I meant to write this column four years ago when Barack Obama was first elected president. Now that I am mourning the results of this past election, it seems like a good time to quit procrastinating and finally finish the job.
This president often is accused of being a “socialist.” But his real view – and the direction we are going in – can be better called “social democracy.” It may not sound like much of a difference, but if we’re going to either adapt to or oppose the current trend, we need to understand exactly what we’re in for.
SO WHAT’S THE difference? Let’s take a brief look at where “socialism” came from. Socialism began in the 18th century as the idea that people should live together voluntarily in communities in which they would work together and enjoy the fruits of their labor, together. (The idea was not entirely new – various small Christian societies had practiced such a lifestyle.) Its followers believed that cooperation was better than competition.
Socialism changed drastically in the 1830s when a Frenchman named Louis Blanc argue that the free market was inherently unfair to the working man. The rich, Blanc argued, could always hire cheaper hands from the mass of the unemployed, so that the working man would never receive his fair share of the value of what he produced.
Blanc wanted governments to create work for the unemployed so that the owners of enterprises would have to pay workers more. This was not new or radical, as even the Roman Empire had
done this. But the basic idea of modern socialism – that the free market cheated workers – had been born.
Where socialists increasingly differed with Blanc was the solution. If the system was inherently unfair, then the system had to change. The socialist solution was that the means of production – factories, mines, and the large landed estates, for example – should belong to the people as a whole. In other words, nationalization.
The appeal of this doctrine was enormous, and socialist parties became major powers in Britain, France, and Germany by the early 20th century. The first socialist-led governments appeared after World War I. The popularity of the word “socialism” can be seen from the fact that it was adopted by the two most infamous dictators in European history – Hitler and Stalin.
THE SERIES OF catastrophes that defined the history of Europe between 1914 and 1945 – two world wars, the Russian Revolutions, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the violent imposition of communism in Eastern Europe – led to a desire for political peace, so that prosperity could return. Instead of the political violence that happened in so many places in Europe between the wars, relative peace emerged as a result of compromise that came to be called “social democracy.”
So what was it? Simply put, socialists agreed to abandon the idea that the means of production had to be owned by the community. In return, working families would receive cradle-to-grave benefits, involving a level of welfare spending unknown on this side of the Atlantic. In other words, private enterprise continues, but there is compensation for its (alleged) unfairness.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 felt like a watershed in this regard. The promise of national health care – “Obamacare” – represented a huge step. True, the federal government already handled 40 percent to 50 percent of the country’s medical bills via the Veterans Administration, Medicaid, Medicare, military and dependents’ care, and various miscellaneous programs, but there truly was a change in thinking. This election has confirmed that. When Rush Limbaugh said the day before the election that this was the last chance to stop Obamacare, he was absolutely right.
Why has this happened? Was it simply part of inevitable trend in the Western world? Maybe, but there are other factors. Black voters have an entirely different view of the role of the federal government than other Americans; small wonder, as twice (in the 1860s and again in the 1960s) freedom only came about because of federal intervention. The Hispanic communities have a very different historical relationship with the country, but they do share one important feature with the black community: a high poverty rate, which makes the argument that the market is unfair more appealing. But even without international trends, racial/ethnic issues, and, even Obama, the appeal of “social democracy” would grow here. The reason: declining mobility.
SOCIALISM NEVER gained the foothold here that it had in most European countries. The reason? America enjoyed a much higher rate of mobility – the ability to move from one socioeconomic class to the other – than was generally true in Europe. In recent years, the American mobility rate has slipped and is now lower than in many European countries.
Why this is so is not the point. What matters is that this is the
reality – and until ways are found to address it, the trend toward social democracy will not be reversed.
(The writer is chairman of the Department of History, Anthropology and Philosophy at Augusta State University.)