Naomi Klein’s recent “How the Transformative Power of Solidarity Will Beat Trump,” captures much of what is distinctive about the “Not Me. Us.” slogan.
This is one of the fascinating ways that the campaign’s slogan “Not Me. Us.” has gradually taken on a life of its own, with new layers of meaning added as the project matures. When the slogan was first unveiled, it seemed to mean something narrow and specific: This campaign was not about voting for a messianic leader who would fix all of our problems for us. To achieve the scale and speed of change that Sanders is pledging (and that we desperately need), the people currently supporting his campaign, with small donations and volunteer work and eventually votes, will need to stay organized and keep pushing for change on the outside, just as they did during the New Deal era.
The slogan still carries that meaning. . . . But as the campaign has gone on and the base has grown, the slogan’s meaning has become more layered. “Not Me. Us.” is now also the first-person voice of that worker or student or senior or immigrant who previously had been suffering in silence and solitude, blaming themselves, and who now sees that they have more company than they ever dared to imagine. Now it also means: “I thought it was just me. Now I know it is us.”
Klein nails the power of the slogan, but it is surprising that she sees its meaning as only recently emerging as a rallying cry against the isolation, the “suffering in silence and solitude,” of Americans. The slogan has always carried an anti-isolation and alienation message, and this has been part of its power. As a matter of fact, the anti-isolation message—we are in this together—has been central to Sanders’ campaign from the get-go. Remember, for example, the famous “America” ad from 2016,* with Simon’s words playing over images of people across the country:
Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America
The ad only uses these few lines from the original song, which begins with a desire to join together: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.” The original lyrics then invoke feelings of isolation and alienation, for example, by referring to hitchhiking and to a bus trip, both lonely endeavors punctuated by fleeting human contacts. The ad drops these lyrics, but quickly offers one of Simon’s most poignant images of isolation, a parade of cars on a grim, soulless highway, which sets the stage for what people are seeking: America. When we go looking something, it is because we have lost it, or desire it. In this case the thing we seek is a collective, America. Images of people connecting, escaping isolation, becoming America, flood by as Simon and Garfunkel sing the refrain “[They’ve] all come to look for America.” We, you and I and all of us, are not alone.
It’s important to recognize how basic these themes are and have been to the campaign from the start, in part because they help explain why Sanders is so different from others who have been labelled progressives (like Elizabeth Warren). What distinguishes Sanders from liberals appears in work written by Marx when he was the age of our youngest Millennials.** Not everybody influenced by Marx and his ideas is a Marxist; Sanders is not a Marxist, and he’s definitely, absolutely, not a Stalinist, etc. But he, Sanders, has been influenced by this tradition. If we look at the work of the young Marx, we can see how Sanders’ economic vision is impossible to separate from his insistence on the solidarity invoked by “Not Me. Us.” Marx also helps us to understand why Sanders and his supporters believe they can persuade disaffected independents, and even some people who voted for Trump, to support Sanders this time around.
The young Marx that is most relevant is his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, specifically the section on alienation or estranged labor. Marx argues that there are at least four major types of alienation that capitalism generates. An overview of these forms of alienation throws light on the way that Sanders’ economic critique of capitalism is connected to his condemnation of the isolation that capitalism produces, and on the way it, capitalism, undermines solidarity between and among people in the workplace and beyond.
Marx views human beings as creatures who transform the world and are transformed by their transformations. People act, they shape the world, and the changes they make in turn shape them and later generations. (Who invented the wheel? Human beings. And the wheel has transformed us.) When people put their labor, their energy and effort, into making or shaping things, Marx calls this “objectification.” Human beings mold and create the world they inhabit in various ways, from making items necessary to live from day-to-day to writing songs. Their creations, their products, move into the world as “objects.” They become objectified.
Capitalism undermines workers’ sense of connection to their own activities, and this has repercussions for how people view each other. Under capitalism a worker sells his or her labor for a wage. Their work becomes commodified, and workers become commodities, selling their labor on the marketplace. What they make, or the services they perform, do not belong to them. They belong to the capitalist who employs them. And the capitalist profits from their labor. The name of the capitalist game is to make money, and you make money by having workers produce commodities that you can sell for more (preferably much more) than you pay the workers.
Under capitalism workers become alienated in at least four main ways:
1) from the objects they make
2) from the activity of making the objects
3) from their “species being”
4) from other individuals
When people work under conditions of exploitation, they are bound to feel disconnected from the objects and services that they make, create, build, etc. What you make loses any connection to you. You don’t see yourself in your “objectifications.” Imagine writing a song while working in a song writing factory, never getting any credit for writing it, and not being allowed to sing your own song because it belongs to someone else (the capitalist who owns it, who holds the copyright). And now imagine that you are required to keep writing songs, day in and day out, in order to make a living, as someone else gets rich on your work: got to keep grinding them out, got to do this to survive. You would become alienated from your objects, your creations. This happens to workers regularly regarding what they produce or make.
Under these conditions, not only would you become alienated from the objects that you have produced, but you would become alienated from the activity of making these objects. You would feel disconnected from your own labor. You would have little desire to go to work because what you do at your job, at work, is in fact not your work. Your work, your efforts, are owned by someone else, the capitalist. This is the second type of alienation that Marx addresses. As Marx puts it in the Manuscripts,
What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?
First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor.
The third and fourth types of alienation—from our species being and from other individuals—are key to understanding why the “Not Us. Me.” slogan involves a necessary connection between the merely economic and solidarity between and among people. There is a long history of debate about how to understand Marx’s idea of “species being,” but for our purposes here we can take a pretty straightforward approach.
Human beings are unique as a species because we are aware of ourselves as a species and the activities of our species. Other animals, for Marx, remain one with their activities. They just do them. They do not think about their activities in terms of the accomplishments of their species. But people can stand back and say, we did that, we made that. And if they step far enough back, they can see that the world around them has been shaped by multitudes of generations of human beings who have gone before. We live in a world that has increasingly become a creation of our species. While we can all point to the contributions of individuals to the world in which we live—and the obsessive pointing to individual accomplishment is something capitalism promotes—we should also be able to stand back, at least from time to time, and say: Wow, look at what we, humanity, have accomplished, collectively. The moon landing is a good example here. A space race between the U.S. and Russia leads to Armstrong touching down on the moon. Yet, the event itself transcended America, NASA, and the space race. It was human beings, thousands of years of human activity, that led to this achievement. (Note that this does not work out as uncritical praise of human achievement; the point instead is to emphasize that we have a species life, a common humanity, that transcends individuals.)
Our species life is real, but we rarely think about it, even though we live in a world that is more demonstrably shaped by human beings than at any time in our history. Why do we fail to recognize this? Marx would argue that this failure is a feature of capitalism, and that it cannot be separated from the ways in which workers are led to believe that they live in a dog-eat-dog world, in which their labor is disconnected from them, and in which they see other workers as competitors. How do you live in such an individualistic and anti-solidarity world and have time to think about, to appreciate, our species being, our common humanity? (Change this, have people think more about our common humanity, and we’d be in a better position to address collectively the causes of climate change.)
The competition between workers helps introduce the last type of alienation, the alienation from other individuals.*** The very nature of the capitalist workplace pits workers against each other. Each is looking to survive, especially in tough times. Solidarity is not on people’s minds. Put differently, if we are alienated from the objects we produce, from our own activity, from our species being, we are also going to end up alienated from other people. And this disconnect from others may be viewed as normal, a regular part of the day, for example, in the exhaustion, both physically and emotionally, that people feel in laboring under the conditions of the capitalist workplace, that in turn send them home at night to open a beer, sit in front of the TV, and not talk to their partners or families. The varieties of alienation bring not only their own trials, but also contribute to and reinforce each other.
The solidarity that Klein talks about was always present in the “Not Me. Us.” slogan for Sanders. Solidarity is undermined by capitalism. The pitting of peoples, ethnically and racially, against each other has been a feature of capitalism. This is not to say that other systems haven’t generated ethnic animosities. But it’s crucial to keep in mind that for much of human history, scarcity, or a lack of resources, has pitted people against one another. The perversity of our situation is that capitalism is continuing to maintain conditions that foster and exaggerate animosities not because of scarcity, but out of the profit motive. Better to keep people isolated, believing they are responsible for their failings, and/or blaming members of vulnerable groups, rather than pointing to the economic system, or the practices of a particular employer, because if people start believing that the system is unfair, who knows what might happen. They might actually start feeling that they’re not to blame for their situation, that their sense isolation and alienation is no accident, that an economy rigged for the billionaires has repercussions that extend beyond the unfairness of gross economic inequality. And what might happen next? They might rally to—and begin to live by—“Not Me. Us.”
**Marx was born May 5, 1818. The work discussed here, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, was written in 1844, between April and August. (The account below of the Manuscripts, obviously, is not a scholarly presentation of material that has given rise to an enormous literature.)
*** Marx addresses the competition between workers in many places. It is more implicit in the section of the Manuscripts on alienation than in other writings, but we can still use it to help clarify the fourth type of alienation.