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The Limits of Social Democracy Will Test the US Left

Social democracy exposes social programs to the power of private capital, even as it tries to protect them from it.

Sen. Bernie Sanders watches during the State of the Union address in the chamber of the US House of Representatives January 30, 2018, in Washington, DC.

While Americans are bitterly divided on many things, there is one concept where there has long been agreement: Most the country thinks the economy favors the rich at the expense of everybody else. Who is to blame? Who to vote for? Those questions are greatly disputed. Still, a strong majority of the country feels they are being screwed.

In many countries, this economic anxiety is countered with social democracy, which seeks to build a strong social safety net within a capitalist society. Social democracy has roots in Marxism but represents a shift in thinking toward reformism that took place in the latter half of the 21st century. Rather than try to revolt against capitalism, social democrats attempt to contain its excesses and provide the public with a safety net. Nobody should want for, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, the “minimum elements necessary to lead a dignified American life.”

Social democrats propose that freedom is not merely absence from government intervention, but the financial autonomy to make “uncoerced decisions” about their lives. This generally includes polices aimed at curbing inequality and providing public goods. In most social democracies, this means national universal health care systems, tuition-free college, weeks of paid vacation, stronger worker compensation and unemployment, elder care, child care and so on. Polls show people who live in social democracies (which exist in various parts of Europe, especially Scandinavia) are a lot happier than Americans.

Many fear social democracy is dying in Europe but appears to be growing in the US. The recent growth of the left in the US, reflected by the popularity of figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, has put social democracy back on the table in the Democratic Party, which has shifted to the right over the last 30 years, especially on social policy.

In this sense, the Sanders-inspired “political revolution” is a break from neoliberalism, though not capitalism. Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, but by modern definitions, he is a moderate social democrat — a typical center-left politician. Sanders’s major proposals — guaranteed health care, paid family leave, tuition-free college — are binding human rights, according to the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Still, in celebrating social democratic policies — namely the New Deal and the Nordic Model — on his way to becoming, by some metrics, the most popular politician in the country, Sanders has fundamentally shifted the discourse within Democratic Party. When former Obama cabinet member Julian Castro announced he was running for president, he was asked by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes what he would do first if elected. “Health care,” he said, before pressed for specifics. “I believe we need Medicare for All.” This is nothing short of remarkable. In the last five Democratic primaries, only three candidates have supported Medicare for All (Sanders in 2016, Dennis Kucinich in 2004 and 2008, and Mike Gravel in 2008).

It is not just health care where this influence is seen. Many prominent Democrats, including potential presidential candidates, have been adopting progressive stances, in some cases mirroring Sanders’s own tactics and policies. For instance, Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kristen Gillibrand have announced they would reject certain donations from corporate PACs. They have all co-sponsored Sanders’s Medicare for All bill in the Senate as well. In 2016, even Hillary Clinton took a sharp left on some issues like minimum wage and trade, presumably in an attempt to adjust to a leftward shift among many members of the Democratic base. In the 2018 midterms, 44 percent of primary candidates described themselves as progressive, according to the Brookings Institution, up from 29 percent in 2016.

This is a sign of growing strength among the US left. However, while the rebirth of social democracy in the US would be an important step in minimizing suffering and mobilizing the working class, it is crucial that the left also looks beyond social democracy, as Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman implored in their seminal 1985 essay. This is because there is an inherent paradox in social democracy, as it is understood today: It exposes social programs to the power of private capital, even as it tries to protect them from it.

“[Social democracy] has, in essence, been a project of moderate reform within the framework of capitalism, a striving, at best, to achieve a better deal for organized labor and the ‘lower income groups’ inside capitalist society,” the essay reads. “The most it has ever striven to achieve is capitalism with a more human face.”

The lesson in that Miliband and Liebman’s essay is still quite relevant. As the left rallies around these much-needed reforms, it must also be aware of the limitations of reform and social democracy, as well as their utility.

“Social programs like Medicare for All are great. We should pursue them, but without illusions,” said Steve Maher, assistant editor of the Socialist Register, in an interview with Truthout. The Socialist Register, founded by Miliband, is an influential left journal, published annually in Canada. “We need to see the limitations of social democracy. It is designed to preserve and contain capitalism, not to confront it.”

The Decline of Social Democracy in Europe

The roots of modern social democracy stem from the post-World War II era, when European nations started to, as Columbia University Associate Professor of Political Science Sheri Berman notes, “construct a new order, one that could ensure economic growth while at the same time protecting societies from capitalism’s destructive consequences.”

She adds:

After 1945 the state became generally understood to be the guardian of society rather than the economy, and economic imperatives were often forced to take a back seat to social ones. Throughout Western Europe, states explicitly committed themselves to managing markets and protecting society from its most destructive effects, with the two most oft-noted manifestations of this being Keynesianism and the welfare state.

Social democracy reigned in Europe for the rest of the century and beyond. But there are concerns about its fate currently, as its influence wanes across the world, especially in Europe.

“Social democracy, the most influential force in European politics for decades, is dying,” observed Matthew Karnitschnig, chief correspondent for Politico Europe, and this could lead to political fragmentation and instability. He noted that in 2018, social democratic parties lost power in countries across Europe, a still-evolving trend. The Financial Times recently devoted many thousands of words on the stumbling Social Democratic Party in Germany, “the birthplace of social democracy.”

Part of this decline can be blamed on the Third Way policies pushed by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair starting in the 1990s. This tactic, which was also used by President Bill Clinton and other Democrats, pushed social democrats further to the right and urged parties to embrace “market-friendly” policies, such openly calling for privatization of schools and cutting student grants. It also supported an interventionist foreign policy: Blair committed his country to be part of President George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Turning Points for the US Left

It took a massive economic crisis to prompt the first New Deal. One wonders if the most recent economic crisis could eventually lead to the next one.

We are now 10 years removed from the near collapse of the economy in 2008. Many Americans were greatly impacted by the economic hardship they faced in the Great Recession that followed. The financial crash of 2008 demonstrated that the wealthy financiers and titans of private capital play by a different set of rules from the working class. It was evidence of the inherent flaws of relying on a “free-market” system (especially after 30 years of deregulation).

It also landed extremely hard on young people. Since then, many younger people have shunned not only conservative, free-market dogmas, but capitalism itself — and in record numbers. This occurred in the middle of a still ongoing student debt crisis that was saddling young people with a lifetime of debt in the worst job market since the Great Depression (while, of course, yielding massive profits for banks, colleges and the Department of Education).

All of this has been an important factor in a strengthening of the US left. In the midst of the Great Recession, Occupy Wall Street took off, creating by some estimates more than 1,000 occupations (in the form of tent cities) in more than 80 countries. The Occupy movement was, in general, unapologetically radical, had little use for politicians, political parties or voting, and was run via anarchist-style consensus building.

It had its limitations, and the physical tent cities of resistance were all either crushed by state force or abandoned over time. But the movement brought an extremely important concept into the public sphere: “We are the 99 percent.” By describing the world in these terms — the super wealthy vs. everyone else, worker vs. owner — many Americans gained a better understanding of class without having to read Das Kapital.

Occupy’s influence was arguably a precursor to the success of Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. That campaign adopted many of the same themes as Occupy, but took them to the voting booth rather than the streets. This had benefits and drawbacks. The Sanders campaign had benefits the Occupy movement did not: a staggering ability to raise money, a national audience in televised debates and specific policies to rally around. But the electoral route had its own problems. Sanders had to deal with a hostile party apparatus that helped nominate a losing candidate in 2016.

“Some on the left have reservations about the electoral process, and they have legitimate grievances, but I think [that] we are starting to see that it is much better to try and succeed both on the grassroots and in elections,” author and activist Norman Solomon told Truthout.

Social Democracy and War

Prior to the economic crisis, left-leaning voters were motivated more by opposition to the “Bush Doctrine,” the Iraq War and torture. This helped the Democrats take back Congress in 2006. It also helped Barack Obama — who opposed the war but was a senator with no say in foreign policy at the time — to defeat in the 2008 presidential primary a group of candidates (including Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards) who voted for the war.

Since then, foreign policy has fallen down the priority list for much of the left. For Sanders, this has never been an especially strong area. “To this day, I have not heard Sanders cite capitalism as a reason for war and imperialism,” the Socialist Register’s Maher said. “This is a problem.”

Solomon has long tried to confront Sanders on this issue, including signing a letter asking him to focus on US foreign policy, not merely domestic policies. The senator has responded at times. He recently sponsored the Senate bill to end US intervention in Yemen. He also refused to speak at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, and instead wrote a speech that addressed the oppression of the Palestinian people.

“We need to hold politicians, even ones who we think hold great positions on some issues, to account when they do not step up,” Solomon said. “We need to say, ‘I am grateful for your passion for economic justice, but we need you to be equally aggressive in changing what Martin Luther King [Jr.] called ‘the madness of US militarism.’”

Could social democracy help address the foreign policy issues that plague the US: endless war, rampant defense spending, and state support for dictators and brutal suppression? Not necessarily, if European social democrats are any indication.

“Social democracy played a notable — and utterly dishonourable — role in the post-war decades in waging war, or in supporting the waging of war, against independence movements in the colonial territories of their countries,” Miliband and Liebman’s essay reads.

This is a concern, but there is reason for optimism. Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, has been speaking out about Israeli massacres against the Palestinians and has been pushing for cuts to military spending to pay for social programs. Her website has pointed language that laments the US imperial agenda as well.

“Revolutionary Reformism”

The debate between revolution and reform is as old as the left itself. The growth of momentum behind a strong social democrat (by US standards) creates an important opportunity to discuss these matters. As the left grows in influence, its tactics have greater stakes.

Further, there are some, such as John B. Judis, who argue social democracy is the “kind of socialism we need.” US socialists “need to recognize that what is necessary now — and also conceivable — is not to abolish capitalism, but to create socialism within it,” he wrote in 2017. Jacobin magazine published a rejoinder:

[W]e urgently need the reforms that Judis and the movement around Bernie Sanders advocate for. No democratic socialist could oppose efforts to guarantee public provision of basic needs and take key aspects of economic and social life like education, health care, and housing out of the market … But we have moral reasons to demand something more.

This gets to the crux of the debate that Miliband and Liebman made years ago. They argue, along with Maher and other contemporary leftists, that the choice between reform and revolution is not binary. Some sort of “revolutionary reformism” will be needed to look “beyond social democracy” — but not past it.

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