Parasitism vs Public Good

Here is a theory of mine. The US is an immigrant country founded on the populations and territories of multiple empires. The US doesn’t have it’s own stable traditional culture, although a few small sub-populations do.

Because of this, the US has developed a society and economy that is dependent on a constant influx of immigrants and hence a constant infusion of social capital that these immigrants bring. The American Dream is most strongly believed in by immigrants because that is what it is designed for, as advertising to sell a product.

There is a dysfunction at the heart of it all. The US depends on and devours the social capital that other stable societies produce, but doesn’t seem able to produce enough of its own. The US is in many ways a parasitic society.

If the US suddenly stopped immigration or immigrants stopped coming, there would be no more replacement social capital. Could the US survive that for long? Would Americans find a way to transform their society into something more stable and self-sustainable? Or would the whole thing collapse?

The US is a young country. It’s dynamic culture is its strength and weakness. It’s normal for a young country, like a young person, to be unstable and dependent on others. But for long-term survival, a young country has to eventually grow up and gain maturity, if only for the reason other countries will lose tolerance and patience with the immaturity.

Ready or not, the US has to enter adulthood. What kind of society will we grow up to be? Assuming we don’t kill ourselves first, as the young sometimes do.

* * *

As a comparison, what comes to mind are the other countries based on former colonies of the British Empire. Such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. All of them seem more mature and stable, compared to the US.

Maybe this relates to several factors. The main one is these other countries didn’t have as much good farmland to attract, employ, and feed such massive waves of immigrants. They also didn’t have such vast amounts of other natural resources that allowed the economic boom in the US.

Without such things, they were able avoid the misfortune of having their ruling elite tempted by imperialist aspirations. Instead, they were forced to develop more internal stability and national self-reliance.

Canada particularly stands out, as it is quite a bit younger than the US and yet shares the same continent along with much of the same history. When Canada was founded as a country, it had a population about the same as when the US was founded. A similar starting point that went in a different direction.

For whatever reason, Canada never had large waves of immigrants and I’m not sure they were ever interested in following the immigration example at their southern border. Canadians seem to have had more of an immigrant policy of quality, rather than quantity. As far as I know, they don’t have a gigantic statue with resounding words about inviting huddled masses to their shores.

Is a country like Canada somehow more stable and mature than the US? If so, what might be the reason for this? Is it just because of what I mentioned? Or is there more going on? What makes possible, within a country, the development, maintenance, and perpetuation of social capital and culture of trust?

* * *

Anu Partanen, in The Nordic Theory of Everything, has got me thinking about what countries both create within their own society and how they impact other societies.

One example is education. The US has low ratings for primary education, while the Nordic countries rate more highly. On the other hand, the US has a higher education system that ranks high on some measures, although this is quite misleading.

The major rankings of national higher education only look at the best schools from each country which creates an inherent bias against smaller countries with fewer college students and fewer schools. If including all students in all higher education within the US and Nordic countries, the latter actually ranks higher. So, per capita, the Nordic countries are better educating their populations at the primary and higher levels.

Still, it remains true that the US ivy league schools are among the best in the world. There is an important factor to be considered. A large part of ivy league professors, graduate teaching assistants, and students were born, raised, and received primary education in other countries. The US benefits from the brain drain of other countries, but the US doesn’t have to pay for creating this benefit. The most brilliant people in the world will usually want to work in the best schools in the world and this constantly stacks the deck in favor of particular countries.

As such, the US doesn’t have to improve its own primary education. It can simply rely upon other countries with awesome primary education to keep producing high quality students to attend the US ivy league schools. Even wealthy Americans who go to ivy leagues typically got their primary education from high quality schools in other countries or else private schools in the US that avoid the problems of the US education system, as they certainly weren’t going to be sent to crappy public schools in the US.

The US benefits in many other ways as well. Partanen offered some great examples in how well functioning social democracies help to create an atmosphere of public good that isn’t limited to a single country. A welfare state, what the author calls a well-being state, allows for experimentation and innovation without fear of the consequences of failure. It can be easier to try new things, when there is social capital and a culture of trust to support your endeavors.

Below is the relevant passage from The Nordic Theory of Everything (Kindle Locations 4278-4301):

“We’ve seen how successful Nordic businesses are, and to be sure, in the Nordic private sector, the desire to make money is a powerful motivator. But Nordic societies are also leading innovators in the public and nonprofit arena, which has contributed to their dynamic competitiveness and prosperity as well. The creativity and ambition of Nordic government and nonprofit sectors are living proof that people in a capitalist democracy can be motivated by much more than simple greed.

“Consider Denmark again, a country that is pursuing the world’s most ambitious engineering solution to address climate change. Copenhagen has set a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by as early as 2025, and has been installing an ultra-high-tech wireless network of smart streetlamps and traffic lights that themselves save energy and also help traffic move more efficiently, reducing fuel consumption. All this is good for the environment, the nonprofit public sector, and the private sector. By aiming to wean itself as a nation off fossil fuels before 2050, for example, Denmark has become a world leader in the wind-power industry.

“Sweden, meanwhile, has set itself the ambitious goal of completely eliminating deaths from traffic accidents, and in the process is reinventing city planning, road building, traffic rules, and the use of technology to make transport safer. The country established the goal in 1997, and since then has reduced road deaths by half. Today only three out of every one hundred thousand Swedes die on the roads each year, compared to almost eleven in the United States. Consequently transportation officials from around the world have started to seek Sweden’s advice on traffic safety, and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has based his street safety plan on Sweden’s approach.

“Of course one could also argue that the biggest Nordic innovation of all is the whole concept and execution of the well-being state.

“Americans might be surprised, too, by the ways that some of the key building blocks of the global technology sector have been the result of nonprofit innovation. The core programming code of Linux, for example— the leading computer operating system running on the world’s servers, mainframe computers, and supercomputers— was developed in Finland by a student at Helsinki University, Linus Torvalds, who released it free of charge as an open-source application. When Torvalds later received some valuable stock options, they were a gift of gratitude from some software developers. In addition Finns have made other significant contributions to the global open-source software movement, a community of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create free software for anyone to use. One of the world’s most popular open-source databases, MySQL, was created by a Finn named Monty Widenius and his Swedish partners. Today just about all American corporate giants— including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Walmart— rely on MySQL. Widenius and his team have, in the years since, nevertheless made good money, but they did so by providing support and other services, while the software itself remains free to the world.”

 

A Dangerous Pragmatism

How often pragmatism leads to or belies shortsightedness and narrowmindedness. Or rather how often claims, justifications and rationalizations of realism undermine greater pragmatic results, capitalist realism allied with realpolitik cynicism often being the worst.

The question as always: Pragmatic toward what?

In education, what is sought to be achieved and created? Not just for the individual. Not just for the workforce and economy. But for all of society. What makes a morally and intellectually well-rounded human being? What makes a good citizen, both of a nation and of the world? What makes for the public good?

These questions are even more important in a democracy. When democracy is given short shrift, when democracy is devalued or made secondary, if not tertiary, that bodes not well for the long-term survival of a democratic society. Nor does it offer much hope for moral results of any kind. Freedom of the individual, freedom of markets, freedom of all of society is dependent on how each generation is raised and acculturated, trained and educated.

Every society seeks pragmatic results, as defined by their political structure and cultural traditions. The Nazis and Stalinists all sought to be pragmatic toward achieving their desired end. They were as caught up in their fascist realism and communist realism as we are caught up in our capitalist realism. How about some plain old civic-minded democracy instead?

Let us be pragmatic about something that truly matters, something that can inspire and benefit everyone. Let us be pragmatic about democracy in all of its forms.

Let us create and sustain a democratic system and citizenry. Let us create and sustain a democratic economy and democratic markets. Let us create and sustain a democratic education system.

Let us do all of this pragmatically, not just with rhetoric and propaganda, but with real world results. Let us finally for the first time in history take democracy seriously, both on the large-scale and for the long-term. Let us together build the practical infrastructure and the grassroots culture of democracy.

Let us begin with a new generation by preparing them for a new era of democracy. Let us fulfill the democratic promise of education for all.

Illiberal Arts
‘Is College Worth It?’ and ‘College (Un)bound’
By Andrew Delbanco
The New York Times
Published: June 21, 2013

The colleges that survive will be those, in Selingo’s words, that “prove their worth.” Fair enough. But there’s a problem with this formulation, which presumes a narrow definition of worth that can be captured in data like rates of early job attainment or levels of lifetime income.

In times of economic stress, it’s entirely reasonable for students and families to demand evidence that paying for college makes sense. Bennett construes college as a business proposition, but Selingo allows himself to reflect on what’s sacrificed in such a view: “I worry at times about what might be lost in an unbound, personalized experience for students. Will they discover subjects they never knew existed? If a computer is telling them where to sit for class discussions, will they make those random connections that lead to lifelong friends? Will they be able to develop friendships and mentors if they move from provider to provider?”

These are the right questions. In striving to “prove their worth,” America’s colleges risk losing their value as places young ­people enter as adventurous adolescents and from which they emerge as intellectually curious adults. Such a loss could never be compensated by any gain.

Conservative-Minded Conservatism

I was thinking about forms of socialism that are popularly supported among conservatives in particular social contexts and under certain conditions. The specific example that got me thinking was the public bank in North Dakota (see my previous post), a socialist institution in one of the most conservative states in the country.

In a comment to that previous post, I wrote:

The red states like the Upper Midwest are ‘conservative’ in the more normal dictionary-definition sense of the word. I’ve always thought that socialism, like communalism, with its emphasis on the group and on community is inherently ‘conservative’ in that it seeks to conserve the public good of group cohesion and community health.

They are also conservative in another sense in that they want socialist public good for those they identify with at the local level: their states, their cities, their communities. But they don’t want to participate in any socialism that might help anyone else they don’t identify with.

This interests me on a personal level in two ways. My parents are conservative and I’ve always sensed a certain kind of conservative tendency in myself.

Part of what appeals to me about American liberalism is its conservative-mindedness. That is the same thing that appeals to me about the Upper Midwestern conservatism as well. It is conservatism that means to conserve what is good and proven, useful and necessary. It is moderate in that it seeks to moderate against radical change, but doesn’t take a reactionary stance against reform. It emphasizes community and even communalism, emphasizes family and church, putting group interests first by promoting social responsibility and local autonomy.

North Dakota is one of the most conservative states in the country. It is precisely because they are so extremely conservative that they have a state owned and operated bank.

To mainstream thought in America, this appears incongruent to say the least. Anti-socialist conservatives and anti-conservative socialists would probably feel some cognitive dissonance when presented with what is either conservative-minded socialism or sociaist-minded conservatism, not that North Dakotans would use such labels to describe their public banking system.

Whatever you call it, mainstream thought tells us that such a thing shouldn’t be possible. Certainly, it shouldn’t be successful. But reality doesn’t always conform to our ideological expectations. It turns out such a thing is both possible and, at least in this instance, apparently quite successful.

The North Dakota public bank has been in operation for almost a century. The bank makes a profit and the profit is kept in the bank. They don’t get involved in risky banking schemes in the way other states do when they use private banks. North Dakota did well when the rest of the country experienced the recession caused by the banking scandals. The North Dakota bank required no bailout.

It turns out a socialist bank is a more fiscally responsible way of running a state, instead of investing public tax money in risky private banks. Being a fiscally responsible form of government, it is fiscally conservative. Allowing for state autonomy and self-responsibility, it is socially conservative as well. North Dakotans take care of their own financing and they take care of their own people. They are thus more independent of both big government and big banks.

What at first appears incongruent is in reality perfectly congruent. Some basic analysis of the facts at hand dispels the initial cognitive dissonance.

I’d like to see more of this kind of conservative-minded conservatism, with or without socialism.

Localized Democracy and Public Good

To give balance to recent blog posts, I’ll share my thoughts that arose with a discussion I had with my dad.

He is definitely a conservative in most ways, fiscally and socially. However, he is intelligent and well informed which has caused him to adjust his views over time. I often use him as a way of testing the direction of political winds, specifically which way mainstream conservatism is blowing.

I can lean strongly left at times and my father can lean strongly right. This often leads to disagreements, but maybe just as often leads to certain kinds of agreements. As conservatism and liberalism meets in the middle, the right-wing and left-wing meets in the political desert.

It’s my dad’s fiscal conservatism that saves him from the ideological blindness of partisan politics. He is an economically practical man who has worked in and taught business management. It has been his business to consider new information. My leftism has maybe served a similar role. It’s basically within the general realm of libertarianism that my father and I can find common ground, although neither of us is an ideologically committed libertarian.

The discussion we were having was fairly typical, not unlike any number of other discussions we’ve had. I guess it stood out to me because I sensed my dad was struggling with new info and so reassessing a bit. There is a newsletter he reads and the financial advisor who writes it doesn’t seem particularly conservative. He was reading this newsletter and the info was food for thought.

For example, my dad is slowly coming around to taking environmentalism more seriously. He was reading about how we as a society can’t continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere. This might seem obvious to those on the left, but this is the type of info my dad has spent a lifetime avoiding and the conservative media has helped him avoid it.

Environmentalism isn’t the main issue my dad brought up, rather economics as it relates to politics. Environmentalism only connected because my dad was considering the commentary that oil will no longer play the role as a cheap energy source. This is problematic as our entire society has been literally fueled by cheap energy and it could be a while before we develop a new cheap energy.

The economics and politics angle, I think, related to developing new energy sources. My dad was telling me about how this financial advisor was saying debt itself wasn’t the problem, but whether deficit spending was being used toward pragmatic investments or not. This goes against my dad’s fiscal conservatism.

Both my dad and I agree that bailing out banks was a bad idea. I was telling my dad about Iceland and he wasn’t familiar with that example.  I also mentioned Sweden that is doing well, even with a massive welfare state relative to GDP. I used this as a jumping off point for explaining my personal theory (or rather set of theories), and my dad agreed.

My dad is wary of what he calls ‘populism’, but I pointed out that the policies in Iceland and Sweden seem to have been popularly supported in those countries. My speculation is that these countries represent optimal conditions for societal and economic health.

I see several essential factors. First and foremost, democracy seems key which doesn’t imply any single form of democracy, moreso just the general principles of democracy in society overall (not just politics, but also in social institutions, community organizing and economic systems). I suspect that democracy only functions well under certain conditions.

There are obvious differences between the US and countries such as Iceland and Sweden. The US is massive in terms of both population and geographical territory. This might be the most important part as I have yet to see it proven that genuine democracy can function at all on the largescale. With this massiveness, there also comes massive diversity that disallows easy organizing and governing. In the US, every special interest group seems out for their own private good. There isn’t a single shared culture to create a sense of social solidarity and common good.

For these reasons, you can only find some well functioning democracy on the local level of American politics. And even on the local level, well functioning democracy in the US is more rare as local communities have been undermined and in many cases decimated. The federal government helped to end much oppression and corruption on the local level, yet often just shifted the problems to the federal level. The closest the US has ever come to something akin to the Northern European social democracies is, to use one of my favorite examples, the early 20th century municipal socialism of Milwaukee.

To my mind, democracy and local governance go hand in hand. However, that local governance has to be supported by a shared local culture. The problem of  many post-colonial countries is that their boundaries were created according to political demands and compromises. This has meant that a single country might contain multiple tribal cultures while any single tribal culture might be divided between multiple countries. Unsurprisingly, these are conflict-ridden societies.

The US seems to be in an impossible situation. I see no likely way of getting democracy to function in the US, definitely not on the federal level and probably not even on the state level. There are just two many special interests and too many lobby groups, not to mention that most of the founding elites never wanted democracy.

My sense of democracy is somewhat open-ended. Democracy maybe isn’t a single ideological system in the way capitalism is. Democracy applies to all aspects of society and can allow for many possible ideological systems. My ideal well functioning democracy could manifest quite diversely depending on the local culture. It could be more capitalist or more socialist or even more religious.

This does seem to be a more libertarian interpretation of democracy. This could be minarchist democracy, but I don’t know that it wouldn’t also allow larger political alliances that might resemble the government of a larger country or union.

The problem with actual functioning capitalism is that it is completely opposed to my vision of democracy. If capitalism is supposed to be a free market, I don’t know what kind of freedom this is or whose freedom it is. It certainly isn’t a democratic economy.

My dad could agree with much of what I said, but he struggles with the notion of a democratic economy for his fear of ‘populism’. Nonetheless, the fact that a mainstream conservative like my dad could agree with my general argument is impressive. There is already a lot of agreement in American society, but the anti-democratic system gets in the way.

I wonder when global society and local communities will get shook up enough to begin implementing something entirely new, beyond a few exceptions found in isolation.

Wickedness of Civilization & the Role of Government

I’ve become aware of an inner conflict in the American psyche that goes back to even before the country was founded. This inner conflict includes those on both the left and the right, but it often seems the clearest on the right since the right has taken a more radical stance these past decades.

This inner conflict was expressed by Thomas Paine.

On one side, Paine advised that the only role of government was in punishing wickedness. So, he saw the role of government more in preventing the negative than in promoting the positive. He stated this in no uncertain terms.

On the other side, Paine perceived that all of civilization was built on certain core issues of wickedness which meant such wickedness was immense and pervasive. So, he saw the necessity of a government strong enough and centralized enough to counteract the strong, centralized private power that had come to form in the colonies from the lack of a strong, centralized government (for, in the early centuries of the British colonies, the British government had a hands-off approach).

Paine fought against American elites as strongly as he did British elites. The problem was elitism along with the corruption and cronyism that followed from it, no matter it’s source.

It was Paine who first spoke of America in terms of being a united people. And it was Paine who most strongly spoke of economic and political inequality which led him to be the first American to describe in detail an early version of social security. Paine was a radical democrat, not an anarchist or a libertarian (his having placed fairness as being the necessary foundation for liberty). Paine believed in putting the power in the hands of the people, rather than in the hands of an elite. He believed a democratic government was the only way to accomplish this.

Today, someone like Paine might be called a liberal or progressive. Conservatives, if they met him now, would likely call him a Marxist or something. And it is true Paine’s words even all these centuries later still has a left-wing resonance about them. After all, by the time he came to America, he no longer was seeking reform from within the system as a centrist, moderate liberal would do and for damn sure he wasn’t interested in conserving all things British simply because he was born an Englishman, as was conservative Burke’s main concern.

Whatever Paine was or how we now perceive him, he was a profound thinker who was capable of complex understanding and not afraid of hard questions. But what makes him most interesting is how ordinary he was, only coming to revolutionary thinking in what is now called middle age (in a society where most people never lived that long). The kind of ideas he gave voice to had been in the air at that point for generations or even centuries, slowly percolating. He was both a man of his times and yet, in seeing more clearly than those around him, he was far ahead of his times.

It was this that allowed him to simultaneously see the problems of British rule of the colonies and the necessity of a new kind of self-rule, which is to say government was both the problem and the solution. That said, it’s true that he differentiated society from government and saw society as the more fundamental. He wrote that,

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”

His point seems to have been that a necessary evil is still necessary. Also, what he meant is that government should serve society (i.e., the people), not the other way around. He came to this nuanced thinking because he realized there was no way to undo modern civilization without causing mass suffering. He agreed that the Native Americans had more basic liberty in their everyday lives, but the problem was that the colonial population was too large and growing to have that kind of lifestyle.

These two sides of Paine represent the two sides of the inner conflict that have haunted Americans ever since. Conservatives, in particular, find themselves in a tough spot in advocating one side of Paine while dismissing the other. Liberals, however, tend to agree more with Paine in emphasizing both sides. Still, both conservatives and liberals have failed in coming to terms with this inner conflict. The problem is that conservatives won’t even acknowledge the inner conflict. They’ll praise the side of Paine they like while ignoring the other side as if it didn’t exist.

Without Paine who inspired the masses to fight for democracy, the American Revolution wouldn’t have won. And if the American Revolution hadn’t been won, there would be no America in which the elite Founding Fathers could squash democracy by once again disenfranchising the majority. All that happened in early America is that we switched from one ruling elite to another. The problem of elites ruling politics was never dealt with.

Conservatives like to think that if we just had wise elites like in the past then all problems would be solved. They don’t mind having elites to rule over us like oligarchs, just as long as those oligarchs conform to conservative oligarchy. As for liberals, they’ve offered little in the way of a vision to counteract this belief in a conservative oligarchy, instead adding liberal reform to smooth out the sharp edges and cover up the uglier aspects. Liberal moderation and compromise has too often just meant weakness and complicity.

Radical liberals like Paine no longer have the influence as was seen in early America.

‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Finland

Finland vs America is simply socialism vs capitalism. The Finnish are running their public education system according to the model of democratic socialism (in case you didn’t know, democratic socialism is what Marx was advocating).

In Finland, their social democracy doesn’t encourage or prioritize capitalist competition but instead encourages and prioritizes democracy in its best sense. In America, on the other hand, capitalism has had a long history of undermining democracy and hence public good.

It’s not even that Finland is an absolute perfect example of socialism any more than America is an absolute perfect example of capitalism. Rather, the point is that America strives toward a more capitalist worldview and Finland strives toward a more socialist worldview. Two different strivings leading to two very different results.

By the way, if you want to see where children get the best public education in America, just look at the states with high percentages of Scandinavian ethnicities. For example, check out the education data on the Upper Midwest; and while your at it look at the history of culture and politics. In America, the stronghold of democratic-socialism/social-democracy along with progressivism has always been the Upper Midwest.

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

“In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.

 * * *

“Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out, Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States.

“Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

“Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation’s education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

“Indeed, Finland’s population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state — after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.

“What’s more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.

“With America’s manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. — as articulated by most everyone from President Obama on down — is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

“Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn’t meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a “pamphlet of hope.”

“”When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s, many said it couldn’t be done,” Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. “But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

“Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.”

Socialism: Conservative’s ‘Colloquial’ Definition

This is a continuation of my thoughts in a previous post, Against Capitalism: Democracy & Socialism. That post was partly written in response to my conservative dad’s view of socialism. I wanted to clarify what actual socialists supported vs what conservatives think they support. After making my correction, my dad didn’t disagree with it. But he did argue that his use of socialism was colloquial and so still somehow true or relevant for basic discussion.

Here is what my dad considers to be the colloquial definition of socialism: big government especially in terms of spending other people’s money, centralized power especially when abused, etc. I pointed out, however, that both parties have promoted policies that would fit under his definition of socialism despite the two parties being dominated by some combination of neoconservatives and neoliberals, political views that are very different from anything socialists advocate. In fact, socialists in the US are some of the most vocal critics of our present two-party system and those who control it.

From my perspective, this is sadly ironic to hear a conservative like my dad make this argument. By his own logic, the McCarthyist anti-communists were socialists which simply makes no sense whatsoever. Joseph McCarthy (along with others such as J. Edgar Hoover) was defending big government and centralized power against the socialists/communists who were challenging the oppression and injustice.

I once brought up the issue of the Bonus Army. I explained to my dad how this was an abuse of power. Despite the protest camp having signs up forbidding communists, despite the protesters being completely pacifist, the US government sent in troops to violently break up the protesters and killed some of them in the process. The US government’s rationalization, as I recall, was that they were harboring communists or that it might turn into a communist revolt or something like that. Once again, going by my dad’s logic, we are forced to conclude that the US government had been acting like socialists in attacking others as socialists.

So, you would think my dad would be against this abuse of power, although you would be wrong. My dad thought the threat of communists was real and so the abuse of power necessary. This means that it is acceptable to act like a ‘socialist’ when fighting perceived socialists (or one’s projections of fears about ‘socialism’); but when socialists don’t act according to the colloquial defintion of socialism it is acceptable to criticise theoretical ‘socialism’ and to pretend it has anything to do with socialism in the real world.

What my dad misses is that his colloquial definition of ‘socialism’ is only colloquial among anti-communists. How is it fair to use an anti-communist rhetorical frame as a way of discussing socialism in a fair and rational way? It isn’t.

Here is the source of much of this conflict of worldviews. My dad is of an older generation. He is on the young end of the Silent generation. He grew up with the anti-communist propaganda that began earlier in the century and manifested as full-blown paranoia during the Cold War. So, his ‘colloquial’ definition is grounded in propaganda. My dad was raised on that propaganda and so to him it is his reality… or, as I would call it, his reality tunnel since he is almost incapable of seeing outside of it. Even when I point out that real world socialists don’t fit his theoretical ‘colloquial’ definition, his anti-communist rhetorical frame, he still insists on his beliefs about socialism over the reality of socialism. He just can’t wrap his brain around the reality of socialism.

The generational issue seems key to me. The world was very different earlier last century. I don’t dismiss the dangers the Cold War posed. My point is that it has little to do with today. When I told my dad of a right-winger who became a left-winger, a socialist even, his entire sense of reality was blown because that just didn’t seem possible. My dad didn’t understand that socialism and libertarianism originated from the same opposition to abusive power, didn’t understand that many people are simultaneously socialist and libertarian.

When my dad was growing up, the frame of politics was Godless communism vs God-fearing capitalism and the conservatives of the time tried to conflate this with partisan politics, thus making the entire left into communist conspirators. Conservatives were largely successful in their reframing politics and so the entire political spectrum including both parties shifted to the right and have been shifting to the right ever since, even as the majority of Americans have been shifting left.

My dad doesn’t comprehend how much the world has changed. Most GenXers don’t see the world according to such frames. Rather, the frame of GenXers tends to be alternative vs mainstream, centralized power vs decentralized power, etc. Partisan politics and party loyalty mean a lot less to GenXers and maybe a lot less to Millennials as well at this point. Both parties are for big government that spends other people’s money and for abuse of centralized power. If a person wants to be against big government and centralized power, then they are morally compelled to be against both parties.

My dad, however, can’t quite bring himself to such a morally principled position. It goes against every fibre of his body. He is a partisan. It is the worldview he was raised in and so it is how he makes sense of the world. He recently spoke of the common partisan view that it is better to vote for the lesser of two evils. As such, my dad just wants to vote for the candidate who has the greatest potential of defeating Obama. What my dad and other partisans are oblivious to is both sides are playing this game. When both sides are voting for the lesser of two evils, evil always wins. I suggested to my dad that people vote their conscience instead, but he was utterly baffled by this concept and couldn’t imagine how that could work. In his mind, Americans have always voted for the lesser of two evils… and so how could it be otherwise?

My comments here also fit into another post of mine, Conservative’s Two Faces of Fear. The basic thought I had in that post is expressed in this comment about conservatives:

“They criticize both centralized government and grassroots activism. Both criticisms are based in their fear of democracy. They fear a government that would fairly and equally represent all people, including the poor, unemployed and homeless, including immigrants and minorities. But they also fear the people governing themselves through direct democracy for they fear mobocracy (and the same reason they fear grassroots organizations such as workers forming unions). These aren’t two fears but rather a single fear manifesting in two ways.”

I just now realized that this is the same dynamic playing out in the anti-communist frame. To conservatives such as my dad, their fears of socialism are tied up with their fears of democracy. In this, at least they are being consistent since social democracy and democratic socialism are two sides of the same coin. What this kind of conservative fears isn’t big government, but rather big government that represents all equally and fairly (democracy) and that serves all equally and fairly (socialism). What this kind of conservative fears isn’t grassroots activism, but rather grassroots activism that gives voice to all equally and fairly (democracy) and that demands economic and social justice for all equally and fairly (socialism).

Even when confronted with the reality of democratic socialism, my dad feels compelled to hold onto the anti-communist frame that distorts this reality. Why? Because his entire worldview would fall apart without it. The reality of democratic socialism (especially in context of it being inseparable from the reality of social democracy) undermines all of his beliefs and values. To fully confront this reality would portend an existential crisis. Outer revolution (or even the potential of it) must be suppressed because the outer turmoil mirrors an inner turmoil every ideologue struggles with. If the simplistic political frame fails to give adequate meaning and to maintain a semblance of order, one’s personal reality will crumble.

The question that arises is this: Can a conservative still be a conservative without attacking caricatures of communism based on their own projected fears? How could the conservative movement define itself without such scapegoats? If conservatives accepted the fact that some of the most socialist countries in Europe are also the most successful, how could they continue with their righteousness about laissez-faire capitalism and why would they want to?

* * * *

Additional thought:

I’ve identified as a liberal for all of my adult life. Recently, I’ve decided to identify as a socialist. I figured I might as well embrace the label of ‘socialist’ since any liberalism worthy of the name will automatically get labeled as ‘socialism’ by those on the right and probably even by many mainstream Democrats.

Still, whatever label I go by, my general attitude will always be liberal. To me, being a left-liberal is the same thing as being a liberal left-winger. When looking at the non-liberal left-wing, it is often hard to tell it apart from much of the right-wing. The ideal of liberalism, not necessarily the label, is what is important to me.

The core ideal (or one might say archetype) of liberalism is generosity of spirit and mind. In practical politics, this means: reaching out with compromise instead of unbending willfulness, seeking sympathetic understanding instead of righteous judgment, aspiring to common good instead of mere self-interest, advocating peace instead of conflict, etc. Or to put in Christian terms, this is the difference between Jesus’ message of humility, love and forgiveness and Yahweh’s message of divine authoritarianism, awe-inpsiring fear and righteous judgment.

The anti-communist frame is the complete opposite of the essence of liberalism. It isn’t just opposite in terms of ideology but also in terms of methodology. To exaggerate like this is to portray one’s opponent as a caricature and thus turn him into a scapegoat. The liberal would rather turn one’s opponent into a friend or at least into a partner. The liberal wants to work together. The liberal’s tendency toward socialism is based in their faith in human nature, both on the individual and the collective level. Liberals want to believe people are not only good but capable and desirous of doing good. Conservatives, generally speaking, don’t have such faith and tend to criticize those who do.

This is why conservatives tend to ignore the North European countries with their social democracies leaning toward socialism. Such examples prove that that the ideals of liberalism and socialism are possible.

The opposite dynamic, however, doesn’t exist or isn’t as commonly found. A liberal or socialist may criticize capitalism as being ultimately good, but they won’t deny and dismiss certain successes of capitalist countries. For the those on the right, if socialism is economically sucessful, their entire argument falls apart. For those on the left, their argument isn’t based on mere success in terms of some people accruing great profits and so such capitalist success doesn’t undermine the practical and moral factors of their argument. The complaint socialists have is that capitalism often is very successful in oppressing and eliminating, often brutally, those who oppose the capitalist system and/or the plutocratic elite. Those on the left acknowledge that might doesn’t make right, that material success doesn’t equate to moral justification.

In order to make the argument for my position, I don’t need to use an anti-capitalist frame to caricature and scapegoat all laissez-faire capitalists. To me, it is counterproductive to conflate all capitalism with all fascism or, on the other hand, to conflate all capitalism with all free markets. There is definite connections and crossover. Capitalism tends toward monopoly which in turn makes fascism (or corporatism, i.e., soft fascism and inverted totalitarianism) possible and more probable. But socialists don’t need to dismiss free markets in the way those on the right feel compelled to dismiss the freedom of democratic socialism. In fact, socialists have a history of redefining free markets as an antidote to capitalism.

So, as a liberal-minded socialist, I wonder why many conservatives are unwilling or unable to treat me as fairly in this same manner.

Those on the right tend to think in terms of either/or. Those on the left, or at least the liberal-minded left, tend to think in terms of both/and. Examples of this are seen everywhere.

Let me use the abortion issue as a representative example.

For social conservatives, abortion is a conflict between civil liberties and moral responsibility. Conservatives say they want to eliminate abortions, but ultimately it comes down to moral principle rather than practical results.

Liberals point out that countries with abortion bans don’t have fewer abortions, some even have more than average. More importantly, abortion bans lead to more dangerous illegal abortion practices which leads to damaged fetuses and hence babies being born with deformities and brain damage, plus abortion bans lead to the mothers themselves often being harmed or dying (and if the baby survives it will grow up without a mother). The only policies that have ever proven to decrease abortions are libeal policies (promotion of women’s health centers, comprehensive sex education, easy availability of contraception and birth control, etc). So, to a liberal, they don’t see a conflict between civil liberties and moral responsibility, and in fact they see moral responsibility as not possible without protection of civil liberties.

The liberal doesn’t want to take away the conservative’s right to choose not to have an abortion and neither does the liberal want the conservative to take away everyone else’s right to choose. The liberal ultimately wants to decrease the number of abortions more than the average social conservative because the liberal sees the life of the fetus as being part of the civil liberties discussion. The liberal sees nuance and complexity, but the conservative sees only their own unbending principles. Doing the right thing for the conservative is more important than any practical result. Despite liberals wanting to work with conservatives in developing a compromise, conservatives see compromise as defeat for the reason that even they recognize that compromise is a liberal value.

It’s because of the liberal mindset that I can desire BOTH a socialist society AND a free market economy. The liberal’s broad thinking reaches toward inclusiveness and so seeks out great visions that are up to the task. It seems that at present the conservative movement as a whole is incapable of this type of thinking and so treating their opponents fairly is outside of their ability as a movement. That said, individual conservatives may have more liberal predispositions in this sense and so coalitions may be formed with certain segments of the conservative movement. However, such coalitions aren’t as likely with more typically mainstream conservatives such as my dad, although that may be changing as the old conservative frames are being challenged.

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.

US: Republic & Democracy (pt 3)

I’ve been having further ‘debate’ with the “Not a Democracy” Gnomes. And I happened to come across some new material that brings light to the issue. So, I’ve returned to the subject with this third post in the series (see the first and second posts to understand the fuller context of my thoughts).

 — — —

In this post, I will show that the terms ‘republic’ and ‘Republican’ once had very different connotations in early America. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has given much thought to the matter. 

I brought up the issue of the word origins in my earlier posts, but let me bring it up again.

The word ‘republic‘ comes from ‘res publica‘ which means ‘commonwealth‘, ‘public good‘, or ‘public affair‘. To put it simply, a republic is a government that isn’t a monarchy, i.e., not based on inherited position, power and wealth. The word ‘democracy‘ comes from ‘demokratia‘ which means ‘rule of the people‘ and was coined from ‘demos‘ (people) and ‘kratos‘ (power): people power.

A democracy is a government of the people. According to the founding documents, the US government is supposedly democratic in this sense. The Declaration of Independence refers to the ‘people‘ 10 times, even in many instances capitalizing it as “the People“. The US constitution refers to “We the People” and “by the People“.

The founding fathers were being very clear that the People trump any Monarchy or other despotic ruler (some of the founding fathers even thought banks and corporations were potentially a despotic threat to the liberty of the People), that the government rules by the mandate of the People. The historical precedence of the American Revolution made clear that the People have the right and obligation to withdraw, whether by peaceful change or violent revolution, this mandate if the government no longer represents them. The rights of the People don’t come from the government, although it is the duty of the government to defend those rights. The power of the government to defend those rights comes from the People (democracy: people power) in order to serve the People (republic: public good).

 — — —

Let me now offer a history lesson about the development of the party system. 

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party to counter the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton. A couple of things should be noted about this.

First, among the founding fathers, Jefferson was one of the closest allies of Thomas Paine. Both wanted to abolish slavery and both wanted a government that put power into the hands of common people rather than into the hands of plutocrats. Jefferson was considered radical by people such as Hamilton, but compared to Paine he was a moderate. Paine would later on inspire much more radical movements. 

Second, the fact that a party founded in the early 1790s could combine ‘Democratic‘ and ‘Republican‘ proves that those terms were seen by many people in the founding generation, including key leaders, as being closely related rather than in opposition. Back then, a person could be both a Democrat and a Republican, but such a person couldn’t be both while being a Federalist.

To put this in context, it must be remembered that Hamilton was for an elective monarchy:

An attempt to create an elective monarchy in the United States failed. Alexander Hamilton argued in a long speech before the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that the President of the United States should be an elective monarch, ruling for “good behavior” (i.e., for life, unless impeached) and with extensive powers. Hamilton believed that elective monarchs has sufficient power domestically to resist foreign corruption, yet there was enough domestic control over their behavior to prevent tyranny at home. [2] His proposal was resoundingly voted down in favor of a four-year term with the possibility of reelection. In his later defense of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, he often hints that a lifetime executive might be better, even as he praises the system with the four-year term.

It goes without saying that the Democratic-Republicans were against elective monarchy. This was symbolic of the fight among the founding generation. There were two radically different notions: a government of the aristocracy, by the aristocracy, for the aristocracy; or a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

In this fight, it’s hard to say either side entirly won for the early political system was a compromise between the two, although the compromise did favor one side. Even as concentrated power was constrained, the common people were even more constrained as many of the ruling elites desired. The constraint on the people was much more harsh in that the majority of Americans (women, slaves, and non-landowners) weren’t allowed to vote or hold public office. Americans fought against taxation without representation and yet the new American government reinstated taxation without representation. A new American aristocracy formed to replace the former British aristocracy.

Even so, it was the Democratic-Republican Party that became the most influential. The Democratic-Republican Party split off into what became the Democratic Party and into what became the Whig Party. Both parties became split over the issue of whether slavery should be expanded to the territories. The anti-slave factions left both parties in order to form the Free Soil Party. As an abolitionist, Lincoln was one of those who left the Whig Party. The Free Soil Party and other radical social reformers were eventually absorbed into the new Republican Party.

Most Americans today don’t know the origins of the Republican Party. It was founded as the party of progressivism and social reform. Those who started the party were the radical liberals of their day: agrarian reformists, abolitionists, and socialists. Many of these people, like Lincoln, read writers such as Thomas Paine and Karl Marx. The modern person must understand that Paine was about as popular among the ruling elites in the early 19th century as Marx is today. Paine was considered by many to have caused more harm than good. Those who were inspired by Paine’s vision were criticized by conservatives as “Red Republicanism” (it’s funny that the color red, the color used to represent communism, is now used to represent the Republican Party). It also must be understood that, in relation to Marx’s influence on early American politics, the issue of slavery was often directly connected to the issue of labor rights. Even Lincoln, the first Republican president, made this connection in his speeches. Lincoln went so far as to use Marxist language in describing the relationship between labor and capital.

Think about all of the above while considering what Lincoln meant in his famous Gettysburg Address:

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Also, consider the opposing view of Stephen Douglass in one of the speeches given in his debates with Lincoln:

In my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such a manner as they should determine.

The conflict between Lincoln and Douglass was a continuation of the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton. Either the US government represented all people fairly and equally or else it served the interests of the privileged few. This was a conflict between democracy and aristocracy, between populism and classism, between egalitarianism and racism, between labor and capital. It’s a conflict that continues, but it seems that few Americans today understand this conflict. It was a conflict Lincoln understood well, and it was why Lincoln fought so hard to maintain the union, i.e. the unified vision of a democratic republic.

 — — —

The central point I’m making is that Republicans today are clueless about American history. Socialists today are more akin to the early supporters of Republican Party than are the neo-con and Tea Party Republicans now dominating the GOP. Obviously, the term ‘republican’ (capitalized or not) often meant something very different in the early decades following American Independence. Small ‘r’ republicanism isn’t in conflict with small ‘d’ democracy.

Consider the basic meaning of democracy:

Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible people have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. It can also encompass social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination. The term comes from the Greek: δημοκρατία – (dēmokratía) “rule of the people”,[1] which was coined from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (Kratos) “power”, in the middle of the 5th-4th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens following a popular uprising in 508 BC.[2]

According to some theories of democracy, popular sovereignty is the founding principle of such a system.[3] However, the democratic principle has also been expressed as “the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given… and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known.”[4] This type of freedom, which is connected to human “natality,” or the capacity to begin anew, sees democracy as “not only a political system… [but] an ideal, an aspiration, really, intimately connected to and dependent upon a picture of what it is to be human—of what it is a human should be to be fully human.”[5]

While there is no specific, universally accepted definition of ‘democracy’,[6] equality and freedom have both been identified as important characteristics of democracy since ancient times.[7] These principles are reflected in all citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes. For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no unreasonable restrictions can apply to anyone seeking to become a representative, and the freedom of its citizens is secured by legitimized rights and liberties which are generally protected by a constitution.[8][9]

I understand why authoritarian neocons and fundy theocrats would be against democracy. Such people are the modern day Hamiltons. However, most conservatives aren’t radical right-wingers. It makes no sense that any genuinely principled libertarian or minarchist would have a problem with democratic principles. I doubt even most average social conservatives would take issue with the above democratic ideas and ideals. The problem is that most conservatives don’t even know what democracy means. They are blindly against the word ‘democracy’ because they’ve been told it’s evil or dangerous or un-American. Ironically, when these same people seek to defend their own notion of a ‘republic’, they will usually mention attributes of a democracy.

There is another related term that brings up a lot of confusion: social democracy.

Similar to the Republican Party, social democracy arose out of the milieu of 19th century socialism and social reform. Originally, many socialists sought social democracy as a way of transitioning from capitalism toward socialism. This has changed a bit. Social democracy today no longer requires socialism as the end goal. It has become a goal unto itself. Social democracy, generally speaking, simply means the social aspects of democracy: free speech, universal suffrage, economic equality, etc; basically anything that empowers average people and lessens the conflicts that disempowers people through divisiveness.

The typical liberal is a social democrat in this more broad sense. In contradiction to the paranoid conspiracy theories of right-wingers, the typical American liberal doesn’t seek socialism to replace capitalism. This is the reason many socialists criticize liberals. If socialism is the goal, liberal compromise can be seen as the enemy. In the US, this point is clarified by how liberals tend to play a centrist role in politics. Chris Hedges explains the traditional role of the liberal class as bridging the gap between the upper classes and the lower classes. The liberal class serves its purpose by keeping class conflict to a minimum. The socialist in the Marxist tradition, on the other hand, wants to emphasize class conflict because they believe that compromise merely covers up the conflict rather than resolving it.

Political democracy has been undermined and corrupted by special interests, especially the special interests of big business. Democracy, in terms of elections, doesn’t lead to politicians who actually represent the people. Instead, politicians are beholden to the money that funds their campaigns and also tempted by the corporations who bribe them with money given to their favorite organizations and with jobs offered to them once they leave office. A revolving door exists between government and big business. As such, our political system has become a banana republic that is somewhere between corproatocracy and inverted totalitarianism.

It’s galling to a small ‘d’ democrat to hear democracy be blamed for our anti-democratic ‘republic’. These “Not a Democracy” Gnomes will criticize our anti-democratic ‘republic’ while at the same time praising anti-democratic republics as the ultimate form of government. They can’t have it both ways. Maoist China was an anti-democratic republic. Nazi Germany was an anti-democratic republic. Fascist Italy was an anti-democratic republic. Why do these conservatives think that entirely removing democracy from our republic would help save the democratic rights that even they praise? If they are ‘conservatives’, what exactly are they trying to conserve besides a society ruled by upper class white people?

I brought up social democracy because it’s fundamentally more important than political democracy. Political democracy can be almost entirely destroyed, but democracy will remain alive as a possibility as long as social democracy survives. Social democracy is about culture, about what people value, about the collective narratives of where society is heading. The success of social democracy can be seen in the fact that even conservatives have come to defend rights and values of social democracy such as free speech, even if their defense in principle is imperfect in practice.

 — — —

In reality, democracy is very simple. It’s as American as applie pie. Related to this, socialism is also a very American tradition. The socialists in early America were fighting for the same rights that many in the American Revolution were fighting for. It was no accident that many early socialists were inspired by Paine. It was Paine who inspired not only the American Revolution but revolutions in many other countries as well.

As Benjamin Franklin said:

You, Thomas Paine, are more responsible than any other living person on this continent for the creation of what are called the United States of America.

And as John Adams said:

Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.

It was Thomas Paine who first wrote about the ideal of the states unified through a single government and through universal suffrage. Later on, it was Paine-inspired President Abraham Lincoln who defended what Paine had helped to create and who had tried to further what Paine had hoped it would become.

It was Thomas Paine who first addressed social security by proposing land taxes that would prevent the concentration of wealth and hence power and that would promote economic equality and hence social justice. Later on, it was Paine-inspired President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who would use Paine’s Agrarian Justice as a model for developing our present social security.

A 19th century social reformer had no reason to see a conflict between Thomas Paine and Karl Marx. So conservatives, although incorrect in conflating socialism and democracy, aren’t wrong in seeing an alliance between socialists and small ‘d’ democrats in that both are unified against a common enemy: social injustice promoted by theocratic and plutocratic oligarchy.

 — — —

I hope that clarifies the falsely perceived conflict between small ‘r’ republicanism and small ‘d’ democracy. For further edification, the following is some of the historical analysis that inspired me to write this post (for emphasis, the boldface and underlining of text was added by me).

‘The “S” Word’
by John Nichols

pp. 58-59:

Working Men’s Party would dissolve quickly, but its influence extended across the next several decades, as Evans turned his attention to forging a land-reform movement that would address the laws, ordinances and regulations that “deprived nine-tenths of the members of the body politic, who are not wealthy, of the equal means to enjoy ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ which the rich enjoy exclusively …”

Evans and his allies borrowed boldly from the concepts and ideals of Paine’s later writings, becoming known as “Agrarians.” They forged a movement that employed Paineite language to promote “Man’s Right to the Soil” and that attracted and inspired a generation of young radicals, including Horace Greeley, who would in his one term as a congressman introduce legislation proposing to give land free of charge to the poor; and Abraham Lincoln, who as president signed into law a milder version of Evans’s proposal—the Homestead Act of 1862. The Agrarian free soil movements were decried as “Red Republicanism” by northern conservatives and bitterly opposed by southern plantation owners, who feared that freeing up the land of the western states for production of food and agricultural products would undermine the claim that slavery was an economic necessity. As early as 1846, Evans anticipated that the United States would eventually see the development of two opposing parties that would do battle over all the economic and social issues of the nation: “the great Republican Party of Progress and the little Tory Party of Holdbacks.”

[ . . . ] In consultation with Greeley and Evans, he planned a radical new party comprised of members of various older parties and movements. As congressional debates about whether to allow the expansion of slavery into western states heated up, early in 1854, Bovay saw his opening. He called a public meeting at the Congregational church in Ripon, where the crowd adopted a resolution declaring that if the Whigs and Democrats in Congress did not block the most controversial legislation, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, from becoming law, then it would be time to “throw old party organizations to the winds and organize a new party on the sole issue of slavery.” When Congress passed the act, Bovay and sixteen of the most committed radicals gathered in a local school and agreed to create a new party that would be called “Republican,” in reflection of George Evans’s advocacy of almost a decade earlier and with hopes that a name linked to Paine and Jefferson would identify the new party as uniquely American.

Hailed by Greeley as the launch of a new movement that would change not just the politics of the nation but the nation itself, by uniting the struggle to free southern slaves from bondage and northern workers from “wage slavery,” the early Republican Party invariably linked the themes. Reflecting on Bovay’s outsized contribution to the shaping of the Grand Old Party—he is credited even today in the US Senate Republican Conference’s history of the GOP: “Bovay named the party Republican because it was synonymous with equality.” Historian John R. Commons would write in his classic essay on “the working-class origins of the Republican Party” that: “Whether (Bovay) was the only father of the party or not, it is significant that it was these early views on the natural right to land, derived from Evans and the workingmen, that appeared in the Republican party wherever that party sprang into being.” And it did indeed spring up across the northern US, winning within months of its founding key statewide and congressional elections that were fought with the slogan: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men.” [ . . . ] “In philosophy, no other writer of the eighteenth century, with the exception of Jefferson, parallels more closely the temper and gist of Lincoln’s later thought.” Even as the New York Times was dismissing the author of Common Sense as the tribune of a dangerous “Red Republicanism,” Lincoln would declare: “I never tire of reading Paine.”

  — — —

pp. 61-66:

“capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people …”
Abraham Lincoln, from his first speech as an Illinois state legislator, 1837

Everyone now is more or less a Socialist.
—Charles Dana, managing editor of New York Tribune, and Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary of War, 1848

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
Karl Marx and the First International Workingmen’s Association to Lincoln, 1864

On December 3, 1861, a former one-term congressman, who had spent most of the past dozen years studying dissident economic theories, mounting challenges to the existing political order and proposing ever more radical responses to the American crisis, delivered his first State of the Union address as the sixteenth president of the United States.

[ . . . ] This was a wartime State of the Union address delivered not so much by a president as a commander-in-chief. Its purpose was to rally what remained of the House and Senate—after the exodus of the southern Solons who had joined a mutiny against the elected government—and to portray the struggle as not merely one for the preservation of a system of governance but for democracy itself. “It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government—the rights of the people,” declared the solemn speaker. “Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most grave maturely considered public documents, as well as in the general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the abridgment of the existing right of suffrage and the denial to the people of all right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative boldly advocated, with labored arguments to prove that large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.” [ . . . ] “In my present position, I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.” [ . . . ] “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.”

Amid all the turbulence of a burgeoning Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wanted it to be known that he was unsettled by the rising assumption “that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.” [ . . . ] “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

To be sure, Lincoln related this observation to the wrenching questions posed by the Civil War. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class—neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired.”

Lincoln was speaking now of a broader concern: his fear that the few who were possessed of capital might, in a time of turbulence, seek to bend the rule of law—diminishing the historic respect for the rights of man outlined by Lincoln’s hero Tom Paine in order to favor their interests above those of the great many Americans who toiled for wages, or the fees paid farmers. “No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned,” the president warned. “Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.”

Lincoln’s insistence that labor guard against the surrender of political power to capital—a point he began to outline before his presidency and would repeat throughout his tenure—is rarely afforded the attention paid to his rhetoric regarding the state of “a house divided against itself,” “the proposition that all men are created equal” or the faint hope that: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

Yet, how can we neglect the words that this most instructive of presidents chose to insert in so critical a commentary as his first State of the Union address?

How can we fail to recognize the echoes of a language which scholars of economic, social and political rhetoric might associate less with the sixteenth president than with one of his contemporaries: a Prussian-born son of the Enlightenment, who was causing a stir on both sides of the Atlantic at precisely the moment when Lincoln was casting about for a language to describe the economic forces that were carrying America from its agrarian roots to its industrial future?

Didn’t Karl Marx take an interest in the relation of labor and capital? Was it not the co-author of Das Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei who observed that: “the essential condition of capital is wage-labor”? And that: “Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the laborer”?

Well, there can surely be no connection, no tangible link between Abraham Lincoln, the log cabin–born, rail-splitting, archetypal nineteenth-century American and founding Republican, and Karl Marx, the bearded, brooding, archetypal “European” and proud socialist plotter.

Unless, of course, we bother to examine the tattered copies of the American outlet for Marx’s revolutionary preachments during the period when Lincoln was preparing to leave the political wilderness and make his march to the presidency. That journal, the New York Tribune, was the most consistently influential of nineteenth-century American newspapers. Indeed, this was the newspaper that engineered the unexpected and in many ways counter-intuitive delivery of the Republican nomination for president, in that most critical year of 1860, to an Illinoisan who just two years earlier had lost the competition for a home-state US Senate seat. The Tribune is remembered, correctly, as the great Republican paper of the day. It argued against slavery in the south. But it argued as well, with words parallel to Lincoln’s in that first address to the Congress, that: “Our idea is that Labor needs not to combat but to command Capital.”

Seven years before he and Lincoln served together in the Congress (during each man’s sole term in the US House) Horace Greeley—or “Friend Greeley,” as Lincoln referred to the editor in their correspondence—began the Tribune with a stated purpose: “to serve the republic with an honest and fearless criticism.” He succeeded, more wholly than any American editor before or after his transit of the mid-nineteenth century, in creating a newspaper that was not merely a newspaper. Greeley’s nationally-circulated Tribune was, as Clarence Darrow aptly remembered it, “the political and social Bible” of every reforming, radical and Republican household. The Tribune was surely that for Lincoln, whose engagement with the paper would last the better part of a quarter-century and eventually extend to wrangling with Greeley about the proper moment at which to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s involvement was not just with Greeley but with his sub-editors and writers, so much so that the first Republican president appointed one of Greeley’s most radical lieutenants—the Fourier- and Proudhon-Vinspired socialist and longtime editor of Marx’s European correspondence, Charles Dana—as his Assistant Secretary of War.

Greeley’s newspaper was the Tribune of the agitation that spawned the Republican Party and its successful presidential campaign of 1860. Lincoln would say of the editor: “every one of his words seems to weigh about a ton.”

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pp. 70-81:

One of his few allies was the young first-term Whig congressman from Illinois, who Greeley recalled as a comrade with whom he “agreed on the slavery issue as one which must be answered permanently in the course of a few years.” The two men spoke on a daily basis during their joint tenure in the nation’s capital and formed a bond that would last until Lincoln’s assassination seventeen years later.

It was not mere personal acquaintance that linked Greeley and Lincoln, however. By 1848, Greeley’s Tribune was already a journalistic and political phenomenon. “Acknowledged the most influential Whig editor in 1844, [Greeley] had by 1850 become the most influential antislavery editor—the spokesman not of Whigs merely but of a great class of Northerners who were thoroughly antagonistic to slavery,” recalls Frank W. Scott in his study of nineteenth-century American newspapers. As the slavery issue came to a head, the Tribune’s influence grew so that it became not just a popular newspaper in New York City but a widely-circulated national journal of opinion, distinguished by what Scott characterizes as “some of the most vigorous and trenchant editorial writing America has ever known.” In the early 1850s, the circulation of the Tribune’s weekly national edition nearly tripled to more than 110,000 copies as it became what another historian, James Ford Rhodes, described as “pre-eminently the journal of the rural districts, [where] one copy did service for many readers. To the people in the Adirondack wilderness it was a political bible, and the well-known scarcity of Democrats there was attributed to it. Yet it was as freely read by the intelligent people living on the Western Reserve of Ohio”—not to mention in Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois.

By the late 1850s, the weekly Tribune’s Illinois circulation was close to 20,000, making the New York-based journal one of the midwestern state’s most widely circulated newspapers. There is no debate that Lincoln was among the most avid of the Tribune’s Illinois readers. His correspondence with Greeley confirms this passionate relationship with the paper, as does his more extensive correspondence with his third and last law partner, William Herndon, in which Lincoln would sometimes complain that Greeley’s newspaper was not being supportive enough of his political ambitions. It was in one of these fretful notes that Lincoln first expressed the view that “every one of [Greeley’s] words seems to weigh about a ton.” Lincoln did not merely consume Greeley’s words, however. He devoured the whole of his weekly

[ .  .  . ] In his period of deepest inquiry, the five years after his 1848 departure from Congress as a disappointed Whig and before his return to the political hustings as a champion of what would become the Republican Party, [ . . . ] Keenly aware of the rising tide of liberal, radical and socialist reform movements in Europe, a tide that would peak—at least for a time—in the “revolutionary wave” of 1848 and its aftermath, the young congressman joined other American Whigs in following the development of that year’s “Springtime of the Peoples,” which saw uprisings against monarchy and entrenched economic, social and political power in Germany, France, Hungary, Denmark and other European nations. For Lincoln, however, this was not a new interest.

Long before 1848, German radicals had begun to arrive in Illinois, where they quickly entered into the legal and political circles in which Lincoln traveled. One of them, Gustav Korner, was a student revolutionary at the University of Munich who had been imprisoned by German authorities in the early 1830s for organizing illegal demonstrations. After his release, Korner returned to his hometown of Frankfurt am Main where, according to historian Raymond Lohne, “he was one of about fifty conspirators involved in an attack upon the two main city guardhouses and the arsenal at the police facility and jail. This admixture of students and soldiers had planned to seize cannon, muskets, and ammunition; free political prisoners accused of breaking press-censorship laws, and begin ringing the great Sturmglocke (storm bell) of the Dom, the signal for the people to come in from the countryside. At that point, the democratic revolution would be announced … Unfortunately, they were walking into a trap … Betrayed by both a spy in their midst, and the reluctance of the common people to rise, nine students were killed, twenty-four were seriously wounded, and by August 3, 1833, Gustav Körner found himself riding into downtown Belleville, Illinois.”

Within a decade, Korner would pass the Illinois bar, win election to the legislature and be appointed to the state Supreme Court. Korner and Lincoln formed an alliance that would become so close that the student revolutionary from Frankfurt would eventually be one of seven personal delegates-at-large named by Lincoln to serve at the critical Republican State Convention in May 1860, which propelled the Springfield lawyer into that year’s presidential race. Through Korner, Lincoln met and befriended many of the German radicals who, after the failure of the 1848 revolution, fled to Illinois and neighboring Wisconsin. Along with Korner on Lincoln’s list of personal delegates-at-large to the 1860 convention was Friedrich Karl Franz Hecker, a lawyer from Mannheim who had served as a liberal legislator in the lower chamber of the Baden State Assembly before leading an April 1848 uprising in the region—an uprising cheered on by the newspaper Marx briefly edited during that turbulent period, Neue Rheinische Zeitung—Organ der Demokratie.

Thwarted by military forces loyal to the old order, Hecker fled first to Switzerland and then to Illinois, where he would join Lincoln in forging the new Republican Party and become a key speaker on his American ally’s behalf in the 1858 Senate race that is remembered for the Lincoln– Douglas debates. With a commission from Lincoln, Hecker served as a brigade commander in the Union Army during the Civil War, as did a number of other ‘48ers.

The failure of the 1848 revolts, and the brutal crackdowns that followed, led many leading European radicals to take refuge in the United States, and Lincoln’s circle of supporters would eventually include some of Karl Marx’s closest associates and intellectual sparring partners, including Joseph Weydemeyer and August Willich. Weydemeyer, who maintained a regular correspondence with Marx and Engels, soon formed a national network of Kommunisten Klubs to promote what the New York Times decried as Red Republicanism.” Weydemeyer then allied with the new Republican Party and the presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln, who would at the start of the Civil War appoint the former Prussian military officer as a technical aide on the staff of General John C. Fremont—the 1856 Republican presidential nominee who became the commander of the Army’s Department of the West. Later, Lincoln issued Weydemeyer a commission as a colonel of the Forty-first Infantry Missouri Volunteers, charging the German Marxist with the defense of St. Louis. Willich, known as “the Reddest of the Reds,” was a leader of the left faction of the German Communist League, which decried Marx’s relative caution when it came to revolutionary agitation. As a key commander of the radical Free Corps in the Baden-Palatinate uprising of 1849, Willich chose as his aide-de-camp a young Friedrich Engels. Forced to flee to the United States after the defeat of the uprising, Willich decamped to Cincinnati, where he became editor of the socialist Republikaner newspaper and backed the candidacies of Fremont in 1856 and Lincoln in 1860. At the outset of the Civil War, Willich recruited a regiment of German immigrants and became its first lieutenant, quickly rising to the rank of brigadier general and making a name for himself by having military bands play revolutionary songs such as the “Arbiter [Workers’] Marseillaise”—“A reveille for the new revolution! The new revolution!”

Lincoln did not merely invite the ‘48ers to join his campaigns, he became highly engaged with their causes. As Lohne notes, “Lincoln was paying attention to these revolutionaries.” In his hometown of Springfield, the former congressman rallied support for revolutionary movements in Europe, particularly the Hungarian revolt of Lajos Kossuth. Lincoln’s name led the list of signatories on calls for public meetings to discuss the Hungarian revolt that appeared in the Illinois State Register and the Illinois Journal in January 1852. A week later, Lincoln helped to pen a resolution declaring that: “we, the American people, cannot remain silent” about “the right of any people, sufficiently numerous for national independence, to throw off, to revolutionize, their existing form of government, and to establish such other in its stead as they may choose.”

Lincoln’s resolution argued:

That the sympathies of this country, and the benefits of its position, should be exerted in favor of the people of every nation struggling to be free; and whilst we meet to do honor to Kossuth and Hungary, we should not fail to pour out the tribute of our praise and approbation to the patriotic efforts of the Irish, the Germans and the French, who have unsuccessfully fought to establish in their several governments the supremacy of the people.

The proclamation even took a shot at the British Empire, resolving:

That there is nothing in the past history of the British government, or in its present expressed policy, to encourage the belief that she will aid, in any manner, in the delivery of continental Europe from the yoke of despotism; and that her treatment of Ireland, of O’Brien, Mitchell, and other worthy patriots, forces the conclusion that she will join her efforts to the despots of Europe in suppressing every effort of the people to establish free governments, based upon the principles of true religious and civil liberty.

What set Lincoln and his compatriots off?

There’s no mystery.

The Illinois agitators had merely to open their weekly editions of Greeley’s Tribune, which was declaring at the time that: “of the many popular leaders who were upheaved by the great convulsions of 1848 … the world has already definitely assigned the first rank to Louis Kossuth, advocate, deputy, finance minister, and finally governor of Hungary.” The great historian of the Tribune’s ideological and political battles, Adam Tuchinsky, notes: “Louis Kossuth and the Central European national liberation movements remained familiar subjects in the pages of the paper”—so much so that conservative critics of the gazette objected to its “Kossuthism, Socialism, Abolitionism and forty other isms.

Greeley believed that 1848’s European revolts and their aftermath revealed “boundless vistas” along with the outlines of the “uprising which must come.” Predictably, his paper covered the revolutionary ferment of Europe with an intensity that made it virtually a local story for radicals in places like Springfield, Illinois. They pored over their copies of the Tribune for the latest from the front in what the paper’s editor portrayed as a global struggle for “the larger liberty” of “The Rights and Interests of Labor, the Reorganization of Industry, the Elevation of the Working-Men, the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric.”

The Tribune did not urge a “to-the-barricades” moment for the United States. Greeley and most of his editors still believed in the prospect of reform, although their frustration with the spread of the evil they referred to as “the slave power” would at times cause the paper’s proprietor to ponder whether “revolution is the only resource left.” Ultimately, however, what most excited Greeley and his readers about the stirrings of 1848 were the new and radical ideas that had emerged, and the mingling of those ideas with action that might lead to their implementation.

The Tribune’s European correspondent [ . . . ] Bornstein, notes Tuchinsky, was “the paper’s link to Karl Marx and a more class-conscious radicalism that would emerge in Europe during the 1848 revolutions and in their aftermath.”

But Bornstein’s “big picture” reporting style—which he would eventually bring to the United States as an astute observer of the Civil War— was only the start of the Tribune’s emergence as the primary source of detailed reporting on international events and ideas that would reshape the way American radicals and reformers thought about their own struggles, against slavery in particular and economic and social injustice in general. No longer satisfied with the pastoral reforms of Fourier and the romantic French communalists, the Tribune now considered more radical responses.

“Ultimately, 1848 would unearth an immense variety of French and European radical discourse; as a result, The Tribune diversified its coverage of socialist ideas,” explains Tuchinsky. “But more than that, socialism itself became not simply a mode of reform but also, significantly, of explanation, a way to interpret events. Fourierism was a sectarian movement, and it failed, but along with the revolution it cleared the way for a new language and a new political mentality through which American progressive intellectuals perceived and critiqued their social and political world.”

To understand and interpret that new language, Greeley dispatched a recent hire, Charles Dana, to Paris. [ . . . ] “Socialism is thus not conquered nor obscured in France by [the turmoil] but strengthened. It is no longer Fourierism, nor Communism, nor this nor that particular system which occupies the public mind of France, but it is the general idea of Social Rights and Social Reorganization. Everyone now is more or less a Socialist.”

[ . . . ] In particular, Dana was inspired to turn the Tribune, which had traditionally been friendly toward trade unionism, into an even more explicit advocate for organized labor, arguing editorially that: “we see no other mode in which Labor can protect itself against the overwhelming power of Capital than by this very method of Combination.” Lincoln, the voracious Tribune reader, would frequently express such sympathies, not merely in debates and State of the Union addresses but in direct communications to labor groups. To the New York Workingmen’s Association, the sitting president would in 1864 observe: “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.”

[ . . . ] In this search for “alternative strains of socialist thought,” Dana made his way to the city of Cologne, where a friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, was working with a radical paper that intrigued the American visitor. The editor of the paper had recently co-authored a much-circulated German-language pamphlet, Das Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, which argued: “The essential condition for the existence and rule of the bourgeois class is the accumulation of wealth in private hands, the formation and increase of capital; the essential condition of capital is wage-labor. Wage-labor rests entirely on the competition among the workers.” To upset that condition, the writers had declared in February of 1848 for a “Communistic revolution” with the words: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!”

The pamphlet would be translated two years later into English as The Communist Manifesto. The editor in question was, of course, Karl Marx, with whom Dana spent a midsummer day in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung—Organ der Demokratie office. [ . . . ] Somehow, Dana and Marx connected. Indeed, they hit it off so famously that Dana would, according to Marx’s biographer Francis Wheen, provide the philosopher with “the closest thing he ever had to a steady job.”

That job was as one of the most frequently-published correspondents for the New York Tribune, with which Dana served a dozen years as managing editor. After Dana returned to New York to take up his new duties, he contacted Marx in London, where he had been forced to flee after German authorities shuttered the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, with an invitation to begin writing for the Tribune. And write Marx did. As Wheen notes, “The Tribune was by far the largest publisher of Marx’s (and to a lesser extent, Engels’s) work …The Tribune articles take up nearly seven volumes of the fifty-volume collected works of Marx and Engels—more than Capital, more than any work published by Marx, alive or posthumously, in book form.” The “singular collaboration” between Greeley’s paper and Marx continued from the early 1850s until the time of Dana’s departure to join Lincoln’s White House staff. “During this period,” according to historian William Harlan Hale’s masterly examination of the relationship, “Europe’s extremest radical, proscribed by the Prussian police and watched over by its agents abroad as a potential assassin of kings, sent in well over 500 separate contributions to the great New York family newspaper dedicated to the support of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, temperance, dietary reform, Going West, and, ultimately, Abraham Lincoln.” The official count of articles published by the Tribune under Marx’s byline was 350, while Engels wrote 125 and the duo produced 12 together. But, as the philosopher himself noted, many more articles ended up running as the official line of the Tribune. “Of late, The Tribune has again been appropriating all my articles as leaders [unsigned editorials],” Marx complained in 1854.

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pp. 82-86:

It happened that Marx’s article appeared at a time of “beginning again from the beginning” for a great many American radicals. The Whig Party, with which Greeley, Lincoln and compatriots of like mind had aligned themselves, was collapsing under the weight of its internal divisions between those who believed in aggressively confronting the spread of the “slave power” and more cautious reformers. Lincoln, who with Greeley had left the Congress in 1849, was practicing law in Springfield and on “the circuit” of county courthouses in Illinois. But he had not left politics behind. [ . . . ]

Slavery was an omnipresent issue, but surely not the only issue for Lincoln, whose circle of close compatriots now included a number of the radical ‘48ers who had turned Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri into new hubs of agitation. Lincoln watched international developments with frustration following the setbacks of the late 1840s and early 1850s, bemoaning in a letter to Herndon his sense that: “The world is dead to hope, deaf to its own death struggle made known by a universal cry. What is to be done? Is anything to be done? Who can do anything and how can it be done? Did you ever think on these things?”

[ . . . ] Eulogizing his political hero Henry Clay in 1852, Lincoln would make frequent reference to Clay’s international interests and involvements, declaring: “Mr. Clay’s efforts in behalf of the South Americans, and afterwards, in behalf of the Greeks, in the times of their respective struggles for civil liberty are among the finest on record, upon the noblest of all themes; and bear ample corroboration of what I have said was his ruling passion—a love of liberty and right, unselfishly, and for their own sakes.” Lincoln invoked the struggles of the European revolutionaries and denounced “oppression of any of its forms … crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings.” He dismissed the rhetoric of his arch-rival, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, finding it “as bombastic and hollow as Napoleon’s bulletins sent back from his campaign in Russia.” And when Douglas compromised on the issue of allowing the spread of slavery to new territories, he declared: “Equality in society alike beats inequality, whether the latter be of the British aristocratic sort or of the domestic slavery sort.”

Lincoln was arguably at his most radical when he penned those words in 1854. [ . . . ] In the immediate aftermath of Douglas’s betrayal, however, Lincoln’s language bore the distinct accent of Greeley’s Tribune and its most radical writers.

When Lincoln emerged in 1854 from his self-imposed political exile, it was with the intention of doing electoral battle not just with slavery but with those who stood in the way of the free soil and free labor movements the Tribune had popularized. “Free labor has the inspiration of hope; pure slavery has no hope,” declared the future president in one of his frequent linkages of ideological mantras. [ . . . ] Lincoln recognized that the most radical promise of America’s founding—that “all men are created equal”—was being destroyed in a manner that would thwart progress not merely for black slaves, but for white workers and farmers who sought their own freedoms. In his remarkable letter of August 15, 1855, to former Kentucky Congressman George Robertson, a compatriot of Henry Clay and champion of the old-school Whig hope that slavery would gradually be abandoned, the forty-six-year-old Illinoisan would bemoan the dying of the Founders’ faith. Recalling an address delivered decades earlier by Robertson, Lincoln wrote:

You are not a friend of slavery in the abstract. In that speech you spoke of “the peaceful extinction of slavery” and used other expressions indicating your belief that the thing was, at some time, to have an end[.] Since then we have had thirty-six years of experience; and this experience has demonstrated, I think, that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us. The signal failure of Henry Clay, and other good and great men, in 1849, to effect any thing in favor of gradual emancipation in Kentucky, together with a thousand other signs, extinguishes that hope utterly. On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been. When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that “all men are created equal” a self-evident truth; but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim “a self-evident lie.” The fourth of July has not quite dwindled away; it is still a great day—for burning fire-crackers!!!

That spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery, has itself become extinct, with the occasion, and the men of the Revolution. Under the impulse of that occasion, nearly half the states adopted systems of emancipation at once; and it is a significant fact, that not a single state has done the like since. So far as peaceful, voluntary emancipation is concerned, the condition of the negro slave in America, scarcely less terrible to the contemplation of a free mind, is now as fixed, and hopeless of change for the better, as that of the lost souls of the finally impenitent. The Autocrat of all the Russias will resign his crown, and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves.

The letter to Robertson was composed during a period in which Lincoln was arguing to his law partner, William Herndon, that: “The day of compromise has passed. These two great ideas (slavery and freedom) have been kept apart only by artful means. They are like two wild beasts in sight of each other, but chained and apart. Some day these deadly antagonists will one of the other break their bonds, and then the question will be settled.”

What did Lincoln mean when he spoke of freedom as a great idea that stood in conflict with slavery? Was he merely addressing the condition of those physically enslaved by the southern plantation owners—and the political and legal structures that supported them? Or was he speaking of a broader freedom? The answer is found in the records of Lincoln’s public addresses from the time.

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pp. 87-96:

It was in Jefferson’s promise of a great equality that the debater of 1854 and the president of 1863 would find his moral grounding.

In particular, Lincoln spoke of how:

Little by little, but steadily as man’s march to the grave, we have been giving up the OLD for the NEW faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a “sacred right of self-government.” These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other. When Pettit, in connection with his support of the Nebraska bill, called the Declaration of Independence “a self-evident lie” he only did what consistency and candor require all other Nebraska men to do. Of the forty-odd Nebraska Senators who sat present and heard him, no one rebuked him. Nor am I apprized that any Nebraska newspaper, or any Nebraska orator, in the whole nation, has ever yet rebuked him. If this had been said among Marion’s men, Southerners though they were, what would have become of the man who said it? If this had been said to the men who captured Andre, the man who said it, would probably have been hung sooner than Andre was. If it had been said in old Independence Hall, seventy-eight years ago, the very doorkeeper would have throttled the man, and thrust him into the street.

Let no one be deceived. The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter.

Fellow countrymen—Americans south, as well as north, shall we make no effort to arrest this? Already the liberal party throughout the world, express the apprehension “that the one retrograde institution in America, is undermining the principles of progress, and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.” This is not the taunt of enemies, but the warning of friends. Is it quite safe to disregard it—to despise it? Is there no danger to liberty itself, in discarding the earliest practice, and first precept of our ancient faith? In our greedy chase to make profit of the negro, let us beware, lest we “cancel and tear to pieces” even the white man’s charter of freedom.

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us re-purify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. Let us turn slavery from its claims of “moral right,” back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of “necessity.” Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south—let all Americans—let all lovers of liberty everywhere—join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.

[ . . . ] What he was coming to understand, intellectually and emotionally, was that slavery was an oppression of a kind with other oppressions. And he was not on the side of the oppressors. He was on the side of freedom—not merely as a moral or social construct, but as an economic one.

This was a concept that was hard-wired into the Republican Party from the moment of its founding—by followers of Fourier’s utopian socialist vision, by German ‘48ers and especially by the muscular veteran campaigner for radical land reform Alvan Bovay. It was an idea that emphasized as he campaigned in 1856 for “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men and Fremont.” Slavery was an issue that year, and Frederick Douglass was surely right when he argued that voting Republican was the best way to strike “the severest, deadliest blow upon Slavery that can be given at this particular time.” But slavery was not the only issue, as a southern Illinois newspaper, the Belleville Weekly Advocate, noted after Lincoln stumped across the region on behalf of the ticket of General John C. Fremont and former New Jersey Senator William Dayton (who had defeated Lincoln for the new party’s vice-presidential nomination in a 253 to 110 vote at the first Republican National Convention that summer in Philadelphia). “He vindicated the cause of free labor, ‘that national capital,’ in the language of Col. FREMONT, ‘which constitutes the real wealth of this great country, and creates that intelligent power in the masses alone to be relied on as the bulwark of free institutions.’ He showed the tendency and aim of the Sham Democracy to degrade labor to subvert the true ends of Government and build up Aristocracy, Despotism and Slavery.”

Two years later, on October 15, 1858, in the last of the Lincoln– Douglas debates, the Republican candidate would frame the issues in the boldest possible terms, linking physical and economic slavery—“It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself”—as he addressed a crowd of 5,000 that had gathered in front of the Alton, Illinois, city hall. “That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong— throughout the world,” Lincoln thundered. “They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

As he prepared for the 1860 presidential race, Lincoln would align with those who “hold that labor is the superior—greatly the superior—of capital.” That line, from one of Lincoln’s most striking speeches of the period, his September 30, 1859, address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, was reprised with minor variations throughout the difficult campaign for the Republican nomination. [ . . . ] “The Republicans therefore attacked the rule of the slaveholders at their root,” argued Marx in one of his many articles celebrating the rise of the new radical party in the United States—just as he decried “the connivance of the Northern Democrats” (or, as he referred to them, “Slavocrats”) with “the Southern Slavocracy.” The columnist, often displaying enthusiasms as idealistic as the Republican campaigners of Vermont or Wisconsin, argued that the party’s rapid rise offered “many palpable proofs that the North had accumulated sufficient energies to rectify the aberrations which United States history, under the slaveholders’ pressure, had undergone for half a century, and to make it return to the true principles of its development.” Lincoln’s victory was in Marx’s view a signal that the workers of the north would not “submit any longer to an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders…” That would not sit well with the south, and Greeley’s European correspondent explained to readers of the Tribune what they well knew to be the next stage in the history of the United States: “The Republican election victory was accordingly bound to lead to open struggle between North and South.”

[ . . . ] there were triumphs in the economic debates that Lincoln had outlined. Chief among these was the enactment of the Homestead Act of 1862, a soft version of the land reforms proposed by Paine-influenced agrarian socialists and social democrats of varying stripes—led by George Henry Evans, who suggested the movement be dubbed “Republican” as early as the mid-1840s, and Evans’s aide, Bovay, who would apply the name a decade later when he called the party into being at Ripon, Wisconsin. The act, which promised “land for the landless,” allowed any adult citizen (or anyone who had applied for citizenship) to claim a 160-acre parcel of land in the public domain. Greeley hailed it as “one of the most vital reforms ever attempted” and predicted it would usher in a post-war era of economic equity characterized by “Peace, Prosperity and Progress.”

Even as they agreed on homesteading, Greeley and Lincoln wrangled over the timing and scope of an emancipation proclamation. The editor joined Frederick Douglass in demanding that the president take steps to make the Civil War not merely a struggle to preserve the Union, but “an Abolition war.” Even as Greeley and Lincoln exchanged sometimes pointed letters, the Tribune’s longtime managing editor Charles Dana was now working for Lincoln. Officially assigned to the War Department—where he would eventually serve as assistant secretary—Dana’s real role was as an aide and adviser to the president on questions of what the former newspaperman described as the “judicious, humane, and wise uses of executive authority.” That Lincoln spent much of his presidency reading dispatches from and welcoming the counsel of Marx’s longtime editor—like the fact that he awarded military commissions to the numerous comrades of the author of The Communist Manifesto who had come to the United States as political refugees following the failed European revolutions of 1848—is a shard of history rarely seen in the hagiographic accounts that produce a sanitized version of the sixteenth president’s story. In the years following Lincoln’s death, his law partner and political comrade, William Herndon, complained that Lincoln’s official biographers were already attempting “to make the story with the classes as against the masses,” an approach that he suggested “will result in delineating the real Lincoln about as well as does a wax figure in the museum.”

The real Lincoln was more of a Jeffersonian, and especially a Paineite, than an orthodox Marxist. [ . . . ] To the extent that sides were to be taken, Lincoln was on the side of labor. He urged working men to “combine” and organize labor unions— “uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.” He wanted “free labor” to be able to make demands on capital, without apology or compromise. He proposed this, not as a young man in a “radical phase,” but as the president of the United States. And he said as much when leaders of the New York Workingmen’s Democratic-Republican Association arrived at the White House in March of 1864, to inform the president that they had elected him as an honorary member of their organization. Lincoln “gratefully accepted” the membership, read the attending paperwork and then responded appreciatively to his visitors: “You comprehend, as your address shows, that the existing rebellion means more, and tends to more, than the perpetuation of African Slavery—that it is, in fact, a war upon the rights of all working people. Partly to show that this view has not escaped my attention, and partly that I cannot better express myself, I read a passage from the Message to Congress in December 1861…”

Having recalled his declarations about the superiority of labor, Lincoln spent a good deal more time with the Workingmen, despite a busy schedule that placed on his shoulders all the weight of decisions regarding the war and an impending re-election campaign. The campaign would see Lincoln’s supporters distribute handbills in working-class wards of New York and other cities, arguing that the war was a fight not just to free slaves in the south but to free workers in the north from “Slave Wages.” The most ardent abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, had always reasoned that: “Liberty to the slave is peace, honor, and prosperity to the country.” But now this message was becoming central to the appeal of Lincoln’s campaign to voters in the swing states that would decide whether the president could see the war through to “an Abolition peace” characterized by “liberty for all, chains for none.” Emancipation, argued Lincoln’s supporters, would allow African Americans in the south to “demand wages that would allow them to live in a decent manner, and therefore would help the poor white man to put up the price of labor instead of putting it down as [slavery does] now.”

“Let the workingman think of this and go to the polls and vote for Abraham Lincoln, who is the true democratic candidate, and not the representative of the English Aristocracy, or their form of government, to be rid of which so many have left their native shores, and which form the leaders of the Rebellion are in favor of, in evidence of which we have the fact that in many of the Southern States no people can hold office but a property holder…” went one leaflet’s class-based appeal, which was critical to building the majority that would allow Lincoln to carry New York and retain the presidency with a decisive national landslide.

[ . . . ] Marx and Engels had been busy in the fall of 1864 with the work of organizing the International Workingmen’s Association—the “First International” of the communist movement and its allies on the left. At the meeting on November 19 of the International’s general council in London, Marx presented a letter of congratulation to Lincoln, which the council endorsed. It read:

Sir: We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, “slavery” on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counterrevolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding “the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old constitution”, and maintained slavery to be “a beneficent institution”, indeed, the old solution of the great problem of “the relation of capital to labor”, and cynically proclaimed property in man “the cornerstone of the new edifice” — then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders’ rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the proslavery intervention of their betters — and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause.

While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

The letter was duly delivered to Charles Francis Adams, Sr., the grandson of John and son of John Quincy, who had since the beginning of the war served in the delicate capacity of Lincoln’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. Adams was well acquainted with Marx. A Greeley man, who would campaign for the vice presidency in 1872 on a “Liberal Republican” ticket led by the editor, he had been the subject of glowing accounts by Marx in the Tribune since his arrival in London in 1861. His own son and private secretary, Henry, after attending “a democratic and socialistic meeting” organized by Marx and Engels, had reported approvingly to Washington that the speakers emphasized “that their interests and those of the American Union were one, that the success of free institutions in America was a political question of deep consequence in England and that they would not tolerate any interference unfavorable to the north.” [ . . . ] The senior Adams dispatched the letter from Marx and the leaders of the First International in a packet of diplomatic correspondence that was delivered to the State Department in Washington. Secretary of State William Seward [ . . . ] communicated Lincoln’s response, which Adams in turn delivered to Marx and his comrades:

“I am directed to inform you that the address of the Central Council of your Association, which was duly transmitted through this Legation to the President of the United [States], has been received by him,” began Adams. He went on:

So far as the sentiments expressed by it are personal, they are accepted by him with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.

The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary, but at the same time it adheres to the course which it adopted at the beginning, of abstaining everywhere from propagandism and unlawful intervention. It strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and good will throughout the world.

Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery, maintaining insurgence as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies.

Marx was thrilled by “the fact that Lincoln answered us so courteously,” as he was with the rejection of “reactionary” policies and the expression of solidarity with “the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.” [ . . . ] As such, the organizer in him delighted in the broad reporting of the exchange between the International and the Lincoln White House, which was featured news in the Times of London, along with other British and American papers. “The difference between Lincoln’s answer to us and to the bourgeoisie [anti-slavery groups that had also written the president] has created such a sensation here that the West End ‘clubs’ are shaking their heads at it,” Marx informed Engels.

Average Right-Libertarians Support Direct Democracy?

I was debating a Ron Paul libertarian. It made me realize something I hadn’t realized before.

Many right-libertarians will criticize democracy. They claim it’s mobocracy: two wolves and a sheep deciding on what is for dinner. I’ve often pointed out that conservatives and right-wingers have little understanding of democracy. They just present strawman caricatures and repeat talking points.

This particular libertarian seemed to be a typical example. Then he brought up Switzerland as an example of libertarianism. Switzerland does have a more decentralized government. However, Switzerland also has high corporate tax revenues compared to US, strong regulation, an effective welfare system, higher union membership, compulsory military service, state-owned utilities, etc.

It just seems like a standard democracy as it’s practiced in a smaller country, but actually it isn’t entirely standard. I realized that what this libertarian was calling libertarianism was in practice what liberals would call direct democracy. A direct democracy can only function in a decentralized government. What differentiates a libertarian minarchism from a direct democracy minarchism is social democracy. All of those things I listed about Switzerland are social democracy.

So, that was my realization. Many people who think they are libertarians are actually supporters of direct democracy.

The libertarian ideal of localizing power can only happen through a more direct democracy where decisions are voted on by local populations. Maybe most libertarians don’t have a problem with direct democracy. Despite all of their criticisms of direct democracy, maybe most libertarians are criticizing the failure of representative democracy. I agree. Our present government that supposedly represents doesn’t actually represent us, but that is so far from direct democracy as to not even be funny.

It’s not just a failure of education or the media to inform the public. It’s a failure of narrative. They have a narrative that tells them that direct democracy is mobocracy. They are in reality fine with direct democracy just as long as you don’t call it that.