I am not a socialist. I may be a Democratic Socialist, but I’m still figuring that stuff out. The Great Liberal Humbling of November 2016 forced us all to be a lot more introspective about what we wanted out of politics—or it should have, anyway. I used to be a capitalist, but after doing sales for nearly a decade (one of my go-to lines, and one I actually believed, was that sales guys are the foot soldiers of capitalism), I lost faith in the system.
But throughout my shifting politics in 31 years, I have maintained a few ideological tentpoles. Nobody should go without healthcare, for one. Nobody should go hungry. Everyone should have a roof over his or her head. Everyone should get education free of charge.
The very simple reason why this non-socialist is joining the Democratic Socialists of America is that I believe that they have a better chance at accomplishing those goals than the Democratic Party presently does. It’s really that simple.
What follows is the story of how I fell out of love with capitalism, and why I’m supporting the DSA in their bid to reshape the Democratic Party.
To most of its proponents, capitalism usually means whatever they want it to mean, ie; “The free market,” “Liberty,” etc. We have vacated reality for propaganda. The first half of this tweet is how most people frame capitalism:
That's not capitalism. Capitalism is private ownership controlling the means of production for the express purpose of profit. Having stuff people want and exchanging it for a reasonable fee is supply and demand—which has existed at least since the barter economy (a farmer giving a chicken to a doctor in exchange for medical care is about as pure an expression of supply and demand as it gets). I agree with the never-gonna-be-a-congressman that supply and demand—not capitalism—is what we should devote our economic might toward. Supply and demand has always been an economic expression of humanity's free will.
However, if you take capitalism to its logical end, it's oligarchy. The presence of American anti-trust laws (that we refuse to enforce anymore) is an indictment against the theoretical model of capitalism. Without them, capitalism would go off the rails. This disproves the assertion that it is the best, most efficient system to create broad prosperity—the truth is that an entire federal bureaucracy is required to keep the “free market” broadly prosperous.
People like Brakey, in the tweet above, are using a very old trick—they're trying to disguise ideology as fact. The evangelists assert that the awesome, elemental power of supply and demand is one and the same as capitalism. It's not.
Capitalism is a series of contradictions between in-theory and in-practice. In theory, private property is a wondrous invention. Most governments throughout history have had an authoritarian lean (at best), so the concept of individual citizens being able to buy plots of land to call their own is an egalitarian promise…in theory. In practice, property becomes expensive (thanks to its fixed supply and infinite demand), and so the vast majority of it is eventually owned by large conglomerates which are less accountable to the public than the British Monarchy was. There are near-infinite examples like this where capitalism in practice repudiates capitalism in theory, but during my near-decade doing sales, I learned that you don't convince people with logic. You convince them with stories.
I sold merchant accounts. For the uninitiated to this seemingly intentionally opaque term: a business needs a merchant account to accept any kind of card. You cannot just buy a credit card machine, hook it up to your bank account and get your business rolling. Capitalism is not that efficient.
You must call up a place with a vague name like [Assertive Adjective] Merchant Services, talk to some person likely fresh out of college working on commission, and walk through a labyrinth of fees created by the banks that even your salesperson doesn't fully understand. Even debit cards have fees, and that's as close to cash as our plastic economy gets. Credit cards have an array of charges that you may or may not be told about depending on who picks up the phone on the other end (you can't just outright lie to people, but merchant services is a sparsely regulated industry, so omitting the truth isn't exactly the same thing as lying).
Everyone that you talk to in merchant services—I repeat, everyone—is hiding key fees if they're reading from the prepared script. There are basically two kinds of credit cards: rewards cards and cards without rewards. Rewards cards cost businesses more to process. It's not the banks who are paying for your bonus miles to Tahiti, but the businesses who accepted your card (this is why so many places don't accept American Express—they have the highest fees).
Salespeople in merchant services simply aren't required to tell you about the MID-QUALIFIED AND NON-QUALIFIED RATES unless you ask (sorry to go all-caps, but I want business owners to brand those two terms onto their brains, so they don't get swindled the next time they call up a company in this miserable industry). Not to mention the fact that single processors own multiple sales outlets, creating the false impression of choice for consumers.
This is the center of the economy, folks, and it's rotten to the core. Nearly every single business depends on accepting cards, and the banks are scraping around 3% off the top before it hits any “job creator's” account. This insane bureaucracy (kleptocracy) is what capitalism hath wrought. We have replaced the bureaucracy of government with the ultra-complexity of rule by fiat currency. We live in a world where the rights of shareholders supersede that of citizens—which is the logical conclusion of capitalism.
Single payer healthcare is a topic I have lately come to accept as just and necessary. I used to think that with enough regulation, you could properly incentivize the market not to turn sick people into money trees, but given the undeniable evidence of the moral abomination that is the American healthcare system, I have accepted that is a foolish premise. We need government-run health care. End of story.
I came of age politically as a junior in high school, opposed to the United States invasion of Iraq. I began watching The Daily Show shortly after 9/11, and quickly ate up as much political content as I could, including The West Wing. Yes, I used to be one of those center-left neoliberal Sorkinists who believed in the wisdom of the market and working with reasonable Republicans in a bid to capture the elusive undecided voter. However, because I try to let reality direct my political choices more than ideology (none of us are completely immune to ideology, hence why I say “try”), it quickly became impossible to believe that modern Republicans were worth working with. I began moving left over the Obama years.
Radicalization is a word that is really only used in the United States when speaking about Muslims, but that is the exact term that I would use to describe myself and all of my fellow millennials. We were radicalized by the 2008 financial crisis. The financial system revealed its true colors, and nearly brought us to the brink of collapse. I still have a faint belief in capitalism in theory (hence my interest in cryptocurrency's long-term potential to create decentralized capitalism by code), but capitalism by law has become impossible to defend in practice, which has forced me to scrutinize its theoretical underpinnings far more than I did when I was studying this stuff as a political science major in college.
First off, capitalism hasn't been around that long. We act like it's the only economic truth the world has ever known, but capitalism has existed for roughly 10% of the 5,000 years of recorded human history. Secondly, and most importantly, capitalism broadly rose in tandem with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Capitalism simply could not exist in its present iteration without slave labor.
The United States of America was built on the graves of Native Americans and on the backs of slaves from Africa. That fact is indisputable, and our failure to reckon with those horrible truths of our inception informs our present malaise. Any society which deems itself civilized should want to move away from colonialist traditions, yet free-market radicalism wants to bust down the barriers and let the new colonialists roam free yet again. Deregulation almost always benefits massive businesses to the detriment of smaller ones, and if you believe otherwise, you haven't paid enough attention to the oligarchic effects of Republican governance in the 21st century.
America was built on a contradiction. Our founding fathers asserted that all men were created equal, yet it was still legal for one man to own another. They had a lot of great ideas—like the 4th Amendment (by far the most underrated Amendment)—but they weren't perfect. We treat them like demigods because we can't/don't want to envision a society different from the one to which we have become inured. Our founding fathers were supposedly ideologically flawless, therefore we have no structural issues that must be addressed—so our origin story goes.
Our founders made mistakes. They knew they made mistakes. That's why they gave us the 10th Amendment, which was their way of saying “we know we missed some stuff/have to plan for the future, so the states can figure all that out.”
It's high time that we start questioning some aspects of the founding fathers' vision, along with many notions of the late 20th century order (deregulation as an ideology didn't really begin in earnest until the late 1970s)—and there's only one political group with a member in congress* undertaking this broad responsibility.
*Technically she's not in congress yet, but thanks to her blue district, the only way Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won't be a part of our next legislative session is if she gets hit by a meteor between now and November.
Despite the characterization of socialism as “radical,” it's nothing new to this country. What do you think Social Security is? It practically has socialism in its name!
Or what about the rest of the New Deal? It was implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt—universally regarded as one of America's greatest presidents (despite the fact that he put over 100,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps)—as he enacted an aggressive government plan to kick-start the sputtering economy in 1933. World War II makes it difficult to gauge how effective it was long-term—as the war served as something of a massive economic stimulus plan—but programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority were indisputably successful in rehabilitating economically distressed areas.
Sorry to be so loud and abrupt, but I need to address what is seemingly the only conservative critique against socialism before the noise in my head gets too loud. There's a simple rule of American politics: if you hate socialism, Venezuela is the only socialist country in existence. If you like socialism, Norway is your answer to most questions.
Nearly every conservative in existence seems to be an expert on the disaster in Venezuela. Yeah, it's bad, and the country was theoretically socialist—HOWEVER—Hugo Chavez was given the ability to rule by decree every year between 2000 and 2012, save for 2009. Nicolas Maduro has been ruling by decree since he came into office in 2013. If conservatives want to go down the road of asserting that a “socialist” country unilaterally ruled by a cult of personality is actually emblematic of broader socialism, then I have some bad news for conservatives about the massive capitalist influx into 1990s Russia, and where that all stands today. Not every country perfectly executes its stated political ideology, because oligarchy has been a fact of human life as long as there has been human life.
The central fissure in the Democratic Party is old versus new. Bill Clinton is not remembered as warmly as most baby boomers believe.
One example why: he signed the 1994 crime bill, which is one of the main reasons for the existence of the the inherently evil concept of the “private prison.” The war on drugs had already begun the process of mass incarceration, and the Corrections Corporation of America became the first private operator of a state prison in 1984, but the 1994 crime bill put that entire effort—a re-branded Jim Crow, essentially—on steroids. This is the legacy of Bill Clinton.
Here's another: just before he left office, Clinton removed the Glass-Steagall firewall between investment banks and FDIC-insured banks—which was one of the first smart things we did in the wake of the Great Depression.
One more: if not for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton may have privatized Social Security.
Last one, I promise: In 1992, he also compared a female rapper to David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the KKK (and was hailed as a political genius for doing so—you may have heard of Clinton's “Sista Souljah Moment”—that's it).
Simply put: Bill Clinton was not a governing liberal, and his legacy should not be held up as an example of Democratic policies going forward.
I've always been partial to the Democrats of the 1960s and 1930s-1940s. Medicare and Social Security are overwhelming accomplishments in democratic governance, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a rare act of moral fortitude for a country built on the foundation of white supremacy. From a policy standpoint, Bill Clinton is far closer to modern Republicans than Lyndon Johnson's Great Society Democrats.
The problem with the Democratic Party is that it forgot its own identity. In the process, they enabled the highest reaches of the DNC and DCCC to be co-opted by the same big industry which owns the other party in America. The Democrats used to be the champion of the little guy, but neoliberalism, by definition, does not give one scintilla of a fuck about the little guy. Neoliberalism is about giving the world away to unelected technocrats who helped tank the economy in 2008.
This is a question which is only ever asked of liberal solutions, and the perpetually disproved “tax cuts pay for themselves” GOP nonsense is accepted without any serious challenge. That said, I'll engage with this bad faith argument about how we may struggle to pay for stuff like universal health care with our $19 TRILLION PER YEAR ECONOMY (China's the 2nd largest in the world at $14 trillion).
What if I told you that the American military pays for a plane that is completely unreliable, seems to be specifically designed to kill its pilots, and costs over $400 billion (not including the $1.1 trillion it will cost to keep it running until 2070)?
Well my friends, such a beast exists, and it's thanks to the military-industrial complex. Congress wants the F-35 more than the military does. We could wipe out nearly half of all student loan debt by just killing the F-35 and redistributing Lockheed Martin's funds to debtors across the country. And that's just one military boondoggle! I'm all for carrying a far bigger stick than everyone else so as to act as a deterrent to war, but America's military budget has become truly grotesque. A lot of the answers to “how will you pay for it?” (a question that quite literally is never asked when it's a military expenditure), can be found collecting dust in the Department of Defense.
Hell, the Pentagon basically trips over $125 billion in waste per year. So don't ask me where the money to help our must vulnerable is coming from. There's plenty of money available, and that's before you get to the fact that government is really just one big accounting spreadsheet—AND we have the global reserve currency.
Our national debt is mostly owed to our future selves. It is not the terrifying monolith that conservatives have depicted. It's (partially) fungible because it intersects with so many other areas of policy (this is where I break from most socialists and assert that the national debt is also not something that we can completely dismiss, as our current interest payment on the debt is $310 billion, and the 47% owned by foreigners is nothing to sneeze at).
In short, we already create money out of thin air, and the world has no choice but to accept it—all I'm arguing is that we should create that money in order to help people beyond a small cabal of bankers.
The central problem with conservative ideology is that it inherently espouses austerity, which is a bankrupt economic ideology centered around the notion that the best way to win a footrace is to cut off one of your legs in order to become more aerodynamic. Conservatism preaches this idea that in order to create revenue, you must cut costs, but this is completely betrayed by the rules of capitalism itself! As the phrase goes, “you have to spend money to make money.”
“Socialism” became a boogeyman over the course of the Cold War, as Joseph McCarthy and the like pounded a Soviet caricature into the heads of a generation of Americans. After the Cold War, capitalism became the boogeyman, thanks to its hellish effects on the ever-shrinking middle class. Americans like to think that we won the Cold War, but it sure looks like no one won. Capitalism just took longer to devour itself than communism did.
Reality has forced me to retreat to the hinterlands of cryptocurrency when it comes to espousing a broadly successful capitalist model, and I am willing to admit that perhaps my entire economic basis is completely unfounded, and I have simply been poisoned by capitalist propaganda. In fact, after looking over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's platform, I realized I already supported most of these policies before my most recent shift left.
Socialism has won before in America. And it can win again. If you're a socialist in need of inspiration, just compare Ocasio-Cortez's agenda to the school that LeBron James just opened up in his hometown to near-universal acclaim.
I always believed that capitalism could evolve from its slave-trade roots, and with enough government regulation/investment in the social safety net, we could create a Goldilocks-like balance to indulge mankind's inherent greed in order to create shared prosperity. But look around, folks: there is no shared prosperity these days. Not in capitalist America.
The Great Recession was a gigantic wealth transfer during which much of the middle class descended into the lower class, while the richest among us had their losses repaid—and then some. Wages have been stagnant for nearly a half-century—despite productivity continuing at a steady pace. I have far more faith in DSA to attack the indefensible stagnation of American wages than senior Democratic leadership like Chuck “it’s OK to not fight Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointments” Schumer. The Democrats have done a lot of good, introspective work since the worst election loss in human history, but plenty of the Democratic elite are frankly feckless, and they’re holding the party back. People like Chuck Schumer and Mark Warner must be replaced in congress by actual liberals who won’t sell the country out to Wall Street (or confirm confirmed torturers to run the CIA).
I also believe that joining DSA makes sense purely as a negotiation tactic. I have almost always been to the left of the Democratic Party (I say “almost” because I had an ugly affair with Libertarianism in my younger days), largely because America has shifted rightward for the entire duration of my 31 years on Earth. The mere presence of DSA in our national political conversation shifts the Overton Window (what is deemed politically palatable) to the left. That is an unequivocally good thing. America is a rich country. We are not Greece. We can afford a large social safety net with (again, for the folks in the back) OUR $19 TRILLION PER YEAR ECONOMY.
In my other longread on this topic, I concluded that if my choices were pure socialism or what we presently experience as capitalism, I’d take my chances with socialism. I’m going one step further here: socialist reforms like single payer healthcare and rolling back the expansive colonialist state are not just good ideas, but necessary ones in order to pull America out of its capitalist-induced tailspin and make good on (some of) the promises of our founding documents.
I don’t know if I’m a true Democratic Socialist yet, but I believe in aggressively helping the neediest among us and removing the white nationalist infrastructures which arose in tandem with America’s version of capitalism. If that makes me a “socialist” through America’s distorted political lens, so be it. The Democratic Socialists of America are the only ones I see with both the ability to gain a serious foothold in the federal government and empower groups who have always fought the good fight at the grassroots level. I feel a duty to help do what I can to elevate them within the Democratic Party. DSA’s presence at the highest echelons of our government can only help the Democrats reclaim the soul they sold away to Republican donors during the Clinton years.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.