By Gabriel Kilpatrick
The world cannot wait. The Social Democratic Odyssey has fought many obstacles, accomplished many reforms, but is ill-equipped to deal with the problems of Cyclopean proportions that our society faces today. I must emphasize beforehand that this is not a young, rash diatribe against the proponents of Social democracy - nor is it a naïve display of utopian idealism with no bearing on reality - but simply an advocation of a mass social revolution; arguing that a reimplementation of Social democracy is simply not possible within the context of the advanced capitalist society we live in today.
So what precisely is the Polyphemus we face? This epic monster possesses one eye, and that is the eye of profit which thrusts all other social values to the periphery, inevitably leading to a myopic visual field. The acute crisis of capitalism has enveloped the modern world. From austerity in Europe, to massive inequality domestically, and declining GDP growth rates in Japan, capitalism is on an unsustainable path. Furthermore, the economic health of the nation is dismal. The crucial factor preventing this nation from sliding into the characteristic capitalist crisis of overproduction, as so famously developed by Marx, is the enormous, unprecedented expansion of household debt. Notably, average household debt is hovering around Great Depression levels, barring a slight decrease post-recession. This has allowed the consumer expenditures so vital to our economy’s success to remain afloat. Indeed this urge to induce consumption has significant ramifications as well. Less household saving leads to less entrepreneurship, a key marker of stability in a market economy. Moreover, the American consumer has been bolstered by the presence of cheap commodities, with prices driven down due to foreign production in low labor-cost markets. This occurrence imparts its own detrimental consequences, specifically having pronounced effects on the American economy via the eroding manufacturing sector. Manufacturing has shrunk to around 22% of the economy, and this has caused decent paying, jobs with benefits to simply vanish. The signs are clear; we are living in a sick economy, the Ottoman in comparison to the youthful optimism of golden age capitalism.
Financially, the out of control schemes of fictitious capital have run amok, with its handlers less concerned with the outcome. This is yet again a result of the mature capitalism we live in; for why is money squandered on needless hedge fund manipulations or horded away in the Cayman Islands? Without going astray too much from the point of concern, Marxist economics provide an answer; because the rate of return on profit is much lower, thus capitalists seek to direct investment elsewhere than utilization as productive capital. They would pose questions like: Why should I waste surplus on educating antiquated workers. Why should I abide by costly OSHA regulations? Why should I face enormous productive costs when I can simply internalize my operations within the cozy world of Wall Street derivatives and financial speculation? Plus, if anything goes wrong, I can receive much-welcomed support from the bourgeois central banks! They have no qualms about propping up a failing system! Moreover, as much as Keynesian economists desire, they cannot mitigate the harmful effects of a spiraling boom-bust cycle. Indeed the evidence is to the contrary, with economists such as Larry Summers telling investors and corporations that we can potentially be undergoing a period of “secular stagnation." Stagnation of course is for the working class as profits of firms have been increasing as percentage of GDP for over the past decade. This is no recipe for success, and it is quite apparent with the burdening inequality and surging underemployment that capitalism faces a severe economic and social crisis. But I provide this analysis not to condemn capitalism, but rather to offer a critique of the solutions provided by the political philosophy of Social Democracy.
Social Democracy provided hope and relief to millions in the mid-20th century. However, it is important to keep in mind that it was a temporary stopgap solution, made possible by unique phenomena and coexisting with some very dark and unpleasant societal circumstances. In addition, Social Democracy is proving to be vastly ineffective in Europe today, and importing it along the lines of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders is not a viable solution to today’s problems.
So what exactly is the Circe and Calypso that the Social-democratic Odyssey faces? These constraints hinder its viability, and manifest themselves as social conditions, race relations, and simply the immutable laws of capitalist production, thereby effectively forming a multidimensional straight-jacket around the prospects of another “social-democratic golden-age”, like that which was witnessed in the mid-20th century. Furthermore, the existence of unique economic and geopolitical phenomena of the golden age of capitalism amplified social democracy’s effectiveness in assuaging capitalism’s ill-effects.
First, the concomitant forces of racial oppression and social-democratic reforms, only serves ipso facto as a critique of social democracy’s potential for a contemporary solution to 21st century problems. For instance, Social Security provisions of the New Deal era excluded a great many number of blacks who constituted the laboring and sharecropper class in the South. As Professor Juan F. Perea of the Loyola University of Chicago School of Law states, in his stunning expose of the discriminatory undertones of the National Labor Relations Act:
Seemingly neutral on its face, the occupational exclusion of agricultural and domestic employees was well-understood to be a proxy for the exclusion of most black employees…. [and] indifferent to the negative effects on blacks, and appeasing Southern Democrats, Congress passed the SSA with a statutory exclusion of agricultural and domestic employees from both old-age and unemployment benefits.
It was not until the expansion of benefits in the 1960’s that social security was fully attainable for poor blacks. Likewise, the issue is similar in terms of education. The flourishing public education system of the 1950’s offered opportunities for millions of working class and poor children. However, its benefits were exclusively reserved for white children. Indeed a key visual representation of Jim Crow, that of small, one-room schoolhouses equipped with dilapidated textbooks for black children, was ubiquitous in the 1960’s. The circumstances were not much different in the North and Midwest; educational inequality was equally replicated, notwithstanding the absence of overt racially repressive legal systems. As a NewPolitics magazine article on education stated:
“We must acknowledge the complicity of the education establishment, labor and teachers unions in allowing this gross inequality [in educational] to persist…. [It] did not create residential and school segregation, but accepting it was an unarticulated assumption in its post-World War II pact with capital.”
Additionally, my own university, the City College of New York, nicknamed the “Harvard of the Proletariat”, had a rich history of working class inclusion and opportunity. Nonetheless, in the same manner as grammar schools, City College was restricted to mostly Jewish, Italian, Eastern European and Irish students, unreflective of the black and brown Harlem community in which it is located. Furthermore, as time progressed, racial inclusion occurred; first at the grammar school level, with Brown vs Board of Education providing the impetus for a long struggle against segregated schools, and then subsequently student resistance at City College and throughout the CUNY system that led to the Open Admissions policy enacted in 1969, producing a massive demographic shift, with the number of minority students entering CUNY quadrupling from less than 1,700 in 1969 to around 8,000 in 1970.
However, capital’s reaction was the same to these three reforms. Regression would ensue; thereupon limiting the efficacy of these beneficial reforms. Welfare state provisions were severely limited by the neoliberal reaction of the 1980’s, with even sharper cuts in the following decade by President Clinton, proclaiming the end of “welfare as we know it”. With regards to primary school education, Reagan began assaults on public education, devastating urban schools by reducing federal aid to inner cities by a whopping 16%. In the midst of the neoliberal coup that characterized the New York City financial crisis of the mid-70’s, my campus, CCNY, acquiesced to state pressure and instituted tuition in 1976, ending the more than century old practice of a free university in New York. Overall, there seems an incompatibility of social-democratic reforms and racial egalitarianism in the history of the United States. Capital insists upon it. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was a Marxist-Leninist trade union founded in Detroit in 1969. Black workers that comprised a sizable part of the auto industry were separated from the white UAW leadership. Whereas Michigan had become a union-dominated state, with the lure of progressive and social democratic reforms pacifying union leaderships, black workers were continuously discriminated and exploited to a much higher degree than their white counterparts. The ladder of opportunity, won through struggle, had failed to reach them. Although it did not exist for long, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers serves as an important lesson on the shortcomings of social democracy (or its American equivalent) in the 1950’s.
Another characteristic associated with the golden-age of capitalism, that of the prevalence of liberal and social-democratic governments in the United States and Western Europe, is the existence of environmentally harmful practices that were critical in fostering a rising standard of living. Indeed this is a problem of capitalism itself; yet social democracy faces this peculiar challenge more so than any other prospective solution to capitalism by the nature of its coexistence with the powerful forces of capital. Perspectives have radically shifted since the 1950’s, and this a necessary result of the growth-oriented, consumerist policies of liberals and social-democrats (as well as conservatives) in that time period. The 1950’s was an era of unprecedented growth; advances in manufacturing of synthetics, widespread usage of automobiles, and reproduction of nuclear power sparked rapid increases in the standard of living. Demographic distribution shifted, propelled by the growth of the suburbs and construction of interstate highway systems. The ramifications of the rapid growth of the 1950’s were unsettling. US per capita energy consumption increased exponentially, with oil leading as a main component of the new consumer economy. However, cities experienced high levels of smog, with Pittsburgh becoming blanketed in an iconic, thick, black smog. These cities were the epicenter of manufacturing and industry, and thus were heavily unionized, paying workers accordingly. On a broader scale, the economy of the 50’s and 60’s as structured in the US and Western Europe, provided enormous benefits as part of the social-democratic pact between labor and capital. This setup is heralded by figures like Michael Moore and others, who argue for the reimplementation of the social-democratic compact. However, those advocates are not cognizant of the ill-effects associated with that pact. That period of prosperity and unprecedented growth occurred because of an acceleration of environmentally destructive practices; social democracy and liberalism were ideal solutions that rested upon now- obsolete assumptions of regarding the economy’s role in our planet’s ecosystem. The circumstances of that time period are not ones we would wish to replicate today, as socialists desiring a more positive, sustainable future for humanity. Instead we must seek to replace the roots of environmental destruction, the profit motive, that narrow-minded, self-serving mechanism, and not unlike the operating systems of a computer, it must be exchanged with a more ecological and temperate system; social democracy would be no more than a mere aesthetically pleasing swap, and not the transformative overhaul we need.
As opposed to the problematic historical consequences of social democracy, there are future problems that harm prospects of its effective implementation in the 21st century. Indeed social democracy can do little to hinder the primary exigency of the capitalist mode of production; its temporally ubiquitous characteristic, that of the inexorable technological progress conditioned by the rigid laws of competition. The US is testament to this, with over 200,000 patents filed each year. While some may claim the positive effects of this phenomenon, in the technological spillovers that allow for the widespread use of new technologies; a contradiction occurs that stifles capitalist growth. Increasingly, automation encroaches upon jobs, both domestically and abroad. Automation alone is accountable for up to 60% of the job losses of the past 30 years. Despite the insistence of bourgeois economists, through propounding the “Luddite Fallacy” to reassure society, technology represents a significant challenge for the market economy in the 21st century. Estimates of over 45% of American jobs over the course of the next 20 years are endangered by machines offers a troublesome image, and constitute a genuine threat to social stability. It seems Marx’s prophetic thoughts regarding the tempestuous nature of capitalism, as expressed in the Communist Manifesto, “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation” (Chap. 1), are manifesting themselves once again in contemporary society. The astute question is, “What can social democracy accomplish to halt the hollowing out of the American workplace?” After fully assessing the dilemma of modern capitalism, one can ascertain that only socialism, in abolishing the contradictory aspects of capitalist production, can effectively utilize the liberatory potential of emerging technologies in a stable and advantageous manner.
Furthermore, there exists other macroeconomic consequences of progressive technological advancement besides unemployment. There develops increasingly short, yet economically devastating, recessions as technology advances forward that even policy makers with the most ideal intentions can do little to avert. Theoretically, this subtle obstacle arises from the simple distinction between constant, or fixed, and variable capital. The marked difference between manufacturing in Marx’s time and manufacturing today is that the gilded-age factories were labor intensive (with very low rates of exploitation), and today’s factories are capital intensive (with higher rates of exploitation). As Marx demonstrated, this leads to increasingly larger and large outlays on fixed capital to replace the wear and tear (depreciation) on machinery. And according to economic law, investment is a key determinant of the business cycle; increasing or decreasing in response to several variables. But yet while there are continously quicker durations of investment on depreciating capital, thus ensuring the vitality of machinery, there also exists the more rapid cycles of recession and expansion as consequence. Essentially, the long depressions that scarred the late 19th and early 20th century are now shortened. This crucial point was elaborated upon by Ernest Mandel, in explaining the unique developments of neo-capitalism in his Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory . One can observe its effects with the bursting “Dot-Com bubble” of the 2000-2001. This subtle, yet damaging attribute of modern capitalism presents another problem for social democracy (as well as capitalism in general). For how can one expect to “tame” the excesses of the capitalist economy if there exist increasingly brief yet destabilizing, unpredictable periods of recession? Unraveling chaos would ensue before state planners can anticipate.
Mandel and the other Marxist analysts of neo-capitalism in the mid-20th century observed another striking feature of American and European capitalism, that of the existence of massive military budgets. Procurement of armaments and weapons development composed a huge part of government spending. Moreover, it provided substantial benefits to local economies that accommodated these large military bases and vast defense industrial complexes. Prominent examples include the Virginian-DC metropolitan area, home to major military installations and defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin. Equally important, is the other major effect that this large investment on defense spending has. Technological progress, as illustrated by Mandel with the case of World War II innovations, is greatly reliant upon defense spending. The neoclassical growth theory popular in Mandel’s time emphasized the random periods of rapid technological development that produce rapid growth. While his contemporary growth theorists did not emphasize causes, Mandel points out that growth, a consequence of technological development, was contingent upon the heavy military research and development expenditures of World War II and subsequently the Cold War. Particularly, this presents another major roadblock to the effectiveness of social democracy. Many liberal and social democratic reformers, as do socialists, intend on cutting bloated military budgets, and justifiably so, as defense expenditures lessen the opportunity for poverty alleviation and finance global American hegemony. However, as has been illustrated, there are ill-effects to this policy if continued for a substantial period of time. What bulk of technological research will have to be co-opted by the private sector? In those circumstances, technology would be subjected to conspicuous bourgeois demands of profitability and cost-reduction. There would be a significant reduction in technological innovation. In response, one can propose that the new social-democratic regimes invest heavily in technological research, but that would yield new problems in increasingly exorbitant budgets, and practical political problems that all major reformist parties face. In summary, technology as exists under capitalism constitutes a major impediment to social-democracy.
The issue of social democracy is of utmost importance for organizations like DSA. Our political orientation and strategy, with all the complexities and nuances associated with it form a central loci, a central structure of our broader Panopticon that conditions the rest of our organizing and activism. The potential DSA has, in this particular sociopolitical environment of crisis capitalism, by adopting a revolutionary program, and coupled our democratic structure and rational demeanor, is enormous. DSA’s transformation can precipitate sweeping social transformations in today’s political landscape. There are substantial resources we could save by manner of abandoning support for democrats, leaving the Socialist International and its fruitless social-democratic odyssey, and thereby freeing up resources for critical revolutionary action. Thus, this is why I believe the cogent decision for us as an organization, during this important time of self-reflection, is to be inflicted with a revolutionary passion, for which the possibilities provided by a revolutionary socialism know no bounds. The Social Democratic Odyssey is over.
Let us not hesitate. Let’s cross the Rubicon.
As to revolutionary socialism — I’ll just say that for any mature Marxist, revolutionary politics are primarily about aims and only secondarily about means.
I agree with your criticisms of social democracy but not that the Odyssey is over. Social democracy is still the most humane system leftists have been able to engineer in most parts of the world. No doubt “full democratic socialism” would be better, but I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that social democrats and social democracy save lives. Sure, social democracy won’t resolve the contradictions of capitalism, but doesn’t mean that revolutionary change must come eventually regardless of whether or not we pursue a social democratic program? Until then, we have two options: 1.) establishing social democracy at the level of government, i.e. gradual reform of capitalism, and 2.) practicing libertarian socialism at the grassroots, community organizing level, i.e. gradual revolution from below. I would like DSA to embody both of these ethics, as also described by Jared Abbott and Joseph Schwartz, here: http://www.dsausa.org/a_socialist_strategy_for_the_21st_century.
The only other socialist organization in the US that sort of appeals to me is Socialist Alternative, but I can’t bring myself to associate with them for the following reasons: 1.) their declared affiliation with Trotskyism and the CWI, which oddly seems both dogmatic and irrelevant given their platform, 2.) their call to nationalize the top 500 corporations, which is a political non-starter, and especially 3.) their fatuous and aggressive visual propaganda, which IMO mars the image of an otherwise sympathetic organization, and w/r/t which I’ll quote Adam Smith at length:
“There are some passions of which the expressions excite no sort of sympathy, but before we are acquainted with what gave occasion to them, serve rather to disgust and provoke us against them. The furious behaviour of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies. As we are unacquainted with his provocation, we cannot bring his case home to ourselves, nor conceive any thing like the passions which it excites. But we plainly see what is the situation of those with whom he is angry, and to what violence they may be exposed from so enraged an adversary. We readily, therefore, sympathize with their fear or resentment, and are immediately disposed to take part against the man from whom they appear to be in so much danger.
“If the very appearances of grief and joy inspire us with some degree of the like emotions, it is because they suggest to us the general idea of some good or bad fortune that has befallen the person in whom we observe them: and in these passions this is sufficient to have some little influence upon us. The effects of grief and joy terminate in the person who feels those emotions, of which the expressions do not, like those of resentment, suggest to us the idea of any other person for whom we are concerned, and whose interests are opposite to his. The general idea of good or bad fortune, therefore, creates some concern for the person who has met with it, but the general idea of provocation excites no sympathy with the anger of the man who has received it. Nature, it seems, teaches us to be more averse to enter into this passion, and, till informed of its cause, to be disposed rather to take part against it.”
DSA’s polite and, as you said, “rational demeanor” is what sets it apart from SA, from an outsider’s point of view. I think this is good for the organization’s image and will help draw people into the democratic socialist tent. At the same time, SA’s two major successes are perhaps worth emulating, namely 1.) organizing the single-issue campaign 15 Now and 2.) electing Kshama Sawant in Seattle. As for the Socialist International, it’s sort of appealing as an international organization of successful “socialist” parties, but at the same time I’m pretty unimpressed with how SI parties like Labour in the UK, le parti socialiste in France, and the New Democratic Party in Canada all seem to cater to a pro-austerity opposition.
In closing I say yes, let’s work for revolutionary socialism, but we should also take successes wherever we can get them, even if it’s just helping elect a progressive Democrat when there’s no other electoral alternative. I think actions like that matter and don’t cost as much energy as critics claim, even if social democracy itself is ultimately a fool’s errand and a colossal failure. Why not squeeze whatever advantage you can out of a failing system? But maybe you’re right. Maybe we should devote all our energy instead to hastening its collapse. But I think if we do that we must accept the moral consequences of giving up on reform in the present tense and letting the political right have their way with the poor and working class for now. As Spinoza once wrote in a letter to a friend, “In practical life we are compelled to follow what is most probable ; in speculative thought we are compelled to follow truth.” The truth is obvious, as you have put it quite well, but what we should do about it is not. In the end, though, I if I had to pick a side, I’d probably be in your camp, the revolutionary socialist camp.
P.S. The Bernie campaign also seems to embody both forms of socialist strategy. The official campaign itself is quite traditional apart from its rejection of corporate donations and super PAC collusion, but there’s also the grassroots People for Bernie, of which Maria Svart of DSA and Betsy Avila of YDS are members, and which also includes a bunch of OWS people. Whatever happens, I hope this coalition continues and grows beyond the 2016 election and leads to more revolutionary politics.