05 March 2012

Are we really all socialists now?

Lane Filler is a well-intentioned columnist for Newsday whose column from last week on "socialism" has been picked up by newspapers across the country. Filler wants to defuse the critique on the alleged "socialist" policies of President Obama by arguing that all the presidential candidates, except for "Uncle" Ron Paul, espouse socialist policies. But in this case, as with the accusations by Republicans, socialism is in the eye of the beholder.

"Socialist" is not a bad name, it's a well-meaning philosophy that most Americans and almost all western Europeans embrace, though they might deny it. Social Democrat-type socialists believe in using varying levels of taxation and collectivizing risk to ensure everyone gets a decent amount of government service. They think the richest should pay the most and the poorest shouldn't eat Hamster Chow (pundits traditionally use cat food as an example, but it's crazy expensive, and not at all tasty)....

Unless you're willing to abolish public schools, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Postal Service, public roads, et cetera, you're a socialist. Socialism isn't just about the government taking from us what we don't feel we can spare. It is also about what the government provides us that we don't think we can spare.

My problem with Filler's warm-fuzzy notion of "socialism," apart from its ahistorical analysis that defines public schools as a "socialist" phenomenon, is the same problem I have with the hellfire-brimstone Republican notion. Seen from either side, socialism is missing an essential if not defining component, but there seems to have been a collective loss of memory on that point. I looked up some online definitions of "socialism" and the consensus seemed to be that it involved "collective" ownership or management of the economy. It occurred to me that "collective" can be a very vague term depending on the context. Most people today seem to equate "collective" with "the state" so that any definition of socialism that stresses the collective can be translated into a definition of statism, with socialism meaning, just as Republicans believe, that the state (i.e. the political-bureaucratic class) controls everything. But both "collective" and "state" beg questions, the real defining questions being "who is the collective?" and "who controls the state?" Call me old-fashioned, but for me if socialism is to be distinguished from rather than equated with mere statism, it has to be defined as control of the economy or rule of the state by the working class and not by elected or self-appointed representatives. That definition refutes both the Republican idiots who identify the Democratic party with socialism and Democratic sympathizers who want socialist-leaning people to think that their platform is good enough to settle for. Ironically, it's "Uncle Ron," who presumably yields to no one in his hostility to socialism, who sees the landscape clearly. He's the one who refused, when invited, to call the Obama administration socialist, opting to call it "corporatist" instead. Ron Paul may not like socialism, but at least he knows that it's not the only bad option -- or at least he knows that not all bad options are "socialist." We could stand more people knowing that socialism isn't necessarily a bad option -- but we could really stand to learn more about it from people who know what they're talking about.

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