Werner Sombart – Why is there no Socialism in the United States

The campaign of Bernie Sanders was destined for failure. The American public has long rejected socialism as a political ideology despite its widespread embrace of social programs like Social Security, Medicare and Unemployment Insurance. The irony is redistributive programs have largely buttressed the capitalist system. They offer enough security to maintain widespread support for capitalism despite the inequalities it generates. Nonetheless, the most popular of these programs maintain their legitimacy through their similarities to private enterprise. They are literally the socialization of a form of insurance. But they are widely embraced and championed as a part of American life. So how does one explain the American antipathy towards socialism?

Werner Sombart wrote his explanation in 1906, a generation before the New Deal. He wrote before political science was a popular discipline. Consequently, he regarded himself a sociologist. He was a contemporary of Max Weber and Robert Michels. Indeed, I discovered this book in the footnotes of Michels’ Political Parties. But Sombart was a giant among the early sociologists in his own right. He is often neglected because all his contemporaries were in the shadow of Weber. But his works influenced the early giants of political science including Seymour Martin Lipset who referenced this book in his early work despite the lack of an English translation until 1976.

Why is there No Socialism in the United States is divided into a distinct political, economic and social answer to the book’s main question. Sombart’s political explanation argues the two-party system has made the emergence of a new worker’s party impossible. He gives a detailed history of the futility of American third parties before explaining how the Republican Party, the most successful of all third parties, is largely an exception to this rule. He believed the conditions which allowed for the emergence of a new major political party were largely absent in modern American politics. And his conclusion is largely justified since the Democrats and Republicans continue to dominate politics in the United States. Yet the British political system largely faced the same political limitations of single member district constituencies and a dominant two-party system yet found room for the emergence of the Labour Party. Moreover, the Liberals never completely died away and remain coalition partners when neither of the dominant parties can form a government on its own.

The American political system has proven its elasticity when necessity has demanded it time and time again. Thirty years after the publication of this book, Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed a series of reforms typically demanded by the socialists such as old age pensions and unemployment insurance. And a series of reforms to constrain capitalism had already begun during the progressive era. As Sombart wrote this book, Theodore Roosevelt put in motion a series of reforms to dismantle monopolistic trusts and reform the civil service. Indeed, civil service reform had made serious strides with the Pendleton Act in 1883. Consequently, many of the most egregious elements of machine politics had already begun to dissipate as Sombart critiqued them.

In the next two sections Sombart offers a captivating analysis of the economic and social position of the American worker. His analysis is divided into two parts, but his ideas build upon one another, so they become a sort of symbiosis. He describes the financial position of the American worker as substantially better than their European counterpart. Sombart gives lots of statistics to show how the American worker made two to three times as much as comparable workers in Germany. He accounts for cost of living and regional differences to show how American workers have a substantially better standard of living than their European counterparts.

So much time is spent demonstrating the relatively high standards of living for the American worker, it is easy to forget Sombart has socialistic sympathies. The second part of this short work reads as though it is a justification of the more laissez faire form of American capitalism. Indeed, he goes so far as to frame workers as accomplices in their own exploitation. Sombart describes how workers enjoy many amenities that remain largely absent in European workplaces that capitalists often make in lieu of more practical improvements designed to protect the safety of their workers. It is implied the workers prefer these amenities to improvements in safety guidelines.

Sombart makes a dark turn as he shows how Americans make better use of their incomes than their European counterparts. He shows how Germans spend more money on alcoholic drinks than Americans despite lower disposable incomes. Americans used this income to improve their housing, clothing and diets. Again, Sombart appears to blame the European worker for their own misery as they choose to waste their meager incomes on alcohol rather than investments into their standard of living or savings. But there is a major difference between the outlook between Americans and Europeans. American workers have hope for a better future through the distribution of Western lands. Employers must compete for their time and commitments because the most dissatisfied recognize they can leave for a homestead of their own.

The politics of immigration and emigration have significance in our own time. The mass influx of refugees and immigrants into Europe and the United States is due to the atrocities in their home countries but has also been made possible (paradoxically) from improvements in income and education due to globalization. Some have argued it has been the gradual improvements in disposable income that have allowed so many to migrate to new countries but more than income it is probably the proliferation of education that has taught people about better living conditions in different parts of the world. The uncertainties of migration have become mitigated through globalized forms of communication that show places where better opportunities really do exist.

But emigration is a challenge for the place of origin. Democratic governance depends upon the willingness of its people to want to improve their community. Emigration offers a release valve to avoid necessary reforms. Those whose discontent may have led to champion reforms and improvements simply escape for a new country where there is a better chance for success. Perhaps it is naïve to believe in democratic reforms when many of these countries are governed under authoritarian regimes. Yet it is important to recognize many of the world’s authoritarian regimes have become hybrid systems where opportunities exist to reform through elections. Hungary is an example where emigration has strengthened Viktor Orbán’s hold on power and facilitated the deterioration of its democratic institutions.

But there is a loss of hope among the American worker of today. Anne Case and Angus Deaton write of “The Epidemic of Despair” where the white working class has seen a decline in life expectancy due to opioids, heart disease and suicide. They describe these as deaths of despair because they are often linked to chronic addictions to drugs and alcohol or depression. It appears when there is nowhere left to go, hope disappears along with it. So long as America is as good as it gets, there is little hope for the American who finds little opportunity for improvement. This despair has not translated into a movement for socialism but a desire for populism. Francis Fukuyama has written about the importance of human dignity in defining personal identity. It is not enough to offer material comforts and social programs. The American worker wants recognition of their contributions and their own importance.

Werner Sombart was both right and wrong in his analysis of America’s antipathy toward socialism. He ends his work with a prediction, “All the factors that till now have prevented the development of Socialism in the United States are about to disappear or to be converted into their opposite, with the result that in the next generation Socialism in America will very probably experience the greatest possible expansion of its appeal.” He was right to the extent that the Great Depression opened the door to the demands for a greater safety net. But these programs and their successors were never considered an alternative to capitalism. Rather they became part of the infrastructure to allow capitalism to progress. As the government took on a greater role in the protection of workers, corporations allowed themselves to focus on the maximization of shareholder value. The concerns of unemployment and income security in old age became the domain of the public sector. So ultimately, he was also wrong. Socialism was not bound to displace capitalism in the United States.

Nonetheless, his analysis makes sociological insights relevant to the current era. The world of today mirrors the world of the past. The difference between the American worker from the German for Sombart was hope. The American believed things were destined to become better while the German was faced with the reality of his or her circumstances. Today it is the American worker who has lost hope. This despair has tremendous political and sociological consequences. The solution is to find a balance in the recognition of the challenges we face while we retain an innocent sense of hope in our ability to overcome them.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox

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