Young Noam Chomsky argues against the idea of welfare state capitalism, the “Social Democracy” of Bernie Sanders. He’s right. Bernie’s social democracy has its origins in Bismarck’s authoritarian welfare state, the turn of the British liberal party in the early 20th Century towards social democracy under Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, and the progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
In every single instance, classical welfare state liberalism and social democracy has led to an authoritarian nightmare. Bismarck’s welfare state made the German imperial army and navy possible. Churchill and Lloyd George led the United Kingdom into World War I. Woodrow Wilson was an astonishingly effective President from 1912 to 1916. But in 1917, he moved away from American neutrality in Europe, declared war on Germany, persecuted German and Irish Americans, and utterly smashed the democratic left.
Bernie Sanders wants to rebuild the welfare state of Franklin Roosevelt, which had been the resurgence of classical Wilsonian (and “Bull Moose”) liberalism after the Great Depression. It did a lot of good. It helped the Soviet Union beat fascism. It lifted my grandparents generation into the middle-class. It saved American capitalism. But it also laid the foundations for military Keynesianism, the idea what’s good for Lockheed is good for America, the Pentagon as an essential institution of American life. While Sanders is far less openly imperialist than Biden or Trump, he has not sufficiently addressed just how much the American upper-middle-class depends upon the Pentagon for jobs and how ferociously it will fight to keep the money flowing to the arms industry.
Right now we have the worst of all possible worlds. We have neoliberalism for the poor and state intervention on behalf of the upper-middle-class and wealthy. Bernie is pointing us in the right direction but Chomsky lays out just how problematic it really is. On one hand, if we scale back state power even more, we give the corporations even more power over our daily lives. So we have to break up corporate monopolies before we can even think of limiting state power. On the other hand, breaking up those corporate monopolies requires a draconian increase in state power.
I do think Bernie is pointing in the right direction. Start to move the rudder so the ship of state veers in the direction of helping the working-class and not the military industrial complex. But as we’ve also seen, the inherent contradictions in Bernie’s politics probably make them impossible to implement. Nostalgia for the New Deal may have started the right debate. But it’s not really the answer.