Beyond a New "New Deal": Why Reformism Cannot Tame Capitalism

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Beyond a New "New Deal": Why Reformism Cannot Tame Capitalism

What happens the day after the revolution? How does one not only translate revolutionary ideas into the material organization of society, but ensure that the revolution lasts? The question is not a new one, nor is it one delegated to only Marxist revolutionaries. It’s particularly pertinent for the fledgling “Political Revolution” movement as articulated by the likes of Bernie Sanders and others as they attempt to fashion a new political order in the wake of the demise of New Deal Democrats in America and Social Democrats in the broader western world.

This means addressing the limits of reformism alone—the political revolution may begin with a tax on Wall Street speculation, but it cannot end there. Social democracy failed the “day after,” and so now we must go further than those reformists did, responding to the system of capitalism with nothing less than a loud and clear demand for socialism itself.

The welfare state created in the aftermath of World War II helped to better the lives of millions of people, and the programs that sprung out of the movement fought against the excesses of the worst of late 19th and early 20th century capitalism. But the welfare state’s reticence to do anything more than provide a human face to the capitalist order were ultimately inadequate at beating the system in the long run, and resulted in a few distinct problems.

Little was done in the US to combat the development of a private healthcare industry or an Eisenhower-era infrastructure policy that favored private automobile industries over more robust forms of public transportation—or the wielding of housing policy to further institutionalize the previously existing economic subjugation of black Americans. It struggled to oppose, institutionally, a military-industrial complex that profited greatly from the long and brutal wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, etc., and ultimately dropped any resistance to this altogether. Without going against capitalism—and the way in which it makes wars profitable—it hardly stood a chance.

Further, the welfare state’s inability to go beyond reforming capitalism meant that it was always wedded to the capitalist system’s creation and distribution of wealth. An alternative to the wage system remained essentially unarticulated, and even making wages livable has been opposed by both parties. Poverty and unemployment—the results of political choices that work to keep wages low by maintaining a pool of extra labor (something especially potent in an era with few institutions capable of collective bargaining)—remain a fact of daily life. The economic crises of both the late ‘70’s and the late aughts has only exacerbated these problems.

Beyond these limits, just instituting a new New Deal doesn’t prevent an erosion of institutional support for it. The programs of the New Deal Democrats remain highly popular—but the New Deal Democrats themselves are long gone. The popularity of universal programs is such that any attempts to cut them have been met with a quick backlash. Those politicians who do wish to cut these programs often must obscure their real intentions. Paul Ryan, for example, spent years presenting himself as a “wonk” and winning over liberal pundits such as Vox founder Ezra Klein, who described Ryan as a thoughtful and smart individual years before having to admit what Ryan’s agenda actually was. In the UK, the Tories are all but set to enact another round of austerity—specifically planning cuts to the country’s national healthcare service. But it wasn’t that long ago that Tories like Boris Johnson were campaigning for “Leave” with the specific promise of increasing funding to the NHS. For those that wish to dismantle these programs, they must rely on obfuscation of their real goals.

Considering this, it should follow that it would be easy to build a political constituency not only focused on protecting the existing universal programs but expanding them and developing more. But whether they call themselves New Dealers or Social Democrats, the parties that built these programs were coalitions and, in the end, it was in the interests of the professional classes, the rich and the businesses, that won out over the rank-and-file voters who are largely none of the stated above.

That, in America, party loyalty went to those who could write the bigger checks saw the rise of means-tested, and not universal, programs. And it is the means-tested programs that divide and exploit the people into the deserving and the undeserving, contrary to universal programs. Medicaid, by design, inevitably draws a line around who is a member of the “deserving poor” and who is not. Liberals were right to admonish the talk on the right of welfare queens, but—by endorsing a healthcare program that is anything less than universal—they essentially conceded that they too believe there is such a thing as the undeserving poor in practice, if not in words. Each subsequent means-tested program has defined the same kinds of boundaries, whether it relates to college tuition or housing or childcare. By 2016, even the nominal support for universal programs was abandoned as the Democratic Party’s nominee chastised her rival for wanting to give away free stuff.

The question of what happens the day after the revolution, even the political one put forth now, is not just about how to translate specific ideals into practice, but how to ensure that it does not collapse. The point is no longer to put a human face on capitalism—and the eventual erosion that movement invited—but the creation of a new socialist system itself.

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