Why Social Democracy is an Immune System Against Capitalism Metastasizing into Fascism and Authoritarianism
In recent essays, I’ve compared American capitalism to European social democracy — and pointed out that the latter is more successful in every way imaginable. So while the average Western European lives history’s longest, happiest, and richest life, the average American lives in a weird, bizarre, gruesome state: perched perpetually at the edge of ruin, living paycheck to paycheck, fearing their kids might be shot at school, dreading that they’ll have to choose between chemotherapy and bankrupting their loved ones, and watching extremists rampage through what’s left of their democracy.
Now, all of that might have (justifiably) left you with the impression that I’m saying something like: “Europe’s perfect!! America, go be Europe!!” In truth, I’m saying (or least hoping that I’m saying) something a little more subtle.
American collapse is a warning to the world. Of what happens when a society makes all the wrong choices of political economy. Choices that subjugate people — instead of liberate them. Any society can make such mistakes — not just America. And today, many are — even European ones. Hence, we see many of the same forces rising there, too — extremism, fascism, etcetera — only less so. How are we to make sense of this? It’s best to see social democracy as a kind of immune system, against the ills of capitalism — of which the most dangerous, like aggressive cancers, are fascism and authoritarianism. America’s come down those — and the disease is more than likely, having gone untreated too late, terminal.
It is at precisely the moment that capitalism’s ills, like a fever, are racing through a society, engulfing it, causing hallucinations, exhausting and weakening it, that the immune system should be nourished and strengthened. But Europe is doing the very opposite. It is not protecting the vitality and health of this immune system — at precisely the moment that the many ills of capitalism, its fevers and malaises, are racing through the body of society. And that is why Europe, too, though much more and better protected from capitalism collapsing into fascism and authoritarianism, is also obviously a little sick and ill: it is not nourishing the immune system as well as it could be.
So Europe is not on its last legs, like America clearly is — a terminal patient, who has a few days left to live, really. But the story of that patient also tells us how not to become someone who let capitalism utterly destroy them from inside, liquifying their organs, turning their brain to mush. How did it do that, to Americans?
Americans loathe social spending. They bitterly resent it. Sadly, funnily, they have been indoctrinated, by decades of predatory capitalism, and centuries of supremacy, to believe that there is no such thing as good social spending — that our dollars or euros together can never really yield an investment that makes us any better off than if each of us spend them alone. So there is only the private good, never any public good. In America, this idea that the public good simply does not exist is a toxic remnant of slavery — “keep your government interference out of my plantation!!” The result is that America could never develop working public goods at all — healthcare, education, finance, retirement, and so on — in the brief half century it had between the end of segregation and the collapse into authoritarianism and fascism.
So we should rightly think of America as a society that failed, the poor and half-crazed thing, at becoming modern, becoming civilized — the weight of its history prevented it from learning that collective investment is the key to raising living standards, because people cannot have high-quality, affordable healthcare, education, retirement, finance, and so on, any other way, but these are the things that make the average person healthy, rich, sane, and happy. (Yes, really. Your iPhone doesn’t.) Social democracy is an immune system which protects a society from the many ills of capitalism — that is one of history’s great lessons — but the problem is that America never had one.
Europe had a very different history — a history of empire, war, and holocaust. Rising out of those ashes, it quickly determined, after World War II, to eradicate poverty, which, it understood, was the fuse that lit the bombs of war. And so it gave Europeans generous sets of public goods, based on strong social investment, public healthcare, education, finance, retirement, etcetera — and the point of these, explicitly, was to prevent a society from growing ill with the fevers of capitalism, inequality, mistrust, resentment, exploitation, demagoguery, and so on. The result was the highest living standards in history, ever, period. Western Europeans ended living half a decade longer than Americans — able to retire, have kids, educate them, and not spend their lives overwhelmed with fear and anxiety of paying the bills. So far, so good. But would Europe forget that it was the immune system of social democracy — a defense against the ills of capitalism degenerating into fascism and authoritarianism, terrible maladies, like smallpox or cancer, that can destroy the body social whole — that forged this future of peace and plenty?
Fast forward a few decades. Today, in Europe, which Americans often regard as the bastion of socialism, the truth is that public, social, investment has fallen. But not just in any way, at any time — at precisely the moment it has been needed most. Why is now that moment? Because this is the moment that capitalism’s ills are racing through society — the aftermath of a terrible financial crisis, which left the average person poorer, in nearly every way, whether in terms of income, savings, assets, trust, a career, mobility, and so on. As societies “absorbed” the costs of bailing out banks and hedge funds, they began to cut social spending, mostly because American economics said so. But Americans economics always says to cut social spending — it never calls for more investment in people. Yet this was exactly the time that the average person, left poorer, needed more investment, not less. The result is that Europe is growing unequal, polarized, and fractured, too. That is eminently predictable — because cutting social spending when it was needed most is the formative American mistake, as we’ve discussed.
What happens when a middle class, who has been told that they will be rich, safe, and secure, instead becomes downwardly mobile, teetering at the edge? They begin to take out their resentments on those below them. They find scapegoats at which to hurl the jagged fragment of their shattered dreams. They don’t aim the fury and rage upwards, so much as downwards, of course, because it is far easier to blame the person who is even less powerful than they are, for their ills. Hence, in America, it is the fault of the Mexican, the Muslim, the gay, the immigrant, the black, that society is collapsing. Bang! The tribe bands together. In Weimar Germany, it was the Jew and the Roma and so on. The story is always the same — a downwardly mobile middle class aims its resentment further down, not up, because it is always easier to target the powerless. When a demagogue comes along to seize that latent anger — wham!! — the politics of democracy begin to implode.
And that is what we are beginning to see in many places in Europe. Especially those places where people aspired to middle class prosperity, but where they are increasingly thwarted of it — precisely because reduced social spending at a time of increasing inequality means life becomes a more precarious, shaky, uncertain thing. Those Muslims and Africans are straining our healthcare system! Those refugees are taking all our housing!! But see the logic. The problem is hardly just one of demographics — a few thousand refugees are hardly a threat of any sort to societies of millions, who are rich to begin with. The problem is that social investment has fallen, and so once powerful and mighty systems are growing fragile and strained. They are being asked to support the downwardly mobile middle, the poor — and now also the immigrant, refugee, and migrant. It’s only predictable that the downwardly mobile middle and the poor will feel a sense of competition for those very resources, which breeds resentment. “If I can’t get a doctor’s appointment, then why should that dirty, filthy African?! Why, I’m the real European!”
Now see what is really happening here. The ills of capitalism are simply reemerging. Social systems which are strained by underinvestment are producing a sense of competition in people. When that meets the sense of resentment, injustice, hostility, paranoia, and anger racing through society as financial crisis left people poorer — the ills of capitalism — the result is a wave of extremism sweeping through society. But that’s exactly what happened in America. The average American has to compete viciously with everyone else for healthcare, retirement, education, finance, and so on — hence, everyone is an antagonist in America, and sooner or later, in that situation, the tribe will band together, seeking a sense of safety and strength, trampling on those below. Precisely the same thing is beginning to happen in Europe, now, too — underinvestment in public goods is letting the ills of capitalism rampage through society, boiling over into fever, at precisely the moment more investment should be healing those very ills, like medicine.
Let me sharpen all that.
How did the ills of capitalism destroy America wholesale — how did it go from a patient with a fever, to one with a terminal illness? Why didn’t it ever really develop the immune system of social democracy? Well, after it was desegregated in 1971, less than a decade later, Reagan came along — and proposed the same old society, more or less, by another name. He told Americans they’d be better off never investing in one another, and only thinking of themselves — which was a slightly more polite way to say: “your tax dollars shouldn’t help those dirty blacks!” The problem was that even the white American who fell for this laughable con game, in the end, would never have healthcare as a result. Today, that very same American who refused to invest in public healthcare because he didn’t want black people to have it, might have to go without chemotherapy himself as a result — and has paid an extra ten thousand dollars a year to capitalists his whole llfe, to begin with. Do you see how foolish this was? LOL.
And yet today in Europe we are seeing the rise of something similar. The extremist right-wing parties who are rising aren’t just toxic because they demonize and scapegoat immigrants and minorities and so on. They are toxic because they are little Reagans — they are proposing to Europeans that slashing social spending, austerity by any other name, is what is correct and necessary, because “people are getting poorer”. “You shouldn’t have to pay for the healthcare of those dirty Africans! Why, you can hardly get any yourself!” They have forgotten what really made Europe different, special, unique, and singularly, spectacularly successful — more investment in one another, at precisely the time it was needed most, not less. That is how societies truly grow wealthy, as in trusting, cohesive, sane, gentle, wise, all of which are prerequisites to the sustenance and endurance and proliferation of material riches.
Should Europeans fall for the fatal mistake of weakening their own immune system agains the ills of capitalism at precisely the moment capitalism’s ills are again beginning to race through society, then their future is very clear — they will end up just like Americans. Already, we see one great example along these lines, which was Brexit. Britain left the EU because it didn’t want to “pay” for Europe’’, not quite understanding that what it got back from Europe vastly outweighed the miniscule costs. What were the benefits? Public goods, again — EU food standards, labour rights, corporate law, direct investment, frictionless trade, such a huge variety that it would take a whole essay just to list them. But Brits fell for foolish, laughable American illogic — “don’t pay for those dirty Europeans! We’re better off without them!!” — not quite understanding, until it was too late, they were only cheating themselves of the immune system of social democracy. So Brexit was the first successful movement to turn a country American — and Brits will only really understand the price when they have no decent healthcare, retirement, food, education, and so forth, just like Americans. They are undoing their very own immune system against the ills of capitalism — and only leaving themselves more vulnerable to it degenerating into fascism and authoritarianism.
Will Europe make that mistake, too? No one can really say. What I can say is that every county which follows America down the ruinous path of no longer having an immune system against capitalism will end up in precisely the same place it has — capitalism will soon enough consume it whole, like a terrible malady, developing into the cancers of fascism and authoritarianism as the sickness grows. As people’s lives fall apart, as the middle class becomes downwardly mobile, they will demand less investment in those below them. Bang! That is how a society impoverishes itself. Because then the middle is only eroding the pillars of its very own prosperity. Though this should be taught in every school and college, sadly, it is not, so people are still unaware of how foolishly and easily they are led astray. In that sense, American collapse is a warning to the world. As predatory capitalism make the average person, poorer, not richer, the correct answer is more investment in them, by them — not less. Otherwise, the result is what happened in America: predatory elites swoop in, extract what little a people have, and soon enough, turning on those below them, societies implode into various forms of fascism and authoritarianism.
So social democracy is best seen as a kind of immune system against the many ills of capitalism. The small ones — cruelty, hostility, mistrust, stratification, exploitation — are bad enough. But the great are terrible and strange and fatal maladies — fascism, authoritarianism, extremism, the delusion and paranoia in them. And they have the power, like an aggressive terminal illness, to utterly and totally destroy a society in a matter of years, turning its institutions, its organs, to jelly, and its mind to mush. America is on its last legs today because it never developed an immune system against capitalism. Wham!! — the many illnesses of capitalism set in, and worsened, decade by decade, until soon enough, the disease was terminal, and the patient was gasping for breath, unable to move, think, even see, only barely whisper its last words — “once, I was the home of the brave and the land of the free…”
And yet while not having an immune system against capitalism is a guarantee that a society will collapse, having one is no guarantee that a society will go on prospering and thriving. Nothing is, really. The most that a society can do is to keep its immune system healthy and nourished. That way, it is always strong enough to fight off capitalism’s ills, to the extent that they can be fought. And therefore, weakening the immune system of social democracy at the precise moment that the many illnesses of capitalism — when inequality, resentment, exploitation, mistrust, fragmentation, fear, and cruelty, are metastisizing into the truly bitter and desperate ones, like fascism and authoritarianism — is the most crucial mistake of all.