What is 21st Century Socialism?

The word “Socialism” is an umbrella term, encompassing many strains of thought, laden with historical connotations, and stigmatized heavily (especially here in America). When one identifies as a socialist, one conjures up in the minds of others the image of Stalin, of the Cold War, of tyranny. This makes it difficult to have a conversation about the ideas of socialism, because the person who advocates it, and the person it is being advocated to, often have such radically different notions of what exactly is being discussed.

In light of this, I think it is important for me to lay out a brief summary of what I mean when I call myself a “socialist”. It has become necessary to lay out my vision of socialism in depth to sidestep confusion and to broaden other people’s understanding of the term.

When I say I am a socialist, I do not mean that I support Stalin or Mao. I do not advocate a small group of people running the entire society in whatever way they want. I do not believe in dictators, I do not believe in bureaucracy, I do not believe in authoritarian hierarchies, and I do not believe in adhering strictly to 19th century philosophical dogma.

Broadly speaking, socialism for me means the restructuring of society such that it operates systematically in the interest of common people as opposed to the wealthy who dominate our economic and political system. I want more democracy; in the political arena, in the economic realm, and in the workplace. I want more people to have more control over their own lives, and I want to use the power of the State to ensure that every citizen has access to a high quality education, high quality healthcare, and a robust public sphere that ensures no one lives in poverty, that promotes environmental sustainability, that reintroduces the concept of community into people’s lives, that expands public transportation and creates high paying jobs aimed at improving our infrastructure and updating the way we create, transport, and use energy for the 21st century. I support technology that replaces human workers, so that people may be freed from wage slavery, and be allowed to have enough free time to develop themselves, their hobbies, and their interests outside of any concern for money. But in order for that to happen, we need to have a political system that redistributes the wealth created by these technologies to all people, probably in the form of a basic income (a monthly amount of a couple thousand dollars for every adult American citizen). The money for a basic income will come via the massive wealth produced by exponentially evolving automation and A.I. technologies.

Under capitalism, the inevitable rise of automation will create massive wealth, but that wealth will go to a very small group of people who own those machines, while the rest of us get laid off and thrown into the welfare lines. As automation continues to replace every job, Americans will be left with nothing but service industry jobs (customer service, waiters and waitresses, etc.). And even those service industry jobs can be largely automated eventually (some already are). This will lead to even more reckless wealth inequality, it will put a huge strain on our social safety net as fewer people have jobs to pay taxes on, and more people need government assistance to get by. Only by socializing the wealth of the 21st century economy can we hope to have a stable, prosperous nation for us and our children.

Long ago Marx argued that capitalism produces the means of its own downfall. Marx couldn’t have predicted Artificial Intelligence, 3D printing, or Hyper-Automation, but he saw the vague outline of these problems, and predicted it would put too much internal pressure on capitalism, eventually resulting in its demise. Capitalism sows the seeds of its own transcendence. This is precisely what is beginning to happen now. Most people do not see what is right in front of their face: things are changing, and changing fast. There is nothing in human history that can act as a precedent to what we are starting to see emerge. Capitalism is a 18th and 19th century philosophy that has served us well in our transition away from monarchies and aristocracies, but has now begun to outlive its usefulness. In a 21st century context, capitalism continues to look less and less tenable as we move with a frightful pace into the future.

It’s time to re-imagine society; to think outside the box. And just as capitalism is an old ideology, so is 19th century versions of socialism. We do not need to recreate the Soviet Union; we do not need to adhere strictly to Marx or Lenin. We do not need to try and force the round peg of Old Socialism into the square hole of 21st century realities. Our socialism needs to be an evolved version; one that learns from the mistakes of the past, one that avoids dictatorships and tyrannies at all cost. We need to re-define socialism for our times, and that means implementing in the realities and possibilities of 21st century technology.

By abolishing the profit motive in socially indispensable industries, we can begin to move in the proper direction.  Let’s nationalize the banks, making them into democratic institutions that serve the interests of the society, and not the interests of CEOs and Stock Holders. Let’s nationalize the energy companies, and make them into sustainable institutions meant to rationally and morally fuel our civilization instead of lining the pockets of a small group of very rich people sitting atop private corporations. Let’s put money and resources into the development of automative technologies, quickening the pace in which they are installed and marrying that with an economic and political system that is ready for it; that anticipates and prepares for it. We do not need to wage a bloody revolution or Civil War in order to bring this about, we merely need to open our eyes to the reality of historical development, and stop letting ourselves be dominated by forces that we can and should bring under democratic control. We are in a transition period, perhaps the biggest and most significant transition period in all of human history. To cling to capitalism in that context is to be pathological. What socialism will look like has yet to be fully fleshed out, but that is precisely because we reject dogma and we believe that power should be in the hands of common, but informed, people, who can decide how they want their communities and countries to be structured. We do not pretend to have all of the answers, we only claim to have a solid grip on the problems and an outline of where to go from here.

When you ask Americans about socialism, they often respond negatively, because this country has a century of taboos and stigmas about socialism embedded inside the minds of its citizens. But when you ask Americans questions that leave buzz words out and which aren’t loaded with political bias, Americans routinely support socialist principles: A fair society where the most vulnerable are taken care of, a society without a massive inequality of wealth, a society where everyone is well educated and healthy, a society where everyone has true equality of opportunity, and a society that not only allows, but ensures, that every American has a high quality of life. And isn’t that a society that you want your children to live in? Where you know that when you die, and as your children age, they won’t be forced to work into their 70’s? Doesn’t everyone want their family to be protected from poverty, destitution, and crime? After all, crime is an outgrowth of poverty. When you have money, when you have a home, when you have an education, when you have healthcare, and when you have opportunities for advancement, you don’t tend to turn to crime. You have something to lose. Its only when large segments of our population have nothing to lose that we get high crime rates that put us all in danger. Only in a society that is grossly unfair, alienating and shallow do we get people who want to walk into a movie theater or a school and shoot innocent people at random. A healthy society does not have these problems, and they are symptoms of a deep structural sickness. We have it within our ability to change all of that, but we have to fight for it.

Socialism is not Utopia. There is no such thing as a Utopia. And it’s true that when we solve all the problems I discuss above, new problems will still arise. But those new problems will be the problems faced by a greater civilization; those problems will be reflections of the fact that we took the next step in human cultural development, and they will stand as a testament to our progress. Our children and grandchildren can work on them and solve them, but they shouldn’t have to solve OUR problems. It is our duty to solve our problems, and sticking with the same institutions and systems of power and wealth that we have had for over two centuries is not the way to do that. Change can be scary, I admit. But change is going to happen, whether we are ready for it or not. The best thing we can do is think deeply about those changes, and begin to fashion our society in such a way that we can face those changes confidently and with adequate preparation.

We are at a crossroads as a species: either we dramatically reform ourselves and our institutions, or we will be met with catastrophe. Our oceans are dying, our climate is changing, wealth inequality is the highest it’s ever been in modern history, and our political systems are increasingly unable to deal with the large issues that face us. We can either stand up and move boldly into the future, or we can huddle like scared animals around the status quo and wait for chaos. The decision is ours…

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