One day last February, I found myself seated on stage, rather incongruously, between the neoconservative Never Trumper–turned–Resistance hero Bill Kristol and my friend Natasha Lennard, a radical anti-fascist writer and activist I first met at Occupy Wall Street back in 2011. We had all made our way to the New School for the closing panel of “Liberalism and Democracy: Past, Present, Prospects,” a conference organized by professors James Miller and Helena Rosenblatt, authors of two recently published books, Can Democracy Work? and The Lost History of Liberalism, respectively.
The audience was mainly academics and graduate students, with a few journalists thrown in for good measure; the atmosphere decidedly more rarefied than rabble-rousing.
The two-day confab had opened with a screening of my new film, What Is Democracy?, a philosophical documentary that put one of the conference’s main themes—democracy understood as collective self-rule—front and center. But where the film makes the case for democracy’s deepening and expansion beyond electoral politics into areas such as workplaces, schools, the health sector, the economy, and the home, the majority of the event’s presenters went on to emphasize the mandate to contain democracy’s growth within the bounds circumscribed by the conference’s other organizing idea, liberalism.
After the credits rolled, the esteemed historian Ira Katznelson took the podium. Elegantly breaking down the distinction between the two intertwined terms, he paraphrased Alexis de Tocqueville: “a democratic people rule as God reigns in the universe.” Liberalism, Katznelson continued, is an altogether different beast from democracy—one more attuned to, and wary of, human beings’ less-than-divine tendencies. As a set of political guardrails, liberalism aims to protect individuals from predatory rulers while also preventing the multitude from becoming a mob. “Democracy advances, and liberalism restrains, popular sovereignty by creating means, familiar to Americans, that include staggered and mediated elections, a free press, religious liberty, judicial review, federalism, the separation of powers,” Katznelson explained. This conception of liberalism, he went on, was incubated and promoted by the very magazine you are reading. Conjuring a “freer, more tolerant, more rational society” in its pages under the guidance of founding editor Herbert Croly, The New Republic was instrumental to liberalism’s ascension in the twentieth century.
That same day, as it happened, I signed the contract to write this story—a story about the growing popularity of socialism in America. Katznelson’s words were still ringing in my ears. “If we want to live inside a decent political order,” he had confidently declared, “there is no better option on offer” than liberal democracy. But his lecture had concluded on a downbeat note, for liberal democracy now finds its star fading, dimmed by challengers from various corners: by ethno-nationalist pseudo-populism and illiberal autocrats in countries such as Hungary and Brazil, by authoritarian capitalism offering economic growth without political freedom in China. It’s also been challenged by resurgent socialism in places like the United Kingdom and even, astonishingly enough, the United States.
After decades of exile from mainstream American political discourse, the word “socialism” is now emblazoned in headlines and getting serious (if not always respectful) hearings from politicians holding and seeking the highest offices of the land. Even people who are not fans of Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (though a surprising number are fans—he’s the most popular politician in the country) cheered the arrival of two democratic socialist powerhouses in Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Detroit Representative Rashida Tlaib. Their victories are higher profile, but no less significant, than those at the state and municipal level—from Houston, where a democratic socialist judge won his campaign, to Chicago, where six of 50 city council seats will soon be occupied by socialists. Philadelphia Democratic ward leader Nikil Saval told me he is now considering running for higher office, since political space has opened for him to campaign as who he really is—a socialist. It’s a development he could have scarcely foreseen a few years ago.
This leftward momentum has also nudged long-standing bastions of liberalism, be they magazines like The New Republic or the younger wing of the Democratic Party, to take socialism seriously, while also compelling the federal government to respond. “Detailed policy proposals from self-declared socialists are gaining support in Congress and among much of the younger electorate,” warns the Council of Economic Advisers in its 2018 white paper, “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism”—a stern alarm that’s echoed across countless think pieces and pundit panels. The convergence of stubbornly stagnant incomes, unpayable student loans, unaffordable housing and health care, racist policing systems, entrenched misogyny, and a looming climate catastrophe has displaced long-standing political certainties in America. Now a growing wave of millennial radicalism—together, of course, with a nativist lurch toward authoritarianism on the right—has put the liberal tradition on the defensive.
The old liberal consensus issued from the blithe insistence that the marriage between democracy and capitalism, between free elections and free-ish markets, was a charmed and stable union that would yield prosperity and justice everywhere. Those foundational precepts look more and more fanciful as acute conditions of economic inequality and democratic deficit continue to deepen. Many establishment liberals still hope that the partnership between untrammeled capitalism and liberal democracy can be patched up, but a growing and restive chorus of radical and reformist voices roots for their separation. People are beginning to say long-unspeakable thoughts aloud: If we want to salvage democracy, and many of the liberal rights and protections we associate with it, we’ll have to do more than reform or temper capitalism; we must find a way, rather, to jettison and transcend it.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously wrote about “the specter of communism” haunting Europe. And at the “Liberalism and Democracy” conference, it seemed fitting that socialism appeared mostly as a spectral presence—like a path long ago taken to be a dead end now appearing eerily on the far horizon. The assembled scholars seemed to believe that the American public needed to be reminded that history had ended some three decades past—that the ideological contents of lapsed Cold War battles had been long consigned to history’s dustbin, and the road to socialism blocked off. They turned to the challenge with manifest enthusiasm.
The title of the conference’s closing panel drove this terminal message home. “The Last Best Hope of Earth” (emphasis on last) clearly referred to liberal democracy, as Marc Plattner, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, made explicit in his opening commentary. Whatever liberal democracy’s shortcomings might be, he argued, “the alternatives are always worse, and often unspeakably worse.” Citizens, he warned, are “likely to undervalue the imperfect freedom and equality delivered by their imperfect liberal democracies.” As a result, “the blessings of liberal democracies are too often discounted, especially by those who have never experienced life under other kinds of regimes.” Bill Kristol weighed in next, questioning the wisdom of ordinary citizens, who, in his estimation, tend to undervalue the liberty he and other conservatives understand as the core tenant of liberalism. (An early and credulous champion of the disastrous occupation of Iraq and the conservative tactician who’d been more responsible than anyone else for Sarah Palin’s elevation to the national stage, Kristol did not acknowledge that elites conspired to deceive the public into supporting the war, nor did he mention that voters were not foolish enough to heed his advice and send Palin to the White House.)
Taken together, their remarks were emblematic of liberalism’s apprehensive response to mounting pressure from the left. In my own comments from the podium, I tried to dispel two stubborn misconceptions about today’s socialist revival. First, its adherents do not criticize liberal democracy because they discount its vaunted rights and freedoms, but because they seek to create the conditions under which such principles might at last be fully enacted and ideally expanded. (You’re far more likely to hear young socialists talk about enhancing democratic processes by, say, enfranchising felons or making Election Day a national holiday than promoting a vanguard-led dictatorship of the proletariat.) Second, the central political and social challenges we now face stem not from the fabled “tyranny of the majority”—the wayward passions of the masses—but from the impunity of a greedy and blinkered minority. This model of oligarchic rule is epitomized by the world’s 26 billionaires who possess as much wealth as fully half of the world’s population—or by the five people on the Supreme Court determined to use their judicial authority to impose a conservative agenda on a resistant population. Poll after poll shows that the bulk of citizens, often in overwhelming numbers, are pro-immigrant, would prefer a public option for health care, want background checks for gun purchases, favor much higher taxes on the wealthy, support swift and serious action on climate change, and want to end wars, but these positions do not reflect what our leaders deliver.
It’s now fashionable in pundit circles to frame our current political moment as “populist”—an explanatory frame that allows for a false equivalency between the left and the right, as though pluralist-minded supporters of Bernie Sanders are the mirror image of Trump’s ethno-nationalist constituency. In reality, however, our core social problems stem not from a misguided people but from unaccountable plutocrats who have rigged the rules of the game in order to veto substantive popular reform. “Democracy advances, liberalism restrains,” Katznelson said. But the socialist wing of our politics and its growing retinue of fellow travelers are asking just who is being restrained: the people or the powerful? What good is liberalism if it enables power to follow property at the expense of a forward-looking popular will?
Even the most basic liberal democratic right—the right to vote, about which there is no end to sanctimony in this country—has never been equitably put into practice. Gaze upon our system’s vaunted political blessings from the perspective of, say, someone in Puerto Rico, and they look even more mixed than they do from the mainland, where the Constitution places more weight on rural votes and less-populated regions by design. Hurricane Maria left more than 3,000 dead, not because of the force of the storm but the because of inadequate, underfunded infrastructure that still has not been repaired. This state of malign neglect exists in part because island residents, American citizens though they may be, lack representation in Congress and have no electoral votes to influence the presidency. Our country’s other supposedly sacred right, free speech, means little when the Supreme Court has repeatedly decided that spending money merits First Amendment protections. Rather than reflecting a desire to ditch liberal rights, the turn toward democratic socialism is born of the recognition that liberal principles are not strong enough to survive, let alone constrain, concentrated economic power. And absent any such robust constraints, the forces that the first capital-P Populists of the 1890s dubbed the Money Power will inevitably seek to undermine the basic freedoms regular people fought and died to win.
Looking back on the New School event, I’m tempted to paraphrase Plattner: “The blessings of liberal democracies are too often overestimated, especially by those who have never experienced life without social or economic privilege in their own regime.” For many, the blessings of liberal democracy seem both desirable and distressingly elusive. Half a century after the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. has countless highways named after him, but being black or brown still dramatically increases your odds of being imprisoned or killed by the police, redlined out of a neighborhood, or shunted into subprime, still-segregated educational institutions. (Meanwhile, rich parents compete to pay $50,000 a year to send their children to private “Baby Ivy” kindergartens.)
Equal protection on paper means little for those who have suffered sexual violence and who watch offenders go unpunished—or to victims of gender bias and discrimination, who see workplace harassers promoted or handed exorbitant exit packages, as was the case recently at Google. Similarly, liberal democracy leaves much to be desired for people whose communities double as environmental sacrifice zones, forcing residents to drink poisoned water and breathe polluted air—while the Environmental Protection Agency rolls back already limited safeguards and standards. Economic democracy feels like a dead letter for the members of an increasingly casualized and debt-ravaged workforce, who can be found holding multiple jobs, driving Uber late into the night after teaching public school by day, or frantically laboring and fainting from heatstroke in Amazon warehouses to further enrich Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man on Earth.
During the conference’s question-and-answer period, one might have thought Lennard and I had called for the reopening of work camps. Instead, all we did was praise the idea of the Green New Deal—a proposal that purposely pays tribute to the legacy of one of history’s most influential liberals, FDR—while pointing out that it had taken the arrival of a young and unapologetic democratic socialist, Representative Ocasio-Cortez, to propose solutions proportional to the ecological catastrophe at hand. Lennard, to her credit, noted that liberals tend to be on the right side of history when difficult battles are comfortably in the past. And she also went out of her way to praise liberal rights frameworks as necessary tools, “insufficient shields and blunt weapons” though they may be. If liberal democracy is incapable of delivering the basic conditions required for democratic participation—“being alive on a not-dead planet, not in a cage, enfranchised, not starving and sick”—then it is our duty, she argued, to question such a system and to challenge it.
Plattner shook his head. “Socialism ... doesn’t strike me as a new idea nor a promising idea,” he said, flabbergasted. “I’m not used to hearing arguments that question the worth of liberal democracy.” Multiple respondents thought it fitting to mention that the German left had helped usher in Hitler, implying that Lennard and I were unwitting handmaidens of totalitarianism. One speaker elicited cheers with an emotional appeal: We should all stand “shoulder to shoulder” to fight Trump, leftists locking arms with neoconservatives to return us to the twentieth-century status quo. Part of me was sympathetic to his call—Trump is, of course, an abomination and must be defeated in 2020. But sitting up there next to Bill Kristol, and thinking about how his beloved war on terrorism had led to the displacement and suffering of the Afghan and Syrian refugees featured in my documentary, and how candidate-turned-reality-TV-star Palin had paved the way for reality-TV-star-turned-candidate Trump, I couldn’t bring myself to clap for a resistance that refuses to engage in even minimal political introspection or reassessment.
Even as many liberals remain skeptical of, or hostile to, the seeming socialist turn in American politics, the right-wing media has been crying wolf about socialism since Fox News was a glimmer in Rupert Murdoch’s eye. These conservative apparatchiks know what socialism is and aren’t afraid to say it: a $15-an-hour minimum wage, paid maternity leave, free college, universal health care, well-paved roads, subsidized housing, public television, and so on. The Green New Deal is definitely socialism: “It’s a watermelon: green on the outside and deep, deep communist red on the inside,” conservative talking head and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka intoned from the stage at February’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
Indeed, the growing popularity of socialism may spring at least in part from the longer-term failures of this negative-branding campaign: Tell enough people struggling to make ends meet that socialism will allow them to consult a doctor without fear of bankruptcy, and perhaps to enjoy a restorative paid vacation now and then, and some are bound to think it sounds like a pretty good idea. That was definitely the gist of a well-traveled social media meme this winter that featured a Fox News segment on Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and the other left-aligned lawmakers sworn in to the 116th Congress; it counterposed sweetly smiling headshots of the alleged socialist insurgents alongside bullet-pointed policy goals, such as free college and Medicare for All, that actually poll quite well in American opinion surveys. The graphic made socialism seem not only appealing, but also au courant, thus inadvertently chipping away at decades of carefully crafted propaganda.
Since 1989, political and cultural elites have worked hard to depict socialism as an outdated and stultifying relic—as state oppression and unfreedom in service of a naïve and dangerous fantasy of equality. But as 32-year-old Lee Carter, the lone democratic socialist representative in the Virginia state legislature, tells film director Yael Bridge in her forthcoming Socialism: An American Story, Cold War fearmongering just doesn’t work the way it used to. For a generation understandably worried that they will never find dignified and fairly remunerated work (let alone muster the savings required to own a home or retire), who watch the principal on their high-interest college loans balloon despite regular payments, and who have seen extreme weather events and temperature records broken every year of their lives, the status quo seems untenable. By contrast, the horror of a defunct Soviet bloc seems a far more distant threat than the current dystopia of billionaires seeking to found private space colonies while most of humanity lives in squalor. Youthful converts to left-wing politics may not know exactly what policies democratic socialism would consist of, from the nitty-gritty details of participatory decision-making structures to the role of markets in a world where capital no longer rules. But they do have a sense of what socialism would feel like. Socialism would feel like having a future.
Yet today’s warning signs of elite institutional collapse in the political mainstream serve chiefly to remind us that socialism’s increasing credibility is largely attributable to factors external to any independent mobilization of socialist politics. They mostly stem from a combination of capitalism’s failures and conservative overreach rather than from any newfound reserve of strength, savvy, or strategic genius on the left. Read any article in the left press aimed at rousing the socialist faithful, and chances are the final paragraph concludes with some variation of “we have a world to win.” But in my more cynical and/or anxious moments, I’m tempted to say the opposite: The left has a world to lose—or rather, a promising shift in the political winds to squander or blow.
The signs that people, particularly people under 40, are more open to socialist politics than they have been in generations are remarkable and encouraging, but they also pose the problem of collective self-definition. The left—whatever exactly the “left” in America is—must rise to, and seize, the occasion. The largest challenge ahead is to move socialism from the fringe to the center of political life and turn people into committed democratic socialists—as opposed to people who tell pollsters they prefer socialism to capitalism or that Bernie Sanders is their favorite candidate in the ring. (Most of these same poll respondents also report that centrist Joe Biden, and not the more stolidly left-leaning Elizabeth Warren, is their second choice, thus calling the ideological coherence of their proclivities into serious doubt.)
This is a momentous task and a tall order for any movement, let alone one mostly made up of people who are new to activism. Through no fault of their own, young people have come of age in a sort of political vacuum, and in a society that extends precious few opportunities for democratic engagement beyond the ballot box. In the blasted political landscape facing most millennial socialists today, few organizations exist to pass on institutional memory and hard-won knowledge about the ins-and-outs and ups-and-downs of organizing. (Labor unions, invaluable though they may be, are beleaguered and shrinking.) To build a mass base, any viable socialist movement must be as welcoming as possible to all comers, no matter how inexperienced or uncool; it must be generous and patient while also being strategically disciplined and tough-minded.
These challenges are formidable, and may well sink the socialist ship before it ever really sets sail (the intense opposition and corporate sabotage that would be unleashed should the vessel ever gain real momentum are also important to consider, though beyond the purview of this essay). Yet people are already making progress, and every bit counts. Looking at the left as a whole—as opposed to zooming in to focus on the inevitable internecine and interpersonal squabbles—the situation today remains far more promising than it was a decade ago. Then, in the wake of the worst global recession since the 1930s, the people shouting the loudest about economic injustice were racist, incoherent Tea Party disciples. Today, by contrast, it’s the left that is driving the conversation about economics, thanks to a combination of theory and practice: a journalistic boom in socialist commentary that has spread from independent magazines such as Jacobin, n+1, Viewpoint, and Current Affairs to more mainstream channels, and a steady stream of grassroots mobilizations, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to a wave of strikes led by teachers, debtors, feminists, and kids concerned to rescue the planet from climate catastrophe.
People are learning in real time. In 2011, the Occupy movement reflected the then-dominant tendency on the activist left—or at least the predominantly white and anarchist left—of rejecting any attempt to exercise or take power. Occupy participants (myself among them) resisted many pragmatic appeals to recognize leadership, collaborate with labor unions, make specific demands of the state, or join electoral campaigns. That skepticism isn’t totally gone—and it can be healthy in properly administered doses—but today’s left activists have reassessed it and rightly found it lacking. A new generation is rejecting the old equation, long common in radical circles, holding that group discipline is a form of domination, that losing is a sign of political purity, and that change can only come from outside—even if we also know socialism will never be won solely at the voting booth. If nothing else, explicitly orienting a movement as socialist requires the recognition of two things: first, the central role of class conflict in our society, reminding us that laborers, not bosses or investors, are the principal source of economic and social value; and second, the significance of the state as the repository of a crucial set of publicly accountable institutions that should come under people’s control and, eventually, be transformed to serve people’s genuine interests in the process.
In contrast to conservatives, with their clear vision of what this socialist transformation would entail—an oppressive nanny state smothering its citizens with free checkups and childcare—avowed socialists are far less likely to be confident about what lies ahead. “There is no model we can point to. We have no idea what it would be like to live in a society free of exploitation and how that would change people,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a prominent socialist and expert on race and housing policy, told me.
Democratic socialism, after all, cannot simply be more robust public services or more stringently regulated markets—however nice free checkups and childcare may be. Such reforms are the hallmarks of social democracy, the fragile compact between capitalism and the welfare state now coming undone even in its Scandinavian and Canadian strongholds. Since democratic socialism has never been tried at scale, no one knows precisely what it would involve, nor how it could be brought about. Indeed, as Michael Harrington, a founder of the newly reinvigorated Democratic Socialists of America, wrote in 1989 toward the end of his life, “one of the main consequences of the socialist movement has been not socialism but a more humane, rational, and intelligent capitalism.” That’s undeniably a good thing, Harrington explained, but he also cautioned that many past efforts to implement socialism had been more ambiguous, “sometimes disastrously wrong or else vague and merely rhetorical.”
Under capitalism, the power of capital, of money and markets, dominates; this is the current reality we all live and breathe. But what would change if social power—which is the heart of socialism, after all—set society’s course? Such an arrangement would be a far cry from the authoritarian, bureaucratic collectivism—or statism—that collapsed at the end of the last century. (Though policy-minded democratic socialists should by all means build on examples and lessons from the other socialist experiments long overshadowed by the Soviet Union—looking at, say, health care and organic agriculture in Cuba; educational policies in Kerala, India; the short-lived attempt to build distributed or “cybernetic” decision-making technology in Chile; and the workplace cooperatives of the former Yugoslavia.) The challenge, however, as Harrington himself observed, is that while Marx “assumed that ‘society’ would take over direction of the economy from the capitalists.... there is no unitary subject of historic action called ‘society.’” And this analytical absence opens, in turn, on to a host of real-world political dilemmas.
During a recent visit to St. Petersburg, Florida, I overheard a group of activists discussing tenant organizing and gentrification at a local coffee shop. Some wore pins and T-shirts associated with the Dream Defenders, a racial and economic justice group founded soon after Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman—a man whose right to “stand his ground” and shoot perceived threatening figures at will was deemed more salient than Martin’s right to live. When I asked if they saw any signs of socialism’s growing popularity in their day-to-day organizing efforts, they looked at me if I was a cop or a crazy person. (After duly consulting Google, they accepted my explanation that I was in town showing a film at a nearby campus.)
It would have hardly mattered if I was a narc, however, since they didn’t have much to report. Sure, there has been an uptick in anti-establishment sentiment since 2016, they told me—but they also all agreed it was the kind of energy that could go either way, funneled to the left or right, depending on what explanatory frameworks and movements people encountered first. Socialists, in other words, aren’t born but made—and the left’s capacity for outreach, in central Florida as in most areas, is profoundly limited.
“I am a socialist,” one person responded when I asked outright, but they (their preferred pronoun) added a qualification—they identified with black socialism, a tradition that runs from W.E.B. Du Bois through the Black Panthers, not the sort of socialism that’s broadly identified with Bernie Sanders. They’d experienced too much discrimination from white people of all income levels to believe that racism could be eradicated by focusing on class politics alone, and they felt that too many lefty neophytes believed that to be the case. When I asked what black socialism meant, I got an answer both concise and moving: freedom. “Freedom not just to live but thrive, to love who I want to love, to not have to work a soul-crushing job, to be free, but not the kind of freedom that depends on dominating others.”
As I got up to leave, a young man who had been listening finally weighed in. On his computer, he drew up an old map of St. Petersburg from the 1930s, which vividly showed the less desirable, redlined areas where the community’s black residents were forced to live, a place he grew up in and still calls home. “I’m frustrated by the whole conversation about socialism versus capitalism, as though they are separate things,” he said. The current and disproportionate affluence that white communities possess, he explained, has been built on centuries of state intervention and assistance: Military forces stole indigenous land, the government parceled it out and gave it away to white farmers, and then a whole apparatus of development and finance was mobilized, first to exclude black people, and then bringing them back within limited reach of credit and capital—but only on the lending industry’s predatory terms. The New Deal and postwar systems of government-enabled prosperity and worker rights instrumental in elevating the white, suburban middle class shut out swaths of the citizenry. As a result, the median wealth of white families in America now hovers around $147,000, compared with the $3,600 possessed by their black counterparts.
The beneficiaries of racialized access to capital also enjoy the priceless bonus of socially sanctioned self-deception: They get to believe that their wealth was earned on the “free market,” the product of hard work and a pristine frontier-style capitalism untainted by welfare or socialism. None of this, of course, could be further from the truth. Middle- and upper-class white people aren’t forced to acknowledge and feel guilty for the public benefits they receive, while poor mothers are made to feel ashamed for using food stamps to feed their kids.
Socialism, the young man argued, already exists; it’s just not evenly distributed. Various government programs, like tax breaks (from mortgage-interest deductions to claimed depreciations in commercial ventures), are designed to support the already privileged indirectly and imperceptibly. Meanwhile, aid to the poor is direct and demeaning (you can’t spell means-tested without mean). At the same time, research shows that many Americans who receive direct federal benefits, including Medicare and Social Security, wrongly report that they have never received government aid—perhaps because these are services they feel they have paid for, like any other product. The challenge for socialists, then, involves bringing what the political scientist Suzanne Mettler has called the “submerged state” above ground and into the light in order to identify and expand its benefits and beneficiaries, democratize its mechanisms, and decommodify more and more areas of life.
Decommodification is a key element of this process—“There should be no profit motive connected to things that human beings cannot survive without,” as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it when we spoke—and not as radical a move as it may seem. Placing things beyond the market purview is hardly an untested or utopian concept. Public schools, for example, are based on the conviction that education is something everyone is entitled to, regardless of their ability to pay. Countries with universal health care have come to a similar determination about medicine, deciding potentially lifesaving medical treatments should not be limited to those who are wealthy enough to afford them. Every minute of every day, we use infrastructure and access information, from public roads to weather forecasts, that are universal and free. This is why democratic socialists are right to focus, for the time being, on proposals like Medicare for All and free college.
But the question at the center of socialism, Taylor continued, is not what services the state should provide—such as whether or not public housing should be more widely available, or whether there should be a jobs guarantee or a basic income or both—but rather who owns the state. “For me, socialism is about the collective control of society by the majority of people,” she says. “Right now, the majority of people, the people who create society’s wealth, never get asked questions about how society should be run.” America offers a minimal safety net but no opportunity for self-rule; “recipients” of welfare are objects of government assistance, not agents in collective decision-making or self-determination. What services they receive, or are denied, get determined by elected officials in Washington, who tend to be older, white, male millionaires—meaning that they have little insight into the lives of the people they ostensibly represent.
This problem, Taylor said, won’t be solved by electing representatives who look more like America. “People today think the problem is access. They think that we need to remedy exclusions with inclusions. What gets missed is the nature of the institutions people are being integrated into.” (James Baldwin, as always, put it best: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”) Currently, the affluence and high purchasing power of a few people come at the expense of the insecurity and poverty of many, many more. We’re trapped, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said, in a “scarcity mindset,” which posits that a small number can win only when others lose. Freedom, as the activist I met implied, flows from domination. The job of socialists is to convince people—including ourselves—that it doesn’t have to be that way. What Engels somewhat melodramatically, but also alluringly, called the “kingdom of freedom” can only be achieved by cooperation, not competition—and by breaking the power of a system that hoards resources and makes it seem there’s not enough to go around.
Marx once described communism as “the riddle of history solved”—it marked, in his view, “the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species.” One of my big fears for the rising left is that its adherents will uncritically sign on to this view of things—holding up the words “democratic socialism” as the solution without recognizing the immensity of the philosophical and pragmatic puzzles those two terms contain.
As I argue at length in my book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, even if we managed to close the gap between the rich and the poor, to break down the divisions between owners of capital and the working class, we’d still be awash in political challenges. Each chapter of the book focuses on a paradox, or tension, that I believe is central to the democratic project, and that would persist even if we managed to transcend capitalism. We’d still have to balance local and global concerns, to figure out the right mix of structure and spontaneity, to weigh the needs of people alive now with generations yet to come, to marshal expertise while accounting for mass opinion, and so on. Under a more economically egalitarian, explicitly socialist system, these democratic dilemmas will not disappear; the riddle would not be solved. Instead, our problems would become more interesting.
Right now, we remain trapped in social and political battles that, no matter how high the stakes involved, are both maddening and banal. Should billionaires have the right to ungodly sums accumulated through the immiseration of entire populations and the destruction of the ecosystems on which life as we know it depends? Are women the equals of men, black and brown people the equals of whites, queer people the equals of straight people, trans and nonbinary people equal to cisgender people, the disabled equal to the able-bodied, and so on? I’m going to go out on a limb and say the answers to these questions should be self-evident, even if settling them will require a power struggle of epic proportions. Should we ever resolve these questions in favor of the abolition of billionaires, the desirability of a healthy and inhabitable planet, and the equality of humankind, countless fascinating questions we don’t get to ask within the distressingly retrograde confines of our current political and social order could finally come to the fore.
A partial sampling of such questions would include, but are by no means limited to, the following: How much top-down planning will be required to create an ecologically sustainable economy or just a functional one? And how will markets, money, and finance be democratized and fit into the mix? How should we balance collective ownership of our natural common wealth with local and worker control—and how do we combine local and worker control with the ideal of international solidarity? How are the boundaries of decision-making communities to be determined and accountability to be enforced? When can democracy be direct, when must it be representative, and how could randomness or sortition—selecting people to serve as public officials instead of electing them, as we do with juries—be put to good use? What incentives will motivate people to do necessary but unpleasant work after greed and fear of destitution are no longer in the driver’s seat? When is coercion legitimate, and how will people be given real choice over things that matter (as opposed to, for instance, the false and frustrating choice of multiple overpriced and inadequate health insurance providers)? Should we ever manage to overcome the dominant modes of inequality and exploitation that have long distorted basic living conditions under American capitalism, democratic conundrums more rewarding and thorny than the ones that currently preoccupy us will open up in droves.
Under socialism, we would have to prioritize experimenting—collectively thinking and working these and other challenges through. And under a radically divergent plan of social value, that prospect wouldn’t have to be as daunting as it may sound now—because socialist arrangements would not only redistribute prosperity more broadly, but also freely apportion two intangible goods that are now in short supply: trust and time. Democracy, which insists that everyone should have a political voice, cannot manifest itself in the absence of trust, which is now stingily meted out as though it’s a scarce and precious resource. Under a socialist economic model, where people work to meet the needs of the community and not to produce excess profits for the boss, free time for both leisure and legislating would increase.
It all sounds terribly utopian—especially when typed on a laptop constructed through an international, exploitative, and extractive supply chain. Staring at my computer, and imagining the complex networks of human beings and logistics that got it to my desk, I’m reminded of a footnote in Memoirs of a Revolutionist, a chronicle by the essayist Dwight MacDonald, who briefly flirted with revolutionary politics in the 1930s and ’40s. “I remember once walking in the street and suddenly really seeing the big heavy buildings in their obstinate actuality and realizing I simply couldn’t imagine all this recalcitrant matter transformed by socialism,” he writes. “How would the street look when the workers took it over, how could revolution transfigure the miles and miles of stubborn stone? I couldn’t conceive of a flame hot enough to melt into new forms this vast solid Is.” Sometimes, while gazing up at an urban skyline or sitting at home typing on my keyboard, his rumination pops into my mind, and I feel ridiculous to have ever entertained the idea that our economy and society could be remade.
At least that’s what I thought MacDonald said. Recently I picked up the book and realized I had not retained the second half of his recollection: “A few years later, bombing fleets did melt away great sections of the world’s cities and the political structure of many nations was pulverized,” he says, the passage continued on the following page. The buildings, and the social order they represented, were not so immutable after all.
Today the searing heat may not come from bomber planes, but from climate change, from rising temperatures and forest fires—and the melting may be of ice caps, swallowing our coastal cities from the bottom up or flooding our towns and farmlands. Billions of humans may eventually be refugees from climate change; nonhuman species that once graced our Earth will cease to be; billionaires will become trillionaires, and maybe some will escape to New Zealand, to the moon, or to Mars. The world is changing, whether we like it or not. And as we face that crucial fact, we might as well try to change it for the better, by fighting to ensure that more of us have a chance to enjoy the blessings that liberal democracy promised, but also by refusing to abandon the possibility that even more satisfying, sustainable, and dignified forms of life might lie ahead.