I’ll have to ask our readers to bear with me for a moment because this story starts out with a premise that probably wouldn’t merit a headline here of its own accord. It deals with the question of whether or not it was appropriate for an avowed Democratic Socialist like Senator Bernie Sanders to show up at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s swearing-in ceremony wearing a winter coat which costs nearly $700. Big deal, right?
As a confirmed capitalist, I refuse to demand that Sanders walk to the subway platform dressed in sackcloth, performing self-flagellation with an environmentally friendly cat o’ nine tails as he goes. This is America and Sanders should be able to grab as big of a slice of the American dream as possible, just like anyone else. Is it hypocritical and glaring in terms of horrid political optics? Of course. Complaining about the evil, idle rich before jetting off to one of your three homes (including a $600K beachfront vacation property) takes some serious chutzpah, but Bernie is a citizen and is still entitled to grab for the brass ring.
The criticism of Sanders’ spending habits has, however, really gotten under the skin of Daniel Marans at the Huffington Post, prompting a very energetic response in defense of not just the Vermont Senator in particular, but of “democratic socialism” in America in general. Marans is described as a “general assignment reporter with a focus on politics and economic policy” at HuffPo, and this week he wants to remind everyone that the Coat Controversy is emblematic of what we all “get wrong about socialism.” Let’s check out this brief excerpt from the essay where Marans explains why focusing on the spending of one, individual socialist distracts from The Big Picture. (Emphasis added)
[D]emocratic socialism is an ideology that seeks systemic change and rejects the idea that individual consumer choices can correct a system centered on economic exploitation.
In a capitalist economy, the small class of people who finance and own industries pay workers less than the value of their labor and take the “surplus value” ― the value left over ― as profit.
No amount of progressive purchasing habits ― whether it’s buying a Toyota Prius or fair-trade coffee ― can change that.
“There is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” said Micah Uetricht, associate editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin. “Exploitation is baked into the system.”
In fact, Uetricht, a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, argues that dwelling on individual consumption decisions could serve as a “distraction” from more meaningful forms of political struggle.
Here’s where we get into the reason that Bernie Sanders’ coat, his vacation home or his book royalties aren’t the issue here. It’s the fact that Marans is far from alone in penning these sorts of arguments. This piece is of particular interest because it demonstrates that socialist influences in America are far more pervasive than some may imagine. They are not confined to the fever swamp ramblings of a handful of holdover New Leftists in the mold of C Wright Mills, hiding out in the faculty break room at Berkeley. This is currently approaching mainstream thinking on the American left.
And this “defense” of Sanders has it all. Nevermind the hypocrisy inherent in growing fat by skimming the wealth of others less fortunate than you. That’s “a distraction from more meaningful forms of political struggle.” All consumption under a capitalist system is unethical and amounts to exploitation of the masses. The real evil is owning a business where you pay workers “less than the value of their labor,” turning around and taking that “surplus value as profit.” In the mind of the dedicated socialist, the risks of investment associated with launching any new industrial activity and creating jobs don’t merit a reward. The simple fact that some have more than others is sufficient to make the case.
But that’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Socialism, whether you call it democratic or not, demands equality of outcome, while capitalism, at least of the democratic kind, seeks equality of opportunity, accepting the fact that some will do better than others based on a variety of factors. This is an important conversation to have because democratic socialism is getting a lot of airtime these days while the roots of democratic capitalism are generally ignored.
If the author of this piece and any other socialists out there need a refresher course, I would point them to an excellent 2013 essay by Michael Novak at National Review about the foundations of Democratic Capitalism. But even if you can’t bring yourself to read a deeper analysis, here is one of the most critical takeaways. Novak writes that, capitalism is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the success of democracy… but in the long run, democracy is a necessary condition for the success of capitalism.
In the end, that’s the crux of the conversation. A gross, burdensome form of capitalism can exist and, in some cases, even thrive for a time without democracy to keep it in check. Look no further than conditions in China today for one example. But to flourish and support an entire society, capitalism requires a robust democratic scaffold to mold it to best effect. It’s the assured equality of opportunity which keeps the populace energized and all pulling on the same oars. Capitalism and democracy, guided by the rule of law, go hand-in-hand, with neither being sustainable in an equitable fashion without the other.
Conversely, socialism is inherently antithetical to democracy. By starting the conversation based on a demand for equality of outcome with no regard for how that equality is achieved, you immediately paint yourself into a corner. The only mechanism available to achieve that goal is government control of nearly every aspect of society, preventing any of the runners in the race from building up a lead. Surrendering that much power and control to a central government in such a fashion devalues industrious work and effort, leading to less productivity and an increasingly smaller harvest which must be split equally among an ever-growing mass of consumers. Meanwhile, with all power vested in the central government, Lord Acton’s rule inevitably comes into play and, following the plot of Animal Farm, some animals inevitably become more equal than others. In this fashion, at least for the general population, a form of equality is achieved, but it’s an equality of mediocrity under the best of circumstances.
We don’t know precisely where democratic capitalism takes you in the long run because we’re still one of the earliest, full-scale tests of the concept. But we know how socialism ends. Look no further than Venezuela today. Sadly, this sort of dangerous, wrong-headed thinking is regaining popularity in the Democratic Party and the progressive movement in general.