The following is a conversation with Bhaskar Sankara.
He’s a democratic socialist, a political writer,
founding editor of Jacobin, president of The Nation,
former vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America,
and the author of The Socialist Manifesto,
The Case for Radical Politics
in an Era of Extreme Inequality.
As a side note, let me say that this conversation
with Bhaskar Sankara,
who’s a brilliant socialist writer and philosopher,
represents what I hope to do with this podcast.
I hope to talk to the left and the right,
to the far left and the far right,
always with the goal of presenting and understanding
both the strongest interpretation of their ideas
and valuable thought-provoking arguments
against those ideas.
Also, I hope to understand the human being
behind the ideas.
I trust in your intelligence as the listener
to use the ideas you hear to help you learn,
to think, to empathize, and to make up your own mind.
I will often fall short in pushing back too hard
or not pushing back enough,
of not bringing up topics I should have,
of talking too much, of interrupting too much,
or maybe sometimes, in the rare cases, not enough,
of being too silly on a serious topic
or being too serious on a silly topic.
I’m trying to do my best,
and I will keep working my ass off to improve.
In this way, I hope to talk to prominent figures
in the political space, even controversial ones,
on both the left and the right.
For example, I hope to talk to Donald Trump
and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,
to Ron DeSantis and Barack Obama,
and of course, many others across the political spectrum.
I sometimes hear accusations about me being controlled
in some way by a government or an intelligence agency
like CIA, FSB, Mossad,
or perhaps that I’m controlled in some way
by the very human desire for money, fame, power, access.
All I have is my silly little words,
but let me give them to you.
I’m not and will never be controlled by anyone.
There’s nothing in this world that can break me
and force me to sacrifice my integrity.
People call me naive.
I’m not naive.
And optimism isn’t a passive state of being.
It’s a constant battle against the world
that wants to pull you into a downward spiral of cynicism.
To me, optimism is freedom,
freedom to think, to act, to build, to help,
at times in the face of impossible odds.
As I often do, please allow me to read a few lines
from the poem, If, by Roger Kipling.
If you can keep your head when all about you
are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
but make allowance for their doubting too.
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting
or being lied about, don’t deal in lies
or being hated, don’t give way to hating.
And yet don’t look too good or talk too wise.
Even this very poem is mocking
my over romantic ridiculousness as I read it.
The meta irony is not lost on me, my friends.
I’m a silly little kid,
trying to do a bit of good in this world.
Thank you for having my back through all of it,
all of my mistakes.
Thank you for the love.
And now a quick few second mention of each sponsor.
Check them out in the description,
it’s the best way to support this podcast.
We got House of Macadamias for snacks,
Linode for Linux systems,
Onnit for supplements,
Insight Tracker for biomonitoring
and ExpressVPN for security and privacy.
Choose wisely, my friends.
And now onto the full ad reads,
never any ads in the middle, I hate those.
I try to make these interesting,
but if you skip them, please still check out our sponsors.
I enjoy their stuff, maybe you will too.
This show is brought to you by a relatively new
and a absolutely, it’s not even relative,
it’s absolutely objectively delicious sponsor,
House of Macadamias.
It’s a company that ships delicious,
high quality and healthy macadamia nuts
directly to your door
and all kinds of snacks based on macadamia nuts.
The first shipment they sent me
was just the source of a lot of happiness for me.
I was going through some tough times in my life.
Recently, there’s been a lot of ups and downs.
It’s been a wild ride, it’s been a wild ride.
And there’s something about sitting in that couch I have,
which I got so I can feel like an adult
and contemplating the ups and downs of life
and just letting my mind become still,
emptied of thought,
and then just slowly with a stupid smile on my face,
consume macadamia snacks.
There’s a lot of sexual innuendos I can do here, by the way.
If you doubt my ability to do sexual innuendos,
how dare you?
But I’m gonna keep it respectful
and say that it’s 30% less carbs than almonds.
Oh, man, I don’t even know.
I think I’ve been always criticized in my life.
One of the harshest criticisms throughout my life
is I don’t know how to pronounce almonds.
Is it almonds, almonds, almonds, almonds?
It’s almonds, right?
Yeah, it’s almonds.
Anyway, what matters is the snacks are delicious.
And actually, as a sponsor, they’re awesome.
They’re with us for the long haul,
and they’ve just been so kind and respectful,
and I’m just a big fan of theirs.
So anything you could do to support them, I would love it.
It just means a lot to me when there’s great companies
doing great stuff and just being great people.
I mean, forget all the products and all of that.
Just, I love it.
So support them.
They’re really good people.
Anyway, speaking of really good people
and a really good company
that you should definitely support is Linode.
And this episode is brought to you by it.
It’s Linux Virtual Machines.
I use it a lot.
It’s an awesome computer infrastructure
that lets you develop, deploy, and scale
what applications you build faster and easier.
There’s nothing better than Linux.
And here, you don’t have to have Linux in your machine.
You can have it in the cloud,
and you can have it not just a little baby machine.
You can scale.
You can launch a giant machine.
You can launch many machines.
By the way, they do have really good customer service,
24-7, 365, but that’s not what matters.
What matters is Linux is awesome.
Did I say that?
Linus Torvald is definitely somebody you need to talk to.
Somebody posted on Reddit,
why have you not talked to Linus Torvald yet?
And it’s a good question.
I’m not sure I know exactly how to reach him,
which sounds kind of funny.
And I think he’s not,
he’s a difficult person to get to
to do a long-form interview.
I think his source of happiness is in doing the work,
in serving the Linux community,
just doing the low-level kernel development
and managing the community and all that.
I don’t know how much he enjoys conversation
or educating or inspiring others
about the work going on in Linux.
I think it’s really important
because I think the world,
I mean, so many important things in the world run on Linux,
and I don’t know why we don’t always celebrate that.
I mean, it’s one of the things I really love doing
with this podcast is just celebrating amazing people,
using technology or using whatever skill they have
to try to build a better world.
And I think that’s what Linus is doing,
that’s what people working on Linux,
all through the stacks,
whether it’s the different distributions,
the different packages and all that kind of stuff.
There’s the open-source movement in general.
It’s just beautiful to see.
All the stuff you see on GitHub.
It warms my heart to see all these brilliant engineers
just building stuff, small stuff and big stuff.
And many of it helps make the world a better place.
It really, I believe, and honestly does.
Anyway, visit linode.com slash Lex for free credit.
This episode is brought to you by Onnit,
a nutrition supplement and fitness company.
They make AlphaBrain, a nootropic
that helps support memory, mental speed, and focus.
I sometimes take AlphaBrain
if I know I have a very difficult design or programming task
at hand, it’s gonna take several hours of just focused work.
And I’m not quite feeling it.
So if I know there’s a deep work session
that’s gonna involve some mental blocks,
mental struggle, where it’s gonna be dead ends and so on,
I’ll take an AlphaBrain to help me out.
I’ve recently been trying to adjust ways
in which I slice my day.
I really do find that I’m exceptionally productive
and mentally sharp and focused in the morning
for several hours.
So two, three, four, five, six, seven hours in the morning.
As long as it’s uninterrupted,
as long as I don’t talk or see other human beings,
or see is okay, see and smile,
like the warmth of humanity is great.
But there’s something about talking that really drains me,
especially in the morning.
And then in the evening, the same.
I just am exceptionally productive
and can really focus for long periods of time.
It’s that afternoon time that I think is best
for more like exercise and naps and more relaxing
or like tasks that don’t require much brain power.
Anyway, it’s kind of funny how each of us
probably have our own little optimization problem
that we’re trying to solve about what makes us feel good,
what enables us to interact with other human beings
in our lives that we love and make them feel good
and just be a productive member of society,
reach for the stars, be the best version of yourself,
but also just enjoy it.
I mean, it’s a weird optimization problem
that involves nutrition, that involves exercise.
And I think in part, at least at some point in your life,
it involves a kind of strict analysis of your schedule,
of how you spend the minutes in your day.
And I think part of that process is to then let it go.
Similar with diet, you can have a strict diet
once you understand the nature of calories
and nutrition and vitamins and so on,
that you can let go of that
and have an instinctual understanding of food
and then you can start to really enjoy food.
Anyway, you can get a special discount on AlphaBrain
at lexfriedman.com slash on it.
This show is also brought to you by Inside Tracker,
a service I use to track biological data
that comes from my body and gives me suggestions
about what I should do in my life.
Now, those suggestions are basic lifestyle decisions
and diet decisions, but I can’t wait
until we have something like Brain-Computer Interface
that enables you to make career decisions,
dating decisions, all kinds of decisions.
Of course, not forced, I’m just giving you
like a clippy that pops up and says,
have you considered these red flags
about this person that you’re talking to?
Or, hey, that interesting person deserves another look.
I don’t know, I’m joking, of course,
because I think that level of recommendation
is difficult to achieve, but the point is,
there’s so much data coming from your human body
that I think medicine and just, in general,
recommendation should be based, at least in part,
on that data versus looking at generic population data
about what’s good for you in terms of diet
and exercise and sleep and all that kind of stuff.
I think this is the future,
and InsideTracker’s taking steps towards that future.
Get special savings for a limited time
and you go to insidetracker.com slash flex.
Finally, this show is also brought to you by ExpressVPN.
I’ve used them for many, many, many years,
the big sexy red button that you click and it just works,
and it protects your privacy.
On this big, beautiful, complex internet of ours
that’s full of chaos and dangers and so on,
a good VPN should be your first layer of protection.
And it does a bunch of other things, of course,
but I think the most important thing is it just works.
And it works fast, it works on any device,
any operating system, works on Linux, anything.
Android is very intuitive to use.
It does one thing and it does it extremely well,
and that’s what I think great pieces of software,
great services should do.
Do one thing and do it extremely well.
Now, to me, ExpressVPN for many years
has been the embodiment of that idea.
Go to expressvpn.com slash LexPod
for an extra three months free.
This is the Lex Friedman Podcast.
To support it, please check out our sponsors
in the description.
And now, dear friends, here’s Bhaskar Sankara.
Let’s start with a big, broad question.
What is socialism?
How do you like to define it?
How do you like to think about it?
Well, there’s so many socialists out there,
and we can’t seem to agree about anything.
So my definition, I’m sure, is really just my definition,
but I think at the minimum,
socialism is about making sure
that the core necessities of life,
food, housing, education, and so on,
are guaranteed to everyone just by virtue of being born
so that those people can reach their potential.
And I think that’s a minimum requirement of socialism.
Beyond that, I think socialism,
especially democratic socialism,
the type of socialism that I believe in,
is about taking democracy
from just the political democratic realm
and extending it into economic and social spheres as well.
So if we think that democracy is a good thing,
why do we allow our workplaces
to be run in autocratic ways?
So economic, political, social,
in all those realms, the ideas,
the philosophical ideas apply.
Like what are, if you can put words to it,
what are some philosophical ideas about human beings
that are at the core of this?
I think at the core,
it’s the idea that we have intrinsic value.
We are individuals that have unequal talents, of course.
We’re individuals that want different things.
But this unique individualness
can only truly come to light in a society
in which there are certain collective or social guarantees.
So we could think, just like Stephen Jay Gould,
the scientist and socialist used to say,
about how many thousands of potential Einsteins
or Leonardo da Vinci’s that died in sweatshops
and on plantations and never got the chance
to cultivate what was unique and human about themselves
and also never got a chance to have families
and impart what was special and important to them
to future generations and to posterity.
My own grandmother was born in Trinidad and Tobago.
She was illiterate till her dying days.
She, in East Orange, New Jersey,
she never had the chance to write down
her memories of her life in Trinidad as a young woman
and what it meant.
She, of course, had lots of children.
She was able to impart some stories
to her children and grandchildren.
But I often think about what someone
with her wit and intelligence could have done
with a little bit more support.
But if all human beings have intrinsic value,
you don’t have to be an Einstein
for the application of some of the ideas
that you’re talking about.
Is there a tension or a trade-off
between our human civilization, our society,
helping the unlucky versus rewarding
the skillful and the hardworking?
I think you could do both.
There’s always a balance between the two.
I think you could reward people who make innovations
and who improve lives for everyone
through their innovations by giving them,
let’s say, even more consumption,
even that level of inequality while still making sure
that there’s not people in poverty and suffering
and while making sure that, hey,
we’re gonna give these people who want to work
that extra 10 hours or 20 hours
or want to apply their hard work some extra benefits,
but that these benefits would be not the extreme disparities
that you have today.
So at the core of socialism and maybe democratic socialism
is maybe a reallocation of wealth, reallocation of resources?
I think it’s wealth and resources, yes,
but it’s also power.
And I guess one way to think about this is
some thinkers on the right, like Hayek,
they would say in their most generous moments
talking about socialists and socialism,
they would say socialists want to trade
some of your freedom for equality.
And that’s them trying to just accurately describe
what socialism is trying to do.
The way that I would put it, it’s a little bit different.
Socialists are proposing a trade-off,
but it’s really a trade-off between freedom and freedom.
And by that, I mean,
let’s say you set up a successful business
and you set up a business right here in Austin, Texas,
some sort of firm, it’s producing some widget or whatever,
and it’s producing a good that people really want and demand
but you have some competition.
You decide to hire 20, 30 people to help you.
You entered into a free contract with these people
who under capitalism, of course,
we’re not living in feudalism,
have the option to join any other firm,
but they like you and they like this firm
and they like your offer and you’re paying them,
let’s say $20 an hour for 40 hours of work per week.
Now, if the government comes along and says,
okay, there’s now a new minimum wage,
the minimum wage is $22 an hour.
And also there’s a maximum work week, 35 hour work week.
And if you work someone over 35 hours, even if they agree,
you have to pay them time and a half.
Now, that of course is now an abridgment
of your freedom as an entrepreneur,
your freedom to set certain terms of employment
and to engage in a contract with free people.
But now your workers and other workers in the sector,
because if you did it unilaterally,
you just get undercut by your competition.
Now, these people now have a few extra hours a week,
they can do whatever they want with.
They could watch more NFL with it.
They could spend more time with their friends or family
or whatever else.
And they’re still getting paid the same, if not better,
because the wages also went up.
So it’s really a question often of trade-offs
between whose freedom and autonomy
are you going to prioritize?
The freedom and autonomy of the entrepreneur
or the capitalist in this case,
or the freedom and autonomy of ordinary workers.
Now, you could create a society
that swings so far in the direction
of prioritizing the freedom of one group or one class
or whatever else compared to another
that you end up in some sort of tyranny.
Now, if the state said,
you know, you Lex, you’re a capitalist,
so you don’t get the right to vote,
or we’re gonna take away your private home
or your ability to do things
that we think are intrinsic human rights.
Now, this would be tyranny.
This would be an abridgment of your rights,
but shaping your ability in the economic sphere
to be an economic actor is, I think,
within the realm and scope of democratic politics.
Yeah, so those are the extremes you’re referring to.
And one perspective I would like to take
on socialism versus capitalism is under each system,
the extremes of each systems
and the moderate versions of each system,
how can people take advantage of it?
So it seems like no matter what part of human nature is,
whatever the rules, whatever the framework,
whatever the system,
somebody’s gonna take advantage of it.
And that’s the kind of pragmatic look at it.
In practice, what actually happens?
Also, the incentives and the human behavior,
what actually happens in practice under these systems?
So if you have a higher and higher minimum wage
and people watch more and more NFL,
how does that change their actual behavior
as a productive member of society?
And actually at the individual level,
as somebody who could be an Einstein
and chooses not to because NFL is so awesome to watch.
So is both how do people,
malicious people that wanna take advantage,
maybe not malicious,
but people that like me are lazy and wanna take advantage
and people that also I think like me,
like I tend to believe about myself that I have potential
and if I let my laziness naturally take over,
which it often does, I won’t materialize the potential.
So if you make life too easy for me,
I feel like I will never get anything done.
Me personally, of course,
there’s a giant set of circumstances
of the unlucky and the overburden and so on.
Okay, so how can people take advantage of each system,
So for one thing,
people are going to take advantage of systems.
They’re gonna find loopholes,
they’re gonna find ways around,
they’re gonna find ways to at times dominate
and coerce others even in systems meant
to get rid of domination and coercion.
That’s why we need to design our systems
in such a way that it eliminates
as many of these things as possible.
And also that’s why we need democracy, we need freedom.
So in a Soviet system, for instance,
you had the rise of this authoritarian bureaucracy
that dominated and coerced others in the name of socialism.
Now that system desperately could have used
some political democracy and some checks
on what people were doing
and some ability to reverse their power, right?
And as soon as, of course,
little elements of democracy was brought to that system,
the system collapsed because there started to be outlets
for dissent and for dissatisfaction.
So I think we can’t design a priori a perfect system.
We need to be committed to certain principles
that allow systems to be perfected.
And for me, that’s the importance of democracy.
So even a few years ago, not to go on a tangent,
but people were alluding Chinese authoritarianism
and they’re saying China’s building this efficient system,
the state runs so well, there’s technocratic excellence,
plus there’s just productivity
and they’re just working harder than Americans
and whatever else.
But look at in practice what really happened with COVID,
both the initial suppressing of information
about what was happening in Wuhan and the outbreak
where many ordinary Chinese workers
and doctors and others were trying to get the word out
and they were suppressed by communist party officials
locally in Wuhan, probably with the collusion nationally.
And now with zero COVID policies and whatever else.
So I think that often we find that even though it seems
like these are weak systems
and then democracy makes us less competent technocratically
and otherwise, I think it’s kind of a necessity
for systems to grow and evolve,
to have that freedom in civil society.
But as for individuals, now the first part of it is,
yeah, I think people should be free
to make their own choices.
You might have tremendous potential,
but you might choose to spend it in leisure.
And leisure doesn’t only mean doing,
sitting around at home, drinking a bunch of beers,
kind of wasting your life away that way.
Leisure might mean spending more time
with your friends and family,
building these sort of relationships
that are gonna maybe not change the world
in some meta sense,
but will change the lives of the people around you
and will change your community for the better.
I’m taking notes here because for me,
leisure just meant playing a lot of Skyrim.
This whole family relationship thing,
I’m gonna have to work on that.
I didn’t realize that’s also including leisure.
So I’m gonna have to reconsider my whole life here.
No, leisure should mean civic activity too, right?
I mean, there’s that famous book,
the Robert Putnam one, Bowling Alone or whatever,
which described that for now.
I mean, it was born in 1989.
I like video and computer games,
so I definitely do that type of leisure too,
but I found a lot more richness in my life
when in the last decade,
a lot of my leisure has returned
to going to the local bar
for the couple of drinks I have a week
instead of doing it at home alone,
watching TV or something,
because you get that random conversation,
that sense of a place and belonging.
But I guess what’s the undercurrent maybe
of your question was,
now, if you have a system with lots of carrots,
but not the whip of,
hey, you might be destitute,
you might be unemployed,
you might not be able to support yourself
unless you’re working a certain amount,
would we still be as productive?
Would we still be able to generate enough value for society?
And I think that that’s a question
that is quite interesting.
I think that we’re living in a society now
with enough abundance
that we could afford more people
deciding to opt out of the system,
out of production,
and that the carrots of staying in,
more money for consumption,
more ability to do cool things,
more just social rewards
that comes from being successful
or from providing would be enough.
But that’s another thing
that would have to be balanced in a system.
So if we were seeing mass unemployment by choice
in a democratic socialist system,
then you might need to reconfigure the incentives.
You might need to encourage people
to go back into production.
But that’s something that, again,
you could do through democracy
and through good governance.
You don’t have to set the perfect blueprint in motion,
write up a treatise now,
and 50 years from now,
try to follow it like it’s scripture.
So by the way,
I do like how you said whip instead of stick
in carrot and stick.
That’s putting a weight on the scale of which is better.
But I would actually argue to push back
that the wealthier we get as a society, as a world,
that the more comfortable the social nets become.
So the less of a whip or a stick they become.
Because one of the negative consequences,
even if you’re on welfare, is like,
well, life is not gonna be that great.
But the wealthier we become,
the better the social programs become,
the easier life becomes at the bottom.
And so you might not have this motivation financially
to get out from the bottom.
That said, the pushback on the pushback
is that there’s something about human nature in general,
money aside, that strives for greatness,
that strives to provide a great life,
a great middle-class life for your family.
And so that’s the motivator to get off from the bottom.
Well, I think a lot of people who are stuck
at the bottom of the labor market today,
one, these are people who are kind of our true philanthropists
because a lot of them are the ones who are working two jobs
and are working 60 plus hours
and are providing in this country,
it’s such a bargain for their labor
because they’re so underpaid.
So many of the things that the rest of us use
to enjoy life and consumption or whatever else.
Like I got here from downtown Austin
and I think my Lyft, I did tip,
but I think my Lyft was like eight bucks base
or whatever else.
It’s the, I think that we are all indebted
to people who are working
and we don’t see it at various stages
of the production process from the workers in China
and Taiwan producing technological things
that we’re recording this on to growers
and workers in agriculture in the U.S.
So I think that one,
working class people are already working,
but as far as getting out from under poverty and desperation,
we’re in a society that doesn’t give people a lot of tools.
So if you don’t have access to good public schools
from age five until 12, 13,
it’s gonna be really hard to move from generations
of your family being involved in manual labor
to doing other forms of labor.
You’re gonna be stuck at a certain part
of our labor market as a result.
If you don’t have access to decent healthcare
throughout your life,
you might be already preordained to an early grave
by the time that something kicks in,
you really want to change something in your life
in your mid twenties.
Obviously it’s a combination of agency
and all these other factors.
There’s still something,
I think innately human, innately striving
that a lot of people have,
but we don’t really give people in our current society
the tools to really be full participants in our society.
We just take for granted, for example,
and I’m from the Northeast,
so I give like excessively Northeast example.
We take for granted that someone from Hartford, Connecticut
is gonna have, your average working class person in Hartford
is gonna have a very different life outcome
than someone born on the same day, the same hour,
in Greenwich, Connecticut.
We take for granted that accidents of birth
are gonna dictate outcomes.
So you mean like, depending on the conditions
of where you grew up,
there’s going to be fundamentally different experience
in terms of education,
in terms of the resources available to you
to allow yourself to flourish.
Yes, a poor city and a rich city,
and Connecticut is great.
It’s highly, highly underrated.
Both New Yorkers and people from Boston
have a colonial feeling about Connecticut
where we make fun of it and we try to carve it up.
The West belongs to New York, the East to Boston,
but I’m here for Connecticut nationalism.
I think it’s a great place.
Okay, can we actually step back a little bit on definitions?
Because you said that some of the ideas practically
that you’re playing with is democratic socialism.
We talked about the higher level,
the higher kind of vision of socialism,
the ideals, the philosophical ideas,
but how does it all fit into the big picture historically
of ideas of Marxism, communism, and socialism
as it was defined and experienced
and implemented in the 20th century?
So what’s your key differences?
Maybe even just like socialism, communism.
Yeah, well, I hate the no true Scotsman
sort of response to this, which is,
oh, that socialism is bad.
So it wasn’t really socialism.
And my socialism is good, so it is socialism.
But I think that socialism and communism
share a common ancestor, which is they both emerged
out of the turmoil and development
of late 19th century capitalism.
And the fact that there was all these workers’ parties
that were organizing across the capitalist world.
So in Europe, for instance,
you had this mass party called
the German Social Democratic Party,
that became probably the most important,
the most vibrant party in Germany in the 1880s and 1890s,
but they were locked out of power
because Germany at the time was still mostly a Tarkic.
It had a parliamentary democracy,
but it was a very undemocratic democracy.
The Kaiser still ruled.
These movements took root across the capitalist world,
including in Russia and in conditions of illegality.
So it was assumed for many, many years
in the workers’ movement across Europe
and among socialists of Europe,
they called themselves social Democrats then,
that the revolution would first probably happen in Germany
in this developed, growing hub of industrial capitalism
and not in semi-feudal Russia.
But then World War I came,
the workers’ movement was split between parties
that decided to either keep their head down
or to implicitly support the war.
And then, you know, support the war for an hour,
keep your heads down, don’t get banned, don’t get arrested,
and then we’ll just take power after the war is over.
And those like Russia,
and also in the United States for that matter,
that chose the path of resistance to the war.
And it was the Bolshevik faction of the Russian movement
but Lenin’s Bolshevik party that took power in Russia
after a period of turmoil where it didn’t seem,
well, was it going to go to the fascist right
or was it going to go to the far left?
There was a period of flux and turmoil in Russia,
but definitely the old regime was not able to stand.
And these Russian social Democrats, these Bolsheviks said,
social democracy has so betrayed the idea of internationalism
and brotherhood and progress it was supposed to stand for
that we can’t call ourselves social Democrats anymore.
We’re going to go back to this old term that Marx used,
we’re going to call ourselves communists.
And that’s where official kind of communism
out of Russia emerged.
In other parts of Europe,
parties were actually able to take power,
some in the interwar period,
but most in the post-war period.
And they also came out of this
old social democratic movement.
And these parties mostly just call themselves socialists.
And a lot of them still on paper
wanted to go beyond capitalism,
but in practice, they just managed capitalism better
in the interest of workers.
But they all had the same common ancestor.
And in practice, to me, social democracy
means trying to insert doses of socialism within capitalism,
but maintaining capitalism.
Communism met this attempt to build a socialism
outside of capitalism and often authoritarian ways
in part because of the ideology of these communists,
but in part because of the conditions
in which they inherited.
They weren’t inheriting a democracy,
they were inheriting a country that had been ruled
by the czars for centuries.
And with very little condition,
like a very weak working class,
very poor and devastated by war and so on
where authoritarianism kind of lended itself
to those conditions.
Then there’s me, then there’s democratic socialists.
And the way I would define it is,
we like a lot of what the social democrats accomplished,
but we still believe in going beyond capitalism
and not just building socialism within capitalism,
but we believe in this ultimate vision
of a world after capitalism.
What does that world look like
and how is it different from communism?
Actually, maybe we can linger before we talk about
your vision of democratic socialism.
What was wrong with communism, Stalinism,
implementation of communism in the Soviet Union?
Why did it go wrong?
And in what ways did it not go wrong?
In what ways did it succeed?
Let me start with the second part of that question.
And that’s a very difficult one to answer
in part because I morally and ethically
am opposed to any form of authoritarianism or dictatorship.
And often when you talk about the successes
of a government or what it did developmentally
that might’ve been positive,
we have to abstract ourselves from what we morally believe
and just kind of look at the record, right?
I would say that the Soviet experiment started off
by in Lenin’s time as the attempt
to kind of just a holding action.
Hey, we don’t really have the conditions
to rule this country.
We have the support of the working class
or most of it.
But the working class is only 3% of the population.
The peasantry is really against us.
A lot of this 3% of the population has died in war
and half of them supported the Mensheviks
and the more moderate socialists anyway.
But the alternative in their minds
was going to be a far right reaction,
some sort of general taking power in a coup
or whatever else, or just them ending up back in prison
because a lot of them were in prison under the czar
or just killed.
So they figured, all right,
we’re gonna have a holding action
where we maintain as much of this territory
of the old Russian empire as possible.
We’ll try to slowly implement changes,
restabilize the economy
through something called a new economic program,
which was kind of a form of social democracy, if you will,
because it allowed market exchange for the peasants
combined with state ownership of industries in the cities.
And for a while, it seemed to be working.
The revolution never came
that they were expecting in Western Europe,
but in Russia itself,
they were able to restabilize things
by the middle or end of the 1920s.
And they were able to build more of a popular base
for some of their policies
because people who had seen the chaos of World War I
and revolution and then civil war
kind of just wanted stability.
And after a decade plus of war,
if you had a government
that was able to give you enough to eat and a job,
that was good enough for them.
Then Stalin came into power
and he wanted to rapidly industrialize.
And his logic was,
the revolution is not gonna come in the West.
We need to build socialism in one country
and we need to catch up with the West.
We need to turn ourselves into industrial powerhouse
as quickly as possible.
And that’s where you got forced collectivization
to try to increase the productivity of Russian agriculture
through state ownership
of previously fragmented agricultural holdings
and through the implementation of mechanization.
So bringing in more machines
to make agriculture more productive,
all under state ownership,
plus more ambitious attempts to build heavy industry
through five-year plans.
Now, I say this kind of coolly,
but we know in practice what that meant.
Forced collectivization was a disaster.
I mean, first of all,
I think it was built on the faulty premise
that scale always equals more productivity
when in fact, especially in agriculture,
but in any field,
it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
And it led to millions of deaths,
it led to a famine,
it led to a host of other problems.
Industrialization in the way that it happened under Stalin
also kind of unbalanced the Soviet economy
to lean too heavy towards heavy industry,
not enough for medium or light industry.
But this did mean,
especially the five-year plan and industrialization,
did manage to put Russia
on a different developmental trajectory.
So by the time the post-war period came,
one, it might’ve gave them the ability to survive
the Nazi invasion to begin with,
so that’s a complicated question.
And then by the time the post-war period came,
Russia had kind of jumped ahead
of its developmental trajectory
in a way that a lot of other countries didn’t do.
There are a few examples,
like Japan is one that managed to.
If you kind of ran a scenario
where Japan would be in the 1870s, 1880s,
and ran it a hundred times,
the Japan of the post-war period
is kind of one of the best outcomes, right?
And I think that you could say that
about Russian economic development,
its ability to catch up at a certain level to the West.
And then after that, of course, later on,
as economies got more complex,
as they kind of moved beyond regular heavy industry
and as the main stable of the economy,
the Russian economy and its command system
was unable to adapt and cope
and ended up falling back behind the West again
by the 1970s.
So this is a very long story to say
that a lot went wrong in Russia.
The economic picture
is actually a little bit more complicated.
Politically, I think it’s just a small party
without much popular support,
but with real popular support in a couple of cities,
but without a lot of popular support empire-wide,
took power and they felt like they couldn’t get back power.
And they kept holding on to power
and eventually among their ranks in these conditions,
one of history’s great tyrants took power
and was able to justify what he was doing
in the context of the Russian nation and development,
but also all the threats that came from abroad.
The Civil War wasn’t just a Civil War,
it was really an invasion
by many imperial powers all around the world as well.
So I think a lot of it was conditions and circumstance.
And I guess the question really is
to what role ideology played?
Was there something within the socialist tradition
that might’ve lended itself to authoritarianism?
And that’s something we should talk about.
And that’s a really complicated human question.
It does seem that the rhetoric,
the populism of workers unite,
we’ve been fucked over for way too long.
Let’s stand together.
Somehow that message allows
flawed or evil people to take power.
It seems like the rhetoric, the idea is so good,
maybe the utopian nature of the idea is so good
that it allows a great speaker to take power.
It’s almost like if the mission,
like come with me friends,
beyond the horizon, a great land is waiting for us.
That encourages sort of, yeah,
dictators, authoritarians to take power.
Is there something within the ideology
that allows for that,
for the sort of, for lying to people, essentially?
Well, I might surprise you with my answer
because I would say yes, maybe.
But I think that it’s not just socialism.
Any sort of ideology
that appeals to the collective
and appeals to our long-term destiny,
either as a species or as a nation
or as a class or whatever else,
can lend itself to authoritarianism.
So you can see this in many of the nationalisms
of the 20th century.
Now, some of these nationalisms
use incredibly lofty collective rhetoric,
like in Sweden, the rhetoric of,
we’re going to create the people’s home.
We’re going to make this a country
with dignity for all Swedes.
We’re going to make this a country
that’s more developed, more free, and so on.
And they managed to build a pretty excellent society,
in my estimation, from that.
In countries like fascist Germany and Italy,
they managed to do horrendous things in Japan
and horrendous things with that.
In the US, with national popular appeals,
FDR was able to unite a nation
to elevate ordinary working class people
into a position where they felt like
they had a real stake in the country.
And I think did great things with the New Deal.
In Russia, of course, this language was used
to trample upon individual rights
and to justify hardship and abuses
of ordinary individual people
in the name of a collective destiny.
A destiny, of course, that was just decided
by the party in power and during the 30s and 40s
by just Stalin himself, really.
Now, I think that that’s really the case
for making sure that we have a bedrock
of civil rights and democracy.
And then on top of that, we can debate.
We can debate different national destinies.
We can debate different appeals,
different visions of the world.
But as long as people have a say
in what sacrifices they’re being asked to do,
and as long as those sacrifices don’t take away
what’s fundamentally ours, which is our life,
which is our basic rights.
And voice, our voice.
So this complicated picture, because help me understand,
you mentioned that social democracy,
it’s trying to have social policies
within a capitalist system, in part.
But your vision, your hope for a social democracy
is one that goes beyond that.
How do you give everybody a voice
while not becoming the Soviet Union,
while not becoming where basically people are silenced
either directly through violence
or through the implied threat of violence
and therefore fear?
So I think you need to limit the scope
of where the state is and what the state can do
and how the state functions, first of all.
Now, for me, social democracy was like the equivalent of,
I’ll give a football analogy.
It was the equivalent of getting to the red zone
and then kicking a field goal.
You’ll take the three points,
but you would have rather got a touchdown.
And for me, socialism would be the touchdown.
It’s not a separate, different playing field.
Some people would say socialism would be an interception.
No, and they would have the right to, again,
to say that and to say we shouldn’t go further.
And most coaches would take the safe route, right?
So you’re going against the decision.
Anyway, I’ll just take it as a point.
But I understand, I understand.
So for you, the goal is full socialism.
But I’ll take the three points.
I just want to march down the field.
I want to get within scoring position.
The reason why we should really move from this analogy,
but the reason why I call myself a socialist
is looking through history
and these examples of social democracy,
you saw that they were able to give working class people
lots of rights and income and power in their society.
But at the end of the day,
capitalists still had the ultimate power,
which is the ability to withhold investment.
So they could say in the late 1960s and early 70s,
listen, I was fine with this arrangement 10 years ago,
but now I feel like I’m going to take my money
and I’m going to go move to a different country
or I’m just going to not invest
because my workers are paid too much.
I’m still making money,
but I feel like I could be making more.
I need more of an upper hand, right?
So their economic power is then challenging
the democratic mandate of Swedish workers
that were voting for the Social Democratic Party
and were behind this advance.
So to me, what socialism is in part
is taking the means of production, right?
Where this capitalist power is coming from
and making it socially owned
so that ordinary workers can control their workplaces,
can make investment decisions and so on.
Now, does that mean total state ownership of everything
or a planned economy?
I don’t think that makes any sense.
I think that we should live in a society
in which markets are harnessed and regulated and so on.
My main problem is capitalist ownership
in part on normative grounds,
just because I think that it doesn’t make sense
that we celebrate democracy and all these other spheres,
but we have workplaces that are just treated like tyrannies.
And in part, because I think that ordinary workers
would much prefer a system in which over time
they accrued shares and ownership
where they got, in addition to a base kind of wage,
they got dividends from their firm being successful
and that they figured out how to…
Large firms, they’re not gonna be making
day-to-day decisions by democratic vote, right?
But maybe you would elect representatives,
elected managements once every year or two,
depending on your operating agreement and so on.
That’s kind of my vision of a socialist society.
And this sounds, I hope, agree or disagree,
like it would not be a crazy leap into year zero, right?
That this could be maybe a way in which we could take
a lot of what’s existing in society,
but then just add this on top.
But what it would mean is a society
without a capitalist class.
This class hasn’t been…
Individually, these people haven’t been
taken to re-education camps or whatever else,
but they’re just no longer in this position.
And they’re now part of the economy in other ways,
like they’ll probably be the first set
of highly competent technocrats and managers and so on.
They’ll probably be very well compensated
for their time and expertise and whatever else.
But to me, both the practical end of things,
like taking away this ability to withhold investment
and increasing our ability to democratically
shape investment priorities,
and to continue down the road of social democracy,
and on normative grounds by kind of egalitarian belief
that ordinary people should have more stake
in their lives in the workplace,
leads me beyond social democracy to socialism.
So there’s a tricky thing here.
So in Ukraine especially, but in the Soviet Union,
there’s the kulaks.
The possible trajectory of fighting
for the beautiful message of respecting workers’ rights
has this dynamic of making an enemy of the capitalist class,
too easily making an enemy of the capitalist class,
with a central leader, populist leader,
that says the rich and the powerful,
they’re taking advantage of you.
We need to remove them.
We need to put them in camps, perhaps.
Not said explicitly, until it happens.
It can happen overnight.
But just putting a giant pressure on that capitalist class,
and again, the Stalin-type figure takes hold.
So I’m trying to understand
how the mechanism can prevent that.
And perhaps I’ll sort of reveal my bias here,
is I’ve been reading,
I was gonna say too much, maybe not enough,
but a lot about books like Stalin’s War on Ukraine,
and just I’ve been reading a lot about the 30s and the 40s,
for personal reasons related to my travels in Ukraine
and all that kind of stuff.
So I have a little bit of a focus
on the historical implementations of communism currently,
without kind of an updated view
of all the possible future implementations.
So I just wanna lay that out there.
But I worry about the slippery slope
into the authoritarian figure that takes this sexy message,
destroys everyone who’s powerful
in the name of the working class,
and then fucks the working class afterwards.
So first of all, I think it’s worth remembering
that the socialist movement had different outcomes
across Western Europe and Eastern Europe.
And in some of these countries in Western Europe,
there wasn’t actually democracy before the workers’ movement
and before the socialist movement.
So the battle in Sweden, for instance,
was about establishing political democracy,
establishing true representation for workers.
And that’s how the parties became popular.
Same thing in Germany, too.
Then it was the Social Democrats
who were able to build political democracy.
Then on top of that, add layers of economic democracy,
The Swedish Social Democrats ruled basically uninterrupted
from the early 1930s until 1976.
It’s kind of crazy to think about,
but they were just in government.
They were the leading member of government
and then a few different coalition partners would shift.
Sometimes they were with the agrarians,
sometimes they were with the communists briefly,
but they ruled uninterrupted
and they lost an election in 1976 and they just left power.
Then they got back into power in the 80s.
So in other words, they created a democratic system,
of course, with mass support of working class people.
Then they truly honored the system
because when they lost power, they lost power.
They left power.
There’s plenty of cases like that across Europe
and the world and in other countries like Korea
and elsewhere where the workers’ movements,
the most militant, the most class-centric workers,
South Africa is the same way, created democratic systems.
Now, Russia, I think a lot of what happened
had to do with the fact
that it was never a democratic country.
It was ruled by a party and the party itself
was very easy to shift from a somewhat democratic party
in Lenin’s day to an authoritarian one in Russia.
And there was no distinction then
between the party and the state.
So your authoritarian party
then became authoritarian total control
over the entirety of the state.
Now, the fact that the Soviet system
involved total state ownership of production
meant that the authoritarianism of the party state
could go even deeper into the lives of ordinary people
compared to other horrific dictatorships
like Pinochet’s Chile and so on,
when maybe you could find some solace just at home
or whatever else.
You didn’t have the same sort of totalitarian
control of people’s lives.
But I would say that socialism itself
is yield different outcomes.
Now, on the question of polarization,
I guess that implies that this polarization,
this distinction is a distinction
that isn’t real in society
and that is kind of being manufactured or generated.
You mean the capitalist class and the working class?
Yeah. Just to clarify.
So in certain populist distinctions,
the division is basically arbitrary or made up,
the us versus them polarization,
depending who the us and who the them are.
You know, it’s truly something that’s manufactured.
But capitalism itself as a system,
as a system based on class division,
whether you’re support or oppose it,
I think we should acknowledge it’s based on class division,
that is the thing creating that polarization.
Now, I think what a lot of what socialists try to do
is we try to take bits of working class opposition
to capitalism, to their lives,
to the way they’re treated at work and so on.
And yes, we do try to organize on those bases
to help workers take collective action,
to help them organize in political parties
and so on to represent their interests,
economic and otherwise.
But the contradiction exists to begin with.
And if anything, this system,
which I’m proposing, democratic socialism,
would be kind of a resolution of this conflict,
this dilemma, this thing that has always existed
since Chieftain and follower and so on.
We’ve had class division since the Neolithic Revolution.
You know, I think this is a democratic road
out of that tension and that division of humanity
into people who own and people have nothing to give
but their ability to work.
So that sort of that idea is grounded
in going all the way back to Marx
that all of human history can be told
through the lens of class struggle.
Is there some sense, can you still man the case
that this class difference is over-exaggerated?
That there’s a difference,
but it’s not the difference of the abuser and the abused.
It’s more of a difference of people that were successful
and people that were less successful.
So I’ll play devil’s advocate,
which is that maybe one could argue
that in its purest, earliest stage,
capitalism was based on a stark difference.
But then since then, two things have happened.
One, a bunch of socialists and workers
have organized to guarantee certain rights
for working class people, certain protections.
So in our system now, there are certain safety nets,
less in the US than in other countries,
but in a lot of countries,
there are pretty extensive safety nets.
Even like 40-hour work week, minimum wage,
safety regulations, all that kind of stuff.
And all those things are, in my mind,
doses of socialism within capitalism.
Because what you’re doing is you are taking the autonomy
of capitalists to do whatever they want
with the people contracted to them.
And the only thing stopping them is them
potentially being able to go to another employer.
But even then, it’s kind of potentially
a race to the bottom.
If you can’t get more than $2 an hour
from any employer in your market,
you’re gonna have to live with it.
So one factor is we have built in those protections.
So we’ve taken enough socialism into capitalism
that you could say that at a certain point,
maybe it makes a qualitative difference
and not just a quantitative difference in people’s lives.
The other thing is over time, we’ve gotten wealthier
and more productive as a society.
So maybe at some point, the quantitative difference
of just more and more wealth
means that even if in the abstract,
the division between a worker and a capitalist is real,
if that worker is earning a quarter million dollars a year
and has a good life and only has to clock in
35 hours a week, 30 hours a week,
and has four weeks of vacation,
then isn’t it just an abstract or philosophical difference?
So I think you could level those two arguments.
What I would say is that,
one, a lot of these rights that we have fought for
are constantly being eroded and they’re under-attacked
in part because the economic power that capitalists have
bleeds into our political democracy as well.
There’s constant lobbying
for all sorts of labor market deregulations and so on.
I fundamentally believe that if tomorrow
all those regulations went away,
capitalists would fight to pay people as little as possible
and we’d be back in 19th century capitalism.
And not because they’re bad people.
Because if I’m running a firm
and all of a sudden my competition
is able to find a labor pool
and is paying people less than me,
I’m gonna be undercut
because they’ll be able to take some of that extra savings
and invest into new technology or whatever else
and they’ll gobble up my market share before long.
And then also beyond that,
I do think there’s a normative question here,
which is, now, do we believe that ordinary people
have a capacity to be able to make certain decisions
about their work?
Do we believe they know more about their work
than their bosses?
Now, I don’t think that’s natural at every level,
but I think there’s no doubt that in workplaces,
workers know how to productively do their task
in ways that their manager might not know.
I think we’ve all been in workplaces
where we’ve had managers who kind of don’t know
what you do or whatever else.
And I think that collectively, if incentivized,
we could have them, one, instead of hoarding
or that information,
since they’re getting a stake in production and so on,
they’d be able to more freely share it
and be able to reshape how their day-to-day work happens.
And also with elected managers,
you kind of take that up the chain,
I think you would have perfectly efficient
market-based firms that could exist without capitalists.
So there’s a, I mean, there’s a lot of things to say,
maybe within just very, very low-level question
of if the workers are running the show,
there’s a brutal truth to the fact
that some people are better,
and the workers know this.
It’s the Steve Jobs A-players,
you want to have all the A-players in the room
because one B-player can poison the pool
because then everybody gets demotivated by,
by the nature of that lack of excellence and competence.
This is just to take sort of a crude
devil’s advocate perspective.
Are the workers going to be able to remove
the incompetent from the pool in the name,
in the goal of, towards the mission
of succeeding as a collective?
So I think that any successful model of socialism
that involves the market, you need two things.
One is at the micro level, you need the ability
to fire people and for them to exit firms,
which might be a slower process in cooperative-based firms
than it is in a capitalist firm without a union,
but it would probably akin to the process
that would happen in a capitalist firm,
of which there are many with unions.
So you need that.
And then at the macro level, you need firm failure.
You need to avoid a dilemma that happened
in Soviet-style economies,
which was soft budget constraints
and firms basically not being allowed to fail
because the government was committed to full employment,
the firms employed people.
So even inefficient firms were at the end of the day,
they knew they were going to be propped up by the government
and they would be given all the resources they would need
no matter how inefficiently they were using those resources
to maintain employment.
So I think you need both.
Do you worry about this idea of firing people?
Man, I’m uncomfortable with the idea.
I hate it, but I also know it’s extremely necessary.
So is there something about a collective,
a socialist system that makes firing,
you said it might be slower,
might it become extremely slow, too much friction?
Isn’t there a tension between respecting the rights
of a human being and saying, like, you need to step up,
maybe sort of deposit the carrot,
like you really, like to really encourage fellow workers,
no, when there’s a person that’s not pulling their side
of the, doing as great of a job as it could be.
But isn’t the person that’s not doing a great of a job
going to start to manipulate the system
that slows the firing in their self-interest?
Well, I think there would be certain,
so maybe another way to put it is,
think about like if you’re a partner at a law firm, right?
I don’t really know how law firms work,
so I probably shouldn’t use this analogy,
but correct me if I’m wrong, but let’s say you’re a partner,
you kind of have equity in your law firm
or something beyond your billable hours.
And let’s say you’re going to be fired
from your law firm or they’re laying off people
or whatever else, they could just get rid of you,
but they would also have to figure out
how to kind of buy you out too after a certain point.
So I think that like in a cooperative firm,
you’d probably have a system where you,
after a certain point of working productively,
you probably have a period
where you can get fired really quickly, no matter what.
But once your job security kicks in,
you would be able to, it would be a process.
It would probably be like a day or two process
to figure it out,
or maybe they would have a progressive discipline process,
which is first you have to get a verbal feedback
and then maybe a written performance review,
then you could be fired.
I mean, that’s how it works in a lot of workplaces
with either unions or with just basic job security.
Most countries, that’s how it works
because there’s not at will employment in most countries.
So I think that the real tension is if you fire someone,
if you’re condemning them to destitution,
then morally you’d really feel something there,
as you should as a human being concerned about other people.
But in a social system
or even basic social democratic system,
there’d be mechanisms to take care of that person.
So one, if a firm is failing for any reason,
they’re getting out-compete or whatever else,
those workers would then lend in the hands
just for a little bit of the state, right?
And there could be active labor market policies
to retrain people to go into expanding sectors
or your sector is now obsolete,
but here you have these skills,
you’re gonna be trained and here’s some resources
to kind of help you along your training.
And then there’s a bunch of firms hiring,
so go on your way.
And then also just with an expanded welfare state,
being destitute in certain countries,
being unemployed in certain countries
is easier than in other countries or situations.
So you still can fall back on that mechanism.
And also my vision of market socialism,
a democratic socialism,
there would be an expanded state sector.
Not anything you can imagine,
but the way in which there’s more of a state sector
in countries like Norway or Denmark than there is in the US.
So there would be various forms of state employment
and whatever else.
So, I mean, I think that the real question is,
should being bad at your job
or getting fired for any reason or getting laid off,
should that be a cause to have you totally lose your shirt?
Or maybe should you just have to rebound?
Maybe you have less money for consumption or whatever else,
and you’ll be on your way onto bigger and better things
in a few months.
So a strong social net in many ways
make it more efficient to fire people
who are not good at their job
because then they won’t be,
that won’t actually significantly damage
their quality of life
and they have a chance to find a job
at which they can flourish.
To step out into the macro,
there’s a tension here as well.
So you said that there’s an equality between the classes,
the capitalist class and the working class.
And sort of, there’s a lot of ways
you can maybe correct me on the numbers,
but you could say that the top 1% of Americans
have more wealth than the bottom 50%.
That’s not talking about perhaps capitalist class
and the working class,
but it’s a good sort of estimate, right?
The flip side of that,
if you just look at countries
that have more economic freedom
versus less economic freedom,
more capitalism versus less capitalism,
their GDP seems to be significantly higher.
And so at the local level,
you might say that there’s an inequality,
but if you look historically over decades,
it seems like the more capitalism there is,
the higher the GDP grows,
and therefore the level of the quality of life
and the basic income, the basic wealth,
the average, even including the working class,
goes up over time.
Can you see both sides of this?
So I could definitely accept some of that premise.
One, within capitalism, right,
you want a bigger pie.
And then if you divide up that pie,
even if the bottom 10% or the working class share,
let’s say, is less as a percentage,
it’s still more in raw terms.
So it’s better for everyone.
The part that I would dispute
is more economic freedom versus less economic freedom.
So there’s obviously some countries
in which capitalism doesn’t work,
and maybe economic freedom plays a role.
Like if you’re in a country like Egypt or India
with a highly, or previously highly bureaucratic system,
so you need to get licenses to do anything,
and you need to run things for the state,
or you need to bribe someone to get an incorporation done
or whatever else,
that’s in case in which I would accept the premise of,
okay, economic freedom to take entrepreneurial risk
to start something new is limited.
There’s all sorts of factors in which it’s too difficult
to start a firm, and it benefits no one really,
except for whatever bureaucracy might be,
might be taking their 15% cut.
But in general, I think in advanced economies,
it doesn’t really work that way.
So think about it this way.
If you’re, pretend like we’re back,
I’m sorry to go to Scandinavia again,
but this is a good example.
Let’s say you’re back in the 1970s
in Scandinavia or whatever else.
You’re in a country with extremely powerful unions.
So the unions have a lot of labor rights,
the state has certain high taxation,
certain guarantees on you too,
but you’re a capitalist there.
Now, what would you do if your capitalist competitors
in the US were able to pay workers $10 an hour
and you have to pay them 20?
You would probably,
and assuming you can’t just flee or shut down
or whatever else,
you’d probably find ways
to use labor-saving technology, right?
That power of the high wages
might encourage you to invest more in technology
and to utilize people’s times better
so they’re more productive at work,
so they’re not just like sitting around or whatever else.
So this really happened in practice
in the Scandinavian countries,
in part because it was combined with a certain type
of pattern wage bargaining.
So I’ll explain this really simply,
but let’s pretend that you’re in a sector
with three different companies.
I’ll say an automotive sector,
and I’ll just say one is GM,
one is Ford, one is Chrysler.
Now, all these workers in your sector are all unionized.
They’re all Swedish UAW,
whatever the equivalent is, members,
and they’re all paid the same,
and the union is setting, through bargaining,
the union is setting the wages across the sector.
But the unions, and let’s say GM is the most productive
of these companies,
Ford is number two, Chrysler is number three.
The unions would intentionally set the wages,
set their benchmark to Ford in the middle.
So what that would do is say to Ford,
okay, Ford will stay in business
because they’ll be able to meet the wage demands.
Chrysler’s probably might go out of business
because they won’t be able to meet the demands,
or they’ll have to really adapt really quickly,
they might have to lay off people,
they might have to restructure.
So union knows this in advance,
and all the auto workers know this.
But the most efficient manufacturer, GM,
now has excess profits
because if they were negotiating with just the GM workers,
the GM workers might even have been able to demand more,
but instead, these workers are pegging their wage demands
to Ford’s level, and GM is, in theory,
able to expand and employ more people
and adopt new production techniques with their surplus.
Then those Chrysler workers would be absorbed by the state
by active labor market policies,
then put back to work for GM
or for these expanding sectors.
So in other words, you’re now in a situation
where the state has a pretty big role in your economy,
taking a lot of your money and taxes.
Unions are really shaping your life as a capitalist
far more than would happen
in a country like the United States.
And yet still, despite your more limited economic freedom,
you’re still creating a more productive economy.
So it could work.
The system has to be designed right,
and I think social democracies were designed the right way.
I think any future democratic socialism
after social democracy
would have to be designed the right way.
Could you just linger on that a little more,
the pattern wage bargaining?
So GM is the most efficient,
and Ford is the second most.
Can you explain to me how,
can you explain to me again the wages,
setting the wages to the Ford level,
how that is good for GM?
How that encourages more GM?
This is just sectoral, or actually in this case,
centralized wage bargaining.
So setting the wages at a level that Ford can afford,
but a level that would probably be too expensive
for Chrysler in the automotive sector,
would benefit GM because they’re drawing
what we could call excess profits.
Because GM, if the GM itself could potentially
have to deal with just the enterprise of GM workers,
bargaining for wages,
and if they saw their profitability was high,
they would know their leverage,
and they would say, pay us even more,
or else we’re gonna go on strike.
But instead, they’re accepting slightly lower wages
than they would have otherwise had,
in return for the company having excess profits,
that they’re, through both the state, their union,
and sometimes there’s worker councils or whatever else,
they’re playing a role in saying,
okay, we’re gonna make sure this excess profit
is actually invested productively,
in order to expand employment and just output.
Okay, can we talk about unions?
In general then, what are the pros and cons of unions?
So the interest of the union,
maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong,
I have a lot to learn both about the economics
and the human experience of a union.
The union’s interest is to,
what, to protect worker rights
and to maximize worker happiness,
not the success and the productivity
and the efficiency of a company, right?
No, I would disagree.
So I think a union’s interest is in
what’s collectively bargaining on behalf of workers,
because in certain cases,
I am right now a manager at The Nation magazine, right?
If I have a problem with my working conditions
or I need a raise or whatever else,
I could, with my skillset, my background,
my role in the company,
I could go to my boss, the owner of The Nation and say,
okay, I need to renegotiate my contract on these terms.
I could bargain, right?
Now, if I was a ordinary worker at like a CVS or something,
if I didn’t like my conditions and I went to my boss
and said, hey, I need a $2 raise
and I need to be home by 8.30
because I have obligations at home,
the boss would probably say,
I’m sorry, that’s not possible, right?
Maybe try the Rite Aid down the street
or the Walgreens down the street or whatever.
Now, if I went to the boss at a place like CVS
or even better, if all the pharmaceutical workers
at Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreens went to our bosses and said,
listen, we collectively need to,
$2 more and better hours, shorter shifts or whatever else,
then they would probably have no choice but to concede.
You have to bargain collectively at any level
if you’re an ordinary worker.
And there are some exceptions,
but that’s for certain highly skilled workers.
But even in those cases, of course, all workers are skilled.
I mean, just the technical definition.
Even in those cases, a lot of those workers
have to bargain collectively as well
in order to get more wealth.
But they cannot make their demands so excessive
that their firm gets out of business.
The workers only are workers
as long as they’re gainfully employed.
So often unions will try to select their wage demands
at such a level that it ensures
that their firm will stay in business.
Yeah, but the problem is the way firms go out of business
isn’t by an explosion,
like the way popcorn starts getting cooked.
At a certain moment, it just is over.
It seems like the union can,
through collective bargaining, keep increasing the wage,
keep increasing the interest of the worker
until it suffocates the company,
that it doesn’t die immediately,
but it dies in like five years.
So that might still serve the interest of the worker,
but it doesn’t serve the interest of society as a whole
that’s creating cool stuff and increasing.
So a market that’s operating and increasing cool stuff
and constantly innovating and so on
and creating more and more cool stuff
and increasing the quality of life in general.
I disagree with the premise
because I think even taking your example,
that would be better for society.
If a firm cannot pay its workers a living wage
but its competitors can,
then that firm will either figure out a way to innovate,
develop new techniques, new markets,
new ways to be productive,
or it should go out of business.
And it would be better for it to go out of business
than to stay in business
or to be artificially kept in business in any sort of way.
So that’s the Chrysler, my old centralized bargaining.
But then there is, innovation costs money too.
So the flip side of that,
I think to play devil’s advocate
is that it incentivizes,
automotive industry is probably a good example of that.
It incentivizes cutting costs everywhere
and sort of whatever has been making you money currently,
figuring out how to do that really well
without investing into the long-term future of the company
like all the different ways it can pivot,
all the different interesting things it could do
in terms of investing into R&D.
Whenever there’s more and more and more pressure
on paying a living wage for the workers,
it might not, again, it might suffocate and die
over the next five, 10, 20 years,
which might be a good destructive force
from a capitalist perspective,
but it might rob us of the Einstein of a company, right?
Of the flourishing that the company
and the workers within it can do
over a period of five, 10, 20 years.
Well, this is just a problem with a lot of capitalism,
which is about short-termism, right?
Because the same thing could be said
from you’re starting a company,
you have a plan for it to make a lot of money,
but your investors want dividends right away.
So you have to take away from your long-term R&D
or other plans and deliver short-term dividends.
That’s often why a lot of, I think, R&D
is often rooted in state institutions
and research and whatever else is being drawed on.
And also, I think that that’s a reason why
the state has some sort of role in fostering firms
in either a, my version of a socialist economy
or a capitalist economy or whatever else
to help with these time horizon problems.
So I won’t dispute that workers could play a role
in time horizon problems, but more often than that,
it’s coming from investors, it’s coming from
just a host of other market pressures
that people might have.
And I would say that in the real world,
a lot of investment funds don’t come
from just retained earnings.
It comes from a lot of sources.
So I think this is a problem that could be solved
through public policy, but definitely exists today as well.
So you mentioned living wage.
Is there a tension between a living wage,
and maybe you could speak to what a living wage means,
and the workers owning all of the profit of the company?
Sort of this kind of spectrum.
No, I guess the spectrum is from no minimum wage,
the lowest possible thing you could pay to a worker,
then somewhere in that spectrum is a living wage,
and then at the top is all of the profit
from the companies owned by the workers.
So split to the workers.
I mean, I think that any society is going to have
to make distributional choices.
You could imagine a variety of capitalism
in which workers are paid quite little,
but there’s extremely high taxation,
and there’s redistribution after the fact.
You could imagine a system in which
there’s less taxation after the fact,
but there’s more guarantees and regulations
on how much people are paid before the fact.
In my vision of a social society,
there would be some other way that unions work,
and in my example, the centralized bargaining unions
would work that bargain at the sectoral level,
and not just at the enterprise level
like our unions do today.
But there could be benchmarks set
for different occupations or wages,
and the reason why you would want a benchmark
at a worker-controlled firm
is that you don’t want workers self-exploiting themselves
in order to gobble up market share,
or because you don’t want them collectively deciding,
okay, we’re gonna invest in this longer-term time horizon,
and out-compete other people that way.
So you might say, okay,
if you do this sort of clerical work,
you have to be paid the equivalent of $15 an hour,
and that’s a minimum,
but on top of that,
you get dividends from excess profits,
and I think it would also have to be combined
with public financing for expansions and for development,
which could be done in quite a competitive way.
So you could have a variety of banks.
In my vision, state-owned banks,
how would they decide who to invest in
and who to not invest in,
who to give a loan for expansion to and who not to?
Because you don’t want it to be like,
oh, I’m gonna invest in my nephew’s firm
and not this other firm,
or I’m gonna invest in this guy’s firm
because he’s an Italian,
but not this guy’s firm because he’s Albanian,
or whatever else.
Just make it rational at the level of their goal
is just like any other investment person at a bank today
to maintain a certain risk profile
and to have an interest yield
and decide to invest on that basis.
So if there’s a huge automotive firm
that has been on business for 50 years
that needs a little operating cash,
like, yeah, they could get their $50 million at 3% loan.
If you have some crazy blue sky idea
and you manage to get it to that point,
like maybe you and your friends would get it
at 12% or something close to what a VC would offer today.
So I only kind of go into these details
not because to say that a system doesn’t have to,
in advance, map out all the different possibilities,
but I think it does have to be willing to accept
a lot of things that we know today.
I can’t give you a version of socialism
that everything’s gonna be fine,
we’re gonna live harmoniously,
we won’t have these sort of tensions
and you could hunt in the evening
and fish in the afternoon
and write criticism or whatever else.
I do hope that there’s horizons beyond this
that we can aspire to.
I do have those visions,
but for now I think our task as socialists
is to imagine five minutes after midnight,
what can we do right away within our lifetime vision?
So that means through some level of central planning,
reallocating resources to the workers.
So I think the primary mechanism
in this private sector under socialism
would be a market mechanism,
firms competing against each other to expand,
connected to a system of public financing.
But even at that level,
the individual bankers and public banks and so on
would be operating based on their own rationality
and the state would certainly shape investment decisions,
but maybe no more than they do
in a lot of capitalist systems.
So the state might already today
in a lot of countries decide,
we wanna invest in green technology,
so it’s gonna be favorable rates for people
or tax credits for people investing in green technology.
So the state already shapes investment.
I think what should be centrally planned,
and this is where I’m proud to sound
like an old school socialist,
is things like healthcare, things like transit,
things like our natural monopolies of lots of types,
I think can be done very well through planning
and we already have plenty of examples,
but a lot of this society I think
would be the private sphere
of worker-controlled cooperatives
competing against each other,
weak firms failing, successful firms expanded.
And the banks, you’re saying publicly or privately owned?
Let’s just put it all on the table
that it’s almost guaranteed that every system has corruption.
So I guess the bigger question is
which system has more corruption?
This one with central planning
and worker cooperatives versus unfettered capitalism
or any flavor of capitalism.
I think any system has potential for corruption.
I think it depends on how good your civil service is,
how much oversight do you have
to resolve a problem once it arises.
How does corruption happen in a socialist system?
So you have to, again, I apologize,
but the large-scale examples of it,
so we can look at Soviet Union, China, and Sweden.
Fundamentally different nations and histories
and peoples and economic systems and political systems,
but all could be called in part socialist.
And so there’s a ridiculous almost caricature
of corruption in the Soviet system,
the gigantic bureaucracy that’s built,
where somehow corruption seeps in
through kind of dispersion of responsibility,
that nobody’s really responsible for the corruption.
I just had a conversation with Ed Calderon
who fought the cartels in Mexico,
and there’s a huge amount of corruption in Mexico,
but it’s not like even seen as corruption.
You understand when a cop pulls you over,
you give this much money and so on.
And so that kind of seems to happen in certain systems,
and it seems to have happened in socialist systems
more than in capitalist systems in the 20th century.
Or maybe I’m wrong on that.
No, I mean, I think in a lot of countries,
it’s seen as the cost of doing business, right?
Now, in particular countries built on a system
of central planning or just state allocation of resources
where the state both produces and allocates
and things run through bureaucracies,
then I think you’re much more apt to have corruption
than in a system with just a smaller sphere for the state.
So for example, if you’re in a hypothetical version
of the US, you might see a lot more corruption
in like the post office,
but you wouldn’t have that corruption in your workplace.
So you kind of learn to go around that.
For one thing, even in state sectors, you can have,
and this often is the case in democratic countries,
you have a transparent civil service
where people who are corrupt are prosecuted by judges
where it’s frowned upon and it just,
over time, it goes away.
So you go from having political machines
that were tied to certain,
had friends in certain police precincts
and whatever else in the US in the 19th century
and early 20th century to now today,
that would be a huge scandal and unheard of, right?
So I think over time, having a independent court system,
having a truly meritocratic civil service
can be implemented anywhere.
I think though, in the Soviet Union,
the extra little bit that happened was
you had a bureaucracy that just had so much power
because the bureaucracy was producing
and distributing everything.
And everyone was relying on the bureaucracy with jobs.
The way to social advancement was through the bureaucracies.
So you end up with people like Khrushchev,
people going from peasants to supreme leaders of countries
just through getting hooked up in the bureaucracy
and advancing within it.
And not all of these were bad people.
I don’t think Khrushchev was that bad of a person
or Gorbachev, but this is their mechanism
to advancement in systems like this.
In the vision of democratic socialism that I propose,
the state doesn’t have that overriding power to begin with.
But I think in either case,
corruption has arose in many different systems
and has been successfully dealt with.
I think on the developmental trajectory
of even countries today that we think of
as being very corrupt,
corruption will fade away as well.
But you definitely need a system in which individuals act,
individuals are incentivized to act rationally.
If you’re in a system in which cops who are corrupt
are prosecuted and investigated
and there’s internal controls, a civilian board review
and kind of an internal investigators
within police departments or whatever else,
there will be less corruption over time
if people are punished.
If you’re in a system in which you’re running a firm
or you’re the manager of a firm, an elected manager,
and everyone at that firm is trying for more efficiency
and trying for more excess profits
or whatever else at the end of the day,
dividends at the end of the day,
then if you try to hire your nephew
and he’s not good at your job,
you’re not gonna win reelection, right?
So you shouldn’t, I think no system should rely on
a change in culture that come naturally
or some sort of individual altruism.
I think the systems have to be constructed
in such a way that it’s not rational to behave poorly.
Sort of from a theoretical perspective,
either a socialist or capitalist system
can have either culture.
But it seems like if you prioritize meritocracy,
if the people that are good, whatever the good means,
in terms of integrity, in terms of performance,
in terms of competence,
it seems like that leads to a less corrupt system
and it seems like capitalism,
there’s all kinds of flavors of capitalism,
but capitalism, because it does prioritize meritocracy,
more often leads to less corruption.
So that’s not a question of political or economic systems,
it’s a question of what kind of stuff do you talk about
that leads to a culture of less corruption?
First of all, I think in theory,
maybe capitalism rewards meritocracy,
but I think in practice,
anyone watching this, or you and me,
would think of some of the people we know
that work the hardest and they’re often working class people
working in the food service industry
or whatever else, right?
I think we don’t have, in practice,
I don’t think we actually live in a society
that rewards people for hard work.
I think we reward people for a combination
of accidents of birth plus hard work.
Let me push back because, yes, so I agree with you,
but let me push back on a subtle point
because I like to draw a difference
between hard work and meritocracy
because as a person who works really hard,
like I work crazy hard,
but I’ve also worked with a lot of people
that are just much better than me.
So hard work does not equal skill, good, productive.
I just want to kind of draw that distinction,
but I agree with you.
I don’t think our society rewards directly hard work
or even high skill.
There’s many examples, at least we can see,
that it does not do so.
So we have an unequal distribution of talent, of course.
So if we lived in a society in which
there was some level of acceptable inequality,
and it’s a normative kind of the question
of how much we would say is acceptable, right?
And that inequality was based
on this unequal distribution of talent,
then I think that would be fine with me, right?
That would actually be a meritocracy.
What I see in the US is often,
okay, so if you are a upper middle class or rich kid
and you get a good education, K through 12,
out of those people, there will be some
that work extra hard and go on to do incredible things
or are very successful,
and there’ll be other people that do not, right?
And decide for whatever reason or go down a different path.
And you could say maybe among that group
of the upper middle class, there is a meritocracy, right?
But they’re actually given those opportunities
to make their own decisions and to fail,
whereas many, many other people,
the vast majority of American society, I would say,
60 plus percent don’t really get those opportunities
to make those choices to begin with.
And I would aspire to the type of world,
at least as a first step,
in which our only inequalities are based
on our unequal, innate kind of distributions of talent.
Yeah, I guess a lot of people worry
that when you have a socialist
in any degree central planning,
or perhaps a collective of workers,
that it won’t result in that kind of meritocracy
that you’re talking about.
But you’re saying that, no,
it’s possible to have that kind of meritocracy.
Think about it this way.
The workers themselves are incentivized
and are shaped by market forces too, right?
They’re trying to respond to consumer needs and preferences.
They’re trying to expand market share.
They’re trying to make money.
So it requires no kind of leap
into these people are gonna be more altruistic
or whatever else, even on purely bourgeois terms,
the same way you would maybe justify
competitive capitalist firms.
I think you could justify this system
as long as you think that people,
elected management can perform just as well.
I think based on the experiences of cooperatives,
we’ve seen that they can.
And then at the state level,
state bureaucracies have their own sets of incentives.
But in most systems
that already have extensive state bureaucracies,
these people at high levels are appointed or elected.
They’re held to certain standards.
At the national level,
a national government wants to maintain
the tax revenue that they need to pay for services.
We already, I think, have incentive structures
that you could say that some people might just,
I think, disagree with the normative thing of like,
why would people have to own their own means of production,
control their workplaces or whatever else?
Why do we need this level of equality?
Can’t we just get by with our existing system,
but just like make things a little bit easier
for capitalists to make money
and then everyone will benefit or whatever else.
I mean, that’s a normative question.
In my vision of socialism,
there’ll be plenty of multiple parties
with different views and perspectives
trying to either push us deeper
into more radical forms of socialism,
or on the other hand, to kind of roll back
to more capitalist forms of government.
So I think that, again,
you can’t try to make up a perfect system
and try to implement it.
You have to do it as a process democratically and so on.
So just philosophically, in your gut,
you’re more concerned about the innate equal value
of human beings versus the efficiency
of this wonderful mechanism that we call human civilization
at producing cool stuff.
Just like a gut, if we were sitting at a bar,
that’s where the gut feeling you come with.
Of course, your mind is open,
but you want to protect the equal value of humans.
So I don’t want to fight the hypothetical.
So I’ll say equality.
I am concerned with equality,
but I don’t think the two are necessarily always in tension.
But also, when you think about all the great things
that human beings have produced,
often I think people today just look at the end outcome.
Like we go to the pyramids and we’ll marvel at the pyramids
and the human achievement that it took
to make it happen,
but we won’t stop to think about all the suffering
that went into the making of that thing.
So I think we kind of lean in the opposite direction
where we marvel at our achievements,
but we don’t often think about the suffering
or exploitation that went into certain human achievements.
I would love a society in which we could marvel at things
and not have to worry about the exploitation
that was involved,
because there was no exploitation or oppression involved.
There was just human ingenuity
and creativity and collaboration.
And to the degree, which you may disagree,
to the degree there’s a tension between the two,
at least give equal weight
to the consideration of the suffering,
and don’t just marvel at the beauty of the creations.
To the degree there is a tension between the two.
What Stalin did, actually, too, it’s not just capitalists,
but what Stalin did was he sacrificed whole generations
because he thought that he was building something
for the future, for future Russians to enjoy
and for future people of the world to enjoy.
And actually that analogy that I just gave
about the pyramids was written by Karl Kotzke,
the German socialist, anti-Stalinist critic,
when he was complaining about US journalists and others
going to Russia in the 1930s
and marveling at all the new industries.
Are these people blind to the suffering
behind these things they’re marveling about?
Speaking of which, I think you mentioned
in the context of social democracy
that freedom of speech and freedom of the press
or basically the freedom of people to have a voice
is an important component,
which I think is something that caught my ear a little bit
because if you think about the Soviet Union,
one of the ways that the authoritarian regime
was able to control,
it’s almost part of the central planning
is you have to control the message
and you have to limit the freedom of the press.
So there’s a kind of notion,
especially in like ideas or maybe caricatures
of the ideas of cultural Marxism,
sometimes caricatured even further as wokeism,
that you want to be careful with speech.
You want to censor speech because some speech hurts people.
So in some sense, you want to respect the value,
the equality of human beings
by being careful with the words you say.
So is there a tension there for you?
I think there’s no tension.
And in part, I think that it is very condescending
or patronizing to assume that people can’t take debate,
that people can’t, either as a society or individuals,
visually be engaged in the exchange of ideas
without, or even very vigorous debate
without being broken by it.
It’s just not the case.
I’m basically a free speech absolutist.
I would draw the line at obviously
direct incitements of violence
or certain other speech like that, but in general.
You think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that?
No, I mean, not people who know my work.
I mean, more generally,
I think a lot of people on the right,
even in the center, I think might have the idea
that a lot of the far left wants to censor them.
I think some of the center left wants to censor them,
but I think a lot on the far left,
on the Marxist or socialist left,
I think that free speech is more or less the norm.
Yeah, where is the imperative to censor coming from?
Is this just some small subset of the left on Twitter?
Is there some philosophical idea behind certain groups
that like, if we’re to steal me on the case
in which group actually has the interest of humanity
in mind in wanting to censor speech?
I think we might need to just take it case by case
for an example by example,
because honestly, I would have to think
about a particular case, but let’s just say generally
that a lot of American liberalism rightly sees
the revolution around the civil rights
and later the extension of this rights revolution
for gay rights and so on as being a very positive
achievement of the last half century.
And I completely agree.
Now, for me, now that we’ve won those rights,
a lot of our battle for change needs to go
beyond the representational realm
and needs to really reground itself
in the material bread and butter struggles
of ordinary people trying to survive,
the battle for good healthcare for all Americans
and so on, these are my immediate demands.
I think there’s a segment of American liberalism
that doesn’t want to go in that confrontational
economic direction and wants to skirt away
from battles over things like universal healthcare
and so on, and really are just still caught
at this battle over rights and representation.
And it’s devolved in such a way that they feel
like they need to make change.
The way they make change is only through interventions
and culture, because they don’t really have
the same sense of class and class struggle
that agree or disagree with it.
It’s a very material plane.
So instead, they look at comedians who said
the wrong thing, or they look at all sorts
of other ways to make change.
It’s not really making a change,
it’s just making them look bad
and making our culture worse.
And I think that’s where a lot of it comes from.
But I think that a lot of the left,
even the left that’s much more into battles
over race and lots of other stuff,
like real serious anti-racist on the left,
of course, I’m an anti-racist,
but a lot of my work is focused on the primacy of class.
But even these people are very concerned
about material struggles and issues,
and they don’t really care about these issues
they think are ephemeral kind of issues.
So when you focus exclusively on language,
that somehow leads you astray,
like on being concerned about language
without deeper economic inequalities and so on,
you just become an asshole.
That’s on Twitter pointing out how racist everyone is.
So the anti-racism becomes a caricature of anti-racism.
Exactly, because anti-racism was really about
the struggle of people for equal rights and voting.
It was about the struggle for people
who were trapped into bad neighborhoods
because they couldn’t get decent jobs
and their neighborhoods were redlined or whatever else.
It was really like a struggle for survival.
And what was the main demands, like the language of this?
One, it was the march for jobs and freedom.
It was the slogan, I am a man,
asserting the kind of universal dignity of people.
This is what the civil rights movement was about.
And it wasn’t a surprise,
there was a lot of self-described socialists,
people like Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph,
Martin Luther King Jr.
I mean, these were people who were Ella Baker.
They were socialists.
And I think a lot of Americans agree with them
with their immediate demands,
even though they weren’t themselves socialists,
but it was a very materialistic struggle.
And I think a lot of this has been co-opted
into just some sort of vague
and just disconcerting complaints
about language or culture and so on.
Martin Luther King was a socialist.
To what degree was he a socialist?
I would love to learn about that.
Martin Luther King, I think, broadly called himself
at various points of his life,
a Christian socialist or a democratic socialist,
especially after his speech against the Vietnam War
and the Riverside Church.
I think that was 67.
The last years of his life,
he became much more involved in struggles against the war
and also struggles for workers’ rights.
He was assassinated when he was at a rally
at workers’ rights,
where he thought the next battle
was gonna be an economic battle.
He had this famous line where he said,
I don’t just want to integrate the lunch counter
if it means that we can’t afford to order a burger
while we’re there.
That was the line along those lines.
And I think that got to his point
where the civil rights struggle was part of a step
of building some sort of wider movement.
So he and these other civil rights leaders
were very much interested in working with organized labor,
with working with the left as it was constructed then,
and building some sort of mass space
for not just rights, but redistribution.
Yeah, it’s fascinating.
It’s fascinating which figures self-identified
and were in part socialists.
Albert Einstein was one.
Albert Einstein was a socialist.
Albert Einstein wrote an article
for the first issue of this left-wing magazine.
It’s actually still publishing today
called Monthly Review in, I think, 1949.
And his article is called, Why Socialism?
I don’t think it’s paywalled,
so people should check it out.
But yeah, Einstein was one.
So probably the central idea is the pacifist,
the anti-war idea for him, or no?
Honestly, it’s been so many years since I read it.
I think it was more about,
I think it was actually more economically focused,
but I would need to go back and read it.
But is war in general a part of the fundamental ideas
that socialists are against,
democratic socialists are against?
Like, what’s the relation between socialism and war?
So I think that traditionally in the socialist movement,
war was associated with capitalist competition
and international competition.
And you can look at World War I as very much a case
where different nations were competing with each other
and developing quite violent rivalries
that was in part based on competition
and the periphery over access to markets
and colonies and whatever else.
So it was very easy to draw a direct correlation.
I am opposed to war.
I’m opposed to imperialism,
the domination of strong nations,
dominating smaller nations.
I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist.
I think most socialists wouldn’t call themselves pacifists
because there are some struggles that are worth fighting for.
There’s national liberation struggles and so on
where if there’s no democratic avenue for change,
positive change has been made
through armed revolts around colonialism and whatnot.
But we’re living in an age where hopefully,
I know neither of us have children,
our children or children’s children in the future
won’t have to live through war.
And that is one thing that as countries
have gotten more developed, as the world has changed,
we’ve actually seen less and less war.
Like I won’t dispute Pinker on this.
I think it’s true.
Obviously, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine
and the conflict in Ethiopia is like kind of an exception,
but on the whole, I think we’re going in that direction.
But I think it’s always been a major organizing plank
of socialists against war and against just kind of
this sense of right-wing nationalism and national identity
that often leads to war.
And obviously not everyone on the right has embraced that.
A lot of libertarians are consistently anti-war as well,
but I think the right ideologically
has been associated with war,
even if some advocates of capitalism have not been.
Then there’s the military industrial complex,
which is the financial machine of the whole thing.
I presume, well, since a lot of that is government,
what’s the relation to socialism
and the military industrial complex?
Well, a lot of it’s government contracts,
but it’s privately produced, right?
By companies like Lockheed Martin and things like that.
You could draw a very crude materialist connection
between any of these things
and to kind of prove an ideological point,
but we could produce just as many arms
and then just bury them or never fire them off
or whatever else.
Obviously, there are companies that have a vested interest
in heightening up tensions
or saying that we need to buy a new weapon system
to be prepared for a conventional war with China or Russia.
Meanwhile, I think we all know
that if there’s gonna be a conventional war
between these countries,
it’s gonna lead to something worse.
And no amount of advanced fighter jets
is gonna make a difference.
But I try to avoid cruder, causal connections,
even though there are relationships.
It’s kind of like the old slogan,
which was quite an effective slogan in the early 2000s.
At my first anti-war marches when I was a teenager,
I definitely have shouted it,
but kind of no war for oil.
Like both is like correct
in that it gets to what people’s senses
of like what’s going on and how it’s bad,
but also like analytically,
it’s kind of wanting to explain what really happened
or why we ended up in the Middle East,
which is like a much more complex geopolitical story.
And it is a story of geopolitics.
It’s perhaps less a story of capitalism or socialism.
It’s a story, yeah, it’s a geopolitical story
that I think actually operates outside
of the economic system of individual nations.
It has to do more with, honestly, in part, egos of leaders.
And there is a international battle for resources,
but surely there’s alternatives.
And I think that part of what being a socialist
is about dreaming in the long-term
about a different sort of world without, in my mind,
needless divisions of people into nations
with standing armies.
I’m sure we’ll still have pride about where we’re from
and there’ll still be distinctive cultural features
and so on about where we’re from.
We definitely would, at least for the foreseeable future,
be divided into places as administrative units.
But the idea that there should be a Mexican army
and an American army and a Russian army
and a Ukrainian army is just on the face of it,
I think in the long run will be seen as ridiculous.
Just like we see it as ridiculous today,
looking back at the idea that a lord from London
would be engaged in civil strife
with a lord from Liverpool
and a bunch of peasants would die.
Just kind of on the face of it just seems kind of ridiculous
that these different places would have their own banners
and lords and armies.
I think in the long run,
you might have to zoom out a thousand years,
but in the long run, people will say the same
about nation states and standing armies
and battles over specks of dirt
that mean nothing in a cosmic sense.
Yeah, no, for sure, aliens would laugh at us
or humans that go far beyond Earth
and look at the history, hmm.
Well, most of the history will be forgotten
because if humans successfully expand out into the universe,
just the scale of civilization will grow so fast
that the bickering of the first few thousand years
of human history will seem insignificant.
There’s a very Marxist idea
that I both appreciate in one way,
but on the other hand, it’s kind of scary,
which is that human history is only now beginning
before we’re in prehistory,
but in the future, we’ll be in kind of real history.
I think that a lot of really important history
has already happened and I think posterity will remember it.
And I think that it will be easier
to assign certain people the role of villains,
the people not to engage in the contentious topic,
off topic of Ukraine or whatever else,
but the idea that one government or man
would launch a war to recover
or to take several hundred square miles of territory
and tens of thousands of people will die,
I think seems absurd to us, many people today, luckily,
but it would not have seemed absurd 50, 60 years ago.
It would have just been a normal thing, right?
These kind of territorial disputes and so on.
Projecting into the future,
I think within our lifetimes,
we’ll live to see that kind of conflict be eradicated.
And in part, you could say that, why?
I think it’s because of popular pressure and organization.
So you could say kind of the pro-worker,
socialist organizing part of it, making it less normal.
If you’re a capitalist, you could say,
well, markets are more interlinked,
so war is even more irrational.
I don’t really have a firm answer, whatever it is.
I think it’s a good thing.
You mentioned Marxist view of history.
It’s kind of interesting to just briefly talk about,
what do you think of it?
What do you think of this Marxist view
of how the different systems evolve
from the perspective of class struggle
is what we’re talking about?
Well, I fundamentally, I’m a Marxist.
I fundamentally believe in the broad contours
of historical materialism,
but I think we should be clear
what Marxist theory tells us and what it doesn’t tell us.
I think Marxist theory tells us pertinent things
about how societies evolve,
about how the distributional resources work
in any given society, who owns, who doesn’t,
how the conflict, distributional conflicts, and so on.
I think Marxism can tell us a lot.
How surplus is distributed.
What it can’t tell us is, as a friend put it,
the sex appeal of blue jeans or whatever else.
That’s beyond what Marxism is meant to do.
What economic system can tell us
about the sex appeal of blue jeans?
No economic system, but socialism in the Soviet sense,
when it was turned into the Soviet style,
dialectical materialism, was meant to tell us everything
from explain genetics and agriculture
and whatever else in a very disastrous way.
So I definitely don’t believe in the application
of these ideas in an extremely wide way.
And also I’m a Marxist because it’s a framework
that helps me understand pertinent facts about the world.
If at some point I no longer think the framework
is doing that, I will not be a Marxist,
but I’m a socialist on normative grounds
because I have certain beliefs about the equality of people
because I believe that we should have a society
with liberty, with equality, with fraternity.
And that I hope I’ll always be a socialist
until the day I die, but it’s kind of a very unscientific
or unserious thing to say, this is my framework
from beginning to end for the rest of my life.
But from a perspective of history,
you should say that, so Marx says that you go through,
societies go through different stages.
It could be crudely summarized as primitive communism,
imperialism, maybe slave society, feudalism,
defined by marketalism and then capitalism and socialism
and finally stateless communism, communism.
Did I miss something there?
I mean, I think that was close enough.
I mean, I think that’s definitely true of Marxist theory
that the contradictions of capitalism,
the fact that it has brought together all these workers,
all these materials and whatever else,
and it’s now allowing it to socially create wealth
on a mass scale, but that wealth is that process
is being privately directed.
And also the surplus is being privately kind of appropriated
is a contradiction and that would lead
to some sort of rebellion or revolution or change.
And eventually this contradiction
would be a federal production too.
So we would have to move into a socialist society.
But actually just to backtrack,
so in terms of contradiction,
so it starts when we’re in a village, hunter gatherers,
that’s what you call primitive communism
where everyone’s kind of equal.
It’s kind of a collective, right?
All right, maybe you could just let me, hold on a second.
And then inequalities form of different flavors.
So that’s what imperialism is,
is one dude rises to the top
and has some control of different flavor.
That’s what feudalism with,
when you have one dude at the top
and you have merchants doing some trading and so on.
And then that leads to capitalism
when you have private ownership of companies
and they result in some kind of class inequality.
And eventually that results in a revolution
that says, no, this inequality is not okay.
It’s not natural.
It doesn’t respect the value of human beings
and therefore it goes to socialism
where there is, under Marx’s view,
I guess some role for the state.
State is doing some redistribution
and then the pure communism at the end is when it’s,
it’s a collective where there’s no state-centralized power.
What part of that is wrong?
No, I think broadly the Marxist theory of history
is about different types, different modes of production
that exist at various times based on material conditions.
So in the early times in this theory,
there was not much surplus being generated, right?
And there was generally egalitarian societies.
Then as we became agricultural, as society developed,
there was more surplus being produced.
Then there was a group of people
that were ruling classes of their age
that controlled and distributed that,
that controlled that division of labor
and appropriated more of that surplus for themselves.
And they weren’t involved in productive labor.
In the early print of a society,
everybody’s involved in productive labor.
Later on, you had castes of priests
who did nothing but kind of pray and write
and kind of lecture people all day, right?
And you had kings and rulers and bureaucrats
and traders and so on.
You have a more complex division of labor,
but also more inequity driving out of that.
Capitalism was a revolutionary system
because it took away,
one, it made us tremendously more productive, right?
It expanded production beyond our wildest imaginations,
but it also no longer bound workers
to their lord or manor or whatever else.
They were now free to move,
free to engage in contracts with employers and so on.
But even though workers are now producing
all this tremendous wealth,
and even though productive forces
had been matured in such a way,
they were ultimately taken away
from all the wealth that they were created.
They got some of it back.
They were in wealthy societies,
but they were all there collectively together
producing this wealth.
And that was a potent force.
So Marx theorized that would lead to a revolution
or change in a socialist direction.
I think, in fact, what we saw was that,
yes, workers are dependent on,
capitalists are dependent on workers,
but the dependency is obviously symmetrical
in the sense that workers are also dependent on capitalists.
But in fact, it’s an asymmetrical dependency
in that ordinary workers need their jobs
more than capitalists need the contribution
of individual workers.
So it became kind of a collective action problem
where you would need the mass of workers to get together,
decide to change things,
but also people would be afraid
because they’d be dependent on their jobs
for their livelihood.
So revolution became a lot harder than people thought,
especially in democratic countries
where workers had certain outlets
and certain powers and rights and responsibility.
It’s no surprise that
where you did have socialist revolutions,
they were in places like the third world,
post-colonial states trying to merge out of colonialism.
They were in places like China and Russia,
and never in a advanced capitalist country.
Now, in Marxist theory of history,
even as interpreted by a lot of smart Marxists
like G.A. Cohen and others,
there is a certain inevitability
to socialism after capitalism.
The way that I would put it myself
is I kind of have a more,
I guess you could say like Kantian view of it.
Like I think socialism is something
that ought to happen,
but it’s not something that necessarily will happen.
And we’ll need to organize and persuade.
And also potentially, again,
the key part of any social system that’s democratic
is you have to allow for the possibility
of a democratic revision to a different sort of system.
So I’d be more than happy in my vision of socialism
for there to be capitalist parties
getting hopefully three, four, or 5% of the vote,
maybe a lot more,
in the same way that in the U.S. or a republic,
we could right now have a monarchist party.
No one’s gonna support a monarchist party
in the U.S. in serious numbers.
Although that’s gaining popularity.
In Europe or elsewhere?
No, isn’t there, in the anarchist tradition,
aren’t they saying that one of the ways
you could have a leader is in monarchy
because they’re more directly responsible to the citizens.
If you have a leader, it’s healthier to have a monarch.
Anyway, I’m not familiar with this,
but I have heard this stated multiple times.
In the left-wing anarchist traditions,
like anarcho-syndicalism or whatever else,
their slogan is kind of no kings, no gods,
no masters or whatever, no bosses.
So they definitely would not agree with that,
but I’m not familiar enough.
Anarchism runs a gamut from left to right
in interesting ways, though.
I’ll have to ask about that.
But yeah, okay, so you’re not,
you don’t believe Marx’s theory of history
in the sense that every stage is a natural consequence
of every other stage.
Of course, he would predict that somebody like you
must exist in order for those stages
to go from one to the next,
because you have to believe ought
in order for action to be taken
to inspire the populace to take action.
So two things.
One is I do broadly believe in Marx’s theory of history
because it’s just explaining how productive forces develop
and the relations of production in any given system.
I guess there’s a theory of transition
from capitalism to socialism
that Marx didn’t really spell out,
but it was kind of implied that it would naturally happen.
And Marx was living in an era of tremendous upheaval.
Marx himself actually saw,
when he was living in London in the 1870s,
the Paris Commune,
when workers took over for just a few months,
but they took over the producers of Paris,
took over the city,
basically created their own government,
their own system, and so on.
So he was living through an era of upheaval.
And Engels, especially, oversaw and was the mentor
to all these rising socialist parties.
So he was very closely collaborating with socialists
in places like Britain and Germany
when they were drafting their first programs
for the Social Democratic Party.
So it felt like this was gonna happen.
It felt like this rise in working class would take power,
but I think the stability of the system was underestimated.
It’s easy to see the contradictions in the system,
but can you see its mechanisms of stability?
The way in which mass collective action or revolution
is more the exception or the norm.
Could you have imagined, if you’re Marx,
not only how much wealth the system would produce over time,
which I think you could have imagined,
but also developments like the welfare state
and mass democracy and universal suffrage,
which might’ve changed how workers relate to the system
or operate within it.
So I think it’s just the transition part
that I think wasn’t spelled out properly.
But I think in either case, as socialists,
we can assume that history is working in our favor.
We just need to kind of hold out
and wait for the inevitable revolution.
We have to convince people of both,
one, the struggle for day-to-day reforms
and why it’s important to be politically organized,
why it’s important to be a member of a union
or to advocate for things like universal health care
or whatever else to try to kind of build the cohesion
and sense of self of the class,
then ultimately, for the desirability,
once we accomplish it, once we build social democracy,
of going beyond social democracy,
which is, of course, the challenge.
Now, I don’t think it requires leadership from the outside.
I think there are plenty of organic leaders
that have emerged from the working class
that have advocated for socialism from the working class.
And if you look at the class composition
during the glory days of the European socialist parties,
I mean, this was very much
a working class parties and organizations.
It’s only been the last like 30 years
that it’s been taken over by professionals
and not coincidentally,
they have accomplished very little in those 30 years.
So that’s the practical and the pragmatic.
Can we actually jump to the, at the horizon?
As you mentioned, as a social democrat,
like you focus on the policies of today,
but you also have a vision and dream of a future.
And so Marx did as well.
So the perfect communism at the end.
Can you describe that world?
Also, is there elements to that world
that has elements of anarchism?
So again, like I said, there’s Michael Malice next door.
So like anarcho-communism,
I don’t even know if I’m using that term correctly,
but basically no central control.
Can you describe what that world looks like?
Yeah, I think the traditional socialist vision
of kind of, if you want to call it full communism
would be very similar to the anarchist vision
of a world without coercion, mass abundance, and so on.
I myself don’t share that vision.
I believe that we will always need
to have a state in some form
as a way to, one, even just mediate difference.
I think traditionally a lot of Marxists have thought
that after you remove the primary contradiction,
quote unquote, of class,
that the other, all other political questions
would be resolved.
And I think that’s a lot behind a lot of the thinking
of we’re gonna have a full communism after politics.
I don’t think there will be an after politics.
I think, for one thing, let’s say,
I’ll give you another Northeast example.
Let’s say me and you are trying to,
with different groups of people,
we’re trying to figure out how to build a crossing
of the Hudson River.
And for various reasons,
you and the people around you want to build a bridge.
Me and the people around me want to build a tunnel.
That’s a question that you will probably need
a mediation for, right?
You’ll need, one, it’s a big project,
so there’ll be a very complex division of labor and so on.
But even beyond that, just politically,
you will need the state to mediate the difference.
You’ll need to have a vote, have a vote that people trust,
have institutions that people trust,
and so on to make a decision.
Society is never going to go beyond that decision-making.
You don’t think it’s possible outside of the state
to create stable voting mechanisms?
Or is human nature going to always seep into that?
I just wonder why we would have to,
if the state is democratic and responsive,
the state isn’t authoritarian.
So it might not be called a state,
but it would function as a state, right?
But why not just call it a state?
But in other words, if you don’t have something like that,
then don’t you have a greater risk of tyranny
or a tyrant emerging in the vacuum?
So I think people’s fear of the state
is what would happen if the state had too much power.
And I think that’s a legitimate fear.
That’s why we have democratic checks on state power
and certain guarantees of freedom and so on.
But yeah, I guess I just wonder,
I’m more afraid of the vacuum
and not having a democratic, responsive state
and what the world would turn into.
And also, I’m just not a utopian thinker,
if that makes sense.
I like to think that I’m an egalitarian thinker.
I’m a socialist, but my mind just goes to,
I can see a vision of the future
that I would like 50, 60 years from now.
Maybe there’s some sort of future of superabundance
and automation, and there’s some sort
of techno-utopian future.
We don’t want some of those things
that would exist in my five minutes from now
vision of socialism.
But I just don’t see it.
And in general, I’m wary of visions of change
that seem like they’re not built off little pieces
that we have now and not built off history
and experience and whatever else.
I don’t want a year zero.
I don’t even like the term prehistory
because I think there’s a lot in history that I want.
I want Shakespeare under socialism.
I want a lot of things that I think
we should be grateful for.
There’s a part of tradition that I think that exists
that’s hierarchical and exploitative and whatever else,
but there’s another part of tradition
that’s our sense of place and belonging
and our connection with the past
and hopefully the future.
And I want to keep that.
Yeah, so you’re worried about revolution
or otherwise a vacuum being created
and you’re worried about the things
that might fill that vacuum.
So the anarchists often worry
about the same mechanism of the state
that controls voting or keeps voting robust
and resilient and stable,
the same mechanism also having a monopoly on violence.
And so that’s the tension.
So they get very nervous about a central place
having a monopoly on violence.
Whereas if there is gonna be a place
within a monopoly on violence,
let’s just say temporarily take that for granted,
should it not be a place with a skilled,
elected, accountable, transparent civil service
with a democratic mandate and so on?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, well put.
Speaking of AI, just to go on that tangent,
do you think it’s possible to have a future world
at least of 50 years, 50, 100 years
where there’s an AI sort of central planning?
Sort of we remove some of the human elements
that I think get us into a lot of trouble.
Like you can take a perspective on the Soviet Union
that the flaws of the system there
have less to do with the different ideologies
and more to do with the humans and the vacuums
and how humans fill vacuums
and the corrupting nature of power and so on.
If we have AI that’s more data-driven
and is not susceptible to the human elements,
is that possible to imagine such a world?
Almost like from a sci-fi perspective.
Maybe in the future you can imagine
certain calculation problems
that arose during central planning
solved through advanced computing.
But I would say that there’s another whole set of problems
with the system that were incentive problems
and I’m not sure how that advanced computing
would solve the incentive problems
of how do you get people to actually produce things
that other people want?
Kind of that informational question
of how do you communicate without endless meetings
or someone reading your brain what you actually want?
So there’s that kind of informational question
but then there’s the incentive of how do you get people
to work efficiently at work
and how do you get firms to use their resources
that they’re getting more efficiently?
And I think solving the calculation problem
solves some of these questions but not all of them.
But that’s kind of a who knows
but if your vision of the future
requires some sort of leap into a technological unknown,
that’s very hard to advocate for today.
It’s exciting to consider the possibility of technology
empowering a better reallocation of resources.
If you care about of kind of the innate value
of human beings and think of the mechanism
of reallocation of resources as a good way
to empower that equality,
that it’s nice to remove the human element from that.
Like if you work really hard
and you’re really good at your job,
it’s nice to be really data-driven
in allocating more resources to you.
So kind of, like I kind of think that
the agency part requires human beings
and conscious human activity.
So I think if you have a sort of planning system that works
and let’s say the technology is there for it to work,
I would want it to be democratic planning in such a way
that there is a human element,
there is some debate and deliberation in society.
And also even in my vision of socialism
with the state sector and state investments and so on,
I’d want there to be more public discussion
and debate about certain things.
So it’s not just left to technocrats
because you don’t want to live in society
where you just find out the next day
that there’s some massive infrastructure project
that you haven’t had a chance to think about
or debate or feel like you’re participating in.
And debate is not just facts and logic.
That’s why if the whole universe
was about facts and logic,
computers could do a better job of that.
There’s something about humans debating each other
that goes into the difficult gray areas
of what it means to be human
or what it means to have a life that’s worth living.
That requires humanity.
And I’m also worried about,
while I’m excited by the possibility
of AI controlling everything, half joking,
but the reason I’m really terrified of that
is because usually there’s a possibility
of a human taking control of that system.
So you now start to get the same kind of authoritarian thing.
Well, I am a human.
I’m smart enough to be able to control this AI system.
And I will do, based on what this AI system says,
what’s good for you.
It’s kind of like talking down to people
and then use that AI system
to now have the same kind of thing
as Hall and Moore in 1930s.
And also our preferences might change.
So an AI system might say the goal of humanity
is to just increase infinitely efficiency
or increase output,
whereas we might collectively decide
that we have enough and we want to have a trade-off.
And I think that we need a system
that allows for people to make certain trade-offs.
And have more of this leisure
that I’ve been learning about from you.
This is a very interesting concept, leisure.
We’re gonna have to, how do you spell that?
All right, so if we can step into the practical,
we were talking about historical and philosophical,
into the practical of today.
What are some of the exciting policies
that represent democratic socialism today,
I think you mentioned some of them.
Medicare for all or universal healthcare.
Something you haven’t mentioned is tuition-free college.
Increasing minimum wage,
maybe stronger unions like we talked about.
What are some ideas here?
What are some ideas that are especially policy,
especially exciting to you?
Well, I think that hours reduction
has always been an important demand for socialists.
So, I mean, it’s been a reality
in certain countries like France in recent decades.
Where part of the logic is,
if you have a bunch of people
working for 40 plus hours a week,
and you also have some unemployed people
who would like more employment,
then it’s not a zero-sum game.
You could reduce hours to 35 hours
and still maintain the same output
by employing more people
to kind of fill the slack in hours.
So one, I think it’s a solidaristic thing
in working-class movements
between unemployed and employed workers.
I also think that, yeah, it gives people more time.
So Marx was a big advocate in his day
of a 10-hour bill in the UK
that would have reduced the hours of working time
and reduced child, or eliminated,
or reduced child labor and other things as well.
And part of it was, this is a radical demand
because it’s reducing the sphere, as you saw,
So it’s putting limits on how much time
the capitalists can take from ordinary workers
and how much freedom they would have.
With healthcare, one, I just think it’s a,
a government healthcare system.
You could tell me that you don’t want it in the US,
but you can’t tell me it doesn’t work
because we’ve seen it work
in every other major industrial system in different forms.
So what does that usually involve?
What does universal healthcare involve?
So there’s different varieties.
In the UK, for instance,
they have a national health service
in which medical personnels and hospitals
are run directly by the state.
It’s almost like a mini-Soviet system, to be honest,
but just for healthcare.
And it works pretty well just for healthcare.
And I think it’s one example of the way
in which you could actually take the market.
So I give you a vision of socialism
that involves a lot of market,
but I think there’s certain spheres
where you could remove the market from
and still have an efficient system,
in part because this is a area in which we,
people don’t have, obviously for cosmetic procedures,
whatever, they have preferences,
but for most routine things that people do in healthcare,
they just need to see a doctor.
They need to get diagnosed.
Some of these systems have had trouble
with wait lists for specialists or whatever.
That’s more of like an allocation problem of,
if you want more specialists, you pay specialists more.
Like this is just problems that could be solved by,
like through the mechanisms of planning
and government-run healthcare.
So that’s kind of the most left-wing that you could get
is the system in the United Kingdom.
Beyond that, you have a system like Medicare for All,
where you say, all right, most of the doctors,
besides for public hospitals that already exist,
are going to be privately employed by hospitals.
The hospitals are going to be private.
But instead of having all these different insurance carriers,
we’re just going to have one national insurance carrier
that we’re all going to pay into.
That national insurance carrier is going to negotiate
the price of healthcare with doctors,
the price of drugs with the pharmaceutical companies,
and so on, to hopefully reduce prices
and to implement a different little bit of planning
into the system.
Because if there’s only one big national insurance company,
that company has a lot of weight and power.
But you could still visit your same doctor
and there’s still some,
it’s not as radical of a shift in that direction.
And that’s the dominant demand of Bernie Sanders
and the left right now.
There’s 30 plus million people in the U.S.
that would be insured that currently aren’t insured.
If we move to this system,
there’s a lot of other people that are underinsured
or worried about how to pay co-pays or premiums involved.
I think it would be a net benefit
for the vast majority of the U.S. population,
even if it was offset by certain taxes,
because we spend a lot of money out of pocket
with health insurance.
And it’s a demand also that’s widely popular.
So for me, it’s almost like,
if you’re trying to build support
for something like socialism,
we were talking this lofty vision of socialism
after capitalism or what worker ownership,
the means of production would look like in practice
and so on.
And by the way, you’re one of the few interviewers
who ever asked me any of the details.
So it’s good that I had a,
I’ve been thinking of a rough sketch in my head
for the last, you know, whatever, 16 years
that I’ve been a socialist.
But we have to start in the here and now.
And if you can’t convince people
that the state should play a bigger role
in their health insurance,
and you can’t convince Americans
and a whole host of other sectors
that they should be living in something closer
to a social democracy,
how are you gonna convince those people
that there should be worker ownership
of the means of production?
It’s kind of a ridiculous like leap
if you don’t have the credibility
as the group of people organizing
for universal healthcare,
organizing for a $15 minimum wage
and able to get the goods.
And also in practice, as we fight for these reforms,
ordinary people will have a better sense,
at least my hope is,
of what it means to be involved with politics
and what politics can do for their lives.
Because right now, when we talk about politics,
it often just seems that we’re talking about
like a very glib cultural conflict
removed from the things that are important in our lives.
Whereas in truth, I think politics can be a tool
for us to make our lives better.
Yeah, and there’s like deep ideas here
where in some sense, universal healthcare
and worker collectives are not so radically different,
that there’s just,
there’s philosophical ideas to explore and accept.
And also from my perspective, at least,
maybe I’m wrong on this,
but it seems like with a lot of things
at the core of politics,
the right answer from an alien perspective is not clear.
Like everybody’s very certain of what’s the right answer.
Everyone’s certain universal healthcare is terrible,
or in the case of universal healthcare,
majority of people think it’s a good idea,
but I don’t think anyone knows.
Because I think that depends on cultural history,
on the particular dynamics of a country,
of a political system,
on the dynamics of the economic system in this country,
of the changing world.
The 21st century is different than the 20th century.
Maybe the failures of communism in the 20th century
will not be repeated in the 21st century.
Or the flip side of that,
maybe capitalism will actually truly flourish
with the help of automation in the 21st century.
I don’t think anyone knows.
So people like you are basically arguing for ideas,
and we’ll have to explore those ideas together.
Um, why do you think if universal healthcare is popular,
why don’t we have universal healthcare in the United States?
Well, democracy is a great thing.
Political democracy is wonderful.
It came from the struggles of ordinary people
to expand suffrage and so on.
But the economic sphere,
entrenched power in the economic sphere
bleeds into our political democracy.
So I think there’s a lot of people with a vested interest
in not having universal healthcare.
There’s large industries with a vested interest
in not having universal healthcare.
They pay for ads, pay lobbyists, they influence government,
and they have made it very difficult.
So you can’t get universal healthcare done without the bill,
even if you pass something
and you’re trying to make a change.
Like Obamacare was supposed to have a public option.
Everybody’s been running on a public option
in the Democratic Party for 12, 13 years.
Why don’t we have a public option?
People know that if people have the choice
of buying into a government plan,
they might just keep,
that might be the slow road
to really having universal healthcare.
So I think a lot of it’s opposition.
Do you like that idea, the public option?
Maybe you can, like,
because isn’t there complexities,
like preexisting conditions?
So isn’t a public option
mean you can not have any insurance
until you get into trouble?
And then you can,
if it covers preexisting conditions,
just start paying for insurance then.
Therefore, young people don’t pay for insurance.
Isn’t it better to go full in?
I don’t support a public option in part
because I think if we allow politicians to just say,
hey, I support a public option,
well, it’s just kind of a way to signal your support
for universal healthcare, but give us nothing.
And I think that’s what we saw under,
with Biden and a lot of other politicians
that have supported a public option.
I think in practice,
if a public option is defined in such a way
that it just means you,
by default can just opt in to a public plan.
And let’s say, hypothetically,
you don’t even have to pay for it.
Then it’s just a backdoor
to universal healthcare really quickly.
Because I think the vast majority of people
who aren’t currently covered,
and also a lot of employers, to be honest,
would probably drop their private coverage
if they knew their employees can just get a public option
and maybe would only provide supplemental insurance
or whatever else.
But I think the broad overarching point
of all these demands is to say that socialists need
to be really connected to the day-to-day struggles
of people to just improve their lives.
So if you’re feeling like you’re paying $400, $500
on the Obamacare market for health insurance,
and that’s hampering your ability
to do what you wanna do in your life,
then maybe you would support a candidate
who’s for universal healthcare.
If you feel like you’re struggling to find work
that you could afford to pay your rent with
or whatever else,
maybe you’ll support a candidate committed
to all sorts of mechanisms to reduce housing prices
or increase your power as a tenant and whatever else.
So I think it’s like these day-to-day concerns need
to be connected to the more abstract
and lofty vision of change.
Otherwise, our politics just becomes
like this fantasy world thing
that’s nice ideas to think about or debate,
but really won’t make much of a difference
in people’s lives.
What do you think about free college?
Should college be free?
So I would say free college is not at the top
of my list of priorities,
but it definitely should be free
in my vision of a just society.
What is at the top, just to clarify,
is the universal healthcare up there?
Yeah, universal healthcare is probably far higher
in my priorities than free college.
I think right now, the way our system is built,
when someone goes to college,
they’re given credentials,
they’re given a decree they carry with them
for the rest of their life.
It gives them a chance to join kind of a privileged part
of the labor market, right?
It’s not a zero-sum game.
I don’t want college-educated people
to think that non-college-educated people
are their enemies and vice versa,
because a lot of them are just ordinary,
working-class people trying to survive,
and they’re in different areas,
they’re in different sectors.
Some of them are in nursing sectors
where they need a college degree and so on.
But if you just make college tuition free,
but you don’t also make trade skills
and other things free for someone to learn
how to become an electrician or a plumber
or whatever else, then to some degree,
you’re privileging one sector
of the labor market over another.
So I would advocate just,
if you’re gonna make something like that free,
you just have to make sure
that you’re doing it in an egalitarian way,
and that one, the options, the routes to college
are more equal.
So there’s more investment in K-12 education
so that more kids in rough neighborhoods
have the chance to go to college,
and for those that choose the trade route
from any part of the country,
that they’re given the skills and resources
for vocational trainings, and those are also free.
And it just feels like, in terms of order of operation,
I would just start with K-12 education,
improving it and whatever else,
then college after, but I’m not opposed to it.
So does that, improving K-12 education,
does that mean investing more into it?
Is it as simple as just increasing the amount of money
that’s invested in public education?
In general, when it comes to the public sector
or any sphere that you’re investing in,
obviously it’s not just as simple
as throwing money at a problem.
I do think we have a lot of schools that are underfunded,
but we have other schools that are adequately funded,
but the conditions in which those schools are,
like the neighborhoods they’re in
and what’s going on in society,
the problems are so deep
that it’s impossible for just education to solve everything.
And I think especially a lot of liberals
think that education should be the panacea.
Invest in education, you’ll help people.
If kids are living in poverty,
if they go into school hungry or whatever else,
education’s not gonna give them
everything they need to succeed.
So sometimes we, I think,
put too much weight on education.
And of course, you could define education more broadly,
which is like the care of the flourishing of the young mind,
whatever that is, whatever you call it.
Yeah, a lot of it starts with,
so New York City, at least, we do have universal pre-K.
So from age three onward, you have the option for that.
I mean, it’s important for kids’ socialization.
Their parents are now able to know
that they could go to work or do something else
and have their kids taken care of.
There’s a lot of measures like that
that we could do to equalize things.
And again, for libertarians in the audience,
some of this stuff is scary
because it’s obviously more state-involved,
state-involved in pre-K,
state is already very involved in K through 12,
more investment into state institutions
like our state universities and in college.
But for me, it’s not a question of state versus non-state.
It’s a question of good outcomes for people.
And it just happens to be that for working-class people,
having the collective power to elect representatives
that will build a broader safety net is in their interest.
For upper-middle-class people, for others,
they could afford to pay for their own provisioning
either directly or through like Obamacare-like schemes
where you just get a subsidy
and you pay the rest yourself and whatever.
This is for really the bottom 40% plus of the population.
They really don’t have any options,
so they prioritize other things.
And they end up with some sort of injury
or health problem or whatever else.
And it’s bad for everyone in society,
but especially bad for the people
at the bottom of the labor market.
So I saw various estimates for socialist programs
like social security expansion, free college,
Medicare for all will cost upwards
of $40 trillion over 10 years for zero.
Okay, they could argue with those numbers and so on,
but so there’s a cost.
There’s a taxpayer cost.
What are, given the weight of that cost,
can you still make the case with these programs?
And then can you try to make the case against them
that the cost is too high?
So I will not argue with you on the numbers
because you just threw out random numbers.
I do think universal healthcare, if done right,
can be basically cost neutral.
I think it’s an exception
because we spend a tremendous amount of money
on healthcare, a huge percentage of our GDP.
So I think it could be done
in a way that’s close to cost neutral.
So actually, can you argue on the numbers
without arguing on the numbers?
So you’re saying just your gut says
that there’s a lot of,
depending on how these programs are done,
there’s a lot of variance in how much it will actually cost.
There’s a lot of bureaucracy and billing right now
in our healthcare sector, for example,
that would be eliminated.
There’s a lot of costs that are spiraling upward,
a provider cost from both doctors, hospitals,
but also pharmaceuticals to drug costs
that insurance companies shoulder
because their market share is too fragmented
to really negotiate hard.
Medicare can sometimes negotiate better rates,
but a Medicare for all would negotiate even better rates.
So I think there’s a cost spiral
that we can adjust with more government involvement.
There’s a reason why we spend a bigger share of our GDP
on healthcare than other places.
But let me just accept the broad premise
that social programs cost money.
Now, I think that one, for ordinary people,
most of them, the trade-off of,
even hypothetically, if taxes on lower middle class
and working class people in certain cases go up,
the trade-off would still be in their benefit
because they’re the ones who currently,
who would be consuming more of those goods.
And also our tax system and whatnot is progressive.
So the rich will pay more.
The majority will consume more of them.
Also, I think a lot of these programs
are the bedrock of a healthy society.
So one reason, for example,
we have so much crime and violence in the U.S.,
there’s lots of cultural and other causes
with our level of gun ownership,
American history, and so on.
But one really important factor
is just the level of poverty and inequality in the U.S.
compared to other countries.
That combined with guns and other factors
means that we live in more violent, unequal societies.
A European would be shocked by the fact that,
in even some of our nicest areas,
and cities and elsewhere,
because there’s a lot of rural violence too,
it’s just normal to have gun violence.
It’s normal to have drug-related violence.
We have, what, like 400 or 500 people some years
in Baltimore, a city of under a million getting killed.
These are all recipes for a society in which,
one, the public sphere is drunk like crazy
because you’re not gonna go wander out
for an evening stroll in a park
if you live in a dangerous area or whatever else.
The rot goes very deep,
and a welfare state is one way
to live in a better society for everyone.
There’s been plenty of studies.
There’s one book called The Spirit Level on inequality
that was quite popular that just notes
that inequality is really terrible
for the psyches of the rich too,
not just for the poor.
So I think spending some more money living
in a more just society is doable.
There’s different ways to address certain cost spirals.
One reason why our welfare states
are getting more and more expensive
is in part just because our population is aging.
But many of the same people who say
we can’t afford more in our welfare states
because we’re already spending so much on Social Security
and all these other entitlements are the same people.
Also for, one, closing borders so immigrants can’t come in
to help build the economy and to fill gaps in the economy,
and also who aren’t for things
that’ll make it easier to have kids.
I’m 33 years old.
I have a lot of friends who have been putting off having kids
until they save up X amount of dollars,
even though they have someone
they could raise children with,
because they can’t afford the cost of childcare.
Their job probably won’t give them
more than four or six weeks of family leave or whatever else.
This is not the case in other countries.
So I think there’s all sorts of benefits
from having a bigger welfare state.
But yes, there are costs
and there are gonna be certain trade-offs.
It’s not a magical thing where you could just
have everything without trade-offs.
So in a progressive tax system,
is there, to push back on the costs here,
is there a point at which taxing the rich
is counterproductive in the long term?
So in the short term, there might be a net benefit
of increasing taxes because the programs,
the middle class, the lower middle class gets
is more beneficial.
Is there a negative side to taxing the rich?
In theory, yes, of course.
So one would be, if you tax the rich so much,
they change their consumption patterns
and that has negative impacts on the economy as a whole.
You would have to kind of really model it out,
but there would be a certain point
in which the consumption changes
might have net detrimental effects.
I think that’s more unlikely.
And the more likely scenario is you tax corporations
and other wealthy people in society
to the point that they have potentially less money
for productive investment,
because you’re in a capitalist society,
so you’re relying on capitalists to invest.
So you kind of don’t wanna be in the worst of both worlds,
where you’ve gone too far for capitalism,
but not far enough for socialism.
In my vision, of course, of socialism,
that’s one reason why we’d have to take
the investment function away from capitalists.
There has to be, if you’re gonna make it so hard for them
that they can’t invest, or they can’t employ labor
the way they’re employing now,
you have to create another mechanism
for supply to be created.
And that’s why, that’s a transition point, yeah.
What about longer term, de-incentivizing young people
that are dreaming of becoming entrepreneurs
and realizing that there’s this huge tax on being wealthy?
If you take these big risks,
which is what’s required to be an entrepreneur,
and you are lucky enough to succeed,
and good enough to succeed,
that the government will take most of your money away?
I think realistically,
that’s not a disincentive for most people.
First of all, we already have a progressive taxation system.
The government does take a bunch of the money away,
and people are still striving to become rich.
A lot of what people want when they dream of success
is they want accolades, they want respect,
and of course they want some more wealth.
Wealth they consume luxury goods with, or whatever else.
But at a certain point, it becomes better for the state
to tax and either redistribute directly
or through social programs,
or redirect that money through tax credits
and other ways to shape investment
towards productive investment.
We don’t want a society in which a bunch of rich people
fly around in helicopters going from club to club
while the productive economy kind of does nothing.
At that point, I think a lot of ordinary rich people
might prefer the government to come in to tax them
and to try to spur investment in certain productive sectors.
So it really just depends.
But I honestly believe that most people
don’t necessarily wanna be rich
for the sake of being rich.
They wanna be successful,
and there’s many different dynamics to that.
And accolades and social respect
is an important one of them.
It’s also why people who just become filthy rich often,
the first thing they do is start philanthropic trusts
and try to give away their money
because they want the social respect and accolades
and whatever else.
They don’t want just their money.
On that topic, sort of a little bit of a tangent,
there’s a lot of folks in the left community,
far left community, socialist community
that I think are at the source of a kind of derision
towards the B word, the billionaires.
Does it bother you, or do you think that’s in part justified
a kind of using the word billionaire as a dirty word?
I think it’s perfectly justified
that it’s a populist shorthand, right?
So obviously when I talk about inequality,
I often talk about power dynamics
between workers and bosses and so on.
Billionaire is just the 99, 1% version of it.
It’s just a popular shorthand to just explain the fact
that there’s a lot of people
who have accumulated obscene wealth.
These people aren’t, in my mind, parasites
in the kind of very, very old school socialist rhetoric
in that, of course, capitalists provide employment,
take entrepreneurial risks,
come up with new ideas, sometimes themselves,
like sometimes directly manage work and whatever else.
But they exert so much power over the lives
of not just their workers, but society as a whole.
Taking away some of their wealth and power
is a way to just empower others.
And again, these things have policy trade-offs.
If you just snap your fingers and say,
Elon Musk, all your wealth is gone,
you’re now on food stamps or whatever else
in that kind of arbitrary way,
you’d be a totally disincentivized people
from trusting the rules of the game
as they’ve been set up in a capitalist society.
And I think that would have negative consequences
But saying that, hey, this person has too much power
and too much wealth and has too much ability
to dictate things about the lives of others,
I think is just simply a fact.
And I think it’s true in the cases of people
who are good people and have risen to this position.
And it’s true in the cases of people
who are maybe not so good people
and who have risen to these positions.
So I agree with you in part, but I have to push back here.
So one of the problems I see is using billionaires
as shorthand to talk about power inequality
and wealth inequality often dismisses the fact
that some of these folks are some of the best members
of our society.
So outside of the, however the system
has created inequalities, a young person today
should dream to build cool stuff, not for the wealth,
not for the power, the fame,
but to be part of building cool stuff.
Now there’s a lot of examples of billionaires
that have gotten there in shady ways and so on.
And you can point that out,
but in the same way we celebrate great artists
and great athletes and great literary icons
and sort of writers and poets and musicians
and engineers and scientists,
we should sort of separate the human creator
from the wealth that the system has given them.
That’s what I worry about is like in our system,
some of the greatest humans are the ones
that have become rich.
And so we sometimes mix up the,
if you want to criticize the wealth,
we sometimes criticize the human and the creator
while that should actually be the person we aspire to be.
So, you know, I would agree with that.
LeBron James, if he’s not already in his lifetime,
will be a billionaire and he got his money
largely through just being an incredible athlete,
excelling in his field more than anyone,
you know, besides for Michael Jordan.
I think he’s my number two.
He might be my number one.
Yeah, I’m willing to keep keeping an open mind
about the LeBron versus Jordan conversation.
But, you know, he got that through his merit
and he’s been rewarded.
In a part he’s getting rewarded
because he’s created vast amounts of wealth
beyond what he’s getting.
This is just his share.
You know, he’s in a salary cap league.
Whenever he’s doing an endorsement,
obviously that company is thinking that he’s worth more
than what they’re paying him for that endorsement and so on.
And to the extent with Elon Musk,
people see innovation and they see someone
who will put himself out there with sometimes crazy ideas
because he’s trying to think about the future
and trying to just push things forward
instead of just sitting on whatever money he has now
and just investing it, earning, you know, 6%,
return for the rest of his life.
You know, I think that that’s a positive thing.
But I think it doesn’t get to the broader policy question.
When people invoke billionaires,
they’re invoking the specter of inequality and power.
It’s not normally the rhetoric that I use
because I propose and I use more traditional
socialist rhetoric and terms,
but I think it gets at something real.
So often with these sorts of shorthands we use in politics,
there are, you know, they’re imperfect,
but they speak to a real thing.
Yeah, and they feed a little bit of fun
that folks like AOC and Elon have with each other, creates.
It feeds, it inspires, it serves as a catalyst
for productive discourse.
Okay, speaking of which,
you said you’re a fan of Bernie Sanders.
Would you classify yourself as a Bernie bro?
What’s the technical definition of a Bernie bro?
Is that a very, it’s a subset?
No, no, no, I’m sorry.
You’re a sophisticated philosopher, writer,
economic and political thinker.
Of course you would not call yourself a Bernie bro.
I’m fine with calling myself a Bernie bro.
Because it was made up by liberal journalists
to smear Bernie and his supporters
during the 2016 campaign,
even though disproportionately his supporters
were like young women in their 20s, you know.
But whatever, I think I’ll ride for Bernie.
There’s worse things in the world than being called a bro,
so it’s fine.
What do you like about Bernie Sanders
and to what degree does he represent ideas of socialism?
To what degree does he represent
the more traditional sort of liberal ideas?
I love Bernie.
Most of all, I like his clarity.
He’s by far the best communicator we have on the left.
He speaks with a moral force.
And he has taken a lot of socialist rhetoric from academia
and brought it down to its core
in a way that’s comprehensible for ordinary people
and speaks to their daily lives.
So when Bernie does a speech,
people can finish his lines
because they know what he’s gonna say.
They know what points he’s gonna hit.
Because socialism, in my mind,
should not be a complicated thing.
Now, when we get to more abstract discussions
about what a future system would look like,
when we get to the policy trade-offs today,
I think we need to put on a different hat.
We should embrace all sorts of nuance
and contradiction and complication.
When it comes to the core moral and ethical appeal,
I think Bernie grasps that and how to communicate it.
Now, Bernie Sanders was politicized a very long time ago.
I actually once told him, I’ve only met him a few times,
but one time I joked that in his book,
he mentioned that one politicizing moment in his life
was when the Brooklyn Dodgers left town
and he was devastated because he was a Dodgers fan
And I said, this is like 2020 campaign.
This may be 2019.
I said, Bernie, you’re running for president.
You do not need to keep reminding people of your age.
But he was politicized
through the Young People’s Socialist League,
which was an old offshoot
of the Norm Thomas Socialist Party of America.
So very old school socialist tradition.
Then he was engaged in labor struggles in the sixties.
He was engaged in the civil rights movement.
So he came from this old left generation
that I think just had a more plain spoken,
more rooted way of understanding change and socialism.
It wasn’t, in my mind, polluted by academia
and by some of the turn towards issues of culture
and excessive focus on representation or whatever else.
It was really rooted in something economic in a way.
Then obviously he had all his ideas
and he was also a product of the left
in that he went to Vermont.
He kind of did the back to the land thing.
He was basically not quite a hippie and an affect,
but he was out there trying to farm or whatever
in cold as hell, Northern Vermont.
And then he decided to do politics,
do electoral politics.
And he failed for a long time.
He did third party politics.
He kept losing races.
Eventually he became, by savvy and luck
and things he learned, the mayor of Burlington, Vermont.
And he just kept with the same message.
And in my book, I talk about,
I quote, I think a Bernie speech from the 1970s,
one of his early campaigns.
And I compared it to a Bernie speech
during his 2016 campaign.
It was virtually identical.
Millionaires was swapped with millionaires and billionaires,
speaking of billionaires, which is beautiful.
I think there’s something great
to what he offered American politics.
And also all around the world,
there’s a socialist pole in politics,
whether you agree with it or not.
And all these countries in Europe and any rich country,
Japan and so on.
And the US really didn’t have that.
The furthest left you could go was like,
Chris Hayes and MSNBC or whatever.
I’m very glad that there’s a socialist pole.
And I think we have Bernie to thank for it.
To the extent that a lot of self-described socialists
don’t think Bernie is a real socialist.
It’s in part because he stays grounded
in people’s day-to-day lives and struggles.
I don’t think he thinks often the way that I do
and other people more disconnected
or step or move from day-to-day politics.
Think about the future contours of a socialist society
and so on.
But I think he’s morally committed
to a egalitarian different sort of future.
And I don’t think he, at least I haven’t heard him
talk about sort of this big, broad history and future.
So the Marxist ideology and so on.
Not that he’s afraid of it or something.
It’s just not how he thinks about it.
Yeah, I think he’s a practical thinker.
And also, yeah, he is running,
even if he should be afraid of it too,
because he is a major politician running for president.
I think what people want is they want,
they want the left wing of the possible.
And I, or at least the segment of the party
that was voting for him,
the Democratic Party is voting for him.
They wanted something that was a step or two removed
from what they had now and was visionary,
but not so far removed that it seemed like a scary leap.
And I think we lost a chance in 2016
to elect someone that I think would have beaten Trump
or at the very least would have been close.
Do you think the Democrats screwed him over?
Yes, not in the way of deliberate or direct vote rigging,
but they put their thumb on the scale for sure.
I mean, it’s not even conspiracy theory.
There’s all this stuff in the debates about Clinton,
Clinton’s people being fed questions and whatever else.
And just the tone of the media,
the media was extremely dismissive and hostile to him.
I love that Bernie still does a Fox News town hall
with his, they’re just him speaking to the people
and he’s not afraid of going on any sort of outlet
and making his case.
But I think a lot of the liberal media in particular
always had it out for Bernie Sanders.
What was the, cause that was really annoying.
That was really annoying how dismissive they were.
I’ve seen that in some other candidates,
like they were dismissive towards Andrew Yang
in that same way.
So forget the ideology.
Why are they so smug sometimes towards certain candidates?
What is that?
Cause I think that’s actually at the core to a degree
if Democrats or any party fails, that it’s that smugness.
Cause people see through that.
I think a lot of these people are friends,
even if they don’t know each other, they’re friends
cause they went to the same schools.
They know the same people.
They have the same broad, just ideology and worldview.
So they had a sense of what the democratic party should be
and who should be running and who is going to win.
And also what was serious and unserious.
So Bernie would say some things about the world
that objectively to a lot of people seemed correct
or at least pretty close to correct.
And a journalist would just look at him
like he was from outer space.
To some extent, this also happens to people on the right.
People on the right often say things that I find repulsive
or just wrong, but there’s parts of the media
that would describe their certain views as illegitimate
or outside this boundaries of acceptable conversation.
I think there should be a few things outside
the boundary of acceptable conversation,
hate speech and so on.
But like there’s this attempt to say
their views are illegitimate
and therefore anyone who votes for them
for any reason is illegitimate too.
And that’s one reason why I think
it’s fueled a lot of resentment
and will ultimately end up fueling
the extremes of American politics
and people feel like they’re not being listened to.
And some of it is also style of speaking and personality
where if you’re not willing to sort of play
kind of a game of civility or there’s like a proper way
of speaking if you’re a Democrat,
if you’re not doing that kind of proper way of speaking
and people dismiss you.
I think in certain sense, whatever you feel about him,
people dismiss Donald Trump for the same reason,
where it’s the style of speaking,
the personality of the person,
that he’s not playing by the rules of polite society,
of polite politician society and so on.
And that’s really, that troubles me
because it feels like solutions,
the great leaders will not be polite in the way,
they’re not going to behave
in the way they’re supposed to behave.
And I just wish the media was at least open-minded to that,
like, which I guess gives me hope about the new media,
which is like more distributed citizen media, right?
That they’re more open-minded to the revolutionary,
to the outsiders, right?
I actually first, I really like Bernie Sanders.
I first heard him in conversation with Tom Hartman.
He had these like weekly conversations
and just the authenticity from the guy,
I didn’t even know any context,
I didn’t even know, honestly,
he was a democratic socialist or anything.
The authenticity of the human being was really refreshing.
And when he, I guess, decided to run for president,
that was really strange, I was like,
surely this person has no chance.
Just like he seemed too authentic,
he seemed to, like he’s not going to be effective
at playing the game of politics.
So it was very inspiring to me to see that
you don’t necessarily need to be good
at playing the game of politics.
You can actually have a chance of winning.
Yeah, that was really inspiring to see.
Um, what about some of the other popular candidates?
What do you think about AOC?
I don’t know if she self-identifies as a socialist or not.
She does self-identify as a democratic socialist.
I think she was a very inspiring figure
for a lot of people.
She was kind of out of this Bernie wave
with the first set of Bernie candidates in 2018
that identified with him
instead of the Democratic Party establishment.
I think that she’s still developing as a politician,
and it’s very difficult when you’re in a deep blue district
and when you don’t often have to worry about re-election
or talk to, but modulate your rhetoric
to win over swing voters in your district,
but then you’re immediately a national and cultural figure.
So AOC basically goes from her views,
which are compelling in my mind,
a lot of her programmatic views are compelling,
wins her district, and then has her own rhetoric,
which to me, compared to Bernie,
owes itself more to the academic left
and the way that a lot of the left has learned to talk.
I don’t mean academic in the sense
that she’s like a Marxist or whatever else,
but academic in the way that she may be using, at times,
like confusing language to convey basic points
when she gets into the language of intersectionality
and whatever else.
Especially in the context of cultural issues and stuff.
Exactly, instead of just the plain spoken Bernie,
like, yeah, discrimination is wrong.
If you ask me about a cultural issue,
I’ll come down on the same side as AOC,
I’m sure, nine times out of 10,
but I’ll try to root it into just basic,
like, yeah, treat people with respect,
and they’ll treat you with respect,
and that’s the way we should govern our civic sphere.
And we don’t need to talk about intersectionality
to, I think, get that.
So there’s that rhetoric.
But she’s not just a regular congressperson
in a deep blue district,
she’s also a national and international,
cultural and political figure.
So she’s now a spokesperson,
because of largely like a media event
of her surprising, upset election,
and her being young and being really connected
to this post-Bernie moment.
And I think amid these constant,
one, attacks on her from the right,
and also this media attention,
and this notoriety,
she hasn’t really modulated or adjusted her audience,
and how do you win over someone
who really hates a lot of your ideas,
but might actually believe in some of your policies?
And I think she’s been ineffective,
in the last year making that transition.
Whereas I think other politicians
who are not so far left,
who don’t identify as socialists,
but let’s say a John Fetterman,
has managed to become more effective.
And I don’t think it’s a question of character,
or whatever else.
And I like AOC,
so I don’t wanna put it so harshly.
But I think a lot of it has to do
with her being a congressperson
in a deep blue district,
and Fetterman running for statewide office
in a quote-unquote purple state.
But at her best,
at her best, she does it.
But it’s like glimmers.
It’s kind of like,
I don’t know,
what sport are you a biggest fan of?
I’ll give you a sports analogy.
I like the NFL.
I mean, NFL’s up there,
soccer’s up there,
but probably UFC.
I can’t give you a good analogy for any of those,
but it’s like a raw prospect.
Someone who shows glimmers of hope,
so they were drafted really high,
and then they bounce from team to team,
and you’re like,
I’m clinging on to my AOC stock,
but I think that she needs to be self-critical enough,
and her team needs to be self-critical enough
to know that the goal is not merely
to be a national cultural figure
and win a re-election in your deep blue district.
The goal has to be to become
truly a national political figure,
which will require changes.
A unifier and inspiring figure
about the ideas that she represents.
Definitely, and she has other things against her.
Like, I’m obviously class-focused,
but there’s no denying, I think,
that some of the hostility to her is sexism.
It’s rooted in, I think,
people wanting to see her fail or whatever else,
but that’s only some of it.
I think some of it, otherwise,
is her struggling to relate to people
who don’t have a lot of her starting points
as far as moral and ethical beliefs.
Yeah, but she’s actually great at flourishing
in all the attacks she’s getting.
She’s doing a good job with that,
and a lot of those attacks would break me,
if I’m being honest.
Yes, that’s fantastic.
The amount of fire she’s under.
But you don’t want that to become a drug
to where you just get good at being a national figure
that’s constantly in the fights
and are using that for attention and so on.
You still wanna be the unifier,
and that’s a tricky, tricky switch.
Do you think there’s a chance there’s a world
in which she’s able to modulate it enough
to be a unifier and run for president, and win?
I think she’s very far away from being able to do that.
I think that even other politicians
that are also polarizing within the squad
in terms of what they say or their ideas,
whatever else, are very effective communicators,
Ilhan Omar and others.
I think AOC, I mean, that’s my hope, right?
My hope is that someone like AOC could.
The last year-plus has not been extremely promising
in my mind, in part because she’s become,
or she’s continued to position herself
as a lightning rod cultural figure,
whereas I think a national political figure
needs to pick their spots and also pick their moment
for changing their rhetoric and adjusting to their audience.
And I think she does it in certain environments,
but that needs to be your national message
when you’re out there.
You need to be speaking towards the not already converted.
And I think Bernie does that.
Bernie strips his politics down to the basics.
So I agree with you spiritually,
but we also have an example
of Donald Trump winning the presidency.
Isn’t some of the game of politics
that’s separate from the policy,
being able to engage in rhetoric that leads to outrage
and then walking through that fire with grace?
First of all, I think Trump has kind of a unique personality
in American history.
So it’s hard to compare anyone to Trump.
But don’t you think AOC is comparable
in terms of the uniqueness
in the political system we’re in or no?
I think Trump is much more of a firebrand
anti-establishment force in that,
and I mean this negatively for what it’s worth,
because I disagree with Trump,
but he was willing to set fire
to the Republican establishment, right?
He was able to self-fund largely his campaign
and he already was a media figure without them.
AOC has been much more cautious
for the Democratic Party establishment
in part because she’s not trying to run
a national political campaign right now for the outside,
like a 5% chance they’re gonna be president,
let me set fire to everything.
She’s trying to help people and help her constituents
through the game of getting committee appointments
and getting wins in the margins.
And I think that’s understandable for what it’s worth.
But in the process, I think what’s the difference
between AOC and a progressive Democrat?
During 2016, it used to be pretty easy to say
the difference between the Berniecrats
and a progressive Democrat, right?
Because we were establishing our own outside third force
in American politics where you could knock on the door
of a lot of people who would end up voting for Trump
and they would say, oh, I have a lot of respect
for Bernie or whatever,
and they were still gonna not vote for him.
But he wasn’t considered part
of the Democratic Party milieu.
I think now with AOC, there’s a much closer association
of AOC in our policies with ordinary Democrats
where she needs to draw stronger distinctions.
She doesn’t need to do it like Trump did
with just, man, I forgot all of them,
though I found some of them amusing in the moment,
like all his nicknames about Lion Ted Cruz
and the rest, you know?
But I do feel like she needs to, yes,
differentiate herself a bit more,
but then also just keep her language simple.
Trump was more complex than Bernie in his literal language,
but he was repetitive and there was kind of a rhythm
and a cadence to Trump’s speech.
I think AOC needs to, like Bernie,
reduce her rhetoric down to a couple key lines
and signatures and focus her politics not on 20 issues,
but on three or four most important issues
and have that message discipline.
Bernie will do an interview with you,
and he’ll write down, I hope you do interview Bernie,
but he’ll write down like five things,
and I’m like, yeah, I’m only gonna talk
about these five things.
Ask me about this?
Okay, I’m talking about these five things.
So that’s a message discipline
that Bernie has been exemplary on, yeah, for sure.
But I think that’s learned, that could be developed.
I think she could develop it.
Listen, I hope, I’m answering your question,
I think, not the way I should answer it,
being someone broadcasting to people on the left
I hope AOC goes in that direction.
I just think that she has a lot going against her
just because she’s already a national figure,
and she’s in a deeper blue district.
But we need to root our politics then
in working class people and a lot of districts
that, I don’t know, the type of kitchen table conversations
are, I hate that cliche, but I just used it,
but a lot of these conversations are just different
in their tone and cadence,
and it’s not just a question of, you know,
Fetterman or Tim Ryan in Ohio
and kind of just white working class voters.
I mean, working class voters of any race.
There’s their day-to-day needs
and the day-to-day things they wanna talk about
is just at a different plane
than, you know, a Met Gala cultural statement.
Yeah, I mean, it’s clear that you respect and love her
and would like to see different ways.
I mean, she’s young, so the different trajectories
that she could develop
that would ultimately make her a good candidate.
I’m just looking at odds here for,
and I disagree with them.
I’m buying AOC stock here, given these odds.
So in terms of Democratic,
who’s gonna win the 2024 election?
So that includes running and winning.
On the Democrat side is 18% chance for Biden,
so 7% chance for Kamala Harris,
Gavin Newsom at 6%,
Michelle Obama at 3%,
Hillary Clinton at 2%,
and AOC at 1.5%.
And then Bernie at 1%.
I would not buy AOC at that mark.
I would buy Biden like crazy, though.
I’m not a gambling man,
but I would totally toss a G at Biden at that amount.
AOC at 1.5% chance?
I think it’s, I don’t think she runs.
You don’t think she runs, yeah, okay.
I don’t think Bernie will primary Biden either.
I mean, if Biden doesn’t run,
then obviously it’s an open field,
but I just feel like-
Do you think Biden runs?
Yes, I think Biden probably runs.
Oh man, oh boy.
He’s an incumbent president,
he’s an incumbent president,
so it’s just, it’s very hard to imagine
another Democrat being able to do better than him.
All right, what about the competition?
I think Donald Trump is the best thing
for the Democrats, period,
just because it would create this turnout mechanism,
this excitement around, we have to stop Donald Trump.
He’s attacking DeSantis.
I mean, already he’s trying the sanctimonious thing,
but yeah, he’s, I kind of like, yeah,
Trump’s kind of like the Don King of American politics.
Yeah, it’s interesting what kind
of dynamic chaos he’s created.
It probably led to more people being interested in politics.
Well, almost guaranteed it led to more people
being interested in politics,
but maybe not in a healthy way.
Maybe it created an unhealthy relationship with politics,
where it’s created more partisanship.
For me, I don’t have a problem with partnership.
It’s what kind of partnership.
So I think Trump has cultivated,
like a lot of right populists,
a relationship with his supporters.
It’s almost like a leader-follower relationship
in a way that doesn’t actually enhance
people’s knowledge of politics and the issues,
but actually just leads them to follow the party line.
Ideally, I think socialist politics and politics
on the left should be something different.
Eugene Debs, the great American socialist leader
of the late 19th and early 20th century,
used to say, you know, I’m not your Moses.
I can’t promise to lead you to the promised land
because if I can lead you there
and you just follow me there,
someone’s just gonna lead you straight out
as soon as I’m gone.
And I think there’s something nice
about that kind of anti-blind following,
leader-follower kind of dynamic on the left at its best.
That said, in the way at least the political race
in the United States has turned out,
it seems like it’s turned into a bit of entertainment.
And there, having personalities and characters
is really important.
So in terms of policy and actual leadership,
yes, maybe having a leader,
like an authoritarian big leader is not good,
but maybe for the race it is, for the drama of it.
You just want to have drama and attention
on people who are actually going to turn out
to be good leaders.
That’s a weird balance to strike.
Yeah, earned media is what they always talk about, right?
In political campaigns, like, you know,
the more you can get on TV, the better.
Even like, I really like Vederman.
He just won his campaign.
But a good part of his early campaign,
he had pivoted from talking about issues
to just talking about Dr. Oz living in New Jersey
and kind of having the troll campaign against him,
which I found amusing.
But also, it was effective, obviously, he won.
But, you know, it’s a bit depressing
because I would have rather a whole campaign cycle
about healthcare and jobs and other issues.
Yeah, yeah, and the hope is that people just get better
at that kind of social media communication.
So I do actually think there’s something
about doing political speeches
that makes you sound less authentic,
because you have to, like, do so many of them.
It must be exhausting to, like,
day after day after day, make the speech.
You’re going to start sort of replaying the same stuff
over and over, as opposed to actually thinking
about the words that are coming out of your mouth.
And then the public will know
that you’re not really being that authentic.
Even though you believe those things, it’s just tough.
I just wish they didn’t have to constantly do speeches.
So I think that the fact that Bernie’s speeches
very clearly, like, came out of,
if not directly his own pen,
but his own rhetoric over the years,
and he kind of wrote it, seemed authentic.
Even if he was repeating it.
And then Trump, his just wild improvisation,
I think people found real, you know, in a certain way.
And I would love for the left, more generally,
to tap into some of that anti-establishment sentiment,
but obviously do it in a way that’s productive,
that doesn’t blame immigrants
or whatever else for problems,
but, you know, it’s kind of built on a different basis.
But people are fed up, for good reason,
with a lot of conventional politics,
and we need to speak to that.
Otherwise, it’ll only be the right
that is taking advantage of those people’s anger.
Well, I almost forgot to ask you about China.
So both historically, we talked about the Soviet Union,
but what lessons do you draw
from the implementation of socialism and communism
in Maoist China and modern China?
What’s the good and the bad?
Well, I think it’s very similar to the Soviet case,
in that socialism came to China
through not a base of organized workers
and a capitalist country
at a certain level of development and so on,
but it came through the countryside
and in conditions of civil war,
strife, Japanese invasion, and whatever else.
And Mao built his base in the peasantry,
then came down to the city to govern
and try to build a base and rule over workers.
So it was kind of an inversion of classic socialist theory.
Now, the same thing that I said before about Stalin
and assessing the Soviet Union has to apply here,
because obviously, I oppose authoritarianism
and all sorts of moral condemnations I should do.
But to look at what the Chinese Communist Party
I think we kind of need to take a step backwards
from our moral opposition
to the means in which they accomplished it
and just look at it developmentally.
China benefited greatly
from the Communist Party’s implementation
of basic education and healthcare.
So in a lot of China,
you had one of the conditions of women
were absolutely terrible.
There was still foot binding
and all sorts of terrible backward practice.
You had a huge, vast majority of the population
that was illiterate without any access to basic education,
and you had no health access,
especially in the countryside.
So those are the three good things that China did,
improve the status of women,
get everyone into primary education,
and improve the lot of healthcare.
Besides for that,
their agricultural campaign was a failure,
just like Stalin’s for many of the same reasons
I mentioned before.
The Great Leap Forward and crash industrialization
didn’t really work either.
In a way, is China better than India or other countries
that didn’t have the basic education
and the strong state authority
and the health improvements and whatever?
I think maybe,
but I think that’s why we need to sometimes go beyond
just economic measures of success.
Because if you told me tomorrow,
the US will grow at 3% if we maintain democracy,
but it’ll grow at 8%, 9%, everyone will be wealthier
if we move to some sort of authoritarian government.
I think you’re asking the wrong question
if you’re gonna make your decision based on growth, right?
Because it has to be based on some sort of principle.
But the same dynamic of,
from the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party,
ruling over people,
emerging from the outside through armed conflicts
and ruling over ordinary Chinese people have continued.
Since Deng Xiaoping,
the policies have been better economically.
And often at times, not always,
the technocratic governance has been quite good.
But that doesn’t mean that the party
has a democratic mandate
or should have the right to govern as they see fit.
Because clearly, it doesn’t have that mandate
in swaths of the country
or in places like Hong Kong or elsewhere.
But to me, nothing the Chinese Communist Party does
has anything to do with socialism.
I think even by their own definition today,
it really doesn’t.
It’s a sort of nationalist, authoritarian,
developmental state that has done some good things
to improve the living standards of the Chinese people.
Other things that were counterproductive.
And as a democratic socialist,
I certainly don’t support that state,
but I also hope that the US and Biden
will find a way to avoid intense rivalry
and competition economically,
spilling over into something worse.
From a democratic socialist perspective,
what’s one policy or one or two ways
if you could fix China?
If you took over China,
what would you like to see change?
Well, the democratic part comes before the socialist part.
So I would say there needs to be
multi-party elections in China
and state censorship and control over the press,
in other words, needs to be done with.
As far as their immediate economic policy,
I think the idea of maintaining strong state control
of certain commanding heights of the economy
while liberalizing other spheres has done quite well
in China’s case, lifting people out of poverty.
But again, there’s something really lost in society,
even if it’s getting wealthier,
if ordinary people don’t have the ability
to participate in dissent freely.
And the Chinese authorities have allowed some,
it’s not North Korea,
it’s not a totally totalitarian state.
There’s been workplace protests,
there’ve been all sorts of local anti-corruption protests
and things like that,
but the government decides what’s permitted
and what’s not at what particular moment.
And I think the long run,
even if it can survive,
there’s a better way to do things,
which is just quite simply a democracy.
The thing is though,
the lessons of history that China is looking at,
there’s this dark aspect.
So building on top of the fact
that it seems like under Stalin and under Mao,
under Stalin, the Soviet Union,
and under Mao, China has seen a lot of economic growth.
And then one dark aspect of that,
while under the Great Leap Forward,
you have upwards of 70 million people dead.
Today, I think there’s a large number of people
who admire Stalin and admire Mao.
What they admire is the stability and the strong leadership.
So, and there’s a lot of people
who miss the Soviet Union, right?
The reason why they miss it
is that it was a system they knew.
It provided the basics of their livelihood.
Then afterwards, like look at Russia in the 90s,
people were in chaos,
and the Communist Party
had a huge amount of support democratically.
Anti-democratic measures had to be taken,
ironically, against the Communist Party
to keep it from regaining more of a foothold in Russia.
But we don’t need that trade-off.
We could have a form of,
imagine if Russia went to a system
closer to social democracy
that maintained the stability that people wanted,
the welfare state that people wanted,
but restructured the economy in not a shock way,
but in a way that made sense
and that ordinary people felt ownership of
instead of just oligarchs
who were former Communist Party bureaucracy
just dividing up the country for themselves.
I think the same thing in China.
First of all, certainly from the West,
the U.S. government and people in the U.S.
should have no say over what should happen in China, right?
The Chinese Communist Party has more authentic authority
than any of us do in the country.
But I think that the fears of stability
that a lot of Chinese people have,
why I would imagine that even in a democratic election,
the Communist Party might have majority support
is because they fear the unknown, they fear collapse.
That was one of the big lessons of the Soviet collapse, right?
Do you want China divided into five, six states?
Do you want economic turmoil?
Do you want mass immediate privatization?
Do you want whatever welfare state
you have destroyed and so on?
I think people are right to have those fears,
but there’s a different route towards democratization
that maintains stability, right?
There’s different routes that you could have democracy.
Not every country had to go down the route of Yugoslavia
and the USSR and so on.
You are the founder of the magazine Jacobin,
of which I am a subscriber.
I recommend everybody subscribe,
whether you’re on the left or the right.
The magazine does tend to lean left.
Does it officially say it’s socialist?
We’re a socialist publication.
We try to be interesting.
We try to have articles that have debates
and contestation and whatever else,
but we’re definitely, we’re all socialists.
Well, it’s a lot of really interesting articles,
so I’d definitely recommend that people subscribe, support.
The product of the 21st century,
only subscribe to the digital version,
but I guess there’s also paper version.
Yeah, there’s like 70,000 subscribers in print.
In print? Yeah.
Does it come on a scroll?
Do they even publish paper magazines anymore?
I’m gonna mail you a bunch of copies.
No, it’s perfect bound.
It’s long issues.
Our Jacobin’s publisher, Remake Air 4 of us recently
did a redesign of the publication,
so it looks really good.
It’s up there in the design award competition range.
It’s great, yeah. Nice, it’s sexy.
I can show it off to all my friends, look.
Put it in your coffee table.
You don’t even have to read it.
First, I need to get a coffee table,
but yes, I’ll get both.
That’s what a respectable adult,
listen, I’ve upgraded my life.
I haven’t had a couch, I don’t think, ever,
so I got a couch recently,
because somebody told me that serious adults have a couch,
and I also got a TV,
because serious adults have a couch and a TV,
and as you can see, it’s been here for many months,
and I still haven’t unboxed it,
so I’m trying to learn how to be an adult,
looking up on YouTube how to be an adult,
and learning slowly.
After that, I’ll look into this whole leisure thing.
Anyway, what’s the origin of Jackman?
What was the idea?
What was the mission, and what’s the origin story?
So I started Jackman when I was between my sophomore
and junior year of college.
Basically, I was already a socialist.
I was involved in the Democratic Socialists of America.
I was in the youth section,
the Young Democratic Socialists.
I was editing their kind of youth online magazine
called The Activists back then,
and to be honest, I had my ideology.
I had my views.
I had a group of people around me
that we would debate together and occasionally write
for this other publication, The Activist, and so on,
and yeah, just a product of creative ignorance
in the sense that I knew I had the capacity
to maybe pull off an issue or two.
I just had no idea how long I would keep doing it,
and it just eventually consumed my life slowly but surely.
Like, I had different plans for my future, kind of,
but I ended up just being a magazine publisher.
I literally didn’t know what a magazine publisher was,
but it just kind of happened.
What’s the hardest part about running a magazine?
Well, the hardest part is obviously the things,
just like any enterprise, right,
the things beyond your control.
You could put out something that you think is great
or interesting, but then you need the feedback
of people actually subscribing to it,
and you occasionally encounter periods
where you feel like you’re doing your best work,
but you’re not getting the audience response,
and I think you just need the kind of,
the self-confidence to just keep doing it,
and obviously, if you’re totally obscure and crazy
and way off the mark,
you’re never gonna build that audience,
but I think a lot of publications have tried to,
same thing, I guess, goes with YouTube shows,
whatever else, they try to adapt
to what everyone else is doing right away
when they don’t achieve success,
whereas for me, the early issues of Jackman
got very little resonance,
and it took a while for it to build into something,
but a lot of it was just the confidence
to just keep going and keep publishing
what I would wanna read,
and just hope that I’m not so much of a weirdo,
that I’m the only one.
Is there some pressure that you could speak to
of audience capture?
Because it is a socialist publication,
you have a fan base, a readership base.
Is there times you feel pressured
not to say a certain thing, not to call out bullshit?
Not to criticize certain candidates,
all that kind of stuff?
Yes, definitely, of course.
I, myself, am looser on the self-censorship
than other people.
That’s only because I’ve gotten this far
just shooting from the hip or whatever.
And occasionally, you’ll come to a rash judgment.
You’ll speak too soon or complain about something too soon,
and you’ll have to either apologize
or reconsider whatever else.
But on a host of issues,
I have views that maybe not all of the left has,
but I know that the core of my politics
is a politics against oppression,
against all the things that we talked about.
And if you know that’s at the core of your politics,
then you could maybe say,
you know what, I don’t think the left
should respond to the real racist
in the still right in the world
by adopting an excessively racialized rhetoric.
Does that make sense?
I fundamentally just am a universalist,
and I believe that people,
no matter where their backgrounds are and so on,
kind of want the same things for themselves
and for their families.
And I feel like a lot of the left,
or some of the left, not even the far left,
more like the center left,
has adopted kind of a stance saying,
oh, we need to talk about white privilege
or white Karens or white guys
or old white guys doing this or whatever else.
And to me, it’s not only wrong in a moral sense,
but it’s counterproductive.
Because the last thing I want is a young white teenager
who feels unrepresented politically
and wants to be a part of maybe even the left
to feel like, oh, I should think more about my identity.
No, the whole point of anti-racist politics
is that we want to live in a world
where me and you can go around the corner and get a beer,
and we’re not people of two different races getting a beer.
We’re just two guys in America getting a beer.
We’re trying to have the type of society
in which there’s less of that sort of communal
or racialized identity.
And that was a whole point of a whole generation
of anti-racist struggle.
But now we seem to be kind of reifying it
in the media and in culture and in politics.
And that’s one issue where I’ve been
kind of banging the drum on this
to the point that it’s annoying in certain parts of the left.
I don’t think there’s maybe extreme opposition
among socialists, but it’s more like,
why do you keep focusing on this?
Let’s focus on our real enemy, the right,
instead of criticizing this part of-
No, I think it’s really, I’m really glad you exist.
I’m really glad you’re beating that drum
because I think that’s one of the reasons
that the left has not had a broader impact
or is not heard by more people that could hear its message
is because the othering, the othering of,
like as if there’s two teams, as if it’s black and white,
as opposed to having, there’s a common humanity
and a common struggle amongst all of us.
You also wrote the book that we mentioned a few times,
The Socialist Manifesto, the case for radical politics
in an era of extreme inequality.
What’s the framework?
What are the key ideas of the book?
So a lot of it’s a look at socialism’s past,
present and future, basically.
So a lot of it is historical.
The opening chapter uses a pasta sauce factory
as a way to explain certain Marxist concepts,
but also a theory of change,
like how we get from, let’s say, pure capitalism
to more regulated, unionized and social democratic systems,
and then beyond social democracy
into my vision of socialism.
That’s kind of the first little bit.
It’s like a visionary kind of like look
at the future of socialism.
But then I try to explain
why some of the past socialist movements have gone wrong.
Because I think we can’t take for granted,
I think a lot of people want to live
in a different or better society,
but they look at past examples and they’re skeptical.
And I think there’s good reason for skepticism.
So I try to explain both the successes of certain systems,
like social democracy,
but also what happened in Russia, China,
and kind of more of a historical overview.
Then the book kind of ends in the present.
It ends with looking at the Bernie Sanders campaign,
why it resonated, looking at some of the problems facing
the US, the UK, other advanced economies,
and why I think the socialist message is still relevant.
Because for the longest time,
I’m 33, I became a socialist as a teenager.
And for the longest time,
it seemed like I was just a member of a historical society,
keeping alive an idea
that nobody was interested in anymore.
And now it’s heartening to see more young people
interested in the idea,
but we actually need to, I think,
have a clearer sense of what we stand for
and how we make our movement,
like it used to be, more rooted in the working class.
So if anyone rewinds the tape,
they go to when we first started talking
about early socialism,
when I was talking about
the German social democratic workers movement,
or all these different early parties.
I think at various points,
I use the word worker and socialist movement
because in fact, at the time,
it was pretty interchangeable.
Socialism was the ideology
that had the appeal of the working class movement.
You couldn’t really separate between the two.
socialism’s like a fringe ideological concurrent
among a very small minority of the working class,
which is fine,
but we need to get to the point, I think, ideally,
where when people talk about unions
and people protesting and social movements and socialism,
they all kind of are one in the same
as part of the same broad movement.
How did you become a socialist?
What was the personal story
or the idea that took hold in your mind?
So I’m the youngest of five.
I was only one of my family born in the United States.
So it was very obvious to me
that my life outcomes were very different
than life outcomes of my siblings.
So my three older siblings didn’t go to college
after high school.
Some of them got their degrees much later on as adults.
But I was from a pretty young age,
had access to a great public school district
and was put on the track that you’re gonna go to college.
This is kind of the outcome.
And like I said, even my grandmother was illiterate.
My mom didn’t have a lot of educational opportunities
early in her life.
She actually graduated from college the same year I did.
So she later got her kind of degrees and whatever else.
But to me, it was obvious that so much of my life outcomes
weren’t just a product of hard work or my family’s sacrifices
because of course I had the same family as my siblings,
but the product of state institutions helping out,
evening things out.
Public school district, public library,
like all sorts of afterschool programs,
all that was the domain of the state
and I really benefited from it.
So in essence, my core was a social democratic belief.
The state should redistribute a bit,
build public institutions, be an equalizer.
Now how I became a Marxist and a socialist
was much more random.
I was just intellectually interested in it.
And eventually I kind of merged the two together
where I merged together my more pragmatic
and practical interest in day-to-day concerns
and reforms and so on,
with my loftier intellectual interests in Marxism
into the politics I have today,
which I try to kind of balance and do both.
And I think a lot of socialists in the organization
that I joined as a teenager,
the Democratic Socialists of America and elsewhere,
try to do the two,
try to maintain some sort of balance
between here and our vision of the future.
What do you think Marx would say
if he were to read your book,
Socialist Manifesto and do a review?
So I think Marx would say that my vision
of a socialism after capitalism
maintains key elements of what he would,
the commodity form.
So a lot of what Marx was concerned about was
what markets do to human relationships
in a negative sense.
Marx’s early writings, especially,
focus a lot on the alienation of labor.
My vision of socialism, at least in the near term,
a lot about it is about decommodifying certain sectors.
So reducing the market in certain sectors
and reducing alienation, but not eliminating it.
It is about eliminating exploitation and oppression.
So knowing Marx and knowing how critical he was
of certain other socialist strands and tendencies,
and he would often write very snarky notes
and letters to people like Engels being like,
this guy, LaSalle, he’s a total asshole.
Then he would send a separate note to LaSalle saying,
hey, can I borrow five grand?
This is actually true.
He did the both, I think the same month.
So he would be really good at Twitter is what you’re saying.
Oh, he would be the best at Twitter.
And also he was a journalist before
with his work for the New York Tribune.
He was very clever, very snarky.
He would be awesome at Twitter.
I think him and Elon would have good back and forths,
but I think it would be critical in some parts,
but I think that the strangest part for him
would be reading the historical sections
and seeing the way in which his ideas,
which was fundamentally ideas about human emancipation
were used for evil, for hardship,
in ways that did the opposite of emancipated,
but in some cases, enslaved people.
And I think he would have definitely
not want to be associated with them.
He probably would rather be associated with me than them,
but even then, only begrudgingly.
What advice would you give to young folks
in high school, in college,
how to have a career they can be proud of
or how to change the world?
I think be intellectually curious,
read outside your current beliefs
and understand or read authors on their own terms.
So the worst thing in the world to do is to read anything,
especially work of fiction, but anything,
and try to deduce the author’s backgrounds
or politics or whatever else.
Read it on its own terms first,
then you could reread it
and kind of do other examinations or whatever else.
And also read a lot of history.
So I started off reading books like Eric Hoppesbaum’s
four books on history going from the 1700s
all the way to 1994.
The last book is Age of Extremes.
But I think understanding history
gives you a bird’s eye view of everything,
sociology, economics, everything.
So these big sweeping historical books
are really useful to know.
Like everybody should know basically what year
or at least like what decade,
serfdom was abolished, what decade slavery was abolished,
what century Magna Carta was,
when the Roman Empire fell,
even though that’s kind of debated
when the Roman Empire fell.
All these, I think like being a person
with a general knowledge
and general sense of history and whatever else
just makes you more eclectic and interesting.
And it’s way better than just like,
especially a lot of my Indian friends,
not just Indians, but the hyper-focus on like,
you got to specialize and you got to like focus on math
or engineering, whatever you want to do.
You just know your field really well, but nothing else.
Like, I think there’s something really too,
whether you’re getting in school
or you’re just going to do it by yourself,
giving yourself kind of a liberal arts education.
I think there’s a lot of power to sort of
having the facts of history in terms of in time,
when stuff happened,
but also really powerful is knowing spatially,
like the geography,
that we’re a point on a map
and there’s interesting dynamics
that happened throughout history
of all the different nations in Europe,
of all the different military conflicts
and the expansions and the wars
and the empires and all that kind of stuff.
It really puts into context
how human history has led to the place we are today,
because all the different geopolitical conflicts
we have today,
even the politics of the day is grounded in history,
maybe less so for the United States,
because it has a very young history,
but that history, even for the United States,
it’s still there, right?
From the civil war
and understanding that gives you context
to when you tweet random stuff
about this or that person or politician and so on.
Yeah, very true.
One of the regrets I have currently
is I have perhaps been too focused on the 20th century
in terms of history,
the present and the 20th century.
A lot of people write to me
that there’s a lot of lessons to be learned
in ancient history as well.
So not just even American history,
but just looking farther and farther and farther back.
Yeah, that feels like it’s another time,
it’s another place.
It’s totally has no lessons,
but then you remind yourself
that it’s the same human beings, right?
Yeah, and also we’re no smarter than them.
We just have more accrued knowledge in part because of them,
but they were just as clever as us.
What do you think is the meaning of this whole experiment
that we have going on on earth?
Now, what’s the meaning of life?
Well, I think there’s no broad meaning of life.
There’s, you know, it was an accident,
but we ourselves need to make our own meeting.
And for me, a lot of it is about posterity,
trying to do something worthwhile while on earth,
but also leaving something behind.
It could just be relationships with friends or family
in the future, maybe having a family
and kind of like leaving behind that sort of legacy,
the little bits of yourself,
but also, you know, them being able to learn
the same way I have little bits of my parents
and my grandparents in me.
And then also I think in a social sense,
zooming out from just the individual and the family,
leaving the world behind a little better, you know,
I would love to be a part of a movement
that created a world with a little bit less suffering,
a little bit less oppression or exploitation
or whatever else.
That’s really why I’m a socialist.
You know, it’s not about snapping your fingers
and curing the world of everything in one go,
but it is about, I think, putting our lives,
giving our lives some sort of meaning and purpose.
And you don’t have to be a socialist to do that.
You could just do it at the, you know,
at the micro level in your own day-to-day interactions.
But I just feel like life has no good meaning
without thinking of posterity in the future.
And I have to say, thank you for doing so.
Thank you for caring about the struggle
of the people in the world through ideas that are bold
and I think challenging for a lot of people.
In a time when socialism is something
that can be attacked aggressively by large numbers of people,
still persevering and still exploring those ideas
and seeing what of those ideas can make for a better world.
That’s beautiful to see.
Bhaskar, thank you so much for talking today.
Thank you for all the work you do.
I can’t wait to see what you do next.
I appreciate it.
And yeah, thanks for keeping an open mind
with these conversations and to your audience too.
You know, it’s nice to have a space where, you know,
people can debate and think at length
and don’t have to worry about soundbite culture.
Thank you, brother.
Thank you for listening to this conversation
with Bhaskar Sankara.
To support this podcast,
please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now, let me leave you with some words from Karl Marx.
Democracy is the road to socialism.
Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.
Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.
Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.