First, this is not at all a critique of representative democracy or “little d democracy.” It’s a critique of the way Americans talk about and understand socialism, because in my mind, socialism is the democratization of the economy, it’s the democratization of the workplace, and in many ways its goal is to democratize all of society. And in our system these goals will be enacted through democratic means. In my view, by that definition, socialism is the only solution to the “plutocratic capitalism” taking over the country and the world.
My problem with qualifying socialism as democratic socialism is that it inherently gestures to some of the most inhumane and authoritarian regimes in history. It cedes the debate on what is socialism right from the beginning, which is an inherently complex and muddy debate.
It agrees that the USSR was socialism, it gestures to those failures. It fails to proclaim and argue that socialism is something fundamentally different. In my mind these regimes do not represent socialism, not in the utopian sense of thinkers before and after Marx, or the Marxist scientific materialist sense. These regimes are best described as “authoritarian collectivism”, just as Michael Harrington described them in his book Socialism Past and Future. If we want to discuss the pitfalls of authoritarian regimes, be they “socialist” or “capitalist” that’s one discussion we can have. However, classifying all market economies as authoritarian or plutocratic because Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia rely on global capitalism and market economies seems kind of silly. Similarly qualifying all socialist social structures as inherently authoritarian in some way is just as silly.
Authoritarian Collectivism is not Socialism any more than Fascism is Capitalism
In Harrington’s mind there are two distinct socialist traditions, although it’s an inherently fractured term with a contested definition and undoubtedly more than two traditions, something he would admit. However, for Harrington’s purposes, the important distinction he wants to point out, is between more decentralized conceptions of the term socialist and the authoritarian collectivism that masquerades as socialism yet largely recreates top down power structures that run counter to the bottom up decentralized vision offered by the tradition Harrington believes best represents the term at its ideal. However it’s important to note, that the individual economic, social and cultural factors in any given regime play a massive role in how any given “socialism” will pan out in the real world. The same is true of capitalism.
Again, we don’t qualify capitalism with the term democratic, even though authoritarian market economies certainly exist. Maybe we should though, especially with fascism on the rise globally. At what point does it become important to distinguish between democratic capitalism and authoritarian capitalism or plutocratic capitalism. Where does the United States sit on that spectrum? Will American capitalists start referring to America’s economy as democratic capitalism, to be contrasted with authoritarian capitalism, when people like Bolosonaro in Brazil revive the military junta and sell the Amazon Rainforest to global capital? If and when that happens, that’s clearly a product of global capitalism, clearly relies on inherently anti-democratic institutions and structures, so doesn’t it make sense to distinguish between authoritarian capitalism and democratic capitalism?
It makes as much sense as qualifying American socialism as democratic socialism. If American socialists start advocating for revolution, maybe that will become a useful distinction to separate the social democrats from the tankies. However as it stands now, it doesn’t make much sense, it’s purely an ideological device that frames the discussion of socialism before it even takes place. It’s certainly an important rhetorical device politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have used to mainstream social democracy. Now it’s time to take it a step further, because the term socialism represents ideals like workplace democracy, equality, and an equitable distribution of wealth. There is nothing inherently anti-democratic about socialism and framing the debate by qualifying all socialist thought in American political discourse as “democratic socialism” allows the term to keep embedded within it that gesture to authoritarianism.
Reframing Socialism as a Rhetorical Device Takes Away its Political Bite
The term socialism remains a powerful tool against policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, or really any significant restructuring of the American tax code, specifically because it retains that gesture to authoritarianism. Normalizing socialism in is the next step to opening the door for serious discussion of ideas like nationalization of the oil and gas industry, social wealth funds, and truly democratizing the workplace through co-ops and other means. In my mind, these bottom up approaches that place major industries in the hands of the people actually impacted by them, are socialism and the socialist vision at its core. Contrasted with the top down approach capitalism provides where executives make billions of dollars literally killing the planet and exploiting their workers or the top down approach of authoritarian collectivism where a small group of incredibly powerful people also make billions while literally killing the planet/their people.
Socialism is about putting the whims of the market economy, its destructive power, and its productive capacity, in the hands of the people. That is inherently democratic and in countries where liberal democratic structures exist, the electoral process is the only way to truly enact a people powered bottom up restructuring of society.
Falling back on revolutionary movements in underdeveloped economies, or other countries struggling to industrialize or shirk the legacy of colonialism, in an attempt to highlight the shortcomings of socialism, is similarly disingenuous. In many countries socialists are trying to create brand new structures from the bottom up, many fail to do so and recreate many of the previous regimes inhumane institutions with flashy new socialist marketing materials. These shortcomings do not take away from the potential for socialist policy where liberal democratic values and norms are well established, or more importantly than liberal democratic values, simply representative institutions of some sort that enable bottom up power in the first place.
The socialist project in the United States and various other countries, is inherently democratic. It relies on democratic means. Its ends are to foster democracy, either directly through better protection of voting rights for all, or more indirectly by ending big money influence over elections and providing people the social stability required for civic engagement. No matter the goal, socialism is democratic. Socialism looks to expand upon the freedoms articulated by the liberal conception and extend them to deconstruct the ways in which economic power, racial injustice, and other structural injustices in society limit freedom for millions of people. Some conceptions go beyond the conceptions of liberal democracy or view its constructs skeptically, but that is not in and of itself a veer toward authoritarianism. It’s a much needed critical look at how our system functions and how power operates.
Call it socialism, or call it democratic socialism, we need to enact a policy agenda that creates an American social safety net which benefits all Americans. Not an economy structured to benefit those at the top. In my estimation socialism is the way to do just that, and socialism in the United States will come through the ballot box. So quit acting like socialism is somehow inherently undemocratic, it’s not, it fosters more democracy and that is the project which unites American socialists today.