Socialism hasn’t been as popular as it is today since the late 19th and early 20th century, when the Wobblies were a force to be reckoned with and public figures such as George Orwell, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Bertrand Russell identified as socialists. Today, a self-described socialist is currently a serious contender for President of the United States and more Americans under age 30 view have a positive view of socialism than they do of capitalism. Some see the popularity of socialism as a threat to classical liberal values (the legacy of thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine) similar to that posed by the resurgence of ethno-nationalism. But the greatest threat to classical liberalism comes from neither nationalism nor socialism—in many respects both are symptoms of the economic inequality and social alienation that accompany rapid technological change. Moreover, unlike ethno-nationalism, today’s socialism is not illiberal. Although in some ways it echoes the dogmatic socialism of the past, today’s socialism represents something new—a realignment of political allegiances prompted by a rapidly changing world. As commentators as ideologically diverse as Paul Krugman and George Will have pointed out, this is not your grandfather’s socialism: Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez do not favor state control of the means of production. While socialism in the early 20th century, with the Soviet Union as its inspiration, represented a stark alternative to Western liberalism, today’s emergent socialism—we might call it neo-socialism—is, at its core, a defense of liberal values and ideals against the upheavals caused by new technology.
Neo-socialism resonates with the socialism of the past because the current moment shares much with the last era in which socialism was popular in America, the Gilded Age. At the turn of the century, industrialization transformed the nation’s economy, just as the high tech revolution is doing today. The Gilded Age economy was lopsided and dysfunctional, producing untenable extremes of vulgar opulence and abject poverty; the typical laborer was exploited and alienated. The doctrinaire classical liberalism of the 19th century condemned organized labor as interference with freedom of contract and prevented the regulation of predatory monopolists as beyond the authority of the state. Given this, the socialist critique of liberal capitalism was apt even if its predictions of revolution proved to be mistaken. The dogmatic form of liberalism had to adjust to an economy dominated by large, capital-intensive industries, wage labor, rapid communication, and an integrated continental marketplace, adopting the social safety net of the New Deal and allowing for the techniques of bureaucratic administration.
Today we are facing economic and social conditions reminiscent of the 19th century. Then, the famous “Big Four” industrialists dominated San Francisco’s Nob Hill; today, the high-tech burghers of Laidley Heights build palaces overlooking legions of homeless people living as postmodern hobos in 21st century Hoovervilles. Perhaps it’s fitting that the most famous of 19th-century California’s robber barons, Leland Stanford, founded the university at the epicenter of today’s digital plutocracy. Neo-socialism is a protest ideology for the gig economy and a rallying cry against stock-option fueled gentrification. Nineteenth century socialists argued that the inhuman logic of the assembly line machine displaced authentic human social relationships based in meaningful labor. For Karl Marx himself—if not for many of his less subtle disciples—the alienation of human beings from each other and from their humanity was a more serious evil than the resulting unequal distribution of wealth.
Neo-socialism emerges in a society that is much more completely controlled by machines than that of the 19th century. Our economy is controlled by machine-generated algorithms that even their human authors do not fully understand: bot trading of financial instruments that takes place in fractions of a second can create global recessions, destroy national economies and bankrupt millions of people for reasons no human can fathom. The algorithms of social media platforms have infiltrated our social life, shaping how we present ourselves and how we apprehend others and causing an increase in anxiety and depression. Democracy itself has been undermined by machines: social media algorithms encourage extremism in order to keep us glued to the portable screen and bots spread lies and malicious propaganda, stimulating the basest of human motivations. Most menacing of all, machines directly threaten to displace humans in a growing number of occupations, threatening not only meaningful work but even basic survival: following the ruthless social logic of the machine, obsolete people, like obsolete machines, are tossed onto the scrap heap of society, left to rot in dying towns and cities marked by abandoned factories and a decaying social fabric.
These dramatic developments demand a bold policy response. So far, mainstream politicians have not exactly risen to the challenge. Instead, like aging generals, they continually refight the culture wars of the 1960s and pander to voters clinging to obsolete industries and antique prejudices, while struggling to grasp the basics of the information economy. The Republican Party—now effectively rebranded as the ethno-nationalist Party of Trump—peddles the misconception that regulation and immigration are job killers, largely ignoring the real threat of automation: for example, revitalization of the coal industry, which Trump has so loudly promoted, would do little for employment in coal country because it has already been largely automated. As for the Democrats, it should tell you all you need to know about their grasp of the profound challenges of the future that the most lively exchange in the recent debates of presidential hopefuls involved the merits of busing in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the seemingly interminable controversy surrounding health care—a proxy war over social entitlements generally—already feels like an argument about the regulation of phone booths. A health care system based on employer-provided benefits is quickly becoming anachronistic as the rapidly growing gig economy of Uber drivers, TaskRabbit contractors, and AirBNB hosts generates a lot of work but no employees and hence no employee benefits. The gig economy doesn’t account for a big share of income now, but don’t bet on it staying small: some economists predict the “end of employment” within a few decades. (If you’re skeptical, ask yourself whether, back in 2004, you thought Facebook would swing a presidential election twelve years later.) In the short term, universal health care would support the gig economy, relieving the pressure to redefine gig workers as employees; in a post-employment future it would be a necessity.
More dramatically, how should government respond if automation eliminates 55-65 percent of current jobs in the next two decades, as some analysts predict? Futurist Aaron Bastani insists that automation will require a complete decoupling of labor from the distribution of resources: he argues for Fully Automated Luxury Communism, a “post-work” society with “full automation of everything and common ownership of that which is automated.” By comparison, universal basic income looks pretty tame, which is why a growing number of Silicon Valley capitalists endorse it.
Trumpian ethno-nationalism is a misguided reaction to technologically driven dislocation, displacing a valid frustration with shrinking opportunity and social alienation onto a dark-skinned scapegoat (in a more enlightened and less bigoted populism, the chant “you will not replace us” would refer to robots rather than immigrants and Jews.) Neo-socialism offers those disenchanted with the status quo and frightened about the future an alternative to such blood and soil hysterics. As such, neo-socialism is less an attack on liberalism than it is a wake-up call to mainstream politicians sleeping through the tech revolution. Neo-socialism echoes Western European social democracy, not Soviet socialism; its ideal economic arrangement is the B-corp, not the dictatorship of the proletariat. In terms of policy, American neo-socialism amounts to familiar New Deal and Great Society social welfarism with a multiculturalist or green twist: universal health care, higher minimum wages, financial regulation, immigration liberalization, environmental protection, occasionally, strong trade unionism and even more rarely, universal basic income. This largely familiar progressive policy agenda is a threat to liberalism only in the fevered imagination of dogmatic libertarians. Those of its proponents who identify as “socialists” do so largely as branding, in order to tap into a widespread alienation from today’s tech-dominated society, not in order to advance an illiberal political agenda.
Neo-socialism, like the socialism of the past, is strong as critique and relatively weak as prescription. The neo-socialists’ specific proposals often raise troubling questions. Universal health care based on a European model that allows a regulated private market to supplement public care deserves serious consideration, but proposals to eliminate private health insurance under “Medicare for All” are politically infeasible and practically unworkable. Our current immigration policy is unworkable and inhumane, in need of comprehensive reform, but proposals to effectively decriminalize border control are misguided. Indeed, they are in conflict with neo-socialist ambitions to dramatically expand social programs: Dramatically increased immigration will overtax the resources available for the social programs and dilute the sense of national community that must underlay public support for them. Tellingly, this very tension has led otherwise progressive European nations—the models for neo-socialist domestic policy—to adopt immigration measures that rival Trump’s in their harshness.
Still, for better or for worse, the neo-socialists are now leading the way in addressing the challenges new technology poses for human welfare. This makes neo-socialism especially attractive to young people who understand the promise and menace of new technology better than their elders do and who will have to live their adult lives in the world new technology is bringing into existence. Mainstream politicians would do well to learn from the neo-socialists in this respect, while refining and moderating their more extreme ideas. Ultimately, neo-socialism may be among liberal capitalism’s greatest allies. In last century’s Gilded Age, free market conservatives condemned the New Deal as a dire threat to individual liberty but today it’s conventional wisdom that, by humanizing the industrial economy, early 20th-century progressives saved American liberal capitalism from a crisis of legitimacy. By offering a focused critique of the inhumane extremes of our current machine-driven economy, the neo-socialists may inspire the reforms that can save capitalism from itself.