I’ll admit I’m of two minds about all the positive references to European socialism these days. I’ve read enough police procedurals by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall to know all is not well in the kind of social democracy that many countries in Europe managed to build in the postwar period. More seriously, I think we’re setting our sights too low if our horizon is limited to what some sectors of some European countries have been able to achieve (and, of course, what they’ve left untouched)—not to mention the forms of austerity European socialists have been attempting to manage after the crash of 2007-08 and their unwillingness to deal with the current massive inflow of refugees.
On the other hand, there’s something useful in challenging the constraints imposed on discussions in the United States by referring to the kinds of life and work people have been able to create in Western Europe. Bernie Sanders, to take one prominent example, refers to universal healthcare, free public education, better childcare, and higher wages in Denmark and Sweden as examples Americans might emulate.
And then there’s Chantal Panozzo’s description [ht: sm] of the differences between working in the United States and in Switzerland.
A hiring manager at an American company who interviewed me recently for a permanent position asked me how much vacation I wanted. When I said four weeks, which is the legal Swiss minimum, she paused and said O.K., but then informed me that I would need to check my phone and email during this time.
I responded that checking my email on vacation wasn’t my definition of a vacation. She didn’t know what to say. Finally, she grudgingly said they could write it into my contract that I wouldn’t have to check my email during vacation. But the situation made me wonder, once again, if a country that bred this kind of culture was a place where I wanted to spend the rest of my working life.
Later, when I asked a different American company about the possibility of working part time, four days a week, they said they didn’t know how that would work. I tried to explain how I had successfully worked part time in several jobs overseas — even creating television commercials while doing so, but it was no use. I was fighting a culture that was not ready for my “radical” Swiss ideas. The fact that it was my own culture — supposedly so advanced and creative — only made things worse.
So, what role does European socialism play in our current debates about life and work? Well, it shows, in a very concrete way, that things in the United States don’t have to be the way they are. “Look,” we can say, “they manage to do it over there. And we’re an even richer country. Imagine what we could do here.”
But then we can also say, there are more far-reaching changes we can make to enhance the life and work of the majority of the population—even more than European socialism has thus far been able to achieve.