Bernie Sanders and the rise of American social democracy

If you were to summarize Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president, you might say that he wanted to make the United States more like Denmark. He constantly referenced that particular Nordic country, and Scandinavia in general, as a political lodestar. More recently, he rolled out a new Medicare-for-all proposal — a maximalist, extremely generous proposal to provide all Americans with health care.

Despite Sanders’ self-identification as a “democratic socialist,” all this is classic social democracy — a political tradition with a long and deep history in Europe, but not much in the United States. But over the past few years, Sanders has moved squarely to the front rank of American politics — and, it seems, mostly because of his political ideas.

Has social democracy finally gotten its moment in the United States?

Let me start with a bit of history. Social democracy developed out of a turn-of-the-century split from traditional Marxists, who had long thought a political revolution would be necessary to replace capitalism. Social democrats, by contrast, thought the same egalitarian objectives could be evolved over time through parliamentary democracy and without suddenly overturning bourgeois institutions of private property. (These definitions tend to fray at the edges, but that’s a fair gloss.)

The most successful social democracies are the Nordic countries, which built up the world’s most generous welfare states during the mid-20th century. Immediately after the Second World War, most of these countries were quite poor and so did not have the huge industrial proletariat that is the traditional foundation of left-wing politics. Therefore, the social democrats relied on an alliance between workers and farmers, which gave them enough of a political base to make their parties by far the most dominant in Scandinavia’s parliaments for decades. Effectively, the Nordics became developed, rich countries while simultaneously building out a big welfare state, instead of the revolutionary process envisioned by Marx.

As compared to traditional socialism, where direct control of economic production is generally the goal, social democrats typically focus on harnessing capitalist wealth for the benefit of all. From a left-wing egalitarian perspective, the most basic problem with orthodox capitalism is that it only distributes income to labor and to owners of capital. If you can’t work and own nothing, you get no income. Indeed, in its early days, capitalism developed by forcing peasants off the land and into cities, where they would have to work in factories (for penurious wages) or starve.

Therefore, …read more

Source:: The Week – Politics


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