The Dividing Line

Recently, Citizen Tom wrote a post decrying democratic socialism. Leaving aside serious questions around whether or not the Democrats of the US political system are truly socialists (or even whether they have serious socialist leanings, something that is highly debateable), his post serves as the foundation for some interesting discussion points.

Democratic Socialism

As defined by Britannica, democratic socialism is:

‘A political ideology that supports the establishment of a democratically run and decentralized form of socialist economy. Modern democratic socialists vary widely in their views of how a proper socialist economy should function, but all share the goal of abolishing capitalism rather than improving it through state regulation (as preferred by social democrats). They also prioritize democracy as an end over democracy as a means, and some democratic socialists see revolution as an acceptable method of achieving the democracy they desire.

(Read George Bernard Shaw’s 1926 Britannica essay on socialism.)

Characteristics of democratic socialist thought

Democratic socialists reject Marxism-Leninism (i.e., communism) as a legitimate form of socialism, arguing that command economies effectively belong to a small bureaucracy that treats the means of production as its own private property. Democratic socialists also disagree with social democrats’ attempts to harness capitalism to a strong welfare state, since such mixed economies still leave many businesses’ ownership under private (and therefore undemocratic) control. Instead, all employees should enjoy either democratic control or self-management in the workplace.

Some democratic socialists believe that markets have a place in a socialist economy, so long as the competing businesses are publicly, cooperatively, or otherwise socially owned. And, like social democrats, many democratic socialists advocate for the enactment of state regulation and state welfare programs, both as temporary means of ameliorating the harm of capitalism and as methods of transforming the system piecemeal.’

It would seem that the core tenants of democratic socialism are going to be very difficult to implement. Despite the chorus of voices that have tried telling me I favour doing away with capitalism completely, I do not wish to do that. I am not at all certain that businesses can be run as democratic institutions, though some businesses already employ systems that grant their employees a greater say over business affairs.

However, the premise of watering down corporate greed and capitalist exploitation is certainly one I can get behind. The sort of practices displayed by the likes of Donald Trump, Elon Musk et al have proven that unchecked capitalism is not a force for good. More on that later.

Has Democratic Socialism been Implemented?

There are political parties that regard themselves as democratic socialists that have governed, or currently govern, but the extent to which they actively seek to make employees the masters of corporations is debateable. For example, Australia is currently governed by the Labor Party, which has not sought to implement the above definition of democratic socialism since the 1940s (and if anything, has privatised businesses like banks). Denmark is governed by a coalition that includes self-styled democratic socialists, but once again, it is dubious as to whether they practice the principles of democratic socialism in any meaningful way. The same can be said of the German and Spanish governments, which are both described as socialist, and both have been in power recently.

It seems that a lot of these self-described democratic socialists (or socialist democrats) have come to realise that pushing too hard to the left is a mistake. As much as the concept sounds good, it is not possible to implement it in a real-life setting.

Capitalist Charity?

Nonetheless, to decry democratic socialism’s ills whilst ignoring the very real, tangible flaws with unchecked corporate greed, is to be ignorant of where a great many of the world’s current problems lie. It is painfully clear that expecting generosity from the likes of Trump, Bezos, Musk etc is, at best, too hopeful of their good nature, and at worst, to believe in fairy-tales. Look at wage stagnation in the USA. From the Economic Policy Institute:

1. The cost of inequality to middle-class households

The cost of unequal growth to middle-income households

This figure shows that the stakes of rising inequality for the broad American middle class are enormous. The figure compares the income growth of the middle three-fifths of American households since 1979 to their income growth had there been no growth in inequality. In 2007, the last year before the Great Recession, the average income of the middle 60 percent of American households was $76,443. It would have been $94,310, roughly 23 percent (nearly $18,000) higher had inequality not widened (i.e., had their incomes grown at the overall average rate—an overall average buoyed by stratospheric growth at the very top). The temporary dip in top incomes during the Great Recession did little to shrink that inequality tax, which stood at 16 percent (nearly $12,000) in 2011.

2. Wage trends of the last three decades

The gap between the growth of productivity and that of a typical worker’s pay

Slow and unequal wage growth in recent decades stems from a growing wedge between overall productivity—the improvements in the amount of goods and services produced per hour worked—and the pay (wages and benefits) received by a typical worker.

The figure shows that in the three decades following World War II, hourly compensation of the vast majority of workers rose 91 percent, roughly in line with productivity growth of 97 percent. But for most of the past generation (except for a brief period in the late 1990s), pay for the vast majority lagged further and further behind overall productivity. From 1973 to 2013, hourly compensation of a typical (production/nonsupervisory) worker rose just 9 percent while productivity increased 74 percent. This breakdown of pay growth has been especially evident in the last decade, affecting both college- and non-college-educated workers as well as blue- and white-collar workers. This means that workers have been producing far more than they receive in their paychecks and benefit packages from their employers.

Wage growth of the top 1%

The ability of those at the very top to claim an ever-larger share of overall wages is evident in this figure. Two things stand out. First is the extraordinarily rapid growth of annual wages for the top 1 percent compared with everybody else: Top 1 percent wages grew 138 percent, while wages of the bottom 90 percent grew just 15 percent. If the wages of the bottom 90 percent had grown at the average pace over this period—meaning that wages grew equally across-the-board—then the bottom 90 percent’s wages would have grown by 32 percent, more than double the actual growth.

It is painfully clear from the above information that the current system has repeatedly failed to ensure the average American has a reasonable, living wage. The long-debunked trickle-down theory of wealth has clearly and obviously failed to benefit the majority of Americans, even when they are the ones doing most of the work. Look at the huge difference in wages for the top, compared to the bottom. Can anyone point to that system and say it is the best system?

What this also goes to prove is that this system has been propped up by both Republicans and Democrats. It is quite laughable to suggest Democrats are Marxist or socialist, considering their adherence to economic policies that uphold these gross inequalities. The only truly left-wing development to come from the Democrats in recent years was Medicare.

What with this considerable rise in wealth for the top, have we seen a demonstration that these entrepreneurs and moguls can be trusted to display Christian charity to those less fortunate? Well, considering how they now horde the wealth, and considering how many Americans are below the poverty line (11.6%, or 38 million people, as of 2020), it seems we cannot rely on the generosity of the likes of Bezos, Musk etc. They spend billions on vanity projects, whilst the average American struggles with rising costs. How any good Christian can defend this is beyond me.

Equality of Opportunity vs Equity of Outcome

To touch upon something else, we are led to believe that the USA is the land of opportunity, where anyone can rise to the top. This is sold as the ‘American Dream’, and it’s what drives people to live there, but it is clear that this dream died a long time ago. For every rags to riches tale, how many people wind up on the breadline (or worse)? How many people wind up exploited by the system, ground up by the cogs of the corporate machine? Do they truly have the same opportunities as someone born into wealth? Of course not. In some respects the power structure of US business and politics is rooted in a hereditary succession (just look at Trump, and the Bushes and Clintons, among others), designed to make certain that others cannot rise to power or influence. Money talks, and it holds a huge hold over US society. That does not strike me as an especially fair system, and once again I am shocked that any good Christian would argue so hard in its favour.

To ensure a complete equity of outcome is clearly naïve, and virtually impossible to make work. However, if we saw in nature a meerkat hording food, and depriving other meerkats, we would raise serious questions about that meerkat’s mental state. We are told that Darwinism survival of the fittest is a brutal philosophy, yet when it comes to equality of opportunity, we see a great many supposedly good, pious Republican Christians – and more than a few Democrats too – rally to defend it. I cannot wrap my head around this unique and depressing set of double-standards. A lot of it reflects a desire to be greedy, and that greed is disguised by a false bogeyman fear.

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