Clearly, Bernie Sanders needs to do a better job when it comes to answering the question, “why democratic socialism?” And, along with that, “are you a capitalist?”
He needs to drop the references to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, at least at the start (and refer to them only when challenged about whether or not what he’s suggesting can actually work), and make a different claim: “Look at the great wealth of this country. Why is it, given that wealth, we can’t provide a decent standard of living and quality of life for the vast majority of our population—things like decent, affordable healthcare and public education, paid family leave, even a minimum amount of paid vacation from work? Sure, we provide them for the minority at the top but not for the people who do the bulk of the work in our society. That’s how are economic and political system should be judged, by how it treats workers and their families.”
And, of course, he has a lot of previous thinking he can rely on, from the late eighteenth century down to the present. Plenty of like-minded scholars and politicians have formulated criticisms of capitalism and answers to the question, “why socialism?”
Another place to begin is Albert Einstein—yes, that Einstein (as I enjoy reminding my students)—who addressed the capitalism and socialism questions back in 1949.
First, on the definition of and problems with capitalism:
The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.
For the sake of simplicity, in the discussion that follows I shall call “workers” all those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production—although this does not quite correspond to the customary use of the term. The owner of the means of production is in a position to purchase the labor power of the worker. By using the means of production, the worker produces new goods which become the property of the capitalist. The essential point about this process is the relation between what the worker produces and what he is paid, both measured in terms of real value. Insofar as the labor contract is “free,” what the worker receives is determined not by the real value of the goods he produces, but by his minimum needs and by the capitalists’ requirements for labor power in relation to the number of workers competing for jobs. It is important to understand that even in theory the payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product.
Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.
The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of capital is thus characterized by two main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see fit; second, the labor contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the “free labor contract” for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present day economy does not differ much from “pure” capitalism.
Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.
This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.
Sanders couldn’t but agree: “If that’s what you mean by capitalism—a casino that leads to severe depressions and cripples us as individuals—then, no, I’m not a capitalist.”
And, after formulating his critique of capitalism, here’s Einstein on socialism:
I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?
Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition.
It’s true, planning is much less popular today as an idea than it was, after the New Deals and World War II, in 1949 (although we tend to forget about all the forms of planning giant corporations use to coordinate what they do around the globe). And, given the stagnation of workers’ wages and the growing gap between the one percent and everyone else since the mid-1970s, the issue of inequality is much more at the center of our thinking now.
But Einstein’s formulation does provide an alternative way for Sanders to start the discussion: “That’s why I’m a democratic socialist. Right now, we have a very undemocratic capitalism—undemocratic in politics (given the role of a small number of wealthy individuals in funding candidates and in controlling the media coverage of our elections) and undemocratic in the economy (since large corporations and financial institutions have been allowed to control our lives and take us to the brink of economic and ecological disaster). That has to stop. What we need, instead, is democratic socialism—democratic in politics (by solving the problem of campaign finance and media coverage) and democratic in our economy (by reigning in the large corporations and financial institutions, providing decent and affordable healthcare, public education, family leave, and vacations for workers and their families, and by strengthening the more democratic features of our existing economy, such as small local businesses, credit unions, and cooperatives).”
But give Sanders credit: he clearly understands that clarity about the aims and problems of democratic socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition.