“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
Killer Mike (left) and George Clinton met up in The SWAG Shop, the barbershop Killer Mike owns in Atlanta.
Editor’s note: This story contains some explicit language.
The connection between Killer Mike and George Clinton might not seem immediately obvious. One is a 42-year-old Atlanta rapper who, alongside El-P in Run the Jewels, sells out shows across the country without the boost of radio play. The other, now 75, founded the pioneering groups Parliament and Funkadelic in the ’60s and presided over a funk empire whose onstage manifestations included dozens of musicians and a spaceship that descended from the rafters.
But Clinton’s psychedelic funk has influenced generations of rappers, including Killer Mike. After Clinton moved to Atlanta in the early ’90s, he became a mentor to the hip-hop production collective Organized Noize, which nurtured Outkast — which, in turn, discovered Killer Mike. And there’s one more connection: They both have owned barbershops — and say that’s given them the financial freedom to take musical risks.
Killer Mike’s barbershop, The SWAG (Shave Wash And Groom) Shop, is currently up and running in Atlanta. “What I tried to build here was a place where people were free to talk as they wanna do — none of the social ills of the day,” he says. “And you could just come look good. A lot of time when you’re poor and you ain’t got but 15, 20 bucks in your pocket — if you can’t change your shoes, you can change your look with a haircut.”
For his part, Clinton owned and operated the Silk Palace, a barbershop in Plainfield, N.J., for 10 years beginning in 1960 — before Parliament, before the Mothership. He was also the head of a struggling doo-wop group and staffed the shop with his bandmates.
On Friday, the United Nations released a survey of the plans laid out by more than 100 countries to fight climate change. Its report uncovered some interesting trends, including that most countries are planning to invest in renewable energy and that global adaptation efforts focus first and foremost on protecting the food and water supply.
But the survey also affirmed that all this collective global action doesn’t add up to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the internationally agreed-upon goal. That brought to mind the great interview with Bill Gates that The Atlantic, one of our Climate Desk partners, recently released. In the above video, Gates points out another key flaw in the international negotiating process: Most countries’ goals focus on the progress to be made by 2030—phase one of the global push to slash greenhouse gas emissions. The United States’ goal, for example, calls for cutting emissions by about a third by that time.
If we’re really serious about keeping global warming in check, Gates argues, we need to start thinking more concretely about what comes after 2030. The Obama administration has promised that the short-term goal will get us on track to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050. But Gates cautions that that second phase will much more difficult to achieve than the first.
A specter is haunting the 2016 Democratic Party primary. The specter of socialism. Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid is forcing Americans to reckon with an ideology that has profoundly shaped the politics of just about every other developed country, and has shaped America more than we might like to admit. Tuesday night, Sanders’s defense of the socialist label at the first Democratic debate got viewers frantically searching Merriam-Webster to find out what, precisely, “socialism” is.
According to Sanders, socialism — or “democratic socialism,” his preferred formulation — is basically mainstream Democratic Party liberalism but more so. It entails single-payer health care, not Obamacare. It entails tuition-free college, not subsidized loans. It entails government jobs to deal with our unemployment problem, not stimulus through tax breaks. These are big policy changes, but they also don’t really seem to amount to the overthrow of capitalism — especially since actually existing capitalism in the United States has long included regulation of business and a welfare state.
But Sanders isn’t wrong. Looking at the history of socialism as a movement — from its utopian beginnings to Marx’s refinement and popularization and the split of socialists into reformers and revolutionaries at the start of the 20th century — reveals an ideology that has changed over time and shaped most countries around the world, including the United States, and that in some ways just isn’t as sharp a break with a status quo as the pearl-clutching tone of Anderson Cooper’s questions might lead you to believe.
1) Is Bernie Sanders a socialist?
Sanders is, in his own words, a “democratic socialist.” To him, that means he supports the policies in place in many democratic countries, particularly Northern European ones like Sweden, Finland, or Denmark.
“In virtually all of those countries, health care is a right of all people, and their systems are far more cost-effective than ours, college education is virtually free in all of those countries, people retire with better benefits, wages that people receive are often higher, distribution of wealth and income is much fairer, their public education systems are generally stronger than ours,” Sanders told Vox’s Ezra Klein earlier this year. “When I talk about being a democratic socialist, those are the countries that I am looking at, and those are the ideas that I think we can learn a lot from.”
That set of policies — often called “Scandinavian social democracy” or the “Nordic model” — was adopted largely at the instigation of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark’s “social democratic” parties, which serve as their countries’ primary left-of-center political entities, usually in conjunction with agrarian parties as a “red-green” coalition.
Over the course of the 20th century, as those parties took power across the region, they gradually cobbled together a large, comprehensive safety net, where programs were generally universal — think free health care for all, not Medicaid-style free health care just for the poorest — and which, because of that, came to enjoy wide public support. The agrarian parties are largely to thank for the universalistic aspect; farmer income tended to vary considerably, which made non-means-tested benefits attractive. Enabling and sustaining this system were large and powerful labor unions. In Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, a little under 70 percent of workersare in unions, which also run the countries’ unemployment systems; many non-union members are nonetheless covered by collective bargaining contracts.
To Americans, this may just look like a hardcore version of the Democratic Party platform. But social democratic parties have traditionally identified as socialist, and emerged out of socialist movements. And historically, social democracy developed not as a more moderate form of capitalism, but as a revised and refined version of Marxism.
2) Okay, so what’s social democracy, and is it different from socialism?
What do you want to be when you grow up? Well, if you’re not sure you want to do just one thing for the rest of your life, you’re not alone. In this illuminating talk, writer and artist Emilie Wapnick describes the kind of people she calls “multipotentialites” — who have a range of interests and jobs over one lifetime. Are you one?
Before Bernie Sanders was the hot challenger to Hillary Clinton, before he was even an oddball Vermont congressman from Brooklyn, the proud socialist made a documentary film—and a long-playing record—about Eugene Victor Debs.
The 20th century’s most renowned American socialist, Debs has long been a hero to leftists and radicals of many persuasions. Numerous children were named after him; so were a radio station, a town in Minnesota and a couple of beers. In Sanders’ quaint, low-budget 1979 documentary, Eugene V. Debs—issued by the now-defunct American People’s Historical Society of 295½ Maple Street in Burlington—Debs is given the full Howard Zinn treatment, depicted as a fighter on behalf of exploited workers, a fearless critic of ruthless corporate power and a martyr to free speech.
With the insurgent Sanders showing no signs of flagging in the Democratic nomination race, his esteem for Debs—whose picture graces Sanders’ office wall in Washington—highlights the senator’s strong connection to America’s sometimes-forgotten socialist traditions. It remains unclear, though, what kind of impact we can ultimately expect a socialist like Sanders to have in an American election. While Debs clearly serves him as an inspiration, perhaps he should also function as a warning.
What makes work satisfying? Apart from a paycheck, there are intangible values that, Barry Schwartz suggests, our current way of thinking about work simply ignores. It’s time to stop thinking of workers as cogs on a wheel.