I recently came across a stimulating essay by Northwestern political scientist Andrew Koppelman that prompted my realization that in all of these years of blogging I’ve never explicitly presented readers with a succinct statement of my ideology—an ideology being a broad vision of what a good society (or, if you will, a better, more decent society) looks like and how we can realistically hope to get there from where we are. So here goes.
Where we are is a form of capitalism, often called (somewhat misleadingly) the free market system. Its basic characteristics are private ownership of most of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the determination of the prices of goods and services by markets. This system is a tremendous generator of wealth, but it’s plagued by chronic evils that can only be rectified by an active state (“big government”).
Some advocates of such an active state call themselves “socialists,” but that label is often mis-self-applied, since many such “socialists” really advocate a radically reformed and humanized capitalism, rather than orthodox socialism, which by any traditional definition requires the public ownership and control of most of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Koppelman quotes the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, who envisions “an economy in which you have wealth being created by the private sector, but you have a fair distribution of that wealth, and you make sure the most vulnerable people in this country are doing well.” That’s an admirable vision, which I share, but it’s not socialism; it’s a reformed capitalism. Why does Sanders insist on calling himself a socialist, then? It’s arguably self-defeating, because for many Americans, “socialist” is still a scare word. (I’m always reluctant to try to read people’s minds, but I suspect that Sanders’s attachment to the socialist label reflects a nostalgic reluctance to shed the identity that he formed early in the development of his political consciousness.) And it’s unnecessary, because Sanders’s “socialism” isn’t really socialist. It’s what in the US typically goes by the label “progressive” or “left-liberal.” In Europe, the term is “social democratic.” I’m comfortable with any of those labels for myself, though for reasons I won’t go into here, I feel obliged to acknowledge that the political performance of European social democrats in recent decades has been generally poor.
What are the evils of capitalism that can only be rectified by active government? The most obvious is an apparently ineluctable tendency toward increasing economic and social inequality, a tendency that is aggravated by politics: as the rich get richer, they acquire increased political power, which enables them to secure their enviable positions of privilege. The second evil is the neglect of broadly shared needs that cannot be met by the market, for example, environmental protection. It’s what economists call “market failures,” which occur because so-called “public goods,” like a healthy environment and global climatic stability, cannot be appropriately valued under capitalism without state intervention. The third general evil of capitalism is a tendency toward recurrent instability. Only the most fanatic free-market ideologues would argue, for example, that the 2008 financial crisis could have resolved itself without massive government intervention. Ditto for the COVID-generated crisis of the past year.
Of course, there are those who believe that the evils of capitalism are not remediable: the whole system just needs to be replaced. Those are the “real” socialists. The Democratic Socialists of America, the organization Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes identifies with, has morphed from a sect of 5000 members in 2015 into a mini-party with over 70,000 today. Many, perhaps most DSA members are real socialists; that is, they believe in the traditional agenda of large-scale public ownership. A similar agenda drives the relatively new (10-year old) journal, Jacobin, whose rapid growth, like that of the DSA, is emblematic of the current mini-revival of American socialism. Jacobin’s editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, expounded his views in a critique of the leftist pundit John Judis. Judis calls himself a socialist, Sunkara observes, but really, he’s just a social democrat who seeks a generous welfare state and democratic regulation of a capitalist economy. That’s fine, according to Sunkara, but it’s not enough. We need to do away with large private corporations, which “…exercise tyrannical power over workers and society writ large. The corporate hierarchy decides how we produce, what we produce, and what we do with the profits that workers collectively make.” Instead, we need to embrace “radical democracy,” which requires
…that any decision that has a binding effect on its members — say, the power to hire or fire or control over one’s work hours — should be made by all those affected by it. What touches all, should be determined by all.
At minimum, we should demand an economy in which various forms of ownership (worker-owned firms, as well as state-owned natural monopolies and financial institutions) are coordinated by a regulated market — an economy that enables society to be governed democratically. In an undemocratic capitalist economy, managers hire and fire workers; in a democratic socialist economy, workers would hire those managers deemed necessary to build a content and productive firm.”
Clearly, there’s little room here for private ownership of the means of production. The profit motive as a motivator of economic activity fades to nothing. Central planning displaces markets in the pricing of goods and services. We can argue about the practicality and attractiveness of this vision, but there can be no argument about its essentially unhistoric nature: there is no present or past example of a modern economy successfully run along the lines Sunkara sketches out, nothing even close. Sunkara’s version of democratic socialism is utopian, in the sense in which Marx and Engels used the term “utopian” to denote an ideal vision of society that, however admirable, is not grounded in real-world developments. Now, utopian thinking can be a constructive enterprise—it can sharpen our consciousness of the failings of the status quo, and even generate some usable ideas for positive change. But, because it is largely detached from real world possibilities, it’s not a useful guide to political action.
So, since real socialism is utopian, and since I’m something of a stickler for precision in the use of language, I don’t call myself a socialist, even though my views are close to those of avowed socialists like Judis, Bernie and AOC. Besides, as already noted, the socialist label is politically problematic—it’s unnecessarily off-putting to too many people. But if it works for some Democratic politicians, more power to them: I’m happy to see a growing socialist movement (“real” or not) that can help push the Democratic Party in the right direction.