Ask a Socialist: “What’s the difference between social democracy and democratic socialism?”

By Jeremy Mele

Social democracy and democratic socialism are both responses to capitalism: an economic system in which a wealthy few owners control the production of goods and services for the many. But production is not the only thing the capitalist class controls; they also control our workplaces…and us in them. The liberation of the working class from authoritarian rule by the capitalist employer class lies at the heart of the distinction between social democracy and democratic socialism.

When you take a job, you submit to the will of your employer; if you don’t, you will not be employed for long. Every day, workers everywhere are faced with a choice of submitting to the boss or starving, which means the individual worker doesn’t have much of a say in her workplace. Decisions, though they often affect her, are not made by her and her fellow workers. Rather, the boss has virtually unilateral power to make decisions, even decisions that have a negative impact on the lives of the workers. Under the authoritarian rule of the workplace, workers are powerless to stop a boss from changing our schedules, controlling our speech, changing the nature of our work, sending us to work at another location, or even closing up shop altogether and moving production to somewhere that is cheaper for them. Profit is what motivates decisions and changes, not the well being of the workers. Capitalism leaves workers powerless because it gives us little choice but to work for capitalists. Again, it is work or starve.

Both social democracy and democratic socialism recognize the inhumanity of capitalism, but the former is much more muted in its response. Social Democracy’s solution to the powerlessness of the working class is mostly to tackle the limited choices caused by the “work or starve” paradigm, while ignoring the problem of class-based power relations in the workplace. Social Democrats call for an increase in social safety policies funded by taxes levied against the capitalist employer class. These social safety policies include such things as universal healthcare, low-cost or even tuition free college education, and paid family leave–policies which substantially improve living conditions for the working class, and provide workers more choices in the work that we want to pursue. Fear of starvation is greatly alleviated when we don’t have to worry about the cost of healthcare and other basic necessities, so we are freer to explore the jobs that are available, rather than simply take the first gig that pays slightly more than starvation wages.

The gains of social democracy are not insignificant, and they often represent positive, and progressive, steps forward for the societies that enact them. However, social democracy on its own is not enough to secure workers’ well being and freedom. Though the social safety foundation is much firmer and expansive than in a capitalist state, social democracies still maintain the power-imbalances of the capitalist workplace: workers submit to the will of employers, with little explicit say in the decisions made in the workplace. Such power imbalances have implications for the well being of workers, especially those without certain privileges. Sexual harassment, racial discrimination, bigotry towards members of the LGBT+ community, and more harmful practices are protected in capitalist workplaces when perpetuated by bosses and employers because workers will fear being reprimanded and/or fired for speaking up.

The solution to workplace harassment cannot be found in social democracy. To really protect workers from such abuses, workers need a voice in their workplace. This is the democratic socialist project: to spread democracy to the workplace. We do not disagree with the social safety policies of the social democrats; in fact, we love them! We understand, however, that the abuses of capitalism will not come to an end until capitalism comes to an end.

Democratic Socialism, in contrast to capitalism (even capitalism tempered by social democracy), advocates for workers controlling their workplace. This means decisions are made democratically by the workers and are based on the workers’ needs, not employers’ greed. Your job won’t suddenly disappear because desperate workers elsewhere can be exploited to do it more cheaply, because you and your fellow workers will not allow it.

The United States prides itself on being a democracy, on being the “home of the free.” Unfortunately, that democracy and freedom stops at the door of our workplaces. Capitalism says, “work as the capitalist orders or starve.” Social democracy is a regulated capitalism that says, “work as the capitalist orders or starve, but have some needs secured either way.” The reason Democratic Socialists are not Social Democrats rests on the fact that we recognize that no form of capitalism, even regulated capitalism, offers workers what they really need to prevent abuse: democratic control over our places of work.

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Heavy Rotation: Solidarity economics is happening in Jackson, Mississippi

“There is nobody coming to save us. We’ve got to do the work of transforming our own communities ourselves.” – Kali Akuno

In this episode, we highlight a recent This is Hell interview with Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya about Cooperation Jackson, a decades-long project to build a cooperative economic and social movement in Jackson, Mississippi. Their book, Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi describes the history, principles and tactics of the radical economic and social transformation now taking place in this city.

Cooperation Jackson’s success builds upon a longstanding tradition of collective action in the face of systemic oppression, and the legacy of Civil Rights Movement. It implements many of the principles of the Mondragón Corporation, a collectivist economic project based in the Basque region of Spain that has been successful in taking back power for the historically marginalized Basque people.

Cooperatives are a reaction to the exploitative conditions of capitalism, and a direct way to build power, even where authoritarian and neoliberal economic forces control the reins of government, business and finance. For those of us still in analysis paralysis about how make the next move in reclaiming our democracy, it might be time to take a page out of Jackson’s book.

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Ask a Socialist: “What is Universal Basic Income, and why are socialists for it?”

By Jeremy Mele

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is, as the name suggests, an income that is universally provided to all persons to cover the basic necessities required to live. Conceptions of what constitutes basic necessities differ from person to person, but, at minimum, UBI would cover food, clothing, and shelter. These are things we all need in order to live.

Socialists believe that no one should have to labor for someone else in order to survive. But under capitalism, we are forced to sell our time, sell our labor, and sell ourselves so that others can profit, and so that we can keep on living. Socialists assert that life’s basic necessities should instead be ensured as human rights.

Over the course of modern history, industrialization, science and technology have increased efficiency in the production and delivery of goods and services, yet most of that benefit has gone to the capitalist class, resulting in extreme wealth inequality and the rise of an elite leisure class. Socialists believe that workers, too, should profit from society’s advances. Universal Basic Income would help to promote a more just distribution of free time and resources.

When workers’ basic needs are met, our liberty and power in society increase. No longer will we have to work jobs we hate because we fear starvation or homelessness. No longer will we work longer and longer hours while capitalists profit simply by watching their investments grow. We will be able to work as we see fit (either for others or for ourselves); thus, work will no longer be a dreadful drudgery that we have to put up with but, rather, a creative and fulfilling project that we choose for ourselves. Don’t like your job under capitalism? Too bad: work or die! Don’t like your job in a society where a UBI is guaranteed? Go do something else with your time!

Universal Basic Income would greatly increase the power of the working class, especially our bargaining power. If the threats of homelessness and starvation are no longer available to coerce workers into toiling for capitalists, then the capitalists will lose their bargaining power. The spell of capitalism will crumble as workers realize we can work for ourselves, not just for the capitalists. Workers’ cooperatives could produce what the capitalists used to, because the workers will have the necessary time and resources to invest in just these kinds of projects. If successfully implemented, the advent of democratically run cooperatives will sound the death knell for capitalist enterprises and their cruel grip on our society.

Survival, freedom, and power for the working class: that’s why socialists like Universal Basic Income!

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Ask a Socialist: “What would small business look like under socialism?”

By Jeremy Mele

In today’s capitalist world, work is often performed not for any enjoyment or fulfillment that can be gained from it but, rather, to make the bare minimum required for survival.

Working conditions in a socialist society would be vastly different. Everyone’s basic needs would be met, which would allow all people to do work that’s fulfilling to them, not just to make profits for business owners.

Businesses, both small and large, would still exist under socialism, but they would be operated by cooperatives, composed of equals, without the power imbalance of employer-employee relationships—an imbalance created when the employer has the power of the paycheck, and hence the power of life, to hold over their employees’ heads.

Today in America, and even right here in Southern Maine, many entrepreneurs are already choosing to create cooperative businesses, proving that business and socialism are not incompatible. So, if you want to have a small business under a socialist system, go for it! But the people who will help you run that business won’t be underlings who take their marching orders from you, and who very likely don’t want to be there. Under socialism, the people you work with will be there because they want to produce what that business produces. And they’ll likely be more productive, not only because they have a stake in the profits of the business, but also because they’re finally free to do work that’s meaningful for them.

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