Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More sense, less nonsense on "socialism"

Down at the Greatest Show on Earth, the word "socialism" is being kicked around in a comical manner. Phil Paine rides to the rescue with Sense and Nonsense About "Socialism:"

The word “socialism” is used to mean virtually anything imaginable, but if it means anything at all intelligible, it is “control of productive enterprise by the state”. More exactly, it means that the people who control production and the people who control the state are the same people. Most states in human history have been predominantly socialist....Many countries preserve that pattern today, though sometimes it is masked by a thin veneer of pseudo-democracy. Sometimes the pattern is specifically called "socialism", and sometimes not, but there is no important difference between those which use the term and those which do not...

The state can control production through a variety of techniques. Productive enterprises can be administered through a state bureaucracy, they can be parceled out to a hereditary or military aristocracy, or to corporate bodies which are theoretically (but not actually) "separate" from the state. All these configurations can logically be called “socialism”. If large portions of productive enterprise are engaged in military production, whose only customer can be the state, then that too should rationally be called “socialism”. Any country that engages in protracted and extensive warfare is, ipso facto, socialist. If large portions of productive enterprise are tied to government through special privileges, subsidies, bailouts, or government contracts, that is socialism as well. Any country whose economy is dominated by giant corporations, which manipulate and determine state policy, is socialist.

The United States has long engaged in extensive socialist practices. The American Conservative movement has been the most aggressive promoter of socialism, by encouraging rampant military spending, and promoting the concentration of state-corporate power and privilege. The U.S. is far more “socialist” than, say, Canada, where there is considerably less of these activities. To repeat what should be obvious, you have socialism when the people who control production and the people who control the government are the same people. Nobody with an ounce of common sense would deny that this is the case in the United States, today, and anybody who bothers to think straight should see that this is the central ideological desideratum of the Conservative movement. America's socialism is the product of its domination by Conservative ideology.

Socialism has nothing to do with the provision of government services. Risk-reduction services, such as Canada’s health insurance systems, or pension plans, or welfare services, or educational services provided by government, are not control of production. They are not “socialism” or “socialist”. Progressive taxation is not "socialist". Measures to protect the public from fraud, or promote public safety, or to overcome injustice or to protect the rights of labourers are not "socialist". There is no connection whatsoever between these things and socialism.

In fact, the more socialist a state is, the more power it can exert over its people, and the less it has to answer to them. Consequently, it is less likely to provide these services, and less likely to create social justice. ...You find good quality public services in democratic regimes, where the people have been strong enough to limit corporate-state control of production. Canada has better health care than the United States partly because it is less socialist than the United States. The United States has inferior health care because it is more socialist than Canada.

The aim of truly progressive political and economic thought is to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of the few, and the concentration of property in the hands of the few. It should seek to prevent concentrated corporate power or aristocracy from gaining control of production. Progressive thought is then, by logical necessity, anti-socialist and anti-corporate. But progressive thought embraces the utility of government services whenever they enable and enhance the freedom and autonomy of the individual (as, say, our health insurance system does in Canada). It just as firmly rejects sham government "services" that are merely stratagems to give power over the people to a managerial elite. Thus, a Progressive who gladly supports health insurance reform should oppose state plans to herd "the lower class" into state-controlled housing. Progressive thought embraces a social "safety net" under all our feet, provided it is not rigged to control its recipients, and always rejects handouts and subsidies for the rich. Democracy's meaning is clear: the people should rule; they should not be ruled.

The revolutionary aim of democracy is to create a society where every individual has a significant share of property and exercises practical autonomy, where the opportunities and fruits of enterprise are open to everyone, and where no privileged clique exercises power over the majority. The democratic state is supposed to serve this aim, and never to promote the interests of an elite, whether it dresses up as mandarins, dukes, commissars, or CEOs. Whatever moves society in this direction is "progressive". Let's get our concepts and terminology in order.

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