No one could have predicted the rollercoaster ride of this election year. But amid all the drama something powerful emerged — millions of Americans demanded a different kind of society, one that puts people over profit.
Some of this desire was expressed in the platform adopted by the Democratic Party, which is its most progressive in decades. But for many, the Democrats stopped miles short of offering a real vision for change. To tackle inequality, poverty, racism, sexism, and environmental collapse we need bigger ideas. Socialists have these ideas.
Granted, we don’t have a political party in the United States. We don’t have a labor party. And we’re a long way away from becoming a force that can enact policies to represent and empower the working class. But we’re building momentum and making demands.
In what follows, Jacobin contributors articulate a set of concrete and achievable demands — demands that if implemented would reshape the world in a direction that lifts up working people and set the stage for broader transformations in the future.
A jobs guarantee would do more than anything else to restore labor’s power.
“Full Employment . . . has become an aim of Conservative policy and the strongest argument against socialist critics.” That’s famed economist Joan Robinson, in 1962, trolling to her left and her right. British unemployment had been below 2 percent for most of the period since the war, without runaway inflation. Keynes had solved the problem of unemployment, converted the Conservatives, and stolen the communists’ best argument. Capitalism apparently didn’t need a reserve army of labor after all.
Just fifteen years later, like a Star Wars opening crawl: “The hopes which accompanied the Keynesian revolution, of reforming capitalism so as to ensure continuous prosperity with full employment, are now all but extinguished. The slide into crisis in the capitalist world has re-established the pre-Keynesian orthodoxy as the conventional wisdom at both national and international levels . . .” The rentier strikes back.
Two generations have since come of age in a world where getting a job and building a career is a fierce competition against your peers. Even the winners are anxious, comfortable spots are precarious; the losers have nothing to blame but their CV. In a buyer’s market it seems like the employers are bringing the goods; they create the jobs, we just work in them.
It is in this climate that the demand for full employment is resurfacing with a vengeance.
The importance of full employment is not just that, when people’s subsistence depends on selling their labor power, being unemployed sucks. If that were all, cutting a few percentage points off the unemployment rate would be a worthwhile reform but nothing to build a platform around. The bigger point is that the tightness of the labor market affects the whole working class.
A tight labor market is a seller’s market. It reverses the normal order of things. As Chris Maisano put it: “A full employment economy raises the bargaining power and living standards of the working class in the short run and erodes the relative power of capital, opening up possibilities for radical social transformation.”
Demanding full employment doesn’t mean glorifying wage slavery: it’s perfectly compatible with converting technological advance into leisure time. Full employment is simply a state in which demand for labor matches supply. If supply falls because working people earn enough to be comfortable from fewer hours of work, that’s great. In fact the aims support one another: full employment gives workers the bargaining power to reap the benefits of productivity growth as they choose, while a managed reduction in working hours spreads the demand for labor around. (A program of work-sharing and voluntary time reductions is a key part of Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein’s 2013 full-employment plan.)
Some on the Left have taken the view that full employment is a regressive goal because automation is steadily reducing capitalism’s need for workers. Better to redistribute to the surplus population through a universal basic income. But the idea that machines are about to supplant workers is a trope as old as capitalism itself. It always looks plausible because so many particular tasks are always in the process of being automated, and new wonders are always just around the corner. And yet, new jobs have always come along. Maybe this time of driverless cars and machine learning really will be different, but it would be foolish to place our political bets on it, especially before it starts showing up in the productivity growth stats.
Technological change can certainly be very disruptive to particular jobs and the value of particular skills. In recent decades, people have lost stable, well-paying careers in manufacturing and found their replacements precarious and low-paid. Almost all net job growth in the United States since 1990 has been in low-productivity growth sectors: construction, retail, hospitality, health care, education, government, and finance. Recent times have been no exception to the historical pattern of workers being displaced from some sectors and absorbed by others. This decade, net job growth has been concentrated in education, health care, social assistance, hospitality, and retail, sectors with average hourly pay and weekly hours much lower than the economy-wide average. For Matthew Klein in the Financial Times, this suggests “the growth of make-work has been the main thing preventing mass joblessness.”
But there is no technological reason that such jobs be low-paid and insecure. Rather than moving into inherently low-paid jobs, the American workforce has been shifting sectors at a time of chronic labor weakness. It has moved from organized industries with longer-standing norms in wages, hours, and conditions to a casualized wasteland. The problem over the longer run is displaced workers not joining an ever-growing scrap heap, but spending their lives in insecure service to the winners.
Thatcherism and Reaganism came and went. Friedmanite monetarism failed on its own terms but fulfilled its historical mission of smashing the labor movement. Friedman’s legacy is also a set of pernicious assumptions about the labor market — a reframing of unemployment as a technical problem shared by conservatives and liberals alike. Its pervasive message is to not set our sights too high, to accept a certain level of slack in the labor market as, if not “natural,” at least necessary for price stability.
The impact on labor has been stark. In the United States the median real wage has barely risen in twenty-five years. Here, where employment was only briefly really “full” in the 1960s, the post-1970s have been marked by only intermittent visits to below 5 percent unemployment. Job growth has typically been slow in recoveries, and especially so since 2010. Only for a few years in the late 1990s could the labor market plausibly be called tight — and this was unsurprisingly also a brief period of real wage gains, declining poverty, and a slowdown (not a reversal) of the rise in income inequality.
Though the US unemployment rate is back where it was in 2005, the labor force participation rate is more than 3 percentage points lower: some of that reflects demographic trends, but most is due to discouraged workers giving up the job search. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’s broader measure of unemployment, which includes workers who want work but have not been actively job-seeking as well as part-time workers who want full-time employment, has been stagnant at almost 10 percent for most of the past year, still 2 percentage points off its pre-crisis level. Moreover, despite the apparent dovishness of Janet Yellen’s Federal Reserve, as soon as genuine labor market tightness begins to raise expectations and bargaining power, the monetary hawks will almost certainly be back in ascendance. In this context, it is important for the Left to remember that when central bankers and liberal economists welcome a lower “natural rate of unemployment,” that is predicated on labor’s chronic weakness.
The Left needs to reach higher. Restoring labor’s economic power is the point of full employment — and at that point our interests diverge from the liberal technocrats.
This divergence is a good thing. Genuine, lasting full employment could be a massively popular aim for a revitalized left. It is hard to explain to the populace that a strong economy needs just the right amount of anxiety, but that has long been the position of the technocratic center. We should be calling liberals’ bluff here. Basic economic security for all — freedom from fear — hardly seems too much to ask in a wealthy, technologically advanced society. But liberalism cannot deliver it.
There are many ways to get there, and they all have the advantage of being desirable policies in themselves: public investment in education, health, infrastructure; green transformation; job guarantees; income transfers — the precise mix will depend on the movement’s preferences and the circumstances. (Two books — one by Robert Pollin, and one by Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein — have sketched plans for full employment in America.)
The postwar boom showed us that full employment is possible in a capitalist society, but only under fortunate conditions that are not themselves under policy control. Once the luck runs out, or if the luck is not there in the first place, full employment demands nothing less than a politicization of distribution, and of production itself. It is, in André Gorz’s terms, a “non-reformist reform,” dysfunctional for the system. Such a reform sooner or later faces a crisis, and either the system spits it out or is reshaped around it. Once there, a whole new game begins.
Mashael Majid & Karen Narefsky
Everyone deserves an affordable home.
In an age of visceral neoliberalism and skyrocketing housing costs, it can be hard to imagine a truly transformative housing platform. Part of the problem is how we talk about housing. Many of us still use abstract market language: housing is imagined as “units,” not homes with people living in them, making it easier to accept eviction and displacement and treat people as a secondary concern.
This framework also assumes that the free market, unencumbered by political red tape, can provide enough housing for all who need it. But we need only look at New York City, where up to a third of luxury housing units in certain areas of Manhattan are unoccupied, to see that many housing units are built to supply a demand for investment, not housing.
Urban renewal projects have been displacing working people since the late 1940s to make way for services desired by the elite. Today, the same cities whose exclusionary zoning, redlining, and housing covenants disenfranchised communities of color are now advancing policies to “revitalize” blighted areas, often deepening gentrification pressures in the process.
Instead of working for the public interest, elected officials often act as real-estate proxies, amplifying displacement within and from their communities. Sometimes, the effect is subtle, but even when the poor are not directly displaced by a new transit line or sports arena, their inability to pay inflated rents means they will eventually be forced out, and the new amenities will serve those who can pay.
A radical housing policy must aim to strengthen working-class communities, not just increase the number of total housing units.
One important way to do this is through rent control and “just cause for eviction” policies. Rent control limits annual rent increases, helping to stabilize neighborhoods and leave tenants with more money to spend in the local economy. Just cause for eviction laws prevent the arbitrary eviction of tenants and go hand in hand with rent control.
If housing is about people, rent control is about protecting those people, respecting their fundamental dignity, and allowing them to develop and maintain roots within the community without constant fear of displacement.
Conservative ideologues and liberals both like to argue that rent control doesn’t work — that it holds down property values, disincentivizes repairs, and hey, aren’t San Francisco and New York City two of the most unaffordable places to live despite having rent control? But these arguments overlook how outside factors shape rea-estate markets, and the ways in which rent control has been implemented. Rent control in San Francisco and New York applies only to buildings built before the mid to late 1970s, so the current housing boom is not governed by rent control. San Francisco’s rent control laws are also subject to the Ellis Act, meaning landlords can evict their tenants in order to sell a building or convert the units to condos.
Instead of dismissing rent control, we need to view it in a new light. Poor people are losing the little access they once had to affordable housing close to job opportunities. New housing is prohibitively expensive, with only a small percentage set aside as “affordable.” Uniformly applied rent control would force contemporary developers to play by the same rules as longtime landlords, and remove the incentive for landlords to evict tenants through flipping or condo conversion.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the need for stronger rent regulation and tenant protections is sparking an organized regional response. Multiple cities there are facing an unprecedented challenge to housing affordability resulting in racialized resegregation largely driven by a burgeoning tech industry, a powerful real estate lobby, and unaccountable political actors.
Because the market is failing those it was never meant to protect, Bay Area tenants and advocates are sharing scalable strategies and advancing policies like rent control and just cause for eviction to challenge a dominant theory of trickle-down gentrification that suggests we can build our way out of this crisis. After years of solidarity and movement-building across jurisdictions — and a lack of local political will — six Bay Area cities are going to the ballot for the first time in more than thirty years this November to take up rent stabilization.
Ultimately, however, rent control preserves a paradigm in which private individuals and corporations profit from rents. It is one of the best harm-reduction strategies in this paradigm, but our transformative demand must be housing and land that is owned by the people, through large-scale public housing and community land trusts.
After years of appropriation and displacement, control must be returned to residents, with the profit motive subordinated to the universal right to housing.
Community land trusts are a viable way to create long-term housing affordability, but there has yet to be a substantial public investment in this strategy. The Movement for Black Lives platform, released this summer, promotes cooperative land ownership as a way to build wealth, stability, and power in black communities. The platform calls on the federal government to “use public resources — funds and land — to implement fair development, prioritizing community-based cooperative entities governed by traditionally excluded communities and community members.”
To achieve these objectives the state must be front and center: the federal government must invest in building and maintaining public housing for people of all incomes throughout the country, seeing shelter not as a commodity but as a basic need. We should pursue a policy of “full housing,” just as we talk about full employment.
When a substantial portion of the population lives in government-subsidized housing, the ability of private landlords to extort, harass, or evict is greatly reduced, and tenants gain increased power within their communities. As David Madden and Peter Marcuse argue: “the balance of power between tenants and landlords, or between real estate owners and communities, cannot be determined in a neutral, apolitical way.” Quality public housing will require the state to actively shift that balance toward those currently marginalized by our housing market.
US housing activists are in good company. Movements like Plataforma d’Afectats per la Hipoteca (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) in Barcelona and Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know) in Cape Town are demanding the right to a dignified home. And in Pakistan, the vibrant Awami Workers’ Party (AWP) is organizing around the issue of squatter settlement demolitions in Islamabad. Known as the katchi abadi nonviolent resistance, the AWP is amplifying the demands of Pakistan’s landless population as part of its radical pro-labor, anti-imperialist, and redistributive vision.
Gentrification and displacement systematically remove affordable housing and other resources from the reach of poor people. The only real alternative is a project of systematic investment in those people. Leftists must engage in grassroots intersectional organizing that reconceptualizes housing as a true public good — one that can only be secured through transformative, disruptive, and liberatory fights led by affected communities.
Building movements for rent control, public housing, and the right to remain in our communities is vital to preserving multiple levels of security for us all. It’s time to take bold positions that not only react to or reform bad policies, but lift up the demands of people who are already imagining another world.
A truly progressive education must be won, politically, by the working class.
Since their inception in the 1990s and early 2000s, philanthrocapitalist NGOs like the Gates, Broad, and Walton family foundations have used their immeasurable resources to bring about a corporate vision of education reform that places responsibility for equalizing educational opportunity on the shoulders of public schools, while forcing them to compete with each other for funding, and introducing reforms borrowed from the business world.
Meanwhile, segregation is on the rise, and ability grouping — the practice of separating kids based on ability, which ultimately results in more race and class segregation — has reemerged in classrooms after falling out of use in the 1980s and ’90s. Seventy-one percent of fourth-grade teachers reported grouping students based on ability in 2009, compared to less than a third in 1998. This resegregation is directly related to corporate education reforms — increased testing, privatization, deregulation, union-busting, budget-cutting, and top-down standards and accountability — pushed by philanthrocapitalist NGOs who increasingly have the ear of federal education officials.
Aside from the serious moral and practical problems that have arisen from the corporate reform formula, it is fundamentally flawed as policy. Corporate reform has been driving American education policy for over a decade. Yet 2015 was the first instance in twenty-five years that national standardized test scores have fallen in math, and America continues to lag far behind the OECD average on the major comparative international test, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
As socialists, we must recognize first that education alone can never make a more equal society — we need a working-class-led politics to do that. But it is worth asking what education looks like in a society in which children’s rights — and the right of all human beings to continue to learn far into adulthood — are taken seriously.
- To improve education outcomes for all people, we must decommodify public education and make it a basic universal human right. That means abolishing charter and for-profit schools, and eliminating public subsidies — including philanthropy tax loopholes — for private schools. Like K–12 institutions, public colleges and universities should be free and accessible to all.
- The dominant metaphors of education must be thrown out. The current preoccupation with learners as consumers of education, with education as a product, and with administrators as managers carving out efficiency and “results” from teachers and students — in both K–12 education and higher education — must be replaced by meaningful improvements in quality for all. The small class sizes, beautiful spaces, and collaborative, student-centered curriculum that today distinguishes private schools should be available to all learners.
Progressive education reform extends beyond devising technocratic solutions. Education is political, and the specifics of how school systems run are less important than who has a say in them. Real reform requires a broad political commitment to equalizing outcomes for everyone at all levels of society.
- No meaningful, systemic reform of education is possible until we recognize that children, parents, and teachers, who at present are allowed to play only a marginal role, if any, in actually shaping policy, are the experts. (Their growing presence on the streets suggests that they, like their counterparts in Chile, Mexico, and Quebec, are fed up with the education status quo.)
Parents and teachers are longtime advocates for small class sizes, and students like them too. So while opinion-shapers like Malcolm Gladwell may dismiss the benefits of smaller classes, research shows unequivocally that reducing America’s comparatively large class sizes would have an enormously positive effect on student learning, especially for low-income students.
- These improvements will require an increase in funding, with new money distributed in a way that addresses the reality that kids walk into school having been born into dramatically unequal financial situations which influence their present and future successes far more than their teachers or schools ever possibly can (something that nearly every other OECD country is already doing). We can pay for this by collecting money that we’re already owed.
America has one of the lowest tax rates of all the OECD countries, but the nation’s working and middle classes bear the burden disproportionately. The corporate share of federal tax revenues has dropped by two-thirds in the past sixty years. From 2008 to 2012, twenty-three American companies (GE, Boeing, Verizon, etc.) paid less than the poorest families — zero — in federal income taxes. American corporations successfully avoid paying $90 billion a year every year in taxes, and hold $2.1 trillion in profits offshore.
The fact is the United States has more than enough money to pay for every single citizen to get a high-quality, state-funded education, if education is truly our priority. And while it would be an unprecedented expansion, it’s not impossible.
The time has come for radical change. It’s clear that the systems we currently have in place to ensure social welfare and provide an equal education for all are not working — not only for specific “interest groups” like teachers’ unions or children of color or poor children — but for the entire 99 percent. They are not working because they are based on a number of assumptions that are fundamentally flawed, and because they are shaped and controlled by philanthrocapitalists and corporate management consultants.
We can’t cut welfare, destroy labor rights, and leave it to schools to pick up the pieces if we want a functioning society, let alone a fair or egalitarian one. There is no progressive reform of education possible without a social-democratic and political reckoning. Behind us lies an extensive body of peer-reviewed research on what’s needed in schools and how to bring it about, and ahead of us lies a future in which “freedom” means more than relief from government intrusion: it means creating schools that are useful (and happy) places for the people who spend their days in them. It means reimagining education from something that happens to individuals between the ages of five to eighteen, to a collective undertaking that embraces lifelong learning. It also means prioritizing it through actions, not language.
A truly progressive education — like a more egalitarian society — can never and will never be given to us by billionaires. Both must be won, politically, by the working class. When it comes to school quality and access, we have little left to lose and everything to gain.
Communities of color have the right to be free from the American police state.
The destruction of black and brown life has become normal in the age of militarized police and mass incarceration. The gruesome scenes from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Falcon Heights, Minnesota last summer gave America a shocking look at state violence perpetrated against low-income people of color.
But any response to this injustice would be lacking without addressing the broader social and economic context of this assault.
State violence against poor communities is situated within a broader arc of neoliberalism. Workers of color has been hit hard over the past few decades as the growth of precarious service work has far outpaced that of stable manufacturing jobs. This transition has been devastating for many, but especially for young black men.
Alongside painful job market shifts, beginning in the late 1970s government at all levels began dismantling the country’s already meager social safety net. A new generation of state managers, unchecked by working-class politics, saw people as nothing more than potential customers to be molded to the imperatives of the marketplace.
Those who couldn’t find a place in the new marketplace became the targets of an increasingly aggressive policing system. As Richard Fording, Joe Soss, and Sanford Schram argue: “[T]hese developments have given rise to a ‘double regulation of the poor.’ The ‘left hand’ of the welfare state and the ‘right hand’ of the carceral state now work together as integrated elements of a single system.”
Fighting the neoliberal state’s “right hand” is imperative for socialists today. Poor people of color have a pervasive relationship with the police. Even schools have come to resemble security lines at international airports, many replete with security officers and metal detectors. Zero-tolerance disciplinary policies disrupt, and sometimes even end, educations over tiny infractions, and the use of force against children is not uncommon in classrooms.
Outside of school, black and brown neighborhoods are under constant surveillance from the police. Friends gathering on a street corner are vulnerable to unwanted encounters with law enforcement — encounters that can profoundly impact the lives of poor people: arrest drains precious financial resources, and having a criminal record can put gainful employment out of reach.
Policing the poor doesn’t come cheap. The Justice Policy Institute reports that the United States spends $100 billion annually on its police, and nearly $40 billion a year on prisons. Instead of spending to lock up millions of Americans, these resources could have been directed at creating the jobs and services desperately needed to curb poverty and violence.
The time has come to dismantle the American police state. But today’s focus on piecemeal policing reforms is out of touch with the realities faced by communities of color. Popular reforms like body cameras do little more than blunt state brutality (witness the aftermath of Alton Sterling’s murder, where Baton Rouge police officers stated that the body camera “came loose” before they summarily executed a subdued Sterling). Instead, police forces across the United States must be disarmed and brought to democratic account.
Prison reform is equally important. The United States imprisons more people than any other country. And with the rise of private prisons, particularly at the state level, the brutal nature of modern incarceration has reached new heights. This brutality and disregard for human life will only change through ending mandatory sentencing protocols, ending a parole system that does little more than keep ex-felons tethered to the right hand of the state, and the eventual abolishment of prisons. The money used to maintain and build out the system of mass incarceration in the United States would then go towards funding more effective measures to prevent crime and addiction, like jobs programs for the unemployed, mental health treatment, and drug rehabilitation.
Accomplishing these goals will take a militant social movement rooted in communities of color. Thankfully, history shows that this kind of political change is possible. In 1964, against all odds, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party ended the all-white delegations being seated at the Democratic National Convention. The United Citizens Party of South Carolina (UCP) succeeded in electing the first black people to the state house of representatives in the 1970 election. And the southwest-Texas-based La Raza Unida Party won local offices across the region during the 1970s.
To repeat these successes today we need to overhaul our political system. Defanging the American police state and bringing about a radical redistribution of wealth are hard to imagine unless we first decriminalize protest, freeing those who have been imprisoned for civil demonstrations and expunging the records of those with protest-related convictions. These laws serve no purpose beyond scaring away people from political engagement.
In addition to this, limitations on the expression of political preference through alternative parties must also be lifted. This includes statutes such as signature requirements and high thresholds for securing automatic ballot access. Nationwide legalization of fusion voting — which allows multiple parties to endorse a single candidate — would deepen political engagement. Fusion is legal in South Carolina, and is one of the reasons that the black-led UCP remains active today.
But as scholars like political theorist Carole Pateman argue, it’s also essential to take back power in the workplace. The development of political power and efficacy is directly tied to workplace democracy. And in this respect, it is no surprise that feelings of political efficacy have diminished as labor union density has withered in the United States. These issues are exacerbated for workers of color, who find themselves unemployed, underpaid, and isolated from the broader economy even in boom times.
The appetite for workplace democracy — and the idea that workers and their communities should own the products of their labor — has grown in recent years. In Jackson, Mississippi, the late mayor Chokwe Lumumba tried to build a cooperative economy as a means of reviving the city’s economy. In Cleveland, economic cooperatives are thriving in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, and city officials in Rochester, New York have commissioned a research study on the feasibility of building cooperativism there as well.
Ultimately, the goal is liberation. To get there, we must continue the process of articulating revolutionary demands while building the coalitions necessary to bring about change through all manner of political participation. We must fight oppressive structures in the streets, in our homes, at the ballot box, and in our communities.
J. W. Mason
Socializing finance is about more than taking on Wall Street — it’s about a new economic vision.
At its most basic level, finance has two logically distinct functions: bookkeeping — a record of money obligations and commitments — and planning — a set of institutions for allocating claims on the social product. The fusion of these functions is as old as capitalism, and has troubled the bourgeois conscience for almost as long.
For 250 years, economists, reformers, and cranks have proposed ways to separate the bookkeeping and planning functions of the banking system and restore “objectivity” to the money system. They seek by legislative fiat to compel money to be “what it really is”: a measure of value that reflects the real value of commodities, free of the human judgments of bankers and politicians.
Socialists reject this fantasy. We know that there was no precapitalist world of production and exchange on which money and then credit were later superimposed. Networks of money claims are age-old; they are the substrate on which commodity production has grown and been organized.
There are political positions that view finance as the enemy of a more humane or authentic capitalism: managerial reformers who criticize finance as a parasite on productive enterprises, populists who hate finance as the destroyer of their own small capitals, and sincere believers in competition who see finance as collector of illegitimate rents. And on a practical level, there may be common ground between these positions and a socialist program. But we can’t accept the idea that finance is an intrusion into some more humane or authentic capitalism.
On the one hand, it is finance (as a concrete institution) that generates and enforces the money claims against social persons of all kinds — human beings, firms, nations — that extend and maintain the logic of commodity production. (Student loans reinforce the discipline of wage labor; sovereign debt upholds the international division of labor.)
Yet the financial system is also where conscious planning takes its most fully developed form under capitalism. Banks are, in Schumpeter’s phrase, the private equivalent of Gosplan, the Soviet planning agency. Their lending decisions determine what new projects will get a share of society’s resources, and suspend — or enforce — the “judgement of the market” on money-losing enterprises. Socialists oppose the power of finance because we seek to progressively reduce the extent to which human life is organized around the accumulation of money. But we embrace the element of planning already inherent in finance; we want to expand the domain of conscious choice, and reduce the domain of blind necessity.
For the American left today, this suggests a program along the following lines:
1. Decommodify money.
Shifting responsibility for the monetary plumbing of the economy to the state addresses some of the directly visible abuse and instability of the existing monetary system while pointing the way toward more profound transformations.
This could involve: a public payments system in which routine electronic payments are the responsibility of the state in the same way as the physical currency they’ve largely replaced; postal banking; and public credit ratings, both for bonds and for individual borrowers.
Decommodifying money would also mean fighting for things like public housing finance and public retirement insurance. Mortgages for owner-occupied housing already are a patina of market transactions laid over a system that is substantively public. We don’t need to support the cultivation of a hothouse petty bourgeoisie through home ownership to insist that it be done directly rather than disguised as private transactions. Similarly, provision for old age, like housing, is an area where social policy promotes what Gerald Davis calls the “capital fiction” — conceiving one’s relationship to society in terms of asset ownership. Instead, we should support the abolition of existing programs that encourage private retirement saving, and a great expansion of Social Security and similar systems.
2. Repress finance.
Historically, financial regulation has sometimes taken the form of “financial repression,” in which the types of assets held by financial institutions are substantially dictated by the state. This allows credit to be directed more effectively to socially useful investment. It also allows policymakers to hold market interest rates down, which — especially in the context of higher inflation — diminishes both the burden of debt and the power of creditors.
Regulation should also focus on functions, not institutions. The political power of finance comes from its ability to threaten routine social bookkeeping, and the security of small property owners. (“If we don’t bail out the banks, the ATMs will shut down! What about your 401(k)?”) Policy should focus on preserving socially necessary functions, not the institutions that perform them. Deposit insurance is a model here.
3. Democratize central banks.
Central banks have always been central planners. They condition the profitability and direction of productive activity through their choices about interest rates and how financial institutions are regulated and rescued. This role is often concealed behind an ideology that presents central bank behavior as somehow reproducing the “natural” behavior of markets.
Developments since the 2008 financial crisis have left this ideology in tatters. Central banks intervened directly in credit markets, in some cases replacing private lenders entirely. And the failure of conventional monetary policy to restart growth has pushed central banks reluctantly toward “credit policy,” directly channeling credit to selected borrowers. This represents a grudging admission that the anarchy of competition is unable to coordinate production.
The challenge now is to politicize central banks — to make them the object of public debate and popular pressure. In Europe, the national central banks (which retain substantial autonomy) will be a key terrain of struggle for future left governments. In the United States, we can demand Fed leadership who will seek lower unemployment and faster wage growth, and will actively direct credit to socially useful ends.
4. Defend the spaces of politics.
Really existing capitalism consists of narrow streams of market transactions flowing between vast areas of non-market coordination. A core function of finance is to impose a capitalist logic on these non-market structures. The claims of shareholders over nonfinancial businesses, and bondholders over national governments, subordinate them to the logic of accumulation.
Socialists must therefore build up defenses against these claims — not because we have any faith in productive capitalists or national bourgeoisies, but because they occupy the space in which politics is possible.
Specifically we should stand with corporations against shareholders. The corporation, as Marx long ago noted, is “the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself.” Without the threat of takeovers and the pressure of shareholder activists, the corporation can become a space where workers and other stakeholders can contest control over production and the surplus it generates. This does not imply any affection for existing corporate hierarchies. Rather, it’s a recognition of the value of the corporation as a social organism — as a space structured by relationships of trust and loyalty, and by intrinsic motivation, and as the site of consciously planned production of use values.
The Left should also stand with national economies against foreign capital. States can only be vehicles for conscious control of the economy if financial claims across borders are limited. Accordingly, we should support efforts of national governments to delink from the global economy, to escape the “discipline” of capital mobility, and to maintain or regain control over their financial systems. Such efforts are often connected to a politics of racism, nativism, and xenophobia, which we must uncompromisingly reject. Instead, we can look toward a world in which national borders pose no barrier to people and ideas, but limit the movement of goods and act as impassible barriers to private financial claims.
Policies that combat sexism are policies that empower poor and working-class women.
This year’s election marks the first time a woman has stood as a viable candidate for president in the United States. But socialist feminists aren’t celebrating too much — they know real change, as opposed to symbolic change, will come only when wealth and power is redistributed to poor and working-class women.
Socialist feminists believe that, in all stages of life, women benefit from policies that allow them to participate in society on equal footing with men, rather than depending on a formal or informal male partner for economic survival: the right to healthy food, clean air, and safe housing during childhood; quality education and an environment safe from harassment in the transitions to adolescence and adulthood; income support for their children as well as access to contraception and abortion; control of the conditions of and fruits of women’s paid and unpaid labor; universal health care; and a secure, dignified retirement.
What stands in the way of achieving these kinds of policies? Capitalism, for one thing. Our economic system relies on women’s unpaid labor in heterosexual, patriarchal nuclear families to create and nurture future workers and maximize the productivity of male workers. The majority of women also work outside the home, often employed in low-wage sectors of the economy like care work, which is itself undervalued because of its association with women.
In addition to the elite men and women who exploit women in the workplace, cultural and political elites also play a central role in oppressing women. They shape public perceptions and institutions to foster the upward distribution of wealth by championing the notion that individual success and worth depends on personal responsibility, merit, and the ability to produce profits for corporations. At the same time, women (and increasingly men) are pressured to participate in, and identify with, consumption and performance rituals designed to maximize spending on beautification.
In other words, the capitalist system is rigged to benefit a tiny elite, and that elite uses every opportunity to exploit segments of the working class in complex ways as both producers and consumers, including women. The vast majority of women face a combination of class and gender oppression, and in many cases others as well, based on race, citizenship, and sexual and gender orientation, to name a few. Women are taught to think of ourselves as individuals yet we are treated as an exploitable class.
Thus, a left analysis of sexism diverges from mainstream feminist arguments. Socialist feminists argue that while sexism is not independent of the capitalist mode of production, it influences and is influenced by that system. Furthermore, the way to eradicate sexism is not to expect each woman to “lean in” and prove herself to the powers above her, but rather to come together with other women and collectively demand a voice in the conditions that shape their lives, whether economic, political, or social. Women as a class — particularly the working-class and poor women who are the majority of our sex — are much stronger united and more able to demand concrete policy changes that challenge both the logic of capitalism and our current sex/gender system.
Left policies to combat sexism are those that empower poor and working-class women.
Medicare for all, a single-payer universal health-care system, would disproportionately benefit women because coverage would be independent from both employment and marriage, it would encourage better care for chronic illnesses, and address the cost issues that send women into debt and bankruptcy. It would help the women who tend to be the ones taking time outside the formal labor market to care for sick family members, or shouldering that burden on top of paid work. Such a system must include reproductive health services such as contraception, abortion, and prenatal care.
A new publicly funded, universal high-quality child-care system would relieve families of the cost of private care, particularly mothers who still do a disproportionate share of child-rearing and other domestic work. In addition, ensuring providers receive adequate training and a living wage would lift this work out of its current position as undervalued and underpaid, and administering it via a public program would provide transparency and prevent the isolation of domestic workers in individual homes. The same applies to workers in K–12 and higher education.
Women make up the majority of the low-wage workforce and are overrepresented in industries with low rates of unionization. Many simply cannot survive alone and lack the financial cushion that would allow them to leave domestic abusers, or even simply choose life partners based on true compatibility. A livable minimum wage pegged to inflation, starting at fifteen dollars but ideally higher, and the abolition of the gender pay gap, would go a long way towards promoting women’s independence, as would the removal of barriers to unionization.
Increased direct income support or subsidies in the form of expanded food stamp and welfare programs would immediately help millions of women and children. To overcome the political barriers the ruling class has erected through racialized appeals to segments of the working and middle classes, such programs could even be turned into a universal basic income, which could lead to not only a physically healthier society but a much broader cultural renaissance.
Absent a universal basic income, a deliberate choice to invest in education, training, and living-wage jobs in the kinds of public programs listed in this plank would begin to address a fundamental problem with the capitalist system — the shortage of decent jobs.
But the coming wave of automation is also likely to change our society in ways we cannot predict. Survival may not always depend on working for a wage. For this reason, women need to be on the ground floor of discussions about a new kind of economic system. Poor and working-class women must have a voice in deciding how we create new institutions and allocate resources to disrupt old patterns of sexist behavior.
Joseph M. Schwartz
Real democracy rests on strong political, civil, and social rights.
Democratic socialists have historically been consistent advocates of political, civil, and social rights, criticizing authoritarian governments on both the right and left. Self-proclaimed capitalist democracies frequently violate the rights of oppressed racial and national groups, LGBT people, immigrants, women, labor activists, and dissidents — particularly in periods of alleged national security crisis.
Socialists consider political and civil liberties as worthy in and of themselves. These rights were not granted to working people by capitalists aiming to buy off popular dissent, but rather by people of color, women, the working class, and poor engaged in epochal, often deadly fights against the powerful. This struggle continues today.
To secure the freedom of all — particularly women and the LGBT community — individuals must be free from sexual violence and harassment. We will not achieve full civil rights until LGBT people can publicly express their gender and sexual identity without fear and with full legal guarantees of equal access to public facilities. The Left must continue the battle to win federal legal guarantees against employment discrimination and workplace harassment and discrimination in public accommodations and commerce for LGBT individuals. The Left must also fight for equal adoption and parenting rights, as well as their right to cohabit and to share property and parenting responsibilities. These rights must be secured within the purview of civil law, free of any influence of religious belief.
Socialists are also keenly aware that the goals of the civil rights and feminist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s have not been fully achieved. Women and men will only be able to equitably balance parental and work responsibilities when our society joins the rest of the advanced democracies in guaranteeing paid parental leave and in developing a universal public child-care system.
People of color still experience unequal and inhumane treatment from our police and criminal justice system. Over 7 percent of African American adults are denied the franchise by felony exclusion laws (including 25 percent of black Floridians). We must combat all forms of voter restriction and put an end to mass incarceration by treating drug use as a public health issue, abolishing mandatory minimum sentences, and subjecting nonviolent crime to community reparative forms of justice rather than punitive imprisonment.
There are also new civil liberties fights to take on. In an age of massive corporate data-mining and an emerging state-corporate surveillance complex, socialists must fight for vigorous guarantees of freedom from surveillance by both the state and corporations. The government-corporate security state frequently uses data-mined information to issue national security letters or to get secret courts (such as the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court) to authorize surveillance of US citizens and residents, violating the basic procedural rights of the rule of law.
The government should only be able to invade an individual’s privacy if they can demonstrate before a regular court of law clear evidence that the individual may be engaged in legal wrongdoing. This principle of “individualized suspicion” not only protects individuals and targeted groups from unfair and illegal treatment, but also produces necessary restraints on law enforcement agencies engaging in wasteful, repressive, and inefficient fishing expeditions. The TSA’s “No Fly List” and the NYPD’s secret demographic unit’s multi-million-dollar surveillance of Muslims in the New York area constitute mass violations of individual civil liberties that have failed to identify a single attack or threat.
The ability of private data-mining corporations (e.g., Choicepoint, Intelius, LexisNexis and US Search Profile) to sell individuals’ cyber-usage data to governments and companies poses another grave threat to individual freedom. Federal security agencies spend approximately $56 billion a year on such data-mining, with 70 percent of those funds spent on contracts with private data-mining firms.
The United States should emulate some other countries and create overarching data privacy laws that restrict the corporate sharing of sensitive personal data with either governments or private organizations. Corporations should only be allowed to share personal data with other private entities if individual users grant advance permission. Behemoths like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft track the internet usage patterns of their customers and sell this data to private data-aggregators who then sell this information to corporations and government agencies. These private data-aggregators must, at a minimum, be heavily regulated by an independent government agency. Before the internet age, court rulings held that phone records were protected by privacy law, except in the case of extraordinary government security needs established in a regular court of law. If “wiretaps” were illegal except for extraordinary security needs, the same status should be given to government access to personal information gathered by corporations.
While the Freedom Act of 2015 allegedly eliminated the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate data-mining of individual phone records (made public by Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations), it left intact Article 215 of the original Patriot Act. This article enables federal government agencies to secretly obtain data held by libraries, businesses, and other third parties without a court-issued warrant. Both Article 215 and the 1978 National Intelligence Act’s creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) must be overturned.
In addition, the United States must stop violating international law through its secret military courts. Individuals charged with terrorist acts must be publicly tried in American courts and guaranteed full legal rights. Both the US Constitution and international law prohibit the use of lethal force outside of armed conflict zones, unless it is used as a last resort against a concrete, specific, and imminent threat of great harm and every effort is made to prevent harming civilian bystanders. The executive must report such activities to Congress, and elected representatives must be allowed to restrain or prohibit such activities.
Making these demands a reality will only happen if a vigilant movement from below compels the state to take action to preserve political, civil, and social rights. As longtime defenders of these rights, socialists must be front and center in the struggle.
Building a more peaceful world means taking on American militarism.
The chaos and instability created by the US war machine over the last fifteen years, particularly in the Middle East, has reached catastrophic levels. Author and journalist Patrick Cockburn calls the present moment “the age of disintegration.”
In Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, millions of people are on the brink of famine thanks to a US-supported bombing campaign led by the richest and most tyrannical country in the region, Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Israel’s colonial project in Palestine grinds on with the unconditional support of the American taxpayer. Obama recently handed Israel $38 billion in military aid, dooming Palestinians to another decade of suffocating repression, ethnic cleansing, and periodic slaughter.
Fifteen years after 9/11, the United States is still bombing Afghanistan in a war that’s been largely forgotten despite Afghanistan producing the second largest number of refugees in the world. The United States is bombing Iraq again as well. This time the enemy is ISIS, the murderous death cult that rose from the ashes of the 2003 US invasion and occupation, which killed at least a million Iraqis and unleashed sectarian civil wars that have plunged the region into madness.
In 2011, our leaders insisted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was about to massacre thousands of civilians and only Western intervention could stop him. But a recently released study by the UK Parliament determined that the looming massacre was a myth based on faulty intelligence and that the real motivation behind the intervention was securing Western economic and political interests in the region. Even by these standards, it was an utter failure. Thousands were killed and since then the country has devolved into a lawless haven for extremist groups, including ISIS.
ISIS has also made its way into Syria, where US forces are bombing the group while simultaneously arming and funding an Islamist-dominated insurgency against Russian-backed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Back in Washington, the armchair war hawks are pushing for a confrontation with Russia, just one of the proxy wars that has engulfed Syria since the uprising in 2011.
The broad pattern is clear. Our military adventures since 9/11 have been nothing short of disastrous. Millions of lives have been shattered and an endless stream of refugees is now trapped between borders and drowning at sea.
Throughout its history the United States has continually engaged in both overt and covert warmaking. But unlike the wars of the past, Washington’s incoherent “war on terror” appears endless. So far, the US government has spent a staggering $5 trillion on this war while maintaining some eight hundred military bases that touch every corner of the globe.
Wars are still waged to secure the interests of ruling elites and make the world safe for capitalism. But elite interests are no longer limited to looting resources, crushing democracy, and pacifying resistance. These days more war is an objective, with defense industry giants prospering from both ends of the crisis. There are more refugees today fleeing war and persecution than at any time since World War II. In the process, war profiteers — like BAE Systems, Thales, and Lockheed Martin — have become refugee profiteers as well, lobbying for contracts to militarize western borders, warehouse migrants, and build complex surveillance systems that keep those fleeing their bombs from reaching safety.
But these militarized borders haven’t prevented instability from migrating to the United States — instability follows insecurity and want. In the richest country in the world, over fifteen million children go to bed hungry every night and millions more struggle to get enough to eat, entire communities are poisoned by dirty drinking water, student debt is stunting a generation, the middle class is shrinking, and police look like occupying armies to the millions of poor and working people. And this decaying neoliberal order is fueling a resurgent far right that feeds off of anti-Muslim and anti-refugee hysteria.
On a brighter note, there’s also a resurgent left, which swelled during the campaign of Bernie Sanders, whose demands for economic justice resonated with millions of people. Unfortunately, with a few minor exceptions, Sanders’s foreign policy vision was vague on details and failed to challenge America’s ongoing costly wars that, like Wall Street banks, benefit the billionaire class to the detriment of everyone else. That has to change.
America’s disastrous foreign adventures help drive right-wing extremism domestically and abroad while enriching those at the top. Consider Islamophobia. Islamophobia is about more than just reactionary hate and bigotry; it’s also a tool for legitimizing a US presence in the Middle East. That’s why weapons companies like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon are among its key funders. Meaningful opposition to Islamophobia demands principled rejection of the bipartisan US war machine that profits from it.
It’s crucial that the socialist left offer not only a critical intervention against American militarism, but also a broader vision — for a better country and a better world. First and foremost, the Left needs to take a clear stand against US military interventions. They do not serve humanitarian purposes. The country that is starving Yemen cannot possibly save Syria. It’s also important to acknowledge that while extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda do pose serious threats in the lawless areas they control, fifteen years of war have demonstrated that religious fundamentalism cannot be defeated militarily. Bombing these groups has created nothing but chaos, desperation, and poverty — the conditions in which fundamentalism thrives.
As socialists, our goal should be to reduce and eventually end the presence of US military forces abroad, quit arming and enabling tyrants, end the endless wars, prioritize diplomacy, and turn our bloated defense budget toward meeting people’s basic needs at home and abroad. The stability of the world depends on it.
The future of our planet depends on us wresting power from fossil-fuel capitalists.
There is no future in which the fossil-fuel industry and human civilization as we know it can coexist. Scientists estimate that we have just a one-in-three shot at keeping catastrophic floods, devastating heat waves, and prolonged drought from becoming a new and terrifying normal, and that’s only if we keep at least 80 percent of existing fossil-fuel reserves in the ground. Nations like the United States need to scale back their carbon emissions by a full 10 percent each and every year, and transition entirely off of carbon-based fuel sources by no later than 2035. This radical transformation is entirely possible, but it won’t happen until we wrest power away from fossil-fuel capitalists and allow ourselves to imagine what’s possible in a world without them.
This won’t be an easy task. Those already suffering the impacts of climate change are almost always the people who’ve contributed the least to it. And the people and institutions with the power to mitigate rising tides seem to be doing the least to keep them at bay. From the doomed battle for cap-and-trade in 2009 to the lackluster Paris Agreement last year, climate policy has been hobbled by policy-makers’ zeal to compromise with fossil-fuel executives and the politicians whose campaigns they fuel.
In the United States both major political parties have been guilty of their own kind of denialism: Republicans, in denying the existence of a problem, and Democrats, in believing that it can only be solved by placating the people and institutions that created it. Limiting, too, has been the lack of a transformative vision for what our low-carbon world might look like.
Our challenge now is twofold: transition entirely off of fossil fuels in the next twenty years, and build an economy that can prosper without them.
At the top of the agenda should be creating and aggressively enforcing a carbon budget in line with science and the needs of the country’s most vulnerable communities, putting a stringent limit on emissions rather than just a price.
Neoliberal explanations for the climate crisis point the finger at our collective failure to bike and recycle more. But this is a stark misreading of reality. The lion’s share of our consumption problems come from the top, where the yachts and private jets reign. Just ninety companies are responsible for an astounding two-thirds of climate change. While corporations might be the greatest threat to humanity’s survival, the rich are right behind them. The top 1 percent of emitters in the United States — just 3.4 million people — have a carbon footprint over 2,500 times greater than the bottom 1 percent worldwide. If the top 10 percent of the planet’s polluters lived like the average European, global emissions would decline by a full third. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson puts it, “The poor will not become wealthy enough within science’s timeline for their emissions to matter.” In other words, a stringent and progressive carbon budget will curb trips to Mar-a-Lago — not PTA meetings.
In terms of production, the solution is even more obvious — and more pressing than curbing lifestyle choices: put the fossil-fuel industry on a strict carbon budget of its own, cut off its $20.5 billion in state subsidies, and run it clean out of business. Conveniently on this front, taking power also means taking over the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the myriad other agencies which — wielded effectively — can stop new fossil-fuel infrastructure projects, shutter existing ones, and leverage prohibitive fines and legal sanctions on the industry. Even at the state and local level, city councils and state-level departments of environmental protection often have the power to stop pipelines and fuel export facilities in their tracks.
Better still is bringing these companies under public ownership, managing their liquidation, and using the assets to retrain employees for jobs that actually need doing. Today’s fossil-fuel workers could build and install solar panels and wind turbines, retrofit the country’s perilously outmoded grid system, and erect public housing that’s comfortable, energy efficient, and able to withstand the kinds of climate impacts that are already inevitable. Of course, energy workers won’t be the only ones jilted by the kind of deep economic transformation this transition will require. Consequently, a just transition should also include wider-reaching economic protections, like a universal basic income and comprehensive program for full employment.
All this begs the question: How do we keep the lights on? Today, the majority of Americans get their energy from investor-owned utilities. The poorer and browner you are, the bigger percentage of your income your electricity bill eats up. A minority of power distribution is handled by cooperatives and state-run utilities, many of which have fallen prey to the same kinds of corruption and bureaucratic tendencies that plague investor-run firms.
Renewables are even tougher to come by. Getting residential solar typically requires either a hefty down payment up front, or a high credit score in order to qualify for a loan. Rooftop installation presents an obvious barrier for renters, whose landlords have little incentive to either source power sustainably or install solar panels on the roofs of multi-unit buildings. Wind turbines are scarce in the United States, and hydro and nuclear power are each saddled with serious social and environmental costs.
Making power a public right — clean, affordable, and universal — offers a way forward. Here the New Deal is instructive: when some 90 percent of American homes lacked electricity in the years after the Great Depression, the government invested capital up front for communities to kick-start their own sourcing and distribution networks. Explicitly set up to fill gaps left by the private market, the Rural Electrification Administration built over four hundred rural electric cooperatives (RECs), owned and operated by ratepayers. Today, there are nine hundred, serving some forty-two million people in some of the country’s poorest and most conservative parts. Unfortunately, over the years many have been commandeered by old-boys’ networks, though campaigns to reclaim RECs are now being waged around the country.
Once erected, these utilities became self-funded and operated by member-owners. It’s a model strikingly similar to a much more recent example: Germany’s Energiewende, which has made it possible for Germans, in ideal weather, to harvest 100 percent of their power from clean and largely community-owned sources. (Worth noting here as well is the fact that these energy cooperatives have in many places managed to outcompete the country’s own monopoly power providers.)
Each of the programs above resulted from years of militant agitation from below, which is at least as instructive as their structure for understanding how to implement similar efforts in our own context — and to improve upon them.
Decarbonizing America’s economy will require a slew of other changes, including agricultural reforms, scaled up R&D, and more compassionate immigration policies. Outside pressure — even on our own advocates in the halls of power — will be necessary to ensure these shifts take place on a democratic footing, and receive the levels of state investment needed for them to succeed.
Fossil fuels are hardwired into our economy. But even more deeply ingrained in Americans is an abiding spirit of resistance — from slave uprisings to the labor militancy of the 1930s to Occupy and the movement for black lives. Today’s climate movement has already put a target squarely on the fossil-fuel industry’s back. Climate change is a chance for the Left to take a shot at building a better economy and a brighter future for all of us.
Universal health care is essential to an egalitarian society.
A universal health-care program — with care available to all on the basis of needs not means — is a foundational element of an egalitarian society. As medical knowledge grows and new, salubrious treatments and technologies emerge, the task of realizing the social right to health care will become only more pressing.
Developments in recent decades, however, have often been in the opposite direction. Pharmaceutical giants corrupt and control the research agenda while pricing drugs beyond the means of many; the corporate insurance industry reaps profits by denying care and constraining choice; for-profit providers — from hospitals to hospices — transform the art of healing into yet another business venture.
The 2010 Affordable Care Act partially ameliorated some of the inadequacies of the US health-care system (in particular, slashing the rate of uninsurance). Yet the framework leaves most of the gravest inequities of commodified health care intact: nearly thirty million Americans remain uninsured, racial and class-based health-care inequalities persist, and the corporate transformation of care continues unabated.
And there should be little doubt that it is the working class that bears the brunt of these trends: as insurance premium growth outpaces wage growth, and as the cost of care at the time of use rises (for things like copayments and deductibles), working people are doubly squeezed.
Meanwhile, new research suggests that levels of health inequality are rising, with a progressive divergence between the life expectancies of the rich and the poor. And another recent study shows how a rising proportion of health-care spending is going towards the care of the better off — at the expense of ordinary folks.
Yet there is hope on the health-care horizon. Across the country, campaigns are being waged to move us beyond the status quo. Activists have fought for state-level single-payer or universal health-care reforms; against pernicious racial health inequalities; to force recalcitrant, reactionary state governments towards the expansion of Medicaid; and to roll back the conservative assault on reproductive health-care access.
On the national level, meanwhile, the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign helped to propel the movement for a federal single-payer health-care reform into the limelight.
The systemic causes of health-care injustice should be simultaneously advanced from multiple angles. But articulating an overarching long-term platform for a national health-care program is imperative for the Left. What might such a program look like, in broad strokes? A multitude of activist health-care voices have called and struggled for radical single-payer programs that would provide quality health care for all. Physicians for a National Health Program is one group that has made great strides in articulating a national health-care program, and the model that follows draws from our recent revised proposal.
First, a truly democratic health-care program must be based on single-payer universalism: the inclusion of every person in the nation in a public program that provides comprehensive benefits — including ambulatory and inpatient care, mental health care, long-term care, reproductive health care, dental care, and home care — is the ineliminable core of a national health-care program.
A second foundation is the end of financial barriers to care. Fees at point of health-care use — for physicians’ visits, hospitalizations, or medications — deter those who need care from obtaining it. Such payments are also economically regressive. Patients should not be forced to enter the cash nexus to receive care — health care must be free at point of use.
A third element is a socialized system of health-care financing and payment. When all funds flow through a single payer — that is to say, the government — we eliminate the vast inefficiencies of the bloated private health insurance industry, allowing us to pay for this expansion of health care without diverting resources from other important social projects. Additionally, financing a health system through progressive taxation directly functions to reduce economic inequality.
A socialized health-care financing system would have other advantages as well. For instance, a national health-care program could directly plan and fund the construction of new health-care infrastructure where it is most needed, not where it is most profitable. This will go a long way towards rolling back the famous “inverse care law” articulated by Julian Tudor Hart, which posits that care is least available where it is most needed (and vice versa).
Fourth, it is imperative that we contend with the changing health-care landscape in America: increasing consolidation is leading us towards ever larger, sometimes near-monopolistic health systems. There are indeed some benefits to large integrated systems, but — as the recent Physicians’ Proposal for a Single-Payer Health Care Reform asserts — such systems should be brought under direct public control.
Finally, a progressive health-care platform should go beyond traditional single-payer reform, and envision fundamental changes in the manner that we develop new medical treatments. Big Pharma’s domination of drug development skews the research agenda towards profitability, not medical need. While a single-payer system could better control the price of drugs by direct bargaining with pharmaceutical companies, more transformational change is required. A fully public drug development track would allow for the creation of new, innovative drugs geared to medical benefit rather than profit: these new therapeutics would be public goods, not subject to patent protection, and so could be manufactured at the cost of production throughout the globe — for the benefit of all humankind.
Such a transformation will not be easy. Yet its realization would constitute enormous progress towards a fundamentally more decent society — one that is healthier, happier, and, indeed, more free.