This article is an adapted excerpt from Freedom Notes: Reflections on Faith, Justice, and the Possibility of Democracy.
On June 28, 1894, the United States government designated the first Monday in September as a holiday to commemorate the achievements and contributions of American workers. Christians, like other people of faith and conscience, have a complicated relationship with employment, exploitation, and our global political economy. We should explore what it could mean to forge an economy that more adequately respects—and protects—various forms of labor than our current socioeconomic arrangement of racialized capitalism.
I suspect that we submerge our discontent with the current economy for many reasons. Among them, we fancy the illusion that the Federal Reserve Bank and the three branches of our federal government can manage the booms and busts of our business cycle. Perhaps the right mix of Democrats and Republicans will address the market failures of concentrated power among corporations, the spillover costs borne by communities, and the information gap between producers and consumers. One of these glad mornings, our candidate of choice will assume power, appoint the right judges, roll out the right policies in 100 days, and administer the good government of our dreams.
We envision an America that forever grows the economic pie, splits it fairly for every race in all places, and inaugurates the E Pluribus Unum of our civic rituals. This is the hope of our nation — comprehensive political liberties, complemented by justice in our courts, prosperity in our commerce, peace in our communities. I, too, dream America. I do not, however, believe that capitalism delivers on the promises rehearsed every November.
Instead of democratic capitalism, I propose that democratic socialism serve as the regulative ideal of our life together. What this means is that I support scaling up — and bringing forward — the already existing aspects of cooperative organization in American history and our contemporary moment.
Though largely unknown, some regional authorities possess the title of flourishing utilities, municipalities own convention centers and plan our land use strategies, and within the past decade, we temporarily nationalized our banks. By ignorance or intention, political figures and institutional actors within Washington deny this reality, which is well-documented by Gar Alperwotiz’s classic text, What Then Must We Do.
Socialism, or something like it, is the settled conclusion of a society that values democracy. Our bloody past, and historical arguments notwithstanding, I take it as a given that Americans cherish democracy. Despite our violent acquisition of indigenous land and our coercive leveraging of black slaves as financial instruments, the egalitarian grain of our Constitution is still an idea worthy of perennial refinement into our laws, practices, and governance.
So, how might we ramp up democratic socialism within our already mixed economy? We can excavate little-known histories of American cooperative work and stop providing conceptual legitimacy for the notion of democratic capitalism. As a citizen preacher, I recall the legacies of Angela Davis and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King , emerging outlets like Jacobin magazine , and veteran groups like Democratic Socialists of America .
Secondly, we can celebrate conceptual openness to a new political economy. A recent University of Chicago study indicates that a majority of Asian-American, African-American, and Latinx favor socialism over capitalism. It is fair to say that the inequalities and externalities of capitalism have created a hearing for socialist arguments, campaigns, and messaging strategies.
Thirdly, we can organize in a way that emphasizes participatory governance, increasing commonwealth stewardship of real estate, and alternate business structures like B Corps and LC3. These models prioritize the accomplishment of social good as the major organizational objective—as opposed to maximizing profits.
In many ways, socialism of this sort is implied by the work of groups like National People’s Action, Democracy Collaborative, and Criterion Ventures’ New Economy. These groups tend to prioritize human needs and rights over property rights, and to emphasize a participatory ideal of maximizing public input over how to distribute social goods.
Capitalism seeks to grow the economy while managing inequality. Democratic socialism seeks to secure economic well-being while rearranging the power and productive relationships that create inequality. The latter is neither a panacea nor a utopia. It is, ultimately, a less grotesque analogy of God’s beloved community than the former. America, we can do better than capitalism — let us choose a more equitable, efficient, and excellent way.