Sen. Bernie Sanders’ public defense of socialism in the Oct. 13 Democratic presidential debate has kicked off America’s first major discussion of the idea in more than a generation. Columnists, talk show hosts and Donald Trump have all joined in. Most of the discussion, however, has been wildly misleading, and almost all of it has bypassed some of the most interesting forms of a very American and practical form of socialism emerging throughout the United States.
Sanders was clear about what he meant by socialism, pointing to Denmark as a positive example. But Denmark is a capitalist nation with a record of welcoming and supporting private business investment. The word “socialism” is used there — as it is in many European countries — to describe a strong welfare state that includes comprehensive health care, a solid safety net, generous retirement benefits, day care and many other programs that almost any American progressive would support.
The American term for this kind of system — capitalism with a strong welfare state — is, in fact, liberalism or, perhaps, when combined with very tough taxes on the rich and corporations, populism. Socialism, on the other hand, historically has gone far beyond progressive welfare state measures by asserting that a democratic society can be achieved only if it includes democratic ownership of the economy.
In many European countries, strong labor movements committed to socialism as strong liberalism have helped counterbalance the power of capital by supporting a stronger welfare state. However, this option has always been constrained in the U.S., where union membership has declined from 35.4 percent of the labor force at its peak in the early 1950s to a mere 11.1 percent today. Racism and other factors historically have weakened and divided the American labor movement and almost entirely prevented union organizing in the South.
In sector after sector, corporate lobbyists strongly influence political outcomes in connection with everything from health care to prison and poverty programs. Ownership is concentrated: The 400 richest Americans control more wealth than the poorest 186 million — and as modern election and lobbying studies all too regularly show, with that wealth comes political power.
The environmental implications of this power are particularly grave. Regulating the big oil companies to reduce global warming is even harder, politically, than regulating the banks. Large Wall Street–financed corporations must show consistent growth; in the case of the oil companies, unrestricted growth is increasingly understood as ecologically unsustainable.
Sanders’ comment during the debate that “Congress does not regulate Wall Street — Wall Street regulates Congress” speaks to this reality, but his hope that breaking up the big banks will solve the problem is fundamentally liberal. A traditional socialist would more likely argue that only by nationalizing the banks could their power truly be curbed.
These challenges point to the need for some form of social ownership not dependent on growth or on Wall Street. What traditional state socialists often did not understand — and what traditional conservatives and anarchists saw all too clearly — is that government ownership of corporations brings with it other problems, above all, excessive concentration of political power in the hands of the state. If liberalism has faltered since labor’s decline and if nationalized ownership of wealth would result in excessive state power, might there be any other progressive way?
A possible answer is quietly emerging in many parts of the country. Like traditional socialism, it involves changing and democratizing who owns productive wealth, but unlike traditional socialism, it does so in a radically decentralized, populist and very American form.
It hasn’t yet gotten much media attention, but approximately 130 million Americans are members of one form of cooperative or another — the classic one-person, one-vote form of ownership. More than 10 million men and women work for companies that they own in whole or in part. About 25 percent of electricity in the U.S. is supplied by cooperatives and municipally owned utilities. And the nearly century-old state-owned bank in conservative North Dakota has become a model of public ownership being explored in cities ranging from Philadelphia to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Mayors in many cities are supporting other new forms of cooperative development. In Cleveland, a highly sophisticated neighborhood- and worker-owned group of cooperatives, in part supported by the purchasing power of universities and hospitals like the famed Cleveland Clinic, has become a development model for many cities. In Boulder, Colorado, an attempt to establish municipal ownership of the electric utility has received strong public backing in two major referendums. Neighborhood-based community land trusts are commonly used in attempts to resist gentrification.
One of the largest publicly owned enterprises in the nation is the Tennessee Valley Authority, a huge corporation that produces electricity and helps manage the Tennessee River system. The authority is supported by Democratic and Republican members of Congress in Tennessee and Alabama, a number of whom have voiced their opposition to privatization.
These and other forms of public ownership are quietly expanding by trial and error as the failures of the capitalist system continue to generate pain and as the standard political answers continue to falter. State and local governments are serving as laboratories of democracy, as they did in the years preceding the New Deal. We live in an era of experimentation, a time when none of the old ways offer answers to the problems millions of Americans face. These tentative new approaches may well presage potentially far-ranging change.
Taken together, the steadily evolving localist forms of democratic ownership confront the traditional socialist questions and begin to answer them in novel ways. They could pave the way for a new politics aimed at a pluralist commonwealth reflecting a diverse, practical and very American approach to democratic ownership.