Whither Socialism?

Originally posted at GlobalComment.com

The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood…Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another.

-George Orwell, “Can Socialists Be Happy?” 1943

I start with Orwell because people often forget that he remained a socialist even as he mounted critique after critique of the U.S.S.R. and other totalitarian-Communist states. Because the first argument one often faces in the U.S. when one suggests socialism as an alternative to the current political-economic structure is that Communism failed. But reading Orwell’s essays from the 40s, from an England struggling against Nazism on one side and yet learning of the brutality of Stalinism, is to remember that it is possible to have an intellectually honest critique of the states that called themselves socialist and to still advocate for socialism.

Also because in this essay, Orwell noted that it was impossible to know what would happen under the socialism he wished for, only that it had to be better than what we had.

And so, here I am, nearly 70 years later, ruminating on the word “socialism.” Because more and more it’s a term I identify with, claim, am turning over and over in my head. As words and phrases like “feminism” and “anti-racism” mean something to me, but are contested, nebulous, strange, I return to Orwell’s goal of a socialist society and wonder if it’s possible, still, to hope.

The U.S. right now, of course, talks about socialism a lot. But most of the people talking about it know very little of what it really means. Socialism is a catch-all term for “big government,” which lately seems to mean any government program that helps people of color–even if that program also helps white people. Tim Wise notes that when social services began to be seen as programs that helped nonwhite people, rather than, as the New Deal had, explicitly privileging white folks, they began to be much less popular.

Socialism now, then, is used as an epithet by people who hate one another–or perhaps fear one another would be more accurate. The Tea Parties are full of hateful language, from Sarah Palin’s “reload” to the chants of “Take our country back.”

But as an old friend asked me the other day, just how far back do they want to go? To Nixon? The fifties? Slavery, perhaps?

Sarah Palin, argues John Nichols, in her rush to throw insults at Barack Obama, inadvertently brought socialism back into the political discourse in the U.S. In her extended stay in McCarthyism (between Goldwater and the Klan), Nichols notes:

“Palin’s determination to present socialism as the alternative to casino capitalism had a remarkable impact. In the spring of 2009, a survey by the Republican-friendly Rasmussen Reports polling group found that one in five Americans viewed socialism as a preferable system to capitalism. Another 27 percent of Americans said they weren’t sure whether they preferred socialism or capitalism. A bare majority–53 percent–was still rooting for the system that Americans had for decades been told was ‘the only alternative.'”

My colleague (comrade?) Erik Loomis has argued here that the American Left has failed to articulate an alternative to the casino capitalism Nichols describes, and I agree. Americans seem only capable of seeing the world in binaries: capitalism as we have it, perhaps with a few modifications to support the poor, or Stalinist communism. If you’re lucky, you only have to argue about Cuba.

But the fragmented Left is scrambling for ways to organize across silos. This weekend’s One Nation march drew more people to the Washington Mall than Glenn Beck has, but it remains to be seen if the coalition between organized labor and old Civil Rights organizations like the NAACP can ignite a movement that crosses generations.

Which is what leads me back to Orwell’s definition. Like Orwell, I have no clear picture of what my ideal world looks like. But I want it to be one where we organize around love and compassion for one another, not fear and anger. I want understanding that racism, sexism, homophobia are not individual failings but systemic crises that require social solutions. Social justice. Social.

At the blog Questioning Transphobia, Queen Emily notes that many of the problems facing the transgender community are not problems unique to transgender people–they’re problems that are shared across oppressed groups. She writes:

I highlighted Anne’s on-point needs assessment: “decriminalization, housing, education and employment.”Full employment, universal health care and universal education would address a lot of that. A lot.

Of course, employment and health care and education won’t do away with all the ‘isms, but combined a more equitable distribution of wealth could do a lot to break up the structural racism and sexism that have continued to leave communities of color poorer and leave women making 77 cents to men’s dollars.

Read the rest.

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7 Responses to Whither Socialism?

  1. sasoc says:

    Societies have this thing called finite resources….and that means that everyone cannot have everything they want. Finite resources must be allocated in some way, and different economic systems exist to do just that: spread around finite resources.
    Capitalism, with guard rails and shock absorbers, has proven to be the best at allocating finite resources (mainly through the free-floating pricing mechanism) and no other system even comes close.
    Socialism, in every place it’s been tried, ends up making allocations according to the stipulation of a powerful elite minority of politicians who hold power, and the allocation methods deployed by such power groups always involve corruption and patronage, because that is the only way for the masses to get anything they need (got to find a way to move to the front of the line…).
    Central planning of this kind always fails, but don’t take my word for it, ask the Chinese, who have abandoned central planning in the economic arena, and then ask the Vietnamese, who are doing the exact same thing.
    These countries have done so out of pure necessity: socialism fails to feed th population! Central planning is much too difficult, and people go hungry, literally. It destroys wealth and never creates wealth.

  2. Lisa Harney says:

    Capitalism is actually really terrible at allocating resources, and this is easily demonstrated by the prevalence of poverty in capitalist nations (especially the United States) as well as the concentration of the vast majority of the wealth into the hands of a relatively tiny minority of the population. Also check out how the banks are basically using paperwork tricks to cheat people out of their homes with fraudulent foreclosures, or the usurious and exploitative credit practices that helped contribute to the current state of affairs.

    In short, capitalism is not about distributing resources, it is about concentrating them in the hands of an undeserving few while the population is convinced that a properly worthwhile degree of taxation that could actually wipe out poverty is the enemy of the good.

    People are going hungry now in the US. Did you notice how food stamp benefits were recently cut? Do you notice how social programs in general are designed to keep people in poverty even while the media and politicians paint people who receive benefits as cheats and liars trying to get a living without making a living?

    An actual economic stimulus would give the population sufficient purchasing power to sustain the economy. This hasn’t happened, and the population is being slowly strangled while – again – the elite few stash as much money as possible in banks where it does no one any good, and only serves to squeeze the economy even tighter. Capitalism is, bluntly, a sustained act of aggression upon everyone who is not part of the wealthy upper class.

    • sasoc says:

      The Chinese and the Vietnamese communists do not agree with you and have been pursuing capitalism with great vigor because decades of central planning failed to allocate resources well and created no wealth. Capitalism, though imperfect, is the best system, and that is why these two communist nations have embraced it. Nothing smashes your argument better than that fact.

      • Lisa Harney says:

        Well, let me know when you have facts that contradict what I said rather than random facts about China and Vietnam. As Ravenmn points out, there are strong greed-motivated reasons to adopt capitalism that only serve to reinforce my argument.

      • sasoc says:

        Capitalism creates the most wealth, and the evidence is all over planet earth. Greed exists in all systems, including capitalism, but only capitalism feeds billions. The verdict is in, and your argument is not even twitching – it’s dead.

  3. Ravenmn says:

    “Nothing smashes your argument better than that fact.”

    It’s true that capitalist imperialism has driven corrupt leaderships to pursue capitalism in previously socialist countries. Corrupt leaders love capitalism! It makes them rich and allows them to hand that wealth down to their children. Capitalism redistributes wealth to the few with power and ignores the vast majority of the population. That doesn’t bring me to the conclusion that capitalism as a better system. It only proves that capitalism can fight dirty and will slow the progress of humanity to achieving a better way of life for all.

    We can settle for a capitalist system that is riddled with corruption and guaranteed to go through continuous cycles of boom and failure. The problem is, we can’t be sure the people on the bottom will continue to passively accept their lot. And we can’t be sure the people at the top won’t turn to fascism to protect their wealth.

  4. GallingGalla says:

    China, Vietnam: These are not socialist systems gone awry. These are examples of government gone corrupt and yielding to the lure of capitalism for their own enrichment. These are examples of socialism *set aside* for personal gain.

    Cuba: A socialist country struggling to survive against a brutal, inhumane embargo imposed by the US and other Western countries. And yet, they somehow still find the resources to provide medical care to all their citizens.

    Capitalism, with guard rails and shock absorbers, has proven to be the best at allocating finite resources (mainly through the free-floating pricing mechanism) and no other system even comes close.

    Let’s look at how capitalism “excels” at allocating finite resources.

    In Philadelphia, you have people living in desperate poverty; hundreds of thousands of working-class people working two and three jobs and skipping meals so that their kids can eat, while just ten minutes outside of the city, there’s people who live in multi-million dollar mansions on gated and guarded acres of ground.

    In the US, at least 40 million people are without any kind of health insurance at all, while the politicians who vote against health care reform received the finest health care plans available, at taxpayer expense

    We have US$700bn to throw at banks to “rescue” them from their own greed, yet we cannot seem to find US$7bn to make sure people have enough to eat (food stamps, frex).

    We have gentrifiers invading working-class neighborhoods, driving the residents (most often POC but poor whites, too) out of their homes, and then going after them with baseball bats because they dare to hang around and “lower their property values”. I met one of those gentrifiers. At bible study in a left-leaning church. He told me to my face that should I become homeless, he’d go after *me* with a baseball bat. It was *chilling*.

    Those same gentrifiers buying mass-marketed “organic” produce while totally oblivious of the working conditions of those who pick the produce – twelve hour days in 100 degree heat, no rest or water breaks, housed in appalling conditions, paid literal slave wages.

    1% of the US population controlling and owning 75% of the country’s financial assets.

    The CEO of BP sailing around in his million-dollar yacht while the livelihoods of the primarily poor and of-color shrimp fishermen are ruined by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And he responds by sending lawyers to shut the people up and fight their claims for reparations.

    White people who think nothing of spending US$50K on a Mercedes or BMW, but who will scream bloody murder at the thought of ponying up $30 for reparations for slavery. ($30 x 250mn white people = $7.5bn for a decent start to reparations)

    Now, I’d like to ask you, sasoc, how does this represent “best at allocating finite resources”?

    (Wow. This blog’s been here for 4 days and already has it capitalivangelist here to show us The One Twoo Shining Way?)

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