Democratic Socialism is the political philosophy that believes that you can combine an elected government that fully protects civil liberties with the nationalization of the means of production so that you produce a society which provides for the welfare of all its citizens. Such a government was put in place by the Labor Party in Great Britain after the Second World War. Deeply committed to democratic practices, they nevertheless created government ownership of the coal and steel industries, the railroads, and medicine. These reforms were largely turned back by Margaret Thatcher, leaving only the National Health Service and a university system that had been remodeled into a meritocracy where the government paid tuition to whatever level institution a student was qualified to attend. So nationalization was not of the industries key to the economy but of those services which, over the course of the post-war years, were taken to be a matter of right rather than a luxury purchase, like a fine car, which the consumer might care to buy if the consumer could afford it. In the United States, fair wages and fair working conditions were not instituted by the government. The New Deal left that to collective bargaining, that generally jimcracked system of negotiation which worked because it was cheaper for employers to negotiate than face strikes. Collective bargaining was therefore successful for the American coal, steel, and automobile industries.
What industries would be nationalized today, if the United States took up that route? Google and Amazon are communications and distributing organizations unleashed by the computer revolution and a good question remains whether Google should be treated as a broadcasting industry rather than as a technology industry and therefore regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. It is an equally good and more general question as to whether Democratic Socialism offers anything useful over and above the idea of New Deal Liberalism, which is to regulate the economic system through a variety of devices and to provide people with the services to which they have come to feel that they are entitled as a matter of right. We will have to look elsewhere to find a meaning for Democratic Socialism, now that the term has come back into favor among the most vociferous of those that advocate progressive change in American society.
One possible distinction between a Liberal and a more radical political philosophy might be the division between those who are concerned with income inequality and those who are concerned with creating opportunities for the poor and working classes. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders belong to the former category, and Sanders does describe himself as a Democratic Socialist. There is, however, little evidence to support the claim that what happens to the one percent has an impact on how, let us say, the bottom fifty percent of the population live. Tax revenues from the rich may be needed to make possible the social programs that the poor and the middle class need, but those tax levels could easily enough be met by the rich, and may mean no more than getting back the trillion dollars given to them in the Trump tax cut, and so nowhere near the confiscatory amounts of taxation that would break the backs of the rich.
The programs that are needed by most of the population to improve their lots in life are major minimum wage increases, free tuition at institutions of higher learning, Medicare for all and, perhaps, a minimum income and guaranteed jobs program, the government always being the employer of last resort for anyone who wants a job, although, at the moment, everyone who wants work can get it even if not at a desirable salary. But the thing is these programs are ones which any New Dealer can accept in that they are adjustments to the government services already available rather than programs that only a social revolution would spawn. Moreover, what Democratic Socialists generally call for are programs that are not more radical than those a New Dealer would support. According to the New York Times, Democratic Socialists in California are calling for the establishment of working people’s banks to spare depositors the outrageous practices of the big banks, which were quick to lend before the Great Recession, and quick to foreclose after it began so that they could sell properties at old value levels when prosperity returned. As a matter of fact, worker banks have been around since the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union formed a bank in the Twenties and similar banks sprang up in the Seventies (the Women’s Bank and Carver Bank, which was directed at Black depositors) only to find that they also had to require collateral for loans and so in general fell back on the practices of branch banking that were routine with big banks. The trouble with the banking industry lies downtown, at their headquarters, where their practices for investment banking were outrageous, hiring companies to give their assessment of the securities that the banks were putting up for sale when those companies were dependant on those banks for revenue and so would go easy on even not well secured offerings. I have not heard how Democratic Socialists want to go further than Dodd-Frank in bringing the banking industry under control.
So it is not too much to hope for that the Leftish movement of the Democratic Party and those who support it is no more than a correction on the Centrist years of Carter, Clinton, husband and wife, and Obama. Moving Left can amount to a return to the New Deal which promised progressive programs on any number of issues without being wed to any particular ideology of what was supposed to happen except that government could step in to solve problems that could not solve themselves. That, however, may be too optimistic a viewpoint.
What do the young Democratic Socialist candidates, in fact, stand for? Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the candidate who beat Joe Crowley in the primary for his Bronx congressional seat, seems to have been trained in a number of cliches. She says that we are entered upon the last stages of capitalism, a point of view voiced ninety years ago when capitalism was depicted as being both culturally and economically on its last legs. Well, as the old rejoinder goes, it has been awfully long on its deathbed-- so long, in fact that I would suggest capitalism is just a different name for a modern industrial system, any one of them consisting of a host of corporations tied together through government regulation, the difference between China’s state capitalism and Western capitalism in the degree to which government intrudes and forces investment in, for example, apartment complexes, for political rather than economic reasons and, of course, the lack of the protection of civil liberties and the rule of law and free elections that are available in the Western democracies. Maybe she is just naive, not the result of a particularly good education in political history and theory. Her campaign leaflets, on the other hand, are devoted to the kind of programs that are just the next steps for a New Dealer’s agenda. She favors Medicare for all, fully funded public schools and university educations, a universal job guarantee, treating housing as a human right, abolishing ICE (which certainly needs reform), and a clear path to citizenship for undocumented aliens. (Her leaflet does not mention that she is also in favor of disinvestment in Israel, although she does say elsewhere that she is in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)
The website of Democratic Socialists of America, however, is rather unsatisfactory. It does not proclaim principles that it thinks are either self-evident or are carefully explained, as are those in “The Declaration of Independence” or “The Communist Manifesto”. The website says the organization is both democratic and socialist but does not define either of these terms, saying only that it rallies to progressive causes, such as the defense of women and minorities, until such time as socialism is established here. It issues statements having to do with particular controversies, such as when it comes to the defense of a Palestinian activist arrested by the Israelis, but it does not put out programmatic statements about the issues of our time, which is something common even on the websites of sitting Congresspeople. That may be because we are not in a time when ideologists spring up to write position papers or manifestos. But it may also be that progressives feel no need these days to be in favor of anything so much as against the Know-Nothingism of Donald Trump, which is against anything that hints of progress, wanting, as it does, to restore the world of the Fifties when women and African-Americans and Hispanics knew their place. Being in favor of programs to solve problems is enough. But we will see if that is making excuses if any of the challengers to the Democratic Socialist candidates running this fall bother to ask their opponents what they stand for rather than just rant against these clean cut young people.