Democratic socialism is probably the most misunderstood and overrated political philosophy of the last decade… if you want to call it a political philosophy at all. Many cling to the name Democratic Socialism, as if it has any differences from socialism. Individuals make the fallacy that democratic socialism is simply regulated capitalism. As of late, we’ve come to cringe at the word “Capitalism”. There are also many myths and misunderstandings about capitalism flowing around, you can find my article on that topic here. Nonetheless, democratic socialism is incredibly overrated for what it actually entails. Let me explain.
All socialism is inherently democratic.
Socialism in its purest to most flexible forms is completely democratic. Vladimir Lenin’s socialism was democratic. Karl Marx’s socialism is democratic. In fact, Karl Marx called his form of socialism (among other things) “Dictatorship of the Proletarian”. This means rule by the populace- the same thing as democracy. Vladimir Lenin said, “Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.”(1). Indeed, revolutionary socialists and communists considered themselves whole-hardheadedly democratic socialists.
But this is only one side of the proclamation. Today, many people consider themselves democratic socialists. With democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proclaiming to be democratic socialist and getting ample support, the truth about democratic socialism is obvious- there is a large amount of “democratic socialists” in the United States today. But they are socialist-in-name-only.
Most Modern “Democratic Socialists” aren’t really socialists.
Socialism, as discussed in my article on socialism found here, is defined by collective ownership of the means of production. Different socialists go about this in different ways. For example, Vladimir Lenin believed that the only way to achieve socialism was to revolt against the powerful, take over the all powerful monopoly (the state), and use that monopoly to achieve the ends of communism. Other socialists are reformists, such as Peter Hain. However, the ends are the same. The end is collective ownership of the means of production.
There is also disagreement among socialist schools of thought about how to achieve collective ownership. Some socialists, anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-communists, in particular, believe that the government must be immediately abolished and that their utopia would naturally be reached through the destruction of the idea of private property. Others, such as Lenin and Marx believed that the state must garner lots of power and force monopolies over every economic industry before utopia can be achieved.
Note that with these disagreements in socialist schools of thought, none of them incorporate the ideas of modern “democratic socialists”. This is because “democratic socialists” are merely Galbraithian and Keynesian. There is no legitimate democratic socialist economic school of thought. These individuals proclaiming to be democratic socialists are only democrats (in the governmental sense, not modern political) with mixed Keynesian economic ideas. Their economic philosophy is not socialistic.
Why doesn’t democratic socialism ever stay democratic?
F. A Hayek, the Nobel peace prize-winning economist, had an excellent piece on democratic socialism and the rule of law in his book, “The Road to Serfdom”. Broadly, democratic socialism doesn’t stay democratic for several reasons. Nothing gets done in democratic socialism because the government must attempt to incorporate everyone’s means, ends, and goals; and humans inherently have different value scales and desires. In democratic socialism, the government grabs more and more power under the name of “welfare”.
Nothing gets done in democratic socialism. When a government tries to incorporate everybody’s goals and means to reach those goals, it often fails. In large economies, individuals don’t all have the same ends and goals. Thus, when you take their money and property and assume you know how to spend it better than they can, you undermine their goals in favor of the “community”. They ignore that everyone working towards and achieving their own goals would make the “community” favorable. The latter is a bottom-up approach to economics and end utility. The former paints everyone with a broad brush.
This is socialism in general, but when you incorporate democracy into this, you have many different people “voting” for many different things. When everyone disagrees about everything, the government has two options. The first is to accept the minority-majority, which would make the majority of people upset. The second is to take control of the situation and do what the government sees fit. Remember this is all working on the working people’s labor and money. This doesn’t sound like “dictatorship of the proletarian” to me.
Every time democratic socialism has been tried, the government has grabbed more and more power over monopoly powers over certain industries for “welfare”. The government first grabs education, healthcare, and food- the necessities. Then it maneuvers to less necessary endeavors like entertainment and media. This is when they really get the most power. Sure you can force people to do things through education and food, but when you grab entertainment and media, you can control the minds of the masses very quickly and very discreetly. Propaganda was rampant in every socialist society to date.
Both of these lead to totalitarian states ruled by the government. Karl Marx himself feared this outcome of revolutionary socialism. He said, “The state is based on this contradiction. It is based on the contradiction between public and private life, between universal and particular interests. For this reason, the state must confine itself to formal, negative activities” (2). Totalitarianism in this fashion is, indeed, described as fascism by many scholars. I do not believe that it is total fascism, but the economic model certainly closely resembles fascism.
Finally, what is democratic socialism?
In theory, which democratic socialism is, all socialism is democratic. In fact, all forms of government are democratic in theory- but socialism is particularly democratic. The goal of socialism in its founding age was to eliminate the totalitarianism and conservatism of central Europe in the 19th century and replace it with a democratic model. This is how socialism came about. So I will argue that democratic socialism is the same thing as any other socialism.
Many will argue that democratic socialism is simply regulated capitalism; however this is not so. Regulated capitalism is a mixed economy, but it certainly is not socialism. Regulated capitalism can be described as being Keynesian or statist. However, capitalism seems to regulate itself. All great innovations in capital and safety have come directly from the market. Scientists, or the general individual, finds something that is destructive, which is made common knowledge, and the businesses on the market create something that prevents this destructive force.
Electric cars are becoming more and more common because of the market. Car producers see value in selling electric cars because people are concerned about the environment. It’s not because the government mandates it. In fact, the government has helped slow the progress by giving big oil so much money. Also, in terms of the workers rights and conditions, improvements have come only from advances in capital by less-regulated capitalism. Improved capital (machinery, etc) has made work both easier and more productive, which inherently improves working conditions.
However, I digress. I am arguing that capitalism regulates itself more than any government has. Democratic socialism is not regulated capitalism. Democratic socialism is collective ownership of the means of production, just like classic socialism. The only difference between Lenin and democratic socialists of today is that Lenin was revolutionary. Socialists today are more gradualist.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions, feel free to comment below or send me an email at [email protected]
(1) Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, “The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats” (1901)