Thursday, July 5, 2012

Socialism and Democracy

I am in Paris for a big alternative-economics shindig, and I just had a short conversation that reminded me about the heading of this post.  Can the relationship between socialism and democracy be similar to the one between capitalism and democracy?  Let me explain.

Capitalism is a resilient system, based on institutions of property and the operation of markets that are deeply rooted in capitalist societies.  Capitalist countries can have governments that are led by socialists who denounce the operation of this system.  They can pass a plethora of laws controlling prices or giving workers or renters more rights or even nationalizing a few prominent enterprises.  When they are eventually voted out of office, as occurs to all governments in all democratic countries sooner or later, the system “springs back” to the extent that it was ever repressed: it continues to be fundamentally capitalist.  Thus, a believer in the virtues of capitalism can be politically opposed to anti-capitalist parties but consent to their having periodic majorities.

Of course, this is what is possible, not what normally happens.  In real life, strong supporters of capitalism tend to use all means at their disposal to suppress movements against it, up to and including imprisonment, assassination and exile.  I don’t dispute this, but at a theoretical level it is not an oxymoron to be a democratic capitalist.

Now what about socialism?  If socialism is understood to be a politically-organized arrangement in which the economy is under the control of state institutions, it cannot exist without government by socialists.  This is known to socialists, of course, whose movements in support of left-wing governments often appeal to the need to “save socialism”.  This imperative notwithstanding, socialists in democratic countries generally have a record of being relatively tolerant toward conservative parties.  But the theoretical point remains: if socialism depends on who’s in power, it cannot be compatible with democracy.

Thus the only way one can be both a socialist and a democrat is to envision and support a version of socialism that is as deeply and nonpolitically rooted as capitalism is, a system that can survive bouts of right-wing government relatively unscathed.  The term “democratic socialism” is fairly restrictive in the sort of socialism it can refer to.


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