So­cial­ism, a friend to cap­i­tal­ism

The Washington Post - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - Twit­ter: @EJDionne E. J. DIONNE JR.

“We so­cial­ists are try­ing to save cap­i­tal­ism, and the damned cap­i­tal­ists won’t let us.” Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Ma­son B. Wil­liams cited this cheeky but ac­cu­rate com­ment by New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank to make a point eas­ily lost in the new war on so­cial­ism that Pres­i­dent Trump has launched: So­cial­ism goes back a long way in the United States, and it has taken doses of it to keep the mar­ket sys­tem alive.

Go­ing back to the late 19th cen­tury, Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans, so­cial­ists and lib­eral re­form­ers, worked to­gether to hu­man­ize the sys­tem’s work­ings and to find cre­ative ways to solve prob­lems cap­i­tal­ism alone couldn’t. This has been well doc­u­mented in sep­a­rate books writ­ten by his­to­ri­ans Daniel T. Rodgers and James T. Klop­pen­berg. “The New Deal,” Rodgers wrote, “was a great, ex­plo­sive re­lease of the pent-up agenda of the pro­gres­sive past.”

Think about this when pon­der­ing the Green New Deal put for­ward last week by Sen. Ed­ward J. Markey (DMass.) and Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sioCortez (D-N.Y). It’s sweep­ing and ad­ven­tur­ous. There is vir­tu­ally no way it will be­come law as long as Repub­li­cans con­trol the Se­nate and Trump is pres­i­dent. And if some­thing like it even­tu­ally does get en­acted, there will be many com­pro­mises and rewrites.

But there would be no so­cial re­form, ever, if those seek­ing change were too timid to go big and al­lowed cries of “so­cial­ism” to in­tim­i­date them.

In his State of the Union ad­dress last week, Trump cast him­self as Ho­ratius at the bridge stand­ing against the Red Men­ace: “We re­new our re­solve that Amer­ica will never be a so­cial­ist coun­try.”

Yet in re­fer­ring to “new calls to adopt so­cial­ism in our coun­try,” he had a point. Open ad­vo­cacy of so­cial­ism is now a nor­mal part of our po­lit­i­cal dis­course. Oca­sio-Cortez is a mem­ber of the Demo­cratic So­cial­ists of Amer­ica, and Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) won more than 12 mil­lion votes in the 2016 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­maries run­ning ex­plic­itly as a demo­cratic so­cial­ist. Some re­cent polls even have San­ders run­ning ahead of Trump in hypothetical 2020 matchups.

We should be clear that Trump’s words are en­tirely about re­elec­tion pol­i­tics. He wants to tar all Democrats as “so­cial­ists” and then de­fine so­cial­ism as an­ti­thet­i­cal to Amer­i­can val­ues. “Amer­ica was founded on lib­erty and in­de­pen­dence, and not gov­ern­ment co­er­cion, dom­i­na­tion and con­trol,” he de­clared. “We are born free, and we will stay free.” Cue Lee Green­wood.

But at­tack­ing so­cial­ism isn’t the cake­walk it used to be. Dur­ing the Cold War, it was easy to frighten Amer­i­cans with the s-word be­cause the Union of Soviet So­cial­ist Republics of­fered a pow­er­ful ex­am­ple of the op­pres­sion that state con­trol of all of the means of pro­duc­tion could un­leash.

The Soviet Union, how­ever, has been dead for nearly three decades. China is com­mu­nist on pa­per but a wildly un­equal crony cap­i­tal­ist dic­ta­tor­ship in prac­tice. Young Amer­i­cans espe­cially are far more likely to as­so­ciate “so­cial­ism” with gen­er­ous so­cial in­sur­ance states than with jack­boots and gu­lags. Swe­den, Nor­way and Den­mark are any­thing but fright­en­ing places.

The 2018 PRRI Amer­i­can Val­ues Sur­vey of­fered re­spon­dents two def­i­ni­tions of so­cial­ism. One de­scribed it as “a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that pro­vides cit­i­zens with health in­sur­ance, re­tire­ment sup­port and ac­cess to free higher ed­u­ca­tion,” es­sen­tially a de­scrip­tion of so­cial democ­racy. The other was the full Soviet dose: “a sys­tem where the gov­ern­ment con­trols key parts of the econ­omy, such as util­i­ties, trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­tries.”

You might say that so­cial­ism is winning the brand­ing war: Fifty­four per­cent said so­cial­ism was about those pub­lic ben­e­fits, while just 43 per­cent picked the ver­sion that stressed gov­ern­ment dom­i­na­tion. Amer­i­cans ages 18 to 29, for whom Cold War mem­o­ries are dim to nonex­is­tent, were even more in­clined to de­fine so­cial­ism as so­cial democ­racy: Fifty-eight per­cent of them picked the soft op­tion, 38 per­cent the hard one.

Oh, yes, and on those tax in­creases that con­ser­va­tives love to hate — and as­so­ciate with so­cial­ism of the creep­ing kind — a Fox News poll last week found that 70 per­cent of Amer­i­cans fa­vored rais­ing taxes on fam­i­lies with in­comes of over $10 mil­lion.

Trump will still prob­a­bly get some trac­tion with his at­tacks on so­cial­ism. And pro­gres­sives should re­mem­ber that so­cial demo­cratic ideas as­so­ci­ated with fair­ness and ex­pand­ing in­di­vid­ual free­doms — to get health care or go to col­lege, for ex­am­ple — are more pop­u­lar than those re­strict­ing choice.

Nonethe­less, Jerome Frank was right: Those slurred as so­cial­ists re­ally do have a good track record of mak­ing cap­i­tal­ism work bet­ter and more justly. The s-word is not now, and, in its demo­cratic forms, never should have been, an ob­scen­ity.

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