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Socializing Socialism?

Bernie Sanders has finally defined what he means by “Democratic Socialism”.

What I mean by Democratic socialism is looking at countries in Scandinavia that have much lower rates of child poverty, that have a fairer tax system that guarantees basic necessities of life to working people. Essentially what I mean by that is creating a government that works for working families, rather than the kind of government we have today which is largely owned and controlled by wealthy individuals and large corporations.

Getting more specific, he gives some examples:

If we go to some countries, what they will have is health care for all as a right. I believe in that. They will have paid family and medical leave. I believe in that. They will have a much stronger childcare system than we have, which is affordable for working families. I believe in that.

Sanders has often used Denmark as his example of democratic socialism, but there are just a few problems with this.

First of all, as Hillary Clinton has pointed out: “We are not Denmark. We are the United States of America.” This might sound like an excuse, but ideologues often make the mistake that just because a system works in one country, it will work just as well in another country. Just because England loves their monarchy doesn’t mean that we should elect someone as our king (but can’t you imagine Donald Trump running for the job).

Second, the Danish prime minister himself claims that Denmark is not at all socialist. Speaking at the Harvard School of Government this week, he said:

I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.

In fact, the current government of Denmark is a center-right coalition, and the second largest political party in Denmark is a hard-right one that is strongly anti-immigration.

Personally, I feel that Sanders is being loose with the term socialism. Socialism is where the state owns and controls the means of production. Examples of socialism in the US include our public streets and highways, our national parks and forests, and our military.

From his examples, it seems like Sanders is really talking about is our social safety net, or as some people might call it, creating a “welfare state”. But a welfare state is not the same thing as socialism.

If people are afraid of the word “socialism”, there is an easy solution. Why doesn’t Sanders just claim that socialism is what you have when you use social media? 🙂



  1. Yudith wrote:

    I think most people are afraid of socialism because they confuse it with communism. That might be a leftover of the Cold War. Socialism can allow some and even a lot of free market but all people ever think is that government-controlled means of production thing. Denmark, like Norway or Sweden, might still be very socialist but its right-wing government doesn’t think so because it’s more capitalist than it was, proving that you can actually adjust the level of socialism in a country. So yes, socialism would be more popular if it was called “your country working for you”.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 6:00 am | Permalink
  2. Ralph wrote:

    Bill Maher had a good one about Trump, calling him a walking billboard for socialism. The rich hair is covering the poor hair for the overall good of the head 🙂

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 6:13 am | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    Yudith, what’s really ironic is that the biggest example of socialism in this country benefits big corporations. Bailing out the banks and the big auto companies, subsidies for the oil companies, tax breaks, and on and on. We have socialism here, but it is for the rich. Sanders just wants to redirect it a bit toward the rest of us.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  4. il-08 wrote:

    splitting hairs, I think. Certainly a more social system while still mostly a market economy is where most people are leaning today.

    That said, I think Bernie is doing himself a huge injustice by constantly (or at least sometimes) bringing up other countries. We don’t need a Nordic model to shape our government, we can just evolve the American government within the guidelines of the Constitution. Every time Bernie says, ‘DENMARK’, or “NORWAY”, he loses a few thousand votes in Alabama. Its not the goals that scare a lot of people, it is the words he uses to describe them.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  5. Iron Knee wrote:

    IL-08, agreed. This has been shown in a couple of surveys. When they ask people about specific policies supported by Sanders, then even many Republicans support them.

    Reminds me of Obamacare. When they ask people about the specific things that Obamacare does, people support them and like them. But the same people still say that Obamacare should be repealed.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  6. JPM wrote:

    I agree with the Danish Prime Minister, but I’m in a lonely minority here in the US where the term appears to mean something entirely different.

    It seems to me that Bernie uses the term pre-emptively, and the international comparisons are simply his case studies.

    Speaking of international comparisons, I’ve never understood why so very many people are so terribly insecure about them, and see them as a threat to culture and identity. In business, when a competitor uses a successful strategy, others race to emulate or adapt it in their own enterprises. In the age of globalization, raw nationalism is an anachronism that costs us dearly.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  7. westomoon wrote:

    I’ve wondered for awhile if Bernie didn’t choose the label partly because of timing — his political career began right around the time the D party took a huge step to the right, courtesy the DLC center-rightists.

    Bernie strikes me as a classic FDR Democrat — what Howard Dean later referred to as “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” But by the early 90’s, the term “Democrat” no longer stood for any populist values, or even for the common good.

    I think Bernie may have chosen to label himself a socialist to distinguish his approach from what “D” had come to stand for. After all, even Singapore has some of the common-good amenities Bernie stands for — and nobody’s gonna confuse Singapore with socialism!

    JPM — Couldn’t agree with you more. Somehow, we’ve slid into a mindset where the experience of the rest of the world is invisible to us. It’s weirdest of all, IMO, in the health fields — we seem unable to benefit from discoveries in the rest of the world, even when they offer hope for epidemics here.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  8. Michael wrote:

    “Personally, I feel that Sanders is being loose with the term socialism. Socialism is where the state owns and controls the means of production.”

    Everyone is loose with the term socialism, because it is a very broad umbrella term and most people don’t have time for the pedantry of distinguishing different versions. And just to be completely picky, I would make that “owns and/or controls” rather than just “and.” There are plenty of socialist ideologies that are fundamentally against social ownership.

    Marxist, Zionist, feminist, anarchist, etc., are all very distinct forms of socialism. Shoot, there’s even a distinction between “democratic socialism” and “social democracy,” even though both are considered to be socialist. (Sanders himself confuses these terms, as he describes himself as the former while espousing the positions of the latter.) As a result, many socialist branches are fundamentally opposed to Lenin’s views or definition. So that Quartz article is fundamentally flawed when it equates socialism with Lenin. I would even suggest that the Danish PM is not entirely correct. He is certainly correct that Denmark is not a democratic socialist country; however, what he is describing fits the definition of a social democracy, which is considered to be a socialist political ideology.

    I view the term “socialism” the way the I view the term “Christianity.” Treating all socialists as the same would be similar to claiming that Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and Mormons all followed the same teachings. But if you’re debating whether one is more inspired by Jesus or by the Rig Veda, “Christianity” does well enough to distinguish. And just like some would claim (like the Danish PM) that “social democracy” isn’t socialism, there are some that claim Mormons aren’t Christians. But at the end of the day, all such distinctions involve a bit of arbitrary classification and cut-offs.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  9. redjon wrote:

    There’s the other end of the spectrum, where a large number of people seem to be perfectly fine with an economic monarchy closely resembling those against whom revolutions were waged all over Europe AND by the original thirteen colonies. Right or wrong (they were NOT gods, certainly), one thing for which our Founding Fathers did NOT fight a revolution was the privilege of being governed by moneyed corporations or the born-to-privilege class who owned them.

    I know I’m simplifying here, but we might all want to take a moment to realize that the populations of exactly NONE of the countries in Europe has done worse under the many forms of democracy and, yes, limited socialism that have existed since the middle 19th century than they did under the monarchies that predated their violent or non-violent revolutions.

    Why on earth does anyone want to bring back a system of economic monarchy?!?

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  10. Max wrote:

    Of course he is loose with the term “socialist”. He’s also loose with the term “independent”!

    Wednesday, November 4, 2015 at 4:12 am | Permalink
  11. There’s also that the Republicans and Libertarians have labeled any deviation from absolute laissez-faire capitalism as “socialism.” See, e.g. Ronald Reagan’s opposition to Medicare.

    No, Sanders is not being technically precise. As noted above, a political scientist would categorize him as a social democrat rather than a democratic socialist. But in the United States, he is so far to the left of even the Democratic party that the distinction becomes academic. I think the shock value of calling himself a socialist is worth the political-science inaccuracy.

    Every time Bernie says, ‘DENMARK’, or “NORWAY”, he loses a few thousand votes in Alabama.

    I don’t think he wants those votes. He doesn’t need all the votes, just a little more than half.

    @JPM: Agreed. The point of international comparisons is not that we should do everything the Danes or Swedes do, it’s that it’s clearly possible to have a lot more social welfare without collapsing into anarchy or poverty.

    @OP: It is still inaccurate to say that “[s]ocialism is where the state owns and controls the means of production.” Socialism (or, more precisely, the kind of socialism I think you’re trying to get at) is social ownership of the means of production, in contrast to private (and especially absentee) ownership of the means of production. Social ownership encompasses everything from Communist Party control (as actually in the USSR and pre-Deng China) to worker ownership of the means of production (the “soviets” of the Soviet Union refers to councils of workers).

    It is important to understand that except under unusual circumstances, the “state” is not an autonomous institution; the state (in Weber’s sense of the institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence) emerges from both the means and mode of production, and the class relations that also emerge from both the means and mode of production. A socialist state would necessarily have a very different character from a capitalist state, and only limited comparisons can be legitimately drawn.

    The real question is: do we want the means of production owned by a small group of people, accountable to no one (not even, in the end, to the “market”), which is the inevitable structural outcome of capitalism, or do we want the means of production owned in a manner always democratically accountable to the people. I prefer the latter.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2015 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  12. Iron Knee wrote:

    Barefoot Bum, I find your definition of socialism interesting “Socialism (or, more precisely, the kind of socialism I think you’re trying to get at) is social ownership of the means of production, …”

    Would that include the widespread ownership of stock, pushed through 401K and other means? Most large public corporations are widely owned by a large social group (although in practice they have little control).

    Wednesday, November 4, 2015 at 6:36 am | Permalink
  13. As Michael wrote earlier, socialism is a very fuzzy term; there’s no one right answer.

    Of course all cultural, political, and economic systems, including capitalism, are “social” in a sense. However, when socialists such as myself talk about “social ownership,” we usually mean “social” in a similar sense to the political context: democracy as (in theory) “social” ownership of the state, in contrast to feudalism and monarchy as “private” ownership of the state, even though both are social systems.

    In the sense that ownership of stock, however distributed, is private ownership of economic privilege, then no, I would not call it socialist, in just the same sense that feudal political privilege, even though more widely distributed than in monarchy, is not democratic.

    Let me lean some more on the political analogy. A citizen does not need to “earn” the right to vote, or (in theory) need to “earn” the right to legal and police protection, or other constitutional rights. They can be taken away (but arguably should not be), but only for cause and after due process. Similarly, privileged political positions, i.e. elected officials, do not become the property of their occupancy: Barack Obama does not own the Presidency; he occupies the office at the pleasure of the people. Although people don’t have to earn the right to vote, etc., they still have obligations and duties.

    So, similarly, socialist economic theory entails that (somehow, theories differ a lot!) people should have an analogous relationship to economics: one does not have to “earn” a place in the economic system; it is a matter of citizenship. And, similarly, these economic rights might be taken away, and certainly entail obligations and duties.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink