What Is Socialism?

Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

In recent years, the word “socialism” has been thrown around in the echo chambers of conservative media to disparage certain politicians but is more recently being employed by a variety of political candidates to describe their ideas and policies for how the country or their local community should be governed. From Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary campaign three years ago to congressional primary wins this year from Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (both of whom are official members of the Democratic Socialists of America), it seems that socialism and its associated policies are gradually becoming more normalized in the United States.

According to an August 2018 public opinion poll from Gallup, 57 percent of Democrats view socialism positively, while 47 percent view capitalism positively. Conversely, only 16 percent of Republicans view socialism positively while 71 percent view capitalism positively. And yet, the US is becoming more socially liberal when it comes to birth control, LGBTQIA+ rights, getting money out of politics, and cannabis use. Other progressive policies are gaining steam, such as “Medicare for all” single-payer healthcare, a job guarantee, ending cash bail, a public option for internet service, and tuition-free public higher education.

Contemporary public services such as the post office, public libraries, public education, public parks, public roads, and police and fire departments, which were advocated for by progressive and leftist reformers during the early twentieth century, are sometimes inaccurately labeled socialist programs. Socialism isn’t simply aiming to expand welfare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security while combatting crony/vulture capitalism with anti-trust laws, tax hikes on the rich, ending tax havens, or ending public subsidies for big business. Socialism aims to abolish free-market capitalism and replace it with a mixture of cooperative and public ownership of the economy and the resources it generates in a more globalized world.

Examples of true socialism can be found in small pockets around the modern developed world. In Italy’s Northeastern region of Emilia-Romagna, cooperatives (organizations and enterprises owned and run jointly by members who share the profits or benefits) are flourishing. This is especially so in the region’s capital city of Bologna, where 85 percent of care services for children, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and others are provided by cooperatives. Because of the historical and contemporary presence of cooperatives, Emilia-Romagna is one of the highest-ranked global communities in standard of living and quality of life. Cooperatives support 30 percent of the region’s GDP, and two-thirds of the more than four million people living in the region are members of a cooperative. In Hamburg, Germany, a majority of citizens voted to re-municipalize the city’s power grid in a 2014 referendum in which the city government will have democratic control over the distribution of energy. This transition allows the city to focus on renewables and a technologically advanced, energy-efficient system that will operate the entire grid independently. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest wealth fund in the world, invests government royalties from offshore oil and gas profits and has accumulated more than $1 trillion—or $190,000 per Norwegian citizen— fully to be used for public services.

Socialism is about radical economic democratization, decentralization, and diversification. When businesses and workplaces essentially act like dictatorships where the rule of the few—the bosses chosen by the board of directors and or the board of directors chosen by the shareholders at the top—dictates how the profits and benefits are used as well as how the workers produce, this is far from socialism.

Since productivity is higher than ever before in the modern age of advanced technology and engineering, why are workers’ wages and benefits stagnating or even decreasing? Studies have shown that democratically run workplaces, like cooperatives, are more productive, produce more profits, and are less likely to lay off workers than traditional workplaces. Democratic workplaces even pay more in taxes instead avoiding them or paying less such as large corporate entities.

The 1973 Humanist Manifesto II states that humanists

are committed to an open and democratic society. We must extend participatory democracy in its true sense to the economy, the school, the family, the workplace, and voluntary associations. Decision-making must be decentralized to include widespread involvement of people at all levels—social, political, and economic. All persons should have a voice in developing the values and goals that determine their lives. Institutions should be responsive to expressed desires and needs. The conditions of work, education, devotion, and play should be humanized. Alienating forces should be modified or eradicated and bureaucratic structures should be held to a minimum. People are more important than decalogues, rules, proscriptions, or regulations.

Socialism, in its true and intentional form, is democracy employed in nearly every realm of society, from government institutions to our own workplaces. Democratic socialism, or at least Nordic-style social democracy in which welfarism and regulated capitalism fuse, gives people legitimate power in politics and economics and frees them from relying on the corporate and religious few.

Humanism isn’t just about the individual ability to think freely and skeptically but also about communal cooperation in order to exist, survive, and thrive on our planet (and possibly even elsewhere in our observable universe). Is it time for humanists to embrace a radical political and economic democracy, and would we call it socialism?