"What is Socialism?" One Man Asks
By Wil Forbis
Feb 8th, 2020
The Sunday I write this kicks off the first week of the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries. (I know---it feels like we're already years into them.) And there's a lot of talk in the air that Bernie Sanders is well positioned to grab the nomination. He's raised more money than any other candidates and, in a lot of people's eyes, is owed the nomination because the Democratic National Committee allegedly rigged the 2016 primary against him.
Sanders does possess a certain "unstoppable" vibe right now. Various recent "controversies" that popped up about him easily resolved in his favor. Elizabeth Warren's allegation that Sanders had opined that a women couldn't become president only strengthened his position while weakening hers. When Sanders touted politically incorrect podcaster Joe Rogan's partial "endorsement", woke crowds erupted, but the eventual outcome was that Sanders got a bump in Iowa polls (according to various sources---details here).
The main objection to Sanders, at least from moderate Democrats and the right, is that he's a socialist. And this is would seem to stick---Sanders has proudly worn the moniker "democratic socialist" for decades.
But the political theory of socialism is experiencing boom times in the United States. In addition to Sanders, high profile politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib have embraced its tenets. Celebrities such as actor Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon have advocated for socialist ideas while damning its presumed opposite: capitalism. And membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has shot up from around 6500 in 2014 to 45,500 today. (You can thank Donald Trump for that one.)
I will also say, socialism just feels "hipper". It's understood that America's youth---the secret sauce for Sanders' campaign---don't have the aversion to the socialist ideology that previous generations (many of whom grew up during the cold war between the U.S. and Russia) had.
I should note that I am not a socialist. I'm a little wishy washy on political ideology these days but I generally think capitalism and markets deliver the best deal for human populations. ("What about global warming?" you squeal, and yeah, you've got a point, but addressing it really requires another article, one I may never get around to writing.)
Having said that, something always strikes me as odd when people imply that socialism automatically equals Soviet Gulags, East German drudgery and Venezuelans eating their pets. I've been to plenty of socialist states like Denmark, Finland, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, Ireland and the Netherlands* (Yes, this sentence is just an excuse to brag about how well traveled I am---well, except for Canada) and I'm always struck how day-to-day life in these locales is no different from life in the U.S. If you want a Coke you go out and buy one. If you want to see a movie you you head down to the local movie theater. If you want a prostitute you pop over to the red light district. Easy Peasy.
* How do I know these nations are socialist? I'm going off of this list here. Having said that, as we shall see, the definition of what makes a country socialist is unclear.
But while real world socialism doesn't seem to map to right-wing nightmares neither does it match the left's anti-capitalist, utopian promises. As I mentioned, in the socialist societies I've seen, capitalism---you know, buying and selling stuff---is alive and well. There are rich and poor people and class distinctions based on race and ethnicity are obvious.
The problem as I see it is that it's unclear exactly what socialism is (and isn't). Also murky is how socialism differs from communism and what the taxonomy of "democratic socialism" really means.
What do you, the loyal acid logic reader, do when confused about a complex and hotly contested topic? You head over to the smartest site on the web (this one) to do your thinking for you. So let's explore these questions together.
The Oxford dictionary defines socialism as:a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
This is one of those definitions that first appears helpful but upon closer examination significantly muddies the waters. One question comes to mind: "[T]he means of production, distribution and exchange" of what products and services should be "owned or regulated"? Of everything? Should your niece's lemonade stand be regulated? Or only big ticket items like electricity and transportation?
We can also ask: is there a country in the world that doesn't employ some regulation or ownership of parts of its markets? The United States is often portrayed as the most capitalistic of first world nations but we obviously regulate many components of our industry and take ownership of others* (the postal services, toll roads, etc.)
* This Investopedia article states that the U.S. "is a mixed economy, exhibiting capitalism and socialism characteristics. Such a mixed economy embraces economic freedom when it comes to capital use, but it also allows for government intervention for the public good."
Of course, if every country is socialist (by the definition that at least some parts of their economy are regulated or owned) then the term becomes, if not meaningless, at least vague.
Let's turn to another question: what differentiates socialism from communism? It so happens that someone recently shared with me a Newsweek article that gets into this. The article states:
Dr. Eileen Hunt Botting, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University, told Newsweek that the ideology of communism means there would be "no private property, and no class distinctions." Botting explained that democratic socialism, conversely, does not do away with private property or all economic class distinctions.
Democratic socialism "aims to use democratic government to promote a more fair and egalitarian distribution of social goods and opportunities among all people in a society," she said.
What I take from this is that in communism the government takes authoritative and absolute control of the economy whereas in socialism "the people" choose which manipulations of the market economy they would like to see happen. Socialism is kind of like choosing from the communism buffet.
But wait! We keep seeing this term "democratic socialism." Is that different from regular socialism? Well, here's a Business Insider article that claims to answer the question.
Unfortunately, it adds little illumination. It seems to say that democratic socialists believe in government influence on markets whereas regular socialists favor authoritarian control of markets---except I thought authoritarianism was the mark of communism.
This section from that article does usefully highlight some of the vagaries of the debate.
In the present day, "Democratic socialist" and "socialist" are often treated as interchangeable terms, which can be confusing given Democratic socialists don't necessarily think the government should immediately take control of all aspects of the economy.
They do, however, generally believe the government should help provide for people's most basic needs and help all people have an equal chance at achieving success.
Gotta love those waffling assertions: "don't necessarily think" and "generally believe." Thanks fellas---everything's clear now.
At this point I have to conclude that nobody on the web really knows what they're talking about on this issue. In general, socialism favors some intrusion into markets, though how much is unclear. Maybe the best answer would be "more than the U.S currently allows." And both democratic socialists and regular socialists favor these intrusions but differ on the means with which they are carried out. And somehow, communism is different from from regular socialism though in a way that seems to be more a matter of degree than difference.
I suspect a definitive answer to these questions is out there. It just can't be found in the morass of conflicting opinions and data that make up the internet.
Perhaps the clearest (and most contrarian) analysis of this issue I found is this Vox article entitled "Socialism" vs. "capitalism" is a false dichotomy.
One of the article's first points is to acknowledge the complexity of all this:Current economic arrangements in the US, and throughout the developed world, involve a complex mix of "capitalist" market institutions and "socialist" regulatory and redistributive institutions.
What the article's author, libertarian-ish Will Wilkinson, then argues is that what we call socialism in these modern times is really capitalism with a beefed up welfare state. In fact, he argues, the only way to pay for this robust welfare state is to allow capitalism to pave the road for wealth creation. And, somewhat surprisingly to me, but with ample evidence, Wilkinson throws his support to Elizabeth Warren, by quoting her unabashedly pro-capitalism rhetoric. She has said (as quoted in the article):I am a capitalist. ... I believe in markets. What I don't believe in is theft, what I don't believe in is cheating. That's where the difference is. I love what markets can do, I love what functioning economies can do. They are what make us rich, they are what create opportunity. But only fair markets, markets with rules. Markets without rules is about the rich take it all, it's about the powerful get all of it. And that's what's gone wrong in America.
So, while Sanders and Warren may have the loudest progressive voices among candidates, they also have a fundamental disagreement: he's a democratic socialist and she's not. (To confirm this, watch this video entitled "Warren: I am not a Democratic Socialist.")
Still confused by all this? You should be.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.