Everyone seems to be talking about socialism these days, but what does it mean? That was the question asked by Susan Webb in one of our most popular and widely-shared recent articles. Millions of Americans are considering alternatives to a system run by and for the 1 percent. They are taking an interest in socialism, a word that has meant a great many things to activists, trade unionists, politicians, and clergy around the world over the last century and a half. The article below is one of a series on socialism, what it can mean for Americans in the 21st century, and how we might get there.
On February 1, 2016 BYP100 (Black Youth Project 100) released the Agenda to Build Black Futures – a comprehensive platform of bold economic goals developed by young Black people. As one of them, I admittedly didn’t have a firm grasp on all the nuances and distinctions between the different political economies I’d often hear mentioned in social justice circles – socialism, communism, Marxism…and I still don’t. I do know, however, that capitalism has been the bane of most people’s existence (99% to be exact), and it was the reason why we needed to even draft such a document.
My co-authors and I wrote the Agenda based on what we thought would get Black and all oppressed people closer to social, economic, and political freedom. It wasn’t until after it was released and the feedback started rolling in that I heard the Agenda is, in many ways, a socialist economic platform. This, in turn, caused me to reflect on what the hell socialism even means.
The Agenda covers a lot of ground, but many of the recommendations we put forth have been articulated and fought for in the social movements of yesteryear – universal childcare, guaranteed income, baby bonds, jobs with a living wage, the right to unionize without retaliation, paid family leave, community land trusts, and cooperatives – just to name a few things.
But there are some things that today’s freedom fighters are much more vocal on, like comprehensive healthcare that covers gender-affirming and transition-related care, valuing women’s paid and unpaid labor, reproductive justice, and taking the profit out of punishment. If folks say that the Agenda is socialist, then I’ve come to some conclusions about what socialism must mean.
I understand capitalism to correspond with competition. In a capitalist society, one is measured by the quantity and quality (i.e. value) of one’s labor. Everyone is disposable. Socialism, then, must mean not having to compete to climb up a proverbial ladder because someone will inevitably be below someone else. Socialism must mean obliterating the notion of struggling to survive. In a world where poverty does not exist, neither do police (or at least not in their historically oppressive capacity). In a world where police don’t exist, neither do prisons and jails. That is the world I we had in mind in drafting the Agenda. Utopian? Most would say “definitely”. But I know its possible.
If the “playing field” is to ever be leveled, those complicit and accessory to the harms done that have caused and perpetuate the inequities that society’s most marginalized face must make amends. Yes, I’m talking about reparations.
I’m writing this on the day that the Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman will be the next face on the $20 bill to replace Andrew Jackson. Harriet Tubman was a former slave and an embodiment of anti-capitalism who risked her life to liberate the people who white men like Jackson purchased as property and whose labor they exploited. If Tubman was alive, I’m pretty sure she would rather see all those bills that her face is about to grace to go towards righting the wrongs of racist public policy over many lifetimes.
What’s really ironic is that in 1862, Congress signed off on reparations to slaveholders in D.C. that were loyal to the Union for their freed slaves. Yet, the horrors that enslaved people and their descendants endured by their hands haven’t been enough to move Congress to grant reparations. Oh, America.
In many ways, I think the aforementioned recommendations put forth in the Agenda are forms of reparations. If those same recommendations are socialist, then perhaps we should really consider this socialism thing (and self-proclaimed socialist, Bernie Sanders, should certainly reconsider his stance on reparations).
In any case, I agree with Susan Webb when she says, “Socialism is simply about rebuilding our society so that…the people who make this country run – not a tiny group of super-rich corporate profiteers – are the deciders, the planners, the policymakers.”
I disagree with Webb, though, on this notion that “socialism is rooted in American values.” Freedom is one value she listed, but freedom can’t possibly be an American value if, from its founding and at present, the structures that hold it together withhold freedom from so many people. The America I know has no values, which is why I’m committed to rebuilding an America informed by the values of freedom, justice, love, radical inclusivity, collective power, and interdependence.
Taken together, I won’t ever say that socialism is perfect – nothing is. But it’s damn better than what we have now.