I’m treating myself to a week off — holiday season and all — and
so, once again, I’m re-publishing an essay I posted over a year ago,
before the November election. The subject is socialism, and as it happens, I just
this week used similar themes in a much shorter letter to the New York Times,
responding to an article on the same subject. I’ve just been informed that NYT
is publishing the letter sometime this week. Meanwhile, the original is, I think, well worth another look.
Call it the S-word, the dirtiest word in American politics.
To say that socialism is vastly misunderstood doesn’t begin to state the case. It’s a word that has been cynically manipulated by all manner of right-wing nuts for roughly a century, and it never seems to lose its power to get them worked up.
Yet they’ve largely succeeded in villainizing and undermining what is, ironically, a deeply embedded aspect of our society.
The usual definitions just confuse the discussion. They tend to say something abstract like “Socialism is an economic system that promotes communal ownership of the means of production,” which is neither useful nor particularly accurate.
In practical everyday terms, socialism is another word for government. In the “social democracies” of Europe, where it’s widely practiced to one extent or another — and where it’s anything but a dirty word — socialism describes the set of systems each government constructs to temper the excesses, and make up for the shortcomings, of capitalism.
What the right is right about (yes, it’s a short list) is that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and Obamacare are indeed socialistic entities, or would be considered so in Europe — though ours are half-assed by comparison. Demonized as they are on the right, all these programs are wildly popular, and their enormous social usefulness has long since transcended any silly label, pejorative or otherwise.
Republicans, however, have not gotten that message, no matter how many times the electorate repeats it. They’ve been gunning for all these programs for as long as they’ve existed. They may yet kill them off. Because Republicans — and the oligarchs who own them — don’t like government.
Anything a government invests in for the benefit of its citizenry is anathema to Republicans, and they never hesitate to use the S-word to excoriate it, whatever the ‘it’ happens to be.
But public health is socialism. Meat inspection is socialism. Drug safety, occupational safety, environmental safety, air traffic control, weather reporting — even the military and the federal prison system — all these and much more depend on government to make them work. They are all socialism. None are required to turn a profit, or even break even.
The profit motive, so intrinsic to free-market capitalism, fails miserably at delivering these social imperatives.
Now, capitalism is also misunderstood. When we speak of it, we usually describe it as an economic system, but this is a bit misleading. It’s not so much a system of economics as it is economics itself. Or put another way, it’s how trade happens.
You have a buyer. You have a seller. They arrive at a price. They seal the deal. With luck the transaction takes place on a level playing field, in a market where all buyers and sellers can compete fairly. That’s capitalism, more or less. Sometimes it works, sometimes it sucks.
But capitalism isn’t going anywhere. In a way, it’s embedded in human nature. Which is an important point, because no economic system works well when human nature isn’t accounted for. People have ambitions. People want to buy things. People want to live well, both for themselves and for their children.
History is littered with failed states that tried to alter or ignore human nature, to eradicate the profit motive and private enterprise. It took the Soviet Union sixty years to sink under the weight of its “planned” economy. North Korea’s economy has never had a shred of viability in its entire history — the entire system seems built around letting people starve. But that’s communism, which we can characterize as socialism taken to wild and dangerous extremes, and which has never been shown to work.
So when a country designs its economic system, capitalism is a given. The key question is capitalism plus what? How much regulation — how many guardrails — does the government put in place? Or, in other words, how much socialism is required.
Because human nature isn’t a uniformly wonderful thing. Yes, people want to get ahead. But they also want to cheat. They want to put their thumb on the scale. They want to be piggy and grab too much. They want to use too much wealth to amass too much power.
When free markets are left too free — as Republicans and their oligarch masters have succeeded in letting them do — all kinds of corrosive elements are introduced. Without adequate guardrails, capitalism inevitably devolves into monopoly power, which brings on a toxic stew of dangerous inequalities, degradation of labor, institutional racism, warping of the rule of law, and ultimately a system that works for the very few at the expense of the many. Sound familiar? It’s called fascism.
This country once had a decent set of working guardrails. Not great, but decent. You can argue whether they were the right guardrails — whether they struck the right balance between regulation and free enterprise — but you can’t argue that once they were there, and now they’re not.
The virus is vividly showing us how badly we need them back. We need them shored up, built on, and paid for. Which means we need a lot more government than we’re getting now.
If that sounds like the S-word to some people, it's long past time they got over it.