Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Vladimir Lenin walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll it be?” Lenin immediately climbs up on a stool and loudly proclaims, “We, the intellectual vanguard of the people, shall seize the means of production in the name of the people!” Bernie Sanders gently replies, “No, my dear Lenin. It is the freely elected government of the people who must seize them.” To which, Noam Chomsky quickly retorts, “Not at all, it’s the individual people themselves, who must seize them.” The bartender picks up the phone, “Officer, I got a trio of thieves at my place. Come arrest ’em.”
In the eyes of the doctrinaire capitalist, all sorts of socialism are the same, they are all theft. Internally, there is a good deal of division. The media has what I’ll call the short-division understanding of political economy. Remember learning short-division? Where five divided by four was one, remainder one. It’s like that, but with economics. This elementary-school version of political economy has capitalism on one end of a short spectrum and socialism/communism at the other. Essentially, it boils decades of diverse economic and political theory into capitalism and others. Obliterated are the intricate nuance and subtle variety that separates even pro-capitalist thought into over a dozen distinct theories. There are a few, ill-defined buzzwords that get carelessly banded around the information superhighway like drunks on the freeway. Terms like “neoliberal”, “neoclassical”, and “democratic socialism” take on a loose association with a political side like “neoclassical” = right-wing and “democratic socialism” = left-wing, or falls helplessly in between them confusing most people who hear them like “neoliberal” and “libertarian” and “libtard”. Are those that left-wing or right or good or bad? How should I feel about them? The point here is that the names don’t matter, but the theoretical positions do. So I want to take the next five minutes of your life and give you the gift of understanding the difference between “libertarian socialism”, “democratic socialism”, and Soviet-style communism.
Soviet Russia is indisputably the icon of socialism the world over. It’s not the original socialist theory and you’d probably be surprised to learn that it is a dubious successor to Marx’s theory. The Bolsheviks claimed descendancy from Marx and Engels, but Leninism grossly over-emphasizes economics, twisting Marxism into something ideologically self-defeating in order to make it negotiable under the labyrinthine socio-political climate of Czarist Russia. Leninism agrees with Marx that the bourgeoisie illicitly own the means of production and that it would only be through revolution that they can be used for the betterment of all rather than for the eternal enrichment of a few. And that’s where the important similarities stop because Lenin had to invent a practical scheme to bring about what Marx said would occur naturally. There is little dispute that the first Russian revolution, the February revolution was a spontaneous occurrence, revolting from tyrannical Czarist and oppressive aristocratic rule. The October revolution was not so spontaneous, in fact, it wasn’t a revolution at all; it was a coup d’etat. The freely elected government of Russia was seized by the Bolshevik party and democratic rule was supplanted for autocratic rule of the communist party. This, according to Lenin, was necessary because the people, having labored so long under the false-consciousness of bourgeoisie propaganda–what today would be called “fake-news”–could not be trusted to follow their real interests. His evidence for this was the fact that his party failed to win a majority in the general election. Lenin determined that socialism would need to be guided from above, structured by a cabal of intellectual elites who were not deceived by false consciousness. This vanguard would centrally-plan and command the economy for the people without any input from those people.
It seems obvious, now, when I put it this way, that Lenin traded economic freedom for political enslavement. He would enslave the people to free the people and then, maybe, someday, when they proved themselves ready, return them their freedom. It didn’t work out that way, obviously. We needn’t trouble ourselves with why not, because the next alternative cannot work the same way at all on principle. Democratic socialism is an alternative to the Soviet-style communism in that it believes it is the people who ought to decide on what uses the means of production are put to. In this version, the state still controls the means of production, but the state is necessarily a democratically controlled one. Myriad questions ensue, such as at what level will they be determined: nationally, communally, etc.? Or will the particulars be determined the people directly or through representatives or the appointees of representatives? Or how will the workers be paid, by the state on a fixed scale, by production rates, or by contract negotiation? How will prices be set or will products be doled out on some scheme? But these questions don’t really affect us here. The point is that democratic socialism hopes to overcome the difficulties of Soviet-style communism by bringing in the voice of the people, that is allowing them to weigh in on how socially controlled economic mechanisms are run.
Is such a system possible? Of course, it is. Take central planning, one could “centrally plan” an economy democratically by taking orders from every individual and making products to correspond with the orders. Technically-speaking that’s not a market, it’s a centrally planned economy with a single producer. Would it be efficient? Hmmm, that depends on what you mean by “efficient”. Would we overproduce, no, it would never produce anything for which there was not already an order (at least not in theory)? But it would be terribly inefficient having to wait for your order to be made and difficult to anticipate your needs well in advance. Plus, fairly limiting how much each consumer could order at a time. Still, it could all be worked out. The real question is, “is it more desirable?” I’m not so sure. Such a market would be like letting Amazon take over everything and then nationalizing Amazon. Monopolies are unquestionably efficient but they are also condensers of power. By reducing options to one, they eliminate choice to everyone except the one who decides on what to produce. Maybe we could all decide, but how? It’s unfeasible to think we’re all going to vote every time there is a decision at “National Amazon” and even if we did, how should we count the votes? Majority rules hardly seems fair. The logistical encumbrances quickly swamp the advantages the democratic socialist system provides.
A point should be made here about the so-called Nordic socialist countries. To be clear, they’re not really socialist at all. These countries share a strong devotion to welfare-state policies. We might add a fourth type of socialism in here, “welfare-state socialism” but this would be more confusing than illuminating. Capitalism, as I have argued elsewhere, should be defined by the legal determination that the owners of an enterprise or an estate be the owners of the capital in that enterprise or estate. These countries economic systems fit this description and therefore are best classified as capitalist. They simply use these myriad social programs to buttress capitalism and hedge in its worst tendencies the way the United States used to under Keynesian economic policies from the nineteen forties to the nineteen seventies. The best term for these countries then would be “welfare-state capitalist” and not socialist at all. It has been a rhetorical deception of laissez-faire theorists to classify such systems as “socialist”.
Returning to our main discourse, we’re not stuck choosing between democratic socialism and unfettered capitalism; we might choose libertarian socialism. This oxymoronic sounding theory is unlike the others in that it disagrees that market mechanisms and private property in the hands of the bourgeoisie are the root cause of the problems with capitalism. Libertarian socialism holds that the problem of capitalism has to do with the organization of private property and not the existence of it. In this case, we can imagine a principled order that allows for private property, market exchanges, and most of the other staples of capitalism, but removes the exploitative rules regarding rent, interest, and capitalist profit as contradictory with private property ownership itself. With these exploitative elements eliminated, many attributes of capitalism change form, e.g. the overwhelming and incessant need to accumulate more wealth. This desire is capped by the concept that you cannot make money from money without rent, interest, and profit, so there is a finite amount of labor you’re willing to do beyond what you need to meet your needs. The desire to come to dominate all other businesses, the desire for monopoly, the desire for ruthless business practices, all have their teeth pulled. Included also is a guaranteed income which is required to prevent anyone in a society from forcing anyone else into a life of servitude in order to attain one of unearned leisure; in order to remove the one, the other must be dispensed with as well.
Libertarian socialism differs from other forms of socialism in that it emphasizes the freedom of individuals to make individual choices. It differs from libertarianism by arguing that societies have rights and privileges that individuals do not. The basis of this argument rests on the needs of groups to foster a sense of unity, without which there can only be lawlessness. The preservation of unity is a responsibility of societies which cannot be reduced to the individual members who make them up. This disagrees with libertarianism which assumes that all rights and responsibilities of groups can and do reduce to individual rights and responsibilities. There is a thing called society from which we are each individuated. Another way to imagine it is that the rules cannot be set with any particular individual or association in mind and be just, in the same way, that a baseball league cannot create rules favoring any particular club, either explicitly or implicitly without those rules being unfair. Libertarianism, which is a close cousin to anarchism, asserts that such a league would be unnecessary except as guarantor of the rules the clubs themselves agreed to. There is the possibility of fairness here, as long as we can assume that each club was equally well off when the bargain was struck, which is a pretty remote possibility. Libertarianism is simply unlikely to turn out to be fair.
Libertarian socialism offers us our greatest chance at a sustainable, just, and fair economic system. It is the most likely to produce the massive economic requirements of our modern large-scale societies and do so in a manner that is sustainable and harmonious with our natural environment and is at the same time compatible with human dignity and our political sense of fair play or justice. Libertarian socialism is the most feasible economic system, requires the least amount of change from capitalism, and could be produced without a bloody revolution. It is quite simply our last, best hope for a better world.