A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

What is Democratic Socialism?

Getting at moral economics, now that the dust has cleared.

I edit a local newspaper and have been fielding a lot of attempts to convince me why I should be doing more to address the way our nation and world is slipping into a hellish form of socialism. This usually ends with me telling whoever’s called or emailed, that basically, I am a socialist. I tell them that it’s our nation and world’s shared socialist elements, from education and roads to economic development incentives and healthcare concerns, that make the idea of community plausible. At which point my correspondents laugh, as though I were joking.

But as anyone who has paid attention to self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders should know, using the world socialist with pride is no longer meant sarcastically, or even with any eye to satire—Sanders won primaries and spoke at the Democratic Convention during Prime Time, and spoke to Fox News this year without having to explain that he was not a Marxist/Leninist or a Communist.

You still ask, though: what is democratic socialism, or the many ways it’s different from social democracy?

“We are socialists because we reject an economic order based on private profit, alienated labor, gross inequalities of wealth and power, discrimination based on race and sex, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo,” reads the actual Democratic Socialists of America Party (DSAP)’s description of what it is. “We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships. We are socialists because we are developing a concrete strategy for achieving that vision, for building a majority movement that will make democratic socialism a reality in America. We believe that such a strategy must acknowledge the class structure of American society and that this class structure means that there is a basic conflict of interest between those sectors with enormous economic power and the vast majority of the population.”

Wow, right? There are elements of that description that even fit what’s come to be known as Trumpism, if only on a purely economic, fairness, and anti-elitist basis. Even though the DSAP hasn’t run its own candidates in years, they chose to endorse Democrats and work with them, except in the case of Mr. Sanders, who they started supporting when he ran for and became the only self-declared socialist in the United States Senate.

Which gets us to regular socialists, and then the idea of social democracy.

To get at the former idea, you have to get a sense of what Karl Marx, historian par excellence, was actually writing about in Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto, describing how economics in the industrial age was shifting the nature of power and dangerous political situations. Some followed Marx and writing partner Frederich Engel’s advocacy for social ownership of the means of all means of production, alone.

Some felt that such a shift, necessary for the good of the many, could only be achieved through forceful means—by revolution of some sort. But then many started advocating, from the late 19th century on, a softer means of evolving the best of all political and economic worlds by conjoining the political power of a true democracy with the economic rights of shared-ownership of capital and production.

As for social democracies…that is the term applied to the ownership of certain industries by the government, and support of others in the private sector, that has been a mainstay of European and other democracies’ economic policies for years now. Think Labour Party in Great Britain, the Scandinavian miracles, Germany’s post-war growth, the founding governments of Israel and India, as well as our own Rooseveltian New Deal, business and financial regulations, and the underlying tenets of perestroika and glasnost. In other words, we’re talking about humanized capitalism and non-centralized control of capital.

But what about the overthrow of the bourgeoisie that defined the rhetoric of the Communards of Paris, 1870, and so many subsequent people’s movements, let alone the endless (but much more tepidly American) socialist presidential campaigns of the likes of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas? Or what Democratic Society students such as the late Tom Hayden wrote endless statements about during the halcyon days of the late 1960s and early 1970s?

Democratic socialists, like their brethren in other Marx-inspired fields, love the moral philosophies of equanimity and ownership, while capitalists have devolved from Adam Smith’s many questions to the pure mechanics of profit, and trickle down theories. Think John Maynard Keynes versus Milton Friedman (forgetting, for now, the novelistic flourishes of Ayn Rand).

The very term “socialist” didn’t even come about until 1827, in Britain (as a definition for what utopianist Robert Owen was doing with his intentional communities). Its first real proponents were known, simultaneously, as Levellers (seeking pure democracy), Agitators (seeking participation in all industry by its workers), and Diggers (all about communal ownership, cliving, and cooperative everything).

But we digress. No matter how you order the words “socialism” and “democracy,”  they’ve been allowed to come together in the US mainstream for the first time since television’s advent…and we all survived. Which means that alongside them come concerns regarding equality of economic as well as political means, the morality of profits, the idea of representation and a voice in all aspects of one’s life—even income redistribution and the ideal for social projects like real shared healthcare beyond the support of private insurance industries.

Where do the true idealists separate from the wannabes, the fakers, and the dangerously falsified capitalists looking out for their own skins and bank accounts?

Ah…those are the big questions Europeans, Indians, and philosophers the whole world over wrestled with decades ago—and have moved on from to work on just getting things done in as best a fashion as they can find.

Which may just be that mixture of socialism and democracy we may eventually get just right…even with a bit of profitability and privacy thrown in for good American measure.