by Roland Dodds
I am backing Bernie Sanders in the forthcoming presidential election. He has his liabilities, but it’s good to hear a full-throated defense of social democracy in an American election. Sanders has made the following argument for years:
“I can hear the Republican attack ad right now: ‘He wants America to look more like Scandinavia,’” [stated] ABC host George Stephanopoulos.
But Sanders said that’s exactly what he wants. “That’s right. That’s right. And what’s wrong with that?”
Nothing in my estimation. I do have to ask a problematic question for other socialists to ponder: can an extensive, redistributive welfare state work in multicultural societies? The evidence doesn’t look good.
This topic becomes more apparent when discussing recent events in Baltimore. Just a week following rebellion in the birthplace of The Star Spangled Banner, any meaningful discussion on race has already dissipated from the mainstream press. Rightfully, many commentators on the left connected the problems in Baltimore to the economic state many of its poor, minority citizens find themselves. Building solidarity between white and black Americans, especially if redistributive economic policies are to be enacted, is a necessary requirement to fundamentally changing poor inner-city communities. Yet, this has always been at the heart of race relations in this country. Americans can accept that all people may be American, but we rarely see each other as kin.
This social reality may be unsatisfying (and perhaps debilitating). A multiethnic society with a strong welfare state is unlikely to come to fruition if one examines how social-rights are often at odds with vast capitalist societies. The impediments of multiculturalism on a mass socialist project may be insurmountable.
In 1949 T.H. Marshall published his seminal work, Citizenship and Social Class, examining the welfare state as it developed in England, and its subsequent connection to citizenship. Marshall positioned that being a member of a society was more than simple proximity to others, but a matter of “loyalty to a civilization which is a common possession.” Citizens were not individual agents or consumers, but members of a real, living society. You were bound to your neighbor through a shared culture, and with that came responsibilities for each other’s well being.
In Ethnicity, Trust, and the Welfare State, a number of Canadian academics demonstrate that multicultural societies are less likely to contain the levels of trust required to maintain social welfare and redistributive programs. They wrote:
“The redistributive state is rooted in a sense of community and collective responsibility, and that this solidarity becomes more difficult to sustain as a population becomes increasingly diverse.”
They went on to state:
“Mutual trust facilitates solutions to collective action problems inherent in social welfare programmes, where citizens must trust each other to both take part as contributors and not take advantage as beneficiaries. Trust is aided by identification with fellow citizens. Identification with fellow citizens is easiest in ethnically and culturally homogenous societies, however, so it will be more difficult to foster identification with fellow citizens in societies that are ethnically or culturally divided. More diverse societies are consequently more likely to find that support for social welfare programmes is lacking.”
Listening to the conversations surround police violence and the ensuing protests elucidate just how far American ethnic communities are from seeing the other as brethren. Protestors viewed the police (and white America at large) as the cause of their strife. Many whites and conservative pundits placed the blame on the black community. There is no mutual understanding between groups. They live in different spheres, talking past each other. Each group fundamentally sees the problem differently.
I recall reading Andrew Brown’s Fishing Utopia a few years back while studying in Scotland. His account of moving from England to Sweden in the 1960s touched on elements of social culture that often go unaddressed in discussions surrounding the success of the Scandinavian model. As a result of their ethnic homogony, implicit demands on behavior, ethics, and responsibilities result in a shared vision for what citizenship entails. Much as T.H. Marshall noted in his study of England, citizenship was directly tied to a series of norms that are difficult to transmit on a bureaucratic level. Redistributive policies and good governance in Scandinavian states are a result of its relatively homogenous society, not because a strong welfare program exists.
Optimistic liberals and socialists would argue that more work simply must be done to connect the various ethnic groups that make up America into a coherent nation of people. Surely, that’s been a guiding mission of the US since it’s founding. We have come a great distance in race relations, but the next step towards a more inclusive, redistributive state may be a bridge too far.
There is something positive to take away from the aforementioned Canadian paper: they found that Canadians were not less likely to loose faith in their social-welfare system even as immigration increased. (They noted however, that the country had a geographic concentration of minorities in specific areas.) While the Canadian welfare state leaves a lot to be desired for someone looking for a more engaging socialist project, perhaps it is as extensive and redistributive as multiculturalism will allow?