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What Is Twenty-First-Century Socialism?

The failures of communism in the twentieth century were an indictment not of socialism but of autocracy and central planning. After four decades of Gilded Age-style capitalism, it is time to give cooperative production and egalitarian distribution another try, this time through a democratic "sharing economy." 

NEW HAVEN – Socialism is back on the political agenda in the United States. Two household names on the American left, US Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are self-declared socialists. And most of the current crop of Democratic Party presidential candidates support policies that many call socialist – single-payer health insurance, guaranteed employment, massive infrastructural investment, universal pre-school, and state-financed tertiary education. Moreover, around half of younger Americans tell pollsters that they prefer socialism to capitalism (though what they have in mind is more akin to social democracy than socialist central planning).

Socialism can be thought of as consisting of three linked pillars: an ethos of economic behavior, an ethic of distributive justice, and a set of property relations that conform to the ethos and implement the ethic. If people behave according to the ethos, and implement the property relations, the distributive ethic should be realized. Our understanding of these three pillars evolves as history unfolds. To determine what twenty-first-century socialism is, we should identify its philosophical underpinnings, compare them with capitalism, and then present several socialist variants. 

Defining Socialism

The behavioral ethos of socialism is cooperation. Citizens of a socialist society should recognize that they are engaged in a cooperative enterprise to transform nature in order to improve the lives of all. A socialist society’s distributive ethic is one that favors pervasive equality of opportunity.

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