Instead, there I was with the commentator Ben Stein hovering over me like some grim heathen god, exuding all the effervescent charm of a despondent tree sloth, glumly wobbling his jowls and opining that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez espouses a political philosophy that in the past led to the rise of Hitler and Stalin. And I am painfully aware that the male Fox commentariat nurtures its sickly obsession with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez partly because they resent her cleverness, charisma and moral vitality, but mostly because they suspect that in high school she was one of those girls they had no hope of getting a date with though, really, she comes across as someone who could look past a face of even the purest suet if she thought she glimpsed a healthy soul behind it.
Just then, however, I was emotionally unprepared for this particular assault on my intelligence. I cast a fond, forlorn glance back in the direction of those T. Absurd as it was, though, Mr. It may make one wince to see Senator Bernie Sanders obliged as he was on Monday at a town hall hosted by CNN to explain once more that the totalitarian statism of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the far older tradition of democratic socialist thought. Had Marx and Engels only known this, they might have spared themselves the effort of denouncing the socialists of their time for failing to call for a completely centralized economy.
Well — only in America, as they say. I take this to be a symptom of our unique national genius for stupidity. In every other free society with a functioning market economy, socialism is an ordinary, rather general term for sane and compassionate governance of the public purse for the purpose of promoting general welfare and a more widespread share in national prosperity.
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In countries where, since World War II, the principles of democratic socialism have shaped public policy basically, everywhere in the developed world except here , the lives of the vast majority of citizens, most especially in regard to affordable health care, have improved enormously. Democratic socialism is, briefly put, a noble tradition of civic conscientiousness that was historically — to a far greater degree than either its champions or detractors today often care to acknowledge — grounded in deep Christian convictions.
I, for instance, am a proud son of the European Christian socialist tradition, especially in its rich British variant, as exemplified by F.
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Tawney and many other luminaries including, in his judiciously remote way, C. We can also guarantee access to nutritious food, safe and secure housing, free child care, and public education at all levels.
Other demands should center around allowing people to freely organize unions and collectively bargain, helping to rebuild the political agency necessary to sustain and deepen reforms. Cobbling together the legislative power to achieve these reforms will not be easy. But it is possible to achieve certain socialist goals within capitalism. For the last century and a half, the working class has been at the center of socialist politics for a reason.
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They paid attention to the working class because workers were more powerful than any other dominated group: capitalists depend on their labor for profits, and, when organized, workers can withhold that labor to win reforms. Some things have changed since Marx published Capital a hundred fifty years ago, or even since powerful parties of the Left ruled from Kingston, Jamaica, to Stockholm, Sweden, in the s and s.
There was a time when one could immediately identify a working-class neighborhood in a place like Turin, Italy. A few industries would have been the key source of employment for the area.
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People lived densely packed together, forced by capitalism into, if not solidarity, then at least commonality. True to this shared condition, workers voted in the main for parties of the broad Left. The job of the revolutionary was to convince workers committed to a politics of reform to embrace a politics of rupture.
Today you might find pockets of organized, class-conscious working- class people across the advanced capitalist world, but these are the exception, not the rule.
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The twenty-first-century working class is fragmented. Up until the s Renault and Ford and other big manufacturers were just as union hostile as Walmart is today. While the percentage of workers employed in industrial manufacturing has declined in recent decades, the trend lines go back to the late nineteenth century. The workers still left in those sectors who, in raw numbers, are actually more numerous than ever can still exert significant economic power. However, to build a majoritarian coalition, socialists need to think more broadly. Our conception of a working class today goes beyond formally employed workers to the labor and political agency found in households and neighborhoods.
But the traditional workplace should still be central to our vision. That means putting special emphasis on workers in growing sectors, such as education and health care, as well as those working in supply and logistics. It also means developing connections between the unemployed and the employed and pursuing a broad practice of social justice unionism—union organizing that goes beyond typical workplace demands—capable of marshaling broader popular support for strikes and left-wing policy initiatives. How many people are we talking about in all? In most developed societies around 60 percent of the population still has to rely on wages to survive and possesses little to no net wealth.
Those working people are as different and divided as ever, yet they still have the potential to rattle the system and win real gains. Socialists need to arise from, try to create a political culture around, and organize within this class, not find substitutes for it.
Unions are important. Today, despite organizing just 11 percent of the US workforce, unions are still the only institutions capable of exerting political pressure at the scale required to push back against national elites. Importantly, they also look less like the industrial workforce of the nineteenth century and more like the diverse working class of the twenty-first. Unions serve a purpose beyond collective bargaining: namely, that they can prompt workers to become more class-conscious and learn political skills. A nurse active in her union can become an educator and an organizer. But unions can only be effective at fighting for member interests and developing these capacities if the rank and file are allowed to play an active role within them.
Beyond obvious cases of corruption, US unions are often extremely hierarchical and bureaucratic. Members are trained to see their unions as service organizations. They have little reason to go to a union meeting. Union staff occupy an intermediary position between company management and regular workers. An analogy could be drawn to the structure of political parties, in which the leadership often prefers caution to bold action.
In short: we need to do more than defend existing unions from attacks from the Right. Our goal must be to transform them into vehicles of a more expansive, democratic unionism through facilitating membership engagement and creating structures that make leaderships more accountable. Racism has existed for centuries, sexual oppression for even longer. The socialist record on oppression is uneven but still better than that of any other political tradition. These movements have won some significant gains in the realm of culture and representation, improving millions of lives.
But many of those advances have succeeded mainly in diversifying our elites, not in bettering the lives of the most oppressed. Without the bedrock of a class politics, identity politics has become an agenda of inclusionary neoliberalism in which individual qualms can be addressed but structural inequalities cannot.
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Of course, we still have a long way to go before we even equalize opportunity within the current neoliberal system. As Martin Luther King Jr. Racism has taken on an almost metaphysical role in liberal politics—it is somehow the cause of, explanation for, and consequence of most social phenomena. The reality is people can overcome their prejudices in the pro- cess of mass struggle over shared interests, but that requires getting people involved in those common struggles to begin with.
We should strive for the elimination of bigotry, chauvinism, and any form of prejudice within our organizations. That means taking equality seriously, not as a goal for the distant future but as a practice in the here and now. Hyperbole and the politics of personal shaming are a recipe for demoralization, paranoia, and defeat. The socialist premise is clear: at their core people want dignity, respect, and a fair shot at a good life.
A democratic class politics is the best way to unite people against our common opponent and win the type of change that will help the most marginalized, all while engaging in a far longer campaign against oppression rooted in race, gender, sexuality, and more. In this era of atomization and alienation, that tradition can provide us with a sense of our place in history and a meaning to our work.
But pluralism and democracy are ingrained not only in civil societies in the advanced capitalist world but within the socialist movement itself. What seems most relevant are the lessons of social democracy, namely that the antidemocratic power of capital will overwhelm democratically backed pro- worker reforms. But what about the end goal of socialism—extending democracy rad- ically into our communities and workplaces, ending the exploitation of humans by other humans?