Category: social democracy


George Shulman (NYU prof who is part of the reading group that meets in New York every year) is interested in impasse—basically the feeling that we are stuck in a world we hate but can’t figure out how to change.

Framing it as a question of impasse helps me to state baldly some major themes of this blog’s agonizing over the past six to eight months.  First comes the sense that current evils somehow operate under a thin veneer (but an effective veneer) of legality and normalcy.  There seems no way within current legal and political institutions to intervene to stop daily operations that are unjust and render millions of people miserable and millions more vulnerable, a step away from misery.  The machine grinds on relentlessly.

Second comes the primary debate on the left.  At what level should the effort for change takes place.  Is electoral politics any use at all?  Could we actually vote into office  a political party that would effect the changes needed, alter both the ends and the means (i.e. significantly redistribute resources in ways that actively alter balances of political and economic power)?  It seems to take larger and larger leaps of faith to believe that the system can be reformed (to use the hoariest of clichés).  The gridlock (another cliché) that is another name for impasse seems utterly baked in at this point.  Too many veto points, too many established immunities (campaign finance, gerrymandering, voter suppression, lobbying, tax breaks, conservative judges etc. etc.) for those fighting against change.  Obstruction is the order of the day.

So the electoral route is only going to work if there is astounding pressure for change from the populace—and the US populace rarely swings left and seems, instead, to cling desperately to what little it has (deeply averse to risk) instead of working to force the system to yield it more.

The alternative, then, is some sort of forced, dramatic change.  Two things intrude here.  The first is the worry (a big and legitimate one) about forcing a change that the majority does not desire.  Anti-democratic (in the core sense of the term’s reference to the will of the people) change is problematic for any number of reasons.  So the left’s first work, it would seem, must take place on the battlefield of rhetoric.  We must win the hearts and minds, so that the clamor for substantive change can not be ignored.

The second problem is violence.  With the possible exception of Terry Eagleton (and even he masks his talk of violence in the “soft” language of Christ-like sacrifice and of Greek tragedy), all the radical leftists I read shy away from talking about violence.  In Judith Butler’s book on the performative theory of assembly, she briefly says that activism must be non-violent.  Interestingly, the force of that “must” is more pragmatic than ethical.  Violence is counter-productive; it calls down repression at the same time that it alienates potential supporters.  Non-violence is the winning strategy.

But a description of effective non-violent tactics is missing.  Non-violent disruptions of business as usual, of daily life, will be treated almost as harshly as violence.  Which isn’t to say that martyrdom can’t prove effective politically.  But we seem at this moment pretty far from a place where martyrs will be viewed sympathetically.  (Contrast to King’s children campaign.)  I fight shy of asking people for fruitless sacrifices; of course, the response is that one never knows ahead of time if the sacrifice will be fruitless.  We can’t know what might, against all logic and predictions, galvanize people.  The shortness of the current news cycle, the way in which things (even the horrible mass shootings at schools), fade from public attention is just another barrier in the way of imagining galvanizing sacrifices.  (This returns me to my obsession with figuring out how to create a movement that has legs, that is sustainable over the long haul.)  When today’s anti-liberal, radical leftists write of galvanizing moments, they reference Seattle’s anti-globalization demonstrations and Occupy, neither of which really offers grounds for hope.  There is a vast sympathy for the Palestinians, but nobody is calling for the formation of liberation fronts or armies in the West.

Eschewing violence has much going for it.  Calling for large-scale, systematic transformation, however, and refusing to think hard about the means (including violence) toward that change seems more wish-fulfillment than productive thinking.  King’s non-violence was paired with the urban riots of the 60s; the anti-war demonstrators were beaten by police and they didn’t end the war, although they did makes its prosecution more costly for our benighted political leaders.  The system (I keep using that word for lack of a better shorthand at the moment) is violent through and through—under the cloak of legality.  The left keeps coming to a gunfight with a knife—and keeps refusing to even consider the fact that it might be in a gunfight.

Within this set of dillemmas/delusions, the left’s most characteristic move is to argue that the majority really is on its side, that if we just offered the populace full unadulterated leftism (some kind of democratic socialism presumably, although the left gets fuzzy on those details as well), we would win elections handily. Bernie Sanders would have swept to victory.  It’s pretty to think so, isn’t it?  And it gives our dissident leftist so much to do—fulminating about those liberals who queer the pitch, instead of thinking about the really hard work that would be required (especially in addressing that populace he is convinced secretly agrees with him) to break the ongoing impasse.

Do I have anything constructive to offer?  Not all that much since it wouldn’t be an impasse if we weren’t stuck.  But I will say that I much prefer loud denunciations, usually on moral grounds but sometimes on pragmatic ones, of the right’s constant enactment of petty and major cruelties.  The internecine fights on the left (of which I guess this post counts as one) are tiresome and not very useful.  True, the temptation to go that way is reinforced by the fact that such arguments may even gain a hearing and a response, while one’s jeremiads against the right seem cast out into the void, aiming to reach a general public that is nothing if not absent more than present, and certainly not going to move a right that has proved itself, again and again, without conscience and beyond shame.  Still, better to be a witness to infamy, than a nit-picking polemicist within one’s own tribe.

And better to be a clear thinker about ends and means than to throw blame about indiscriminately (those nefarious liberals!) and talk as if political victory was a matter of just snapping one’s fingers.

National Socialism versus Social Democracy versus National Capitalism

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.

John Quiggin (whose name I managed to misspell) has responded to my previous post.  Here is what he wrote:

This is a nice discussion. On point 2, I’ve made the point that, in operational terms, socialism basically means “social democracy with a spine”.

On point 3, the critical issue is, I think, the response to a crisis like the GFC. The correct response was to use it to roll capitalism back, for example, through nationalising the financial system. The actual response of liberal and social democratic parties was to bail capitalism out at the expense of their own supporters. That’s not to say there’s no room for compromise, but that the ultimate vision should be one of a transformed society that is no longer capitalist in the way in which the term is used today. Of course, that’s exactly what the social democratic creators of the Keynesian welfare state sought to achieve and made much progress towards.

What’s In a Name?

John Quiggan (author of Zombie Economics [Princeton UP, 2012] and a regular blogger on the best blog in the universe, Crooked Timber), recently decided to jettison the name “social democracy” as a description of his political position.  Here is his complete post on that decision:

“As I mentioned a while ago, in the years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve described my political perspective as “social-democratic”. In earlier years, I mostly used “democratic socialist”. My reason for the switch was that, in a market liberal/neoliberal era, the term “socialist” had become a statement of aspiration without any concrete meaning or any serious prospect of realisation. By contrast, “social democracy” represented the Keynesian welfare state I was defending against market liberal “reform”.

In the decade since the Global Financial Crisis, things have changed. Socialism still describes an aspiration, rather than a concrete political program, but an aspiration to a better society is what we need now as a positive response to the evident failure of neoliberalism.

On the other side of the ledger, nominally social democratic parties nearly all failed the test of the crisis, accepting to a greater or lesser degree to the politics of austerity. Some, like PASOK in Greece, have paid the price in full. Others, like Labor in Australia, are finally showing some spine. In practice, though, social democracy has come to stand, at best, for technocratic managerialism, and at worst for capitulation to the demands of financial capital.

So, I’ve changed the description of this blog’s perspective to socialist. I haven’t however, adopted the formulation “democratic socialist” which was used, in the 20th century, to emphasise a rejection of the Stalinist claim to have produced “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. That’s no longer necessary.

As has been true for most of the history of the modern world, the only serious threat to democracy is now coming from the right. So, it’s important to defend democracy as well as advancing the case for socialism.”

This is more sparse and more cryptic than one would have wished, but it does speak to one of my obsessions: why isn’t social democracy, which seems to have the best track record of actually delivering (particularly in Scandinavia, but elsewhere in Europe as well) general prosperity, equitably distributed, along with robust civil liberties and a functioning safety net, the preferred position on the left in 2018?  Social democracy has had demonstrable, on the ground, successes—which is more than can be said for any of the left’s other alternative programs.  And neoliberalism, recognizing that fact, has devoted most of its energies to discrediting and dismantling the gains social democracy made from 1900 on.  The neoliberals know where the greatest threat to their hegemony lies.

So: to abandon social democracy seems to me to let the neoliberals win.  They set out to drive it from the field—and the left is folding up its tents and ceding the field to our new overlords.  We will console ourselves with vicious attacks on center-left politicians like the Clintons and hasten to the highlands of a pure “socialism” that is even more vague than it is pure.

Obviously, I think the left should be doubling down on social democracy, on fighting to protect and/or restore what social democracy put in place in the 1945 to 1970 period, while also offering an extension of social democratic policies (universal health care, progressive tax rates, strict regulation of financial and other markets, government thumb on the scale to insure a balance of power between labor and capital when negotiating conditions of employment etc.).  There is good evidence that these things work; capital’s hatred of them is just one parcel of that evidence.

Yet: Quiggan’s post gives me pause on three counts.

  1. I take very seriously the fact that social democracy, as a rallying cry and as a program, seems to hold no appeal for young left leaners. Let’s say “young” means anyone under 45.  It just doesn’t resonate.  Again, that may be just a symptom of how successful the neoliberal smear campaign has been, but that doesn’t change the fact on the ground that clamoring for social democracy is not going to galvanize the left today.
  2. More substantially, of course, Quiggan’s assertion is that social democracy has discredited itself (no matter what discrediting neoliberalism engineered) by acquiescing in the austerity policies imposed after 2008. Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist, but all his policies are recognizably social democratic.  He pretty much wants to enact “the second bill of rights” that FDR proposed in his 1944 State of the Union address.  Perhaps today’s “socialist” is just yesterday’s “social democrat” coming to us under a new, more fashionable, name.  We would have to get some fleshing out of what “socialism” is meant to convey in order to answer that question.  Old wine in new bottles? It would be a classic case of claiming that those who call themselves “social democrats” have sold out, are no longer really worthy of the name because they didn’t stand up for social democracy in the aftermath of 2008, so we are going to walk away, cede them the name, call ourselves socialists, and fight for what they betrayed. The left (and the right) fractures in this way all the time.
  3. The true substantial nub, however, remains where it always has been in the debate between social democrats and socialists: can a leftist politics tolerate the existence of a capitalist market? Is regulation good enough, supplemented by declaring certain crucial things—like health care and transportation—“public goods” whose supply cannot be entrusted to the market? Or is the capitalist market so antithetical to equality, justice, and democracy that it must be dismantled in favor of a different way of organizing economic production and consumption?  Socialism, as I understand it, always thought the market—even a regulated market—was unable to deliver a society or a polity that could deliver socialism’s goals.  There could be—and should be—no compromise with markets.  Whereas social democracy was all about forging such a compromise.

What Quiggan tells us—and I certainly agree—is that the social democrats caved in, for whatever reason (threats of capital flight or total market collapse or the sheer corruption of political elites in cahoots with the rich), to capital’s demands following 2008—and gave away most of the store.  The issue, of course, is whether, when push comes to shove, social democracy will always cave, that capital always holds the cards that allow it to blackmail the politicians into doing capital’s bidding.  That is the conclusion socialists reach: social democracy is no bulwark against capital’s depredations—and never can be.  And so we need something completely different.

If that is claim, then the socialists need to step up to the plate.  What do they propose?  And how do they propose to get there?  These are familiar, time-worn questions—greatly complicated if the soi-disant socialist also proclaims strict fidelity to democracy.  What democratic pathways can be mobilized to get from here (neoliberalism) to there (socialism)?