What Is Socialism?
January 19, 2020 • 4 min read
Is socialism ‘when the government does stuff?’ And are snowplows ‘socialist?’
The short answer: no. Socialism is worker ownership and control of the means of production. This means democratic control of the government and the economy and the abolition of capitalism. The longer answer…
Thanks in part to the explosion of social media, ‘socialism’ has come to mean basically anything populist that the government does, and proof that “the United States is already socialist.” You’ve undoubtedly seen the memes, listing an array of government agencies and programs as proof that socialism has already taken hold and you just missed the revolution. Unfortunately, the only thing these programs have in common with socialism is that they are funded, often unwillingly or unknowingly, by the working class of this country.
While some of the programs in these memes do serve a collective social need (libraries, social security, medicare, food stamps), most make absolutely no sense. Some are thrown in to imply that the basic operational needs of a country, such as roads, ambulances, garbage collection, and even snowplows, are inherently socialist. Then there are the worst offenders: coercive state force, such as the police, ICE, courts, jails, and prisons.
While Bernie Sanders himself isn’t necessarily to blame, his 2016 and 2020 campaigns for president have only added to the opacity of the concept of modern-day socialism by popularizing a new term: democratic socialism. This term not only makes absolutely no sense (socialism is inherently democratic), it implies that “regular” socialism lacks democratic decision making, or is in some way authoritarian and bad.
In a country as deeply anti-statist as the United States, associating socialism with “big government” is probably not that great of a marketing strategy. This strategy also, unfortunately, forces “democratic socialists” to own and defend the most abhorrent aspects of the state: imperialism and the “deep state” intelligence apparatus—institutions built to defend capitalism and shield the small minority who benefit from its contradictions. But is this perhaps the intention of the so-called “democratic socialists?”
In the above MSNBC interview, originally aired on February 7th, 2019, Democratic US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says “democratic socialists” can be capitalists, and all a corporation has to do to be “socialist” is add a few “workers” to the board of directors. You don’t have to read Das Kapital to realize this is laughably incorrect. Anyone who reads the standard dictionary definition of socialism would realize this is absolutely and completely false: unless those workers also democratically own and control that business, it is still capitalist. Giving a few workers a say in how the business is traded on the stock market doesn’t make it socialist.
The problem here is easily identified and explained: “democratic socialists” simply have the words mixed up. What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are referring to when they say “socialist like Scandinavian countries” is social democracy; regulations on capitalism so that the working class has a basic safety net, but no control over the means of production. And the United States already has this “regulated capitalism” system in place.
This line of thinking implies that the government is inherently socialist, so all you have to do to achieve “real” socialism is just grow the government, simultaneously misbranding socialism as “big government.” Unfortunately, this also assumes that bureaucrats elected to the “big government” will always push it towards worker control. As we saw with the Obama administration and the Affordable Care Act, this is not the case.
While plans like ACA liberate and cover many more Americans than before, it only liberates them to a capitalist market by forcing them to buy insurance from private for-profit corporations. While ACA was attacked as “socialism,” it is the opposite: it weakens the power of workers and increases the power of capital via tax giveaways to the insurance and drug companies. This isn’t socialism: it is the commodification of a social need. It is capitalism.
Maintaining these minimum social safety nets as a line in the sand does prevent many from dying or becoming sick but labeling it as “socialism” (democratic or otherwise) only dilutes the meaning of the word, and the material needs of working people. The ACA originally came with a “public option” (a government-run insurance company), but this too was shot down as “socialism,” even though—as we explained above—that’s not what socialism means.
If we want to achieve actual socialism—worker control—we need to start by dismantling these very systems which commodify basic human needs and rights. This will not happen as long as we continue to push a kinder, gentler “democratic socialism” and defend the government’s propping-up of the capitalist commodification of basic needs via things like ACA.
So, while snowplows are not socialist, they come a lot closer to it than “democratic socialism” ever does. Public Works organizations in Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle Washington, for example, are run by union workers and operate without any political ideology. They are completely serving a basic need in direct competition to for-profit snow removal companies.
If “democratic socialism” followed the blueprint of public works agencies and their snowplows, we would be much closer to a socialist world. But if we continue to believe that radical liberalism and social democracy are a form of “socialism” and declaring “mission accomplished,” we will never even begin to get there.