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.

The Election

Such hopeful sensibilities regarding the welfare state tend to rub me the wrong way, especially when coupled with Sunkara’s recent characterization of the Democratic party as “a party of the center with quasi-social democratic wings” (as opposed to viewing the Democrats and Republicans as two parties of the Right, which they are):

The Democrats more closely represent, and consciously, the interests of labor unions and oppressed and marginalized groups than the Republicans do. The alternative isn’t between two centrist parties, but a party of the center, with quasi-social democratic wings (Congressional Progressive Caucas, etc.) and a party of the Right.

Followed by the obligatory injunction to vote Democrat, especially at the state and local levels:

Vote for the Democrats, at least in New York, I can do it through Working Families party, challenge the worst ones in primaries, and build the movements outside until we’re at the point where we can break off labor and other key groups and maybe mount an effective effort.

This is the same rhetoric that was uttered four years ago with overflowing optimism, which is now repeated by many of the same people with a kind of grim fatalism.  Chris Cutrone’s article on the election of Obama four years ago is as accurate today as it was then, the only difference being that the kinds of illusions people entertain around Obama are that much more unforgivable today, in light of continued calls for austerity and the ongoing crisis of neoliberalism:

The difficulty in addressing the present crisis of capitalism is that almost all commentaries on it, not least those emerging from the Left, begin with a fundamental misrecognition.  We are not so much living through the crisis of capitalism as capitalism  itself is the crisis.  Capitalism is the — permanent — crisis of modern society.  Only conjuncturally does capitalism become appreciably worse.  But the history of capitalism is, whether in a fine-grained or a broad-gauged way, the history of going from one crisis to the next.  It is in this sense that present circumstances and future prospects for capitalism must be addressed.

The election of President Obama is being regarded as an ambivalent phenomenon in this respect: On the one hand, Obama is saddled with responsibility of resolving the crisis  merely in order to restore some status quo ante, whether this is conceived as the 1990s  heyday of Clintonism, before George W. Bush messed things up, or the post-WWII  welfare state of the Roosevelt to Nixon years.  On the other hand, Obama’s election is  taken to express or indicate the possibility for more radical change, towards which his  administration might be pushed.  But perhaps neither response to Obama is appropriate.   Such prognostication ignores the history of transformations in capitalism, of which the  present crisis might be only the latest occasion.

I’m kind of spared the necessity of having to make the choice about voting since I live in New York, which will go for Obama anyway.  But I wouldn’t come out to vote for him even in a swing state. Not because I think we deserve Romney, or that it’d make no difference which party was in power. Obviously there will be some difference in terms of policy, even if most of the difference between the candidates is just empty rhetoric. (Though there are a couple issues on which I’d say Romney is probably more “progressive” than Obama. Despite the Republicans’ godawful, xenophobic stance on immigration, at least they don’t throw around the nationalist drivel about American countries “betraying” the US by moving jobs overseas — John Kerry called them “Benedict Anderson” companies or somesuch nonsense — that the Democrats always peddle).  I’m not an abstentionist — I’d certainly never say that voting in parliamentary or federal legislatures can’t sometimes achieve progressive results. It’s been quite some time since voting (in this country, at least) could really result in an alternative that was even remotely “revolutionary.” The last truly radical president produced by the American system of representative government, the last whose election carried even an air of emancipation about it, was Abraham Lincoln.  And even then somewhat reluctantly so.

Ultimately, the reason I wouldn’t vote for either candidate is that I can’t bring myself to pretend that either one of them represents even a modestly progressive alternative.  They’re both candidates of the Right, and I can’t bring myself to affirm that. Some dilemmas are so utterly wretched, some choices between such terrible options, that they’re simply not worth making.  I understand the logic and the argument behind voting for Obama; I just don’t agree with it. As David Rylance has written,  it’s not that I would condemn any individual who would cast a vote for a particular candidate (though I can’t see how any so-called radical organizations that endorse either candidate or mandate that its members vote for one over the other can maintain even a semblance of autonomy).  I might criticize them, but not attack them.  The only reason I’d vote in the presidential election is because I think that leftists should get in the habit of voting should a truly progressive candidate or mass electoral movement ever reemerge.   I plan to write in “No candidate,” because neither major party offers anything even remotely approaching a progressive alternative, and because I haven’t found any of the third-party candidates all that appealing either.

Where I stand on social democracy is probably clear from this, though I could go into it further.  All-out social revolution is not going to happen anytime soon, clearly.  I agree about the false militancy of insurrectionists and those who insist that we live in a revolutionary situation.  Still, does anyone view social-democratic politics as even a remotely viable alternative?

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

  1. I support Jill Stein of the Green Party for president, I am not a fan of Romney or Obama. I know a third party candidate won’t win but the only way a third party candidate could ever win is if momentum gets built up over the years and that would require people start voting by their conscience rather than the lesser of two evils.

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  3. A broad alliance against austerity? Great idea! But what else does this text offer? Centralized fiscal management, for the purposes of deficit-funded safety net expansion? Not even progressive taxation is mentioned, therefore missing the redistributive moment that is currently even on the tongues of centrist Democrats. Additionally, it comes off hollow, when social democrats write a manifesto today, without addressing their own crisis, ie. that it has been social democratic governments in Europe that have been pushing the austerity program. The latter is not the fault of “weak leadership”, but a lack of transformative thinking. (Check out Bob Jessop´s talk on the failure of the Left during the crisis, and his discussion of the “social democratic iron triangle”.)

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  5. Dems r explicitly the pro-immigration party, given capital’s preference for labor liquidity and (R) brand alignment w/ popular preference for white supremacy

    almost as mportant, Dems r the woman party. women r many, in the population & in the electorate. biggest self-conscious ntrest group. disproportionate number of real guardians, uni students r women. women will care most about childcare, school policies. Dems r not great actors on these issues, but have earned fem loyalty simply by conserving, not reacting

    when Obamacare stigma abates and red states accept Medicaid expansion, a big portion of the country will have state-bought med nsurance. TX will b a dreamland of high employment, high remittances, low rents and govt-bought med

    ur misgivings about Dem protectionist rhetoric r strange since Dems r free traders

    faithful to Kaiser’s revolution and attendant celebrities since 1917 thru famines, Molotov-Ribbentrop, myriad econ failures, geopolitical defeat, because the beacons of theory blink through the ages, but the survival of a preference for Obama thru 4 years of bad but plainly lesser-evil (cruise missiles rather than ground troop) behavior is “unforgivable”

    congrats on ur steadfast individuality

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