Bernie’s Democratic Socialism

Peter Weber’s article “Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is too far left for Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats,” in the February 20, 2020 edition of The Week, is one of the more useful that has been published on the subject of Bernie Sander’s democratic socialism. He asked the right person, namely Johan Hassel, international secretary for the Social Democrats, and did some digging and reflecting. Everybody would do well to grasp the point of this article.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

Sweden is a capitalist country. In many ways, Sweden is more market-oriented than the United States. For example, since the early 1990s, Sweden has allowed parents to yank their kids from government schools (what we call public schools) and use the social provision for education to put their kids in free schools (private schools). It may shock lefties to hear that Sweden has a nation-wide voucher system, but they do. It was shocking to many to hear Trump in his most recent State of the Union speech refer to public schools as “government schools.” Such rhetoric is not shocking in a context many Americans think is shaped by socialist sentiment.

Sweden’s Social Democrats are pro-corporate and neoliberal. They are not left wing. The party shifted decades ago. This shift reflects popular opinion in Sweden. The institutional structure of Swedish society is such that, even in the face of the neoliberal turn of the institutional party, the country enjoys comparative superiority over US society in terms of public infrastructure and social provision. Sweden long ago institutionalized social democracy, embedding its assumptions in its social logic. Widespread unionization and the corporatist model of capital-labor relations has made the erosion of social democracy slow and winding. At the same time, neoliberalism, regionalization, and mass immigration is speeding up the process of devolution. This is the reason nationalism and populism are on the rise.

What Hassel saw on the ground in Iowa is Sanders’ constituency, which appears more like the Sweden’s Left Party (formerly the communists) than the Social Democrats. Moreover, Sander’s rhetoric concerning wealth and income inequality and his criticisms of corporation power is alien to Sweden’s social democrats. In Sweden, corporate power is not viewed in this way. Labor is fully integrated into the corporate business structure. As a consequence, labor is pacified, its consent engineered. Swedes are more communitarian than Americans and less suspicious of concentrated power. They view our system as rather brutal because it lacks a social safety net. But with Sanders they hear socialist demagoguery. Swedes are progressives. This is how Hassel can suggest that a neoliberals like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar fit more comfortably in the Social Democrats than does Sanders.

In part, Hassel is taking Sanders at his words. As MIT political economist Daron Acemoglu explains, “Democratic socialism seeks to fix the iniquities of the market economy by handing control of the means of production to a company’s workers or “an administrative structure operated by the state.” This is how everybody who speaks honestly and precisely defines democratic socialism. For Sanders, democratic socialism is a euphemism for progressive liberalism. At least this is what he says now that the socialist label is haunting him. But this use of the term is obviously incorrect to Swedes, who are for the most part anti-socialist. As Acemoglu notes: “European social democracy is a system for regulating the market economy, not for supplanting it.” Weber notes that the prime minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, made the point in 2015: “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism…. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy [albeit with] an expanded welfare state which provides a high level of security to its citizens.”

Elizabeth Warren’s affirmation as a capitalist is consistent with the social democratic position. Sanders is on record saying that he is not a capitalist, which locates him outside that tradition. Indeed, he insists that he is a socialist. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar insist they are socialists. The Democratic Socialists of America is a longstanding project to redefine progressivism as democratic socialism. (I have expressed my uneasiness with this, as it strikes me as sheep-dogging for the capitalist class.) The leftwing publication Jacobin is popularizing and legitimizing the DSA line.

All this puts Sanders and his ilk to the left of the Swedish Social Democrats. The rhetoric makes a Sanders candidacy a roll of the dice against Donald Trump (let’s see what happens with the economy). Worse, it exposes the welfare state to roll back; by validating the bourgeoisie tactic of defining progressive reform as “socialist,” the democratic socialist crowd grows popular support for the neoliberal project of devolution.

Note: see Daron Acemoglu’s “Social Democracy Beats Democratic Socialism,” in February 17, 2020 edition of Project Syndicate.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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