How to Avoid Human Extinction

I want to talk about the very long term future of the human race. Most people only think about what the future might be like for themselves and their children’s generation. But the fact of the matter is that, if things go well for humanity over the next one or two centuries, there isn’t really anything stopping our civilization from thriving for billions of years into the future.

Yes, our Sun will die out in a few billion years and engulf the Earth, but before then we will have plenty of time to figure out interstellar travel and find a new home for Earth’s inhabitants. Even after the last star dies out, our distant descendants could power their civilization using black holes. If there is any chance at all that we could build a happy, thriving civilization that could take advantage of these vast, cosmological expanses of time, we had better start figuring out how.

The emergence of existential risk

BostromNow that I’ve got you thinking about the far future, it’s time to think about how human civilization could go wrong in ways that stop us from reaching our potential. The philosopher Nick Bostrom has introduced the concept of existential risk to refer to any threat that would either lead to the extinction of humanity, or would permanently and drastically curtail our potential as a species. While we’re not used to thinking about it, existential risk is really, really important. Actually, almost by definition, it’s by far the most important thing anyone could ever worry about.

For most of human history, we didn’t have to worry about existential risk. Of course, there has always been some small risk that a natural event (like an asteroid impact) could cause humanity to go extinct. But for most of human history, we simply didn’t have the technology necessary to destroy ourselves as a species. And our communication, coercion, and surveillance technology wasn’t good enough to allow any person or group to enforce a dystopian social system on the rest of humanity indefinitely.

As our technology has improved, however, we have had to face the specter of human-caused existential disaster. We can never put this genie back in its bottle. For every year that our civilization continues to exist, there is some small, but nonzero probability that we will destroy ourselves one way or another. Over a decade or a century, this probability is compounded ten or a hundred times over. If we want our civilization to survive for billions of years, we will have to make the probability of catastrophe vanishingly small, and keep it that way.

Nuclear holocaust

TrinityScientists and policymakers first began to worry about human extinction with the advent of nuclear weapons. Soon after July 1945, when the United States army detonated its first nuclear weapon, scientists raised serious concerns that this technology would enable wars of destruction and death on a scale never before seen in human history. And when the USSR carried out its first nuclear test in 1949, this risk became very real. There were now two hostile powers on Earth that each had the capacity to initiate nuclear war. So far, humanity has been very lucky. We’ve narrowly escaped catastrophe on several occasions— during the Cuban Missile Crisis for example, President Kennedy reckoned that the probability of war was “between 1 in 3 and even.”

While tensions between nuclear powers aren’t nearly as high now as they were during the Cold War, nuclear war remains a real possibility as long as there are multiple competing states with large nuclear arsenals. The only real long term solution is to concentrate all the world’s nuclear weapons in the hands of some transparent, democratic global institution like the United Nations. This way, the incentive for arms races would be eliminated.

Synthetic biology

While the results of nuclear war would be truly catastrophic, it’s not actually clear that the most likely outcome of such a war would be human extinction. There are many ways in which small numbers of humans could survive the nuclear winter and gradually re-establish civilization. Synthetic biology, on the other hand, presents a more serious scenario for the total annihilation of humanity.

Using genetic engineering techniques, governments as well as terrorist groups will be able to design ultra-deadly, highly communicable viruses and release them into the ecosystem, starting a global pandemic. This scenario is all the more worrying because the expertise and equipment needed to design such a virus will likely not be very great. Already, you can buy all the equipment needed for CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing online for $159, and middle schoolers are using the technology in their science classrooms. It will be impossible for governments to keep these technologies away from bad actors.

The solution here is to fight fire with fire. States will need to develop rapid-response systems that can develop and distribute vaccines to protect against synthetic pathogens in a matter of days. Since it’s virtually impossible to stop the spread of pathogens across national borders, these protective measures will be much more effective if they are implemented at the global, rather than national level.


An even more serious threat than synthetic biology is nanotechnology. Nanotechology is the ability to precisely manipulate atoms and molecules in order to build nano-sized machines on a mass scale. Nanomachines have enormous promise: they could ultimately be used to clean up the environment, roam our bloodstreams to protect against disease, create ultra-powerful computers, and much more. But they are also incredibly dangerous, especially if they become self-replicating. Governments could deploy swarms of self-replicating nanomachines as deadly weapons, capable of killing millions and wreaking havoc on ecosystems and infrastructure. As nanotechnology becomes cheaper and more widely available, rogue actors could also use it to inflict tremendous harm. As the nanotechnologist Eric Drexler writes:

“Early assembler-based replicators could beat the most advanced modern organisms. ‘Plants’ with ‘leaves’ no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough, omnivorous ‘bacteria’ could out-compete real bacteria: they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop — at least if we made no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.”

Self-replicating nanotechnology therefore qualifies as an existential risk— the nightmare scenario would lead to the annihilation of the human race. The solution is to develop a rapid-response “nanotechnological immune system” that could use satellites to detect swarms of dangerous nanomachines and neutralize them before they become too powerful. This immune system would need to be global in order to be effective— if any region isn’t sufficiently protected, the problem could get out of control before other governments can react. It’s also important to concentrate offensive nanotechnological capabilities in the hands of a global institution because, without this, there will be a very strong incentive for states to engage in deadly arms races that could lead to war.

Artificial intelligence

The dangers of artificial intelligence have been getting a lot more media attention in the past few years, and for good reason. In a recent survey of AI researchers, it was found that most experts in the field agree that there is at least a 70% chance that artificial intelligences will exceed human abilities in all domains before the year 2100. This means that superintelligences— AIs that dramatically outperform humans in all domains— could very well become a serious threat during this century. The problem with superintelligence is that, once these systems become sufficiently powerful, they will effectively replace human beings as the dominant life form on Earth. It will be immensely important for us to develop the capability to ensure that these superintelligences have value systems that are aligned with our own. This is referred to as the goal alignment problem.

The goal alignment problem is all the more worrying when you consider the fact that a superintelligence would, by definition, be better than human beings at AI development. This could lead to a recursive self-improvement loop, where the system modifies itself to make itself more intelligent, thereby making it more capable of making further improvements to itself, and so on, many times over. This scenario is referred to as an intelligence explosion. If this seems like an implausible idea, we should consider that an AGI would be able to copy itself onto millions of computers over the Internet, thereby increasing its raw computational power by several orders of magnitude in a matter of days. Such a system would have all of human knowledge at its disposal, and it would have the processing power to understand it all, find patterns in the chaos, and make plans based on its findings. It would be nearly unstoppable.

Whichever organization kicks off an intelligence explosion first would quickly open up a very large lead over other research teams. The superintelligence would therefore have no peer competitors to keep it in check. It could use manipulation, coercion, and advanced technologies to shape the future of humanity in accordance with its preferences, which may or may not be the same as those who designed it. If it becomes widely known that artificial general intelligence is just around the corner, corporations and states might be motivated to engage in an arms race to become the first organization to start an intelligence explosion. The stakes involved would be astronomically large: indefinite world domination. Such an arms race could also lead to pre-emptive war in an effort to delay the research progress of rivals.

The solution here is global political integration and public oversight of artificial intelligence research. Governments should start investing public research funds into the problem of AI goal alignment. Ideally, public research into AI should be done at a global level, to reduce the incentive for arms races. AI experts disagree about the likelihood of an intelligence explosion, but we had better be prepared for the worst case scenario. If such an explosion does occur, it needs to happen under the careful oversight of a transparent, democratic, and benevolent international organization. That way, we can ensure that the immense benefits of superintelligence are shared with all of humanity.

Climate change

The climate crisis will almost certainly not lead to complete human extinction, but it is nevertheless a very serious problem, and one that requires a coordinated global response. This will be especially true if geoengineering— the deliberate engineering of the environment to counteract climate change— becomes necessary. Governments might unilaterally embark on their own efforts to change the composition of the atmosphere, starting feuds that could quickly lead to war. Global political integration would allow for binding international emissions regulations, and coordinated global investment in renewable energies. It seems unlikely that the climate crisis can be solved without much more political integration than we now have.

How to avoid catastrophe: a political solution

united-nations.pngWe’ve seen that every kind of existential risk we face could be mitigated much more effectively with global political integration. What we need is a democratic United Nations with real teeth; a world state that could put an end to arms races and take steps to protect all humanity. As long as there is fragmentation and anarchy at the international level, our species will not be able to survive for the long term. Humanity needs to be united, it needs a single voice.

But we will have to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued regional attempts at political integration, like the European Union. Europe is in severe crisis right now because it attempted economic integration (free trade and a single currency) before implementing political integration (a central government with the power to tax and spend). This model can only lead to a race to the bottom, and it won’t do anything to address the very real existential risks that our species will face this century. Neoliberal free trade deals are not what we need— we need a democratic world state, empowered to take bold action on the most pressing issues of our time.

Integration will be a gradual process, and it will require bold political leadership in the rich countries in order to ensure it happens. Nations will need to be prepared to sacrifice some of their sovereignty in exchange for security. As the effects of climate change continue to compound, we can be hopeful that there will be some movement in this direction. None of this will happen automatically, however. The political Left in particular has a duty to make global political integration one of its long-term priorities. We should begin to argue for integration on security grounds: climate change, nuclear weapons, and emerging technologies are all serious threats to public safety, and they can only be tackled at the international level. Once established, the world state could implement worker-friendly policies and set global labor standards, since corporations will have no where else to go. Unlike individual nation-states, it will not have to implement austerity in order to achieve “competitiveness.”

The specter of totalitarianism

Critics will argue that, by ending the competition between states, global political integration would open the door for a global totalitarianism. The concern is that if a power-hungry demagogue were ever elected as the global head of state, they could quickly consolidate power, ending democratic elections and establishing a global autocracy from which there would be no appeal. This is clearly a concern that should not be taken lightly.

Big Brother.jpgThe problem is that totalitarianism will increasingly become a threat in the future, with or without a world state. Currently, elected leaders in parliamentary democracies don’t usually become dictators because they know that the bureaucracy, the police, and the military won’t follow orders that are clearly unconstitutional or illegal. But as more and more of the military is automated and replaced with autonomous weapons, there is a real risk that power-hungry leaders could ignore the rule of law and use their totally obedient “droid army” to coerce everyone into following their commands. If autonomous weapons and modern surveillance technology were used to enforce a global, indefinitely stable totalitarianism, this itself would qualify as an existential catastrophe, arguably no better than extinction.

There are technical and institutional solutions to this problem, but we will have to be proactive in implementing the proper security protocols. Autonomous weapons systems should be designed to require the approval of many different state officials in order to be fully deployed, so as to ensure that one president or rogue general couldn’t use them to carry out a one-man coup d’état. Once we develop the right security protocols, we will be able to use them to protect against despotism both at the national and international levels. Global political integration won’t make the risk any more serious than it already is. In fact, a world state could actually be our greatest defense against regional totalitarianism, allowing us to ensure that civil liberties and democratic elections are protected in all member states.

Grow or die: the need for space colonization

Once we’ve established a well-intentioned, democratic world state, we can start planning to hunker down for the long haul. We will need to reduce the risk of species-wide catastrophe to negligible levels— and the best way to do that is to become a multi-planetary species.

Right now, if a catastrophe occurs on Earth, there is no other world that humanity can turn to. Since the catastrophes we’ve discussed are likely to happen suddenly, without advance warning, there’s no possibility that a self-sufficient colony could be established on the Moon or Mars in order to save the human race. This is why it’s imperative for our species to establish a self-sufficient presence on another world— it would give us a back-up if anything goes horribly wrong on Earth. And our first destination should be Mars.

While there has been much fanfare in recent years about Elon Musk’s successful forays into private space travel, it is very important that the first colonies on Mars are established by governments, not corporations. This is the only way to ensure that Mars is a new frontier open to all humanity, not a playground for billionaires. And to the greatest extent possible, Mars colonization should be undertaken by global coalitions of governments, not individual states. We will need to minimize the tendency for nation-states to fight over Martian territory and resources.

Colonised MarsOver time, it is inevitable that Martian society will start to assert its political independence from Earth— the communication and travel delays are simply too great to maintain a strong centralized state encompassing both Earth and Mars. But this need not be a bad thing. As long as Earth and Mars each have strong, democratic, planetary governments that can keep advanced technologies under control in their own jurisdictions, there will be little to worry about. The long distances between planets (let alone between star systems) will strongly discourage war. And if war does break out, no one planet will be strong enough to annihilate or conquer all the others. Once humanity spreads out across the galaxy, the species will truly be secure. The vast distances of space will ensure that humanity will once again be unable to destroy itself— even if it wanted to.

Put Down Your Pitchforks: Why Insurrectionary Politics Doesn’t Work

The Russian Revolution continues to have a significant ideological influence on the socialist Left today, over 100 years after its occurrence. Some socialists want to, in one way or another, replicate the Russian Revolution in a modern Western country by advocating for an insurrectionary overthrow of the government. These revolutionary socialists usually argue that the history of the 20th century has demonstrated that the parliamentary road to socialism is a dead end, and that revolution is the only viable path toward socialist transformation.

Why popular movements opt for electoralism

The problem with this line of thinking is that while democratic socialism has never been attained through parliamentary means, no socialist revolution has succeeded in a Western democracy, either. In fact, there’s never been a historical example of an established parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage being overthrown by any popular revolt, socialist or otherwise. There’s a good reason for this: if a movement can convince a majority of the population to support a revolution against the government, it also has a majoritarian electoral coalition that could take the state peacefully. Popular movements tend to opt for the electoral route on this basis.

Furthermore, if the goal of the popular movement is simply to establish some different kind of democratic state with universal suffrage, it scarcely makes sense to overthrow the existing state instead of simply capturing it by electoral means. If the movement is confident that after the revolution, a majority of the population will vote it into office, it’s not clear why the revolution was necessary in the first place. It’s precisely the flexibility of democratic states, their ability to allow power to shift peacefully from one coalition to another, that make them so resilient to revolutions.

Petrograd Soviet
Meeting of the Petrograd Soviet (1917)

If, on the other hand, the goal of the movement is to replace parliamentary democracy with another form of government, different kinds of problems arise. Some revolutionaries, for example, want to mimic the Russian Revolution by establishing a kind of “soviet republic,” where workers elect delegates to a local council, which in turn elects delegates to a higher level council, and so on in a pyramidal fashion. But our limited historical experience with soviet republics is not very promising. The several layers of indirect elections make them much less accountable to the public than parliaments are, not moreso. When the Bolsheviks decided to dissolve the Russian Constituent Assembly in favor of a purely soviet government, they paved the way for Stalinist absolutism. Local soviets weren’t able to effectively discipline higher level soviets, and as opposition parties were outlawed one-by-one, the soviets became nothing more than a rubber stamp on the decisions of the Bolshevik Central Committee. The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg predicted this grim result in 1918:

“Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule.” – The Russian Revolution

If we want to avoid a replay of Stalinist dictatorship, and stay true to our name as democratic socialists, we should oppose the idea of a soviet republic. And regular working people throughout history have had the good sense to reject soviets, too. During the May 1968 events in France, workers spent weeks on general strike throughout the country and occupied many factories. But the French working class didn’t demand a soviet republic: they simply demanded fresh elections to parliament, so that they could elect a left-wing government. While workplace democracy is worth supporting, it should be viewed as a supplement to parliamentary democracy, not a replacement for it.

The democratic state commands legitimacy

Another reason why popular revolutions simply don’t happen in established democracies is that, for the most part, working people in these societies don’t have sufficiently strong grievances against the state to motivate them to support a revolution. Historically, revolutions have tended to occur when the state loses all legitimacy with its citizens, to the point that the army and the police start to refuse orders from the government and side with the masses. These legitimacy crises are usually caused by bloody, convulsive wars such as World War I or World War II.

But today is by far the most peaceful time in human history. Since 1945, wars between states have declined precipitously, particularly among developed capitalist nations. While resource shortages caused by climate change might lead to a modest uptick in war in the coming decades, we shouldn’t expect a World War III any time soon. National economies are more integrated than ever before, with multinational corporations making up most of the world gross domestic product. This makes it much more difficult for states to justify wars, since the economic interests of the home country are closely tied to the economic interests of neighboring countries.

Additionally, while working people still lack the kind of economic security that socialists advocate, it must be recognized that living standards have increased dramatically since the time of the Russian Revolution. The Russian workers who supported the Bolshevik insurrection were used to working 12 to 15 hour days, six days a week, in exchange for wages that assured them a deeply impoverished existence. When workers’ lives are this horrible, it’s understandable why they might support an insurrectionary overthrow of the government. Short of this, however, working people are much more inclined to simply vote different people into office in the hopes of improving their living standards.

When a popular movement wins a commanding majority in parliament, it immediately inherits all the legitimacy associated with the democratic state. As long as the elections are fair, no one can question that the new government is a reflection of the popular will. The same cannot be said of governments borne of insurrections. Revolutionary governments tend to be staffed with military figures, who use naked violence to establish their authority. Opposition voices are often censored, leading to rumbling discontent. This is not what democratic socialists should be fighting for.

The democratic road to socialism

While many social democratic parties around the world were founded on an orthodox Marxist program, which advocated a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state, over the 20th century these parties began to shy away from their revolutionary roots and came to see the wisdom of the parliamentary road to socialism. Even many of the Communist Parties, which for decades were staunch defenders of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, came to realize in the 1970s that insurrection simply wasn’t on the cards in advanced capitalist nations. These “Eurocommunists” argued that a socialist transformation could be achieved through mass mobilizations of workers in support of a democratically elected socialist government.

Poulantzas old

Nicos Poulantzas, one of the leading theorists of the Eurocommunist movement, critiqued the orthodox Marxist view of the state, which held that the state is simply an institution of capitalist class rule over the workers that needs to be smashed. Poulantzas recognized that democratic states are much more flexible and dynamic than this. Class struggle occurs inside the state itself, as parties and factions representing differing social groups battle inside parliament and the state bureaucracy to shape state policy. Given this more sophisticated view of the state, Poulantzas argued that socialist parties should seek to capture the capitalist state through elections and thereby transform state institutions to make them suitable for the administration of democratic socialism.

As with any strategy, however, there are many ways in which the parliamentary road to socialism can go wrong. When socialists find themselves at the helm of a capitalist state, they are entrusted with the task of administering capitalism. With each successive socialist policy that is introduced, capitalists are made to feel more and more uneasy. Eventually, the state faces a collapse in “business confidence” wherein employers stop investing and flee the country. This places a nearly irresistible pressure on the state to retreat from its socialist agenda. Elected officials face a choice between familiar, stable capitalism, and a highly uncertain leap into the dark, where social unrest and economic collapse seem to lurk. They also fear that voters will blame them for the economic chaos, and vote them out of office. We have seen this story play out time and time again: France in the early 1980s, and Greece in 2015.

The historical failure of elected socialist governments to move beyond capitalism is itself a product of the tremendous legitimacy that advanced democratic states command. Things simply haven’t gotten bad enough for the state and for workers to make the economic chaos associated with a socialist transition seem worth it. This tells us two things. Firstly, this points to the crucial importance of political integration. Large, politically integrated states have much more freedom to do things that harm capital than smaller states, because they more capable of keeping capital flight under control and can hold out against a drop in foreign trade. This makes the backlash from capitalists less of an issue. Small countries like the UK, France, or Spain simply can’t go socialist on their own. The United States, on the other hand, would be a much more fertile ground for a socialist transition, as would a more politically integrated European Union.

Secondly, socialists need to be prepared to stick out for the long haul. Capitalism can only be ended in response to a severe legitimacy crisis, wherein both the state and the general population become convinced that the uncertain leap into socialism is a more viable path to an acceptable social order than maintaining the capitalist status quo. It will likely take many decades for a crisis like this to occur, but we can be confident the rising tide of automation, which will leave hundreds of millions jobless, will create one. In the meantime, socialists should push the boundaries of social democracy while preparing for the moment later this century when society will be ready to leap into the bright democratic socialist future.

Why Police & Prison Abolition is a Bad Idea

The complete abolition of police and prisons has become a popular demand on the socialist Left in recent years. Many have gone so far as to argue that “abolition” should become a central pillar of the socialist project:

“We are resolute in our conviction that the police and the prison system have no place in a socialist world. Strong, well-resourced communities don’t require repression to keep order. There is nothing democratic, nor socialist about police and prisons. The abolition of the police and prison system may seem impossible, but if abolition is unworkable, then so too is socialism.” – Praxis slate for DSA National Political Committee

When most regular people hear about the idea of abolishing the police and prisons, however, they tend to respond with confusion and disbelief. What does it even mean to abolish police? Who will protect innocent people from anti-social behavior? And don’t we need to isolate dangerous people from the rest of society? These are questions which the abolitionist movement has yet to answer in a satisfactory way.

What does prison abolition mean, anyway?

Most abolitionists recognize that even in a dramatically more just society, people will still seriously harm one another, and that society must have a way to deal with this. For example, prison abolitionist Jeannie Alexander writes in Abolition Journal:

“To be clear, we recognize that when harm occurs in a community it may be necessary to separate those whose immediate physical actions have resulted in harm to another. Social separation has its place. However, successful social separation should be as brief as possible and should result in the restoration of the individual to his or her community and the restoration of victims and their families.”

This is reasonable as far as it goes. But it’s not clear what the difference is between Jeannie Alexander’s idea of “social separation” and the most humane prisons in Scandinavian countries such as Norway. Norwegian prisoners enjoy a strikingly high standard of living, with high quality private accommodations, a variety of options for entertainment and learning, and many opportunities to socialize with other inmates. The best behaved inmates even get their own home on prison property— watch!

Not only are Norway’s prisons humane, they’re effective, too. Just 20% of Norwegian prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years of being released, compared to 77% in America. The Directorate of the Norwegian Correctional Service describes its rehabilitation-centric philosophy as follows:

“Prison should be a restriction of liberty, but nothing more. That means an offender should have all the same rights as other people living in Norway, and life inside should resemble life outside as much as possible.”

Socialists should look to Norway’s prison system as a model. But Norwegian prisons are still prisons, because inmates don’t have the freedom to leave. Until medical science develops some kind of “cure” for evil— a drug that would make it impossible for people to intentionally harm one another— we will have to forcibly isolate dangerous people from the rest of society until they are rehabilitated. And even with a cure for evil, we would still have to force criminals to take it.

The fundamental fact that prison abolitionists overlook is that even the most humane societies must use force to protect the social order. While we can dramatically reduce the incidence of crime by guaranteeing a high standard of living for all, it’s nevertheless inevitable that some people some of the time will engage in anti-social behavior, and when this happens society must be prepared to use organized violence (arrest, imprisonment) to neutralize the threat. Talk of “abolishing” prisons and police allows us to engage in utopian thinking, by pretending that it’s somehow possible to do away with all force and violence in the administration of a civilized society. It’s not.

Police officers are actually good

Cop AbolitionAbolitionists argue that the function of police is not to prevent individual crime, as we might naively assume— it’s to crush popular revolts and to protect the property of the rich. This means that police are an irredeemably reactionary force that must be abolished, rather than reformed.

But if the police are simply servants of the wealthy elite, it’s somewhat of a mystery why police spend most of their time preventing theft and assault, and a vanishingly small amount of time in riot gear. This idea that police only exist to protect rich people stems from a distorted understanding of how the state works and what its function is. The state isn’t inherently on any one “side” of the class struggle. Rather, the state mediates between various different social groups and tries (and often fails) to maintain a relatively peaceful coexistence among all of them. This does mean that the state will tend to protect the property of the rich— but it will also work to prevent individual crime, and it will even give protections to workers if it feels that this is necessary to maintain order. Despite its many flaws and shortcomings, working people are better off with the state than they would be without it.

Police killings are mostly an American problem

Police abolitionists contend that the violence that American police forces inflict on poor and working people, especially people of color, is an inevitable outgrowth of the institution of policing itself which outweighs whatever benefits the police might provide. The data, however, simply do not support this view. On the contrary, they show that police in other developed nations almost never kill civilians.

US vs. UK

In the United Kingdom, for example, just six civilians were killed by police from 2016 to 2017. It’s hard to imagine that any hypothetical replacement for the police that abolitionists might dream up could ever achieve a lower civilian death rate than this. In the United States by contrast, 972 civilians were killed by police over the same period— thirty-three times more police killings per capita than the UK. This tells us two things. First of all, it’s entirely possible to have a policing system that kills civilians at very low rates, probably close to the theoretical lower limit of what’s possible. Secondly, the comparatively high rate of police killings in the United States must be due to America-specific factors, rather than universal characteristics of policing itself.

One major factor is obvious: most American police officers are armed, and they are forced to deal with armed civilians much more frequently than police in any other developed nation. It should be no surprise that police killings are dramatically lower in countries where patrol officers are unarmed, such as the United Kingdom or Japan. Unfortunately, however, disarming the police isn’t on the cards in the US any time soon. Given the high concentration of guns in civilian hands in the United States, any attempt to take guns away from police would lead to an unacceptably sharp increase in both police and civilian deaths. If we wanted to disarm the police, we would first have to confiscate hundreds of millions of guns from American civilians, followed by a dramatic tightening of gun laws across the country. Given the Second Amendment and the deeply ingrained gun culture of the United States, this is a politically impossible task.

We need better police, not no police

In recent years, some Black Lives Matter activists who adhere to the abolitionist paradigm have taken up the slogan, “Defund the Police.” The idea is that, since our end goal should be to eliminate the police, socialists should oppose all increases in police presence in crime ridden neighborhoods or additional funding to police departments, no matter the circumstances. But given the evidence from the social science literature (see Chalfin & McCrary 2012) indicating that increases in police presence do indeed reduce crime rates, the idea of “defunding the police” is positively irresponsible in most cases.


Defunding the police is also very unpopular, among Americans of all races. Polling by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research has found that the vast majority of African-Americans (81 percent) would oppose any reduction in police presence in their communities, even if it meant they would pay substantially less in taxes. Strikingly, black Americans are actually more than twice as likely as whites to support an increase in police presence in their neighborhoods. These statistics clearly demonstrate that police abolitionism is an extremely fringe position among people of color, as well as the American public as a whole. The idea that it’s somehow “racist” to oppose police abolition is laughable. Abolitionists don’t speak for people of color— the vast majority of workers of color disagree with them.

How to transform the criminal justice system

Recognizing the necessity of police and prisons doesn’t mean that socialists can’t have a radical, transformative vision for the criminal justice system. The United States in particular has a serious problem with mass incarceration, and our legal system shows clear economic and racial biases. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Here are just some of the demands that socialists should be fighting for:

  1. End cash bail.
  2. End the death penalty.
  3. End mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
  4. End private prisons.
  5. Establish a single-payer legal system where everyone, including the rich, is provided with free, equal legal representation from the state.
  6. Legalize marijuana; decriminalize all other drugs. Retroactively expunge the records of nonviolent drug offenders.
  7. Mandate body cameras for all police officers.
  8. Overhaul the prison system with rehabilitation as its central goal. Norway should be a model.

The American Left would do well to take a page out of the book of the British Labour Party on this issue. Labour has taken a sharp turn to the Left in recent years, thanks to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as its party leader in 2015. But the committed socialists at the head of the Labour Party clearly don’t have a problem with advocating for an expansion of the police force. Labour’s manifesto calls for recruiting 10,000 more police officers across Britain, to reverse cuts that the Conservative government has made to police departments in recent years:

Labour understands that police officers are public servants, just like teachers and firefighters, and that our communities are safer with them than without them. Let’s be more like the Labour Party.

The Left Has a Golden Opportunity to Take Over Congress in 2020

Bernie Sanders will likely run for president again in 2020. Several reports have confirmed that he is at least “considering” a presidential run, and it’s clear that many of his closest advisers, including his former campaign manager Jeff Weaver, are strongly encouraging him to jump in the fray.

We should really hope that he is running, because polls going back all the way to 2015 have  shown that he is the Democratic candidate who is most competitive against Donald Trump in a general election match-up. He is also by far the most viable democratic socialist presidential candidate we are likely to see for the next several years. There is no other politician on the Left who has the name recognition, favorability ratings, experience, and activist base that Senator Sanders has.

When Sanders first started his campaign in 2015, one of his biggest stumbling blocks was his lack of name recognition, especially when compared to that of Hillary Clinton. He began the campaign with name recognition in the single digits, and had to gradually overcome that barrier over the course of the primary season. In 2020, however, he will likely have more name recognition than any other candidate in the Democratic primary race (except perhaps Joe Biden). This will make him the front runner from the start.

If Sanders does decide to run for president next year, he will likely win the Democratic nomination. If he wins the nomination, he is likely to become president. This means that a Sanders presidency in 2020 is a serious possibility, and it’s something that the Left needs to prepare for well in advance.

Sanders could enable a left-wing wave in Congress

As I argued in my last post, socialists can work toward capturing the Democratic Party by enthusiastically running candidates in Democratic primary elections. The usual difficulty with winning (congressional) primaries, though, is that they require a significant amount of financial and organizational resources. And in order to win a Congress that could actually enact a robust social democratic program, we will need to win hundreds of primary elections, in one fell swoop.

Bernie OcasioThis may seem virtually impossible, given the current limited capacities of the American Left. But a Sanders presidential campaign could give the Left the shot in the arm it needs to start winning primaries on a mass scale. Sanders could endorse and actively support hundreds of Berniecrat primary challengers across the country, turning his campaign into a movement to capture the entire federal government. He could invite each endorsed candidate onto the stage with him at campaign rallies, mention their names in the press, and use his campaign field offices to get out the vote for local Berniecrats, alongside Sanders himself. This would bring desperately needed media coverage, campaign contributions, and volunteer power to down-ballot Berniecrats.

But in order to make this movement a reality, we will need to start recruiting leftist candidates for Congress well in advance— ideally right now— while ramping up our mobilizing capacity for 2020. The Democratic Socialists of America in particular, with our 46,000 dues-paying members, can play a key role. DSA should prepare to flex its muscle by passing a priorities resolution at its 2019 national convention calling on chapters to recruit or endorse over 150 democratic socialist candidates in congressional races all over the country. We should do something like this even if Sanders doesn’t run for president, but if he does, it will make winning congressional primaries all the more important.

Legislative priorities for a Sanders administration

We have a lot of work to do, and we will need to be in power for quite a while in order to accomplish it all. It will be of the utmost importance that we change state policy in ways that ensure that this left-wing wave in Congress will translate into a long term shift in the balance of class forces in American society. With this in mind, a Sanders administration will need to prioritize pushing through those policies that will make the most palpable impact on voters’ lives. This in turn will win Berniecrats a lot of enduring support going into the 2022 and 2024 election cycles.

  1. Medicare for All
    Establishing a single-payer healthcare system in the United States should be the top priority of a Sanders administration. This would make a material improvement in the lives of most Americans. It would quickly become a social program that Republicans won’t dare rolling back.
  2. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour
    Increasing the minimum wage would also make a dramatic improvement in the lives of millions of Americans. This would help boost turnout for democratic socialist candidates in Congress among working-class voters going into the 2022 midterm elections.
  3. Trillion-dollar green infrastructure program
    It’s well known that the United States has some of the oldest, poorest quality infrastructure in the Western world. We also desperately need to invest in transitioning our economy away from fossil fuels. We can do both, while creating millions of living wage jobs, with a trillion dollar green infrastructure program. Those employed by such a program would become very likely Berniecrat voters in 2022 and 2024.
  4. Establishing a robust public campaign financing system for federal office
    One of the biggest hurdles to getting democratic socialists elected is the need for campaign money. Neoliberals will always tend to have a fundraising advantage, since they are able to solicit donations from business interests. Establishing a robust public campaign financing system would go a long way to correcting this imbalance and ensuring Berniecrats can keep getting elected in the years to come.
  5. Making public universities tuition-free
    Ending tuition at public colleges and universities will further solidify an already strong block of Sanders voters: students and young people.
  6. Mandating two weeks paid vacation for all workers
    American workers are among the most overworked in the world. Mandating at least two week of paid vacation for all workers will endear working people across the country to the Sanders administration.
  7. Making Election Day a paid federal holiday
    Mandating that employers give noncritical workers a paid day off on Election Day— for both midterms and presidential elections— would significantly boost turnout among poor and young voters, thereby helping Berniecrats get elected.
  8. Pass a Labor Bill of Rights
    As I discussed in my first post on this blog, the labor movement has been in decline for the past few decades, for a combination of technological and political reasons. The most effective way to revive organized labor is to enact aggressively pro-union legislation. This would include a ban on state-level “Right to Work” laws and legalizing card check union drives. A strengthened labor movement could in turn mobilize workers to vote and volunteer for Berniecrats running for elected office.

If we are able to enact even half of this agenda, it will go a long way toward rebuilding the New Deal coalition that kept Democrats in control of the federal government, almost uninterrupted, from 1932 to 1968. Back then, FDR was able to stitch together a voting block that united Northern blue collar workers, racial minorities, and rural and suburban whites based on their common class interests. And we might just have an opportunity to bring these disparate groups back together again, starting in 2020.

In Defense of Electoralism

Just last month, the Democratic Socialists of America made national headlines by securing its first seat in Congress with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district. Ocasio-Cortez refused all corporate campaign contributions and ran on a robust social-democratic platform that included Medicare for All, tuition-free college education, and a federal job guarantee. As a result of this victory, DSA’s membership has ballooned to over 45,000 members over the last three weeks.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t alone. Over the last year, DSA has enjoyed unprecedented electoral successes, with 15 DSA members elected to public office in the 2017 elections. These electoral victories have substantially boosted the profile of democratic socialist politics- so much so that New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon has started describing herself as a democratic socialist! The vital lesson to draw from these victories is that electoral politics is an essential terrain of struggle, and that we need to focus our energies on it much more heavily going forward.

Movements vs. electoral politics: a false dichotomy

There are many in the socialist movement, however, who want to resist the conclusion that we ought to devote more of our resources to electoral politics. These activists tend to argue that “movement building” and “grassroots organizing” are the only true drivers of social change, and that electoral politics can only play a secondary role:

“If we want meaningful social change, or even basic progressive reforms, the electoral road leads us into a strategic cul-de-sac. Instead of better politicians, we need popular power — independent, self-managed and combative social movements capable of posing a credible threat to capitalism, the state, white supremacy and patriarchy.”

The Lure of Elections: From Political Power to Popular Power

This view, however, depends on an overly abstract and nebulous conception of what it means to build an effective social movement. “Movements” change nothing in and of themselves. For a movement to be effective, it must be organized around concrete demands on specific institutions. These demands inspire working people to get involved in the movement, and they serve as a concrete measure of the progress that a movement has made.

The failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrated the crucial need for demands. When movements lack concrete demands, they tend to quickly fizzle out without achieving much of anything. Regular people do not have patience for movements that don’t promise any material improvements in their lives.

Where does power lie?

Movements can target a wide range of institutions, but the most obvious target for working-class demands is the capitalist state. The state is the only institution in society with the ability to collect taxes, print money, and enforce laws. The entire capitalist system is at the mercy of the state for its continued existence, so if we can change state policy, we can force capitalists to do our bidding. It’s no surprise that nearly all of the concrete demands that socialists are fighting for today, like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and a $15/hour minimum wage, are demands on the state. And in our society, the easiest way to change state policy is to win elections.

In addition to the state, working people can also make demands directly on employers. This is what the trade union movement has always been about: demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and more job security directly from the bosses. Historically, organized labor formed the organizational and financial backbone of working-class and socialist movements. But it’s important to recognize that after a decades-long decline in membership, organized labor is now a shadow of its former self. While it should be possible to modestly strengthen organized labor in the medium term, we cannot expect it to return to the strength it enjoyed in the 1950s. The transition to a service-based economy has fundamentally disempowered labor in the workplace, and the rising tide of automation will ensure that this trend continues into the future. Ironically, the one thing that could restore the labor movement to its former glory would be a dramatic change in state policy favoring unions. Indeed, it was the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which gave legal rights to labor unions for the first time, that precipitated the first major spike in union membership in the US.

Food_not_bombsThose who are uncomfortable engaging with state power often argue for a third strategy for socialist organizing: “building the new society in the shell of the old.” This anarchist concept involves building alternative institutions like worker cooperatives, mutual aid networks, or neighborhood councils, in an effort to prepare the groundwork for an entirely new social system at some point in the future. But while alternative institutions can often be helpful, they are severely limited as a strategy for social change. Merely demonstrating alternatives to the status quo does not build the power needed to transform society in the face of an increasingly powerful state machine. Socialists need to win state power, not make futile attempts to fight the state from below.

Building a movement to win state power

Given the limitations of other tactics, building the capacity of the Left to win elections is the single most important thing socialists should be working on. Socialist, labor, and progressive organizations should run candidates for office on platforms centered around universal social programs and class-based grievances. Whenever possible these candidates should publicly identify themselves as “democratic socialists,” even if they don’t explicitly advocate for public ownership of the means of production. At this stage, it is more important to popularize and destigmatize the idea of “democratic socialism” than it is to fill it with clear anti-capitalist content.

We should strive to aggressively primary any incumbent Democrat who does not enthusiastically endorse a robust social democratic program. The Tea Party has been very successful at pushing the Republican Party far to the right, largely through the threat of primary challenges to sitting Republicans. There is no reason we can’t do the same to the Democrats. It’s not even necessary for all of our primary challenges to succeed- as long as we can make credible threats to kick Democratic politicians out of office, incumbents will be forced to support social democratic demands.

None of this will happen on its own, of course. While the Tea Party was able to rely on the generous funding of billionaires to bankroll its primary campaigns, the Left will have to get much more creative. In order to consistently win thousands of primaries and general elections across the country, year after year, we will need to build a powerful network of civil society organizations, ideally federated together into a single coalition. Organizations like DSA, Our Revolution, and Brand New Congress can play a key role, alongside progressive labor unions and other left-wing groups at the local and regional levels.

Because of the long-term decline of organized labor, we can no longer rely on unions to be the primary source of funding for socialist electoral campaigns. But the good news is that the Internet is making big money much less important. Fewer and fewer voters are watching TV ads— by far the largest expense for traditional campaigns— and social media has opened the door to mass fundraising and outreach. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was able to unseat an incumbent who outraised her 10 to 1, because she was able to effectively leverage social media and an army of volunteers. And when socialists like Ocasio-Cortez get into office, we can enact laws that will tip the scales in favor of the Left, such as public campaign financing and automatic voter registration.

The endgame

The success of Tea Party-style primary challenges in shaping state policy should tell us something about how the state functions in capitalist society. The state is not a tool directly wielded by the capitalist class to further its immediate interests, as many orthodox Marxists have argued. Elected officials and other state actors enjoy much more autonomy than this- but their decisions are constrained, pulled and prodded by the myriad social forces that threaten the state’s order, and the careers of the politicians who run it.

As we build our power inside the state, the need for a socialist transformation of society will gradually become apparent. With each successive social-democratic reform, capitalists will feel more and more uneasy. Eventually, the state will face a collapse in “business confidence” wherein employers begin to disinvest, fleeing the country to seek refuge somewhere more friendly to business interests. When business confidence collapses, this places a nearly irresistible pressure on the state to retreat from its socialist agenda. Elected officials face a choice between familiar, stable capitalism, and a highly uncertain leap into the dark, where social unrest and economic collapse seem to lurk. They also fear that voters will blame them for the economic chaos, and vote them out of office. We have seen this story play out time and time again: Portugal in 1974, France in the early 1980s, and Greece in 2015.

The history of the socialist movement tells us that capitalism can only be ended in conjunction with a severe legitimacy crisis, wherein both the state and the general population become convinced that the uncertain leap into socialism is a more viable path to an acceptable social order than maintaining the capitalist status quo. Such a severe legitimacy crisis has never occurred in a developed capitalist country- but we can be sure that the steady encroachment of automation, which will leave hundreds of millions jobless, will create one. In the meantime, our job as socialists is to build our capacities to win elections, pushing the boundaries of social democracy while preparing for the moment later this century when society will be ready to leap into the bright socialist future that awaits us.