ernie Sanders has put the word “socialism” into our current political discourse. Other candidates and the media want to ignore his ‘democratic socialism”. The Republican candidates will attack it as un-American. However, his rallies are drawing huge numbers of young people (and others) who are not afraid of the ‘S’ word. Half of the Iowa Democrats were even drawn to it, not to mention most of New Hampshire’s voters. But what does it mean? That is the question our panel today will explore. Is it the New Deal? Or public ownership of the means of production or just an activist government promoting the common welfare? Is it publicly owned facilities? Or is it cooperatives or even communal living? Whatever it is, the billionaire class is afraid of it.
There are three presentations. The first is by Dick Snyder who explores the root of the idea in the commons, i.e. those resources we all share that are governed by the community. Second, Cliff DuRand links socialism to democratic struggles for progressive change. Finally, Gregory Diamant asks “Why socialism?”
Socialist America….Home of the Brave, Land of the Free....Almost.
by Dick Snyder
What a gift it was for those of us born in the USA between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. It was a time of great advancements in the world. Science and innovation were flourshing, advances in the arts and literature were blooming, new products for consumption were confronting us everyday. Even our mothers were finding ease in the kitchen as Ms. Crocker taught us that all we needed to produce a great meal was a can of Campbell soup, a pound of hamburger, a few noodles and some cream.
The economy was flourishing, most workers received the benefits of a paid vacation and health care with doctors making house calls to treat sick children, gas was cheap and there was a chicken in almost every pot. At least that was how it was in White America. The story is quite different in Black, Brown, Yellow and Red America.
I never thought twice about being born in a public hospital, of having a father who worked for the War Production Board or going to a public school. That was just how things were.
After graduating from a public high school I attended a public university, received a teacher certification and taught in a public high school. I loved teaching but about that time Johnson’s war on poverty started. I left teaching and went to work developing and directing Community Action Agencies. They were an interesting combination of a public agency blended with a NGO concept. They were directly funded by the federal government to a local non profit corporation. They had boards composed of 1/3 low income, 1/3 private organizations and 1/3 elected officials or their appointees. The Federal government directly funded these new hybrid local agencies to out reach into the low income neighborhoods, to work with low income leaders, to implement programs such as Head Start, Neighborhood Youth Corp, Adult Work Training Programs, Energy Conservation, WIC, Senior Citizens Services and Centers and many more nationally designed and locally implemented programs. These top down nationally designed programs were coupled with bottom up programs that were designed within the low income neighborhoods that created dialogue with local elected officials on the needs of the neighborhoods. They also created very innovative approaches to neighborhood and individual problems.
All of these things seemed like a normal extension of growing up in the good old USA. Following an 18 year career in anti poverty programming (which I left because of massive cuts in human service programs by the wonderful Reagan Presidency) I moved on to other things. I decided that if I would ever be able to retire and enjoy the fruits of my labors I need to do something that would create an economic base that would be mine. I did this by buying really dilapidated houses, tearing them apart and renovating them into contemporary housing. Rather than “flipping the houses” I kept them as rental properties. I decided to partner with the Federal governments Section 8 program which provided Federal rent subsidies where lower income families would have the government help them pay a portion of the rent. This partnership with the federal government, the low income families and my hard work allowed me to create an economic base for retirement and provide good housing for lower income families and elderly.
So now I’m retired and living on the fruits of my labor and Social Security and have health care provide by Medicare.
I also grew up with many other wonderful services. Not only did our city and county governments take care of our trash, build our roads and sidewalks, remove the snow, provide for police and fire service, bring to every home water and sewer services, it provided public schools, bus services and public hospitals, it provided recreational programs, swimming pools, baseball fields and so many more amenities that made for a better public life.
What services that weren’t brought to us by the units of government were often brought to us by cooperative organizations. From electrical coops to telephone coops, from farmers coops to credit unions. What wasn’t available from government or the capitalistic system was supplemented by organizations of consumers and producers.
I suspect my experiences are not that different than many of you.
WE WERE RAISED IN SOCIALIST AMERICA. Born in a socialist hospital, educated in socialist institutions, worked for socialist employer….you know, a school teacher, a college professor, a fireman, a police man, a social worker, a nurse, a garbage man, a postal carrier, a judge. We were protected by a socialist fireman and policeman, played ball and swam in socialist facilities.
If we were bad we went to a socialist jail and if really bad a socialist prison. If there was a break out of a communicable disease like polio, we were protected by a socialist health system with vaccinations and public health nurses and doctors. Even when we died we were served by a socialist coroner and often buried in a socialist cemetery.
We were proud to be an American. We did not think twice about living in a system that provided Socialist services. We expected it.
So what went wrong??????
I remember so well when I was a student in socialist Irving grade school being told to dive under my desk to prepare for that evil socialist communist country ……Russia. Oh yes, the civil defense drills that would save our life from the Atom Bomb.
Oh how scary it was to consider being attacked by that socialist monster. We were trained to think that they would attack us on any given day. That was the next step in inoculating us from the whores of socialism…..communism. They were not Capitalist and that was bad. Slowly but surely the concept of socialist public service was undermined. It was so subtle that we did not even realize it.
In the 1970’s , a year before Supreme Court Justice Powell was nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court he authored a long paper to the US Chamber of Commerce. It was a plan of action for the take over of the American political system. It was a call to the industrial and financial system to free capitalism from the controls of the people. It was based on building a local network of organizations that would be supported by national think tanks. Their job was to take over local government which would lead to the take over of the state and national governmental systems. The goal that we can now see was not only the reform of the tax system that generated the dollars necessary to support the socialist service we had been raised to expect but the privatization of public services and unbridling of capitalism. They were successful because we were lulled to sleep with the wonderful life that so many of us had.
They slowly but surely attacked public socialist service. They proclaimed that the government was filled with inefficiencies and corruptions. They coached the public that they would receive better services at a fraction of the cost if only we privatized. Everything was up for grabs. From private interstate highways, to private prisons, to private or allegedly non profit hospitals, to private charter schools. The State Universities were told to become self sufficient where before they were told to be the educational foundation of our future. It has gone so far that now the government expects to make a profit in student loans. This list could go on and on but it is better that it ends now.
In closing I want to say that I was so privileged to have been born in a quality public hospital, I am so privileged to have gone to quality public schools and a quality public university. Teaching in a public high school followed by developing public funded human services programs was an honor. Creating quality low income rental property allowed me to not only serve my community but also build a base for retirement and was a wonderful adventure. Now I live with the benefits of Social Security and Medicare to the back drop of the fruits of my labor. All of this is a wonderful benefit of being a product of a Socialist America. I only wish that my children, grandchildren and great grand children can recreate what I was so lucky to have inherited.
To create that for our grandchildren and their children now requires a global response to the crazy issues of today. Wealth inequality, rampant corporate abuse, rampant exploitation of natural resources, economic control of the military complex, gross over consumption of resources and even more important the crisis of global warming that is threatening the human race…our children and grandchildren….the possibility of extinction.
What we inherited as children of the 30’s 40’s 50’s was a socialized system of services that supported our development; it supported a tightly bridled capitalism system with a tax system that insured that accumulated wealth was limited. It created a system that appreciated innovation and hard work while taxing its fruits so that all could benefit. It created opportunities for us that were beyond belief. My question is how can we re create or create anew what we had for the benefits of our grandchildren and their children to come.
If we do not do that we will not be a part of the world of the brave and the planet of the free.
Socialism: the real historical process toward a participatory democratic society
by Cliff DuRand
For the older generation who grew up under the influence of the Cold War against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the term ‘socialism’ is burdened with negative connotations. We learned that socialism was totalitarian, dictatorial, oppressive, and a host of other nasty things. Clearly socialism, or communism (for they were hardly distinguished), was a threat to the American Way of Life, defined as “free enterprise” and associated with “democracy”. It was through a politics of fear that our political elite mobilized popular support for its defense of capitalism.
Today a younger generation is not so burdened with this history. They are more open to the idea of socialism and more critical of capitalism. For them, Bernie Sanders advocacy of democratic socialism is appealing. Similarly in Latin America there is a major effort to reinvent socialism for the 21st century. Learning from the mistakes of 20th century socialism, the Left is rethinking how to build socialism in our times. The state socialist model of the Soviet Union is being rejected on several counts. While social control of the means of production is still embraced as a fundamental principle, the state is no longer seen as the exclusive agent for this control. The management of economic activity is now seen as something that can be handled by associated producers, as in a cooperative, rather than state bureaucrats trying to centrally plan the economy. 21st Century Socialism gives priority to developing the relations of production rather than the material forces of production. In the state socialist model, workers were wage laborers for the state, directed and controlled from above very much the same as in a capitalist enterprise. That’s why state socialism is sometimes called state capitalism. Unlike capitalism, state socialism gave workers life long job security and many social benefits like free health care, education, etc. But beneath this paternalism, their labor was still alienated. 21st Century Socialism seeks to overcome this alienation by bringing workers into democratic control of their worklife, thereby building cooperative social relations among them.
So, what is socialism? How do we build it? In a nutshell, it is the real historical process toward a participatory democratic society. It is the collective empowerment of the common man and woman over the conditions that effect their lives. Thus it is the progressive enrichment of human beings towards a fuller human development.
Socialism is not an ideology, nor is it an idealized finished product. It is a process, a movement, as popular classes struggle for a better world for themselves and their children. As such, it always takes place under specific historically given conditions. In our epoch those conditions are defined by the dominant system of capitalism with its institutionalized property and power relations and with all of the ideological overlay that gives it legitimacy. It is that system that we have to struggle against and built an alternative to.
That system has a history and evolves over time in response to its own contradictions. And so the struggles for democracy also evolve. The struggle against colonialism takes a different form than the struggle against slavery and our successes are institutionalized in different forms of popular empowerment. In our own times we have seen capitalism develop new forms, evolving from national capitalism to transnational capitalism, from welfare capitalism to neoliberal capitalism, from industrialization to financialization.
In these various struggles, seldom can we achieve a final, decisive victory. Usually our hard struggle can only carve out limited gains in human freedom. While these can be immensely important in people’s lives, seldom do they amount to systemic change, although their cumulative effect can eventually be profound. Real revolutions take a lot of time.
It is in this light that we should look at Bernie’s claim to be a democratic socialist. His campaign program is a new New Deal. It is an updated version of FDR’s social liberalism. As such, it is a call to reclaim what has been lost over the last 40 years in the face of a neoliberal tsunami that has engulfed the US, drowning social liberalism in a wave of market fundamentalism. In that sense Bernie’s social democratic program is an effort to achieve a measure of popular independence from capital. Thus it points forward in the process of building socialism because it is democratically empowering. Does it bring the means of production under social control, removing them from private hands? No, it is not socialist in that sense. It is a modest step forward that can generate momentum for further democratization. Admittedly, as long as the means of production remain in private hands, popular power will be limited and our gains will eventually be reversed. Yes, the day will come when the productive forces of society will have to come under social control, but we’re a long way from that now. Under present conditions we need to make huge efforts to make baby steps forward to regain ground that has been lost and thereby restore hope that progress is still possible. It will take massive social movements to make significant progress –what Bernie calls a political revolution. It is a revolution that must continue for long after the electoral season is over.
I want to close with a cautionary tale by Peter Weisberg, a member of the Center for Global Justice Board.
“He watched the Un-presidential race from the comforts of his suburban home. After another day of unsatisfying work, he grabbed a cold beer from the fridge. Even grabbed a quick toke from the vape. The final act in his daily cleansing ritual was the hot tub. Such a great way to put the days frustrations behind. His spa was an older model, even though he still had 21 more monthly payments of $18 to pay off the balance. The units thermostat had gone on the fritz, but he couldn't be bothered by such a trivial matter.
After 4 days of working his 2 jobs, exhaustion came quickly. He took another sip of beer and closed his eyes. His breathing took on a slower and deeper rhythm. The soothing water slowly went from the perfect temperature to just a smidge warmer. Un-noticed. His eyes closed and his body relaxed into sweet surrender. The heater stayed on instead of cycling down as he gradually succumbed to sleep. With the steam rising steadily from the spa, no one noticed as he slid gently under the surface.
Life under a H Clinton administration seems to fit this story. More of the same with the chance of a newer hot tub. If we just close our eyes and let the system move stealthily forward, we will all slip under the surface of a globe whose; moral, social, economic thermostat no longer functions. Maybe it never did function for the 99%. Bernie has some good tools in his fix-it box. Those tools can begin to sculpt an alternative, institutional vision. But without a mass movement pushing and guiding him, those tools will stay in the box. And the water keeps getting warmer.”
IN DREAMS BEGIN RESPONSIBILITIES
By Gregory Diamant
Unmistakably, we are approaching dangerous times: ecological pressures; bio-genetic tinkerings (let’s re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with fresh eyes); robotic warfare and policing; rising inequality and sea levels are just some of the challenges we are facing. A new global authoritarianism is either here or on the near horizon (no, not the fascism of the twentieth century; something new: let’s analyze it). Do we dare dream of a new utopia, a new type and structure of society; do we go back to the future? Is socialism the answer? What is it anyway?
As a self-proclaimed socialist I have been asking that question for fifty years. I don’t know the answer; I only know that the answers have been changing as we have struggled, studied, protested and tried with minimal success to change the world while the world has changed in innumerable ways around us. I prefer Einstein’s question: Why Socialism?
One response is because I dream of a better world, one in which I live in a vigorous democracy where respect for others and a feeling of cooperation and solidarity are at the forefront of our daily existence and are not just the object of lip service. I want a world in which we democratically decide to make things that are useful (and we will have to struggle over that definition) and not just create objects and waste because they are profitable to someone or some entity. I want to be part of a society where laborers are truly free (not just legally so); where democracy is an integral part of the workplace and where work can be more fulfilling and not just time spent in subservient dullness in a space often marked by destructive competiveness and runaway individualism. In short, not capitalism. So much for my dream; it is only a partial answer to Einstein’s question.
But how do make it a reality? One thing we will have to do is to redefine politics. One of the first tasks in doing that will be to take the responsibility to define what is good. We will have to get back to asking fundamental questions about life on earth: how will we organize ourselves; what will be our relation to nature; what really is democracy and is it achievable. We will then have to be responsible for the collective decisions we will take that will shape our existence. Politics in this sense (not the cheap, corrupted and manipulative politics we are used to and often unthinkingly accept) trumps what we often think of as ethics. Of course, I don’t mean the vulgar concept of ethics (a sort of extreme version of libertarianism where anything goes) but all too often, what passes today as ethics, or moral politics, devolves into a type of self-serving individualism (with the best of intentions). No, politics, or a socialist politics, means asking the basic questions and then struggling collectively to put the answers into practice. And when we fail (and we will) we will have to fail better (Beckett). For me, being a socialist means doing these things.
We will have to search out the possibilities within capitalism for a socialist transformation. An essential part of this transformation is the re-appropriation of the means of production by the direct producers: it the basis for our highest democratic aspirations. Who are the direct producers? We are, not just people who work in factories. The last forty years have seen massive changes in the structure of the political economy of the advanced capitalist nations. Much manufacturing has migrated to the global South in the search for lower wages and higher profits (pace Donald Trump), while the financial and service areas have become a much larger part of the economy in those “advanced” nations. This has led to lower wages and more insecure work married to a higher level of consumer activity that has been financed by a significant increase in personal and institutional debt. All of us who work and are not part of the super-rich are direct producers of value in some form or another. The wealth we produce flows upward into the pockets of the one percent and that wealth is used in ways over which we have no or very limited control.
One of our great struggles is over the problem of the commons: the commons of nature as the basis of our lives; our collective bio-genetic heritage; our cultural commons (e.g. the expropriation and exploitation of “intellectual property” [a truly odious term]); and finally our common humanity from which all too many are excluded by, among other things, poverty and the loss or absence of legal and political rights. (Žižek). Here lie fundamental questions.
I cannot predict what form the future structure of society will take. Will it be another reform of capitalism a la social democracy, an authoritarian dystopia or a type of socialism that has true democracy as one of its core values? That will be determined during the course of our fight for a better world. I only know that we must break free of the capitalist political economy and that there is no return to a mythical lost paradise. Yes, we will need reforms but that will not be enough as capitalism is like the many headed Hydra of Greek mythology. If one head is cut off, two more grow back as replacements. We need the Hercules of socialist transformation to kill the beast once and for all so that we can begin to build a truly equitable and democratic society. As I said, there will be many failures along the way and the outcome is unknown. But what I do know is that the current system is unjust and untenable. If we are to dream, we must dream responsibly by first and foremost asking the essential questions and also by critiquing ourselves. We must not accept that there exists an unchanging line between what is possible and impossible. It is our task to redefine that line by rethinking the limits of the possible and the impossible. The most realistic thing to do is to do what appears to be impossible.
We need to rehabilitate the slogan of 1968: Be realistic; demand the impossible (soyons réalistes; demandons l’impossible)!