Wednesday, September 5, 2018

What Liberals and Conservatives Both Get Wrong About Socialism and Communism

     On July 24th, 2018, on ABC's The View, co-hosts Joy Behar and Meghan McCain had a heated exchange about socialism, in which McCain criticized the “normalization” of socialism which she felt is coming from supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York U.S. House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, often described as “democratic socialists”.
      McCain, the daughter of late senator John McCain, claimed that socialism has never worked, asserted that Venezuela's problems stem from socialism, and said that Democrats will lose if they continue to run “radicals” like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. McCain also echoed late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's line that “the problem with socialism is that, sooner or later, you run out of other people's money”.
     When McCain challenged Joy Behar to name a country in which socialism has worked, Behar surmised that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez admires the “socialism” attempted in Scandinavian countries, rather than the Chavista variety in Venezuela (which Nicolas Maduro is trying to carry on). As examples of such European “socialist” countries, Behar named Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. After that, the two debated tax rates and the Trump tax cuts.

     Although Behar is correct to point out that those five countries are doing better than Venezuela, the countries Behar named are not socialist. They merely administer some socialist-inspired social programs. In reality, no European country is fully “socialist”. Until Catalonia becomes independent, it will be difficult to argue that there is a true socialist state in Europe.
     However, you could argue that the "communism" of the Soviet Union still exists, and never went away. The tiny nation of Transnistria never shed all of the Soviet symbols on its flag, passport, nor many of its buildings. Transnistria, also called Pridnestrovie, straddles the Dniester River between Moldova and Ukraine. Transnistria declared independence as a "communist" Soviet socialist republic in 1990, but the following year, it became an ordinary republic. It is now governed by a liberal-conservative (or center-right) regime, and is not officially communist, nor Soviet. However, it is not a state, because it is not recognized as a state by the United Nations. Transnistria is only recognized by three nations which, themselves, also lack U.N. recognition. Moldova considers Transnistria part of its territory, despite the language differences between the two regions. Although Transnistria is arguably occupied by Russian "peacekeeping" forces, it is considered wholly self-governing.
     Many opponents of the welfare state criticize the British N.H.S. (National Health Service) for being "socialized medicine", while also describing the same program as a case of "nationalized health care". The United Kingdom, and the various European political and economic and trade alliances, are commonwealths (at least in name). However, British and European commonwealth feature much more free trade, and nationalization (that is, centralized administration of social programs) than they feature socialization or communization. But on the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that the so-called “Euro-socialist” nations are any different from that model (mostly because the majority of them are in those economic unions). To be clear, the purpose of mentioning commonwealths and Bolshevik "communism" in the same breath, is not to describe each of them as communist, and therefore the same or similar; but rather the point is to distinguish them.
     Norway, on the other hand, practices what is called the “Nordic model”. "Sovereign wealth funds", as they are sometimes called, are funds maintained for the people, collected through the taxation of profits from the sale of oil (or revenues from the sale of energy exploration permits). A similar system is in place in the so-called "owner state" of Alaska (the Alaska Permanent Fund). It could be argued that similar programs were attempted in Venezuela and Libya, in that those states attempted to nationalize their oil reserves and energy sectors. Why is it that the nationalization of energy sources by non-white countries gets described as "socialism" which merits American bombs being dropped, but when an American state and one of our northern European ally do the same thing, it's "public ownership" that's deemed perfectly compatible with capitalist private property norms and the conservative conception of republicanism?
     Denmark and Iceland score much higher on economic equality indices than the United States does, but they also score significantly higher on economic freedom, so their high level of economic freedom make them difficult to describe as socialist. The term “Euro-socialism” does not adequately describe even the farthest-left European nations. The terms “neoliberalism”, “social market economy”, “tripartism”, “Rhine capitalism”, and “Ordoliberalism” (German for “new liberalism”), are all better descriptors.
     It is important not to mistake the mere presence of a social safety net, however large or robust it is, for socialism. As an internet meme explains, the definition of socialism is not “when the government does things, and the more things it does, the socialister it is”. Socialism is the management of the means of production by the whole of society. You don't get socialism just by adding social services to a government that protects private property and maintains a capitalist economic system. Similarly, you don't get a socialist firm, just by taking a capitalist management model, and gradually integrating procedures and practices which were merely inspired by cooperative organizations and horizontal associations. That's because the firm will inevitably use those practices to reinforce pro-capitalist views, and to promote the continuation of the hierarchy which remains in the company.
     That is not to say, however, that a capitalist regime cannot integrate leftist-inspired reforms, and even have it work to some degree of success; it can. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, drew inspiration for his socialist-inspired policies from an actual socialist named Norman Thomas. Thomas was a student of Henry George, an economist who died during a Democratic run for Mayor of New York in the 1890s, at a time when the Democratic platform focused more on classically liberal concerns like monetary reform and antitrust. Nearly everyone who has drawn influence from F.D.R. or Norman Thomas, is, at least in some small way, a proponent of socialist or socialist-influenced policies.

     Meghan McCain seems concerned that growing the social safety net, and electing people like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, could be a slippery slope to 90% taxes and a socialist American regime.
     However, you would be hard pressed to find a socialist who believes in taxing everyone's income at 90%. It would, however, be easy to find a socialist who believes in taxing the wealthiest people only at 90%. In fact, during the F.D.R. and Eisenhower administrations, that was the top marginal tax rate (although the effective rate was much lower). So it's not as though a 90% top marginal tax rate is completely unprecedented in American history.
     Additionally, growing the social safety net is an attempt to avoid socialism, by compromising with capitalism instead of replacing it, abolishing it, finding alternatives to it, or finding other ways to render it obsolete. Attempts at “state socialism”, such as the one that existed under Otto von Bismarck, tried to create a robust welfare state to moderate the excesses of capitalism; not a socialist program to replace capitalism.
     Moreover, socialists – at least Marxists, and other socialists who want socialism to result in stateless communism – do not want taxes or money in the first place. A pure communist society would be classless, as well as moneyless and stateless. Socialists would have a difficult time trying to tax people if neither money nor the state existed.
     Additionally, some socialists – libertarian socialists, and social anarchists, for example – do not even want to utilize state power. Marx and Lenin both criticized the political social democrats of their times as “gradualists” and “reformists”, and even as “social chauvinists” and “revisionists” of Marxism, due to their rejection of revolution, in favor of reform. People like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl and Wilhelm Liebknecht were open to both, but that's another discussion.
     All of this should help show that democratic socialists, and progressives, like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, are not socialists, nor are the “Euro-socialist” countries. To call them socialists is to give them too much credit for being revolutionary and radical, and also makes us think that a truly revolutionary regime could simply be voted into power overnight, through the same mechanisms of electoral legitimacy which previously kept them in chains. As Emma Goldman said, “If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal.”

     Contrary to Meghan McCain's claim, Venezuela is not socialist. Venezuela is collapsing not because of socialism, but because of the effects of oil prices collapsing (after nationalizing oil profits). The existence of the nation, the profits, and the taxation of those profits in the first place, all indicate that Venezuela is a capitalist country, not a socialist one.
     The Venezuelan government is doing little to fight organized crime; this is a problem that is no indicator of either socialism or capitalism. Another reason that Venezuela's problems are not the fault of socialism, is that one major reason for the country's food shortages is that international food and toilet paper monopolies have thus far refused to lower their prices to something that Venezuelans can afford. One more reason that Venezuela is not socialist is that it has not yet abolished private property in the means of production.
     Similarly, Cuba is not socialist; because it is bringing private ownership of the means of production back. Neither Cuba nor Venezuela are socialist, additionally, because Raul Castro and Nicolas Maduro both seem to have autocratic ambitions. No socialist society can last as long as they put too much trust in, or give too much power to, an autocrat; not Venezuelan nor Cuban society, not Russian society, not American society.
     Yet oddly, President Trump is enabling and buddying-up to autocratic strongmen around the world, while trying to stare them down (as if to consume their power). I predict that the more people notice this autocratic behavior from the president, and the more people come to see measures like farm aid to fix ill effects of tariffs, the more people we will see describing Trump as a socialist. I am not saying, however, that Trump actually is a socialist for supporting farm aid; I'm only saying that most Americans view farm aid as a better example of a “socialist” social service than the tariffs (but in reality, both of those measures are simply bailouts for different industries.
     Cuba, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos are often referred to as “the last remaining communist countries”, but in reality they have not achieved full communism, because the state remains, and because they have not undertaken any real steps to abolish money or currency. Additionally, North Korea has distanced itself from Marxism-Leninism, and North Korea and China clearly have no intention of allowing their state apparati to wither away (in the fashion of Engels).
     Both that insistence on retaining state power, and the insistence on socialist reform through legitimate electoral victory, are revisionist distortions of each Marxism and most radically anti-statist socialist schools of thought.

     Many conservatives, capitalists, and anti-socialists in general, would like you to believe that these five “communist nations” are the best examples of communism or socialism. Additionally, that you should be very afraid, if the United States ever becomes socialist; because similar outcomes will be the inevitable result. However, that is not the case.
     The Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) is not the best example of communism, nor of socialism. Nor is it the only example of either of those systems; far from it. Many reforms inspired by Marxism or socialism have been tried, to varying degrees of success. But the Soviet “communism” of the Bolsheviks was not full anarcho-communism. because they did not attempt to abolish money, nor the state. They only attempted to abolish private ownership of the means of production, and the only thing they fully collectivized was the farms.
     Early on, the U.S.S.R. made great achievements in the fields of agriculture; industrialization; aeronautics; and the rights of women, gays, and working people. However, critics of the U.S.S.R. called Stalin's regime “state monopoly capitalism”, believing that the autocracy and the state-directed economic planning of the regime, merely replaced the feudalism and the tsardom of old Russia with a new tsar (in Stalin) and an authoritarian government, bent on economic control every bit as much as the capitalistic, feudalist, and monarchist regime which preceded it. In fact, that autocracy took hold of the U.S.S.R. less than two years after the Bolsheviks took power.
     Better examples of socialism than the Soviet Union, China, Venezuela and Cuba – that is, examples of libertarian socialism, not authoritarian socialism - include the Paris Commune of 1871. The Paris Commune lasted two months, succumbing to defeat due to collaboration between French and Prussian governments which had previously been fighting one another. More recent examples of libertarian socialism working out for some period of time, include the regions of Catalonia and Aragon in Spain in the 1930s; the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Mondragon, Spain, since the 1950s; and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava in Turkey over the last decade, where a women's military column seeks to establish Bookchinist libertarian communalism.
     It is ironic that some supporters of Israel criticize socialism from a conservative standpoint, while simultaneously extolling the virtues of the current regime governing the State of Israel (now under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing Likud party). I say that because the modern Israeli nation arguably began as a decentralized network of autonomous, libertarian, anarchist communes (that is, the kibbutzim). To the extent to which they were self-governing, and independent from Arab rule, it could even be argued that pre-independence Israel was practically stateless. Additionally, the State of Israel's first prime ministers were Labor Zionists; whereas Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the Likud party are the legacy of the rise of the Israeli right wing during the 1970s and 1980s. Some may criticize the kibbutzim as a failure of communism, but they are part of Israeli heritage nonetheless, and to what extent libertarian socialism is to blame for their failings is open for debate.

     As we might expect, many people struggle, through all this, to understand what socialism actually is. In my opinion, the best definition is “the management of the means of production – land and natural resources, farms, factories and plants, productive machines, etc. - by the whole of society”.
     Often, management of the means of production by “workers”, “collectives”, or “cooperatives” is given as the definition of socialism, as opposed to “societal management”. So too are “worker ownership” and "worker control".
     However, I feel that to refer to “workers”, “collectives”, and “cooperatives” - as well as to “ownership” or "control" - is to imply that socialism would involve the same types of exclusion and domination which are characteristic of private property ownership under capitalism. Ownership of resources by some particular group, stands in stark contrast to management by the whole of society. A vision of “socialism” which is not inclusive of all members of “society” is not true socialism; it is workerism, or collectivism, or cooperativism, or a state of ownership or control.
     That is not to say, however, that securing ownership or control of means of production by workers, collectives, or cooperatives, wouldn't make societal management more likely; in some cases, it almost certainly would help make that possible. But it is no guarantee.
     Right-libertarians will sometimes strawman the position of libertarian socialists, by assuming that they believe cooperative ownership to be the same thing as socialism. Right-libertarians say that libertarian socialists should not expect to be able to achieve a socialist society through their own actions, because right-libertarians believe a socialist society necessarily involves socialism everywhere. But additionally, right-libertarians will conveniently "forget" this idea immediately, when they realize that it doesn't fit the narrative of another critique of socialism they make; that libertarian socialists can achieve the society they want, simply by earning property under the onerous conditions of capitalism, and then by pooling what little property they manage to scrape together.
     That is not socialism, nor is it a state of liberty. It is "socialism", but only on the conditions set by capitalists. Right-libertarians, on the other hand, would probably never accept "capitalism" spelled out according to socialists' terms.

     Believe it or not, markets are not incompatible with socialism. Economic systems like Mutualism, Georgism, and left-wing market-anarchism (also called free-market anti-capitalism) - and, most importantly, market socialism - prove this. That's because each of those systems would retain market systems and voluntary exchange, while aiming to increase collective and cooperative ownership until most property is collectively owned. Indeed, that was the idea behind Deng Xiaopeng's reforms which China administered during the 1980s (to much economic success).
     Competition is not as necessary as we think it is. First, because cooperation is always a more equitable method of distributing and allocating resources than competition is, whether the resources are nearly scarce or extremely scarce. But secondly, distribution and allocation are themselves not as necessary as we think they are, because not as many resources that we think are scarce, are actually scarce. Abundant goods do not need to be distributed, nor allocated, in the first place; not by government, not by markets. When economizing is unnecessary, economics is unnecessary. That is, allocation and distribution become unnecessary when people realize that a good is so abundant that there is no logical reason to charge anybody anything for it.
     Those who believe “free-market capitalism” and “socialism” are incompatible – often because “if you want something, you're supposed to work for it – are wrong in their assessment. Nature gives us all the “free stuff” that we need to survive. Government isn't the only way to get free stuff, despite what conservatives say. There's nothing about “free markets” that says people have to be against free stuff, nor against freely taking what's freely given. A world in which nobody is free to receive something they didn't work for, would be a world in which nobody is free to give gifts to other people.
     Furthermore, if you understand anything about markets and the pricing mechanism, free markets are supposed to result in “free stuff” (that is, if they're allowed to work properly). If speculation were eliminated or punished or deterred, and markets were allowed to clear, then everyone could afford what they need. No good whose supply far outweighs the demand for it – like housing – needs to be economized; because it's abundant, not scarce. Nothing matching this description ought to exist on a for-profit market mode.
     Low-price and zero-cost goods can be achieved through eliminating unnecessary government measures, and letting the market work the way it is supposed to. Specifically, through eliminating corporate subsidies and unnecessary sales taxes, reducing the terms of patent protections, and letting technology take its course. And by technology taking its course, I mean allowing automation to develop; thus unleashing mass production to produce goods more cheaply each day, by reducing both production costs and the demand for manual labor.
     Jeremy Rifkin has written a book called The Zero Marginal Cost Society on the topic of technology improving production, and Kevin Carson's article "Who Owns the Benefit?: The Free Market as Full Communism" touches on similar themes. Additionally, numerous other libertarian authors have weighed-in on the stifling effect of intellectual property laws on technological innovation, including Gary Chartier (who has come to many of the same conclusions as Carson and Rifkin) as well as Stephan Kinsella.
     Competition supposedly offers an “incentive” to do better than others, but in reality it only affords the winner special privileges; including, all too often, the privilege of becoming the only game in town: the oxymoronic “only competitor” and “only choice”.
     As long as workers are somehow compensated for the loss in jobs due to automation (which I hope would occur through ownership of their own tools, part ownership in their workplace, and personal 3-D printer ownership) – and as long as cooperation and competition are free, technology and automation are allowed to flourish, and patent law is either nonexistent or not too restrictive – competition to provide better products at lower costs will not result in harm to workers.
     Additionally, the rise of automation may also result in robotic assistants in the home, which could lead to reduced stresses on the body, as well as other health benefits, and savings of health costs, which would come with that. If our wants can be ordered without invading our privacy, and delivered to us by machines that are designed not to be our rivals for any resources we need to survive, then mass production and automatic distribution working together will significantly reduce the need to travel in order to shop, as well as the need to work hard (or at all) in order to acquire one's needs and wants.
     The result, and lesson, of all this, is that - eventually - free markets lead to free stuff.

     Many conservatives, and even right-libertarians, will claim that “socialists don't respect private property”; or that they don't respect individual rights, nor free markets, nor have any concern for big government coming to tax us. But the
opposite is actually the case.
     Socialists care more about private property than capitalists do; because socialists believe that people have the right to the full product of their labor. In an odd sense, the propertyless care more about property than the propertied; for the simple reason that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” (or, more appropriately, absenteeism of private property ownership).
     Additionally, socialists – or, at least, libertarian socialists - care more about individual rights than libertarians do, because socialists believe that people are better than to sell themselves into wage-slavery conditions and long employment contracts. If you believe that you “own” “your” body, and that owning that property is important, then why would you believe that it should be permissible, or even possible, to alienate yourself from your property (by selling or renting your body, or the work of your hands, to another)? Isn't it theft to take the earnings of another through labor, for the same reason it is wrong to take another's earnings through enslavement or taxes? Furthermore, what jury, in a free world, would agree to make a contract binding which compels a person to labor for another for decades or more?
     Socialists care more about free markets than capitalists do, because socialists reject the subsidies, bailouts, corporate privileges, and special favors which distort the free market. And socialists care more than libertarians do about the fact that “taxation is theft”, because of all of those protections, privileges, and favors.
     These special favors and privileges include intellectual property protections, legal and financial L.L.C. protections, police protection, utilities discounts, and professional regulations that unfairly put their competitors at an advantage. These favors would not exist without people begging government to use force on their behalf - force against hard-working taxpayers – and moreover, it would be easy to argue that they are not even constitutional in the first place.
     Libertarians, and libertarian socialists alike, rightfully regard the mechanism which pays for those processes as based on theft. Especially considering that working taxpayers are occasionally obligated to buy the products of some of the firms their taxes help keep afloat (through purchase mandates and taxpayer funded subsidies, while those firms enjoy impunity while discriminating against people who have no ability to fully discriminate against them by withdrawing their tax money.

     It is true that drastically lowering taxes - or even eliminating them altogether, by eliminating the state's power to tax and spend – could help solve these problems (and make those subsidies disappear in the first place). However, it is also true that workers are exploited, through surplus profit and wage theft, such that the value taken from the worker by bosses and managers, as well as landlords, is much greater than the value extracted by the government through taxes anyway.

Originally Written on July 4
th, 20th, 26th, and 27th, and August 1st through 4th, and 6th, 2018
Edited and Expanded Between September 4th and 6th, 2018
Edited on December 5th, 2018