What Is Democratic Socialism Anyway?
March 20, 2018 9:22 AM   Subscribe

“This is also why authoritarian “socialist” regimes don’t deserve the name. The whole purpose here is to increase people’s control over their circumstances. If you’re simply vesting that control in a government, and people have no say in that government, then there’s nothing socialistic about what is going on, unless the term is meaningless. Collective ownership means collective decision-making power. Without democratic decision-making, then there’s no collective ownership. There’s just government ownership, and governments themselves only conform to the principles of socialism to the extent they are democratic. In fact, “democratic socialism” should be a redundancy, because socialism should consist of the application of democracy to all aspects of life.” Socialism As A Set Of Principles (Current Affairs)
posted by The Whelk (30 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
 
A beautiful piece that addresses a major question that I always bumped into when trying to educate myself in leftist theory: Yes, all these diagnoses of capitalism's ills ring true, but what does Socialism actually look like in practice?

There are plenty of different ideas for how to make the world more democratic, to ensure that people’s lives aren’t being controlled by mysterious private or state forces that they have no control over. Socialists have a variety of proposals for economic democracy, such as the Universal Basic Income, worker cooperatives, and mandating profit-sharing. But the democratic principle isn’t just about economics. It’s also what turns socialists into feminists and anti-racists. Sexism and racism are outside forces that are acting on people against their will, making their lives more difficult on account of demographic characteristics that they cannot choose. The principle “everyone should have the most fulfilling possible life” means that women shouldn’t be harassed at work, transgender teens shouldn’t be bullied, and people of color shouldn’t face unique structural disadvantages.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 9:45 AM on March 20, 2018 [11 favorites]


is it useful to broaden the meaning of 'socialism' so that all modern liberation work falls under it? the specificity of actions along certain axes of oppression is already called intersectionality because it denotes unique, intersecting, cross-axes experiences and seems to provide reason enough for unifying disparate organizing forces

I kind of wonder if this isn't another piece in the semantic debate between socialists/Marxists and other organizing groups over just what kind of framework should be dominant in conversations like these. I'm reminded of the discussion about race politics that happened with Bernie and how downplayed that and other axes of oppression were in favor of a narrow focus on class
posted by runt at 9:48 AM on March 20, 2018 [6 favorites]


Excellent. I like the frame of socialism as a set of values over a prescriptive system. People who immediately assume socialism requires an authoritarian state tend to overlook that capitalism already receives the benefit of state support: police who favor property rights over human interest, political representation by those invested in maintaining the system, weak state support for human welfare which forces people into exploitative labor relationships, not to mention the externalized costs of businesses that are borne by citizens.

I also thought the emphasis on agency was a useful clarification. "Free" markets are only free to those who benefit from capital. Everyone else is restricted by what those forces allow. The U.S.'s current system of "democracy" restricts itself to concerns with negative liberty that is a product of the unexamined biases of our dead white male Enlightenment founders. Of course, when you're a landed, wealthy, politically connected member of the ruling class, your concerns are the limits of your power, rather than creating pathways for others to have that same power, or even acknowledgement that your freedom is dependent upon another's servitude. I think a social shift that acknowledges positive liberty as a necessary component of an ostensibly free democracy depends upon making an awareness of the current limits to individual agency more prominent.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:55 AM on March 20, 2018 [26 favorites]


I like the article, and I welcome the explicit condemnation of undemocratic "socialist" regimes. Still, I think this bit is difficult, for several reasons:

The United States is “democratic,” and people are “free.” But when the public’s views don’t affect the government’s policies [...] these concepts are not being fully realized.

This assumption that the author speaks for "the public" is not unrelated to why those earlier regimes went wrong. What if "the public" isn't ready to go where you want to go? Do you ignore them? Do you criminalize their resistance?

Second, I'm afraid much of the disconnect between the government and the public is due, not to capitalism, but to sheer size. Suppose you nationalize, say, the US oil industry. Do I control it now? Not any more than I control the country, with my 1 out of 250 million votes.

Of course, it could still be a good idea, given how terrible plutocracy has been.

Back in the '60s, one response to the problem was subsidiarity— Small is Beautiful. If you really want popular control, think multiple, small enterprises. Or to put it another way, to run all enterprises at the national level is just to take robber baron capitalism and put a different committee in charge.
posted by zompist at 10:38 AM on March 20, 2018 [8 favorites]


is it useful to broaden the meaning of 'socialism' so that all modern liberation work falls under it? the specificity of actions along certain axes of oppression is already called intersectionality because it denotes unique, intersecting, cross-axes experiences and seems to provide reason enough for unifying disparate organizing forces

I read the quote from the article as saying you can't build a system that could reasonably be called "socialist" without also tackling non-economic forms of structural oppression.

in other words, i thought it was trying to oppose ideas like "anti-racists and feminists are really just doing part of socialism and should unite under the leadership of the vanguard party" or "well fundamentally isn't the real problem always just economic class, let's focus on that, it's less divisive".
posted by vogon_poet at 11:05 AM on March 20, 2018 [8 favorites]


The basic challenge to any system of government that rests on the participation of those who will be governed under it is that - frankly - most people lack the time and/or the inclination to participate.

In union organizing we call this the Insurance Agent problem. That is, people don't view unions as a group of employees working together to address issues and improve their overall lot. Instead, they see The Union as someone who's supposed to be acting on their behalf and solving their problems for them.

You can't force participation, especially not thoughtful, committed, informed participation. But without it, we're back to the reality that no political process is going to provide anything close to equal representation.

The hoary old adage is true: The World Is Run By Those Who Show Up.
posted by Lunaloon at 11:10 AM on March 20, 2018 [11 favorites]


I think it's important to confront the fictional symmetry between "socialism" and "capitalism." Capitalism isn't (or shouldn't be) a comprehensive socio-economic system; it's an effective tool for applying capital to certain business ends. Capitalism (or something resembling it) has been around for as long as there have been humans. (Having a "capitalist" society makes about as much sense as having a "hammer" society, where screw drivers are rooted out and blacklisted.) Socialism is a system.

I don't think of the US, for example, as a Capitalist country. I think of it as a profoundly broken democratic socialist country that (temporarily, I hope) privileges the rights of capitalists above all others. The author's book metaphor is apt: America doesn't necessarily need a revolution, or a cleansing by fire (though there isn't a day that goes by that I don't want to burn it all down). It needs to start moving in a direction whereby it can restore its labour movement, restrict the accumulation of capital, distribute wealth and services equitably, and move beyond where it was in the 70s, which could have been the starting point of something great...

Of course, I don't actually believe that that will, or could have, happened. America is too racist, too sexist, too classist and too caught up in its childish mythology to make that sort of progress. Probably the only way to fix it is to burn it down and start over. PROVE ME WRONG, AMERICA.
posted by klanawa at 11:10 AM on March 20, 2018 [5 favorites]


I kind of wonder if this isn't another piece in the semantic debate between socialists/Marxists and other organizing groups over just what kind of framework should be dominant in conversations like these.

Seems more like it's meant to be a bridge - I think a lot of old-school Marxists and communists are also likely to object on the grounds that it broadens the definitions too far to be meaningful.
posted by atoxyl at 11:11 AM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


This assumption that the author speaks for "the public" is not unrelated to why those earlier regimes went wrong. What if "the public" isn't ready to go where you want to go? Do you ignore them? Do you criminalize their resistance?

That's the eternal conflict in any individualist society, and for many things, a case-by-case basis will be necessary. For example, take school integration in the U. S.; a vocal segment of the public was not willing to comply. The answer was to prioritize the rights of black students over the comfort of the white majority, and it was correct, in as much as the choice to expand access for one group of people should not be limited because another group of people, who were not being harmed, stood in the way. As for criminalizing resistance, well, what form does that resistance take? Are people being harmed? By not acting, do we allow harm to continue? It's a difficult question to navigate because, as we've all learned in 2016, there are forces that drive people to regressive, reactionary, and even violent responses to social change, even when they lead otherwise comfortable lives.

The Soviet answers of re-education camps and severe punishment for counter-revolutionary actions/thoughts/speech may have intended to bring those people back into solidarity, but such a project cannot be carried out by force. I would hope that a society that enacted socialist values would have multiple ways of integrating the individual into a sense of belonging in the community. I think assuming socialism will solve everyone's problems, or that once everyone is financially secure, other vectors of resentment will disappear is not the way. As the article states, it will be a constant project requiring sustained, long-term effort to solve the many inequalities that limit individual choices.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 11:20 AM on March 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


I don't think of the US, for example, as a Capitalist country. I think of it as a profoundly broken democratic socialist country that (temporarily, I hope) privileges the rights of capitalists above all others.

Well, we're not to full-blown Koch libertarian AnCap territory (yet), but we have, since the end of WWII, intervened with military force in several countries to force a capitalist economic system on them. Since that time, our overseas military adventures have primarily functioned to open markets for the financial benefit of the holders of capital. And while we have a welfare state, it's weak, convoluted, purposely underfunded, and does very little to restrain the excesses--or compensate for the externalized costs--of private industry and the capital beneficiaries thereof. I'd say under several measures, the U.S. is a nation that explicitly endorses, upholds, supports, and protects the interests of capital over those of its citizens, and pursues a global program of spreading Capitalism.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 11:33 AM on March 20, 2018 [20 favorites]


Capitalism isn't (or shouldn't be) a comprehensive socio-economic system; it's an effective tool for applying capital to certain business ends

Uh what?

I think the straighter cut to defining a political system is, 'the art of the possible'. And this basically translates to whoever has the power makes the rules. If the powerful can/are willing to negotiate their outcomes with less guns and more butter then it will go more pleasantly.

The last time this discussion was had seriously in the US was during the Great Recession when the powers that be looked at European revolutions and the current economic climate and made peace with 1/3 of the population (able white men) while keeping business as usual with the rest.

By the 1970s capital was technologically mobile enough to break this deal.

The idea that the US is democratically socialist seems fanciful from what I can see.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 12:05 PM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


I hope that in the future we can develop a system of government in which we rely less on representatives to express public will and more on voting. We never should allow a "tyranny of the majority", but replacing congress with a series of scripts generated by constituent's voting patterns would be so, so satisfying.
posted by domo at 12:11 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


Since that time, our overseas military adventures have primarily functioned to open markets for the financial benefit of the holders of capital.

Since a whole lot earlier, even. See: the Annexation of Hawaii and the Perry Expedition to Japan.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:11 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


"Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite" - Yakov Smirnoff
posted by ShakeyJake at 12:26 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


That's a funny one-liner, but we're talking about Socialism, not Communism. While similar in some ways, they're really not the same thing.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 12:54 PM on March 20, 2018 [7 favorites]


That's a funny one-liner, but we're talking about Socialism, not Communism.

Well, the first link of the essay has an article where they reference a survey of millennials that says that:

"Twenty-two percent of those polled have a favorable view of Karl Marx, the father of communism and The author of the Communist Manifesto. And a lot of them see Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong Un as “heroes.”"

But it's also possible that the people taking the survey were joking as well, I hope.
posted by FJT at 1:09 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


but replacing congress with a series of scripts generated by constituent's voting patterns would be so, so satisfying.

given the way parts of America vote, are you sure about that?
posted by kokaku at 1:17 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


But it's also possible that the people taking the survey were joking as well, I hope.

Speaking as a certified millennial, if someone from the "Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation" asked me to fill out a survey, I would not take it even a little bit seriously.

Kind of a poor source for Robinson to link to, but he was really just using it as part of a catchy opener, not the meat of his essay.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 1:24 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


Also one of these things (the one they... provide a statistic for) is not quite like the others:

"Twenty-two percent of those polled have a favorable view of Karl Marx, the father of communism and The author of the Communist Manifesto. And a lot of them see Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong Un as “heroes.”"

I haven't actually found the full poll results but I found an article that said support for "socialism" was 44 percent, while support for "communism" or "fascism" was 7 percent each. What "a lot" of support for Stalin and Kim means I still do not know, but yeah - it's the "Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation," created by this guy and this guy and hey, I know this guy so, you know.
posted by atoxyl at 1:29 PM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


And a lot of them see Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong Un as “heroes.”

Part of this is sincere tankiedom as anti-red-baiting reaction, part of it is in the vein of the ironic "Comrade Jeb!" memes.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:40 PM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


The basic challenge to any system of government that rests on the participation of those who will be governed under it is that - frankly - most people lack the time and/or the inclination to participate.

In union organizing we call this the Insurance Agent problem. That is, people don't view unions as a group of employees working together to address issues and improve their overall lot. Instead, they see The Union as someone who's supposed to be acting on their behalf and solving their problems for them.


this is classist. this is classism. it's a structural part of our workplaces. our workplaces are constantly educating us on our social and political role. some of us have jobs that educate us on how to "participate," others have jobs that educate us on how to be in our bodies, or jobs that only bore the shit out of us and make us tired, and/or are mostly doing things that other people have told us to do or else.

ideally, everyone would have a job that educated them, at least a bit, on how to participate, so that everyone could have a chance to internalize that practice of making decisions that affect them. also everyone should have to do a bit of toilet scrubbing, so that decisions are made with the least among us, and the risks taken by the lowest drawer of water or hewer of wood among us in mind.

the way things are, when it comes time to participate, those of us that have been scrubbing the toilets the whole time can't imagine decision making, and expect that "participation" will only mean more and new toilets to scrub. so why participate? we just want to watch tv or sleep or eat. the class system ensures that "people don't view unions as a group of employees working together"--instead you are divided into a coordinator class and a worker class--you've replicated the worker / management dynamic within your union.

the question is how can the tasks be shared, how can people rotate roles, or have more solidarity, or perform solidarity, or provide education and resources so that you all can become the union that works together?

not easy, but the more you can answer that question, the more you can get people to show up
posted by eustatic at 4:02 PM on March 20, 2018 [14 favorites]


the question is how can the tasks be shared, how can people rotate roles, or have more solidarity, or perform solidarity, or provide education and resources so that you all can become the union that works together?

PWC's millennial employees led a rebellion—and their demands are being met :P

also btw...
an 'economics of belonging'* "That will require bolder thinking as well as political courage. It must involve greater efforts at economic reflation and greater efforts at sharing the fruits of economic growth better. It must combat concentration of power in the economy that creates uneven bargaining power, access to markets or opportunities for good work. It must be conscious of the economics of space: economies and communities remain shaped by geography, and policy must break the vicious cycles geography can create. And it must promote the culture change that could make it easier to embrace change instead of rejecting it."

plus!
-the politics of belonging
-Cities only work if they accommodate rich and poor
posted by kliuless at 11:25 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


No true scotsman much? Democracy is not part of the definition of socialism. That is why the phrase "democratic socialism" is needed at all.

Whether the "community" or "society" that owns the means of production is best represented by a voting system or a vanguard that operates on their behalf is a matter of interpretation. Certainly countries that have self-described as socialist, and been recognized as such by outside experts, have been both democratic and authoritarian.

This whole thing seems like an attempt to blur the fact that many socialist regimes have in fact been authoritarian. The author's hope, I would imagine, is to discredit Road to Serfdom style thinking, in which socialism is claimed to cause authoritarianism. There's certainly a strong case against Hayek and friends, but the author does not make it.

Instead, he tries to argue in from some sort of ideal-based, essential ontology, in which the notion of authoritarian socialism becomes semantically impossible. At best, he argues how socialism as he understands it is sentimentally opposed to authoritarianism. But mostly, he just tells us it will be ponies and rainbows, and if we don't get that then we don't understand what socialism even is, duh.
posted by andrewpcone at 11:38 AM on March 21, 2018


Honestly, I don't really know what socialism is. I'd have to refresh the Wikipedia entry or something. I do think it's interesting to figure out if authoritarian socialism should be a subset of socialism or if authoritarian socialism is false and 'socialistic', or maybe both senses are valid but parallel.

I'd assume that not even scholars and experts agree on defining and conceptualizing socialism. So the essay kind of pulls a trick there with its confident assertion about what socialism 'is'.
posted by polymodus at 3:20 PM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


No true scotsman much? Democracy is not part of the definition of socialism.

Get a new dictionary? It's completely absurd to "no true scotsman" the entirely reasonable claim that a rapid 50-year economic and political transition from quasi-Serfdom to world superpower might be *SOMEWHAT* different to the transition of technologically-advanced, democratic capitalist society to a postcapitalist economy.
posted by smithsmith at 7:38 PM on March 21, 2018 [6 favorites]


My read on the article:
"Hey, you put your Socialism in my Confucianism!"
"You put your Confucianism on my Socialism!"
posted by FJT at 7:59 PM on March 21, 2018


given the way parts of America vote, are you sure about that?
It's still Democratic socialism. I don't think anyone is interested in doing away with democracy. Also, I don't think that it would be as bad as you suggest. Voting would take longer and there would have to be more frequent votes, but red states are more purple than you think. It's the singular, divisive issues that split the parties. You can see that in rural areas where pro-life dems win elections. People like democratic policies in local government. They like schools, parks, and libraries.
posted by domo at 7:59 AM on March 22, 2018


It's completely absurd to "no true scotsman" the entirely reasonable claim that a rapid 50-year economic and political transition from quasi-Serfdom to world superpower might be *SOMEWHAT* different to the transition of technologically-advanced, democratic capitalist society to a postcapitalist economy.

That is not what I was "no true scotsman"ing. Please reread.
posted by andrewpcone at 8:40 AM on March 22, 2018


It would help if you had quoted what you were responding to.
posted by rhizome at 9:43 AM on March 22, 2018


Instead, he tries to argue in from some sort of ideal-based, essential ontology, in which the notion of authoritarian socialism becomes semantically impossible. At best, he argues how socialism as he understands it is sentimentally opposed to authoritarianism.

Well, I think he's trying to demonstrate how the word socialism is being used in current contexts: "In the 21st century, for many of its adherents socialism is not describing a particular set of economic rules and government policies, some clearly-defined “system” that must be implemented according to a plan. Instead, it describes a set of principles that we want the economic and political system to conform to."

So when he cites popular support of "socialism," he's trying to clarify how those people are using that term: "The millennial embrace of socialism, then, does not mean that millennials are trying to implement some complicated new economic system that they do not understand. It means that they measure any economic system by the degree to which it is humane and democratic, and they are angered by the degree to which our current one fails people." He's claiming most modern self-identified socialists would say it's not enough to define socialism as "collective ownership" or whatever and then have a repressive authoritarian state because such a situation cannot result in a society in which there is "a feeling of connectedness and compassion for other human beings."

Perhaps Robinson could have been clearer about his purpose here, but I believe he used "the definition of socialism" as the controlling idea of the article for rhetorical effect. The definition of socialism is still evolving as time passes--much as the definition of "democracy" evolved to the point where it now includes people other than land-owning white men.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:38 PM on March 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


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