In 1970, the great liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith declared that the “Democratic Party must henceforth use the word ‘socialism.’ It describes what is needed.” Like many others, however, Galbraith largely dropped the subject in subsequent years. The response to Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign, along with polls showing that large numbers of young people and minorities in America have a positive view of socialism, suggest that this once-forbidden concept may no longer be taboo.
More than 40 percent of Americans under the age of 30 view socialism favorably, according to the most recent YouGov poll. Positive responses among black Americans have ranged between 29 and 41 percent in recent surveys. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll that omitted the “undecided” option found that 49 percent of its young participants viewed socialism favorably.
The most obvious source of this sea change is the failure of traditional approaches to address the nation’s most pressing problems: growing inequality, poverty, economic insecurity, global warming, perpetual war, and the decay and violence visited on black communities. Side by side with the increasing concentration of wealth has been the ever more blatant exploitation of the political power that wealth confers on elites and major corporations, most obviously by the Koch brothers and their right-wing allies.
Widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo creates a climate receptive to sweeping change. But such a climate can also devolve into indifference or cynicism if clear alternatives are not presented. With that in mind, how might a practical and politically viable alternative to our current system actually be constructed? What would socialism look like in 21st-century America?
* * *
At the core of the traditional socialist argument has always been the judgment that democratic ownership of the nation’s wealth—and especially what Marx called the “means of production”—is essential. The question of ownership, however, has rarely been mentioned in conventional political debate. The traditional socialist idea of “nationalized industry” is beyond the pale, and the vast majority of progressives have so far avoided discussing alternatives to the statist socialist model.
Despite his self-definition as a democratic socialist, Sanders has offered what is essentially a strong liberal or social-democratic program of progressive taxation, financial regulation, single-payer healthcare, increased Social Security and income-support programs, and environmental regulation. Although he backs worker-owned companies, Sanders explicitly disavowed government ownership of businesses in his major theme-setting speech at Georgetown University last November.
At the same time, new resources have become available to support the construction of a serious alternative system—one that is “socialist” in content and vision, but also highly democratic and accountable in structure. It is a system that could become increasingly viable as Americans’ disillusionment with traditional strategies continues to grow.
In recent years, there has been a steady buildup of interest in new forms of democratized ownership. Worker-owned cooperatives, neighborhood land trusts, and municipal corporations all democratize ownership in one way or another, but they do so in decentralized rather than statist fashion. The trajectory of change is impressive. Examples of successful worker ownership range from Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York City to the Evergreen complex of solar, greenhouse, and laundry cooperatives in Cleveland. Mayors and city councils in places like Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; Richmond, California; and New York City have started to provide direct financial or technical support for these developments, suggesting a new nexus of political power.