A funny thing happened on the way to the 2018 election. Socialism broke out!
Or at least a number of Democratic candidates have declared themselves to be socialists.
On June 26, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat the Democratic machine incumbent, Joe Crowley, in a Queens-Bronx Democratic primary for Congress. She won with the support of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and embraced the socialist label. Within days, the Working Families Party-endorsed Democrats for Governor and Lt. Governor, Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams, were saying we, too, are socialists now. Lots of people and mainstream media were asking, what is this democratic socialism?
As someone who came up in the McCarthy and Cold War eras — when the word socialism stopped rather than started conversations — it is a welcome sight to see socialism coming back into mainstream public discourse.
The significant support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016 as a democratic socialist got the conversation started. The ranks of socialist groups have swelled in Sanders’ wake, with DSA, in particular, growing from about 5,000 to approximately 47,000 members since Sanders launched his campaign in 2015. DSA elected 15 of its members to local offices nationwide in 2017, eight Democrats and seven independents. In 2018 to date, seven women supported by DSA have won Democratic primaries for Congress and state legislatures in Omaha, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City.
However, something is notably missing in these candidates’ descriptions of socialism. They are leaving out the distinguishing tenet of the traditional socialist program — the definition of socialism you will find in the dictionary — a democratic economic system based on social ownership of the major means of production.
It is a good thing that Sanders and other progressives have put socialism back into mainstream political discourse, but what these new socialist Democrats really advocate is New Deal liberalism. They promote redistributive social programs that partially mitigate the inequalities the capitalist economy generates.
For socialists, social ownership is the basis for economic democracy in both the public and private sectors. Government-owned corporations can be autocratic. They are often set up as “lemon socialism” to cover unprofitable markets or subsidize private profits for privately-owned corporations with below-cost inputs. A cooperative in the private sector is a form of social ownership. Sanders’ “democratic socialism” is indistinguishable from traditional American liberalism. Like liberals, he conflates social ownership with state ownership. Like conservatives, he conflates liberal social programs with socialism.
Liberals contend that their fiscal, monetary and regulatory policies will support better than conservative policies the economic growth and profits that can then be taxed to support social programs. Socialists demand much more. They want to end the dictatorship capitalists exercise over economic resources, workers and work itself. They want to enjoy the full fruits of their labor instead of having owners take a share of the value every worker creates every day at work. With lots of workers and few owners, this wage labor system generates capitalisms’ extreme inequality. Socialists want equitable distribution in the first place, at the point of production, not merely partial redistribution after the fact through social programs.
In an age of environmental crisis and an unfolding climate catastrophe, socialists want to uproot capitalism’s competitive structure because it is driving the blind, relentless growth that is poisoning the environment and depleting natural resources. Socialists want a system of economic democracy and planning to meet the basic economic needs of all on an ecologically sustainable basis.
Socialists also criticize the naive politics of liberalism. Capitalism generates concentrated wealth, which translates into concentrated political power. Liberal social programs are not secure as long as capitalists have the economic and political power. The rollback of New Deal programs in the United States and welfare state programs in Western Europe demonstrate this political reality.
Capitalists buying politicians through campaign contributions is the obvious way they exercise power over the political process. But even if we get full public campaign financing enacted, capitalists’ control over economic resources gives them the power to repeal liberal programs. Capital can strike, too. It can temporarily tank the economy, blame the liberals and force them out of office.
The new socialist Democrats and traditional socialists who want to democratize the economy through social ownership are united behind immediate demands for social programs like single-payer health care and a job guarantee. But these programs are not secure, if they are even achievable in the first place, so long as capitalism prevails and concentrates economic and political power in the hands of the capitalist elite.
What the approach of entering the Democratic Party has meant historically is socialists have ended up doing the grunt work in campaigns to elect liberals, who, in the absence of an independent left political competitor, have moved steadily to the right since the early 1970s. Now, with candidates and politicians who are liberals calling themselves socialists, the very idea of socialism as a new social system could get lost even more.
If socialism is to advance as a radical alternative to capitalism, socialists will need their own distinct party, program, and identity outside and opposed to the two-capitalist-party system.
At the beginning of this year, the state committee of the Green Party of New York decided we would campaign as ecological socialists. In previous campaigns, we have put forward socialistic reforms to address problems like the climate crisis, stagnant wages, the bipartisan test-punish-and-privatize school agenda and skyrocketing rent and medical expenses. Now we are campaigning explicitly as socialists, in part, because socialism has become a conversation starter, thanks to the electoral successes of Sanders, Ocasio and others.
We are promoting public enterprise in several areas:
- A public energy system in order to effectively plan the transition to 100 percent clean energy.
- Public broadband to universalize access, improve affordability and customer service and ensure net neutrality and privacy.
- A public bank to lower the costs of credit for public infrastructure, private businesses and consumers and to target investments to meet public needs.
We call for the public bank to have a division devoted to planning, financing and technically assisting the development of worker cooperatives, as the financial institutions at the center of the successful Mondragon cooperatives in Spain have done.
We also call for a state-owned Social Wealth Fund that over time will progressively transform private wealth into public wealth, in which every New Yorker would own an equal share. This Social Wealth Fund would buy into the securities of private corporations and share the returns across the population as citizens dividends and lower taxes on the earned income of wages.
Our slogan is “Demand more!”
Yet we should not overestimate how far openness to a discussion of socialism has spread. It is still largely confined to the progressive base that found its broadest expression in the 13.2 million votes Sanders received in 2016. Its strongest expression is among millennials, over half of whom view socialism favorably. Even if most of these people view New Deal liberalism as socialism, having a debate on socialism is half the battle. I don’t think capitalism’s defenders can win that debate.
Howie Hawkins is a retired Teamster from Syracuse, New York and the Green Party candidate for New York Governor. He previously ran as the Green Party’s gubernatorial candidate in 2010 and 2014. During the latter campaign, he received 5 percent of the vote.
Photo: Gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins, left, and fellow Green Party activists. Credit: HawkinsMedia/Flickr.