Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Notes on socialism

New York Times:

Relative to the situation in most other countries -- or in this country for most of the last century -- American employers operate with few restraints. Unions have withered, at least in the private sector, and courts have grown friendlier to business. Many companies can now come much closer to setting the terms of their relationship with employees, letting them go when they become a drag on profits and relying on remaining workers or temporary ones when business picks up.

Socialism, in a nutshell, is the idea that companies should be owned and operated by their employees, rather than dictating the terms by which they live.  Communities, in other words, would exert popular control over economic decisions -- what gets invested, what gets made, how it is distributed, and so on.

That's old school socialism, and it evolved out of an acknowledgment that "employers" should be the community, not some minority element that tells everyone else what to do because they are rich enough to buy what's important.

Socialism was aimed squarely at this question of making the economy democratic; it opposed the dictatorship of bosses in the workplace, from whom life itself must be "earned."  Being able to live decently was always assumed to be a human right by socialists, because threatening someone's livelihood if they don't do what you want isn't an acceptable foundation for liberty in any context.  That's just a fucked-up relationship -- and we know this because that's exactly what we call it when it happens anywhere else in life, whether the relationship is a marriage or between adults and children or whatever.  You can't ask people to make choices in a context where one of the outcomes is that they could very well starve, only to congratulate them on their "freedom" to choose.

The idea that you can have a "political" democracy when many of the most important decisions never even enter the political arena because they are "economic" (and therefore private) is perhaps one of the longest standing criticisms of liberal democracy by socialists -- "liberal democracy" meaning capitalism with democratic formalities.  If you read Volume 1 of Capital, for example, Marx spends a lot of time on this; even defending Enlightenment conceptions of private property against their industrial counterpart; and ultimately advancing them as communism: he keeps the large-scale industry while jettisoning any "private" claim to it.

Because you are more likely than not a contemporary US audience, when you hear the word socialism, you know it is vaguely bad; perhaps you think it means that the government owns everything instead of individual firms.  I'm not going to get into a whole discussion about government here (read: the state) except to say that there is a distinction to be made between democratic and totalitarian forms.  The socialist argument has always been that liberal democracy isn't democratic enough: the people who own what matters will inevitably dominate the government, using it for their purposes against whatever the general populace might prefer.  This blog and many others comment on that phenomenon nearly every day.

However, it follows that if the people who own everything are the government, and these people aren't "the people" but some privileged minority, you end up with the same problem.  Remember how Marx begins his discussion of class: the "haves" are the people who possess their own independent means of survival, the "have-nots" are anybody that doesn't.  If you look at a country like North Korea, which is nominally communist, you basically have one guy that possesses every means of self-sufficiency while everyone else is dispossessed.  It might call itself "Marxist," I don't know.  But the class antagonism is more pronounced than in most capitalist societies.  Marx postulated a scenario like this in Capital, with his idea of having one big company ultimately hold a monopoly on all economic life in society.  That is basically what totalitarian governments adorning themselves with the label "socialist" have produced.  You have to regard them accordingly.

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