The US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is having trouble with his socialism. The younger voters get it, but many of the older liberally-minded people don’t- the kind of people who read the New York Times and probably like its endorsement of Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar and find socialism rather difficult to swallow. The New York Times has many virtues but it does have a bad pro-war record (pro Vietnam, pro overthrowing Gadhafi, pro attacking Afghanistan, pro invading Syria) and as for socialism or social democracy (as Sanders should label his brand) it’s not exactly shouted its virtues for America from its roof-top, although it supports many social democratic regimes abroad.
Somehow these voters- and the New York Times- have to be reached if Sanders is to win. First they have to know what it is. Is it Olof Palme’s of Sweden, François Mitterand’s of France, Willy Brandt’s of Germany, Sonia Gandhi’s and Manmohan Singh’s of India, Julius Nyerere’s of Tanzania, Tony Blair’s or Jeremy Corben’s of the UK? Take your pick of the rainbow range.
Socialism as a word is a bit anachronistic. Also many Communist Parties high-jacked it: The Socialist Republic of……Today’s practitioners, except those on the far left, prefer to say Social Democracy. Even that is a broad church, ranging from Blair to Corben or Willy Brandt to Helmut Schmidt. Mind you, none of them have been too upset if they are labeled socialists but I don’t think it’s the word to use with the American electorate. It’s a turn off for many liberals. We have to persuade them to take it seriously. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, there has been nothing like it since Islam’s rapid advance in the seventh century. It is time overdue for liberals to take a good look at it.
Whatever the word used, what exactly is it?
It accepts capitalism, although it wants to reform and modify it. Bhaskar Sunkara writes in the latest issue of Foreign Policy: “It believes that inequality is not an accidental byproduct of capitalism, it is at the core of the system. Capitalist wealth-creation may not be a zero-sum game, but the struggle between the bosses and workers over autonomy and power on the shop floor is. The contradictions at the heart of capitalism have become only more apparent over the last few decades.” Sanders want the elites who manage this or who go along with it to be confronted and shorn of their power, both economic and political. Yes, it is “class struggle”, or as Sanders says, “a political revolution”.
Next on Sanders list is the reversal of the present day where welfare states around the world are in retreat. You can see this in the Conservative governments of the last 10 years in the UK, when the Moderate Party rules in Sweden, when Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister in Italy and today in Narendra Modi’s India.
Next are the health services. While every European country plus Japan, Canada and South Korea has free or nearly free health services the US lags far behind. President Lyndon Johnson’s Medicaid for the very poor was a big step forward so was Barack Obama’s Obamacare aimed at the upper working class and lower middle class. But a big gap in health provision remains. The health industry is valued at a trillion dollars yet many cannot afford to be insured. The system has become a way of helping the richer at the expense of the poorer. Sanders is intent on nationalizing a reviled health insurance industry.
He also wants to expand the cooperative sector, create community-owned enterprises and give employees shares in the companies they work for. Socialism in his mind also means expanding child-care and help for the aged. It means getting the homeless off the streets and into jobs. It means drastically cutting the prison population and ending capital punishment, boosting the quality of non-private schools and ending impossible fees for the best universities and the debt of students. It means ensuring everyone has a decent place to live, and job training to ensure new jobs for those thrust into unemployment by globalisation. It means, as Corbyn advocated in the recent UK election, nationalization of monopolistic utilities and financial institutions.
It also means imaginative policies to cut down car ownership in favour of public transportation- more trains, buses and cycle lanes. Recently in the UK the Conservatives have been compelled to re-nationalise a part of the country’s extensive rail network because the private monopolies have failed. In Social Democratic Denmark half of Copenhagen’s commuters ride to work on a bike, including the prime minister.
It must spread consciousness about the environment including global warming. (There are no jobs on a dead planet.) Infrastructure building must incorporate the need to protect the environment, especially by lowering CO2 emissions. Not least it must pursue an active policy against all types of discrimination.
All this will require raised taxes. The rich will have to pay a lot. Those with a median income will have to agree to taxes on the Scandinavian and French levels, but knowing they’ll get most of this back from the health, school and old age services.
The resistance to such a program will be immense. The richer class which tends to vote Republican has much of the power. As Tony Benn, a former UK Labour Party cabinet minister wrote of his time in government, “Do what vested interests wants and they’ll make you look good. Try to pursue your own agenda and they’ll make your life impossible.” The political system entrenches this lopsided power –as with the US Senate whose make-up favours the thinly populated rural states which give the Republicans in most years a sure grip on power.
Many liberal voters balk at the idea of voting for socialism. But they should listen to Sanders and Elizabeth Warren more closely. They should think about what they consider unthinkingly about these reforms and what these candidates have suggested. America needs Social Democracy, or what some called Socialism, today not tomorrow.