On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gave his long planned speech on Democratic Socialism, invoking great American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and reminding everyone that some of the most popular social programs we have today — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — were all once labeled socialist and aggressively opposed by monied interests, who FDR called “economic royalists.”
Not only were social programs opposed and called socialism; so were any kind of laws or regulations that intervened with the “free market” for the betterment of society. “Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another, as 'socialist,'” explained Sanders.
Of course, capitalists never come out and say that they want the government to get out of their way so that they can take advantage of workers or employ children or contaminate the water supply. They fear-monger about the threat of socialism and claim that as long as the government intervenes with their business, we can never have true freedom.
A young propagandist named Ronald Reagan issued such a warning in the early sixties, in opposition to what is seen as the predecessor to Medicare. "Federal programs," Reagan warned, "will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country, until one day… we will wake to find that we have socialism.” Sounds familiar.
Today, we have “economic royalists” like the Koch brothers who, with their billions, fund the myths that have long sat in opposition to the social programs and market regulations that helped create the middle class. “A truly free society is based on a vision of respect for people and what they value,” said Charles Koch in a Wall Street Journal editorial last year, “In a truly free society, any business that disrespects its customers will fail, and deserves to do so. The same should be true of any government that disrespects its citizens.”
Koch puts forth the idea that an unregulated free market (or what he calls a “truly free society”) would solve most of society’s problems, and that any business — such as Koch Industries — that disrespects its customers will fail. There are many reasons why this is wrong. First of all, what is disrespecting a customer? Wrecking the environment? Violating safety regulations that end up killing innocent Americans? In that case, Koch Industries would have surely failed in a “truly free society” by now. Except it wouldn’t. When a corporation is as big and diversified as Koch Industries, most customers don’t even know when they’re buying a product from them (you may very well be using a Koch product in your own household), and “ethical consumerism” is, unfortunately, more myth than reality (consumers tend to look for the best deals before looking for products that comply with their moral code).
The truth, of course, is that an unfettered free market has disastrous affects on society, and that the freedom the Koch brothers and people like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KT) promote is a kind of barbaric freedom. This was witnessed back 2011, when Rand’s father, Ron Paul, was questioned at a GOP primary debate whether a healthy uninsured 30-year-old man who fell into a coma after something “terrible happened” should be treated or simply left to die. “What he should do is whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul said, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk,” which was followed by some fans shouting “Yes!” to the question of whether he should simply be left to die (which led Paul to backtrack, realizing the barbarity of his answer).
The libertarian thinker, F. A. Hayek, who inspired the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions, said this much in his book on freedom, “Constitution of Liberty":
“Liberty does not mean all good things or the absence of all evils. It is true that to be free may mean freedom to starve, to make costly mistakes, or to run mortal risks. In the sense in which we use the term, the penniless vagabond who lives precariously by constant improvisation is indeed freer than the conscripted soldier with all his security and relative comfort.”
Bernie Sanders, FDR, MLK, and many other past and present Americans have a very different view of freedom, and believe that the freedom to starve or to be left untreated after being seriously injured is no freedom at all. As FDR said while listing his Second Bill of Rights, “we have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” This is one of the fundamental values of socialism.
For Karl Marx, socialism was the final step towards human liberation after capitalism, which had liberated human beings from feudalism (by eliminating birth ranks, i.e. nobility, while also creating a free yet slavish wage system). In a socialist society, where productive powers have advanced to such a degree (thanks to capitalism) that they have freed human beings from the endless productive toil that has existed throughout history, it is, as he famously put it, “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
For Sanders and other Democratic Socialists (or Social Democrats), socialism is not so much about having the individual freedom to do what you wish without ever taking on a role (a major flaw in Marx’s thought was his dismissal of identity and the fulfillment human beings find in roles, e.g. someone who writes or paints would like be known as a writer or a painter), but having the freedom to fully utilize your innate talents and pursue work that you love, without having to worry about medical care or being tens of thousands dollars in debt for a necessary education. It is the right for every single person who works hard, regardless of how skilled or unskilled the labor is, to have a livable wage. And of course, it is democracy, or as Sanders put it:
“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.”
The two political parties, who for decades have been neoliberal parties serving the interests of the capitalist class first and foremost, seem to be moving further apart. Since the ISIS attacks on Paris, some Republicans have started to sound increasingly like their fascist forbearers, while also talking about the importance of freedom. But the only candidate who offers the real freedom that so many great Americans have advocated in the past, it seems, is Bernie Sanders.