Todd: Hey Greg, I figured this would be a good place for us to start. We both have a lot of training in politics and have tremendous interest in left politics so we are starting from a position of strength.
Socialism is having a moment again. In the US it is starting to seem like a litmus test — to be part of the left you need to love it, but the right is again building up anti-socialist credentials. The Bernie Sanders left certainly was the first wave to pick up the mantle and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has really set the Democrat agenda around principles of Democratic Socialism. Her Green New Deal and top tax bracket of 70% really standing out as the highlights. Meanwhile, the right has pushed back, most visibly against Venezuela. Venezuela started as the best bad example for the right, but is now being threatened with military action after sanctions were leveled on the state run oil company.
It is unclear if the left and right are even talking about the same thing. A reasonable place to start would be to define the terms before arguing offer examples and outcomes. So, Greg, what is socialism?
Greg: Thanks for your question, Todd. Let’s start by saying: socialism is democratic control over society or it’s nothing. It’s not ever-increasing control by the government.
That begs the question: what does a real democratic government look like? I think it’s safe to say that that we haven’t seen a real democratic socialism anywhere in the world, except for brief moments. However, anywhere people see that their rulers are running the system in their own interests, rather than that of the people, and take the power back, that’s socialism. It’s a process, not just a goal. Any time there’s a movement that collectively runs things, that’s socialism. Strikers that take over factories and run them themselves, or communities that rally round to support strikers, or movements that occupy public space to debate how things are run, or movements that occupy private space to stop a pipeline: these all contain seeds of socialism.
With that in mind, I think Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez matter because their supporters came out of the Occupy movement. When those politicians talk socialism in straight-forward, friendly ways, they don’t just destigmatize a word that’s been forbidden from the mainstream for so long. They make social change seem possible. All of a sudden conversations that were limited to backrooms of libraries and pubs — why do the rich pay so little tax? Why can’t we seem to do anything about climate change? — are on the national agenda. It opens space for people to talk publicly about socialist politics. That’s not a movement for democratic control, but it is the necessary precursor to one.
What do you think of this definition? And why do you socialism is in the public eye again, after languishing as an undercurrent for so many decades?
Todd: Any analysis as to why socialism is how it is right now would be really long winded, but I think there are a few historical aspects that would have to be discussed. The failure of the twenty-year Neoliberal experiment, the 2008 financial collapse, and the lack of a bad example in the USSR definitely helped produce fertile ground for it. It also helped that Sanders is clear and succinct in his arguments. When we consider young voters — even stretching that to voters under 35 — we are talking about people who have no memory of the Soviet Union, but do have memories of Zuccotti Park and the Occupy movement there.
For Millennials, and actually everyone in the US now, socialism is a blank slate and a possible future that better aligns with prevailing economic interests. And that’s where I think my understanding differs from yours. When I think socialism I think of something far more economic than political. Not to make it too watery, but it might be defined by a priority on public investment in public benefits for the betterment of all. That is, social work and energy must be returned as social gains that are realized by all so that there is a tacit expectation of some rough amount of economic equality.
As an ideology, capitalism stresses private work and private gain, and the work put in plus the value of risk taken justifies different outcomes. Of course, in actually existing capitalism we know that there is a lot of socialization of risk and public financing of profit. Bailouts, public funding of stadiums and sweetheart tax deals all show that the reality does not match the capitalist ideal, but I think there are also examples of socialism sprinkled in there. The way we idealize and fund first responders, finance the military, NASA and the Smithsonian museums all seem pretty socialist at times. And it seems that the idea that there should be more of this sort of socialism — from complex and expensive works like mass transit and universal health care to the more mundane, simple desires like clean public parks and practical daycare, plus less inequality — is the socialism that is both expected and being offered.
It seems that we are both really far apart on what we imagine socialism to be, but they also sound related. Is the economic concept outlined above something you see as part of the political project of socialism? Are the two views commensurable?
Greg: Oh absolutely, spending on infrastructure in the US context is a move towards socialism, because it suggests that the government is right to spend money on public goods and not just stadiums, tax breaks for new silicon valleys or interlocking brick and Victorian streetlights on the main drags of dying industrial towns.
I think the challenge of defining socialism is putting economics and politics together. When Marx subtitled Capital Volume One ‘A Critique of Political Economy’, he was taking contemporary economists to task for separating them out. Making economic laws seem natural is a good way of making them appear to last forever, just like when the Right claims humans are ‘by nature greedy and competitive’. Putting ‘political economy’ back at the centre lets us ask: who benefits from economic policies?
So, to offer one example that hopefully doesn’t take us too far off track: this allows us to get past the paradox of a place like South Korea — where we both have a lot of recent experience — in which a dictatorship could build incredible subways and trains. They didn’t do that because they were pushed by an outraged working class demanding public services, but because workers needed to get to work. In the US, however, it’s different. The ruling class — the ‘warring band of brothers’, as Marx described them — has collectively decided that getting ahead of the historically declining rate of profit is more important than public spending. The accumulation of wealth in the upper echelons of society is jaw-dropping, and somehow that matters more than people taking on a lifetime of student debt, or bridges falling down.
It’s a pretty common complaint by the Left that capitalism is actually socialism for the rich. I’d love it if NASA received lots more funding, but we know who the real benefactors are: the Pentagon, the banks and really, any big corporation that comes begging. I think the 2008 economic crisis made people understand that viscerally: how politics determines the economic priorities of those who govern us. All that talk about needing to save GM and Ford because if they fail, the consequences will be catastrophic… meanwhile people are losing their homes and getting addicted to opiods. When it comes down to it, capitalism is pretty choosy over whose crises matter.
Which brings me an important question. We know that the 1% gets away with daylight robbery because we let them. The historical defeat of trade unions, plus the secular decline of profit rates for the past 45 years, ushered in the neoliberal era you quite rightly blame for the lack of socialist politics today. And we also know that, even if unions and ‘big government’ are deeply unpopular, healthcare, mass transit, free education and affordable housing are loved across the political spectrum. I agree with you that public spending in the US context is a socialist demand, because it makes people’s lives better in tangible ways, and it raises the question of why we even need a private sector. So what kind of economic demand do you think best raises the political profile of socialism? What’s your opinion of the Green New Deal?
(We also should be clear that, when we say ‘economics’, we don’t just mean paycheques and grants. The ‘workers’ care about racism, gun control, clean air, education, and these questions are intimately bound up with gender, sexuality and, particularly in the US context, race. We can’t predict what demands will get popular. But let’s tackle one thing at a time!)
Todd: Okay, I’m going to pick up on the challenge you identified about the combination of politics and economics. The nice thing about this conversation is that we have already thought a lot about these topics, but rarely put them into words. It is also helpful that we are coming from different perspectives but building towards a single point. You introduced a couple arguments that will definitely help clarify the definition we have been building.
First, the the denaturalization of capitalism is vital to any socialist perspective. Although capitalist ideology wants to reduce or eliminate active state involvement in the economy, in practice it demands it. Countries that are not socialist engage in public spending projects to prop up businesses, like in the South Korean example you cite. I hadn’t been thinking about that until I read your response. I would even push this further and argue that even the most basic, minimal capitalist state — a “nightwatchman state” — would require an active, interventionist state. The foundational elements of capitalist property, from the legal recognition, to police protection, to court meditation and contract enforcement, all require public finance for public goods. Furthermore, basic regulations necessary for business, like weights and measure and stable currency, require the state to step in since private actors cannot or will not provide those public goods.
The result is that the state will always intervene in economics; socialism becomes political because it tells us that we are left to decide how and to what extent social intervention into private economies can occur. This, I think, was your second point: how do we make these decisions so that we get the necessary outcomes? And this is where the debate on socialism starts to get dicey and can splinter into authoritarian and liberal versions. In the U.S. context the standard answer is representative politics and the battle of ideas. From your responses above, it seems you see the state as the battleground of class war, not about popular ideas or policies. That is definitely one part, but historically, and even more so right now, intersectionality has expanded the participants and even the boundaries of politics. The culture, environment, race and gender battles seem to be playing out in every public and private space, which feels like a very Aristotelian/Arendtian sort of democracy, but since power is so diffuse (or so perversely concentrated away from these spaces) it also doesn’t feel like a politics at all. I am curious as to where you see socialist politics existing. Another thing that is still left out of our discussion is the social responsibility to human flourishing, which I think socialism has a responsibility to addressing.
The Green New Deal is one possible way to address human flourishing and raise the profile of socialism. The Democrats’ plan — more of a general vision board than a plan — actually seems to hit all the points of socialism we have been discussing. There is plenty of investment in infrastructure with no mention of regulation,which we might dismiss as business-as-usual corporate bailouts, but the plan is mixed with appeals for universal healthcare, union protection, and monopoly busting. I am not really interested in an immediate response to specifics though since what I think is important about it is unwritten.
For me the aspects that are unspoken are what show the basic principles of socialism to be already guiding the values and decisions of political agents. One aspects is that the basis for the plan is that capitalism is killing us. It accepts that global warming is a man-made existential crisis and we have the right to do something about it. That is a bold step, and that it is taken as an assumption suggests that the foundational principles of socialism, such as we have been trying to understand them, are already part of collective social understanding. Furthermore, because global warming is, well, global, there is a tacit appeal to internationalism, something we haven’t touched on here. However, a project that aims to keep Earth livable does directly answer your earlier political question: who benefits?
What more can be added to the political question? I don’t think I really addressed socialism and intersectionality. Is there more that you could speak to about politics — where it is, who it is and how it functions as socialism? And what is your analysis of the Green New Deal?
Greg: For sure, let’s bring out intersectionality. I’m not American, so when I go to the States, I’m always shocked by how there are whole city blocks where everyone’s pretty much the same color, and a lot of people look like they’re struggling. Race and class are inseparable: if you’re racialized in the US, and belong to historically marginalized groups, you have lower income, higher incarceration rates, worse health outcomes, and so on. It’s a little ironic, though no less tragic, that now middle-aged white people’s life expectancies are declining… down to the levels where non-white groups have been for decades.
Sanders just declared he’s running for president in 2020, and 2016’s criticisms are already coming up: he’s too old, too white, he doesn’t fare well with minorities. And yet, his program of economic and social justice is anti-racist. I wish Sanders was more vocal about this: economic justice in America can only mean some form of redistribution for the oppressed. The same goes for environmental justice — removing incinerators and waste dumps from poor, racialized communities — and migrant justice, normalizing the status of the undocumented. My point here is that we don’t have to reach very far for an intersectional socialism: given how capitalism uses race and gender, intersectionality is built into socialism.
I agree 100% about the night watchman state. I get my analysis from Bob Jessop, who theorized the ‘rollback’ of welfare and the ‘rollout’ of punishment — more prisons, harsher welfare controls, militarized police, and so on. Neoliberalism was never the libertarian fantasy of ‘small government’, just a different approach to governing. And it makes sense that, if you need to do everything possible to shore up profit rates, and that includes selling off state assets and providing lower taxes to corporations, you’re going to need a punitive state to deal with the social fall-out. The tragedy, even from a capitalist perspective, is that it hasn’t worked: aggregate profits haven’t recovered to the post-war boom years, and instead capital keeps hedging its bets: financializing its assets so it can zip around the world looking for the next big opportunity. We saw the consequences of that in the 2008 crisis.
This brings me to your very important question about politics. Absolutely, the battle for ideas does not just happen in the state — even primarily in the state. Without getting into the specifics of the ‘state and class’ debate — is it time to bring back Kautsky? Should socialists transform the Democrats or break from them? — I think one question always holds: who are the political actors?
They are definitely generational: the millenials and younger who have been burdened with student debt and stuck in soul-destroying jobs but who, for the first time, are tying that suffering to a system and becoming disillusioned with capitalism. I’m not 100% sure why this is happening now, when older workers are suffering just as much. It may have something to do with the interplay between the mainstream and the grassroots: the generation of politicians raised on centrism and triangulation was completely helpless in the face of the financial crisis, and various crises — environmental, health, wage — all seem to be intersecting, pushing people towards radical solutions. It seems there’s a cultural crisis overlapping an economic one, much like the 1960s but without that era’s optimism. What this means is that, as you rightly point out, we can’t be economistic in our demands; rather, socialists must raise demands that resonate with people’s lives — like healthcare for all — and link them to the way the capitalist system operates. In that, the Green New Deal has done an astonishingly good job in articulating both people’s dread about the ongoing climate catastrophe because it’s put the onus on the naysayers to defend why they’re doing nothing.
None of this matters without building movements on the ground to broaden the conversations about socialism. What kind of politics rebuilds movements? Maybe we could discuss that in our next post.
Todd: Interestingly, in the discussion above there is no mention of nationalization, elimination of property or of a vanguard party ruling a revolutionary state. The discussion didn’t reproduce the talking points of the Chinese Communist Party, communiques from The New Left, 1950’s Labour Party planks or citations from Castro. Instead, we started with the idea of what democracies do and the problems of neo-liberal capitalism including liberal tenets of individual identity. I feel the place we landed is not a rigid ideology with programmatic political roadmap but rather an notion of finding new economic and social policies that deliver on the promises of equality and social betterment that people already expect. It reminds me a lot of the original New Deal which basically just tried every weapon in the arsenal to get the economy functioning again. Roosevelt was more pragmatic than principled, and certainly not dogmatic or equalitarian, so he could be painted with the same brush. The New Deal was developed in complete isolation from Keynesianism in much the way the Green New Deal has been created apart from traditional, historical “socialists”. This fits a lot of what was discussed above.
Sander’s campaign is great place to end. On the one hand he is a self-described socialist; on the other hand, he isn’t much different from Liz Warren who declared herself to be a hard-core capitalist. (From the perspective of the right, of course, they might as well be Lenin and Mao.) This leads to a lot of questions about politics. With this sort of loosely defined socialism, let’s move on to politics.