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Defining Democratic Socialism

Democratic socialism is a way of organizing society that guarantees all people a decent and dignified life by decommodifying basic human needs and ensuring agency over our productive lives

Democratic socialism boils down to a belief that all people ought to live with dignity and that it is our collective responsibility as a society to guarantee that life for everyone, without exception. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

Democratic socialism boils down to a belief that all people ought to live with dignity and that it is our collective responsibility as a society to guarantee that life for everyone, without exception. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, in a major speech dedicated to democratic socialism, Bernie Sanders recalled the legacies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal by introducing a “Twenty-First-Century Economic Bill of Rights” meant to universally guarantee “the right to a decent job that pays a living wage, the right to quality healthcare, the right to a complete education, the right to affordable housing, the right to a clean environment, and the right to a secure retirement.”

Sanders remarked, “What I believe is that the American people deserve freedom – true freedom… While the Bill of Rights protects us from the tyranny of an oppressive government, many in the establishment would like the American people to submit to the tyranny of oligarchs, multinational corporations, Wall Street banks, and billionaires… democratic socialism to me requires achieving political and economic freedom in every community in this country.”

This likely represents Sanders’ most in-depth and full-throated articulation of what he means by democratic socialism and why it is so vitally important to combat the “right-wing forces of oligarchy, corporatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia.”

Sanders’ focus on defining democratic socialism as an antidote to right-wing extremism, as the natural economic extension of our universally embraced political Bill of Rights, and as the “unfinished business” of FDR and the Democratic Party is brilliant politics. He is placing democratic socialism firmly within the American political tradition and connecting it to widely held American political values in order to push back against a more than century-long smear campaign waged against the terminology and politics of socialism.

His focus was rightly placed on destigmatizing the basic vocabulary of democratic socialism and making the case for why it is the best path forward to repudiate oligarchy and authoritarianism and to realize widely shared values of freedom, justice, dignity, and security.

Yet by the end of the speech, you would still be hard pressed to come away with a concise and substantive definition of democratic socialism. Providing such a definition is not really Sanders job as a presidential candidate responsible for communicating a holistic political vision to the country. His focus was rightly placed on destigmatizing the basic vocabulary of democratic socialism and making the case for why it is the best path forward to repudiate oligarchy and authoritarianism and to realize widely shared values of freedom, justice, dignity, and security.

But a definition is important.

Since Sanders’ insurgent campaign for president in 2016, the idea of democratic socialism has exploded into the country’s political consciousness and become increasingly popular. A recent Harris poll found that “4 in 10 Americans say they would prefer living in a socialist country over a capitalist one” and that fifty-five percent of women aged 18-54 prefer socialism to capitalism. A 2018 Gallup poll found that fifty-seven percent of all Democrats view socialism positively.

Core policy demands championed by democratic socialists like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (as well as many progressive Democrats) are even more widely embraced. Seventy percent of Americans support Medicare for All, sixty percent support tuition-free college, and a whopping eighty-one percent support a Green New Deal. And of course, the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America—the country’s largest socialist organization—has surged from 6,000 members in 2015 to over 50,000 today.

This all begs the question, what does democratic socialism actually mean? As an ardent supporter of Sanders since 2015, as an organizer who’s spent the last six years in the progressive movement, and even as an active member of my local DSA chapter, I must admit that an easy-to-understand yet ideologically substantive definition has remained surprisingly and stubbornly elusive.

So I’m going to take a crack at it, not with any pretense that this is how Sanders, Cortez, DSA, or other prominent left leaders or organizations would define it, but as a way of putting a stake in the ground that may help spark conversation around this critically important concept.

Democratic socialism is a way of organizing society that guarantees all people a decent and dignified life by decommodifying basic human needs and ensuring agency over our productive lives.

This definition has three basic elements. First is the core moral value that we are fighting for: a decent and dignified life for everyone. Democratic socialism explicitly names the fact that we as human beings have basic material and social needs—food, water, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, companionship, agency, and so forth—that must necessarily be met if we are to experience a decent and dignified standard of living and have the opportunity to flourish as human beings.

Second is the recognition that the only way to guarantee that these needs are met is to separate them from the profit-driven marketplace and administer them through the state. Our capitalist economy is fundamentally organized around the profit motive, which means that private companies must continually grow their profits to avoid being driven out of business by competitors or from facing a revolt from their shareholders. This core structural incentive of our economic system means that it cannot possibly be the vehicle we rely upon to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, since what is best for generating private profits will often—if not usually—be at odds with ensuring public wellbeing. The existence of fossil fuel corporations that are knowingly destroying the planet and health insurance companies who proactively deny people lifesaving care in order to shore up their bottom-lines are case and point. Democratic socialism therefore insists that we must decommodify basic human needs (like a stable environment and healthcare) and divorce their distribution from the profit motive by transferring their administration to the far more (though far from ideally) democratic and accountable institution of the state. 

Another way of understanding this, which Sanders heavily relies on, is in the language of rights. In the same way that we acknowledge basic political rights like freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, the right to a fair trial, and so on, democratic socialism holds that we are also entitled to certain economic rights, like healthcare, education, housing, childcare, a good job, and a living wage. These are all considered rights—that is, non-negotiable entitlements, rather than optional privileges—because they are all prerequisites to leading a decent and dignified life, to being truly free. As such, it makes no sense to believe such rights could be adequately secured through a marketplace designed to maximize profit, just as we would have no illusions about private companies somehow spontaneously ensuring our political rights. Rather, democratic socialism argues that it should be an explicitly public responsibility of the government to guarantee these rights for everyone.

Third is the understanding that people ought to have control of their own work. Most people work for a living and through their labor, generate value for their employer. But most people do not have any meaningful say in the decisions of their workplace. They have no influence to determine anything about what their company does, what it produces, where it is located, or how to distribute the profits that they as workers are primarily responsible for generating. Democratic socialism understands this dynamic between employee and employer (or worker and capitalist) as a fundamentally exploitative relationship and demands that workers should exercise direct agency over our productive lives.

Again, we can draw a parallel to how we already conceive of political agency. In the same way that we expect all citizens to have an equal voice in our democracy (as far as we still may be from that ideal) by each person casting a single and equal vote, so too should we expect to have an equal voice in our work lives. It is fundamentally unjust for companies to be controlled by a handful of wealthy executives, board members, and shareholders while its workers—upon whom the entire company depends—are given nothing but a wage (and maybe if they’re lucky, healthcare and other “benefits”).

In order to guarantee basic human needs through the state, we need to prevent the accumulation of wealth that is then used to corrupt our political system.

The result of this extreme inequality of economic power is then translated into the massive levels of both economic wealth and political influence we see today. Perversely, the exercise of this undue political influence by billionaire campaign contributors results in an erosion of the state as an effective vehicle for guaranteeing basic human needs, as politicians beholden to wealthy donors pursue neoliberal agendas that benefit the rich at the expense of ordinary working people.

This means decommodifying basic human needs and ensuring agency over our productive lives are intimately intertwined. In order to guarantee basic human needs through the state, we need to prevent the accumulation of wealth that is then used to corrupt our political system. Likewise, in order to create the conditions for working people to successfully organize and seize control over their own production, we need to guarantee those basic material needs—like healthcare, education, housing, and childcare—that otherwise make them dependent on their employer.

In other words, the political imperatives of democratic socialists are necessarily twofold. First, whenever possible, to decommodify basic human needs by transferring their administration from the profit-driven market to the democratic state. This looks likes like all-out support for policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, tuition-free college, a federal jobs guarantee, social housing, paid family leave, and universal childcare and pre-K. Second, whenever possible, to directly empower workers to struggle for control over their productive lives. This looks like supporting and strengthening labor unions, encouraging strikes and militant labor action, and pursuing policies that give workers a greater share of control over their companies’ decision-making bodies and processes, as well as their profits. It can also look like strengthening our political democracy with reforms like automatic voter registration, felon enfranchisement, and publicly funded elections, which will help workers vie for political power that can be leveraged into greater economic agency. (Such reforms would also make the state a more accountable vehicle for providing basic human needs.)

Democratic socialism boils down to a belief that all people ought to live with dignity and that it is our collective responsibility as a society to guarantee that life for everyone, without exception. Whether you’re listening to Sanders or Cortez or in the company of your DSA comrades, it seems clear that all are interested in providing this basic measure of wellbeing for all.

While the left can and should embrace more abstract enlightenment values like liberty, justice, and equality, democratic socialism gets us back to the material and social needs that characterize us as a species in the context of our modern society. It asks the question, “What do we as human beings in today’s world need to live well?” And it gives an honest answer, “A lot more than what most people have.” Given this discrepancy and the understanding that a profit-obsessed capitalist economy is incapable of closing the gap, it suggests the logical alternative: guaranteeing basic human needs through a democratic state and giving working people direct control of their own production.

That is how we ensure a decent and dignified life for all of us. That is democratic socialism.

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Curt Ries

Curt Ries

Curt Ries is a political organizer and freelance writer. A volunteer with the Bernie 2020 organizing team, he is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement, and former Deputy Director of Democracy Spring.

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