Before social democracy retreated, socialists foresaw the dangers of insufficiently radical reforms. In the 1970’s and 1980’s European socialist theorists such as Nicos Poulantzas and Andre Gortz joined Harrington in warning that if the left failed to socialize control over investment , the corporate drive for profit would lead capital to abandon the “social contract” compromise of the welfare state. Socialist governments in France, Sweden and elsewhere pushed for democratizing investment. But capital immediately fought back, beginning with the CIA –aided overthrow of Allende regime in Chile in 1973 and continued with French capital’s strike of the 1980’s. In the face of the onslaught, democracy and old style liberalism began to crumble.
“The Problem is Capitalism”, Joseph M Schwartz and Maria Svart
IN “LEAN SOCIALIST: WHY LIBERALISM NEEDS SOCIALISM and vice versa- ( May 2013) Bhaskar Sunkara calls for the rebirth of a socialist movement that would work alongside liberals for immediate gains for working people, while simultaneously offering a vision of a socialist society that would extend democracy into the economic sphere. And at the same time the movement would fight for the structural reforms most likely to lead toward that goal. We at Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) including our founding co-chair Michael Harrington, have always embraced this strategy. The problem? Socialists become indistinguishable from liberals and a strong labor movement disappeared, swept away when the tides of “neoliberalism moved in.”
As Barbara Ehrenreich frequently noted in the 1990’s , with liberals and social democrats endorsing Clinton’s and Blair’s “kinder and gentler” dismantling of welfare state, socialists were often the last defenders of the liberal gains of the 1930’s and 1960’s. But to go beyond liberalism, we absolutely agree with Sunkara that work must be done alongside movement activists, rather than so called liberal technocrats. Socialists need to teach the liberals to fight again. But how?
First we must remind liberals of history. Before social democracy retreated, socialists foresaw the dangers of insufficiently radical reforms. In the 1970’s and 1980’s European socialist theorists such as Nicos Poulantzas and Andre Gortz joined Harrington in warning that if the left failed to socialize control over investment , the corporate drive for profit would lead capital to abandon the “social contract” compromise of the welfare state. Socialist governments in France, Sweden and elsewhere pushed for democratizing investment. But capital immediately fought back, beginning with the CIA –aided overthrow of Allende regime in Chile in 1973 and continued with French capital’s strike of the 1980’s. In the face of the onslaught, democracy and old style liberalism began to crumble. This time around, liberals must recognize the true enemy and embrace radical reform. Socialists will be there to push them to do so.
Second, we must remind liberals that racism and the center and right’s use of a radicalized politics played a central role in the rise of neoliberalism. Thatcher’s and Reagan’s opportunistic attack on income based child support for single mothers (aka welfare) played a major role in constructing a right wing majority. Though the main beneficiaries of means tested “welfare” were white Clinton passed “welfare reform” to rein in mythical, nonwhite “welfare queens.” This distracted the public from Corporate America’s job killing deindustrialization and out sourcing policies. So since conscious socialists are but a small part of the American public, how do we build the revived left that Sunkara calls for? Clearly we need an anti-racist radical movement capable of refuting pervasive myths about the US welfare state. The emergence of a militant immigration rights movement and low wage worker’s movement will be central to the left and labor revival, as will the resistance of under employed and indebted college graduates.
We take heart along with Sunkara that younger people are favorable (or at least open) in their attitude to socialism. But 30 years of neoliberalism capitalist state policies have fostered a deep skepticism about politics. Many find it hard to envision mass movements winning reforms in state policies that would improve their lives. Sunkara is right to issue his impassioned plea to “lean socialism”, and young people are joining the socialist movement, in part due to the invaluable intellectual work that he and his colleagues carry out in the Jacobin magazine.
But even if the socialist left can break out of its at times sectarian and insular culture, we are unlikely to become a mass movement overnight. We know that socialist renewal in the United States (whatever its organizational form) will only occur on the terrain of the democratic socialist tradition of Eugene V Debs. To build an effective socialist presence in America we will have to learn from our past and look to our future, building a movement vibrant and open enough to attract a diverse new generation of activists. Such a revived socialist movement will have to speak to constituencies far beyond the current reach of Jacobin, In these times or DSA.
No system can sustain lots of free riders, work is what we all owe the commons. But technology has reduced the work we need to do to sustain a decent standard of living, we can use this to improve the human condition or use it to create a privileged class and mass poverty for many of the rest.
Over a hundred years ago, technology enabled the US to have one of the world’s first economies of surplus, instead of scarcity. Nobody actually *had* to starve, any longer. We hadmore food than we could eat, and other goods rapidly followed. Economies of surplus have permitted welfare states to appear, in the more highly developed countries. But these states suffer from an internal “contradiction”, to use the old Marxist term- they
encourage the growth of an idle mob, who is now beginning to outnumber the productive people in many countries, including this one. They have got the votes to keep the welfare state growing, honoring their one and only rule of life, which is GIMME, GIMME, GIMME !!!
And so the welfare state has created a majority of idle consumers, supported by an ever-shrinking productive class. It’s mass welfare for most of us, and having one’s production taxed away to pay for this, for the rest of us.