Thomas More’s Utopia was published in 1516, but its ideals are still relevant today, especially as Americans begin to consider candidates for the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

Both criticisms and endorsements of “democratic socialism” have surfaced since Bernie Sanders, one of the 2020 democratic presidential candidates, discussed it at length and advocated for its implementation. [1]

And while more visible leaders of the Democratic party begin to advocate bolder policies to eradicate social and economic inequality (a goal of socialism), leaders of the Republican party continue to refute such policies as dangerous to the traditional American way of life and to the success of capitalism. None of this is surprising.

Also not a surprise: according to a recent Pew Research survey, Republicans had more negative views of socialism while Democrats had more favorable views of socialism. [2]

According to the Pew Research survey:

For many Americans, ‘socialism’ is a word that evokes a weakened work ethic, stifled innovation and excessive reliance on the government. For others, it represents a fairer, more generous society.55% of Americans had a negative impression of ‘socialism,’ while 42% expressed a positive view.”

Having nearly half of Americans express a positive view of socialism is quite surprising, however, considering that Americans have viewed socialism as being equivalent to communism since the Cold War era.

To critics, mostly from the Cold War era, socialism means too much governmental control which can lead to authoritarian control or dictatorships. Or it is simply viewed as unrealistic and unattainable.

According to one Gallup survey, socialism is increasing in popularity among Americans younger than 40 while their more positive views of capitalism are becoming slightly weaker over time, to the absolute horror of their elders and die hard capitalists, no doubt. [3]

Yet socialism is not communism, although the terms have often been used interchangeably since the Cold War. Socialism and communism are called by different names because they are essentially different things. While communism sprouts from socialist ideologies, all forms of socialism aren’t forms of communism. And this is a vital distinction to make as we explore and discuss political agendas and policies this year, especially those agendas that are being referred to as democratic socialist agendas.

Socialism alone does not tout more authoritarian governmental controls over work, economic production, and the everyday life of citizens. But the same is not the case for communism (at least as it has actually manifested in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which is arguably much different from what Karl Marx had envisioned in The Communist Manifesto). [4]

Socialism is still viewed by critics as abhorrent, however, even when its proper definition is being used. This is because social welfare and equality-oriented programs are still managed by a central government in a socialist society, albeit a democratically elected government and not an authoritarian government that exerts its will regardless of public popularity. And to be fair, with a majority of Americans believing the federal government is corrupt and that they can’t trust the federal government or one another as much as they used to before, critiques of socialism aren’t invalid in today’s world, even long after the Cold War. [5,6]

After all, who is to say that a democratically elected government enforcing socialist agendas can’t turn communist and authoritarian with such rampant corruption and mistrust? In fact, isn’t that what has happened throughout history, when new regimes promote socialist agendas during revolutions and protests, only to become authoritarian and communist once they seize power?

Since the Cold War era, many critics of socialism have equated it to communism. And they claim that communist regimes infringe on personal freedoms and fortitude and leave citizens poorer and more destitute. There is some evidence to back this up. [7] The math does not seem to add up in this overall equation, however, and is exceedingly misleading and prompts pointless and endless debates. Because, again, socialism does not equal communism.

While we consider democratic socialism this election season and the concepts of socialism and its values and implications, in particular, it’s important to ask whether a truly socialist form of government has ever existed at all, in addition to whether or not it’s possible or desirable.

Norway and Sweden have socialist-leaning agendas, for example, but they are not truly socialist governments with socialist societies. And while China and Venezuela are often said to be socialist, they are not at their cores purely socialist or were never able to attain a purely socialist government, each for different reasons. [8,9]

Is pure socialism still imaginary in our current world? It seems so. Yet its ideal objectives still carry a lot of weight and influence, now more than ever before. [4]

And whether or not one fully understands what democratic socialism is or whether it’s desirable, the newly prompted consideration of democratic socialism alone does beg the question of whether it (socialism) is simply a utopic vision that is unattainable or not. To be clear, questioning this is responsible, not an automatic refutation of more socialist-leaning agendas and ideals.

Because, if we’re being honest, it does seem that pure socialism has never truly manifested in the real world as of yet. At least, not in industrialized countries and societies that are typically studied.

What’s more, if democratic socialism is unattainable, is die-hard capitalism that yields an ever-growing wealth and inequality gap truly our only other option? Really? [10]

Should we be seeking a combination of socialism and capitalism in our societies? Or is it time that we finally start seeking a third economic alternative? And if so, would this be the same as trying to discover Utopia?

The truth is, more and more of the world is uncovering and protesting capitalism’s ugly side of outrageous greed and egregious inequality. So, whether it is socialism or not, it is time that other forms of economic society be at least considered, even if they’re never implemented.

Thomas More’s idealized society in Utopia could be seen as an example of seemingly unattainable socialism.

In Utopia, officials are democratically elected, everyone shares responsibilities of hard labor, everyone is educated, no one owns private property or exorbitant wealth, and no one values or covets gold enough to kill others for it. In fact, citizens of Utopia find it idiotic to regard gold or material wealth as important at all. And in Utopia, “They never force people to work unnecessarily, for the main purpose of their whole economy is to give each person as much time free from physical drudgery as the needs of the community will allow, so that he can cultivate his mind– which they regard as the secret of a happy life.”[11]

This may sound great to many people who don’t own the fruits of their labor in the twenty-first century, those who make up the 99% of the population, and especially those who are reading this post as they stare at the arbitrary work clock waiting for it to finally strike five.

However, like pure socialism in the twenty-first century seems to be, Utopia is still imaginary and not entirely appealing.

In More’s Utopia, there are no taverns or alcohol, citizens require passports and strict permission to travel outside of their districts, there is no privacy, everyone must wear the same type of clothing, citizens can be executed for committing adultery, there isn’t truly an option to live a nonreligious life mandated by the state, and slavery exists. All of this sounds incredibly unappealing and more like state-mandated religious communism than pure socialism.

Yet when we think of a utopic society as a trope, using More’s Utopia as an example, are we thinking of a pure socialist society or a communist society? Or are we just recognizing our ability to dream about an intricate society we deem ideal, even if it won’t please everyone or always be identical to another person’s utopic vision?

It also seems that even in imaginary realms like More’s, pure instances of socialism don’t currently exist. But is this because the ideals of socialism themselves are inept? Or is it because we don’t know how to let such ideals materialize within the makeup of real or imagined societies based on real societies and governments that currently exist?

Can pure socialism exist in today’s world of republican and communist governments? And is this what self-proclaimed democratic socialists should be after?

It is no mistake that the word “utopia” means “not place” or “nowhere.” So, at times it seems an incredibly cruel satire. And such a cruel satire makes us wonder why we should dream up a place that doesn’t exist or doesn’t seem able to exist. But don’t queue the sad little violins or throw things in frustration quite yet.

The possibilities of our civic and economic future revolve around this ability to dream up our own type of Utopia, and our ability to imagine what we want our society and government to look like. The importance of Utopia isn’t that it exists in the real world or that it is supposed to exist in the real world as an instance of socialism or communism. The importance of Utopia, and even of democratic socialism, is held in the ideals that it can help us realize in the real world.

Should we avoid socialist agendas and ideals at all costs, because of their supposedly yet unverified impossibility to materialize in a form of a government or civic society? Not necessarily. Is the future of our country, with its younger population being drawn toward socialist ideals, itself doomed and destined to topple capitalism? Not necessarily.

Socialist ideals matter to a lot of folks now, even if they don’t want to necessarily create a democratic socialist government. And addressing this is unavoidable, as socialism is already becoming more and more popular and desirable among Americans.

The ideals that place workers and citizens at the center will have to be sincerely considered and weighed in 2020. Especially if we’re to still be considered a democratic republic that values its citizens, their voices and votes.

The simple fact that we can consider democratic socialism in earnest in 2020, or refute it in earnest in 2020, makes the possibility of dreaming up a sort of utopia with socialist ideals at its core more tangible than it ever has been before. And this doesn’t need to terrify even die-hard capitalists who want to be a part of the conversation.

Ultimately socialist ideals will need to be considered in 2020, especially those of democratic socialism. But considering such ideals doesn’t need to be feared by anyone from any political affiliation or economic background. Why? Because considering or even adopting some socialist ideals won’t necessarily lead to a communist or socialist government, especially since the latter (socialism) does not seem to exist in the real world and currently remains imaginary– which is also where and how it remains potent and, ironically, more tangible.

SOURCES

  1. Vox. “Read: Bernie Sanders defines his vision for democratic socialism in the United States” . By Tara Golshan . Jun 12, 2019. URL: https://www.vox.com/2019/6/12/18663217/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism-speech-transcript
  2. Pew Research Center. “In Their Own Words: Behind Americans’ Views of ‘Socialism’ and ‘Capitalism’”. Oct. 7, 2019. URL: https://www.people-press.org/2019/10/07/in-their-own-words-behind-americans-views-of-socialism-and-capitalism/
  3. Gallup. “Socialism as Popular as Capitalism Among Young Adults in U.S.” . By Lydia Saad. Nov. 25, 2019. URL: https://news.gallup.com/poll/268766/socialism-popular-capitalism-among-young-adults.aspx
  4. For more insight, read: A high school teacher helps clarify ‘socialism’ for Donald Trump (and you!) and How Are Socialism and Communism Different? and What Is the Difference Between Communism and Socialism?
  5. RealClear Politics. “Voters Rate Political Corruption as America’s Biggest Crisis” .By Scott Rasmussen. April 25, 2019. URL: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2019/04/25/voters_rate_political_corruption_as_americas_biggest_crisis_140156.html
  6. Pew Research Center. “Key findings about Americans’ declining trust in government and each other”. By Lee Rainie and Andrew Perrin . July 22, 2019. URL: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/22/key-findings-about-americans-declining-trust-in-government-and-each-other/
  7. New York Post. “Science proves communism makes nations poorer and less healthy”. By Alain Tolhurst, The Sun. April 11, 2018. URL: https://nypost.com/2018/04/11/science-proves-communism-makes-nations-poorer-and-less-healthy/
  8. Forbes. “Sorry Bernie Bros But Nordic Countries Are Not Socialist”. By Jeffrey Dorfman. July 8, 2018 . URL:https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffreydorfman/2018/07/08/sorry-bernie-bros-but-nordic-countries-are-not-socialist/#2d05302974ad
  9. The Wall Street Journal. “Venezuela’s Collapse Exposes the Fake Socialism Debated in U.S.”. By Greg Ip. Feb. 6, 2019. URL: https://www.wsj.com/articles/venezuelas-collapse-exposes-the-fake-socialism-debated-in-u-s-11549465200
  10. For more information on the growing wealth and inequality, read A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality
  11. More, Thomas. Utopia ISBN: 0140441654