“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all … The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
Helen Keller, from “Rebel Lives”
“Socialism” is no more an evil word than “Christianity.” Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.”
Kurt Vonnegut, from “A Man Without a Country”
“The bandits of the old days would hide their heads in shame,
Their old-time buccaneering was hardly worth the name.
They used to end on gibbets and dance against the skies,
And now they live on top the town and sport their minks and cars around
And buy up Congress by the pound, free enterprise.”
Malvina Reynolds, from “Free Enterprise”
Show of hands, please – how many of you really knew already that Helen Keller was a radical socialist? I surely didn’t. In fact, I would not have pegged Kurt Vonnegut for a socialist, either, and perhaps he isn’t – but it still sent a little chill through me to read the words, “…all men, women and children are created equal”, and to recall where else I saw it – the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, Mr. Thomas Jefferson. Oh, he just said that all men were created equal; not much of a guy for women’s rights, I guess you could say. But the premise is precisely the same, or should be.
Which, in its turn, invoked in me a longing for the days of free thought and philosophy, when a ferment of ideas brewed around the betterment of the common man’s station in life, even as the notion of nobility by birthright rather than merit came crashing down. Nothing like that any more, of course – because modern democracy revolves around indoctrinating you, John or Jane Q. Public, that you are there. Mankind has never been so free, so unconstrained, so sticky with the sweetness of liberty that we are tacky to the touch. Hypocrisy and oppression are looking longingly through the chicken-wire, but they’re not allowed in here…in Freeworld.
Before we get into what nonsense that is, maybe it would be best if I showed you what motivated this…whatever it turns out to be. Because I would not consider myself a socialist, either. Perhaps – as someone suggested to me earlier – that’s because I don’t really understand socialism myself.
Anyway, I’ve grown tired over the years of the braying of corporate enablers, “Socialism always fails”. It seems to come from the smug and the simple-minded more and more frequently, the cheerleaders for might-makes-right and the pom-pom girls for American leadership, and it should be clear to even those who have only the fuzziest notion what socialism is that the reason socialism fails is because it is the sworn enemy of capitalism and corporatism, and the latter will not suffer it to live.
It’s something that has been sort of resting there, in the back of my mind, but every now and then some egregious example of western self-satisfaction would bring a stab of discomfort, like a muscle spasm or a toothache. Eventually, of course, something so asinine that it was beyond bearing was bound to come up. And here it is. Cheryl K. Chumley smirks the rhetorical question to which you all know the answer; “When will the left learn socialism never works, it always fails and continually breeds discontent and poverty and corruption among the people?”
Smart people know that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is a duck. And when there’s a government that reaches for massive power, and snatches from the individual the ability to freely profit from one’s own endeavors and calls for redistribution of wealth — well then, that’s a socialist-style system.
Leaving aside for a moment the probability that if there actually are any smart people left in America, they sure as fuck are not working in journalism, let’s take a closer look at The Chumley Theorem.
Well, on the face of it, it might look like she has a point – according to her, huge line-ups for gas in a country that is itself a major oil producer symbolize the utter collapse and failure of its political system. And you’d have to admit this does look like national incompetence on a fundamental level.
Oh, wait; that’s not Venezuela. The sharp-eyed among you will have recognized it as the United States, circa 1973, when OPEC quadrupled the price of a barrel of oil to punish the western states for their support of Israel against Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War. That was the first of the oil shocks of the 70’s – the second came in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran struck fear into the hearts of the oil markets. Just for a rueful chuckle, the price per barrel of oil that resulted when the previous price was quadrupled, in 1973, was $12.00. After the Islamic Revolution the price stabilized, in 1983, at $32.00 per barrel. Those prices have a whiff of Rip Van Winkle about them now.
So, by the simple metrics of The Chumley Theorem, for an entire decade the United States was a socialist country – the laughingstock of the world; because if there’s anything smart people know, it’s that socialism always fails. If it quacks like a fucking duck, it’s not an eagle.
Briefly – because my overall intent is to look at socialism – let’s unpack Chumley’s freshman silliness a little. Socialism, she nods knowingly, “continually breeds discontent and poverty and corruption among the people”. According to Transparency International – itself nearly as ditzy and partisan as Chumley – “Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption.”
That so? What does Transparency International – and world philosopher Cheryl K. Chumley – make of Citizens United v. FEC of 2010, the landmark US decision which holds that corporations are people, and therefore restricting the amount corporations can spend on election campaigns to help their preferred candidates get elected is unconstitutional? What is democracy, Cheryl? Let me help you – it’s a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. In light of that, let me ask you this: who usually has more money – your average voter, or your average corporation? Is money important to getting elected in America? I guess you might say so. Are the people – supposedly the body in which all electoral power is vested – jake with that? They most certainly are not, by a wide margin.
This is not a partisan point. Almost two-thirds of Americans believe the government should limit individual contributions – with a majority among Republicans, Democrats and independents. The influence of money at this level corrupts an entire political culture and in no small part explains the depth of cynicism, alienation and mistrust Americans now have for their politicians.
Like that? Don’t go away – I’ve got more.
The trend towards oligarchy in the polity is already clear. There are 250 millionaires in Congress. As a whole, the polity’s median net worth is $891,506, nine times the typical US household. Around 11% are in the nation’s top 1%, including 34 Republicans and 23 Democrats. And that’s before you get to Romney, whose personal wealth is double that of the last eight presidents combined. All of this would be problematic at the best of times, but in a period of rising inequality it is obscene.
Key words for you in there, you jaded academic, are “oligarchy”, “personal wealth”, “rising inequality”, and “obscene”.
That’s yer corruption – let’s take a look at yer discontent and poverty. First, a snapshot of American happiness. Maybe you’d better sit down. In 2016 alone, drug overdose killed more Americans than the Vietnam War, more than car crashes, HIV/Aids and gun violence combined ever did in a single year. Is spiraling addiction a sign of contentment? If so, it’s the first I’ve ever heard of it. America finished 19th out of 52 on the Global Happiness Index, representing a steady decline for 3 straight years and the worst score since they started keeping it. The United States slid to just behind Belgium; as funnyman Jimmy Kimmel put it, “The people who feel the need to put mayonnaise on their french fries are happier than we are. Cheer up, everybody.” Since discontent is the opposite of happiness, I think it would be fair to say the less happy Americans are, the more discontented they must be.
We just have time to take a look at poverty and American income inequality before we have to get back on track with the subject. According to the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, the poverty rate in the United States is about what it was in 1982: almost 40 years ago. It’s gone up and down a little in that period, but has really not been reduced much overall, while those in deep poverty – those living on income of less than 50% of the federal poverty level – have doubled since 1975. By cracky, the United States is as socialist as the clenched fist, if we apply the criteria of Chumleyism 101! It’s manifestly corrupt, its people are broadly discontented while poverty, far from being eradicated, has not improved noticeably in nearly 40 years and in some aspects has worsened. Meanwhile income inequality gets worse every year, and in its current state sees the top 0.1% of Americans taking in (a pretty accurate description) 188 times as much as the bottom 90%. Who would have thought it?
What is far more likely is that Cheryl K. Chumley, like nearly a quarter of her smirking, attention-deficit blockhead countrymen, knows as much about socialism as she does about snake milking. That group evidently includes the author of the linked article, because Bernie Sanders is a socialist the way Mike Pompeo is a swimsuit model. What Americans usually mean when they say an American political figure is a ‘socialist’ is that he or she looks like a socialist compared with the rest of the hard-right stable, and the Democrats in American politics are different from the Republicans only in that they are called “Democrats” and the Republicans are not.
So let’s learn together, shall we? Just before we leave Cheryl K. Chumley and her tea-party platitudes, and against the possibility that anyone anywhere missed the point, what is failing in Venezuela is not so much socialism as it is the entire living standard, and that is not because ‘socialism always fails’, but because the USA is standing on Venezuela’s oxygen tube and trying to strangle it to death. By way of contrast, the USA is a wealthy country with few restrictions on its trade, and all of those are of its own making. Yet it is failing the bottom-income 90% of its people.
A good place to start might be with a working definition of what socialism is, and a good place to set up for that might be with what it is not. The referenced article above from The Hill suggests 7% of those surveyed believed it meant the abolishing of all private property. There’s the biggest part of my misconception, right there; I might not have thought it was quite so strict as that, but I believed it involved some sort of sharing-out so that you couldn’t have, like, a nice car or anything like that. And housing was all pretty much the same, no point in putting in rosebushes or trying to make it look nice; your neighbours might think you were trying to put on airs. Anyway, it’s actually not like that. It doesn’t curtail civil liberties, and it doesn’t promise to end poverty. So what is it, and how does it work, or how would it work if corporatism didn’t jump on it and stomp it flat every time it emerges?
It’s not an easy definition, because there are reckoned to be eight different types of socialism, all to varying degrees democratic; Democratic, Revolutionary, Libertarian, Market, Green, Christian, Utopian and Fabian. It’s not so simple as to say they’re just different political labels for the same philosophy, because they’re not. For Christian socialism, for example, the description merely argues that Christian values of brotherhood are already embodied in socialism, which holds that all are equal and equally valuable. But I think it would be safe to say the types with which we are familiar – to the extent we are – are Democratic and Revolutionary socialism.
Simply put, socialism is an economic system in which everyone in society equally owns the factors of production, which are labor, entrepreneurship, capital goods and natural resources. Ownership is acquired through a democratically elected government.
What it is not is a political philosophy in which all personal property is confiscated and redistributed, so that the postal worker across the street gets your bike, because the Central Committee thinks he needs it more than you. Dyed-in-the-wool capitalists often speak of ‘redistribution’ with the shudder of revulsion normally reserved for child molesters, frog spawn jelly and public toilets.
Let’s look at a small-scale example; Grenada. In 1979, Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement (which stood for the New Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation) seized power in a bloodless coup from the US-friendly government of Eric Gairy. Bishop established a socialist model which delegated government down to village and zonal councils, strikingly similar to the municipal councils of Muammar Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya government. Opinion offers differing accounts of why the Americans invaded Grenada, because the US Army did not kill Bishop – he was already dead, assassinated by the Grenadian army which had claimed power for itself. To this day, the location of his body and the bodies of those who were assassinated along with him remains unknown. Skeptics say the United States invaded because a successful socialist government in the Caribbean might inspire revolt in other regional neighbours; Reagan claimed the newly-constructed airport – built with Cuba’s help – was intended to turn the island into “a Cuban-Soviet colony” and “a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy.” Yes, yes; it’s always about democracy. Whatever the case, the socialist government of Maurice Bishop – remember, socialism always fails – reduced unemployment in Grenada from 49% to 14% in four years, and raised the island’s literacy rate to 99%. Whatever the case, the invasion was anything but spontaneous; it had been rehearsed on Vieques Island in 1981, two years before Bishop’s assassination.
Bishop spoke extensively in the United States; his intent was to establish a friendly relationship with America, and he had no wish to be its enemy. That may have led to his death, as he was accused of betraying the revolution. Whatever the reason, it is indisputable that his socialist government made great strides toward social justice and common accord, a better standard of living for all his people, and he was aided only by Cuba. Grenada never at any time showed the slightest inclination for violence directed at the United States.
Excerpts from Richard Sanders’ “History of War Pretext Incidents” state, with reference to the Grenada invasion:
“In his Naval Science course, Captain M.T. Carson lists the invasion’s “stated reasons” as “protect Americans, eliminate hostage potential; restore order; requested by OECS [Organization of Eastern Caribbean States].”
The US helped form the OECS, and then got it and the Grenadian governor to “request” an invasion. Under “potential problem,” Carson notes “Act fast with surprise and present world with fait accompli. If not, world opinion of U.S. invasion of tiny country will be critical. So: · “Get OECS to request action.” · “Get Governor Scoon to request action.” · “Emphasize students-in-danger aspect”
Carson quotes a “medical school official”: “Our safety was never in danger. We were used as an excuse by this government to invade…. They needed a reason…and we were it.” Most students insisted that they were “not…in any danger before the US invasion; only afterwards.”
According to Arley Gill at “The Modern Socialist”, “Being a socialist no longer means being anti-American or anti-European. It is just a conviction that the capitalist economy can be used to improve the well-being of the poor.” I think it’s pretty safe to say that is not happening under America’s vaunted Freedom and Democracy Inc. Since 2000 – when income inequality was already pronounced – the share of household wealth controlled by the world’s wealthiest 1 percent lurched upward from 45.5% to 50.1%, with 23.9 million new millionaires joining them at the bottom of the pile.
Is that cause for celebration? A rising tide lifts all boats sort of thing? Hell, no. Poverty in developed countries is actually increasing. A few rich people are getting even richer, while most people are poorer than their parents were at the same age in terms of how much they owe versus how much they earn. And nearly 2 Billion people live on less than $3.10 a day.
But whenever a new regime change is planned, corporations in the USA and its allies begin licking their chops at the prospect of privatization of former state assets. Investment, the hapless citizens are told, will dramatically increase their prosperity. Oh, and also, freedom and democracy. But private companies exist solely to make a profit. Nothing inherently wrong with that. However, every day in the corporate world is a bloody battle for market share, and if you’re not gaining, you’re losing. A company must expand to earn more profits. When the market is saturated and it can’t expand any more, it begins to look to ‘efficiencies’ within the company to cut expenses so that more of the bottom line can go to profit-taking. That’s why corporations hate unions. ‘Efficiencies’ are typically realized in salary increases deferred, overtime curtailed and benefits reduced. It is important to understand that such zealous efforts toward cost-cutting do not mean the company is doing badly – often quite the reverse. It just means the shareholders want to see more profits, a steady rise in the value of their investments.
When society owns the means of production, there is less or no opportunity for private investors to gain control of it, and harvest all of its value in profits which are distributed to a handful of the wealthy who often do not even live in the same country, and are completely unconcerned for its welfare.
Democracy as practiced today in the Shining City On A Hill bears not the slightest resemblance to the principles laid down by the founding fathers – only days ago the Governor of Oregon sent the state police to round up Republican senators who had fled the state in order to block a vote. That might not be illegal, but is it democracy, do you think? Is that the sort of behavior by the ruling class that doubters in other countries are being asked to take a flyer on? Gerrymandering and redistricting and all the other surprises in the government’s bag of tricks used to thwart the will of the people?
Left to its own devices, there is nothing inherent in socialism which dictates that it must end in poverty, incompetence, misery and miles-long lineups for gas. Those are artificial constructs imposed by societies which have given themselves over to rule by corporate fiat, and which more and more resemble feudal kingdoms governed by Google, Exxon-Mobil and General Electric. What is there to fear from socialism? You can tell most notably by the elements which mobilize to eradicate it wherever it appears.