The current fascination with democratic socialism is troubling to those of us who are old enough to remember that the entire 20th century was a 100-year longitudinal study in the failure of central economic planning.
Socialism, in its various manifestations, is nothing new, and democratic socialism is just the latest manifestation and a variant of some very old ideas.
Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1849. Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward in 1888. Eugene Debs was a leader of the socialist movement in the early part of the 20th century.
Over the past 100 years, many American socialist groups have risen and fallen, often due to internal squabbling and dividing into factions within the movement.
Now along comes democratic socialism, which appears to have gotten considerable impetus from Michael Harrington, who in 1982 was able to bring together progressives, trade unionists, civil rights activists, feminists and some existing socialist organizations into what is now called Democratic Socialists of America.
It is important to note DSA is not trying to form a new political party. They do not see that as a winning strategy. Their goal is to drive the Democratic Party way to the left, and we can see reports of those efforts in the news media every day, led by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. It will obviously take some time, but the end goal is a takeover of the Democratic Party’s powerful electoral machinery.
Trying to explain how democratic socialism would work is like trying to herd cats. Their enemy is capitalism, but while some want to destroy it, others want to preserve capitalism’s vast productive capabilities but extract from it the resources necessary to achieve their plethora of social and economic justice goals. Elizabeth Warren appears to be more of a progressive than a democratic socialist, but she advocates policies that would emasculate the ability of business owners to run their own organizations, and she promotes regulatory expansion as well.
Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production, distribution and exchange are privately owned and operated. It relies upon voluntary associations between individuals and businesses. It requires that the laws of contract be enforced and that property rights are protected. It requires a system of courts to resolve disputes. Capitalism is fueled by self-interest.
Socialism is an economic system in which the means of production are publicly owned. It is fueled by self-sacrifice, voluntary if possible and involuntary if necessary. Some socialists want the federal government to nationalize certain key industries. Others want to decentralize and have local workers (i.e. unions) run businesses. There is no general consensus on exactly how the whole thing would work or how all of the resultant public benefits would be financed, other than the usual insistence that it can all be paid for by taxing “the rich.”
Indeed, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said (to paraphrase) that there is plenty of money in the world and in New York City; it is just in the wrong hands.
Socialism fails because it is founded on the fallacy that human nature is infinitely malleable. It isn’t. Not only humans, but every living thing on this planet is hardwired by nature to operate in its own interests.
The essence of morality is not to tell people that they must “rise above” self-interest and labor diligently for the public good in a collective orgy of self-sacrifice. The function of morality is to (1) help us determine what is truly in our interests, and then (2) work to pursue those interests without violating the rights and interests of others in the process.
Capitalism doesn’t have to be forced on us; it comes naturally. If socialism comes, it will because it was made mandatory, and that is very telling.
Filko lives in Williamsburg and has taught Economics and American Government.