Bernie Sanders, the current senator for Vermont and in the running for the democratic presidential nominee, has long been an advocate of democratic socialism. He believes the United States’ major income inequality has everything to do with major corporations exploiting the working class and reaping all of the benefits of their labor without actually doing the physical work themselves.[i] These corporations become so powerful after accruing so much profit that they start to pay lobbyists to convince politicians to keep their taxes low and labor cheap.[ii] Bernie Sanders believes this major corporate control is the real reason the majority of Americans are suffering below the poverty line.
So what does Democratic Socialism have to do with Socialism?
In order to understand democratic socialism, you must first define socialism. Socialism is an economic and political theory which advocates for the community to share the means of production[iii]. It arose in response to capitalism, in which the means of production are no longer in the hands of the laborer. Take, for instance, a carpenter. This laborer may make a chair for $100 in one hour, and sell it for $150. He has covered his own personal costs and made a profit of $50. However, under what Karl Marx pointed out as the exploitative nature of capitalism, that same carpenter employed by a company who pays him $8 an hour will pay the carpenter his hourly wage and retain all of the surplus labor value. Without raising a finger, the company the carpenter works for just profited $42 after the $100 it cost to make the chair and the $8 it paid the carpenter. On top of that, under capitalism, the carpenter can no longer afford to keep his own shop open because his local superstore has competitive prices that he can no longer beat.
Socialism seeks to mend the exploitation by allowing the government to fight corruption. The socialist believes that, under a socialist government, the “government” and the “people” are the same. The legislative government not only enacts laws but there should be democratic control over how they are interpreted and carried out. Socialists are usually in favor of a welfare state, a minimum wage, unions, and labor protections.
Then What is Democratic Socialism?
Democratic socialism is an ideology that advocates political democracy while also giving social ownership to the means of production. The democratic socialist wants social and economic decisions to be made by those who are most affected, rather than be controlled by major corporate executives or even the government.[iv] They promote decentralization as much as possible and do not support an all-powerful government. They believe that while certain government control over social programs like public transportation, housing, energy and mechanisms of the market, everything else should be owned by the people rather than controlled by corporations.
Democratic socialism, in the bigger picture, attempts to bring private corporations to heel under democratic control with more regulations and tax incentives. Socialism is the political ideology that brings us union protections, such as weekends, holidays, the 8-hour work day and other labor protections but the “democratic” part still allows us private ownership and freedoms from any sort of “higher power”. The democratic socialism movement in the United States puts forth the ideas of worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprise. This just means that rather than a corporation’s profit’s going into the hands of one, the shares of stock in the company are dispersed among the general public.
While socialism seeks to eliminate less enjoyable types of labor and distribute them fairly among people, democratic socialism aims to put pressure on employers to make less enjoyable jobs more desirable by raising pay, offering benefits and improving work environments. This ideology seeks less to control and more so to use the government to stop employers, landlords, or anyone in power from taking advantage of those who have less power.
Then Why is Everyone So Concerned about Socialism?
The fears that have been expressed about Bernie Sanders and socialism often arise when people are concerned about not being in control. The political ideology is often taken to mean “everyone gets the same amount”, “hard work won’t pay off because you have to spread the wealth”, or “government control over our lives”. This has a lot to do with the real life examples that have happened in the past that mixed Authoritarianism with socialism. The former Soviet Union and Maoist China are good examples of this kind of Authoritarian-Socialist, though they didn’t identify with that at the time.
This branch of Socialism rejects most personal freedom and believes an elite administration can be trusted to run all parts of a socialist state. In this instance, multi-party systems are done away with and a single party run by a single head of state is enforced.[v]
Democratic Socialism in Summation
Democratic socialism is mainly a movement to break down the corporate hold on the US government and its people. It is an attempt to combat exploitation while recognizing some of the faults in socialism to find a ‘happy medium’ that incorporates tenets of capitalism and socialism in order to fix parts of an aging methodology.
[iii] Nove, Alec. “Socialism”. New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Second Edition (2008)
[v] Lipow, Arthur. Authoritarian Socialism in America : Edward Bellamy & the Nationalist Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press (1991)