Letters: Would Democratic Socialism Really Threaten Minorities?

Readers debate the possible outcomes of an American move toward democratic socialism.

An advocate of socialism holds red roses, the symbol of the party. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP)

Democratic Socialism Threatens Minorities

Earlier this month, Conor Friedersdorf wrote a critique of democratic socialism as defined by a recent article in the leftist magazine Jacobin. “Socialists,” he argued, “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.”

I read Conor Friedersdorf’s article on young people and socialism with great interest. In assuming that the only way for marginalized groups to access needed goods and services is to pay for them, he reveals his blind spots. One, he doesn’t engage with the fact that markets are frequently coercive, with different prices and expectations depending on your gender and race (just look at the wealth of research on job discrimination against applicants with “black names,” for instance).

More importantly, he seems not to realize that other options besides buying things exist. He presents a false dichotomy between dystopian majority control and “free” markets. But there are real historic and present possibilities for the production of goods and services for reasons other than the profit motive, from egalitarian community “time banking” to Wikipedia’s open community of editors to groups like the Four Thieves Collective that make their own medicines in resistance to Big Pharma. These aren’t market solutions. Indeed, they will continue to thrive—and, quite likely, thrive better—in a society with a strong social safety net for all its citizens.

Adora Svitak
Berkley, Calif.

Anyone trying to argue for “democratic socialism” in the United States today, even if well meaning and reasonably thoughtful, is acting out their own fantasies rather than looking at the reality of the current state of power relations in America. The most extreme change in power relations within some realm of possibility would be a social democracy, meaning a viable public sector that could substantially reduce some inherent consequences of capitalism.

At this point, we don’t even have a functioning public sector at the federal level. Since Ronald Reagan, the public sector has been maligned, privatized, and underfunded—except for the military-industrial complex—and intentionally allowed to deteriorate so it cannot work effectively and efficiently. If politics in America restored the viability of the public sector and our democratic institutions, it could be the basis for establishing some aspects of social democracy. Arguing for democratic socialism needlessly provides an easy target for attacks against ideas not even remotely possible to manifest themselves in vitally needed public policies and programs.

Arthur T. Himmelman
Minneapolis, Minn.

The tyranny of the majority is well understood by most, and a bill of individual rights—of speech, religion, assembly, press, etc.—is a feature of all constitutional government.

The classical definition of socialism—worker ownership of the means of production—has never been tried. The Soviets’ government by vanguard failed and fell into atrocity for the reasons Conor states. Had individual rights been an essential element of the USSR, enforceable through the courts, we may have seen a much different outcome; but it is absurd to speculate.

All organization tends toward concentration of power in the service of efficiency. A cabal of self-interested corporations may conspire to rig prices—the actual legal definition of “collusion,” by the way—or otherwise dominate a market for a certain category of products. The competition that Conor lauds in capitalism is in reality often quashed through influence exerted by market dominance. Thus capitalism’s main advantage—innovation and improvement of products and prices—is often crippled or stopped. A far more sensible choice than competition for capitalists is collusion.

The answer is hiding in our hopelessly illogical and painfully pragmatic system of regulated capitalism. We must allow for the raising of money for good ideas—markets—but enforce protections against conspiracies in restraint of trade—collusion. This is sadly just as dependent upon the individual character of the enforcers and the transparency of the system as in the socialist tyrannies cited; we are living through a period of great corruption and degeneration of honorable business exchange. This is a result of fear and mistrust, most of it justified by experience, and requires a solution that renders theft and exploitation impossible. Capitalism is a powerful engine for innovation and personal freedom, but it must be controlled by honest men governed by honest laws.

John Leone
Pasadena, Calif.

Conor Friedersdorf’s piece on minorities and democratic socialism is outstanding. He draws a straight line from political intent to social failure in general and social catastrophe for minorities in particular.

Posing the question he did—What if the popular vote is pro-Trump rather than anti-Trump, then what do you do?—is critical.

Harry Chernoff
Great Falls, Va.

Friedersdorf argues against democratic socialism and in favor of free-market capitalism on the grounds that the former will more or less let loose a wild tyranny of the majority that will cripple leftists’ ability to get the things they want. This entire idea is premised on Friedersdorf’s own inability to conceive of any system of productive control that is neither hierarchical nor centralized. This despite the fact that such a system is explicitly what democratic socialists are calling for.

This is where his argument starts to take on some aspects of bad faith. He picks and chooses what various issues he thinks will get leftists mad enough to denounce democratic socialism in preference of free-market capitalism without taking into account how his own free-market capitalism impacts those issues, both historically and contemporaneously. For example, he lays at socialism’s feet the atrocities of the Soviet regime, as though what they did was somehow essentially socialist and thus a clear strike against such a system. Where is the similar denunciation of capitalism for the role it played in the near genocide of the Native American population and continued exploitation of black and brown people the world over? What about slavery and the atrocities associated with the global slave trade? The job that a global economy has done on the environment alone should be enough to make any capitalist seriously reconsider their position, but in Friedersdorf’s accounting of things, it is the Soviet totalitarianism of the mid-20th century that should make socialists turn coat.

The question that the democratic socialists are trying to answer is, What system of government or economic organization can right the evils of historic capitalism, and give us fulfilling lives with meaning? Friedersdorf doesn’t even pretend to answer this question, instead using a sleight of hand to reframe the question as: Can democratic socialism really work in the way it is intended to? A fine question, to be sure, but one that he is wholly unequipped to answer given the position he took in this article as a capitalist ideologue.

Nathaniel Bohn
Washington, D.C.

Interesting article. Yet another reason for democracies to start redistributing more wealth, and soon. Personally, I don’t think any of this is likely to happen. The risk of fascism today is far greater than that of Soviet-style communism. But, you never know. It’s not like it’s never happened. In any case, the remedy for both diseases is the same: Roosevelt-style New Deal redistribution.

Catherine Mickus-Beziat
Irvy-sur-Seine, France

Conor Friedersdorf replies:

To Adora Svitak: Free markets are not a cure-all for the prejudices of companies or individuals participating in them. And goods produced by organizations and people for reasons other than profit are a vital part of any healthy society. I celebrate them. What’s more, I hope the United States moves toward a much stronger social safety net for all of its citizens. But none of those points of agreement with the writer undercut the main claim in my article: that democratic socialism as it was described in the referenced Jacobin article would pose significant risks and material losses to minority groups of all sorts.

To Arthur T. Himmelman: The public sector in the United States functions much worse than that of some countries I’ve visited—Germany, Japan, and Denmark come to mind—but compare it to the public sectors of Italy or Mexico and one begins to see that the ideology of Ronald Reagan is perhaps not the primary factor that dictates public-sector performance. A similar insight is reached after reflecting on cities like Los Angeles, with high taxes, left-leaning voters, and frustrating dysfunction in the public sphere. That isn’t to absolve conservatives of their role in the dysfunction often evidenced at the federal level—including the military-industrial complex!—but something more than money and desire are needed to achieve success.

John Leone is correct in many of his pronouncements—the status quo is indeed one in which those entrusted with preventing rent-seeking, industrial collusion, monopoly, and other such ills are failing to fulfill their responsibilities, sometimes for the most corrupt reasons. Remedying those failures ought to be a shared project for reformers on the left and right.

One qualification: If forced to choose between corrupted capitalism of the sort we live under now or corrupted socialism as it has actually manifested, I’d choose the devil I know for its relatively dispersed power and correspondingly lower body count.

To Nathaniel Bohn: As it happens, I am glad to denounce both mass genocide and slavery.

Bohn observes that one question democratic socialists are trying to answer is, “What system of government or economic organization can right the evils of historic capitalism?” But if the evil referred to is the near genocide of indigenous people—an evil that transpired not only under American capitalism but also (for example) Spanish monarchy—the answer is that nothing can right that evil, but that thankfully, no explorer colonialists will ever again “discover” and then destroy an indigenous civilization. If the evil referred to is American slavery, then the system of government and economic organization that could right it was a Civil War fought and won by the capitalist, republican North; the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; and civil-rights laws that defeated the evil of Jim Crow. Our system has lots of problems still—and there are promising solutions to almost all of them that can be achieved with known reforms, a course much preferable to a revolutionary change to a new system and all the bloodletting that generally entails.

Even if capitalism were abandoned, democratic socialism would not necessarily be the best replacement. (It seems clear to me that had America embraced democratic socialism in 1865, or 1965, its racist white majority would still have used its numbers and power to subjugate its black minority.) With respect to the environment, however, the writer may be on stronger ground. It may be that global capitalism as it now exists will solve climate change through some mix of conservation, incentives to use less carbon, and technological advances that hasten a transition to new energy sources. But maybe not. Maybe free markets are so good at generating economic growth—and associated consumption as people are lifted out of poverty—that the long-term trajectory is darker, culminating in some sort of climate catastrophe. In comparison, I expect that democratic socialism would make tens or hundreds of millions of people much poorer than they’d otherwise be, and that would lead to lower consumption and carbon output.

To Catherine Mickus-Beziat: I say, bring back the Homestead Act (with appropriate modifications).