Reclaiming the Common Good

Close-up of woman smiling.
Christine Darr

I am a democratic socialist because I believe in the common good.  I am committed to creating a society where every single person’s basic needs are met, where all people can find meaningful work, and where it is understood that one person cannot flourish while others are homeless or starving.

The notion of the common good is a key feature of democratic socialism and one of its primary aims. It is also an ancient idea, extending back to Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato.  The writers of the U.S. Constitution had the common good in mind when they wrote about the needs of “we the people.”  However, simply stating a desire to care for the common good does not mean that all people are included.  The Constitution’s commitment to the common good extended to white, male, landowners but not to the millions of others that lived under its umbrella.

Looking back through the social and political history of the United States, we might say that it is a history of negotiating whose needs are included in the common good.  The Labor movements of the 1920s and 1930s were, in part, an assertion that the needs of workers must be met—that the workers who run our mills, mine our coal, and sew our clothing must also receive the benefits and protections offered to others simply by virtue of their wealth.  The Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, the feminist movement, LGBTQ rights movement—each of these is an example of people coming together and demanding that they too be included in negotiations about who is included in the common good.

A woman holds a cardboard sign that reads, "People over profit."
The common good means people’s rights, healthcare, education, and quality of life matter more than a giant corporation’s bottom line.

These movements to expand the circle of social concern are imperative for creating a society that works for all of us, not just some of us.  When we ignore the voices of those who have been pushed to the margins of our society, then our notion of the common good is exclusive, too small to be meaningful.  Democratic socialists advocate for the inclusion of all voices into conversations about what needs are not being met and how to share resources so that all people can flourish.

Democratic socialists are also disturbed by the ways in which corporate interests, especially groups like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, are actively working to shrink the notion of the common good.  When these groups prioritize private ownership of goods that have previously been held in common, such as infrastructure or public education, they push people out of the conversation and restrict their access to these valuable resources in favor of a small group of people who can afford them. They divide us against each other by trying to convince us that if one of us has something another does not, the best response is to eliminate it rather than share it.

I am a democratic socialist because I believe that my well-being is connected to the well-being of all those in my community.  I echo the words of labor organizer and Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who worked tirelessly to expand the goods we share in common when he said:

Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

 

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Author: Christine Darr

1 thought on “Reclaiming the Common Good”

  1. This is a great piece, Christine! The struggle for an economy that truly works for all people is inseparably bound up with the liberation efforts that have rightly been the focus of liberal politics. And “reclaiming the common good” is precisely the way in which we can bring these two dimensions of the American left together.

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