Rights and Democratic Socialism

Democratic socialism is above all a war against the forms of tyranny the Founders were not positioned to consider.


Why democratic socialism? It’s the only political scheme that centers individual rights within an industrial economy. Now that Sanders is doing well in the polls, you’ll be drowning in negative propaganda about what democratic socialism entails. Let’s settle some confusion.

What you may already know:

  1. The nation’s founders fought for political independence from the British monarchy. The colonists wanted to govern themselves and not have their lives or property (including enslaved Africans) directed by some foreign parliament or the capricious desires of King George.
  2. Freedom is a matter of making and enacting your own plans. If an alien power effectively makes demands on your actions, you can’t make and enact your own plans. In general, your actions should confirm who you are, not alienate you from who you think you are. If you are always enacting plans you don’t recognize as your own, you aren’t living a self-determining life; you are a living tool of someone else’s will.
  3. To be free, any power that controls your actions has to be sanctioned by your own judgment or your fair participation in the process out of which you are acting.
  4. Acting out into the world entails interacting with other people. One way we do this is through our recognized roles in civil society. Civil society is the system of mutually enforcing market-based interactions through which have our needs met while meeting other people’s needs. Without this organized system of need satisfaction, we’d all be at the mercy of nature and other people’s capricious expressions of power.
  5. Rights are how freedom gets into the world, and they are institution-specific. In the game Monopoly, you have a right to $200 every time you pass “Go,” regardless of your income beforehand, what you rolled to pass go, or which token you have on the board. It’s also not up to the banker’s discretion. However, that right is specific to the institution of Monopoly. You can’t expect some banker to give you $200 if you play Pay Day or Buy It Right. Political and social rights are also institution-specific. The rights you have as workers are different from the rights you have as citizens, which are different from the rights you have as spouses. But as rights, once established, they all entail equal opportunity to be exercised and are not simply privileges of a few.

Here is what you may not know:

95 percent of the U.S. workforce are employees, and the U.S. Founders were not thinking about employees as citizens when they designed our Constitution.

Except for the plantation economy, colonial life was pre-industrial. The U.S. revolutionaries assumed that universal self-employment for citizens was a viable aspiration. When 18th-century political economists like Adam Smith write about the virtues of factory life, they are writing about a ten-person factory. (Really, Adam Smith’s famous pin factory was ten people.) The cotton gin and the large steam mills hadn’t yet been invented. There was also a functionally infinite amount of land to be stolen from Native Americans for expansion.

Neither our Constitution nor our conception of rights were designed for a nation of employees as citizens. John Locke wasn’t thinking about employees, and Thomas Jefferson wasn’t thinking of employees as citizens. The U.S. Constitution was not designed for a society almost entirely based on wage labor any more than it was designed to address vaping.

The Constitution also wasn’t designed for independent spouses. So we need labor law to establish employee rights and family law to establish spousal rights in addition to our original Constitution, lest employees and female spouses be ruled by the whims of others as property. And since the Founders did not have to worry about industrial pollution, we also need environmental law to secure the right to imbibe polluted resources. This is how a more robust rights discourse secures our freedom to act against the capricious whims of those forces who would use our actions as merely their tools.

From the Founders on through Lincoln, the assumption was that everyone would be self-employed in some way as the ground of their independence. For Lincoln, being an employee was a season in one’s early life before one became self-employed in one’s own shop. If you want a tidy book on this, check out Private Government by Elizabeth Anderson.

However, universal self-employment is not a model for a modern industrial economy. As of 2020, the official size of a “small business” in the U.S. was 500 or fewer employees. 95 percent of the U.S. workforce works for someone else. To be clear: employment is not a season; it’s a fact of modern life, for which I’m thankful. There are enormous perks of having an industrial economy that depends on permanent employees. Yet modern tyranny does not come from a foreign monarch; tyranny comes in the form of a capricious boss or a company board that cares more about shareholder profit than it does about your self-determination.

A twitter follower emailed this to me as an exhibition of 2020 work life:

To reiterate, your freedom depends on your actions confirming who you are, and not having your actions or aspirations be asymmetrically directed by some other person’s opinion or the company’s risk management team.

In order to be self-determining, you need some sort of institutionalized say in your work conditions, including a say in the boundary between where your work life begins and ends. It’s not enough to say, “You chose this job”, in a world where the choices are between one tyrannical workplace and another tyrannical workplace. In addition, the trauma of having to change jobs also frustrates your ability to make plans and enact them in your life, that is, our lack of enforced labor law frustrates your freedom by turning you into the tool of your own alienation.

Democratic socialists fight for self-determination by establishing the adequate social and political rights to ensure fair participation in our mutually reinforcing institutions of civil society. These are the institutions through which we all meet and have our needs met. Democratic socialists take the institutions of alien control and put them under or balance them with social and political institutions of which you are an empowered member, e.g., labor unions. In this way, democratic socialism is a step towards completing America.

Consider the capricious influences in our lives. If you save 20 years to buy the house of your dreams, but then you go to the doctor and get one bad cancer diagnosis, poof, twenty years of your life is washed away in medical bills. The bills are almost as big of a drag as the Chemo. We all know people who have avoided calling an ambulance because the emergency bill. When the costs of transportation are more degrading than the ailment, we are in a bad way, all the more so because these are preventable problems.

Then there is the capriciousness inherent in market forces themselves. Markets are great. Really, markets are great. I do not want to grow my own food; I want to go to Kroger. But there is a reason why firms invest in risk management teams. It’s because risk is a problem for firms achieving their plans, and the risk management team’s real job is risk avoidance, concentrating risk and pushing it off to more vulnerable entities. The market is not going to save the 1.5 million truckers who will be moved out by automation. A Federal Job Guarantee will address this issue, which means that we are dealing with preventable harms with political solutions. And we still get our driverless trucks.

The workers are still Americans, and by right, we need to secure them a good, productive job in public works shoring up the material or cultural infrastructure our market-based civil society requires, and not assume that the private market is going to absorb them at fair wages and working conditions. This is why, for example, democratic socialists like Sanders push for a Federal Job Guarantee.

Then there is the information problem. Whether we are talking about the 2003 Iraq invasion or the relative worth of a college degree, misinformation leads nations into wars and individual students into loan debt. In both cases, if freedom entails making and enacting plans for our lives, much of the information out of which we make our plans is harmful propaganda. For any democratic socialism to obtain, it’s going to include government transparency and ready access to the relevant and competing information out of which we make our plans.

How does democratic socialism secure self-determination?

Unfettered capitalism will give you the freedom of the gazelle running in the savanna, which only feels like freedom if the gazelle is ignorant of the lions; corporate socialism will allow large companies to form cartels to fix prices, exploit labor across the sector, and degrade products; authoritarian communism will subordinate the rights of individuals to the party; however, democratic socialism secures self-determination through articulating individual rights for individuals to exercise power through their social and political institutions.

The primary unit is always the individual in democratic socialism, not the shareholder’s or owner’s profit, i.e., capitalism; or the party boss, i.e., communism, but the individual citizen. The individual citizen as property holder, spouse, worker, civilian, legal subject, etc. This individual has the property, labor, healthcare, domestic, and environmental rights installed so that individuals are never at the asymmetrical mercy of those institutions through which they live their lives. Instead of being an anxious gazelle in the savanna, the individual is secured a fair say as a matter of right in the institutions that govern her life. Whether those institutions are her job, her family, her environment, or her healthcare.

That’s why Sanders’ slogan #notmeus is important. Democratic socialism is not offering the benign dictatorship of competent administrative liberalism, which is what you’ll get with Warren and her plans; rather, democratic socialism offers self-determination, the ability to participate in all aspects of your life through institutions of self-governance, e.g., we are going to unionize Amazon so that warehouse conditions are symmetrically negotiated by workers and management.

The institutions of tyranny in these United States expose us to preventable harms, and better politics is how we secure our redress so that the nation works to enable and mutually reinforce our rights: our property rights, our labor rights, our domestic rights, our environmental rights, our healthcare rights. Rights are simply the way that freedom gets into the world.

For a peak into the future, legal care for all is a project I am working on because you can’t be free in a nation of laws when only a small subset of the population has access to lawyers. The next front on the march for freedom is going to be legal care on the model of single payer healthcare.

(For more information about that, check out Richard Dien Winfield’s Senate campaign.)

But remember, democratic socialism is above all a war against the forms of tyranny the Founders were not positioned to consider. Democratic socialism empowers the people by securing them the social and political rights to fight the war against capricious external powers, be they your boss or your wealthy landlord, powers that would otherwise determine the content of your individual actions.


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