As the Washington press and commentariat pored over newly released tax returns from Bernie Sanders in recent weeks, one detail came into focus: his newfound wealth. With three houses, a net worth now estimated at up to $1.9 million, and income exceeding $1 million in recent years, Bernie is now in the same 1% he rails against.
Much was made of the alleged hypocrisy of a self-described Democratic socialist earning far more than the working class he has spent his political career advocating for. Last Friday, Politico ran a story titled “The Secret of Bernie’s Millions,” which pictured Sanders as a giant holding the houses he owns (one in Washington, one in Burlington, and one on a Vermont lake). After a sort-of apology for the nakedly anti-Semitic caricature — the rich Jew hiding illicit wealth was a Nazi staple — Politico replaced the image with one of Sanders beside a tree of money. Accompanying the offensive imagery are gems in the text like “he might still be cheap, but he’s sure not poor.”
Politico’s piece also contained a useful tally of Sanders’ foes in the Democratic establishment, criticizing the senator for an alleged hypocrisy. “He became the very thing he criticized others for becoming,” one said, summing up the general Beltway assessment.
These people are all wrong. What emerges from even a cursory read of Bernie’s tax returns is the exact opposite of hypocrisy — a worker living the life he wants every worker to be able to enjoy. Bernie Sanders makes his money from writing popular books and representing Vermont in the US Senate, both forms of labor that pay well for the work they entail. He is simply in the minority of Americans who are paid fairly for their labor — a right that socialists have fought for, for every worker, for well over a century.
There are many legitimate responses to Sanders’ wealth. He is not actually that rich for his age (the senator is $12 million short of getting into the senior citizen 1%). He’s not even in the richest half of the presidential field — Beto O’Rourke and his wife are worth up to 22 times the Sanders, and Donald Trump is somewhere in the ballpark of $1 billion. And Sanders doesn’t come close to cracking the list of the 100 richest members of Congress (Nancy Pelosi, worth $16 million, clocks in at #30). As the only Jew running for president in a period of increased anti-Semitic attacks, we should take the double standard Sanders is held to seriously.
But true as these statistics are, there’s no denying Sanders is an advocate for the working class who has become wealthier than most Americans. So why do socialists like myself see no contradiction between Bernie’s policies and his bank account? And, more importantly, why do we believe it is important to fight for the poor without fetishizing poverty? It’s all about a pretty fundamental economic concept: There’s a big difference between the money people earn from their labor and money they earn from capital.
There are lots of ways to make money. But as Karl Marx put it, all income can effectively be divided into those two categories. Labor — work — is how most people make money. Whether you’re running the drive-thru at McDonald’s or developing software at Google, you sell your work to someone who pays you for it.
Income from capital is a totally different animal. It’s the money you make from owning something valuable — capital — whether that’s a block of rental apartments or an oil field. For a capitalist, the goal is to sell or rent their capital for more than it cost to acquire it — that is, to turn a profit. To do that, they need to pay workers less than the value created by their labor. This puts capitalists at odds, in a fundamental way, with the interests of the people who work for them.
So, what does this all have to do with Bernie’s wealth? In short: Bernie has gotten rich from his labor. The vast majority of his income in recent years came from sales of his books and his Senate salary. Bernie Sanders is a worker, and the more people who buy his books — the fruits of his labor — the more money he makes. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The socialist vision of society doesn’t rest on the impoverishment of everyone, but the comfort of everyone — we all enjoy the benefits of our work. That Sanders is lucky enough to work two jobs that actually pay something like the fair value of their labor is simply a reminder that most people’s work is massively undervalued, and some work, like homecare and childcare, often pays nothing at all.
This is what the labor movement has always been fighting for. In the 1930s, the militant United Automobile Workers did not insist that its members take a vow of poverty and live the ascetic life of Christian saints. No, they demanded that workers get the pay they earned from their labor. That unionized workers today make an average of 30% more than nonunion workers doesn’t mean that socialists reject unions as decadent luxuries — we applaud their use the power of collective action to get workers what they deserve: a bigger share of capital’s profits.
And there’s nothing contradictory about socialists supporting higher pay for workers who are already well paid. The Tech Action group in the NYC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has praised the collective action and unionizing that’s begun to sweep through the workers of Silicon Valley. Socialists have even thrown their support behind NBA players fighting against salary caps. After all, if basketball or mobile apps produce vast amounts of money, that money should go to the workers who created that value, not the owners who do nothing and collect the profits.
Of course, no socialist would applaud a laborer who makes a killing off of something morally repugnant: Take, for example, a lawyer who litigates for management against unionization efforts, or a lobbyist from Raytheon. Sanders, who has made his money by advocating for socialism, has clearly not profited from work that goes against the movement.
Even the accusations of hypocrisy against Sanders for having a summer home are misplaced (as for having residences in Burlington and Washington, that is a professional necessity that members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say requires even higher pay). For well over a century, socialists have fought for the right for workers to get time off to escape the heat of the city and enjoy the bounty of nature. In Britain, and much else of the world, mandatory paid vacation was the product of long campaigns by socialists. The latest edition of the socialist Jacobin magazine imagines a future where everyone gets access to a summer beach house. As radical union leader Big Bill Haywood famously put it, “nothing’s too good for the working class.”
Bernie Sanders is simply a well-off worker, and that’s a fine thing to be. While income inequality has become a popular shorthand for class tensions in the US, it is wealth that is the real marker of difference. Ultimately, a worker who makes a lot of money depends on the whims of their boss or customers or clients in a way that a wealthy person with little income doesn’t have to. An estimated 25% of American families making $150,000 or more a year live paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2015 Nielsen study. Without wealth, these nominally affluent families — especially in expensive cities like New York or San Francisco — are just one layoff or serious injury away from financial crisis.
If you want to talk about politicians embodying an unfair economic system, look not at Sanders but at Beto O’Rourke, who inherited millions in real estate from his father and married the daughter of a real estate tycoon. Or consider John Hickenlooper, who made a fortune from the labor of low-wage workers in his restaurant chain. It is wage thieves like these who are wrecking our economy.
If anything, the hoopla over Bernie’s tax returns is a useful reminder of who deserves wealth and who doesn’t. While seeing Sanders as a worker may seem like a stretch to some, understanding the fundamental economic basis for that term is essential to reversing the erosion of worker protections in this country. The recent rise of unions at digital media companies has been an encouraging sign that even those with relatively good salaries and benefits are realizing their dependence on the autocratic power of business owners for their very survival. And as stable employment becomes increasingly remote for too many Americans, understanding that economic oppression is about more than just a low salary is vital to making an economy that works for the many, not the few.
It’s a lesson that Sanders himself understands well: Just this week he introduced a proposal to gradually give workers 50% ownership in the companies they work for. Socialism is about worker power, worker control, and worker ownership of the means of production — not a vow of poverty.
Bill Haywood’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.
Aaron Freedman is a writer based in Brooklyn.