By R.N. Carmona
Isms abound and nuance is sorely needed. I think my readers ought to follow my lead and shed their isms. In place of these various isms, they should offer clear definitions of what they mean by these isms. I think definitions are more robust and are more capable of giving, especially detractors, an idea of what a label means in practice. I will now outline a few of my various isms and unpack them, so that people can start to see the absurdity of opposing some of them. In place of these labels, I will offer explanations for why I identity with these views.
Atheism is not merely an epistemic stance concerning belief in god, but a robust philosophical position that contains an analytic component. Analytic atheism is concerned with what is meant by theism and what is meant by God. Atheists, however, will not always agree with the answers provided by theists. A theist may respond to the first question and say that God is existence. An atheist might object by saying that such a definition is inconsistent with what theists commonly profess and that what they usually profess is much more elementary. God, for example, is man-like. He is pleased or displeased; given the latter, he is prone to anger. Furthermore, he purportedly has properties that cannot be attributed to mere existence: he is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, timeless. The atheist could also respond by stating that defining God as existence is much too vague. The aim of a definition is description; this definition, however, fails to describe what is meant by God.
Analytic atheism also attempts to answer the question: what is atheism? To accomplish this, however, the normative component has to be consulted. The analytic component will provide theories of atheism or more simply, accounts of what atheism should be, therefore providing possible answers to the question of normative atheism. The analytic component is therefore, responsible for determining which account best captures what atheism is or alternatively, what an atheist is.
What an atheist is, is perhaps best defined by the approach s/he chooses. The approach chosen or a combination of these approaches might help us to arrive at a better definition of atheism. There’s fallibilism, deductive atheology, and inductive atheology. The latter two are encompassed by evidentialism. This position is arguably most familiar to modern atheists:
[A]theists have taken the view that whether or not a person is justified in having an attitude of belief towards the proposition, “God exists,” is a function of that person’s evidence. “Evidence” here is understood broadly to include a priori arguments, arguments to the best explanation, inductive and empirical reasons, as well as deductive and conceptual premises. An asymmetry exists between theism and atheism in that atheists have not offered faith as a justification for non-belief. That is, atheists have not presented non-evidentialist defenses for believing that there is no God.
McCormick, Matt. “Atheism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web. 21 Dec 2014
A priori arguments fall in the purview of deductive atheology. Such atheists would argue that the traditional view of God is incoherent. Such a God is not possible on this view. The characteristics God purportedly has are contradictory either in and of themselves or when one attempts to reconcile them. Take for example J.L Mackie’s explication of the Omnipotence Paradox: “can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control? Or, what is practically equivalent to this, can an omnipotent being make rules which then bind himself?” (Mackie, J. L. 1955. Evil and omnipotence. Mind 64 (254): 200-212. Available on web.). This is a more generalized version of the Omnipotence Paradox, which usually asks: can God create a stone he cannot lift? Therefore, the paradox can be viewed as an argument attempting to show that omnipotence is incoherent in and of itself. The argument attempts to accomplish this by dividing omnipotence into two components, which I call functional and physical. Functional omnipotence is the capacity to will anything whilst physical omnipotence is the capacity to do anything. Therefore, the argument attempts to show that it is possible that God could will something he cannot do, in Mackie’s case, will something that he cannot control or in the general case, will the existence of a stone so heavy that he cannot complete the particular task of lifting it.
Another route such an atheist takes is the attempt to show that any given attributes of God are irreconcilable.
The combination of omnipotence and omniscience have received a great deal of attention. To possess all knowledge, for instance, would include knowing all of the particular ways in which one will exercise one’s power, or all of the decisions that one will make, or all of the decisions that one has made in the past. But knowing any of those entails that the known proposition is true. So does God have the power to act in some fashion that he has not foreseen, or differently than he already has without compromising his omniscience? It has also been argued that God cannot be both unsurpassably good and free.McCormick, Ibid.
Another route available to such an atheist is to argue that we have not been offered an adequate concept of god (see Smart, J.J.C. “Atheism and Agnosticism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9 Mar 2004. Web. 21 Dec 2014.). Concepts of god are often relative to this or that religion or subjective to this or that individual. Such concepts often do not agree with one another.
Perhaps the final route such an atheist can take is to argue that the failure of theistic arguments entails atheism. In other words, since arguments for God fail, it is reasonable to hold that god does not exist. Such an atheist, for example, will argue that since the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails to prove that God created the universe, we should believe that such an agent did not create the universe. Alternatively, she will argue that since the Ontological Argument fails to show the existence of a necessary being, this being is instead impossible. Whether or not these arguments hold are of no interest at the time. This is, however, how such an atheist will proceed.
An atheist operating under inductive atheology has several possible approaches. Whether or not one can prove a negative is too tangential a topic to cover here, but assuming it’s possible, one could offer Michael Martin’s argument:
P1 [A]ll the available evidence used to support the view that X exists is shown to be inadequate; and
P2 X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then there is a presumption that would be evidence adequate to support the view that X exists; and
P3 this presumption has not been defeated although serious efforts have been made to do so; and
P4 the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined; and
P5 there are no acceptable beneficial reasons to believe that X exists.Martin, Michael, 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
What makes this argument inductive is P3 and P4. P3 and P4 hold hitherto and thus, there is the tacit assumption that they will hold going forward. In other words, that the future will resemble the past.
Naturalism is another argument available to an atheist operating under inductive atheology. This is, in fact, the prevalent approach among modern day atheists. Atheists may disagree on the details and therefore, espouse different sorts of naturalism. However, the more prominent forms are metaphysical and methodological. Methodological naturalism has two primary forms: constructive and deflationary. Deflationary is based on–not exclusively–the Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA). Arthur Fine describes it as follows:
I certainly trust the evidence of my senses, on the whole with regard to the existence and features of everyday objects. And I have similar confidence in the “cheek, double-check, check, tripe-check” of scientific investigation…So if scientists tell me that there really are molecules and atoms, and…who knows maybe even quarks, then so be it. I trust them and, thus, must accept that there really are such things with their attendant properties and relations.Arthur Fine as quoted in Ritchie, Jack. Understanding Naturalism. Stocksfield, England: Acumen, 2008. 97. Print.
NOA is an alternative to scientific realism and anti-realism. “Both realism and anti-realism add an unwanted philosophical gloss to science” (Ibid.). Therefore, the position neither agrees with scientific realism nor anti-realism. At first glance, NOA may sound exactly like scientific realism, but there are key differences that should be considered (e.g. the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t factor into Fine’s NOA). Constructive naturalism differs from NOA because it “involves commitment to a definite method for resolving ontological matters” (Ibid.).Such a naturalist may make use of, for example, Quine’s Naturalized Epistemology.
Metaphysical naturalism absorbs methodological naturalism. The view could be defined as follows:
Metaphysical naturalism seeks to explain every feature of our reality through only natural entities and causes, without the need of god(s) or the supernatural in any part of one’s worldview and life philosophy. In other words, a “big picture” explanation of reality can be reached without any appeal to religion, making religions such as Christianity unnecessary and extraneous to answering the big questions in life.Ferguson, Matthew. “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism”. Civitas Humana. 26 Apr 2014. Web. 21 Dec 2014.
Metaphysical naturalism is a robust worldview that often requires lengthy elucidation. This has been done by, for example, Richard Carrier who states:
[I]f you want to know what we believe on almost any subject, you need merely read authoritative works on science and history–which means, first, college-level textbooks of good quality and, second, all the other literature on which their contents are based. The vast bulk of what you find there we believe in. The evidence and reason for those beliefs is presented in such works and need not be repeated…Carrier, Richard. Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, Ind.: Authorhouse, 2005. 67. Print.
Where such authorities are silent, metaphysical naturalism is capable of providing possible answers. Take, for instance, consciousness. Metaphysical naturalism can offer cogent explanations within the physicalist framework. For instance, with respect to consciousness, some naturalists have offered some version of supervenience. On fallibilism, an atheist can argue that a theist has come to a given conclusion because he hasn’t considered all the relevant evidence (McCormick, Ibid.). In fact, part of this attitude plays a role in discussions between theists and atheists. Theists, generally speaking, make it quite obvious that they are not aware of all of the relevant evidence. William Lane Craig, for example, employs a perfunctory or selective grasp of cosmology in order to support his KCA. It is reasonable to conclude that if he were aware of all of the evidence or if he did not omit counter-evidence, his conclusion would be different. Unfortunately, this might be too generous. Craig has been made aware of the evidence and regardless of the fact, he still chooses to endorse the KCA. So in some cases, it is not just that a theist’s knowledge is fallible, but it is that they disregard the fact and do not care to correct it. Even worse, apologists are in the habit of omitting evidence to the contrary.
Lastly, the definition “lack of belief in gods” is inadequate because it alludes to everyday beliefs. It is correct to say I lack or do not have the belief that Jesus died for my sins and resurrected three days later, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father where he now intercedes on my behalf. Religious beliefs of this sort are not properly epistemic beliefs, which are “the attitude[s] we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true” (Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.). Atheists, therefore, have the epistemic belief that the available evidence makes it much more probable than not that there are no gods or spiritual entities whatsoever. Naturalism, whether some of us like it or not, is a framework that has imposed itself on us. Even in cases where we assume supernatural or paranormal explanations, thorough investigation renders a much more mundane explanation. For some people, it is difficult to accept that the world is not fantastical. Severed limbs do not regenerate in the name of Jesus, people do not rise from the dead when a spell is invoked, and our ancestors do not protect us from physical harm. Thorough investigations only yield naturalistic, reproducible explanations. So when someone proclaims a belief that does not speak to knowledge or truth, but rather, faith, I can definitely say I do not share or that I lack that belief. Now when speaking of properly epistemic beliefs, I have the attitude that atheism is the case; atheism is true in that the various claims of religion do not hold up to scrutiny and that moreover, gods are entirely absent in the scope of all of our explanations. In other words, star formation, planet formation, the arrangement of the earliest, simplest metabolisms, the evolution of species, and ultimately, every model of the universe’s origin do not require a god in order to make sense.
When atheism is spelled out in this much detail, detractors are given no room to disingenuously offer a definition they prefer, one that allows them to malign atheists and misrepresent what they stand for. The label of atheism is futile. The definition or perhaps better said, the practice clearly spells out what it is that I stand for. The same applies to naturalism. The label no longer applies. Instead, I prefer to make explicit what I mean by it. Kai Nielsen explains the intimate connection between atheism and naturalism best:
Religions, whether theisms or not, are belief-systems (though this is not all they are) which involve belief in spiritual realities. Even Buddhism, which has neither God nor worship, has a belief in what Buddhists take to be spiritual realities and this is incompatible with naturalism as is theism as well, which, at least as usually understood, is a form of supernaturalism. Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.
The Fourth Wave may be the most powerful wave yet, but a glaring issue limits its power: there are people who not only misunderstand feminism, but also either stand against feminism or misrepresent feminism. The former and the latter are more related than one realizes. Those who misrepresent feminism are very often responsible for those who stand against it. Some Christians and Muslims believe that women are inferior to men and will therefore oppose feminism by default, but there are anti-feminists who do not have religious reasons for opposing feminism. Their reasons are based on the misunderstandings of self-proclaimed feminists.
To set feminism straight, a return to the basics is required. Once the different schools of feminism are made explicit, misunderstanding should be quelled. Misunderstanding occurs due to oversimplification of the thought of one school or another. I agree with Richard Carrier, who stated that, “Feminism is often badly understood by people who don’t study it well or don’t read widely among contemporary feminist authors” (Carrier, Richard. “A Primer on Fourth Wave Feminism”. Freethought Blogs. 5 Apr 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.). A successful movement, of course, has to move against some form of oppression or move toward some end, but it also has to stop and gather its fugitives. It, in other words, should not exclude people who want to identify with it. However, it should be responsible for ensuring that its members understand the movement. It is responsible for its reputation and since the reputation of the movement is based on its members, cohesion and continuity are a must. We are in a digital age in where people listen to someone on a YouTube channel or a blogger in the blogosphere. It is a readily accessible form of media. It is often short and sweet when compared to a book, so the more learned and educated in a movement have to stop to protect the movement from misunderstanding and mischaracterization. To do this, one must gather the fugitives, and to accomplish this, they have to be shown where they have gone wrong. They need to be corrected. Often what is needed is a return to the basics.
Fugitives are the people anti-feminists get these ideas from, young girls who are themselves anti-feminists or who identify a feminists and confess to things that are not at all in keeping with the movement: that feminists hate men; that feminists want to exclude them; that feminists seek female dominance and perhaps a matriarchy; that feminists are looking to devalue masculine attributes; that feminists ignore the effects the patriarchy has on men and that they, in fact, ignore men’s issues across the board. These ideas are not true to feminism, but there’s still the question as to why people think they are. Mackay has a succinct summary of feminism and not surprisingly, she alludes to common misconceptions:
Feminism is one of the oldest and most powerful social movements in history; it is a revolutionary movement, and that means change. There is so much wrong with the present system that we can’t just tinker round the edges, we need to start again; our end point cannot be equality in an unequal world. This is also the reason why feminism is not struggling to simply reverse the present power relationship and put women in charge instead of men (though this is a common myth about feminist politics). Feminism is about change, not a changing of the guard.Mackay, Finn. “Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement”. Times Higher Education. 19 Feb 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.
What kind of change is the label of feminism about? Feminism concerns securing equality for women. Women should have the same opportunities men have. Women should have the same rights men have. Women should be respected in their careers the way men are; they should be paid equally. There should be no sex-based differences in academia, the workplace, at home, or anywhere else. When this is spelled out, it is an uncontroversial perspective. There should be no reason for anyone to oppose the affirmation that women should be equal to men.
IV. Black Lives Matter
Likewise, there should be no opposition at all when I say that Black people and minorities, more generally, should be equal to Whites. There is nothing wrong with saying that if a Black man commits a crime or fails to comply with police, he should not be gunned down. White men have committed crimes on a much larger scale and were escorted away in handcuffs. White men do not have to worry about police officers kneeling on their necks or shooting 41 rounds at them. Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people, including 19 children, in an act of domestic terrorism, and he walked away with his life (Gumbel, Andrew. “Oklahoma City bombing: 20 years later, key questions remain unanswered”. Guardian. 13 Apr 2015. Web.). That is because he was given the right to a fair trail. In this country, a Black man selling loose cigarettes on a corner can be the victim of extrajudicial execution. There is nothing controversial about saying that even the life of an accused Black criminal matters. Innocent until proven guilty applies to Black people or at least, it should apply to Black people.
The same applies to Asian Americans, who have recently become the target of hate crimes across the country. Implicit here is that I am opposed to anyone who endorses stereotypes about ethnic groups. So when the former President joked about the “Kung Flu” and blamed China repeatedly for the COVID-19 outbreak, that was one of the many reasons I opposed him, his administration, and his supporters. It is absurd to me that right-wingers in America are roundly opposed to racial equality. They are also opposed to women securing equality. There is a sense in which my political opponents are wholly aware of what these labels mean and yet, they routinely choose to ignore the definitions, no matter how clearly they are explained. It is not any lack of clarity or sense on my part, but rather an obstinate decision to oppose progress of this sort at every turn. Political affiliation should not keep anyone from accepting my definitions or identifying with them. If your political party prohibits you from even seeing the need for racial equality, abandon the party or admit to having abandoned your moral integrity. There are no two ways about it.
In the past, I have used this term and I have done so to differentiate myself from Democrats. I am not a Centrist, a sycophant who condones incompetence and corruption on both sides while pretending that they are both exemplary. Neither political party in the United States is morally admirable. While it is the case that Democrats are marginally better, there is still a lot that they get wrong, hence my anti-Democratic, anti-Capitalist stances. I do not support the American idea of Democracy because, like Mbembe, I recognize that it has a nocturnal body: colonialism and every human rights violation that has followed from it from slavery to the Jim Crow era to mass incarceration of Blacks after a fabricated crack-cocaine epidemic. The United States is a hegemony, a pseudo-Empire precisely because it destabilizes entire regions by rightfully overthrowing despots and making the critical mistake of leaving a power vacuum in their place. Terrorist factions are just a small part of this country reaping what it sowed, but I digress.
Proponents of Capitalism are enamored with the idea of Capitalism. They, however, ignore the reality of it. Inequality the world over is perpetuated by Western ideas and interference. In the year that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the United States, workers have lost over $3.7 trillion to date while the wealth of top billionaires has increased by $3.9 trillion. This can be seen as one of the largest redistributions of wealth in history (see here and here). A lot more can be said about Capitalism, perhaps in a separate post for another day. The point I am making now is that the labels of Black Lives Matter, feminist, anti-Capitalist, and the like do not necessarily pertain to Far Left politics. Once these labels are made explicit, in that one makes clear what they mean in practice, it should strike anyone as absurd to be diametrically opposed to these positions.
That leaves open the question as to why people on the right see these positions as fundamentally opposed to their brand of politics. Again, if your political party imposes these discriminatory and even racist views on you, it is good sign that you should renounce it. There are ways to be fiscally conservative, a proponent of small government, and so on without subscribing to views that promote racial, gender, and wealth inequality. I fail to see how what I have had outlined is unclear or nonsensical. The isms, once unpacked, should not be as controversial. This is why I prefer stating my positions clearly, so that there is no room for misconstruing, misrepresenting, straw manning, and so on. There is, in my book, a difference between an opponent and an enemy. The enmity I reserve for my enemies has everything to do with the fact that they think their ignorance is better than my knowledge, their apathy superior to my empathy, their desire to oppress groups they dislike equal to my desire for equality. Opponents, by contrast, can have their minds changed. The omission of relevant facts is not the same as ignorance. My enemies intend to ignore that which disagrees with or defeats their views and more importantly, they intend to cause harm to people like myself, so they do so by weaponizing their right to vote to further marginalized groups they want to harm. Then they pretend to be innocent because they are not drawing a firearm. They might as well. Voting for a candidate that does not care about the plights of minorities, women, non-Christians, etc. is a deliberate attempt to harm these groups. You are not innocent.
Ultimately, labels in and of themselves are futile. We should do away with labels and instead flesh out what we stand for. This leaves little room for error and leaves our enemies fully exposed. This is not to say that people cannot disagree with atheism and naturalism, for instance. They are more than welcome to. What this does mean is that they cannot make the vacuous claim that I suppress God in my unrighteousness or that I hate God or that I choose to not believe because I prefer to indulge sinful concupiscence. These are comfortable things Christians say to avoid the fact that people have good reasons for not believing in God. My robust descriptions of atheism and naturalism leave no room for speculation of the sort. It gives them no space at all to go with a definition that allows them to slander people like myself. Labels do not accomplish this. Fuller descriptions of what is meant by a label go much further. Let us abandon our labels and instead, describe in greater detail what we stand for.
By R.N. Carmona
When concerning economics, no economic system is more misunderstood and more polarizing than socialism. Given the controversial history of one of its variants, namely communism, that socialism is a polarizing concept isn’t at all surprising. This, however, is no justification for them who would choose to remain ignorant of what socialism is. To draw an analogy, one could weigh the pros and cons of capitalism. Clearly, it wouldn’t be fair to be uncharitable and speak of capitalism by way of only its cons. In other words, speaking of self-interest or more forcefully, greed as though these characterized the whole of human nature would be disingenuous. Moreover, accusing capitalist models of exposing or drawing out these aspects of human nature, at least without added justification, is dishonest. It is to demonstrate that one is ignorant of capitalism as a whole. There are pros that need to be considered in any discussion on capitalism and the same undoubtedly applies to socialism.
Unfortunately, in discussions on socialism, what one will often find is a determined party whose only interest is to impart their misunderstanding. Implicit in that is the will to poison the well, even going as far as attacking the reputation of politicians who even mention socialist ideas, let alone propose legislation partially structured around these ideas. In 2008, Barack Obama, then Junior Senator of Illinois, was accused of being a socialist and this was the basis of criticism for voters on both sides of the aisle, especially on the right. Today, Bernie Sanders is the candidate being written off by right wing voters. Some would state that he has done himself no favors by identifying himself as a democratic socialist. Regardless of the fact that democratic is much more pronounced and important than socialist in the label ‘democratic socialist’, many Americans blatantly choose to misunderstand what it is he stands for. They would much rather liken him to Soviet communists than to Swedish social democrats, and that’s likely because they aren’t students of the history of economics with regards to socialism. In 1981, after being elected Mayor of Burlington, Sanders said, “I’ve stayed away from calling myself a socialist because I did not want to spend half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps.”1
This introduction therefore has this audience in mind. The candidacy of any given politician shouldn’t suffer due to what amounts to nothing more than libel and slander. The candidacy of a politician should stand or fall on the basis of the merits and demerits of their voting records, policy proposals, and broader plans if they are elected to the public office they’re running for. Bernie Sanders is a great and worthwhile candidate. Left or right wing, his voting record and his policies should be considered without resort to ad hominem and blatant misunderstanding of how he chooses to label himself.
Perhaps this willful ignorance and uncharitable approach to alternative views is a symptom of something more insidious and maybe what’s needed is a cultural overthrowing or a social revolution, but these endeavors are much too grand to consider. People can be persuaded within their own subjective experience. They can come to be convinced of something they currently do not accept and for these narrower endeavors, grandiose goals or perhaps delusions aren’t necessary. At the very least, my hope is that my readers are persuaded that socialism isn’t a blasphemous term to be met with scorn. It isn’t a mere alternative because as will be demonstrated, it can be fully integrated into a capitalist system. It need not stand alone nor lead to the fall of capitalism which Marx considered inevitable.
II. What Socialism Is
Socialism, like any ideology, cannot be defined easily. It is best defined by an explication of its principles and perhaps in also expounding on these principles. With this in mind, one can think of the principles that the variants of socialism hold in common. Michael Newman makes explicit these principles in stating:
[T]he most fundamental characteristic of socialism is its commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society. Socialists may not have agreed about the extent to which inequality can be eradicated or the means by which change can be effected, but no socialist would defend the current inequalities of wealth and power. In particular, socialists have maintained that, under capitalism, vast privileges and opportunities are derived from the hereditary ownership of capital and wealth at one end of the social scale, while a cycle of deprivation limits opportunities and influence at the other end. To varying extents, all socialists have therefore challenged the property relationships that are fundamental to capitalism, and have aspired to establish a society in which everyone has the possibility to seek fulfillment without facing barriers based on structural inequalities.2
Newman goes on to explain that another feature of socialism has been the belief in an egalitarian system. This, however, depends on an optimistic view of human beings that differs from a pessimistic view such as the one that characterizes people as self-interested, competitive or even greedy. Though Nazism and Stalinism would say much against more optimistic views, this hasn’t prevented socialists from thinking that an egalitarian society is possible. Bernie Sanders, for example, has an optimistic view of human beings. Sanders stated: “What being a socialist means is…that you hold out…a vision of society where poverty is absolutely unnecessary, where international relations are not based on greed…but on cooperation…where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves to other people who can hire and fire.”3
In keeping with Newman’s ideas of hereditary ownership, inequality, and everyone having the opportunity to seek fulfillment, Sanders has been vocal about the Citizens United decision and what he has called the oligarchy. He states:
American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections. It is not about the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other incredibly wealthy individuals spending billions of dollars to elect candidates who will make the rich richer and everyone else poorer. According to media reports the Koch brothers alone, one family, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy. In Vermont and at our town meetings we know what American democracy is supposed to be about. It is one person, one vote – with every citizen having an equal say – and no voter suppression. And that’s the kind of American political system we have to fight for and will fight for in this campaign.4
Given this, it is to be clearly noted that Sanders is not a communist. Though there are elements of Marxism in his view, Sanders isn’t a Marxist. This will be demonstrated shortly. What is clear is that his opponents are both wrong and dishonest to mischaracterize his views, to speak as though he agrees with socialist models that failed and led to abuse of power and injustice. As will also be shown, Sanders isn’t merely a socialist. He’s a democratic socialist, so it will be useful to distinguish between this strand of socialism as compared to others and to also discuss what would result from the implementation of a democratic socialist model. As one will see, this will not result in the end of capitalism in the U.S. nor the rise of a communistic government. To make this manifest, a brief survey of two important strands of socialism is necessary.
A. Marxism and Marxist elements in Sanders’ Views
It could be argued that the common misunderstanding people have of socialism stems from their misunderstanding of it’s common ancestor, namely Marxism. That will not be argued here. It’s merely been suggested because the branches of Marxism have each retained Marxist traits and thus, to misunderstand Marxism will, in all likelihood, lead one to misunderstand its branches. Setting aside historical materialism, since a broader discussion of Marxism isn’t intended, Marxism says nothing radical. Perhaps people recoil in horror because it strips them of what some philosophers have labeled an illusion: free will. Marxism is utterly deterministic in that it asserts that society determines human consciousness. In Preface to A Critique of Political Economy, Marx stated:
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the conic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and poetical superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.5
This is to say that in any society, the mode of production corresponds to whatever ideas and institutions are in place. In all of these societies, a ruling class derived their power from control over the economy. Also, the ideas and institutions in place aligned with the interests of these classes.
Though Sanders isn’t a Marxist, you can trace Marxist influences in his views. As mentioned earlier, Sanders is concerned with the oligarchy and more specifically, the power it derives, perhaps underhandedly, from the Citizens United decision. Tangentially, the Supreme Court decision reversed the Citizens United decision and allowed corporations to make campaign contributions. This is what Sanders is getting at when he makes pointed attacks against Hillary Clinton’s super Pacs. In the latest Democratic debate, Sanders strongly hinted at the notion of a ruling class deriving its power from existing ideas and institutions:
But here is the issue, Secretary touched on it, can you really reform Wall Street when they are spending millions and millions of dollars on campaign contributions and when they are providing speaker fees to individuals? So it’s easy to say, well, I’m going to do this and do that, but I have doubts when people receive huge amounts of money from Wall Street. I am very proud, I do not have a super PAC. I do not want Wall Street’s money. I’ll rely on the middle class and working families.6
What he’s implying here is that candidates who receive contributions from corporations likely won’t bite the hand that fed them. Put another way, one cannot expect a candidate who received millions of dollars in contributions to go after the very ideas and institutions that give them their power. Sanders is correct to point out that Clinton will not break up large banks because that will definitely upset her campaign contributors. Also, candidates who receive large contributions from major corporations are indebted to them and therefore, are far more likely to vouch for whatever special interests they may have. This reciprocity is not in the interest of the people and most certainly not in the interest of the middle class Americans Sanders represents. If this sort of thinking sounds too paranoid, know that Bernie isn’t alone. After the reversal of the Citizens United decision, President Obama had this to say: “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.”7 In the same vein, Senator Chuck Schumer stated:
We are not going to let this decision go unchallenged…At a time when Americans are worried about special interests having too much influence, this decision opens up the floodgates and allows special interest money to overflow elections and undermine our democracy. If there’s one thing that Americans from the left, right and center can all agree on, it’s that they don’t want more special interests in our politics.8
Schumer alludes to special interests already having some sway. Though political dramas aren’t fully accurate, anyone who has watched Netflix’s House of Cards or ABC’s Scandal knows how often such special interests have featured in the respective plot lines of both dramas. “We the People” has been overthrown by an oligarchy—a ruling class that Bernie Sanders is all too aware of. He’s also aware of the conflict of interest that will ensue if the reversal of Citizens United isn’t opposed. Again, on this sentiment, he isn’t alone. Justice John Paul Stevens stated the following:
The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case. In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The majority’s approach to corporate electioneering marks a dramatic break from our past. Congress has placed special limitations on campaign spending by corporations ever since the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907. The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.9
Though Marxism threatens one of our most basic assumptions, namely that we have free will, it’s deterministic bents are neither strange nor shunned by philosophers. Tangentially, a deeper consideration of our wills will inevitably lead to either strict determinism or compatibilism. In other words, if the former, we have no will and are always subject to the sway of the circumstances involved in our decisions. If the latter, these circumstances only partially determine the decisions we make and thus, the final say rests with us. Marxism disturbs neither of these views. It is, in other words, fully compatible with both views.
Moreover, further consideration of slave, feudalistic, capitalistic, communistic, and other societies will show that Marx was correct to point out that society determines our consciousness and not vice versa. Members of the middle class in the United States will attest to this by alluding to the ideas and institutions that impose their social consciousness. Talk of glass ceilings, economic barriers, and the plight of women and minorities will no doubt feature in any assessment which explains why a given middle class American didn’t realize the American dream. These points warrant much more attention than can be given here, but one thing is absolutely clear, relevant Marxist ideas are present in Sanders’ views and Sanders is correct to expose the ruling class and to have a desire to oppose it.
Conversely, and along those same lines, Sanders has characterized his campaign as a political revolution. Marx’s theory also featured this notion of change by way of revolution. This revolution did not imply a violent overthrow, but rather, a pacifistic changing of the guard. This changing of the guard happened gradually, however. Marx did not intend to argue that this occurred overnight. Rather, as he put it, “the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or…with property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forms of production these relations turn into their fetters.”10 From this comes revolution.
Sanders’ notion of a political revolution differs in key respects from Marx’s notion of social revolution. Sanders, for instance, wants a fairer distribution of wealth and he also wants to revert power to the people and away from corporations. It isn’t the sort of social revolution that will be necessary when, for instance, robots begin performing the tasks now carried out by humans. In such a society, there will no doubt be a ruling class, perhaps large corporations, looking to pad their bottom line by drastically cutting the cost of labor. Laborers who relied on these jobs will come into conflict with these corporations and will, for a time, inhibit such developments. This will then lead to a change in social relationships and what Marx called the superstructure, which is ideology, laws, and even the state.
Though speaking of wealth inequality in the UK, Michael Newman is aware of the fact that such inequality is derived from structures. Under capitalism, certain individuals who are talented or outright lucky can achieve a level of success that the majority of people cannot. While capitalism seeks to incentivize innovation and creativity, such an ideology has led to rampant incentives. It is clear that in order to address wealth inequality, ideologies of this sort have to be opposed. A surgeon should get paid more than a cashier, but the cashier shouldn’t find himself below the poverty line. Incentive can be granted, but not at the expense of others. Such a superstructure only reinforces inequality.
B. Utopian Socialism
Prior to discussing democratic socialism, it is necessary to briefly discuss the contributions of utopian socialists: “cooperation, association,…harmony in a context of egalitarianism” and “an emphasis on sexual equality.”11 Aside from egalitarian, small scale societies, democratic socialism has been a beneficiary of these contributions. As was shown earlier, Sanders calls for cooperation and social ownership of the means of production. This will require us to associate with one another and organize ourselves in a way that’s conducive to a working economy.
In terms of sexual equality, Sanders believes that “[w]e must establish pay equity for women workers.”12 He has also worked to do away with the gender wage gap:
In 2012, Bernie support the Paycheck Fairness Act and helped the effort to bring it to a vote again in 2014. The bill was designed to strengthen the claims that female employers had against companies in cases of sex or gender discrimination. Among his twelve point Economic Agenda for America, Bernie wrote that we must “provide equal pay for women workers who now make 78 percent of what male counterparts make.” In addition to these more recent efforts, Bernie voted in favor of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which aims “to ensure that individuals subjected to unlawful pay discrimination are able to effectively assert their rights under the federal anti-discrimination laws.”13
Sexual equality goes further than equal pay for women. Sanders has fully embraced this utopian ideal. He has been a pro-choicer for his entire political career. In an op-ed he wrote for the Huffington Post, Sanders wrote: “We are not returning to the days of back-room abortions, when countless women died or were maimed. The decision about abortion must remain a decision for the woman, her family and physician to make, not the government.”14 Sanders has also been in favor of contraceptives. He has also voted in favor of the Violence Against Women Act whilst maintaining that more needs to be done to address sexual and domestic violence against women. With this in mind, it is time now to turn to democratic socialism in order to see how it compares to and differs from other schools of socialism.
C. Democratic Socialism
In terms of why the label democratic is necessary, democratic socialists added the adjective in order to distinguish themselves from Communists who also identify as socialists. Modern democrats, with the exception of Marxist-Leninists, believe that communism is not democratic and totalitarian.
III. What Socialism Is Not: What is Communism and How It Differs from Socialism
Communism also puts emphasis on centralization or a nationalized economy. That is to say that the government appoints officials and also oversees production, distribution, and transactions. There is no free market or social ownership of resources. At the height of Stalin’s regime, his Five Year Plans made these points explicit. Stalin, for instance, collectivized all farmlands and transferred ownership of these lands to Soviet leadership. He also created GOSPLAN, which was an economic planning committee.
Democratic socialism, on the other hand, doesn’t call for a nationalized economy, but rather, a socialized economy. Donald Busky states that it’s “the movement of people to end their own exploitation and the destruction of the environment. It takes power out of the hands of elites who run political and economic systems solely for their own benefit at the direct expense to everyone and everything else.”15 Later he explains that democratic socialism synthesizes social ownership and political democracy. Though there is often hesitance to label this position a social democracy, since this position entails a reformation of capitalism and to some, a watered down socialism, this notion of social democracy entails an all conclusive, comprehensive welfare system. A social democracy would provide free healthcare as a right, as a guarantee to all of its citizens. There will also be more accessible assistance for employment and education. It must be emphasized that Sanders and democratic socialists, in general, are evolutionary socialists who expect a gradual transition from capitalism to democratic socialism. They are not expecting a revolutionary or even violent overthrow of capitalism and are thus, willing to allow capitalists to retain their control over industries.
With this in mind, one must question whether Sanders’ views are in keeping with what’s been surveyed in this section. The honest answer is a resounding yes, especially given what he said in a recent speech on democratic socialism in the U.S. At this point in history, it is a necessity given the grotesque wealth inequality that exists in the U.S. Sanders states that “[d]espite the incredibly hard work and long hours of the American middle class, 58 percent of all new income generated today is going to the top one percent.”16 Prior to assessing whether Sanders’ views align with the ideals of democratic socialism, it is necessary to take pause at this statistic. It is also necessary to look into our own expectations of what wealth distribution is in this country and then consider what an ideal distribution would look like. Thankfully, the YouTuber politizane has already charted the actual, expected, and ideal wealth distributions. Below is a chart showing what they look like.
More striking still are the charts that follow. These charts show more accurately how the wealth in this country, approximately 54 trillion dollars, is distributed in the U.S. The ideal is shown below.
This ideal is more representative of democratic socialism than it is of capitalism. Them who have argued that socialism destroys incentive and private ownership have misconstrued what socialism means. Marx stated: “The capitalist mode of production and accumulation and, therefore, capitalist private property, have for their fundamental condition the annihilation of self-earned private property; in other words, the expropriation of the laborer.”17 As Atkinson explains, socialism would prevent the destruction of private property and the expropriation of laborers. In the ultimate bait and switch, opponents of socialism, who are generally capitalists, have indicted socialism on false charges—charges that can be rightly used to indict capitalism. Capitalism, when given free rein, provides excessive incentive and often at the expense of lower class citizens. Americans on both sides of aisle are keenly aware of this and the chart below alludes to that.
As can be clearly seen, the distribution of wealth is no longer as smooth. The wealthiest citizens are no longer 10-20% more well off than the poorest on the chart. In the ideal chart, the poor aren’t exactly poor since the poverty line isn’t even visible on the chart. On the expected chart, it is clearly visible and the distribution of wealth is much more skewed in the direction of the wealthy. Unfortunately, what’s actually the case doesn’t match our expectations.
On the expected chart, the wealthiest had 100 times more wealth than the poorest. On the actual chart, the middle class is nearly indistinguishable from the poor. The wealthy are far more well off than the rich and the 1% we’re accustomed to hearing about has such a distribution, it’s not even visible on the chart. The stack (the last bar on the right) goes up so high, it can be piled into ten even stacks of cash. This is the grotesque inequality democratic socialists take issue with; this is the inequality Sanders is looking to address.
Today, in America, we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but few Americans know that because so much of the new income and wealth goes to the people on top. In fact, over the last 30 years, there has been a massive transfer of wealth – trillions of wealth – going from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent – a handful of people who have seen a doubling of the percentage of the wealth they own over that period. Unbelievably, and grotesquely, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.18
Sanders is also aware of the relatively large number of Americans in poverty. According to the 2014 census, about 47 million Americans are below the poverty line. Included in that number are 21% of children.19 The U.S. has one of the highest rates of child poverty in any of the developed countries. Since the 2012 UNICEF survey, the rate of child poverty has decreased, but there is still much room for improvement.
According to Sanders, “[Democratic socialism] builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.”20 With this in mind, it is time now to look at its success around the world. Then an emphasis will be put on its prospects in the U.S. and Sanders’ plans to implement it.
IV. Democratic Socialism in the Modern Day
[T]he poverty that exists in much of the world is that of absolute destitution—the lack of food, drinking water, basic sanitation, healthcare, and education. Meanwhile, the richest 1% of the world’s population now receive as much income as the poorest 57%, while the income of the 25 million richest Americans is the equivalent of that of almost 2 billion of the world’s poorest people.21
As Newman would later explain, “the socialism of the future must surely be democratic both in its organizations and in the wider institutions in which it operates.”22 It should resemble the movements in countries like Sweden, a country that boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world. It also has a cooperative movement that provides housing for its citizens.23 Going back to Marxist thought, it should come as no surprise that Sweden contributes more that goes toward the aid and development of poor countries than the U.S. does. If society determines consciousness, democratic socialism would determine social consciousness and it appears that it would lead to more empathy. Perhaps this is a further indictment of capitalism, but as Newman and others recognize, a critique of capitalism is not sufficient nor would it mean that people would begin to lean toward democratic socialism.
So perhaps what’s required is to implement what does work. Sanders is, once again, one step ahead. Busky suggested the following after examining why a major socialist party doesn’t exist in the U.S.:
Instead of a maximum program of advocating immediate, total nationalization of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, as small socialist sects have tended to do and which has often proved to be too radical for the majority of people to accept in many countries, American Socialists would do well to advance a minimum program calling for the creation of a national health plan which all other developed nations except for the United States already have..Another program would be to abolish unemployment by having the government hire all those who want and need to work but whom the capitalist system is unwilling or unable to hire. Still another program would be to abolish poverty by the creation of a guaranteed annual income by means of a negative income tax. If a person’s or family’s income fell below the poverty line, then the Internal Revenue Service would give them enough money to bring them to some point above the poverty line as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.24
As for nationalization, as democratic socialist scholars have suggested, it must be reiterated that control of industries would be turned over to workers and not to the state. The economy would not be centralized the way it is under communism, but rather, socialized as explained earlier. Optimism must be expressed. “Socialism…is the hope for human freedom and justice under the unprecedented conditions of life that humanity [faces] in the twenty-first century.”25 Not just any variant of socialism, but a democratic socialism that emphasizes equality, the end of absolute poverty, and a higher standard of living for all human beings. It is the American ideal. If all men are equal, then all of humankind should have the opportunity to succeed. As stated earlier, this need not lead to the destruction of incentives; this ought not discourage them who are creative and innovative. There will be a just reward for people who advance society scientifically, medically, technologically and so on, but the reward will not come at the expense of others nor would it be unjustifiably excessive as it is now. Bernie Sanders understands this and his vision for the U.S. confirms that. What follows is what democratic socialism means to him and implicit in that will be his vision for the United States:
In my view, it’s time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just Wall Street, billionaires and large corporations. It means that we should not be providing welfare for corporations, huge tax breaks for the very rich, or trade policies which boost corporate profits as workers lose their jobs. It means that we create a government that works for works for all of us, not just powerful special interests. It means that economic rights must be an essential part of what America stands for.
It means that health care should be a right of all people, not a privilege. This is not a radical idea. It exists in every other major country on earth. Not just Denmark, Sweden or Finland. It exists in Canada, France, Germany and Taiwan. That is why I believe in a Medicare-for-all single payer health care system. Yes. The Affordable Care Act, which I helped write and voted for, is a step forward for this country. But we must build on it and go further.
Medicare for all would not only guarantee health care for all people, not only save middle class families and our entire nation significant sums of money, it would radically improve the lives of all Americans and bring about significant improvements in our economy.
People who get sick will not have to worry about paying a deductible or making a co-payment. They could go to the doctor when they should, and not end up in the emergency room. Business owners will not have to spend enormous amounts of time worrying about how they are going to provide health care for their employees. Workers will not have to be trapped in jobs they do not like simply because their employers are offering them decent health insurance plans. Instead, they will be able to pursue the jobs and work they love, which could be an enormous boon for the economy. And by the way, moving to a Medicare for all program will end the disgrace of Americans paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.
Democratic socialism means that, in the year 2015, a college degree is equivalent to what a high school degree was 50 years ago – and that public education must allow every person in this country, who has the ability, the qualifications and the desire, the right to go to a public colleges or university tuition free. This is also not a radical idea. It exists today in many countries around the world. In fact, it used to exist in the United States.
Democratic socialism means that our government does everything it can to create a full employment economy. It makes far more sense to put millions of people back to work rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, than to have a real unemployment rate of almost 10%. It is far smarter to invest in jobs and educational opportunities for unemployed young people, than to lock them up and spend $80 billion a year through mass incarceration.
Democratic socialism means that if someone works forty hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty: that we must raise the minimum wage to a living wage – $15 an hour over the next few years. It means that we join the rest of the world and pass the very strong Paid Family and Medical Leave legislation now in Congress. How can it possibly be that the United States, today, is virtually the only nation on earth, large or small, which does not guarantee that a working class woman can stay home for a reasonable period of time with her new-born baby? How absurd is that?
Democratic socialism means that we have government policy which does not allow the greed and profiteering of the fossil fuel industry to destroy our environment and our planet, and that we have a moral responsibility to combat climate change and leave this planet healthy and habitable for our kids and grandchildren.
Democratic socialism means, that in a democratic, civilized society the wealthiest people and the largest corporations must pay their fair share of taxes. Yes. Innovation, entrepreneurship and business success should be rewarded. But greed for the sake of greed is not something that public policy should support. It is not acceptable that in a rigged economy in the last two years the wealthiest 15 Americans saw their wealth increase by $170 billion, more wealth than is owned by the bottom 130 million Americans. Let us not forget what Pope Francis has so elegantly stated; “We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”
It is not acceptable that major corporations stash their profits in the Cayman Islands and other offshore tax havens to avoid paying $100 billion in taxes each and every year. It is not acceptable that hedge fund managers pay a lower effective tax rate than nurses or truck drivers. It is not acceptable that billionaire families are able to leave virtually all of their wealth to their families without paying a reasonable estate tax. It is not acceptable that Wall Street speculators are able to gamble trillions of dollars in the derivatives market without paying a nickel in taxes on those transactions.
Democratic socialism, to me, does not just mean that we must create a nation of economic and social justice. It also means that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote. It is extremely sad that the United States, one of the oldest democracies on earth, has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country, and that millions of young and working class people have given up on our political system entirely. Every American should be embarrassed that in our last national election 63% of the American people, and 80% of young people, did not vote. Clearly, despite the efforts of many Republican governors to suppress the vote, we must make it easier for people to participate in the political process, not harder. It is not too much to demand that everyone 18 years of age is registered to vote – end of discussion.25
Bernie Sanders hits all of the major points discussed here and more. This is his vision for the United States—a vision that every American should endorse. Them who do not endorse him either because he’s a “socialist” or because he disagrees with Republicans on a given issue are putting dishonesty before truth, putting themselves before the well-being of their fellow citizens, and prioritizing in a way that’s socially and morally irresponsible. They’re saying that the abortion issue matters more to them than poverty. They’re saying that they’d rather war over the peace of mind of millions of Americans without healthcare and a livable income. They’re saying they have no problem with special interests effectively running the show, dictating the terms of elections. They’re saying they’d rather a Republican candidate who stresses the right to bear arms over a candidate who recognizes the issue of illegal firearms in urban populaces throughout the United States. Sanders’ views on guns is far more nuanced and actually succeeds at synthesizing both sides of the issue; he, in other words, recognizes that guns in rural states take on different meaning than they do in urban settings. He isn’t trying to strip a hunter of his rifle, but he is imploring the gang member to turn in his illegally acquired, unlicensed, and unregistered firearm. Sanders’ vision for the U.S. is one of great depth, optimism, and promise. If you aren’t already a supporter, honestly consider it for yourself. He isn’t only the ideal American candidate, he’s a global candidate. His vision is not only needed in the United States, it is also needed abroad. Socialism isn’t a dead ideology. It is the one true hope for a bright future for us all.
1 Kruse, Michael. “14 things Bernie Sanders has said about socialism”. Politico. 17 July 2015. Web.
2 Newman, Michael. Socialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 2-3. Print.
3 Ibid. 
4 “Bernie’s Announcement”. Bernie Sanders. 26 May 2015. Web.
5 Ibid. , p.23
6 “Transcript of the Democratic Presidential Debate”. The New York Times. 17 Jan 2016. Web.
7 “Petition Against Citizens United Decision Gains Steam”. Democracy Chronicles. ND. Web.
8 Ibid. 
9 Ibid. 
10 Marchionatti, Roberto, ed. Karl Marx: Critical Responses. London: Routledge, 1998. 171. Print.
11 Ibid. , p.15
12 “Remarks by Sen. Bernie Sanders”. Burlington Free Press. 26 May 2015. Web.
13 “Bernie Sanders on Equal Pay”. Feel The Bern. ND. Web.
14 Sanders, Bernie. “United Against the War on Women”. Huffington Post. 30 Apr 2012. Web.
15 Busky, Donald F. Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000. xi. Print.
16 “Senator Bernie Sanders on Democratic Socialism in the United States”. Bernie Sanders. 19 Nov 2015. Web.
17 Atkinson, Warren. “Incentive Under Socialism”. Indiana State University. ND. Web.
18 Ibid. 
19 “Poverty: 2014 Highlights”. United States Census Bureau. ND. Web.
20 Ibid. 
21 Ibid. , p.140
22 Ibid. , p.145
23 Ibid. , p.37-38
24 Ibid. , p.170
25 Harrington, Michael. Socialism: Past and Future. New York: Arcade, 1989. 1. Print.
26 Ibid.