Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist Capitalist
Source Louis Proyect
Date 15/10/23/03:02
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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