This post is inspired by some articles I’ve been reading and by a discussion I was having with my pro-capitalist conservative father. The subject that I write about below involves the analysis of capitalism, socialism, social democracy, and democracy. My intentions weren’t to create a singular coherent argument backed by numerous cited examples. I just wanted to clarify some basic distinctions that aren’t well understood by the average person, especially the average conservative and right-winger (probably not even understood by the average liberal).
I will divide this post up into two parts. The first part was my response to a specific article. The second part is various thoughts of mine that I gathered together.
“In ancient Rome, the emperors provided the capital’s inhabitants with “bread and circuses.” Ever since, that combination has been shorthand for rulers buying off the ruled with the necessities of life and spectacle.
“In Rome, that spectacle involved gladiatorial and other elaborate games of death that took place in the Colosseum. In this age, our rulers, the 1% whose money has flooded the electoral cycle, are turning the election itself into our extended circus. This year, a series of Republican televised “debates” have glued increasing numbers of eyeballs to screens — and not just Republican eyeballs, either. Everyone waits for the latest version of a reality show to produce the next cat fight, fabulous gaffe, late-night laugh line, confession, denial, scandal, or plot twist, the next thumbs up or, far better, thumbs down on some candidate’s increasingly brief political life in the arena.
“Think of it as their bread and our circus. Who can doubt that, like the crowds of Rome once upon a time, we await the inevitable thumbs-down vote and the YouTube videos that precede and follow it with a kind of continuing bloodlust? The only problem: however strange all this may be, it’s not, at least in the old-fashioned sense, an election nor does it seem to have much to do with democracy. The fact is that we have no word for what’s going on. Semi-democracy? Unrepresentative democracy? 1% democracy? Demospectacracy?
“Of course, we still speak of this as a presidential election campaign, and it’s true that 11 months from now more than 60% of the voting age population will step into polling booths across the country and cast ballots. But let’s face it, if this is an election at all, it’s certainly one stricken with elephantiasis. Once, as now, a presidential race had primaries, conventions, campaigning, mudslinging, and sometimes even a few debates, but all of this had limits. In recent years, the limits — almost any limits — have been disappearing. Along the way, the process has expanded from an eight-month-long affair that most voters only began to attend to sometime in the fall of election year to a perpetual campaign, perpetually discussed, reported on, and displayed.
[ . . . ]
“What any of this has to do with democracy, as opposed to spectacle, influence, corruption, the power of the incredibly wealthy to pay for and craft messages, and the power of media owners to enhance their profits is certainly an open question. Think, at least, how literally the old phrase “money talks” is being updated every time you hear the candidates, or see their ads, or get a robocall from one of them, or receive a geo-targeted mobile adof theirs on your iPhone or Android.
“It’s clear enough — or should be by now — that the electoral process has been occupied by the 1%; which means that what you hear in this “campaign” is largely refracted versions of their praise, their condemnation, their slurs, their views, their needs, their fears, and their wishes. They are making money off, and electing a president via, you. Which means that you — that all of us — are occupied, too.
“So stop calling this an “election.” Whatever it is, we need a new name for it.”
* * * *
I was having a discussion with my dad about a related topic. We were discussing welfare. Surprisingly, his conservative and my liberal views on the matter converge on a certain agreement. Welfare, as it is presently structured, is like the Roman’s “bread and circus” (or, at least, the bread part which is balanced by the media circus, especially the political media circus).
This is the problem. Bread and circus isn’t merely dysfunction. Welfare works, but it just doesn’t effectively solve the problems some would like it to solve. What bread and circus did for the Romans was to prevent revolution and that is what welfare does for many countries in the modern world, the US being the focus of the discussion. If welfare were to end tomorrow, revolution would begin tomorrow. Welfare is the bandaid put on the gushing wound of capitalism.
Even my dad agreed, despite his being a libertarian-leaning fiscal conservative former businessman and former business management professor. My dad is a well off white conservative and so it would be easy for him to simply blame the poor, the minorities, the immigrants… as many like him (in this demographic niche) do on a regular basis.
* * * *
My dad explained his reasons.
From my point of view: The manual labor jobs are simultaneously decreasing in number and in pay, partly because of outsourcing of industry and because machines and computers have made many jobs more efficient while making many other jobs obsolete.
From my dad’s point of view: What has increased are knowledge jobs that are worked by people who have high levels of education and tend to have above average levels of intelligence.
This presents two problems.
The first problem my dad pointed out. The portion of the population that is highly educated and above average in intelligence isn’t increasing, generally speaking. The proportion of society remains basically the same. Throughout history, manual labor was always the primary employment available… until now. So, what is to be done with all the excess and unnecessary people who are less educated and/or average-to-below-average in intelligence? We keep those people in place by giving them welfare so that they don’t starve, so that they don’t turn to crime and revolution.
The second problem I pointed out. It is in an extension of the first. As far as I can tell, there is no clear evidence against and much reason to assume that the increase in certain sectors of jobs (such as knowledge jobs) isn’t keeping up with the decrease in other sectors of jobs (such as manural labor). This is particularly true recently. A lot of jobs have been lost. Despite big businesses doing better than ever, despite companies gaining more efficient work and hence more profit from their employees, big businesses aren’t hiring more which comes after a period when they got rid of vast amounts of employees. According to our present capitalist model, there is no reason they should hire more people.
On top of this, also consider the loss of benefits and job security, consider the stagnating wages along with the inflation and rising costs that are making those wages worth less, consider rising economic inequality along with its attendant social and health problems… and I’m sure many other factors could be added.
* * * *
I was particularly focused on the aspect of technology replacing humans. Even some high-paying knowledge jobs are becoming obsolete.
For example, I was reading about how many newpapers no longer hire proofreaders because editing software does a good enough job. On the other end, my job as a parking ramp cashier is being threatened because management wants to put in all self-pay stations. Similarly, at O’Hare airport I’ve heard that the toilets are self-cleaning. Within the next decades, many jobs will become obsolete because of technology. Any job that is manual, repetitive, systematic or somehow with clear rules and goals (which includes many knowledge jobs) will eventually be replaced by robots and computers (maybe as a member of the older generation, my dad has faith that robots and computers won’t replace humans, a misplaced faith in my opinion).
Most jobs people do now won’t exist in the future. Furthermore, if capitalism is left to its own devices, these jobs won’t necessarily be replaced by better jobs or might not be replaced at all. So, either we have a capitalist society where welfare and oppression (our growing prison system being an example) keeps the unemployed in line or we develop a new type of economic and social system. More of the same or something new. Those are the only two choices.
* * * *
Republicans have been trying to disengage much of the population such as by making voting even more difficult which inevitably further disenfranchises the poor and minorities (not to imply the Democratic Party has been trying to engage the disenfranchised to any great extent; it’s simply that the Democrats don’t attack this demographic in the way Republicans often do). This is predictable as conservatives have an inherent mistrust of democracy, but conservatives also used to have an inherent mistrust of capitalism and some conservatives are starting to wonder why they lost this mistrust. It’s hard being a conservative for all they ultimately trust is something like organized religion. Capitalism is merely a protection against socialism and even against true grassroots democracy, but conservatives must assess how well capitalism (especially in its present corporatist form) is protecting those traditional values and individual rights they claim to love so much.
My democratic suggestions, however, do start to appeal to conservatives during troubled times. Conservatives forget about community during economic upswings and find the value in community once again when the pendulum swings back. What conservatives don’t understand is socialism is simply the purest or most absolute form of community. Socialism isn’t about any particular type of community, whether hierachical or anarchistic, whether statist or minarchist. Socialism is just about making community the center of a society. This is simply traditional culture at its roots. Most early people, especially tribal, lived to varying degrees of collectivity. Socialism doesn’t deny individual aspiration or betterment. It just puts it in the context of community rather than putting community in the context of the individual. Individual efforts shouldn’t be a detriment to the community which would also mean to the detriment to all the other individuals in that community. That is insanity, our present insanity in fact.
In the discussion with my father, my specific suggestion was something like a works project. We have so much decaying infrastructure. We have so many things that need to be done in our society that no one is doing. At the same time, we have so many unemployed people who aren’t doing much despite most of them wanting to do something worthy. Most people don’t want to sit around doing nothing. People want to have meaning and purpose, to feel like they are contributing to their familes and their communities, to know that they are using their talents and at least to some degree living up to their potential. We have cities filled with trash, parks closed down for lack of money to maintain them, we have public employees being fired because of budgetary concerns, and on and on. Much of this work can be done (at minimal costs, relative to the costs of welfare) by the unemployed which includes both the educated and the uneducated, although in some cases such as construction basic training might be required (the training itself would be a good thing as it would also make them more employable in the private market).
In the past, my dad was always suspicious of such ideas. They verge on the socialist. However, when speaking with him last night, I was able to communicate the potential wisdom and benefit of such a proposal. My dad still thinks socialism doesn’t work, although through various examples (the sewer socialists, the Harmonists, etc) I’ve brought doubt to his former certainties. What he still doesn’t quite grasp is that socialism and social democracy are just different degrees of the same phenomenon.
Democracy and capitalism are at odds. Democracy moves toward diffusion of and sharing of power. Capitalism, unlike a free market (a free market being a hypothetical that has never existed on the large scale, large corporations become bureaucracies and use centralized planning just like any socialist state), moves toward monopoly of power (by way of monopolizing capital: he who rules the capital rules capitalism). Democracy can only function when there is a functioning social democracy. Social democracy is simply the first and most basic manifestation of socialism. Democracy, social democracy and socialism are antithetical to capitalism, but they aren’t antithetical to any genuine free market.
See the real world examples of socialism in the US. The Shakers and Harmonists, although failing because of their celibacy rules, were some of the most successful and innovative businesses in the US when they were operating, both societies having existed for about a century. The sewer socialist mayors of Milwaukee, social democracy at its finest, governed one of the most well run cities for decades which they did so by fighting corrupt big business and promoting local small businesses that contributed to the community (maybe closer to a genuine free market), a time during which the economy boomed in Milwaukee. The collectivist Eastwind Community (a living example of a commune) has operated a number of successful businesses for decades.
The sad irony is that to fight against communism is to fight against democracy. Neither socialism nor democracy can exist without the other. Communist countries that undermine democracy will fail, just like democratic societies that undermine socialism/social-democracy will fail. It’s not an all or nothing scenario. It’s a balancing act of simultaneously seeking the common good, public freedom, and individual rights.
* * * *
As I talked to my dad last night, I pointed out the example of Milwaukee. He said that is more an example of social democracy. Yes, but that misses the point. Social democracy is just one facet of socialism.
Conservatives like my dad (along with many misinformed moderates and, sadly, liberals as well) don’t recognize the socialism in social democracy for a simple reason. They don’t actually know what socialism is. They have such a distorted vision of socialism as bogeyman that any real example of functioning socialism must be rationalized away or somehow seen as a very limited exception… and so not worthy of being taken seriously.
At the time in the US, what the Milwaukee sewer socialists had been doing was radical socialism. They were collectivizing many aspects of society that had formerly been left private. The socialists made these things part of the government because the private sector was failing at it or not even attempting to do it. The private sector didn’t care about pollution, about clean air and clearn water, especially not in terms of the poor. The owners and operators of big businesses that were causing most of the pollution didn’t care that poor people were dying. They didn’t care because they could afford to live far away from the polluted areas and they could afford to have clean water brought to them.
The Milwaukee sewer socialists were so successful that their brand of socialism has become the norm in the US. Also, it wasn’t that all of this was simply spending other people’s money to help the poor. As I’ve already pointed out, during their time of governing, their policies helped make the local economy boom. They did this by prosecuting corruption and regulating the crony capitalism that was rife among big businesses at the time.
Like many conservatives and right-wingers, my dad is always repeating the talking point that socialism is the spending of other people’s money.
First, this is a generalization that is based on many unstated assumptions (ownership isn’t as simple as those on the right assume; as Paine correctly noted all of the earth — all the land, air, water and other resources – is part of the commons, private individual ownership being a very recent concept).
Second, it could be turned around by pointing out that capitalists use other people’s resources to make their profits in the first place (they use the commons that the government sells them at below market prices and usually by the force and protection of the government, force that is paid for by other people’s money being spent to benefit corporations; just think of all the wars the US government keeps having in countries that just happen to have lots of resources such as oil or happen to be key locations near such countries).
I don’t mean to pick on my dad. He is a smart guy. The problem isn’t specifically about him. Most Americans, left and right, are misinformed about socialism. The problem is that he is representative of the average American and hence of the mainstream culture in America. My criticisms go beyond any single person. I grew up in this same culture and it has been a struggle for me as well. We all are born ignorant and we all are bottle-fed propaganda and misinformation. All that we can hope is that our knowledge and awareness increases as we age, a struggle that only ends when we die.
From what I know and understand at this point in my life, this is how I see our dilemma: The choice we are facing at present really isn’t socialism vs capitalism. Rather, the choice is between democratic socialism vs corporatist socialism.
It’s the success of socialism that allows conservatives like my dad do dismiss it as if they weren’t surrounded by it. That is the problem of success on the left. Any progress that is made will eventually be embraced by the right and will become the new norm (for example, in the way most conservatives support Social Security), but the right will never give the left any credit for the new norm even when they benefit from it and take it for granted. People stop seeing the socialist infrastructure of society and only see the capitalist system that is made possible by it.
What they forget is that many things are possible beyond our present corporatist socialism. Capitalism isn’t inevitable. It’s a choice we have collectively made and so we can collectively choose once again. We can choose a socialism that benefits the many instead of just the few.
* * * *
It’s very simple. Social democracy is the key element to the entire discussion. Here is what social demoocracy proves and demonstrates:
Social democracy is the meeting point of socialism and democracy, and hence it manifests qualities of both depending how fully that meeting is integrated into a functional system. But it goes further. It isn’t just a meeting point or even the manifestation.
Neither democracy nor socialism could exist outside of social democracy. When it is attempted to separate them, one gets democracy or socialism in theory (i.e., in rhetoric) but not in actual practice. The Cold War was a fight of rhetoric between a failing democratic state and a failing socialist state, both in reality fighting over the same imperial power and dominance which had nothing specifically to do with either democracy or socialism.
If you care about either democracy or socialism, you must care about social democracy. And if you care about social democracy, you must care about both socialism and democracy. It’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
* * * *
I’ve heard that socialism doesn’t work so many times from conservatives and right-wingers that it boggles my mind. What does such an assertion even mean?
I pointed to several successful examples of socialism just in the US. I could add many more such examples, especially in the Northern Midwest: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, etc. Even consider North Dakota which most people don’t connect with socialism (‘The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture’ by James R. Shortridge, p. 112):
“North Dakota was the second state to become radical. Its Norwegian settlers, accustomed to a more socialistic system than they found in America, responded strongly to feelings of “absentee control and extortion” by the “grain lords” who controlled the transportation, storage, and grading of their wheat crops. Their political vehicle, the Non-Partisan League, assumed power in 1916, after a 10-year period of incubation, and estabilished a state-owned system of grain elevators, banks, and hail insurance, as well as other measures based on the Wisconsin model.”
Outside of the US, I could also point to some Northern European countries that have socialist governments or else strong socialist traditions within their politics. Also, there are the highly successful European Basque with their socialist-run companies.
The odd part isn’t that these conservatives/right-wingers are merely claiming that socialism doesn’t work but that it has never worked, that it never will work, that it can’t work. When faced with examples to the contrary, they make excuses.
Anyway, what is the point? It’s like saying tribalism doesn’t work after centuries of genocide having wiped out most tribal societies. Yes, many capitalist societies have been militaristic empires or wannabe empires. And, yes, many socialist attempts have been violently wiped out or otherwise socially oppressed. Is the point merely that capitalists are best because they are the most aggressive in pushing their agenda no matter what the cost? If so, this may be capitalism but it ain’t a free market. Why would someone be proud of such ‘success’ and put it forth as something to strive for?
I could make a similar criticism about free markets. Crony capitalism and corporatism have been endlessly successful, at least in oppressing and destroying all alternatives, but free markets have never succeeded where ever they have been tried. The seeming success of free markets always ends up being their doom when they are taken over by monopolists, plutocrats and fascists.
Furthermore, what is this so-called ‘socialism’ that they think has never been successful in all of history? Talking to people making this argument, I often find that they separate social democracy from socialism. But what is left of socialism if you remove all traces of social democracy? To a socialist-leaning liberal like me, social democracy is the very heart of socialism. There is no hope of socialism without social democracy.
Socialism, in most places, includes: public roads, public libraries, firemen/women, police, ambulances, emergency rooms, basic public goods and services such as water plants, public schools, state colleges, city/county/state/federal parks and public lands, coastal waters, waterways such as rivers and streams, the FDA that ensures the safety of food and drugs, the EPA that keeps the air and water clean enough so that pollution won’t kill you, unemployment benefits, disabilty benefits, welfare, medicare, medicaid, on and on and on. We are surrounded by socialism in endless forms.
Another way to put it, socialism is about the commons, where community merges with sense-of-place (to understand the value of the commons, see this article and this video). Caring about the commons means caring about yourself for the reason that the commons are what defines us as a social species and defines each of us as part of a living community: a community of people and a community of environment. Shared land (resources), shared living (communities), and shared governance (democracy) all meet together in the commons (the manifestation of socialism and social democracy).
In terms of countries, one socialist idea (that more anarchistic socialists disagree with) is a centrally planned economy (which is a way of seeing the economy as part of the commons since it is, after all, a public affair that impacts every person, nothing private about it at all… in the way getting punched in the nose isn’t private). China’s centrally planned economy has been massively successful (not that I agree with the purposes this serves in the same way I don’t agree with the purposes of the former Harmonists, but purely in terms of economic success it can’t be denied). David Harvey has mentioned that the most successful example of a centrally planned economy was the US during WWII.
In the US, one of the greatest (and one of the most disappointing) examples of socialism is the military with its public-minded purpose, collectivist culture and socialist health care. In terms of how much the government (local and federal) operates and manages, the US itself is an example of successful socialism in action (see: my argument defending the efficiency of government). It’s not that the US is entirely or even mostly socialist, but if you took away the socialism from American society it wouldn’t be recognizable as the country we now know. I realize many are trying to do this by privatizing everything. That would be sad considering that privatizing usually just leads to a dysfunctional socialism where the profits are privatized while the costs continue to be socialized (see: The Conservative Nanny State by Dean Baker).
Like most countries around the world, the US has a mixed economy. It isn’t entirely unregulated capitalism nor is it entirely socialist. It has elements of both. This balance is far from perfect, but we should at least be honest and well-informed enough to acknowledge it for what it is.
I thought I should add some concluding thoughts to clarify where I’m coming from.
I consider myself a liberal, but for the sake of precision it would probably be best to call me a left-liberal. I like the general label of ‘liberal’. The problem is that this label has become almost meaningless. To the right-winger, liberal means left-winger, specifically of the Commie variety. To a left-winger, liberals seem like at best moderates (i.e., centrists defending the status quo of power and wealth) and at worst watered down conservatives (the difference between neoconservatives and neoliberals merely being that of emphasis).
In terms of the above commentary, I promote socialism in a social democracy sense. So, you could call me a sewer socialist or municpial socialist or you could call me a Fabian. I’m not a radical, but I am a strident defender of democracy. My sense of democracy is social democracy. My relationship to socialism is the following. I think social democracy is a stepping stone to socialism in that even those who are afraid of socialism can often accept social democracy. Social democracy is the baby pool of socialism, less scary for those still developing socialist swimming skills. I understand socialism in terms of democracy for I don’t think socialism is possible without democracy. I’m not even sure anti-democratic statism as found in some so-called communist countries can fairly and reasonably be called socialism or no more socialist than any other form of statist government.
I’m not a radical. I believe in reform and I’m not entirely against revolution when all alternatives have become impossible. My lack of radicalism probably is more of a personality trait. I’m not an aggressive person. I like the idea of gradual change and I like the ideal of cooperation/compromise. I don’t want to live in a world of conflict and fighting. Even if a revolution was going on, it might still take a lot to cause me to become a revolutionary.
Even though I could be considered a left-liberal, I can’t quite bring myself to embrace left-wing politics in their entirety. It’s more the attitude of most left-wingers that I can’t embrace. Likewise, I’m sure most left-wingers don’t wish to embrace me. Most socialists probably wouldn’t consider me a fellow traveler. So, my analysis of socialism may not (with heavy emphasis on the ‘not’) be supported by more radical socialists who are the movers and shakers in the socialist movement. I’m more or less an ordinary guy who simply wants to live in a fair and equal society. Even so, I try to keep my knowledge of the world above average when possible. The fact that my moderate liberalism seems radical from a mainstream perspective is no fault of my own.
I was editing this post in order to clean it up a bit and clarify a few things in my writing. As I did this, I was noting my frustration. I was wondering about its source.
In my analysis, I used my dad’s conservatism so as to have something off of which I could bounce my own liberalism. I’m more of a socialist than my dad, but that isn’t saying much. My knowledge of socialism is shaky in that I’ve never done a careful survey of the history of socialism, but I have done some research on it and I have thought about it quite a bit. So, my frustration, instead of being about my limited knowledge, is about how my limited knowledge makes me even more aware of how limited is the knowledge of the average American. It would be nice if everyone, myself included, had a better working knowledge of socialism.
I get into discussions about socialism and it isn’t always clear to me what the word ‘socialism’ means to other people. What often is clear to me is that the way right-wingers and conservatives define socialism isn’t the way socialists define socialism and yet those on the right are perfectly fine with projecting their preconceptions about socialism onto socialists, thus pretending socialists actually believe in the caricature of socialism that anti-socialists portray. If those on the right aren’t criticizing the socialism proposed by socialists, then whose socialism are they criticizing? The only answer I can come up is that those on the right are simply criticizing their own version of socialism. That is fine as far as it goes. I’m willing to bet pretty much all socialists would join in criticizing the right’s distorted and biased dystopian vision of socialism.
Still, I don’t know that this gets at the core of my frustration. I could name many words and ideas that are misunderstood by various people. Those on the right certaintly could do the same thing. Arguments over what something means are dime a dozen. Maybe my frustration is more basic in that the difficulty of communication can feel like a tiring if not impassible barrier. I would be unfair if I blamed this problem entirely on the right. Communication is a two-way street.
So, what is the problem with communicating here? In essence, socialism seems like a rather simple idea. It just means people working together using shared resources toward a shared goal. From my perspective, those on the right aren’t able or willing to see this simple idea and what to make it into something big and scary. Am I wrong about that? What critcisisms of socialism from the right are fair and useful? Everyone knows Stalinism is bad. Even most socialists these days loudly and openly criticize oppressive statism even when it uses the rhetoric of the left-wing.
The real disagreement is elsewhere, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. As far as I can tell: Anything the right doesn’t like about the government is socialism. And anything the right does like about government isn’t socialism. Am I being unfair in that assessment? Am I missing something here? Do I fundamentally not grasp what those on the right are trying to communicate in their criticisms?
I’m trying to understand, but apparently I’m failing.