The Real Meaning of “Democratic Socialism”

2016 marks an increasingly divisive year in the realm of electoral politics. The candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have energized their respective parties, with Trump only recently losing his significant lead, and Sanders offering a strong challenge to Clinton.

I have written previously about the candidacy of Donald Trump and how it reflects on a large portion of Republican voters who are enthusiastic about his bigoted proposals to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States and similarly restricting Mexican immigration with a wall rivaling the Great Wall of China.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is rallying the far left in a way not seen since at least the time of George McGovern, who lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon after gaining the Democratic nomination. The question of how Sanders fares in this election is yet to be seen, but the enthusiasm he has already generated merits an examination of his views in a similar fashion to how I examined Trump’s in my previous column.

Sanders, a U.S. Senator from Vermont, has a longstanding reputation as a maverick leader, running as an independent in his mayoral race of Burlington, VT, followed by his U.S. House and Senate campaigns. In addition to not holding any party affiliation, he openly declares himself a socialist, specifically a “democratic socialist.” This term has become increasingly common in recent months, as he has frequently used the term on the campaign trail to describe his set of beliefs. But what does this term really mean?

The answer is quite different than what Sanders himself believes. Due to an evolution in the term, socialism is no longer associated with the Soviet Union, but instead with the Nordic states that many progressive millennials in the United States view as a preferable economic model to the current one in America. What Sanders in fact advocates is social democracy, a term that looks similar to democratic socialism but is in fact quite different, as social democracy is a form of capitalism, not socialism. Sanders is content with labeling himself as a socialist despite his desire to use the state to assist capitalism’s growth and stability, rather than usher in an actual socialist revolution.

The importance of this distinction is evident when one considers both the political and economic structures of a given nation. In the political realm, the government can be heavily involved in the market, not at all, or somewhere in between. In the economic realm, production can be largely controlled by a handful of major corporations, by small business owners, by workers, or some combination of these. Sanders’s proposal is to have the government intervene in the market to a high extent and to have the means of production remain largely in the hands of major corporations. He would enforce a high tax rate on these corporations in a misguided attempt at mitigating the inevitable increase in income inequality, a reality that has been particularly evident in the past three decades.

Using an analogy I made in my previous Trump article, this would be analogous to trimming a weed rather than removing it at the roots. Without the ability of workers to control the means of production for themselves, the working class will be unable to get ahead regardless of the good intentions of the state. Thus, the problem is not a lack of government, but an economic system that makes it impossible for most to get ahead.

The reason for this is without worker control, workers will receive less than their fair share for their output, while owners and executives will usurp more than their fair share, or surplus value, from these workers. Redistribution of this capital by the government only serves to remove any incentive for firms to hire more workers, increasing unemployment and negating any benefits that the policy was intended to provide. Worker control avoids the need for the government to arbitrarily reallocate money. Instead, a free market can operate independently of government, without the risk of income inequality spiraling into the collapse that Karl Marx infamously predicted. Goods and services can be exchanged freely and the lack of an owning class means that redistribution through welfare and other government policies is unnecessary. Workers will have full control of capital without dependence on the state or big banks, as they will be a part of employee-owned businesses and can use mutual credit when necessary for the growth of the business.

Before voters get too excited for Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, they should take the time to understand the ramifications of his policy stances and what the results will be in practice. Like Trump supporters, fans of Sanders have legitimate grievances, but often misdirect their anger towards counterproductive ideas rather than solutions that provide permanent and effective benefits for all. Instead of viewing the government as a universal problem solver of economic calamities, Bernie supporters should continue to learn about what socialism is and strive to find ways to reduce structural economic inequality without expanding a government that will only serve to reinforce the Wall Street financial system that they so despise.

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