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The Myth of Sanders’ “Socialism”

Photograph Source: Matt Johnson – CC BY 2.0

Fox News has an all-out frontal assault on Bernie Sanders’ purported “socialism.” It is a sad statement on the level of ignorance in this country that anyone could take seriously the charge that Sanders is a socialist. What Sanders is advocating is something approaching the social-welfare systems of other economically developed countries and that’s a far cry from the socialism Fox News is using as a boogeyman to frighten conservatives. The “socialism” Fox is decrying is the old-fashioned Stalinist-Maoist kind where all important industries are nationalized, most of the private property of the wealthy is seized by the state, and there are no such things as individual rights and freedoms because the very idea of “individuals” is considered capitalist propaganda.

That kind of socialism is not pretty. I traveled through East Germany before the wall came down and I was horrified by the poverty and misery. I was raised in a liberal household, so I was unprepared for how obviously unhappy most of the people I met there clearly were. You didn’t even have to meet people to learn they were unhappy. You could see it on the faces of people in the street. I was traveling with a group of students who were all on a semester abroad program. Our home base had been West Berlin, but we took an excursion through East Berlin, and then several other cities in East Germany before settling in Vienna for the second half of the semester. We’d been forced to exchange 25 West German marks for 25 East German marks for every day we were going to be in East Germany. We were ecstatic, at first, to learn how cheap everything was in East Germany. We could buy much more with our money there than we had been able to in West Germany.

We learned very quickly, however, that there wasn’t really much to buy. There were few luxury goods and those few were shoddy and of inferior quality. There were books, of course, some books anyway, but they were printed on poor-quality paper and were poorly bound. The clothes were poorly made and decades out of date. The food was bad. Even the beer was bad. I don’t think I have a single souvenir from East Germany.

A few years later, I moved to the purportedly “socialist” state of state of Denmark. The difference between Denmark and East Germany could not have been more striking. First, no one seized the private property of the wealthy in Denmark. In fact, there are quite a few rich people there. Anyone who has ever taken a vacation to Scandinavia will tell you that everything there is very expensive. Food is expensive, clothing is expensive. Restaurants are through-the-roof expensive! I used to marvel when I lived there that anyone had the money to eat out in Denmark. And yet people did. Most the people in Danish restaurants are Danes, not tourists. Most of the people who buy Royal Copenhagen Blue-Fluted Half-Lace porcelain ($500 a place setting when I wanted to select it as my wedding pattern) are Danish. In fact, everyone in Denmark seems to have some of that porcelain. Where are they getting that money? I used to see Danish women all over the streets of Copenhagen in mink coats. I once saw a woman riding a bike in a mink coat. Stuff is nice in Denmark. Good quality, I mean. Well made. People invest in quality not quantity.

I was friends with a couple when I lived there who were quite well off. The husband was a doctor and the wife had been a nurse but had quit working to raise their daughter. They had a gorgeous house in the suburbs, two cars and a sailboat that slept several people — and the wife had a mink coat. In fact, all my friends who were over thirty were pretty well-heeled. Everyone complained about taxes, of course, just as they do in the U.S., but still, they seemed to live well.

You know how they used to organize trips to Cuba and Nicaragua so people could see how things actually worked in those countries rather than simply relying on anti-communist propaganda? Well, I’m thinking of organizing tours to Denmark for conservatives who’ve been brainwashed to think what Sanders is advocating is something like they had in the former Soviet Union.

Hey people: Go to Denmark. I dare you. Go there as see how people actually live. There is no shortage of rich people in Denmark and no shortage of privately, or publicly (as in on the stock market, not as in owned by the government) owned companies. The Danish shipping company Mærsk is the largest shipping company in the world and there are lots of other Danish companies that are not owned by the government. In fact, economic mobility is greater in Denmark than it is in the U.S. Denmark knows that its economic future is its people so it invests heavily in them. And it pays off. People are happy there, and they have nice stuff, unlike in the former Eastern-Block countries. They must be phenomenally productive too because they work fewer hours than we do and everyone has a government mandated six weeks of paid vacation annually and yet they are still quite competitive economically given their small size.

Hmm. Say Sanders were elected and there was suddenly Medicare for all and free higher education at state colleges and universities and a $15 minimum wage? Hmm. The people who would be saved from bankruptcy caused by obscenely high medical bills wouldn’t represent a threat to capitalism as we know it in this country, au contraire. They’d be able to pay their other creditors because they wouldn’t be broke. In fact, they be out there buying more stuff (because that’s what Americans do when they get more money, they buy more stuff) because not only would they not be broke as the result of medical bills, they would be making more money, or at least some of them would be, as the result of the new higher minimum wage. Hence they would represent a revitalization of the consumer engine that drives this economy. Ditto for students who would no longer be forced to live in their parents’s basements in order to be able to have enough money to pay off their student loans. They too would have money to spend.

And oh yeah, the wealthy aren’t going to lose their lock on power if the purportedly “socialist” Sanders wins and succeeds in implementing his programs. Charles Petersen observed, for example, in an excellent article, entitled “Serfs of Academe,” in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books, that only people with Ph.D.s from one of the few elite universities, most of which are private, have any hope these days of getting a teaching position at a college or university. The same thing goes for getting into an elite law school and going from there to a large New York law firm, etc., etc. Want to be a leader in this culture, well, then, you had better have a degree from one of the Ivies, or the equivalent, and most of those institutions are private. Even if Sanders wins, it will continue to be the case, that only the well-healed will be able to afford them.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when one could get ahead with a degree from a state school or even with just a high school diploma. Those days are pretty much gone, though. That’s why anyone who can scrape together enough cash to send their child to a private school does. Everything depends on getting your kid into the best possible college and private prep schools give kids a leg up. When I was a child my parents explained to me that public school was an essential democratic institution. It was important, they explained, that well-educated middle-class and wealthy people not pull their children out of the public schools. It was important, they explained, that children of all classes and backgrounds and income levels mingle. That they learn about one another, form bonds of friendship, that the middle-class parents and wealthy parents could advocate for improvements in the schools that working-class and poor parents might not be able to do because of greater constraints on their time.

One never hears rhetoric like that anymore though. Now it is every man for himself. Everyone who can puts their kids into private schools to give them that leg up over the kids of parents who cannot afford to do that. Nice, eh? So the kids of the “haves” they get that leg up and the kids of the “have nots,” well, they don’t, and that is not going to change, not even if Sanders gets elected and suddenly state colleges and universities are tuition free. The rich will still be getting their kids into the best schools. They will still be running everything and they will still be handing that power down to their children.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Sanders. Just look at the opposition his centrist assault on our current system has generated. If he suggested anything really radical, such as a government stipend like they have in Denmark for all college and university students, he’d risk being carted off to a mental hospital.

We will be better off if Sanders wins and is able to implement his programs. People will be happier. They will be able to go to college, some college anyway, without mortgaging the very future for which they go to college to have in the first place. They will be able to get the medical care and medicine, they need. And, perhaps most importantly for our consumer culture, they will have more money to spend. That’s almost too horrible, apparently, for some people to think about.

Strange isn’t it. We’d clearly all be better off, both materially and emotionally, if Sanders wins and is able to implement his programs. Why can’t conservatives see that? Or perhaps they can. Perhaps it’s the thought of people being happy that has them so up in arms. This situation reminds me of what H.L. Menken said of Puritanism. He described it as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” That’s conservatives for you — people tortured by the fear that Americans might actually be made happier.

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M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

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