WASHINGTON, April 17, 2016 — The success of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign indicates a change in political attitudes over the last generation. “Socialism,” once a toxic and dirty word in American politics, has been rehabilitated. A new generation of voters is casual, even proud to don the mantle of socialism.
They don’t understand socialism any better than they understand capitalism.
Sanders’ socialism wears a human face. “Democratic socialism” is, according to his supporters, consistent with leaving American business in private hands, just as it is now. It is consistent with democracy and liberty, even essential to their health, in marked contrast with the communist socialism of Eastern Europe. Socialism is Copenhagen, good food and free education, not the concrete wasteland and watery cabbage soup of Brezhnev’s Minsk.
The Democratic Socialists of America disagree. To them, “democratic socialism” means social ownership of economic institutions:
Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. Democratic socialists favor as much decentralization as possible. While the large concentrations of capital in industries such as energy and steel may necessitate some form of state ownership, many consumer-goods industries might be best run as cooperatives.
There’s an incongruity here. Either generations of Americans and socialists themselves have misunderstood socialism, or Sanders and his supporters misunderstand it.
How has socialism become chic again? How has it morphed in our minds from Moscow’s suburbs into the charming capitals of Scandinavia?
Consider Che Guevara.
Che has experienced a rehabilitation of sorts since his death. Benicio del Toro starred as Che in a pair of sympathetic movies directed by Steven Soderbergh, and Che himself even received a writing credit; the films were based in part on his journals. Robert Redford cast Gael Garcia Bernal as an earnest and sincere Che in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” after Bernal played the same character in “Fidel.”
Che’s visage shows up on T-shirts and dorm-room posters, and it is available everywhere from Amazon to Walmart. He’s an icon of “good” socialism, the socialism that might have been had Bukharin prevailed over Stalin in the Soviet Union, had Fidel not been pushed to unfortunate extremes by American intransigence, had the CIA not toppled Allende in a coup. He’s a bridge between the “Ho-ho-ho Chi Minh” socialism of the people’s republic of Berkeley and the teddy-bear socialism of Bernie Sanders.
But Che was a Stalinist, a racist and a thug. The ideology he pursued didn’t include room for Amazon or Walmart. It wasn’t about taking capitalism by the hand to help it be more just or rejiggering taxes to help the poor and middle class have healthy 401(k) retirement plans.
Che understood socialism a whole lot better than the starry-eyed young people who feel the Bern.
Socialism, like capitalism, is a set of institutions. In the case of capitalism, those institutions include contractual freedom, property rights, free markets and limited government. Critics of that view argue that it whitewashes capitalism and absolves it of its injustices. They replace it with a tautological model of their own: Capitalism is about profits, oppression, misogyny and racism, and about the tacky stuff you buy at Walmart (Che posters, for instance).
That defines capitalism by outcomes, and very specific ones at that. It’s like defining socialism by gulags, breadlines and old women who look just like the bags of potatoes they carry home.
Capitalist nations aren’t all the same, and neither capitalism nor socialism should be defined by specific results. So, admitting that socialism isn’t any more homogeneous than capitalism, what is socialism?
At its most basic, socialism is about government ownership of the economy. More serious discussions of it deal with such elements as soft budget constraints and attenuated property rights, but what really distinguishes economies we call “socialist” from those we call “capitalist” (economically free) is the share of the economy controlled by the government.
Sanders argues that he doesn’t intend to expand the scope or power of the U.S. government, but only break the link between Washington and big corporations and banks, but that isn’t socialism. In fact, the crony capitalism that Sanders deplores has more in common with socialism than with capitalism; free-marketers hate crony capitalism more than Sanders does.
If Sanders fails to expand government control of the economy, his socialist supporters will have cause to feel betrayed. Expand it he will, but Democratic socialism is not what he’s selling.
He might more accurately be described as a social democrat. In a social democracy, business and industry remains in the hands of private owners, just as Sanders advocates. Government then steps in to redistribute the gains more aggressively than it does in other capitalist economies.
The United States is not a capitalist economy. Government already provides a wide range of goods and services, with general government final consumption expenditure at 14.7 percent of GDP in 2014. Only 14.7 percent? Doesn’t government tax away almost a third of the economy? Yes, it does, but much of that is redistributed.
If we tax John to give to Mary without providing goods and services directly to Mary, we aren’t dealing with socialism, but with redistribution. If we take John’s business, that’s socialism.
Bernie Sanders’ proposals are both socialist and redistributive. His plan to make public universities free isn’t socialist; he won’t take those universities out of private hands. He intends to transfer wealth from some taxpayers to students, and that’s redistribution. On the other hand, his plan to take our healthcare system to a single-payer model is flat-out socialist.
If the distinction strikes you as artificial and academic, you’re wrong; it’s not. It is important to understand what we’re talking about when we define “socialism” and “capitalism” (“economic freedom” is a better term for that). Denmark isn’t the United States, but it isn’t the USSR or Cuba, either. China has adopted free markets, but it isn’t a capitalist state.
Sanders mislabeled himself and his policies. He does seem determined to expand the scope of government power and action by large-scale redistribution of wealth with the goal of creating a social-democratic state. That enterprise has its own perils, but it isn’t a step on the way to the nasty worlds of Lenin, Fidel, Che and Mao.
Sanders and his followers are sloppy or lazy or both. Those of them who know exactly what socialism is have a poor grasp of history. Socialism isn’t about warm and fuzzy concepts like “social justice,” but about power, and it puts that power directly in the hands of government.
Yet the debate isn’t about pure economic freedom versus unbounded government power, but about where we want to sit on the spectrum between them. And if redistribution isn’t socialism, it sugars the socialist pill. There is a legitimate debate between those who want more socialism and those who want less. The debate isn’t helped by confusing its terms.
*Cartoon by Branco. Reprinted by arrangement and with permission from ComicallyIncorrect.