Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin and author of The Socialist Manifesto, explains what socialism could actually look like in the United States
DHARNA NOOR Welcome back to The Real News Network where I’m continuing my conversation with Bhaskar Sunkara who is the founding Editor of Jacobin Magazine. We’re here today to discuss his new book The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality. Thanks for being back.
BHASKAR SUNKARA Thanks for having me back again.
DHARNA NOOR So we talked in part one about your argument that we need to move past a social democracy and move to democratic socialism. But what would that actually look like? What would it look like to take this expansion of the welfare state, call for more of a cushion for citizens, and move to something that’s actually democratically-controlled and planned?
BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah, yeah. So in my mind, what I want to think about is what’s the minimum feasible vision of socialism? In other words, what’s a vision of socialism that fits our criteria for, okay, this is socialism? No longer a social democracy, no longer a reformed capitalism, but also isn’t a giant leap into the unknown, that isn’t a year zero. We’re just going to construct everything from scratch. I would say at the very least, let’s imagine we have 1970s Sweden times two, a very expansive welfare state and the decommodification of the core necessities of life. By decommodification I just mean, taking certain things out of the market and making them enjoyed as social rights. So housing, nutrition, child care, education, health care— these are things that right now your access to can depend on just accidents of birth. In a just society, these things would be taken out of the market. In doing so, if you push this logic far enough, you actually— in itself, might be a society that you wouldn’t really characterize in the same way as capitalists. In that, the core feature of capitalism isn’t markets but it’s market dependence. So we had markets before we had capitalism, and we’ll probably have markets after we have capitalism. What’s unique about capitalism is that people are forced to trade their labor for cash. They’re forced into this new labor market. They can’t sustain themselves elsewhere. And even the minority of people who own production, are in fact competing with each other in the market. So capitalists too are market dependent. You can’t be socialist, though, if these social programs are just funded by capitalist firms in taxing them and distributing them. It obviously would be a way better society than the one we have now, but it doesn’t go far enough. So imagine then taking these firms and socializing them, so workers would control them. They might not own them because maybe we’d want the state to own them and workers would in effect rent that asset from the state. And then, pay a tax on the capital assets that they’re renting, but then compete with each other in a market, have state financing in a way for new firms to be created, and fundamentally, have a condition where even if firms have to fail and even if that’s one way to maintain efficiency in these consumer good creating, little worker-controlled firms, the penalty for failure isn’t starvation and deprivation. The penalty is just simply bouncing under this cushion of this general welfare state. Then, we’re getting retrained and going into a growing sector instead. So for me, the goal isn’t just to give workers more rights on the job. It’s also to give them the ability to exit entirely. So voice and exit too.
DHARNA NOOR And not even just if your firm fails. You’re saying even if it’s just because somebody wants to quit their job and start a new career or just quit their job, you can just chill on the welfare state for a while.
BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah, exactly. It might be that the people that are— there might be some inequities we exercise as a society [are] acceptable. For example, if I’m working 30 hours a week and you’re working 10 hours a week, maybe I have more access to be able to go on vacation, or something. The question is for us to democratically to decide what inequities are unacceptable. In other words, what are the inequities that give me power and control over other people and what inequities are acceptable. In the same way that we might say that in a complex society we might need to have some degree of hierarchy in that we have really complex divisions of labor and whatnot. But how do we make these hierarchies that might still persist, democratically accountable? How can we make it so that there are not the extreme forms of exploitation and domination that we see today? But the best way to solve these things is through democracy. So I think there should be a huge role for planning what socialists used to call the “commanding heights of the economy,” setting certain rules to the game, and thinking about long-term investment projects, big environmental projects, and so on, and so on. And also, there are certain spheres that the state should just run like health care, for instance. There’s no reason why there should be competing little private firms that are worker-owned, offering people health care, but there’s other spheres for consumer goods where I do think a competitive market economy would be fine and it still resolves our fundamental problem with capitalism, which is that it gives some people tremendous power over others. So the wage-labor relation is one of our big problems with capitalism and that doesn’t have to exist.
DHARNA NOOR So your animal needs are met by what’s only controlled by the public sector, and then any consumer goods on top of that can be competing in a market place?
BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah. Sure, sure. And obviously a regulated marketplace. I think over time, maybe the problems with planning that have emerged in the past— both calculation and incentive problems— might be resolved by automation, super abundance, and things like that. But I just want to start with the most feasible, minimum version of a just society. I’ll then just say, that’s the beginning of a long, decades-long process of evolution and political debate. It’s not necessarily the end goal. I might be more skeptical about the capacity of humans to truly, let’s say, live in a world without where the state withers away and there’s just the free association of producers—
DHARNA NOOR Move beyond hierarchy.
BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah. And so on. But I am confident, for example, that we don’t need a repressive state that runs these prisons and these police forces, and I think a lot of these things are the product of living in violent, unjust class societies and not something intrinsic about our nature as human beings.
DHARNA NOOR So speaking of which, you also make the argument that in pushing for this socialism, we can also undo, or at least start to undo, some other forms of oppression. So things like racism, sexism, misogyny— you ask people to imagine a world, for instance, in which people are more free to leave abusive relationships and marriages. Talk about why that’s true and why that’s important especially in the face of the “Bernie bro” narrative where the only people who care about economic rights are white dudes and people like us don’t exist.
BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah. I think what’s key is that if we want to fight racism, we want to fight sexism effectively, we need to be thinking about distributing power and resources to marginalized groups. And that means talking about class. And it doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize the way in which people feel oppression differently, but it does mean that we’re serious about redistributing power and wealth. And we’re serious also about creating a type of politics that is about uniting working-class people without downplaying the differences between us. So even today on even parts of the left, I think there’s a tendency to say that white workers, they’re not oppressed. The socialist argument isn’t that they’re not oppressed. The socialist argument is that any privilege that they have, is a relative privilege because if we were truly living in a just society then they would be given more power and more rights. It might be that their gains are smaller than the gains than let’s say a black woman living in America today would be. In a different sort of society, it might be that a jobs-guaranteeing universal health care impacts white workers to a smaller degree than black workers— or even criminal justice reform. Many working-class and poor white people are many times more likely to be killed by the police than white people in Europe, for instance. But this commonality, I think, should give us hope. It should give us hope that we can actually create a broad, multiracial working-class movement. And a lot of the caricatures being thrown around about socialists, about even Bernie Sanders’s pretty mild program of reform, I think is by people who don’t actually want to live in a radical egalitarian society. I don’t think they’re racist. I think they really would be happy if ten percent of the CEOs were black, half of them were women, and whatever else, but they don’t want us to question why there are any CEOs at all?
DHARNA NOOR Right.
BHASKAR SUNKARA I’m for an affirmative action program. I’m for anything we can do to address disparities. I’m for even women in the professional class and owning class that are speaking up against harassment and discrimination. I’m not against these things. It just to me is way less substantive than our broader working-class solutions to inequities.
DHARNA NOOR Yeah. You’re very clear in the book about having an appreciation for those kinds of reformist politics too. But then, is it our responsibility to be honest and clear about what folks like Sanders or even AOC are pushing for? Do we need to say yes, this person is a social democrat and is not advocating for x, y, z thing, is not going to change the system of ownership in United States?
BHASKAR SUNKARA I don’t really think so in that— I think we need to create the conditions in which we could actually put radical questions on the table. So if you can’t fight for Medicare for All, how are you going to fight for worker ownership of the means of production? To me, you need a stronger working-class, more organized working-class. You need a more militant movement. You need all sorts of prerequisites to even get to that point. Within the left, on The Real News Network, in our discussions, in DSA chapters, I think we should be clear about how we differentiate ourselves from reform traditions. But as far as doing the popular work next to and with people who might identify as liberals, or might identify as social democrats, or whatever else— I think we shouldn’t get hung up on terminological differences though. I really do believe that in the long run, we want to live in a society that no longer has capital, no longer as bosses. There’s this old line from the German United Front song, this very famous— I guess the equivalent of what “Solidarity Forever” is to us, it’s to the German movement— and it goes like—
DHARNA NOOR Are you going to sing it? [laughs]
BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah. I will not sing it. I will not. I will not attempt the German either, but it goes like, “we want no servants underfoot and no masters over us.” And I think that’s what the working-class demand is. It’s freedom, but it’s freedom not to exploit others. It’s a freedom from exploitation.
DHARNA NOOR Word. How do you undertake that kind of political project though, when there is such a mistrust of government generally? We’re talking now here in Baltimore as the mayor just resigned in this cloud of just crazy corruption scandals. Folks who love Donald Trump, love him often because he’s draining the swamp. Folks who don’t like Donald Trump, have more mistrust of government now because of his policies. So how do you advocate for something that involves so much more planning and such a big public sector?
BHASKAR SUNKARA Well I think the starting point is telling people they deserve more, that in fact it’s not their fault, deindividualizing these problems. So right now, I think as Americans, we’re often trained that if you’re out of a job, you need to reformat your CV, or you need to take a coding class, or something like that. If you’re struggling with medical debt, I don’t know, you should have visited the doctor more, exercised, ate better, or whatever else. This is the mentality that I think most people have. And the reason why I, as someone with further left politics, was inspired by the Sanders campaign is because I saw how many ordinary people in the US started to demand and expect more and the message that really resonated with them that it’s not your fault. These are social problems. These are problems that are instigated by a minority that benefits from the precarious state that capitalism is leaving you in, and that there are collective solutions to these problems. I think if you focus on those things and less on this abstract conversation of the government versus whatever else, people will support the programs. People want a government takeover of health care. A majority of Americans, close to the majority of Republicans do. So we just need to stick to be the issues and push the message that this isn’t your fault and any solution to working-class problems is gonna have to be collective. If you want to improve conditions in your workplace, you have to form a union because working people can negotiate the way that professionals can. If I was doing a consulting job for a magazine, I could go in and say you can’t pay me $20 an hour, I want 30 dollars an hour, but workers have to do it collectively in the workplace. In the same way, we have to collectively work through parties and through the state— even if we’re trying to transform that state, not just wield it.
DHARNA NOOR I guess I’ll finish up by asking you why this is the right moment for a book like this, and who you hope reads this? This book is aggressively readable, and I think that’s counter to what we’ve seen from lots of socialist literature and socialist text before.
BHASKAR SUNKARA Yeah. I’m 29 now. I became a socialist when I was 14-15 years old. And for me, coming to this politics and understanding the world from a socialist perspective and whatnot, took a lot of picking up different pieces of the puzzle at different times and trying to discover old books and trying to get in conversations with people. At the time when I joined DSA, it was only 5,000 members, so it was a much smaller network of people. I wanted to just create a primer that people can dive into, that they can give to their friends, that also doesn’t dumb it down either. So it’s a tough thing to do, but to make sure that people are grappling with at times difficult ideas, but they don’t feel like, “I’m not smart enough to understand this” or “I’m missing something” or whatnot. The barrier shouldn’t be our language, so it should be approachable without being dumbed down. It’s a middlebrow primer on socialism. I think if people really want to dive deep into it, they should look at the footnotes, look at the index, and there’s— oh shit. Don’t look at the index because that just refers to the other parts of the book. [laughter] But look at the footnotes and there’s a lot of other great, great works by socialists who give you an even deeper and even richer understanding.
DHARNA NOOR Alright. Bhaskar Sunkara on his new middlebrow primer on socialism, The Socialist Manifesto. Thanks for being here with us today.
BHASKAR SUNKARA Thanks, appreciate it.
DHARNA NOOR And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.