The word socialism elicits negative reactions from a lot of Americans. I think the widespread misunderstanding of the term is a relic of the Cold War era, as well as historical tension between right-wing capitalists and the far left. When one type of government ends up going bad, people are quick to blame the overall method and move to the opposite extreme, rather than considering the real cause of the problems. This results in an endless cycle of reactionaries who, in their zealous drive to fix what everyone else messed up, go too far and make another mess.
That’s the current situation in America. During the Cold War, in response to the threat from an authoritarian socialist country, America turned hard to the right and ended up handing over government power to large corporations. The solution to our problems is not more of the same crony capitalism that has shifted massive amounts of wealth, as well as most economic growth, into the hands of the rich. When a government has gone too far to the right, it needs to shift back toward the left.
The tendency to react by going to extremes is why we need the push and pull of conservatism vs. progressivism. The latter pushes for change, while the former keeps them from going too far. At least, that’s the ideal situation. What we really have now is an increasingly radical right with such a warped view of the left/right spectrum that they see centrists as extreme leftists. The truth is that the vast majority of our left-leaning politicians are still on the right of the overall spectrum, and a shift toward the center is needed to address our economic problems.
So what, exactly, is socialism? If you just look it up in a dictionary, you might see it defined as government ownership and administration of the means of production, which isn’t correct. The original purpose of socialism was to improve the quality of life for the whole community through cooperation of the citizens and mutual ownership of the means of production. The degree to which government is involved is not part of the definition of socialism, especially when the term is used as an approach to economics. That’s why we need to specify which sort of socialism we’re talking about…it ranges from anarchist socialism to authoritarian state socialism.
One important aspect of socialism is the idea that human labor should not be treated as a commodity to be bought and sold in a free market. This perspective sees capitalist labor as another form of slavery, in which the wealthy “buy” part of a worker’s life (the time spent working), and then benefit from the labor, just like slave owners buy people and benefit from their labor.
A point made by Karl Marx is that there are two classes in capitalism, the owners and the laborers. The owners are the wealthy people who have the resources to create companies, and the laborers are the poorer people who must depend on the owners for jobs in order to survive. He proposed that such a system would inevitably self-destruct due to tension between the two classes, particularly when the state is run by policies that benefit the owners while neglecting the interests of the laborers.
It should be common knowledge that the current situation in America gives extremely rich owners of large companies the ability to affect government policy for their own benefit, which results in the majority of Americans being left with less and less wealth to share between them. This is exactly what Marx thought capitalism would lead to, and he advocated for a revolution by the working class to overthrow corrupt capitalist states and institute socialism. We probably don’t need to go that far, but major change is definitely needed.
The main problem with capitalism that socialism attempts to address is the severe imbalance of power between owners and laborers. If most of a nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few rich people, those people can manipulate the economy to some extent because everyone else depends on them for jobs. Add crony capitalism and their power is greatly increased, because they can then alter government and laws to favor themselves and make the laborers even more dependent.
There are many different ways to implement socialism, either on its own or mixed into a partially capitalist free market. Labor unions are an example of socialist ideas put into action by the working class as a way for the laborers to gain more equal footing with large companies. Some businesses are employee-owned and they tend to be successful, while paying their employees better than typical capitalist companies.
At this point, it should be obvious that socialism really has nothing to do with government ownership, but rather social ownership, which is similar but different in a very important way. If you refer back to my article on the two-dimensional political spectrum, you’ll see that government control can be measured along an entirely separate spectrum from the typical left/right distinction. This allows us to see the difference between liberal socialists and authoritarian socialists.
What many Americans think of as socialism is really state socialism, in which the government owns and controls the means of production. But that’s only one variety, and it usually fails because it doesn’t actually represent the interests of the working class. Instead, it ends up another corrupt system in which a few people exercise economic power over everyone else, which is the exact problem socialism is supposed to fix.
What I’m arguing for is democratic socialism, which is essentially the concept that the government and economy should both be set up in such a way to represent the interests of all citizens. The “government” should only own the means of production in the sense that the citizens are the government. Here are a few specific ideas that I think should be part of a democratic socialist nation:
1) The government must be kept separate from economic interests that would conflict with its purpose of representing and serving all citizens. This means that there must not be a financial incentive to run for public office, and every candidate for election must be given the same opportunity to reach voters regardless of how much money they have (whether their own money or donations from wealthy people).
2) Surplus wealth (profits) should rightfully belong, at least in part, to every citizen, because those profits are generated by the society as a whole. I don’t have a problem with investors and business owners earning money that way; it isn’t inherently immoral. But without workers and consumers, the business owners would earn nothing, so it’s only logical that some of those profits should benefit the society that generated them. There are several ways to do this, most notably taxes and setting a minimum wage, and of course we already have a lot of social programs in place. I think one good change we could make to our current system is to promote employee-owned businesses and labor unions. However we solve it, the fundamental problem we face is that the working class has a shrinking share of wealth, economic power, and government representation.
3) After removing corporate influence from government, we can work on improving it, restoring the republic America was supposed to be, and reducing the legal and economic obstacles facing small businesses. If we’re able to fix our government, then we could use it to better manage the national economy. In such a large country, a central government that represents the people and doesn’t waste money would probably be the most efficient method for general oversight and making sure nobody is left in poverty.
4) A focus on the well-being and rights of the working class, including livable wages, will promote economic growth. Studies show that raising the minimum wage right now should have a stimulative effect on the economy. It seems like common sense…poor people will spend any extra money they get, and spending is what fuels an economy. The extremely wealthy do not fuel our economy by forming giant companies, because they end up sucking away a lot of the extra money they get and hoarding it, thus removing it from circulation and leaving less for the rest of us to work with. They also push for lower wages, which means the working class ends up earning and spending even less. In some cases companies have paid their employees so little that they end up costing the rest of us billions of dollars in taxpayer money every year, which is used on food stamps and other welfare for underpaid workers. In the meantime the company continues to earn far more profit than the government spends supporting their employees. The problem here should be obvious; businesses have no right to profit from a welfare system that’s meant to support people who are unable to work.
These really aren’t radical ideas. In fact, this is in many ways very similar to the Republican party platform about sixty years ago, and has a lot in common with conservative politics in some other countries. American conservatives have forgotten that our most prosperous times were when we worked together and promoted policies that focused on the well-being of all citizens…when the working class could afford to buy houses, start businesses of their own, and raise families in stable homes. Money is nothing more than a tool for improving our lives, and spending is the only way to use it.
The modern Republican party has betrayed the working class in favor of supporting giant corporations, and they maintain power by promoting division and hatred through mostly irrelevant social issues. Gay marriage is not what will undermine democracy and bring the economy crashing down again. Crony capitalism is, and it’s what we need to be talking about.
There’s one final thing that needs to be said, something most people don’t seem to be thinking about. The continued advancement of technology poses a major threat to capitalist societies, because at some point most jobs will be automated and the need for a working class will evaporate. At that point, an economic system based on separate owner and laborer classes will simply be impossible, and the result of sticking to capitalist policies will likely be a new form of feudalism. The only good alternative I can think of is socialism.