Democratic Socialism Is About Freedom

Critics insist that socialists want to squelch freedom. But the exact opposite is the case: democratic socialism is about expanding freedom — and liberating us from the tyranny that pervades everyday life under capitalism.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr and labor leader A. Philip Randolph talk at a press conference on July 30, 1964. (Jerry Engel / New York Post Archives / NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)

In recent months, Bernie Sanders has faced a barrage of scaremongering about socialism.

After a televised debate last month, MSNBC anchor and former Democratic Party operative Chris Matthews raised the specter of revolutionary violence, suggesting that Bernie Sanders would support “executions in Central Park.” (Matthews later resigned.) Donald Trump, speaking at the State of the Union, declared: “Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom! Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”

On March 6, the New York Times got in on the red-baiting action with a story claiming Sanders was an unwitting stooge of Moscow in the 1980s when he promoted sister-city initiatives with the Soviet Union as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Despite Sanders’s noble intentions, the Times wrote, the Soviets “exploit[ed] Mr. Sanders’s antiwar agenda for their own propaganda purposes.” The clear implication was that Sanders’s socialism led him to aid and abet authoritarian government — a charge the media also pushed while circulating remarks that Sanders once made praising Cuba’s literacy program.

The idea that socialism equals tyranny is a very old one. It is given credence by the fact that many twentieth-century governments that claimed the mantle of socialism were repressive regimes. The democratic-socialist tradition to which Bernie Sanders, Martin Luther King, and Eugene Debs belong, however, has nothing to do with authoritarian rule. Democratic socialism is about expanding freedom and democracy — liberating us from the tyranny that permeates everyday life under capitalism.

Capitalist Unfreedom

Capitalism is an economic system with a distinct set of property relations. A small group of people (capitalists) own what Marx called the “means of production” — the land, buildings, machines, and raw materials necessary to produce useful things. The vast majority (workers) do not — they sell their labor to capitalists for a wage, and the capitalist directs them to produce certain goods, which are then sold on the market. After paying wages and purchasing whatever else they need to replenish the means of production, capitalists keep a share of the revenue they make as profits.

On the surface, relations between workers and capitalists are free and equal. Workers voluntarily sell their labor to employers and can bargain for a higher wage or turn down their boss’s offer. But even cursory reflection reveals that most workers are not really free to rebuff their employer: the vast majority of people must work in order to obtain life’s necessities. If they don’t, they’ll go without food, housing, clothing, medicine, and other things necessary for a decent life.

But wait, can’t workers find a better employer? In theory, yes. Many workers, however, do not have the time and ability to seek out a better job — taking time off may mean missing a rent payment or being unable to feed one’s family. And even if workers do have the flexibility to look for better offers, they are unlikely to find any. Capitalists compete with each other to maximize profits, so every firm tries to get as much work out of its employees for as little money as possible. Unless a worker is lucky enough to have rare or especially valued skills, they will face a host of equally dismal job offers from stingy employers. Employers, on the other hand, benefit from having a massive pool of unemployed or underemployed workers, many willing to accept whatever they can get (what Marx called the “reserve army of the unemployed”).

Workers fortunate enough to land a job then find themselves subject to the tyranny of the workplace. As Micah Uetricht and Barry Eidlin wrote in 2018:

Employers can limit what people can and cannot say at work, or where and when they assemble. They can intrude into people’s private lives, monitoring their private correspondence and keeping tabs on their non-work activities, or limit their breaks, including where and when they can use the bathroom. With few exceptions, employers are under no compulsion to guarantee due process to those they employ. They can largely hire, fire, and discipline workers at will.

The threat of starvation forces workers to seek employment; once employed, they spend most of their waking hours under the boss’s domination. That is why radicals have long described the plight of the worker as one of wage slavery.

Capitalists loom large even in the lives of those who don’t work for them. Business owners and investors unilaterally decide whether to continue production or move a factory or office abroad — and force the rest of us to live with the consequences. Pharmaceutical companies refuse to develop badly needed antibiotics and antiviral medicines. Real estate investors evict and displace working-class residents from their neighborhoods so they can build luxury condos.

The most dramatic example of capitalists deciding everyone else’s fate is climate change: a handful of fossil-fuel companies are sending us careening toward crisis. Rather than fostering democracy, capitalism is a system where a handful of billionaires and CEOs are allowed to imperil the planet in order to ensure healthy returns on their investments.

Myths of Capitalist Freedom and Democracy

Capitalism necessarily involves an absence of democratic control and unfreedom for the vast majority of people. So how do pundits and politicians get away with equating capitalism with freedom and democracy?

A few fundamental myths support these associations. One is that workers always have the freedom to quit their job or find a new one — a kind of freedom, as I noted above, that isn’t worth the name. Defenders of capitalism also often insist that workers who want better jobs can improve their situation through acquiring new skills. But this retort ignores reality, too. While Americans have long cherished the idea that the United States is a land of equal opportunity and unparalleled social mobility, whether a person graduates high school or can attend a top college is largely a function of race and class. And what kind of job a person ends up with is largely shaped by what jobs their parents had.

Another sustaining myth is that, while capitalists may enjoy immense economic power, they don’t have inordinate political power. “One person, one vote” gives everyone an equal say in shaping society through democratic elections. Pay attention to contemporary politics for just a moment, and you will see that this is a lie. Far from a neutral arbiter of competing ideas or interests, liberal democratic states systematically support the business class over the working class.

There are three main reasons for this. One is that most elected officials and top bureaucrats are drawn from the ranks of the ruling class, and so are most likely to adopt the worldview and promote the interests of that class. Another is that capitalists can use their wealth to wield massive financial power over the state. They hire armies of lobbyists to influence legislators, use their ownership of media to shape the public narrative, and purchase loyalty through huge campaign donations. If you’re rich enough, you can use your personal fortune to buy your way to public office (or at least put yourself in contention).

Worse still, when working-class forces overcome their financial disadvantage and elect sympathetic politicians, owners and investors can use the capital strike — withholding investment and tanking the economy — to undermine support for pro-worker policies and governments. Even the mere threat of a capital strike can reverse progressive measures, as Amazon showed last year when it bullied the Seattle City Council into repealing a tax to support the homeless.

Democratic Socialism Means Freedom

Democratic socialists want to expand individual freedom and win a society where everyone has a real say in the major decisions affecting their lives.

That means, first, fighting to decommodify basic necessities like health care, education, and housing. Real freedom must amount to something more than a choice between work or destitution and death. Socialists want to take provision of health care and the like out of the hands of for-profit companies and make sure it is publicly provided, free of charge, to all people — which is why we fight for programs like Medicare for All, universal social housing, and free public college. These programs would not only help people live more dignified lives. They would free people up to choose what kind of work they wanted to do, and empower them to stand up to bad bosses or simply quit.

Second, socialists believe that firms should be run collectively and democratically by their workers. The people who produce goods and services should decide their nine-to-five conditions, not have them dictated by owners. Existing worker cooperatives provide a glimpse of what workplace democracy might look like in practice.

Third, democratic socialists want to wrest control over major social decisions from capitalists and put them in the hands of workers, consumers, and others affected. In the immediate term, that means breaking capitalists’ stranglehold over the state through measures like strict campaign finance laws, attacking the corporate dominance of the media, and removing institutional barriers to popular rule (such as the Electoral College and the Senate in the United States).

Moving toward a more democratic society will also require socializing the financial sector, so that investment priorities will be set by the public instead of a tiny handful of elites. It will mean nationalizing our energy and transportation systems so that we can rapidly break our dependence on fossil fuels and prevent the worst effects of capitalist-created climate change. Eventually most major industries will need to be brought under public control, to eliminate capitalists’ ability to “veto” pro-worker policies by withholding investment.

Bernie Sanders’s campaign has played an important role in all of this. While the Vermont senator is not calling for the complete democratization of the economy or even a fundamental transformation of the state, many of Sanders’s proposals would expand freedom and democracy in ways that socialists favor. Medicare for All would free workers from dependence on bosses for their health care, empowering them to demand more at the bargaining table and walk away from bad jobs. Sanders’s Green New Deal would help liberate us from the fossil fuel industry, giving us our best shot at maintaining a livable planet. And Sanders’s Workplace Democracy Act would massively expand workers’ collective bargaining power, giving workers a greater say in their employers’ decision-making.

By weakening the power of the boss and giving working-class people more agency over their lives, Sanders’s platform enables us to fight for even bigger wins in the future — as his campaign slogan puts it, “Not me, us.” The aim is not just to elect a president, much less to expect deliverance from a benevolent leader, but to keep organizing for democratic change after election day. And for socialists, that’s what it’s all about. Because our ultimate goal is throwing off the tyranny of capitalists and building a society that maximizes freedom for all.