What’s wrong with Social Democracy?

Take a look at this comic. It’s humorous (its actually very funny) I know, I shouldn’t take it too seriously. Even though it is a leftist comic, and I’m a Leftist, I believe it perfectly encapsulates what Ideology is.

What is Ideology?

Let’s take a few somewhat amorphous quotes from Slavoj Zizek:

“The stepping out of (what we experience as) ideology is the very form of our enslavement to it”

“Every ideology attaches itself to some kernel of jouissance which, however, retains the status of an ambiguous excess”

“The form of consciousness that fits late-capitalist “post-ideological” society – the cynical, “sober” attitude that advocates liberal “openness” in the matter of “opinions” (everybody is free to believe whatever she or he wants; this concerns only his or her privacy”

Let’s take the first quote. First of all, in and of itself, it’s very profound. Let’s say you have a political ideology. When you view things through the lens of your political ideology, and try to subject another’s ideology to your lens, then you are just enslaved to Ideology IN GENERAL.As in, if you say to yourself, “I have a viewpoint”, that viewpoint is fixed, solid, immutable. You are now trapped by ideology, you can now never question your dogmatic beliefs.

Now you chime in and say, “now Stephen, that’s quite unfair, anyone has the right to their opinion!”. This is a typical American statement. The third quote captures the problems with this belief. You can believe whatever you want! Ultimate freedom! What a great society we live in when we get to express and believe whatever we want! Underlying that whole belief structure is the belief that the society we live in has allowed us to form opinions that are rational in the first place. This is Foucault’s “Regime of Truth” problem if you will. At every moment, you have chosen to believe that what you believe is ultimately true and comes from yourself, without recognizing the ways society has influenced you to have a certain belief.

Now let’s ideologically analyze the comic using this method:

The cartoon is titled “Social Democracy in one Senate seat”. You see some young people watching Bernie Sanders speak. They have a preformed idea of what socialism is. The funny part comes from the juxtaposition of them being excited about “real” socialist ideas, then hearing old cranky Bernie talk about Norway and Sweden (which are still capitalist countries, strictly speaking). They walk away feeling depressed.

Here’s where you should start getting suspicious of this comic: the underlying message is- where’s the excitement??? I wanted real Socialism, not Larry David talking about how great the Scandinavian welfare state is! This is the “ideological kernel of jouissance [enjoyment]” Zizek talks about. Why were they disappointed? Bernie wasn’t ideologically pure! He wants a model from a country with a working economy and the highest standard of living in the world- what a sellout!

It’s almost as if the students were expecting him to say “Long live the Soviet Socialist Republic!” or something to that effect (I’m being unfair to the creator of this comic, I know that’s not the socialism he envisions). But it gives the reader with no knowledge of Leftism the impression…”what do those students actually want?”. This is the “Occupy Wall Street” problem, or the day after the revolution problem. Even though the comic does not go on, say to a different panel where they explain what kind of socialism they actually envision, you are left with the impression, “ok they disagree with Bernie because of his support of the invasion of Yugoslavia, and that jobs need to stay in America, and the military jets thing”. But that’s not what makes the comic funny. The underlying funniness is that Bernie is a lame old guy, he’s not “with” the real Leftism of the students.

So what about the positions Bernie advocates for on the podium. “Let’s keep jobs in America”. Well what’s wrong with that?

The problem with that statement in today’s PC culture is that it smacks of jingoism. The fact that Bernie is running for President of the US doesn’t make a difference. The fact that it would be a completely socialist policy of economic protectionism and intervention in the free market doesn’t make a difference. The reason it’s not a “pure enough” belief for the students is its all about America. The policy doesn’t “care” about the Third World enough. Now there’s a lot of ins and outs to what happens to other countries when free trade is adopted, but in general when companies outsource jobs, it exploits horrible labor laws in other countries and moves their factories over there. It kills jobs in the US, and overseas creates an economy based sometimes virtually on slave labor. It’s like when those on the far-left criticize Bernie for not being open borders- that position is very easy to take when you ignore the American economy. It is a position of extreme hypocrisy, where you claim to have the morally righteous position- the poor immigrants! All the while, a permanent underclass grows in America…that could be topic of a whole other long post on the immigration debate in the US. I’m willing to consider arguments from open borders people, but it seems to me that its too idealistic. And there would be nothing the capitalists would like more than for cheap labor to be able to migrate across borders at will. That’s not good for immigrants, its not good for us.

So either the students are pro-free trade socialists, because at least the poor Chinese children have jobs that way (an obvious contradiction), or they don’t think at all.

Let’s move on to the intervention in Yugoslavia. A true Leftist would never use the military!…would they? Obviously, from a hardcore non-interventionist perspective, the intervention was unjustified by its very nature. Unfortunately, this removes all context about the war in Yugoslavia (which I may write a whole other post about). The war in Yugoslavia was a war of aggression waged by a genocidal Serbian regime. Everyone agrees about that (if you are a sane person, and not brainwashed by the Serbian government). However, over the course of my internet adventures, I have encountered some strange pseudo-Leftists who argue that the intervention in Yugoslavia was a pretext by NATO against the completely innocent Serbian regime, who was actually going after Islamic terrorists. Ayiyi! I don’t have time to explain why that’s a complete crock of shit, anyone with any knowledge or time to watch an hour long documentary would know Milosevic was a genocidal maniac who wanted nothing more than to incorporate Bosnia into a greater Serbian state. The problem is, the people who that advocate position do so from a position of, “the American government is evil and has to be doing something wrong”. There are some who even claim NATO bombings killed more people than Milosevic! Do some research man!! These sort of gross ideological mystifications are the same sort of problems Chomsky ran into when he claimed the Khmer Rouge was being unfairly persecuted by the imperialist West and the genocide figures were inflated. It is true that the secret bombings of Cambodia were horrific. The problem comes when one equates that action under the Nixon administration, by all accounts a criminal administration, to the actions of the Clinton administration. “It’s all just imperialism” is a cop out.

Now would I have supported the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia? No, with some caveats. I think retroactively some sort of stronger UN intervention was necessary instead. But it is interesting how it is THAT issue that comes up over and over. It always seems to return to the Balkans, that bastion of ideological confusion. There were some who even claimed that the NATO intervention would just strengthen Milosevic’s hold on power- that didn’t end up occurring, but the fierce partisans of non-intervention in Serbia (coming at just the right time of an ethnic cleansing) seem to have held their tongues after the fact. No surprise that an actual committed leftist from the former Yugoslavia, was not as critical of the NATO intervention. He criticized NATO for depoliticizing the conflict on “humanitarian” grounds, but here’s what he said about its opponents:

“But it’s not only NATO that depoliticized the conflict. So has its opponents on the pseudo-Left. For them, the bombing of Yugoslavia played out the last act of the dismemberment of Tito’s Yugoslavia. It acted out the end of a promise, the collapse of a Utopia of multi-ethnic and authentic socialism into the confusion of an ethnic war. Even so sharp-sighted a political philosopher as Alain Badiou still maintains that all sides are equally guilty. There were ethnic cleansers on all sides, he says, among the Serbs, the Slovenes and the Bosnians. “Serbian nationalism is worthless. But in what respect is it worse than the others? It is more popular and it goes back further in time, it has more weapons at its disposal and in the past it doubtless had more opportunities to act out its criminal passions . . Certainly, Milosevic is a brutal nationalist, just as much as his colleagues in Croatia, Bosnia or Albania . . . From the beginning of the conflict the West has been on the side of the weaker nationalisms (the Bosnian, the Kosovar) and against the stronger nationalisms (the Serbian and, by means of subtraction, the Croatian).” (Zizek, NATO, the Left Hand of God).

So here, the specter of nostalgia for the old Communist bloc (or Tito’s Yugoslavia, which was outside Soviet influence) rears its ugly head. It begs the question: are the students in the comic secret Titoists who would throw Bernie in the gulag?

Here is where there is a kernel of truth in the comic for me. Social Democracy, in Europe, has failed to always not intervene in unjustified wars (Tony Blair invading Iraq), and has only promised to retain the welfare state, while all too often capitulating to the Right in their austerity policies. It’s “program” has failed to galvanize support- even the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Labour Party has not attracted enough support in Britain. So what is to be done, in the words of Lenin?

What is to be done is to recognize that Bernie Sanders represents a REAL alternative to the extremely conservative ideological atmosphere in the United States, in the Democratic and Republican party. And not to judge him on the basis of so-called purist principles and subject him to ridiculous ideological purity tests.

We should also to recognize that Social Democracy is not a cure-all alternative, and it has its own problems, but I believe they are largely the result of neoliberal influence into those parties. REAL social democracy, like in Norway and Finland, does and should work. That’s my view. The Left of today should not be so quick to judge those who fight the existing powers that be, completely removed from solving the concrete problems of today.

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