Two of my children were born in socialist France. They survived. In fact, their births were great experiences: excellent medical care, wonderful postnatal follow-up, near-zero cost. My son’s bris, in a Paris deserted through the August exodus, was another story, but I won’t get into that. France has one of the world’s most elaborate social protection systems. The ratio of tax revenue to gross domestic product, at 46.2 per cent, is the highest of all Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. In the United States, that ratio is 27.1pc.
Look no further to grasp Franco-American differences. This French tax revenue is spent on programs — universal health care, lengthy paid maternity leave, unemployment benefits — designed to render society more cohesive and capitalism less cutthroat. Of the French Revolution’s three-pronged cry — “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” — the first has proved most problematic, freedom being but a short step, in the French view, from the “Anglo-Saxon” free-market jungle. Socialist presidents have governed France for half the past 38 years.
The country has paid a price for its social solidarity, particularly in high unemployment. But France has prospered. It has a vibrant private sector. It is a capitalist economy, among the world’s seven largest. Its socialism is no European exception. The Continent decided after World War II that cushioning capitalism was a price worth paying to avoid the social fragmentation that had fed violence. The parties that produced Europe’s welfare states had different names, but they all embraced the balances — of the free market and the public sector, of enterprise and equity, of profit and protection — that socialism or its cousin social democracy (as opposed to communism) stood for.
Socialism, a word reborn, has none of the Red Scare potency in Europe that it carries in the United States. It’s part of life. It’s not Venezuelan misery. A 21st-century American election is about to be fought over socialism. Amazing! When the Berlin Wall fell beneath communism’s weight three decades ago, capitalism unbridled strode forth over the rubble in search of global opportunity. Ideological struggle seemed over.
But growing inequality and marginalisation — byproducts of financial globalisation — have thrust socialism center stage. Grace Blakeley, an economist and self-styled democratic socialist in London, told me, “For most people today, socialism is freedom from a lousy warehouse job or working 80 hours a week in a job you detest for people you detest.”
Right. The charismatic voice of such sentiment in the United States is Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the lightning rod of a new American politics. “The definition of democratic socialism to me, again, is the fact that in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no American should be too poor to live,” Ocasio-Cortez tells NBC’s Chuck Todd. Like Britain’s leftist Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, she favors significant state intervention in the economy. Trump, unerring in his instinct for the jugular, declares, “We believe in the American dream, not the socialist nightmare.”
Europe demonstrates, however, that socialism and the free market are compatible. The basic issue before the Democratic Party is how far left to go. Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. Kamala Harris calls herself a progressive. John Hickenlooper, conciliator, says he can “get stuff done.” The notion that US elections are won in the center was buried by Trump. The energy in the Democratic Party lies in the progressive camp. It stems from anger at a skewed economy and millennial disgust at the elitist turn that cost the Democrats their working-class base and much of small-town America.
This opened the way for Trump. My own inclinations are centrist, but not a “centrism” that cares more for Goldman Sachs than the opioid crisis. I don’t see how the Democrats can eschew a new era’s left-leaning energy and win. A word of caution: The United States was founded in contradistinction to, not as an extension of, Europe. Self-reliance is to America what fraternity is to France: part of its core. American space — so immense, so un-European — conjures in Americans a bristling independence of spirit that wants government out of their lives.
Nations donot cast off their cultural essence. I don’t think soaking the rich — Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed 70 per cent wealth tax — is going to get a Democrat to the Oval Office. Nor are the accusations of “worker exploitation” that chased Amazon and 25,000 jobs out of New York — a stupid waste. The dirty secret of European welfare states is that they tend to be business-friendly. As Monica Prasad, a sociology professor at Northwestern University has pointed out, Sweden has a lower corporate tax rate than the United States. The sweet spot for Democrats is getting business to buy in to progressive reform.
America can be nudged in a French direction without losing its self-renewing essence. France is also home to the yellow-vest protests from the marginalised. So much for social cohesion, you might say. But there’s a lesson. As James McAuley observed in The New York Review of Books, those vests reflect, above all, a “material demand to be seen.” Socialism is no silver bullet. The basic requirement of any Democratic candidate is to make the forgotten, the struggling and the invisible of American society feel visible again.