One of the most surprising things about the Democratic Socialists of America is that there are democratic socialists in America. That was perhaps under the radar until Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started making headlines. On a recent episode of The Gist, Mike Pesca spoke with Maria Svart, the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mike Pesca: Let’s go to 2011 and 2012. Paint a picture of what a DSA national meeting looks like, how many people show up, what’s the demo, who’s involved.
Maria Svart: So let’s just say that in 2015, when we had our national convention and we had 125 people, we were thrilled. DSA meetings were much smaller than they are now. The New York City DSA now has over 4,000 members, and they have hundreds of people coming to general membership meetings. In 2011, we might get 20 people to come to a meeting. … It was mostly baby boomers.
Do you find that you’re converting mostly Democrats?
Probably a handful of Republicans, and certainly many Democrats are enraged about the Democratic Party and its leadership—the Wall Street Democrats—and their frankly complete inability to stand up to Trump and unwillingness to do what it will take to win. But frankly, we’re reaching out to people who aren’t Democrats or Republicans.
When we organize, and we go out there to canvas for our candidates, when we talk about tenants’ rights and landlords, we’re actually deliberately trying to reach poor and working people, and many of them have stepped out of the political system because they don’t feel that the Democrats are actually helping them. So it’s not so much trying to go after the elusive middle or bring over the Republicans so much as [reaching] the about 46 percent of people who didn’t vote in the last presidential election and are frustrated.
Where does DSA differ with the Greens?
DSA has one foot in the Democratic Party and one foot outside of the Democratic Party. We don’t see ballot lines as a question of political purity; we see them as a question of strategy and tactics, and we know that the political system is rigged against anybody other than the Democrats and the Republicans. So rather than spinning our wheels, we’re sort of experimenting.
We have candidates running on the Green Party line and people are running as Democrats, and they’re all members of DSA. We are organizing people, and we are giving people the tools to analyze their local community and decide what’s strategic, about which ballot line to run on, and how to build an organized base of politically aware people to just be smart about it rather than dogmatic.
I would say the primary difference between us and the Greens is that … they’re a political party, and we are not a political party, and we’re trying to build power both in the political system across different parties and also outside the political system. So we have our Abolish ICE campaign. We have tenants organizing. We have the Medicare-for-all campaign. We have all this other work that we’re doing, which will last well beyond the election cycle.
Define what democratic socialism is.
We believe that people should have the ability to live a dignified life and that it’s possible in the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Democratic socialism is the idea that we make the economy run, and so we should control it. We should own and control our workplaces. We should actually have real democratic control over public investment decisions. Other aspects of our society should be run democratically. …
The employees should own workplaces. Why shouldn’t we have a voice in how we manage things? So if we had a union, we might say, “You pay us about 10 percent of what we produce. We want 20 percent.” With socialism, we would say, “Actually, we should run the bike shop. We should own the bike shop. We do the work. We know how it works. We should be actually invested in it and control it.”
When I talk about public investment, there are certain things that shouldn’t be left to the market and do need to be democratically controlled.
If you own the bake shop, if I own the bike shop—Mike’s Bikes, Maria’s Muffins—we are individuals, and we say we have this great idea, and we start it, and it goes pretty well, and we’re the only employees. Then we hire someone else, and the profits rise, and we’re good to our employees. At what point are we allowed to stop? Or are we mandated that we stop owning our business?
People often don’t know how to take democratic socialism, because we don’t actually believe we have a full blueprint. We believe that we need to make the road by walking, so we could talk about: What does it look like today? What would we like to have it tomorrow or in five years? The long-term vision is that we actually have true democratic control, but we can’t exactly articulate what that looks like, because people have to decide.
There are many economists who have thought about this. There are plenty of people who have written whole books on it who are members of DSA, but it all comes back down to this principle that we should control our labor, and we should control the fruits of our labor, because people do the work. People should own their workplaces. …
The thing about DSA is we’re what is called a big-tent organization. So we have some people who would be satisfied with Scandinavian social democracy.
Are those the moderates within your organization?
Yes. That’s the idea that nobody should be starving in the streets, but we could have a mixed economy, and that’s a way to tame capitalism.
A lot of other folks in DSA would say that if you look at the social-democratic countries of the world, and other countries that have experimented, the market continually undermines public provision and social-democratic reforms. That’s because the nature of the capitalist system is that the drive for profit is not about individual people being greedy; it’s about the fact that if you are a good employer and you are competing against an employer who is not, who doesn’t really care about his workers, you inherently must start exploiting your workers to squeeze as much out of them so that you can reinvest, because you’re competing against somebody who doesn’t have scruples. It’s the nature of the system, that there needs to be constant profit that can be then reinvested and used to push into new markets.
There are a couple critiques of the democratic-socialist idea, and one from Democrats is, “How’s that different from just what Democrats should be?” What’s your answer to that?
I think a lot of people in the Democratic Party actually have a much broader political vision than they’ve been forced into by this system, which the two parties have set up so that they can control the debate. What the capitalist class does is try to control what the discussion is, what political possibility is.
I think that there are plenty of people who have this alternative vision. In schools and in the mainstream media and everywhere, it’s not even that we’re told that there’s no alternative—it’s like this is the air that we breathe, and we are trained to believe that this is how things have to be. We have to constantly be in competition with one another. Everything is about competition and individualism, and there is no sense of collective, there’s no sense of community, there’s no sense of shared destiny, and that’s just the way the world is, and that’s human nature.
When you talk about what the so-called American dream is, we can talk about how it’s based on colonization and slavery, and it was never really intended to work for most people, but the reality is, the American dream is we all can live a dignified life. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has this really great quote: “I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.”
It seemed like a good phrase, and it got a big round of applause. Who would object to that? I bet you that if you woke up Paul Ryan in the middle of the night, he’d actually sign on to that.
I don’t think he would. The Republicans are becoming more and more clear that they actually don’t believe that people have the right to eat.
He really thinks that people should not be so poor to live, and his solutions for that are market solutions. He also would argue that he doesn’t think that people are too poor to live in America right now. You probably disagree with that. But it’s so full of ambiguous phrases that I think your definition of what democratic socialism is puts a little more meat on the bones than hers does.
If Ocasio-Cortez is articulating that version, which is a more moderate version of what you stand for, how good is that for you guys?
It’s incredibly important. It’s like Bernie Sanders running for president and getting millions of votes.
They are the most moderate versions of what you are. They’re not actually the exemplars of your philosophy. Is that a problem?
They’re the most moderate version of what we as an organization think of as democratic socialism, but compared to the American political system, they are super far-left. One of the roles of democratic socialists is to pull the political debate back to where it needs to be, because the Republicans—and they’ve been aided and abetted by the Democrats over the years—have pulled and pulled and pulled the debate to the far right, to the point where even basic social-democratic ideas were beyond the pale.
Ocasio-Cortez confronting, much like how Bernie Sanders confronted, this neoliberal capitalist consensus that the market was a solution to all problems is incredibly important. It shows that another world is possible. She speaks with a visionary language that resonates with millions of people in the same way that Bernie Sanders did. That is, in a country where we are, as I said, fed along with mother’s milk, this idea that endless competition with each other is the only way that we can live, endless isolation from each other, and loneliness. There is no alternative. That is incredibly important.
There are probably people listening to this show who are big fans of Bernie or Ocasio-Cortez. One of the things they say is that that’s what the Democratic Party should be. These people probably get quite offended when they’re painted with charges like, “Oh, Bernie wants to nationalize the means of production. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t believe in private ownership.” However, you’re telling me that DSA means a whole lot of stuff way to the left, if you will, of that.
What’s the problem with that?
That people who are backers of those two candidates either aren’t on board or it would give them pause to know there is legitimacy in the criticism of those two candidates as being adherent of a philosophy that is way to the left of where their fans are or where even those two politicians are.
We really believe in people, and we actually believe that many people in this country are much more dissatisfied with the status quo than you might think from the way the mainstream media, even liberals and progressives, talk about it. We are not concerned, because they actually believe that most people know that something is terribly wrong. They know that we’re going off the climate cliff. They know that there are a few winners and a whole lot of losers in our economy.
If they are introduced to a set of political ideas that help crystallize why this is happening, then that’s fine, and that’s actually a good thing, and that is the role of a socialist organization—to introduce ideas that have been squeezed out of the mainstream debate.
When I was a college student, I became a member of DSA because I was a feminist activist. I’m biracial. I’m a woman. My family struggled with money growing up, so I knew the world was not there. I did not have an understanding of why it was that way until I met socialists. We want more people to understand who is running our economy, more people to understand what the answer is, and that’s a mass movement of people standing up together across our differences. All of these ways that we are divided against one another is a deliberate strategy. We need people to have a political consciousness. People are smart, and they’re going to understand what’s happening.