A review of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism – American Style. Edited by Kate Aronoff, Peter Drier and Michael Kazin. The New Press, 2020. 324 pp. $10.99 (Nook edition).
What is socialism?
It has been said that if you gathered 50 socialists in a room and asked them what socialism was, you’d get 50 different answers. Or at least that would be the response of democratic socialists, who think for themselves, as opposed to members of those sects in which the definition of socialism is handed down from on high.
But attempts to pin down what socialism is and what socialists would do if they gained the levers of power has been a popular exercise at least since Edward Bellamy’s speculations in his 1888 novel Looking Backward, in which socialists created a utopian society that pretty much solved all social problems.
We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism – American Style is the latest effort to lay out exactly how socialists would change the United States if they could. The editors – journalist Kate Aronoff and professors Peter Dreier and Michael Kazin – solicited 20 essays from leading figures on the American left to offer their visions on how socialism would alter American life and society for the better. The essayists eschew Bellamy-like scenarios of a socialist future; nor will you find prescriptive outcomes based on Marxist theory. Rather, the authors look at the critical issues facing the country today – health care, education, race, climate change, labor, criminal justice – and show how socialists would, or should, address them.
The socialist thinker who provides the underpinning of We Own the Future is not Karl Marx but Bernie Sanders – a practical rather than theoretical socialist. Like Sanders the book expresses socialism in terms of what socialists would do rather than what they think. The book provides both talking points for the left as well as discussion points about whether the prescriptions in the book are truly socialist.
As the editors write in the book’s introduction, “if you’re looking for an authoritative definition of democratic socialism, you won’t find it in this anthology.” But they do stress the D and S-words equally: “any socialist society worth struggling for should be fiercely democratic, ensure that human rights will flourish, and hold free elections open to all kinds of candidates and parties – including those who oppose socialism itself.”
Some of the reforms laid out in the book could be achieved without Sanders occupying the White House or socialists otherwise taking state power. Many liberal, non-socialist Democrats are on board with Medicare for All, improving the livability of our urban areas and halting the rush to privatization of public education. Other essayists lay out a more explicitly radical view, such as Michelle Chen’s call for open borders and Sarah Leonard’s vision for a fundamental change in the way we define the family.
Socialists have always stressed the interconnectedness of issues, and several of the essays’ themes intersect with others. Racial justice is addressed in an essay by Andrea Flynn, Susan Holmberg, Dorian Warren and Felicia Wong in their argument for a ‘third reconstruction,” but also in Darrick Hamilton’s call for a race-conscious program of economic justice. And race – no surprise – is at the heart of Aviva Stahl’s attack on the carceral state. Robert Kuttner focuses on the need to confront corporate power, a necessity that underlies much of what the book proposes. The intersection of numerous socialist principles is evident in Naomi Klein’s essay on climate change: the Green New Deal would not only reduce the impact of global warming, but also carry the potential to “eliminate poverty, create good jobs, and close the racial and gender wealth divides.”
Even when some of the prescriptions seem more liberal than socialist, it’s important to remember that liberalism as we know it might not exist in the absence of radical movements. In an essay that amounts to a capsule history of American socialism, Dreier and Kazin note that “ideas that were once considered radical, even socialist” are now accepted by most Americans, including “women’s right to vote, Social Security, the minimum wage, workplace safety laws, universal health insurance, and civil rights for all races and genders.” Franklin Roosevelt might have carried out the body of the Socialist Party’s platform “on a stretcher,” in the words of Norman Thomas, but he preserved much of its spirit.
We Own the Future takes a decidedly “bread and roses” approach to a socialist America: Yes, we need universal health care, workers’ right and jobs, but we also need truth, beauty and recreation. Stand-up comic Francesca Fiorentini believes a socialist government should provide more support for the arts – not in the Soviet manner of tethering art to party policy, but in line with the New Deal’s unleashing of artistic innovation. David Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, believes socialism could improve athletics by halting stadium giveaways to billionaire team owners, ending the exploitation of college athletes, and sending racist Native American team names and logos – such as those of the Washington football team – to the historic dustbin.
For decades, socialists have dreamed about what they might do if they had a chance to set public policy. That chance became more than hypothetical after a series of events detailed by the editors as well as in an essay by Harold Meyerson – the economic collapse of 2008, the rise of the Occupy movement, the 2016 Sanders presidential campaign, and the subsequent surge of the left, including the growth of Democratic Socialists of America from about 5,000 members in 2010 to more than 60,000 today. Meyerson cites a Gallup poll showing that 57 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of all Americans hold a favorable view of socialism, something unthinkable a decade earlier. And even after the book was published, Sanders emerged from the early Democratic nomination contests as the front-runner. Socialists could be closer to having a major impact on national policy than any of the authors imagined.
And yet even electoral and organizing success doesn’t pull socialism across the finish line. Longtime labor activist and writer Bill Fletcher Jr. warns that even in power, socialists will face resistance from a still-potent capitalist sector. “The forces of capitalism will not voluntarily walk away from the stage simply because the masses demand it, or because the political representatives of capitalism lose at the polls,” he warns. To truly transform society will require “a critical mass of the population that has concluded that the capitalist system is toxic and must be rooted out.” It is far from clear that popular support for Sanders adds up to such a movement.
Yet socialism is reaching a crest in its fortunes never before seen in the United States, not even in Eugene Debs’ presidential campaign of 1912. After all, Debs plucked only 900,000 votes that year, while Sanders received 13 million in 2016. Can the left take advantage of this moment in history? While We Own the Future points to what socialists might do with power if they had it, getting and keeping that power remains a question for another day.