Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaking before an overflow crowd in Minneapolis
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders running for president as a Democrat and self-styled democratic socialist provides the need for an explanation of what capitalism, socialism, and even communism actually are. The great myth of American civic education is that our economy is the most dynamic and successful because of the free market, which defines capitalism.
However, capitalism is not actually defined by the market, but rather the social relationship between capital and labor. You could ask the simple question of what type of economic system supposedly communist China uses or see that free markets have existed in pre-industrial societies to realize that capitalism has little to do with government involvement in the economy.
Capitalism is a development in political economy, or the economic system created through and influencing the political system, in which the vast majority of the population is forced to sell their labor to the owners of capital for mere subsistence. Labor is an obvious term, but what do we mean by capital? This economics term entails both money, such as cash or financial assets, as well as the means of production, such as machinery, land, or natural resources.
Thus, it is not the mere presence of government's involvement or lack thereof that determines a capitalist economy. China has been a capitalist country for three decades, along with nearly every other industrialized society on the planet, while true socialism has never existed anywhere, even in the former Soviet Union, where economic activity was heavily regulated and directed by the government.
So what might socialism look like and what is Bernie Sanders' vision for it? I'll explain this in more detail below.
There is no fixed vision of socialism that its proponents agree to. This term first arose in the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution took hold and Western Europeans moved from the farm to the city factory. No longer could tenant farmers support themselves on their land and burgeoning industry was an economic draw. Thus, Western European society left aristocratic feudalism behind and capitalism commenced in earnest.
However, many factory workers soon found that they had to work all day, practically every day, just to earn enough wages to survive. Radical thinker Karl Marx called this wage slavery and lamented that the lower class had to work to live and in turn lived to work. Fast forward to the present day and Westerners no longer work in factories en masse, but this system of forced wage labor persists for most people, who have no option but to obtain a job working for someone else's benefit if they are to make enough money to get by.
So-called communist China has seen something similar to the European Industrial Revolution take place over the last three decades. Millions of agrarian peasants were forced by economics to move to crowded, polluted cities to find work in industry where they serve to enrich the ruling elite. Horror stories about the working conditions in Chinese factories are frequent reminders that the true cost of your cheap widget is human misery.
China is officially communist, but a true communist such as Marx would be horrified at what had taken place in his name. He would deem it state-directed capitalism. For you see, in China, the ruling Communist Party is a class unto itself. The national legislature has a higher proportion of billionaires than any other in the world. For Marx, capitalism would give way to socialism and eventually communism, which was defined by two characteristics: the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and classlessness.
Of course, anyone familiar with the history of the last several decades can see that communism in practice was a horrible failure that led to neither of those two outcomes. The Soviet Union was a brutally oppressive regime whose legacy is a modern Russia where the richest men rule with a nuclear-powered military at their disposal. By some estimates, President Vladimir Putin is the richest man in the world and Russia is commonly called an oligarchy.
So what do modern socialists advocate for their vision of an alternative to capitalism? At its core, socialism isn't just government regulation of economic markets. Socialists like Bernie Sanders want to end the system of what Marx called wage slavery, where workers have no choice but to labor for others' profit so they can survive. What this means in practice, though, is not easily defined.
There are essentially two types of socialists in modern Western democratic politics. Social democrats are effectively what the left is in nearly every Western European and North American country. They might find socialism laudable, but have made peace with enacting changes to capitalism to make it more equitable. Social democrats enacted policies typically referred to as the mixed economy or welfare state, such as Social Security and universal health care. While U.S. Democrats don't use these labels, social democrats generally define the center-left of the political spectrum in the West.
Democratic socialists on the other hand are typically seen as more radical left-wingers and advocate the outright replacement of capitalism with socialism. European parties such as Greece's Syriza or Spain's Podemos aim to drastically reduce inequality through radical changes in policy. Democratic socialists would have government inject itself into the financial system and take control of natural resources to help the broader populace before private profit.
Despite his chosen label of democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders is very much a social democrat. He repeatedly will tell you how much he admires Scandinavia. That region is the modern poster child for social democracy and its countries are the most progressive, happiest, and equal in the entire world. Sanders is not proposing radical policies, but simply what many Europeans have realized is common sense. Even in America, many of his proposals enjoy broad support, just not among elected officials.
What are these policies? In general, social democrats like Sanders want to ensure that every person has access to housing, health care, education, meaningful employment, and transportation. Furthermore, Western socialists of all stripes typically support progressive social policies such as gender equality and tolerance of differences.
In particular however, Sanders advocates for three things that should be the backbone of the Democratic Party. These include reducing economic inequality, removing the rigged influence of the rich on our political system, and of course most importantly, preventing climate change. These aren't just issues that the far left supports. These are broadly popular issues on which our political system is massively out of step with what the public wants.
To address these issues, Sanders wants to do make our taxation system more progressive by ensuring the rich pay their fair share, given how much they benefit from the labor of others. He wants to ensure that every person has access to food, shelter, health care, and a good-paying job.
Politically, Sanders wants to ensure we keep our democracy by furthering the principle of one person, one vote. To do this he would get the big money that the Roberts Court introduced through Citizens United out of political campaigns and would support publicly funded races. Under this system, politicians would no longer have to spend 80 percent of their time begging the rich for money and could instead campaign for the popular support of the people themselves.
Climate change is the most important issue of our time, and I fear that when I am old it will have become the only issue that matters. Sanders proposes taxing carbon and would do what it takes to reduce emissions in a country that emits far more per capita than practically any other industrialized country. Climate change and inequality are intertwined, as the latter enables the former by depriving those most at risk of the power they need to avoid disaster.
Sanders' platform hardly looks like radical socialism. Instead, it is what nearly every Democratic voter would support deep down and what most Americans realize is fair. Sanders simply has the audacity to call himself an actual socialist and for that he is maligned by the press and treated like a joke. His candidacy, however, is not a joke—its purpose is to advance these issues which matter to every-day Americans.
Sanders will not win the Democratic primary. I will happily vote for him, but hope Clinton wins, as much as I dislike her. Why? Because the American electorate is not ready for someone who openly calls himself a socialist. The press already has it out for Hillary and you can just imagine what they would do to someone who so openly challenges the plutocracy of modern America. We've already seen how a candidate who is viewed as ideologically extreme can provide a historic defeat for his own party. Extremist Republican Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964 ushered in the most progressive government we have ever had.
However, Sanders running is an excellent thing because it forces these progressive issues upon the political discourse. A neo-liberal like Hillary Clinton will not be able to avoid debating Sanders. Even if she welcomes his running as a "Sister Soulja" type of moment, he changes the subject of debate to issues of economic inequality. That in itself is a victory for the left, because fighting inequality is both popular and correct.
So with Sanders running a campaign I've described as being social democratic, what might true socialism look like? Underscoring how socialism doesn't require government involvement, there is a brand of it called libertarian socialism as advocated by philosophers such as Noam Chomsky. Instead of government directive, workers would directly own their place of employment and there would be a free association of firms that aimed to benefit those who were employed. At its most extreme, this is a brand of socialism that anarchists advocate.
However, this vision of libertarian socialism is problematic because of the inherent selfishness and irrationality of human beings. It is quite unlikely that a society of worker-run businesses would be able to both maximize production or innovate and also keep its egalitarian structure, given that even in the breakdown of government we do not see anything but elite-driven economic systems in practice.
Ultimately, we should want a democratic socialist government to shape society for the benefit of all. So what might that look like? Along with the aforementioned access to housing, health care, education, meaningful employment, and transportation, we should want a government that protects its' denizens rights, advances their standard of living, promotes equality, and plans for the welfare of future generations by preventing climate change.
Policies that would promote these values include:
Guaranteed Housing—Government should ensure that no one is homeless by providing all with the bare essentials of housing. Even in the U.S., local governments that simply paid to have the homeless housed have shown it is more cost-effective than leaving them on the streets.
Universal Health Care—The United Kingdom's National Health Service is a government-run and provided healthcare system that consistently ranks at the top compared to every other country while costing less than half of what the U.S. system does per capita. Health care should be a human right, given that none of us chose to be born. Everyone uses the healthcare system at some point and it makes zero sense that everyone should not be covered by it.
Free Education—All education should not only be free, but higher education should pay a stipend to counteract the opportunity cost that comes with forgoing employment as a young adult. Several European countries already do this and have some of the most educated citizens in the world. We should want our citizenry to know as much as possible, and having a robust education system is key to scientific, technological, and culture advances.
Access to Transportation—Every person should be able to easily commute to their place of employment, to basic services such as health care or food, and to basic entertainment or socializing, so that they can be happy. This entails drastically strengthening public transportation and radically reworking our economic system to reduce sprawl, reduce car use, and eliminate fossil fuel use.
Guaranteed Employment—This is perhaps the most difficult value to enforce. Many European countries have far stricter regulations on hiring and firing than the U.S., but that doesn't necessarily benefit workers. We should desire that anyone wanting to work should find a job, but it's also necessary that firms be able to hire the best labor and fire those who aren't up to the task at hand.
Employment should ensure that society gains from it. This means that workers are treated with respect and allowed to unionize and bargain on their own behalf. It means that those who become unemployed receive both financial support and assistance in finding a new job. It means that those who have newly entered the work force are assisted in finding jobs that maximize their potential. We should want a system of employment that advances humankind and the individual simultaneously, rather than one that simply allows workers to survive while others profit.
Universal Income—Along with employment, socialism would use the resources of society (such as natural resources) for public benefit. Every person would be guaranteed a minimum level of income simply for being alive. This would enable freedom to choose one's own profession, while allowing industries such as the arts to thrive without the pressure of economic necessity. Many people in our society such as homemakers do work that the market cannot fairly value, but which has merit. This would be further encouraged by a universal income.
Fighting Climate Change—Finally, there is the issue of climate change. Human beings today have a duty to their children, their children's children, and so on to provide a world that benefits them. By allowing businesses and consumers to limitlessly emit carbon, policymakers have committed a sin that could possibly destroy the human race itself. Socialists would have a duty to limit carbon pollution and eliminate climate change by drastically reducing emissions and promoting carbon-capturing technology and plant growth.
The two policies commonly discussed are a carbon tax, and cap and trade. The latter would place a maximum limit on emissions and allow the market to determine the price of available permits to emit. A carbon tax, however, provides a clear cost-per-ton emitted and provides the government with revenue that would allow it to reduce taxes elsewhere if chosen. Both methods have their merits, but something needs to be done so that we stop destroying the habitability of our planet for future generations.
Ultimately, a system of socialism is for the advancement of humanity. Communism says "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need." However, socialism holds that "from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution" to society is the way for us to not only advance society, but ensure that the average person's well-being increases too. Socialists would consequently want to create a society in which people do work for the betterment of humankind. That includes both their own personal advancement as well as society's.
Sanders may have no hope of winning the Democratic Party nomination in 2016. However, his candidacy brings to the table issues that might otherwise be ignored and that in itself is a win for the left. At best, he will normalize talk of socialism and inform Americans why they are screwed by our current system of political economy. One day, when our climate has changed for the worse, and the elite who benefitted from it live in luxury while the rest of us live in squalor, will we finally wake up?