I couldn’t help but notice towards the end of the presidential campaign certain people whom I shall refer to as “clueless yahoos” were throwing the word “socialist” around in regards to now President-elect Obama. It seemed it was a fresh, new, pseudo-sophisticated way to call him a Commie Pinko in a day and age where that’s just passé, though having heard one Minnesota candidate’s barely cogent tirade about how Obama is just one questionable member of a United States Congress rife with “anti-American” folks (it used to be “un-American”), I wondered if we’d all slipped through a wormhole and landed in the early 1950s in front of Joe McCarthy and his failing hairdo.
This throwback to Cold War ideology is the product of simple minds that cannot, or choose not to, see beyond a facile us-vs.-them view of the world, and the propagandists who know how to work them to their advantage. And it’s simply not accurate. I’m not sure where people got the idea that Barack Obama was some kind of raving leftist Robin Hood. He is very much a moderate, in his policies and his speech and actions (the latter being why I came to appreciate him), though I guess if you believe that “socialism” and “social responsibility” are the same thing, you might have missed that point. If you think “social responsibility” is intolerably radical, well, then, I don’t know what to say to you. When 1% of the country has more money than it could ever possibly spend, and people in that same country can’t afford supper, not to mention health care, something’s wrong.
I do not believe that government, or your fellow human beings, owe you a damn thing. Fundamentally, we all need to be able to count on ourselves. However, I do believe that in an enlightened society, we CHOOSE to help those who need help; we choose to act in accordance with our better angels; we choose to do what’s best for the greatest, most humane good. We should want to do these things because it’s right to do them, not because we are obligated to. We all want to talk about family values, ignoring that what is good for a family—love, support, basic needs met, health, understanding, growth and progress—is good for the human family, and what’s good for all of us is just plain good. I think it’s right to protect the weakest of our citizens and do what it takes to help all of us (not just some of us) to evolve personally, socially, and economically. If we’re not evolving as individuals and as a human race, what exactly do we think we’re doing here?
A friend of mine asked me, in jest, if I was a socialist, and I said, “Well, as a matter of fact….” I am only a registered Democrat because there isn’t any viable party that is more liberal (small ‘l’) and more in tune with my actual beliefs. Most Democratic candidates aren’t liberal ENOUGH for me, and therefore, a source of constant disappointment. (That paragraph alone will tank any as-yet-unimagined hopes for a political career I might’ve had, but I assure you, there are at least nine other things I’ve said, written, and done that would’ve done likewise. I think I can live with that, in any case.)
When I was in school, I was taught that “capitalism” is an economic system in which individuals (known as “capitalists”) who had money (known as “capital”) put that money into manufacturing and labor to create products, and in doing so, jobs for other people to acquire capital. The acknowledged and inherent risk in going into business was offset by the opportunity to gain greater wealth through the investment of one’s capital. Capitalism, then, was like any other gamble. Sure, you could lose, and that’s the chance you’d have to take, but you might win, and win big, and we would all agree that your gain was well-deserved because you took the risk in the first place, and good on ya for providing opportunities for others, good Samaritan that you are.
No discussion of capitalism is complete without a discussion of supply and demand and the natural, self-regulatory aspects of the free market. And we are given to believe by capitalists, and the politicians that love them, that this, indeed, is how it works. “No regulation, please! Let the market regulate itself! Let’s bring the business model into the schools—competition makes everyone better! Trickle-down economics work. Just let us do our thing and stay out of our way. What’s good for business is good for America.”
Except that business in America has always been two-faced. It is capitalist when the rich are getting richer, but when the rich are getting poorer, then, my goodness, let’s call on the government, proxy of the American people, to help us out! Immediately if not sooner!
Witness the $700 billion bailout of the banking industry that we, our children, and grandchildren will be paying for which seems, as far as I can tell, not to be doing a bit of good, despite 2/3 of the money being gone now. The banks are hoarding that money, rather than allowing it to trickle down as intended via mortgages and other credit. And now the Big 3 automakers have their hands out, begging to be saved from their own stubborn antiquity.
We’ve got people who, through hubris or ignorance, made poor financial choices, did not plan for the future, chose not to learn and grow, and are facing calamity. It’s funny that these are the same arguments made against giving welfare moms money, and yet we couldn’t get the bailout passed fast enough to make sure that people who will only receive smaller multi-million-dollar bonuses this year can “survive.”
What happened to the capitalist being rewarded for shouldering the risk? They don’t actually believe the risk is theirs anymore; they’re only interested in the profit, and the loss is a problem for government to solve. If you don’t think that risk has been socialized, you haven’t been paying attention. What the banking industry, and now the auto industry, have done is to gamble, lose, and expect the house (that’s us) to cover their debts. Indeed, we are being told explicitly, but without discussion of the frightening significance of this reality, that our entire economy runs on credit and debt. That reality has certainly trickled down, even if the prosperity has not.
Regardless of what you think about global warming, the fact is that crude oil is a finite resource. Slurping every last bit of it from every layer of shale that harbors it will not change that fact, and will no doubt do environmental damage as the sediment we build our world upon is drained, desiccated, and starts to shift and settle in ways we cannot foresee. And yet Detroit has fought every effort to raise standards for better mileage, better emissions control, and alternatives to internal combustion engines. Now, when the reality is starting to hit home for those who are spending $75-80 in recent months at the gas pump, Detroit is crying “but we need help!” I am not inclined to help those who have battled every intervention attempt for the last 50 years, and expect to be deferred to like an aged, addled great-auntie, however unreasonable her behavior. I drive a Nissan.
I’m inclined to say “let the market regulate itself.” Supply and demand, baby. It’ll hurt some, for awhile, but this is how we are told it’s supposed to work. The strong, innovative, competitive businesses will survive, and the dinosaurs will be rightfully relegated to history. That’s what business has been preaching for years; it seems evident that they do not, and probably never did, believe their own gospel.
Some people say that economic Darwinism isn’t feasible, and that we all stand to lose, that all our fates are tied up in the fates of Wall Street and Detroit and whomever else comes begging. Therefore, we can’t just stand by and let them fall.
That, my friends, is socialism. Let’s be clear about that.
People want to get up in arms about socialized medicine (and if you think privatized medicine is the answer, I would bet you haven’t had recent dealings with the medical industry), when we’ve been living in a socialist nation. The only difference is that instead of our socialism raising up the least of us, ours continues to push the most advantaged even higher. Every time we give tax breaks to business, that’s socialism. Every time we bail out a business that should’ve failed on its own merits (or lack thereof), that’s socialism. Every time we subsidize production (or pay for people not to produce), meddling in the market for the benefit of a struggling industry, that’s socialism.
If you think you’re entitled to your Social Security come retirement time, you’re a socialist. If you think the availability of public schools is the right of every American citizen, you’re a socialist. If you think the government should pave your roads and light your streets, you’re a socialist. If you believe in law enforcement and prisons, you’re a socialist. If you pay taxes, you’re a socialist. If you believe in having armed forces for the defense of the nation, you’re a socialist. If you think it’s not right for small children and old people to starve, you’re a socialist. If you think all of us should help each of us, you’re a socialist.
If you live in society, you are a socialist by definition; what differs is only the degree to which we support those beliefs with actions. The fact is, we have been living in a socialist nation since the inception of the country:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
This vision of ourselves as rugged individualists who rise and fall on our own personal merits is only true for people who live outside of society as rugged individualists, free of both the benefits and constraints of Society. The majority of us lives among other people, and therefore necessarily agrees to take part in the social compact, unless we’re sociopaths. Each of us is helped and hindered by a lot of institutional structures and strictures that tend to preserve status quo above all, and for the great majority of us, were the government to pull back and leave us to our own devices, we would fail, if not starve, having been forced at last to chew on our very own bootstraps for sustenance. The fantasy of being rich is a difficult one to let go of, and many people argue economic systems from the perspective they’d like to have, rather than the vista they live with every day.
“We don’t want our government to tell us what we can and can’t do!” Yes, we do, or we wouldn’t have one. Yes, we do, or we’d be living in a cabin off the grid somewhere, growing our own food. Yes, we do, or we wouldn’t be spouting this “Obama’s a socialist” nonsense that we heard from someone else, because if we had any understanding of what socialism means, and any realistic conception of the system we’re currently living in, we wouldn’t be saying it.
Those who use “socialist” as a dirty word offer as the (dubiously) utopian alternative not a libertarian democracy, but a plutocracy, where the rich get richer while dangling a similar fate in front of the rest of us who may or may not realize that the system is not built to enable us to attain it. So we rail against a so-called “socialist” who we are sure is going to take “our money” that we do not even have yet and give it to the poor we actually ARE now. This delusion boggles my mind, yet it is so entrenched I don’t know how we hack out the roots of a noxious weed that spreads out into fronds of lotto ticket purchases, online gambling, and frivolous lawsuits. We are schizophrenic, in that we pride ourselves in being a nation of hard workers while simultaneously being ever watchful for our big break that will turn us into the gentry overnight.
That economic schizophrenia is not terribly surprising. What we have is a mix of capitalistic greed and socialistic clean-up that has created and enabled the mess we find ourselves in now. Had we embraced either fully, we might not be here. The market would’ve shown its cracks sooner, before we all had something to lose in it, if we’d let pure capitalism have its head. If we’d all agreed that in a socialistic society, the right to profit came with social responsibility, then the excesses and disregard for rules and logic that brought us to this point would not have been allowed to occur. Instead, we find ourselves a citizenry in an ugly co-dependent relationship with big business, where we have to go to the bar, pay the oversized tab, and drag a quarrelsome Big Daddy home every weekend to threaten us, beat us sore, say he’s sorry, and do it all over again next Friday night.
But hey, at least we’re not Socialists.