Friday, October 12, 2018

I wrote a reply to this article by Jeffrey Dorfman:

Dorfman is generally right on the economics, but ideologically blinkered on the politics. He agrees with Karl Marx who appreciated the amazing productive power of capitalism.

It’s what happens to the working people of the society when that productive output is not redistributed that causes the problems. Who gets the fruits of all that productivity and who bears the costs of all that material abundance? Without people-power – democracy - the spoils will be distributed unequally. We’ve seen this with the great increase in inequality due to the great shift to the economic and political right in the US over the last forty years that has been initiated by the Republicans and aided by the spineless Democrats.

Dorfman’s right, Bernie and Alexandria aren’t socialists. Their stated policies are similar to, and an extension of, FDR’s New Deal. They want to correct the undemocratic and unequal effects of capitalism. They want to change the distribution side – who gets what – and not the production or supply side – who owns or decides what is made, how it is made and who gets what. The progressive New Dealers want to change the distribution side and socialists want to change the production side.

But it’s not Bernie and Alexandria’s fault that they are not socialists. It’s that these political-economic labels are ridiculously misapplied in the US mainstream media. Bernie et al. are adopting “socialist” because now, post-2016, it is not a complete liability. If that wasn’t the case, and “socialist” was still a dirty word as it was pre-2016, they’d probably work hard to get people to call them “progressives” A progressive being a somewhat-further-to-left liberal (Medicare for all rather than Medicare only for the over 65, for example).

In the same skewed way Republicans aren’t “free-market capitalists” as they’re misnamed in the US. They support corporate welfare - the government helping the capitalist class - in myriad ways: government bailouts for corporations, tax breaks predominantly for the wealthy, massive government subsidies for research and development, support for anti-free trade patents and copyrights, military spending, use of public lands and the public airwaves at rock bottom prices, etc.

Dorfman can only see two types of economies: welfare-state capitalism or authoritarian socialism. And, it’s true: a lot of the countries that have been called socialist – government owning the means of production – have been authoritarian. But, due to his ignorance of politics, Dorfman totally ignores the crucial insertion of the political concept “democracy” in the label “democratic socialist.” Democratic socialism is different from authoritarian socialism. Wouldn’t authoritarianism be antithetical to the democracy democratic socialists want? That’s why his linking of the US left to supposed authoritarian regimes is a kind of red-baiting. Call it “pink-baiting.” A typical move of the politically ignorant.

Democratic socialists should point to a different kind of socialism. One where working people have more control over how and what is produced. We might also call it “workplace democracy” or “economic democracy.” There are successful examples of it, the most famous being Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain. An amazing story of a successful workers’ cooperative that’s been working for sixty years. (Successful doesn’t mean unproblematic, we’re talking about humans after all.)

Outside Dorfman’s purview there are capitalist economic systems that are not Nordic welfare-state capitalists or authoritarian “socialist” systems such as the old Soviet Union. There is the possibility of market socialism, as in Mondragon. In market socialism the people have more power on the production side, but there is still a free market. A nice book that explains how that would work is After Capitalism by David Schweickart. Bernie et al. could also find historical precedent in the “evolutionary socialism” of the much maligned early 20th century Marxian Eduard Bernstein, who advocated a gradual progress to socialism that passes through welfare-state capitalism to a democratic socialism.

Dorfman, like most mainstream economists, doesn’t understand that political citizens taking actions create economic outcomes. He seems to attribute the “wealth that allowed the luxury of …. generous [Nordic] government programs” to some abstract entity called “capitalism.” Yet in the next paragraph we learn that “reasonably powerful” unions exist in those countries. European countries in general have had much more powerful left-socialist movements and unions than the US. They fought and fight to create and keep those “generous government programs” that Dorfman seems to think capitalism magically distributes to them. The US has been much more productive than the Nordic countries over the last 40 years, but because of the declining political power of ordinary people we’ve had stingy government programs rather than generous ones.

Another example of Dorfman’s political blindness is his description of Venezuela as a dictatorship. While that fits with the US media’s mainstream misinformation about Chavez and Maduro, Chavez and Maduro were elected many times in elections as fair as US elections. And is it socialism that caused the problems in Venezuela or was it the two problems that have dogged oil-rich countries whether “capitalist” or “socialist” throughout the second and third worlds: overdependence on a valuable resource when the price is high – oil - and rampant corruption? It wasn’t Chavez’s socialism that caused him to rely on Venezuelan oil when the price was high to fund virtuous social programs, it was poor economic decisions. But he shared this defect with a long line of capitalist leaders before him. Venezuela has been prone to both of those common problems well before Chavez was born.

Nicaragua, after the overthrow of dictator and US ally Somoza, had a mixed economy. Perhaps if they hadn’t been terrorized by the US-funded contras, blockaded by the US and pushed into dependency on the Soviet Union, their early mixed economy could have succeeded.

Still, for all his unthinking parroting of the political confusion in the US mainstream over the labels “socialist” and “free market,” Dorfman is a libertarian, free-market capitalist who finds the Nordic countries correction of undemocratic capitalism acceptable. That’s great! Take him as an ally as long as he supports moving to an environmentally sustainable, capitalist, Nordic-like welfare-state economy. Just because Bernie et al. aren’t socialists doesn’t mean they aren’t proposing good and workable solutions to the US’s reverse Robinhood, corporate welfare state. The inequalilty of the present US economy would be greatly improved by a progressive step backward to FDR’s New Deal. Perhaps we can view the new progressive left’s ideals as democratic socialist, but like old Eduard Bernstein, they are trying to make it happen gradually through a revival of FDR-style welfare-state capitalism.

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