Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Omnivore Explains: Socialism

If you've put a toe--even your little one--in politics any time in the past four years you have no doubt felt it awash in the rhetoric of Marxism and socialism. After all, our Commander in Chief is an avowed socialist--a closet Marxist, and a secret Muslim.

If you studied socialism, say, a couple decades ago, and have lived in a politics free bubble since then (BANG! BANG!! LET ME IN!! LET ME INNNNN!!!) you might be a little surprised by this.

Part 1: Actual Socialism
There is no absolutely authoritative single-meaning of the term (this does create some uncertainty) but in short
1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
This is a reasonable start. Note that in some formulations there are distinctions where:
There is a bit of truth to all of these which makes having a conversation deeper than the use of code-words more intricate than it might otherwise be. While I will not exactly use socialism and communism interchangeably here, I will, at times use communism / socialism to indicate places where I don't see a specific distinction in the philosophy.

Socialism In America
Socialism in America started around 1850 with Marxist based unions being set up. Working conditions of the time were dismal and harsh and blue-collar workers liked the appeal to better conditions, wages, etc. A socialist candidate got 6% of the presidential vote in 1912. Popular authors (Upton Sinclair) were exposing the truly horrific conditions in American factories and packing plants and the ideas had currency amongst the populace.

In 1917 the Espionage Act was passed at least party in response to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia (bloody) and the attendant Red Scare. This made budding US Socialists afraid and membership in the party plummet. The perception of socialism was further, erm, tarnished by the 1919 anarchist bombings which were conducted by ostensibly socialist revolutionaries.

In short, early American socialism was marked first by ideas about improving the (bad) lot of workers but became entangled in bloody revolution. But we should've seen it coming. It's not like someone didn't warn us this would happen ... Someone like ... Karl Marx.

Only Known Picture of Karl Marx and Obama
Marx had written about the near-necessity of violent revolution. From The Communist Manifesto:
They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution.
Key Point
The thing you need to understand is that when talking about 'socialism' you are generally talking about a radical change in western governments to a state where there is little or no private property, where there is a centrally planned economy, where means of production are not privately owned (either collective or owned by the state).

This can only be achieved by revolution, probably violent revolution--which was part of the plan. Everything else--ObamaCare, Social Security, Interstate Highways--these can be seen as little "baby-steps" towards socialism at best.

If you are going to go with the "one drop of socialism makes it socialist" you are starting with an explicit extreme position and if you find yourself reluctant to state that plainly or call that out at the start? Well, yeah: there's a reason for that. It's because you're about to attack a 'straw man' of socialism rather than real, actual socialism.

Part 2: Socialism As A Failure
If there is a major, humiliating, political failure of the 20th Century, look no further than Socialism / Communism. I recommend The God That Failed as a good place to start. Not only was socialism / communism seen as "a god" but it was an abomination in practice.

The real crimes of socialism are genocide, famine, gulags, and police states. They are not health care for indigent people or lazy kids playing X-Box instead of getting a haircut and a real job.

Part 3: European Capitalism
Chances are, if you are using 'socialism' to talk about anything in contemporary American politics, what you are actually talking about is European capitalism. In every European state there is:

  • A market economy (with varying degrees of regulation)
  • Ownership of private property
  • Private ownership of business / means-of-production

In short, these are highly regulated market economies with their own stock exchanges, central banks, and so on. To be certain, the Europeans have:

  • Higher taxes and their wealthy tend to be less wealthy
  • Far more social services--which are very expensive
These are decisions that their governments and electorates have made in varying degrees--but they are far closer to capitalist economies than socialist ones. You can ask the World Socialist Movement:
Some [countries] want more state intervention, some want less; but none want to go beyond the wages-prices-profits system. All want to retain producing for the market, buying and selling, money and working for wages. None of them—not even those who describe themselves as "socialist"—stand for socialism in its original meaning of a society of common ownership and democratic control with production for use not profit and moneyless distribution in accordance with the principle "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs".

Now, this does not mean that Europe's decisions have all been good--or are (depending on which state we want to discuss) anything America should emulate. But if you're going to talk intelligently about policy you have to, you know, discuss actual policy rather than using sweeping loaded generalizations and straw-men. For example:

  1. French entrepreneurship is (reportedly) very low. One can credibly argue that is because the regulatory environment is suffocating small business: If you make it impossible to fire people you (surprise!) make it hard to hire people.
  2. Greek budgetary policies pay people for doing nothing and show gross mismanagement. 
  3. You can look at Spain's health care system (link is 2009) and, uh, see right there in the article that it's going to collapse. Oh look, it did!
Then you have to do some hard work taking these lessons and actually applying them--with some degree of, you know, rigor or intelligence, to the US discussion you want to have. Saying that "socialism always fails" ignores, for example, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany--all of whom have fairly robust welfare states and none of whom are failures. You can even look at England and, to a degree, France and see that even in recessions some elements of their economy and standards of living are strong (healthcare outcomes, for example).

I'm too depressed to even talk about Canada. Smug bastards.

But even those discussions aren't exactly cut and dried. For example, one might look at a map of Europe and conclude that it isn't the economic system that most closely predicts failure ... but the latitude. That's a discussion I really want to have.
We've Got To Move Italy Further North!

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