Socialism debate recapby Laura M. Browning
In Doha Debates’ first fully virtual debate, our three guest speakers debated the merits of socialism, and whether the socialist policies that have been introduced worldwide to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic should be made permanent. A virtual studio, designed to look and feel like the real studio in Doha, elevated the discussion beyond the usual videoconferencing the world has become accustomed to in the last several months. A voting panel of 49 students from 24 different countries replaced the customary live audience.
Moderator Ghida Fakhry was joined by three speakers, Fatima Bhutto, a Pakstani author and commentator; Tabata Amaral, a Brazilian congresswoman and activist; and Lord William Hague, the former leader of the Conservative Party in the UK. The pandemic is exposing massive cracks in social welfare systems and revealing inequalities that have existed for centuries, all of which have only been exacerbated in the last seven months. Many governments are experimenting with socialist policies like stimulus packages and universal basic income (UBI) to soften the blow of the pandemic, but problems like lack of access to health care or childcare won’t disappear when the coronavirus does. Ghida put the question to the speakers: Is now the time for radical change? Should more countries embrace socialism — permanently?
Fatima began with an eloquent statement on the chasm of inequality that pervades nearly every country in the world today. This systemic inequality, she said, is emblemized by statistics like 10,000 people around the world dying every day due to lack of affordable health care — before the COVID-19 crisis. The United States has bought a huge portion of available remdesivir, one of the only drugs proven to help the sickest of COVID patients, that costs $10 to produce but will be sold for $3,200 a course. Her condemnation of capitalism was swift and sharp: “Capitalism’s predation knows no bounds. Our world is broken beyond repair, and capitalism doesn’t work the way it’s advertised.” Fatima called for health care to be a basic human right, for the cancellation of debt for poor countries and for the defunding of police. “It is time to radically rethink and reimagine our world.”
“Capitalism’s predation knows no bounds. Our world is broken beyond repair, and capitalism doesn’t work the way it’s advertised.”—Fatima Bhutto
Tabata, a Brazilian congresswoman and activist, took a slightly more moderate position that engaged with capitalism while still embracing socialist policies. Rather than talk about capitalism and socialism in either/or terms, she said, we should simply take the best policies of both, in a commonsense approach that allows for innovation and provides human rights for all citizens. Capitalism, with its attendant innovations and technological advances, could produce solutions for major global problems, like the climate crisis or poverty. But capitalist policies must be regulated in a way that allows every citizen to meet their basic needs by — as with universal basic income — choosing what they need the most. In a just society, these hybrid solutions can and should reach everybody.
William, the former UK House of Commons Leader, espoused a pro-capitalist mindset that still endorsed free universal health care and education. He acknowledged the massive and profound impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on everybody, but noted that the slowly recovering economy was having a “tragic impact on young people” in particular. But, he cautioned, what the government gives, the government can take away: “There’s a great danger that governments are doing so much in our lives [right now] that they will never stop interfering [after the pandemic subsides].” Problems like climate change require new ideas, innovations, entrepreneurship and others willing to take a risk. “We need people to create the Apples and Microsofts and Amazons of the future — not try to reinvent the Soviet Union.”
“We need people to create the Apples and Microsofts and Amazons of the future — not try to reinvent the Soviet Union.”—Lord William Hague
Ghida recapped each speaker’s position for the live voting panel and asked the students to vote. For the first voting segment, Fatima’s pro-socialist argument earned 44.73% of the vote, Tabata’s argument to merge the best ideas of socialism and capitalism earned 37.04% of the vote and William’s pro-capitalist argument trailed at 18.23% of the vote. Doha Debates correspondent Nelufar Hedayat highlighted comments from some of the 4 million live viewers, including one from Venezuela that was frequently referenced during the Majlis-style discussion: “The mere mention of socialism gives me pause. How about saying “social justice policies” or “social safety net”?
After the speakers’ opening statements, Ghida introduced the Majlis portion of the debate, in which the speakers engage in critical conversation with each other to build consensus and find common ground. Directing a pointed question to William, she said that seven out of 10 Gen Zers would vote for socialism. “William, since you were 16, you’ve been railing against socialism. Can you understand how in today’s world, young people are being drawn toward socialism and social justice?”
He did understand: “There’s a lot of work to do to address inequality in the world.” For instance, he emphatically favors a global carbon tax to help fight the climate crisis. Though he agreed broadly with Tabata’s assessment of combining the best elements of capitalism with regulation, he said that today’s world, on balance, features the best health and longest life expectancies of any time in human history. Although it’s not perfect, capitalism rewards and fuels the innovation required to, say, quickly develop a coronavirus vaccine. Socialism, he said, can lead to governmental collapse, like Venezuela today, where you’re not even guaranteed basic necessities like toilet paper.
Ghida pointed out successful socialist states closer to his home — Finland and Denmark have high taxes, strong social safety nets and rank among the happiest countries in the world. William was reluctant to call those countries “socialist,” preferring “social democracy.” He held fast that universal free education and health care should be available to every person in the world, even in avowedly capitalist economies. UBI, William said, always raises the question of who will pay for it in the end — because if the wealthy are taxed so heavily, innovation and entrepreneurship are dampened.
Ghida challenged Fatima on her definition of socialism. Many people in the world think that socialism raises the specter of more extreme ideologies like Stalinism and communism. Could Fatima’s socialist vision be too idealistic? Fatima argued that her beliefs weren’t really utopian at all: “What we’re asking for is really very basic.” She also pushed back against William’s earlier example of Venezuela, saying that it isn’t the best case of socialism, in part because worldwide sanctions against Venezuela need to also be considered. She gave an example to illustrate her point about predatory capitalism: Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and whose net worth of at least $189 billion makes him the richest person the world, got even richer during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, Fatima said, Amazon warehouse workers were risking their lives for only $15 an hour. “Bezos is being rewarded quite handsomely, but Amazon workers in warehouses are not.”
Ghida replied, “Some might argue that Bezos earned his millions. Can you imagine a world without Amazon?”
“Sure I can,” Fatima said.
Fatima called the definition of capitalism into question. The United States is often used as a paragon of what capitalism can achieve, but she pointed out that it was built, quite literally, on the enslavement of people. “Call it what you like,” she said, but we need “a system in which people have the right to a dignified life, where they are not turned into machines.”
Ghida turned to Tabata. “William warns against the torment of social policies. You live in a country with right-wing leadership, which has had its failed experiments with socialist governments.” And right now, Brazil is an epicenter of the pandemic, with millions of people losing their jobs and tens of thousands dying of COVID. “How do young people in Brazil view this discussion? Do they favor socialism or do they look toward entrepreneurship and empowerment?”
Tabata took the opportunity to fully reject authoritarianism, whether it came from the left or the right. Using the example of a future coronavirus vaccine, she doubled down on her stance: “We need capitalism because of its freedom, because of the incentives for technological innovations to thrive — but if you don’t do anything [socialist], who knows if the vaccines are going to get to everyone?” Already, stiff competition for a safe and effective vaccine is giving us the best possible chance of being able to flatten the curve once and for all. But distributing the vaccine according to capitalist markets would protect only the wealthy.
William largely agreed, though he fell short of using the word “socialism” to describe such a policy. But, he said, that is basically what is happening in the UK right now: University of Oxford is partnering with AstraZeneca on what is currently the frontrunner vaccine candidate, and the UK government has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars internationally to advance vaccine research. “Britain is not a socialist society,” William insisted, but everybody will have a vaccine if and when there is one. And “nobody will have to pay for it.”
With Tabata and William mostly in agreement on this point, Ghida sought Fatima’s input on a coronavirus vaccine. Fatima said that “unless everybody has this vaccine, none of us will be safe.” As reluctant to speak positively of capitalism as William was about socialism, she clarified that simply being a socialist government doesn’t ensure that it’s a good government. She bristled against using Venezuela as an example of failed socialism, because the reality is far more complicated and nuanced. And just because Venezuelans have largely lost their freedom of expression doesn’t mean that all socialist governments curb those freedoms, nor does it mean that all capitalist societies protect them. “India [is] the largest so-called democracy on Earth,” but it’s using the COVID crisis as an excuse to arrest critics of the state: “Freedom of expression is something people fight for every single day in capitalist countries, too.” And although innovation remains important, capitalism at this point is a failed experiment. “It’s absolutely unjust that every single year, 100 million people go into poverty to pay for health care,” she said.
“Unless everybody has this vaccine, none of us will be safe.”—Fatima Bhutto
Ghida brought up more of the vast inequalities that are being shouldered by younger generations. “In the United States, one in five millennials lives in poverty. Most can only dream of owning homes. A lot of people in [the U.S.] will face 300% more debt than their parents’ generation. So not a very rosy picture for a lot of young people in capitalist societies.”
William agreed that younger generations, particularly Gen Z, are carrying an unfair burden of the coronavirus economic crisis. The British government is subsidizing young people to help them work. “And that’s not socialism — that’s just sensible support for getting those people into work.” Further, he said, they need the opportunity to work for entrepreneurs, who can mentor and foster the next generation of innovators.
Every Doha Debate is built on the idea of Majlis, which emphasizes common ground and bridge-building. So every debate features a connector, whose job it is to guide the speakers toward solutions that can stand on shared ground. Dr. Govinda Clayton, a senior researcher at the Centre for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, was this debate’s connector. He noticed straight away that speakers on all sides of the issue tended to hesitate to use the word “socialism” or “capitalism,” so he suggested that the speakers avoid those words entirely and instead describe in more detail exactly what policies they wanted to see.
With a more specific policy in mind, Ghida turned again to William, asking him pointedly: “Research shows that 51% percent of Britons favor UBI. Do you support it?”
William said plainly that “I don’t support it.” The “problem is that if UBI is at a sufficiently high level to allow people to maintain a good standard of living, you really have to tax everybody else very heavily.” Instead, he supports paying businesses to create apprenticeships for young people, because UBI would, he said, leave people who want to start new businesses without the incentive to do so.
Ghida took a question from the student voting panel, asking Fatima how we would ensure accountability in a socialist system in a developing country. “The same way we wish for it to happen in a capitalist country: You have to have free press.” A robust, free press holds governments accountable, and even in developed capitalist countries, that’s not a guarantee. Rupert Murdoch has enormous control over news in Western capitalist countries, and U.S. President Donald Trump regularly maligns the press. And the press, Fatima says, is really our best line of defense.
The speakers ended on a note of agreement about climate change: There must be global collaboration in order to fight the current crisis. “When we have leaders that look only at their countries” and not global problems, it makes it harder to solve them, said Tabata, who said she was speaking from the perspective of a 26-year-old whose generation is already bearing the brunt of the fight against climate change.
“When we have leaders that only look only to their countries and don’t think about all those global problems, it’s going to be really hard for us to solve them.”—Tabata Amaral
The student panel took its second and final vote. Fatima and Tabata effectively tied, earning 43.23% and 42.06% of the vote, respectively. William’s pro-capitalism stance sunk further, to 14.71%, mirroring the trend seen in younger people worldwide who are increasingly in favor of socialism.
Each speaker shared some parting advice. Fatima said that the pandemic has made clear that there is a rising generation of people who are committed to a more compassionate, more just future. Tabata said that education is the way forward, because a strong education system would help address systemic inequalities. William suggested that the real test of whether we’re doing something worthwhile is, “Are we addressing the needs of the whole planet? Are we saving our planet from climate change? Certainly, we need a lot more global cooperation.”
Watch the entire debate
Is the pandemic a catalyst for radical change?