Bernie Sanders in Berlin: Wild ride through the circumstances

The left-wing US Senator Bernie Sanders presented his new book in Berlin. We are too nice to billionaires, he said, praising the young generation.

Bernie Sanders at the launch of his book in Berlin on October 12th Photo: Jens Kalaene/dpa

German politicians are usually not celebrities. But it is him: Bernie Sanders. With his presidential campaign in 2016 and again in 2020, the now 84-year-old senator from Vermont almost single-handedly revived the American left and led it out of the fragmentation.

He is the paradigmatic charismatic leader that theorists of left-wing populism like Chantal Mouffe recommend to progressive movements in order to bundle disparate political trends and concerns in identification with their political idol.

On Thursday he was at the House of World Cultures in Berlin for the only date on his book tour in Germany. The German translation of his book will be published next week as “It’s okay to be angry at capitalism”. The large hall was completely sold out, as befits a celebrity.

Moderator Jana Pareigis, known as the spokeswoman for the “heute” news, charmingly led the evening through which Sanders did not leave out any topic: climate, racism, labor disputes, abortion, oligarchy, media, and he even talked about AI and asteroid mining. And of course about his evergreens economic inequality and the American healthcare system.

There had been some excitement in advance about Sanders’ statement on the attacks in Israel. “I strongly condemn the terrible attack on Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. There is no justification for this violence and innocent people on both sides will suffer enormously as a result. It has to end now,” Sanders posted.

Esken cancels

This statement from the Jewish politician was not enough for Saskia Esken. She announced on the Bluesky platform, apparently in response to criticism from a user, that she would not be attending an agreed meeting with Sanders.

“He would have had the chance to give up his previous relativizations and clearly stand on the side of Israel and against the terror of Hamas and others. But he doesn’t do that. (…) I cancel.” Wrote the chairwoman of the SPD. This was a bit confusing because apparently no personal meeting had been arranged, only Esken’s participation in the book premiere.

The topic almost inevitably kicked off the event after Sanders was greeted with long applause. Moderator Pareigis asked again for a statement. Sanders immediately responded that what Hamas had done was abhorrent and set back the peace process. Israel has the right to respond rigorously to the attacks, but Sanders hopes the children in Gaza can be spared. With the attacks, extremists on both sides who believe in violence are on the rise, which is a tragedy.

It’s getting down to business

Only then does it get down to business: Sander’s analysis of the state of America. It’s a wild ride through the current UAW strikes, the concentration of ownership and oligopolies in the American economy, and climate change.

Sanders also reported on his experience of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, during which Sanders was sitting in Congress when the right-wing mob entered the building. Sometimes he asks if it’s okay if he gets up. Then it really picks up speed.

It is astonishing how lucid Sanders appears despite his advanced age, especially compared to President Biden, who is two years his junior and who repeatedly gets confused or loses the thread, so that there are serious concerns about his mental state.

The moderator asks why Sanders isn’t running for president again. Sanders answers quite simply because Trump is so dangerous that the Democrats should not be divided.

What’s impressive compared to German politicians is how Sanders manages to actually connect struggles. He always mentions racism, homophobia, climate and so on, but in a way that doesn’t seem like a careless list. Because he obviously has a clear analysis of how these different struggles are connected at their core. And yet Sanders makes a compelling case for the place of class as a central element of every analysis and every struggle.

Costs of climate change

CEOs, he says at one point, don’t care whether a productive employee is black or gay. Fortunately, one can no longer make racist or sexist comments in everyday life and in the media without being judged. But when it comes to the class question, the obscene wealth and the greed of multi-billionaires, things are completely different. “We are very nice to billions,” says Sanders, “but they are not nice people.”

He then becomes very specific in two places: He demands that the oil industry pay for the costs of climate change because they have lied to the public about the truth of global warming for 60 years. And when he talks about the dangers but also the opportunities of artificial intelligence and robotics, he announces that he is committed to the 32-hour week. Interestingly, he received the biggest applause that evening for this.

Fans definitely got their money’s worth. But no topic was really delved into. One would have liked the moderator to ask a few tougher questions. Sander’s analyzes are certainly not as simple as he ultimately communicates them. Also strange: Sanders mentioned the word socialism not once, but he made the term socially acceptable again in the USA.

After outlining the major dangers posed by billionaires, climate change and Trump, the evening ends on an optimistic note: the reawakening of the American labor movement and the idealistic young generation give him hope, said Sanders.

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