Recently, the rightwing rag The Federalist had a silly article titled “For The Left, Socialism Denial Is Holocaust Denial”, so, before we continue, I would ask for a moment of silence to remember the victims of the Nebraska Public Power District*.
OK, let’s continue.
Socialism seems to be quite the rage, between Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist (we’ll return to this), and the popularity of the socialist journal, Jacobin, which says much about the inadequacies of liberal journals. It’s quite bizarre given that much of what is being called a socialist agenda is nothing more than one part New Deal liberalism (e.g., minimum wage, worker protections, progressive taxes), and one part Great Society liberalism (e.g., national health insurance, which was the long-term goal of the designers of Medicare and Medicaid). Even what is called single-payer healthcare in the U.S. would be socialized health insurance, not socialized medicine (we do have socialized medicine in the U.S., in the form of the Veterans Adminstration and the military’s TRICARE).
It doesn’t help that the words liberalism and liberal have become synonyms for ‘stuff that people to the left of Republicans do/say that I don’t like.’
At this point, let’s outsource this to Max Sawicky (boldface mine):
Sanders, for inscrutable reasons, calls himself a ‘democratic socialist,’ in effect redefining the term in popular debates. Thanks to him, democratic socialism now means 1) building out the incomplete U.S. welfare state, 2) ensuring high employment with high wages, 3) combatting climate change, and 4) reforming our money-dominated political system….
We could say Sanders’ “democratic socialism” is democratic because it seeks fair elections and promotes the right to vote, both scandalously imperiled in recent years. More broadly, democratic means, if we win an election, we get to pursue our programs, but if we lose, we go home to lick our wounds and live to fight another day. When the term ‘democratic socialism’ was coined, it reflected a jaundiced reference to revolutionary currents on the left who might seek to take over the state by force, or who might not be good sports in the wake of an electoral defeat. Today those currents are nearly extinct, so all socialists in effect are democratic socialists.
The ‘socialism’ part is harder to justify, in light of the political baggage of “nationalizing the means of production.” Sanders left that ambition behind, I imagine, some time ago. In truth, there is today no meaningful advocacy of large-scale nationalizations of U.S. industry, either in the realm of economic research or political mobilization. We do see well-founded advocacy for public utilities in limited, specific areas such as postal savings banks and public broadband, what some radicals have described disparagingly as “gas and water socialism.” (It used to seem like there would never be any danger of anybody not having access to water.) We also see discussions of sovereign wealth funds and decentralized movements in pursuit of cooperative enterprise and labor-managed firms.
The upshot is that ‘socialism’ in the U.S., or the less familiar term ‘social-democracy,’ looks a lot like the agenda pursued by Franklin Roosevelt’s administrations in the 1930s and 1940s. Even so, Democratic Party elites are pointed in a different direction.
I’ve always described myself as a liberal, before that briefly became cool again (and well before the aforementioned, current pejorative phase). To me, progressive is a meaningless, content-free descriptor without a whole lot of (or any) ideological heft behind it.
There are socialist entities that this liberal does or would support (go NPPD!), such as socialized health insurance, public fire departments, and public education. By the way, we used to have private fire companies; they didn’t work out so well, as they had the habit of ignoring burning fires while, at the same time, renegotiating the terms of their contract. That doesn’t make me a socialist any more than thinking some problems do have market-based solutions: I’m not interested in buying my donuts from a government-run commissary (though given the choice between no donuts and socialist donuts…). The latter hardly makes one a full-throttled capitalist.
But liberal, even as most ‘socialists’ are espousing New Deal and Great Society liberalism, has become a pejorative. Why? Because what is called liberalism is actually neo-liberalism–it certainly has very little relationship to either New Deal or Great Society liberalism. Let’s turn to Sawicky again:
While no Democratic politician would reject the slogan of universal coverage, the Clinton campaign offered no path to such an outcome. The Obama Administration went wobbly on one device to that end – the idea of a public option. Both leaders and their supporters can’t seem to grasp the inadequacy of market provision of health insurance, even as its deficiencies under ‘ObamaCare’ become ever more painfully evident.
More generally, ‘neoliberalism’ labors under the bias of seeking market solutions, up to and including creating them from scratch, as we saw with the Obama’s health insurance exchanges. The tendency is to discount the viability of public provision.
I’m not suggesting that markets are never of use. I would say social-democracy is about pushing the balance in the direction of a myriad of needs unmet by “the market.” Neoliberalism is about searches for market-based approaches.
The flap about “free college” offers another case in point. Critics of Sanders’ platform, including the most liberal, would wax philosophic in the vein of “nothing is free.” Of course, nobody thinks college instruction comes without costs. What is really at issue is whether the rising cost of college should be financed by taxes or by the ‘market’ route of students resorting to personal, eternal indebtedness.
A related canard was the fake-left idea that we ought not to pay for the education of the children of the rich. Everybody knows that children of the rich would not be likely to attend public universities in the first place, and even if they did, their addition to the total cost would be negligible.
There is nothing much radical about free college. We have ‘free’ K-12 education and no plutocrats have been strung up. The practical difference between social-democratic and neoliberal is directional. Neoliberalism resists the enlargement of tax-financed public services….
The accepted academic definition of neoliberalism traces back to the Nineteenth Century version of liberalism, which upheld free trade against mercantilism and supported no more than a very limited public sector. It’s said that this ideology enjoyed a revival in the Twentieth Century. From where I sit, among Republicans no revival was necessary. The ideology never went away. The bigger change was the movement away from the New Deal and the Great Society among Democrats, towards the view typified by Bill Clinton’s remark that “the era of big government is over.” This is why my definition could be seen as idiosyncratic, compared to most other treatments.
One motivation in this political movement was the hope that Democrats could capture more of the center, including moderate Republicans…
I feel the urge to end by insisting that ‘neoliberal’ does not imply moral condemnation. Some of my best friends, etc. The wonder is that it is often taken that way. It is fair to resent reductionist depictions of one’s views, but summary characterizations can be useful and fairly applied.
The struggle in the Democratic Party is between neo-liberalism and social-democracy (or “democratic socialism”).
So I guess I’m a socialist. Or something.
*The NPPD is a socialist enterprise: the generation and distribution of electrical power is done entirely by government employees, though they deliberately go out of their way on their website to obscure this.