Yeah, I’d like some socialism, hold the Bolshevism though

Ah socialism, the “S” word that is finding its way into more and more conversations within America. For a while it’s always been in conversations, but usually about “those damn socialists in Russia” or something like that. The reason it’s finding its way into modern conversations is between the United States is really “A Tale of Two Cities,” or more a tale of two economies; one economy is booming, surpassing most of the world, producing massive amounts of wealth and the highest standard of living in the world while the other economy has been stagnating for almost three decades, hasn’t created wealth in 30-40 years, and is mid-tier first world. The ruling elite and upper middle class get to enjoy the first economy, about 70-80% of Americans endure the second. So, that’s why socialism keeps coming up.

But for all the talk about socialism, it would seem that no one really understands it, both those who hate it and those sympathetic to the sound of it. See, one side hears “socialism” and they immediately think of some Nordic paradise only with real beaches and warm weather (because this is America) where everyone has healthcare, everyone goes to school for free, and we all enjoy salaries of $100,000 a year. The other side hears “socialism” and they think back to their days growing up in the shadow of Russia (because, let’s be honest, the biggest demographic opposed to any and all socialism are all 40+), they think of the government controlling everything in your life, and think that younger generations are wanting to Make Lenin Great Again. The fact is, however, that both sides are pretty wrong.

To understand socialism, it’s probably best to realize that socialism isn’t some monolithic thing. The Bolshevism in Russia circa 1917 and the Soviet government that came from it certainly falls under socialist theories, but not all socialist theories would accept Bolshevism. So let’s look the fear of Bolshevism right in the face and after that, let’s go on to define socialism to show that it’s not the big, scary monster that everyone seems to think it is.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had different types of socialists there, but the Bolshevists seemed to rise to prominence. Whereas most leftists in Russia at the time wanted a decentralized socialist state, the Bolshevists believed only through a centralization of the localized soviets could bring about a truly socialist state. The soviets, before they became “The Soviets” who went on to kill Apollo Creed and then lose in hockey, were localized councils formed of factory workers and other laborers. After deposing of the Tsar, they helped make up the provisional government. Everything was great until Vladimir Lenin came up with this crazy idea that a federation of soviets would work better and that they’d work best under a charismatic leader (very anti-Marxist). And then Vladimir Lenin gave a speech where he said, “And, my dudes, I’m a charismatic leader and came up with this idea, so…” And while everyone was thinking that this seemed weird, Lenin basically Leroy Jenkins’ed the provisional government, but was successful and after the Russian Civil War the soviets became the Soviets.

The Russian model of socialism, specifically of Communism, was one of heavy centralization, bureaucracy, and cult personality (until post-Stalin, when everyone realized that maybe having a cult personality isn’t the best thing); ironically, these are the things that Marx argued against and that most socialists – dating back to the French Revolution (first one) and especially the second French Revolution (second one) – were very much against. The Russian Model (or Marxism-Leninism) wanted a vanguard of revolutionaries who made revolution their profession, who would guide the people through a transition into a purely Communist society. Of course, as humans are humans – and as Russia will always be Russia – once the people were in power they forgot about that whole transition thing.  They centralized the economy, worked from a planned economy – which is what harmed the Ukraine more than anything – and gave control to the “soviets,” who weren’t a vanguard organically grown from the working class, but were a political elite selected due to their loyalty to the party and personality leader.

Anyone with a proper understanding of socialism can look at the above model and go, “Yeah, I don’t like that” and still be a socialist. See, Marxism-Leninism is a school within the broad spectrum of socialism. If someone can reject the above and still be a socialist when the above is socialist, what exactly is socialism?

The briefest and simplest definition I can think to give is that socialism is any view where the public use of a good is valued above the private ownership of a good, to the point that the good is publicly owned and managed. To some, that still sounds like Soviet Russia, but it’s not. Roads are considered a public good. Fire departments, police, even utilities are considered public goods. They are, then, publicly owned and paid for by communal funds (taxes). Few people, except for the most libertarian and anarcho-capitalist among us, would argue for privatizing the police, the fire department, or roads. No one wants to call the police or fire department only to be met with a one-time use fee of $99, or pay a monthly subscription of $300. These things are public goods. But at its most basic level, that’s socialism.

There must also be an understanding of the difference between private property and capital producing property. Can I own property under socialism? Can I own a business under socialism? Can I have a paycheck or any ownership under socialism? The answer is, yes, of course you can to all of the above. A home, a car, a computer, a TV, or any other thing that we consider marks of a quality of life aren’t public goods because they have no public interest. They are property, but they aren’t capital producing property; no one makes money by having a TV, a car, a computer, etc. They might be used to help you obtain capital, but they themselves are not capital producing. Owning a business, however, is a capital producing property and now we get to discuss socialism.

The socialist theory of business ownership varies depending on the school of socialism we’re talking about, but at its core the argument is and always will be that the private ownership of a business must always come second to the public good offered by the business. This isn’t to say that you can’t own a bodega or own a fruit stand, but the moment your ownership threatens the good of the local community, you’ll face regulations or even lose the ownership of the property. That sounds extreme, but we already do this; if a factory is dumping toxic waste into a local river, they risk the government shutting their business down (or at least did at one point, not so much under the current administration).

Ideally, socialism would look at capital producing private property and argue one of two things (or both): All capital producing property should be owned and managed by the workers of that property and/or all capital producing property should be owned, managed, and regulated by the community. It takes the idea of democracy and privatizes it, eradicating the dictatorship of executive boards and management and instead creating mini-democracies out of businesses. And it’s hard to argue against the theory (and practice), because to do so would be to say that democracy is a bad thing (and at times it can be, but how many capitalists want to admit that?). The argument goes that the worker should be entitled to own the fruits of his labor, otherwise he’s engaged in a form of slavery. It may not be the Roman system of slavery or the American system of slavery, it may not be brutal, but it’s still a form of slavery because his entire existence rests upon the good graces of a boss. His labor is owned by someone else, which would fall under slavery.

Even strict social goods like healthcare and education can be federally funded, but administered at a local level. Within the US, this means that states or even municipalities would have the responsibility of running the administration of their universal healthcare system and education system (with the support of federal dollars, so there would be federal guidelines, but still the freedom to run the system that best supports the locality). All told, the goal of any socialist system is to give more power to the locality whether it’s in business or government. Someone who supports a decentralized socialist system (such as myself) is a big fan of local government, but is also a big fan of local business.

It is why some of us can look at Bolshevism with the same disdain that a capitalist would look at it; but we look at capitalism (at least American Capitalism) and see it being just as bad as Bolshevism (there’s an argument that Bolshevism looked worse than it actually is because it took place in Russia, and Russia is notoriously bad at anything government related, historically speaking). It’s why some of us, many of us, can ask for a socialist system, but to leave the Bolshevism on the side.

 

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Capitalism isn’t always violent, except when it always is

If you haven’t heard, Communism has killed a lot of people (or a lot of people have been killed in the name of Communism…whatever, semantics are boring). What’s fun for me is to watch people on the far left unironically say Stalin did nothing wrong and to argue that such deaths are necessary. I, of course, ironically say Stalin did nothing wrong, but usually just to be an ass to whatever conservative I’m debating. Or whatever anarcho-capitalist I’m mocking, along with his fedora and neckbeard. But, yeah, Stalin did a lot wrong. So did Mao. So did, well, really all Communist leaders up to this point. Oops.

But what’s never asked is how many people has Capitalism killed? “But Disgruntled Philosopher!…” you may be saying (you’re probably not saying that), “Capitalism hasn’t killed anyone! It’s brought about so many technological advances that it’s saved lives! And even if it has killed a few people (via Chilean helicopter rides), look at all the progress we’d gained!”

Yet, Capitalism has killed millions of people and is killing people to this day. Not directly, no one is saying, “In the name of Capitalism, I hereby sentence you to death for being poor.” Capitalism is just as deadly as Communism, if not more, and it’s deadly from its core because of its central philosophy of individualism. Let’s fall down this rabbit hole, shall we?

Humans are beings made to be in a community, yet also distinct from each other. Every personality is unique, but at the same time is supposed to function to work with other personalities. This is the foundation of culture in its smallest measurement, that people get together and impress themselves on one another, and from these distinctions society begins to grow. The greatest flaw is when we emphasize one element over the other, when we create an imbalance between the individual and the community. The problem with most forms of Communism, admittedly, is the archaic idea of “the greater good,” of placing the individual in a subordinate position to the greater good, which is vague enough to sound reasonable, but also vague enough to really, really abuse.

Capitalism commits the opposite mistake. It places the value on the individual, going so far as to say that all transactional dealings between individuals are (or ought) to be for pure mutual benefit. Thus, everything is a voluntary exchange between individuals at a market price, and the market is this invisible hand that dictates how everything works. This allows for individual liberty and the world spins on while everyone prospers.

It’s also bollocks.

See, in Adam Smith’s most important work – no, not that book, this book – he begins from a point of view where moral sentiments aren’t naturally known to humans. All morality is essentially drawn from observing others and from creating this invisible observer who either praises us for good deeds or chastises us for bad. Wanting to avoid chastisement, we act a certain way, which often fits within our social norms. While some think this later contradicts his theory in Wealth of Nations, it does the opposite and lays the groundwork. In Wealth, Smith argued that self-interest drove morality, which ultimately drove the market; everyone engages in business and, really, engages in life, for one’s own self-interest. But his Theory of Moral Sentiments idea that we only act moral because of what others think is where his idea was really fleshed out, and that’s what we find at the core of Capitalism: Self-interest being the guiding factor for the market. Voluntary cooperation in the market only happens so long as it’s beneficial to one’s self interest.

The thing is, an entire moral theory based upon the belief that self-interest is the foundation of morality is an inherently violent belief. It divorces humans from any grounding of truth and makes all moral choices value calculations; nothing is right or wrong, just beneficial and disadvantageous. In creating this divorce, an individual no longer has a tie to a community beyond what he can get out of the community, beyond how he can best use that community to his best benefit; he’s divorced from his communal nature as a human being and there is nothing more violence in this world than being divorced from your nature.

It follows, then, that if at its core we see violence, then we should see very early examples of violence within…oh come on people, SLAVERY! Slavery existed prior to the advent of Capitalism (Capitalism predates Smith, who was merely writing down popular liberal economic theories at the time and perfecting them), but Capitalism took what was a small, but still unjust practice, and loaded it up with energy drinks and cocaine. The reason was simple: Slavery, or exploitation of labor, was best suited for one’s self-interest. Why pay people when I can force them to work for free?

The contradictory element to Capitalism is that people should act out of their own self-interests and that Capitalism is voluntary. If acting in my own self-interests, at a certain point my interests will come into a direct conflict with another person’s interests, and the conflict will be so great that they are mutually exclusive, meaning one of us must win out. An easier way to understand this is through demonstration: Walk into your boss’ office and demand a raise to a livable wage, a wage you deem fit. I’ll wait. Now, did you get fired? Did you get laughed at? Well, you can just quit, right? Oh, no, you can’t because you need an income? So then how is this system, where your boss keeps your wage low for his own self-interest in earning a higher profit, truly voluntary? You can’t leave it and everyone else acts like your boss, so how is something you’re forced to do to live truly voluntary? It’s like saying eating and breathing are voluntary acts. In the strictest sense, yeah, they are, but c’mon.

Likewise, Capitalism assumes that people know what is in their self-interests. But if there’s anything one can learn from studying thousands of years of human history, or watching YouTube videos, is that humans are idiots. The fact that we’ve made it this far in our evolutionary journey is a miracle, because we really shouldn’t have made it past hunting and gathering. This ties over into everyday economics. Even though there’s an almost universal consensus that higher wages typically means higher profits, higher productivity, and long-term sustainability for companies, few are willing to pay higher wages. Even though it’d be in their best interest to pay higher wages, they don’t because they don’t perceive that as their best interest. Thus, they continue the exploitation of labor (which is a violent act as it takes away the freedom of another) thinking that it’s in their best interest to continue this exploitation.

Along the lines of not knowing what is best, this comes to the actual violence we’ve seen in Capitalism. We’ve seen corporations pour toxic waste into rivers, which killed people. We’ve seen them keep food supplies artificially low in some areas to boost costs, which of course caused famines. We’ve seen them convince the British Empire to just up and invade China over opium. And of course, there’s the American healthcare system, the biggest FU to anyone without money and even those who are middle class. It’s marketed as some big, beautiful free market solution to all those nasty, socialist healthcare systems around the world. It’s the last bastion where people can come and die of a preventable disease, but so do freely, unlike those living into old age under the healthcare-laden chains of socialism. There’s a reason that the US has a higher infant mortality rate than any other industrialized nation in the world and it has nothing to do with essential oils. It’s estimated that tens of thousands up to hundreds of thousands of people die in the US alone due to inadequate healthcare.

The point being, Capitalism has killed millions of people over the years, though not always intentionally (except for Pinochet, but that guy was a dick). A better example would be this:

Two people come across a forest that’s overgrown. One guy, we’ll call him Vlad, says we must burn the brush. You object, saying there are homes in the way, that it’ll cost property and possibly cost human lives. He agrees, but says that if the fire isn’t started now, it could lead to a bigger fire in the future that would cost even more lives. So he warns people to leave and then sets the fire anyway, even after many say they’ll stay.

The other guy, we’ll call him Ayn Rand, notices all the overgrowth and says, “Yeah, bruh, not my problem.” He then lights his cigarette, smokes it a bit, then tosses it and walks away. It was in his self-interest to toss it, and it didn’t matter where. And without warning, the forest erupts and everyone loses their homes, everyone loses their lives. He then proceeds to write a horrible novel about how Vlad ruined all freedom. We all just shrug.

In both scenarios both people are wrong, much like how Communism and Capitalism are wrong. But Communism is very intentional in the deaths it causes (with a “maybe” exception to Mao’s industrialization of China and killing sparrows; I mean, who other than scientists and farmers knew you needed such animals to keep locusts away?). Capitalism is unintentional in the deaths it causes, but inevitable due to the core philosophy not meshing with who we are as a species. While Communism wants a revolution to establish a new society, Capitalism just wants the individual to reign supreme, or put another way, Communism gave us Joseph Stalin, but Capitalism merely privatized the dictatorship and renamed it to CEO. And it’s meant to, because rather than keeping us within the community where we belong, it displaces us and makes us refugees, but empowers us to be individual dictators enforcing our will on the masses, so long as we believe it’s in our self-interest.