For other uses, see Socialism (disambiguation).
Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership may refer to forms of public, collective or cooperative ownership, or to citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, though social ownership is the common element shared by its various forms.
Socialist economic systems can be divided into non-market and market forms. Non-market socialism involves the substitution of factor markets and money, with engineering and technical criteria, based on calculation performed in-kind, thereby producing an economic mechanism that functions according to different economic laws from those of capitalism. Non-market socialism aims to circumvent the inefficiencies and crises traditionally associated with capital accumulation and the profit system. By contrast, market socialism retains the use of monetary prices, factor markets and in some cases the profit motive, with respect to the operation of socially owned enterprises and the allocation of capital goods between them. Profits generated by these firms would be controlled directly by the workforce of each firm, or accrue to society at large in the form of a social dividend. The socialist calculation debate discusses the feasibility and methods of resource allocation for a socialist system.
The socialist political movement includes a set of political philosophies that originated in the revolutionary movements of the mid-to-late 18th century and of concern for the social problems that were associated with capitalism. In addition to the debate over markets and planning, the varieties of socialism differ in their form of social ownership, how management is to be organised within productive institutions and the role of the state in constructing socialism. Core dichotomies include reformism versus revolutionary socialism and state socialism versus libertarian socialism. Socialist politics has been both centralist and decentralised; internationalist and nationalist in orientation; organised through political parties and opposed to party politics; at times overlapping with trade unions and at other times independent of—and critical of—unions; and present in both industrialised and developing countries. While all tendencies of socialism consider themselves democratic, the term "democratic socialism" is often used to highlight its advocates' high value for democratic processes in the economy and democratic political systems, usually to draw contrast to tendencies they may perceive to be undemocratic in their approach. Democratic socialism is frequently used to draw contrast to the political system of the Soviet Union, which critics argue operated in an authoritarian fashion.
By the late 19th century, after the work of Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels socialism had come to signify opposition to capitalism and advocacy for a post-capitalist system based on some form of social ownership of the means of production. By the 1920s, social democracy and communism had become the two dominant political tendencies within the international socialist movement. By this time, socialism emerged as "the most influential secular movement of the twentieth century, worldwide. It is a political ideology (or world view), a wide and divided political movement" and while the emergence of the Soviet Union as the world's first nominally socialist state led to socialism's widespread association with the Soviet economic model, many economists and intellectuals argued that in practice the model functioned as a form of state capitalism or a non-planned administrative or command economy.Socialist parties and ideas remain a political force with varying degrees of power and influence in all continents, heading national governments in many countries around the world. Today, some socialists have also adopted the causes of other social movements, such as environmentalism, feminism and liberalism.
The origin of the term "socialism" may be traced back and attributed to a number of originators, in addition to significant historical shifts in the usage and scope of the word.
For Andrew Vincent, "[t]he word ‘socialism’ finds its root in the Latin sociare, which means to combine or to share. The related, more technical term in Roman and then medieval law was societas. This latter word could mean companionship and fellowship as well as the more legalistic idea of a consensual contract between freemen".
The term "socialism" was created by Henri de Saint-Simon, one of the founders of what would later be labelled "utopian socialism". Simon coined "socialism" as a contrast to the liberal doctrine of "individualism", which stressed that people act or should act as if they are in isolation from one another. The original "utopian" socialists condemned liberal individualism for failing to address social concerns during the industrial revolution, including poverty, social oppression and gross inequalities in wealth, thus viewing liberal individualism as degenerating society into supporting selfish egoism that harmed community life through promoting a society based on competition. They presented socialism as an alternative to liberal individualism based on the shared ownership of resources, although their proposals for socialism differed significantly. Saint-Simon proposed economic planning, scientific administration and the application of modern scientific advancements to the organization of society. By contrast, Robert Owen proposed the organization of production and ownership in cooperatives.
The term "socialism" is attributed to Pierre Leroux and to Marie Roch Louis Reybaud in France; and in Britain to Robert Owen in 1827, father of the cooperative movement.
The modern definition and usage of "socialism" settled by the 1860s, becoming the predominant term among the group of words "co-operative", "mutualist" and "associationist", which had previously been used as synonyms. The term "communism" also fell out of use during this period, despite earlier distinctions between socialism and communism from the 1840s. An early distinction between socialism and communism was that the former aimed to only socialise production while the latter aimed to socialise both production and consumption (in the form of free access to final goods). However, by 1888 Marxists employed the term "socialism" in place of "communism", which had come to be considered an old-fashion synonym for socialism. It was not until 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution that "socialism" came to refer to a distinct stage between capitalism and communism, introduced by Vladimir Lenin as a means to defend the Bolshevik seizure of power against traditional Marxist criticisms that Russia's productive forces were not sufficiently developed for socialist revolution.
A distinction between "communist" and "socialist" as descriptors of political ideologies arose in 1918 after the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party renamed itself to the All-Russian Communist Party, where communist came to specifically mean socialists who supported the politics and theories of Leninism, Bolshevism and later Marxism–Leninism, although communist parties continued to describe themselves as socialists dedicated to socialism.
The words "socialism" and "communism" eventually accorded with the adherents' and opponents' cultural attitude towards religion. In Christian Europe, communism was believed to be the atheist way of life. In Protestant England, the word "communism" was too culturally and aurally close to the Roman Catholic communion rite, hence English atheists denoted themselves socialists.Friedrich Engels argued that in 1848, at the time when the Communist Manifesto was published, "socialism was respectable on the continent, while communism was not". The Owenites in England and the Fourierists in France were considered "respectable" socialists, while working-class movements that "proclaimed the necessity of total social change" denoted themselves communists. This latter branch of socialism produced the communist work of Étienne Cabet in France and Wilhelm Weitling in Germany. The British moral philosopherJohn Stuart Mill also came to advocate a form of economic socialism within a liberal context. In later editions of his Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill would argue that "as far as economic theory was concerned, there is nothing in principle in economic theory that precludes an economic order based on socialist policies". While democrats looked to the Revolutions of 1848 as a democratic revolution, which in the long run ensured liberty, equality and fraternity, Marxists denounced 1848 as a betrayal of working-class ideals by a bourgeoisie indifferent to the legitimate demands of the proletariat.
Main article: History of socialism
Main articles: Utopian socialism, Revolutions of 1848, Paris Commune, and History of anarchism § Early history
Socialist models and ideas espousing common or public ownership have existed since antiquity. It has been claimed – though controversially – that there were elements of socialist thought in the politics of classical Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle.Mazdak, a Persian communal proto-socialist, instituted communal possessions and advocated the public good. Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī, a Companion of Prophet Muhammad, is credited by many as a principal antecedent of Islamic socialism. In the period right after the French Revolution, activists and theorists like François-Noël Babeuf, Étienne-Gabriel Morelly, Philippe Buonarroti and Auguste Blanqui influenced the early French labour and socialist movements. In Britain, Thomas Paine proposed a detailed plan to tax property owners to pay for the needs of the poor in Agrarian Justice while Charles Hall wrote The Effects of Civilization on the People in European States, denouncing capitalism's effects on the poor of his time which influenced the utopian schemes of Thomas Spence.
The first "self-conscious socialist movements developed in the 1820s and 1830s. The Owenites, Saint-Simonians and Fourierists provided a series of coherent analyses and interpretations of society. They also, especially in the case of the Owenites, overlapped with a number of other working-class movements like the Chartists in the United Kingdom". The Chartists gathered significant numbers around the People's Charter of 1838, which demanded the extension of suffrage to all male adults. Leaders in the movement also called for a more equitable distribution of income and better living conditions for the working classes. "The very first trade unions and consumers’ cooperative societies also emerged in the hinterland of the Chartist movement, as a way of bolstering the fight for these demands". A later important socialist thinker in France was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who proposed his philosophy of mutualism in which "everyone had an equal claim, either alone or as part of a small cooperative, to possess and use land and other resources as needed to make a living". There were also currents inspired by dissident Christianity of Christian socialism "often in Britain and then usually coming out of left liberal politics and a romantic anti-industrialism" which produced theorists such as Edward Bellamy, Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley.
The first advocates of socialism favoured social levelling in order to create a meritocratic or technocratic society based on individual talent. Count Henri de Saint-Simon is regarded as the first individual to coin the term "socialism". Saint-Simon was fascinated by the enormous potential of science and technology and advocated a socialist society that would eliminate the disorderly aspects of capitalism and would be based on equal opportunities.[unreliable source?] He advocated the creation of a society in which each person was ranked according to his or her capacities and rewarded according to his or her work. The key focus of Saint-Simon's socialism was on administrative efficiency and industrialism and a belief that science was the key to progress. This was accompanied by a desire to implement a rationally organised economy based on planning and geared towards large-scale scientific and material progress, thus embodied a desire for a more directed or planned economy. Other early socialist thinkers, such as Thomas Hodgkin and Charles Hall, based their ideas on David Ricardo's economic theories. They reasoned that the equilibrium value of commodities approximated prices charged by the producer when those commodities were in elastic supply and that these producer prices corresponded to the embodied labour – the cost of the labour (essentially the wages paid) that was required to produce the commodities. The Ricardian socialists viewed profit, interest and rent as deductions from this exchange-value.
West European social critics, including Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Louis Blanc, Charles Hall, and Saint-Simon were the first modern socialists who criticised the excessive poverty and inequality of the Industrial Revolution. They advocated reform, with some such as Robert Owen advocating the transformation of society to small communities without private property. Robert Owen's contribution to modern socialism was his understanding that actions and characteristics of individuals were largely determined by the social environment they were raised in and exposed to. On the other hand, Charles Fourier advocated phalansteres which were communities that respected individual desires (including sexual preferences), affinities and creativity and saw that work has to be made enjoyable for people. The ideas of Owen and Fourier were tried in practice in numerous intentional communities around Europe and the American continent in the mid-19th century.
The Paris Commune was a government that briefly ruled Paris from 18 March (more formally, from 28 March) to 28 May 1871. The Commune was the result of an uprising in Paris after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. The Commune elections held on 26 March elected a Commune council of 92 members, one member for each 20,000 residents. Despite internal differences, the council began to organise the public services essential for a city of two million residents. It also reached a consensus on certain policies that tended towards a progressive, secular and highly-democratic social democracy.
Because the Commune was only able to meet on fewer than 60 days in all, only a few decrees were actually implemented. These included the separation of church and state; the remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which payment had been suspended); the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries; the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service; and the free return, by the city pawnshops, of all workmen's tools and household items valued up to 20 francs, pledged during the siege. The Commune was concerned that skilled workers had been forced to pawn their tools during the war; the postponement of commercial debt obligations and the abolition of interest on the debts; and the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner. The Commune nonetheless recognised the previous owner's right to compensation.
The International Workingmen's Association (IWA), often called the First International, was founded in London in 1864. The International Workingmen's Association united diverse revolutionary currents including French followers of Proudhon,Blanquists, Philadelphes, English trade unionists, socialists and social democrats. The IWA held a preliminary conference in 1865 and had its first congress at Geneva in 1866. Due to the wide variety of philosophies present in the First International, there was conflict from the start. The first objections to Marx came from the mutualists who opposed communism and statism. However, shortly after Mikhail Bakunin and his followers (called collectivists while in the International) joined in 1868, the First International became polarised into two camps headed by Marx and Bakunin respectively. The clearest differences between the groups emerged over their proposed strategies for achieving their visions of socialism. The First International became the first major international forum for the promulgation of socialist ideas.
The followers of Bakunin were called collectivist anarchists and sought to collectivise ownership of the means of production while retaining payment proportional to the amount and kind of labor of each individual. Like Proudhonists, they asserted the right of each individual to the product of his labor and to be remunerated for their particular contribution to production. By contrast, anarcho-communists sought collective ownership of both the means and the products of labor. Errico Malatesta put it: "[I]nstead of running the risk of making a confusion in trying to distinguish what you and I each do, let us all work and put everything in common. In this way each will give to society all that his strength permits until enough is produced for every one; and each will take all that he needs, limiting his needs only in those things of which there is not yet plenty for every one".Anarchist communism as a coherent, modern economic-political philosophy was first formulated in the Italian section of the First International by Carlo Cafiero, Emilio Covelli, Errico Malatesta, Andrea Costa and other ex Mazzinian republicans. Out of respect for Mikhail Bakunin, they did not make their differences with collectivist anarchism explicit until after Bakunin's death.
Syndicalism emerged in France inspired in part by the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and later by Fernand Pelloutier and Georges Sorel. It developed at the end of the 19th century "out of the French trade-union movement – syndicat is the French word for trade union. It was a significant force in Italy and Spain in the early 20th century until it was crushed by the fascist regimes in those countries. In the United States, syndicalism appeared in the guise of the Industrial Workers of the World, or "Wobblies", founded in 1905. Syndicalism is an economic system where industries are organised into confederations (syndicates) and the economy is managed by negotiation between specialists and worker representatives of each field, comprising multiple non-competitive categorised units. Syndicalism is thus a form of communism and economic corporatism, but also refers to the political movement and tactics used to bring about this type of system. An influential anarchist movement based on syndicalist ideas is anarcho-syndicalism. The International Workers Association is an international anarcho-syndicalist federation of various labor unions from different countries.
The Fabian Society is a British socialist organisation which was established with the purpose of advancing the principles of socialism via gradualist and reformist means. The society laid many of the foundations of the Labour Party and subsequently affected the policies of states emerging from the decolonisation of the British Empire, most notably India and Singapore. Originally, the Fabian Society was committed to the establishment of a socialist economy, alongside a commitment to British imperialism as a progressive and modernising force. Today, the society functions primarily as a think tank and is one of 15 socialist societies affiliated with the Labour Party. Similar societies exist in Australia (the Australian Fabian Society), in Canada (the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation and the now disbanded League for Social Reconstruction) and in New Zealand.
Guild socialism is a political movement advocating workers' control of industry through the medium of trade-related guilds "in an implied contractual relationship with the public". It originated in the United Kingdom and was at its most influential in the first quarter of the 20th century. Inspired by medieval guilds, theorists such as Samuel G. Hobson and G. D. H. Cole advocated the public ownership of industries and their organisation into guilds, each of which would be under the democratic control of its trade union. Guild socialists were less inclined than Fabians to invest power in a state. At some point "like the American Knights of Labor, guild socialism wanted to abolish the wage system".
As the ideas of Marx and Engels took on flesh, particularly in central Europe, socialists sought to unite in an international organisation. In 1889, on the centennial of the French Revolution of 1789, the Second International was founded, with 384 delegates from 20 countries representing about 300 labour and socialist organisations. It was termed the "Socialist International" and Engels was elected honorary president at the third congress in 1893. Anarchists were ejected and not allowed in, mainly due to pressure from Marxists. It has been argued that at some point the Second International turned "into a battleground over the issue of libertarian versus authoritarian socialism. Not only did they effectively present themselves as champions of minority rights; they also provoked the German Marxists into demonstrating a dictatorial intolerance which was a factor in preventing the British labor movement from following the Marxist direction indicated by such leaders as H. M. Hyndman".
Reformism arose as an alternative to revolution. Eduard Bernstein was a leading social democrat in Germany who proposed the concept of evolutionary socialism. Revolutionary socialists quickly targeted reformism: Rosa Luxemburg condemned Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism in her 1900 essay Social Reform or Revolution?. Revolutionary socialism encompasses multiple social and political movements that may define "revolution" differently from one another. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany became the largest and most powerful socialist party in Europe, despite working illegally until the anti-socialist laws were dropped in 1890. In the 1893 elections, it gained 1,787,000 votes, a quarter of the total votes cast, according to Engels. In 1895, the year of his death, Engels emphasised the Communist Manifesto's emphasis on winning, as a first step, the "battle of democracy".
Early 20th century
Main articles: History of anarchism § 20th century, Russian Revolution, German Revolution, Biennio Rosso, and Spanish Revolution of 1936
In 1904, Australians elected the first Australian Labor Party prime minister: Chris Watson, who became the first democratically elected social democrat. In 1909 the first Kibbutz was established in Palestine by Russian Jewish Immigrants. The Kibbutz Movement would then expand through the 20th century following a doctrine of Zionist socialism. The British Labour Party first won seats in the House of Commons in 1902. The International Socialist Commission (ISC, also known as Berne International) was formed in February 1919 at a meeting in Bern by parties that wanted to resurrect the Second International.
By 1917, the patriotism of World War I changed into political radicalism in most of Europe, the United States and Australia. Other socialist parties from around the world who were beginning to gain importance in their national politics in the early 20th century included the Italian Socialist Party, the French Section of the Workers' International, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the Socialist Party of America in the United States, the Argentinian Socialist Party and the Chilean Partido Obrero Socialista.
Main article: Russian Revolution
In February 1917, revolution exploded in Russia. Workers, soldiers and peasants established soviets (councils), the monarchy fell and a provisional government convoked pending the election of a constituent assembly. In April of that year, Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Majority (or in Russian: "Bolshevik") faction of socialists in Russia and known for his profound and controversial expansions of Marxism, was allowed to cross Germany to return to his country from exile in Switzerland.
Lenin had published essays on his analysis of imperialism, the monopoly and globalisation phase of capitalism as predicted by Marx, as well as analyses on the social conditions of his contemporary time. He observed that as capitalism had further developed in Europe and America, the workers remained unable to gain class consciousness so long as they were too busy working and concerning with how to make ends meet. He therefore proposed that the social revolution would require the leadership of a vanguard party of class-conscious revolutionaries from the educated and politically active part of the population.
Upon arriving in Petrograd, Lenin declared that the revolution in Russia was not over, but had only begun and that the next step was for the workers' soviets to take full state authority. He issued a thesis outlining the Bolshevik's party programme, including rejection of any legitimacy in the provisional government and advocacy for state power to be given to the peasant and working class through the soviets. The Bolsheviks became the most influential force in the soviets and on 7 November the capitol of the provisional government was stormed by Bolshevik Red Guards in what afterwards known as the "Great October Socialist Revolution". The rule of the provisional government was ended and the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic – the world's first constitutionally socialist state – was established. On 25 January 1918 at the Petrograd Soviet, Lenin declared "Long live the world socialist revolution!" and proposed an immediate armistice on all fronts and transferred the land of the landed proprietors, the crown and the monasteries to the peasant committees without compensation.
On 26 January, the day after assuming executive power, Lenin wrote Draft Regulations on Workers' Control, which granted workers control of businesses with more than five workers and office employees and access to all books, documents and stocks and whose decisions were to be "binding upon the owners of the enterprises". Governing through the elected soviets and in alliance with the peasant-based Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Bolshevik government began nationalising banks and industry, and disavowed the national debts of the deposed Romanov royal régime. It sued for peace, withdrawing from World War I and convoked a Constituent Assembly in which the peasant Socialist-Revolutionary Party (SR) won a majority.
The Constituent Assembly elected Socialist-Revolutionary leader Victor Chernov President of a Russian republic, but rejected the Bolshevik proposal that it endorse the Soviet decrees on land, peace and workers' control and acknowledge the power of the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies. The next day, the Bolsheviks declared that the assembly was elected on outdated party lists and the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets dissolved it. In March 1919, world communist parties formed Comintern (also known as the Third International) at a meeting in Moscow.
International Working Union of Socialist Parties
Main article: International Working Union of Socialist Parties
Parties which did not want to be a part of the resurrected Second International (ISC) or Comintern formed the International Working Union of Socialist Parties (IWUSP, also known as Vienna International/Vienna Union/Two-and-a-Half International) on 27 February 1921 at a conference in Vienna. The ISC and the IWUSP joined to form the Labour and Socialist International (LSI) in May 1923 at a meeting in Hamburg Left wing groups which did not agree to the centralisation and abandonment of the soviets by the Bolshevik Party led left-wing uprisings against the Bolsheviks—such groups included Socialist Revolutionaries,Left Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and anarchists.
Within this left wing discontent, the most large scale events were the worker's Kronstadt rebellion and the anarchist led Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine uprising which controlled an area known as the Free Territory.
Main article: Communist International
The Bolshevik Russian Revolution of January 1918 engendered communist parties worldwide and their concomitant revolutions of 1917–1923. Few communists doubted that the Russian success of socialism depended on successful, working-class socialist revolutions in developed capitalist countries. In 1919, Lenin and Trotsky organised the world's communist parties into a new international association of workers – the Communist International (Comintern), also called the Third International.
The Russian Revolution also influenced uprisings in other countries around this time. The German Revolution of 1918–1919 resulted in the replacing Germany's imperial government with a republic. The revolutionary period lasted from November 1918 until the formal establishment of the Weimar Republic in August 1919 and included an episode known as the Bavarian Soviet Republic and the Spartacist uprising. In Italy, the events known as the Biennio Rosso were characterised by mass strikes, worker manifestations and self-management experiments through land and factory occupations. In Turin and Milan, workers' councils were formed and many factory occupations took place led by anarcho-syndicalists organised around the Unione Sindacale Italiana.
By 1920, the Red Army, under its commander Trotsky, had largely defeated the royalist White Armies. In 1921, War Communism was ended and under the New Economic Policy (NEP) private ownership was allowed for small and medium peasant enterprises. While industry remained largely state-controlled, Lenin acknowledged that the NEP was a necessary capitalist measure for a country unripe for socialism. Profiteering returned in the form of "NEP men" and rich peasants (kulaks) gained power in the countryside. Nevertheless, the role of Trotsky in this episode has been questioned by other socialists, including ex Trotskyists. In the United States, Dwight Macdonald broke with Trotsky and left the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, by raising the question of the Kronstadt rebellion, which Trotsky as leader of the Soviet Red Army and the other Bolsheviks had brutally repressed. He then moved towards democratic socialism and anarchism.
A similar critique of Trotsky's role on the events around the Kronstadt rebellion was raised by the American anarchist Emma Goldman. In her essay "Trotsky Protests Too Much", she says: "I admit, the dictatorship under Stalin's rule has become monstrous. That does not, however, lessen the guilt of Leon Trotsky as one of the actors in the revolutionary drama of which Kronstadt was one of the bloodiest scenes".
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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.Ad Policy
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?
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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.
The general argument for democratized ownership has always been much broader than simply capturing profits for social use.
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.
Older forms of worker ownership—most notably employee stock- ownership plans, or ESOPs—leave much to be desired, but they nonetheless offer a similar sense of what a more expansive buildup in democratized ownership might look like. Approximately 7,000 ESOP enterprises exist nationwide, largely owned by about 13.9 million workers (roughly 3.3 million of whom are no longer active). A number of these companies have attempted to combine unions with ESOP ownership. A related approach is being tested in new union/co-op efforts backed by the United Steelworkers.
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Cities have also begun to support other forms of public ownership. Communities as diverse as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, are working to establish municipally owned banks. In Boulder, Colorado, climate-change activists have triumphed over intense corporate opposition in two major referendum battles to municipalize the local utility. More than 250 community land trusts—a model of city and neighborhood development in which land is socialized to prevent gentrification—have been set up across the country, building on the foundational work done by the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont.
Some 450 communities have also established municipally owned Internet systems, commonly against powerful corporate opposition. In recent years, legislators in 17 states have introduced bills to create state-owned public banks like the nearly century-old Bank of North Dakota. Roughly the same number of states have considered legislation to establish single-payer healthcare programs. In 2016, voters in Colorado will decide via referendum on the single-payer ColoradoCare initiative.
None of these efforts have had a major impact yet, but they all offer blueprints for the development of a larger platform—along with concrete and actionable examples of what a radically new economy would look like at the level of enterprise, neighborhood, municipality, and state. Importantly, many “nonpolitical” Americans—some of whom even identify as conservatives (as opposed to right-wing ideologues)—support such efforts. Rhetoric aside, these conservative Americans also commonly oppose big government, big banks, and big corporations, and are often open to alternatives.
During the 1930s, strategies based on the seemingly modest efforts developed by the states in their “laboratories of democracy” became the basis for key elements of the New Deal—including labor law, Social Security, and a range of other programs. Modern experiments with socialized ownership suggest a trajectory with similarly far-ranging implications. This will remain true no matter who wins the 2016 presidential race.
A new politics could infuse local examples of public ownership with fresh energy, and perhaps scale them up.
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The great 20th-century conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter once said that the left had missed the boat in its arguments for systemic change. “If radicals were not so fond of chivying the bourgeois,” he declared, they would have realized that not having to depend on taxes was “one of the most significant titles to superiority” they could have advanced in favor of their vision. Indeed, a number of states have gained a great deal of experience owning and managing land, real estate, and mineral rights—and many use the proceeds to fund social services and reduce taxes, although this fact hasn’t received much attention.
Almost 150 years ago, for instance, Texas’s Permanent School Fund took control of about half the land and associated mineral rights in the public domain. In 1953, the state added coastal “submerged lands” to the portfolio after the federal government relinquished them. Each year, distributions from the earnings support education in every county of Texas ($838.7 million in fiscal year 2015 alone). Another fund, the Permanent University Fund, owns more than 2 million acres of land and helps underwrite the state’s public-university system. In these and other cases, social ownership supports public education in ways that also significantly reduce the tax burden.
Similar sovereign-wealth funds exist in Louisiana, New Mexico, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Alaska, of course, famously collects and invests revenue from extraction of the state’s oil and minerals. Dividends are paid out annually to state residents as a matter of legal “right”—the only practical model in the United States of publicly supported income with no additional work requirement. In 2008, under the governorship of Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, each resident received $2,069—over $10,000 for a family of five—from these “socialized” funds. That year, Palin also signed into law a bill that gave every resident an extra $1,200 from the state’s natural-resource revenues.
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The general argument for public ownership has always been much broader than simply capturing profits for social use. For one thing, unlike private corporations, publicly owned enterprises are not required to grow to meet Wall Street’s demand for ever-increasing profits—a critical consideration in any serious effort to move beyond our current “growth at all costs” system toward a more sustainable model. Public forms of enterprise can also be made far more transparent than private firms, and they’re more open to regulation, especially concerning climate change. And, critically, they can be excluded from funding political campaigns.
An obvious question is what to do about large-scale industry—a subject that many have simply avoided, preferring instead to focus on local strategies. Yet even the economist and self-proclaimed socialist E.F. Schumacher, author of the classic Small Is Beautiful, judged that “the idea of private ownership becomes an absurdity” on a larger scale. Americans witnessed this during the most recent financial crisis, when the federal government de facto nationalized several banks, two auto companies, and the insurance giant AIG. The government gave them back once the crisis was over, but when the next crisis hits, a future progressive government might well turn them into publicly owned features of a new system. (Breaking up the banks, as some have proposed, would likely produce a subsequent reconsolidation of power—as AT&T and Standard Oil showed after they were broken up.)
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A major problem involves the inevitable institutional power that comes with such large scale. During the 1960s and ’70s, the pathbreaking radical historian William Appleman Williams suggested that one way for socialists to deal with this challenge was to focus on regions rather than the national system as a whole—especially in a country the size of the United States.
Modern innovators are bringing a similar idea to life as they experiment with regional models. “Bio-regional” efforts that anchor economic, social, and environmental development in natural regions can be found in places as diverse as the Connecticut Valley and the Ozark Mountains. The Kansas Area Watershed Council, for example, supports sustainable development in the prairie region through a range of projects and community-building events, and the Salmon Nation project is bringing a similar perspective to the Pacific Northwest. Nine states, mainly in New England, have formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to reduce emissions. Another effort, Food Solutions New England, has put forward a comprehensive plan to develop a robust, collaborative, sustainable, and equitable regional food system by 2060.
The most important precedent for a long-term regional plan is the Tennessee Valley Authority. Established by the New Deal, this public-energy corporation currently serves 9 million people in seven states. At one point in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt supported legislation that would have created seven “little TVAs” as a step toward a much more expansive economic-development plan. “If we are successful here,” he argued, “we can march on, step by step; in a like development of other great natural territorial units within our borders.”
Although many mid-century theorists and planners believed in the promise of such regional proposals, the development of a more expansive, democratic, and ecologically sustainable regionalist vision was hampered by the centralizing thrust of the New Deal and then cut short by World War II. The TVA itself lost direction and largely succumbed to bureaucratic and other corrosive pressures.
Nevertheless, as today’s regional efforts show, the concept has endured. It’s also worth noting that conservative support for decentralized forms of public ownership may not be totally foreclosed. In 2013, President Obama proposed privatizing the TVA in his annual budget, but a group of Republican legislators, concerned with higher prices for consumers and less money for their states, vigorously (and successfully) opposed the idea. A new and more radical regionalism might also draw some lessons from the conservative Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which has recently funded innovative efforts to help move the area away from a coal economy. One such effort is Kentucky’s Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), which is working to develop local food systems, broadband Internet infrastructure, new businesses, youth engagement, and a stronger cultural identity. The Chesapeake Bay Commission, which includes Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, has brought together a broad coalition to deal with the pollution that threatens the ecological health of a shared regional resource.
California—itself equivalent in scale to a sizable region (and appropriately understood as such)—is a national leader in developing regional climate-change solutions. In October 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed the most comprehensive and far-reaching climate-change bill that any state has enacted since California first passed landmark climate-change legislation in 2006. The new law requires state utilities to purchase 50 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030; it also doubles the energy-efficiency requirements of buildings and provides incentives for creating the charging stations needed by electric vehicles.
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Another promising strategy is to combine elements of these various approaches. There is no reason that large-scale enterprises couldn’t be structured as joint ventures that would include worker, community, and regional institutions. Many states and localities across the country collaborate to manage, regulate, and share the benefits of publicly owned electric utilities. Roughly 25 percent of the nation’s electricity is, in fact, supplied by publicly owned firms and co-ops. In conservative Nebraska, every resident and business gets its electricity from a local public utility or cooperative. In both liberal and conservative states, examples of public ownership—municipally owned hospitals, hotels, convention centers, transit systems, ports, and airports, among many other services—are ubiquitous. A new politics might one day infuse these local efforts with fresh purpose and energy, and perhaps scale them up to the state or regional level.
None of this is to suggest that large-scale political change is imminent or inevitable. Social, economic, and environmental conditions—to say nothing of assaults on traditional liberties—are likely to get worse before they get better. For precisely this reason, the systematic development of a practical alternative to the status quo is critically important.
The change we need will not come from the top. As we’ve seen in countless ways, our current political system limits the potential for traditional progressive strategies. A new vision—one that encompasses fresh political strategies as well as new political-economic content—must be built from the bottom up. The overarching goal must be to develop a set of ideas that challenge the dominant ideologies and move the country in a fundamentally new direction.
The Sanders insurgency, the polling data, and the growing experimentation with a range of alternatives all suggest that we may be on the brink of a new era—an extended and difficult period in which a new economy is slowly forged. Such a system might perhaps be called a “pluralist commonwealth” to reflect its diverse forms of common ownership. But whatever we call it, it is time to start discussing this system more openly and to refine its practical elements. As ever-greater numbers of Americans are forced to ask fundamental questions about where their nation is going, we must start offering the answers.