The Time Is Now

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

“Now is not the time to experiment with socialism,” said Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin at a rally in Loveland, Colo., on Oct. 20. She was wrong. This is exactly the time to experiment with socialism.

When everything is going as it should, that’s the time to play it safe. When things are bad and getting worse, doing the same thing you’ve always done is a death sentence. It’s plain to see that things are bad and getting worse; capitalism is not working as it should. It’s not creating prosperity — not even for the tiny few who were enjoying it while the rest of us worked more productively than ever yet saw our wages stagnate or fall. It’s not creating jobs. It’s not helping people start businesses and stay in their homes. It’s failing on every score except one: allowing us to cling to the idea that we’re a capitalist nation, and because we’re the best, capitalism is the best too. Our confidence in our economic system now rests solely on a faulty syllogism.

But before we can talk about experimenting with socialism, we have to get clear in our minds what “socialism” means.

The American public tends to associate socialism with Soviet-style communism, assuming that because our Cold War rival called itself “the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” it represented the socialist ideal; and therefore to conclude that anyone who advocates (or is accused of advocating) socialism aspires to the Soviet way of life. This is another faulty syllogism, whose invalidity should be obvious  — if the USSR represented the socialist ideal, then the German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. East Germany) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (a.k.a. North Korea) surely must have represented the democratic ideal. For that matter, Accuracy in Media must be in favor of balanced news, the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace must believe in abolishing management hierarchies, and Americans for Balanced Energy Choices must support increased investment in alternative energies, right? (If you’re not sure what I’m getting at there, AIM is a right-wing group that attacks CNN and the Washington Post for their “liberal bias,” the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace is a front group for chambers of commerce and the manufacturing lobby, and Americans for Balanced Energy Choices represents the coal industry.) Putting on a shiny hat doesn’t make you Admiral Nelson; putting “accuracy,” “balanced,” “democratic” or “socialist” in your name doesn’t make you an exemplar of accuracy, balance, democracy or socialism.

Simultaneously, the conventional wisdom associates socialism with Scandinavia, especially Sweden; I’m not sure what’s supposed to be so terrible about life in Sweden, other than the godawful architecture. Anyway, our own market capitalism hasn’t stopped us from being surrounded by hideous, inhumanly scaled slabs of spalling concrete — witness Boston’s City Hall, the Empire State Plaza in Albany, N.Y., or the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The fact is, Swedes rate themselves happier than Americans (7.7 vs. 7.4 on the World Happiness Database), live two and a half years longer on average, have half our infant mortality rate, and have about the same unemployment rate — but better unemployment insurance. Yes, Swedish taxes are extremely high . . . but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The fact is, the umbrella term “socialism,” as used by both proponents and opponents, includes many different economic and political systems, including — at the extremes — things that aren’t literally socialist at all.

The original meaning of socialism was synonymous with what we call collectivism today: a society in which wealth is equally distributed and property is community-owned. Under this sort of socialism, there would be no privately owned property.

Karl Marx took this concept of socialism, changed the unit of ownership from communities to workers’ collectives, added atheism and called the result communism. He then used the word “socialism” to refer to something else: state socialism, an intermediate phase between capitalism and communism in which ownership of property — most specifically, the means of production, or property used to generate wealth, such as farmland, factories and mines — is temporarily transferred to the state before being given over to workers.

Soviet-style communism, a.k.a. Marx-Leninism, is a form of state socialism in which individuals retain possession of personal property, but the means of production are owned by the state. More significantly, however, Soviet-style communism is not in any way democratic, but rather totalitarian. Human rights are drastically curtailed; only one political party, the Communist Party, is permitted to exist; the party and the state operate as two limbs of a single entity; and all citizens are subservient to the party and the state. The Leninist ideal, in which the country would be run by small decision-making committees (soviets) made up of workers, never came to fruition, being squashed by Stalinist central planning. Chinese-style communism is the worst of both worlds, a weird hybrid in which some of the means of production are once again privatized, but the totalitarian social and political elements remain. German National Socialism (Nazism) was a totalitarian social and political system that had no elements of socialism in the original sense — ownership in the Nazi economy was purely capitalist, though its production agenda was planned centrally by the party and the state, as it was in the Soviet Union under Stalin and afterward. (In fact, the Nazis actively persecuted socialists — the prisoners in the original Nazi concentration camps were not primarily Jews but rather socialists, Social Democrats, gays and Roma.)

Democratic socialism is a sharp contrast to Soviet socialism, in that human rights and political freedom are not only explicitly retained but made the guiding vision of the state. In other words, increasing people’s freedom is the reason for taking state control of the means of production; economic equality is put on the same footing as political equality. To Americans used to thinking of private property as a natural right equal in stature to life and liberty, this seems paradoxical and absurd at first. However, social democracy doesn’t disallow private ownership of personal property, or even private enterprise; it does, however, allow the state to take over ownership of industries if the private operation of those industries is harming the nation’s overall economic well-being. This is what you’ve got in Sweden. The high taxes imposed under democratic socialism — half or more of a worker’s income — raises the floor enough that poverty effectively ceases to exist. The trade-off is that luxury ceases to exist as well.

Then there’s social democracy, which isn’t socialism per se, but rather a combination of democratic politics and a capitalist market economy in which economic rights are given the same prominence as political rights. There may be some state-run industries (often infrastructural, such as transportation, power generation, telecommunications and the mail), but the preference is to let private companies do most of the work — with lots of government oversight. There are also many state-run programs to smooth out the inevitable inequalities that arise under an economic system powered by self-interest, and labor unions are robust defenders of employees’ rights and privileges. This is the system that exists in much of postwar Western Europe, including Germany, France and the Netherlands.

The American right wing engages in a massive game of equivocation, relentlessly blurring these distinctions; its rhetoric collapses them into a single confiscatory bogeyman, in which social democracy is the functional equivalent of Stalinism. This is why we need to know these different terms and start bringing them into our own vocabulary, so that we can be clear about what we’re discussing even if our opponents aren’t.

For instance, contrary to Palin’s assertion, “Now is not the time to experiment with socialism,” I believe that this is the perfect moment for the United States to adopt more elements of social democracy. We already have a few — Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, TANF (formerly AFDC), the VA, public schools and universities, and the good old U.S. Postal Service — but they’ve been part of our national fabric for so long that we’ve forgotten that they are, essentially, socialist. (Well, not all of us have forgotten: There are some on the right wing who have never forgiven Franklin Delano Roosevelt for introducing these socialist elements into our nation’s government and thought that the administration of George W. Bush gave them the perfect opportunity to eradicate them. Luckily, they were wrong.) A universal, nationalized system of health insurance is a key component of social democracy which we should be embarrassed not to have implemented yet, given that every other Western industrial democracy has one. The ultimate expression of social democracy would to create a society in which all the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, economic as well as political, were enshrined in U.S. law. This would include full legal protection for labor unions and union organizers, equal pay for equal work, a livable minimum wage, poverty-eliminating income tax credits, elimination of sales taxes on food and clothing, and adequate public education for all children.

We might even go a step further and contemplate whether there aren’t elements of democratic socialism that would improve America’s standard of living. American jobs are being shipped to other countries at an outrageous rate. Our economy is plummeting into backwardness because we’re producing so few goods for domestic consumption. Our exports consist mostly of agricultural products and extracted resources; our balance of trade is distressingly out of whack. We’re no longer generating the capital we need to sustain the rate at which we’re importing goods from other countries. This is happening mostly because gigantic private corporations are placing their profits, their stock prices and their executive compensation above the needs of employees, communities and the nation as a whole. I sympathize with libertarian conservatives who’d like to see smaller government, but you can’t have smaller government when business is so big. As these enormous corporations falter, may I suggest that the government take over those that are “too big to fail” and break up the rest into smaller entities? May I suggest that rather than dangle tax breaks like doggie treats to tempt companies to keep their production operations stateside, we should instead aggressively punish those who ship our cutting-edge industries, the ones that advanced our economy so dramatically during the late 1990s, to India and the Pacific Rim? May I suggest that we may never create the kinds of public transportation and energy production infrastructure we need to prevent further global warming unless the profit motive is removed entirely from the transportation and energy industries?

What about state socialism? Personally, I draw the line here. I don’t see the value in having the entire economy administered by the government. I don’t believe that being able to earn 450 times the annual salary of your neighbor is an essential right, but I do believe that being able to profit from an original idea is an essential right, and that we need an open market in which these ideas can be tested. A single centrally planned economy is as unstable as any other monoculture, whether it be a whole region growing only one crop or one’s life savings invested in a single company. A market economy, for all its tendencies toward monopoly and concentration of wealth, provides a kind of diversity that a state-run economy can’t. The role of the government should be to correct for these monopolistic tendencies, not to take ownership of them. Also, I oppose any form of government — capitalist, socialist or otherwise — in which the rights set out in the UDHR are curtailed even one iota.

Socialism is not an evil; it’s only a different set of priorities. Neither is capitalism an evil. Evil can find ways to exploit any system; however, socialism, at its heart, demands that government do something to offset the evil, while capitalism — at least, the laissez-faire capitalism advocated by the American right — demands that government look the other way. Now, when a presidential election and an economic crisis have forced the government to look directly at what conservative capitalism has wrought upon us and will not permit it to look away, is exactly the time to experiment with alternatives, including socialism. Our founders may have been believers in private property rights, but they were also wise enough to understand that the United States would have to change and evolve, and they gave us a Constitution that allows it to do so. After eight years of an administration that saw government has having no other purpose than to provide for the common defense, we finally have a chance to promote the general welfare — and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, which the stagnation of our economy threatens to take away.

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2 comments

  1. Because doing the same thing over and over and expecting something different to happen is crazy.

  2. Especially loved this:

    may I suggest that the government take over those that are “too big to fail” and break up the rest into smaller entities? May I suggest that rather than dangle tax breaks like doggie treats to tempt companies to keep their production operations stateside, we should instead aggressively punish those who ship our cutting-edge industries, the ones that advanced our economy so dramatically during the late 1990s, to India and the Pacific Rim? May I suggest that we may never create the kinds of public transportation and energy production infrastructure we need to prevent further global warming unless the profit motive is removed entirely from the transportation and energy industries?

    A modified socialism–something like what we see in Sweden or Norway or pretty much all of western Europe–is precisely what is needed here.

    Now, if we can only convince the lunkheads that it’s in their best interests…

    On a more optimistic note, I read (I think in the NYT) that a lot of doctors are now on board for single-payer healthcare, because the system the GOP has foisted on us is so onerous and dysfunctional.

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