Opinion

It Shouldn’t Be, but Socialism Is Back on the American Agenda

Capitalism hasn't delivered the goods we were promised but Americans seem to have forgotten why socialism fell into disrepute in the first place

Pedestrians walk past a man begging for money at Market Street in the central business district of Sydney, Australia, on Thursday, June 21, 2018.
Bloomberg

If you’re a haphazard observer of social and political trends, you might be under the impression that socialism is emerging in America as a powerful new challenge to the free market principles that have ruled since the 1980s.

In The New York Times, arguments in favor of socialism have been granted the weightiness of appearing on the op-ed page. Candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon, running for Congress and New York State governor, respectively, call themselves social democrats.  The Democratic Socialists of America has seen its membership soar. Gallup polls show more young people in the United States are “positive” about socialism than capitalism.

There’s ample reason why Americans – and for that matter Europeans – should be questioning the fundamental assumptions of the free market ideology, as it has developed in the years since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began to undo the post-war social democratic system.

Neo-liberalism, as its enemies call it, was supposed free economies from the dead weight of government and usher in an era of growth and riches. It wouldn’t be just capitalists that benefited but everyone as the fruits of growth and innovation trickled down. As is now abundantly documented, that has not been the case.

Freer markets have spurred innovation, the major example being the end of the telephone monopolies in the U.S. and Europe. It beggars the imagination that a state-owned company could have built the internet or developed smartphones as Google or Apple did. Neo-liberalism gave us that at least.

But the chief beneficiaries of the new order have been the wealthy. It turns out that the light hand of regulation doesn’t always foster more competition: it creates market-dominant winners. Lower taxes don’t spur investment and create jobs as Trump promised they would, certainly not to an extent that would justify them. They exacerbate the income inequalities that already exist and inevitably come at the expense of social programs.

Still, I wouldn’t count on Facebook being nationalized or the Koch brothers being arrested and tried by a workers people’s court any time in our lives.

Selling us out

The Gallup surveys do show a striking decline in support for capitalism among Americans (56% view it positively in 2018 versus 61% in 2010). Meanwhile, the positive view of socialism in America continued to grow until 2017, when the interest seems to have peaked, since when it's down again (to 36% today).

In Europe, where voters have real social democratic choices when they go to the polls, the parties of the center-left are in miserable shape. Germany’s SPD was trounced in the polls last year and France’s Socialist Party all but disappeared.

Die-hard socialists would argue correctly that these parties are sell-outs to the true cause but there is no sign of an eruption of leftist sentiment in Europe; quite to the contrary, angry voters are turning to the populist right, if anything.

How could people be rejecting the socialist alternative when they clearly are unhappy with the present state of the economy and their futures?

Corey Robin, writing in The New York Times about “The New Socialists,” says liberal leaders in America sold out their working class voters, a charge that could equally apply to the social democratic parties of Europe.

As he explains, “Since the 1970s, American liberals have taken a right turn on the economy. They used to champion workers and unions, high taxes, redistribution, regulation and public services. Now they lionize billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, deregulate wherever possible, steer clear of unions except at election time and at least until recently, fight over how much to cut most people’s taxes.”

But he doesn’t explain why that happened. The answer is that the social democratic model of deep government involvement in the economy had failed. By the late 1970s, all over the West, economic growth was stagnant and the bills for covering the costs of a welfare state were becoming unsustainable. Inflation was out of control. Old industries like steel were dying and the state was incapable of developing new ones in high-tech.

Far from defending the interests of the working class, labor unions had become a burden on society. Britain’s Winter of Discontent in 1979, when public sector unions brought the country to a standstill in an attempt to blackmail the government struggling to bring down inflation, was what brought Thatcher to power and began the retreat from social democracy.

Needless to say, the more extreme forms of socialism in the Communist bloc were abject failures and came crashing down a decade later.

Still, it is hard to give up on the idea that we can have everything – prosperity for all, strong and stable economic growth, income equality and freedom.

But we can't. Marx was right about one thing: that capitalism and the system of measuring everything in terms of money and efficiency doesn’t bring universal happiness or prosperity and leaves many feeling adrift and uncared for.

On the other hand, “Socialism is the name of our desire,” as Irving Howe and Lewis Coser once opined. It’s a dream that everyone can imagine for themselves as they choose but it’s not a true alternative.