Fellow Travelers

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Socialism Q&A

Socialism Q&A
Q. What is socialism?
A. The dictionary definition is "A political and economic theory of that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole." In reality, there are many different types of socialism. It is described in Marx's theory of history as the stage between Capitalism and Communism, where the worker's own the means of production, but where there are still some elements of capitalism.

Q. Who were some famous socialists?
A. A few famous American socialists include Albert Einstein, Upton Sinclair (whose book "The Jungle" led to the creation of the FDA), Eugene V. Debs, Kurt Vonnegut, Francis Bellamy (who wrote the original U.S. Pledge of Allegiance), Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Bernie Sanders.

Q. Doesn't socialism just mean that money is taken from the rich and given to lazy people?
A. No. What happens now is that money is taken from workers and given to their employers. Workers create value for their company, but are only paid in accordance with "market wages". This creates a separation between the work that they do and the pay they receive for that work, and that difference is pocketed by their employers as profit. Socialism aims to remove that separation or "alienation". If a worker does X amount of work, he should receive X amount of pay.

Q. Why do socialists support higher taxes for the wealthy? Isn't that punishing them for their success?
A. No person has ever gotten wealthy without workers whose labor they profit from, and without a stable society creating an environment wherein they can get wealthy. If there were no schools to train the workers, who would the wealthy hire? If there were no roads, how would their products be transported? The wealthy rely on our entire society to make their wealth, when they avoid paying their fair share of taxes, they're stealing from all of us.

Q. Didn't socialism kill 100 million people in the 20th century?
A. No. That's an inflated claim made by French author St├ęphane Courtois in the sensationalist book "The Black Book of Communism", and repeated without research or fact-checking by conservatives and libertarians worldwide because "100 million" sounds like a nice round number.
First, the author listed communist states, not socialist states. No government has been entirely socialist, and it's typically western social democracies that have elements of socialism in their government. The communists of Maoist China and Stalinist Russia did not agree with socialists, and socialists were the victims of these regimes. These were not socialist countries, and arguably weren't even communist, as the means of production were owned by a bureaucratic elite and not the workers.
Second, the numbers of dead under those totalitarian regimes is questionable, with the researchers for the Black Book of Communism picking the larger end of the estimates whenever possible. But really, people dead under any system is a bad thing, whether it's 1000, 1 million, or 100 million.
Third, if the intent is to compare "body counts" between economic systems, the question must be asked, "How many people has capitalism killed?" 4 million more people die each year in India than in China simply because of poor access to medical care. If the editor of the "Black Book" reasons that communism can be blamed for deaths from famine in the Soviet Union, then deaths from famine in the capitalist world must be blamed on capitalism. In that case, the dead on the capitalist side pile up fairly quickly, exceeding a mere "100 million" in record time.
Fourth and finally, socialism itself, through promoting equitable distribution of resources, through providing medical care for all regardless of their ability to pay, has saved an untold number of lives. If you call universal health care "socialist", then it is to blame for the higher life expectancies in countries with universal health care. The average in the US is 78.37, in Canada its 81.38.

Q. Has socialism ever worked for a country?
A. Has any attempt at an ideologically pure system of politics or economy ever worked for a country? Pure capitalism gave us child labor, polluted rivers and air, and the Great Depression. Socialism is intended to be democratic, and as any democratic ideology, is best used in concert with other ideologies, acting as checks and balances against each other. And really, true dictionary-definition socialism has never been tried, so we can't know if it would work or not.
Now, if you call a country with a strong welfare state and universal health care "socialist", there are dozens of socialist countries, and the overwhelming majority of them are extremely successful. Take a look at Canada, France, the Nordic states, for examples of how a government with a healthy socialist component works extremely well. These are "social democracies", countries which mix socialism and capitalism together democratically. There may be a time in the future when we can have a purely socialist country, but speaking for myself, I'd be happy for making things better in the present day.

Q. Doesn't the Constitution forbid Socialism?
A. Article 1 Section 8 Clause 1 of the Constitution permits Congress to levy taxes for the purpose of defense and the general welfare of the country, which would make a tax-funded healthcare system constitutional, and which does make things like Social Security and Medicare constitutional. The 14th Amendment, not a part of the original constitution, prohibits the State from depriving any person of "life, liberty, or property". Which would make the forcible redistribution of existing property unconstitutional. However, that doesn't prohibit things like worker-owned factories and businesses, and it doesn't prohibit taxation either. Additionally, right wing nativists in the US right now, opposed to how the 14th Amendment guarantees birthright citizenship, are looking to repeal it because it's inconvenient to their political ideology. So who knows, maybe they'll make it a non-issue by repealing the 14th Amendment through their own efforts.
It's also worth remembering that the original Constitution didn't support or forbid any particular ideology other than Democracy... but a "democracy" wherein only white male landowners were allowed to vote. The rest, the freeing of slaves, giving women the vote, the income tax, has all been amended into it over the following two hundred years. The "founding fathers", while they're used as proxies for whatever the current political ideologies are, and while some even raise them to the same level as saints, were just men. The Constitution was written at the dawn of the industrial age, contemporary to the discovery of steam power and the early factories. Many of the "founding fathers" owned slaves, exploiting slave labor for their own profit. Certainly there were some smart guys among the founding fathers, and they set the stage for America to become a great country. Perhaps their most impressive achievement was writing into the Constitution the ability to change and improve it to reflect the realities of a changing world.

Q. Who were some famous socialists?
A. A few famous American socialists include Albert Einstein, Upton Sinclair (whose book "The Jungle" led to the creation of the FDA), Eugene V. Debs, Kurt Vonnegut, Francis Bellamy (who wrote the original U.S. Pledge of Allegiance), Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Bernie Sanders.

Q. Why are you a socialist?
A. For me personally, when I was growing up, my dad had me read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut. In "Hocus Pocus", mention is made of Eugene V. Debs. I looked up some of his speeches, and was hooked. I also read Marx's "The Communist Manifesto", and found it remarkable that he predicted many of the negative aspects of globalization. If I could describe my reason in one sentence, it would be to quote Eugene Debs when he said "I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence." I'm not a socialist because I'm jealous of the wealthy or because I live in poverty. I'm quite comfortable. But just because I'm able to keep my head above water in the capitalist system doesn't mean I should condemn forever my brothers who are drowning.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Animal Farming

Looking in the library at the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation tent), I found one single book worth reading, one gem in a pile of excrement. Unfortunately, I'd already read it, George Orwell's 1946 novel "Animal Farm". This is an earlier paperback edition, with an introduction written in the 50s or 60s, and in the introduction there is part of an Orwell quote with which I am greatly familiar.

In the version of the quote approved for reprint in an introduction of a book published at the height of anti-Red hysteria, it reads
"Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism . . . Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole."

The section of the quote eradicated by that ellipsis, eliminated from historical memory by three simple dots, was as follows
"Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it."

Many people today, familiar only with the sanitized and approved capitalist interpretations of George Orwell's work, might mistakenly yet understandably come to the conclusion that he was a supporter of Capitalism and an opponent of Communism and Socialism. These two ideologies were neatly wrapped up together by the Capitalist ruling class of the 20th century, with the assistance of the Communist, who helpfully called themselves Socialists also even though they were nothing of the sort. Capitalism took 1984 and Animal Farm, and twisted their message and interpretation to be purely anti-Communist, and anti-totalitarian, and they presented themselves, the Capitalists, as the only ones who were not totalitarian.

This is what necessitated an editing and sanitizing of the George Orwell quote from Why I Write for public consumption in the western world of the 1950s. You couldn't have people thinking that democratic socialism was an ideology completely opposed to totalitarianism, because people might start to realize the truth. This is a truth that the Capitalist ruling class of the 20th century, continuing into the 21st, is terrified that the masses might suddenly realize.

Specifically, that both Totalitarian Communism and Capitalism are totalitarian ideologies and systems of government. Both are wholly totalitarian, they only differ slightly in their methods and the language they use. Orwell was opposed to either system, and sought the middle ground of democratic socialism, freeing the people from the tyrannies of both totalitarian Capitalism and totalitarian Communism. And yet, ideal and idealistic democratic socialism, with few exceptions, was merely squashed like a grape between the conflicts of the two great totalitarian powers of the 20th century. The winner of that conflict, the tyrant that sits astride the world today, driving us into ever greater depths of misery, is totalitarian Capitalism.

Consider the first chapter of Animal Farm, when Major gives his speech. He talks of all the evils of Capitalism, how the dogs will be drowned when they are old, how the pigs will be slaughtered, the horse turned to dog food or glue, and so on. Now, as the story progresses, and as the farm devolves into totalitarianism, it's well worth noting that the worst things that happen are the same things that would happen under the Capitalist, the farmer. At the end, when the pigs seem to be like humans, and the humans seem to be like pigs, the horror is that the Totalitarian Communists and the Capitalists are indistinguishable, and the Socialist revolution has been squashed and suborned!

Most Capitalist interpretations of Animal Farm, in their attempt to sanitize Orwell and rehabilitate him posthumously as a defender of Capitalism, focus on the pigs as tyrants. It shows the tyranny that they will establish, and the way that they will pervert a revolution that seeks to establish fairness and equality for all the animals. But the thing that the safe interpretations seem to gloss over is that the tyranny of the pigs was that they exploited their fellow animals... the same thing the capitalist farmer had been doing in the first place.

This totalitarian oppression and exploitation seems so horrible coming from the pigs because the pigs are also animals, and thus should be comrades with the working class of animals. Betrayal by the pigs doesn't change the fact that the farmers exist as a completely separate oppressing totalitarian class, one that has nothing to do with the working class animals except to exploit them, one that is a completely separate species. These are the wealthy ruling class in our society, they only see the working and middle classes as beasts of burden to be exploited, they don't even consider themselves the same species as us. Does this make them more or less moral than the pigs? If they are more or less moral than the pigs, does that make any difference to us the exploited?

Within the context of Animal Farm, the farmers establish brutal totalitarian control over the animals in order to exploit them. They want total control from birth to death (typically slaughter, or an otherwise unnatural early death) over their animal subjects. When the pigs take control of the farm, they exploit the animals in order to control them. They want to control, and they use the exploitation as a means. However, for the working class animals, this results in very little practical difference in their lives. The Totalitarian Communist wants to exploit his people as a means of controlling them. The Capitalist wants to control his people as a means of exploiting them.

What we have to comes to terms with, here in the early years of the 21st century, is that Capitalism has survived the conflict between itself and Totalitarian Communism, but that it remains a totalitarian ideology. We are slaves, even if the chains are less visible at times than others. Capitalism controls the media, it controls the government, it controls access to the internet. We exist within a system of total control, a system focused on generating wealth and power and privilege for those few wealthy at the top, and on controlling the animals below for the purposes of exploitation, and to convince the animals that, if they work real hard, and try their best, and are extremely lucky, someday they too may become farmers. But no matter how hard a horse tries, he'll never be a human. That's one of the many lessons to take from Animal Farm, the wealthy oppressers are a completely different species from the rest of us; try as you might, buy into their propaganda your whole life, and you will never be one of them.

Democratic Socialism, a system in which the will of the people is used not to eliminate the wealthy but to limit and control their exploitation of the masses, while improving life for the masses, is the only non-totalitarian way. Orwell knew this, and that's why he wrote Why I Write, and laid out the separation between totalitarianism and democratic socialism. That's why he lumped together Capitalism and Totalitarian Communism as totalitarian systems. If we ever want to be free, democratic socialism is the way, and it is the alternative to the totalitarian tyranny of both unfettered Capitalism and unfettered Totalitarian Communism.