Chess grandmaster and Russian dissident Garry Kasparov sees the failures of his homeland reflected in the policies of Bernie Sanders. Last week he took to Facebook and The Daily Beast to warn of the dangers of big government, writing, “I’m enjoying the irony of American Sanders supporters lecturing me, a former Soviet citizen, on the glories of Socialism and what it really means.”
Kasparov grew up in the Soviet Union and ran a courageous presidential campaign against Russia’s oppressive Vladimir Putin. He doesn’t need a lecture, but his article needs counterpoints. Even with his unique political experience Kasparov states his case in overly black and white terms. He ignores the prominent role social programs have played throughout American history and writes as though private business ventures are the world’s best – maybe only – force for good.
Like far too many commentators, Kasparov seems to think Sanders’s goal is to replace every corner of the free market with government. He makes this argument even when he agrees with Sanders on something, like breaking up the big banks: “However, Sanders’s socialist policies would replace banks that are too big to fail with a government that is too big to succeed.”
Discussions of socialism are often complicated by the fact that there is hardly a universally agreed-upon definition of the term. Classically it has to do with workers owning the means of production and sharing profit, but no self-identified socialist state functions this way. In contemporary political speak socialism usually just refers to any program that is taxpayer-funded and government-administered, which is essentially the definition Kasparov uses.
Much of his article is worth responding to point-by-point.
- Kasparov writes, “Americans talking about socialism in the 21st century was a luxury paid for by the successes of capitalism in the 20th.”
America has never been a pure capitalism. The state has long intervened in the economy and usually not on behalf of consumers. From the nation’s founding taxpayers have sustained industry through subsidies, grants, tax breaks, bailouts, paying for infrastructure, and renting themselves out as laborers. Americans have given enormously of themselves to build a better future that the elites now want to deny them. The Sanders campaign is partly about settling those accounts.
- “The essential complement to [America as a positive force in the world, a force for liberty and peace] is having big positive dreams at home as well, of restoring America’s belief in ambition and risk, of innovation and exploration, of free markets and free people.”
There’s no reason to assume we’d lose those values when Americans decide to reallocate their tax dollars from corporate subsidies to education. It’s much easier to believe the opposite is true. Spending money on sick people instead of nuclear weapons might actually have a positive effect on liberty and peace. An educated population that isn’t living in constant fear of medical bankruptcy or foreclosure may well be the most innovative and exploratory of all.
- “American technology created the modern world… The Soviets put a man in space before America but couldn’t keep up the pace against an innovating, free-market competitor. My Facebook post went around the world on technology created in America. The networks, the satellites, the software, nearly every ingredient in every mobile device and desktop computer, was invented in the USA. It is not a coincidence that the most capitalist country in the world created all these things.”
Here Kasparov really shoots himself in the foot. The space and arms races were only possible through significant expansion of the state, both in the Soviet Union and the United States. Kasparov must know, for instance, that NASA is a government program. The networks and computers which sent his message around the world have their origins in military technology, developed at taxpayer expense and then made available for commercial distribution and private profit. Components for this globe-changing technology were developed in places like Bell Labs for one main buyer: the US government. Very little of this has anything to do with the free market.
- On Europeans embracing democratic socialism: “As long as Europe had America taking risks, investing ambitiously, attracting the world’s dreamers and entrepreneurs, and yes, being unequal, it could benefit from the results without making the same sacrifices. Add to that the incalculable windfall of not having to spend on national defense thanks to America’s massive investment in a global security umbrella.”
That “global security umbrella” is an apparatus of the world’s largest socialist institution, the American military. So Kasparov argues America’s ambitious investment into a state-run program freed Europe to pursue its own brand of socialism. Therefore both the US and Europe are guilty of redistribution, but at least Europeans have healthcare and education to show for it. Americans instead invested in prisons and drones.
Commentators love to conjure images of the Soviet Union’s dire poverty and rolling tanks when discussing socialism. To his credit Kasparov acknowledges, “Of course Senator Sanders does not want to turn America into a totalitarian state like the one I grew up in.” Yet America is becoming that way anyway, as evidenced by the standoffs in many US cities between impoverished residents and militarized police. Deregulation, trade deals, outsourcing, pollution, corruption, and inadequate community investment created that climate – not socialist Bernie Sanders’s policies.
Just about every society mixes elements of socialism and capitalism. As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, in America this often looks like “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” Our job as conscientious citizens is to adjust that formula and reinvest in ourselves. That’s what Sanders’s political revolution is all about.