Nation-State Socialism

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I tend to be skeptical of American socialists. Partly because I think that socialism doesn’t actually have a useful definition within American political discourse, because supporters and critics both treat it as a nebulous concept that stands for whatever they want it to stand for.

The other problem is that socialism hasn’t been a major distinct force in American politics since the 1930s, when FDR absorbed a lot of its ideas to make the New Deal. Which means the socialists who do understand what they’re talking about are working from an old playbook that doesn’t always hold together.

Bernie Sanders, the only self-identified socialist in Congress, did a pretty good job of demonstrating why this week. In an interview with Vox, he responded to a question about open borders by deriding the idea as “a Koch brothers proposal.”

His specific objection seems to be based on the idea that accepting more immigrants will automatically lower the standard of living for Americans, an argument that has about as much evidence behind it as the idea that global warming is caused by the sun. The argument works better as a criticism of the status quo, in which undocumented immigrants form a kind of shadow economy outside the legal regulatory system. But you could easily solve this problem by giving every immigrant legal status and the same wage and labor protections as any other worker.

To his credit, Bernie Sanders has actually supported doing this for undocumented immigrants who are already in the country. The problem is he just doesn’t have much enthusiasm for policies that would make it easier for people to get here in the first place. Which is more or less the same attitude that let our immigration system get so broken in the first place, but that’s not even the worst part.

The worst part is the one that has nothing to do with economics:

Ezra Klein

It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?

Bernie Sanders

It would make everybody in America poorer—you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that.

Like socialism, the nation-state was in peak vogue around the end of World War I, when the huge multiethnic empires of Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans, and to a lesser extent Russia were breaking apart, and the promise of the Treaty of Versailles was that everyone could get their own country. I also think it’s an idea that we could stand to leave behind.

National identity was an effective tool when oppressed people were struggling against exploitative imperial regimes, which was most of the 20th century. Today, though, people are increasingly recognizing that sectarian divisions create as many problems as they solve.

My preferred solution is a national model that can accommodate people regardless of their ethnic, religious, or even cultural identity. The United States is actually most of the way there: We’re already one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, and thanks in large part to centuries of nearly unrestricted immigration. The immigrant story is central to an American national identity that is framed around the concepts of freedom, equality, and opportunity. Which is why I don’t like hearing Americans saying we should keep out immigrants because it’s so important to have a nation-state.

What’s depressing is that there was a cross-national movement as well. Socialists tended to think of workers’ rights as an international cause, I think because they viewed national governments as a corrupt racket of rich elites who conspired to advance their own interests at the expense of their workers. That’s part of the reason Eugene Debs gave for opposing World War I. Unfortunately, like a lot of socialist ideology, the principles ended up getting compromised by the same kind of tribalism that created the system it was trying to replace.

It’s not really an accident that the countries with the most generous social welfare systems also have small, homogenous populations. It’s also not a coincidence that Bernie Sanders is from Vermont, one of the smallest, richest, and whitest states in the country. It’s a lot easier to support redistributing wealth when it’s getting distributed to people who remind you of yourself.

On one level, this doesn’t particularly matter because Bernie Sanders will not win the Democratic presidential nomination. On another level, that’s exactly why this is so disappointing. The most he can do—and he’s probably already doing it—is change the conversation.

Democrats are pretty well unified on the question of how to accommodate undocumented immigrants, but reforming our legal immigration system doesn’t get nearly enough attention. The United States’ immigration laws are way too restrictive, both from an economic and human rights standpoints, and it would be nice if somebody made that part of the discussion.

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