Friday, October 31, 2008

Event: What Is Socialism? Is Obama a Socialist?



If this issue is going to be brought up in debate and discussion, we owe it to each other to confront the issue up front. College profs have a tendency to make it complicated, but as for the disputes dominating the news today, the discussion needn't be particularly complicated.

I write this as a socialist, who votes center Democrat 90% of the time, and makes occasional "fringe" comments that diminish my popularity. I consider myself a socialist because I believe that the socialist premise is correct and will ultimately lead the most stable, sane, humane, and productive society. I vote Democrat because of the two major parties their goals are closer to compatible with mine. The socialist premise demands popular support, and that this is a long-term game; one that requires generations on generations of social and cultural evolution, and I believe that compromise and consensus are the only valid means of achieving this goal, even if it comes after many tiny steps and innumerable setbacks. (I wonder if that would make me a Toynbee Socialist).

I strongly support Obama.

However, I will say this emphatically: he does not buy the socialist premise. He is not a socialist, nor a marxist, nor a communist, nor a social democrat. It is only reasonable to call someone an "-ist" or associate them with an "-ism" if 1) those terms mean something and 2) the person in question behaves accordingly.

Fortunately, these terms all mean something, and that something can be succinctly distilled.

Karl Marx was a German scholar (historian, economist, and philosopher) whose career spanned the second half of the 19th century. His argument, expounded in collaboration with Friedrich Engels, argued that history is a series of class struggles over control of the means of production. Capitalism, he argues, that is, our system of selling and trading, is based on fundamental inequality of resources that can only compound over time. Eventually the extremity of inequality will become so aggrivated that the disadvantaged masses will rise up and assume control, bringing about a classless state in which material resources are collectively owned. This is, in a nutshell, what Marx and Engels argue, and "marxism" is a term connoting a basic agreement with this premise.

"Communism" is a more-or-less direct offshoot of Marxism. It generally involves an revolutionary interpretation of Marxism developed by Vladimir Lenin prior to the Russian Revolution. Communism goes beyond predicting a revolution and outlines a specifically military answer to bring about the end of class warfare. Ironically, because communism empowers a military elite, the Soviet-style communist states of the later 20th century all involved a ruling elite with repressive controls over the press, education, the military, and so forth. This can also be said of non-Soviet style communist states such as Cuba or the People's Republic of China. They all have dismal economies and even dismaller human rights records, which is part of the reason why the Right likes to associate Democrats with Communists. Communism is not the same as Socialism, and as I said before, Obama is neither a Communist nor a Socialist.

"Socialism" predates Marxism as a social philosophy, but was heavily influenced by his writing (Marx drew on earlier examples of Socialist states, and his influence promoted the ideal of socialism internationally). In its simplest form, Socialism is a philosophy advocating collective ownership. It need not predicate itself on a fundamental premise of class warfare, and it certainly not resort to violent revolution. A number of modern nations have attempted socialism to varying degrees and with mixed-success. Socialist states in Latin America have a spotty record, although there appears to be a trend toward stability over time. Scandinavian states approach socialism with more unambiguous success, which is reflected in high taxes, low income inequality, and extraordinarily high standards-of-living.

"Social Democracy" is hybrid of Socialism and Capitalism, although in its theory it cleaves somewhat closer to Capitalism. Private enterprise is sanctioned and legally protected, but institutions deemed too important to the national well-being (such as health-care) or too powerful and influential to operate on their own (in many nations, banking systems) are either managed or heavily regulated by the government. When we think of Social Democracies the most emblematic examples are wealthy and progressive Western European states like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. They have assertive economies dominated by some big players, but they also allow a much higher level of government intervention than we do in the U.S. But...

... here's the rub ...

... from a certain, and very fair, perspective all governments are, definitionally socialist to some extent. To socialize something is to compel collective ownership via a vis the government. The United States has a socialized postal service (though this is rarely controversial), socialized public education, and a socialized military. At times, prominent politicians (typically Republicans) argue to socialize military service: that's right, folks, the draft is socialism! This is why so many progressives roll their eyes at McCain's charge that Obama is a socialist: the recent take over of financial institutions by the White House is one of the most strident socialist acts in American history, and it was initiated and executed by Republicans!

* * * * *



In sum, capitalists argue that the latent potential in and initiative encouraged by markets trump the potential benefits of socialization. Socialists argue in response that the inequities of market systems will always poliferate, creating a society that is inherently unbalanced, unstable, and injust.

This is my attempt to overview the differences between the two philosophies in a neutral and unbiased manner.

I hope you can tell, at a glance, and in consideration of these observations, that Obama is not a socialist of any stripe. He does favor a few limited socializations. I say a "few" because only one of his initiatives -- health care -- will involve this on a large scale. I say "limited" because his health care plan does not dissolve insurance agencies or health care coverage (which would be a feature of any authentic socialist system) but instead provides a government alternative, much as the USPS is an alternative to FedEx or the UPS.

In the past, the Republican Party could honestly claim to be "less socialist" than the Democratic Party, given that they generally believed in less regulation by government. It was Reagan who put an end to this, with his massive expansion of the military and his embrace/invocation of a Religious Right that has been attempting to socialize religion in a very real way. Look at attempts to legislate marriage on the national level as the most conspicuous example; contrary to many on the Right there is little precedent for this in American history, with the possible exception of Prohibition. We all remember how that went.
The only remnants of the "small government" policies of the Republican Party are their continual provisions for repealing progressive taxation (ie. taxation that draws more heavily from the rich than the poor) and some areas of (typically economic) deregulation. Their governments are nevertheless at least as cumbersome, expansive, and socialized as those of the Democrats.

For those who assume socialism is an insult, a derogation, I'm posting this in part to show that it isn't. It is, like all systems of economics and government (including capitalism) neutral. It can only be evaluated by what it enables people to do and what it prevents them from doing. As such, it ought to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Cuba makes socialism look pretty bad; Sweden makes it look pretty good.

But Independents and Republicans and Democrats who stiffen at the notion of Socialism in general should take comfort: Barack Obama is no socialist. His support for the Wall Street bailout (like McCain's) is predicated on the assumption that markets are a workable premise, and this assumption fuel his plans to give a tax break to the middle class, to expand education as an incentive to global competition, to promotion of clean energy as an economic motivator.

Socialism isn't bad.

More: There's no reason to consider Obama a socialist.

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