Q: What is Democratic Socialism? Part 1
“What is democratic socialism?” Bernie supporters want to know because he sounds different that the Democratic Party. Baby boomers want to know because they grew up hearing terrible things about the USSR, China, and Cuba.
“Democratic socialism isn’t Communism” according to many defenders. “Communism was authoritarian. Democratic socialism is like Scandinavian socialism. Democratic socialism is not Marxist.” For others all forms of socialism are a gateway to authoritarianism.
Membership of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), founding in 1982, has grown from about 5,000 in 2015 to about 70,000 in 2020. DSA is not a political party, but its members include US Congress members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. DSA is a big tent socialist organization with socialists of all flavors. Bernie Sanders is not a member of DSA, but an overwhelming majority of DSA members supported Bernie’s campaigns for president.
The reality is that the definition of democratic socialism is up for debate. Including myself, most DSA members are to the left of Bernie. Bernie opened the space in the American political discourse to “socialism,” and now is the time to imagine a politics outside of capitalism. Can we imagine a world in which capitalism is no longer the only purveyor of democracy, freedom and prosperity?
Since the fall of the Soviet Union capitalism has been the only game in town. The left has only sought to critique capitalism, but refrained from proposing alternatives. Democratic socialism is the first attempt in the twenty-first century to boldly articulate demands previously considered taboo, impossible. Before Bernie it was “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” This quote has been attributed to both Slavoj Žižek and Frederic Jameson. Democratic socialism is alternative to the end of the world, a third way, a way of hope.
Democratic socialism is yet to be defined. This essay is an attempt to give shape to an ideology that is fundamentally anti-capitalist, but prioritizes democracy, freedom and prosperity. It is an ideology that is not unique to me, but neither is it comprehensive or inclusive of all members of DSA. Forgive me. Out of convenience I will write as if I speak for all democratic socialists. I do not. I speak for many, at this moment, but my imagine is limited, and science and economics have barely accounted for democratic socialism. We still have much to learn. Democratic socialism still has much to learn.
After socialist ideology failed in the twentieth century, after the USSR failed, philosophers put ideology to rest in peace forever. Climate change, the economic collapse of 2008, and repeated killings of unarmed black Americans by police have been a wakeup call. These problems have forced us to consider that perhaps a world without ideology is impossible. Ideology remains, even when we pretend it does not exist. We are ideological, even when we pretend we are not. We remain capitalist, even if we critique it, if we do not propose an alternative, and fight for that alternative. Democratic socialists place ideology at the center of all political thinking. Democratic socialist ideology is fundamentally about the strategy for how the working class can take power. Democratic socialism is about owning the things previously considered unthinkable. Yes, free healthcare now! Yes, free college now! Yes, a Green New Deal now! Yes, unions now! Yes, class warfare now! Yes, working class power now! Yes, socialist ideology now! Yes, socialism now!
When we call the United States a democracy, most of all we are referring to our right to vote for our representatives, but we also take for granted that as a democracy we have the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, equality before the law, and are assumed innocent until proven guilty, etc. We believe checks and balances are a necessary ingredient to protecting our status as a democracy.
Democracy is a complicated idea that can never be fully defined, let alone fully realized. To call a country a democracy is only meaningful if that country has a number of robust, cultivated democratic institutions. No modern civilization solidified into a democracy out of nothingness. Democracies emerge from the struggle of the oppressed peoples in undemocratic political bodies. The origin story of the United States claims that we fought off the oppressive chains of the King of England, replacing the monarchy with Enlightenment ideas that became the foundation of what we think of when we think of democracy. The “founding fathers” formed democratic institutions that later generations cultivated further through political struggle.
Just look at the fight for universal suffrage in America. Men without property earned the right to vote, then former slaves, then women, then First Nations people, then Chinese immigrants, then citizens of Washington, D.C., then Black Americans. Many of these victories occurred piecemeal over decades.
As I said above, this struggle forms “robust, cultivated democratic institutions.” If a country’s democratic institutions are sufficiently robust no one individual or group can easily deny the democratic freedoms or the democratic voice of a democratic people. There will always be battles over the details, like in the United States, where the electoral college allows a minority of the popular vote to select the president, where the Senate disproportionately represents smaller states, where the president and Senate select elite Supreme Court Justices for lifetime appointments, where many felons have lost the right to vote, or where poor people and people of color have unnecessary and unacceptable obstacles to having their votes counted, but the vast majority of the time the system retains its legitimacy as a representative democracy. Once democracy is won, democratic people resist attempts to take away their democratic power over their lives.
The 2020 US election has made visible that many of its democratic institutions are under attack, and are at risk of being substantially destroyed. This is all the more reason why democratic socialism is necessary. But rather than detailing the crumbling of our democracy, my purpose here is to define the solution, democratic socialism!
Democratic socialists are serious about the word “democratic.” It is not used to soften the hard edges of the word “socialism.” Democratic socialists are fighting for a world in which people have a say in the things that have a significant effect on their lives. Socialists argue that what we Americans (or anyone else, for that matter) call democracy is far from good enough. Most importantly, democratic socialists argue that capitalism has a number of inherently anti-democratic elements.
If you grew up in the West you were instilled with the propaganda that free market capitalism is one and the same with democracy, never mind the fact that democracy is unapologetically absent from the workplace, one of the most important institutions in most people’s lives. How can we call the United States a democracy when most Americans have no choice but to sell their labor to someone that tells them where to be and what to wear at what time, sometimes putting their health and safety at risk, and then keeps the profits for themselves. Hard work is good for people sometimes. Democratic socialism does not deny that, but what if we lived in a world where people had democratic control over their workplace? Democracy cannot be fully defined, as I said above, and there are many ways one could make the workplace more democratic, but we know it would look a lot different than what we have now. It would even look a lot different from the edgy tech businesses like Google that, at least at one time, gave their employees 20% of their time to spend on personal projects, to which Google then owned the intellectual property rights. Democracy in the workplace would mean that the workers “owned” the workplace and the products of their labor, and could decide for themselves how they wanted to operate as a business, and they would decide to distribute the profits through a democratic process.
It should be noted that democratically operated businesses do exist in the United States already. A few famous examples include King Arthur Flour, Litehouse salad dressing and W.W. Norton & Company. For a while the New Belgium brewery was employee owned, though it was not democratically run. Eventually the employee’s sold the business, some making over $100,000.
These kinds of worker-owned businesses are called worker cooperatives (not to be confused with consumer cooperatives). Under socialism democratically run, worker-owned businesses would make up the vast majority of businesses engaged in the free market. There are a variety of other operating models of “worker ownership,” some of which are more or less democratic, but may have their advantages for society. For example, a (socialist) government could buy shares of a publicly traded business until it owned a majority, giving “the people” voting rights and representation on the board of directors. And finally, of course, socialism can include government run organizations like utilities, banks and healthcare. Historically this has been known as nationalizing the industry. In 2011 a study of eighty studies showed that “[t]he results are remarkably consistent across all sectors and all forms of privatization and outsourcing: there is no empirical evidence that the private sector is intrinsically more efficient.” Publicly-owned organizations are just one tool in the socialist tool belt, democratically accountable to the citizens (assuming, as in any organization) there is transparency, in order to mitigate corruption and waste. For more on the topic of publicly owned utilities, in particular, read my article here.
Housing and real estate should be more democratic too. People who live in a community should have a democratic voice in how their community changes and adapts. In the United States, in cities throughout the country, large real estate investors are buying single occupancy homes and apartment buildings in working class neighborhoods, sometimes renovating them, sometimes tearing them down and replacing them with high-end condos, resulting in making the neighborhoods unaffordable for the working class families that had been their for years, sometimes for generations. Problems like gentrification could have many democratic solutions, many of which have never been discovered yet, but some have. Community land trusts allow a community to own land, and decide what kind of development should occur on their land. Tenants, if given the financial opportunities, could purchase their apartment building, and decide for themselves at what rate to set the rent, and decide between themselves into what repairs and improvements to invest the rent money. Lastly, of course, with proper investment, public housing has the potential to be an excellent solution to the problem of affordable housing, such as in the case of Red Vienna in 1925, where public housing was utilized on a massive scale, and remains popular in Vienna to this day.
Note that socialism is not about specific policies, in spite of what you have been told. Socialism is about creating a society in which working people have freedom and democratic control over their lives and their communities. Sometimes socialists may propose policies that require centralized governmental control (not unlike many capitalist proposals), but socialist policies can also be decentralized, requiring only minimal government intervention, or merely the presence of a democratically accountable, publicly-owned bank that is willing to accept higher risk loans for the sake of the public good, such as public loans for apartment tenants to buy out their land owner.
Socialist economists and socialist think tanks, like capitalist economists and think tanks, want to develop policies that will “work.” The difference is how they define success. Some capitalist economists define success based on the economic efficiency of a policy. Socialists do not trust that policies built on an anti-democratic, self-interested profit motive can be trusted to produce the best results for society. This is the dogma of free market capitalist economists and defenders. Socialists define success based on the quality of life and economic autonomy a policy gives members of the working class and other vulnerable populations. Whether or not one is consciously ideological, there are no policies that are ideologically agnostic. All policies either give democratic power to working class people, or give that power into the hands of a few. For this reason socialists place ideology at the heart of everything. Democracy is at the heart of socialist ideology.
I have a lot more to say about democratic socialist ideology, as well as democratic socialist strategy, and I will post it here, but first I need to talk about how I arrived at democratic socialism.