Are you unhappy about the world we live in? Senator Bernie Sanders wants you to know that your feelings are valid. In his new book, It’s OK To Be Angry About Capitalism, he discusses what is wrong with the US political system and what movements must do to change it.
Writing a book in plain terms about the pitfalls of political economy is no easy task. But anyone who has heard Sanders speak will not be surprised by the clarity of the book’s vision. Covering everything from the causes of economic hardship to the need for socialized systems to the logjams of the legislative process and the struggle for a more equitable world, It’s OK To Be Angry About Capitalism delivers a necessary message to the American people: capitalism is the problem, and building a working-class movement is the solution.
Economic rights are human rights
It’s OK To Be Angry About Capitalism starts with a plain fact: capitalism is an economic and political system designed to benefit the wealthy few and oppress the vast majority. As such, we cannot take any of our rights—be it freedom, democracy, or survival—at face value. The same oligarchs who control financial markets buy up mass media and influence political decisions consistently in their own interest. Our political reality, from the news we digest to the candidates we see on the ballot, is limited by what they allow. The one percent works hard, Bernie says, “to wield that power to benefit their interest at the expense of working families.”
The book makes the case for why people feel defeated rather than blaming them for being politically alienated. Living in a world run by the one percent makes everyone else miserable. Wages have stagnated for the past 50 years, while wealth inequality has reached unprecedented levels. Healthcare, education, and housing have all become unaffordable. As public policy has done less and less to mitigate the suffering of millions, faith in the government has declined.
If it’s okay to be angry, it’s also okay to expect better from the government. The book strongly favors the idea that “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” should guarantee certain political and civil rights. But the US is built on a legacy of denying such rights to people, whether by enslaving Black people, denying women the right to vote, or resisting gay marriage.
Economic rights are no different. Sanders makes it clear that the right to thrive is no less important than the right to vote. Anyone who is working from paycheck to paycheck just to put a roof over their heads or buy medicine is not “free” by any means. Quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Sanders emphasizes that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” Using stark statistics and bold imperatives, he shows that the pursuit of happiness means nothing in an economy where just three people own more wealth than the 165 million people that make up the bottom half of US society.
But he also offers a blueprint for how to guarantee livable wages, liberate students from a lifetime of debt, and transition energy systems away from fossil fuels. He insists that we cannot create a just world without a movement that fights for a government that represents everyone. To build such a movement, people must first believe that they deserve better—and understand why they don’t yet have it.
Breaking Free from Big Money
In this book and on both the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaign trails, Sanders has prioritized opening the political process up to working people. To counter the outsized political influence of lobbyists and the super-rich, Sanders built grassroots campaigns that did not accept money from super PACs or corporations. This way, everyday people knew that they had buy-in. The proof of this was in the receipts—the average donation to the 2020 Sanders campaign was just $27.
This most recent people-powered presidential campaign prioritized people’s perspectives and built an impressive ground game doing so, traveling around the country and talking to everyday folks about what change meant to them. “What impressed me most,” Sanders notes, “was the willingness of people, often perfect strangers, to open up about their lives and share their pain, their anxiety, and the frustrations they had been experiencing.” They spoke about their fears in the face of mounting medical bills, their worries about loved ones who had been taken by ICE, their difficulties surviving on a subminimum wage, and their outrage at underfunded schools and insurmountable student debt.
After Sanders swept Iowa and New Hampshire and national polls showed him consistently beating Trump, making him the clear front-runner in the Democratic primary, major media outlets began to report that the Democratic Party was getting nervous. But what was the party so afraid of? It wasn’t that the campaign’s prospects against the incumbent were weak or that its ideas were unpopular or divisive. “Let’s be honest,” Sanders explains. “What the establishment was anxious about was the fact that we were beginning to transform the Democratic Party from an election machine dominated by wealthy campaign contributors and corporate interests into a multiracial, multiethnic, urban and rural movement of the working class.”
On Super Tuesday, the Democratic Party closed its ranks. After the other candidates dropped out of the race to support Biden and the pandemic made rallies and door-to-door visits impossible, it became clear that it was time to suspend the Sanders’ campaign. In his virtual concession speech, Sanders explained to millions of viewers that the most important victory was that “we changed public consciousness.” Policies such as universal healthcare, free college, and climate action had become popular in the mainstream, and they would persist in the minds of millions.
The motto of the Sanders campaign, “Not Me, Us,” was designed to empower a movement beyond the power of any one presidential candidate. It led to the moderate and progressive wings of the party collaborating to craft the most progressive legislative platform in history, and it helped to channel progressive energy into electing hundreds of candidates, from Congress to city councils, across the country. The overall message was that political change is not about any one issue, nor is it realized by any one person.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
The idea that political change is a collective endeavor persisted, Sanders says, following George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020, inspiring the largest protests in American history. In the early months of the pandemic, 26 million Americans mobilized against police brutality and systemic racism at a time when millions more were losing their jobs, and hundreds of thousands were dying. The causes and consequences of racial and economic inequality were on full display, making it clear that the state was treating Black and working-class people as disposable. Months of uprising and organizing led to movements—such as defunding the police and ending voter suppression—to defend multiracial democracy and redistribute resources.
Sanders also explains how unprecedented energy in the streets compounded a sense of urgency on Capitol Hill. To reinforce organizers’ efforts, Sanders attempted to raise taxes on the one percent, expand Medicare for all, and provide Americans with $2,000 direct payments. The book does a deep dive into how reconciliation bills, known as the American Rescue Plan and the Build Back Better Act, sought to mitigate the long-term structural issues that had made people “disillusioned and disgusted” with US democracy, connecting people’s desire for social transformation with the challenging process of legislative action in the current political system.
It might seem counterintuitive to tell stories about political failure as proof of possibility. But It’s OK To Be Angry About Capitalism is relentless in its commitment to showing just how hard corporate interests and the political elite work to widen the gap between what people need and what the government provides. Sanders outlines how political fights that might seem wonky to the public, like the unsuccessful fight to increase the minimum wage, make it clear that the problems that ordinary Americans face are deliberately created and worsened by the current political system. From pension cuts to the climate crisis, from predatory loans to failing schools, Sanders shows that the process is designed to fail working people—which means it needs to change.
Billionaires and Other Things That Shouldn’t Exist
There is strength in certainty. One of the strategies of It’s OK To Be Angry About Capitalism is to state the truth with no punches pulled. Chapter subheadings like “Billionaires Should Not Exist” and “We Should Listen to Nurses” put political positions in the most decisive terms. If we want to live in a just, equitable world, we need to put faith in strong principles and put power behind the US working class.
These chapters cover core elements of the New Deal-esque platform that Sanders has championed since his early days as a Vermont senator. It’s one thing to say that billionaires shouldn’t exist but quite another to back this statement up: at the onset of the pandemic, Sanders introduced the Make Billionaires Pay Act, which proposed a 60 percent tax on the wealth gained by almost 500 billionaires between March 2020 and January 2021. The book also examines alternative models, such as Scandinavia’s generous social safety nets, as examples of a more humane and functional economy.
One chapter on media takes on these issues at a meta-level. Media owners often dictate what television stations and newspapers cover or ignore. Unsurprisingly, these owners ensure that issues around wealth and power are left on the cutting room floor. “Without deep discussions and honest analyses of corporate power, it is extremely difficult for citizens to understand what goes on in the country and why. And it is almost impossible to know who should be held to account,” Sanders writes. It’s also impossible to know what could change.
It’s OK To Be Angry About Capitalism is not afraid to have these hard conversations that movements require. “Let’s talk about politics as a process that can make the lives of working people dramatically better—or dramatically worse.” Real political action does not consist of focus groups or polls. It entails conversations about “how the current economic system destroys the lives of countless Americans” and how to identify “the root causes of our problems.” Real political action means asking hard questions and proposing bold solutions.
And, as the book emphasizes, real political action means organizing. Every Progressive political gain, from civil rights to minimum wage, was a hard fight to win. Without regular people winning elections for school boards, forming unions, marching in the streets, and building community organizations, real change cannot happen.
The book’s last chapter outlines core demands for a better democracy: get money out of politics, guarantee voting rights, abolish the electoral college, break up monopolies, save the planet, revitalize American media, and more. It also glosses over the reactionary messages that the Right uses to exploit division and resentment, like blaming immigrants or teachers for problems created by corporations and the political elite. Movements need to know their enemy and counter efforts to exclude people from civil society by creating inclusive demands. And so, with every paragraph, the book provides an impassioned and detailed map of our current political reality.
Bernie Sanders’ book arrives three years into a pandemic, after over one million Americans have died, after millions more have marched in the streets for racial justice, and after many others have lost their jobs or are at risk of being evicted or defaulting on their student loans. It is exactly the right moment to harness anger for political good, push for systemic change, and demand the possible.
Overall, It’s OK To Be Angry About Capitalism is a handbook to being unafraid. When we are angry, the last thing we want to do is compromise. And Sanders says that we shouldn’t. “There is not a middle ground between the insatiable greed of uber-capitalism and a fair deal for the working class,” between “whether or not we save the planet or “whether or not we preserve our democracy.” By taking the side of the working class, the Democratic Party and the Progressive movement can build the power required to overcome our current crisis. The danger is not being too bold, says Sanders. It’s being too cautious. It’s time to pick a side.