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So what would a socialist alternative to the capitalist Democrats look like, both as a program for social transformation and as a movement of the working class for its own freedom? Sanders’s regulatory and social insurance reforms of capitalism do not end the polarization of society into rich and poor flowing from the exploitation of working people. Those reforms do not end the oppression, alienation, and disempowerment of working people. Those reforms do not stop capitalism’s competitive drive for mindless growth that is devouring the environment and roasting the planet. Socialism as a program has traditionally meant economic democracy—social ownership of the means of production for democratic planning and allocation of economic surpluses—as a necessary condition for full political democracy and freedom. But in the absence of a sizable socialist left that runs its own candidates against both capitalist parties, socialism has been reduced in popular parlance to simply government programs.
An even more problematic confusion about socialism created by Sanders’s presentation of it is his abandonment of independent working-class politics. Socialists support most of the limited reforms Sanders advocates. Any competitive election campaign necessarily focuses on what policies a candidate can realistically advance in office, however much socialist candidates should take any good opportunity to expound upon the inherent problems of capitalism and present the full socialist alternative. But Sanders explicitly rejected social ownership of the means of production. Instead of a socialist expropriation of the wealth of the billionaire class, Sanders advocated the liberal approach of just taxing it to pay for social programs.
But more than a program, socialism is the movement of the working class acting for itself, independently, for its own freedom. The socialist program that has historically been developed by that movement calls for full economic and political democracy as the institutional framework for full freedom. But when self-styled socialists like Sanders urge the working class to subsume its independent identity and political action inside a party that represents and serves business interests before all else, the working class surrenders its independent power, the socialist movement disappears as a distinct alternative, and working-class politics is reduced to begging and bargaining over the conditions of domination and exploitation rather than building the power to end those conditions.