Nevada Democratic debate 2020: Bernie Sanders on Socialism

I have taken a slight break from creating thought experiments to comment on some remarks Bernie Sanders made about Socialism in the recent Nevada Democrat debate. First a disclosure: My preference is Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic nominee and I identify as a Democratic Socialist. The section of the Debate I will be addressing can be viewed here:

Bernie Sanders also identifies as Democratic Socialist. This of course prompted Michael Bloomberg to comment with typical talking point of “Communism has been tried and it doesn’t work”. Sanders correctly noted that he is a Democratic Socialist and not a Communist, implying that are distinct and relevant differences. Political concepts such as Socialism, Communism and Capitalism are extremely difficult to place into simplistic groups. There are a large number of qualified versions which may have different economic consequences. However, I will provide a simplified definition of Democratic Socialism, Revolutionary Socialism, Communism, Social Democracy, and Neoliberalism which is relevant to this post:

Democratic Socialism: Where the means of production (material things that provide goods and services) are owned and controlled collectively by the public. And this is brought about through Democratic means.

Revolutionary Socialism: Where the means of production are owned and controlled collectively. And this is brought about through revolution.

Communism: Where the means of production is owned and controlled by the state.

Social Democracy: A Captialist system, where the means of production is privately owned by individuals. However, there is a strong government presence to address social issues and provide saftey nets.

Neoliberalism: A Capitalist system, but there advocacy for a minimal or no government presence and promotes the market to be free as possible.

When you consider Sanders’ policy positions, such as Medicare for all, Green new Deal, imposing a $15 minimum wage, these are all more consistent with Social Democracy, not Democratic Socialism. Hence, there is an inconsistency concerning his understanding of Socialism. In the debate he cites Scandinavian countries as successes of Socialism, where once again reflect a Social Democratic economic structure.

Another inconsistency committed by Sanders is when he describes in the debate subsidies and tax breaks for billionaires as “Socialism for the rich”. This reduces the concept of Socialism to anything done by the government, regardless of who it is for and why, which is a far cry from the political concept defined earlier. This is because Socialism assumes collective ownership and control, which is irrelevant to government giving financial benefits to the most well off. Furthermore, this risks objections by Neoliberals claiming that they agree regarding not wanting government involvement at all; whether it be for minimum wage or subsidising billionaires.

Although I think Sanders’ treatment of Socialism is incorrect, I am at least happy to see him publicly identify as a Socialist since this combats stigma associated with the concept. And I do think he does adhere to Democratic Socialism although not directly through policies, but in his moral principles. In the debate, Sanders advocated for a stronger worker presence regarding decision making in the businesses they worked for; pointed out how the workers for Bloomberg made his wealth just as much as Bloomberg did; and he also addressed the issue of workers feeling like “cogs in a machine”. All of these things are consistent with Marxist theories of exploitation and alienation under capitalism.

So, I think Sanders is entitled to consistently describe himself as a Democratic Socialist. However, I wished he would make it clear that his policies are Social Democratic. And if he wants to advocate for Socialism, then he ought to avoid committing the same error as his critics by using incorrect examples of the concept. Nonetheless, keep fighting the good fight: Bernie or bust!