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"Millennial Socialism": Why isn't the penny falling?

By Kristian Niemietz for Die Achse des Guten.

Socialism has come back into fashion under the heading of "Millennial Socialism". Numerous surveys show that both the socialist idea in general and concrete socialist policy recipes such as industrial nationalization are very popular, especially among young people.

Millennial Socialism is not, however, nostalgia for Soviet or GDR, but rather the idea that earlier models of socialism were not “real” socialism and that everything will be different next time. Today it is considered vulgar and proletarian to hold against a socialist the failure of real existing socialism. Stupid people judge socialism according to its results, intelligent people judge socialism according to its original intentions - at least that is the common opinion. Anyone who believes that the balance sheet of actually existing socialism says something about the idea of ​​socialism is just not clever enough to understand that Marx originally had something completely different in mind. To counter a democratic socialist with Stalinism or Maoism, is just as cheeky in this interpretation as if one were to confront a peaceful Muslim with the atrocities of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.

But if you ask the advocates of “real” socialism what exactly was “spurious” about actually existing socialism, and what exactly they would have done differently, they find it difficult to answer the question. They then prefer to take refuge in the abstract. They prefer to talk about lofty goals than about specific institutions and mechanisms. They usually do not notice that these lofty goals are nothing new, but that they are only paraphrasing what Lenin, Honecker, Ceausescu, Hoxha, Mao, Chávez, etc. originally said. The fact that under socialism power should come from the people and not from a hierarchical bureaucratic apparatus is not a new interpretation of socialism. That was always the idea. Lenin originally wanted that too.

“Real” socialism has never existed
“Real” socialists define “real” socialism in terms of the results they hope for. By mixing these results into the definition of “real” socialism, they make the claim that “real” socialism never existed irrefutable. It's like defining a rain dance as "a dance that creates rain," rather than a dance that is meant to create rain. Under the latter definition, after a sufficiently large number of failed experiments, we could conclude that a dance most likely cannot produce rain. This is not possible under the first definition, because the fact that it generates rain is already included in the definition. The failed attempts can therefore not have been "real" rain dances, because if one of these had been real, then it would have generated rain.

“Real” socialism, in the sense of a hierarchy-free workers' democracy, has never existed and, as was explained in the book "Socialism: The failed idea that never dies", it cannot either exist. But since it is a sufficiently nebulous vision, it is easy to temporarily project it into real existing models of society. For the same reason, it is just as easy to turn this projection off again quickly. That is exactly what Western intellectuals have been doing for a century. More than three decades ago, Hayek wrote:

"The unsuccessful search of the intellectuals for a real socialist community [...] leads to an idealization, and then to disillusionment, with an apparently endless chain of 'utopias'- the Soviet Union, then Cuba, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Tanzania, Nicaragua"
("The fateful presumption. The fallacies of socialism", by Hayek).

This chain has become even longer in the meantime.

An eternal dance
As a rule, socialist experiments go through three stages in terms of their perception in the West. It begins with the honeymoon, a phase in which the system achieves a few (actual or perceived) initial successes, and in which its international reputation is accordingly quite high. During this phase, western intellectuals like to portray the project as a prime example of real socialism, which shows that socialism does work.

The honeymoon never lasts much longer than a decade. Then word of the system's failings gradually spread and the system's international reputation suffers. Now begins the second, confused phase, in which Western intellectuals go on the defensive and frantically look for excuses.

But at some point there always comes the point when the failure of the system is so obvious and its international reputation so irreparably damaged that most socialists realize that they can no longer win a flower pot by defending this system. Small sects of the incorrigible still hold on to it, but all mainstream intellectuals are gradually saying goodbye. The party is over.

As soon as a little grass has grown over the matter, Western intellectuals begin to deny the socialist character of the regime in hindsight. The slogan now is: the system was never socialist, and anyone who claims otherwise has simply not understood socialism.

New workers' paradises now filled the void
It started with the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. In the “Red Decade” of the 1930s, Western intellectuals poured into the “world's first workers state” by the thousands. While millions starved to death there, were executed or had to work their way to death in gulags, Western intellectuals believed they had seen the workers' paradise of the future.

It was not until the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland that the honeymoon ended for the Soviet Union, and phase 2 began. When the Cold War began, Western intellectuals withdrew from the Soviet Union.

By the mid-1960s, the Red Decade was long forgotten, and Soviet socialism had retrospectively become “fake” socialism. New workers' paradises now filled the void, and even of these, most are only marginally better. So people are by no means "uninformed" - they are systematically misinformed. You are always wrong in the same direction: you systematically underestimate the economic and social progress in the world. Here too we see the intellectual hegemony of anti-capitalism. No matter how successful capitalism is, it will be of no use if we only ever see the world through the glasses that its opponents have put on us.

More than two dozen attempts to establish socialist societies have failed grandly. But socialism remains. Instinctive, impulsive anti-capitalism runs in our blood. Capitalism can show so many successes, but it feels just wrong. We may tolerate it, but something in us resists it. Anyone who provides arguments that seem to justify this gut feeling can easily become a bestselling author or a permanent guest on political talk shows. The shallowest, most superficial anti-capitalism will always be better received by the public than the most thoughtful plea for the market economy. Ironically, it is the rejection of the market economy that guarantees market success while the proponents of the market economy fail the market test themselves.

What should be done in view of the discourse sovereignty of the anti-capitalists?
There is nothing we can do about the fact that the number of haters of capitalism exceeds that of proponents of capitalism many times over. It will stay that way. But the number of those who are neither one nor the other is even greater. There may always be a latent aversion to capitalism, but it does not always have to grow into a mass movement. Capitalism will never be popular, and it will never be considered “cool” to be free market or conservative. But dentist visits and motor vehicle liability insurance are neither popular nor are they considered “cool”, and yet that does not lead to mass revolts against them.

The YouTube videos from Marxist media projects such as Novara Media reach an average of around a third of a million viewers. That is much more than the audience figures for comparable liberal or conservative projects, but it still only makes up a fraction of the Corbyn movement, especially when you consider that these are worldwide audience figures. When, in 2017, two-thirds of all voters under 30 voted for Jeremy Corbyn, it didn't happen because they all believed him to be the Karl Marx of the 21st century. Rather, they thought Corbyn was a good-natured, decent person who understood their problems.

Advocates of the market economy will never enjoy such an advance in trust and sympathy. But there is at least one pound that market economists can use to proliferate against socialists: unlike the latter, we can refer to an abundance of concrete, tangible, tried and tested examples of success in the real world.

Of course, in any country with a market-based economic order there are also some problems. But there is a huge qualitative difference between the problems we see in socialism and those we see in capitalism. The problems we see in socialist economies are always the same. The problems we see in capitalist economies, on the other hand, are highly site-specific; they vary from country to country, and often even from region to region. For every problem we see in a particular capitalist economy, we can find a no less capitalist economy somewhere that does not have this problem.

You can almost always find a market-compatible solution
If an East German who still remembers the GDR, a Russian who remembers the Soviet Union, a refugee from North Korea, an Angolan who still remembers the People's Republic there, and a Cuban in exile would think about the problems that they had in their respective socialist models, they would find many similarities. If, on the other hand, a German were to talk to a British, a Dutch, a New Zealander, a Californian, a Texan, a Spaniard and a Japanese about the problems in their respective models of capitalism, there would be far less overlap.

The two Americans would very likely complain about the extremely high costs of health insurance in their country: The US spends around 17 percent of its gross national product on health, and about one in ten has no health insurance at all. That would probably seem strange to the Dutchman. In the Netherlands, where health is no less market-based than in the USA, you get one of the best health systems in the world for around 10 percent of the national product ("Universal Healthcare Without the NHS", by Kristian Niemietz). The Briton and Californian would possibly complain about the extremely high housing costs in their country or state. The Texan and the Spaniard could not have a say here, because they are probably used to much cheaper living space. The Spaniard would probably address the extremely high youth unemployment in his country, a problem that would seem far less urgent to the British and the Germans.

In short: Whatever the problem, you can almost always find a market-compatible solution that, at least approximately, already exists in practice somewhere. Liberalism does not have to be just a defense of the status quo. Liberals can even criticize the status quo very sharply in parts - and all of this without sliding into a utopianism that would resemble that of the socialists. The liberal criticism of the status quo is then precisely not "that was not real capitalism; real Capitalism has never existed before." Instead, it reads: "Real capitalism is already pretty good - but it could be even better. In the policy areas X, Y and Z in countries A, B and C we find approaches that are no less market-based than ours and that have been proven to work better."

Anyone who argues in this way can sometimes demand very radical changes, while still remaining within the realm of what already exists somewhere in the real world. An audience that would rather chase after the next utopia will not be convinced. But an audience that is not so easily impressed by the rhetorical foaming of the socialists might well appreciate this combination of zeal for reform on the one hand and a preference for the concrete and already tried and tested on the other.

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