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Thread: Socialism

  1. #1

    Default Socialism

    I haven't started a thread, or even written a more than five sentence post, in some time. I think the level of dialogue on ADISC has declined in recent months, and I've resisted the urge to so much as look at any of the numerous threads relating to politics largely because, as a professional political scientist, I find the assertions people make to be skewed at best and unsubstantiated BS at worst and covering that range thoroughly from end to end.

    As most of you know, I teach contemporary political ideology at one of this counrty's largest flagship state universities. We spend three weeks on socialism, and in a class that functions primarily through discussion, it was necessary to begin that section of the course with a definition of socialism to serve as a baseline for all our future work. I defined socialism as "the use of private money to buy public goods." In other words, the use of tax dollars to fund government services. By that definition every country in the world is a socialist country since all of them collect tax dollars and use them to buy public goods such as roads, schools, and militaries.

    I was inspired to write this thread after reading

    I am all for Universalized Health Care in America. First of, yes, I am an American citizen, born and raised. Secondly, no, I do not want to dismantle America by turning it into a socialist country.
    That was written by FullMetal in his "Universalized Health Care" thread.

    The U.S. federal government provides a military, federal law enforcement, federal monies for public education, federal disaster relief, and Medicare and Medicaid, and thousands of other federal programs. And then tere are all the other states and municipal services. All of that fits the definition of socialism that I used in class, a definition approved by two senior tenured professors.

    My class was a class that dealt with the use of ideologies as a labels. People on the far left are socialists, people on the far right are fascists, people are liberals/conservatives/fundamentalists/feminists/etc. One of the objectives of the course was to dispell these labels and shed light on what those ideologies actually are.

    So my question is this: Why are countries like Norway, Denmark, Canada, the UK, Sweden, and others regarded as "socialist" when the idea of applying the term "socialism" to the United States is met with abhorrence, fear, anger, and political teeth gnashing?

    The countries I just listed all have open and free markets, like the U.S. They have democratic governments, like the U.S. And they collect taxes and distribute government services, like the U.S. But they collect higher taxes-though not in all cases- and provide more, and sometimes better, goods and services than the U.S.

    I posed this question to ninety bright college students of all political persuasions, actually skewed more towards the right in this part of the country, and the answer they came up with is that the term "socialism" is used as an epithet mindlessly, without self-reflection or afterthought, largely driven by the mistaken conflation of socialism with communism, itself misunderstood by many.

    I like that answer. But it begs the question of why socialism is seen as such a great evil, or at least an untenable liability. Adam Smith-style capitalism is not enshrined in our laws or our Constitutions just as socialism is not outlawed in them. Both are enshrined in our popular and political culture. But I would argue, as a scientist, theorist, and teacher, that we are a socialist country, just like all the others, and that's it only a matter of degrees after that.

    This is a quote from Karl Marx, the one I used as my opening to the socialism section in class.

    In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonism, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
    Ignoring the practicality of creating such a society, and the reprehensible manner in which Marx wanted to create, what exactly is wrong with that sentiment? And if it is impractical, or even impossible, isn't that something that we should try to create? Milton Friedman assumed a world with no barriers to entry into the market even though he knew that wasn't the way the world worked. Just as it would be a good deed to create the kind of world that Friedman wanted, is it not also a good deed to create the world that Marz envisioned?
    Last edited by harris; 18-May-2009 at 19:32.

  2. #2


    My guess as to why Socialism is feared in the US is simply because it has associations with Communism, and thus with the old Soviet Union. Yes, that should have died out by now but old habits die hard.

    Anyway, I absolutely agree that some terms are negatively loaded in a way that makes people fear it without understanding it.

    I pretty much agree with everything you wrote though, so I'll just leave it at that.

  3. #3


    I disagree with your definition of socialism. I define socialism in the Marxian way. That is, the workers (public) own some means of production. IE, what Hugo Chavez is doing in Venezuela with oil and now (apparently) food products. And we're seeing that now in the United States, with the government receiving partial ownership in industries in return for a nigh unlimited line of credit, although this is a strange form of what appears to be Corporatist Socialism.

    Now, as far as your main question. Americans rightly associate Socialism (better termed Social Democracy, IMHO) with higher rates of taxation. Americans don't really like taxes. More accurately, Americans see taxes as a nessesary evil. This contrasts with views from Social Democracies, as they typically consider taxation as simply a means to an end. Keep in mind that the United States gained independence as a result of a war that started as a tax revolt.

    Now, onto Marx. He is one of my favorite political philosophers. But he was wrong. He failed to take into account basic humanity as it exists. A human is an animal. It will do the least possible to get the most gain. A lion kills for itself and for his family. It does not kill for all of lionhood. Marx thought that we, as a whole society, could suppress our natural instincts and work for the betterment of the community. He was plainly wrong. Man does what gives him pleasure. In some people, pleasure is helping the community. Some it is not.

    And then we have the execution of Socialism. Constantly, I hear that Socialism/Communism has never been really tried before, and therefore should still be tried. I find this rather unfortunate. Every single time Socialism (real socialism) has been tried on a national, large scale level, it has failed miserably. From the Paris Commune to the Bolsheviks to the Khmer Rouge, Socialism has always resulted in abject failure, usually involving thousands of bodies.

    However, Marx was correct in saying that Corporate Capitalism is unsustainable. As the corporation (government constructed entity) becomes larger, the flexibility to deliver goods and services falters. As competitors merge, competition decreases. Eventually, one corporation controls the production of a good, and competition is squashed by non-free market means, be it government pressure, tax breaks, or other, more unfriendly, means. The corporatist system that we have seen emerge in the past 100 years shares similarities with Socialism. In both cases, few (or one) entity controls the means of production of a good or service.

    I do admire Marx, however, for giving us a glimpse of the post-statist world. I do believe he was incorrect in assuming the world would come together in one giant commune, but I do think that he would have been Ok with people pooling resources and skills in free association, and then trading with other individuals and communes in free association. When you get down to it, true, nonstatist free marketism and Marxist Communism aren't really that different.

  4. #4


    Greed and the Cold War. That's why people think socialism is so terrible. They instantly think of the USSR and other such places. They assume it requires totalitarianism. And/or they assume that they will suddenly have no money to do anything. Or maybe they're even afraid that there will be less poor people, which somehow scares them because they are arrogant will have less people to look down upon. Though I'm sure some people simply don't see it as the best system.

  5. #5


    It should be noted that the debate over human nature raged during Marx's time between Marx himself, who did not believe in a human being that wished first to help others, and Mikhail Bakunin, the other intellectual head of the first international. Bakunin is best known for his work "Mutual Aid" in which he attacks Darwinism as a human projection on to other species. Rather than survival of the fittest, Bakunin argues that cooperation is the norm in other species and not competition as observed among humans. But he was also confident that Marx's proposed use of a government to create a cooperation-minded society would backfire, as no government would ever give up power as Marx's classless, stateless communism required. Bakunin left the First International, and their personal debate spelled the end of it.

    Marx didn't believe everybody wanted to help others, but he did believe that a few people, true communists, did, and that that would be enough to bring about the revolution and lead society towards higher communism. Bakunin believed that absent society, all people wanted to aid one another, but that it would be impossible in the presence of government regardless of the government's motives, so Bakunin is remembered as a social anarchist. Marx's mistake was perhaps in misjudging human nature, but also in his inability to predict the rise of the service sector and the middle class that followed, two things that largely obviated the class conflict that Marx wrote about.

    As for soialism never having been tried, I agree that it has. Many states, too many to list here, have tried socialism and succeeded. By contrast communism has failed, but it was never tried according to Marx's strictures. Recall that all communism is socialist but veery litle socialism is communist.

    Lenin was a communist, but Marx's communism required a reovlution of the proletariate whereas Lenin believed that a vanguard party could foment a revolution or at least a rebellion limited to those that identified themselves as communist but that did not encompass the whole working class. Marx believed such a revolution was bound to fail and that it could not help but be corrupted if workers did not lead it. Lenin had no problem with workers, but he didn't believe that they were necessary; he advocated for professional reolvutionaries. In that sense, Marxism has never really been tried, but the Leninist derivative has, and it surely failed. That said, to what extent Lenin would have approved of the actions of the Soviet state under those that followed him is questionable. Stalin is a better model of an unyielding dictator than a true communist of any stripe. This suggests not so much that communism has failed as that it is impossible to create communism, at least by way of the socialist stage of history that Marx outlined.

    Also, the U.S. government has not recently obtained partial ownership in anything. They made loans. Just as a bank makes a loan so someone can buy a house, the government made a loan to several companies that will eventually pay the government back with interest. That's not socialism; that's usury, ie. capitalism.

    When I say "socialism," it is more accurate to recall the democratic socialism practiced by so many democratic socialist parties. The Student for a Democratic Society are an excellent example of such a movement in the United States. The Scandinavian states are excellent examples of sucessful socialism. Higher taxes yes, but taxes do buy things. Americans get just as pissed when the government cuts a program or even reallocates the proportion of money used in one part of a program to another part.

  6. #6


    To be fair I haven't read every word of the foregoing, but here is my take. To contextualize my point of view: I am a pragmatist, not an idealogue; I am a fiscal conservative, social liberal, and moderate (though ardent) environmentalist and Green Party member and supporter. (When I finally read their lit turned out they are actually a fiscally conservative bunch, though the wing-nuts give them a bad name. I dislike extremism of any sort; outright free marketeers should be locked up with the outright commies and left to fight it out; I would throw in the religous extremists, ethnic extremists, and arch nationalists and isolationists and monarchists; they can come out when they are ready to shake hands.)

    I don't believe in a pure anything. Simplistic models don't correspond to human nature and behaviour.

    The moment you have money, you have accounting; then you have financial entities, corporate entities; in the old Soviet Union MiG competed with Sukhoi. Private farming was found to be more productive per square foot than the collectives and allowed "under the table." This was necessitated by the collectives' failure to feed the population; so privatising in some sectors turned out to address collective needs.

    Central governments, provincial, regional, municipal, county governments have a role. Regulated free markets have their role. Encouragement of personal responsibility is balanced (and incentivized) by such social structures as safety nets. Economies of scale are realized by large productive organizations - mostly corporate - while there anti-trust and anti-anti competetive rules.
    Yes, I manage to annoy the socialists and Adam Smithies equally; Sometimes it's hard to be a centrist...

    Another thing (or two) - the labels conservative, liberal, libertarian, and so on break down according to the issue; Unionists have come to realize profitable employers are good. The guy who isn't starving because social assistance exists still wants to make his way in the world and earn that flat-screen TV. Pick some issues and one can have a different political leaning on each. This can vary regionally too: public disaster relief and home rebuilding here, no housing subsidies there.

    Consider this: being a shareholder is effectively a socialistic system, though it does not work effectively that way. I am all for having workers paid partly in stock, with the option to take 10-30% pay in stock. Such income would be taxed at a lower rate. This would stimulate the economy, reduce personal taxes, give workers a personal interest in the employer's well-being, encourage shareholder activism, reduce cash-flow requirements of the employer, and emphasize investment over speculation.

    Now is this a socialist or a capitalist idea??
    Last edited by Raccoon; 21-May-2009 at 06:40.

  7. #7


    Consider this: being a shareholder is effectively a socialistic system, though it does not work effectively that way. I am all for having workers paid partly in stock, with the option to take 10-30% pay in stock. Such income would be taxed at a lower rate. This would stimulate the economy, reduce personal taxes, give workers a personal interest in the employer's well-being, encourage shareholder activism, reduce cash-flow requirements of the employer, and emphasize investment over speculation.

    Now is this a socialist or a capitalist idea??
    Socialist but not communist, provided that the workers have an actual opportunity to exercise their ownership perogatives. Otherwsie it's like any other stock ownership: using money to make more money, the essence of capitalism.

  8. #8


    Quote Originally Posted by harris View Post
    I defined socialism as "the use of private money to buy public goods." In other words, the use of tax dollars to fund government services.
    just for a matter of context, the word 'tax' also means to rob. of course, you may have that perceptual context in the US, but that is the root of the whole affair, especially as taxation pre-dates democracy. how that then reflects upon a US perception of european politics and taxation could get a bit stickier but, you can rest assured that what is often called 'socialism' is just the same old facism and elitism that lies at the heart of european politics and governance. ie. don't believe the hype; it's still the same old class of people doing the same old things, serving themselves first and throwing crumbs to the people. nowt changes.
    some could harp on about the social advances of national healthcare and democratic access, but really, most of these were simple placatory measures designed primarily to avert violent uprisings (you'll note that in the case of the UK, the social reforms of voting, welfare and healthcare came in the aftermaths of war, when there were a great many young men with military training in the isles). similar measures of avoiding uprisings were enacted in the centuries previous in the wake of the violent revolts in europe and there were concious efforts in the UK to placate the masses.
    but maybe that wasn't a bad thing? afterall, that was all going on during the infancy of the industrial revolution and had the establishment in Britain been overthrown, we may never have had the Victorian era and the empire as it was, and the industrial revolution may never have then grown and spread as it did, we would never have had the world wars but smaller conflicts, technology would never have progressed to a level of mass consideration and access and the calls for social reform might never have occurred. ?.

    but nowhere in that was there any genuine concern or regard for the welfare of the people, there was no sense of social cohesion, that we're all in the same boat - it was a 'them and us' attitude and that attitude still persists in the UK (which goes some way to explain the recent 'revelations' about MP's expenses; the tip of the ice-berg that it is). and it's that that marks it out as not socialist, but simply as a matter of avoiding having one's head chopped off.

  9. #9


    and it's that that marks it out as not socialist, but simply as a matter of avoiding having one's head chopped off.
    I think you'd love reading Emma Goldman. Check her out.

  10. #10


    Taxation is part of a social contract. America is a republic not a democracy; the people don't run things they choose leaders to run things, which means, yes, obeying taxation legislation. Social reform is a dicey and tenuous process, and never had an easy time of it, especially with so many people all Ayn Randy.

    Your union leaders negotiate your contract for you. Your politicians determing the specifics of your social contracts; and anyone else you empower as your proxy from the president of your condo board to your pope.

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