Sophisticated socialists and anti-socialists rightly dunk on “socialism is when government does thing” takes. But sometimes these takes contain a grain of truth. For instance, socialists were embarrassed when Bernie Sanders called police departments socialist institutions and tried to explain why this is a mistake. But it’s not obvious to me that it is. Consider that policing is publicly provided and financed, centrally planned, subject to (indirect) democratic control, and accessible to all citizens (in principle). This strikes me as a lot closer to a socialist institution than a capitalist one by the standards of socialists themselves.
One objection alleges that socialism requires worker control and police departments don’t have that. Fair enough, but this objection deprives socialists of one of their favorite lines of defense—namely, pointing to benevolent public institutions as examples of socialism in action. For instance, Chris Maisano writes in Jacobin, “It’s one thing to identify public libraries with socialism. They operate according to democratic principles of access and distribution, providing services to all regardless of one’s ability to pay. They would be one of the most important institutions in any socialist society worthy of the name.” But public libraries don’t function as democratically-controlled, worker-run co-ops, so they shouldn’t count as socialist according to this objection.
Another objection is that police departments don’t exemplify real socialism because they fail to operate in accordance with principles of egalitarian justice—for instance, they are often corrupt, self-serving, and benefit the few at the expense of the many. But this all-too-familiar reply is unconvincing for many reasons. I’ll just mention one: if we are judging an institutional arrangement in light of the outcomes we simply stipulate that it ought to promote, then socialist objections to capitalism instantly evaporate. The United State doesn’t exemplify real capitalism because employers often fail to treat their employees fairly, the rich obtain political favors, and so on.
Maisano writes, “If the forces responsible for killing Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and Rekia Boyd exemplify socialism in action, then no person who wants freedom and justice should be a socialist.” Yet these forces do exemplify socialism in action more than Maisano wants to admit, which is why no person who wants freedom and justice should be a socialist.