Posts Tagged ‘socialism’

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“Surprise” is one such word. That’s what would happen if Bernie Sanders comes within five points of Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus tonight. We forget that, just a few months ago, the democratic socialist candidate was down by 15 points. Now, he’s narrowed the gap, and the outcome is all going to depend on the turnout.

It’s no surprise, of course, that liberals have taken to attacking the left-wing Senator’s proposals—such as single-payer healthcare and public funding of higher education—as too costly, ultimately unfeasible, and, when all else fails, as opening the door to a November victory for one of the Republican candidates.

That’s their response to the potential surprise in Iowa.

But there’s another surprise, and that’s conservative commentator Peggy Noonan’s column on socialism’s “second life” in the Wall Street Journal.

Clearly struck by Sanders’s ability to connect with his audience—with a message that is “somber, grim, even dark” but also “clear and easy to understand,” Noonan’s explains that “what he says marks a departure from the ways the Democratic Party has been operating for at least a generation now.”

Formally, since 1992, the Democratic Party has been Clintonian in its economics—moderate, showing the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council. Free-market capitalism is something you live with and accept; the wealth it produces can be directed toward public programs and endeavors. The Clinton administration didn’t hate Wall Street, it hired Wall Street. Big government, big Wall Street—it all worked. It was the Great Accommodation, and it was a break with more-socialist approaches of the past.

All this began to shatter in the crash of 2008, not that anyone noticed—it got lost in the Obama hoopla. In March 2009, when Mr. Obama told Wall Street bankers at the White House that his administration was the only thing standing between them and “the pitchforks,” he was wittingly or unwittingly acknowledging the Great Accommodation.

The rise of Bernie Sanders means that accommodation is ending, and something new will take its place.

As Noonan sees it, the new tendency Sanders represents is “here to stay.”

For so many, 2008 shattered faith in the system—in its fairness, usefulness and efficacy, even in its ability to endure.

As for the young, let’s say you’re 20 or 30, meaning you’ll be voting for a long time. What in your formative years would have taught you about the excellence of free markets, low taxes, “a friendly business climate”? A teacher in public high school? Maybe one—the faculty-lounge eccentric who boycotted the union meetings. And who in our colleges teaches the virtues of capitalism?

If you are 20 or 30 you probably see capitalism in terms of two dramatic themes. The first was the crash of ’08, in which heedless, irresponsible operators in business and government kited the system and scrammed. The second is income inequality. Why are some people richer than the richest kings and so many poor as serfs? Is that what capitalism gives you? Then maybe we should rethink this!

And Mr. Sanders makes it sound so easy. We’re rich, he says; we can do this with a few taxes. It is soft Marxism. And it’s not socialism now, it’s “democratic socialism” like they have in Europe. You’ve been to Europe. Aside from its refugee crisis and some EU problems, it’s a great place—a big welfare state that’s wealthy! The French take three-hour lunches.

Socialism is an old idea to you if you’re over 50 but a nice new idea if you’re 25.

Do you know what’s old if you’re 25? The free-market capitalist system that drove us into a ditch.

I think that’s right. 2008 was a watershed, and not just for those under 25. The fact is, capitalism has failed in terms of its own premises and promises—”just deserts,” stable growth, full employment—and, while liberals continues to defend it (with perhaps a few more interventions and regulations), socialists like Sanders argue that we can do better.

What that means is that socialism is losing a great deal of its fear factor and has acquired a new set of resonances for workers, both young and old. It represents what we’ve done right in the past, and what we can do even better now and in the future.

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I’ve been telling friends for weeks that it was going to get ugly. If and when the race on the Democratic side tightened in Iowa and New Hampshire, the gloves would come off.

And now they have.

David Brock, a Clinton supporter and founder of a super PAC that coordinates with her campaign told The Wall Street Journal that, if Mr. Sanders were to win the nomination, his democratic socialist identity would trigger a Republican rout in the general election.

Clinton allies with ties to her campaign are highlighting past statements Mr. Sanders has made that, they say, are at odds with America’s market-based, capitalist economy and its two-party political system. . .

“Democratic voters need to know before they vote what’s in the Republican arsenal on Sen. Sanders,” Mr. Brock said. “It’s clear that when Republicans…get done with Sanders, we’ll have President Trump or President Cruz.”

In the interview, Mr. Brock mentioned various speeches and interviews given by Mr. Sanders when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt., in the 1980s and a congressman in the 1990s. He cited an article published in a Vermont newspaper in January 1984 that quoted then-Mayor Sanders saying he was unique “in not believing in the capitalist system.”

This, of course, is the same David Brock who, after a stint as a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, authored a sharply critical story about Clarence Thomas’s accuser, Anita Hill, in The American Spectator magazine (which he later expanded into a book, The Real Anita Hill).

And then we have Paul Krugman, who has followed up on his version of the “art of the possible” by attacking those on the Left—where “there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions”—for veering into “destructive self-indulgence.”

Krugman’s view is that “current polling is meaningless, because [Sanders] has never yet faced their attack machine.”

Well, Sanders is now facing the red-baiting attack machine, and it’s coming from inside his own party.

Addendum

One never knows how representative comments on columns are but the latest Krugman column has been challenged by many respondents, including fg from Ann Arbor, Michigan:

Oh oh, Mr. Krugman, it appears that your idealism has veered into destructive self-indulgence, but please don’t paint the rest of us believers with the same brush. You sound exhausted, we’re not. We absolutely must continue to fight for the ideals, promises and potential of this nation, even if it means backing an irascible old social democrat, a Don Quixote, because he is not tilting at windmills, he is tilting at real danger to our existence as a free and enlightened nation.

And then there’s BH from Houston, Texas:

The best way to make sure change doesn’t happen is to not even try. Single-payer may not be politically feasible with the current Congress, but political capital can be created; Congress is not immutable. Millennials support Sanders by a 3:1 margin, and their influential electorally will only grow in the coming decades.

“No we can’t!” is not a smart strategy, politically, intellectually or emotionally by Clinton and her surrogates (fishing for a position in her administration, Paul?).

Enjoy-socialism

OK, maybe not all of us. Not even a majority of us.

But a little-noticed data point in the new Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa poll, in fact, shows that 43 percent of likely voters in the 1 February Democratic caucuses say they would use the word “socialist” to describe themselves.

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And to be clear: this question was not whether they would vote for a socialist or sympathize with socialism; it’s whether they consider themselves socialist.

One way of thinking about the Bernie Sanders campaign is in terms of the possibility of dethroning Hillary Clinton, upsetting the party machine, and actually winning the Democratic nomination.

Another way, though, is that Sanders is holding up a mirror to the American electorate, which is showing itself to be very different from the ways it is usually represented. That new self-recognition can be a catalyst not only for Sanders, but also for other socialist political movements in the years ahead.

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The editor, Casey Harison, has informed us that A New Social Question: Capitalism, Socialism and Utopia has just been published.

A New Social Question: Capitalism, Socialism and Utopia brings together a selection of papers presented at the conference on “Capitalism and Socialism: Utopia, Globalization and Revolution” at New Harmony, Indiana, in 2014. New Harmony is best known as the site of industrialist Robert Owen’s experiment in communal living in 1825, and it was Owen’s legacy that drew scholars from across the Atlantic. Owen’s work and his experiment at New Harmony again have currency as the world looks back on the 2008 economic crisis and as “socialism,” seemingly banished with the failure of experiments in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at the end of the last century has returned to the political and economic lexicon. As David Harvey, Thomas Piketty and Joyce Appleby have lately reminded us, capitalism, particularly the forms it has assumed since 1945, is probably exceptional, perhaps ephemeral, but also dynamic and resilient. If the Great Recession has derailed personal lives, destabilized economies and unnerved politicians, it has also reminded us that we have not reached the “end of history.” Where there was once a Social Question, there is now a New Social Question. This edited, multi-disciplinary volume will appeal to readers in political science, economics, history, sociology, anthropology, literature, communications and cultural studies, and to academic audiences in North America, Britain and elsewhere.

My own contribution, “Utopia and the Marxian Critique of Political Economy,” a revised version of the plenary talk I gave at the conference, is the concluding chapter.

For the record, the relationship between utopia and critique is also the topic of the book I’ll be working on next year.

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Special mention

Political Cartoon -- Santa Socialist, Pat Oliphant incomeineq_590_438

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There are, of course, many different definitions of “socialism”—what it is and what it is not.

That’s not new. Socialism has been intensely debated and variously defined since the term was first invented in the early nineteenth century in Western Europe, especially after it became “respectable” by the middle of that century. But it is interesting that socialism was the most looked-up word on Merriam-Webster’s web site this year.

“Socialism has been near the top of our online dictionary look-up list for several years,” said editor-at-large Peter Sokolowsk. “However, this year look-ups for socialism moved up even further, beginning with the July campaign events for Bernie Sanders, remaining high throughout the following months and spiking again after the first Democratic debate in October.”

Merriam-Webster said that the fact that Sanders has embraced socialism “shows the term has moved beyond its cold war associations”.

Unfortunately, the three main definitions offered by Merriam-Webster actually reflect its Cold War associations. Its usage discussion is a bit more accurate:

It refers to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control, but the conception of that control has varied, and the term has been interpreted in widely diverging ways, ranging from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal.

What is important right now is that curiosity about and interest in socialism are clearly on the rise. There will be plenty of time to debate the term—what is has meant historically (beginning with the so-called utopian socialists), what it means now (e.g., in the still-evolving Sanders campaign), and what it might mean (in the concrete circumstances of the United States and elsewhere)—if that curiosity and interest continue to grow.

 

Yesterday, Bernie Sanders made the case that democratic socialism is a thoroughly American tradition, best exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Peter Dreier recently made a similar argument:

Because the word “socialism” has been demonized, few Americans call themselves socialists or even social democrats. But public opinion polls — including the Pew Research Center, Hart Research Associates and The New York Times/CBS — show that a vast majority of Americans agree with what Sanders actually stands for.

For example, 74% think corporations have too much influence; 73% favor tougher regulation of Wall Street; 60% believe that “our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy;” 85% want an overhaul of our campaign finance system to reduce the influence of money in politics; 58% support breaking up big banks; 79% think the wealthy don’t pay their fair share of taxes; 85% favor paid family leave; 80% of Democrats and half the public support single-payer Medicare for all; 75% of Americans (including 53% of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50, while 63% favor a $15 minimum wage; well over 70% support workers’ rights to unionize; and 92% want a society with far less income disparity.

On those matters — both broad principles and specific policy prescriptions — Sanders is in sync with the vast majority of Americans. There’s a great deal of pent-up demand for a candidate who articulates Americans’ frustrations with the status quo. That’s what American socialists have been doing for over a century. Indeed, socialism is as American as apple pie.

Dreier’s examples of U.S. socialists include “some of the nation’s most influential activists and thinkers, such as Jane Addams, John Dewey, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King, Eugene V. Debs, and Gloria Steinem.”

Let me add a few others, off the top of my head, from various walks of life and eras of U.S. history: Mark Twain, Malcolm X, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kurt Vonnegut, Ed Asner, Woody Guthrie, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Jay Gould, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, Harry Belafonte, Edward Bellamy, Ron Dellums, John Dewey, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Meridel Le Sueur, Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright Mills, Robert Dale Owen, Upton Sinclair, and so on.

There have also been many socialist mayors in the United States—including, of course, Sanders himself.