Among other services, Senator Bernie Sanders has freed up some banned political terminology. Suddenly we can talk about socialism and the ruling class. Can Karl Marx be far behind?
Considering the variety of systems in Western Europe and elsewhere, socialism is an elastic concept. The traditional definition, I would argue, is the least relevant today. That is, if socialism is the means of production owned and run by the State on the basis of a centrally formulated economic plan, then there is no socialism, and there isn’t going to be. At the risk of losing several score Facebook friends, I have to say nobody of consequence is campaigning for such a transformation.
I spent some time in graduate school studying economic planning. It’s not going to happen. Too many variables to enumerate, too much data required, too many equations to solve. That might change with super-duper computing advances, but as far as I can see, it’s science fiction for the foreseeable future.
The relevant, forward component of socialist program today is state ownership of limited types of enterprises. Public broadband. Postal savings banks. The power grid. Sovereign wealth funds. We can also imagine worker ownership and/or management of individual firms or places of work. All of these are visible in different forms today. They are not a stretch to imagine. The irony is that they have been mostly outside the scope of the Sanders campaign.
While Bernie would probably be congenial to all of these approaches, his actual campaign is focused on building out our current, feeble welfare state and getting to full employment. Expanding Social Security, health care, support for higher education, etc. Is that democratic socialism”? Hey it’s America. We’re all entitled to our own definitions. I think the term “social-democratic” is more appropriate, if a little awkward as phraseology.
The heart of the U.S. welfare state, as well as social-democratic systems in other countries, is social insurance. Here it includes Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Compensation. The basic features are universality and benefits requited by contributions. The most prominent components of the Sanders platform are single-payer health insurance and “free college.”
We could have nice wonky discussions about the myriad, hairy details of these proposals, but the Clintons’ objections did not hinge on technical policy design. They opposed the basic principle of universality. This came in the form of denunciations of such program benefits being available to the rich, or worse, to “Donald Trump’s kids.” This should not be accepted as a progressive view. It is unworthy of any respectable Democrat. You might even say it is “right out of Karl Rove’s playbook.”
The criticism is a superficial appeal to progressive policy and economic equality. The fact is that the great, social-democratic systems of Europe are powered by mass consumption taxes that finance big spending programs. The most powerful, time-tested tool against inequality is universal social insurance, not means-tested benefits. The prominence of the latter in the U.S. welfare state is a bug, not a feature. Trading social insurance for means-testing is a concession to inequality. Sometimes such concessions can facilitate reasonable bargains for greater benefits, sometimes concessions are required in adversity. The problem is elevating such a device as a basic ideal.
A principled progressive would have welcomed discussion of Sanders’ proposals, rather than revert to bromides about fiscal austerity. The simple truth is that any universal benefit financed by progressive taxation will retain a net, progressive redistributive impact. This is not an economic theory; it’s arithmetic. Nobody has suggested that Sanders’ tax proposals are not progressive. Of course the practicality of any proposal is fair game, but that was not the basis for most criticism. Instead we had ostensibly liberal Democratic Party politicians upholding the tenets of neoliberalism.
I should offer a definition, perhaps idiosyncratic, of neoliberalism, since I will be referring to it again. My preferred definition is an ideology that prioritizes market arrangements over state provision of public services, state ownership of capital, and expansive public budgets, including universal social benefits. There are perfectly reasonable neoliberal arguments that apply to particular cases. Progressive does not imply good and good is not limited to ‘progressive.’ I would simply insist that neoliberal positions be distinguished from progressive ones. A little consistency in labeling ought to facilitate conversation.