[Marxism] Shivering the chains,Socialism in America

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 6 18:28:38 MDT 2018

The Economist, August 30, 2018
Shivering the chains
Socialism in America
The increasing popularity of socialism is more about stiffening 
Democrats’ spines than revolution

BOZEMAN, MONTANA is the birthplace of Ryan Zinke, the federal secretary 
of the interior, and the home of Steve Daines, Montana’s Republican 
junior senator, and Greg Gianforte, the state’s reporter-thumping 
Republican congressman. But the public-comments part of Bozeman’s city 
commission meeting on August 20th was dominated entirely by socialists. 
They did not sing the Internationale, or demand public ownership of the 
means of production. Instead, the ten members of the Bozeman Democratic 
Socialists of America (DSA) thanked the commission for raising city 
workers’ minimum wage to $13 an hour, and urged them to raise it to $15 
over the next two years.

Republicans are using such people to stoke outrage. Newt Gingrich, 
eternally eager to pitch any disagreement as an eschatological conflict, 
warns that socialists are “demons” whom the Democrats are “unleashing to 
win elections”. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a DSA member likely to win 
election to Congress in November, has joined Nancy Pelosi in the right’s 
bogeyman pantheon (a Republican mailing called her “mini-Maduro”, 
referring to Nicolás Maduro, the tyranical president of Venezuela). 
Looking past the label, however, American socialists are more 
progressive Democrats than Castros in waiting—and their rise poses more 
of a challenge to the Democratic Party than to capitalism.

Still, socialism is having a moment in America unlike any since, 
perhaps, 1912, when Eugene Debs, the socialist candidate, won 6% of the 
popular vote. Between the DSA’s founding in 1982 and the election of 
2016, its membership hovered at a relatively constant 6,000—the same 
people, says Maurice Isserman, a professor at Hamilton College and 
charter DSA member, “just getting greyer”. Since President Donald 
Trump’s election, however, its membership has risen more than eightfold, 
and may soon exceed 50,000 (see chart). DSA members have lost nearly all 
of the primaries they have contested, but two will almost certainly be 
elected to the next Congress: Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, from 
Detroit. A recent Gallup poll showed that 57% of Democrats have positive 
views about socialism.

But the poll never defined “socialism”, so precisely what people were 
expressing support for remains unclear. For decades, the cold war 
defined it, at least for most Americans. They were capitalist and free, 
while socialism was a step removed, at best, from Soviet communism. 
Americans under 30 have no memory of the cold war. To them, socialism 
may be little more than a slur they have heard Republicans hurl at 
Democrats—particularly Barack Obama. They may well have reckoned that if 
supporting universal health care, more money for public education and 
policies to combat climate change are all socialist, then they are happy 
to be socialist too.

During Mr Obama’s presidency, political energy came from the Republican 
Party’s right flank; under Mr Trump’s it comes from the Democrats’ left. 
The centre of American politics is having trouble holding. Jessie Kline, 
the 24-year-old vice-chairman of Bozeman’s socialists, worked for 
mainstream Democrats, but joined the DSA because “nobody wanted to talk 
about the underlying cause of why people are poor…The establishment 
treats politics as a career. Morality and ethics never came into it.”

Still, America is not about to undergo a socialist revolution. It is too 
ideologically diverse and fractious; individualism is wired too deeply 
into the country’s political culture. Maria Svart, the DSA’s national 
director, says that her group “doesn’t see capitalism as compatible with 
freedom or justice or democracy”, but good luck winning elections with 
that slogan (indeed, candidates endorsed by Democratic Party organs have 
won far more primaries than those endorsed by Our Revolution, which grew 
out of Bernie Sanders’s campaign). In any event, democratic socialism is 
not revolutionary communism. Sara Innamorato, a DSA member who won her 
primary in May and will probably represent a heavily Democratic district 
of south-western Pennsylvania in the state legislature, says that 
“capitalism isn’t working…but I don’t think that capitalism and 
socialism are necessarily opposites. There are good lessons to be gained 
from both.”

Even the platform of Bernie Sanders, the socialist who gave Hillary 
Clinton a run for her money in the 2016 Democratic primaries, left 
capitalism fundamentally intact, calling instead for a broader and more 
redistributive social safety-net. His supporters seem enamoured of 
Nordic-style social-welfare policies. But those countries are not 
socialist; they are free-market economies with high rates of taxation 
that finance generous public services. Indeed, the “socialist” part of 
those countries that Mr Sanders’s fans like would be unaffordable 
without the dynamic capitalist part they dislike.

Perhaps the surest sign that American socialists are not revolutionaries 
is their willingness to work within the two-party system. Ms Innamorato 
and Summer Lee, another DSA-endorsed candidate for the Pennsylvania 
legislature, as well as Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Ms Tlaib, are all 
Democrats, as is Mr Sanders, for practical purposes (he is an 
independent but caucuses with Senate Democrats). Mr Sanders and Ms 
Ocasio-Cortez have campaigned for other Democrats. Mr Isserman contends 
that DSA members “are not utopian, and we certainly don’t believe in 
Bolshevik-style revolution”. He approvingly cites Michael Harrington, 
the DSA’s founder, who said that the group should represent “the left 
wing of the possible”.

Leftward, ho!

In that role, they are succeeding wildly. On August 28th Andrew Gillum, 
wielding an endorsement from Mr Sanders, pulled off a surprise victory 
in the Democratic primary race for governor in Florida—a state that has 
long preferred bland, centrist Democrats. Mr Gillum wants to see 
universal health care, a $15 minimum wage, a more compassionate 
immigration policy, corporate-tax hikes to fund public education, 
stricter gun-control laws and the legalisation of marijuana. Most of 
these positions were lefty pipe-dreams a decade ago. Today they are de 
rigueur for Democrats with presidential ambitions.

Some have gone further: Mr Sanders, as well as Cory Booker and Kirsten 
Gillebrand, senators from New Jersey and New York, respectively, have 
made favourable noises about a federal jobs guarantee. Mr Gillum thinks 
Mr Trump should be impeached. Such proposals are dead in the water, for 
now: Republicans control Congress and the White House. But that is not 
the point. These are political statements designed to signal support for 
a bold, activist government and an unwillingness to triangulate, or 
compromise with the voters who put Mr Trump in the White House.

Still, the DSA’s apparent influence on the party makes some nervous. One 
longtime strategist frets that the distinction between democratic and 
Soviet-style socialism is “fairly fine for most voters, and it comes 
with a lot of baggage”. Over the next couple of years, through debates 
that Democrats must hope will prove robust but not fracturing, the party 
will work out whether and how to carry that baggage.

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