For a few weeks, while I was writing the first draft of this review, the leading candidate in the Democratic presidential primary was an avowed socialist. This was unprecedented, and revealing in terms of the changing attitudes of Americans. Huge numbers of Americans now see socialism as superior to capitalism—particularly among the young and among Democrats. Regardless of the ultimate fate of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, socialism has reentered democratic politics in the United States.
But socialism’s appeal is as clear as its definition is hazy. Some of those who support Sanders think that he wants to turn the U.S. into social-democratic Denmark. Others believe in a true democratic socialist state. Still others imagine a socialist utopia. What unites all these notions of socialism is the conviction that contemporary socialism would not mean, as Chris Matthews seems to think, executions in Central Park. The reason is that, in contrast to the twentieth century’s authoritarian socialist regimes, the new socialism will be “democratic.” Indeed, for all serious socialist thinkers today, socialism goes hand in hand with democracy.
Two of these thinkers have recently written books attempting to define socialism’s substance and pinpoint its appeal. Among other things, this gives us a valuable opportunity to examine the case for the connection between socialism and democracy.
The two books are Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto and Nathan J. Robinson’s Why You Should Be a Socialist. Both Sunkara and Robinson edit socialist magazines—Jacobin and Current Affairs respectively—that are as thoughtful as but far more entertaining than socialist standards like The Monthly Review. Both authors have likewise contributed to the public’s rediscovery of socialism as a viable and exciting force in democratic politics. Both offer intellectually rigorous, stylish explanations for socialism’s new standing, and equally impressive definitions of what socialism actually is. And yet neither book really grapples with the question of why, if socialism and democracy are so compatible, there are so few examples, in history or the present, of socialists being democratically elected, and then governing as socialists.
Why is socialism becoming so popular in democratic states? This is the question that Robinson starts with. In attempting to answer it, he emphasizes our horror at the exploitation of other people. Socialists, he argues, are the ones who are properly responding to the horrors of climate change, nuclear weapons and “the defining feature of our age … inequality.” According to a well-known study, Americans are uncomfortable with inequality, even though they also vastly underestimate how bad it is. The richest one percent of households own over half of America’s equities, by value. The bottom 50 percent own almost none.
Whether or not this kind of inequality is in any way justifiable, Robinson documents how it has affected the attitudes of young people. Millennials have postponed or forgone children because “childcare is too expensive”; thanks to economic inequality, “people are missing out on one of the most incredible human experiences, that of being a mom or dad.” Even if you somehow succeed in being born, you’re still likely to lose out at the other end. Life expectancy for Americans has fallen over the last few years, despite great increases in life expectancy for the wealthy. In other words: as of 2010, your income and wealth “determine not only your level of comfort, but literally how much time you will spend on Earth.”
On Robinson’s view, socialism is a moral “orienting principle,” which emerges in response to these phenomena. The socialist is committed to a “set of values,” derived from “the solidarity ethic” expressed by Eugene Debs. When he was sentenced to prison for sedition, Debs addressed the judge: “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
The socialist notes the kinship of all beings, and because of that is aware of the moral demand that we eliminate inequalities. And this thought brings Robinson to democracy. Because of their principles, he says, socialists are committed to “expanding democracy.” In fact, “socialism is a term for economic democracy,” because to democratize the economy is to change “who owns capital,” and so to give people “ownership over their work.” Then we will be able to “cooperate for the common good.” Only that society could be truly democratic, because democracy just means people having a meaningful voice in the direction of their lives. Socialism offers us an alternative moral and political foundation to the principles and the system that gave us economic inequality and dysfunctional democracy. Anyone who wants a more democratic, more decent world, in which others are less exploited, will be interested in socialism.
Sunkara, on the other hand, says relatively little about “what’s wrong with the world today.” Instead, he spends much of the book writing about what went wrong with socialism in the twentieth century—the disasters of Russia, and China, and so on; the failed bargain of social democracy in Europe; the long history of the United States’ resistance to socialism in any form. He also details the great triumphs of socialists around the world, and how they have helped to make our lives far better than they would otherwise have been. But the real focus of his book is a story about how revolution might take place today, and what “a different social system could look like.”
The main character in this story is “you.” You’re not very involved in revolutionary events, but you do benefit from them. At the end, workers control their firms and get a share of the profits based on their education, experience, authority and how unpleasant their working conditions are. Universal Basic Income is available, so people can choose to change jobs without being threatened by poverty. Racial disparities persist. So does misogyny. But thanks to increased worker control of the workplace, and various other reforms, you live “in the world’s first truly democratic society.” You get to make choices about your life based on your interests and desires, not based on how the markets will respond to your interests and desires.
This story is compelling, but importantly different from Robinson’s. For Sunkara, socialism draws converts by offering them something, rather than asking for their moral allegiance. Sunkara says that “to be a socialist is to assert the moral worth of every person, no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what they did.” But the stress here is on the thought that you have moral worth, not that you should respect everyone else’s moral worth. You should be a socialist because socialism would benefit you more than any other social development. The rational, self-interested thing to want, for almost everyone, is socialism.
While Robinson sees the socialist surge as rooted in moral revulsion, Sunkara argues that the strength of Sanders’s campaign is his insight that the rich are not “morally confused”: they just have “a vested interest in the exploitation of others.” Sanders’s voters are “ready for a politics oriented around their needs.” Both Sanders’s success, and socialism’s, are products of socialism’s return “to its roots: class struggle and a class base.” Sanders will defend your class interest against the class interest of the capitalists. This is what democracy means, for Sunkara: a political system that works in the interests of the majority. “To be a socialist today is to believe that more, not less, democracy will help solve social ills—and to believe that ordinary people can shape the systems that shape their lives.”
Robinson and Sunkara disagree, then, over why socialism is popular now, because they disagree about how people are motivated to become socialists. And yet, despite these differences, they both see socialism and democracy as going hand in hand. In one way, this is a familiar thought. Socialists have been arguing for some time that socialists and socialism are not necessarily Stalinist. We have disputed the claims of neoliberal theorists like Friedrich Hayek that socialism and democracy are incompatible; that claim is ridiculous, because even if you can find each of them without the other, socialism and democracy are perfectly compatible.
But Sunkara and Robinson go much further. Their claim is the very strong one that socialism, alone among social systems, is democracy. And they are not alone in arguing that case. As a simple theoretical statement, it makes sense: socialism means removing economic force from people’s lives, so we can make decisions for ourselves based on our interests and desires. It is democratic in the same way that liberalism was democratic, because liberalism removed state interference from people’s lives. Socialism could be called democracy carried to its logical conclusion: as liberals and republicans see, giving people power over the political system is good and democratic. Giving people power over the economic system, as well, is even better. That would be echt democratic.
But Sunkara and Robinson’s claim that socialism is uniquely enabling of democracy is far more complicated than either author seems to realize. To see why, consider that exactly the same claim used to be made about capitalism. Hayek thought the free market was the only way to allow people to make decisions without coercion or the arbitrary exercise of authority by the state. Milton Friedman saw the market as “a system of proportional representation.” In both buying and voting, he argued, individuals register their desires in ways that lead others to alter their behavior (by producing more or less of a good, or by instituting this or that policy).
Of course, as Quinn Slobodian has recently shown, neoliberal thinkers (including Hayek) always knew it didn’t work that way. Democratic procedures would often lead to anti-capitalist demands. So, throughout the postwar period, global institutions were used to restrain the nationalist and protectionist voices of democracy. The neoliberal world, Slobodian writes, is “not a borderless market without states but a doubled world kept safe from mass demands for social justice and redistributive equality by the guardians of the economic constitution.” Capitalism and democracy might be identical, but they are also deeply incompatible, because we cannot be trusted to act in the interests of a global capitalist economy that fundamentally restricts our choices—which is to say, capitalism is not even remotely responsive to people’s interests and desires. Every populist movement is grounded in that fundamental fact.
But the problems that the ideological capitalists faced ought to also haunt those of us interested in democratic socialism. There are, I think, at least three such problems. First, as with capitalism and democracy, it is clear that democracy and socialism don’t necessarily go together. Second, class-based socialism will almost certainly not win elections. And, finally, if a socialist party did win a national election, the result would be economic chaos and the delegitimization of that government. Sadly, few people writing about democratic socialism seem interested in reckoning with these questions; those who do rarely have inspiring solutions. Nor do I. I don’t think that’s our fault. Rather, these are problems that cannot be solved in theory.
The first problem is that democracy is fundamentally about who is making decisions. It is a procedure, and the results of democratic procedure (in a parliament or in a workplace) cannot be predetermined. By contrast, socialism (like capitalism) is a statement about what decisions ought to be made. It is a substantive goal or principle. The question for democratic socialists is how we can balance a very strong commitment to specific social transformations—workplace democracy, restrictions on inequality and so on—with an equally strong commitment to procedural methods of attaining that substantive outcome.
Both Robinson and Sunkara seem to take it as a given that people would want socialist policies, given the choice, and they give no answer to the question: What does the socialist do, if the ordinary people turn out not to want socialism? The neoliberals had an answer to this problem, which is why neoliberalism was successful (in its own way). For neoliberals, if people don’t want capitalism, you erect a parallel set of institutions that can make macroeconomic decisions without the people having any say in them. That is, neoliberal policymakers explicitly chose capitalism over democracy. That kind of decision is morally rebarbative. It is also the kind of decision that you have to make if you really want to remake the world. Socialists show no sign of being willing to make it.
Perhaps, though, they just refrain from doing so in public. There are very good political reasons for democratic socialists to ignore the problem. Democracy is such a shibboleth that it is politically impossible to say, in public, that one would choose a socialist outcome—say, confiscatory taxes—even if it could not be democratically legitimated. On the other hand, it is simply inhuman to say the opposite: to say that, if we can’t democratically decide to feed people and give them medicine and housing and enable them to have children, well, tant pis for our moral sense, because democracy has spoken. No democratic socialist could say that and remain a socialist (nor, one hopes, retain their self-respect). We value democracy, but we also value socialist outcomes. They don’t always go together. That is a problem that needs to be faced.
The second problem is one of electoral politics. Sunkara cleverly suggests that “to be a ‘moderate’ in the United States … doesn’t mean you’re a fan of Michael Bloomberg”; it means you’re “fed up with ‘liberalism’ … and ‘conservatism’ … and looking for something different.” That may well be true in more cases than the pundits would have us believe: in a two-party democracy that fetishizes moderation, anyone who cares enough to see the glaring flaws in both parties has good reason to tell pollsters, “Yes, of course I am a moderate, how could I be anything else?” And, if Sunkara is right about how politics works, his new society will be easy to put in place. The working class—the 60 percent of the population who “rely on wages to survive and possesses … little to no net wealth”—will certainly accept an “independent working-class politics,” because it is in our self-interest to do so. We will embrace workplace democracy, because it is in our self-interest.
But this approach is more fraught than Sunkara admits. National electoral victories require about 50 percent of the vote. In that case, Sunkara’s “independent working-class politics” would require over five-sixths of the working class to vote for a socialist candidate. Imagine the best possible case for socialism—an incompetent and generally disliked right-wing leader of the right-wing party. Survey data suggests that some 40 percent of Americans would be immovably attached to that president. This least socialist, least admirable of presidents would surely retain at least 20 percent of the working-class vote (probably more), and that 20 percent is easily enough to keep a hypothetical working-class socialist party out of government. With a mediocre Republican president, the realities of electoral politics would be even more immovable (fools like Bush and Reagan, knaves like Nixon, nonentities like Ford: all had approval ratings comparable to or higher than Trump’s). The election of a socialist government would require the conversion of massive numbers of people who find socialism’s substantive proposals abhorrent, because, despite socialist mythologizing, the working class does not and never will vote as a bloc. An independent, class-based party is doomed to electoral failure at the national level, at least in a country that looks anything like the current United States.
On the other hand, Sunkara rightly argues that class-based parties were at the root of most socialist success. Working people organized for the right to unionize, and for the eight-hour day, and for living wages. They faced down government repression. And they did this, as Sunkara suggests, because of self-interest. They were not motivated by moral outrage. Robinson’s principled socialism seems even less likely to lead to the democratic institution of socialist policies than Sunkara’s class-based politics.
But what would happen if a socialist government were elected in a developed state, like the United States? “We ultimately have larger ambitions than ‘socialism in one country,’ but if it’s possible anywhere, it’s possible here,” Sunkara claims. But the condition is false: socialism in one country is impossible. Democratic socialism’s third problem is more or less what Dani Rodrik called the globalization trilemma. Rodrik pointed out that we can have any two of the nation-state, globalization and democracy, but never all three. Global economics only works if nation-states cannot control their own economies; if nations break the rules, they will destabilize the economic flows that globalization relies on. But democracy only works if nation-states can control their own economies, because democracy just is people deciding what their government’s policies should be. Now that the rewards of globalization have disappeared into the sinkhole of the rich, meaningful growth has ceased and democratic control eludes us, voters have rightly rejected the bargain that globalization offered. But, it turns out, there’s little we can do about it. When non-superpower states like Greece (or Turkey, and so on) try to assert democratic control over their economies, they are punished by capital flight, capital strikes, political attacks, sanctions and so on.
It may seem that the trilemma would not affect a leftist government. A socialist would happily junk the nation-state, rewire globalization in favor of the people and keep democracy. But in practice, the left faces its own version of the paradox: it is impossible to have a democratically legitimated leftist government under global capitalism. People want leftist governments because they offer some minimal security and quality of life. Today, a government can be democratically legitimated, but non-left (as when Greece was forced to give up its leftist policies); and it can be left, but illegitimate (thus, perhaps, “leftist” Venezuela). But no state can escape global capitalism. And, thanks to globalization, any attempt to institute socialism would have the same effects as Greece’s attempt to escape debt peonage. Without the ability to offer security and quality of life, the socialist government would be delegitimated, and almost certainly get voted out. Some leftists are considering nationalism as an alternative to leftist globalism. They look on wistfully as right-wing populist governments legitimate themselves through xenophobia and knuckle-dragging varieties of religion. This is even more appealing during a time of global pandemic, when “they” come not just for our jobs, but laden with disease that will take our very lives. Nonetheless, socialism in one country has never worked, and cannot work, as long as the rest of the world is capitalist.
In light of these problems, at least, Robinson’s approach to democratic socialism seems more in tune than Sunkara’s with what socialists used to call objective conditions. Robinson doesn’t make this argument explicitly, but his focus on moral principles and generational differences points the way to a form of socialism at home in the 21st century: socialism as identity politics.
Socialism is usually thought of as the opposite of identity politics, which Sunkara rightly worries has “become an agenda of inclusionary neoliberalism,” contributing to a public sphere where racism “is somehow the cause of, explanation for, and consequence of most social phenomena.” At the same time, it is easy to be impressed by the late nineteenth-century German Socialist Party, which, as Sunkara himself explains, developed a parallel culture (or “identity”) for the working class. They had to conjure class consciousness, just as feminists and gay liberationists in the twentieth century did their own “consciousness-raising” outside the mainstream. As an identity claim of this kind, contemporary socialism could be just as successful as the identity politics of the Sixties, which conjured a vast cultural shift out of the generation gap between those who fought in the Second World War and those who came after them. This is not necessarily a revolutionary politics, nor a democratic one, but it is plausible, and has a long socialist heritage.
Thanks to the clashes between democracy, socialism and neoliberal globalization, nobody can govern a nation-state as a socialist. But, thankfully, politics isn’t just about national elections and grand social systems. Socializing policies can be implemented without triggering the leftist’s trilemma, and socialists must keep pushing for those policies. Medicare For All might even encourage more, rather than less, investment in the U.S.; I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for businesses to deal with this health care system. Student debt forgiveness would stimulate the economy far more effectively than quantitative easing, without triggering large-scale capitalist paranoia or asset bubbles. Socialist policies have already been put into place at the metropolitan level in exciting ways.
At a national level, it seems likely that we face a Trump/Biden election. I would much have preferred a President Sanders. That would have made the United States, and the world, a better place. But if he had won, I wouldn’t have been disappointed when he turned out to be a kinder, gentler, less successful LBJ, because he could not have been a socialist president.
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