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.

Have a question for Ask a Socialist? Email it to: DSA.PortlandMaine@gmail.com

Heavy Rotation: Labor in the Time of Trump

Southern Maine DSA recently presented Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 play “It Can’t Happen Here,” which asked audiences if European fascism could take hold in America. The question is still relevant today, but it contains another more practical question: What can we do to stop it?

California labor historian Fred Glass believes that labor history provides a doorway for ordinary working people who want to fight the rise of fascism in contemporary America. Sacramento DSA and the Sacramento Central Labor Council recently co-hosted Glass for this discussion about labor in the time of Trump.

Fred Glass is the author of  “From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement.”

The Roots of the Labor Movement Run Deep in Maine

By Mike Desjardins

Note: This post is reblogged from https://medium.com/@mdesjardins/what-democratic-socialism-means-to-me-f361ea98138b

In the late 1800’s, a young man named Adolphe was looking for work in his hometown of Lévis, across the river from Québec City. The economy in that area in that time wasn’t particularly favorable. To find work, he resorted to what many of his fellow French Canadians did, and followed the railroad tracks into New England to work in the burgeoning manufacturing industries.

                       Adolphe Desjardins 

Adolphe ended up working in several different factories and mills, and eventually ended up at a paper mill owned by 19th century industrialist, Hugh Chisolm. Chisolm had built a small army of paper mills in the northeastern United States, and would eventually go on to co-found International Paper Co.

In the summer of 1942, at 60 years old, Adolphe was scheduled to take his very first vacation. At that point, he was working as an assistant to the mill manager — in those days, this was called a “retirement job” because the back-breaking work of papermaking gets to be pretty difficult after forty years. He went down to the basement of the mill where trucks would unload materials for the mill. While he was there, Adolphe was accidentally hit by one of the trucks.

Things did not look good for Adolphe, so they called the local priest to administer last rights (it was, after all, a Catholic town). The priest couldn’t drive, so one of the priest’s young assistants drove him down to the mill for the somber ritual. When they arrived, to his horror, the assistant said “this man is my father.”

That assistant was my grandfather, Clement Desjardins. After serving our country stateside in World War II (his two older brothers were already overseas), he came home and married his sweetheart, Lucille. During those days in Jay, the Irish worked in the shoe shops, the Italians worked in the quarry, so my grandfather fulfilled his fate and did what all the French Canadians in Jay did; he went to work in the mill — the same mill that killed his father.

Clement worked at the paper mill until he retired in his sixties. He and Lucille had six children, and today Clement lives at a nursing home in Lewiston. His oldest son, Dennis, is my father. Dennis graduated from Jay High School, and went to CMVTI to get his master electricians’ license. He worked as an electrician for several years before International Paper built a newer, larger mill a few miles up the river from the old one. They were hiring. The great pay of those union jobs was alluring, and my father ended up working in the paper mill a few years after I was born — the same mill that killed his grandfather.

My dad, Dennis, with his father Clement Desjardins

While my dad worked shift-work and the occasional sixteen hour shift, my mother attended night school at the University of Maine at Farmington, and eventually became a public school teacher. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them, especially given that I wasn’t the easiest kid to raise. Today I’d probably get treatment for ADHD, but back then I was just a pain in the ass.

In 1987, I was 12 years old. Ronald Reagan was President. The prevailing wisdom was that labor unions were an anachronistic weight on our economy, and President Reagan demonstrated how to deal with them when he summarily fired the all of the nation’s air traffic controllers five years prior. The union’s contract at International Paper’s Androscoggin Mill was up for renegotiation. After boasting literally record profits, the company demanded eye-popping concessions from the union. There was never any intention to negotiate, it was a bald-faced attempt to break the union.

The strike started in June. Every night our town was featured on the six o’clock news, interrupted by public relations commercials from International Paper, telling “their side of the story,” and how great the greedy union workers had things.

Often the news was an update on the farcical negotiations, but sometimes it got more interesting; one time a “scab” claimed his house was shot at (if I remember correctly, it was later determined that he shot at his own home). Another story was about a high school protest and walk-out by the union kids, upset that they couldn’t wear strike-related clothing while their scab-kid counterparts wore clothes with International Paper logos. One of the biggest stories was when Jesse Jackson came to town to give a presidential campaign speech in the municipal building — Mr. Jackson was the first presidential candidate I heard speak while the crowd chanted “scabs out, union in!”

(For those who are unfamiliar with strike parlance — a “scab” is someone who crosses the picket line and returns to work. A “super scab” is a former union member who goes back to work)

Let me tell you, you don’t grow up in your formative years in that environment, and come out of it a capitalist.

Picketers from UPIU Local 14 during the Androscoggin Mill strike

The strike technically ended, a little over a year later. The union had effectively lost. The United Paperworkers International Union’s support for the locals who were fighting International Paper became tepid. But after the strike, the town of Jay wasn’t quite the same. Union members were hired back by attrition, and it took many years for them to be called back — many reached retirement age before getting their call. International Paper sold the mill to a private equity firm about ten years ago, and the machines that have not been shuttered are run by non-union workers.

I went to an engineering college in Massachusetts, but settled back in Maine to raise a family. My job today is cushy. I work in at home, in my pajamas, writing software. I am paid well, probably more than I deserve. My job doesn’t make me sweat, or make my muscles sore in the morning, or require me to work weird shifts. I don’t worry about my safety. A lot of that is because my parents made damned sure I stayed the hell away from that paper mill.

I think there are two things that have drawn me to democratic socialism. The first is a steadfast refusal to accept economic injustice and inequality. This is a personal passion that was ignited I grew up during the strike. I had a front row seat to watching corporate greed hollow out the working class. I saw International Paper spend millions of dollars on phony security systems, television ads, and public relations firms, all money that could’ve gone to their dedicated employees instead. It was all to prove a point: Capital controls labor — Know your place. I saw that the wealthy’s appetite for more wealth knows no boundaries.

The second thing that draws me to democratic socialism is a strange, almost spiritual connection with the generations who came before me — at the risk of sounding corny, these meetings are my church and the “beer caucuses” afterward my communion.

In a sense, I’ve made it. I am of the bourgeoisie. But if I’m honest with myself, I’ve done relatively little to earn that. My parents helped save and prepare me for college so that I’d have a better life. My grandfather raised a family of six in the house that he built himself with his mill salary, and my great grandfather literally gave his life to the paper making industry. My maternal family line also contributed to my progressive worldview—in fact, my mother’s grandfather was also killed in a papermill.

I owe it to those generations before me to help the disadvantaged, and take direct action toward a world that is more equitable and just. There are lots of ways to taxonomize what “kind” of socialist you are, and there will always be some people who will pass judgement on who is or is not a “real” socialist. But in the end I feel like we, in this meeting, are all really seeking fairness . Regardless of whether you’re a “tankie”, Trotskyist, or a mere shell-shocked Social Democrat with nowhere else to go, it doesn’t matter how or why you want to seize the means of production. What matters is preventing the greediest among us from hoarding the means of production, and using it as a cudgel to dominate and control the rest of us.

I’m thrilled that since joining the DSA I’ve been able to march in a Pride parade, phone bank for Ranked Choice Voting, drop literature for a rent stabilization initiative, and gain a sense of solidarity with other like-minded people. Without the DSA, I probably wouldn’t have done any of those things. Without the DSA, my so-called “activism” probably would’ve been confined to reposting memes on social media. Democratic Socialism gives me a sense of purpose, and helps me identify ways to help on my “justice mission.” And for that, I’m thankful.

Every month, we ask a member to share their story of what Democratic Socialism means to them. If you’re interested in telling yours, please email the chair.

Ask a Socialist: “Do socialists really think that no one should work?”

By Jeremy Mele

There’s a common misconception that socialists are “lazy” and that we only want “free stuff,” that we are “moochers.” If that’s the case, we must be really bad at those things, because volunteering for socialist organizations, campaigning for working class power, and running donation drives where we actively give away goods to folks in need are certainly funny ways to be lazy moochers.
 
Socialists are not anti-work; we respect the value of an honest day of labor as much as anyone else. What we are against is work as it exists in a capitalist context. Not everyone is able or wants to own their own business; therefore, under capitalism, most of us must labor for a capitalist if we want to live. We need to put ourselves in the service of the wealthy in order to afford the necessities of life. That means that the only work we will be doing for the majority of our life—40 hours per week until we retire, or, as retirement is becoming less and less affordable, die—is work that capitalists deem profitable. No matter what our actual interests are, we must labor as the wealthy dictate, often in work that is demeaning, unhealthy, and limits our potential.
 
Socialists do far more work than capitalists do. Capitalists merely chase profit, hiring only as many people as are strictly needed, and letting everyone else starve, for all they care! Many do no work at all, profiting only by letting their money grow at the hands of their portfolio managers, often in off-shore accounts that rob our nation of tax revenue that would help fix our roads, fund innovation, and educate the next generation of workers.
 
Socialists want to work, but we don’t want our labor exploited by a system that concentrates wealth and power at the top. Socialists fight for a world where everyone can work, where the value of our work benefits the workers, not just employers, and where everyone can work on our own terms.

Have a question for Ask a Socialist?

Email it to: DSA.PortlandMaine@gmail.com

Heavy Rotation: “A Change is Gonna Come”

As long as rich people are defining what’s good for the rest of us, it’s not going to be good for the rest of us.  – Peter Kellman

Side A – Interview with Peter Kellman

This week our A-side is a reflection of our A-game. Peter Kellman is a lifelong activist, labor historian and living legend of the Maine labor movement. At our December meeting, Peter, along with Maine AFL-CIO President Cynthia Phinney, led us in a thought-provoking discussion on how labor unions and socialists can work together to build solidarity for the coming revolution. In this December 14, 2017 interview on WMPG radio’s Community Voices for Change, Peter talks with host Richard Rudolf about the history of working class struggle in the United States and tells us what we can do now. So tune in, turn on, and join up!

Side B – Indomitable – Winner: Best Music Video, 2017 Native American Music Awards

Watch the official video for DJ Shrub’s “Indomitable” which features a sample from Northern Cree’s “Young and Free,” composed by Conan Yellowbird for the group’s Ewipihcihk album. Ewipihcihk was released by Canyon Records and “Young and Free” is published by DMG Arizona (ASCAP).

The Southern Maine DSA’s Heavy Rotation blog curates the best in leftist news, music, art, film and beyond.

What’s in your heavy rotation? Email your favorite listens to us at: DSA.PortlandMaine@gmail.com

 

 

 

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!

Have a question for Ask a Socialist? Email it to: DSA.PortlandMaine@gmail.com

Ask a Socialist: “Democratic socialism seems like a movement for millennials. I’m a senior. What’s in it for me?”

 

By Jeremy Mele

While socialism has seen a large outpouring of support by millennials, that in no way means that it’s only for millennials. Democratic socialism is a system for everyone. It’s a collective effort to democratize work, provide for everyone’s basic needs, and create a society that values personal well-being, not the acquisition of profit.

This last point is important for seniors now more than ever. At a time when the federal government wants to cut our social safety nets, strip of us healthcare, and do away with retirement, members of the working class of all ages need to stand together to ensure that our society is one that looks after everyone.

Socialism is a movement by and for the working class, and it aims to ensure that all members of the working class are treated to the respect, and comfort, they deserve. In Maine in particular, more and more people cannot afford to retire and so are working up until their deaths, allowing them no time to rest and enjoy their golden years. A society that works its people to their deaths is exploitative, and socialists refuse to abide by that or any other such exploitation. Workers reaching retirement age have as much to gain as anyone else in standing in solidarity with socialists in their fight for justice and material well-being for the working class.

Democratic socialism will benefit millennials, but it will also benefit the generations that came before it and the generations that will come after it. A democratic socialist society is one that is dedicated to equality, justice, individual liberty, and material well-being. These are things that everyone, regardless of age, can get behind.

Have a question for Ask a Socialist? Email it to: DSA.PortlandMaine@gmail.com