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U.S. Socialism In 2019: 'Extending Democracy,' Or Something Else?

A patron puts a bill in a donation bucket, which features a red rose symbol, during a meeting of members of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America in Portland, Maine, Monday, July 16, 2018. (Charles Krupa/AP)
A patron puts a bill in a donation bucket, which features a red rose symbol, during a meeting of members of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America in Portland, Maine, Monday, July 16, 2018. (Charles Krupa/AP)

The S-word. "Socialism." What was once a taboo word has become the political ping pong ball du jour.

You can hear the rhetoric, reduced to simplistic shorthand: "Venezuela!" "No, Norway!"

Socialism has a complicated history in the United States, one worthy of exploring, learning from and using as context to understand what socialism in America in 2019 might really mean.

"I think the central premise of socialism is that political democracy is a good thing and we're lucky enough to live in a country where we have doses of political democracy already, Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of Jacobin says. "And obviously it needs to be extended."

Sunkara and Kimberly Phillips-Fein, professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and The History Department at New York University, joined On Point to break socialism down.

Interview Highlights

Defining What Socialism Is For The U.S. In 2019

Bhaskar Sunkara: "We do live in a political democracy. Now if we think that democracy is a good thing, if school children are taught at a young age that democracy is a good thing, why don't we take these democratic principles and apply them to other spheres of life? So the socialist will ask, 'Why don't we extend democracy into these social and economic realms as well? Why do we have a tyranny in most workplaces from at best 9 to 5 — for many Americans more like 8 to 6, 8 to 7 — are under the unilateral dicta of of our bosses without any sort of democratic recourses or inputs or so on?' So socialism to me is about extending democracy and making sure that at the very least people have the necessities to live a good life. They have access to housing, they have health care, they have all the basics to reach their potentials."

Kimberly Phillips-Fein: "People historically have organized as socialists when they want to express the idea that they object to something in the operation of capitalism as a system — that the problem that people face is not just one or two bad laws, but something about how the whole system operates. And I think in American history, the idea of socialism is very bound up with both kind of the idea of extending democracy, but also the sense that an economy based on radical inequality, extreme inequality, is one that kind of violates something. There's a kind of moral problem with that. That, and this desire to create a society in which it isn't the sense that some people's lives are simply valued much more than others. So I think it's kind of both political democracy, but almost a sort of spirit of democracy, an egalitarian spirit. And that's part of why the idea of socialism has kept coming back in American history."

"Socialism to me is about extending democracy and making sure that at the very least people have the necessities to live a good life."

Bhaskar Sunkara

But What About Venezuela? (And what about Scandinavian countries like Norway?)

Phillips-Fein: "I think that style of argument — and it is one that we've seen on the right for a long time, and the idea that pretty much any attempt to regulate the market or any expansion of the public sector will lead us down a slippery slope toward some kind of totalitarianism is really one of the oldest tropes that there is in right-wing language about left politics, or about any kind of effort to temper the power of business.

"I mean, it comes out of the Cold War, but actually I think in some ways the framework — probably the strongest articulation of this argument, comes kind of right in the immediate post-war years in the writing of people like Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek who, in 'The Road to Serfdom,' put forth a version of this argument that then, in an even more kind of extreme form than Hayek initially wrote it, became kind of one of the common tropes of the American right. But I think you find it actually going back even before the Cold War began. And so I think it's not simply a response to foreign policy nor is it just a description of tapping on fears about the Soviet Union, particularly. So I think that attempt to sort of warn against any expansion of the state in this very melodramatic framework, I think what's different today is actually that people are much more skeptical of it, and look at both the Scandinavian social democracies and see that in fact they've been quite stable for a long time, and also look at Venezuela and say what's happened in Venezuela is more complicated. It's a more complicated history and one that reflects inequalities in the region, inequalities between North and South America. It's not something that you can simply say, 'Aha. There is socialism and that's what the result is.' I think that that framework is being called into question by many people."

On nationalization, centralization and whether the goal is to overturn or undermine American capitalism

Sunkara: "We certainly don't want to replace the unaccountable rule by big corporations with the unaccountable rule of government bureaucrats. But there are segments of life that I believe should be nationalized and should be the concern and domain of a democratic state. So, for example, health care — if there is a fire in your home, and a fireman comes and puts out the fire, the fire department doesn't leave you with a bill at the end of your service and you don't have to figure out, 'Which fire company should I call? My house is on fire. Let me check the Yelp ratings of these rival fire companies in my area.' No, you just call 911, the fire truck comes. In the U.S., we're in a situation where we don't get necessary health care because there is rival competing insurance companies to deliver worse care at a higher cost. When we call an ambulance to our home because we need help to get to the hospital, we do get left with a bill. I think that's one sphere of life that should be in the control of the state. I think in other spheres there should still be a market. But I believe that workers can collectively own their own cooperatives, that they could compete in the market and that the penalties for failure shouldn't be destitution, like it often is today if you fail in market competition, but rather a soft kind of landing on a welfare state, where you're able to retool, retrain and figure out how else you could productively contribute to society."

"I think it's kind of both political democracy, but almost a sort of spirit of democracy, an egalitarian spirit. And that's part of why the idea of socialism has kept coming back in American history."

Kimberly Phillips-Fein

On what the socialist tradition in the U.S. has achieved

Sunkara: "Socialists were ahead of the curve on many of these issues, and in general, those standing against exploitation and against oppression, against hierarchy, have tended to be on the right side of history. The fight for the eight-hour day came out of the labor movement, came out of the social support, as well as America's anarchist movement, which was a force in the late 19th century. A lot of the proposals of the Socialist Party were later incorporated in one form or the other into the New Deal. The struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, many of these struggles were pioneered by people like Bayard Rustin, by Philip Randolph, by the American socialist tradition. So the socialist tradition in the United States has always fought against war, it's always fought against hierarchy, against oppression, for civil rights. It's been a truly incredibly democratic force and it's also a force that had criticisms of what they saw as a perversion of the socialist ideal in the authoritarian Stalinist states that arose in the 20th century. I think American socialism has been deprived of power. But it's also been on the right side of history and I think has played a role especially in conjunction with a broader progressive movement. So socialists alone didn't have the strength in the United States to make change by itself, but when combined with a mass movement of the best of American liberalism, you might say socialism gave American liberals ideas and gave them teeth. And together we made tremendous progressive advances in the first half of the 20th century. It's been the shattering of American socialism that's dovetailed with the neutering of American liberalism and its perversion of what we have now, which is a liberalism that increasingly is out of ideas about how to change the lives of working Americans for the better."

Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.

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