Here’s why so many young people say they support “socialism” despite the fact that it is politically toxic to many American voters and the actual policy agenda that they support isn’t really socialist.
For a wide variety of progressive political strategists it is understandably frustrating that Bernie Sanders and his followers insist on describing their objective as “socialism” when their actual policy agenda more closely approximates that followed in the Scandinavian countries – which are market economies with substantial social regulation and welfare systems and not socialist economies – and the term socialism is wildly unpopular with many of the working class people that they sincerely want to win to their side.
As Ruy Teixeira notes in a recent post:
…for many who use the term, their idea of socialism seems closer to a traditional social-democratic mixed economy than a radically different system that would somehow do away with profits and markets. So why call it socialism, a term that has all kinds of unpleasant associations and does imply a replacement of capitalism? Why not call it “people’s capitalism” or “democratic capitalism” or “the advanced mixed economy” or whatever?
By grasping nostalgically at revolutionary rhetoric, the Left sets the bar high for public embrace of what might otherwise be quite popular policy ideas, from single-payer health insurance to free college to a job guarantee.
Teixeira, along with others he mentions including John Judis, E.J. Dionne, William Galston, Fred Block and Andrew Koppleman, all carefully distinguish between the classical definition of socialism and the range of political platforms, economic policies and government institutions that the modern left actually supports. Their common hope is that that these clarifications might wean the left away from its unnecessary infatuation with “socialism” as their label of choice.
But in order to understand the preference many young people have for the word “socialism” these days, it is important to understand that for many, their advocacy of the term is not based on support for any specific set of policies or specific form of government so much as it is on a profound rejection of the basic moral and ethical value system that is inextricably bound to capitalism.
It was the great intellectual contribution of the otherwise appallingly un-intellectual Ayn Rand that she was willing to proudly express and glorify the underlying value system of pure capitalism – the social Darwinist view of the world popular at the beginning of the 20th century. It held that:
Greed is good, altruism is bad
Competition is good, cooperation is bad,
Contempt is good, compassion is bad.
The poor are not the “blessed” of Jesus and the bible. They are lazy, despicable losers who deserve their fate and the scorn of the successful.
There are inherently superior individuals and inherently inferior individuals and an ideal society would give absolute freedom to the former and absolutely nothing to the latter.
And so on. Anyone wanting to wade through 90 interminable pages of this essentially sociopathic philosophy can find it in her book, Atlas Shrugged.
Back at the end of the 19th century there were many social Darwinists who had the courage to express this moral and ethical philosophy proudly and openly but after World War Two the rhetoric of naturally superior people and utterly worthless inferior people carried with it a little too much of the lingering odor of the gas chambers to be argued in polite company. Rand was the only major figure willing to champion Social Darwinism without apology.
Instead, the post-war defenders of capitalism argued two things:
First, that Capitalism was the only alternative to state totalitarianism and prison camps. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was the Ur-text of this view for intellectuals; Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom was the Cliff Notes version for college freshmen. Buying and selling things in markets was a magnificent exercise in freedom; paying taxes and supporting social programs was tantamount to suffering the whips and chains of slavery (one leading conservative taught his toddler son economics by buying him an ice cream cone and then taking a series of big bites out of it while saying “You see, this is the federal tax, this is the state tax.”)
Liberals argued that some minor reforms of the capitalist system could be made in the name of compassion but that such reforms had to be made very timidly because there was, as the Kennedy Administration economist Arthur Okun, titled his 1963 book, a “Great Tradeoff – Equality versus Efficiency.” Any interference with the perfectly balanced, automatic operation of a completely unregulated free market inevitably reduced economic efficiency and made all of society poorer as a result.
Stripped of its fancy math, the logical argument behind this “perfect efficiency” notion was the following:
If one accepts the necessary sassumptions that all businessmen and all workers have “perfect foresight” about the future and all men and machines are perfectly mobile and adaptable, then, in principle, an ideal free market economy would automatically be optimally efficient.
Because with his perfect knowledge of the future each businessman would only hire the most productive workers he could possibly find and each worker would only choose the job that paid the best wages for his particular skills. As a result, each worker would get exactly what he was “worth” and each businessman would always get the most productive possible workers for the job.
This same perfect knowledge of the future would also allow the businessman to produce exactly what consumers desired and consumers to know exactly what bundle of goods and services would give them the maximum satisfaction. The logical deduction from these assumptions was therefore that an ideal free market would necessarily produce the maximum possible economic efficiency and consumer satisfaction.
Stripped of the elegant mathematical equations that the theory basically plagiarized from classical physics and electrodynamics, as a purely logical argument this conclusion really sounds very silly – and, in fact, it really is. Using exactly the same assumptions it can be shown that Santa Claus could also create
a “perfect” economic result. With his perfect knowledge of how good or bad every little boy or girl had been (perfect foresight) and with infinite elves to produce exactly the right toys (perfect mobility of labor and capital) Santa could produce maximum economic efficiency and consumer satisfaction as he flew around the world instantly delivering all the toys on Christmas eve.
No-one in the real world (other than economists and small children) took this argument seriously but as long as unemployment stayed reasonably low and the standard of living gradually increased during the 80’s and 90’s the idea that the “free market” was basically efficient was able to escape close scrutiny. In fact, as the 2000’s progressed, the business establishment and the wealthy became increasingly convinced of their own spectacular genius and innate natural superiority and increasingly demanded not only lower and lower taxes but also the most abject and humble awe, respect and admiration from the “little people” below them.
The 2008 crisis blew up this fantasy, revealing a vision of the wealthy and powerful as venal money grubbers who cynically extracted vast bonuses from their corporations while the economy collapsed and millions of ordinary people lost their homes and jobs. The generation of college students coming of age in this era, as a result, looked behind the economic textbooks and began to perceive capitalism as a conspiracy of vastly overpaid men hiding in luxurious mega-mansions and gleefully reciting the interminable harangues of the hero in Atlas Shrugged to themselves like magic incantations.
Quite naturally, then, many young people were attracted to Occupy Wall Street and then the campaigns of Bernie Sanders. It was an emotional reaction – a moral and ethical outrage at the twisted morality of “Capitalism” that generated their advocacy of socialism and not the details of economic policies platforms and institutions. They simply felt that unfettered capitalism was an inherently immoral system and “socialism” a convenient word to suggest a more humane alternative.
This suggests that the common ground progressive “social democrats” and “socialists” can find with each other is in the realm of morals and ethics, in their shared rejection of the cynicism, greed and selfishness of “ideal” capitalism’s social Darwinist philosophy.
In closing his post, Teixeira suggests that “just for old time’s sake” Social Democrats should recall the song “The Red Flag” the traditional, idealistic anthem of the British Labor Party that had been sung at every annual conference since the 19th century.
It well recalls the triumphs past
It gives the hope of peace at last
The banner bright, the symbol plain
Of human right and human gain
To find common ground with the modern socialist supporters of Bernie Sanders and AOC, traditional progressives and social democrats can also recall a more recent anthem of social protest that was also shared by millions:
imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world,
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
It is on this shared belief in the hope and possibility of a more moral and ethical social system than venal social Darwinistic capitalism, and not in debating the details of programs and policies or labels like “social democrat” and “socialist,” that the basis for political collaboration and alliance can be found.