Bernie Sanders has gotten a lot of attention for his forthright embrace of progressive policies, but perhaps his most shocking characteristic, at least to American ears, is the way he openly describes himself as a "democratic socialist." For a nation where, for decades, the slightest hint of socialist sympathies was viciously red-baited out of the public discourse, this is highly unusual. Conservatives, in particular, are scandalized at his unabashed leftism, and seem outraged that their magic debate-ending card doesn't work the way it did back in the days of McCarthy.
But Sanders is right: Democratic socialism is just what is needed in 21st-century America.
What do we mean by socialism? One interpretation that we can rule out straight away is classical Marxism. Karl Marx, writing after a generation of utterly savage laissez-faire capitalism, theorized that all property would ultimately end up in the hands of a coterie of capitalists, while all the workers would be forced to work in the capitalists' factories. After a titanic political struggle and world revolution, a worker's utopia would emerge where class struggle was non-existent.
Marx had a lot of sharp insights about capitalism, especially on how it operates in its raw state, but this political program (which was as much the creation of Marx's followers as his own) has obviously not aged well. The classic industrial working class is a minority of workers in most nations — and in the United States a small one. There will not be a revolution ordained by the dynamics of dialectical materialism.
That's why the democratic basis of any socialist project is absolutely indispensable — an electoral movement to legitimately win power based on the traditional political mechanisms of labor and community organization.
The economist Karl Polanyi had a useful definition for socialism that also happens to be one of the most humane:
Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society. It is the solution natural to the industrial workers who see no reason why production should not be regulated directly and why markets should be more than a useful but subordinate trait in a free society. [The Great Transformation]
By this view, socialism does not necessarily mean nationalizing the means of production, or any other particular policy, but freeing human beings from the tyranny of market capitalism. Therefore, markets do not have to be abolished under all or even most circumstances, because many markets are not tyrannical. There is no reason to abolish, say, your local flea market.
Two capitalist institutions are of great concern, however: labor markets and private property. The first concern is rooted in the history of market society. Pre-capitalist societies, from subsistence hunter-gatherers to feudal aristocracies, typically did not threaten people with starvation if they could not work. But early capitalism did pose this threat; indeed, capitalism would not work without it. Without the threat of penury and starvation, why would anyone spend their working lives in a capitalist's factory or coal mine?
This was arguably necessary for capitalist societies to reach "developed" status. But it is no longer. Thus, democratic socialism would fully abolish the signature feature of all labor markets: the coercion of labor through the threat of starvation. Many developed nations now function perfectly well without it. Even the U.S. has dramatically softened the consequences for non-work compared to the savage days of the Industrial Revolution. In a rich society, there ought to be a basic standard of living below which it is impossible to fall.
This would probably mean some sacrifice in output, to be sure. Nations like Denmark have a lower per-capita GDP than the U.S. due to a collective choice to work less. Yet their lives are far more decent and leisurely than the average work-swamped American, and they do not suffer notable deprivation as a result. And given the fact that most economic growth these days goes straight into the gaping maw of the 1 percent, it is likely that most people would not even notice the difference.
That brings me to private property. Laissez-faire ideology regards private property as utterly inviolate, the logical consequence of which is the notion that taxation is theft. But this is incoherent nonsense when you consider that all laissez-faire institutions are, in reality, the creation of the state — nonsense that will be tossed over the side under democratic socialism. Property rights would be subordinated to the general welfare of the polity, as just one concern among many. Those that do not harm society can stay, while those that do will be curtailed or abolished.
This is not as extreme as it sounds. You'll still be able to own a computer, clothes, and a home under democratic socialism. But private property that is plainly negative to society, such as extraction rights in buried carbon, will have to be eventually extinguished if the human race is going to survive. The point is that common human welfare is more important than an absolute right to ownership.
For a detailed mechanistic exploration of a post-capitalist society, Seth Ackerman has some good thoughts. But the main point is that a great majority of the grinding misery and desperation that currently happens in the United States (and across the world) is completely unnecessary. A better world is possible.