Democratic Socialism across the Americas

UPDATE 6/13/2016: The full essay and the debate around it is now up at the Dissent web site, with very smart responses from Sujatha Fernandes, Thea Riofrancos, Bryan McCann, and Javier Buenrostro, as well as my reply.

What is that state of democratic socialism? What should we learn from the experience of the pink tide, both in the United States and in Latin America? I tackled this in an essay that appeared in Dissent in the spring 2016 issue; it has been translated into Spanish for Horizontal.

Sanders defines democratic socialism by pointing to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—societies with low income inequality, high-quality education, and the universal provision of social services, including healthcare. Nearly all American leftists would consider bringing the United States up to Scandinavian standards a major advance, and most would agree that no better model currently exists. But Sanders’s definition has the potential for terminological confusion. Historically, capitalism tempered by an extensive welfare state has been called “social democracy,” while “democratic socialism” has referred to a more decisive break with capitalism. For most democratic socialists, the goal is not just relative equality and generous social spending, but a radical, democratic, and participatory reorganization of economic control.

It is a lovely vision and a powerful standpoint from which to critique actually existing capitalisms and socialisms. But it remains an ideal: there are no national-level examples to point to with admiration. When political scientists Adam Przeworski and John Sprague published their classic Paper Stones in 1986, they pointed out that no political party had ever won an electoral majority promising a socialist transformation of society. “Given the minority status of workers,” they observed, “leaders of class-based parties must choose between a party homogeneous in its class appeal but sentenced to perpetual electoral defeats or a party that struggles for electoral success at the cost of diluting its class orientation.” Does this mean democratic socialism is impossible to obtain?

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