Why I call myself a democratic socialist

DSA Santa Fe and DSA ABQ members were honored to help striking CWA workers.

I’m going to tell you about myself for awhile, because I think our beliefs should rise directly out of our experiences in the world. They’re clearer and more motivating that way.

I was born two months premature. As soon as my mother gave birth to me, my chest caved in with every breath. Doctors told my parents that I would be completely blind and deaf, if I survived. The care I received in the hospital as an infant cost my parents’ insurance company over a million dollars.

I grew up in a small town in west Texas. My father was a mechanic. For most of my childhood, he worked out of our garage. He woke up at 4am every day because the pain in his left leg, injured in an accident before I was born, prevented him from getting out of bed right after waking up. At 5am, he would get dressed, take painkillers (including OxyContin), then walk to the garage. The only weekday I saw him work less than 10 hours was when he caught on fire.

I had a lot of privileges that most people don’t have: I’m white, male, and straight. Because of the luck of my birth, and because of my mom and dad’s willingness to take on debt to support me, I was able to start working at 12 years old. I modeled clothes for catalogues from huge corporations (including J.C. Penney and Dillards), and was paid about $120 for a day’s work. Years later, after doing hundreds of hours of unpaid labor for student films and short films, I started to find paid work as an actor. But finding this paid work required spending a lot of money (on expensive color photographs called headshots, resumes, gas and parking fees for driving to and from auditions all over Los Angeles, and more)—a career in acting is an expensive and unpredictable gamble. Over the course of my twelve-year acting career, I spent thousands of hours doing unpaid labor, all in hopes of getting paying jobs. I was told “no” thousands of times. Yet after eight years of working on short-term jobs here and there, saving money when I could, I finally got a long-term job that paid well. And then lightning struck twice: the TV show I worked on became incredibly popular, watched by millions of people all over the world every week.

If you’re an actor on a television show, you’re paid what are called “residuals.” Residuals are portions of the money that corporations pay television networks to air their ads. Unsurprisingly, popular shows make TV networks’ shareholders and corporate executives millions and millions of dollars. Unlike a TV network’s corporate executives and shareholders, the people who actually make television shows on a day-to-day basis are paid per hour or per episode: the folks who operate the cameras, the people who put up the lights, the cooks who feed the crew, the writers, the producers, the directors, and the actors. How much everyone “on set” is paid is based on contracts negotiated between their unions and a big group of media companies. In film and television, like most other industries, the people who work the most physically demanding jobs for the longest hours (often called “the crew”) are paid the least. Unless you’re already famous, actors, writers, and directors are paid about the same — often five to ten times more than most crew members. And the writer/producers who have the most power on set are often paid two to five times more than anyone else. Writer/producers often make millions of dollars every year.

At the time, AFTRA was the union that dictated how much money I would make from residuals. For complicated reasons, AFTRA wasn’t a strong union at the time. Because of this, after accepting the job offer, I realized that my closest coworkers, the show’s actors, wouldn’t make the residual money I thought we deserved. (If I could do things differently, I would’ve fought for a raise for the cast and the crew.) I urged my coworkers to walk off the job with me, in order to force the TV network to renegotiate our contracts. One night I had everyone over at my house, and I argued for hours, urging us to fight together for better pay. I told my coworkers that working on this show might be our last chance to make enough money to give us financial security for awhile—and how important that is, since finding steady work as an actor is about as likely as winning the lottery. The other actors wanted me and an older coworker to talk to our boss before doing anything risky (like striking). I met her, and made our case. She told me bluntly that she was unwilling to help us bargain with the TV network for more money; she said that if she had to fight for anyone, it would be for the show’s other writers, her closest employees. At the time, she was making millions of dollars per year—with much more lucrative residuals.

Regardless, I kept working, kept saving, and eventually bought a house. After spending hundreds of hours of labor cleaning and fixing the house, we lived in it for five years. Then, when I left Los Angeles, I rented the house out. As a landlord, I found myself treating people like liabilities, and treating problems (for example: a broken toilet) like attacks on my bank account. Finally, the stress of owing hundreds of thousands of dollars on my mortgage—and the way that being a landlord was making me less humane—lead me to sell the house.

As I said a bit earlier, while working to make that popular TV show, I got diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Within two months, I was debilitated. The good news is that my boss was very kind when I became that sick in the middle of a work year, giving me as much time off to recover as I needed. Even better news: my wife’s union offered me great health insurance (the biggest hospital bill sent to our insurance company was for more than $250,000, and we paid about $5000). My doctors then put me on a medication whose list price is between $3000 and $21,000 per dose, and that same insurance plan covered about 95% of the medication’s cost. I realized then that without good health coverage and the protective laws of the Affordable Care Act, staying healthy would bankrupt me.

The cost of one dose (600 mg) of Remicade infused into my veins in an outpatient infusion center (in summer 2017).

A year later, I realized that my ethical principles were clashing with my career. After seeing that the film and television industry is run by boring corporate executives who consistently fight to pay people less, deny them control over what they make, and work them for longer hours—and after realizing that most of the products produced in Hollywood are meant only to pacify—my wife quit her acting career. A few months later, knowing that I was about to risk losing good health insurance and my local doctors, I copied her. We had no idea what we’d do next, but we felt more like ourselves.

Surrounding these personal events, I became a teenager while our President ordered our military to destroy people and places in Iraq because of a lie. I became an adult during the 2008 financial crisis, during which American taxpayers were forced to reward bankers with a trillion dollars for causing people to be forced out of their homes, go into debt, and kill themselves. I came to understand my disillusionment with most American policies while volunteering for Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign, the first democratic socialist campaign I’d seen. And last year, while watching the election of a demagogue who got rich by selling luxury housing and renting golf courses to other millionaires and billionaires; while watching over 61,000,000 Americans vote to empower a fascist—a person who celebrates and encourages harming people for the simple fact of their difference—I realized that I was willing to work towards a democratic socialist future.

Democratic socialism, as I understand it, is a set of beliefs (also called an ideology). As an ideology, democratic socialism is also a set of values: judgements about what’s good and bad. Here are some of the core beliefs and values of democratic socialists like me:

  1. Our current economic and political system (called capitalism) is cruel and harmful by its nature. Capitalism is cruel and harmful because working people in a capitalist system are pitted against each other, and have most of the value of the services they provide and goods they produce stolen from them. Who steals most of this value? The people who own the property (for example: the land, the building materials, the buildings, the tools, the office supplies, the computers, the intellectual property, and the copyrights). We call these people capitalists (or the 1%). Capitalists make money by stealing from the working class then investing their money to make more money — not to enrich more workers. (The phrase “trickle down economics” is meant to trick you into believing that capitalists primarily help workers and that wealth is generated from the top-down.) Capitalists make the most money when working people make the least; this is why bosses are opposed to unions, which try hard to empower the working class by organizing them. Capitalists are the only class of people who can make money for doing no labor or doing barely any labor; landlords are capitalists. Capitalists also enrich themselves and harm the working class by putting billions of dollars into the pockets of politicians, bending the law to their will. And finally, capitalists own the mainstream media, and often use it to convince working people to divide and hate themselves, so that capitalists will have a weaker enemy. As democratic socialists, we believe that capitalism and all its abuses must go.
  2. We believe that socialism should replace capitalism. Socialism is an economic and political system in which groups of working people own the property (called the means of production) used to make goods, provide services, and exchange both.
  3. As democratic socialists, we believe that workplaces should be run democratically. (I understand “democracy” to mean people regularly discussing and making decisions, where every person affected by those decisions has a say.) In a capitalist system, corporate executives, shareholders, bosses, and politicians make huge decisions without any oversight or input from the people who’ll be affected by those decisions. A democratic socialist system is one in which working people have power over what they produce, who they serve, and how they treat each other.
  4. Finally, as democratic socialists, we believe that society should serve everyone (the 99%), not just the rich (the 1%). This means that we fight for social programs that care for all human lives (a great example is providing Medicare or Medicaid to every person in the US). We desire a society in which people are not unfairly limited by where they’re born or how much money their parents make. We desire a world in which people are given freedom to work on what they choose, and not spend five to seven days a week enriching their already-rich bosses. We desire a world in which access to health care, which often means access to life, doesn’t have a price tag. We desire a world in which education is accessible to everyone who wants to learn. We desire a world in which the environment is not ruined for future generations and poisoned today so that capitalists and corporate executives can make greater profits. And as democratic socialists, we desire a world in which racism and bigotry have been permanently defeated.

Most importantly, I call myself a democratic socialist because I organize a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. DSA chapters fight for the towns, cities, states, and world I want to live in, and each chapter has the freedom of a true, decentralized democracy. In Santa Fe, we regularly meet to discuss and vote on which problems we want to solve, which groups of people we want to help, and how to fight for fundamental changes to our political and economic situation.

After I found democratic socialism, an ideology which consistently gives me hope, I realized that I want to teach for a living. (I’ll soon be teaching 12th grade English in Santa Fe.) While organizing for the DSA, I’ve realized the truth of this: my thinking becomes clearer and stronger as I work, and my work becomes more precise and practical as I think. (Thinking is labor, too.)

I call the people who organize DSA Santa Fe my comrades, a word whose origin in ancient Greek refers to a pole which holds up vines, the shaft of a spear, a tiller, and a tent-pole. To me, the origin of the word “comrade” sums up what I find so good about democratic socialists: we nourish people; we fight beside each other, even though our opponents have more weapons; we guide ourselves through dangerous waters; and we make a home, a big tent in which all who need shelter are welcome.

So, if you’d like: come on in.