VIDEO: The Free Press Meets the Democratic Socialists of America

Ben Kawaller went to learn about life under utopia. But when the socialists kicked him out, a group of optimistic capitalists took him in.

When I went to Chicago last month to cover the Democratic Socialists of America convention, my main worry was that some brilliant socialist would run circles around me. I’m still traumatized from a collegiate brush with Karl Marx, who I found impossible: our time on this beautiful earth is short, and I need to be hooked by page one.

My fear of being exposed as an intellectual lightweight aside, I was looking forward to speaking with these people. After all, my family and I are more or less on the left, and I am the grandson of a pretend Communist (who also happened to be a CEO). In 2020, I canvassed for Bernie Sanders in Berkeley with a contingent of DSA members, and I voted for the man twice. 

Furthermore, much of what the DSA espouses seems rooted in the effort to ensure a dignified existence for minorities and the working class. They are “socialist,” they say, because they support a world order based on “equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships.” They are “democratic” because at “the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy.” Put socialism and democracy together and you get “a vision of a more free, democratic and humane society.”

Some of this sounds just great to me. Freedom? Democracy? Terrific! And yet, for most of the DSA’s 52-year history, the organization’s membership has hovered between six and ten thousand. With the election of Donald Trump, that number ballooned (it’s now around 92,000), and 2018 saw the election of its most prominent member, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

And yet the DSA remains at the margins of power. 

One possible explanation for the DSA’s relative unpopularity is its evident belief that the root cause of our problems is not a political ecosystem compromised by special interests, but capitalism itself. 

I am not sure about that. It is one thing to unionize, or to fight for public ownership of public utilities. It is another to suggest that the world would be a better place without Ikea. 

Perhaps it would be fairer to say that the DSA envisions a world where Ikea is owned by its workers. Personally, I think whoever is running Ikea should be given more global influence, not less. I think any form of capitalism that can both finance a nation’s health insurance and produce my sofa bed should be the envy of the world. 

So what is with all this anti-capitalism talk? I emailed a socialist friend of mine before I left for Chicago to ask if he actually opposes all private enterprise. 

Of course not, he told me. The goal, he said, was “positive development out of capitalism with greater labor union power and democracy.” 

If that’s true, my question for the DSA is: why not say that? And if it’s not true, then does the DSA actually want to live in a world without private enterprise? If so, how is that going to work?

When I got to the conference, I had hoped to spar with smart, good-natured socialists on these questions, all of us finding each other delightful and leaving everyone with hope for humanity.

But that’s not what happened. 

So instead I offer you reality: a video about what happened when I tried to ask about life under utopia, and the capitalists who took me in when the socialists kicked me out.

Ben Kawaller is an L.A.-based writer and host. Watch his last Free Press video, “Pork Chops! Politics! The Free Press Goes to the Iowa State Fair.”

This video was produced by Ben Kawaller and Alex Chitty and edited by Jonah Kaplan. Director of photography was David Pavlina; production assistant was Dana Engell.

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