“At the heart of Roosevelt’s program was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which greatly strengthened the hand of unions, essential parts of every welfare-capitalist order in the twentieth century, from Scandinavia to Canada. Sanders, astonishingly, didn’t once mention unions in his Georgetown speech. Roosevelt proposed a maximum income of twenty-five thousand dollars (the equivalent of about four hundred thousand dollars today), which we won’t be hearing from Sanders. Sanders’s socialism is a national living wage, free higher education, increased taxes on the wealthy, campaign-finance reform, and strong environmental and racial-justice policies.” – Jedediah Purdy in The New Yorker
A person returning from Bernie Sanders country (Vermont in NE USA) had this to say:
To my eyes the US appeared like a struggling and decaying third world living inside a first world country where a tiny fraction of the population is obscenely rich and in total control of the political process and economic life.
I saw private opulence for a few and struggle for the rest. Most of the low paid jobs in the hospitality industry belong to Hispanics and blacks who get paid about $5 an hour. Calls for a living wage of $15 an hour are shouted down as being communistic.
You don’t have to have slavery when you can buy labour at $5 an hour and throw it out into the street without an adequate safety net if it gets sick or old.
We travelled across the North East by train. This revealed a huge amount of empty and derelict industrial and commercial buildings with broken windows and walls and roofs. It also showed many decaying residential neighbourhoods with piles of rubbish thrown down the railway embankments.
Great for post apocalyptic movie sets. Coastal New England was different with mansions and yachts.
This article from the New Yorker maps out the new brand of anti-austerity politics arising in the North, whereas we in the Australia have not seen it here. The Labor Party and the Greens are still held within the capitalist thrall even though global recession appears about to bite hard.
Unfortunately Bernie Sanders only appeals to the people watching CNN and HBO … the religious right appear to influence the rest. In his speeches he does not mention any role for the unions. He is a libertarian who wants government not workers to control the agenda.
–Ian Curr 23 Nov 2015
PS The graphics are mine and did not appear in the original article. Thnx Gary ae.
Bernie Sanders’s New Deal Socialism
Now we finally know what Bernie Sanders means by “democratic socialism.” Speaking on his political philosophy at Georgetown yesterday, the Vermont senator and Democratic Presidential candidate opened with a long invocation of Franklin Roosevelt and the social protections that the New Deal created: minimum wages, retirement benefits, banking regulation, the forty-hour workweek. Roosevelt’s opponents attacked all these good things as “socialism,” Sanders reminded his listeners.
Curiously, Sanders seemed to agree with them, taking his definition of “socialism” from its nineteen-thirties opponents, the people Roosevelt called “economic royalists.” “Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me,” Sanders said. “It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans.”
This isn’t the first time Sanders has defined his position from the right flank of history. Pressed in the most recent Democratic debate to say how high he would take the marginal income tax, Sanders answered that it would be less than the ninety (actually ninety-two) per-cent level under the Eisenhower Administration. He added, to cheers and laughter, “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.”
But, of course, both Roosevelt and Eisenhower distinguished themselves vigorously from “socialism,” which they understood to be a revolutionary program of extreme equality, committed to centralized control of the economy, and a cat’s paw of Soviet power. Accusations of “socialism” trailed liberals for decades after Roosevelt parried his opponents, from Ronald Reagan’s attacks on Medicare to the Republicans’ refrain against Obamacare. Democrats, like Roosevelt, have furiously defended themselves against the charges. But now a candidate whose ideal American economy does in fact look a lot like Eisenhower’s—strong unions, secure employment, affordable college—is waving the red flag, and finding favor with large numbers of Democratic voters.
The new eagerness to embrace the word reflects the climate that a Pew poll captured, in 2011, when more respondents between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine reported a positive view of “socialism” (forty-nine per cent) than “capitalism” (forty-six per cent). (Gallup polls regularly find that a slim majority of Democrats express a positive view of socialism, but an overwhelming majority supports “free enterprise,” suggesting, charitably, some ideological flexibility.) Those under-thirty respondents are, of course, the first voters of the post-Soviet era, whose formative experiences are of a not very heroic unipolar world of American power and market-oriented ideas. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire put the word “socialism” up for grabs again: it may have landed in the dustbin of history at first, but that left it free for scavenging and repurposing.
A decade before the Wall fell, the United States saw the quieter but also momentous collapse of the pro-government consensus that dominated the middle of the twentieth century. The Eisenhower paradox—that he was a big-government, welfarist conservative—is no paradox at all: he led the center-right at a time when the center was deeply welfarist and big-government. American politics after the Second World War was founded on the core idea of the earlier Progressive movement, which both F.D.R. and his cousin Theodore championed: the old ideals of personal liberty, economic opportunity, and civic equality could not survive in a laissez-faire industrial economy. Values once associated with small government now needed big government—the regulatory state—to preserve them. So, in 1937, F.D.R. urged that government should “solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization,” and, in 1965, L.B.J. echoed him, warning that “change and growth seem to tower beyond the control and even the judgment of men.” Strong government was the answer: a counter-power to wealth and to economic crisis. Their world was also Dwight Eisenhower’s.
Ronald Reagan’s declaration, in his 1981 inaugural address, that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” announced a new era. Government did not in fact shrink, thanks largely to military spending and retirement benefits, but the willingness to say that it could provide what F.D.R. had called “a permanently safe order of things,” let alone F.D.R.’s economic “Second Bill of Rights,” was almost forgotten. The market was the new all-purpose solution, even before the Soviet collapse and the subsequent elevation of disruption, innovation, and self-branding as the language of emancipation.
So, between roughly 1979 and 1989, two figures went into the wilderness: the long-dominant American idea that strong government was necessary to humanize a market economy, and the word “socialism” as a name for a different kind of society. Exiled as opponents, they returned as friends. Bernie Sanders’s socialism is Eisenhower’s and F.D.R.’s world if Reagan had never happened: economic security updated by the continuing revolutions in gender, cultural pluralism, and the struggle for racial justice. In a word, Denmark; but also America with a counterfactual history of the last forty years.
The mid-century political settlement between government and markets that Eisenhower took for granted never really had a name. It was not a fighting faith. “Welfare capitalism,” which is a pretty accurate name for a market system that redistributes for common benefit, sounds like the worst of both worlds. “Socialism” is historically inaccurate, and using it to name Eisenhower-era welfarism may come at the cost of further burying its other, more radical meanings. But some of the term’s appeal, as a name for Sanders’s program, is that it sounds more radical than it is. The radical label accentuates the feeling that something has gone wrong in economic life. It marks the intensity of dissent.
In this way, Sanders’s use of the word harkens back to pre-Soviet, even pre-Marxist socialism. Then the term named a clutch of objections to industrial capitalism: the physical toll of the jobs, the equal and opposite toll of unemployment and economic crisis, widespread poverty and insecurity in a world where some lived in almost miraculous luxury. Assessing the socialists of the nineteenth century, whose programs ranged from the nationalization of industry to the creation of village coöperatives, John Stuart Mill doubted that they understood how markets worked, but he admitted their moral claims unreservedly: “The restraints of Communism would be freedom in comparison with the present condition of the majority of the human race.”
Mill predicted that capitalism would burn out its fuel of cupidity and become a realistic version of what socialists (and communists) wanted. Worker-owned co-ops would out-compete traditional enterprises by aligning workers’ motives with the company’s success. At the same time, with poverty overcome, people would care less about getting richer, and spend their time in what Mill felt made life worthwhile in the first place: conversation, friendship, appreciation of poetry and painting. His optimism came from faith that, once people had less to fear from material want and from one another, they would find new ways to coöperate without the narrowness and cruelty of old hierarchies. He applied exactly the same premises to the relations between men and women, insisting that absolute legal equality would spur new discoveries about how to live and who to be—new creativity in gender identity (not his term but certainly his thought) and new experiments in how equals could care for one another. This humanistic faith in gender equality was one of the most accurate social prophecies in modern thought, but the same faith in egalitarian coöperation was a nonstarter in economic life.
Mill was hardly alone in expecting capitalism to work out its kinks. Eisenhower’s world lacked a name for its settlement between government and markets partly because that settlement was the new normal, and the normal doesn’t need a name. Mature capitalism was supposed to produce only a moderate level of inequality. A strong government, staffed by public-minded experts, would iron out economic wrinkles. The remaining problems for reformers were remedial: bringing in previously excluded populations, especially African-Americans and isolated Appalachians. For those already on the inside, the challenges were those of what the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “the affluent society”: how to want less, enjoy life more, and help build a post-materialist paradise of humanism. It is no coincidence that L.B.J., who supported the civil-rights movement and launched the War on Poverty, also promoted the National Endowment for the Humanities to enrich the lives of those whose historical labors were over. He described his Great Society program as seeking an economy that satisfied “the desire for beauty and the hunger for community,” where “the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”
That is the lost world to which Sanders’s “socialism” points back. The return of the label, though, doesn’t mean that anyone knows how to get more radical than tacking toward Scandinavian social democracy, with its socialized health care and higher education and generous family leave. Sanders isn’t much of a socialist compared to F.D.R., either. At the heart of Roosevelt’s program was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which greatly strengthened the hand of unions, essential parts of every welfare-capitalist order in the twentieth century, from Scandinavia to Canada. Sanders, astonishingly, didn’t once mention unions in his Georgetown speech. Roosevelt proposed a maximum income of twenty-five thousand dollars (the equivalent of about four hundred thousand dollars today), which we won’t be hearing from Sanders. Sanders’s socialism is a national living wage, free higher education, increased taxes on the wealthy, campaign-finance reform, and strong environmental and racial-justice policies.
This is not a program for a different kind of economy, based on coöperation and deepened democracy— what socialism used to stand for, which powered it as both a threat and a hope. The heart of Sanders’s program, like F.D.R.’s, is economic security: like F.D.R., he argues that “true freedom does not occur” without it. In the same way, he sees a strong government as protecting individualism from an economy that bats people around like the gods in Greek dramas. Calling this once mainstream idea socialism is a way of saying how far it feels from where we find ourselves now, how radical a step it would be to get back to it.