Defining Democratic Socialism


Here's a little something for you to file away under the category of democratic socialism vs socialism vs communism. I run into this all the time, especially from my more conservative friends who lump all of them together and refer to the lot as "basically communism". And it's really not their fault. Unless you've made it your area of study, or lived abroad, there's very little in our day-to-day that would provide any useful clarification on what these terms means, and what fruit they bear. But after a discussion with someone today, I thought I'd write something up. It's rather simplistic, so if you're a political science major then forgive me. To start with, we have to understand that in a transparent, ethical society the government should not be viewed as a fundamentally separate entity from the people. The government is simply that particular group of our wider populace that we have selected to help facilitate what we the people want. This might sound elementary, but it's at stark odds with the way most of us view our governments. I've heard this line time and time again living in North America: Doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets elected. This attitude doesn't exist in nations who have governments that consistently earn the trust and respect of their people (the Nordic nations, for example).

So government exists to facilitate your will. Naturally not just your personal will, but the collective will of your nation. The broader the backgrounds and interests of the people who make up your nation, the harder any group of leaders will find it to facilitate. This is the basic idea behind state or provincial legislatures, to break up the task of governance and devolve decision making to lower levels.

Problems begin to arise when those people who make up the government lose connection to the will of the people. If the leaders aren't elected by the people, or if the people are not given any real choice in who they elect, then the people typically don't have any means of recourse when they wish to replace or adjust those that are governing them. If there's no way to change the governing powers, and they're not representing you, then resentment of government naturally arises. And if there's no way for the government to be replaced or corrected, then abuse by government typically arises also.

In a state that is defined by liberal capitalism (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, etc.) ownership of industries is entirely private. It is in the direct interest of most industrialists to ensure minimum government involvement so that they can capitalize and grow their operations as much as possible. Most of our modern societies allow the creation of corporate entities, so that our industries can be run by entities that are abstracted from us as individuals. Corporations have their own legal recognition and thus your corporation can conduct certain actions that you are personally absolved from.

In classic socialism, industries are owned and/or managed by the government rather than private entities. That is literally the major philosophical difference. The idea is that since our governments are given the mandate to steward our nations, then they will steward our industries with greater diligence than private entities who would naturally promote their own gain over that of the state. Socialism came as a response to capitalism, to try and correct the abuses that were rapidly developing. In traditional socialism there can still be personal property, personal ownership and personal agency.

Communism could be considered the extreme end of socialism. In a state defined by communism (North Korea, the former Soviet Union, China until recently, etc.) the government owns and controls not just all industries, but all resources, all property, and all decision making. Since all power is concentrated to the government, then abuses are rife, and the people typically have little to no recourse for change in government.

Now, it's good to point out that the actual method of government and election is not even factoring in here. You could have a constitutional monarchy (like the United Kingdom), a republic (like the United States) or any kind of government system, and the societal values could be capitalist, socialist or communist.  The method of government is not what's at stake, it's the role of the government that we're talking about. The catch is of course that if your democratic electorate votes in a party with communist ideals, they are not likely to remain a true democracy for long.

Democratic socialism, then, is an ideal wherein government uses democratically mandated power to direct and influence industry, but does not necessarily own or control it, and certainly does not exert influence arbitrarily. Government exerts regulatory powers to ensure that the market produces outputs that are best for everyone, rather than simply best of the corporate owners.  Examples include Germany, Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, etc.

In classical socialism, the people decide how their country should work via the government. When the government becomes too powerful, the people lose their freedom. This is what many conservatives (and many Christians actually) decry under the wide banner of communism.

In liberal capitalism, the people decide how their country should work via the market. When certain actors in the market become too powerful, the people lose their freedom. This is what we're seeing today around the world, where 62 people personally control half of the wealth of the entire planet.

In democratic socialism with a representative government, the people decide how their country should work via the government, which grants agency to the markets to fulfill services. You typically see a lot of public private partnerships, and the government prevents any market actors from becoming too powerful and thus reducing personal freedom. At the same time, the electoral system and market pushback prevents the government from becoming too powerful and thus reducing personal freedom.

And that's pretty much it. The manifestations of how these various governments and societal values work out, and their relationship with religions and other value systems create a million permutations, but the reality is that socialism and capitalism are both just methods of granting and managing personal freedoms. They also both have major drawbacks that can result in societal bondage.

Democratic socialism very simply works to mitigate against the risks of both of them, by leveraging each of their strengths. It's not the only system that does this, but it's one that is reaping great results in many First World nations. It's high time we all stopped demonizing people or leaders who hold to this ideal, and stop referring to people as "just basically communists."


Some sources:

  • 5 years spent living in Finland