Monday, April 27, 2009

That, that, socialist!

The day after the election, I wrote that
the wackos and nutballs populating the right edge of our political discourse are not going to go away. I do not even expect a moderation in their rhetoric; in fact I expect it to escalate.
Certainly, there is more than ample evidence to prove that this prediction was accurate. (Go scan some back posts at Orcinus is you have any doubts.) But that escalating rhetoric has not been without its unintended consequences. For example, Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party who lost a bid to became national party chairman, recently called Barack Obama's fiscal policies "economic fascism." Why that term instead of the right-wing standard screech of "socialist?"
“We’ve so overused the word ‘socialism’ that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Mr. Anuzis said. “Fascism - everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.”
In other words, it's just name-calling without regard to the meaning. Nonetheless, what Anuzis (sorry, but I can't look at his name without thinking of Anubis) says is true: Calling someone or some program "socialist" just doesn't have the impact it did not that long ago.

That much-noted Rasmussen survey from earlier this month bears that out:
Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.

Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better.
Rasmussen notes that its survey did not define either capitalism or socialism, so what the poll likely measures best is people's general perception of what the terms represent. And while some right-wingers have tried to say "Hey, wow, 53%! A majority! That's great!" it's hard to imagine that it really was an expected or to them favorable result to have nearly half of Americans say in essence that socialism is better than, or about as good as, capitalism.

However, as others, perhaps not so invested in obtaining a certain result, have remarked, having 20% of Americans think socialism is better may reflect the GOPpers overuse of the term: They keep saying everything to the left of Rush Limbaugh is "socialist" and a lot of people wind up going "Hey, socialism doesn't sound that bad." (AfterDowningStreet had a good rundown on the range of reactions.) But of course, what the Obama team is advocating is not "socialism" by any reasonable definition despite the wide variety of meanings applied to the term. So this may not tell us a lot about what people feel about actual socialism as opposed to the wingnuts' paranoid vision of it.

Still, there might be more to it. Downplaying the results, Rasmussen refers to an earlier survey, this one from December, in which 70% of respondents endorsed the "free market." But in that same survey, 15% said a "government-managed economy" is a better system, with an equal number unsure.

Extrapolating from just two surveys that asked different questions using undefined terms is obviously a very risky undertaking, but I still have to admit that it seems to me to the extent the surveys are accurate, to that same extent they indicate that most people in thinking about "socialism" think in terms of a "government-managed economy," which is an incomplete but not grossly inaccurate description of economic socialism. If so, and I do think it's so, there is a solid base of support for some form of socialism - not a majority by any means, but not the vanishingly small number we'd traditionally been lead to believe, either.

This means that those of us who, unlike the Obama team and the Obamabots, really are socialists have an opening, a basis to work from. Certainly, if the US had a European-style multiparty system, there would be a decent chance of creating a socialist party large enough to have a real and regular effect on elections, a party to be regarded for what it said rather than for the impact it has on what the major parties say and to have a place in governing rather than being an outside force trying to pull the government to the left. But it doesn't, so we have to work from where we are.

I think the first order of business would be to try to lay out what socialism is - and is not - both as an economic and a social system. There would be, of course, a considerable range of opinion, a range which would grow the more specific you got, but I believe there are some common, basic principles on which most if not all socialists would agree. What I intend to do here is to lay out some of my own ideas on that score. I may wind up quoting myself from previous posts; if I do, feel free to skim.

The first thing that needs to be said is that socialism must be democratic. Or, to be more accurate, must involve representative government, be that a democracy, a republic, a parliamentary system, or whatever. The word "socialism" comes from the French socialisme and ultimately from the Latin socius, meaning "associate" or "companion," and if it is to mean anything, it must mean people freely working together for their mutual benefit. Doing that on a national scale is not possible without basic political freedoms that allow people to express their views and advocate their ideas freely. Socialists who embrace this concept, as I do, often refer to themselves as "democratic" socialists. But even though I use the adjective for clarity, I regard it as unnecessary in principle: As far as I'm concerned, a "socialism" that is not based on and in political freedoms is not socialism. Period.

Next, contrary to common misconception, socialism doesn’t seek to take control of our economy away from a corporate elite only to give it to a government elite. (It's worth noting at this point that this is what happened in the old Soviet Union, whose economic system more and more people came to call "state capitalism" and not "socialism." It was still a system run by a few for the benefit of a few. It was just a different few.) A change that consists of a change in the titles of the members of a dominant cabal from "CEO" to "the Honorable" is no change at all. If that's all we succeeded in doing, we would have failed.

In fact,'s definition of "socialism" isn't that bad: Socialism, it says, is
a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.
The important phrase there is "the community as a whole." The goal of socialism is, must be, to empower communities and the public as a whole to control their economic future through methods like cooperative economic planning and public ownership of national natural resources, the birthright of all citizens. It aims to involve workers, whether their collars be white, blue, or pink, directly in the management decisions that affect them and base major investment policies on the will of public good, not the whims of private greed.

We can argue at length about the particulars of the best way(s) to organize such a system as well as about the best ways to transition from what we have now to what we would have then. I'm not concerned with that now, but with the ethical and moral principles on which such a system would be founded.

One thing I will mention quickly is that socialists in general, myself included, do not envision the abolition of private property or even of private enterprise or private profit. Rather, it's that such private profit must be subjugated to the needs of, again, the community as a whole. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," as it were - especially when the "need" of the few is to achieve selfish gain, often at the expense of others who do the work to produce the wealth but don't share in the full value of what they produce.

That idea of community is central to pretty much every version of socialism, even as - no surprise - the details of what the term means vary. But at bottom it expresses the moral principle of each of us having reciprocal responsibilities and obligations with and to other human beings. That we are, contrary to Cain, "our brother's keeper." (Perhaps the reason why the right-wingers never seem to speak of "community" is their difficulty with the concept of obligations to others.)

In a similar vein to not abolishing private property, we do not envision that all will be the same and have the same or that none will be richer than others. As I have said often enough, "We have no desire to place a ceiling over anyone's aspirations, but we do intend to put a floor under everyone's needs." It's not that everyone has the same, it's that everyone has enough. Enough for a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression.

This in turn brings up the "social" part of socialism, the aspects that go beyond the narrowly-defined economic. Because the concept of "enough" is not merely a financial one. As Abraham Maslow outlined in his famous "hierarchy of needs" in a 1943 article, once certain needs are met, others come to the fore. Meeting physical needs does not ultimately make for a complete life. Simply having enough is, well, not enough. Not for a decent, full life.

Having "enough" but facing racism is not a decent life. Having "enough" but facing sexism is not a decent life. Having "enough" but facing homophobia is not a decent life.

Having "enough" but breathing polluted air or drinking polluted water or having your community be a dumping ground for toxic waste; having "enough" but being unable to pursue educational dreams or to have access to health care or to walk in a neighborhood park - no, that is not "enough" for that decent life.

So a true socialism must also dedicate itself not only to political justice and economic justice, but to social justice as well. A full justice, one that, as I have said so many times before,
rejects the ascendancy of bombs over bread, of private greed over public good, or profits over people. A justice that centers on the preciousness of life and will fight to maintain and even expand that preciousness.
What does this all mean in practice?

Various democratic socialist parties in the US (as judged by their platforms, not their names) have laid out at some length and in some detail the policies they would implement if they could. As just two examples, links to the sections of the 2008 platform of the Socialist Party, USA are here and the complete 2004 Green Party platform is here. (Warning: The latter is a relatively large .pdf file.) In the course of my own campaigns for public office some years ago now, I developed my own platform with a list of proposals, some of which got developed into position papers. I won't go through any long list (I can supply one by email if anyone is foolish enough to ask), but in very quick summary, these are some of goals advocated in some of those position papers (those being the ones I remember now and offered here without, obviously, any supporting facts or arguments), through which you can, I expect, get some insight into the thinking of this particular socialist:

- A 50% cut in the military budget over four years, including a 90% cut in nuclear weapons.
- Public ownership of major energy corporations, coupled with worker management and decentralized economic planning.
- Public ownership of national natural resources, again linked to decentralized planning.
- A program I called "businessteading" (like "homesteading" except for businesses) to encourage the creation and stabilization of community-level businesses.
- An energy policy called "No One Answer" based on using whichever clean, renewable sources were best suited to a given region of the country and an end to the use of nuclear power.
- A national health care system, paid for through taxes (and fees based on ability to pay), with layers of facilities from community-level clinics up to a few large national hospitals for the rarest and most complex treatments.
- A National Land Use Policy, to guarantee adequate housing, protect wilderness and wetlands, limit sprawl and encourage "brownfielding," and protect farms, especially smaller, family farms.

That, again, was not the entire platform, it was rather just those parts that got fleshed out into full position papers. And certainly, were I running now, there would be other issues that were part of that platform that would be more prominently displayed, such as - to name a few obvious choices - civil liberties and Constitutional rights, same-sex marriage, and taking over the damn banks. But the thing is, when I ran for office as a socialist, what often surprised people is how reasonable a socialist platform could sound and how in at least a fair number of aspects it was not that far removed from what the public desired. (I once got told by a reporter that I had "the ability to make the most radical ideas sound like a voice of sweet moderation" and while I've used that remark as an example of what makes for good framing, I've always harbored the suspicion that the truth was that the ideas just didn't seem that radical after all.)

Still, it's distressing to look at those old platform statements from the early 1980s and note how much of what's in them represent ideas that still need doing today. Which is why we can't fool ourselves about the "change" represented by Barack Obama. Yes, despite my frequent (and entirely deserved) slams of him for backing Bush policies on presidential power, he has done some good things and yes I expect he will do some more good things over the rest of his term. But ultimately what he is doing is patching the cracks in a wall set on a weak foundation: It's not that what he's doing is necessarily bad, it's that it doesn't actually change anything in any fundamental way. If you consider his economic policies, his stand on health care, his foreign policy (aside from the ban on torture, about which I'm prepared to accept his sincerity for now), they all have one thing in common: He is trying to resolve the crises and shore up the institutions while changing as little as possible about the logic or principles on which they're based. It's not about changing the social and economic systems, it's about maintaining them.

Socialism, on the other hand, is radical. It is about change. It's about changing some fundamental relationships, power relationships, in our society. To express it symbolically if a touch flippantly, it wants to change "me" to "we" and to create economic and social structures that look across rather than up and down. Those changes can't be imposed by fiat and bringing them about, in something else I've said before, will not be easy, cheap, or convenient. But it is possible - and after all is said and done, it's the right thing to do.

For now, consider that the finding that people aren't as taken aback by cries of "Socialist!" as they used to be may, just may, reflect an increasing awareness of that need for radical change and a gradual, even if grudging, acceptance of the logic of that radicalism.

So 15% think a government-managed economy is better than the "free market?" And 20% think at least some vision of socialism is better than capitalism? Hey, socialists: Talk to your neighbors. They may be a lot more on your side than you think.

Footnote: The two socialist parties I mentioned are independent third parties. If you're one of those folks who thinks that's "wasting your vote," you can try the Democratic Socialists of America, which works within the Democratic Party to push more socialist policies. Personally, I believe that is the waste of time since the DSA winds up supporting whoever the Democrats nominate, regardless of what positions they express, but I believe even more strongly in doing what you can, where you can, how you can to advance the cause of justice and if you think working with the DSA is the best thing you can do to that end, then dammit, do it and screw what I think of them.

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