Bill Maher was on a roll last Friday with a “New Rules” rant about a—ahem—maximum wage. It’s an idea whose time has come.
Did you know that during World War II, FDR actually proposed a cap on income that in today’s dollars would mean that no person could ever take home more than about $300,000? OK, that is a little low. But wouldn’t it be great if there were Democrats out there like that now, who would say to billionaires, “Oh, you’re crying? We’ll give you something to cry about. You don’t want a minimum wage? How about we not only have a minimum wage, we have a maximum wage?”
That is not a new idea. James Madison, who wrote our Constitution, said, “Government should prevent an immoderate accumulation of riches.” Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, they all agreed that too much money in the hands of too few would destroy democracy.
Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison… those guys the Tea partiers are always (selectively) quoting…
This clip is not only worth watching, it’s worth sharing with other people and encouraging them to watch it and pass it on themselves if they deem it worthy. When “the situation” the United States finds itself in, at this point in history, can be summed up so succinctly and be understood so readily by the man on the street, real change is coming. Maher articulates this matter masterfully, indeed. A very few people at the top have engineered it so that the spoils of Wall Street and the capitalist system flow to THEM and ONLY TO THEM. These lucky, er, bastards then promptly kicked the ladder out from underneath the rest of us with the help of both political parties. (Clinton signed NAFTA, ‘nuff said.)
Writing at Daily Kos, Lawrence Lewis nicely summed up another facet of “the American predicament” which has become so incredibly obvious over the past few decades, the Republican Party’s transparent fealty to the wealthy to the detriment of the working man’s lot (mind you, not that the Democrats are all that much better. They’re just not Republicans.). It is an actual class war that they’re waging, and it’s becoming more and more difficult for them to deceive their base about what they’re up to with just the standard GOP tropes of pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Jesus and anti-gay, anti-immigrant rhetoric, when the lives of their constituents are crumbling:
The final piece of the puzzle is the Republican focus on making life more difficult for those who do have work. Republicans oppose increasing the minimum wage. They want even the employed to know economic want. Republicans oppose workplace safety regulations, and they want to destroy unions. They want workers completely subject to the whims of management, and unable to quit lousy jobs because there are no good alternatives and there is no social safety net to protect them. Under the Republican agenda, workers have to do what they’re told or suffer even worse consequences.
In short, the Republican agenda is to keep people desperate for work, with more people seeking jobs than can find them, with no laws or other forms of assistance or protection for those who can find jobs, and no safety net for those who can’t. Lack of opportunity ensures a glutted labor market, which drives down wages, forcing many of even those who do find work to seek more. Exhausting hours, inadequate pay, and broken unions ensure that workers are hungry and tired and incapable of defending themselves.
It could be called a new form of feudalism, but that feudalism actually made necessary more responsibility from the aristocracy toward the peasants and serfs than does unregulated bastard capitalism from owners and management toward labor. It is class warfare. Simple, straightforward, class warfare. For Republicans, poverty, hunger, and unemployment are not tributary outcomes of their economic model, they are deliberate means toward insidious ends. Make people hurt. Make them desperate. They will do what they are told. They will ask for no more than that they be allowed to survive another week.
Or so Republicans hope.
Everyone is starting to realize exactly—and if not exactly exactly, then CLOSE ENOUGH—what’s going down.
It simply can’t continue on like this. It’s not going to.
[And if you haven’t heard about this guy, he’ll blow your mind. Ladies and gentlemen, meet THE PERFECT Republican spokesperson, Josh Miller of Arkansas. Keep talking buddy, you are doin’ the Lord’s work…]
Socialist skinhead soul outfit The Redskins were so conceptually perfect, that they seemed like something someone made up. And they sort of were. Head ‘skin Chris Dean wasn’t some snaggletoothed bootboy urchin from a cement skyscraper. Dean wrote for the NME, he was a member of the Socialist Workers Party, and he had a head full of ideas about youth culture, Trotskyism, and the power of the proper trousers. It was from those ideas, not from the “streets,” that The Redskins sprang.
But The Redskins were a real band, they did inspire a real (if small) left-wing skinhead movement, and most importantly, they did make real (and really great) records. Their 1982 debut single, “Lev Bronstein” b/w “Peasant Army”, paired a post-punk-soul A-side with a chugging Oi! B-side, all produced by Jon Langford of The Mekons and released on his CNT Records. Intriguing enough, especially considering the strident left-wing poetry of the lyrics, but The Redskins really caught fire with their second single, “Lean On Me,” a hyperfast take on ‘60s soul analogous to what the 2-Tone bands did with ‘60s ska. It hit #3 on the UK indie chart, and made The Redskins an electric presence in the ‘80s left-wing pop ferment. When the miner’s strike heated up in 1984, The Redskins’ socialist stance resonated like a brass section.
If you found Crass too tuneless, if Billy Bragg was too quiet, if The Style Council was too slick, The Redskins were your band. And Dean wasn’t afraid to call the others out for insufficient ideological rigour: “If there’s a tour organized by the Labour Party, one thing you can be sure of is that it’ll sell out,” he said about Red Wedge, Labour’s attempt to mount a travelling anti-Thatcher pop circus. And Dean called Bragg “Neil Kinnock’s publicity officer.”
Touche! But the people in those acts are still around, still doing something. Where’s Chris Dean now? It didn’t take long for his revolutionary fire to burn itself out. After a stack of classic singles and one great LP (Neither Washington nor Moscow), The Redskins fizzled out by the end of 1986. Dean was great at writing stirring anthems like “Keep On Keepin’ On!” and “It Can Be Done!”, but alas, failed to walk the walk. He reportedly retreated to a reclusive life in Paris, leaving the rest of us with a totally unique example of how to weave a handful of diverse cultural and political threads into a thrilling band. Whatever you think of The Redskins’ Trotskyist politics, music could use this kind of commitment, imagination, and style today.
The Redskins perform “Lean On Me” live:
Chris Dean and Martin Hewes talk about the band and show the video for “Keep On Keepin’ On!”:
“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, 1911
This is taken from a short essay about Helen Keller’s political activism found at Dorian Cope’s On This Deity blog. It focuses on the parts of her life story that they didn’t teach us about when we learned about Helen Keller in school… the chick in The Miracle Worker was a Commie!
But what the endless accolades and history books almost always fail to mention is that Helen Keller was a militant radical activist. Her views mirrored the likes of the era’s most notorious dissidents – Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs – who were respectively deported and imprisoned for ten years. “I don’t give a damn about semi-radicals,” she infamously proclaimed; indeed, she leaned so far to the left that the FBI kept a file on her for un-American activities. She was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union; a lifelong socialist who campaigned for Eugene Debs’ presidential candidacy; a member of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World; a suffragist and crusader for birth control; an anti-fascist (the Nazis publicly burned her books); and a pacifist, who condemned America’s imperialistic motives in both world wars. Having benefited from a privileged background, Helen recognised the social injustices facing those denied the same opportunities – and blamed industrialism and capitalism not only as the root of poverty but also disability-inducing disease. Her anti-capitalist and pro-worker stance was such that at the 1919 Hollywood premiere of a silent film about her own life, she refused to cross an Actors Equity Union picket line and joined the striking workers on their march.
I have to interrupt here. Ponder that last sentence for a moment. THAT is what you call a hero.
In her lifetime, Helen Keller was one of the most recognisable women in the world, and those who flocked to bask in the radiance of her fame were positively scandalised by her beliefs. After publicly supporting the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, admiring the Russian Revolution, and fearlessly lambasting the powerful John D Rockefeller for his role in the Ludlow Mine Massacre (“Mr Rockefeller is a monster of capitalism”), Helen’s radicalism became a source of extreme embarrassment to those who required her to be true to The Myth in order that they might gain:
“So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘archpriestess of the sightless’, ‘wonder woman’, and ‘a modern miracle,’” Helen bemoaned. “But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics – that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world – that is a different matter!”
Read the entire essay at On This Deity and watch this amazing footage:
With Americans’ interest in socialism rising, we need to seriously consider alternative designs to the current system, argues Alperovitz, in this practical critique of some known models.
Little noticed by most Americans, Merriam Webster, one of the world’s most important dictionaries, announced a few months ago that the two most looked-up words in 2012 were “socialism” and “capitalism.”
Traffic for the pair on the company’s website roughly doubled from the year before. The choice was a “kind of no-brainer,” observed editor at large, Peter Sokolowski. “They’re words that sort of encapsulate the zeitgeist.”
Leading polling organizations have found converging results among younger Americans. Two recent Rasmussen surveys, for instance, discovered that Americans younger than 30 are almost equally divided as to whether capitalism or socialism is preferable. Another Pew survey found those aged 18 to 29 have a more favorable reaction to the term “socialism” by a margin of 49 to 43 percent.
Note carefully: These are the people who will inevitably be creating the next American politics and the next American system.
As economic failure continues to create massive social and economic pain and a stalemated Washington dickers, search for some alternative to the current “system” is likely to continue to grow. It is clearly time to get serious about a different vision for the future. Critically, we need to be far more sophisticated about what a meaningful “systemic design” that might undergird a new direction (whether called “socialism” or whatever) would entail.
Classically, the central idea undergirding various forms of “socialism” (and there have been many, many forms, some of which use the terminology, some not) is democratic ownership of “the means of production,” or “capital,” or more simply, “productive wealth.” Quite apart from questions of exploitation, systemic dynamics (and “contradictions”), the core idea is simple and straightforward: Those who own wealth - and the corporations that operate it - have far more power to control any system than those who don’t.
In a nation in which a mere 400 people own more wealth than the bottom 180 million together, the point should be obvious. What is new in our time in history is that the traditional compromise position - namely progressive, or social democratic or liberal politics - has lost is capacity to offset such power even in the modest (compared, for instance, to many European states) ways the American welfare state once represented. Indeed, the emerging direction is to cut back previous gains in many areas - not to sustain or enlarge them. Even Social Security is now on the table for cuts.
Perhaps the most important reason for the decline of the traditional reform option is the decline of labor: Union membership has steadily decreased from roughly 35 percent of the labor force in 1954, to 11.3 percent now - a mere 6.6 percent in the private sector.
Along with this decay, and give or take an exception here and there, major trends in income and wealth, in civil liberties, in ecological devastation (and the release of climate-changing gases), in poverty and many other important indicators have been “going South” for several decades.
It is, accordingly, not surprising that dictionary look-ups and polls show interest in “something else.” If, as is likely, the trends continue, that interest is also likely to increase. But what, specifically, might that “something else” entail? And is there any reason to hope - even as interest in the word “socialism” grows in the abstract - that we might move from where we are to “some other system” that might nurture equality, liberty, ecological sustainability, even global peace, more than the current decaying one we now have?
New Models of Socialist Structures
The classic model of socialism involved state (national) ownership of most large-scale capital and industry. But it is now clear to most observers that the concentration of such ownership in the state also commonly brings with it a concentration of political power as well; hence, the model can be detrimental to democracy as well as liberty (to say nothing, in real world experience, of the environment).
Alternative places to locate ownership have been suggested by different traditions: in cooperatives, in worker-owned firms, in municipalities, in regions, even in neighborhoods. Some of the advantages and challenges involved in the various forms are also well-known:
Starting at the ground level, there appear in virtually all studies to be very good reasons - for small and medium-size firms - to arrange ownership through cooperatives and worker-owned and self-managed enterprises. This is where direct democratic participation is (or can be) strongest, where a new culture can be developed and where a very different vision of work can evolve. Very solid proposals have been offered in such books as John Restakis’ Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital and Richard Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (on what he calls “worker self-directed enterprises”).
On the other hand, for larger, significant-scale enterprises, worker-ownership may not solve some critical problems. When worker-owned large firms operate in a market-based system (as proposed by some progressive analysts), groups of workers in such firms may develop narrow interests that are not necessarily the same as those of the society as a whole. (It may be in their interests, for instance, to pollute the community’s air and water rather than pay cleanup costs - especially when the firm faces stiff competition from other private or worker-owned companies.) Studies of worker-owned plywood companies in the Northwest found that all too easily workers developed narrow “worker-capitalist” attitudes (and conservative political views) as they competed in the marketplace. Nor does such ownership solve problems of inequality: Workers who “own” the garbage companies are clearly on a different footing, for instance, than specific groups of workers lucky enough to “own” the oil industry.
Often here - and in several other variants of socialist ideas - it is hoped that a new culture (or ideology) or progressive forms of taxation, regulation and other policies can offset the underlying tendencies of the models. However, there is reason to be skeptical of “after-the-fact” remedies that hope to counter the inherent dynamics of any model, since political power and interest group influence often follow from ownership irrespective of good intentions and the hope that progressive political ideals, or ideology, will save the day. If the attitudes nurtured by the plywood co-ops turn out to be the norm, then new worker-owned companies would likely not generate strong support for regulations and taxation that help society at large but restrict or tax their own firm.
Let me stress that we simply do not know whether this might or might not be the case. It is, however, a mistake to assume either that socially responsible regulations can be “pasted on” to any institutional substructure (especially if they create costs to that substructure), or that institutions will automatically generate a sufficiently powerful cooperative culture and institutional power dynamic in favor of regulations and taxation even if it adds costs to their own institution and is detrimental to the material interests of those involved.
To get around some of these problems, some theorists have proposed democratically managed enterprises that are nonetheless owned by the broader society through one or another structural form. Although workers in the “self-managed” firm could gain from greater efficiency and initiative, major profits would go to the society as a whole. Still, note that in such cases, too, the incentive structure of the competitive market tends to create incentives to reduce costs - for instance, by externalizing environmentally destructive wastes. Also, when there are economies of scale, market-based systems generate very powerful pressures to adopt new technologies and prioritize growth (or lose out to other firms that also are under pressure to grow and adopt new technologies) - and this dynamic, too, runs counter to the needs of an ecologically sustainable future.) John Bellamy Foster’s The Ecological Revolution, among other efforts, gives depth to the ecological foundational arguments further systemic designs must consider.
Designing for Community
We are clearly at the exploratory stage in connection with these matters, but the really important question is clearly whether a new model might inherently generate outcomes that do not require “after-the-fact” policy fixes or attempted fixes it is hoped the political system will supply. Especially since such “fixes” come out of a larger culture, the terms of reference of which are significantly set by the underlying economic institutions, and if these develop competitive and growth-oriented attitudes, the outcomes are likely to be different from those hoped for by progressive proponents. Lest we jump to any quick conclusions, it is again important to be clear that no one has as yet come up with a serious “model” that might both achieve efficiencies and self-directed management - and also work to create an equitable, ecologically sustainable larger culture and system. All have flaws.
Some of the problems and also some of the design features of alternatives, however, begin to suggest some possible directions for longer-term development:
For instance, a third model that has traditionally had some resonance is to locate primary ownership of significant scale capital in “communities” rather than either the state or specific groups of workers - i.e. in geographic communities and in political structures that are inclusive of all the people in the community. (By definition geographic communities inherently include not only the workers who at any moment in time may only include half the population, but also stay-at-home, child-rearing males or females, the elderly, the infirm, children and young people in school - in short the entire community.)
Community models also inherently “internalize externalities” - meaning that unlike private enterprise or even worker-owned companies that may have a financial interest in lowering costs by not cleaning up environmentally destructive practices, community-owned firms are in a different position: If the community chooses to continue such practices, it is polluting itself, a choice it can then examine from a comprehensive perspective - and in a framework that does not inherently pose the interests of the firm against community-wide interests.
Variations on this model include the “municipal socialism” that played so important a role in early 20th century American socialist politics - and is still evident in more than 2,000 municipally owned utilities, a good deal of new municipal land development and many other projects. “Social ecologist” Murray Bookchin gave primary emphasis to a municipal version of the community model in works like Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future, and Marxist geographer David Harvey has begun to explore this option as well. (As Harvey emphasizes, any “model” would likely also have to build up higher level supporting structures and could not function successfully were it left to simply float in the free market without some larger supporting system.)
Current suggestive practical developments in this direction include a complex or “mixed” model in Cleveland that involves worker co-ops that are linked together and subordinated to a community-wide, nonprofit structure - and supported by something of a quasi-planning system (directed procurement from hospitals and universities that depend in significant part on public financial support). An earlier model involving joint community and worker ownership was developed by steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, in the late 1970s.
The Jewish theologian Martin Buber also offered a community-oriented variation based on cooperative ownership of capital in one geographic community. He saw this “full cooperative” (and confederations of such communities) as an answer the problems both of corporate capitalism and of state socialism. Buber’s primary practical experimental demonstration was the Israeli cooperative commune (kibbutz), but the principle might well be applied in other forms. Karl Marx’s discussion of the Paris Commune (and of the Russian village commune or mir) is also suggestive of possibilities in this direction.
In the various community models there is also every reason to expect that specific communities will develop “interests” that may or may not be the same as those of the society as a whole. (Again think of communities located on top of important natural resources versus others not so favored.) The formula based on community ownership, however, may have a potential advantage that might under certain circumstances - and with clear intent - help at least partly offset the tendency for any structural form to produce narrow interest-group ideas and power. This is the simple fact that a fully inclusive structure that nurtures ideals of “community” - as opposed to ideas of individual ownership, on the one hand, or worker-group ownership of specific firms, on the other - may offer greater possibilities for building a common culture of community, one in which norms of equal treatment and common interest are inherently generated by the structural design itself (at least within communities and possibly beyond.)
To the extent this is so, or could be nurtured, a systemic design based on communities (or joint worker-community ownership) might both allow for decentralization and also for the generation of common values. A subset of issues also involves smaller scale geographic community ownership, in the form of neighborhoods. And such a model might also include a mix of smaller scale worker-owned and cooperative forms, and even (larger scale) state and nationally owned public enterprise as well - a structural form that is now far more common and efficient in many countries around the world than is widely understood.
Questions of Scale
Social ownership by neighborhoods, municipalities, states, and, of course, nations (all with or without some formula of “joint” worker ownership) are not the only models based on the fact that geography is commonly inherently inclusive of all parties - and therefore potentially capable of helping nurture inclusive norms and inclusive cultures. A final formula (for the moment) for significant scale and ultimately large industry is also based on geography, but at a different level still. This attempts to resolve some of these problems (and that of genuine democratic participation) by defining the key unit as a region, a formula urged by the radical historian, the late William Appleman Williams, as especially appropriate to a very large nation like the United States. It is not often realized how very different in scale the United States is from most European nations: Germany, for instance, can be tucked into a geographic area the size of Montana. Nor have many faced the fact that our current 315 million-person population is likely to reach 500 million over coming decades (and possibly a billion by the end of the century, if the US Census Bureau’s high estimate were to be realized.) During the Depression, various regional ownership models like the Tennessee Valley Authority were proposed, some of which were far more participatory and democratic in their design than the model that is currently in place. Legislation to create seven large-scale, publicly-owned regional efforts was, in fact, supported by the Roosevelt Administration at certain points in time.
Many other variations, of course, also have been proposed. The Parecon model, for instance, would attempt to replace a system of market exchanges with a system in which citizens would iteratively rank their preferences for consumer goods along with proposed amounts of proffered labor time. Proposals, like that of David Schweickart in After Capitalism, pick up on forms of worker self management, but also emphasize national ownership of the underlying capital. Seth Ackerman, in a recent essay for Jacobin, urges a worker-controlled model, but stresses the need for independent sources of publicly controlled investment capital. Other thinkers, like Michael Leobowitz in his book, The Socialist Alternative, have taken inspiration from Latin America’s leftward movement, and especially from Venezuela, to articulate a participatory vision of socialism rooted in democratic and cooperative practices. Joel Kovel in The Enemy of Nature argues that the impending ecological crisis necessitates a fundamental change away from the private ownership of earth’s resources.
And, of course, the question of planning versus markets needs to be put on the list of design challenges. Planning has its own long list of challenges - including, critically, who controls the planners and whether participatory forms of planning may be developed drawing on smaller scale emerging experience and also on a much more focused understanding of what needs to be planned and what ought to be independent of public direction. (Also how the market can be used to keep a planning system in check.)
As noted, there is also the question of enterprise scale - a consideration that suggests possible mixes of different forms of social ownership: where to locate the ownership and control of very large scale firms is one thing; very small another; and intermediate still another. Most “socialist” models these days also allow for an independent sector that includes small independent capitalist firms, especially in the innovative high-tech sector.
Related to all this is the question of function: The development and management of land, for instance, is commonly best done through a geographic institution - i.e. a neighborhood or municipal land trust. Public forms of banking and finance tend also to be best anchored in (though operated independently of) cities, states and nations. Though medical practices must be local, social or socialized health systems tend to work best in areas that include large populations - i.e. states or nations. In some cases, quite apart from efficiency considerations, ecological considerations make regions especially appropriate. (One of the rationales, originally, for the Tennessee Valley Administration had to do with managing a very challenging river system.)
On the Ground Now
Finally, there is much to learn from models abroad - particularly Mondragon, on the one hand, and the worker-cooperative and other networks in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, on the other. The first, Mondragon, has demonstrated how an integrated system of more than 100 cooperatives can function effectively (and in areas of high technical requirement) - and at the same time maintain an extremely egalitarian and participatory culture of institution control. The Italian cooperatives have demonstrated important ways to achieve “networked” production among large numbers of small units - and further, to use the regional government in support of the overall effort. Though the experience of both is extraordinary, simple extrapolations may or may not be possible: Both models, it is also important to note, developed out of historical contexts that helped create intense cultural and political solidarity - contexts also of extraordinary repression by fascist regimes, Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy. Finally, although the Emilia Romagna cooperatives are effective in their use of state policy, both models are best understood as institutional “elements” that may contribute to a potential national solution. Neither claims to, or attempts to, develop a coherent overall “systemic” design for a nation.
These various abstract considerations come down to earth when one realizes that there is far more going on, practically, on the ground related to the ownership forms than most people realize - a great deal that is not covered by the increasingly hobbled and financially constrained press. For a start, around 130 million Americans - 40 percent of the population - are members of one or another form of cooperative, a traditional collective ownership form that now includes large numbers of credit unions, agricultural co-ops dating back to the 1930s, electrical co-ops prevalent in many rural areas, insurance co-ops, food co-ops, retail co-ops (such as the outdoor recreational company REI and the hardware purchasing cooperative ACE), health-care co-ops, artist co-ops and many, many more.
There are also many, many worker-owned companies structured in ways different from traditional co-ops - indeed, around 11,000 of them, involving 10.3 million people, in virtually every sector, some very large and sophisticated. Technically, these companies are structured as ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) - and in fact 3 million more individuals are involved in worker-owned companies of this kind than are members of unions in the private sector. (Though there have been a variety of problems with this form, there has also been evolution with greater worker control and also experiments with unionization that in the future might suggest important additional possibilities.) Finally and critically, the United Steelworkers have put forward a new direction in union-worker co-ops.
There are also thousands of “social enterprises” that use democratized ownership to make money and use both the money and the enterprise itself to achieve a broader social purpose. By far the most common social enterprise is the traditional Community Development Corporation, or CDC. Nearly 5,000 have long been in operation in almost every US city of significant size. For the most part, CDCs have served as low-income housing developers and incubators for small businesses. Early on in the 50-year history of the movement, however, a different, larger vision was in play - one that is still present in some of the more advanced CDC efforts and one that suggests additional possibilities for the future.
Still another form of democratized ownership involves growing numbers of “land trusts” - essentially neighborhood or municipal corporations that own housing and other property in ways that prevent gentrification and turn development profits into support of low- and moderate-income housing. One of the best known is the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont, which traces its modest beginnings to the early 1980s and now provides accommodation for more than 2,000 households. Hundreds of such collective ownership efforts now exist, and new land trusts are now being established on an expanding, ongoing basis in diverse contexts and cities all over the country.
Since 2010, twenty states have also considered legislation to establish public banks like that of North Dakota, which has operated with strong public support for more than nine decades. Approximately 20 states have considered legislation to establish single-payer health-care plans. Nor should we forget that the United States government de facto nationalized General Motors and AIG, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, during the recent crisis. It started selling them back once the profits began to roll, but in future crises, different outcomes might be ultimately achieved if practical experiments at the local and state level begin to create experiences that might be generalized to national models when the time is right - especially if the current system continues to decay and deteriorate. (Many of the national models that became the core programs of the New Deal were incubated in the state and local “laboratories of democracy” in the decades prior to the time national political possibilities opened up).
At this stage of development, there is every reason to experiment with many forms - a “community-sustaining” direction that I have suggested might be called a “Pluralist Commonwealth” to emphasize the plurality of common or democratized wealth-holding efforts.
I obviously do not hope in this brief sketch to try to offer a fully developed alternative. My goal is much simpler: First, to suggest that the questions classically posed by the word “socialism” that is now coming back into public use need to be discussed and debated by a much broader group than has traditionally been concerned with these issues; and second, to suggest further that if one looks closely there is evidence that some of the potential real world elements of a solution may be developing in ways that might one day open the way to a very American and very populist variant (whether called “socialist” or not). It is time, accordingly, to discuss the deeper design issues carefully and thoughtfully and in ways that involve a much larger share of the very large numbers of people, beyond the traditional left, who the polls and dictionary inquiries suggest may be interested in these questions.
Even as we learn more and more about the various forms and their positive and negative features and tendencies, hopefully we can engage in a far-reaching and thoughtful debate about how a new model might be created that is both systemically sophisticated and also appropriate to American culture and traditions - a model that nurtures democracy and a culture of inclusiveness and ecological sanity. Many serious and committed people on the left have been struggling with these issues and keeping the critical questions alive for decades. Even though the way forward, politically, is obviously daunting, difficult and uncertain, it is time to widen the dialogue in ways that include the millions of Americans who now seem increasingly open to the challenge.
Nor should the pessimism of the moment undercut what needs to be done: Anyone looking at Latin America 30 years ago might easily have been judged foolish to think change could occur - and that debate concerning these kinds of questions was important. Yet even during and through the pain - and the torture and dictatorship - new beginnings somehow were made in many areas and by many people. Our own course may be difficult, but easy pessimism is an all-too-common escape mechanism to avoid responsibility. It is also comforting: If one buys the judgment that nothing can ever be done, that it is impossible, one has an excuse not to try and also not to try to reach out to others. The fact is the failings of the present system are themselves forcing more and more people to explore new ideas and develop new experiments and new political efforts.
The important points to emphasize are three:  There is openness in the public, and especially among a much, much broader group than many think, to discussing these issues - including even the word “socialism;”  It is accordingly time to get very serious about some of the challenging substantive and theoretical issues involved; and  There are also many on-the-ground experiments, and projects and developments that suggest practical directions that are under way, but also that a new politics (whatever it is called) might begin to build upon them if it got serious.
Posted here with the permission of Truthout and Professor Gar Alperovitz.
Today is Robert Burns’ birthday, and across the world traditional suppers are held to celebrate the life and poetry of Scotland’s national Bard.
I have never been one for those couthy ritualistic gatherings, where toasts are given to the lads and lassies, and where some elder with a tartan to match his face, gives an address to the haggis. For me these suppers have little to do with Burns the man and poet, who could write such beauty as:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white - then melts
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm. -
Nae man can tether time or tide;
No, I prefer to see Robert Burns as great poet, a revolutionary, a socialist, an egalitarian, who believed ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’ and wrote to inspire a better world:
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
Burns’ idealism was often compromised by the financial demands of his everyday life - and what a life. A poet, a ploughman, a lover, a drinker, a revolutionary, a government lackey, a hero, a destitute. As Andrew O’Hagan points out in this excellent documentary Robert Burns: The People’s Poet, Burns was the equivalent of a rock star in his day, a writer of songs (“Auld Lang Syne”, “Ae Fond Kiss”, “My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose”, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”) and poems (“Tam O’Shanter”, “Holy Wuillie’s Prayer”, “To A Mouse”, “Cock Up Your Beaver”) that enchanted a nation and the world.
It was his ability to touch the heart and mind of his readers and to make them empathize with his subject matter, whether this was love, revolution in France or simply a mouse:
That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
He was idolized by the public, and was a hero and inspiration to the likes of Beethoven and Byron. At a time of great oppression he spoke out against slavery, inequality, and poverty. Burns wanted liberty and fairness for all. Yet he died in poverty, hounded by creditors, and near-broken as a man.
That Rabbie Burns is still read, performed and celebrated 200 years after his death, says all about his importance as a poet and the relevance of his belief for a better world, where all are equal and share the common wealth.
O’Hagan’s documentary Robert Burns: The People’s Poet is no hagiography, but controversially questions many of the assumptions made about this radical poet, and examines the incredible dramatic and often tragic circumstances of his life.
Actresses today don’t have half as much fun as we did, Dame Sybil Thorndike tells her interviewer in this short news report from 1969.
Dame Sybil was starring in There Was An Old Woman at the Thorndike Theater in Leatherhead, sixty-five years after she had first appeared as the Green Fairy in a production in Cambridge of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The reason Dame Sybil thought younger actresses were missing out on fun was because of television.
‘They have do television all the time, which is such a bore after the theater. Excuse me, but it is. After theater, to do television, which is that size compared to life. It’s tiny, much smaller than life. The theater’s bigger than life.’
Dame Sybil was a socialist, and an active member of the Labour Party. During the Second World War she was a pacifist, and raised money for the Peace Pledge Union by giving theatrical readings across the UK. Together with her husband, the actor Lewis Casson, she brought Shakespeare to workers’ groups and factories. George Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan for her, and her performance in the title role is still considered the best. Thorndike also appeared in Major Barbara, MacBeth, Uncla Vanya and the revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. She also famously worked with Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson at the Old Vic.
I first saw Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised about six years back, the day after a very late night, “heroically” hauling myself out of bed and dragging myself up the road to the local cinema before sinking deep into a generously cushioned chair for the afternoon screening. If my viewing neighbors were delighted to be watching a film alongside what must have smelled something like a six-foot tall bottle of booze, their joy can only have redoubled when – approximately thirty-five seconds into the screening – this rancid alcohol-human hybrid (talking about myself, here) burst into tequila tinged sobs that rang out for the entire film…
Transpires, of course, that my extravagant and half-cut sentimentality was in aid of one of the most controversial documentaries of all time, one that has since even inspired a dedicated effort at debunkery, X-Ray of a Lie, which takes the unmistakable partiality of the filmmakers to task and accuses them of all sorts of questionable editing and bias.
What seems ultimately incontestable, however, is that the film captures – and from the eye of the storm – the attempted military overthrow of a democratically elected government, and its reversal by a popular uprising. And it is this – a familiar story with a less-familiar ending – that gives The Revolution Will Not Be Televised its awesome emotional pull, late night or not.
Whatever can be said against him, give me Hugo Chavez’s backslapping humanity (he appears to cuddle about a third of Venezuela in the course of this documentary alone) over the baby-kissing misanthropy of our own political class any day. Congratulations to him on winning another six year term. I hope he survives it.
It’s may be forty years since Reid gave this speech, at his inauguration as Rector of the University of Glasgow, but its inspirational words are still as relevant and much needed today. Back in 1972, Reid’s speech hit resonated across the world, and was published, in its entirety, in the New York Times, where it was described as:
“...the greatest speech since President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.”
No hyperbole. This is one of the Great Speeches, and as Richard has previously pointed out “Mandatory Reading”.
Jimmy Reid’s Inaugural Speech as Rector of the University of Glasgow, 1972
“Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe is true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.
“Many may not have rationalised it. May not even understand, may not be able to articulate it. But they feel it. It therefore conditions and colours their social attitudes. Alienation expresses itself in different ways in different people. It is to be found in what our courts often describe as the criminal antisocial behaviour of a section of the community. It is expressed by those young people who want to opt out of society, by drop-outs, the so-called maladjusted, those who seek to escape permanently from the reality of society through intoxicants and narcotics. Of course, it would be wrong to say it was the sole reason for these things. But it is a much greater factor in all of them than is generally recognised.
“Society and its prevailing sense of values leads to another form of alienation. It alienates some from humanity. It partially de-humanises some people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centred and grasping. The irony is, they are often considered normal and well-adjusted. It is my sincere contention that anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else. They remind me of the character in the novel, Catch 22, the father of Major Major. He was a farmer in the American Mid-West. He hated suggestions for things like medi-care, social services, unemployment benefits or civil rights. He was, however, an enthusiast for the agricultural policies that paid farmers for not bringing their fields under cultivation. From the money he got for not growing alfalfa he bought more land in order not to grow alfalfa. He became rich. Pilgrims came from all over the state to sit at his feet and learn how to be a successful non-grower of alfalfa. His philosophy was simple. The poor didn’t work hard enough and so they were poor. He believed that the good Lord gave him two strong hands to grab as much as he could for himself. He is a comic figure. But think – have you not met his like here in Britain? Here in Scotland? I have.
“It is easy and tempting to hate such people. However, it is wrong. They are as much products of society, and of a consequence of that society, human alienation, as the poor drop-out. They are losers. They have lost the essential elements of our common humanity. Man is a social being. Real fulfilment for any person lies in service to his fellow men and women. The big challenge to our civilisation is not Oz, a magazine I haven’t seen, let alone read. Nor is it permissiveness, although I agree our society is too permissive. Any society which, for example, permits over one million people to be unemployed is far too permissive for my liking. Nor is it moral laxity in the narrow sense that this word is generally employed – although in a sense here we come nearer to the problem. It does involve morality, ethics, and our concept of human values. The challenge we face is that of rooting out anything and everything that distorts and devalues human relations.
Nobel economist Michael Spence, working at the behest of the Council on Foreign Relations, has co-authored a startling new paper with NYU’s Sandile Hlatshwayo. The two did an enormous amount of number crunching and analyzing of how the US economy has been structured for the past 20 years, and in particular, they examined employment trends. It was not a pretty picture that emerged from all of those details.
Well, I guess that would all depend upon which side of the fork you’re on, wouldn’t it?
As the output and productivity of the American worker increased—a LOT, I should add—during the past two decades, jobs still continued to be outsourced to other countries with cheaper labor pools, and fewer opportunities for economic advancement presented themselves for many Americans. All the while, the $$$ for all of that increased productivity didn’t go to the worker bees themselves, it went to the top, to the capitalists and investors class. To parasites like Mitt Romney and his buddies at Bain Capital.
The CFR report’s conclusions are particularly grim for people who have found themselves slipping out of the middle class towards precarious lives and who feel hopeless to do anything about it, but it’s Marxism 101 for the economic literate.
Here’s how Mr. Spence and Ms. Hlatshwayo put it: “The most educated, who work in the highly compensated jobs of the tradeable and nontradeable sectors, have high and rising incomes and interesting and challenging employment opportunities, domestically and abroad. Many of the middle-income group, however, are seeing employment options narrow and incomes stagnate.”
Mr. Spence notes the benefit to consumers of globalization: “Many goods and services are less expensive than they would be if the economy were walled off from the global economy, and the benefits of lower prices are widespread.” He also points to the positive impact of globalization, particularly in China and India: “Poverty reduction has been tremendous, and more is yet to come.”
I’m sure Americans living in “right to work” states are just jumping for joy to be competing with wage-earners in China and India.
Free trade and the free flow of capital means lower prices for the consumer, true, but when someone in China or India is doing that very same computer programming job that used to be your job in the midwest—information workers will have the most precarious jobs of all moving forward—it’s not like you’ll be able to afford much more than rice and beans at the Wal-Mart anyway.
Yes, there’s a high cost to low price. The two are pretty well interconnected, as we’ve seen, but this is what the “free market” is supposed to do, silly. And don’t forget, it was Wal-Mart that put the local shops out of business to begin with.
Karl Marx predicted all of this. ALL of it.
He’s the most accurate prophet in history, with a record a helluva lot better than Nostradamus!
And to all of the naysayers who claim that a “command economy” doesn’t work, I present to you Wal-Mart itself, the most successful example of a command economy the world has ever seen!
Mr. Spence’s paper should be read alongside the work that David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been doing on the impact of the technology revolution on U.S. jobs. Mr. Autor finds that technology has had a “polarizing” impact on the U.S. work force — it has made people at the top more productive and better paid and hasn’t had much effect on the “hands-on” jobs at the bottom. But opportunities and salaries in the middle have been hollowed out.
Taken together, here’s the big story Mr. Spence and Mr. Autor tell: Globalization and the technology revolution are increasing productivity and prosperity. But those rewards are unevenly shared — they are going to the people at the top in the United States, and enriching emerging economies over all. But the American middle class is losing out.
It may seem surprising that it takes a Nobel laureate and sheaves of economic data to reach this conclusion. But the analysis and its provenance matter, because this basic truth about how the world economy is working today is being ignored by most of the politicians in the United States and denied by many of its leading business people.
Here’s where it gets much grimmer, as the article’s author, Chrystia Freeland (who has been the Global Editor-at-Large of Reuters since 2010) tells of a recent breakfast at the CFR that she moderated. The speaker that morning was Randall Stephenson, chief executive of AT&T.
If this is the mindset of the leaders of corporate America today, we’re doomed:
One of the Council of Foreign Relations members in the audience was Farooq Kathwari, the chief executive of Ethan Allen, the furniture manufacturer and retailer. Mr. Kathwari is a storybook American entrepreneur. He arrived in New York from Kashmir with $37 in his pocket and got his start in the retail trade selling goods sent to him from home by his grandfather.
He asked Mr. Stephenson: “Over the last 10 years, with the help of technology and other things, we today are doing about the same business with 50 percent less people. We’re talking of jobs. I would just like to get your perspectives on this great technology. How is it going to overall affect the job markets in the next five years?”
Mr. Stephenson said not to worry. “While technology allows companies like yours to do more with less, I don’t think that necessarily means that there is less employment opportunities available. It’s just a redeployment of those employment opportunities. And those employees you have, my expectation was, with your productivity, their standard of living has actually gotten better.”
HUH? Redeployment of employment opportunities? What the fuck IS this guy talking about?
I recently heard a radio report that indicated that there is ONE factory employing around 15 people in Japan that’s responsible for nearly 80% of the world’s output of a certain sized HD screen. Consider how many people would have worked at a Magnavox television plant in the mid-fifties. Where were those employment opportunities ultimately “redeployed?”
With advanced automation, robotics and so forth, the American worker always was going to become obsolete in the long run, but the speed with which it is happening has gone from a trot to full gallop since the early 90s. Stephenson’s contention that standards of living have improved is ludicrous. Perhaps for him and for all the Cuban cigar-smoking fatcats at the country club in Westchester, but what about the rest of us?
Maybe the all-powerful, wise and benevolent free market will help us?!?!
(Sorry all of that cigar smoke is making me *cough*)
Mr. Spence’s work tells us that simply isn’t happening. “One possible response to these trends would be to assert that market outcomes, especially efficient ones, always make everyone better off in the long run,” he wrote. “That seems clearly incorrect and is supported by neither theory nor experience.”
Not to take anything away from Mr. Spence and Ms. Hlatshwayo, but there was this famous book written by a Mr. Marx and a Mr. Engels—two of the most dangerous minds in history—a hundred and fifty-some years ago that predicted all of this shit with amazing, laser-like accuracy.
Mr. Spence says that as he was doing his research, he was often asked what “market failure” was responsible for these outcomes: Where were the skewed incentives, flawed regulations or missing information that led to this poor result? That question, Mr. Spence says, misses the point. “Multinational companies,” he said, “are doing exactly what one would expect them to do. The resulting efficiency of the global system is high and rising. So there is no market failure.”
Okay, stop for a second. Read that last paragraph again, won’t you? Now read it a third time.
Mr. Spence is telling us that global capitalism is working, but that the American middle class is losing out anyway.
Yep, exactly like a certain Mr. Marx predicted would happen. What remains to be seen is how long it takes for the average American to wake up to what’s going on, when the elites are so hellbent on trying to keep them as confused as possible. Less sophisticated people can be forgiven for falling for conspiracy theories, when the REAL action is right out in the open: No one ever thinks to look there!
Mr. Spence admits he has no easy answers. American politicians are focused on a budget debate that is superficial, premature and ultimately about something pretty easy to figure out. Instead, we should all be working on the much bigger problem of how to make capitalism work for the American middle class.
Hearty congratulations to the entire country of France for having the good sense to elect a Socialist president, François Hollande, and for kicking that pompous dickhead Sarkozy to the curb.
It’s not like the “Socialist” part—or even President-Elect François Hollande himself for that matter—got much play in the initial reports in the American media, although “Farewell Monsieur President!” and “Goodbye Sarkozy!” headlines were in abundance (I’d have gone with something like “France tells ‘President of the rich’ to piss off, elects Socialist”). Hollande will be the country’s first Socialist leader since François Mitterrand (the Republic’s longest-serving president) left office in 1995. It was Hollande’s ex-wife, Socialist politician Ségolène Royal, who was defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.
MSNBC, not mentioning Hollande in the headline, and under a picture of a dejected looking Sarkozy, natch, called the President-Elect “unassumming.” When reporters did get around to mentioning Hollande by name, it was normally to mention that he was a “socialist lite” or a “moderate.”
By American political standards? That’s a pretty meaningless and worthless comparison, if you ask me.
To take the President-Elect at his own word, his win represents “a new departure for Europe and hope for the world” because “Europe is watching us, austerity can no longer be the only option.” I personally like the way that sounds, but Lynn Parramore, writing at AlterNet fears that Hollande will end up being a “marshmallow” who talks big and then lets monied interests walk all over him (where have we seen that happen before?). She also describes him as “more like an American centrist Democrat than a Bush-style right-winger,” but I’d take that with a grain of salt (see below).
The 57-year-old Socialist has openly admitted that he “does not like the rich” and declared that “my real enemy is the world of finance”. This means taxing the wealthy by up to 75 per cent, curtailing the activities of Paris as a centre for financial dealing, and ploughing millions into creating more civil service jobs.
Add an explicit threat to renegotiate the euro pact to replace austerity with “growth-creating” spending, and you have one of the most vehemently left-wing programmes in recent history.
BUT… There’s always a “but” isn’t there? France is broke and mired deeply in debt. Servicing the country’s outstanding debt is the second item of the government’s yearly budget, right below healthcare:
Caution is justified, though one thing Mr Hollande will not repeat is the disastrous tax-and-spend policies introduced by France’s last Socialist President, François Mitterrand, in 1981. He was soon forced into a humiliating U-turn, and into sharing power with the right as the Communists quit his cabinet in protest.
In contrast, Mr Hollande will focus on solving the euro crisis and reversing a Gallic economic decline widely blamed on a failed capitalist system, and particularly a rotten banking sector.
Foreign policy: supports the withdrawal of French troops present in Afghanistan by the end of 2012.
European politics: aims to conclude a new contract of Franco-German partnership and he advocates the adoption of a Directive on the protection of public services. Proposes closer Franco-German partnership: “an acceleration of the establishment of a Franco-German civic service, the creation of a Franco-German research office, the creation of a Franco-German industrial fund to finance common competitiveness clusters (transport, energy or environment) and the establishment of a common military headquarters.”
Financial system: backs the creation of a European rating agency and the separation of lending and investment in banks.
Energy: endorses reducing the share of nuclear power in electricity generation from 75 to 50% in favor of renewable energy sources.
Taxation: supports the merger of income tax and the General Social Contribution (CSG), the creation of an additional 45% for additional income of 150,000 euros, capping tax loopholes at a maximum of €10,000 per year, and questioning the relief solidarity tax on wealth (ISF, Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune) measure that should bring €29 billion in additional revenue.
Education: supports the recruitment of 60,000 new teachers, the creation of a study allowance and means-tested training, setting up a mutually beneficial contract that would allow a generation of experienced employees and craftsmen to be the guardians and teachers of younger newly-hired employees, thereby creating a total of 150,000 subsidized jobs.
Aid to SME’s, with the creation of a public bank investment-oriented SME’s and reducing the corporate tax rate to 30% for medium corporations and 15% for small.
Recruitment of 5,000 judges, police officers and gendarmes.
Construction of 500,000 homes per year, including 150,000 social, funded by a doubling of the ceiling of the A passbook, the State making available its local government land within five years.
Restoration of retirement at age 60 for those who have contributed more than 41 years.
Hollande supported same-sex marriage and adoption for LGBT couples, and has plans to pursue the issue in early 2013.
The provision of development funds for deprived suburbs.
Return to a deficit of 0% of GDP in 2017.
This is “moderate”? Sounds pretty “sane” to moi.
Appropriately, Hollande’s jubilant left-wing supporters took their joyous celebrations to la Place de la Bastille where the Socialist President Elect spoke:
“I don’t know if you can hear me but I have heard you. I have heard your will for change. I have heard your strength, your hope and I want to express to you all of my gratitude. Thank you, thank you, thank you people of France, gathered here, to have allowed me to be your president of the republic.”
“I am the president of the youth of France! I am the president of all the collective pride of France! I am the president of Justice in France!
“Carry this message far! Remember for the rest of your life this great gathering at the Bastille because it must give a taste to other peoples, to the whole of Europe, of the change that is coming. In all the capitals, beyond government leaders and state leaders, there are people who, thanks to us, are hoping, are looking to us and want to put an end to austerity.”
Albert Einstein’s famous essay on socialism was originally published in the first issue of Monthly Review in May 1949.
Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.
Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult by the circumstance that observed economic phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history has—as is well known—been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature. For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.
But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called “the predatory phase” of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.
Second, socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and—if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous—are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.
For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.
Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered. It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent or even hostile toward the group, small or large, to which they belong. In order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience. I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked that only a supra-national organization would offer protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: “Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”
I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?
It is easy to raise such questions, but difficult to answer them with any degree of assurance. I must try, however, as best I can, although I am very conscious of the fact that our feelings and strivings are often contradictory and obscure and that they cannot be expressed in easy and simple formulas.
Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting, strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept “society” means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word “society.”
It is evident, therefore, that the dependence of the individual upon society is a fact of nature which cannot be abolished—just as in the case of ants and bees. However, while the whole life process of ants and bees is fixed down to the smallest detail by rigid, hereditary instincts, the social pattern and interrelationships of human beings are very variable and susceptible to change. Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human being which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organizations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.
Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution which we must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural urges which are characteristic of the human species. In addition, during his lifetime, he acquires a cultural constitution which he adopts from society through communication and through many other types of influences. It is this cultural constitution which, with the passage of time, is subject to change and which determines to a very large extent the relationship between the individual and society. Modern anthropology has taught us, through comparative investigation of so-called primitive cultures, that the social behavior of human beings may differ greatly, depending upon prevailing cultural patterns and the types of organization which predominate in society. It is on this that those who are striving to improve the lot of man may ground their hopes: human beings are not condemned, because of their biological constitution, to annihilate each other or to be at the mercy of a cruel, self-inflicted fate.
If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as possible, we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. As mentioned before, the biological nature of man is, for all practical purposes, not subject to change. Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.
I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.
The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.
For the sake of simplicity, in the discussion that follows I shall call “workers” all those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production—although this does not quite correspond to the customary use of the term. The owner of the means of production is in a position to purchase the labor power of the worker. By using the means of production, the worker produces new goods which become the property of the capitalist. The essential point about this process is the relation between what the worker produces and what he is paid, both measured in terms of real value. Insofar as the labor contract is “free,” what the worker receives is determined not by the real value of the goods he produces, but by his minimum needs and by the capitalists’ requirements for labor power in relation to the number of workers competing for jobs. It is important to understand that even in theory the payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product.
Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job.
Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.
The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of capital is thus characterized by two main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see fit; second, the labor contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the “free labor contract” for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present day economy does not differ much from “pure” capitalism.
Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.
This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.
I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?
Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.
On a day when the eyes of the country are on what would otherwise have been an obscure election in Wisconsin, if not for the heavy-handed overreach of state Republicans, it’s worth pointing out that today marks the 101st anniversary of the election of the first Socialist mayor of Milwaukee (he was the first of three), Emil Seidel.
Nate Pederson wrote the following for The Progressive Populist with the title “When Socialists Cleaned Up Milwaukee”:
On a balmy night in April of 1910, Emil Seidel, a quiet, unassuming woodcarver received word that he had been elected mayor of Milwaukee with a plurality of 7,000 votes. History was made that night, for Seidel was a Socialist, and the first of his party to be elected mayor of a major American city. Seidel, at home with his wife and daughter, had spent the day working in his pattern-making shop and accepted the news with his usual modest grace. He declined to offer a speech initially, instead opting for early bed, but when he assumed the platform the following morning he gave a speech indicative of his character:
“We intend to do all our limited means permit to make Milwaukee a better place for every citizen … We are today only accumulating material for a larger and more beautiful structure of life that we have ever had. Not all of our work will be successful. But much of it will be. We shall learn, and, continuing to learn, we shall make good. We are today beginning a new civilization.”
And for two years Seidel did just that. Milwaukee had long suffered under corrupt municipal rule and Seidel’s election swept the slate clean. Along with the mayorship, the Socialists took the majority in the City Council and thus were able to quickly enact a number of progressive reforms. Indeed, the reforms enacted by the Socialists in two short years reads like a laundry list of good municipal government: the first public works department was established, the first fire and police commission was organized, the city park system was created, the city’s bars came under regulation, its brothels and illegal casinos closed down. All this from a party usually associated with radical thought and revolutionary activity.
The well-known secret, however, was that the Milwaukee Socialists were of a different order than the Socialist agitators sweeping the rest of the country. The Milwaukee Socialists were moderates, even conservatives, by the principles of their party, seeking to enact fair government at benefit to the most people through prudence and moderation. They stressed the need for basic services — so much so, in fact, they were stuck with the label “Sewer Socialists” for their preoccupation with the cleanliness of Milwaukee’s sewer system.
Furthermore, the Milwaukee Socialists were not partisans. One of their slogans on winning the election was “Get Experts!” Thus, Seidel sought out the best and the brightest to help run the municipal government, regardless of party affiliation. He declared, “I believe the city’s affairs should be administered without party lines,” and quickly followed through by hiring a committee of businessmen from the Democratic and Republican parties to advise him on financial affairs. Other municipal positions were filled with the most qualified candidate, irrespective of party. Thereby Seidel built an effective coalition of capable government officials who were able to enact meaningful reform.
It’s a telling fact that for the first few weeks after the Socialists took control of Milwaukee, not a single Socialist approached the new administration for a job. The Socialists were by and large honest, hardworking laborers, raised with practical German values of self-sufficiency. They were not interested in hand-outs.
Seidel refused to accept any profits from his own pattern-making firm while he was serving as the mayor of Milwaukee. Instead, he insisted that the profits be divided amongst his eleven employees. Such displays of integrity inspired trust and confidence in the Socialists by the larger populace. This in turn provided Seidel with the political capital necessary to enact his agenda.
By 1912, Seidel and the Socialists had cleaned house, sweeping out corruption and pushing through necessary and progressive reforms. The Democrats and Republicans, however, banded together for the 1912 election, nominating Dr. Gerhard A. Bading for the mayorship, who officially ran as a “nonpartisan” candidate. With the backing of the two major parties, and a heavy dose of pro-American, anti-Socialist proselytizing, Bading handily defeated Seidel in his re-election bid.
Seidel only served one term as mayor and his star is largely outshone by the other two later Socialist mayors of Milwaukee who served for much longer periods: Daniel Hoan and Frank Zeidler. His legacy, however, was pronounced considering the brevity of his term. Seidel pushed through a number of reforms still benefiting Milwaukeeans today, such as the expansion of city parks. He also restored a sorely needed respectability to the mayor’s office, raising expectations for Milwaukee’s municipal government and sweeping out the open corruption of his predecessors.
Seidel and his comrades proved the Socialists could be entrusted with the practical management of city government. As such, Seidel deserves a prominent place on the shelf of both Milwaukee’s history and the history of our nation as a whole. In a country founded on the premise of political experimentation, Milwaukeeans deserve special credit for their willingness to look beyond easy labels and pass judgment based on merit.
In return they received clean government, clean parks, and clean sewers. Not a bad trade, really.
Nate Pedersen is a Minnesota native, Wisconsin-educated librarian now living in Scotland.
Things could have been different, if America hadn’t plotted against Chile’s first democratically elected Marxist President, Salvador Allende. For he wouldn’t have died in suspicious circumstances, after a military coup, financed by the US, put a halt to Allende’s plans for a “Chilean path to Socialism.”
That said, he did achieve much in his 3 short years in power. Allende’s government redistributed wealth; nationalized industries; improved health care and education; built houses; increased wages - which saw those at the lowest level of Chilean society able to feed and clothe themselves better than they had been able to before. Not bad for a first time President. Even so, Allende did have his detractors at home and abroad.
“The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves … I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”
Over the next 3 years, the US destabilized Chile’s economy, funded opposition parties, and just stopped short of direct involvement in the military coup (led by General Pinochet) that ended Allende’s presidency.
In his farewell speech, on September 11 1973, Allende said:
“Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society.”
articulates his basic beliefs and lays out the program he intended to persue as leader of the Popular Unity government. The conversation shows with rare candor Allende´s deep-seated belief in the Chilean Constitution and in the ability of his coalition to maintain control for the elected six-year period. He discusses the legal road to socialism, the anticipated problems with the Nixon Administration and the CIA, and how he planned to handle the antagonism of the Chilean bourgeoisie. He also talks about his early days as doctor, recounting how his medical career and contact with the poor led to his conversion to socialism.