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  • Paul D. Wilke

Seeing Red


The idea of socialism is having a bit of a revival these days. The socialist magazine Jacobin has nearly tripled its subscriber base since 2015, now boasting over 30,000 paying subscribers (me included) and over a million website visits per month. Other main-stream media outlets with left-leaning editorial pages like the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic have seen subscriptions soar since President Trump's election in 2016. We're having an interesting moment, and one offering the possibility of a more progressive (left) direction for society. Given the rise in income inequality since the 1980s, and the extreme skepticism toward Washington that a majority of Americans now feel, many are challenging the assumption that capitalism is the answer to all of our economic problems.

This assumption has been dogma since at least the end of the Cold War. As the myth goes, the free market's triumph over communism was a victory of good over evil, now roll the credits, and everyone lives happily ever after with a good job, a nice house, and a fat wallet. But it hasn't worked out that way for some. Thirty years after the Great Victory many are realizing that the free market is a bit fickle, as quick to crush as it is to coddle. We love it. We hate it. We want more of it.

But the very economic system that won the Cold War is also the one that ended up disillusioning tens of millions of Americans. The flag-waving patriotic populists on the Trumpian right who hate globalization really just hate global free-market capitalism that has taken their jobs overseas. Capitalism works, yes, but only for an ever-shrinking sliver of the population. Marx was wrong on much but right about this: Capitalism unregulated will drive the accumulation of wealth into fewer hands, resulting in even more economic inequality. When inequality increases, social and political instability are sure to follow. And so here we are. The belief that everyone has a fair shot now clashes with a suspicion that the game is rigged. Candidate Trump skillfully deployed this 'game is rigged' rhetoric with ironic glee during his campaign back in 2016. It resonated because there was some truth to it.

I want to make a few things clear up front: First, I don't believe that 100% socialism is the answer. What I'm arguing for is acceptance of more socialist-leaning policies. What I'm talking about is red socialism's pink cousin, social democracy. Let me put it this way: If pure laissez-faire capitalism represents a jungle where only the strong survive, then pure socialism is a swamp where no one thrives. Neither extreme is desirable. The objective should be a more sustainable balance offering equitable benefits to more than just a tiny, plutocratic minority. The left needs to make a better case that the status quo is skewed toward the blind faith that more capitalism is always the answer and more government is always the obstacle. The truth is, as always, rather more complicated.

Even a lefty like me can admit that a well-regulated market is critical in creating wealth. But if left to its own devices, that wealth will cluster over time into fewer hands. That's what we've seen since 1980. Targeted socialistic projects can mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism without eroding personal freedoms. Of course, this mixed economy approach is already the standard for the wealthiest nations of the world, including even the United States. Every nation in the developed world is now to some degree a welfare state. The argument social democrats should make in the U.S. is that moving things even further to the left will benefit more Americans in the long-run than shifting things to the right. We've already tried the latter and it didn't work.

The first challenge is to re-frame the communist stereotype of the welfare state that so many Americans have locked in their heads. For example, Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA, mentioned socialism or socialist ten times in his recent CPAC speech. He knows this word is an emotional trigger that rallies the base, even if it is completely divorced from reality. Socialism, or at least its caricature, is always seen as hostile to personal liberty and is equated with gulags, mass murder, starvation, and economic failure. Mention the word, and many a wise conservative or libertarian will sigh, roll their eyes, and begin a condescending discourse about how socialism never works, can't work, and will only lead to the horrors of the twentieth century all over again. Socialism is just communism, end of discussion, and social democracy is not all that much different.

Rather than let this mischaracterization go unanswered, the left should push back. The old totalitarian versions of state-run socialism rightly belong in the dustbin of history and are not seriously debated as options for America. No one is arguing for that, just as no one is seriously arguing that we return to the miseries of nineteenth century Gilded Age capitalism.

On the other hand, social democracy offers a more equitable option that incorporates aspects of traditional socialism, but within a pluralistic, democratic society where an essential role for a market economy remains. Fortunately, we have examples from around the world on of how these kinds of social democratic societies work in practice. And while not perfect, they do work quite well. The examples of Australia, the Nordic countries, Germany, France, England, Japan - just to name a few - can give us ideas about how to create a more just and equitable society for all without falling into the totalitarian traps of the former communist regimes.

Those societies with the highest quality of life are also the ones with the most advanced welfare states. That said, funding a welfare state requires the wealth-generating capabilities of the market. Norway's $1 trillion Public Pension Fund is an example of this combination of free market and public investment working for the benefit of all. Owned by the Norwegian government, it represents a far-sighted approach to public finance. Rather than all of the profits going into the pockets of a few billionaires and their shareholders, a portion of Norway's oil and gas profits goes straight into the Fund, giving the Norwegian government the financial strength and flexibility that most small nations do not have. As a result of the Norwegian government's wise investment, this and future generations will benefit. Good governance like this offers an excellent counter-example to the arguments that more government involvement in the economy must automatically lead to bad things.

But even with these examples and others, the misunderstandings continue.

Elizabeth Bruenig was recently taken to task for her Washington Post article calling for socialism. The article was similar to the critique of capitalism that I put forward above. Even though she uses the word, she's not really calling for traditional socialism, or at least that was my interpretation, but something more akin to social democracy. Predictably, conservatives pounced. Ben Shapiro cut and pasted the usual socialism-leads-to-tyranny arguments. He wrote that "Bruenig’s path has already been taken. It leads to the gulag, to the prison camp, to the starvation of children. It leads to centralization of power and it leads to destruction of the individual." No, it doesn't. And that's not what Bruenig meant.

Bruenig's rebuttal to this backlash is the type of re-framing that needs to take place. She noted in her follow up article that arguments like Shapiro's were bad faith arguments. Bad faith arguments take an opposing viewpoint and then attack a straw man version that misrepresents in the most negative terms what the original author was actually saying. According to Shapiro, engaged in a bit of framing of his own, Scandinavian social democracies are not really socialist, but "redistributionist." Bruenig pounced right back and noted that in Norway the government owns almost 60% of the nation's wealth, compared to 32% in "communist" China. One in three workers in Norway and in most Scandinavian countries works for the government. In Finland, 64 state-owned enterprises account for 50% of the economy. Bruenig also countered that "...more than 90 percent of Finnish workers are covered by union contracts, compared with 89 percent of Swedish workers, 84 percent of Danish workers — and 11.9 percent of American workers." Call more government or collectivist control of the economy what you will - redistributive, communitarian, socialist - whatever, I'm flexible; the outcomes are what matter, not the semantics.

As far as I know, there are zero gulags in the more collectivist states described above, no prison camps, no starvation. They are not failing states. In fact, quite the opposite. Unfortunately, many Americans still believe otherwise. For many of the 60% of Americans who don't even own a passport, Europe is a cautionary tale on the perils of socialism that gets reinforced daily by the Wayne LaPierres and Fox & Friends of the world.

Consider this: Denmark is #2 on the Quality of life ranking; Sweden is #3; Norway is #4; Finland is #5 (Canada is #1, the U.S. #17). In the recently released World Happiness Report, the top five are #1 Finland, #2 Norway, #3 Denmark, #4 Iceland, and #5 Switzerland. The U.S. ranks #18. And not one of the seventeen nations ahead of the U.S. practices Soviet-style authoritarian communism! Practically all of them do, however, have more comprehensive social welfare states than we do. And the people are happier for it. Bruenig's article is an excellent example of what I'm talking about. She took on the usual stale arguments and debunked them with real world examples. That's why re-framing the issue is so important.

As the right continues its descent into moral bankruptcy and ideological incoherence, the left will have a window of opportunity to put forward a more positive progressive vision for American society. It should do so. This newest generation of American progressives should emphasize in equal parts a respect for the democratic process and a constructive vision to deal with the worst excesses of capitalism. The varieties of social democracy that other countries practice are unique to those societies, but the common theme is that social welfare projects can and do work to create healthy, wealthy, competitive, and happy communities.

Between 1932 and 1980, the top tax rate averaged 81% (Picketty 507). Today that the top rate is 37%. Let's make America great again by raising the tax rates on the wealthiest Americans back up to Eisenhower-era levels. Let's do universal health care. Let's find a way to make sure all Americans get a quality education, and not just those in the best zip codes. Let's begin shifting into overdrive to transform the American energy grid to 100% renewables by 2040. Let's become the leader of the world on climate change while there's still time. America has the wealth and resources to do all these things and more, if we wanted. Let's build the public wealth up in ways that invest in America, rather than more tax cuts for Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates. Those three already are wealthier than the bottom 50% (160 million) Americans.

Trust me; they'll be fine.

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Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Harvard, 2017.


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