Brazil’s Hayekian Neo-Serfdom

Neoliberalism is a disease, a force of destruction. And Latin America has been one of the main workshops of the neoliberal ruling elite, a site of experimentation.

They first implement their agendas in weaker countries before trying them out in the West. Countries like Brazil are the canary in the coal mine. This will be soon coming to a country near you.

We are seeing the future form before our very eyes. Or as William Gibson put it, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Don’t worry. The distribution will come our way.

They promised you trickle down. What they didn’t tell you was what exactly would be trickling down on your head. I can tell you this much. It won’t be manna from heaven.

* * *

Is the US Behind the Brazilian Coup?
by Ted Snider, Antiwar.com

There can no longer be a defense of the removal of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff from office. The political maneuvering by the opposition PSDB has been uncloaked and revealed for what it clearly was all along: a quiet coup dressed in the disguise of democracy.

The recent release of a recording of a phone call has done for Brazil what Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland’s phone call to American ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt did for Ukraine: it has provided incontrovertible proof that the removal of the elected President was a coup.

The published transcript of the call between Romero Jucá, who was a senator at the time of the call and is currently the planning minister in the new Michael Temer government, and former oil executive, Sergio Machado, lays bare “a national pact” to remove Dilma and install Temer as President. Jucá reveals that, not only opposition politicians, but also the military and the Supreme Court are conspirators in the coup. Regarding the military’s role, Jucá says, “I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it.” And, as for the Supreme Court, Glenn Greenwald reports that Jucá admits that he “spoke with and secured the involvement of numerous justices on Brazil’s Supreme Court.” Jucá further boasted that “there are only a small number” of Supreme Court justices that he had not spoken to.

Safe with ‘Oligarchs and Imperialists’ in US, Brazil’s New President Admits Coup Plot
by Andrea Germanos, Common Dreams

Proponents of her ouster argued that former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was targeted and ultimately booted from office for budgetary wrongdoing or, ironically, corruption.

But fresh comments by new, unelected president Michel Temer himself back up claims that her impeachment was politically motivated, specifically, that Rousseff wouldn’t enact the austerity-promoting, welfare-slashing economic platform Temer unveiled from his party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), in October when he was vice president. […]

Vieira concludes that the impeachment “was for an agenda of impunity, profit, and power that would never be ratified democratically by the Brazilian voting population at the ballot box, and was thus imposed on them under the guise of upholding the law.”

Public Radio International also reported this week: “A mere two days after impeaching Rousseff, the same senators voted to legalize the very budget tricks they accused her of playing.”

In his speech Wednesday, Fox News Latino adds, “Temer made a pointed appeal to United States investors that his country is open for business.”

Brazil’s President Michel Temer Says Rousseff Was Impeached For Refusing His Economic Agenda
by Inacio Vieira, Intercept

In his remarks, Temer clearly stated what impeachment opponents have long maintained: that he and his party began to agitate for Rousseff’s impeachment when she refused to implement the pro-business economic plan of Temer’s party. That economic plan which Rousseff refused to implement called for widespread cuts to social programs and privatization, an agenda radically different from the one approved by Brazilians through the ballot box in 2014, when Dilma’s Workers’ Party won its fourth straight presidential election. The comments were delivered on Wednesday to an audience at the New York headquarters of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA). […]

The program “Bridge to the Future” – proposed by Temer’s party – prescribes cuts to health and education spending, reduced welfare benefits, a raised retirement age, new private sector partnerships and decreased market regulations. These ideas were the ones Temer advocated in his speech yesterday at AS/COA, which emphasized his government’s push for privatization and foreign investment. The newly installed President listed the multiple benefits and guarantees that his government intends to offer foreign investors. Those benefits including guaranteeing the profit margins of the business leaders who watched him speak while consuming their meals.

The AS/COA groups which Temer addressed is composed of members of multinational corporations and the U.S. foreign policy establishment focused on Latin America. Both were founded by the American industrialist David Rockefeller and have as its President Emeritus John Negroponte: the former Reagan and Bush administration ambassador and neoconservative hawk influential in the CIA’s dirty war in Honduras and the 2003 invasion of Iraq who is now a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton. On its website, the Council of the Americas describes itself as an “international business organization whose members share a common commitment to economic and social development, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

Temer’s sales pitch was chock full of standard neoliberal euphemisms and buzzwords, including the “universalization of the Brazilian market,” “reestablishing trust,” “extraordinary political stability,” public-private partnerships, and the implementation of “fundamental reforms” in areas like labor law, social security and public spending. “I come here to invite you to take part in the country’s new phase of growth,” he proclaimed.

Temer’s comments are yet more confirmation that Rousseff’s impeachment did not occur due to alleged budget tricks, as the Brazilian media and the country’s now-ruling faction regularly claims. Nor was it for the traditional Brazilian family, nor for God, or against corruption, as congresspeople claimed during their “yes” votes. It was conducted on behalf of the interests of business owners and to the detriment of workers. It was for an agenda of impunity, profit, and power that would never be ratified democratically by the Brazilian voting population at the ballot box, and was thus imposed on them under the guise of upholding the law. Anyone still doubting that should simply listen to what the prime beneficiary of impeachment, Michel Temer, just said to his most important constituency.

As Brazil’s New Ruler Admits Lie Behind Impeachment, US Press Closes Eyes
by Janine Jackson, FAIR

But Temer’s remarkable confession was not seen as newsworthy by virtually anyone in US corporate media—though the New York Times (9/19/16) did report on the speech by Temer to the United Nations a few days earlier in which he insisted in reference to the impeachment, “Everything happened with absolute respect for the constitutional order.”

A search of the Nexis news database turns up no stories that mention his more forthright AS/COA speech in any US newspaper, magazine, broadcast or cable outlet. The story was covered in alternative outlets like The Intercept (9/23/16, 9/23/16, 9/28/16), Common Dreams (9/23/16) and Mintpress (9/26/16).

The media silence on Temer’s admission is striking, especially considering that the Council of the Americas’ members include some of the biggest names in corporate media, including News Corp, Time Warner, Bloomberg and the Financial Times.

But as signaled by Vice President Joe Biden’s recent praise for Temer’s “commitment to maintaining Brazil’s regional and global leadership role during the recent period of political change,” the US government is quite pleased with the new pro-austerity regime in Brazil (for as long as it lasts; Temer has already been barred by an electoral court from political campaigning for eight years for violating campaign spending limits). Given this official friendliness, then, it’s not surprising that elite media are not eager to expose the shady origins of Washington’s new friends.

Still Selling Neoliberal Unicorns: The US Applauds the Coup in Brazil, Calls It Democracy
by Greg Grandin, The Nation

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s recently deposed president, calls it a coup. Many, perhaps most, of the countries in the Organization of American States call it is a coup. Even the men who helped carry out the coup admit, in a secretly recorded conversation, that what they were doing was effectively a coup, staged to provide them immunity from a corruption investigation.

But the United States doesn’t think that the blatantly naked power grab that just took place in Brazil—which ended the Workers’ Party’s 13-year control of the presidency, installed an all-white, all-male cabinet, diluted the definition of slavery, lest it tarnish the image of Brazil’s plantation sector (which relies on coerced, unfree labor), and began a draconian austerity program—is a coup.

It’s democracy at work, according to various Obama officials. […]

Still trying to sell neoliberal unicorns. Nothing of the sort is going to happen, now that the United States has compliant compradores in power in Argentina and Brazil, and perhaps soon in Venezuela.

Colombia’s “security turnaround” is built on a mountain of corpses, on paramilitary terror and massive land dispossession. Until recently, the military was killing civilians, dressing them as FARC guerrillas, and claiming these “false positives” as victories in its fight against the FARC. Colombia boasts one of the largest internal refugee populations in the world—about 4 million people, a large number of them Afro- and indigenous Colombians. That’s what the Times is prescribing for the rest of the region now that the “left” is “on the run.”

The United States isn’t going to “help its neighbors become more competitive and stable by promoting investment in technology, innovation and high-quality education.” Over the past 13 years, Brazil, more than any other country, has stood in the way of Washington-backed efforts to impose a punishing intellectual and corporate property-rights regime on Latin America. That, in effect, is one of the objectives of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty, which was offered as a successor to the failed FTAA and meant to work around Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela.

But now that friendly faces are installed in Brasília and Buenos Aires, the path is clearer. Monsanto and other agri-behemoths will be able to impose their seed monopoly on the regime (as the United States now does in Central America, to devastating effect); energy resources will once again be privatized (as Hillary, as secretary of state, pushed to do in Mexico).

If you want a more realistic view of what Washington might accomplish now that the “left” is “on the run” in Latin America, look beyond the Times opinion pages to its reporting, where just yesterday it was revealed that US military aid had turned the Mexican army into the most unaccountable killing machine operating in the Western Hemisphere. Look to Argentina in 2001–02, where strict adherence to the Washington Consensus led to one of the worst economic crises in recorded history. Look to El Salvador today, where the Obama administration is using the terms of a free-trade agreement to force the government to shut down a local seed-distribution project, since it violates corporate interests. Look to Ecuador, where Chevron has turned a good stretch of the Amazon into a toxic tar pit. Or Paraguay, which after its 2012 coup was taken over by an agro-gangster government.

Or look to the US-Mexican border, where refugees from US “security partnership” risk death in the desert for the privilege of living their lives in the shadows.

Wall Street’s New Man in Brazil: The Forces Behind Dilma Rousseff’s Impeachment
by José L. Flores

The manipulation of the national budget could be considered unorthodox; however, the funds were mostly used on covering the costs of popular social programs. Acting President Michel Temer is simultaneously being investigated for bribery and corruption; however, he is a great friend to Wall Street and is a U.S. intelligence informant, which arguably puts him beyond reproach when considering impeachment or indictment.

Due to huge protests and the highly corrupt culture in Brazilian government, it has been argued that these impeachment proceedings are well overdue. However, when one studies Michel Temer and his political apparatus, it has become apparent that a return to neoliberal economic policies, diverging from Rousseff’s center-left Workers Party, is the actual goal. Furthermore, these impeachment proceedings seem to have pernicious despots secretly guided by the U.S. State Department, Defense Department and U.S. business interests, all of which have been operating in the shadows of Brazilian politics since 1962.

According to recent internal documents, provided by WikiLeaks, on several occasions Michel Temer was an embassy informant for U.S. intelligence. Temer secretly shared information to the U.S. Southern Command concerning the 2006 election of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the vitality of his center-left Workers’ Party. Temer assured the Defense Department that despite Lula’s clear path to reelection the president would have to negotiate with the opposition, the Brazilian Democratic Workers Party (PMDB), who had just won most governorships and the Senate. He also assured the U.S. that the PMDB would soon coalesce with Brazil’s right wing parties, therefore greatly minimizing the Workers’ Party platform. Additionally, Temer also criticized the social programs being implemented by Lula and the Workers’ Party, claiming Lula was too concerned the poor and not concerned enough about “economic growth.” In these communications a thin line was drawn between espionage and informant. Temer’s loyalty seemed to be with the United States and capital and not to Brazil and democracy.

For over a decade the Workers Party has implementing social programs in order to help the poor and disenfranchised. Discontented with this progress groups like the Free Brazil Movement and Students of Liberty were mobilizing in major Brazilian cities to demonstrate. It was revealed that these young Brazilians, mostly white and over-privileged college students, were being financed by the Koch brothers through the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

Slavery and Capitalism

Slavery and capitalism. The twin pillars of American history. This pairing forces us to question exactly what we mean by capitalism.

Many argue that the South was originally pre-capitalist or at least had strong pre-capitalist traditions (see my post about the book The Mind of the Master Class). It is true that there were clear economic differences that led to regional conflicts. Also, it is true that pre-capitalist practices such as subsistence farming and bartering held out longer in many communities in the rural South. But all of this was contained in a larger capitalist system that dominated Anglo-American culture since the colonial era of the British Empire.

Here is something I wrote getting at some of this conflict within the US economy (Sin of the North, sin of the South):

The South had two agricultural traditions. They had the slave-based plantation model that came from Barbados and they had the yeoman subsistence model that came from the Scots-Irish. Both the plantation tobacco farming and the subsistence slash-and-burn ended up depleting the soil which wasn’t as rich to begin with.

This relates to an economic difference. Plantation farming and subsistence farming helped create an economy in the South that was less like modern capitalism. The plantation owners were so vastly wealthy that they didn’t build their own local industry, choosing instead to buy products shipped in from elsewhere. As an aside, the wealth of plantation owners wasn’t capitalist wealth (i.e., wasn’t fungible capital) because plantation owners tended to be heavily in debt as their wealth was invested in their land and their slaves. The subsistence farmers never harvested enough crops to make much in the way of profit, fungible or otherwise; and, as Joe Bageant points out, many of the small Southern farming communities were mostly cashless societies where people bartered and kept store tabs.

Modern industrialized capitalism was only strongly established in the South with Reconstruction following the Civil War. In being introduced, capitalism built upon the framework of the economic system already established in the South. This meant that capitalism incorporated the plantation mentality and the class-based rigidity. There were high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the Antebellum South and there are still high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the South today.

In one sense, you can blame the North for forcing modern industrialized capitalism onto the South. It’s possible that, if the South had successfully seceded, Southerners might have transitioned into a better kind of economic system… then again, maybe not. It’s not like capitalism wasn’t already beginning to gain footholds in the South prior to Reconstruction. It would be surprising if a Confederate South could have avoided capitalism’s ascent. Anyway, it wasn’t the North that forced onto the South a poverty-based, union-busting form of capitalism.

I just came across another book on this topic, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist. This author is making a stronger argument for the connection between slavery and capitalism. I’ve barely begun to read it, but I thought I’d present a passage from it that summarizes the case being made.

The following passage is from the introduction (Kindle Locations 173-220). It puts slavery not just in the context of classical liberal economics but also in the context of liberal society in general. It implicates liberalism, in the broad sense. Maybe this view would fit into Domenico Losurdo’s harsh criticism, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Of course, this ‘liberalism’ is pretty much a category including all post-Enlightenment ideologies, including American conservatism. It is liberalism as a pervasive social order, not a mere partisan ideology limited to a particular group.

Baptist questions about the true nature of freedom in a society with a long history of unfreedom. When we speak of free markets, what kind of freedom are we speaking of and whose freedom is it?

* * * *

The way that Americans remember slavery has changed dramatically since then. In tandem with widespread desegregation of public spaces and the assertion of black cultural power in the years between World War II and the 1990s came a new understanding of the experience of slavery. No longer did academic historians describe slavery as a school in which patient masters and mistresses trained irresponsible savages for futures of perpetual servitude. Slavery’s denial of rights now prefigured Jim Crow, while enslaved people’s resistance predicted the collective self-assertion that developed into first the civil rights movement and later, Black Power.

But perhaps the changes were not so great as they seemed on the surface. The focus on showing African Americans as assertive rebels, for instance, implied an uncomfortable corollary. If one should be impressed by those who rebelled, because they resisted, one should not be proud of those who did not. And there were very few rebellions in the history of slavery in the United States. Some scholars tried to backfill against this quandary by arguing that all African Americans together created a culture of resistance, especially in slave quarters and other spaces outside of white observation. Yet the insistence that assertive resistance undermined enslavers’ power, and a focus on the development of an independent black culture, led some to believe that enslaved people actually managed to prevent whites from successfully exploiting their labor. This idea, in turn, created a quasi-symmetry with post– Civil War plantation memoirs that portrayed gentle masters, who maintained slavery as a nonprofit endeavor aimed at civilizing Africans.

Thus, even after historians of the civil rights, Black Power, and multicultural eras rewrote segregationists ’ stories about gentlemen and belles and grateful darkies, historians were still telling the half that has ever been told. For some fundamental assumptions about the history of slavery and the history of the United States remain strangely unchanged. The first major assumption is that, as an economic system— a way of producing and trading commodities— American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it. Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor. This perspective implies not only that slavery didn’t change, but that slavery and enslaved African Americans had little long-term influence on the rise of the United States during the nineteenth century, a period in which the nation went from being a minor European trading partner to becoming the world’s largest economy— one of the central stories of American history.

The second major assumption is that slavery in the United States was fundamentally in contradiction with the political and economic systems of the liberal republic, and that inevitably that contradiction would be resolved in favor of the free-labor North. Sooner or later, slavery would have ended by the operation of historical forces; thus, slavery is a story without suspense. And a story with a predetermined outcome isn’t a story at all.

Third, the worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens. It did those things as a matter of course, and as injustice, that denial ranks with the greatest in modern history. But slavery also killed people, in large numbers. From those who survived , it stole everything. Yet the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire— this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power. And once the violence of slavery was minimized, another voice could whisper, saying that African Americans, both before and after emancipation, were denied the rights of citizens because they would not fight for them.

All these assumptions lead to still more implications, ones that shape attitudes, identities, and debates about policy. If slavery was outside of US history, for instance—if indeed it was a drag and not a rocket booster to American economic growth —then slavery was not implicated in US growth, success, power, and wealth. Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth and treasure piled by that economic growth is owed to African Americans. Ideas about slavery’s history determine the ways in which Americans hope to resolve the long contradiction between the claims of the United States to be a nation of freedom and opportunity , on the one hand, and, on the other, the unfreedom, the unequal treatment, and the opportunity denied that for most of American history have been the reality faced by people of African descent. Surely, if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen— even elect one of them president— to make amends. Then the issue will be put to rest forever.

Slavery’s story gets told in ways that reinforce all these assumptions. Textbooks segregate twenty-five decades of enslavement into one chapter, painting a static picture. Millions of people each year visit plantation homes where guides blather on about furniture and silverware. As sites, such homes hide the real purpose of these places, which was to make African Americans toil under the hot sun for the profit of the rest of the world. All this is the “symbolic annihilation” of enslaved people, as two scholars of those weird places put it. 2 Meanwhile, at other points we tell slavery’s story by heaping praise on those who escaped it through flight or death in rebellion, leaving the listener to wonder if those who didn’t flee or die somehow “accepted” slavery. And everyone who teaches about slavery knows a little dirty secret that reveals historians’ collective failure: many African-American students struggle with a sense of shame that most of their ancestors could not escape the suffering they experienced.

Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government

Here is a local issue that effects me personally, but it’s very similar to local issues all across the country.

Union calls city layoffs ‘deplorable’
Proposal would eliminate five full-time positions

“Miller says the union wants the city to explore other cost-cutting options before laying off workers, and he points to “extras” such as city vehicles driven by the city manager and police and fire chiefs, and the temporary specialists hired during the flood recovery process as areas that could be axed. Miller also questioned the immediate need for capital improvement projects like the $30 million parking facility slated for downtown and the multimillion dollar pedestrian ramp recently built over Interstate 80 on North Dodge Street.

““Not all avenues have been explored that we need to explore yet before we start laying people off,” Miller said Thursday. “That’s my opinion. We’d like to sit down with the city, get in touch with employees and see if we can find any cost-saving measures and suggestions they may have to avoid layoffs.”

“Vic Zender, the transit worker whose job is on the chopping block, has worked for the city for 15 years and said he is the city’s lone transit body mechanic. His job includes repairing not only the city buses but maintaining other vehicles, such as police cars.

““Since it’s a one-man operation, I cover everything for the city,” Zender said. “It doesn’t seem logical for the budget cut to come from that one area, since it’s a one-person area and it serves the whole city.”

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I have an insider’s view. I’ve worked for Iowa City Parking for more than a decade, and so I’ve been there longer than some of the people in the department’s management and longer than many people in the local government. I’m not even surprised by the changes that are happening. I saw it all coming. Some of the changes are even things I talked about with a supervisor years ago before I even knew the city officials were considering such changes. It was just inevitable that changes would come. These changes involve factors beyond mere economic challenges.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

In attitude, I’m more or less a typical Midwesterner. And it is as a Midwesterner that I care about what happens in this Midwestern town.

In terms of politics, I’m liberal-minded and a union member, although I don’t vote for Democrats (actually, I’m supporting Ron Paul at the moment, not that such things should matter). Despite being on the left, I often have discussions with right-libertarians and fiscal conservatives, and so I know that perspective.

My ‘liberalism’ is of the moderate variety that seeks compromise and agreement, win/win instead of win/lose. Also, my ‘liberalism’ crosses over with libertarianism, especially with issues of civil liberties but I’m also suspicious of big government when it comes to collusion between the public and private sectors (hence the Ron Paul support). If I had been alive when the GOP was a moderate party, I would have voted for Eisenhower (corporatism and military-industrial complex being of the same cloth).

Even as a union member, the union angle isn’t my primary concern here. I am glad to see the union speak out, but I’m not writing this post from the perspective of a union member. Besides, it’s not as if I’m a union representative or anything. I’m not even an active member of the union. The union is small and very few employees belong to it. The union doesn’t even have the power to strike. Mostly the union just negotiates contracts. This is a rare moment when the union makes an offical criticism of the city government. And the reason the union spoke up is because they felt decieved and betrayed.

Even as a city employee, I’m not thinking about this in personal terms. It is true that the changes the city government is making threatens my job. My position will be eliminated in the near future and it’s not yet clear if I’ll be offered another position or if it will be a position I will want. My particular job isn’t being outsourced but is instead being eliminated because human cashiers are being replaced by self-pay stations (the future is here and the machines are taking over). My department is Parking which a while ago was combined with Transit, the former runs the parking ramps and the latter the buses. It is personal to me, of course, but my concern here is more as a citizen who happens to have an inside view of the situation.

It is, however, the personal angle that causes me to write this as a blog instead of as a letter-to-the-editor. As a city employee who still has a job at the moment, I have absolutely no desire to draw too much attention to myself and I for damn sure don’t want to be the center of attention. I made some comments to the article in the local newspaper, but that is as far as I wanted to take it. This post is a continuation of and an expansion on what I said in those comments.

 * * *

I’m skeptical of big government (as I’m skeptical of big business) and I’m strongly critical of our present corrupt political system on the national level, but I think about local government very differently than federal government. If democracy is possible (something I occasionally doubt), it is most likely to function well on the local level. I’m very Midwestern in my faith in community and grassroots democracy. I don’t hate government, but I do want a democratic government that is responsible to the local community and serves the public good.

I know the people who manage parking/transit. They are good people dealing with a difficult problem. Everyone is struggling with the economy in its present state, but that is all the more reason we should be careful about the decisions we make in duress. It’s true we must solve the short-term problem of saving tax-payer money. However, if we don’t use enough foresight, we might find that short-term solutions could lead to unintended long-term problems. The public good is a very precarious thing, difficult to create and maintain while easy to destroy and corrupt.

Iowa City, like many communities, is in a tight spot. But such difficult times can be opportunities when great improvements are made because people become aware of the need for change. In the past, this led to great public good such as the use of government funds to renovate downtown and build the ped-mall. We should be wary of wasting tax-payer money, but we should be also careful about slowly picking away at the government services that produce public good for our community.

Outsoucring easily becomes a step toward privatization. I don’t know if outsourcing is always bad, but we should consider the potential results of the choices we make, esepecially when those choices become permanent. Do we want to move in the direction of privatizing public services? It’s quite likely true that a private company could operate parking ramps, buses and even libraries cheaper than the government. But that doesn’t mean that a private company would necessarily charge less (might even charge more) to customers who use those services. And they might not even offer a better service (might even offer a worse service).

I take these issues seriously. Over the years, I’ve often wondered why the city operates parking ramps when private companies could do so. The reason the government does so is because the government has been able to offer a high quality service at a low cost to the public, something that a private company probably couldn’t accomplish. The government can do this because the government isn’t concerned about profit. So, do we or do we not value this service provided by the city? Oursourcing suggests private companies can do a better job in terms of offering cheaper services even if not a better service. If saving money is what the local government cares about, they could entirely privatize these departments and they would never have to worry about costs again. Why not?

I don’t mean this just or even primarily as a criticism of outsourcing. I mean this as a serious set of issues that should be publicly debated by the community rather than decided in private by non-elected government officials. We are at this moment experiencing changes that will determine the future of Iowa City. This is something everyone should be concerned about and so everyone should be involved in. I offer my opinions on this matter as both a public servant and as a concerned citizen.

* * *

The following is actually the first comment I made. Although I stand by the truth of what I wrote, I felt like I was being too harsh or too absolutist or else just no showing my full perspective. This led me to writing the above thoughts for balance. So, here is my initial gut-level response:

This is what I don’t understand. If something is done for the public good and can’t be done well by the private sector, then it should be publicly operated entirely. If something isn’t being done for the public good or can be done well by the private sector, then it should be privately operated entirely.

The city has sought to outsource work for both parking and transit (i.e., buses). If the city keeps outsourcing these jobs, obviously the city is saying that they think the private sector can do a better job than the city can do. The only rational reason why the city doesn’t simply privatize the entire departments by letting them be made into private businesses is that the city wants to keep the profit while using cheap outsourced labor.

The city likes outsourced labor because it isn’t unionized and the labor is cheap because such jobs rarely have good pay or good benefits. But mere profit isn’t a good reason for the city to continue operating these departments. Fiscal conservatism has caused a warping of the very purpose of public services run by the government.

Either privatize these departments or keep the jobs in the city. It is the mixing of private and public that has led to corporatism on the national level (especially with contractors in the military). Once businesses develop a dependency on government contract work, a cozy relationship develops between certain sectors of business and the government. Once money starts flowing back and forth between politicians and business owners, it is unlikely to lead to positive results in the long run. Do we really want our local government copying the bad habits of our federal government? Do we really want to risk the possibility of increasing corporatism in Iowa City?

* * *

More than anything, what is on my mind is the issue of community. As a liberal-minded left-winger (or as socialist-leaning left-liberal), I realize community isn’t something that happens by accident. This goes way beyond this or any other recent issue. For many years (much of this past decade), I’ve been thinking about the importance of community and what it means on the local level. I’ve even written about it before on a number of occasions (for example: Public Good vs Splintered Society).

The issue of community, however, has become particularly important with recent problems of economic downturn and political divisiveness. Add to that the risk to our very democracy, especially of the local grassroots variety, from rabid fiscal conservatism and corrupt neoliberalism. On the local level, there have been many things that have come up.

Most recently, for example, there is the plans to build yet another multi-use apartment building (Red Avocado, Defunct Books to make way for new multi-use building: Iowa City bookstore, restaurant ordered to leave). This is about the endless conflict between community and capitalism. There are already many multi-use apartment buildings and many aren’t even filled to capacity, specifically the ground-level storefronts. There is a boom in student numbers at the moment which has promoted growth, but this boom isn’t likely to last. More importantly, most of these new apartment buildings aren’t being built to last as long at the houses that they are replacing. It’s quite likely that these apartment buildings will not be maintained once a profit is made out of them which means they almost inevitably will fall into disrepair and get bought up by slumlords. Neighborhoods, like communities, are hard to rebuild after they have been destroyed. Besides, who wants a future city filled with decrepit apartment buildings where once beautiful old buildings used to be.

Many people have a nonchalant attitude about community. They just don’t understnad its value or they don’t appreciate how difficult it is to create and maintain. This is particularly true among fiscal conservatives which is a distinction between them and more traditional conservatives.

I spoke to a fiscal conservative who is a Christian (a combination I’ve always found odd, at times verging on the hypocritical with some views) and he demonstrated this difference. The church he attended had reached capacity and would require a new building for the church to grow. As a fiscal conservative, he assumed growth was better than maintaining the past. This fiscal conservative also had moved around a lot because of career and so had little investment in the community. He didn’t understand why many church members didn’t want to move. It took my liberal mindset (or, rather, my Midwestern liberal mindset) to explain it to him. The church wasn’t simply a physical structure. It was part of people’s sense of community and home. It was where people grew up, got married, and raised their kids.

Fiscal conservatives, however, just see the economic and the physical aspects, and so they can’t see the difference between one building and another, between an old church and a new church, between a thriving neighborhood of beautiful old houses and a multi-use apartment building with no character. I understand what might be gained by building something new. I’m not against economic improvements if they are done with foresight and done with a goal of long-term benefits for the entire community. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand or value such faith in improvements through entrepreneurial investments. Rather, the problem is that fiscal conservatives and many capitalists don’t understand the view of those living in a community who want to defend their community. They often don’t understand why laissez-faire capitalism shouldn’t always or usually trump local grassroots democracy, why individual decisions shouldn’t necessarily trump community decisions. They have faith in laissez-faire capitalism and it can take a lot to shake that faith.

There is a trade-off that should be acknowledged and taken seriously. It isn’t just a decision to be made by individuals. The impact of these decisions will be communal and will last a very long time, for generations in fact; the direction we choose to take as a community might even be felt a century from now by the future residents of this community. For this reason, these decisions should be made by the community. If the community doesn’t want a neighborhood destroyed, why should they allow it be destroyed?

It’s not even about being for or against free markets. What is about is how one chooses to define free markets. To me, a market isn’t free if the people involved in and impacted by the market aren’t equally free; this means feedom in terms of real impact on real people instead of just theoretical ideals of ‘freedom’; if some people are more ‘free’ than others in their influence over the future of the community, then it ‘freedom’ becomes a facade of power. Community is about everyone being involved, not just wealthy capitalists or well-connected politicians. It relates to a confusion many people have about socialism. Socialists are against laissez-faire capitalism but, despite what many think, not necessarily against free markets. Many socialists, in fact, are for free markets as an antidote to laissez-faire capitalism. For this reason, socialism has its deepest roots in the Midwest, a region that has always valued both community cooperation and a hardworking entrepreneurial spirit, both being seen as in alignment rather than in conflict. It was the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists who cleaned up the corruption of crony capitalism and built a thriving economy and community by working with small, local businesses.

In the Midwest, there is a history of small, local business owners who care about community. This culture of community still influences Midwestern business owners to this day, but it is a value system under threat. Capitalism has led to big businesses taking over family farms and thus destroying the once thriving communities that were built around those family farms. Having grown up and lived in this particular Midwestern town for most of my life, I have a good sense of and appreciation for the Midwestern business sensibility. When I was a kid, there were still many corner grocery stores, but they went out of business for various reasons such as licensing fees being put in place that favored big businesses. For most of the time I’ve worked for the city, I’ve rented from the Alberhasky family who have run a number of businesses for generations in this town. Doug Alberhasky operates the rental part of the family business is a perfect example of the Midwestern businessman. I’ve interacted with him a lot over the years. You can tell that he cares about the buildings he owns, many of them historic, and that he cares about this community he lives in and is a part of. Being responsible to his business isn’t separate from being responsible to his community.

Iowa City is lucky, unlike many other towns in Iowa (and the rest of the rural Midwest) that are facing far more severe problems. It’s people like the Alberhaskys who help maintain what is still good about this town, even during these economic hard times. Just because there are economic challenges, it doesn’t follow that we should stop prioritizing community. If anything, we should prioritize community and all aspects of public good even more during economic hard times. That is what made the Midwest so successful in the first place, what made it into what we now know of as the ‘Heartland’. As explained in The Middle West – Its Meaning in American Culture by James R. Shortridge (p. 19), the Midwestern conflict with laissez-faire capitalism goes back to the first generations who settled here:

“The economic depression helped to foster a sense of regional identity and independence for the Middle West, in part by bringing people together and forcing cooperation to temper frontier individualism,. The experience also broke many of the financial ties that bound the region to the East. Much Eastern capital had been invested in Kansas and Nebraska prior to 1887. Some of it had come as loans from family, some as support from the Free State movements prior to the Civil War, but most had been pure business investments. The money encouraged large-scale speculation in land, town sites, railroads, and nearly every other aspect of life that accompanied the settlement of the praire in the two postwar decades. Some fortunes were made from this speculation, but when hard times in the early 1890s produced defaults on loans, the two regions blamed each other for the troubles. Prairie farmers were irresponsible spendthrifts in Eastern eyes; Easterners were selfish, unfeeling exploiters from the Western perspetive. The financial troubles quickly became a regional political issue, spawning debates over free silver, protective tariffs, and populist reforms in general. They even created the first hero for the Middle West, Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan.

“The financial crisis affected familial as well as financial ties, dividing peoples who had already begun to drift apart. Kansans and Nebraskans who had been Eastern born and thus were “full of Eastern thought, energy, method, and sympathies” were replaced by a generation who had known only the prairies. “To such people the West was home,” wrote a Kansan; “Western ways and Western ideas are inbred.””

In the past, economic hardship strengthened local communities. But now economic hardships are so much larger than in the past. And sadly it seems more likely that community will be weakened in the process.

* * *

This hard-earned community spirit is easily lost if we aren’t careful. This brings me back to the original topic that I began with. The city government, for good or ill, is often the last defense of local community. Citizens can’t protect their commuity if their government doesn’t represent them.

The challenge of modern government is that so many decisions are complex. I can understand why the management of city departments would rather not involve the public in their decisoin-making. Democracy is messy, difficult, and time-consuming. But that is also the strength and advantage of democracy. It disallows decisions to be made too quickly that might end up having very bad results. Careful decision-making is particularly important when considering issues that will have long-term impact on the community.

Working in government, it could be easy to lose sight of the community aspect of one’s job even if one grew up in the community. It could begin to feel as if it were a job like any other job and one might forget that it in reality isn’t a job like any other job. Running a government isn’t just about cutting costs and increasing efficiency. If government isn’t about the community, then it is worse than useless. This should never be forgotten.

In recent decades, however, fiscal conservatism has become dominant in politics. A major element of fiscal conservatism is either privatizing government services or else outsourcing them. That such fiscally conservative strategies have even been introduced into a liberal college town like Iowa City shows how much power social conservatives have over our society. Even conservatives in Iowa tend not to be radical right-wing fiscal conservatives. The Republican-voting Western Iowa gets more federal welfare through farm subsidies than does Democratic-voting Eastern Iowa. Iowans, whether on the left or right, tend to be very moderate.

I see this connected with community for moderation is necessary in maintaining communities where people sometimes disagree. Cooperation isn’t possible without a willingess to compromise when it benefits the public good.

I feel like those making the decisions to outsource maybe don’t fully appreciate what they are doing. Too many decisions are made without enough foresight. I don’t know if that is the case in this situation, but I would advise that we follow the precautionary principle in considering massive changes. The city hasn’t even offered any evidence that outsourcing would either save money or create better results for the public. That is their argument, but as far as I know they’ve offered no data to back it up. Yes, outsourcing is an easy answer for providing a quick fix of cost-saving. But is it the best solution for all involved?

All I want is public discussion, just the good ol’ fashioned grassroots and community-oriented democracy that the Midwest is known for. If the community decides it is in favor of outsourcing, then I’ll support it as part of this community.

Against Capitalism: Democracy & Socialism

Introduction

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.

Part 1

Socialists everywhere – The Daily Iowan

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.

* * * *

My understanding always refers back to democracy by which I mean the entire range of social democracy. I suggested to my father that we need more civic participation and engagement (an anarchist hearing this would immediately start ranting about statism). What we have now is the opposite.

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.

Part 2

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.

Conclusion

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.

Addendum

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.

A Fundamental Flaw of Free Markets

This video is an explanation of the type of issue I often consider. Listening to it, it got me thinking about why this needs to be explained.

Going by the data I’ve seen, this explanation seems obvious. I honestly can’t see any other convincing explanation. Yes, some rich people are deserving, but many aren’t deserving of being as rich as they are or aren’t any more deserving (in terms of talent, intelligence, ambition, etc) than many less advantaged people.

So, why doesn’t this seem obvious to many conservatives? What keeps them from seeing it? I suspect many refuse to seriously consider the data because it contradicts their beliefs and assumptions. That is understandable. If they get all their news from Fox News, Wall Street Journal, and right-wing talk shows, they probably never (or, at least, very rarely) would even come across any data that contradicts their beliefs and assumptions. That is sad, but understandable.

Still, I doubt that this explains it all. There has to be many conservatives who are familiar with the data and yet still support the rich having advantages. Why?

Is it just team sports mentality, just rich people defending other rich people that they personally identify with as being part of their group? That makes sense psychologically. Poor people do the same thing, although less effectively since they less power.

Another explanation is that some people believe that, despite inequality being morally wrong or less than perfect, is still better than the alternative. Maybe it’s a belief that the egalitarian vision is dangerous. It’s better to have an imperfect system than to risk its destruction by trying to improve it. Certainly, some conservatives do believe this, but I find it a bit too convenient that they many rich conservatives just so happen to support the analysis that benefits them personally.

Yet another explanation is that some people are just cynical. They have theirs. Fuck everyone else. They are on top of the wall and so they kick the ladder away to ensure no one can challenge their position of power. I wonder about this. How many conservatives are this cynical? Or, if not quite this cynical, how many conservatives are to varying degrees motivated by cynicism?

I don’t ask this as a way to dismiss all conservatives and all rich people. I genuinely want to understand what motivates people, want to understand why inequality keeps growing in this country. I can’t believe it’s a mere accidental side effect of an otherwise moral system. There is a class war going on, but I don’t know how many people even see it. For those who don’t see it, what is their incentive in remaining blind to the suffering of others?

Protectionist America

I was wondering about protectionism in terms of free trade. So, I did some research.

From what I can tell, the US was founded on and has always been a protectionist country. The reason for this is that the Founding Fathers were fighting against transnationals that were undermining the local industry. There can’t be even a semblance of free trade in a country if the national economy isn’t protected against transnationals monopolizing global markets. Many worshipers of free trade like to point to the Gilded Age of industrialization as an example, but protectionism was going on then as well. Even the great Ronald Reagan was one of the most protectionist presidents.

I don’t understand the complexities of protectionism, but it seems obvious that the American economy grew strong through protectionism. I’m not arguing that protectionism is necessarily good. It seems problematic when combined with the imperial aspirations of the US in the last century (which was the problem early Americans faced with the imperialism of the British protectionist economy). However, like the US, many countries around the world grew strong economies through protectionism.

There are always countries that will use protectionism (that is, until there is a global government to force a single policy on all countries). Any country that doesn’t protect against the protectionist policies of other countries will inevitably be taken advantage of and taken over by foreign entities. Modern economic colonialism is filled with examples of countries economically controlled or manipulated by countries that grew powerful and wealthy through protectionism.

Obviously, there is both good and bad to protectionism. It’s simply a tool that in itself is morally neutral. The reality of our world is that protectionism exists. Fantasizing about a hypothetical free market utopia won’t make it become real. Any country that doesn’t use protectionism is doomed. Protectionism is essentially self-defense. Why wouldn’t a country economically defend itself just as it militarily defends itself? Being economically taken over can be just as bad as being militarily taken over.

One other thing. Many of the pro-capitalist types like to complain about income tax. It’s true there wasn’t always an income tax. Previously, the government relied upon high tariffs on imports.

I don’t know the answer or even fully understand the problem. What I do know is that free trade worshipers are naive. Yes, if you are a person with power and connections seeking personal wealth, free trade is good for you and your associates. However, for most of the rest of the world’s population, free trade will mean getting taken advantage of by people with power and connections.

I’m not saying protectionism is always the answer. I just get tired of the ideologues who righteously put forth simplistic ideals.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ian-fletcher/america-was-founded-as-a_b_713521.html

http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/do_as_we_say_not_as_we_do/

http://tech.mit.edu/V128/N51/chomsky.html

http://ezinearticles.com/?Protectionism-Works&id=3698947

Ron Paul’s 19th Century Fantasy

I was just listening to a speech Ron Paul gave at a Tea Party convention. Some commenters noted it was the first full Ron Paul speech they’d seen from a major news source. Guess what the source is? RT America which is a Russian network that is partly financed by the Russian government.

It’s rather ironic because Americans like to think of themselves as being independent-minded, but you have to turn to a Russian network to get a diversity of alternative American voices. RT America has as guests such people as Thom Hartmann (originally from Air America radio), Cenk Uygur (started the most successful internet news show), and Alex Jones (of conspiracy theorist fame).

I like Ron Paul if only for his sincerity which is a rare attribute for a professional politician. Also, he is far from being stupid… but… His overall repetitive message of big government being the problem comes off as simplistically naive. No one could make such an argument if they knew history and were able to see outside of their own ideological reality tunnel.

I don’t blame Ron Paul per se. He is a businessman and so sees everything through the model of business. His idol is the free market. He honestly believes in it.

People like Ron Paul seem to argue that a free market would solve any problem. The simplest criticism is that a free market has never existed. There are always various people and groups controlling markets. The fundamental concept behind the free market argument is that businessmen have practical knowledge and so are economically smarter than politicians and regulators, smarter than academic professors and researchers. It is claimed that anyone other than businessmen will just mess up everything.

The context of this argument is the idiosyncratic history of America. The US early on was fairly isolated from other powerful countries and many of the communities on the continent were isolated by vast land, but it’s obvious the country wouldn’t remain that way. They didn’t need much of a military or navy. The powerful countries were busy fighting each other. The only reason America won its independence was because Britain was busy elsewhere. The reason the US didn’t need a strong navy was because the French navy defended the waters used by American trade ships. The American sense of exceptionalism arose from this isolation because there was no powerful countries nearby who either were able or willing to threaten us. All the wars we fought early on were minor and easily won.

So, unlike other countries, US markets developed with little regulation. The Boston Tea Party was partly motivated by fighting the collusion between big government and big business. The Founding Fathers intentionally wanted a disconnection between businesses and state just as they wanted between church and state. As far as I know, this was the first large-scale experiment ever to try to develop a free market. This was possible because America as a country grew as industrialization was beginning. The hope was that free markets would regulate themselves through competition and the innovativeness of early industrialization made people optimistic, but this experiment was largely a failure during the Gilded Age… or at least a failure in terms of a democratic society, especially as understood today.

Before the Progressive Era regulation, big business was powerful which led it to be oppressive and sometimes outright violent. They didn’t call them Robber Barons for nothing. Companies back then didn’t have to deal with government interference. There was no regulation and no safety inspections. Some companies even owned entire towns which they ran like anarcho-capitalist fiefdoms. They owned the stores, the hospitals, the schools, the housing. They owned everything. And, of course, workers had very little control. These company towns was nearly indentured servitude because workers could never make enough money to ever save and cost of everything was high.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/anarcho-capitalism-stateless-society/

Ok, but what about vertical oligopolies and monopolies, as MettaliarYanto says in his response? Also, what prevents a “monopoly of force in a given area” your definition of the state?

“[I]f one starts a private town, on land whose acquisition did not and does not violate the Lockean proviso [of non-aggression], persons who chose to move there or later remain there would have no right to a say in how the town was run, unless it was granted to them by the decision procedures for the town which the owner had established.” [Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 270] Is that not such a monopoly, i.e. state, if private?
Is that not such a monopoly, i.e. state, if private? Contracts that employees signed could have provisions forbidding strikes, organizing, etc., agreeing to pay for police, courts, doctors, stores and militaries hired by the employer.
Company towns had every feature which anarcho-capitalists propose, private police, courts, military, etc. Company rules were law. Buying at the company store was required by their contracts. If they sturck or formed a union, they were fired and evicted instantly. The contracts were entered voluntarily, in your sense. Since rights can be waived, exactly what stops this? The British East India Co. was its own state, ruling for centuries. Same with King Leopold’s Congo, run by his corporation.
“Each mining camp was a feudal dominion, with the company acting as lord and master. Every camp had a marshal, a law enforcement officer paid by the company. The ‘laws’ were the company’s rules. Curfews were imposed, ‘suspicious’ strangers were not allowed to visit the homes, the company store had a monopoly on goods sold in the camp.
The doctor was a company doctor, the schoolteachers hired by the company . . . Political power in Colorado rested in the hands of those who held economic power. This meant that the authority of Colorado Fuel & Iron and other mine operators was virtually supreme . . . Company officials were appointed as election judges. Company-dominated coroners and judges prevented injured employees from collecting damages.” [The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-14, pp. 9-11]

Working conditions were unhealthy and dangerous. It was common for workers to be become sick, to be maimed or killed. If their health became bad enough or they were maimed badly enough, the person lost their job and probably wouldn’t be able to find another. There was no unemployment or disability pay. If the person died, their family lost it’s main source of income and kids would grow up without a parent. Also, many kids went to work early on and so didn’t get education. Because kids were small, they were used in mines. Because kids were cheap labor, they were used in factories. Many kids also were maimed and killed.

Work was hard and brutal. People were forced to work long hours without breaks, without overtime pay, and without any days off. People were forced to take any work no matter how dangerous because there was no welfare. If you lost your job, you became homeless and possibly starved to death. There were more people looking for work than there were jobs. Life was cheap. Basically, businesses had the upperhand. If you were fired for no reason or were cheated out of pay, you had no recourse. There was practically no regulation and no worker protection. There wasn’t yet any established and powerful unions to represent workers. When workers organized, they were fired and blacklisted. When workers attempted to form unions, union leaders were threatened and killed. When workers protested, private police or goons were used to terrorize and brutalize workers.

Despite all of this, so many people were poor and desperate that they confronted this private power even when it meant mass slaughter. Most of these working class people didn’t have guns or any kind of weapons. These people were so poor they owned very little. All they had was their own life to put on the line.

There was no legal guarantee of workers rights. The government mostly left companies to sort out their own problems. When the government did become involved, it was mostly local government and not the Federal government. In these cases, the government usually sided with the companies. But, in some cases, the Federal government intervened and enforced peace. Workers had more to fear from local governments because local politicians were more closely connected with local business owners.

For example:

This is similar to the civil rights movement. It was local (i.e., small) government that was acting oppressively and unconsitutionally. And it was the federal government that stepped in to help the average citizen. If businesses and local governments acted morally, the federal government would never have had to take drastic measures. The Federal government was responding to a real problem. People like Ron Paul idolize both free markets and small government, but it was the failure of both that caused people big government to defend their rights and lives.

The other thing these capitalist worshippers fail to understand is that, during the Wild West free market of early industrialization, many businessmen weren’t opposed to government just as long as it served their purposes. Bribery and corruption was common. The so-called free market was rife with cronyism. In the early 20th century, many businessmen supported and did business with fascist states around the world. There was even a planned fascist coup of the US which was linked to some businessmen.

If you want to look for the earliest defenders of consitutional rights and civil rights, you wouldn’t look to big businesses. There were, however, some collectivist communities like the Shakers that operated their own businesses and did so successfully. And there were the Wobblies which was one of the early workers movements. Neither of these was anti-capitalist by any means, but they were against the so-called free market that served corrupt power and oppressed the citizenry. Both accepted women and men, blacks and whites as equals in their organizations. The Shakers and Wobblies were some of the only places at the time where women and blacks could have their voices heard and could hold positions of power.

This was a time when blacks and women didn’t have the right to vote and couldn’t hold political office. Even poor white men had very little power. Industrialization was built on an ownership class with the entire working class treated like secondhand citizens. This was also the era of the genocide and ethnic cleansing targeted at the Native Americans. This is the era of the free market that so many worship as being as being an era of freedom, but the supposed freedom in reality only applied to rich white men. Yes, the rich white men were free from government imposition and free to force their will on everyone else.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinkerton_National_Detective_Agency

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, usually shortened to the Pinkertons, was a private U.S. security guard and detective agency established by Allan Pinkerton in 1850. Pinkerton became famous when he claimed to have foiled aplot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, who later hired Pinkerton agents for his personal security during the Civil War.[citation needed] Pinkerton’s agents performed services ranging from security guarding to private military contracting work. At its height, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency employed more agents than there were members of the standing army of the United States of America, causing the state of Ohio to outlaw the agency due to fears it could be hired as a private army or militia.[citation needed] Pinkerton was the largest private law enforcement organization in the world at the height of its power.[1]

During the labor unrest of the late 19th century, businessmen hired Pinkerton agents to infiltrate unions, and as guards to keep strikers and suspected unionists out of factories. The best known such confrontation was the Homestead Strikeof 1892, in which Pinkerton agents were called in to enforce the strikebreaking measures of Henry Clay Frick, acting on behalf of Andrew Carnegie, who was abroad; the ensuing conflicts between Pinkerton agents and striking workers led to several deaths on both sides. The Pinkertons were also used as guards in coal, iron, and lumber disputes in IllinoisMichiganNew York, and Pennsylvania, as well as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

The Pinkertons were essentially a privatized force that combined detective agency, mercenaries, and the types of activities now associated with the FBI. Big business at it’s height was potentially more powerful than the Federal government.

During the Civil War, many blacks and poor whites knew a kind of power they never had before. Their was this whole new class of people who were well-trained and often well-armed. The Pinkertons couldn’t just pick on the poor and weak anymore. There is a reason that it was the outlaws and not the Pinkerton agents who were the cultural heroes back then. There was so much corruption and oppression that people were inspired by outlaws who stood up to power and fought back.

I’ve written about this topic a number of times:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/02/13/libertarian-nightmare/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/anarcho-capitalism-will-not-work/

In the most recent post, I expressed my frustration:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/anarchism-vs-progressivism/

I feel frustrated when someone offers up something like the free market. The striving for freedom won’t save us. The problem is that we aren’t free. We are embedded and enmeshed in, intertwined with and integral to the entire world. We aren’t free of anything. The very idea of freedom is one of those many abstractions that keeps us trapped in the Iron Cage of rationality, the bureaucratization of humanity… costs and benefits, ideologies and systems, improvement and progress. It’s not that any given idea is wrong. Free markets, for example, sound wonderful. What frustrates me is the mindset that constantly creates more ideas to be forced on humanity, on reality, on all the world around us. We think that if we just find the right idea or principle, the right method or framework then the the problems will be solved… but the fundamental problems of civilization are never solved… or at least not so far.

Why I feel frustrated is because of people like Ron Paul. He isn’t a radical conspiracy theorist ranting about the government nor is an uneducated ideologue. Someone like him should know about the history of the US. So, why does he act like he is ignorant of this history or considers it so irrelevant that it’s not worth mentioning? I’m not arguing that there is no problems with the unions and regulations created during the Progressive Era, but it would be morally irresponsible to pretend that vast problems didn’t exist prior to the 20th century big government. Americans gave free markets a chance and free markets failed. Why would any rational person (besides rich white males) want to return to the social and economic conditions of the 19th century?

– – –

* As a note, I should point out that there never actually was a free market during the Gilded Age. For example, the railroads were built with government subsidies and land grants. Collusion between politicians and businessmen has always existed since the beginning of civilization. It happens on the local level as much as it happens on the national level.

Also, I’m not arguing that all 19th century businessmen were corrupt. But I am arguing that most if not all of the wealthiest tycoons became successful at least partly through less than moral tactics. There were other businessmen who fought against these Robber Barons, but they aren’t the names remembered because they aren’t the businessmen who formed the groundwork for today’s big business. Some would argue that the Robber Barons only became corrupt because they colluded with big government, but this certainly wasn’t progressive big government. The point is that corrupt businessmen will try to corrupt government, big or small.

Anarchism vs Progressivism

I was having a discussion with an anarcho-capitalist who was moderate rather than ideological. It was quite refreshing. Most of the anarcho-capitalists I’ve met have been extremely ideological.

I myself am persuaded by both anarcho-primitivism and progressivism. I think civilization is problematic, but as long as civilization exists I consider it morally optimal to seek the greatest good for the greatest numbers while preventing as many problems as possible. I’m unpersuaded by the idolization of enlightened selfishness and the monetization of human life.

Here is a video this person shared with me to present his anarcho-capitalist view:


Here are two of my responses:

FIRST RESPONSE

He is right about the problems of government building logging roads and selling trees at below market cost. Derrick Jensen discusses that issue. Ownership does increase short-term responsibility. A company will want to ensure its profits are maintained in the near future, but this becomes less certain in terms of decades & completely uncertain in terms of generations.

Also, this video leaves out some important issues.

Big businesses want big governments. Big businesses don’t want anarchistic markets that they can’t control or reliably predict and they don’t want anarchistic societies with populations that aren’t controlled where protesters can shut down factories and an unrestrained population can start revolutions.

People who advocate ownership rights in terms of capitalism too often ignore the non-capitalist ownership rights of indigenous people. Big business wants big government to deal with unruly indigenous people who think they have a right to the land their people have lived on for centuries. Big businesses are too often fine with colluding with the genocide or displacement of the indigenous. Sometimes they don’t even need big govt to do this since there are examples of big business hiring mercenaries or local goons to kill or scare away the indigenous.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/does-poverty-rise-as-biodiversity-falls-pavan-sukhdev/

Anarcho-capitalism might benefit small businesses, but it would never benefit big businesses. Big businesses have immense power. If big businesses didn’t like big govt, they could easily use their power to decrease the size of govt. But big business types such as the Bush family want the big govt. The Bush family is even personal friends with Saudi royal family which rules one of the most oppressive big governments in the world. There is no incentive for a big business owner to help create a truly free market where they have to fairly compete. If competition existed, then businesses would be forced to decrease in size and wealth would no longer be concentrated. These big business types like having their wealth and power. They would never willingly give it up just for some noble ideals of a free market.

SECOND RESPONSE

We seem to both agree that the extreme examples of corruption and oppression as seen with concentrated power isn’t human nature. However, I take it a step further in saying all modern civilization is contradictory to human nature.

Maybe I’m less critical of statism and progressivism simply because I’m equally critical of all modern systems of social, political and economic organization. My cynicism makes me have lower standards and more moderate expectations. I’m more accepting of the failings of our society because I just assume that one kind of failure or another is inevitable with civilization as we know it. Or maybe, as someone who feels like a failure at life, I feel it would be hypocritical to be too judgmental of the failure of others. I have a strong sense of sympathy for human imperfection.

Anyway, I had some thoughts that I wondered how you would respond to.

Not all costs and benefits can be monetized, but capitalism (whether free market or not) almost entirely by design excludes anything that can’t be monetized. This is less of a problem with small communities. Hunter-gatherer tribes, for instance, were more widely spread apart so the actions of one community were less likely to impact other tribes. Similarly, early small agricultural communities caused less large-scale problems. But in todays world of industrialization and globalism, impacts are non-local and the human mind isn’t evolved to understand or care about non-local impacts or the strangers elsewhere impacted. I don’t see how a free market can solve this problem inherent to the limits of human nature.

Some costs and benefits are collective such as fire prevention. A private for-profit company couldn’t solve this problem nor could you get everyone to voluntarily agree to a single solution. A collective solution has to be forced on all because the dangers and costs of fires, especially wildfires, impact everyone in a community. A fire can spread from house to house and from community to community. Fires don’t know property boundaries. If not for government, who would bear the costs and implement collective action to do control burns and watch over vast areas of wilderness to spot fires before they spread?

Also, what about long-term costs and benefits such as with local ecosystems? And what about the extremely non-local costs and benefits of the entire biosphere? Pollution doesn’t know property boundaries or national boundaries. We all collectively share the same water and air and we share even many of the same food sources such as seafood. The challenge with environmental costs and benefits is that they’re usually only seen after decades or centuries. A problem prevented may have no short term benefits, but if not prevented it may have massive long-term costs.

As an example, the President Carter helped create the EPA. The reason it was created was because there was little monetary incentive for companies to solve the problems of pollution and environmental destruction. Much of the costs were invisible to everyday experience. Even scientists didn’t know all the potential problems with pollution, but they knew enough that prevention was the wise course despite there being no immediate and apparent benefits. One of the pollutants decreased was lead and the benefits to this weren’t seen for decades. It was only until recent research that scientists could see that the decrease of lead helped to vastly decrease the violent crime rate. No one could’ve predicted this, but problems like this need to be prevented for the very reason we don’t understand them. It’s the precautionary principle.

This issue is complicated with the inherent conflict between transnational corporations and local communities. What monetarily benefits a company such as mining often doesn’t benefit the local community. And the costs of the companies actions may not be seen until years or decades after the company has moved it’s business elsewhere or maybe even has gone out of business. Who is responsible for those costs?

When indigenous people experiences diseases introduced by foreigners… when the water supply is polluted or the wildlife scared away causing the indigenous to be no longer able to sustain their traditional lifestyle… when industrialism leads to poor health because of pollution and malnutrition, who is responsible for the costs to individuals and communities? How does a free market monetize the costs and benefits that are collective and long-term?
I’m reminded of an example that Derrick Jensen used. He was describing this particular community that was established before there was a large federal government and when people mostly solved their own problems. The first settlers killed and scared off the Native Americans living there. The people who live there and own the land are the descendants of the people who stole the land originally. The same Native Americans still live in the area among the people who still possess their stolen land, the people who are descendants of those who killed their ancestors and destroyed their way of life. The creation of such an ownership class is inherently built upon violence and sustained through oppression. All of that violence and oppression happened before big govt.

This story has been repeated a million times around the world. Right now as I write there are indigenous people being exploited and oppressed often by big business or sometimes by small business owners that settled on the homeland of the indigenous. Early settles used the principle of property rights to steal land because they believed/rationalized that he who makes use of the land has the right to the land. This was based on the concept that land in it’s natural state is worthless. This bias continues to this day. We are only beginning to understand the value of health ecosystems to ensuring water and air is clean, things we normally take for granted without considering the costs and benefits.

All these problems I speak of have their origins at the beginning of civilization. The problems of pollution and environmental destruction, malnutrition and disease became apparent the moment people left behind the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and formed permanent villages which became city-states which became states which became empires which became our present industrialized globalism. Indigenous people have perfectly healthy teeth until they are civilized and start eating a grain and sugar based diet. Capitalism or statism then offers the solution of dentistry, but capitalism and statism are part of the social condition that caused the problem in the first place. That relates to wildfires as well. We have to control nature in order to build stable societies and economies, but that control leads wildfires to become larger than they would ever have become naturally. So, once again, businesses or governments have to create solutions for the problem created by the entire system. All of civilization is the solving of problems that civilization created and every solution creates further problems.

So, the fundamental problem is civilization itself. The human species and human communities, ecosystems and the biosphere didn’t evolve under the conditions of civilization. Civilization has only existed for a few thousand years. Civilization has developed faster than evolution can happen. This has led to the extinction of massive numbers of species and the destruction of massive numbers of cultures.

The further problem is that civilization has created massive concentrated populations which are in themselves unnatural and which preclude natural solutions. We humans are a clever species, but it’s our cleverness that gets us into trouble. We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but fundamentally we are driven by the same non-rational impulses as any animal. The difference is that no other species has ever had the power to destroy nearly all life on the planet.

I don’t see how free markets or any other human idea can solve all these problems without just causing more problems… as history has proven. As has been said before, when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging. But how do we stop? Civilization is built on continual progress or else the whole house of cards might fall down. We collectively as a species have to keep running just to stay in place. Solution? We don’t even understand the problem. We are the problem or are at least inseparable from the problem. Any solution will have to be a complete transformation of how humans operate on a collective level, but such a solution could never be predicted just as we have never been able to predict any of the problems we’ve created. So, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope for the best.

I feel frustrated when someone offers up something like the free market. The striving for freedom won’t save us. The problem is that we aren’t free. We are embedded and enmeshed in, intertwined with and integral to the entire world. We aren’t free of anything. The very idea of freedom is one of those many abstractions that keeps us trapped in the Iron Cage of rationality, the bureaucratization of humanity… costs and benefits, ideologies and systems, improvement and progress. It’s not that any given idea is wrong. Free markets, for example, sound wonderful. What frustrates me is the mindset that constantly creates more ideas to be forced on humanity, on reality, on all the world around us. We think that if we just find the right idea or principle, the right method or framework then the the problems will be solved… but the fundamental problems of civilization are never solved… or at least not so far.

Maybe you don’t share my frustration. Maybe you have more hope in solutions despite the all the failings of history. I realize most people don’t see the world as I do. I just don’t see anything changing until something forces humans to change. I’m not filled with hope.