6. Socialism Today

What does socialism as it already exists look like in practice?

“Much has been written,” Klein explains, “about Germany’s renewable energy transition — particularly the speed at which it is being achieved, as well as the ambition of its future targets (the country is aiming for 55-60 percent renewables by 2035)…however, scarce attention has been paid to one key factor that has made possible what may be the world’s most rapid shift to wind and solar power: the fact that in hundreds of cities and towns across the country, citizens have voted to take their energy grids back from the private corporations that purchased them” (Klein 97). Similar popular movements have begun in Boulder, Austin, and Sacramento (99). 

As the term “socialist” has become more mainstream in American politics, I worry that it may become associated with a simple laundry list of expensive government programs we are not sure how to pay for. In fact, it has a far greater vision than that: as the first great socialist candidate for the presidency, Eugene Debs, described, it is “first of all a political movement of the working class, clearly defined and uncompromising, which aims at the overthrow of the prevailing capitalist system by securing control of the national government and by the exercise of the public powers, supplanting the existing capitalist class government with socialist administration.”

Now, this probably sounds even scarier than the notion of extensive government spending! But what does a communitarian socialism already look like in practice? 

I purchase my groceries at a co-op where my spending generates 1.5 times its value in the local economy. (How does value multiply? The money you spend in grocery stores ends up in the pockets of their CEOs, who might hoard it or invest it for the sake of their own gain. But money spent locally circulates locally: if you pay $10 at a food truck, that employer might spend it on a taxi, the taxi driver on a haircut, the barber at our co-op, and suddenly your $10 has had a $50 “multiplier effect.”) 

Can the co-op model be expanded to, for instance, electric utilities? It can be and it has been. It has “decentralized not just electrical power, but also political power and wealth: roughly half of Germany’s renewable energy facilities are in the hands of farmers, citizen groups, and almost nine hundred energy cooperatives. Not only are they generating power but they also have the chance to generate revenue for their communities by selling back to the grid. Over all, there are now 1.4 million photovoltaic installations and about 25,000 windmills. Nearly 400,000 jobs have been created.” Recently too in Denmark, “roughly 85 percent of Danish wind turbines were owned by small players like farmers and co-ops,” with similar benefits (131). 

Those worried about socialism need not fear that just because you have a self-described democratic socialist in the White House, the status quo will crumble overnight. Sanders, less radical than Debs, has kept the aspirational, anti-capitalist language of the early social revolutionaries while insisting he does not actually believe the government should own the means of production. He wants primarily, I think, to “once and for all marginalize the centrist Democratic Party politics of the past three decades, in which the economic rights of workers were subordinate to the demands of capital.” 

The democratic socialist vision for the United States, then, is that of a dethroning of the globalizing, self-aggrandizing hegemons of late capitalism and a move towards the local, towards the collective, and towards the economic margins. It’s the same vision as that of Christianity, insofar as Mary proclaimed a God who has “cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly”; it’s even, paradoxically, the vision of many conservatives and Trump supporters, who — albeit for nationalistic reasons — want to see jobs remain local, as they have a right to remain local everywhere.

But it all comes with benefits that may not look like the “daily grind” which most of us caught in our 40+-hour work week (plus long commutes in gridlocked traffic) have made an art of complaining about. While we focus so much on economic growth, the French — where unions have always fought for more leisure time, just as American unions have always fought for more money — speak about “selective degrowth.” Klein writes: “Policies like luxury taxes could be put in place to discourage wasteful consumption. The money raised could be used to support those parts of our economies that are already low-carbon and therefore do not need to contract..those sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits) would expand their share of overall economic activity, as would those sectors with minimal ecological impact (such as the caregiving professions, which tend to be occupied by women and people of color and therefore underpaid)…There could be other benefits too, like shorter work hours, in part to create more jobs, but also because overworked people have less time to engage in low-consumption activities like gardening and cooking…If countries aimed for somewhere around three to four days [for an average work week], introduced gradually over a period of decades… it could offset much of the emissions growth projected through 2030 while improving quality of life” (93-4).

Read on for more.