Sheri Berman’s The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (Cambridge UP, 2006) has been sitting on my shelf a long time, but I only just got around to reading it, partly in response to John Quiggin’s recent declaration that he has given up on the term “social democracy.” My discussion of that decision is here and here.
One virtue of Berman’s book is that it shows how both Mussolini and Hitler were socialists—that is, both the fascists and the Nazis established strict governmental control over the economy (“the primacy of politics” over economics in Berman’s phrase). In particular, the fascists and the Nazis developed full employment programs that used public works as a last resort for the unemployed, created or enhanced social welfare and insurance programs, and established firm state control over capital flows and investment. The enthusiasm for Mussolini, in particular, that many (not just clowns like Ezra Pound) expressed in the late 1920s and early 1930s becomes much more understandable when reading Berman’s account of his regime’s fairly successful attack on the poverty and inequality capitalism wrought in post-World War I Italy. Of course, the fascists and the Nazis did not dismantle capitalism entirely; in particular, they did not threaten private ownership. But they did sharply curtail the autonomy of property; the Faustian bargain made by the capitalists was that they would accept a lesser level of profit and massive government interference in what and how they produced things in return for “order” and for a guarantee that property would not be confiscated or nationalized. But, especially, by the standards of our own dark times, Mussolini’s and even Hitler’s economic policies look “progressive.” For starters, their policies were Keynesian, depending on large public expenditure to provide employment and to jump start a depression economy back to something like prosperity.
Of course, much of that Keynesian spending was on the means for war. Both regimes can look like giant potlatches—building up vast stores of military hardware in order to destroy them all in an orgy of destruction. And the regimes had the same attitude toward citizens as they did toward tanks: they are expendable; plenty more where they came from.
The point, naturally, is not to praise Mussolini or Hitler. The Nazis, in particular, dismantled liberal democracy in incredibly short order. All other parties were outlawed by six months after Hitler’s becoming Chancellor. And the left-wing economics were yoked to right-wing nationalism, to the mythos of the fatherland and of “blood.” Violence was baked in from the start, as Walter Benjamin told the world in 1936. The only possible end game was war—and that was explicit, a feature not a bug.
But Berman’s work led me to a rather different dark thought. What does it mean to say that the only successful assaults on capitalism in the 20th century were accompanied by the destruction of democracy? We might be able to dismiss Lenin and Stalin’s madness quickly by saying that the economics were impossible even apart from political crimes. But what happens if we say that Mussolini’s Italy came pretty close to achieving an economic realm that most social democrats can recognize as their aspiration? In short: can we get to social democratic heaven if we hold resolutely to the democratic part? Does democracy—the rule of law, elections, legislative bodies, civil liberties along with property rights—afford capitalists too many tools for withstanding any and all attempts to gain political control over capitalist practices? The impatience with liberal democracy everywhere evident in the 1930s reflected the inability of democracies to act quickly and decisively. The post-2008 actions of the EU, especially, with its ongoing (even now, ten years later) constant kicking of the can down the road, appear to confirm the claim that democracies find it hard to act. (The exception, always noted, is the US response to World War II; slow to get going, the historians say, but what a behemoth once roused; but it took a war for the US to end its depression, with precisely the kinds of Keynesian spending and government intervention into the economy that even the New Deal could never install.)
So here’s the horrible thought: only a non-democratic regime, one that steps on the “rights” of property owners and the many ways that the rich can control elections and elected officials, will be able to break the stranglehold that capitalism has on modern political communities. Capitalism both strives to escape political (democratic) accountability wherever possible—and uses all the intricacies of democratic procedures to its advantage in holding off change. Well-intentioned liberals and leftists, who play by the rules, are played by the business barons. We are getting a demonstration of that dynamic now. We had the corruption free, good governance folks who were the Obama administration; the absolute epitome of high-minded liberals. And now we are seeing the kinds of ethics that prevail among the pocket-lining hacks of the right, who could care less if the agencies they preside over actually function.
It has become clear—if it wasn’t in the past—that the Milton Friedman insistence that capitalism and democracy went hand-in-hand is simply wrong. Capitalism hates democracy, as the US support of right-wing dictators throughout the world should have made clear. But the more worrying thought is that democracy does not pose an existential threat to capitalism, just an annoyance, a low-grade fever, that capitalism has learned how to keep under control. Capitalism can tolerate low-grade democracy, just as it can tolerate gay marriage, antagonistic art works, and academic freedom, confident in its ability to not let such things get out of hand. True, the right is always hysterically claiming that chaos is nigh—if not already here. But such fulminations on Fox don’t register in the corporate boardrooms, not the ways that tax and regulation evasion strategies do.
In short: for social democracy to work, the left has to get the democracy part in order first. This is Berman’s “primacy of politics.” Without a very firm democratic mandate, establishing the economic policies of social democracy would seem a non-starter. But there are so many structural obstacles to establishing that mandate that stand in the way—even if the needed majority existed. (Thus, something like gun control offers an object lesson in all the ways majority opinion can be thwarted in the scheloric American political system.) With the democratic hill so high to climb, hope for the economic transformation wanes. We know what needs doing: higher taxes, public housing, fully funded public education and public transit, universal health coverage, etc. etc. But the ability of our political system to deliver any of these things is very doubtful.
And (again it is very odd to say this) the fascists and Nazis look good in comparison to the current political landscape. They mobilized nationalism to authorize the state’s taking control of the economy—and molded that economy in ways that, to a fairly large extent, benefited the majority. (Another horrible thought: you can only mobilize people by providing them with an enemy to fear and hate; the Carl Schmidt notion. So you couldn’t really form the democratic majority that would take control over capitalism unless you identified a “class enemy” or a “non-national” enemy. Someone has to be “not us” and a legitimate target of rage and mistreatment. You can only benefit the majority by persecuting the minority.)
But how do the fascists and Nazis look good? Because at least they were using the poison of nationalism and the powers of the state to rein in capitalism. Today’s right wing aims to serve capitalism, not control it. They mobilize the state to augment capitalism’s power. National capitalism instead of national socialism. Singapore, China, the UK, and the US. Different degrees of assaults of civil liberties; different degrees of direct state subsidies to corporations. But the same basic model based on the same nationalistic principle: the nation’s glory resides in its wealth, along with the fraudulent promise that the prosperity at the top will generate (trickle down) prosperity for those below them. Perversely, this vocabulary of national greatness is accompanied by a dismantling of all public services or any notion of public goods. Capitalism will provide all that is needed; market failures do not exist, just as externalities are not admitted. The state exists to smooth capitalism’s path—and to beat the nationalistic drum.
I understand that these dark musings are the voice of despair speaking. Our world has become so cruel, the hypocrisies of the right so all encompassing, and the use of democracy’s trappings to forestall any change in a leftist direction so pervasive, that fears such as those expressed here seem inevitable. It is simply not clear that our political system can deliver the changes needed. Its inability to do something as simple as ban assault weapons feeds that fear. There’s plenty of overt oppression—from mass incarceration to the unfreedoms experienced everyday at the workplace by most employees—just as there is plenty of overt corruption (all those politicians on the billionaire’s dole). But there is also the general grinding of the gears in the Circumlocution Office, which keeps enthralled, obsessed people like me (there are so many of us!) reading the newspaper every day to monitor the drip, drip, drip, as if something this time, against all our prior experience, is going to come of it. But nothing ever does come of it—and some days it seems that that perpetual inaction is precisely the point.