There are many of us here in America who have moved away from socialism in its various forms. I spent the first 37 years of my life trying to build a meaningful life in two of the most socialist countries in non-Soviet Europe: Sweden and Denmark. Even with a Ph.D. and the prospect of lifelong tenure as a faculty member at a state-run university, all I could see was a life dependent on a slowly shrinking government dole.
Since coming to America 16 years ago, I have been able to develop my career in a way that was completely unthinkable under the soft hand of "democratic" socialism. I can make a difference here that I would never have had an opportunity to do in the entitlement ward of the welfare state.
Every so often I run into Americans who try to tell me that my life experience, my long line of scholarly work on the welfare state and its detriments, and my policy recommendations - informed by my scholarship - are uneducated, ill conceived and based on a misunderstanding of what socialism really is. Inevitably, these American socialists try to teach me about the difference between "socialism" and "democratic socialism".
I grew up in Sweden, the "democratic socialist" heartland. I grew up believing it was the best place in the world. After beginning to see its failures, and discovering the successful turnaround in Britain under Lady Thatcher and the United States under Reagan, I began questioning my own belief in socialism.
After a summer traveling what was then the Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe, I finally parted with any illusions that you can fix socialism by prefixing it with something "democratic". Here, more than three decades later, reading Elizabeth Bruenig's opinion piece in Washington Post, I realize that people of her generation, born long after the Berlin Wall fell, have nowhere to go to learn about the thin, easily erased line between their socialism with a prefix, and the same system once the "democratic" prefix is gone.
It won't do the trick to send them to the border between South and North Korea. That experience will not open the eyes of this new crop of socialist pipe dreamers to the continuum from egalitarianism to the Gulag Archipelago.
Burenig, who wants to "give socialism a try", at least pays lip service to the victims of socialism:
Not to be confused for a totalitarian nostalgist, I would support a kind of socialism that would be democratic and aimed primarily at decommodifying labor, reducing the vast inequality brought about by capitalism, and breaking capital’s stranglehold over politics and culture.
Her lip service noted, this very paragraph still swings the door wide open to the very same totalitarian dungeon that Bruenig claims to want to stay away from.
First of all, any time someone needs to prefix their ideology with "democratic", it is a warning sign to be taken seriously. When was the last time you heard someone prefixing libertarianism, conservatism or capitalism with "democratic"? Exactly. There is no need for it. These are ideologies that have as their base the sovereign individual, and build a society to preserve that sovereignty.
Socialism, on the other hand, is an ideology that starts from the top, with an idea of how society should be organized, then works its way down to find a place for each and every individual within that societal construct.
This is no abstract point. It has its roots deep in reality. As I explain in my new book The Rise of Big Government: How Egalitarianism Conquered America, the founders of the modern egalitarian welfare state reduced the individual to a cog on the wheel of a socialist machinery. They did this in a very real sense by talking about people as "the population stock" and how this "stock" needed purification in order to produce a maximum of goods and services to feed their democratic socialist system. Parents were to be reduced to mere feeder units of their children. Individuals deemed to be carriers of "unfit" genetic material would be sterilized and their children forcefully aborted.
Yes, this is real. This is the "democratic" socialism I grew up in.
There are "milder" ways to explain how socialism demotes the individual. Education always provides a rich well of examples. One of them is the maoist education system in China, where government determined the path of the students by telling them what college degree they should get. Government assessed their qualities and talents, then told them to become engineers, physicians, accountants, lawyers...
I went through the "soft", Swedish and apparently democratic version of the same ideological practice. In sixth grade we were given the opportunity to choose advanced or ordinary levels of math, then choose languages or trade-style classes. In ninth grade we made the choices for what Americans know as senior high: either you went to "academic track", college-preparing programs with, at best, one or two electives in three years, or you went to "trade track" programs that did not prepare you for college and offered no electives.
At the university, your choices were guided by what choice you had made in ninth grade. There were a few university programs to choose from, all with predominantly mandatory courses: public administration; social services; business and marketing; culture and languages; law; medicine; civil engineering. That was pretty much it. If, in ninth grade, if you had chosen a college-prep program in the social sciences, you were locked out from medical school or engineering.
Liberal arts? Never heard of. Private colleges? You must be joking. Homeschooling? Illegal.
The American education system, by contrast, puts the individual's own pursuit of knowledge and furthering of his own talents above anything else. In other words, the dividing line is not between socialism with or without prefix, but between a world view that focuses on the individual human being, and socialism.
The next problem in Bruenig's socialist utopia is her ambition to "decommodify" labor. This is probably the most dangerous ideological concoction in the Marxist cookbook. Aspiring socialists rarely understand its true meaning.
It is not surprising that the idea of "labor as a commodity" was originally defined by Karl Marx in his Capital. When an employee works for an employer, Marx says, the work that the employee provides is a "commodity".
Commodification consists of an entirely artificial split that Marx makes between the time that the worker allegedly works for "himself" and the time that he works for "the man". The paycheck that the employer writes only pays for the "himself" part, says Marx, defining "the man" work as "profit". Then Marx, and especially his esteemed followers like Lenin, start talking about how profit means exploitation of labor.
Right here, let us put aside all the realities of modern business, because if we don't, the entire absurdum of "commodified" labor unravels in a New York minute. Let us also forget that the socialists who dream of "decommodification" have never run a business and very often have only scant experience with real-life productive activity.
We are also going to disregard the lack of logic and attention to economic theory in this Marxist illusion, simply because it requires a lengthy explanation of itself. What matters here and now is the practical consequences of the "decommodification" that Elizabeth Bruenig and other young socialists long for.
After they have used truckloads of super glue to keep this Marxist delusion from falling apart, they will find that they can only decommodify labor in one of two ways:
1. By seizing all businesses, so that the "profit" becomes owned by either the workers (as they so miserably failed to do in Yugoslavia and the Chinese People's Communes) or by government; or
2. By confiscating "profits" through extreme taxation, then redistributing it vigorously through an elaborate system of entitlement programs.
The first solution runs into the problem of property rights. There are two ways to terminate property rights:
- "legally", as in Venezuela (perhaps Bruenig would like to spend a year there?) or in South Africa (where government is in the process of making it legal to take land from white farmers), or
- with brute force, as in the Soviet tradition.
Either way, the democratic prefix falls off socialism and the end result is a "democratically" created dictatorship.
When the Prague Spring erupted in 1968, the leaders of Czechoslovakia wanted to put a "human face" on socialism. Once again, socialism was going to be prefixed by democracy. The only problem was that their idea of democracy stopped short of allowing free elections. Any party proposed the reintroduction of private property rights would be declared illegal.
The second solution is the path they tried in the egalitarian welfare states in Scandinavia. Life in Sweden, for example, is not anywhere near what American socialists think: the education system has some of the worst performance metrics in the western world; the health care system is literally falling apart, with everyone having the right to all health care they need and government denying more and more of that health care because they can't afford to provide it; the vast income security system sends sick people back to work because they can no longer afford to provide the "sick leave" payments that government has promised.
Retirement homes starve old people to death for lack of funds. Geographically, more than half the country has no working police service.
And so on. All of this to the tune of the world's highest taxes. In fact, a married couple filing jointly in Sweden will pay a tax rate on their first earned krona that, here in the United States, you won't reach until you make $315,000.
I doubt that this is the kind of life that "democratic" socialists like Elizabeth Bruenig have in mind when they dream of decommodifying labor. I also don't think they have considered the macroeconomic consequences of confiscatory taxation - a fact that is quite frankly startling, given the strong response that the U.S. economy has given to the Trump tax reform.
Does Bruenig really believe that Apple would have repatriated a quarter of a trillion dollars at the tax rates she would need for her decommodification of labor? Why did Apple even start here in capitalist America, and not in a democratically socialist country, which was still alive at that time? Hint: the only big corporations in Sweden are the ones that were founded before democratic socialism was introduced.
Her demand for reductions of "vast inequalities" is just the flip side of her "decommodification" idea. Once the means of production (to stick to the Marxist parlance) have been confiscated - directly or indirectly - the loot is distributed among the "oppressed", the "exploited" and the "working class". This, again, is being done in abundance in Europe.
The result? One fifth of Europe's young are unemployed and can't find a way to get started on a career of even making their own money. In Greece, the pursuit of equality collapsed in a monumental debt crisis, with one quarter of the economy wiped out (that means 25 percent of your salary, Ms. Bruenig), less than half the population even having a job, every conceivable entitlement slashed to the bones, taxes rising through the roof, and the economy effectively being de-industrialized.
The only reason why Greek youth unemployment is down, is that young Greeks emigrate to places like low-tax, still-capitalist Romania, where they can actually find jobs.
Yes, there are vast income differences in the United States. The problem is that those differences are almost always merited by life choices that people make. Yes, some of us - including yours truly - come from a long line of poor ancestors, whose survival was a daily struggle. But somewhere, we all make choices. My mom, a first-generation college graduate whose parents only had six years of schooling, used to say: "We never complained about how poor we were. We were too busy doing our homework."
That attitude can take you anywhere, at least in a country where the individual and his abilities, desires and aspirations are valued higher than ideological, theoretical constructs.