Who’s Afraid of Socialism?

People who don’t understand it.

As progressives, including some Democratic presidential candidates, push for such ideas as Medicare For All, a Green New Deal, free college, and guaranteed federal jobs, some in the center and many on the right push back by declaring that these proposals are forms of socialism. Are they? Yes, they are, but that is not to be feared.

Often missed or overlooked by critics and champions alike is the heart of socialism: the collective ownership of the means of production. When we extend that idea into the 21st century, we add to the means of “production” the means of providing and distributing services.

When we do that, we can see that government-run programs like Social Security or the Veterans’ Administration are socialist, because they are collectively owned by us, the taxpayers. Municipalities and states operate policing (local and state), firefighting, libraries, and parks. These, too, are socialist, because they are owned, again, by us, the taxpayers. So, too, then would be a Green New Deal, Medicare For All, free college, and guaranteed federal jobs.

Therein lies the fear of socialism that the right expresses. They think that such examples are a sign of the creep of government control that will more and more intrude into our lives, depriving us of choice, freedom, and autonomy. Soon we will look like the Stalinist Soviet Union, a totalitarian system where the state controls our lives from cradle to grave. Next step: the gulag.

Nowhere, however, in the socialist heart of the collective ownership of the means of production is there a requirement that the “collective” that owns the means of production and provision must be the state, our federal government. Nowhere in that socialist idea is the requirement that it must be the government at any level or at all. Instead, we can think of the collective as any group of persons. They don’t even have to be citizens.

On this view, socialism is compatible with capitalism. We can imagine a “private collective”; that is, a group of workers and managers that comes to own a factory or company or business. Nothing here is government owned or government run. The factory, company, or business remains private, owned and operated by those who work in it. For example, the New Belgium Brewing Company, the makers of Fat Tire beer, is 100 percent employee owned. This is a form of socialism. But it is also a private and capitalist business. Nothing scary there.

A critic of socialism might well respond: “Sure ‘collective’ can be defined in many different ways, but that has little to do with the kind of socialism these politicians are espousing. They’re arguing for government — federal, state, or local — to take over enterprises. That’s the concern. That move erodes our freedom.” But does it?

The capitalist system in the United States is itself undergirded by socialism. Every enterprise in this country relies upon government for police, fire departments, courts, public roads, sidewalks, trash collection, water systems, lights, and a host of other public works that no business could function without. All of that permits free enterprise to exist; it doesn’t erode it.

We saw another example of this during the 2008 crash, when the government — that is, we citizens — stepped in to bail out the banks and to save General Motors. Was freedom curtailed, or was it preserved for the workers, managers, and owners of those banks and of General Motors, and for all the subsidiary organizations that rely on those businesses? We have seen time after time in our history how corporations keep their profits private but socialize their losses, as we taxpayers come in to offset the damage done and bail them out.

Some critics like Jordan Peterson argue that the socialism preferred by the far left violates equality of opportunity by insisting on and pursuing equality of results, where everyone has and can only have the same wealth, the same kinds of possessions, maybe even the same experiences. But this is not the kind of socialism that socialists like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argue for. Instead, they argue for a socialism that makes equality of opportunity realistic for more people. Missed by the right and often the left itself is the true goal of socialism: equality of conditions. Equality of opportunity is an empty and false promise when many people face circumstances, both personal and social, that preclude partaking in that equality.

Socialism promotes equality of conditions, where persons with great advantages are taxed through a progressive system; where persons facing disadvantages can have those overcome or flattened out; and where all are guaranteed such basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and schooling. That must be part of any fair society and any free society. Often government must participate in, if not control, how equal conditions come about and are guaranteed. That is socialism.

Left out of this discussion is the control of the means of production and provision. Ownership brings control, and perhaps that is best. Yet socialism is an argument for broader ownership, because that is how work, whatever form it takes, is meaningful, rewarding, and dignified. Again, see the New Belgium Brewing Company for the boost in morale and meaning that all workers received when they became owners.

When workers own the means of production, they should also control the means of production. The best control is democratic control. Another feature of socialism is the democratization of the workplace, but such democratization doesn’t have to wait for socialist ownership. Owners today can share and can even turn over the running of their businesses, companies, factories, and even for-profit schools to those who work in them. Democracy, John Dewey said, is a way of life, and those organizations such as schools, clubs, associations, and workplaces that reflect our ways of life can be democratized right now.

Is democracy therefore an essential part of socialism? It often is and should be, which is one reason that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez describe themselves as democratic socialists.

There is nothing to be frightened about in a democratic socialism in which the collective ownership of the means of production and of distribution can refer to large national programs led by state and national governments. That is the level at which certain programs must be undertaken. But, more important, socialism refers to ownership by neighborhoods and communities; by workers in schools, associations, businesses, and workplaces; and by local governments. That is so, because people want to own and control their own lives, and that is done largely at the local level and through work. Thus no one should be scared of the socialist aim, first and foremost, of addressing equality of conditions, whereby equality of opportunity and the exercise of our individual capacities become realistic aims and achievements.

The programs offered today by progressives like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez represent a form of socialism worth paying close attention to, not one to be dismissed with scare tactics, exaggerations, and misinformation.

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