At one time, a defeated left in the United States, facing the onslaught of neoliberalism in the 1980s, pointed defensively to social democracy in Europe. This reduced socialist vision was founded on a static analysis that ignored emerging capitalist contradictions, already tearing apart even the Swedish model. Exemplifying the impoverishment of this kind of thinking, James Galbraith now designates the United States as a social democratic model for Europe—even after the social safety net has been further torn by Clinton’s Democrats. This is a so-called social democracy without a social democratic party (let alone government), with the lowest levels of unionization in the advanced capitalist world, no universal public healthcare program, the largest prison population anywhere, and a lower life expectancy for blacks than in many “underdeveloped” countries.
It is of course worthwhile to try to counter neoliberal calls for a reduction in the social wage in Europe, but no serious analysis can base this on constructing an artificial and ahistorical Europe or United States out of aggregate continental income statistics. Galbraith does not actually compare the United States with any welfare state in Europe. What would happen to his analysis if, for example, he compared Germany to the United States? Or all of Europe to the whole of North America? And does it take two Canadians to point out that the United States is not a “continental welfare state,” not only because it is not a welfare state but because it does not constitute the whole of the North American continent? What if Galbraith’s analysis included Mexico—let alone if he extended his data to include the emerging common market with Central America?
To have called New Left Review “once the home and hope for a rejuvenation of creative Marxism” is hardly to take a “pot shot” at that journal. It is only to recognize, as Perry Anderson does in his manifesto for a relaunched NLR, the extent of the defeat of the Marxist left in recent decades. Our essay addressed how socialists could regain their vision. We can think of no more “unnecessary utopia”—nor one that is more offensive and exemplifies more clearly the degeneration of socialist analysis as well as imagination—than one that puts forth an illusory U.S. social democracy as a model for the rest of the world to emulate.
There is no way forward in limiting our vision to a choice between Clinton’s United States and Blair’s Europe. In fact, the real danger of calling the United States “social democratic” is that this may be used as ideological cover by those who are turning European labor and social democratic parties into facsimiles of the U.S. Democratic Party. This further evisceration of socialist alternatives may be the most insidious form U.S. imperialism is taking today, as it fosters globalization amidst ever greater international inequalities. Galbraith’s social democratic American dream is, for much of the world, the American capitalist nightmare.