to actually fight for these things.

Tavis: Precisely.

Sunkara: So the same thing applies to the macro level, the national stage. Unions really need to recognize that the Democratic Party might be the lesser evil that you need to vote for in this election, but pouring all this money into national campaigns isn’t gonna help anyone.

And especially the state and local level, unions really need to start challenging Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo in New York. So they’ll challenge Scott Walker…

Tavis: Which they would never do. You know, it’s challenge Scott Walker in Wisconsin, they ain’t gonna touch Mr. Cuomo in New York.

Sunkara: Well, the thing is, Scott Walker, he’s just too bold. He makes like a single guillotine sweep [laugh]. He wants to cut off the head of the unions like that. But certain Democrats like Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, like Andrew Cuomo in New York, they’re doing the same thing, but it’s a death by a thousand cuts.

And by the time unions wake up and realize what’s going on, they’re too weak, they’re in such a vulnerable position and, more than that, their memberships aren’t activated. So May 1, there’s was this union rally at City Hall. So about 1,000 people came up, I would say, for every…

Tavis: City Hall where?

Sunkara: City Hall, New York City.

Tavis: New York City.

Sunkara: For every five union staff that showed up, probably were told to go after work, there was maybe one or two members. There’s like 1,000 people total and this is the most union-dense area of this country. So a union like Chicago Teachers Union, you know, for all their faults and whatnot, they have their membership so engaged, they feel like they have a stake in the union.

So the old thing that unions used to say, the union’s nothing but the workers, I mean, that’s really only true in a few Democratic unions and those need to be the model.

Tavis: So let me close on this note. What makes you hopeful? Obviously, you’re hopeful because you’re doing work and people are paying attention to it and the conversation is starting, I think, to erupt. What makes you hopeful, though, Bhaskar?

Sunkara: There’s a story, “The Tailor of Ulm.” It’s this famous story that was told in the churches in Italy and across the Catholic world for many generations. The tailor of Ulm was a man who strapped hang gliders on himself and then jumped off the top of a church steeple and told everyone that he could fly. And, of course, this is the 1500s, the 1600s. He fell down, he crashed and he died.

And the story was told as a fable – who knows if this guy actually existed – to say that this is man’s hubris. This is man trying to do what only God and heaven could do, flight. Now 300 or 400 years later, we can look back at the story in a very different way. It’s not a story of the impossibility. It’s a story of a struggle that failed, but it failed because it was too soon for its time.

So I think, ultimately, the scope of history, the arc of history, is in the favor of people who are fighting for more democracy, more equality, more progress. The world’s not standing still and I really do think that the socialist movement will reemerge before long.

Tavis: Everybody quotes him, but he was so right about this. King said all the time that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends toward justice.” I am always honored – in fact, not just honored.

I think it’s my duty in fact on public television to bring you voices that you might not be familiar with, and particularly when they’re so young and so vibrant, so brilliant, like Bhaskar Sunkara. He’s the man behind Jacobin, the magazine that’s getting some 300,000-plus hits every month of unique online visitors, and you might want to check it out.

I think that we’re all made better when we are challenged to reexamine the assumptions we hold. We’re all made better when we put our ideas against other peoples’ ideas that help us ultimately expand our own inventory of ideas. So you might want to check this out even if you didn’t agree with everything he said tonight. But I loved having you on.

Sunkara: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Bhaskar, good to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: August 4, 2014 at 11:28 pm