4. What is Socialism?

What is socialism and why is it necessary right now?

There is not just one political system called “socialism”; socialism is an umbrella term for a number of movements aimed at restoring the means of production to the community as a whole. 

Bernie Sanders, its most famous exponent in the United States today, has been a bit reticent about defining what it means to him, perhaps figuring that the less he delves into economic theory and the more he talks about issues of concern to ordinary Americans, the more accessible he’ll be. For the purposes of this discussion — and given that Sanders’s appropriation of the concept is, notwithstanding the moans of many chicken littles, rather benign — the most important quality of socialism is its negative dimension: the fact that it isn’t capitalism. Indeed, I welcome the ideas — and we can subject them to close scrutiny — of any ideology that confronts “a global policy framework that [has] provided maximum freedom to multinational corporations to produce their goods as cheaply as possible and sell them with as few regulations as possible — while paying as little in taxes as possible” (Klein 19). 

More positively and aspirationally, Nikil Saval explains:

“What lies at the heart of democratic socialism is the ethic of solidarity. The idea is that workers, and the workers’ movement, should exercise democratic control over the economy. That means that many of the things we take for granted that are ruled by markets necessarily should not be. This means the way planning and development works, the way our schools function, the way workplaces are organized, in terms of the labor process and the sharing of wealth, the way society handles punishment and liberation and the way households are organized and domestic and socially reproductive labor is divided among partners, families, and communities.

“I think all of these things should be decided democratically. And it means that we recognize the terrible history of race, gender, disability, and nationality in dividing workers and even in naming who is considered a worker, whether that is wage earners versus unpaid domestic workers, for example, and seeking to undo that.

“I think we should name the achievements social democracy has already made, which helped us to realize that certain marketized goods should be considered social goods like health care, childcare, housing, education, and transportation. We should be seeking to preserve and expand those rights where they exist. I think democratic socialism means we have a conception of a society that makes room for people — people now and people to come — that we do not see and do not know. That’s the ethic of solidarity that the workers’ movement has given to the world.” 


Socialism sounds scary to some because it sounds new, untested. But many of our institutions are already socialized, and Saval is saying we would do well to be aware of it. In this vein, Nathan Robinson demystifies proposals for Medicare for All by making an analogy with fire departments: 

“Let us imagine for a moment that history went differently and today these services operate in the opposite manner: Ambulances are run by the city ambulance service and fire departments are still privatized and run by for-profit companies.

“In our alternate world, where fire services would operate like many medical services, we would see a ‘fire insurance industry’ emerge. (This is insurance to pay for firefighting, not ‘fire insurance’ for the property.) If you paid $100 a month, or perhaps far more, your insurance company would dispatch its fire trucks if your house caught fire, or it would reimburse you for whoever did put out your fire. There would probably be a giant ‘deductible,’ so that having a fire put out would still be extremely costly, and even insured people would be reluctant to call the fire department because they’d know they’d have to pay $5,000 (reduced from an initial bill of $25,000).

“Here’s what’s funny: All of the conservative arguments against left health care plans can be made against this scheme.

    • So you trust the government to put out your fires? You know that in England they have a public fire service and sometimes they do a bad job.
    • People deserve choice about how to finance extinguishing fires.
    • Many people say they are satisfied with their fire insurance. You want to take it away from them.
    • You are going to raise people’s taxes to pay for this ‘fire department.’
    • You are going to eliminate every job of every person who works in the private firefighting insurance industry.” 

Robinson goes on, building to the claim that “Medicare For All is hardly radical; it’s less radical and socialistic than the existence of a public fire department! It just socializes insurance, not the underlying services.”

So one way to demystify socialism is to point out that it’s an expansion of our best and most basic ideas. (I will say more shortly about whether it’s failed in other countries and how we might pay for it.)

But in the context of catastrophic climate change, what is most significant about it is not actually a laundry list of benefits but the fact that it seeks significant structural change outside of the free market; and its boldest interventions are not unnecessary wagers that could sink a floating ship, but desperate measures to keep our sinking ship afloat. “Ours,” Klein reminds us, “is a global economy created by, and fully reliant upon, the burning of fossil fuels and…a dependency that foundational cannot be changed with a few gentle market mechanisms. It requires heavy-duty interventions: sweeping bans on polluting activities, deep subsidies for green alternatives, pricey penalties for violations, new taxes, new public works programs, reversals of privatizations” (39). 

Socialism creates space for a hail mary pass to avert terrible planetary destruction and wide-scale human suffering — as it simply is not possible to do under the hegemony of free markets. Its scariest aspect is probably the abandonment of the comfortable delusion that untrammeled economic growth is absolutely good and has no effect on planetary survival. Of course, the scariest aspect of capitalism is precisely the fact that such growth does have an effect on planetary survival (to say nothing of its other horrors: massive global inequality, the instability of financial markets leading to unpredictable dramatic cycles of boom and bust, etc.). 

Not every capitalist or corporate CEO may personally be “evil” (that term beloved of George W. Bush), but the evils of the system include a positively sadistic fringe, such as conservative blogger Jim Geraghty’s proposal that because climate change will most adversely affect the developing world, it will contribute to “a second consecutive American Century” (52) in which the U.S. can flout its relative power. I am sure he’ll wear his MAGA cap to keep the sun out of his eyes while the planet burns. 

One issue is that this sadistic fringe may grow in years to come. Klein’s newest book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, makes the case that as the world falls apart, neofascists will be in ever greater supply, pulling society and culture in a hard-right turn towards class and race warfare. I agree: some so-called “moderates” don’t care about “ideological purity” and just want to defeat Trump, unaware that unless we take radical action now, the conditions that led to Trump’s emergence will just get scarier and scarier.

On the continuum of conservative defenses of the capitalist system — that run, on one side, to sheer cruelty, and on the other side to Mitt Romney’s famous declaration that corporations are people, too — where would we place British Petroleum chief executive John Browne, who responded to the charge that his company is damaging the planet by saying, “Corporations have to be responsive to price signals. We are not public service”? 

This is where Klein can make a direct link to the need to overthrow capitalism and its prerogatives: “The bottom line is simple. No private company in the world wants to put itself out of business; its goal is to expand its market. Which is why, if natural gas is to serve as a short-term transition fuel [Klein actually argues that this is a bad idea in itself, as natural gas doesn’t cut into oil consumption but into wind usage — 216], that transition must be tightly managed by — and for — the public, so that the profits from current sales are reinvested in renewable technologies for the future, and the sector is constrained from indulging in the kind of exponential growth it is currently enjoying amidst the shale gas boom” (130). 

In two pages that deserve to be quoted in their entirety (so I will post them here as a picture) — Klein discusses how the fossil fuel companies’ “fiduciary responsibility to shareholders” — a capitalist summum bonum — “virtually guarantees that the planet will cook,” and that’s before you even add in the $400,000 a day they spend lobbying American lawmakers, all of whom typically have a personal oil and gas lobbyist assigned to them when they take office: 



So there is an ideological war here, for “climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism” — but also the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party — “rests” (41). And because we do not live in a world in which the best ideas win, we must also admit that the current struggle has to do with power. This is why polite Democratic proposals are insufficient; we are in need of a candidate who not only preaches the most progressive platform but is willing to call out the greed and selfishness of individual representatives of this amoral system. Any candidate who does not is morally compromised. People who criticize Bernie Sanders for his jeremiads against the plutocratic elite believe they make him “unable to govern.” I once shared this fear; but when we see the true scope of the problem, we begin to realize that in order to save the world we live in, a leader must not only govern but unmask the reigning ideology of wealth and power under whose influence the most adept “governor” will remain an impotent pawn in the game of plutocrats and their monstrous corporations. We need a leader who embodies the truly democratic struggle to fight the powers that be. If redistribution is the mind of socialism, revolution is — rightly — its soul.

Read on for more.