When Bernie Sanders began his campaign for president, I recalled that Murray Bookchin had some critical things to say about him when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s. Fortunately, someone has now posted on the internet Bookchin’s 1986 article on Sander’s record as mayor. Bookchin lived in Burlington, and so witnessed first hand Sander’s peculiar version of “socialism in one city.” Bookchin’s comments on Sanders’ predilection for top down organization and centralized leadership suggests someone well suited for presidential government, while highlighting the limits of Sanders’ so-called “socialism.” I included several selections by Murray Bookchin on social ecology, direct democracy and direct action in Volumes Two and Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here I reproduce excerpts from Bookchin’s 1986 article on Sanders in the Socialist Review.
SANDERS’ CLAIM that he has created “open government” in Burlington is premised on a very elastic assumption of what one means by the word “open.“ That Sanders prides himself on being “responsive” to underprivileged people in Burlington who are faced with evictions, lack of heat, wretched housing conditions, and the ills of poverty is not evidence of “openness” — that is, if we assume the term means greater municipal democracy and public participation. What often passes for “open government” in the Sanders cosmos is the mayor’s willingness to hear the complaints and distress signals of his clients and courtiers, not a responsibility to give them any appreciable share in the city’s government. What Sanders dispenses under the name of “open government” is personal paternalism rather than democracy. After six years of Sanders’ paternalism, there is nothing that resembles Berkeley’s elaborate network of grassroots organizations and councils that feed into City Hall.
When it comes to municipal democracy, Sanders is surprisingly tight-fisted and plays his cards very close to his chest. Queried shortly after his 1981 election on a local talk-show, You Can Quote Me, Sanders was pointedly asked if he favored town-meeting government, a very traditional form of citizen assemblies that has deep-seated roots in Vermont townships. Sanders’ response was as pointed as the question. It was an emphatic “No.” After expressing his proclivity for the present aldermanic system, the mayor was to enter into a chronic battle with the “Republicrat” board of aldermen over appointments and requests that were to be stubbornly rejected by the very system of government that had his early sanction.
Sanders’ quarrels with the board of aldermen did not significantly alter his identification of “open government” with personal paternalism. As an accepted fixture in Burlington’s civic politics, he now runs the city with cool self-assurance, surrounded by a small group of a half-dozen or so aides who formulate his best ideas and occasionally receive his most strident verbal abuse. The Mayor’s Council on the Arts is a hand-picked affair, whether by the mayor directly or by completely dedicated devotees; similarly, the Mayor’s Youth Office. It is difficult to tell when Sanders will create another “council” — or, more appropriately, an “office” — except to note that there are peace, environmental, and gay communities, not to speak of unemployed, elderly, welfare, and many similar constituents who have no “Mayor’s” councils in City Hall. Nor is it clear to what extent any of the existing councils authentically represent local organizations and/or tendencies that exist in the subcultures and deprived communities in Burlington.
Sanders is a centralist and his administration, despite its democratic proclivities, tends to look more like a civic oligarchy than a municipal democracy. The Neighborhood Planning Assemblies (NPAs) which were introduced in Burlington’s six wards in the autumn of 1982 and have been widely touted as evidence of “grassroots democracy” were not institutions that originated in Sanders’ head. Their origin is fairly complex and stems from a welter of notions that were floating around Burlington in neighborhood organizations that gathered shortly after Sanders’ 1981 election to develop ideas for wider citizen participation in the city and its affairs. That people in the administration played a role in forming assemblies is indisputably true, but so too did others who have since come to oppose Sanders for positions that have compromised his pledges to the electorate.
Bernard Sanders’ view of government appears in its most sharply etched form in an interview the mayor gave to a fairly sympathetic reporter on the Burlington Free Press in June, 1984. Headlined “Sanders Works to Expand Mayor’s Role,” the story carried a portrait of the mayor in one of his more pensive moods with the quote: “We are absolutely rewriting the role of what city government is supposed to be doing in the state of Vermont.’ The article leaped immediately into the whole thrust of Sanders’ version of city government: “to expand and strengthen the role of the [mayor’s] office in city government:” This process has been marked by an “expanding City Hall staff,” an increased “role in the selection of a new fire chief,” “a similar role in the Police Department,” and “in development issues, such as the proposed downtown hotel.” In response to criticism that Sanders has been “centraliz-ing” power and reducing the checks and balances in city government, his supporters “stress that citizen input, through both the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies and expanded voter output, has been greatly increased.” That the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies have essentially been permitted to languish in an atmosphere of benign neglect and that voter participation in elections hardly equatable to direct participation by the citizenry has left the mayor thoroughly unruffled.
A FAIR CONSIDERATION of the results produced by Sanders’ increased role in city affairs provides a good test of a political strategy that threatens to create institutional forms for a Burlington version of New York’s Mayor Koch. The best case for the mayor appears in the Monthly Review of May, 1984, where a Pollyanna article written by Beth Bates, “a writer and farmer,” celebrates the virtues of Sanders’ efforts as “Socialism on the Local Level” — followed, I might add, by a prudent question mark. Like Sanders’ own claims, the main thrust of the article is that the “socialist” administration is “efficient.” Sanders has shown that “radicals, too, can be fiscal conservatives, even while they are concerned that government does the little things that make life more comfortable” like street repair, volunteer aid to dig paths for the elderly after snowstorms, and save money. The administration brings greater revenues into the city’s coffers by modernizing the budgetary process, principally by investing its money in high-return institutions, opening city contracts to competitive bidding, centralizing purchasing, and slapping fees on a wide range of items like building permits, utility excavations, private fire and police alarms, and the like…
THE ULTIMATE EFFECT Of Sanders’ aging form of “socialism” is to facilitate the ease with which business interests can profit from the city. Beyond the dangers of an increasingly centralized civic machinery, one that must eventually be inherited by a “Republicrat” administration, are the extraordinary privileges Sanders hasprovided to the most predatory enterprises in Burlington — privileges that have been justified by a “socialism” that is committed to “growth,” “planning,” “order,” and a blue-collar “radicalism” that actually yields low-paying jobs and non-union establishments without any regard to the quality of life and environmental well-being of the community at large.
Bernard Sanders could have established an example of a radical municipalism, one rooted in Vermont’s localist tradition of direct democracy, that might have served as a living educational arena for developing an active citizenry and a popular political culture. Whether it was because of a shallow productivist notion of “socialism” oriented around “growth” and “efficiency” or simply personal careerism, the Burlington mayor has been guided by a strategy that sacrifices education to mobilization and democratic principles to pragmatic results. This “managerial radicalism” with its technocratic bias and its corporate concern for expansion is bourgeois to the core — and even brings the authenticity of traditional “socialist” canons into grave question. A recent Burlington Free Press headline which declared: “Sanders Unites with Business on Waterfront” could be taken as a verdict by the local business establishment as a whole that it is not they who have been joining Sanders but Sanders who has joined them. When productivist forms of “socialism” begin to resemble corporate forms of capitalism, it may be well to ask how these inversions occur and whether they are accidental at all. This question is not only one that must concern Sanders and his supporters; it is a matter of grim concern for the American radical community as a whole.
Socialist Review 90 (November-December 1986), pp. 51-62