Socialism for Dummies

It is finally fully obvious that Bernie Sanders has to be taken seriously as candidate for American president. It will no longer suffice to ask with a smile or a smirk, depending on your point of view, “Who would’ve thought it possible?” Who would’ve thought it possible that a previously unknown Jewish, Socialist Senator from Vermont, via the borough of Brooklyn no less, is wiping the floor with his opponent, the ostensibly impregnable Hillary Clinton. It behooves us instead to take the man seriously. To move beyond his by now familiar avuncular presence, to his substance.

So far we have been satisfied to listen to him list a litany of ends – but not hint at any means. Income inequity, stagnant wages, rising costs of health care, high rate of student debt, excessive incarceration, unmistakable climate change, and decaying infrastructure – these are just some of the problems he promises to remedy. But how exactly? Well, we don’t really know. What we do know is that Sanders says over and over and over again that he will fix what ails us by taxing the rich – rich individuals and rich institutions. How this is supposed to be politically feasible without a radical change in the composition of Congress or, conversely how the composition of Congress is supposed to be changed radically, remains unaddressed.

Also unaddressed is how Sanders would lead on foreign policy. We know by now that foreign affairs are not his strong suit. But he has come too far too fast to continue to avoid the specifics. He must speak to the international system. And he must demonstrate that he is at least somewhat familiar with the international system – as opposed to being worryingly unfamiliar.

Above all, since we have to presume that he means it when he describes himself as a Democratic Socialist, we are entitled to know what exactly what to him this descriptor means.  What is Democratic Socialism in the American political context? I’m not against it – not necessarily anyway. I just want to know how Sanders defines it and how he proposes to implement it.

Meantime… Socialism for Dummies:

  • Historically the words Socialism and Communism were sometimes used interchangeably. Now they generally are not.
  • This stems from their origins, largely though not entirely in mid to late 19th century Europe.
  • While Socialism has at various points flourished in Europe – in some European countries it still does – it never gained real traction in the United States.
  • Socialism suggests a Utopian ideal in which economic as well as political equity is widely realized.
  • Socialism has sometimes been dreadfully distorted, as in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which, during Stalin’s time (1925-1953), was a brutal dictatorship under which the government killed many millions of its citizens.
  • Socialism, Social Democracy if you will, has sometimes been successfully realized, as in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, notably in Scandinavian countries including Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
  • When Social Democracy is successfully realized – as in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden – it generally receives high marks for good governance. Moreover, the Scandinavian countries tend to rank very high by many measures including education, health, longevity, income distribution, and happiness. Yes, happiness.
  • Sanders appears to admire Scandinavian governance – an admiration widely shared. But, whether one can apply say, the Norwegian model, to the US remains very much an open question. Norway is a country of some 5 million people. The US has a few more – some 313 million more.
  • A Social Democrat, presumably also a Democratic Socialist, believes that politics should be democratic and economics socialist.
  • Arguably there is a difference between being a Social Democrat and a Democratic Socialist, though what Sanders might think of this distinction is unclear.
  • A Socialist economy is one that has relatively equal income distribution and relatively equal ownership, or even shared ownership, for example, of the means of production.
  • The seeds of Sanders success were sown by the Occupy movement. The roots of his success go deeper.
  • Democratic Socialism can mean many different things to many different people. Which is one of the reasons it’s high time for Sanders to dispense with his usual bromides. High time for him to tell us what he means when he declares that America should be, simultaneously, Democratic and Socialist. And high time for him to tell us how, realistically, he intends to get from here to there.
  • Democratic Socialism has been alien or, at least, foreign to the American experience. It’s  why no member of the ubiquitous press thinks to ask The Bern to explain why he has called himself a Democratic Socialist –  not a Social Democrat. Or, for that matter, until recently, a Democrat.



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