The Socialist Case for Elizabeth Warren

Thad Williamson

Thad Williamson argues that Elizabeth Warren is the presidential candidate best placed to transform the argument on economic justice in the United States.

My first book, published in 1998 when I was a 28 year old theology student, is a detailed look at alternatives to capitalism, What Comes Next? Proposals for a Different Society. It reviewed the various models of market and non-market socialism developed by numerous economists, political scientists, and philosophers in the wake of the fall of the Soviet bloc. Details vary, but most models involved some combination of a) public ownership of large-scale enterprise b) worker self-management of large enterprises c) public control of finance (i.e. investment capital) d) the use of markets or market-like mechanisms e) a measure of public planning. Thinkers discussed with proposals in this terrain include John Roemer, David Schweickart, and David Miller (and many others).  This work was heavily influenced by my work with Gar Alperovitz, who has his own model of a “Pluralist Commonwealth,” which can be summarized in three words as decentralized democratic socialism.

The supposition of all this work is that the distinguishing point between capitalism and socialism has to do with the answer to this question: who controls productive capital in the society? The logical possibilities include large corporations, small business owners, the federal public sector, the local public sector, workers (in the form of worker-owned enterprises), and community organizations. If your answer is you are okay with most or all productive capital being in private hands, but favor extensive taxation, regulation and redistribution, you may be a Social Democrat, but you still are working within a capitalist framework. “Socialism” is, on this view, about trying to alter the control of capital—so that community organizations, workers, the public sector, or a pluralist combination thereof owns and controls the bulk of private capital.

About ten years later I helped spearhead a mini-movement of philosophers, political scientists and others concerned with reviving John Rawls’s concept of a “property-owning democracy” (POD). POD takes more seriously than traditional socialist views the idea you could combine private ownership of wealth with a dispersed, egalitarian distribution of it. One of the core points in my essays on this is that POD in practice inevitably would have to borrow from strategies identified by socialist political economists to achieve its goals; and that a POD in practice would likely resemble a 1960s Western European-style “mixed economy” with a mixture of significant public and private ownership.

Another core point from those essays is that the U.S. is at this point of time so wealthy, with such a lopsided distribution of wealth, that it is mathematically possible to provide each citizen with a significant share of wealth (enough to dramatically impact the lives of most people) by redistributing a fraction of the wealth held by the top 1%.

Here’s the point of this recital: as defined in political-economic terms, Bernie Sanders is a Social Democrat, working within a capitalist framework. He wants to regulate capital, tax the wealthy, and institute massive new social programs.  From the standpoint of traditional socialism, the most socialist aspect is his plan to expand employee ownership. But his plan caps employee ownership at 20%; its aim is to provide workers more benefits and a voice in corporate governance (laudable aims), not to transform actual control of corporate enterprises to the working class.

Does this mean Sanders is being dishonest when he labels himself a “democratic socialist?” No, to me it means he is using the term in a different register altogether.

Sanders’s form of “democratic socialism” seems to be based on this basic claim: As we all contribute to the social co-creation of wealth and prosperity, we all should tangibly benefit from and participate in that wealth and prosperity. An economy in which groups are excluded and dominated while others claim the vast majority of the benefits is wrong. Instead, we should imagine and actualize society as a system of social cooperation for mutual benefit (as Rawls would have put it).  Socialism is an economy and a society that uses our commonly created wealth to benefit all.

This is a powerful idea. For me its truth is an unshakeable conviction. No left populist project will get much sustained traction if the basic idea is not adopted by a large percentage of Americans.

This is the profound ideological conflict between Bloomberg’s “Yes I deserve all that money, I worked hard for it” and Warren’s “Do we invest in millions of kids, or do we invest in Bloomberg?” The latter view sees all wealth as socially created, and hence liable to taxation and other democratic forms of regulation intended to assure that its benefits are widely shared. The Bloomberg view is that people earn what they get in the market and have a moral right to their pre-tax incomes.

The Bloomberg view is sometimes called “Everyday Libertarianism” (borrowing the term from Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel). It is still a powerful view, most strongly on the right but evident across the political spectrum of the U.S. And it’s in direct contradiction with the Sanders/Warren view.

There is good reason to be excited about the political moment that has arrived; I strongly recommend Nancy Fraser’s superb dissection of Trump and prescient anticipation of the Sanders (Sanders/Warren?) moment in The Old is Dying and the New Cannot be Born: From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump and Beyond for a relatively quick, informative read that persuasively explains why we have come to it.

Nonetheless, the moment is also producing some understandable anxiety. Here are my concerns—and why they lead me to believe Warren is the strongest candidate for this particular moment.

Concern 1. If what Bernie means by “democratic socialism” is simply an economy that shares its wealth so all benefit, is that the best label to communicate that basic idea, given that those words can mean many other things? I don’t just mean the pejorative association of “socialism” with the evils of communism, but also the fact that reasonable people may think that when you say you are a democratic socialist, you aim to replace capitalist ownership of the means of production with some other institutional form.

Likewise, the basic idea of an economy that benefits all can be described using other terms. You could call it a “Commonwealth”, or a “Democratic Commonwealth.” “Democratic socialism” is not the only word choice available, nor is it necessarily the most accurate (an economy that benefits all could conceivably have many capitalist elements).

Concern 2. Bernie is going to be pressed over and over to say what he means by “democratic socialism.” He will say he wants us to be more like Denmark, etc. He will make good important points that the American public needs to hear. But can he really avoid deeper questions like “so your socialism does not involve changing who controls capital—really?” I doubt it. And in his heart of hearts, I do think that Sanders wants that more radical transformation and sees Social Democracy as the necessary stepping stone to it. If true, that will come out, and Trump and much of the media will seize on it as evidence to scare people. 

Concern 3. To me the big Public Ideological Argument to be fought and won is that between “Everyday Libertarianism” (you deserve what the market gives you) and what I will call the “Democratic Commonwealth” view of society as a system of social cooperation that should benefit all according to principles of fairness.

I think the “Left” (broadly understood) is in better position than ever to confront and win that argument with the larger public. But it will take time, effort, clear explanation. The country will require a teacher.

I love what Bernie Sanders has done for our nation’s politics. But I still think Elizabeth Warren is the teacher we need for the moment—the person who can patiently explain to people across the political spectrum, using logic, knowledge of the law and policy, personal stories, and a deep capacity for empathy to explain to the public, over and over, how and why current arrangements are unfair, why they should be different, and how we can make them different.

And as someone who believes humanity won’t survive the 21st century in recognizable form if we don’t develop an alternative to capitalism, and who appreciates the way Sanders has made “socialism” a safe word again and a positive word for young people, I still think here in 2020 we need to have a more basic conversation: not about “capitalism” vs. “socialism,” but about whether we think people should get and keep as much as they can take or instead think we have a mutual obligation to be sure everyone benefits from how we organize our economy.

Both Sanders and Warren are hitting on that point in their own ways. But the Sanders version can and will be distorted by people who absolutely do not want to have that conversation, to make it a topic about something else entirely, all with the intent of scaring people and keeping Trump voters who might be open to an alternative on board. Maybe Sanders can dodge and withstand and still win. But it’s a legitimate worry.

I think Warren is right when she says she is providing a way to talk about basic issues of fairness in ways that both speak to all components of the Democratic coalition and allows you to engage with Republicans and independents without being immediately dismissed. And I think she has the temperament, tone, and touch to be America’s teacher on these issues.

Further, while the historical significance of a potential Sanders victory is obvious, a Warren election would also be the biggest victory for the “Left” since FDR’s re-election in 1936. She is simply not a “progressive neoliberal” of the Clinton variety. She will fight for a wealth tax, large new social programs, and a re-creation of the regulatory structure of the economy including an overhaul of the fundamental rules governing corporations.  

If we make 2020 about “capitalism” vs. “socialism,” I’m worried, not because it’s not a discussion we don’t need to have, but because I’m not certain it’s a discussion that the right side will win, in a year we can’t afford to lose.

If we make 2020 about predators and parasites vs. making our wealth work for everyone, we have a chance to win—both on public argument and at the ballot box.

Could be wrong, but that’s my hunch, and my hope.


Further Reading:

Gar Alpervovitz, Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth, (Democracy Collaborative, 2017)

Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice, (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson, eds., Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson, “Beyond the Welfare State: Rawls’s Radical Vision of a Better America“, Boston Review, 24 October 2012

Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson, “Taxation” in Jon Mandle and David Reidy, eds., The Rawls Lexicon (Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Thad Williamson, What Comes Next? Proposals for a Different Society (NCESA, 1998)

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Thad Williamson

Thad Williamson is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law, at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, at the University of Richmond. He is the author of What Comes Next? Proposals for a Different Society (NCESA, 1998), and Sprawl, Justice and Citizenship (OUP, 2010), and co-author (with Gar Alperovitz and David Imbroscio) of Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era (Routledge, 2002). He is co-editor, with Martin O'Neill, of Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). He was the inaugural director of the Office of Community Wealth Building of the city of Richmond, VA.

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