Before the apocalypse began, the main story in the news was the Democratic primaries. Bernie Sanders was coming under fire for running on too radical a platform. Contestants accused him of being a communist and he even regularly calls himself a democratic socialist. The argument against Sanders, as it was against Corbyn in the UK, is that he’s too left-wing.
The labels being thrown around; how accurate they are and what effect they have.
To start with the label Bernie gives himself, a democratic socialist is someone who advocates for collectively owned means of production and socialism, usually via parliamentary reform. This is economically opposed to capitalism, a system which it doesn’t try to fix, but replace.
Social democrats on the other hand support intervening within the capitalist system using the framework of a liberal polity. They wish to trim the excesses of capitalism whilst maintaining it.
So, although these two labels sound similar, they contradict one another. One is a form of capitalism; one is an attempt of socialism.
Despite what Charlie Kirk might tell you, capitalism does not become socialism when the government just does more stuff or taxes more and spends more. Capitalism is hard to define but some key tenets are free-market economics, privately-owned means of production, and exploitative property rights.
The policies of Sanders and Corbyn show that neither is advocating for the abolition of these things or replacing the system. Their small redistributive proposals do not equate to the abolition of capitalism, even if they wish to prevent it from reaching the unfettered form that some puritans advocate. The proposals of these candidates are those of social democrats.
The two visions are very different, as one sees a socialist base as the key to a better society, whilst one is working firmly within the framework of capitalism, two economic systems which are diametrically opposed.
So, are social democrats left-wing then?
Well, if we’re okay with the premise that the two fundamental structural options are capitalism and socialism then it follows that we binarize the spectrum, of which socialism makes up one half, the left, and capitalism the other, the right. Capitalists, including social democrats like Sanders and Corbyn, are therefore right of the centre, and democratic socialists are left.
This isn’t to say Sanders and Trump and Tony Blair are all the same. Within each half, we can still appreciate the different points of the spectrum.
Indicators of spectrum position
The power and participation of trade unions. A vibrant union movement is indicative of a left-wing setting, though not a guarantee.
There’s also the portion of an economy generated by the private or public sector, or which companies are owned by who, or how much control people have over these companies.
Other measures are whether capital is privately or collectively managed, how evenly wealth is distributed, and which way decisions go in the battle between private property rights and societal justice.
How much do countries vary?
The East India Company and Slavery-era America and early Victorian Britain exemplify capitalism at its most pure, but also, unripe.
Though these times were horrible, it would’ve been foolish when the system hadn’t realised its full potential to say, ‘Capitalism can’t be better than this, let’s return to feudalism’.
Even after America’s centuries of ‘perfecting’ capitalism, by the 1950s they were being outshone by a new system that had a lower incarceration rate, better nutrition, no racial segregation, and was sending the first satellites and people into space.
Despite the successes, the USSR was implementing an unprecedented system that could, in a future world with a more expansive political spectrum, hold lessons on how to build on it in the future.
The world’s least-tested waters are on the left of the scale.
Just as capitalism has seen many forms since its inception 400 years ago, communism’s movement across the world over time has only just begun to grow and develop.
Much is made of every electoral cycle’s small adjustments to the capitalism that oversees millions of poverty-related deaths. Simultaneously, people will use natural disasters in the world’s poorest countries to paint a whole half of the political spectrum and the plethora of ideas available as one unviable monolithic block.
Why does western media and its consumers’ rhetoric imply that an expansive and free exchange of ideas is afoot?
The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, helps to clarify this. It’s the concept that there’s a range of acceptable ideas in any given political landscape that can be expanded or shifted by factors like large events, the media, intellectuals or grassroots movements. Importantly, these factors can also shrink the window.
Chomsky brilliantly simplified how some countries keep their window so small. He explained
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
And so, this trope that the US is full of possibilities and free thought is not only encouraged, but it is necessary because it is a lie.
This isn’t to say that Bernie or Corbyn’s role on the edges of this window is useless. The safety nets they advocate for can save lives and maybe open the curtain a bit onto what else is possible. Bernie calling himself a democratic socialist, despite his policies saying otherwise, may be an attempt to nudge America’s tiny Overton window.
To evenly distribute all resources and maintain such a distribution would be described as a far-left suggestion. This means the opposite end, the far-right, advocates no redistribution. If we visualise this scale as 0% redistribution as the furthest right, and 100% on the furthest left, then Bernie’s proposal of a ‘radical’ 8% wealth tax on people with wealth over $10billion suddenly seems a lot closer to one end of the spectrum than the other. This doesn’t mean Bernie is 92% to the right, but considering that his taxation is often the accusatory point from those even further right than him, it is indicative of how indisputably un-radical his proposals are and shows that one needs to look a bit further than America’s acute narrative to see what radicalism, or even leftism, looks like.
Are all socialist countries authoritarian and identical?
The best left-wing literature deals in moving a society from authority to liberty. I recommend State and Revolution and Conquest of Bread. This transition from authority is very unlikely until external threats start to weaken, aka when global capital and imperialism are no longer dominant.
Following this, the authoritarian nature of the leftist countries that have lasted encourages the misperception that they’re all the same.
However, it’s easy to see the nuance of the authoritarian governments that etiquette dictates you should vehemently oppose.
China has indisputably made a significant shift to the right since Mao’s time, whilst remaining a left-wing country. Industrial action is unrivalled in terms of size and activity and only 2 of China’s 25 highest revenue companies aren’t state-owned. However, the huge decreases in redistributive measures and the rising inequitable accumulation of individual wealth are certainly right-wing elements and so they’re not ‘extremely’ down the left side of the scale. On balance, China is a left-wing country that a few decades ago was a far-left one. Cuba too has introduced measures in recent years that has seen its economy shift from far left to left. Lenin came under fire in the USSR in the 1920s when he oversaw the NEP and was accused of being too right-wing, a shift that continued to pulsate until the 90s. Vietnam and North Korea have also had periods of clear change and development.
The ebb and flow of political transformations in these countries proves that ‘socialist’ is no more useful a term to describe them than the term capitalist is to describe every candidate for the 2020 US elections.
Why aren’t these government ever moderate?
Centre-left governments are a historical anomaly.
It could be argued that Allende’s government in Chile was a centre-left one. The tail-end of the USSR was centre-left. Until recently MAS and Evo Morales in Bolivia fit the bill too.
These systems all came to similar ends. They were torn down with the help of foreign intervention against popular consensus. When Chilean industrialists were threatened by Allende’s socialisation plans, they were still given the room to organise devastating capital strikes that saw them deliberately gut stores of their goods. When this wasn’t enough to bring the moderate administration down, Chile’s capitalists could rely on US backing to bomb the government until the military could take over and ensured the defence of capital with a brutal 18-year dictatorship. Bolivia’s MAS movement resulted in the first indigenous national leader in the Americas and policies that redistributed portions of wealth much larger than Sanders and social democrats propose. Simultaneously though, capital was accommodated and compromised with. Whilst huge reductions in poverty saw popularity rocket, there were warning signs such as the US Agency for International Development funnelling millions into paramilitaries to bomb state companies and attack indigenous communities. The generation of 1 million tweets against the movement by 60,000 fake accounts in 2019 on American media corporation Twitter should also have raised alarms. Capital’s foot in the door became a battering ram last November as the reactionary movement’s military coup culminated in a white-supremacist administration that had polled at just 4% in the last election.
When the USSR started moving towards the centre, turmoil took hold of the region. A referendum was held asking whether the populous ‘considered necessary the preservation’ of the Soviet Union and a resounding 79% voted yes. The economy’s opening-up or ‘Perestroika’ had already begun though, and undemocratic authoritarian capitalist rule has been enforced ever since.
What history continually shows us is that a system which fundamentally challenges capitalism is not sustainable unless it firmly clamps down on it. This mirrors how capitalism also suppresses opposition, whether that be through violence, economics or propaganda. China has made economic concessions but compensates with a mass workers party and unmatched union action. The USSR for decades didn’t let private capital get a foot in the door from which to fester. Socialism currently can’t be moderate because it is in opposition to a radical system. Capitalism can’t be hugged or just debated away. So, although in the current world, non-capitalist governments must take certain steps to ensure survival, those countries still massively vary. And perhaps in a future without capital dominance, we could realise the full scope of an alternative.