The argument I am going to make in this essay is that radical leftists should support the formation of a social democracy in the US as a means to more radical ends. Traditionally, radical leftists like Marxists, Anarchists and revolutionary socialists have viewed social democracy as a compromise with capital; as nothing more than left-liberalism. On these grounds, social democracy has been dismissed and even confronted as an opposition ideology by radicals. Contrary to many of my fellow radicals, I view social democracy as a necessary step on the path to a post-capitalist America. Furthermore, I am going to argue that at this specific time in history, the building up of a social democracy in America is essential if we are going to move into the age of hyper-automation and artificial intelligence with the least amount of chaos and suffering possible possible.
I want to state at the outset of this essay, for clarity’s sake, that I am a radical socialist and anti-capitalist, I am not a social democrat. I share the consensus view of most radicals that social democracy as an end goal is a capitulation to capital, and one that fundamentally undermines socialist values. I also have a very strong premise upon which the bulk of the following argument is built, and that premise is that the socialist revolution in America (and beyond) is not going to come via a bloody revolution, instead it will come via the inevitable rise of hyper-automation and artificial intelligence. The revolution will come, as Marx predicted, via the contradictions within the capitalist system itself. By automating more and more jobs with exponentially increasing computational power, capital will sow the seeds of its own destruction by creating an environment in which human beings have to do less and less work in virtually all industries and sectors. I have written about this in more detail on my blog, but if you refuse to accept, even tentatively, this premise, then the following essay will not have its full bite. However, even without this premise, it is my hope that this essay will have some influence on how radicals think about social democracy and the future.
Defining Our Terms: Social Democracy and Radicalism
For the sake of clarity, I will briefly define what I mean by “social democracy” and “radicalism” to ensure me and my readers are on the same page. Social Democracy is defined by Wikipedia:
“as a political ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy, and a policy regime involving collective bargaining arrangements, a commitment to representative democracy, measures for income redistribution, regulation of the economy in the general interest and welfare state provisions.”
The easiest way to think about social democracy is by associating it with the Northern European nations that have high taxes, highly robust social safety nets, and strong regulations on capital. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are classic examples of social democrats that many readers are probably familiar with.
Radicalism, on the other hand, is an umbrella term I am using to cover all far-left, anti-capitalist philosophies ranging from anarchism to Marxism to revolutionary socialism. These philosophers often dismiss gradualism and reformism as legitimate ways to transcend capitalism. Whether its through spontaneous revolution (anarchism) or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Marxism), radicals aim to overthrow capitalism from outside of the normal mechanisms of governmental change (i.e. voting, running for political office, reforms, etc.).
The great division between social democrats and radicals is precisely the means by which the two propose to implement socialism. Social democrats, as I’ve said above, favor gradualist tactics. They want to participate in party politics, elect progressive candidates who will help implement progressive reforms like universal healthcare, free higher education, guaranteed paid maternity leave, etc. (Its worth noting that on these three points, America remains one of the only countries who refuses to grant its citizens any of these benefits). Radicals counter that by winning those gains within the capitalist framework, and depending on the government in capitalist societies to implement and maintain those gains, social democrats leave these gains open to the risk of dismemberment at the hands of the next set of politicians. Furthermore, the vast majority of politicians that exist in a capitalist State are disproportionately, if not wholly, pawns of capital. Capital dominates any State apparatus that exists in the context of a capitalist economy. It is for this reason that even the best gains are perpetually at risk of being slashed or underfunded or otherwise undermined. Only by taking over the State, or by dismantling the State and Capitalism, can we hope to implement a lasting program that guarantees all citizens freedom from poverty and wage slavery, freedom from exploitation and domination, and freedom from the coercive and cut-throat nature of a capitalist system.
It’s with these dynamics and antagonisms in mind that I hope to construct an argument that bridges these seemingly disparate ideologies into a unified strategy.
Why Social Democracy Is An Essential Step On The Path To Post-Capitalism
There are four main reasons why I think it is necessary for radicals to take seriously the effort to install a social democracy in America; which means dedicating time and energy to supporting candidates like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, not as ends in and of themselves, but as tactical means to more radical ends. The four main reasons are as follows:
1) The organizational structures built and maintained in a social democracy are essential pre-conditions for radical change.
2) Victories for the working class actually emboldens workers to go further, and re-contextualizes politics to left for the American mainstream.
3) Material gains for working people is of utmost import; far more important than ideological purity.
4) A robust social democracy will make the inevitable transition into the age of hyper-automation and post-capitalism a much smoother one
- Organizational Structures:
Within social democracies across the world, there are certain organizations that must be created and strengthened overtime to maintain the existence of the social democracy and to prevent roll backs. Strong unions, Consumer advocacy groups, labor representation on corporate boards, and strong grass roots organizations must all exist in robust ways in order for a social democracy to exist. It is precisely these structures, plus many more, that are desperately needed in order to wage a more radical fight. In America today we are lacking any viable vehicles through which we can organize on a national level. The 40-year systematic deconstruction of unions has taken away a powerful traditional vehicle for radicalism; and only through the building of a social democracy can we restore unions to the level necessary for legitimate worker power. Social democracies also offer the benefit of *actual* working class political parties (as opposed to the Democratic party which is steadfastly and unapologetically a party of capital) with national organizational structures, consistent funding, and a strong platform for radicals to influence toward more radical ends.
2. Victories for the Working Class:
With the success of social democracies, the workers get a taste of what they can accomplish. They become less apathetic and disillusioned as they begin to see the fruits of leftist, working class politics. The systems of power and oppression in America have done a very good job at convincing working class people that leftist goals like universal healthcare or free college are either impossible or evil. The inculcation of the myth of individualism in the general populous is a hypnotic spell that can only be broken by the real-world implementation of the very things that capitalist propaganda has convinced workers would be bad for them. Once people have universal healthcare, free college, paid maternity and the other benefits of a social democracy they will begin to see through the lies of capital in regards to these programs, and will be far less likely to give them up without a fight.
Everywhere in the world where social democratic policies exist, the populace becomes committed to defending them against attacks from capital. In Slovenia, when they tried to dismantle free higher education, the students went on massive marches and voting campaigns to throw the people who represented capital’s interest out of their political positions, and replaced them with defenders of the program. Similar events occur in any country where the Right tries to roll back hard-fought programs that benefit working people. Therefore, by implementing these policies, letting people benefit from them, and showing them conclusively that the fear mongering of capital in regards to these programs was just a cynical attempt for them to defend their own interests against the interests of working people, we invigorate the working class. We make them feel empowered, and in that empowerment, the inclination to unify, organize and fight back against any attempt to undermine our gains becomes natural. It is precisely this type of solidarity in defense of working class interests that is lacking in America and that is desperately needed for any radical change beyond social democratic reforms. This element must be in play before any radical project can even think about getting off the ground.
3. Material Gains:
I am in favor of any and all material gains for working people. The reason I am a radical and a socialist is precisely because I love working and poor people. I come from the working class, and my family, my friends, and my community are all working class. It is more important to me that all people get access to healthcare, for example, than it is that I strictly adhere to a radical philosophical doctrine or dogma. Material gains for working and poor people is vastly more important to me than ideological purity. Too often, I see radicals whose priorities run in the opposite direction. They would rather posture as ideological demagogues than compromise slightly for various material benefits. For example, many radicals will criticize a Bernie Sanders for his position on Israel, and use that as a basis to dismiss his entire campaign and to mock his supporters as “liberals” (which is a pejorative in radical circles). Now, of course the Israeli / Palestinian conflict is of severe importance, and any radical worth their salt better have the correct position on this issue. I think the Israeli government is an oppressive apartheid State and we should be uncompromising in our defense of the Palestinian people. However, to give up on a real chance at social democracy in America in order to stay unsullied in regards to a single position seems counter-productive. The goal should be to rally behind the most progressive candidate possible (above a certain level, obviously. This isn’t a “lesser of two evils” argument) and then use our influence to push him or her in the right direction on the issues that we do not think they address properly. Most social democrats will be open to that influence in ways that normal liberal democratic politicians are not.
The point is, the left is so defeated and marginalized in America at this point, that we have got to build radical politics from the ground up. To dismiss this necessity, and to instead retreat into ideological dogmatism is abandon real politics. The left must always be looking beyond social democracy as an end-goal, but also must realize that the journey from here to there involves steps. These steps may not always be pleasant and they will involve some compromises along the way, but that’s the cost of getting something done; and even a cursory examination of the radical left in America will show conclusively that we are not getting anything done, and we need to make some tactical changes if we hope to do anything of substance. A tentative embrace of social democracy in the short term is the tactical change I am advocating.
4. The Inevitability of Automation and the Importance of a Robust Social Democracy:
I have written, at length, about the inevitability of automation and what that means for the future of work and socialist politics. I have been clear that I believe it to be the most promising means by which we can transcend capitalism; far more promising than traditional notions of revolution and the seizure of State power. Any attempt to revolt in America will lead quickly and violently into either a complete bloodbath as the State brutally squashes the uprising or a devolution into Civil War as the reactionary elements in our society take up arms against the Left. Neither option bodes well for the quality of life for working and poor people. It is only through the hyper-automation of the economy that we have a real chance at upending and replacing capitalism with a more humane, sustainable, and democratic global system. I will not get it no the details of how this will happen because I have spilled a lot of ink on that topic in other essays. The point here is to argue that by implementing a robust social democracy before the inevitable transition reaches a climax we can mitigate some of the chaos it will cause, and create a situation in which we can more easily and more smoothly move into our new political, social and economic reality.
Without a social democracy, fully equipped with all of the benefits I outlined above, the transition away from capitalism will be highly chaotic as the masters of capital try to usurp the wealth created by new automation technologies and artificial intelligence advancements. Without a strong working class organizational structure already in place, and without a confident, organized and prepared working class, we run the very real risk of being scattered and confused on how to handle the transition, allowing capitalists to benefit disproportionately from the advancements. In the worst case scenario, capital could seize the State apparatus outright, and impose a sort of dystopian techno-capitalist society marked by even more extreme wealth inequality, environmental degradation, and an accelerated and overwhelming surveillance State, as capital desperately tries to maintain itself in the face of its own internal contradictions.
An integral part of the social democracy I am advocating here is an acknowledgement, study, and discussion of the inevitability of this transition period, and a robust conversation about how best to deal with it and ease into it. Currently, we have very little dialogue around the issue and with that comes a complete lack of preparations or plans concerning how to handle it in a way that reduces chaos and suffering as much as possible. A properly constructed social democracy in America would make it a primary issue and would work to cautiously accelerate the rate at which the transition can take place safely. There are no guarantees, obviously, that a social democracy would automatically deal appropriately with this huge issue, but it at least lays the groundwork for a context in which these things can be seriously talked about.
If the American left hopes to become relevant again, it must abandon its inclination to obscure sectarian battles over high-minded and abstract doctrinal differences. Those battles can be fought later down the line, but we aren’t even close to a situation in which those battles are even slightly relevant to real-world politics.
It’s important to remember, as well, that sectarianism on the Left is not a cause of Leftist impotence in America, it is a manifestation of Leftist impotence in America. It’s precisely because the Left has very little in the way of real politics to do that we have the luxury of debating pedantic academic differences of doctrine. These differences are not wholly illusory or unimportant, but at this moment in time, they are irrelevant. And only by unifying under a common program, at least in the short term, can we ever hope to be relevant. In fact, to abandon real politics for the safety of ideological certainty is a particularly insidious form of individualism, where your specific dogmatic commitments are given higher priority than making real change for working and poor people.
Radicals must always be aiming to go beyond social democracy. It must always be viewed as a step on the journey, and not itself the destination of a Leftist program. But I believe that the construction of a social democracy is a necessary pre-requisite for more radical change, and if abandon that opportunity, we do so at the cost of our own relevancy. To build a bridge across the chasm of global capitalism starts with nailing in the first plank. There are no short cuts. We must keep our gaze on the horizon, but we must keep our feet on the plank underneath us, and work tirelessly to build, plank by plank, our path to the future.