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Published 3 November 2015
Socialism goes mainstream, but what is socialism and why care?

With Bernie Sanders calling himself a socialist, not to mention calling for a "revolution," and Bill Gates saying socialism may be the only salvation against climate change, something is certainly happening - but what?

Socialism is a confused label. First it meant an economic system with no private owners of means of production. It was an end point. This socialism had to have state or collective ownership of workplaces. No Gates, no Walton, no moneybags.

Next, some adherents changed their tune so socialism meant tumultuous events of modest duration wherein productive property was taken from its former owners - a process.

Then for others, socialism morphed further to mean a much longer and not tumultuous process during which capitalism would be increasingly restrained, regulated, and even abated, leaving more state and collective production than capitalist production.

Alongside, in the mainstream, socialism meant government expansion and finally government domination, a gulag. This definition sought to make socialism a nonstarter.

At the fringes, there have also been various strains of anti-authoritarian socialism, sometimes anarchism, sometimes a councilist approach.

Now comes a twist that seeks to eliminate all the other meanings as well as confusion and rejection. Sanders' Socialism seems to mean only restricting the most egregious capitalist excesses by pursuing enlarged government protections against market madness, but with no greater goal.

Why not just join up? Times change. Words should change too. Eliminating the gulag connotations and associated scare tactics, will, if it happens, certainly be a good thing. But why are even some plutocrats getting soft on socialism?

Perhaps plutocrats are awakening to the realization that capitalism without major restraints will destroy the planet. This is Bill Gates. It is also Hillary Clinton when she says we need to save capitalism from itself. Is it Tsipris, Sanders, Corbyn, some leaders in the South? I hope not. I hope they are better.

For Gates and Clinton who want to salvage their domination but without annihilating all life, there is need to reverse the market madness trends of recent decades. Some plutocrats even realize that that means "socialism," at least in the social democratic variant. So, a shift is occurring.

However, If those who want a new world that eliminates all systemic injustice get on board in claiming that a new world means just government mitigation of capitalism's self threatening faults, then no one will be seeking a truly new world.

Would a shift in policies to avoid flooding New York and Miami or impoverishing all but a few to starvation be good? Yes, of course. Less climate calamity is better than more. Less poverty is better than more.

Would such gains be permanent? No. If we leave the underlying structures of the current economy in place they will relentlessly regenerate pressures for the worst excesses.

With only government alleviation of some economic horrors not only wouldn't the deeper and more ubiquitous economic horrors of today not be overcome, but the pressures generating ecological nightmares and continually escalated inequality and other runaway "excesses" on top of untouched horrific business as usual will persist and, in time, when they reverse temporary policies called “socialist,” become preponderant again

Does this mean "socialist" short run policy choices should be opposed? No, it means they will be unstable and far from sufficient. The ultimate merit of admirable short run policies depends on whether they lead to more permanent gains later.

And now comes a strange bedfellows dynamic.

A capitalist with zero intention of eliminating his or her dominant position can nonetheless support highly contested policies called "socialist" to ward off ecological armageddon, polarized populations forced to rebel, and so on. Moneybags may seek to mitigate suicidal excesses of the system to save the system.

At the same time, a poor person can support the same policies to ward off disastrous immediate outcomes, but with the difference, hopefully, of steadily becoming ever more clear that there is a larger aim that needs to be continually conceived, celebrated, and sought.

As we support and seek short run changes that elites sometimes also favor, to avoid losing our aspirations in their system preserving priorities, we have to inject into each discussion about income distribution, modes of allocation, methods of decision making, job definitions, education, health care, family policies, immigration, war and peace, or ecological survival evidence that favored short run policies have an underlying implicit direction which must be emphasized, leading to much larger gains and new relations, later.

In that context, surprisingly, Sanders isn't just calling himself a democratic socialist - unexpectedly enough - he is also saying, over and over, that a better future can't be had without millions upon millions of people knowledgeably participating in political activism to push for changes they desire. He doesn't spell out how that happens, or what changes beyond the short run policies he favors it would seek. But, he does say that working people should determine the future, not elites. And isn't that precisely what a person serious about fundamental change, ought to be saying, and what we who have those same aspirations should be seconding, adding substance to, and working to make happen, whether Sanders stays the course or not?

It is hard to see how a presidential candidate could use a massive stage in the U.S., right now, in the world that we have, to help open the door to a better future more effectively, and while maintaining a huge audience, than Sanders seems to be doing. Maybe one could, while retaining sufficient access to keep at it. Maybe not. But what matters is not that, unless someone else is literally in position to do better - but what those who do understand the ills of contemporary society make of the opportunity Sanders is generating to pose a real and full alternative and to work to bring it into being.

To fold our tents into a part way mentality as if part way is all the way - or to endlessly castigate a part way mentality (that may be tactical or truly limited where we don't know which), will accomplish nothing much positive, and perhaps even be counterproductive. On the other hand, to pose positive alternatives, in plain language, and to construct lasting organizational vehicles for their espousal and for pushing short run gains into ever larger gains within and beyond Sander's own efforts, whether he is elected or not, has real potential of a sort not seen in the U.S. for decades.

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