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America Already Has Socialism

October 12th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

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The idea of rugged individualism is almost synonymous with the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville noted it in his Democracy in America (1835), although contrary to what most believe his portrayal of individualism was less than glowing. Americans are proud of this characteristic, having fully embodied the Enlightenment notion of the elevation of the individual over the collective. They believe it is a source of American strength and freedom. Frederick Jackson Turner in his highly influential thesis “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893) decries the closing of the frontier because he argues that the existence of the frontier was the only thing that kept the American character from succumbing to the decadence of “civilization,” i.e., the sorry moral and material fate of our European forebears who lived in cities and had to learn to cooperate. Or not.

In contrast, for as long as there has been socialism, Americans in general have been against it. This seems almost intuitive, the idea of sharing everything in common, of being connected to and beholden to a group, is antithetical to the concept of rugged individualism. Where in other places those who were left with nothing were quick to see the potential advantages of socialism (when you don’t have anything, sharing everything seems like a good idea), in the United States Americans rejected the idea because they see it as an impediment to opportunity. The Gospel of Wealth proclaims that while they might not have anything now, the only thing keeping them from great wealth is hard work and maybe a little luck. Canadian author Ronald Wright aptly noted, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

The idea of boundless opportunity is a matter of patriotism. That’s who we are as Americans. Opportunity is waiting for those with the courage to act boldly to seize it. And the one to do so is always depicted as this rugged individual. Our heroes have always been cowboys (an entirely separate if not unrelated branch of American mythology). To work hard against the odds to make a life for yourself and your family is the American way. In contrast, to band together with your fellows to benefit the community is suspect. It’s foreign. It’s like cheating. When a man stands by the side of the road begging we condemn him. Why doesn’t he get a job like me? When people are driven to seek public assistance by ill-health and/or lack of opportunity we brand them lazy and immoral. In effect, to be rich, or at least prosperous, is equated with Americanism; poverty with disloyalty. And this ideology completely ignores economic realities.

One of the most ironic of these realities is that there already is socialism in the United States. According to the Oxford Online Dictionary Socialism is defined as “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” The entry also notes, “The term ‘socialism’ has been used to describe positions as far apart as anarchism, Soviet state Communism, and social democracy; however, it necessarily implies an opposition to the untrammeled workings of the economic market.” Hence the inherent opposition to socialism by capitalists.

The paradox lies between “owned or regulated by the community as a whole,” and “an opposition to the untrammeled workings of the economic market.” The untrammeled workings of the economic market, AKA laissez-faire, assumes that if individuals are left free to pursue their own enlightened self-interest, they, the State, and everyone will benefit. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” so they say. However, it was recognized at the height of the industrial revolution that untrammeled capitalism was exploitative and destructive. It was the misery created by untrammeled capitalism that motivated the advent of trade unionism, socialism, communism, anarchism, positivism, and other social experiments in the industrialized countries designed to alleviate the suffering of the masses.

Contrary to what labor activists would like us to believe, in the United States the answer to this social turmoil was Progressivism. Progressivism was a middle class movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that sought to address the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. The original Progressives were Republicans and some of their aims included Women’s Suffrage, Civil Service Reform, Progressive government reform such as the Initiative, Referendum and Recall, direct election of US Senators, and restructuring of State and local governments to get big money out of politics and make it more responsive to the people, Anti-Trust and Anti-Monopoly laws, stricter Child Labor laws, 40 hour work week, Anti-Prostitution laws, and Prohibition. In 1912 the Republican Party split between the Progressives led by Theodore Roosevelt and the Big Business interests led by William Howard Taft. The split led to the election of Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, who took on the mantle of Progressivism. Progressivism has been associated with the Democratic Party since then.

What separated Progressives from Socialists and Trade Unionists was their Middle Class background. They were appalled at the suffering they saw around them, but at the same time they realized that without reform there was a real possibility of social upheaval that could lead to conditions that would harm their material interests. They weren’t socialists, they enacted reforms to prevent socialism. Regulation and reform saved capitalism. Capitalism was saved a second time in the twentieth century by reforms enacted during the Franklin Roosevelt administration that are still condemned by Big Business and their political allies as “socialist.” An objective look at the legacy of the New Deal, however, reveals that of all the industrialized States at the beginning of the Depression, only the United States emerged with capitalism and democracy intact.

But more recently, the United States government, first during the administration of George W. Bush, and then under the Obama administration, doled out billions of dollars to save large corporations from bankruptcy, under the theory that they were “too big to fail.” In other words they were able to make the case that their failure would lead to an even worse economic crisis. Leaving aside the moral predicament of giving money to bail out the people who through greed and shady business practices had caused the crisis to begin with, by accepting money from the government these corporations were in essence accepting money from the people of the United States: “the community as a whole.” Thus, the people became the rightful owners of at least part of these corporations. And that, kids, is socialism. At least in theory. I mean, that part about the people owning the government. You know, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” That sort of thing.

The problem is that the people don’t own the government. Applying the Golden Rule (“Whoever has the gold makes the rules”), government is almost exclusively controlled by Big Business. Big Business owns both Parties every branch of government, and the mainstream media. And they govern for their own benefit, not ours. And so we see a well-document massive redistribution of wealth, facilitated by the government, not from the rich to the poor, but the other way around. It’s not Marx’s “from each according to their ability to each according to his need,” it’s “from each according to their poverty to each according to his greed.”

So those who seek to brand Bernie Sanders and anyone else who wants to curb the influence of Big Business against the public good “socialists,” in order to tap into the historic American antipathy to socialism, are themselves the recipients of massive government largesse at the expense of the people. It seems they only dislike socialism when it doesn’t serve their interests. They only dislike socialism when it actually helps people.

I think the newest generation of Americans is already sensing this. I think as people become more aware of how they are being played they will generate more and more enthusiasm for anyone who is willing to stand up against Big Business and Big Money. Because the reality is that the people who are being exploited the most still are the ones who have the most political clout, if they would use it. Freed from the distractions of divisions over race, politics, religion, false patriotism, and cultural inanities, Americans can once again reform the system for the benefit of the many. That’s not socialism, that’s Americanism.

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