Socialism with an American face

Gar Alperovitz

Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist, but the US needs its own version, not Denmark’s

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ public defense of socialism in the Oct. 13 Democratic presidential debate has kicked off America’s first major discussion of the idea in more than a generation. Columnists, talk show hosts and Donald Trump have all joined in. Most of the discussion, however, has been wildly misleading, and almost all of it has bypassed some of the most interesting forms of a very American and practical form of socialism emerging throughout the United States.

Sanders was clear about what he meant by socialism, pointing to Denmark as a positive example. But Denmark is a capitalist nation with a record of welcoming and supporting private business investment. The word “socialism” is used there — as it is in many European countries — to describe a strong welfare state that includes comprehensive health care, a solid safety net, generous retirement benefits, day care and many other programs that almost any American progressive would support.

The American term for this kind of system — capitalism with a strong welfare state — is, in fact, liberalism or, perhaps, when combined with very tough taxes on the rich and corporations, populism. Socialism, on the other hand, historically has gone far beyond progressive welfare state measures by asserting that a democratic society can be achieved only if it includes democratic ownership of the economy.

In many European countries, strong labor movements committed to socialism as strong liberalism have helped counterbalance the power of capital by supporting a stronger welfare state. However, this option has always been constrained in the U.S., where union membership has declined from 35.4 percent of the labor force at its peak in the early 1950s to a mere 11.1 percent today. Racism and other factors historically have weakened and divided the American labor movement and almost entirely prevented union organizing in the South.

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The environmental implications of this power are particularly grave. Regulating the big oil companies to reduce global warming is even harder, politically, than regulating the banks. Large Wall Street–financed corporations must show consistent growth; in the case of the oil companies, unrestricted growth is increasingly understood as ecologically unsustainable.