Sherri Berman: Progressives Must Believe in Change

I love me some Eduard Bernstein, so big props to Sherri Berman for describing a contemporary political debate in terms of an analogy to the Bernstein-Kautsky disputes of yore. However, for the sake of audience understanding, it’s probably better to just quote this part about the need for a left politics that’s forward-looking rather than small-c conservative in the face of globalization:

Building on its best traditions, the left must reiterate its commitment to managing change rather than fighting it, to embracing the future rather than running from it. This might seem straightforward, but in fact it isn’t generally accepted. Many European and American leftists are devoted to familiar policies and approaches regardless of their practical relevance or lack of success. And many peddle fear of the future, fear of change, and fear of the other. Increasing globalization and the dramatic rise of developing world giants such as China and India, for example, are seen as threats rather than opportunities.

At its root, such fears stem from the failure of many on the left to appreciate that capitalism is not a zero-sum game — over the long run the operations of relatively free markets can produce net wealth rather than simply shifting it from one pocket to another. Because social democrats understand that basic point, they want to do what they can to encourage trade and growth and cultivate as large a net surplus as possible — all the better to pay for measures that can equalize life chances and cushion publics from the blows that markets inflict.

Helping people adjust to capitalism, rather than engaging in a hopeless and ultimately counterproductive effort to hold it back, has been the historic accomplishment of the social democratic left, and it remains its primary goal today in those countries where the social democratic mindset is most deeply ensconced. Many analysts have remarked, for example, on the impressive success of countries like Denmark and Sweden in managing globalization — promoting economic growth and increased competitiveness even as they ensure high employment and social security. The Scandinavian cases demonstrate that social welfare and economic dynamism are not enemies but natural allies. Not surprisingly, it is precisely in these countries that optimism about globalization is highest. In the United States and other parts of Europe, on the other hand, fear of the future is pervasive and opinions of globalization astoundingly negative. American leftists must try to do what the Scandinavians have done: develop a program that promotes growth and social solidarity together, rather than forcing a choice between them. Concretely this means agitating for policies — like reliable, affordable, and portable health care; tax credits or other government support for labor-market retraining; investment in education; and unemployment programs that are both more generous and better incentivized — that will help workers adjust to change rather than make them fear it.

I highly recommend the whole essay, and also Berman’s book The Primacy of Politics which is about social democrats and fascists from the fin-de-siecle to World War II. At the time I read it, I though the book was very interesting but primarily of strictly historical interest. The renewed climate of economic crisis is, however, making me feel that her narrative is more directly applicable.


She writes about how many countries were paralyzed by a politics dominated, on the one hand, by libertarian types who felt that any government intervention in the economy was bound to make things worse, and Marxist types who felt that any government intervention in the economy was bound to be futile. On the right, people wanted to just wait things out and never mind the suffering. On the left, people wanted to just wait for the collapse of capitalism and never mind the suffering. Naturally, people started to turn to leaders interested in developing actual programs to ameliorate conditions. Leaders who believed in the primacy of politics over a kind of economic fatalism. The more humane among those leaders were the social democrats, the less humane the fascists.