In 2005, I found myself in Tylertown, Mississippi at the largest animal rescue staging site in the region. It was one of the finest moments of socialism in recent American history. I was awed by the far reaching range of people who had just dropped what they were doing and had somehow moved themselves and millions of dollars of goods and services towards the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. They had done it in the absence of the government, and they had done it, mostly, for the simplest reason- because someone needed their help. And they did it in a sustained way- the effort went on for months and months.
Even more demonstrative was how productive and efficient we were- systems were created, and people somewhat readily volunteered to do whatever work needed to be done. In this case, shovel poop. Shovel metric fucktons of dog poop,in oppressively hot weather, in air thick with lovebugs, after sleeping in a tent and sharing one shower amongst 100+ people. We were building a city, in an almost lawless environment, but there were few skirmishes. People were able to put aside their egos to wash crates and bathe dogs covered in toxic floodwater.
I ran the kitchen. I did it because it needed to be done- we needed to feed the people doing the work. And as I prepared to leave Tylertown, I tried to source someone to take over my job. Someone recommended a retired woman who’d previously been a cook. But when I asked if she’d be willing to take over the kitchen, she responded that she had come to rescue dogs and she felt strongly she should go out in one of the boats the next day.
This was a few weeks after the storm- the boats going out were no longer finding animals. It was also a very physical job, crawling in and out of windows done mostly by young people who were in good shape. This woman fit none of those boxes. She was, in essence, going to require work, not expend it. They’d take her out as a token-no convincing was going to change her mind.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Democratic Socialism is unlikely to work. Because it relies on a few tenants that Americans seem to always be moving further away from, not closer to.
We can debate the finer points of Socialism until we fall over, but the basic premise- whether financial or political is that you value community over individualism. And by the way, it’s an idea and value I support- it’s why I’ve led a life full of volunteerism, donations and generally seeking to be a good, productive person who is there when anyone needs it. I’ve generally been regarded as Bleedingheart McLiberalface- so I find myself constantly questioning why I don’t “Feel the Bern”, as it were.
And the reality is that I fully, wholeheartedly believe that Sanders is a great guy who absolutely embraces, understands and attempts to actualize the ideas of socialism. I just don’t believe that the vast majority of Americans, including his supporters, are the same. I’ve never heard a single person talk about Sanders, his policies or Democratic Socialism in a way other than how it would benefit them, or solve one of their problems. How it would allow them to get a specific healthcare, or lessen their college debt, or pay them a higher wage.
Since that moment 10 years ago, I’ve watched as we have moved further and further away from the idea of community, and it’s not just the fault of the “me” generation or millennials. Each generation exaggerates the last. But millennials barely buy houses, so the idea of “moving up” and thus, abandoning neighborhoods isn’t theirs- it’s been happening for decades. As we moved away from neighborhoods, we moved away from the idea of “it takes a village” and we now live in the age of “its none of your business”.
It’s none of your business to compliment someone’s weight loss or pregnancy (because one could be illness and the other could be weight gain and you just don’t know, and what business is it of yours anyways, right?). Its none of your business if you see a child causing a ruckus, because you don’t know how those parents are raising their child and what business is it of yours anyways? About the only thing that is “our business” is to make assumptions about why people need help- the person begging for change is only going to use it on alcohol because he’s a drunk. The person who loses a leg due to diabetes probably got it due to junk food and laziness.
But this is the opposite ideaology of socialism.
This is a society that has embraced “ghosting” because you “don’t owe anyone anything” including the dignity of explaining that you are leaving the relationship. Relationships themselves are an idea that is almost gone- the divorce rate is stratospheric and entire industries are built around acknowledging “hook up” culture. I can’t think of anyone who “dates” anymore- people have become transactional with eachother, rather than investing in them.
Our society has commoditized complaining; we have made eviscerating others online and off a blood sport. Basically, we are horrible people. And we seem to know it, and embrace it. “I’m the worst”. “You’re the worst”. “Literally, the worst”.
If people cannot invest in eachother- if they cannot respect the inherent dignity due another member of the American community- Socialism cannot work.
How can socialized medicine work in the same space as anti-vaxxers, who value their child’s health over other children’s health? And before pro-vaxxers mount the high horse, it cannot succeed in the same space as parents who run their kids to the ER for every fever or ask the community to spend millions on sick infants with high death probabilities. For that matter, senior and end of life spending is no different. Because socialized medicine is about the best for the most, not the best for you.
At the same time we’re complaining about the cost of college and lack of jobs after, there is significant evidence that college is not the only avenue to wealth and that infact there are a wealth of laboring jobs that don’t require college that Americans seem uninterested in. Mike Rowe offers an interesting perspective in his advice columns on this issue.
If people are not willing to do the jobs that need to be done, rather than the jobs they’ve idealized, socialism can not work. And don’t for a moment think I’m overlooking the fact that socialism has also allowed great constructs of misogyny and racism within it, because the people who are left to do those jobs are often not white men.
That all aside, the most damning evidence that we are just incapable of socialism is in the very activism that gives rise to and supports Sanders. The current wave of activism is just brutal- aggressive and unapologetic. Even the most simple “educate yourself” and “check your privilege” comes off as overly caustic to me. This is not to say it’s not effective- I’m the first to admit that Arab Spring, third wave feminism and Earth First are affecting change. I can be pleased about those changes, and disappointed that it was achieved that way at the same time. This activism is not about embracing each other and working to change mindsets, balancing the needs of the man. It’s about one group deciding what is “right” and then punishing the others until it’s accepted.
Sanders supporters have been the most critically caustic of all the other candidates- from Trump to Clinton, in a way their very own candidate is not. Worse, they are critically caustic of other candidate’s supporters- they don’t seek to bring the community together. They ostracize. The other guys are idiots. Assholes. My way or no way.
Socialism is not about the good of just the people you agree with..
The other night, a group of us were having a highly reasonable conversation about politics on Facebook. Two friends entered- a Trump supporter and a Sanders supporter, and neither entered riding anything other than a wave of insults. When I suggested they behave better to eachother and try to find the median ground to build on, they both announced we were not worth it and left the conversation.
If we’re not worth it, Socialism can’t work.
I’m not voting for Sanders- not because I lack faith in him, but because I lack faith in us.
For democratic socialism to work it requires change in the behavior of those who claim to support it. Stop thinking about how things affect you and accept that we all sacrifice somewhere between some and a lot to better the overall community. Buy an American made car, even if its not the best. Don’t sue someone who apologizes to you. Give someone the human dignity of facing them to tell them a hard truth. Offer to help someone without questioning if they deserve the help. Have a conversation with someone online wherein you refuse to insult the other person or quit the conversation. Then try to do that with the person you know whose idealogy is most unlike yours-start with where you agree and build on it. Spend a day forcing yourself to believe that every single person you encounter, on the bus, at work, on the street corner asking for help, has the same inherent value as you and respect them as such.
Basically, stop being a selfish asshole.
In a community of assholes, Socialism can’t work.
What you wrote in the last long paragraph reminds me to a very large extent of the Buddhist program: try to reduce suffering by being compassionate. Unfortunately the socialism we have seen implemented in history so far did create a lot of suffering. I think we should stick with the core motives and not try to build an ideology around it. For political processes though it is probably easier to establish “us” and “them”, build a following and go to war. Unfortunately, as you describe, the fallout of that approach kills the humanity that we so urgently need. Let’s stop being selfish assholes – but let’s not do it for socialism’s sake!