Last week, the leftist magazine Jacobin published an article arguing that “the spectacular rehabilitation of socialism as a legitimate position within American politics, particularly among young people, is one of the most significant developments for the socialist movement in decades.” I maintain that those young people aren’t being told the whole story.
When I first responded last week, my focus was a passage the authors intended as an acknowledgement that what they call “socialism from above” is dangerous.
Socialists don’t just want to replace private ownership with state ownership. In the same way we don’t believe that capitalists should be able to have disproportionate control over economic resources, we don’t think unaccountable state officials and bureaucrats should have the power to control investment and production through ‘socialism from above.’ In some cases, like the former Soviet Union, the failings of such a system are nearly as deep as those of capitalism itself.”
I inveighed against the notion that the Soviet economic system, with its many epidemics of mass starvation and death, was less flawed than market capitalism. Upon reflection, the authors changed their article to better reflect their actual belief: that “in some cases, like the former Soviet Union, the failings of such a system are as clear as those of capitalism.”
The update included this passage:
The authors’ intention was to point out the failure of authoritarian collectivism to meet the democratic standard of socialism, not to imply a preference for the Soviet Union. As the rest of the essay makes clear, the authors view democracy as essential to any socialism worthy of the name, and as democratic socialists we condemn all economic and social systems that disempower the vast majority of workers. We regret that our original formulation may have contributed to a misunderstanding of our position.
With that out of the way, I want to explore what the authors mean by “democratic socialism” and “the social power of the people,” especially given their claim, “Only when the private decisions that have massive public implications are subjected to popular control will we have a democratic society.”
To most Americans, “democracy” always sounds appealing. But many young people who say they’re “democratic socialists” may fail to grasp all that minorities would lose if democracy were radically less constrained by the political and economic system under which we currently live. What ought to scare them is not social-welfare spending on the less fortunate. The original Jacobin piece is clear that, in the estimation of its authors, the left should not be content even if it achieves progressive goals such as universal access to health care, higher education, and housing.
“Even in Nordic countries, where high levels of state ownership are combined with political democracy and a high standard of living, socialism is a long ways off,” the authors wrote. “Making people’s lives materially better isn’t enough. Neither is it enough to install union representation for workers. These changes would be welcome, but socialism moves well beyond them.” It is “a time to be bold,” they wrote.
They don’t seek to reform market capitalism, but to eliminate it:
In capitalism, economic power appears separated from political power. The economic power derived from owning productive assets allows capitalists to get rich while keeping workers’ wages as low as possible, decide what is produced without any democratic input from the rest of society, hide harmful aspects of their products, and foist the harmful costs of doing business (“negative externalities”) onto the rest of us. Capitalists say all of this is justified because it’s “their property.”
Here is part of how they define real socialism:
Socialism aims to socialize that power. Capitalists shouldn’t be able to hold all that power and impact all of society — it’s undemocratic and unjust.
The core aim of socialism is not just the state gaining control of industry, but empowering the broad masses of people—in their workplaces, in their communities, in their homes, in their schools, in their politics—to be in the driver’s seat of society … Only when the private decisions that have massive public implications are subjected to popular control will we have a democratic society. This democratization could be achieved through a number of concrete institutions: grassroots state planning agencies, workers’ cooperatives, participatory boards. But what is essential is that the people have real, not just formal, democratic control over society’s wealth.
Maybe the authors are less dedicated to democratic control as a first-order good than they appear to be when drawing on the good connotations of democracy. Either way, let’s play out the vision they described.
Instead of individual capitalists deciding what to produce in their endlessly varied, constantly competing private businesses, “without any democratic input from the rest of society,” control over industry and decisions about what to produce would reside in state planning agencies. And imagine their decisions perfectly, if improbably, reflect the actual democratic will of workers, whether in the nation; or a state, like Ohio or Utah; or a metropolitan area, like Maricopa County or Oklahoma City.
Popular control is finally realized! So: How popular is Islam? How many Muslim prayer rugs would the democratic majority of workers vote to produce? How many Korans? How many head scarves? How much halal meat would be slaughtered? What share of construction materials would a majority of workers apportion to new mosques?
Under capitalism, the mere existence of buyers reliably gives rise to suppliers. Relying instead on democratic decisions would pose a big risk for Muslims. And Sikhs. And Hindus. And Jews. And maybe even Catholics.
Right now, under capitalism, vegetarians and vegans have more options every year. But there aren’t very many of them. Five percent of Americans are vegetarians. Three percent are vegans. Would “the workers” find a societal need to produce vegan meat or milk substitutes? No one knows the answer.
How important would worker majorities consider hair products for African Americans? What if a majority of workers decided that only English-language commercial reading material should be printed in the United States? Would planning bodies decide for or against allocating materials for sex toys? Or binders for trans men? Or sexually explicit artwork?
The birth-control pill has “massive public implications.” And remember, “Only when the private decisions that have massive public implications are subjected to popular control will we have a democratic society.”
So, young leftists: Would you prefer a socialist society in which birth control is available if, and only if, a majority of workers exercising their democratic control assents? Or would you prefer a society in which private businesses can produce birth control, per their preference, in part because individuals possess economic rights as producers and consumers, the preferences of a majority of people around them be damned?
If contraception at every CVS and Walgreens sounds better than “popular control,” you may be a laissez-faire capitalist, or at least recognize why democratic socialism can be a nightmare for many sorts of people.
As the economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek put it, “Our freedom of choice in a competitive society rests on the fact that, if one person refuses to satisfy our wishes, we can turn to another.” But, he added, “if we face a monopolist we are at his absolute mercy.” Socialists are attuned to the ways individuals are vulnerable in capitalism but blind to ways that it frees us from the preferences of the majority. Nearly all of us would hate abiding by the will of the majority on some matters.
In another Jacobin article, Democratic Socialism Is About Democracy, the author writes:
Democratic socialism, at its core, is about deepening democracy where it exists and introducing democracy where it is absent. In countries like the US, that means increasing the scope of popular control in the political arena and broadening it out to include the social and economic spheres.
Think of how that “broadening” would sometimes work. If a majority elected a populist demagogue like Donald Trump—which very nearly happened in 2016 (when he lost the popular vote) and may well happen in 2020—he would preside over not only our government, but also over our social and economic realms. The effect would be to consolidate power, not to disperse it, as the author ahistorically expects.
I say ahistorically because the author is not nearly the first socialist to tout the increased “democracy” his revolution would supposedly harken in. Here’s Vladimir Lenin on the features of proletarian (not bourgeois) democracy:
The Soviet form of organisation automatically helps to unite all the working and exploited people around their vanguard, the proletariat. The old bourgeois apparatus—the bureaucracy, the privileges of wealth, of bourgeois education, of social connections, etc.—all this disappears under the Soviet form of organisation. Freedom of the press ceases to be hypocrisy, because the printing-plants and stocks of paper are taken away from the bourgeoisie. The same thing applies to the best buildings, the palaces, the mansions and manorhouses.
Soviet power took thousands upon thousands of these best buildings from the exploiters at one stroke, and in this way made the right of assembly—without which democracy is a fraud—a million times more democratic for the people. Indirect elections to non-local Soviets make it easier to hold congresses of Soviets, they make the entire apparatus less costly, more flexible, more accessible to the workers and peasants at a time when life is seething and it is necessary to be able very quickly to recall one’s local deputy or to delegate him to a general congress of Soviets.
Proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy; Soviet power is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic. To fail to see this one must either deliberately serve the bourgeoisie, or be politically as dead as a doornail, unable to see real life from behind the dusty pages of bourgeois books, be thoroughly imbued with bourgeois-democratic prejudices, and thereby objectively convert oneself into a lackey of the bourgeoisie.
Proletarian democracy turned out to be a million times less desirable because the theory of its architects did not manifest as they had expected. So many socialist experiments end in atrocities precisely because extreme consolidations of power are necessary to attempt them. What many revolutionaries at first celebrate as greater democracy ends badly for most.
Today’s democratic socialists earnestly want to avoid mass atrocities. They believe they can do so by substituting extreme democracy for top-down socialism. But that very extremity comes with its own unique problems, and their “solution” would still consolidate power that is now widely dispersed across different realms of society with different hierarchies. In the economic realm alone, their solution would consolidate power now dispersed across firms with powerful incentives to serve mass and niche markets via decentralized, uncoordinated decisions.
Another Jacobin passage aptly illustrates a characteristic disconnect between the theory of democratic socialists and how democracy actually works:
When democracy is on the march, it lays in its path state despots and private autocrats. It rips decision-making power away from the corporate titan, wrests the billy club out of the beat cop’s hands, divests the domineering husband of his authority.
After years of watching Black Lives Matter protests and police killings on YouTube, roughly 57 percent of Americans today say that they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in law enforcement. A majority favor the death penalty. Democratic majorities fueled the “tough on crime” policies of the high-crime decades that produced mass incarceration. Left-leaning New York City repeatedly reelected a mayor who favored stop-and-frisk. Maricopa County repeatedly reelected Joe Arpaio.
Neither today’s political reality nor the sweep of American or world history suggest that more democracy “wrests the billy club out of the beat cop’s hands.” In the United States, antidemocratic protections in the Constitution and antidemocratic methods like lawsuits and consent decrees are vital tools that diminish the ability of law-enforcement officers to abuse people.
Socialist faith in what more democracy would bring is so often a romantic fantasy—even though “in no country has there yet been mobilized a conscious majority for socialism,” as Joseph Schwartz and Jason Schulman note at Democratic Socialists of America. “This is not to deny the significant popular support for social democratic and labor parties that favor a mixed economy and greater socioeconomic equality,” they go on to explain. “But even in Sweden there has yet to develop a conscious electoral majority for a cooperatively-run economy.”
There is a strangeness in watching the demos in every country repeatedly reject what one believes to be just for decades, in favor of what one believes to be monstrously unjust, yet nevertheless believing that if the same demos is put under democratic socialism, it will render reliably just judgments about how an entire society should produce and consume.
Of course it won’t.
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