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What socialism is — according to Bernie Sanders

He's enflamed conversation about socialism across America.

Photo credit: Ethan Miller / Getty Images
  • U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has been calling himself a democratic socialist since the 1960s.
  • Bernie's use of the word "socialist" has attracted both love and ire from the left.
  • His definition of socialism is vague, but is the basis for many peoples' understanding of the concept.

The unexpected level of serious consideration that many Americans are giving to socialism is due, in large part, to the popularity of Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic primaries. The U.S. senator's support for "socialist" policies catapulted him from an obscure senator from Vermont to the most admired politician in America. However, it has also sparked an ideological debate in this country that will likely continue for some time.

This said, what exactly is socialism according to Sanders? What would it look like in practice? Most importantly to academics, is it socialism at all?

Bernie Sanders explains what socialism is

Luckily for us, Senator Sanders explained his political philosophy in a speech he delivered at Georgetown University in 2015. (The entire speech can be viewed here.)

He begins by referring to the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt and pointing out the good that it did for a country in the depths of the Great Depression:

"He saw one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. And he acted. Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combated cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country. . . . And, by the way, almost everything he proposed was called 'socialist.'"

The senator then muses on several issues facing the United States, income inequality, unemployment, high rates of childhood poverty, the high cost of medical care, and a declining faith in our political system, among others, and decides that the concentration of wealth and power is both the root cause of them and the key reason why we have failed to solve them. His solution, of course, is "socialism." It is then that he gives us his conception of what that is:

"Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy. Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt."

He goes a bit into the particulars of policy and explained that his conception of socialism would require — this is what it would look like — universal health care, total employment, free college education, more public spending, a living wage, environmental regulations, and a robust democratic culture to come into existence. He flatly denied any interest in nationalization, telling the audience:

"So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this: I don't believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal."

The contents of this speech were very similar to other statements he has made about socialism across his entire political career. The entire speech could have been summed up neatly in a quote he gave to the Associated Press back in 1997:

"To me, socialism doesn't mean state ownership of everything, by any means, it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living."

Wait a moment, praise for the New Deal?  No interest in nationalization? That definition sounds a lot like capitalism!

You might have noticed that this program focuses on making capitalism work better and not replacing it with an entirely new system based on social ownership. This has made his definition of socialism a matter of contention.

While "socialism" is a system based around replacing private ownership of the means of production with social ownership, which generally means having the workers own and operate them instead — either through cooperatives or the state — Bernie hasn't shown much of an interest in using the government to promote this change.

Bernie's explanation of "socialism" is, in fact, closer to what political philosophers refer to as "social democracy." This is a capitalist system, since the means of production are still privately owned, where the state heavily regulates the economy and has an active welfare system in place to correct for the worst problems inherent to capitalism like inequality, cyclic instability, or the profit motive encouraging people to do things against the public interest.

If one looks to Bernie's more general positions, which have been rather consistent over the last few decades, there are really only a couple of points that are explicitly socialistic. The first is his call for universal, single payer, health care which replaces private insurance. This does call for the government to take over or replace an entire industry, the health insurance industry, for the sake of the people.

Secondly, his calls to increase the number of worker cooperatives in the United States is praised by the left, since it would be creating businesses where the workers are in control of the means of production. While this is socialistic, it isn't horribly radical and some thinkers on the left question if making more cooperatives actually fixes the problems they see as inherent to capitalism.

What do experts have to say about this definition?

There is a consensus among experts that Bernie isn't a socialist under the broad definition of the ideology given above. They instead place him squarely in the company of social democrats.

Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman did precisely that in a recent article. After musing on the American discussion of the ideology, he explained that while many Americans are now calling themselves "socialists":

"... neither the politicians nor the voters are clamoring for government seizure of the means of production. Instead, they've taken on board conservative rhetoric that describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism, and in effect said, 'Well, in that case I'm a socialist.' What Americans who support 'socialism' actually want is what the rest of the world calls social democracy: a market economy, but with extreme hardship limited by a strong social safety net and extreme inequality limited by progressive taxation. They want us to look like Denmark or Norway, not Venezuela."

Philosopher Noam Chomsky, who himself is an anarcho-syndicalist, called Bernie an "Honest New Dealer" while saying, "Bernie Sanders may use the word 'socialist,' but he's basically a New Dealer. Now, in the current American political spectrum, to be a New Dealer is to be way out on the left."

What do other socialists have to say about it?

The Democratic Socialists of America like him, but make clear that they are to his left. As they explain when clarifying their support for and ideological relationship to him, in 2016 they "made clear that Bernie's New Deal or social democratic program did not fulfill the socialist aim of establishing worker and social ownership of the economy. But in the context of 40 years of oligarchic rule, Sanders' program proved sufficiently radical and inspiring."

Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder and editor of the popular left-wing magazine Jacobin, explained his views on Bernie's ideology in an interview with Vox. In it, he calls Sanders "a good social democrat" but concludes that Sanders "vision" does not go as far to the left as that of democratic socialists. He also wrote a piece in Jacobin explaining these differences and musing on the potential effectiveness of a Sanders campaign as far as it concerns the goals of the left.

While America's favorite democratic socialist might really be our favorite social democrat, Bernie Sanders has still managed to begin a debate about the ideal way to organize an economy that many people thought had been eternally settled a couple of decades ago. His ideas on what "socialism" is and what our society should look like are valuable additions to American political discussion, especially as we near 2020.

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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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