Musings on the Meaning of Democratic Socialism


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The victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Joe Crowley has reignited a periodic discussion pundits have about what is democratic socialism. I generally loathe discussions about what words mean. And this is no exception. Nonetheless, against my better judgment, I have decided to weigh in here with some musings on the subject.

Path to Socialism

Generally speaking, “democratic socialism” refers to a branch of socialist thought that wants to use prevailing electoral systems and other representative institutions to evolve the economy into a socialist order through incremental reform. This is contrasted with revolutionary branches of socialism that seek to overthrow the government from the outside.

Traditionally, this strategy for achieving socialism has also been referred to as “social democracy,” making the two terms basically interchangeable. Eduard Bernstein is the chief canonical historical figure representing this tendency. Eugene Debs is probably the most famous American figure representing this tendency, though a close second would be Michael Harrington, a founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). These days, the term “social democracy” is often used to refer to something else, which is discussed below.

Socialist End State

The definitional question gets a bit trickier when we turn to what democratic socialists think the socialist end state is. We know from above that democratic socialists generally favor reformist paths, but this does not, by itself, explain what is at the end of that path.

It is on this point that I think John Rawls’ taxonomy of political economic systems can help to clarify what democratic socialism is about. In his book Justice as Fairness, Rawls discusses five political economic systems. They are as follows:

  1. Laissez-faire capitalism. This is what we might think of as libertarianism. It makes no effort to hold down inequality in wealth or income and, as such, makes no provision for genuinely equal electoral systems (in Rawls’ view).
  2. Welfare-state capitalism. This system has potentially quite generous welfare systems that “guarantee a decent social minimum covering the basic needs” but nevertheless “permits very large inequalities in the ownership of real property (productive assets and natural resources).”

  3. State socialism. This is your typical “command economy” system with an authoritarian one-party regime.

  4. Property-owning democracy. This system features private ownership of production, but that private ownership is very dispersed. I read this as being basically similar to distributism and mutualism. One could also read this as being kind of in the spirit of what people who are really into antitrust are in favor of (whether they actually could achieve it is another matter).
  5. Liberal or democratic socialism. In this system, the means of production are owned by society, but planning is done in a more dispersed way by the multitude of socialist firms. This system respects basic liberal rights and features democratic elections. Rawls himself has in mind a market socialist order, but you might be able to imagine non-market socialist forms that fit this general category as well.

Rawls believed only property-owning democracy and liberal/democratic socialism satsify his particular egalitarian philosophy. Along with William Edmunson, I would go one step further and say that his commitments in the book seem to indicate that he is a democratic socialist, but that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

What this taxonomy allows us to do is firstly define democratic socialism by what it is not.

Democratic socialism is not, in the majority of its historical uses, welfare-state capitalism. These days, the phrase “social democracy” is often used to mean a particular type of welfare-state capitalism that emphasizes universal public welfare programs as opposed to means-tested or employer-based programs. And so democratic socialism is also not “social democracy” under this modern usage.

Democratic socialism is not state socialism with its illiberal authoritarian form of government. Nor is democratic socialism property-owning democracy, a system that we might roughly describe as being populated by a bunch of small proprietors who own their own little bit of capital in their small firms.

Instead, the end state of democratic socialism is a political economic form that combines liberal democracy with social ownership of the means of production. What social ownership should look like is an open question with various competing ideas. Probably the three most common approaches are worker coops (Richard Wolff), social wealth funds (Rudolf Meidner, James Meade), and snap nationalizations of especially major industries.

When thinking about these five forms, it is important to emphasize that they are ideal forms, meaning that we are talking about them in their purest form. In reality, especially in a democratic system where power often changes hands, you can wind up with system hybrids and it is not entirely clear what to call those. For instance, Norway collectively owns 59 percent of the country’s national wealth and 76 percent of the nation’s non-home wealth. That’s a pretty impressive tilt in the direction of the ideal form of liberal/democratic socialism, but obviously it is not perfectly complete and, when conservative parties get in power in Norway, they usually turn the dial in the opposite direction away from such high levels of collective ownership.

In Practice

So what does all of this theory look like in practice? How does one go about the work of using prevailing electoral processes and incremental reform to move us gradually into a system of liberal democracy and social ownership of the means of production? That, as you might imagine, is a matter of much dispute. The question is complicated further by the fact that being a politician means addressing a lot of issues that are not necessarily related to the fundamental reform of the economic system.

Nonetheless, there is one reform that I think is very much in the spirit of democratic socialism: Medicare for All. This reform happens to be the top platform item of self-professed democratic socialists Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the national issue campaign of DSA.

Medicare for All nationalizes the US health insurance industry, bringing it under social ownership and control. It also combines this nationalization with a universal public benefit program that should be very popular and appealing to socialists and non-socialists alike. Thus it is a fairly straightforward democratic socialist strategy as it moves the ball on social ownership through incremental reforms that could win popular democratic support.