Friday, May 24, 2013

Some Thoughts on a Big, Scary Word

ONE OF MY CORE BELIEFS AS A NEW DEAL DEMOCRAT is that an important role of government is to act as a counterbalance to the power of big business. History provides ample evidence that, absent some mechanism to prevent it, corporate enterprises will create a civilization divided between Capital, which will get ever-richer, and Labor, which will toil for starvation wages and be treated as replaceable cogs in the machinery of wealth-creation.

It is a sign of how far right the economic ideology of the United States has drifted that the above paragraph — which until recently was treated as the sensible, middle-of-the-road liberal view that it is — is now routinely described by Republicans and their supporters as “socialism,” which it isn’t.

Speaking of socialism, I notice that word gets thrown around a lot, especially by the present-day American political right, and there is usually not much attempt to define the word itself. So my question is, what are the defining features of socialism? Is it one ideology, or are there many disparate ideologies calling themselves “socialists” even though they might be anywhere from uncomfortable with, to sworn mortal enemies of, each other?

Since I have never been able to get an ideological opponent to actually define “socialism” with any sort of clarity, let me take a guess as to its meaning for the American right. Their definition usually alludes to something resembling the Brezhnev-era Soviet system: The government controls all the means of production, all decisions in the economy come out of a gigantic, centralized government bureaucracy, private property is outlawed, and so on.

In other words, a system that bears virtually no meaningful resemblance to the present-day U.S.

The rejoinder is usually that the kind of proposals I make are a “step toward” socialism, and I guess one can come up with a lawyerly, Jesuitical sense in which this is “true,” but it is still a strange claim.

Let me put it this way: Some governmental restraint of the power of corporations, modest wealth redistribution and a moderately progressive income tax are “steps toward” socialism in the same sense that having a police department is a “step toward” the creation of a Gestapo.

In traditional rules of logic going back to Aristotle and Socrates, this is described as the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle, or the False Dilemma. The extremes are: 1. The government doing absolutely nothing (see the desolate philosophy and wooden writing of Ayn Rand); and 2. The government doing absolutely everything (see the previously mentioned 1970s-era Soviet Union). The great, big, wide, diverse land between these two extremes has lots and lots and lots of stuff in it that is not “socialism.”

My political hero, FDR, was accused in his day of being a socialist, and called a “traitor to his class” (the elites were more honest about their elitism in those days). But he came not to destroy capitalism, but to save it.

Capitalism has certain built-in, self-destructive structural problems. The biggest problem is the concentration of wealth at the top, which eventually makes economic growth impossible — stagnant wages mean capitalists’ customers don’t have the money to keep the economy growing — and leads to crisis. FDR understood this. His speech to the 1936 Democratic convention can be seen as the animating idea of the New Dealers:

“An old English judge once said: ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ Liberty requires opportunity to make a living — a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.
“For too many of us, the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
“Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.
“The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.
“Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
I had some hope that the current president would follow in the footsteps of FDR, since the situation he inherited from his predecessor was a less-severe copy of the Great Depression, with the same causes — wealth concentrated at the top combined with economic growth that was unsustainable because it was financed by increasing consumer debt rather than rising wages — but with more remedies already in place, thanks to FDR: unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other public assistance, so that the current episode is nowhere near as bad as the Great Depression.

Obama, though, has turned out to be almost as much a servant of the oligarchs as any economic royalist in the other party. In his economic policies, he’s a more-fiscally-responsible Ronald Reagan.

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