Democratic Socialism is Love

By Jon Torsch

My name is Jon, and my pronouns are he/him/his. I’m an engineer, atheist, millennial, cat-dad, and democratic socialist. There, the labels are out there.

Every month, when the Southern Maine chapter of Democratic Socialists of America meets, we reserve a few minutes for a member to speak on what democratic socialism is to them. This may not be expected from an engineer, but at the risk of rolling eyes, the short answer for me is that democratic socialism is love. For the longer answer, I’ll give you some backstory on who I am and how I came to that conclusion. I’m from central Maine, which is both relatively conservative and very working class.

My father was a mechanic and my mother worked in customer service. Neither are well-paying jobs, and so my family struggled economically. In addition, in my family I’ve borne witness to struggles with addiction, sectarian evangelism, and a misdiagnosis that led to untreated cancer. As a child in primary school, I was both an advanced learner and vehemently (and actively) anti-authority, neither of which my public schools were prepared to handle. This led to truancy, suspensions, and almost failing out. When I applied to the University of Maine in my senior year of high school, I was rejected.

I dove fully into working multiple part-time jobs. I bounced back and forth between them, cumulatively working sixty hours a week, all on low wages with no benefits to fall back on. I eventually landed a management position with Blockbuster, but then a few years later they went bankrupt and I found myself laid off in my early twenties.

That’s a cliff-notes version, but these experiences all have direct ties to the issues that we discuss and assemble action around in our chapter and in our organization: unlivable wages, poor medical treatment, a lack of acceptance and treatment around addiction, under-funded and archaically structured public education, inherited poverty on a mass scale, and a lack of true labor protections. There a lot of parallels, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my chapter, my city, or my state in having lived through them.

Now I can’t earnestly insist that it was all bad. I started taking college classes a few weeks after the layoff and went on to get my A.A.S. in Electrical and Automation Technology at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor and my B.S. in Electrical Engineering Technology at the University of Maine in Orono. I volunteer at my alma maters and at public STEM events, and I’ll tell anyone who will listen that my proudest accomplishment to date is having completed all of that with a 4.0 GPA.

But in telling that story, I make it clear that I don’t point to that as validation of self. To me, that success represents that even kids from homes with addiction, poverty, medical calamity, and other struggles have invaluable potential, the obstacles to which are primarily set by a society that allows capitalism to take root.

Capitalism retrenches funding for public education, rerouting it to privatized education. Capitalism spikes health care costs so that affordable care isn’t quality and quality care isn’t affordable. Capitalism diminishes the quality of life of the working class by stagnating wages down to unlivable swarf. Capitalism fights unions, guaranteed benefits, and other worker protections with no concern for humanity. The do all of these things for one reason and one reason only: Profit.

I realized that in life, these weren’t hardships that I was facing by chance, luck, or omen. These are all features of a capitalist economy that seeks to infinitely increase profit with finite resources, and they’re exacerbated by a government that at worst props that system up and at best thinks it can be “reformed.”

It’s just self-preservation to identify the blockades put in one’s own path. It’s something else entirely to break those blockades down.

That’s what Democratic Socialism is. Breaking down those barriers and replacing these capitalist “features” in with equitable, shared solutions that provide for all members of society. What do you call investing yourself in ensuring that others reach their fullest potential and happiness? I cannot honestly think of a better word than love.

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: “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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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.

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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.

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What we achieved cannot be measured in votes (yet).

An open letter to our candidates, volunteers and community partners.

Brothers and Sisters,

When I took on the assignment of running our “Get Out the Working Class Vote” campaign several months ago, I did it because I believed in our endorsed candidates and ballot issues and because, as the chairperson of the Community Outreach and Education Committee, I saw it as an opportunity to reach out to members of our community with a message of working class power.

Despite the recent swell of support for democratic socialism among millennials and Bernie Sanders voters, the “s”-word is still a dirty one to many. It has been my goal during this campaign to raise awareness for and correct the public perception of socialism by papering the town red with our flyers and forcing mainstream media outlets to print the word “socialism” as many times as possible in the context of working class solidarity and participatory democracy. Every letter-to-the-editor we wrote, every friendly greeting on every doorstep, every phone call, conversation, and email message has brought us one step closer to showing people that the aim of socialism is not state power, but rather people power. It’s about ordinary citizens working together to decide how our government, economy, environment, and society are run.

Many voters are still leery of the “s”-word, but the results of this election prove that they’re not scared of socialism, itself. Passing Medicaid expansion is socialism! Defeating a casino license mercenary who would sell our state referendum process to the highest bidder is socialism! Demanding that our public schools receive funding is socialism! Sending a message to wealthy donors, political elites, and developers that money cannot buy a seat on Portland City Council is socialism! Around the country yesterday, DSA won 15 elections. That is socialism!

Together we hand-delivered 3,000 Southern Maine DSA palm cards to voters in Portland. The hours and hours our members spent working on the Fair Rent, Joey Brunelle, and Marpheen Chann campaigns, the support of our leadership team, and the assistance of our community partners made this possible. I would like to thank all of you who came together to help, and express my deepest gratitude for your knowledge, humor and support along the way.

Together, we spread a message of hope for a better, fairer, and more equitable society, and we did it in the name of democratic socialism. The Southern Maine DSA is grateful to have such hardworking, honest, and kind folks in our fold. We may not have achieved everything we wanted to with this election, but this is just the beginning. Capitalism is a cruel, overbearing system. It and its defenders, are powerful…and we wounded them. We showed the power that the working class has when we come together, and, next time, we will use the lessons of this election to achieve even more. A better world is possible, and we now know that we have the numbers and the will to bring that possibility about.

With any power struggle worth undertaking, there are tremendous risks involved, and we should never underestimate or undersell those risks, nor dismiss the hurt that many of our brothers and sisters are feeling today. That is why this message of thanks is also a call to action: now is the time for those of you who have been holding our flank to push to the front of the line so that we can tend to our wounded, assess our losses, and regain our strength. Electoral politics is only one small part of organizing for power, and there are many more battles to be won.

In solidarity,

Kate Sykes

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: “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.

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