Clarification: American Liberalism Is Falling Behind and You Don’t Need Leninism to Fix It
The generation of lazy sound bite smug-’nalysis just can’t die off soon enough. Jonathan Chait’s article, “Reminder: Liberalism Is Working, and Marxism Has Always Failed,” is loaded with hand-me-down free market fundie tropes that we ought to have moved beyond by now. But the thing that sticks with me from his article (and others like it) is the dishonest math that Social Democracy = Denmark.
Yes, Bernie Sanders has mentioned Denmark before as a model of social democracy with a structured social safety net, but he has more often name-checked other Northern European countries besides the little kingdom. But they only repeat Denmark when trying to dust away his very basic ideas. Even Van Jones quipped one evening that no one in the US cares about Bernie’s obsession with a small “hamlet” in Denmark. Now Chait echoes this in his piece and says that Sanders endorses “Denmark as the closest thing to a real-world model for his ideas.” Why this obsession with Denmark?
Denmark is a small and not at all diverse country with an economy that mainly exports Legos and very tall people. It’s a country of less than 6 million that relies on banking and international shipping, much like the Netherlands, but with it’s own soverign currency.
But when Sanders compares the USA to other socially funded societies, he rarley mentions Denmark. In fact, what he says, ad nauseam, is pretty much some variation of these quotes;
“In Germany, Scandinavia, and many other countries, higher education is either free or very inexpensive. We must do the same.”
“You go to Scandinavia, and you will find that people have a much higher standard of living, in terms of education, health care, and decent paying jobs.”
The reason the example of Denmark is used by Chait, Hillary, and just about everyone else is it fits the often repeated denial of why democratic socialism would not work in America like it does in Europe — Those societies are different. They have a homogeneous society (white), with a common ideology, common values (the love of discotech, coffee, fish roe in squeezable tubes), and small populations the size of New England states.
They want you to believe that social democracy only works in Denmark because it’s like Massachusetts; small (also 6m), white, and a ridiculous accent.
But the problem of that logic is that Sweden is also a social democracy, also part of Scandinavia, and it has nearly twice the population of Denmark (10m), and contains about 15% foreign-born citizens in both urban cities and sprawling countryside. It’s also a highly dynamic economy giving us such blockbuster startups as Spotify and several of the video games you can’t avoid, like Minecraft, Assasin’s Creed, and Candy Crush. Of course it also has it’s big profitable employers like Volvo, Ikea, Astra Zeneca, or H&M. It’s a country so stable that Facebook stores the bulk of it’s data there. Despite all of this pro-business private sector ingenuity, the dominating political party in Sweden is the SAP, which in Swedish is an acronym for the “Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Sweden.” Sweden has all of the same social welfare systems as Denmark, including it’s legendary paid family leave program.
Now, should I continue on to Germany, population 10m or roughly twice that of the State of California, and the undisputed economic powerhouse of Europe? A country that, despite its high wages, despite it’s powerful trade unions, and substantial taxation, still manufactures and exports far more than it imports?
Chait excuses all of this like you would expect a neoliberal to: by saying “While Denmark’s success suggests that a modern economy can afford to fund more generous social benefits, it does not reveal an alternative to the market system.” Doesn’t it though? Isn’t that what all of Northern Europe shows? That the alternative isn’t to follow market liberalism, but to define and to lead it with pretty damn leftist democratic action, and that doing so can be remarkably stable and fiscally sound?
It’s also worth noting the nascent racism in praising America’s diversity only to use it as a reason why we can’t coalesce around the European model of socializing essential services. Is the argument really that people of color (also known as Americans) just aren’t that into it? Because there isn’t really much of a demographic point to be made. While Northern Europe is indeed pretty damn white, it’s immigration rate is nearly on par with the USA.
When simplistic comparisons to Northern Europe fail to net the rhetorical goods about the left that Chait is out for, he defaults to McCarthy mode like an unpaid intern for the National Review. Oh those Bernie kids and their Marxism!
I always find it funny when liberals separate their post-enlightenment thinkers into piles like blue m&ms. Hard candy shells on the outside, Max Weber goodness on the inside. But yes, Marx did indeed co-author The Communist Manifesto. It was 64 pages long in it’s original edition (double ruled, huge margins, all of that stuff). Soviet Russia adopted very little of it outside of the nomenclature used in Paris. No one is sure if Mao even bothered to read it. These days China tends to represent the ultimate pro-business model that no one wanted.
Regardless, in comparison, Marx’s Capital took 3 volumes. The first volume alone is 1,152 pages in our modern condensed paperback format. It never (at least very rarely) mentions communism. It examines and critiques Capitalism and is taught in every sociology classroom (and many of the better Economic classrooms along with Adam Smith) because he got an amazing amount of things about capitalism figured out, and quite a bit more about it wrong. One thing is easy to be sure of though. In none of these publications did Marx write about “political correctness.” To be fair to Chait, there is often little in common between “Marxists” and Karl Marx himself. Marx is on record as saying to his son-in-law: “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist.”
However, if Jonathan Chait had ever bothered to comprehend Marx outside of Lennon (John) and Guevara — in other words, if he tried to comprehend Marx not like the college-aged kids in berets that he derides — maybe he wouldn’t write like one.
People who are most positively passionate about their form of government are the ones who embrace it’s critique the most. In fact, I would say this is where the Bernie bros and dorm room whippersnappers have done the best service to the Democratic Party — by illuminating it’s horrid record by firm critique so that it can make the badley needed corrections.
Instead, the cavalcade of Chait liberals have determined that staying put and becoming the “Party of Nope” is good enough. It’s routinely said that Hillary is the only sure-fire way to beat the Democrats political nemesis, the demagoguery of Republicans. But to do this too many take aim at the vibrant leftist youth culture that was the key to getting Obama into the Whitehouse. I guess they think that making small offerings of personal liberties works as a fine consolation prize. It may be the under educated that decide our electoral fates anyways so why offer hopes of concrete benefit when it seems progressive enough just to prevent the inevitable backslide. But I like to think of the USA as capable of exceeding what other nations have already done, not ducking below that threshold. We are, after all, the richest nation that has ever existed. We just have to dare ourselves into moving that wealth and using it for something beneficial. To quote a Dane “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”