As anyone who follows my monthly book blogs will know, I’ve read a lot of books this year about capitalism. But after I was fairly convinced that, despite capitalism being a key part of pulling millions – if not billions – of people out of poverty over the last two centuries or so, it has now run too rampant and is causing massive pain and suffering for many, I wanted to read about some solutions. With the climate crisis and economic inequality reaching fever pitch, socialism is seeing a renewed resurgence in much of the developed world, though remains blighted by bad press from the left-wing totalitarianism of the USSR in the latter half of the 20th century.
I have seen headlines saying that young people want socialism and read column after article after blog that suggests that the youth of today are pushing the socialist message hard. However, socialism’s growing pull in the US might be overstated, as estimates show that the Democratic Socialists of America (the group to which AOC is trying to drive supporters) is only up to 50,000 members, which, in a country of 327 million people, is not a lot. Or, it might be that people are confused as to what constitutes socialism and how current mainstream Democratic proposals fit into those ideas.
I’ve thinking and reading a lot about socialism, especially in the context of the US (remind me to write a blog about how effectively US politics and media dominates the global sphere) and I’ve only ended up more confused about what Americans consider socialism to be. As far as I can tell, what constitutes socialism in America is what tends to be considered human rights in other places. Reading about socialism from American writers, I found myself wondering why it remains such a radical political identity, as all the popular coverage of socialism that I could find seemed to refer to national healthcare, higher taxation of the megarich and a higher minimum wage. All in all, it was pretty tame. It read to me like capitalism with more regulation and redistribution, rather than a fundamentally different social and economic paradigm. But after a little more digging, and some extensive conversations with my political scientist dad, it became clear that ‘mainstream’ American socialism (if you can even call it that) bears little to no relation to the radical socialist politics seen across the world fifty years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure if Sanders thought he could run on a truly socialist platform, his policies would be more radical. I don’t doubt that Sander’s true sensibilities are a lot further left than the current American political climate can stomach. But currently, the aims of prominent American socialists are the basic aims of any social democracy, or even just a country that cares at the most basic level about the quality of life of its citizens. The socialist movement in America runs on providing national healthcare, a 70% marginal tax rate on incomes of over 10 million dollars each year (as suggested by AOC), a minimum wage of $15 per hour and free college tuition. At the point where ostensibly socialist policies still mean that someone could earn 10 million dollars each year before entering into the highest tax bracket, you have to question whether the branding is all wrong.
Sanders’ socialism has pushed progressive policies forward in the past few years, with his ‘radical’ proposals now forming the backbone of many Democratic candidates’ potential policies. But at the point where Sanders and Warren have put forward many of the same proposals, despite Sanders only standing as a Democrat to avoid splitting the vote as an independent and Warren branding herself as a capitalist and a supporter of corporate America, something doesn’t add up. Harris is a centrist and even she supports the $15 minimum wage without question.
Why does this matter? For me, it seems like branding barely regulated capitalism as socialism only serves to confuse the electorate. True socialism remains radical, while these policies don’t really confront capitalism at all. Sure, I suppose that a die-hard capitalist might think that maternity leave is merely Marx’s ghost making a comeback, but most people can see that, in a country where the top 1% hold more of the wealth than the bottom 90% combined, twelve weeks of paid maternity leave is not going to smash the status quo.
The much-lauded Scandinavian countries go well beyond what American progressives are suggesting, with new mothers in Norway offered 49 weeks of maternity leave at full-pay or 59 weeks at 80% pay, generous paternity leave policies and no need for a minimum wage at all because industries are so highly unionised. And yet, none of Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland are socialist countries. They are considered to be social democracies, with a well-funded and protected welfare state and redistributive tax policies, which operate via markets like almost everywhere else.
Reading Kristen Ghodsee’s Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism gave me a better understanding of why people who saw Eastern European state socialism take off last century are so afraid of hardcore left-wing policies today (though I think Ghodsee intended the opposite when she wrote her book). A lot of it is greed, sure, but lots of socialist and communist countries did not serve their citizens well the last time major left-wing regimes existed on a large scale. Framing what are actually fairly tame progressive policies as ‘socialist’ ignores the real meaning of that term and probably alienates people who would like markets to be more regulated and redistributed but remain freaked out by the authoritarianism that accompanied the last rise of socialism.
I also feel a little cheated, in that I have tried to learn more about socialism, but I have ended up reading about ideas that are defined as socialist because they do anything, however minor, that stops capitalism continuing in a wholly unregulated way. Free university tuition and state healthcare are not that radical! Many – most? – developed countries around the world offer these basic rights to their citizens and continue to be deeply capitalist in nature. As soon as anyone mentions socialism, people start crying out about 90% taxation on anything earned above $25k and gulags and famine, without realising that these politicians are only talking about the same basic protections offered to people all over the capitalist world. I can’t help but feel that by reframing these policies as less radical than currently assumed, it would be easier to win support, and better represent the real policies and freedoms at stake. It would be easier to make these ideas a reality, which must be the whole point.