Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Candidate Obama has been labeled a "socialist," and "socialism" seems to be especially visible and audible in the media these days, so I thought I'd check with the venerable OED (albeit the online version) for a definition of "socialism":

"1. A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all. Freq. with initial capital. Christian socialism, a doctrine or theory, promulgated about 1850 by F. D. Maurice, C. Kingsley, T. Hughes, and others, advocating a form of socialism on a Christian basis.
1837 Leeds Times 12 Aug. 5/1 Socialism.Messrs. Fleming and Rigby.On Monday evening..these two gentlemen attended [sic] an audience..on the topics of the real nature of man. 1839 J. MATHER (title), Socialism Exposed: or ‘The Book of the New Moral World’ Examined. Ibid. App. 22 To explain and expose what Robert Owen's Socialism is. 1840 Quart. Rev. Dec. 180 The two great demons in morals and politics, Socialism and Chartism. 1850 Daily News 13 Mar. 5/2 The infection of..‘Christian Socialism’ is spreading to Whitehall. 1863 FAWCETT Polit. Econ. II. i. 181 Socialism, as first propounded by Owen and Fourier, proposed that a society living together should share all the wealth produced. 1881 STEVENSON Virg. Puerisque 89, I do not greatly pride myself on having outlived my belief in the fairy tales of Socialism.

2. A state of society in which things are held or used in common.
1879 H. GEORGE Progr. & Pov. VI. i. (1881) . . . ."

A mere citizen and poet, I am obviously no expert on politics, political economy, or philosophies of government.

However, my lack of expertise, as usual, does not impede the offering of opinions.

Judging by definition #2 in the OED, the U.S. seems to have decided (to the extent a nation can be said to decide) to operate as a society that combines capitalism, socialism, repbulicanism (small r), democracy (of sorts, small d), and imperialism. By the latter term, I mean simply that the U.S. decided to control a lot of lands and countries outside its boundaries, rather aggressively. I give you the Puerto Rico, Iraq, South Korea, a piece of Cuba, and Afghanistan as examples, not to mention bases in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. We make the Romans look like provincials.

I think the capitalist aspects of U.S. society are self-evident. I think some socialist ones are, too. The latter include national parks, state and interstate, highways, public schools, public universities, the Library of Congress, national monuments, social security, and Medicare. That is to say, in a manner of speaking, citizens or "the government" "own" these things and entities; or rather, these things and entities are a "commons" we share. Theoretically, at least, some of my taxes go to support Yellowstone Park, and I may visit there, enjoy myself, but not act as if I own it in the way I own a third of an acre in some suburban tract. It seems to me one great question with which a society must grapple is what parts of the society should constitute "the commons," as opposed to private or corporate property. I happen to think national parks a are a heck of a good idea, for example.

I happen to think health care should be part of the commons, something of which we all take part and something we all support, each according to our capacities. Everybody needs medical attention at some point, no exceptions. Most adults have something to contribute to a common pool; those that don't have something deserve assistance anyway because they are our fellow citizens. When somebody's that far down on their luck or their health, you don't just help them out, ad hoc, you think ahead and develop a system that's there to help them out. It's called being compassionately practical, or sensible.

Some kind of comprehensive (definition = everyone eligible to be covered) system, not necessarily nationalized but coordinated nationally, stands a very good chance of being more economically efficient and easier to navigate than the incomplete, expensive, inscrutable system we have now.

Further, I'd assert that almost all, if not all, Republicans and Democrats (including McCain and Obama) combine capitalism and socialism in their views, policies, and plans--with very little difference between them (the views, policies, and plans).

Let us now see if I, a mere citizen and poet, can get even more simplistic in my analysis:

I think a remaining piece of the socialism the U.S. is moving toward accepting is, indeed, a "universal" health care system. I think it will not look like the one in Italy or Sweden, but I think the politicians will be forced to pass laws that give almost everyone access to health care up and above visits to emergency rooms. Oddly enough, I think such a system will assist capitalism as practiced by small businesses and large corporations, and this assistance may be the capitalistic impetus required to achieve socialistic ends. Wouldn't a sensible, more-or-less universal health-care system help all businesses and corporations to assess and to control their overhead better and therefore operate more efficiently?

Then, this question: Are the combined armed forces an example of socialism? They are controlled, allegedly, by "the government," and they are funded by tax-dollars. On the other hand, how much say do citizens have in how armed forces are deployed? The last war formally declared by our elected representatives was WWII. Are the armed forces an example of capitalism (the military-industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned)? Are they a form of oligarchic dictatorship? Did "we" decide to invade Iraq, or did Bush and a few others?

However one might define our combined armed forces politically, they present the U.S. with quite a problem. The U.S. spends almost immeasurably more money on its military than almost every other nation; the U.S. is broke; the U.S. probably needs to shrink its armed forces. Will it shrink its armed forces, whether McCain or Obama is elected? No, I think not. I think the system is self-perpetuating.

But back to the original question about socialism: all mainstream politicians blend capitalism and socialism, and many of the programs that fit the definition of socialism (like highways and bridges) keep the politicians in office. Pork is a variety of socialism, that is. Even the most right-wing politicians who rail against "socialism" support projects owned collectively by "the people." Even Bernie Sanders, the independent, socialist politician from Vermont, harbors some capitalistic tendencies. So A) let's not kid ourselves, B) let's stop hurling "socialism" and "socialist" around as if we were calling people werewolves or vampires, C) let's fess up to the fact the our system does combine and will continue to combine capitalism and socialism, and D) let's admit that we don't know how to stop spending so much money to maintain our imperial status.

Incidentally, the famous Helen Keller (pictured) liked socialism and thought of herself as a socialist.

And, deploying another abrupt, non-transitional transition, let me mention that I just finished reading a fascinating nonfiction book: Meet You In Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Partnership that Defined America. Co-monopolists, Carnegie and Frick basically cornered several related markets: coke (not cocaine but raw material for steel); steel (making and selling); iron-mining; and railroads (which required steel to operate and which hauled the coke and the steel). It was all a magnificent closed loop, one that made them surrealistically wealthy but that brutalized their workforces, and I'm not being melodramatic. If you made steel, your body was basically ruined by age 40, and your family was left broke.

Ultimately, the two men became sworn enemies, owing in part to the strike at the Homestead steel-making factory, the attempted strike-breaking by the hired Pinkertons, and the eventual take-over of the factory by the military, which was not pro-union, to say the least. Monopolism triumphed. Strangely enough, however, Carnegie eventually decided to "redistribute" almost all of his massive wealth. He just kept giving it away. He gave it away ostentatiously, true; that is, he made sure people knew he was giving it away. But he still gave it away. He was a mightily conflicted man. Frick, not so much. He was an unconflicted, uncomplicated, albeit very bright and ruthless capitalist, monopolist, and anti-unionist. Anyway, the book's a great read, regardless of your own economic perspective, whether you are a capitalistic purist, a muddled centrist, an anarchic syndicalist, or just a person who works, sleeps, eats, and then occasionally votes.

I'll end with two final hopelessly simplistic rheotrical questions: Isn't almost any program of taxation, even in a capitalist society such as ours, a form of redistributing wealth, even if the wealth distributed is comparatively trivial? Did any truly wealthy person ever become unwealthy because of taxation?

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