Understanding... Socialism in the U.S.
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Written by: Emily Chen, Jenny Dorsey
Edited by: Zandie Brockett, Ines Le Cannelier, Zach Moss, Isla Ng, Anastasiya Smirnova, Kimberly Yang
Last Updated: 2.15.22
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Today, amidst the backdrop of a highly polarized country with income inequality in the U.S. at its highest point in tracked history, socialism has been gaining increasing interest and attention. However, confusion and misconceptions are still prevalent in conversations about socialism—in part due to the term being mischaracterized and weaponized by American media and politicians throughout history.
In this piece, we aim to offer a clear foundation of how socialism operates as an economic and political framework. Our goal is to encourage more robust, thoughtful, and accurate discussions about both the benefits and shortcomings of incorporating aspects of socialism in our society today.
This Understanding… piece will:
Provide background on the evolution of socialism, with a focus on the influence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Explain major theoretical goals of socialism and examine the limitations of its real-world applications.
Analyze how socialism as a concept and a term has changed over time within the U.S., in particular how it fell out of popular favor and became a tool to stoke fear and advance certain political agendas.
Discuss potential opportunities for integrating beneficial aspects of socialism into U.S. politics, based on prior successful examples.
Table of Contents
An overview of socialism from an economic & political perspective
An overview of capitalism, socialism, communism, major critiques of capitalism, and the ways in which socialism evolved from communism
An analysis of the key issues with socialism
An overview of the evolution of socialism in the U.S., analysis of how socialism has been and continues to be weaponized today, and examples of democratic socialist policies
Ways for individuals to take steps towards a more equitable and democratic society
Relevant resources to read and learn more about socialism
What is Socialism?
Socialism is a philosophy of social organization that includes both economic and political aspects.
There are many different strands of socialism, but a unifying theme is that all people share in and benefit from the resources, goods, and services available in their society. The common goal is to reduce inequality and enable all people to lead fulfilling lives.
Economically, socialism generally supports more government intervention and control—especially over necessary resources like water/food, housing, healthcare, and transportation.
Politically, socialism requires a functioning democracy, where all people have a voice in the policies that affect their lives and the actions of the government accurately reflect the desires of the people.
Socialism encompasses a broad set of both political and economic philosophies on societal organization, with a general goal of giving all citizens “broadly equal access to the necessary...means to live flourishing lives” with minimal class division. There are many, continually evolving strands of socialist philosophy; however, they are generally based on a foundational element of social ownership over the means of production (i.e., the tools and resources needed to produce useful materials for society at large).
In its simplest form, socialism believes all people should be able to jointly use, share, and receive the benefits from both natural resources and the goods and services that are collectively produced. These processes are overseen by an elected body (the government) that is charged with allocating necessary finished products and services for the common good (e.g., public transit, healthcare, housing) while distributing the surplus of other production efforts back to citizens in an equitable manner. The majority of differences in socialism emerge from variation in how this production process is managed, how the government is assembled and maintained, and what is considered equitable distribution.
The term ‘socialist’ first came into use in Europe in the 1830s to describe individuals who advocated for workers’ equality and sought to overturn the exploitative policies brought by industrialization. Socialist thought is fundamentally a rejection of capitalism (read more about capitalism below), which is an economic system that prioritizes private ownership, competition, and profit. Under the basic definition of capitalism, the supply and demand of goods and services are determined by competing private businesses, with minimal (or no) governmental interference, such as setting price floors or ceilings. Businesses and business owners, not workers, own the means of production as well as the final goods and services; thus, owners claim all the profits (or losses) from the sale of these goods.
Socialists argue that this understanding of capitalism creates massive disparities between workers and owners. Even in the case of goods and services that are necessary for survival—like healthcare, housing, and medicine—the free market incentivizes owners to prioritize profit over offering these services or products to the people that need them. To eliminate exploitation of workers and redistribute profits, socialists advocate for high levels of government intervention within economic systems. Different strands of socialist thought may see intervention as anything from setting a minimum wage to the nationalization (ownership or oversight by centralized government) of specific industries, such as railway transportation.
In order for a centralized government to adequately represent the will of the people, the political system under socialism needs the state’s officials to be elected democratically. The all-affected principle defines the baseline of what a democracy should accomplish: that those affected by the outcome of decisions should have a voice in the making of those decisions. However, there have always been substantial issues regarding the accuracy with which democratically elected governments can represent their constituents' wishes.
Theoretically, socialism’s economic system (high levels of government intervention and oversight) and political format (of democracy) should allow its foundational goal to be achieved: collective, socially owned means of production. First, a democratically elected government learns the people’s needs and desires. Next, the government would then manage economic production following the principles of equity and necessity, and allocate production’s surplus (profit) in ways that are useful to its citizens.
For example, the government could regulate the supply and demand of housing to ensure everyone has access to it while also using extra money earned to fund social service programs (e.g., SNAP and Medicaid). However, historically implementing socialism politically and economically on a country-wide scale has proven to be challenging. We will cover some major drawbacks to socialist philosophies in the Issues with Socialism section.
It is also worth noting that socialist policies can exist in any political or economic system. For example, social security in the U.S. is generally considered a socialist policy despite the U.S. being a capitalist country. Workers and corporations pay into the program as part of their annual taxes, the elected government holds onto this lump sum, and later allocates it back to individuals upon their retirement. (We’ll cover additional socialist policies in the section What’s Next for Socialism in the U.S.?).
Capitalism is an economic system based on private ownership and the free market. This means that individuals own the means of production (through their private businesses), and employ workers to produce various goods and services. Prices on the free market are determined by supply and demand, hypothetically in a way that reflects the interests of consumers at large with minimal (or no) governmental interference. In theory, competition between businesses keeps the market moving efficiently. Business owners then reap the profit (or loss) generated from selling their production.
Capitalism arose in 16th century Europe as a reaction against feudalism, a system where kings and nobles owned all the land, and peasants and serfs did all the labor in exchange for protection. After the Black Plague, the shortage of workers raised individual labor power, enabling workers to acquire more agency and control over their economic futures. At the same time, the privatization of once-public lands (known as enclosure) expanded property ownership beyond just aristocrats, and gave these new land owners opportunities to generate wealth.
In contrast to feudalism, capitalism allows everyone to receive money for their labor, own private property and businesses, and accrue wealth. Unlike socialism, however, the goals of capitalism are not tied to improving the lives of participants, but rather to optimizing free market dynamics with “winners” being those that provide the most competitive offerings.
The primary difference between socialism and capitalism is who (or what) owns the “means of production,” or resources and tools used to produce the goods and services a society needs.
Under socialism, the people own the means of production (through a democratically elected government) while under capitalism, private individuals and businesses do.
Socialism’s primary critiques of capitalism center around the large wealth disparity between workers versus owners, the lack of government control over necessary social resources (e.g., transportation, housing), and how these inequalities undermine an individual’s right to live a fulfilling life.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) describes capitalism’s four major tenets:
The means of production are, for the most part, privately owned;
People own their labor power, and are legally free to sell it to (or withhold it from) others;
Production is generally oriented towards profit rather than use: firms don’t necessarily produce to satisfy human needs, but to make money; and
Markets play a major role in allocating inputs to production, and determining the amount and direction of investment.
It is important to note that no capitalist country currently operates in a completely free market where the state has zero influence over the economy. Even in capitalist countries such as the U.S., the state and the economy are intertwined.
Socialist Critiques of Capitalism
In this section we will cover three major critiques of capitalism:
Private ownership over the means of production: This funnels the majority of profits to owners instead of workers, and prioritizes making items that sell and/or make profit over those that are necessary for society.
Outsized prioritization of economic output and minimal governmental interference with the free market: Private ownership over necessary resources comes at the expense of social safety nets and welfare programs that fulfill basic needs for individuals to lead quality lives. This undermines the freedom of individuals and further perpetuates existing class privileges;
The existence of dramatic class inequity as a result of #1 and #2: This demonstrates how inequitable and un-democratic the government is, as those with more money and access have far more influence over the economy (and overall society) than those without.
Socialism fundamentally rejects private ownership over the necessary resources that fuel society (e.g., housing, electricity) because it fuels an ever-widening disparity between owners and the working class. While the working class produces the goods and services sold and is compensated for their labor, they have “no ownership at all over most of what they produce. [This] belongs to the capitalist rather than the worker, and is the source of all profits.” (IEP) Increasingly, workers’ pay is not proportionate with the profits accrued by the business, does not correspond with their productivity, and does not appropriately adjust for rising costs of living.
For example, Walmart employs a vast number of workers who earn minimum wage, which, depending on the state, starts at $11 an hour or roughly $21,000 a year for full-time work. (For context, the poverty line in the U.S. is $26,500 per year for a family of four.) By comparison, the owners of Walmart, the Waltons, are America’s richest family—worth $235 billion. This is not uncommon amongst for-profit businesses in the U.S. In 2019, the typical CEO-to-worker (i.e. “production and nonsupervisory workers”) wage ratio was 320 to 1.
Since the goal of capitalism is to create profit for owners, the ability of an individual to produce profitable items becomes seen as a proxy for that individual’s overall worthiness to society. Thus, people are heavily incentivized to cater to the needs of the wealthy, instead of supporting activities that improve the social welfare of others that result in little profit. Those who are not considered ‘productive’ under existing capitalist structures, like people with disabilities, are also stigmatized and largely left unsupported by social services.
Under capitalism, pricing is left to market forces, even for goods that may be necessary to health and well-being like medicine. For example, Daraprim is an antiparasitic treatment for serious infections that was priced by CEO Martin Shrkeli at over $700 per pill. Insulin is another vital drug that is inexpensive to produce yet continues to increase in price. Historically, free market supply and demand have proven ineffective at appropriately regulating necessary goods like medicine and even clean water (e.g., Chile’s privatized water system, which has caused major access issues for regular citizens). Given these case studies, socialism advocates for higher levels of governmental oversight, regulation, or even full ownership over resources that individuals need.
Capitalism purports to allow everyone to work at will, use those profits to become a business owner if desired, thus achieving the “American Dream.” But in reality, there are many systemic obstacles that prevent the majority of people from generating sustainable wealth for themselves or their families. For example, in the U.S. the ripple effects of slavery contribute to a Black-white wealth gap wherein the average wealth of white families is 6.7 times that of Black families. Pervasive generational privileges—such as access to public versus private education or one’s citizenship status—are amplified under capitalism. As economist John Friedman explains, “In the last three decades, the rate of income growth among very wealthy individuals has accelerated [while the income of] individuals in the bottom half...has not grown at all in real terms.”
It is important to recognize that structural disparities under capitalism are not a defect of the system, but are rather an essential feature for the system to thrive. In order for capitalism to effectively function, there must be some level of unemployment—a “reserve army of labor”—to keep labor power in check. Even in times of low unemployment, it is still debatable if individuals are able to work ‘at will’ and truly free to withhold their labor, since most people in the U.S. live paycheck-to-paycheck and thus must work to survive.
There is also a major power imbalance between what workers can reasonably ask for in wages, versus what owners can demand in terms of output. (For example, many salaried workers are not paid for their overtime hours.) This unhealthy cycle of overwork can also be seen in the fact that the U.S. is the only advanced economy without federally required paid vacation or holidays, and that only half of workers with paid vacation time even take time off. Furthermore, the increasing prevalence of mechanical and autonomous machines being used to replace workers continues to diminish workers’ ability to negotiate higher wages or hold leverage over their employers.
While capitalism is often associated with the ideals of individual freedom and democracy, socialists point out that the very disparities created by capitalist systems undermine the effective freedom (i.e., the capability to achieve a desired outcome) of individuals despite the appearance of formal freedom (i.e., lack of outside interference). For example, although segregation has been outlawed, American children do not have equal access to the same educational opportunities due to structural problems like the generational wealth gap, redlining, environmental racism, and lack of community investment (e.g., public transportation), all of which are issues that require long-term, large-scale governmental intervention to change. In fact, studies show that the zip code where someone grows up in the U.S. has a major and lasting impact on their adult outcomes, which flies in the face of an individual’s supposed ability to move beyond external forces and succeed equally.
Using a misguided belief of the myth of meritocracy, or that everyone does have equal opportunity to succeed, capitalism encourages individuals to practice deeply anti-social actions. For example, rejecting measures of community care in favor of creating better scenarios for themselves—even if doing so deepens class divisions.
(An oft-cited example of this is the U.S.’s privatized healthcare industry, which leaves over 10% of the population uninsured). Socialists reject capitalism’s idea that everything can, and should, be bought and sold for a price, as it incentivizes people to treat all interactions as a zero-sum game to be won or lost instead of prioritizing collective advancement.
When it comes to democracy, socialists argue that capitalism offers not just economic power to owners amassing far more money than workers, but also grants them political influence. In the U.S., this often comes in the form of campaign giving, PACs, and other dark money contributions, which threaten the efficacy of the country’s hypothetically ‘equally representative’ political system. When wealthy Americans and private corporations contribute billions to certain political candidates, it is only natural that decisions of the state are increasingly aligned with the desires of the rich (e.g., trickle-down economics), instead of the needs or wants of the general public.
In order to address the social ills of this system, however, most capitalists will encourage more capitalism as the remedy. The U.S. government has regularly participated in this type of messaging; for example, in his acceptance speech, President Nixon advocates for:
“[letting] the government use its tax and credit policies to enlist in this battle [the war on poverty] the greatest engine of progress ever developed in the history of man—American private enterprise.”
Instead of investing in social safety nets like “government jobs and government housing and government welfare,” Nixon allocated dollars (and tax incentives) to encourage business and market growth under capitalism in hopes that the benefits would eventually support the working class—something now categorized as trickle-down economics. However, these types of pro-business, pro-wealthy policies have long proven to be ineffective in leveling the playing field for working-class individuals to succeed economically. Despite the policies of Nixon and his successors, the wealth gap in America has more than doubled between 1989 and 2016; those working full-time on minimum wage only make $3,000 above the poverty line, and often still need government-sponsored social aid.
In lieu of appropriately resourced and accessible social welfare programs, corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs have become an increasingly important way to care for and support those in need. CSR programs are lauded for giving private enterprise a path to “do good while doing well,” when in reality they have been largely unable to align for-profit motives with long-term social and environmental good. “We have seen an abject failure of companies to invest in things that may have a longer-term benefit, like health and safety systems. BP was fined a record $1.42M for health and safety offenses in Alaska in 2004, for example, even as…[the] chief executive of BP was establishing himself as a leading advocate for CSR, and the company was winning various awards for its programs.” (Stanford)
Similarly, philanthropy efforts and nonprofits that aim to counteract the issues created by capitalism are at the mercy of the same capitalists’ generosity to fund their programs. As Dr. Marcia Chatelain writes in Franchise about McDonald’s entry and integration in neighborhoods long underserved by the government, what seemed like the choice “between a McDonald’s and no McDonald’s was actually a choice between a McDonald’s or no youth job program.” These communities are not given much of a choice: They must either succumb to a capitalist demand (the presence of a multinational corporation), or forgo an important social benefit.
This vicious cycle of supporting capitalism, so that its profits can be contributed towards PR-friendly CSR and other giving programs, has given rise to what social justice organizations call the nonprofit industrial complex:
"As the [goals of philanthropy and nonprofits] become more and more reliant on a small number of wealthy donors, as well as corporations and private philanthropy, the goals of the movement began to shift to be more in line with what those funders would prioritize."
As mentioned previously, there are many, continually evolving strands of socialist philosophy. In this section, we focus primarily on the propositions and ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto (1848), and widely regarded as major influencers in the development of socialism. (Note that while Marx and Engels are important figures in understanding socialism, their end goal was not socialism, but communism. We’ll address this further in the Socialism Versus Communism section.)
Marx and Engels’ writings drew from the groundwork laid by revolutionaries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henri de Saint-Simon, and François-Noël Babeuf. Their Manifesto, in particular, became an important phenomenon in Europe as it came at a time when the Industrial Revolution was rapidly widening the gap between the ruling and serving classes. With the rise of factories and specialization of labor, the Manifesto likened the Industrial Revolution to the force that “converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist” and put the working class into a position where they were “daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.”
Additionally, Marx and Engels observed that this class of workers is growing in number because the “lower strata of the middle class [like] the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, handicraftsmen, and peasants...sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on.” In other words, the pace of work alongside machines had made the widening gap between workers and the upper class of owners increasingly obvious.
To move beyond such a system, Marx and Engels urged the working class to band together to “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy,” or, empower the current working class to seize the necessary authority and influence to overtake the political system. After power had been secured, the Manifesto then states “the proletariat [is to] use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State.” That is, putting the means of production in the hands of a democratically-elected government—instead of private corporations—to carry out the needs of the people.
Some important, theoretical propositions that arose through Marx, Engels, and other revolutionaries of the time to combat the issues with capitalism were:
1. Redirecting power over the means of production to the government. Originally, a centrally planned or “command economy” was seen as the way to remove market forces from the production and distribution of goods and services, and instead allow the state to plan this supply and demand more equitably. Hypothetically, this would mean that:
Goods and services produced are those actually needed by society, instead of those desired by the wealthy while ignoring the needs of the poor.
Pricing of goods and services are reflective of the median cost of living, thus ensuring everyone has equal access to the resources necessary to live.
Unemployment would be dramatically reduced as the state would plan enough jobs to employ all available workers.
However, this type of economic system has been largely acknowledged as deeply flawed after the fall of the former U.S.S.R. (Read more about the drawbacks of a command economy under Issues with Socialism). As such, some socialists contend that “the aim of socialism is not the realization of a plan of state ownership, but rather, the entire elimination of economic exploitation.” To achieve this, however, state involvement is still necessary to plan, organize, and distribute economic resources in order to combat social issues like unemployment, but on a smaller scale than complete economic control.
2. A democratically elected government where workers can partake in all important decisions for the economy. Hypothetically, this signifies that:
All workers share profits generated by their labor, preventing business owners (or its other top leaders) from exploitatively reaping the majority of the production benefits with an income grossly larger than others.
Workers can alter their working hours and conditions based on the actual output needed for society. Hypothetically, working hours would then decrease over time due to industrialization, specialization, and automation. Without intense consumerism, which is encouraged under capitalism, workers can stop producing wasteful excess while also maintaining better hours and working conditions.
3. Prioritization of individual well-being, dignity, and ability to pursue rewarding work that contributes to the greater good of society. Hypothetically, this would result in:
High levels of social services to equip everyone with the necessary tools and resources to live and work to the best of their ability. (Or, individuals’ effective freedoms are no longer being limited by capitalism.) In existing scenarios where there are unequal opportunities for different individuals, the democratically elected government (point #2) is meant to step in and adjust accordingly.
A society that emphasizes community and reciprocity, where people will not solely be incentivized to only produce for personal or business gain.
The feasibility of achieving a sustainable and equitable version of this centralized, worker-led, and run political system, however, has proved very challenging with no country thus far having truly achieved it. As mentioned under point #1, the former U.S.S.R.—a socialist nation by name—eventually collapsed due to a stagnant economy under the control of an authoritarian regime. (We will cover more on the problems facing a transition to a socialist society in the Issues with Socialism section).
As a result, many socialists today advocate for partial, but not total, governmental influence over the economy. In this system, capitalism and the market economy still exist, but the government regulates the economy with taxes and the redistribution of wealth. Additionally, important sources of production and social goods—or shared resources or services that benefit the general public (e.g., oil and natural gas, public housing) would be primarily owned and governed by the state. We’ll explore more efforts by governments balancing capitalism and socialism in the section What’s Next for Socialism in the U.S.?
Marx and Engels are important figures in understanding socialism, but their end goal was communism—not socialism. In The Communist Manifesto (1848), socialism is explained as a transition state between capitalism and communism, and one that still bears many problematic markers of capitalism, notably:
There would still be class inequities between people, albeit to a lesser extent, due to varying compensation structures for specialized jobs. Because capitalist society assigns different levels of worth and value for these jobs, individuals will likely desire (and feel entitled) to be paid differently depending on their contributions.
Relatedly, many individuals would continue doing jobs that Marx viewed as unproductive labor (e.g., jobs like PR or advertising that are only necessary due to the existence of private businesses). By contrast, under communism, work would be, as Marx described, “a means of life [and] life’s prime want.” That is, people should do a broad scope of tasks that support “springs of cooperative wealth,” or that are beneficial for others in the community.
Under socialism, private property would still exist, and would still be a primary marker of class differences and unequal wealth distribution, since landowners would be able to live off the passive income of their property, while others would have to live off their wages.
(It is worth noting that socialism and communism allow for personal property like clothing or toiletries. Socialism also allows for certain kinds of private property, such as privately owned businesses and land—as long as those businesses do not interfere with resources that individuals need, like air or water—whereas communism does not.)
In order to successfully move from socialism into full communism, the Manifesto lists 10 characteristics that must be met (excerpted):
Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
Confiscation of the property of all emigrants [sic] and rebels.
Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.
Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country by a more equitable distribution of the populace over the country.
Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production.
The ultimate goal of communism is the creation of a state where every person can contribute according to their ability, and in return receive what is necessary to live equally with everyone else. Hence, Marx’s famous quote: “Each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Under these conditions, there would hypothetically be little need for a centralized state because “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’. It withers away.” (Engels) Or, the state is eventually replaced by the systems of production themselves and able to continue onwards autonomously, so there would be no need for a separate government entity.
Today, China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam are self-classified as Communist countries (or, as stated in their Constitutions, as working towards communism). However, the private sector in China accounts for ⅔ of its overall GDP and a significant portion of its economic growth, while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wields massive centralized governmental authority in the country (and does not allow public voting). This functioning capitalist market within an authoritarian government regime is a far cry from the Manifesto’s ideals of communism, but serves as a rebuttal to capitalist claims that all societies working towards communism necessarily befall the economic disaster of the former U.S.S.R.
Issues with Socialism
In order to shift the means of production from private ownership into the hands of the people, the (democratically elected) government must serve as a proxy to oversee what, how, how much, and for whom goods and services are produced. It would also set the wage rates and quotas of employment to ensure everyone has the opportunity to work. When the government has control over critical resources (e.g., land, natural resources, capital) and thus makes all the economic decisions without input from market signals, this mode of central economic planning is known as a command economy.
While all governments assert some level of regulation over their nation’s economy, high levels of economic planning from the state in conjunction with widespread state ownership of important industries has proven to create significant problems:
1. A lack of incentive for taking entrepreneurial risks to innovate. As conservative commentator David Brooks writes, “It has [to be] a competitive profit-driven process to motivate you to learn and innovate.” Thus, a state that oversees all means of production will “suppress or eliminate [the] profit motives that drive people [and businesses] to learn and improve.”
In particular, heavy R&D spenders, like the pharmaceutical industry, cite the need for a “return that allows it to continue to do its research.” (However, third-party studies have found pharmaceutical companies spend almost as much on advertising as on R&D.)
2. Decreased efficiency due to no competition. As the government now has a monopoly on all industries, there is no competitive pressure and little to no insight on the real demand for produced goods and services. Thus government-run industries can stagnate, become mired in bureaucratic red tape, or greenlight major initiatives disconnected with societal needs, such as building whole cities that sit barely occupied. (However, a counterpoint to this is that capitalism also allows for underutilized resources like houses sitting vacant while people nearby remain unhoused.)
Socialism also has inherent problems. In particular, how a democracy will be appropriately implemented, how the democratically-elected government will manage the economy without market signals (the ever-changing supply/demand under capitalism), and how corruption can be avoided when so much power is consolidated in the government.
Disasters like the collapse of the U.S.S.R. have made many fearful of a government-controlled economy (a “command economy”) and, by extension, socialism. However, the U.S.S.R. was not an accurate example of socialism for many reasons, a major one being that the government was authoritarian.
To philosopher Karl Marx, socialism is a transition state between capitalism and communism. Unlike socialism, communism dictates that all individuals are paid and treated exactly the same and cannot own anything except personal property (e.g., clothes).
When it comes to wages, determining the appropriate compensation for workers who differ in prerequisite skill and education can also be difficult without market insights. However, even with market insights under capitalism, setting appropriate wages remains an issue.
3. Poor government oversight over, and investment in, each industry. Economists such as Ludwig Von Mises have long argued that without market forces, proper allocation of resources cannot occur. With the state responding much less nimbly than market forces to economic changes, heavy-handed decisions regarding supply and demand can make for disastrous decisions with long-tailed implications (e.g., President Nixon’s price controls on oil.)
Poorly planned government policies that support one industry, or prevent unemployment, may also come at the expense of proper economic balance. In the former U.S.S.R., “Citizens found employment in one of the 300,000 construction projects, far more than was needed, but reducing that number presented a real danger of mass unemployment.... [Also], the ruble [U.S.S.R.’s currency] had only paper value, with Soviet citizens holding overall 400-450 billion rubles, [despite not having anything] to spend it on; store shelves carried few consumer goods.” (Brookings)
4. Lack of incentive to fulfill the needs of the minority. As writer Conor Friedersdorf argues in The Atlantic:
“Under capitalism, the mere existence of buyers reliably gives rise to suppliers. Right now, under capitalism, vegetarians and vegans have more options every year. But there aren’t very many of them. Five percent of Americans are vegetarians. Three percent are vegans. Would ‘the workers’ find a societal need to produce vegan meat or milk substitutes?”
As the economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek put it,
“Our freedom of choice in a competitive society rests on the fact that, if one person refuses to satisfy our wishes, we can turn to another.” But, he added, “if we face a monopolist we are at his absolute mercy. Socialists are attuned to the ways individuals are vulnerable in capitalism but blind to ways that it frees us from the preferences of the majority.”
Modern governments have learned these problems with implementing a command economy from nations like the former U.S.S.R. and Cuba. In areas that follow the Nordic model, high levels of state controlled industries exist in sync with a market economy where individuals and corporations can still profit from private enterprise, giving them enough of a risk and reward to encourage innovation. At the same time, important governmental regulations are in place to protect workers (i.e., Nordic countries had the highest trade union density in the world in 2016) and governmental ownership of certain industries, like housing or transportation, oversee the public distribution of necessary resources.
In this sense, the outstanding question is not if but how much the government should intervene on economic matters. As economist Allison Schrager writes,
“What modern socialists and capitalists really disagree on is the right level of government intervention.”
The perfect balance has been challenging to find, even in instances of controlled state ownership in specific industries. Canada, for example, has enacted some level of centralized planning for industries like healthcare, which covers ~70% of individuals’ needs, but requires long wait times for patient care with a median wait time of 21 weeks for specialists in 2019. In response, Canada’s private healthcare industry has sprung up to fill in the gap, with expensive private clinics catering to the rich, ultimately perpetuating the same inequities the state originally intended to minimize. (It is worth noting this dichotomy also exists in the U.S., where the state-controlled Veterans Association has a poor track record for health services. Those who are covered but have the ability to opt for privatized options will often choose the latter. At the same time, privatized healthcare does not necessarily yield particularly short wait times.)
One glaring problem with consolidating the means of production in a socialist society is that government authorities are not necessarily better equipped to distribute goods and services in an equitable manner, even if they are supposed to prioritize the public good. As Mathieu Desan and Michael A. McCarthy wrote in the socialist magazine Jacobin,
“In the same way we don’t believe that capitalists should be able to have disproportionate control over economic resources, we don’t think unaccountable state officials and bureaucrats should have the power to control investment and production through ‘socialism from above’ [or authoritarian socialism]. In some cases, like the former Soviet Union, the failings of such a system are as clear as those of capitalism itself.”
While corruption—and more generally, state officials prioritizing self-interests above their constituents (e.g., lawmakers engaging in insider trading)—is a concern in any type of political system, it is even more worrisome when the government wields so much power over the economy. Venezuela is a recent (and ongoing) example. The country elected Hugo Chavez in 1998 on his socialist platform to invest the country’s vast oil fortune in programs to reduce inequality and poverty. While the expansion of social programs reduced poverty by 20%, his mismanagement of the country’s oil reserves alongside a massive consolidation of political power led to rampant corruption. Poor decisions made by corrupt leaders on issues like price fixing and hyperinflation have now led to a country-wide humanitarian disaster.
Additionally, in countries like China where an authoritarian government exists in tandem with a capitalist market, bribes can make their way into public sector resources like medicine as private enterprise attempts to compete. Especially as China has been strengthening government controls over its capitalist market, these top-down governmental decisions can have long-term implications on the economy.
Preventing a political slide into corruption requires a democratic process for electing representatives that accurately represents the peoples’ needs and wants. Creating and maintaining such a system, however, remains a challenge—and not just for socialist countries. Socialists in the U.S. will point out that capitalism threatens the democratic process by giving the wealthy and powerful outsized political influence. In 2010, a group consisting of less than 27,000 wealthy individuals donated almost $800 million (roughly 25% of all individual donations) to federal political campaigns. Wealthy individuals can contribute to Super PACS that are able to accept an unlimited amount of money to support (or oppose) certain candidates. These funds become extremely important in influencing both public and legislative opinions when certain topics, like tax reforms that disproportionately benefit certain groups, are up for vote in Congress.
Additionally, systemic issues like racism, xenophobia, and mass incarceration in the U.S. limit who is even able to take part of the political process. Voting, for example, is not offered to all people, not considered a right of citizenship, and continues to be actively suppressed through actions like felony disenfranchisement and voter purges.
However, socialism also does not inherently guarantee an equitable democratic process. Pre-existing privileges and the existence of some level of private enterprise (that produces profit for owners) will still give certain people more political sway to elect officials who prioritize their interests.
Critics of socialism also argue that countries lauded for implementing socialist policies, like those operating under the Nordic model, have not actually resolved the difficulties of maintaining a democratic political process. Rather, these countries have been able to bypass the issue because of their fairly homogenous population that is sustained with restrictions on immigration. This strong foundation of similarities allows for state officials to more easily make decisions that the vast majority of its citizens find agreeable. Whether this same success can be replicated by countries with larger and more varied minority populations, like the U.S., remains uncharted territory.
Socialism in the United States
The latter half of this piece explores socialism as it exists in the U.S. today, why it has come to be understood as antithetical to American values, and how socialist policies could work within the U.S.
Today, against the backdrop of a highly polarized country where income inequality is at its highest point in tracked history, socialism has been gaining public interest. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) now has over 90,000 members, up from 7,000 members in 2016. In 2018, more than 40 democratic socialists won primary elections—notably Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. There has also been a significant increase in subscribers to socialist-leaning media sources such as Jacobin since Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
This rise can in part be attributed to Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign as a Democratic Socialist. (The phrase ‘democratic socialism’ is a bit of a redundancy, however. In order for a government to effectively control the means of production and meet the needs of individuals under socialism, a democratically elected government is required by definition.)
In reality, Sanders’ platform is more accurately classified as progressive capitalism. Sanders does not call for the consolidation of the means of production to be state-owned, but rather an expansion of economic and social welfare in the U.S. Today, the term democratic socialism is generally used in the U.S. to distinguish this mediated version of socialism from authoritarian governments such as the U.S.S.R. and China.
As the winner-takes-all voting system in the U.S. has produced a two-party system for most of American history, the rise of democratic socialism has led to a more complicated political arena. Democrats are concerned that the growth of democratic socialism will divide the Democratic party and cede government representation to Republicans who are unified in their opposition to socialism as antithetical to the American Dream.
But socialism has not always been seen so negatively by a large swath of the American public. In 1949, Gallup first asked Americans: “What is your understanding of the term ‘socialism?’”, and has repeated the survey every year since. In the first year, Americans generally defined socialism through an economic lens, as “government ownership of the means of production” including business and utilities. That same year, almost 50% of survey respondents associated socialism with progressive policies such as free social services, with 43% believing that some American policies were socialist in practice.
By 2018, American perceptions of socialism had shifted, with Americans more likely to associate socialism with a broadly defined concept of equality. The divide between those in favor of, versus against, socialism had also grown more stark: 57% of Democrats viewed socialism positively versus only 16% of Republicans.
To understand how American views towards socialism have changed so dramatically over the past 100 years, it is necessary to contextualize the international geopolitical climate during this period.
1900s–1920s: Initial popularity and dramatic downturn
In the early 1900s, socialism was well-positioned to enter mainstream U.S. politics because many groups—farmers, factory workers, and new immigrants—were dissatisfied with their harsh working conditions and low pay. To find more power in numbers, they formed unions that supported the Populist Party and the Socialist Party.
In the 1912 election, Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs won almost six percent of the popular vote while running against eventual President Woodrow Wilson—the highest ever in U.S. history for a Socialist candidate. During that same year, the Socialist party held more than 1,000 political offices across 340 cities. Shortly thereafter, however, socialism experienced a political decline as the U.S. entered World War I. Political opponents described Socialist Party members as anti-American due to their continued opposition of the pro-capitalist war efforts.
Socialism peaked in popularity in the U.S. during the early 1900s when workers who were increasingly dissatisfied with their pay and working conditions turned to the Populist and Socialist parties.
In the past five years, interest in socialism has grown in the U.S. due to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential campaign, and dissatisfaction among young Americans after the 2008 recession and increasing social inequities.
Corporations also contributed heavily to anti-socialist sentiments, spreading aggressive pro-capitalist propaganda that pitted socialism against “American values” of patriotism and nationalism. Aided by policies such as the Espionage Act, which allowed the U.S. government to suppress wartime dissent during World War I, government agencies like the Committee of Public Information (CPI) worked to ensure any unfavorable messages against the U.S. were routinely censored from the public. At the same time, propaganda exploited existing racism and xenophobia to correlate people of color and recent immigrants with socialism. Compounded with widespread fear of a newly formed communist U.S.S.R. in 1918, socialism all but disappeared from electoral politics (Brookings).
Socialism’s downturn was also aided by fundamental problems stemming from within the Socialist Party. At the first party convention in 1901, Black Americans called for the broader movement to recognize “equal rights for all human beings without distinction of color, race, or sex.” The decision over whether to formally acknowledge racism and systemic oppression towards Black Americans split the party. Right-wing members denounced social equality for Black Americans and supported segregation, while left-wing members fought against Black disenfranchisement and segregation. This volatility disenchanted many, causing Black socialists to leave and further contributing to the dissolution of the Socialist Party.
1930s–2000s: Unnamed influence on governmental policies & new era of capitalism
As socialism became unfavorable in the political landscape, political candidates and presidents took care to distance themselves from the concept. However, in the post-Great Depression 1930s, Americans desperately needed governmental assistance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program provided just that with the Social Security Act, union protection programs, emergency work relief programs, and agricultural programs. He also raised the income tax on the wealthiest to 75% to subsidize welfare programs. While the benefits of the New Deal were extremely unequally distributed along racial lines, it set a precedent of government intervention to provide social safety nets for citizens.
At the time, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore asked, “Isn’t [Social Security] socialism? Isn’t this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?” Despite many of these New Deal programs being clearly socialist in nature, Roosevelt vehemently denied these claims, instead reasoning that these programs were necessary in the face of increasing socioeconomic inequity. Following Roosevelt’s lead, his successor President Truman attempted to provide a national health insurance program, but failed due to accusations from the American Medical Association (AMA) that the program represented “socialized medicine.”
Anti-Socialist perceptions reached a fever pitch in the 1950s with the communist takeover of China, in the wake of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the crusade against communism by mandating surveillance on all Americans—from labor union leaders and civil rights activists, to suspected homosexuals—under the guise of protecting national security. In particular, Chinese Americans were targeted through programs like the Chinese Confession Program. While the program was technically created to identify illegal entry into the country, it was covertly utilized to identify potential Chinese Communist Party spies through whatever means possible. In reality, however, confessions amounted to a small number of the suspected illegal entries into the country, but this government move successfully sowed distrust and fear amongst the Chinese American community.
Throughout this era later known as McCarthyism, Chinese-owned businesses were vandalized and Chinese Americans feared a repeat of Japanese American internment. These anti-Asian sentiments were further stoked by the Korean War (1950–1953) and the Vietnam War (1955–1975), especially given China’s involvement and support of Vietnamese and North Korean communists. As a result of government efforts to vilify communism and related ideologies like socialism, these ideas became associated with foreign governments and therefore incompatible within U.S. politics.
U.S. corporations played a major role in accelerating anti-socialist and anti-communist sentiments. The Advertising Council, an organization created in 1942 with pro-corporation and business policies, created several campaigns that portrayed communism—and by association, socialism—as antithetical to American freedom during and after WWII. Campaigns such as the Freedom Train Campaign and The Miracle of America linked American superiority to its capitalist model, demonized the Soviet Union by associating communism with tyranny, and warned of other nations becoming “communist or fascist” if the U.S. did not export the capitalist model. Corporations such as General Electric and Standard Oil financially sponsored these programs.
The downfall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s further cemented Americans’ belief of capitalist supremacy. Media publications such as The New Yorker celebrated the event as a “triumph of capitalism.” Social philosopher Francis Fukuyama declared it “capitalism’s ultimate victory as the world’s only viable economic system” and the “victory of liberal democracy in the political sphere.” Despite the reality that the U.S. was undergoing a long period of economic stagnation due to rising economic inequality, the War on Drugs, and the deregulation and breaking of unions, overwhelmingly positive public perceptions of capitalism ushered in a new era of “turbo-capitalism.”
2000s to present day: The rise of democratic socialism and entrance into public discourse
The financial collapse in 2008–2009 and subsequent Great Recession revealed a dramatic disparity between the American ideals of capitalism and the belief that the U.S. inhabited an era of stability and economic prosperity. For many young Americans entering the workforce, the Great Recession proved a turning point in their rising disillusionment in capitalism. Over the years, state reductions in public education budgets combined with rising tuition rates for higher education forced many to take on expensive student loans. After graduation, however, these same young Americans faced significant difficulty in finding jobs amongst a competitive job market where wage growth had stagnated.
Today, the generational divide in perceptions toward socialism is noticeable. In a 2018 survey, 35% of respondents aged 18–29 found socialism favorable compared to only 25% of respondents aged 65+. (Whereas, 56% of respondents aged 65+ found socialism unfavorable compared to 40% of respondents aged 18-29.) Also in 2018, for the first time in Gallup’s history of surveying Americans about socialism, more Democrats had a positive image of socialism than they did of capitalism. However, while socialism has grown in public acceptance, a 2018 Hill.TV/HarrisX American Barometer poll found that only 24% of respondents would actually vote for a socialist candidate.
Democratic candidates are well-aware that underlying fears of socialism remain strong within politically moderate voters. Seeing the Republican Party utilizes the negative connotations around the term socialism to attract people to the Republican base (e.g., Senator Tim Scott said, “Democrats will turn our country into a socialist utopia”), many Democrats actively distance themselves from self-described socialists and socialist language within their own party. Despite supporting higher taxes and policies with socialist principles, President Biden responded to criticism with, “I beat the socialists. That's how I got elected. That's how I got the nomination. Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career, my whole career. I am not a socialist.”
Using Socialism to Stigmatize Social Welfare Programs
Socialist policies that focus on expanding social welfare have proven to be worthwhile and necessary for lessening systemic inequities: Social Security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and tax credits have all helped reduce poverty rates. Properly resourced public services such as fire stations and libraries are clearly needed by citizens, despite being criticized as “socialist programs.” (For example, the Bronx fires of the 1970s, which eventually led to the abandonment of 97% of buildings in some neighborhoods, were a result of budget cuts that dramatically reduced the number of fire companies, fire inspections, and available firefighting stations in the borough.)
However, these social welfare programs cost money. Paying for the needed resources to keep them running often come in the form of taxes on individuals and corporations. As a result, the wealthy and private enterprises have a vested interest in resisting new public safety nets. A 2011 study found that the top 1% of wealth-holders were mostly in favor of cutting spending on welfare programs that almost 20% of Americans rely on. While 68% of the polled American public believed that the federal government should ensure no full-time worker would fall below the federal poverty line, only 19% of these high net-worth individuals voted in favor of regulations to enable this. Across the board, the extremely wealthy were less likely to believe the government had an essential role in regulating market conditions (e.g., minimum wage, job programs, childcare policies).
Socialism was, and is still, weaponized by politicians and the wealthy to undermine the need of social services, as well as rationalize surveillance on marginalized groups that are seen as a threat to existing power structures.
The rejection of socialism in the U.S. was first prompted by Cold War tensions and the fear of communism, but the continued extremism in discourse has been the result of politicians and corporations vilifying the term for their own gain.
These wealthy individuals and corporations have found a myriad of ways to rationalize their backing of pro-corporate, anti-welfare policies. One such way is supporting trickle-down economics, or the idea that tax savings to the wealthy will eventually trickle down to benefit workers in the form of increased wages and decreased unemployment. This has repeatedly proven to not work. For example, Trump’s Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017, which cut taxes for businesses and wealthy individuals, managed to consolidate more wealth in the top echelons of society but did little to stimulate the economy.
To successfully persuade the (more numerous) swaths of Americans to buy into pro-corporate policies, the wealthy have readily used the anxiety and fear around socialism to stigmatize social services. Even though not all government aid is necessarily socialist in nature, associating social services at large with socialism rationalized the rejection of these programs. For example, the 2007 proposal by the Bush administration to expand the federally sponsored Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), intended to help those unable to afford private insurance, was described as “a ‘trap,’ a slide toward a socialist healthcare system.”
A related method is to attack ‘socialist’ welfare policies as depriving tax-paying citizens of the public budget in order to provide resources for “freeloaders.” Racist tropes like the ‘welfare queen’ have been in use since the Reagan era to depict those using social services as lazy and unwilling to work, while ignoring the fact that historic injustices like slavery and policy that systemically perpetuates poverty are what created such widespread need for aid. Even today, these stereotypes influence decisions around access to social services. For example, recent congressional proposals asked to remove eligibility for services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid if recipients did not have full-time work or could not produce a negative drug test.
It’s important to note that this behavior isn’t solely confined to Republicans. Democrats have also enacted neoliberal policies reducing government intervention in the market as a means to encourage more economic growth. For example, the Affordable Care Act was enacted on the belief that a private marketplace should provide healthcare to individuals based on principles of competition that lead to lower premiums and greater efficiency, rather than positioning healthcare as a fundamental human right.
Using Socialism to Limit Equality for Marginalized Groups
The idea of socialism has long been used as a political tool to isolate and alienate individuals and groups who were deemed threats to those in power. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, anti-Communist sentiments were used as a pretense to deny non-white individuals and immigrants of governmental support, and justify limitations on their ability to participate in government. At the time, white Americans felt increasingly threatened by newly freed Black Americans and recent immigrants entering the job market—especially as many were organizing for better wages and working conditions on par with their white counterparts. In response, politicians such as President Andrew Johnson deliberately vetoed certain policies, such as expanding the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide land and education to impoverished Black and white Southerners.
The political messaging of the Reconstruction Era attached the concept of reparations and wealth redistribution to the image of unfair allocation to ‘undeserving’ communities of Black people, immigrants, and the urban working class. For politicians who feared a powerful, educated, and multiracial working class coalition, this racist fiction provided a convenient divide-and-conquer strategy to pit marginalized groups against one another. Newspaper articles furthered this sentiment by drawing parallels between immigrant workers and French Communists who wished to redistribute the hard-earned wealth of white families to themselves. A century later, the political campaigns of 1980s welfare benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps, were still associated with a “socialist welfare state.”
The racism, xenophobia, and corresponding fear of socialism were also supported by legal policies at the time. In the 1875 case of Minor v. Happersett, the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. citizenship did not give individuals the right to vote. Although Minor v. Happersett has since been overturned by the Nineteenth Amendment (1920) and the voting rights reforms of the 1960s, unequal access to voting rights can still be seen to this day. For example, felony disenfranchisement, where prisoners are not allowed to vote but still are counted towards a state’s population for electoral college votes, continues to be a major issue.
The fear of socialism has also been continually used to justify surveillance of groups deemed threats to the U.S. The 1940 Alien Registration Act, known as the Smith Act, criminalized any advocacy towards the violent overthrow of the U.S. government or participation in any group working towards that goal. First put into action in 1941 against the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, who received jail sentences for advocating for labor strikes, it was eventually used against leaders of the American Communist Party in 1948 (as well as anyone suspected of being sympathetic to communism) claiming they were “part of a conspiracy to advance a political ideology whose eventual goal was the destruction of the U.S. government.”
McCarthyism during the 1950s (read The Evolution of Socialism in the U.S. section for additional detail) also contributed to widespread acceptance of mass surveillance and political repression under the guise of protecting American values. As former Supreme Court Justice William Douglas described,
This era created "black silence of fear, narrowing the spectrum of acceptable ideas, while demonizing left-wing dissent."
The legacy of the U.S. government to stifle dissent and opposition to “American values'' is no relic of the past. After 9/11, the Patriot Act allowed the government to spy on residents—often foreign nationals—deemed “suspicious.” Despite the fact that most of these people were eventually found to be innocent, it solidified the idea of immigrants as perpetual foreigners that harbor anti-American values.
While the rhetoric surrounding post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts emphasize religious extremism, versus the political extremism feared under the McCarthy Era or the pro-segregation ideas of Reconstruction, the eagerness to reduce Americans’ civil liberties remains a constant. Social policies that support marginalized communities are regularly vilified as un-American, or even detrimental to society as a whole, while hyper-surveillance of marginalized groups are justified as a necessary aspect of protecting “American people” (or at least, a privileged segment of American people).
This section outlines the current state of socialist policies in the U.S., as well as examples of programs abroad that have expanded social services for its citizens through state-run programs and using state-owned means of production.
Socialist Policies in the U.S.
Democratic Socialists like Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) are championing more socialist-minded policies, including universal healthcare, tuition-free higher education, guaranteed minimum living wage, and democratically elected boards overseeing these initiatives. Some of these policies are currently only blueprints to more equitable economic and social growth; as more concrete details are shared around these policies, we encourage everyone to take a critical eye in analyzing these policies (read the next section How Do We Encourage Change? for additional details).
The oft-cited model for modern-day socialism is the Nordic model. Some of its key aspects include state-owned natural resources (Norway), and more government over essential services such as education and healthcare (Sweden).
The future of socialism in the U.S. remains uncertain, but there are three major bills (Medicare For All, Green New Deal, THRIVE Act) that incorporate aspects of socialism in its attempts towards political and socioeconomic change.
1. Medicare For All (Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act) proposes a universal healthcare system that eliminates private health insurance plans and is instead financed by federal taxes. Read more about it here: primer, bill summary, update on Medicare For All.
Healthcare is an extremely expensive and privatized industry in the U.S.: more than 30 million people are uninsured, and healthcare outcomes in the U.S. are worse than many comparable European countries on measures such as life expectancy and infant mortality. The idea behind Medicare For All is to shift power and control away from large, profit-driven corporations, and into the hands of a state-run system where individuals’ welfare can be prioritized. However, long-standing problems with the state-run Veterans Association and existing Medicaid have contributed to cynicism around this policy providing quality, timely, services.
2. The Green New Deal (GND) is a 10-year effort with three core principles at its heart including “decarbonization, jobs, and justice.” The GND has outlined its mission in the form of high-level goals to address climate change, economic inequality, and racial injustice by striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also creating new economic opportunities for communities reliant on the fossil fuel industry. Read more about it here: primer, bill summary, AOC’s perspective on the Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal seeks to return power to individuals by providing education, access to clean air, water, and a guaranteed job to everybody in the U.S. “where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies.” The GND also emphasizes the prioritization of individuals’ welfare through increased government oversight across many environmental and social issues that have long been dominated by the interests of profit-driven individuals and corporations. GND also calls for the use of “democratic and participatory processes” during the planning and implementation stages, to elevate the needs of community members who have been most severely impacted by environmental and social inequities.
3. The THRIVE (Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy) Act “offers a blueprint for economic renewal backed by a movement of movements, including unions, racial justice, climate, and other grassroots groups.” Read more about it here: primer, bill summary, context behind the THRIVE Act.
Similar to the GND, THRIVE aims to give ownership and power to those most impacted in order to address issues such as the climate crisis, economic insecurity, and systemic racism on the community’s terms. THRIVE specifically calls for the creation of an oversight committee composed of individuals at the forefront of fighting systemic inequity to oversee the investment of $1 trillion per year in federal funds to build a more just society. THRIVE also seeks to expand funding of public resources such as in public education and the public healthcare system, while also preventing the privatization of natural resources.
Americans are no stranger to socialist practices, even if they are not defined as such. In addition to programs like Social Security and the existing Medicaid, community health centers established in the 1960s are continued evidence of the success of community-organized health centers. Based on South Africa’s model of community health care, these federally funded and community-run health centers provide affordable healthcare to 27 million Americans in the most impoverished urban and rural communities. These centers have also empowered community members to oversee their own healthcare services by participating in governing boards that establish and direct care.
As the current generation begins to shift public perception of what it means to be a socialist in our country today, the U.S. has an opportunity to reject the stigmatization of social services or state-run agencies to implement new policies that support and uplift U.S. citizens. Some notable examples from around the world include:
Sweden uses public funding to offer its citizens subsidized universal healthcare (under a single payer model) and subsidized elder care, as well as free education (for those aged six and up). A mix of public organizations and private businesses provide the actual services, while each municipality is responsible for funding and regulating these programs (e.g., enforcing clinic hours). This offers citizens the power to choose a preferred provider, whether a school or doctor, while fostering competition within the private sector.
These services and programs are mainly funded through taxes; citizens typically pay half or more of their income into federal taxes. Since so many dollars are allocated through a central government, many have also criticized the sustainability of the ‘Swedish model’ given the natural inefficiencies and high cost. It is precisely the high levels of income tax required to create and maintain these programs that serve as a major deterrent for U.S. politicians to propose similar ideas.
Norway, with its state-owned production of oil and natural gas, is another Nordic country with a significant welfare state. Norway first began producing oil in the 1970s and created a sovereign wealth fund in the 1990s to manage revenue from production. (It is currently the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world with 1.3 trillion dollars in reserve.) The government holds a major stake in its oil production to provide residents a safety net from the volatility of energy prices, and profits are reinvested. In 2016, the Norwegian government made its first ever withdrawal of $780 million to provide welfare services during an economic downturn.
While Norway can be lauded for its state-owned-and-run entity for oil and natural gas production, it also presents a certain paradox: “Norway wants to be at the forefront of international efforts to address climate change, yet it continues to rely on heavily polluting fossil fuel extraction for continued economic prosperity.” (Vox)
The literacy programs or ‘National Literacy Crusade’ is an example of a successful state-sanctioned education program overseen by a separate governing board. To combat high illiteracy rates, Nicaragua first launched its free literacy program in 1980 under the Sandinista government; it was run by a governing body of 18 different organizations, including various workers’ and teachers’ associations. In addition to governmental financial support through international aid organizations, nearly 200,000 Nicaraguans volunteered to teach reading and writing to rural peasants. An estimated 600,000 Nicaraguans emerged literate—effectively reducing the overall illiteracy rate from 50% to 13%.
While this program has offered Nicaraguans an objective benefit, the heavy political motivations behind this program must be acknowledged. At the time of the literacy program, the Sandinista government was striving to overthrow the Somoza dynasty by uniting the “Nicaraguan workers and peasants to destroy the present system of capitalist exploitation and oppression.” The Sandinista government believed the literacy program would not only reduce illiteracy, but also unite the rural residents of Nicaragua in support of the revolution.
How Do We Encourage Change?
Fruitful and serious conversations about how socialism can happen in the U.S. first require a better understanding of the term and its historical context. Currently, the term socialism is used to oppose certain policies and politicians without a full understanding as to why socialism is now seen as antithetical to U.S. values. Professor John McWhorter has even suggested retiring the term due to its lack of consensus amongst the American public:
"Debates about the use of the democratic-socialist label are a losing enterprise for everyone involved, because the American public doesn’t have a shared understanding of what socialism signifies ... some words are too weighted with history, ambiguity, and disparaging associations to be a part of effective political communication. By using them, politicians, political commentators, and voters are consigning themselves to an unnecessary battle to clarify and defend their positions.”
Professor McWhorter instead suggests focusing our time on measures that can be taken towards enabling equity and democratic representation, and in doing so, work towards a democratic socialist society even if the term is not explicitly used. Below are some suggestions of ways we can collectively work towards a more equitable society:
1. Consider these questions as you evaluate the efficacy and impact of the various policies and programs being proposed in U.S. government:
Power: Does this disrupt existing power dynamics by redistributing power to people who historically haven’t had access to power, or further consolidate power in the hands of those who already have it without any change in democratic representation?
Market: Does this process or system rely on market forces (e.g., free market, private entities, competition) to self-regulate, or does it necessitate government intervention?
Democratic ownership: Are individuals and/or their democratically elected representatives involved in the strategy, design, and implementation of this process? How do we ensure and evaluate the democratic nature of the election process?
Equality: Does this fundamentally support the notion that everyone is worthy of living a “flourishing life” and deserves equal access to opportunities?
2. Overhaul our election process to work towards a more democratic society, representative of ordinary people and their needs. The Brennan Center for Justice suggests dramatically changing how campaign donations are handled, including defining a donation threshold and advocating for transparency in donations. When policies that reform the election process come up on the ballot, make sure to learn about them and vote!
3. Support and uplift social service programs and policies, even if they do not directly benefit you. Recognize that social services often provide a safety net for individuals who have long been marginalized, and work to destigmatize receiving governmental aid in your circles of influence. This can begin as simply as educating others on the histories of injustice in the U.S., as well as how political posturing has come to position social services in such a negative light.
4. Mobilize within your community. Mutual aid is a form of collective effort or “building socialism from the bottom up” through the creation of democratic systems that collect and distribute communal resources. While the onus of changing capitalist systems should not fall on mutual aid efforts, the power of community organizing has had, and continues to have, a significant impact in the U.S. As Professor Dean Spade summarizes in his book, Mutual Aid:
Mutual aid is only one tactic in the social movement ecosystem. It operates alongside direct action, political education, and many other tactics. But it is the one that most successfully helps us grow our movements and build our people power, because it brings people into coordinated action to change things right now.
4. Continue to learn about socialist theory, socialist movements, and question the status quo, even amongst existing democratic socialists. Some questions that arose while writing this paper include:
How do we reconcile private land ownership, socialism’s call for governmental control and distribution of natural resources, and Indigenous activists’ call for land repatriation?
How should a country’s geopolitical actions (e.g., history of colonialism and imperialism) inform our understanding of them as effectively socialist today (e.g., Sweden, Norway)?
How do we evaluate the environmental impacts of countries like Norway that rely on extractive commodities (e.g., oil) to fund and sustain its welfare services?
How do we reconcile the U.S.’s fear of socialism with its history of tense relationships and implicitly biased coverage of countries like China or the U.S.S.R? (A recent example: the varying coverage of Xinjiang.)
How can we redefine ‘welfare’ and ‘welfare state’ to include other aspects of equality/equity (e.g., bodily integrity or bodily citizenship)? How can an updated definition of welfare then address systemic inequities for different marginalized groups?
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