Thursday, May 2, 2019

Left Behind

Kevin Kühnert. Photo by Tibor Boz/Redux/laif vie Die Zeit.

In a nice piece on Kevin Kühnert, leader of the youth organization of Germany's Social Democratic party, who is trying to bring back socialism into the party's conversation, Jochen Bittner in The Times reminds them that our DSA politicians really aren't:
Forget the wannabe socialism of American Democrats like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 29-year-old Mr. Kühnert is aiming for the real thing. Socialism, he says, means democratic control over the economy. He wants to replace capitalism as such, not just to recalibrate it.
In the United States, policies frequently branded as “socialist” — health care for all, a national minimum wage, and tuition-free universities — have very little to do with actual socialism. Big government, yes — but all of them fit comfortably in a traditional free-market economy.
In contrast, German neo-socialism is profoundly different from capitalism. In an interview with my newspaper, Mr. Kühnert took specific aim at the American dream as a model for individual achievement. He said he questioned a system “in which millions start a race, very few make it over the finishing line and then shout back to the others, ‘You could have made it, too!’”
Kühnert wants collective ownership of industry—by the workers, not the state—and an end to the home real estate investment market:

“I don’t think it is a legitimate business model, to earn a living from the living space of other people,” he said. “Everybody should at most own the living space he himself inhabits.”
Bittner, I should say, doesn't approve, for reasons that are less obvious than they look at first glance; recalling an East German relative his family used to visit from West Germany in the 1980s, and Marxism-Leninism, which seemed to work better in East Germany than elsewhere until it became suddenly obvious that it didn't, he mentions Werner showing him a stash of fine tools he kept in a storeroom in his apartment block, one of those giant grim concrete slab buildings like the ones we had in Singapore around the same time (they're still there):
When we asked him how he had gotten hold of all of this equipment in an economy that was notorious for shortages, Werner shrugged. “Well, Honecker told us to get out of our factories what we can, didn’t he?” he said.
Very shocking to somebody from West Germany, where people are still so irremediably proper that pedestrians are universally willing to wait as long as it takes for the light to change before crossing the street, even when there is absolutely no vehicle traffic, but I can assure him that in America capitalism hasn't stopped people from stealing stuff from their workplaces.

I'm not sure I have a lot of faith in the program either, though I will always favor more worker-owned companies and the idea of housing as a basic human right, and I'm pretty sure I'm not favoring socialized ownership of everything, or any economy in which ownership takes only a single form. Kühnert's concept may well be an assault on the diminished dimensions of the European Overton window, which has dragged social democrats so far into neoliberal territory that they're hard to distinguish from the Christian democrats any more, which is in my view a reason why they are doing so poorly in elections (the victory of the Spanish Socialist Workers party on Sunday seems to be partly due to their simply staying the course as Spanish conservatives become less distinguishable from the "populists" who are their main rivals), and in that case it is likely a valuable corrective. Hopefully one that will attract some younger voters.

But it's also useful to be reminded what a mild set of ideas "socialism" in America really is, and how real radicalism, like Elizabeth Warren's, isn't at all easy to set on a simple left-to-right axis.

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