For Ocasio-Cortez, creating democracy is the road to socialism
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks during the National Action Network Convention in New York, Friday, April 5. | Seth Wenig / AP

As Don Draper of AMC’s hit series Mad Men likes to say, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

We might as well crown Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the Don Draper of the beltway—because there’s no mistaking that she has fundamentally re-shaped political conversation in Washington, D.C., offering a cure to bicameral boredom and a fresh approach to problem-solving.

Whatever your position, it is hard to argue that she has not brought a new zest and energy to the legislative arena with her unapologetic embrace of socialism and her patient, clear-headed explanations of how a much-maligned, indeed historically verboten, socialist politics can provide a vision and path to empowering people in the political process as well as ensuring people access to health care, employment with a decent living wage, and an environment habitable for our families.

And while up until recently America’s abiding anti-communism, a Cold War hangover, meant that associating any idea with socialism or communism guaranteed that idea’s hasty and unquestioned death, such tactics are losing traction.

Mitch McConnell, in bringing a resolution to the Senate floor on the Green New Deal, hoping to kill it, called the initiative “a socialist makeover of the entire U.S. economy.”

But that hasn’t stopped the conversation. Indeed, J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon felt compelled to address the shortcomings of socialism in a recent letter to shareholders, as I’ve recently covered. Has it even been imaginable in recent years that a corporate leader would feel threatened enough by socialism that it needed even to be recognized in argument as a possible, if not increasingly formidable, opponent to Chase’s economic and political interests?

Again, no doubt fueled by some of the groundwork Sen. Bernie Sanders laid in his 2016 Democratic primary campaign, Ocasio-Cortez has altered the conversation.

One of the more important changes she has made to the conversation, though, which is less noted in the frequent coverage the media gives her, has to do with the way she transforms how we think about democracy.

She asks us to think about democracy in far more concrete and thoroughgoing ways than Americans typically do.

And I think it’s fair to say that her thinking about democracy can really push Americans to think more concretely about economic policy and about how we organize our economy. Her thinking about democracy urges us to inquire whether capitalism is compatible with democracy in its most basic sense, as government by, of, and for the people—one in which people play a substantial and participatory role in making the large decisions about power and resource allocations that impact their lives.

We might formulate Ocasio-Cortez’s position this way: In the debate between capitalism and socialism, she chooses democracy. And genuine democracy will, of necessity, entail a socialist political economy.

Indeed, for all the talk about socialism and the Green New Deal, though, what really drives Ocasio-Cortez, what is really at the root of her thinking, is her recognition of the need to achieve democracy in America in the most fundamental of ways—ways, at least in my experience, most Americans rarely think about.

When I teach issues of work and class in the United States and when I talk to people, I notice that few students and people in general really have any expectation of having any say at their jobs. For the most part, it goes without question that most of us work for other people and carry out our job duties as the boss instructs to serve the objectives of the company or organization for which we’re working.

That is, we by and large have no expectation and don’t even ponder experiencing democracy in the workplace. We tend to accept, in a nation we like to believe is characterized by its democratic form of governance, that for forty to sixty hours each week while at work, we do not live in a democracy.

It this lack of democracy that Ocasio-Cortez seems to want to address at its root.

In a recent interview at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin, Texas, she explained that “the emphasis in democratic socialism is on democracy,” elaborating precisely the urgency in focusing on workplace democracy. She stresses,

“It’s just as much a transformation about bringing democracy to the workplace, so we have a say and we don’t check all of our rights at the door every time we cross the threshold into our workplace.

“At the end of the day, as workers, and as people in society, we’re the ones creating wealth, not a corporate CEO. It is not a CEO that is actually creating billions of dollars a year, it is the millions of workers in this country that is creating billions of dollars in economic productivity every year, and our system should reflect that.”

She’s articulating the way class society undermines democracy, given that our current economic arrangements give decision-making powers to those who own the means of production and the world at large, meaning those without capital, who don’t own a large share of the world, will have minimal input on the key decisions being made in the country that directly and forcefully impact their lives.

Indeed, as Michael Zweig has argued in his book, The Working Class MajorityAmerica’s Best Kept Secret:

“On the job, most workers have little control over the pace and content of their work. They show up, a supervisor tells them the job, and they do it. The job may be skilled or unskilled, white collar or blue collar, in any one of thousands of occupations. Whatever the particulars, most jobs share basic powerlessness in relation to the authority of the owner and owner’s representatives who are there to supervise and control the workforce.”

Indeed, most of us have little say in how our work is organized, what gets produced in our factories, how resources are used and distributed. In short, we are not involved in making most of the key decisions about how our world is run. And, for the most part, in my observation, people don’t expect to have a say. We tend as a culture and people not to think about democracy in the arena of the workplace and of production more generally.

Ocasio-Cortez pushes us to think again, to re-think democracy.

The governing behavior of a businessman-turned-politician like Trump, who is leaving misery in his wake and destroying democracy, is a perfect example of the lack of democracy we experience each day while spending all our time and energy reproducing the world in which we live.

As we see elected leaders and hopefully voters challenge Trump in the governmental arena, Ocasio-Cortez is insisting we extend our impulses for democratic behavior to the workplace and larger economy as well.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.