Even When Times Are Tough, Keep Socialism as Your North Star

Achieving a fully socialist society is going to take a long time, and there’s no guarantee of victory. But we should never lose sight of the goal, because every step we take in that direction makes life better for working-class people and deepens democracy.

Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign event in Seattle, Washington, on Friday, March 25, 2016. (Mike Kane / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

First, I want to thank John for participating and the organizers of the debate for setting this up and flying me in and putting me up at a hotel that’s actually called — and I love this — “The Overton.”

For anyone who’s not familiar, political commentators often talk about something called “The Overton Window,” which is the range of ideas considered realistically imaginable enough to even be up for debate at a given point in history. Things outside the window are too outlandish to consider. In US politics, socialism was way outside the window for most of my lifetime. But little by little, that’s changing.

Last week, Congress held a vote to, and I quote, “condemn the horrors of socialism.” I’m sure that if they’d done that in 2013, it would have been unanimous. Every Democrat, every Republican. In 2023, there were eighty-six “nay” votes — plus fourteen weasels who voted “present.” In 2023, it seems, a lot of politicians know their constituents don’t want them to denounce socialism.

That’s a big change! Part of what happened is that the right wing’s long war against labor unions and the regulatory state has turned back the clock to a purer form of capitalism. Not as pure as libertarians would like, but purer than what we had. And life under a purer form of capitalism — which is to say, life in a hellscape of precarity and financial stress — has made more Americans open to what socialists are saying.

They don’t want to see their congressperson denouncing “the horrors of socialism,” because they associate the s-word with two things. First, the tremendously positive reform proposals that Bernie Sanders elevated into the national conversation — ideas like moving to Medicare for All, so when you need to see a doctor, you can see a doctor, kind of like when your house is on fire the Fire Department doesn’t meet you in the yard to collect a co-pay before they put out the blaze.

The second is harder to pin down. A lot of people can’t quite articulate what alternative they would want, but they tell pollsters they’re favorable to socialism because they have a strong intuitive sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the economic structures that rule our lives.

People are absolutely correct to feel that way. Socialist policies like nationalizing the health insurance industry — which is another way of saying Medicare for All — would be tremendously beneficial in the here and now as well as being a baby step toward fundamentally reorganizing our economy in a more just and reasonable way.

Let’s talk about that part. Broadly speaking, “socialism” means social ownership of economic enterprises. That can take a variety of forms. State ownership can be one type of social ownership, but only if society as a whole democratically owns the state. I don’t want to recreate East Germany. I want something better than either that or what we have right now.

Social ownership can also mean turning businesses currently owned by stockholders or individual rich people into worker-owned cooperatives. In practice, historical progress is always messy and unpredictable, and I’m sure if we’re lucky enough to ever achieve a fully socialist economy, it’s going to be some weird mishmash of both these things and some other forms of local and community ownership as well.

And I know if that ever happens, it’s not going to be an overnight change. Getting there is going to be a long process.

But it should be our North Star — the goal we never lose sight of — both because every step we take in that direction makes things better for working-class people and because so many of the cruelest things about our society are downstream from the basic way economic power works under capitalism. Think, for example, about the frankly psychotic levels of income inequality generated by capitalist property relations — CEOs making hundreds of times what workers do — and then think about the alternative.

If Amazon were a worker co-op, you wouldn’t necessarily have a completely flat wage scale. Some people might get paid a little more to take particularly demanding jobs with lots of stress and responsibility, or conversely, to take particularly dangerous or unpleasant jobs. But imagine showing up to the meeting where everyone voted on wage scales and saying, “Hey guys, I was thinking, this whole company was originally Jeff’s idea, let’s pay him so much more than the rest of us that he’ll be able to afford his own spaceship.”

And that brings me to my final point. I know some of you are thinking, okay, Ben, socialism sounds nice, but it won’t work. It goes against human nature. People aren’t kind and cooperative. They’re selfish and competitive.

And I think that gets things exactly backward.

If human beings were selfless angels, capitalism would be vastly less objectionable. We wouldn’t have to worry that bosses would abuse their power over workers. We wouldn’t have to worry about wild levels of income inequality generating enormous human suffering because when push came to shove, people with less could always count on the generosity of people with more.

But we’re not angels. So we need to be socialists instead.