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Defining Democratic Socialism

Originally published at http://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/06/13/defining-democratic-socialism

This sequence ends in lasting democracy. The first explains how organization leads to oligarchy. The second explains why the many are smarter than the few. The third gives us a way to prevent oligarchy democratically while avoiding hierarchy.

Iron law of oligarchy - Wikipedia


The "iron law of oligarchy " states that all forms of organization , regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies, thus making true democracy practically and theoretically impossible, especially in large groups and complex organizations.

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations ,

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Citing reassuring platitudes about the compassion of socialism mean very little when it comes to understanding what capitalism is and how different socialism must be from it to offer substantial fundamental change.

Capitalism is a economic system based upon class ownership. Socialism is a class-free society based upon common ownership. And never can the twain meet. That has been the aspiration of the liberal progressives and has resulted in the re-defining and distortion of what socialism is. For them ‘socialism’ means a series of reforms to make American society fairer and more democratic—more like what exists in West European countries and especially Scandinavia. They want the capitalists who own the means of life—the land and other productive wealth—to pay more taxes. The want more effective government regulation of their business activity. But they seldom talk about the need to replace capitalism with a fundamentally different economic system, just varying degrees of smoothing the rough edges off the present one.

We can use different words to call socialism and we have done so in the past. “Cooperative commonwealth”. “Industrial democracy”.

If socialism had to be summed up in a phrase we could say that it is the conscious social control of all aspects of life, including the production and distribution of wealth.

Marx spoke of real history only beginning with socialism, by which he meant that humans had until then been the victims of natural scarcity (low productivity imposing hard labor and material shortage on the bulk of the population) and under capitalism, of blind economic forces beyond their control; pre-history would end with the end of capitalism as the establishment of socialism would precisely put social life under conscious human control; in socialism, people would be carrying out their own desires and decisions.

Before the Left start differentiating between socialism and communism, nowhere did Marx distinguish between “socialist society” and “communist society”. As far as he was concerned, these two words meant the same, being alternative names for the society they thought the working class would establish in place of capitalism. As a matter of fact besides communist Marx employed four other words to describe future society, “associated”, “socialized”, “collective” and “co-operative”. All these words contrast with capitalist society where not only the ownership and control of production but every-day life generally is private, isolated and atomized.

The word Marx used almost as frequently as “communist” was “association”. Marx wrote of future society as “an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism” and as “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. In Volume III of Capital Marx writes three or four times of production in future society being controlled by the “associated producers” . Association was a word used in working class circles in England to mean a voluntary union of workers to overcome the effects of competition. This was Marx’s sense too: in future society the producers would voluntarily co-operate to further their own common interest; they would cease to be “the working class” and become a class-free community.

The State as an instrument of political rule over people would have no place in socialism. In Marx’s view, a State is only needed in class-divided societies as an instrument of class rule. As he put it, in socialist society “there will be no more political power properly so-called since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society” and “the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another” .

Socialist society would indeed need a central administration but this would not be a “State” or “government” in that it would not have at its disposal any means of coercing people, but would be concerned purely with administering social affairs under democratic control. Marx endorsed the proposal of Saint Simon and other early critics of capitalism for “the conversion of the functions of the State into a mere superintendence of production” , and also declared that “freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it” . In other words, once socialism had been established and classes abolished, the coercive and undemocratic features of the State machine would have been removed, leaving only purely administrative functions mainly in the field of the planning and organization of production.

I hope this serves as a clarification on what, for at least the Marxist, socialism means.

I think the writer scratches the surface, but in one fundamental way is less out front than Sanders was in his speech on this topic.

Sanders says his mission is to organize working people so that they see their interests are being negated by the oligarchs.

This writer almost hints at that. But it is a core issue and needs to be clearly stated, the issue of class struggle.

“Democratic” socialism, like any form of socialism, is socialism. And socialism can never, ever, ever, ever work in a heterogeneous society. Ever. Especially those with populations over, say, 10 million.

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I saw several statements in the article that I believe to be untrue, am skeptical of, question or dispute. They are thickest where the author Curt Ries is describing his second point of Democratic Socialist thought.

Ries: “Our capitalist economy is fundamentally organized around the profit motive, which means that private companies must continually grow their profits to avoid being driven out of business by competitors or from facing a revolt from their shareholders.”
– That is a serious misstatement of the situation. Our society is organized around a value motive, things get better. ‘Profit’ is often used as a synonym for value. Not always appropriately.
– Companies are not required to ‘grow their profits’. But they are required to become more productive, better providing value to the customer. The contrary example to Ries’ statement is Starbucks coffee, which persuaded many consumers that they provide a better product that is worth a higher price. Companies that do not improve and provide better value to their customers, such as Sears or Montgomery Ward or Circuit City, will lose business, revenue and profit to competitors who do provide better value to customers. The end consequence is going out of business. No loss to the consumer, since the business has already been replaced with some company that is better.

Ries: “… everyone’s basic needs are met, since what is best for generating private profits will often—if not usually—be at odds with ensuring public wellbeing.”

Ries gets an important part of this wrong. Business’ make more profits by pleasing and providing better value to the customer. His complaint therefore is against the mass of those customers and the externalities that they cause on society as a whole, which he then shifts to the manufacturer who made those products.

An example of the absurdity comes from an analysis of policy during the Obama administration. Obama’s govt. wanted consumers to buy American cars, to protect and provide well-paid jobs to UAW members, and then they wanted the public to park those cars and walk or take public transit instead: no climate change tailpipe gases and no consumption of gas, in order to please their environmental special interest and reduce US trade deficit and dependency on foreign oil.

Ries: “Democratic socialism therefore insists that we must divorce distribution [of basic human needs] from the profit motive by transferring their administration to the far more (though far from ideally) democratic and accountable institution of the state.”
– Just how much can we trust the state? Particularly right now during the Trump administration? Ries would have been on better ground saying that we must transfer responsibility for distributing those needs to society as a whole, rather than to any level, local state national or UN, of government.

Putting it to society as a whole doesn’t free us from a risk identified by Leon Trotsky in 1905, that the state usurps authority from the people, the party from the state, the central committee from the party, the politburo from the central committee and a dictator from the politburo. As a recent example, look at how Hillary Clinton stole authority from the DNC, which had stolen authority to choose the Presidential candidate from the party as a whole. – Any article about Democratic Socialism needs at least a paragraph about protecting the people’s control of the process not just from big-money ‘oligarchs’, but also from ambitious grifters like the Clintons.

Ries: “… how to distribute the profits that they as workers are primarily responsible for generating.”
– Another example of Ries getting economics wrong. The profits are generated by workers, using tools. Often those tools are provided by the company. Simply compare the productivity of a retail cashier today, vs. the productivity of one using the tools of 70 or more years ago. Or your own productivity using a handheld calculator now vs. having to use pencil and paper 50 years ago.
– That stated, we get into the nasty calculation of how to divide the profit between the worker, and whoever provided the tools. How much of a cut is Microsoft entitled to?

Ries: “the political imperatives of democratic socialists are necessarily twofold. First, whenever possible, to decommodify basic human needs … This looks likes like all-out support for policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, tuition-free college, a federal jobs guarantee, social housing, paid family leave, and universal childcare and pre-K.”
– I am uneasy with his list. First, are things like ‘tuition-free college’ really a basic human need? There are many jobs that need doing, and pay or should pay well, that don’t require a college education. (And we are overlooking the failure of the state to provide a quality primary and secondary education…) Secondly, so many of these things are European Bismarckian welfare schemes, to pervert socialism and make the people dependent on the state. And they provide more opportunities to grifters to seek to capture the state and make money for themselves in ‘administering’ the welfare state. So many things should be organized by the people themselves and done at the lowest societal level possible.

I believe I could write more, but this is enough. We should take caution of the ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ (different meaning of oligarchy than usually seen here). I agree with sea_nettles, keep your eye on the socialists; there is a risk they will betray you.