As I’ve read criticisms of socialism, I thought I should read some advocates. This seemed promising:
Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality (April 2019) … What, exactly, is socialism? And what would a socialist system in America look like? The editor of Jacobin magazine, Sunkara shows that socialism, though often seen primarily as an economic system, in fact offers the means to fight all forms of oppression, including racism and sexism. The ultimate goal is not Soviet-style planning, but … to create new democratic institutions in workplaces and communities. A primer on socialism for the 21st century.
I’ve just finished it. Alas, the vast majority of its 288 pages is an “inside baseball” history of socialist movements in history. Who inspired them, ran them, and joined or supported them. How they allied with and fought each other and outsiders, and rarely, what policies they pushed for or how they ran things. Generally, Sunkara’s heros are those who “called for” the most “radical” change, regardless of their actual impact on people or policies.
Amazingly for something called a “manifesto” and “primer”, there’s little effort to argue for why socialism is good; we are supposed to find that obvious. More on that below.
Yes, big failures like Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China are acknowledged, but blamed on their being insufficiently “democratic”. Sunkara doesn’t discuss why that seems to happen so often, nor how to stop it from happening again. The actual socialist-like government that he seems most willing to embrace is that of Sweden until a few decades ago. But he has little discussion of why Sweden has since moved far away from that, other than to blame it on business media campaigns and bad strategy choices by politicians.
Much is packed into Sunkara “democracy” concept, as he often blames the failure of socialists to gain more influence as due to capitalist influences on votes. Apparently any elections done within capitalism can’t be fully “democratic.” The US today is also said to be “undemocratic” because our system tends to favor having two main parties. Sunkara also says having things decided by local governments is less democratic, as capitalists have more influence at smaller scales. Sometimes merely voting is seen as insufficiently democratic; Sunkara instead prefers the pressure that comes from mobs, especially mobs willing to break the law. I don’t really see a coherent “democracy” concept here, other than that “democracy” is whatever leads to Sunkara’s favored policies.
Socialism is said to be the solution not only to inequality and oppression, but also to racism and global warming:
People can overcome their prejudices in the process of mass struggle over shared interests.
Democratic socialism would do far better at keeping humanity flourishing along with the wider ecology. …Worker-controlled firms don’t have the same ‘grow or die’ imperative as capitalist ones. A more empowered citizenry, too, would be better able to weigh the costs and benefits of new development.
Though Sunkara does call for
avoiding a narrow ‘call-out culture’ along with the kinds of identity politics that, taken to its extreme, will lead us down the path to a hyper-individualized and anti-solidaristic politics. Hyperbole and the politics of personal shaming are a recipe for demoralization, paranoia, and defeat.
So what exactly is “socialism”? It is not the end of competition or inequality. Under socialism, there is still personal private property allocated by competitive markets. Romantic and friend relations are set by competitive markets for association. Competitive labor markets still allocate jobs, which result in differing wages and working conditions. People compete under democracy to see who gets to run firms and the government, and people compete to gain government approval to start and grow firms:
Collectively you and your coworkers now control your company. … You have to pay a tax on its capital assets, in effect renting it from society as a whole. … Everyone [must] participate in management on an equal footing. … [Your firm picks] a representative system of governance. … From the unit supervisor’s perspective, she has the duty to make sure everyone is doing their share. [A lazy worker] goes through a progressive disciplinary process – first comes a warning, with concrete suggestions for improvement, then a suspension with pay, then finally, dismissal with three months of severance. …
There is still market competition, and firms still fail, but the grow-or-die imperative doesn’t apply. … There’s pressure to make sure janitorial and other ‘dirty’ jobs are well compensated. …
Capital goods tax … funds are invested into … national planning projects. What’s left is given to regions on a per capita basis … channels by regional investment banks (public of course) that … apportion … to new or existing firms. Applicants are judged on the basis of profitability, job creation, and other criteria including environmental impact. … These tradeoffs are political decisions. … Since you’re starting the firm, you have some discretion in setting the initial operating agreement. … To attract workers [you decided on] income differentials. … you are rewarded for your invention with a small amount of state prize money, and you do end up earning more as an elected manager.
Sunkara says that you wouldn’t be scared to lose your job as you “can get by on the state’s basic income grant and supplement it by taking a guaranteed public sector job.” No mention is made of savings, so it seems you can’t forgo consumption today to save more for you or your children’s future.
Sunkara offers this as his definition of “socialism”, but he doesn’t do anything to assure us that others agree with his definition. From what I’ve read before on the subject, there’s a lot of disagreement on that question.
I have serious doubts that such a system will work as well as familiar ones for choosing products and methods of production. Why are they better for creating efficiency and growth, or for happiness and meaning? Seems to me people would try a lot less hard to figure out better ways to do things. They’d instead figure out how to pander to and lobby the more ignorant politicized panels that allocate capital. As we’ve seen in “socialist” regimes before.
You probably have such doubts too. Yet Sunkara offers zero arguments to allay our fears. No theory arguments. No systematic data comparing how different systems have worked in practice. Not even a few detailed anecdotes on which we might hang our hopes. Nothing, other than perhaps invoking a faith that more democracy must improve all things.
To anyone tempted in the future to write a “manifesto” for some radical proposal, I suggest: actually argue for it. With theory, data, anecdotes, something. And you’d do best to argue for particular concrete trials to test your proposal. Call for more such trials, but don’t call for everyone everywhere to adopt your proposal in the absence of generally positive results from a series of trials of increasing scale and difficulty.
Given how much experience the world has had with regimes that were called “socialist”, I don’t see how anyone could seriously propose more of it without a review of some data drawn from these experiences. While we do have some such data regarding “democracy” of various forms, that data isn’t especially encouraging. Data on government panels deciding what new production ventures to try, and what old ones to maintain, seems to me even more sparse and less encouraging. But do show us that’s wrong, if you can.
I will post a pro marxist argument but i dont support marxism because of the bias it faces from international media. They are fighting a losing battel against capitalism.If you look up the best governed state of india, youll find a state called kerala.My state is governed by democratically elected communist party,(electd 2017). They are probabaly going to lose the election next year, due to serious allegation against one of the ministers. After independence, india was ruled by Indian national congress for a long while, except for the state of kerala. Here we saw majority of marxist governments. Now its considered the best state in india(two subsequent floods, two subsequent pandemic, ie Nipha virus and covid, and still the state is far better economically. also the current state health ministery got recognized by UN for managing the pandemics). The only challenge to democracy came in 1960s when the Central government tried to ban the communist party (who won the election in the state level). The major opposition is the congress party. Corporate have a large influenze everywhere and it becomes easy for them to exploit the immense population of india for cheap labour if the government dosent have representation form Labour unions. Also here, the marxist government is a face against the religious politics.
Well, regarding the first three points, yes if they commit serious crimes. And, depending on how one looks at it, that might be seen as a Libertarian policy too, if we were to actually take the concept of personal responsibility seriously and removed corporate liability limitations. In this way, executives and shareholders would be considered personally responsible for everything the companies they manage and own caused, and therefore have a huge incentive to thread very carefully so as to never do anything in a rush that might have the slightest chance of killing anyone lest they were personally considered responsible in both civil and penal court. I'm a strong proponent of personal responsibility, so if this is what Sanders proposed in the US, such a position would indeed appeal to me.
About rent control, many countries do indeed have national laws governing that. Here in Brazil, for example, the agreed upon initial rent cannot increase in the following years beyond the inflation rate, and rent contracts have a minimum 3 year duration, automatically renewable. A landlord can regain their property if the tenant stops paying, or if they themselves want to use the property or sell it off, but if it remains available for rent, the current tenant has priority, with the rent increase limitation in place for as long as they keep renting. And in case the landlord wants to sell the property, the current tenant has priority in purchasing it as long as they accept paying the price the landlord is asking for the property, so that the landlord cannot pretend to sell it to expel the tenant then "change their mind" or whatever. This system works pretty well and there's no shortage of properties for rent, in fact, in many places there's an overabundance of properties for rent, and buying property for the purposes of rent continues being seen as one of the most profitable and safe long term investments. So, if Sanders defended something similar, I think it'd be pretty fine and unproblematic.
About nuclear power, that's a point I disagree with him, strongly. But is it something different from what other politicians in the USA do? As far as I know, at leat, no candidate from any US party defends truly expanding nuclear power, much less new technologies in the field. Has this changed?