Twenty-First Century Socialism

Seeping into the minds of moderate Democrats, as several reports from constituent town-hall meetings reveal, are the scare tactics of the Republicans as they paint progressives as “socialists.” Ironically, the following percentages, reflecting both Democratic and Republican respondents, show how “scary” such socialism is to the electorate:

  • Universal pre-kindergarten (77 percent approval)
  • Debt-free college at public universities (71 percent approval)
  • A “Green New Deal,” creating millions of clean energy jobs (70 percent approval)
  • A Full Employment Act (70 percent approval)
  • Expanding Social Security benefits (70 percent approval)
  • Medicare for All (70 percent approval)
  • 70% tax on income over $10 million (59 percent approval)

As such polls show, a majority of the American electorate, including a good many Republicans, supports such government programs. It is unlikely that all of the programs will be enacted and certainly not all at once. But significant here is the realization that the issue is no longer should we avoid these programs because they might be socialist; the issue is how we can implement them and how we can pay for them. Thus attention has shifted from demonizing the programs themselves and has, instead, shifted into looking into how to finance them.

In a previous blog (“Who’s Afraid of Socialism?”) I pointed out that the right wants to frighten people into thinking that Democrats want a socialism in which the national government centralizes and controls the entire economy. In response I emphasized, or tried to, that at the center of socialism lies the idea of the collective ownership of the means of production and distribution. How we define “collective” is the important consideration.

Republicans and their television, podcast, and radio propagandists insist on defining “collective” as the state, also known as the federal government. In their view socialism means that the government will own and control every major business, company, and corporation, thereby eliminating entrepreneurship, individual initiative, personal wealth accumulation, and our freedom to succeed or fail.

In a bizarre act of solidarity with the right, the left too often buys into this same narrative. In a conversation some years ago about Obama and socialism, Newt Gingrich declared, not surprisingly, that socialism “is the control of the economy by the government.” Jon Stewart, at the time The Daily Show host, said little in response. Yet later in the same interview he challenged a Gingrich point about the need for private insurance in health care by asking: “If the government can run an army, why can’t it run a national health care system?” The question stunned Gingrich into silence, which before this interview many political observers would have thought an impossibility.

Yes, the military is run by the government, just as a single-payer health system like “Medicare for All” would be. But we can have a socialist health care system that isn’t run solely by the federal government. Communities could own and control local and regional hospitals; doctors, nurses, and staff could collectively own and control health-maintenance organizations. The key socialist element is how you define “collective.” When those who work in any enterprise own and control that enterprise, then that is a “socialist” operation. Still, if the goal is to provide universal health care (and not simply “access,” which all Americans have…if they can afford it), then we need a national program. But a mix of capitalism and socialism in providing health care is feasible and, if done properly, perhaps attractive.

Socialism for the 21st century does not have to be incompatible with capitalism. ACE Hardware is a retailer-owned cooperative; is it therefore socialist or, because all of the employees aren’t owners, is it capitalist? Ocean Spray is an agricultural cooperative that shares marketing with PepsiCo. So, capitalist or socialist? Publix Super Markets, with 190,000 employees, is owned by its workers through a stock-ownership program (ESOP), which makes the employees stock owners. Capitalist or socialist?

My point is that we already see a variety of ways that businesses and companies can be owned and controlled. Socialism bleeds into capitalism, because there can be “private collectives” that own and control the means of production. Not everything is owned and controlled by the state.

Marxists will disagree with this perspective. Marx analyzed capitalist economies through a class-based lens. From this perspective it is inconceivable that socialism could be compatible with capitalism, since the means of production must be owned and controlled by the entire working class, the proletariat. Leave out the working class, which itself would organize and run the new central government, and you don’t have real socialism. This is so, according to Marx, because the only way to end exploitation of workers — and thus the generation of profits that comes through that exploitation — is to have the economy in the hands of the entire working class. Then society as a whole, since there would no longer be different economic classes, would regulate economic production.

Yet what happens when workers own and control the means of production within a particular company or throughout a single industry? Workers in those cases can’t exploit themselves, can they? Won’t exploitation thereby end?

If the workers in a private company own and control that company, and if that company generates profits, then who has been exploited? If workers aren’t exploited, then isn’t Marx wrong in this instance about what generates profits? Moreover, if the workers determine democratically how to use those profits, then is this not a form of democratic socialism? Isn’t the whole scenario an example of socialism within capitalism?

Without a move toward an Aristotelian mean — which is not a perfect balance of two sides, but is a shifting movement along a continuum as social, economic, and political circumstances change — between capitalism and socialism, neither system can succeed. Capitalism cannot sustain its need for continued growth, as new markets evaporate and the planet’s resources decline and degrade under capitalism’s relentless rapaciousness that is altering our climate. Socialists might well react by demanding as a remedy the takeover and control of the economy by the state, with a concomitant full-faith commitment to central planning, which has never worked well for the people.

Instead this can be the face of 21st century socialism: an ever-growing network of worker, owner, and consumer cooperatives; of community-owned services and enterprises; and of government-run national programs too large for any segment of society to undertake.

Right now the development of such a network is piecemeal. But the young, especially the Millennials, are showing some real political courage. Their situation is markedly different from that of their parents and grandparents. Millennials face unprecedented climate catastrophe, crushing income inequality, mounting student debt, wobbly health care, and job prospects that are mostly low paying and with limited growth and security.

Millennial energy can lead us toward systemic changes in our production and use of energy, in our financing and delivery of education, in our protection of the planet, in our provision of basic needs to our citizens, and in our understanding of the need for alliances within the country and throughout the world to safeguard and enhance our democracies.

Future well-being rests on a combination of the two ideological approaches. One approach is socialism’s commitment to establishing equality of conditions, worker ownership, and workplace democracy. The other approach, within a liberal-democratic context, is the promotion and protection of capitalism’s equality of opportunity and its emphasis on markets, trade, innovation, and individual initiative.

I, for one, do not believe that we citizens have stopped having aspirations for our communities and society and hold such aspirations only for individual successes. It seems that many of the young today are with me on this. The old understandings of socialism and capitalism are dying. Attempts to massage those old understandings into new forms, or into new scare tactics, lead to manipulations fit only for contortionists. We have to let them go and usher in the new and healthier forms where socialism is compatible with capitalism.

It is up to us to usher in the new and healthier forms. After all, we aren’t bringing socialism to the United States; it is already here in valued and valuable forms. Those forms need to be expanded and improved. Democrats are offering ideas on how to do that. Not all of them will succeed or even become proposals to put into law. But all of them are worth a fair hearing without fear-mongering from the right, which is all the right has offered in response.

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