It’s Time to Give Socialism a Try.” So declared the headline of a Washington Post column in March; one imagines Katharine Graham spitting out her martini. The article, by a twenty-seven-year-old columnist named Elizabeth Bruenig, drew more than 3,000 comments (a typical column gets a few hundred); a follow-up piece, urging a “good-faith argument about socialism,” received nearly as much attention.
By now, the rebirth of socialism in American politics needs little elaboration. Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly strong showing in the 2016 Democratic primary, and his continued popularity, upset just about everyone’s intuition that the term remains taboo. Donald Trump’s victory, meanwhile, made all political truisms seem up for grabs. Polls show that young people in particular view socialism more favorably than they do capitalism. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, which has been around since 1982, has grown from about 5,000 to 35,000 since November 2016, and dozens of DSA candidates are running for office around the country. In June, one of them, twenty-eight-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, upset New York City Congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary, knocking off a ten-term incumbent and one of the most powerful Democrats in the House.
The meaning of socialism has always been maddeningly slippery, in part because it has always meant different things to different people. Michael Harrington, one of the founders of the DSA and the most outspoken American socialist of the postwar era, writes on the first page of his 1989 book, Socialism: Past and Future, that socialism is “the hope for human freedom and justice.” By the end of the book, the definition hasn’t gotten much more concrete. Karl Marx himself spent more time critiquing capitalism than describing communism, a habit that subsequent generations of leftists inherited. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography that, while he couldn’t define it, “I know it when I see it.” Socialism sometimes feels like the inverse: socialists know it when they don’t see it. Bernie has only made things murkier by defining his brand of socialism in terms hardly indistinguishable from New Deal liberalism. “I don’t believe the government should own the corner drugstore or the means of production,” he declared in the fall of 2015, at a speech at Georgetown University, “but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.” But while the meaning of American socialism in 2018 begins with Bernie, it doesn’t end there. Every political movement needs an intellectual movement, and when it comes to today’s brand of socialism, it’s the thirty-five-and-under crowd doing much of the heavy lifting.
Bruenig, the Post columnist, is perhaps the most prominently placed of a small but increasingly visible group of young writers unabashedly advocating for democratic socialism. In writing her attention-grabbing article, she helped elevate a discussion that has long taken place on Twitter. Of course, the relative merits of socialism—and Marxism, Maoism, anarcho-syndicalism, you name it—have been debated in lefty journals and academic circles for a century or more. Members of this new generation, however, aren’t just talking among themselves; they’re trying to take socialism mainstream. And unlike their predecessors, they have reason to think Americans will take their ideas seriously.
They’ve got a double challenge. The first is to convince skeptical Americans that, despite what they may have learned in high school, socialism doesn’t have to mean Stalinism, and it doesn’t lead inexorably to the gulags of Soviet Russia or the starvation of Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela. The second may be even trickier. They must explain how their version of socialism fits, or doesn’t, into the American political system while showing how, specifically, it is distinct from traditional Democratic Party liberalism. In other words, they must not only defend socialism in the twenty-first century; they must define it.
Nathan Robinson hated Bernie Sanders before he loved him.
It was the fall of 2015. Robinson, a doctoral candidate at Harvard and, at the time, a recent law school graduate, had been steeped in socialist thought since high school, when he discovered the writings of anarchistic socialists like Mikhail Bakunin and Noam Chomsky. Socialism has always been dogged by the question of whether it’s possible to participate in electoral politics while remaining truly radical. Like many leftists, Robinson initially saw Sanders as an example of intolerable compromise.
“Based on Senator Bernie Sanders’s public statements, one of the following things must be true,” he declared on his blog in October 2015. “(1) Bernie Sanders is unaware of the definition of socialism or (2) Bernie Sanders is fully aware of the definition of socialism, and is lying about it.” Sanders, he explained in a follow-up post, was “not asking for public ownership of the major sectors of the economy,” but merely calling for expanded welfare and regulations. “Socialism means an end to capitalism. Bernie Sanders does not want to end capitalism. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist.”
Those turned out to be among Robinson’s last blog posts. In January 2016, he launched Current Affairs, a deeply irreverent leftist magazine, with backing from a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. Despite being essentially a one-man operation, Current Affairs quickly developed a substantial following on the left thanks to Robinson’s extraordinary writing talent—especially his knack for composing viral takedowns of conservative intellectual hucksters like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson.
By 2017, Robinson seemed to have fully shed his earlier hostility toward Sandersian socialism. Here he was, last summer, writing on the difference between leftism and liberalism: “As Nancy Pelosi said of the present Democratic party: ‘We’re capitalist.’ When Bernie Sanders is asked if he is a capitalist, he answers flatly: ‘No.’ Sanders is a socialist, and socialism is not capitalism, and there is no possibility of healing the ideological rift between the two.”
That’s a long way from calling Sanders an ignoramus or a liar. What happened?
Much has been made of how Sanders has pulled the Democratic mainstream to the left. Presumptive 2020 presidential candidates are racing to capture the Bernie vote by declaring their support for policies—single-payer health care, free college—that once seemed impossibly radical. But Robinson’s evolution on Sanders is representative of a complementary phenomenon that has received less notice: Sanders seems to have also pulled the far left closer to the mainstream. The American left of center is like a soft mattress, and Bernie is an anvil dropped in the middle: whichever side you’re lying on, gravity pulls you a little closer to him.
“Those of us who consider ourselves on the more radical left were kind of disdainful of the political system,” said Robinson. “It was a real minority within Occupy saying you should even contest elections.” Sanders’s tantalizingly strong primary run—roughly equivalent to the MIT basketball team making the Final Four—made some lefties reconsider. For the first time, it seemed as though they could actually win. But winning requires engaging in politics, and politics requires some degree of pragmatism—a recognition that the achievable will always fall short of the ideal. That, in turn, requires giving up the ideological purity of the fringe.
Consider Jacobin magazine, the leading publication of the Millennial far left. It’s a magazine that wears its Marxist affections on its sleeve, with the tagline “Reason in Revolt.” Across the first seventeen issues, by my count, the word “Marx” or its derivations appeared an average of about forty times. But, since then—that is, beginning in summer 2015, when people started feeling the Bern—that’s fallen to only about twelve times on average.
Bhaskar Sunkara founded Jacobin in 2011, while an undergraduate at George Washington University—which now makes him, at age twenty-nine, something like the granddaddy of Millennial socialists. The magazine doesn’t have a strict party line. In May 2015, its website ran dueling pieces on Sanders’s candidacy. One, by Ashley Smith, called Sanders’s campaign an “obstacle” to the formation of a new left. But the other, by Sunkara, argued that the left should welcome Bernie’s run, “even if Sanders’s welfare-state socialism doesn’t go far enough.”
Since then, while Sunkara continues to distinguish in theory between Sandersism and full-blown socialism, Bernie has practically become the magazine’s mascot. A Jacobin Facebook ad, which reads, “It’s not you, it’s capitalism,” features an image of Sanders superimposed over the Jacobin logo. The winter 2016 issue featured a cartoon of Sanders on its cover, alongside Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party. And a health care–focused issue from earlier this year reads as an extended brief in favor of Medicare for All, Bernie’s single-payer plan, featuring a fawning Q&A with Sanders. The editor’s note that opens the issue begins, “When future historians chronicle how Medicare for All was finally won . . .” To cast Medicare for All—not even fully socialized medicine, since it would nationalize insurance, but not providers—in such grandiose terms is a striking shift of the socialist goalposts.
“We push for social democratic reforms in the here and now,” Sunkara told me, though he insisted that his long-term vision remained as radical as ever. “There’s a need to at least dabble a little bit more with strategy and some more policy-oriented stuff, instead of just merely trying to build an opposition movement and mainly talk about theory.”
Not everyone on the left is happy about it. Socialists, the leftist writer Fredrik deBoer wrote last year for Current Affairs, “seem to be falling into the models of the welfare state without really knowing we’re doing it, sliding rightward as we talk about a reinvigorated left, slouching towards liberalism.” At its core, he argued, socialism means moving sectors of the economy into communal ownership—not merely expanding the welfare state, which is social democracy, or perhaps social insurance, but not democratic socialism. Taking issue with an op-ed by Sunkara in the New York Times, deBoer worried that the Jacobin editor’s “alternative” vision “does not look very different from a more humane, more nurturing liberal capitalist state.”
Nathan Robinson, who published deBoer’s piece, and is currently at work on a book about what socialism means to young people, doesn’t deny that his own thinking has become less doctrinaire. “I’ve sort of come around to the idea that ‘socialism,’ the word, should less be used to describe a state-owned or collectively owned economy, and more used to describe a very strong commitment to a certain fundamental set of principles,” he said. “It should be used to describe the position that is horrified by solvable economic depravations, rather than a very specific and narrow way of ordering the economic system.”
For Robinson, the heart of socialism is not this or that policy, but rather the fundamental values that should drive our politics. During the election, Hillary Clinton bragged about having the support of “real billionaires” like Mark
Cuban and Michael Bloomberg, in a shot at Trump’s refusal to disclose his finances. Obama, after he left office, was promptly seen vacationing on Richard Branson’s private island and partying with celebrities on billionaire David Geffen’s yacht. That makes someone like Robinson skeptical that the Democratic Party is actually committed to reducing inequality—which, after all, would require taking back some of the wealth of people like David Geffen.
A socialist, in other words, is hungry for a little class warfare. Sunkara, in the intro to his Sanders interview in Jacobin, wrote that while Sanders “may share some of the same policy goals as progressives like Elizabeth Warren,” the difference is his “confrontational vision of social change,” which involves calling out “the millionaires and billionaires” who are hoarding too much wealth.
Or, as Robinson put it in a Current Affairs essay (published under a pen name, a habit he has since dropped) titled “It’s Basically Just Immoral to Be Rich,”
After all, there are plenty of people on this earth who die—or who watch their loved ones die—because they cannot afford to pay for medical care. There are elderly people who become homeless because they cannot afford rent. There are children living on streets and in cars, there are mothers who can’t afford diapers for their babies. All of this is beyond dispute. And all of it could be ameliorated if people who had lots of money simply gave those other people their money. It’s therefore deeply shameful to be rich. It’s not a morally defensible thing to be.
If Sanders and the prospect of political power have made some preexisting radical leftists start talking more like New Deal liberals, the even bigger effect of his prominence has been compositional: by defining socialism in an especially capacious and inviting way, he pulled in people who might otherwise still identify as liberal or progressive. “What Roosevelt was stating in 1944, what Martin Luther King Jr. stated in similar terms twenty years later, and what I believe today, is that true freedom does not occur without economic security,” he said in his Georgetown speech in November 2015. “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.”
This kind of talk is enough to make a certain kind of liberal’s eyes roll clean out of her head. What Democrat doesn’t believe in those things? But Sanders couldn’t have claimed this ideological real estate if his overwhelmingly Millennial supporters didn’t feel that mainstream liberals—embodied by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment that lined up behind her—had abandoned it.
Briahna Gray, a contributing editor at Current Affairs who was recently hired as a politics editor at the Intercept, told me she probably wouldn’t have identified as a socialist in 2015. “The primary in 2016 radicalized me,” she said. Gray, a Harvard Law School–educated lawyer, has made a name for herself by embodying an intersection of identities that’s rare in media: a leftist, Sanders-supporting black woman. That has given her credibility to puncture the “Bernie bro” stereotype and take on Sanders critics who dismiss his movement as insufficiently attuned to racial or gender issues.
“The most disappointing part of the 2016 primary was centrist candidates convincing Americans that policies that are implemented in wealthy nations all over the world, much less wealthy than ours, are completely a fantasy world,” she said. (Clinton declared during a primary debate that single-payer health care would “never, ever come to pass,” and later ridiculed Sanders in her campaign memoir for essentially promising Americans free ponies.) This was a recurring theme in conversations with young socialists. To their ears, the term “liberal” has come to represent an intolerably unimaginative posture toward politics: less “Yes we can” than “Not so fast.”
Still, the worldview Gray sketched out—“where socialism is used to mitigate the negative effects of capitalism”—sounded like good old Keynesian liberalism. If you’re someone who believes a word should have a fixed meaning over time, or who believes in the importance of the liberal tradition, then this approach—socialism as liberalism, just more liberal—can be deeply exasperating. Sean Wilentz, a historian and longtime friend of the Clintons, captured some of this frustration in a recent essay in the Democracy journal. “[T]here is something essentially dishonest about trying to assimilate the New Deal legacy as ‘socialism,’ ” he wrote, referring to the speech in which Sanders tied himself to Franklin Roosevelt.
There’s no denying that much of what today’s socialists are demanding fits within the liberal tradition of a Ted Kennedy or Paul Wellstone. Advocating something like single-payer health care, but calling yourself a socialist, can look like mere positioning. In fact, the socialist writers I spoke with didn’t really have a problem with that. “Part of it is just a rhetorical claim,” said Ryan Cooper, an opinion writer at the Week who identifies as a democratic socialist. He said that the core aspects of his political agenda are creating a “complete welfare state” and reducing inequality by democratizing ownership of capital. Why use a term as loaded as socialism to describe those ideals? “The point is to say, ‘Here’s a left,’ in a way that just could not possibly be co-opted by Andrew Cuomo types.”
Nathan Robinson echoed the sentiment. “I used to call myself ‘progressive,’ and then the term became used by
everybody, and now it doesn’t really mean anything,” he said. “If you’re trying to say, ‘I’m further to the left than Obama and the Clintons,’ you’re stuck!” (Disclosure: I’m friendly with Cooper, who is a former Washington Monthly web editor, and Robinson.)
The divide may owe as much to differences in memory as to ideology. If you’re old enough to remember Democrats getting absolutely creamed in three consecutive presidential elections in the 1980s, then you’re old enough to remember them seemingly needing to pivot to the center to regain power in 1992. They didn’t compromise their core values (they would love a complete welfare state, if only it were possible), they just did what they had to do to win votes from what looked like an overwhelmingly conservative electorate. That included getting cozier with Wall Street and members of the plutocracy to ensure a stream of campaign funding that could rival the right’s.
But if the 1980s are when you were born, that’s not your experience. You remember that the Bill Clinton years were pretty good—but yielded George W. Bush. We got eight years of Obama—then Trump. If cautious, corporate-friendly liberalism gives way time after time to revanchist Republican administrations, is it really doing its job? If liberal figureheads stop even talking about a truly ambitious social safety net, how long should we keep assuming that’s what they want, deep down? Someone under thirty-five years old has no memory of a Democratic presidential nominee, let alone president, to the ideological left of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, that young person is broke: a report by the St. Louis Federal Reserve recently warned that households headed by ’80s babies have 34 percent less wealth than expected based on earlier generations at that age, and are thus “at greatest risk of becoming a ‘lost generation’ for wealth accumulation.”
Telling a young radical that, despite all their sharp disagreements with the liberal mainstream, they’re really a part of it, is a bit like telling a football fan that the Cleveland Browns are actually good because they won some championships in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s fair to wonder how many years a political movement can distance itself from certain principles before it runs the risk of a rival movement claiming them for its own.
(It must be said, too, that “liberal” is an unfortunate term. It belongs to that category of words—like “sanction” or“oversight”—that mean both a thing and its opposite; thus a “classical liberal” is really a free-market conservative. An acute instance of this problem is the even more awful “neoliberal,” which itself has two meanings: one is simply Reagan-Thatcher laissez-faire capitalism; the other, elaborated in the pages of this magazine in the 1980s, is more akin to the “New Democrat” philosophy of Bill Clinton. But these definitions overlap, because Clinton added financial deregulation to the agenda.)
It’s a bit unfair to ask the term “liberal” to cover every political position to the left of conservative and to the right of seizing the factories. The socialist label might be annoying, but it’s useful. Of course, the policies Bernie Sanders and many of his followers are calling for fit within the American liberal tradition, if you go back far enough. But to insist that they therefore owe loyalty to liberalism itself is to get the point of political movements backward. Ask not what you can do for your ideology; ask what your ideology can do for you. If young people increasingly feel like liberalism as it exists today doesn’t represent their values, then perhaps it’s up to liberalism to win them back.
If you think the Millennial socialist movement is only about protesting Clintonism, however, you haven’t been paying close enough attention.
The tricky part of advancing ideas under the banner of “socialism” is threading the needle between two contradictory critiques. The first is an evergreen: that real-world socialism inevitably leads to catastrophe and dictatorship, and only someone totally ignorant of history could deny this. (A representative headline in the National Review: “Despite Venezuela, Socialism Is Still Popular in the U.S.”) The second critique, as we’ve seen, is that self-identified socialists actually aren’t socialists. (David Brooks managed to make both these points at once in a recent column. The idea that capitalism is inherently flawed, he wrote, has “been rejected by most on the left.” Nonetheless, today’s progressive left, drunk on populism and identity politics, “seems likely to bring us the economic authoritarianism of a North American version of Hugo Chávez.”)
Few people seem to be working harder to tackle that challenge than Matt Bruenig, the twenty-nine-year-old founder of the People’s Policy Project, a one-man socialist think tank—and the husband and intellectual teammate of Liz Bruenig, the Washington Post columnist. I met them for lunch near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., in April. Former high school sweethearts who met on the debate team in Arlington, Texas, they’re an odd couple, by which I mean both that they are different from each other and that they are individually odd. Matt is tall and scruffy, with a paunch and a patchy beard. Liz is barely five feet tall and had her hair pulled into a tidy bun the day we met. He is hyper-analytical and obsessed with economic policy. She is a religious Catholic—her pro-life views have made her enemies on the left, whereas Matt, she joked, “loves abortion”—and more concerned with philosophical questions than policy specifics. “I make a much more romantic case for socialism than Matt does,” she said.
Matt gained some notoriety in 2016 when he was fired from his part-time blogging gig at Demos, a liberal think tank, after directing a stream of Twitter insults at the head of a different liberal think tank. At the time, Liz was thirty-eight weeks pregnant with their daughter, Jane. I asked what happened after the kerfuffle.
“We went to Twitter boot camp,” Liz said.
“Who was the drill sergeant?”
In 2017, Matt launched his crowd-funded think tank, which immediately began being noticed in liberal policy circles. His work, which in its faith in winning arguments by marshaling the right facts calls to mind a socialist Ezra Klein, is often cited in places like the Atlantic and Vox, and he has been quoted as an expert by CBS News and elsewhere. Even among prominent young lefties, his Twitter presence, even post–boot camp, stands out—277,000 followers as of June.
The Bruenigs argue, as Liz has written in the Post, that “it makes sense to think of socialism on a spectrum, with countries and policies being more or less socialist, rather than either/or.” Much of Matt’s work revolves around making the case that real socialist policies have been implemented successfully in other countries, particularly Nordic nations like Norway and Sweden. The question of how to describe the governance of these places has become quite contentious, because if these healthy, happy, rich nations are meaningfully socialist in some way, it’s hard to argue that socialism always ends in disaster. Conservatives protest the most loudly, but liberals, too, deny that socialism is afoot in Scandinavia. These countries are, we’re told, “mixed economies” or “social democracies”—bigger welfare states, sure, but fundamentally capitalist systems.
But in a post last summer, Matt used data from the OECD library and the International Labour Organization to show that a strong welfare state is only one part of the story. Most strikingly, at least some of the Nordics come out ahead on that textbook aspect of socialism, state ownership. In Norway and Finland, he wrote, the government owns “financial assets equal to 330 percent and 130 percent of each country’s respective GDP,” compared to 26 percent in the U.S. Norway’s government owns around 60 percent of the nation’s wealth—nearly double the level for the Chinese government—including a third of its domestic stock market. “There is little doubt that, in terms of state ownership at least, Norway is the most socialist country in the developed world,” Bruenig wrote a few months later—“and, not coincidentally, the happiest country in the world according to the UN’s 2017 World Happiness Report.”
The Norwegian example figures prominently in what is probably Matt’s most interesting policy proposal. In a New York Times op-ed last November, he argued that the easiest way to combat American inequality would be a “social wealth fund,” which he described as akin to an index or mutual fund, “but one owned collectively by society as a whole.”
Norway has such a fund, he pointed out, which is valued at over $1 trillion and is used to pay for its generous welfare state. Alaska has one, too, paying its citizens cash dividends from the proceeds of a diversified investment fund that, like Norway’s, started with oil money. Under Bruenig’s idea, the federal government would create an investment portfolio—perhaps by selling federal assets, or through “taxes on capital that affect mostly the wealthy,” or by redirecting recession spending by the Federal Reserve—and distribute a regular cash dividend to every American, or every American adult, each of whom would have one equal share in the fund. If the fund came to own a third of the nation’s wealth, he calculated, that would have meant an $8,000 payout to everyone between the ages of eighteen and sixty-four in 2016.
In addition to arguing for a social wealth fund, Bruenig published a long paper authored by Ryan Cooper, the writer at the Week, and Peter Gowan, a Dublin-based researcher, arguing that the best response to the problem of housing affordability would be a massive new “social housing” project, in which the federal government would pay to build ten million homes over the next ten years. Unlike traditional American public housing, this would be “designed to cater to people of various income levels, rather than just serving the ‘deserving poor.’ ” Again, they point to Europe for proof of concept: in the 1960s, facing a housing crisis, Sweden built one million social-housing units over the course of a decade, increasing its housing stock by a third. In Vienna, Austria, they report, “3 in 5 residents live in housing built, owned, or managed by the municipal government.”
These ideas aren’t exactly new, nor are they even all that radical: Hillary Clinton claimed in her campaign memoir to have considered running on a universal basic income paid for by a wealth fund, and in a recent book, the arch-centrist Brookings scholar Bill Galston likewise flirts with the idea. That’s partly the point. The socialist wonks are out to prove that moving toward a more collective, equitable ownership of the economy doesn’t require tearing up the American way of life—that, as Bruenig wrote in the Times, there are socialistic policies that could “work within the system we now have.”
But are socialists really happy working within the system we now have? At the heart of the split between liberals and socialists, at least in theory, is the question of what to do about capitalism. Liberals tend to see it as something that needs to be fixed. Socialists see it as something to be defeated.
They say they do, anyway. As we’ve seen, the Millennial socialist intellectuals aren’t really calling for government takeover of industry. Still, their stated opposition to capitalism-as-such has consequences for how we address the problems of the modern economy.
Like all fights about the future, this one is really about the past. In western Europe and the United States, the three decades after World War II—in which international capital flows were restrained and nations were able to spend aggressively on social programs, funded by high tax rates—saw the greatest growth in productivity and living standards in history. The gains were widely shared: inequality declined, and, uniquely since the dawn of capitalism, there were no major banking crises. But, in the face of various pressures, particularly inflation, this order began to break down in the 1970s, creating room for the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal revolution. That revolution ushered in a fiercely laissez-faire approach to capitalism—financial deregulation, a retreat from antitrust enforcement, tax cuts, an assault on labor, and so on—and with it, a return to the rampant inequality and economic concentration, as well as the periodic financial collapses, of the prewar era.
To the non-socialist left, the postwar period of broad economic growth was evidence that a “decent capitalism” is possible, as journalist Robert Kuttner puts it in a new book, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? The Reagan-Thatcher takeover was an unfortunate and unnecessary departure from the Keynesian consensus. “This was the road once taken,” Kuttner writes, of the postwar order. “There was no economic need for a different one.”
Socialists, however, are more sympathetic to the argument that the postwar “golden age” was just a temporary deviation from the inexorable logic of capitalism. The neoliberal turn was capitalism’s true nature reasserting itself. “The midcentury was quite anomalous,” as Matt Bruenig put it. The Great Depression and World War II created historically unique conditions that couldn’t last forever. “True, inequality goes down. But excepting that, we’re right back on the trail. Marx would tell you: Capital accumulates. It’s a natural tendency.”
If you buy this account, then the logical answer is, as Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara wrote last year, “to not merely tame but overcome capitalism.” Most of the young intellectuals I spoke with echoed this idea at some point—even Liz Bruenig, who, you’ll recall, has elsewhere cautioned against treating socialism versus capitalism as a binary choice.
There’s always a danger in getting bogged down in fights over terminology. But blaming an impersonal force called “capitalism” for all our problems can lead to unhelpful readings of political change. If capitalism is the enemy, and liberals and conservatives both like capitalism, then it’s easy to flatten out the crucial differences between them. “There was no contingency or ambiguity in any of this,” wrote Nivedita Majumdar in a Jacobin piece titled “Why We’re Marxists” in 2014. “The obscene concentration of wealth in the two decades preceding the 2008 crisis shows that there is no mechanism to push for a sustainable, let alone fair, allocation of resources within capitalism.” But, of course, there was contingency, both in terms of deliberate policy choices that didn’t have to be made, and world events—Vietnam, the oil embargo, the Iran hostage crisis—that made the conservative backlash possible. It was Margaret Thatcher who used to say that “there is no alternative” to neoliberalism. That so much of the left is willing to treat Reaganomics as the true definition of capitalism marks a dramatic linguistic and intellectual victory of the conservative movement.
Consider a piece by Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. For the most part, the article could have appeared in any left-of-center publication. “The CFPB has accomplished a lot in its young life,” Day wrote of the agency, a creation of the Dodd-Frank law and a brainchild of Elizabeth Warren that is being slowly dismantled by the Trump administration. But Day strikes a strange note when she tries to draw a broader lesson from Trump’s assault on the CFPB: “The sacking of the agency is a naked admission that under our existing political setup the capitalist class can never suffer any consequences, no matter how badly it screws up.” Is it? Or is it a reminder that elections matter, that there is a deep difference between a Democratic Party that, flawed as it may be, created the CFPB, and a Republican Party that exists to do the bidding of the 1 percent? We can be sure that, for all Hillary Clinton’s faults, the CFPB would be humming right along if she were president. That could be awkward for a socialist to admit.The American left of center is like a soft mattress, and Bernie is an anvil dropped in the middle: whichever side you’re lying on, gravity pulls you a little closer to him.
In our conversations, even the socialists who insisted most strongly that they want to eliminate capitalism tended to sketch out worlds in which capitalist markets still play at least some role. “Profit itself isn’t the problem,” Sunkara said. “The problem is the work-or-starve contract that forces some people to give up their autonomy.” No one I spoke to was calling for total state ownership of all industry. But their commitment to the “Get rid of capitalism” rhetoric raises the prospect that these very smart people will turn up their noses at the less ideologically pure work of structuring market competition itself.
This distinguishes socialists from the budding anti-monopoly movement, which has done much of its thinking in the pages of this magazine. This school of thought, sometimes referred to as the New Brandeis movement, has its purest expression at the Open Markets Institute, a D.C. think tank, but also has drawn allies elsewhere in Washington, most notably Elizabeth Warren. Their central insight is that one of the greatest—and least appreciated—achievements of the New Deal and postwar era was the U.S. government’s strong commitment to preserving real economic competition, especially through antitrust enforcement. And that, on the flip side, one of the key causes for the radical post-1980 rise in income inequality was the retreat from antitrust enforcement prompted by the Reagan administration and changing judicial doctrine.
A renewed commitment to competition policy and an ambitiously universal welfare state aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But there seems to be a reluctance among the socialist left to engage with an agenda that promotes competition. (One exception is Ryan Cooper, who has written favorably about the anti-monopoly movement.) That, in turn, means a reluctance to think about how to tackle the question of concentrated economic power. What is the socialist answer to the dominance of Amazon, Facebook, and Google? Matt Bruenig told me that competition policy is, for him, “way down on the list of priorities.” When someone on Twitter asked Liz Bruenig why she didn’t subscribe to the New Brandeis movement, her reply was that “the answer to the destruction wrought by capitalism isn’t more, better capitalism.”
The term “capitalism”—like “socialism”—can’t be reduced to any simple fixed meaning. At its core, it refers merely to an economy based on market exchanges aimed at private profit. But a response like Liz Bruenig’s illustrates just how degraded the meaning of the word has become.
Here, again, liberals may want to turn their gaze inward. The conservative movement has faced little resistance to its successful rebranding of American capitalism as synonymous with a laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog form of competition, in which maximizing the ability of the rich to accumulate ever more wealth is seen as the only unmitigated economic good. This vision depends on propping up the myth of a market that’s as “free” from regulation as possible. It’s a myth because, in fact, there can be no such thing as a modern market in the absence of regulation of one sort or another, and many forms of commerce, like intellectual property, owe their very existence to government.
Yet modern liberals have overwhelmingly ceded the terrain. Rather than making the affirmative case for using government to structure and spur equitable markets, liberals tend to fall into the binary of a free market versus regulation. Instead of presenting a vision of how to use government to make markets work in the public interest, the message has too often been, “Capitalism is fine, we just need more regulations to patch up the failures.” Democrats, in other words, start with something that the left hates, and then add something that everyone hates.
Ultimately, the New Brandeis folks and the socialists may have more in common than they realize. They’re both rooted in the sense, largely ignored by mainstream liberalism, that it simply shouldn’t be possible for anyone to gain as much wealth and power as the richest corporations and individuals wield today. Call this feeling socialism, call it progressivism, call it liberalism; whatever you call it, it’s where anyone who wants to harness the energy behind the rebirth of American socialism needs to start.