Prompted by Bernie Sanders’ meteoric rise in Democratic Party polls, CNN put up a piece asking a number of experts if Sanders’ prescription of “democratic socialism” is “right for America.”
I’m just a no-name copy editor at a tiny newspaper down in Florida, so CNN didn’t ask me. Nevertheless, this is a question I’ve thought about quite a bit, and I’d like to offer up a response, which I naturally assume will never be read by a single one of CNN’s thousands of employees. Still, their article is a nice hook on which to hang my thoughts.
So here’s my official “hot take” on the question: “Democratic socialism” could probably work in America — just not at any price that American liberals would be willing to pay. That’s because the magic ingredient of socialism is one that the American left could never accept: Racism.
I assume liberals are implacably opposed to racism, so by their own standard, democratic socialism is not “right for America.”
Okay, let’s back up and define a couple of terms.
First, let’s talk about “socialism.” In the abstract, it’s not a terrible idea. In fact, considered in the abstract, it seems eminently sensible — even logical. The abstract beauty of the concept is why it is so seductive, in particular, to young people. (The purity of “libertarianism” emits a similarly enchanting aroma for young people who lean to the right.)
Socialism arises from the observation of two facts: First — a modern society is incredibly complicated and thus, very costly. Second — a modern society has a huge population.
Faced with these two stubborn, unalterable facts, a rational-minded person will immediately hit upon a clever idea: Why not take the huge costs of running a modern society and spread them out so that everybody has to chip in to cover the bill? Why not make “society” pay for society’s costs? This is, in fact, is the origin of the term “socialism” — the idea is that the full freight cost of modern society is charged to all of “society” itself. Socialism also takes it as axiomatic that certain key sectors of the economy are too “important” to be left to the whims of the market, and must be tightly controlled by “society” to serve society’s interests.
It’s not as if this is a radical idea; in fact, it’s part of the seduction of socialism that it seems to innocuously build upon already-accepted ideas. Taxes to pay for the cost of public goods have been an accepted principle of government for millenia, for example.
Here’s a more concrete example: If you’re like most American households, you probably pay a flat rate every month for trash disposal service. Your trash service might tack on extra fees for “excessive” amounts of trash and the like, but generally speaking, you probably pay the same amount whether you put out three barrels of trash every week or one barrel of trash every other week. The cost of your trash service is thus “socialized” — the costs are spread out to cover everybody. Households that don’t generate much trash are effectively subsidizing the cost of households that generate a lot of trash, but the costs are spread so thin that people generally don’t notice or care.
And as for “government control” over large sectors of the economy, no successful society that we know of outsources core functions such as law enforcement and national defense to the private sector. (Radical libertarians have periodically advanced such proposals, but nobody takes them seriously.)
In many areas of society, we happily accept “socialist” solutions, and nobody other than radical libertarians objects. The rational young liberal looks at all this and thinks: Heck, why couldn’t we just scale all of this up in the name of “social justice?” And from thence does the ideal of socialism, in all of its manifestations, spring.
Before we get into why that’s a fool’s errand, let’s define a second term: Racism.
As popularly understood, “racism” is thought to connote ideas about racial supremacy. (Needless to say, I reject Marxist conceptions of racism which posit that “racism” refers strictly to power relationships, and thus, for example, black people cannot be racist because they lack the power of their white oppressors.) But racism need not be expressed in such vulgar, absolutist terms.
Strictly defined, “racism” is merely the idea that “race” is a strongly determinative characteristic of the human species, with no judgement about outcomes. Indeed, at the extremes, “multiculturalist” ideology can be fairly characterized as “racist” — it attributes either innate qualities or strong tendencies to different “races” (or “cultures,” to use a weasel-word popular among both liberals and conservatives); it differs from classical “racism” in that it merely changes the moral and spiritual ordering of these characteristics.
Liberal whites will normally try and deny altogether that separate “races” exist in any meaningful sense. But this idea rests uneasily with the explicit racial nationalism that has a magnetic appeal to non-white ethnic groups.
Unfortunately, the experience of human history demonstrates pretty well that the idea that “race” is illusory is a falsehood, at least from a cultural standpoint. Maybe race doesn’t exist on a genetic level, but culturally, it’s pretty clear that humans regard “race” (however defined) as fundamental.
Humans are, at heart, tribal creatures. Absent any outside intervention, people will naturally self-segregate into communities composed of people who look, act, and think very much like themselves. There are always outliers, of course — there are always open-minded sorts who, while perfectly happy within their own tribe, are interested in interacting with people of other tribes and learning about their colorful customs, ways and — most importantly — innovations; in more primitive times, these people became society’s first merchants and traders. Also, they’re usually the ones at the forefront of cultural innovation within their own tribes — they’re the first to encounter good ideas that other tribes have developed and bring those ideas back to their people. (I’ve been listening to a lot of historic “roots” music recently, and it’s astonishing how pretty much the entire American musical tradition can be traced back to black Americans. Even country music — the whitest music most people can imagine — is inconceivable without a heavy black influence.)
Additionally, there are always people on the far fringes who do not feel comfortable within their own tribe and would much prefer to adopt the customs and lifestyle of another tribe, and if possible, be accepted as equals in that tribe. But mostly, humans tend to prefer to spend as much of their time as possible within their own tribal groups.
And that’s the fatal flaw at the heart of socialism: Essentially, it extends the metaphor of the “tribe” to all of society. It’s based on the beautiful, romantic idea that all of society is a sort of extended family, and we’re all pitching in to help one another. Unfortunately, this beautiful ideal typically ends up smashing headfirst into the brick wall of real life.
It’s not that it’s completely unworkable: It’s just that getting it to work requires some overarching spiritual justification, one that runs deep in the marrow of all society’s members. Society as one great big family can’t be just a rhetorical flourish; people need to to believe it at some deep level in order for it to work.
And here’s the thing: The most effective way anybody has demonstrated to get people to buy into it is with racism — more specifically, “ethnic chauvinism,” but I’ll adopt the left’s habit of filing all such ideas under the catch-all term “racism.” (Whatever name you choose to use, it’s completely incompatible with any type of real “diversity.”) The success of this approach is not surprising, as a “race” (or “ethnicity”) is, at heart, basically just an extremely large tribal family. It doesn’t require a great deal of imagination for, say, a German man to view himself as part of a great tribal brotherhood of all other Germans, who all basically look like him, talk like him, and broadly share his interests, values, and cultural customs.
Of course, the example that immediately springs to mind is Nazi Germany. It’s worth pointing out here that the official name of the Nazis was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Despite numerous attempts over the years by embarrassed liberals to explain away the “Socialist” part, it wasn’t just a slogan; Hitler and the Nazi leadership were quite sincere in their advocacy of a society run on socialist principles.
And here’s the thing: It worked! The great German historian Joachim Fest famously observed, “If Hitler had succumbed to an assassination or an accident at the end of 1938, few would hesitate to call him one of the greatest of German statesmen, the consummator of Germany’s history.” Until the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, it was not at all clear to outside observers that Hitler and the Nazis were purely evil. The German economic miracle of the 1930s explained, in large part, why the German people were willing to follow Hitler and his crazy ideas to the depths of Hell in World War II.
The Nazi vision of socialism was wildly successful because the Nazis aggressively pushed the explicitly racist idea of the German people as a pure, “Aryan” race. The official state ideology was that “true” Germans were all members of one big “tribe” or extended family. The successful Italian fascism of Benito Mussolini — who, notably, was originally a leading member of the Italian Socialist Party — was rooted in similar principles. Mussolini — like Hitler, a combat veteran of World War I — famously called his fascism the “socialism of the trenches.”
The racism that’s an essential element of a successful socialist system need not be present in the strong, hard-edged form of Nazi racial supremacy. You can just as easily use “soft” racism to make the system work. The premier example of this would probably be Japan — which, despite its market economy, has a big, meddlesome, bureaucratic government that probably fits the American popular conception of “socialism.” (The Japanese have universal health coverage, for example.) Japan’s bureaucracy does appear to work extremely efficiently, however — at least compared to the U.S. Its various ministries appear to function in practice in exactly the way American government agencies function only in theory.
Here’s the thing about Japan, though: Foreigners or outsiders are treated with great kindness and politeness in Japan, but there is absolutely no doubt that they are foreigners who can never truly be “Japanese” or participate in Japanese culture.
But Japan, you might say, is a special case. Well, a similar dynamic is at work in the Scandinavian countries that so many American liberals regard as the lodestar for American social development.
Let’s leave aside, for a second, whether market-friendly Scandinavian welfare states can really be said to constitute “socialism” — there are more than a few folks who’d dispute that, not the least of which might be the citizens of those countries themselves. (UPDATE: Here’s another Scandinavian critique of the Scandinavian model.) Let’s also leave aside the contentious question of whether these countries really live up to the leftist hype. For our purposes, let’s take it as a given that these countries, which American liberals gaze longingly at, are both terrific places to live and can be usefully characterized as “socialist.”
Well, the salient characteristic of all these countries is that they are suffocatingly white. They are whiter than a Bernie Sanders campaign rally. They’re whiter than a Don “No Soul” Simmons greatest-hits collection. They’re whiter than a Mayonnaise sandwich in a trailer park meth lab. As Kevin Williamson notes,
“We’d like to make America more like Norway or Finland” is, among other things, a way of saying, “We’d like to make America more like a virtually all-white society.” It’s not like they don’t have public health care in Singapore or income redistribution in Ghana.
This even crops up in American politics. Which Western-hemisphere country is most attractive to American liberals? Canada, of course, whose socialized health care system they see as a model for the United States. Well, Canada has a black population of less than 3 percent and a Latino population of less than 2 percent; America has a black population of more than 13 percent and a Latino population of more than 17 percent. (The U.S. does have slightly more whites than Canada — if you count Hispanics as “white.” If you’re counting non-Hispanic whites, though, Canada is much whiter.)
An America that looks a lot like Canada would look like — well, like the super-white American states that are closest to the Canadian border, like Minnesota (which was largely settled by Scandinavians) or Vermont. White liberals who are disgusted with America always threaten to renounce their citizenship and move up to the frozen, overwhelmingly Caucasian-dominated wastes of America’s Hat. Oddly, they never threaten to decamp to the beautiful, laid-back beaches of mixed-race Mexico. (True believers might threaten to move to Communist-run Cuba, but generally, American leftists have tended to avoid settling in Cuba unless they’re trying to escape criminal prosecution.)
So can only white (and maybe Asian) people get socialism to work? Looking at the results, you might think that. Everywhere else socialism has been tried, in either its democratic or non-democratic forms, it’s always ended in disaster.
I’m frankly amazed that more white American liberals haven’t come to this conclusion after examining the available evidence. If you’re a white person really in love with the idea of socialism, the temptation to go over to the dark side (no pun intended) and adopt a straightforward racist explanation for socialism’s pattern of successes and failures must be overwhelming. At the very least, the cognitive dissonance must be deeply troubling. William F. Buckley used to needle liberals who cited the “Scandinavian model” of socialism by noting that one reason socialism worked in Sweden was because Sweden was full of Swedes — boring, hard-working, honest, responsible super-duper-white people.
I actually don’t believe that — the notion that “socialism,” however loosely-defined, is A White Thing. When I first wrote this post, I originally included at this point a lengthy defense of the notion that people of other races could build workable socialist societies — though at the cost of diversity. A black Sweden would have to be as functionally racist and monocultural as, well … white Sweden.
But I cut this whole section out, because why should I do my enemies’ work for them? I think socialism is a bad idea, so why should I defend its honor? Let Bernie Sanders explain why a political viewpoint that fetishizes a bunch of countries that are whiter than an Englebert Humperdinck concert shouldn’t be presumptively regarded as the ideological heir of Bull Connor.
What I will say is that building a workable “democratic socialism” requires a society with an enormous reserve of what liberal political scientist Robert Putnam refers to as “social capital” — the informal networks among friends, neighbors and colleagues the provide the lubrication which allows cooperative projects to actually get done. In other words, socialism requires a highly public-spirited citizenry, and it is just a cold fact of human nature that it’s harder for people to be public-spirited when the “public” they encounter on a daily basis is full of strange people with alien customs.
Since nobody has figured out how to build an engaged, public-spirited citizenry at gunpoint, public-spiritedness must come from within. And it turns out that the best and most efficient way to foster that among members of the public is by appealing either angrily and explicitly or softly and implicitly to ethnic chauvinism. (It’s also possible for religion to provide such motivation, but for a host of reasons, the results are more uneven.)
Since at least the time of Marx, and probably before, the left has repeatedly tried and failed to build an engaged citizenry on some alternative basis, such as class, gender, income, or what have you. But the New Soviet Man has stubbornly refused to come into existence. Instead, when push comes to shove, even the most committed leftists seem powerless against the siren song of blood and soil.
It also might be worth noting here that as those beloved Scandinavian countries become more diverse, they become progressively less hospitable to socialism — or at least leftism. The rise of far-right parties in Europe over the past decade or so has occurred in lockstep with the rise of greater “diversity” in the population.
The dilemma for socialism-loving American liberals can really be expressed in a simple way — “Socialism, freedom, diversity. Pick any two.”