Calling yourself a socialist in America won’t make your life any easier. People will question your patriotism. People will question your morality. Charlie Kirk or Ben Shapiro will probably tweet at you about socialism’s death count (while ignoring capitalism’s much larger death count, but that’s a different topic for a different day).
And almost everyone will associate your socialism with a specific political structure — whether it’s Soviet communism or Venezuelan authoritarianism.
But it shouldn’t be this way. To me, believing in socialism isn’t about believing in a specific political structure. It’s about compassion for your neighbors and solidarity with working people around the world. It’s about securing political and economic democracy for all people. It’s about valuing social goods over private gain.
Socialism is also the belief that these values by themselves are not enough. Because under capitalism, profit motive distorts the best of intentions.
I’ve been reading a book called “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.” The crux of the book is this: No matter how pure their intentions, city planners — who control the physical and economic blueprint for cities — cannot succeed under capitalism.
The author argues that city planners have two jobs: First, to make the city more livable for its residents. This is a noble goal. Cities should be affordable, safe, fun and sustainable. Second, to attract investment. Because cities are sustained by property taxes, city planners must woo expensive development while removing all aspects of the city which reduce property values. A planner’s job security hinges on their ability to design a city which developers find attractive.
When planners attempt to improve the city for its residents, by building parks or crucial services like day-cares and grocery stores, they simply raise property values and make the place more attractive for luxury development. Then the developers come in, build luxury apartments, raise the cost of living and push out longtime low-income residents. This process of gentrification occurs in cities across the world every day.
The planner’s motives don’t matter because, at the end of the day, capital and profit rule their world.
The example of well-intentioned city planners failing under capitalism in “Capital City” can be applied to every sector of our lives. Lockheed Martin and Boeing are incentivized to lobby for a bloated, active military in order to secure fat contracts. Their profit motive encourages imperialism and leads to the deaths of innocents in Iraq and Yemen.
The profit motive encourages private prison companies to lobby for harsher prison sentences and increased detention of undocumented immigrants.
Fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobil and British Petroleum continue to expand operations and search for new oil and gas even as civilization’s survival hangs in the balance because there is profit to be made.
That’s why I don’t believe in capitalism. The profit motive will always trump good intentions. But not believing in capitalism and calling myself a socialist doesn’t mean I believe in Nicholas Maduro’s Venezuela, Joseph Stalin’s USSR or Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam.
At its core, socialism is the belief that capitalism can never fully deliver outcomes which value people and planet over profit and growth, because capitalism is a fundamentally destructive force.
To declare yourself a socialist, you shouldn’t have to believe in a specific alternative to our current system. Socialism can and should be a starting point. If a group of people truly believe in its values, they can work together towards a more humane political structure, whatever that may be.
As George Orwell once wrote (to all five of my avid readers, yes, I did quote this same essay three weeks ago): “Socialist thought has to deal in prediction, but only in broad terms. One often has to aim at objectives which one can only very dimly see.”
This is not to say we shouldn’t think about and question alternatives. The question of political structure is a crucial one.
But I don’t have the answers, and I shouldn’t have to.
I call myself a socialist not because of my belief in Fidel Castro or Vladimir Lenin but because I believe in people over profit. I believe in economic democracy. I believe in the masses.
And that, to me, is enough.
Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.