[Marxism] Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist Capitalist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 20 08:24:12 MDT 2015

(Barro is a rightwinger but he gets this right.)

NY Times, OCT. 20, 2015
Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist Capitalist
by Josh Barro

In last week’s Democratic Party debate, Bernie Sanders stuck up for the 
idea that Americans are prepared to elect a democratic socialist, which 
is how he describes himself. “We’re gonna win,” he said, when the 
moderator, Anderson Cooper, pressed him on his electability under any 
kind of socialist label.

This led Hillary Rodham Clinton to defend capitalism, saying, “We would 
be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest 
middle class in history,” though she allowed the need to “rein in the 
excesses of capitalism.”

The weirdest thing about this fight is that Mr. Sanders, a Vermont 
senator, is not really a socialist. Or at least, if he is a socialist, 
he is also, at the same time, a capitalist.

“I think Bernie Sanders’s use of the word ‘socialism’ is causing much 
more confusion than it is adding value,” said Lane Kenworthy, a 
professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Mr. 
Kenworthy, who recently wrote a book called “Social Democratic America” 
and thinks about these sorts of things for a living, offered a 
suggestion: “He is, if you want to put it this way, a democratic 
socialist capitalist.”

Ugh. Do we have to put it that way? In addition to being a mouthful, 
that still seems as if it’s going to confuse a lot of people.

After all, Mr. Sanders does not want to nationalize the steel mills or 
the auto companies or even the banks. Like Mrs. Clinton, he believes in 
a mixed economy, where capitalist institutions are mediated through 
taxes and regulation. He just wants more taxes and more regulation than 
Mrs. Clinton does. He certainly seems like a regular Democrat, only more so.

“It’s not socialism, it’s social democracy, which is a big difference,” 
said Mike Konczal, an economic policy expert at the left-wing Roosevelt 
Institute. Social democracy, Mr. Konczal noted, “implies a very active 
role for capitalism in the framework.”

Social democracy, Mr. Sanders will have you remember, is not what they 
were up to in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It’s the 
little-of-this, little-of-that philosophy of parties like Labour in 
Britain or the Social Democrats in Germany. Such parties have abandoned 
their past support for the nationalization of industry and have presided 
for long periods over economies that certainly appeared capitalist to 
visiting American tourists, albeit with higher taxes than we have in the 
United States.

Mr. Sanders himself emphasizes the “democratic” part of democratic 
socialism, and promised in last week’s debate that “we’re gonna explain 
what democratic socialism is.” He cited Denmark, which has very high 
taxes, very generous social programs and a robust economy driven by 
private capital investment, as an example of a place that does social 
democracy really well. (Though, as Matt Yglesias at Vox noted, Denmark’s 
Social Democrats have been out of power for 11 of the last 15 years 
while the country’s policies have continued to look pretty social 
democratic, further highlighting the difficulty of figuring out who’s 
really a socialist or not, or what.)

Mr. Konczal laid out four hallmarks. You might be a social democrat if 
you support: a mixed economy, that is, a combination of private 
enterprise and government spending; social insurance programs that 
support the old and the poor; a Keynesian economic policy of government 
borrowing and spending to offset economic recessions; and democratic 
participation in government and the workplace.

If that’s what social democracy is, it’s not obvious what the term would 
add to the American political lexicon. Most Democrats would tell you 
they support all four of those things. So would quite a few Republicans.

Mr. Sanders said on the campaign trail this week that police and fire 
departments are “socialist institutions,” as are public libraries. He 
noted that Social Security and Medicare, which are very popular with 
Americans, are “socialist programs.” This, again, is more confusing than 
clarifying. If supporting Social Security and public firefighting makes 
you a social democrat, the term does nothing to distinguish Mr. Sanders 
from his opponents.

“When you look at the policies, there’s a way to see it as Bernie has 
cranked up Hillary’s agenda to 11,” Mr. Konczal said. To wit: Mrs. 
Clinton favors preserving Social Security with some enhancements for the 
poorest beneficiaries, while he wants to raise taxes on the rich to 
expand it in ways that could add $65 per month to the average benefit. 
This, like most political debates, is a disagreement about how far to 
turn the knobs when adjusting policy; it does not seem to call for a 
separate ideological label.

That said, Mr. Konczal did offer one difference between Mr. Sanders’s 
and Mrs. Clinton’s worldviews that is of kind rather than degree. This 
is decommodification: the idea that some goods and services are so 
important that they ought to be removed from the market economy altogether.

The idea behind the Affordable Care Act, and behind Mrs. Clinton’s 
approach to tinkering with Obamacare, is that quality health insurance 
should be affordable to everyone, and that people who can’t afford it 
should be given subsidies to buy it. For a democratic socialist, that’s 
not good enough; instead, health care should simply be provided to 
everyone without charge, removing the profit motive from health care.

But even this is a matter of degrees. Mr. Sanders favors Medicare for 
all: a single-payer health care system, with the federal government as 
the sole insurer. This would remove the profit motive from health 
insurance but not from health care, which could continue to be provided 
by private doctors and hospitals, often working on a for-profit basis. 
Mr. Sanders is not proposing to go further, like Britain, and have 
doctors work directly for the government. Nor does he appear inclined to 
decommodify broad swathes of the economy; in other countries, even 
conservatives often endorse special, less-marketized rules for health 
care than for other sectors.

This distinction is real, but it’s not clear to me that it merits Mr. 
Sanders his own ideological label. So when Mr. Kenworthy, the California 
professor, proposed the “democratic socialist capitalist” label to me, I 
responded by asking how that’s different from being a very liberal Democrat.

“I don’t think there is a difference,” he said. As such, I hope Mr. 
Sanders is not too offended if I simply describe him as “very liberal.”

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