Friday, November 6, 2015

The Socialist Who Saved Liberalism

“I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”  – William Morris

Bernie Sanders says he’s a socialist, but he’s not.  It’s true that the misapplication of political labels is a venerable tradition in American politics – consider the Puritan Social Darwinists who call themselves conservatives, the multiculturalist particularists who call themselves liberals, the Old Rightist Neo-Confederates who call themselves libertarians.  But let’s not add to that confusion.  Sanders’ program advocates using activist government to rebuild infrastructure; raise the minimum wage; make college free; increase regulations on Wall Street; institute single payer healthcare; make taxes more progressive; empower unions and worker co-ops.  He rails against “the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little”, and hopes for “a society where all people do well, not just a handful of billionaires” and a “government that represents all of us, not just the wealthiest people in the country.”  That is, present-day capitalism has come off the leash; it isn’t working for most working people and the excess concentration of wealth corrupts democracy.  His analysis is spot-on and his program is full of good practical ideas, but is this socialism?

The essential doctrine of socialism is that capitalism is irredeemably exploitive in that it forces workers to sell their labor to produce goods whose value is stolen by the investors who control that production.  Individualist liberal theory – like that of John Locke and Adam Smith – is used to justify capitalism, but it’s just an alibi excusing the concentration of economic and political power (which is really just economic power) in capitalist hands.  This view reached its most sophisticated and influential theoretical exposition, of course, in the work of 19th century political philosopher Karl Marx.

Classical Marxism holds that the essential contradiction of capitalism – that production is broadly socialized, but profit goes to a small ruling class – would inevitably lead to its downfall, once workers realized their objective condition and their true class interests.  Most early socialists organized workers in the hopes of increasing their economic power, either through explicitly pro-labor electoral politics, or trade unions, or both.  But the ultimate goal was a society where communal control of production – via unions or worker cooperatives or the state – spelled the end of capitalism and its system of forced, alienated and exploited labor.

But then, in early 20th century Russia the young intellectual firebrand, Vladimir Lenin, created a new version of socialism.  According to Lenin and his followers, the working class would never achieve true class-consciousness on its own; only a small vanguard party of intellectuals in possession of true theory could work the magic needed to replace capitalist hell with socialist heaven.  The workers would be herded and directed and controlled, all in their own true interests.  Once in power, of course, Marxism-Leninism became horribly totalitarian: the leaders controlled the party, which controlled the state, which controlled everything and everyone else.  This is classic Communism, as espoused and practiced by Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, Ho, Che, Castro, Kim Il-Sung, etc.  Hardly workers paradise.

As the original Democratic Socialism was confronted on its left by Communism, a new ideology, Social Democracy, arose on its immediate right.  Social Democracy is still socialist in analysis – it considers capitalism fundamentally exploitive – but it has a much more moderate and pragmatic program.  Informed by both the failure of capitalism to self-destruct – despite war, depression and decades of socialist agitation – and the failure of socialism to become established other than in its nightmarish Leninist form, social democrats accepted capitalism as a social reality, but tried to bring about socialist ends within the capitalist system.  After coming to power in northern Europe, they heavily regulated capitalism, redistributed its bounty, and provided a safety net for its downtrodden.  That is, they established the welfare state.  But since this is socialism that has made its peace with capitalism (even if only programmatically) it’s no longer really socialism.  Real socialists – Communists and Democratic Socialists – consider capitalism organically incapable of justice, and so view Social Democracy as a sellout and a sham.  To Social Democrats, socialism is a nice idea that has proven historically impossible.

These are the three main groupings of socialist-inspired thought (there’s also Anarchism, which is socialist ends through thoroughly libertarian means).  Clearly Bernie Sanders is neither a Communist nor a Democratic Socialist, since there’s nothing in his rhetoric or his program indicating he yearns to end capitalism, merely regulate it and redistribute its riches a little more equitably.  So is he a social democrat?  Should we label anyone who supports a welfare state (as opposed to the actual socialist destruction of capitalism) as a social democrat?

Lyndon Johnson, also not a socialist.
No.  Consider American liberals and the welfare state they created.  Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers used the federal government to promote labor unions; regulate banking and finance and labor markets; provide economic relief to the poor, the elderly, farmers, and workers.  In his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR proposed his “Economic Bill of Rights”, which would have (if not blocked by a conservative Congress) guaranteed to every American a good job, a decent home, healthcare, old-age security, a good education, etc.  Harry Truman pushed for increased unemployment and Social Security benefits, full employment, increased worker safety protections, universal healthcare, public housing, public works, aid to veterans.  Lyndon Johnson ended racial segregation and provided medical care for seniors and the very poor.  And in the first real expansion of the welfare state since LBJ, Obama finally instituted (near) universal healthcare.  This all sounds a lot like social democracy.

But it’s not; it’s modern liberalism.  Both social democracy and modern liberalism support a robust welfare state, but for very different reasons.  Classical liberalism, as defined and expressed by thinkers like Locke, Smith and John Stuart Mill, held that individuals and their rights are logically and morally prior to society.  So no one has any natural claim of authority over anyone else and political power is legitimate only when individuals consent to it.  Classical liberal theory arose during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as the creaking feudal structure was replaced by the free market, nationalism, individual rights and representative democracy; all of these being instituted to allow individuals greater control over their own lives.  By the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries full-spectrum classical liberalism had become the established way of life in most advanced Western countries.

But once dominant its downsides became apparent.  Specifically, capitalism was generating enormous wealth, but that wealth was mostly going to the capitalists, not the workers, who were forced to work in terrible conditions for meager pay.  Also, capitalist economy went through dramatic boom-and-bust cycles, causing widespread hardship and social instability.  Socialism arose to explain these symptoms as manifestations of capitalism’s fundamental irrationality.  But liberalism’s critique of capitalism is based upon support for individual freedom and democracy and the desire for social stability.  That is, the completely free market leaves most workers with very little bargaining power, it constricts their options and their lives, it concentrates too much power in the hands of the rich, it corrupts the democratic process, and it opens the door to dangerous radical change.

Thus liberals tried to rescue workers from economic bondage, and save capitalism – their invention! – from its own excesses.  Hence, the liberal welfare state (which is generally a little milder than the social democratic version).  This new liberalism – using the state for the prudential amelioration of capitalism in order to increase individual freedom – was quite different from classical liberalism; it’s been called welfare state liberalism, welfarism, progressivism, social liberalism, modern liberalism.  That is, through a sort of convergent evolution, some socialists moved right and some liberals moved left and they met in the welfare state middle.  Their programs became very similar, but their respective ideological motivations remained unchanged, and therefore quite divergent.  Social democrats still considered capitalism exploitive at its heart; modern liberals still supported it in theory while wishing only to mitigate its most pernicious assaults on freedom and democracy.  But both gave up their utopian dreams – of pure socialist justice, and pure capitalist freedom, respectively – and accepted the good and bad in capitalism, once tamed by the welfare state.  To social democrats welfare-state capitalism is the least bad economic system that’s practically possible; to modern liberals it’s an improved version of an imperfect but essentially beneficial system.  A social democrat is a socialist who knows socialism is impossible; a modern liberal is liberal who knows that capitalism must be made better.

This is why it’s not fair to call Sanders a socialist; he’s clearly a fairly typical welfare state liberal, in the historically popular mold of the great 20th century New Deal liberals.  So why does he call himself a socialist?  Because liberalism has changed so much since Lyndon Johnson.  The success of modern conservatism and its electoral dominance, particularly since the rise of Ronald Reagan, subdued liberals.  Many, such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, became New Democrats, largely giving up the liberal critique of capitalism and promoting privatization and deregulation.  In technical terms they became neo-liberals, trying to achieve welfare-state ends through private means.  They partnered with conservatives to expand free trade, end the federal guarantee of social assistance to poor families, and deregulate banking and investment.  Old-fashioned welfare state liberalism lost its political leaders to conservative polices, its white working class constituency to racially charged right-wing populism, and its intellectual and cultural elite to libertine, cosmopolitan multiculturalism.

That is, post 60’s liberalism became much less focused on economic struggles and much more focused on issues of cultural emancipation: social equality for racial minorities, women, gays, etc.  This was partly the influence of countercultural movements like the hippies, feminists, black nationalists, etc., and also the influence of the New Left, that baby boomer, student movement against conformity, white supremacy and militarism.  New Leftists started the 60’s as reformist liberals hoping to cure then-dominant technocratic liberalism of its bureaucratic and paternalistic excesses, and create a racially healed, individually fulfilling and humane liberalism.  As liberalism was the conscience of capitalism, they aimed to be the conscience of liberalism.  But as that fateful decade proceeded and they felt the stinging disappointment of liberalism’s failure to end racial injustice and Cold War extremism, they came to see liberalism as the enemy of its putative humanitarian goals.  They became convinced that America was fundamentally compromised by racism, militarism and capitalism.  Most of them became social democrats; but many moved farther left, in fits and starts; some slid all the way to Communism; a small number even embraced Communism’s farther extremes, idealizing horrible tyrants like Mao, Kim and Hoxha.  Thus modern welfare-state liberalism lost its intellectual support to both its right and its left, though it still commanded a large, orphaned constituency among actual working people.

When he was a socialist, sort of.
Bernie Sanders is a child of the New Left.  Born in 1941, he’s a little bit older than the typical baby-boom New Leftist, but he was very much part of the counterculture, the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement, and the ideological opposition to capitalism.  That is, he once was an actual socialist, albeit something of a libertarian hippie one.  But as he became involved in electoral politics – mayor of the very liberal city of Burlington, Vermont, then independent Congressman from Vermont, and now Senator – his natural personal pragmatism moved him on both economic and cultural issues further to the right, that is, toward the old welfare-state liberal center.  As the rise of Reaganism moved welfare-state liberals over to neo-liberalism, it moved Bernie from vague socialism over to welfare-state liberalism. He was a New Leftist who came to understand the necessity of defending the welfare state against the conservative and neo-liberal onslaught of the last 40 years.  Now he’s a liberal who calls himself a socialist, but mostly because respectable establishment liberals as a whole abandoned real liberalism decades ago.  And that nicely explains why the primary defender of real liberalism is such an eccentric.

It has fallen to a New Leftist to rescue liberalism.  That someone came out of that starkly anti-liberal tradition to save liberalism is an irony too exquisite, but the justice is poetic, and the lesson is clear.  Just as socialism was an overreaction to the flaws of capitalism, New Leftist abandonment of the traditional welfare state was an overreaction to the compromises and half-broken promises of 20th century liberalism.  Socialism was never a real possibility in America – thank God! – and it still isn’t – thank God!  Even if Sanders were elected and somehow managed to institute his entire program, and even if the entire world came to call it socialism, it would still really just be modern liberalism, the most popular, successful, broadly prosperous, and humanitarian ideology since feudalism went sloughing off to its happy demise.  Bernie, welcome home.

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