Progressives are known for their blanket denunciations of “big business” and consolidated corporate power. Yet amid their sweeping disdain, such critics somehow manage to maintain a peculiar affection for the consolidation of much, much more.
Alas, although today’s so-called “democratic socialists” try to claim distinction among their peers by emphasizing popular control—as opposed to the typical authoritarian shtick—the “democratization” of all things via political control will still surely lead to greater consolidations of power at the expense of many—particularly minorities and the least powerful.
In a review of the movement, Conor Friedersdorf highlights the underlying irony, noting that democratic socialists fail to foresee the various fruits of inequity that are bound to bloom. “To most Americans, ‘democracy’ always sounds appealing,” Friedersdorf writes. “But many young people who say they’re ‘democratic socialists’ may fail to grasp all that minorities would lose if democracy were radically less constrained by the political and economic system under which we currently live.”
As an example of the prevailing attitudes, Friedersdorf points to a Jacobin essay, in which the authors argue for the “socialization of power” and that “capitalists shouldn’t be able to hold all that power and impact all of society—it’s undemocratic and unjust.” They continue: “The core aim of socialism is not just the state gaining control of industry, but empowering the broad masses of people—in their workplaces, in their communities, in their homes, in their schools, in their politics—to be in the driver’s seat of society.”
And how should such democratization actually manifest? Through “grassroots state planning agencies, workers’ cooperatives, participatory boards.”
This, of course, ignores the reality of the current capitalistic status quo, through which everyday consumers, not “capitalists,” hold the actual economic power. If you doubt this, ask the “capitalists” of MySpace, Compaq, Blockbuster, Sears, AOL, or any other big-business casualty of non-political economic “democratization” and bottom-up individual empowerment.
In weighing these alternatives, Friedersdorf aptly identifies the basic contradiction and conceit of “democratic socialism” and where it ultimately leads:
Instead of individual capitalists deciding what to produce in their endlessly varied, constantly competing private businesses, “without any democratic input from the rest of society,” control over industry and decisions about what to produce would reside in state planning agencies. And imagine their decisions perfectly, if improbably, reflect the actual democratic will of workers, whether in the nation; or a state, like Ohio or Utah; or a metropolitan area, like Maricopa County or Oklahoma City.
Popular control is finally realized! So: How popular is Islam? How many Muslim prayer rugs would the democratic majority of workers vote to produce? How many Korans? How many head scarves? How much halal meat would be slaughtered? What share of construction materials would a majority of workers apportion to new mosques?
Under capitalism, the mere existence of buyers reliably gives rise to suppliers. Relying instead on democratic decisions would pose a big risk for Muslims. And Sikhs. And Hindus. And Jews. And maybe even Catholics.
Right now, under capitalism, vegetarians and vegans have more options every year. But there aren’t very many of them. Five percent of Americans are vegetarians. Three percent are vegans. Would “the workers” find a societal need to produce vegan meat or milk substitutes? No one knows the answer.
How important would worker majorities consider hair products for African Americans? What if a majority of workers decided that only English-language commercial reading material should be printed in the United States?
The cognitive dissonance is real, and once we fully flesh out the implications, the supposed distinctions of the socialism’s “democratic” variety mostly disappear.
“Today’s democratic socialists earnestly want to avoid mass atrocities,” Friedersdorf concludes. “They believe they can do so by substituting extreme democracy for top-down socialism. But that very extremity comes with its own unique problems, and their ‘solution’ would still consolidate power that is now widely dispersed across different realms of society with different hierarchies.”
Let us remember: The democratic socialist’s proposed utopia is a world in which power across the economic order (and beyond) is taken from the hands of consumers and consolidated in “state planning agencies.” Citizens who don’t like the products or services or economic outcomes are robbed of any recourse outside of the next election, in which the minority’s economic grievances will surely be blips on the majority’s radar. You’re not imagining things: All of this sounds oddly familiar, and
Indeed, while America’s progressives are already eye-ing the tip-top of the top-down, the reality is that even the most rosy of the proposed mechanisms fall terribly short. From “grassroots state planning agencies” to “workers’ cooperatives” to “participatory boards,” each is far less responsive and more prone to collectivist, discriminatory mischief than capitalism’s bottom-up alternative: simply empowering individuals to freely trade, invest, and consume, offering market feedback using plain old price signals and the mundane glories of entrepreneurship and economic exchange.
If we truly hope to “decentralize” or “deconsolidate” economic power, the answer is not the politicization of all things, which is what these calls to “democratization” actually are. If we hope to raise free and virtuous citizens who pioneer new paths and institutions for genuine prosperity, community and human relationship, the answer is not to throw our economic decisions to the whims of political mobs—“grassroots,” “democratic,” “cooperative,” or otherwise.
Rather than forming new voting committees and community politburos, we should focus on diminishing corporate-political cronyism and barriers to entry where they actually exist, unleashing and empowering the creative spirit of each individual, in turn.
Image: David Shankbone (CC BY 2.0)