21st century social-democracy? On Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Frase’s “The Welfare State of America” and the election

The Welfare State

Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Frase of Jacobin recently co-authored a social democratic manifesto entitled “The Welfare State of America,” in which they conclude:


The Left must not only defeat austerity and preserve the social safety net; it must do so in such a way that assembles the forces necessary for more fundamental transformations in the future.

This vision should be premeditated. We can’t go back to the post-war golden age of the American welfare state, but we can build a system in the 21st century that embodies what people remember most from that era — an overriding sense of freedom. Freedom to give their children an education without rival. Freedom from poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Freedom to grow into old age with pensions, Social Security, and affordable and accessible healthcare. Freedom to leave an exploitative work environment and find another job. Freedom to organize with fellow workers for redress.

These memories are somewhat false ones: The welfare state has never been so universal. But the appeal of such a society, combined with the political strategy needed to make it a reality, will pave the way for the institution of a new set of economic and social rights to complement our bedrock political and civil rights.

Ugh.  From Chavez’s “21st-century socialism” to Sunkara and Frase’s “21st-century social-democracy.”  Not to mention the fetishization of the welfare state, and its national(ist) specification to “of America.”

Obviously I oppose the austerity-mongering politics of neoliberalism.  Equally obvious should be that I’m not as optimistic as Bhaskar or Peter about the prospects of social democracy repackaged for a new century.  They make the salutary concession that the welfare state was never universal, that the New Deal coexisted with brutal and demeaning Jim Crow laws.  But I don’t really view a reformist platform as any more viable in the present than a revolutionary platform.  Reformism and revolutionism seem equally utopian today (and I would say that their apparently equidistant impossibility is related).   Though I’m sure Bhaskar and Peter would insist, following André Gorz, that they are simply advocating a series of “non-reformist reforms.”  Rosa Luxemburg had a much more accurate formulation for this, but one I think the authors would reject: “revolutionary reforms,” or demanding what reforms were available while constantly insisting upon the need for dramatic social transformation.  And in fact the reason so many reforms were acquired in the first half of the twentieth century was symptomatic of the fact that social revolution seemed to be a concrete possibility.  Unapologetic neoliberalism is only possible where there is no fear of revolutionary reprisal.  I’m more or less in agreement with Spencer Leonard’s take in the 2001 section on “The Decline of the Left in the Twentieth Century”:

The abandonment of emancipatory politics in our time has not been, as past revolutionary thinkers may have feared, an abandonment of revolution in favor of reformism.  Rather, because the revolutionary overcoming of capital is no longer imagined, reformism too is dead.  As the task of achieving human society beyond capital has been abandoned, nothing worthy of the name of politics takes its place, nor could it.  The project of freedom has now altogether receded from view.

Social democracy and the reestablishment/renovation of the welfare state would obviously be a progressive program from where we stand right now.  I don’t think it’s anywhere close to sufficient, and the fact that social democracy and “evolutionary socialism” represented an adaptation to rather than an overcoming of capitalism (and thus, at least historically, signaled a shift to the Right) shouldn’t be forgotten.  Advocating a rebranded version of bourgeois-liberal social democracy as represented by Bernstein, Kautsky, or Keynes (though the figures they invoke are Cloward and Piven) seems to me just as false as neoliberals like Hayek or Friedman caricaturing classical liberals like Smith and Ricardo.  To his credit, these are subjects that Bhaskar and others (Jason Schulman,  Adrian Bleifuss Prados, Chris Cutrone) explored a few years ago on Chris Maisano’s The Activist website in Sunkara’s Nietzschean “Beyond Good and Evil,” Schulman’s  “The Current Relevance of an Old Debate,” and again in Sunkara’s “The Crisis: Marx, Lenin, Keynes, and Us.”  These were discussions that I actually found much more interesting than the recent manifesto about “The Welfare State of America,” not out of some fascination with historical trivia, but because the political implications of these debates are actually much far-reaching.

Jacobin certainly has DSA tendencies within it, and certainly Bhaskar has always been upfront about his membership in the DSA and sympathies with its politics (though I’ve spoken with one of Jacobin‘s editors who is convinced he’s a Trotskyist).  Bhaskar’s told me that the Jacobin collection that’s coming out in a few months from Metropolitan publishers is going to have an explicitly left social-democratic bent, but apparently he’s planning to spell that out openly in the introduction he’ll write for it.  Peter Frase has also been clear as to his ties to the DSA.  But one member, even a chief editor, does not a magazine make.  They’ve published diverse viewpoints, from (pseudo-)anarchists like Malcolm Harris to autonomists like Salar Mohandesi and Asad Haider from Viewpoint to cultural/market socialists like James Livingston of Politics and Letters and even to Castroists like Louis Proyect of the Unrepentant Marxist blog.  It’s very inclusive.  Even if it were just an organ of the DSA, at least they’d be staying fairly honest about the prospects of overthrowing the state, abolishing capital, etc. I’ll take that over militant posturing that pretends like revolution is just around the corner.  Chris Maisano, for example, is a really interesting guy to talk to, and a really great guy in general.  He’s also fully aware of “the limitations of democratic socialism.”  As he wrote in a 2010 piece:

the fundamental limitation of social democracy, or “socialist capitalism” as Michael Harrington more accurately described it[, is that it’s] a compromise between socialism and capitalism, but one that’s made on capitalism’s terms. As Harrington pointed out decades ago in his book Socialism, “the fact is that as long as capitalism is capitalism it vitiates or subverts the efforts of socialists…In fact, capital fights back, it does not meekly accept the programming of social democratic ministers…economic power is political power, and as long as the basic relationships of the economy are left intact, they provide a base for the subversion of the democratic will.”

This doesn’t mean that social democracy is somehow bad — I’d give my right arm and possibly a couple of other vital organs if it would turn the United States into a social democratic country.  It just means that in spite of its many virtues — virtues that Judt is correct in celebrating — social democracy cannot be an end in itself but a way station toward a more fundamental transformation of society.

This is the sentiment Sunkara and Frase echo in the last line of their article:

Even greater democratic horizons lie beyond [the welfare state].

To be honest, I don’t understand the affinity either Sunkara or Frase feel in their historical association with Jacobinism (via the magazine they edit, Jacobin), as their politics seem to me as anything but revolutionary in the sense of the Jacobin club.  Still, an article like this is helpful in terms of prompting reflection and debate. Continue reading