My father and I have been corresponding via letter recently and although the instant nature of text messaging is certainly convenient, there’s something uniquely enjoyable and timeless about penning an old-fashioned letter with a fountain pen, and then sending it through the mail and receiving one back. Not only does it give us an excuse to actually use the collections of pens, inks, and cartridges we’ve accumulated over the years as stationery dilettantes, but the US Postal Service might actually still be more reliable than my ‘smart’ phone. So far, all of my dad’s letters have arrived with the pages in order and intact, but I can’t say the same about the text messages on my phone. Despite the USPS’s woes and the fact that it has drawn the scorn of the 45th president, I’m still a fan and I think it’s almost magical that you can drop a letter in a mailbox and have it delivered anywhere in the country (or even the world) for less than $1. I spend $95/month on my dumb ‘smart’ phone bill and can’t even get comparable reliability transmitting text on it.
In his most recent letter, my dad shared some thoughts and asked a really interesting question that I’ve been pondering on for the past few of weeks. I decided to share and respond here, mainly so that I could link to some sites and graphs in my response that I found to be of interest, but also to ensure it’s legible! The remainder of my response to other portions of his letter will now be a more manageable length—both for me to write in my questionable cursive, and for him to decipher on the receiving end (good luck dad)!
Here’s what he wrote:
Let’s just say, for the sake of clarity, I believe 100% in capitalism and you 100% in socialism. I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but if you or I projected the course of a people out over, say, 300 years under each of our chosen government/societal forms, what would be the end game after 300 years? Again, not to be pessimistic, but I fear history shows that over time, power-hungry and money-hungry people would pervert either form of government and eventually usurp power so that common people were oppressed rather than ‘blessed’ by the governing power.
So, I wonder if the real big question about what form of government is best should be more defined as what form of government gives common people the most power to resist having their rights and individual powers stripped from them (as that is where any form of government to-date has ultimately ended up!)?
Now, my thought on this point is that capitalism ‘beats’ socialism on this question i.e. in capitalism common people are originally empowered (through ownership of capital resources) and there is a good (or better) chance they can retain such power while, historically, that power is chipped away at by nefarious actions of power-hungry people/organizations.
You could probably present a cogent argument for how socialism has the better chance of, for a longer time, preserving individuals’ power/rights. Historically, no particular form of government or organization has been immune to trampling by dissidents and/or power-hungry folks. I don’t know in the stretch of all history if you you graphed power/rights of the common person vs. long-standing government structure what nation would demonstrate the optimal combination that maximized both? The US is a fairly young nation so while it may be high in “empowering the people” the time axis has yet to be extended compared to older nations/governments.
What I am getting at is: If the end of all governments/socio-political organizations is corruption (again—not to sound pessimistic), what is the best form to protect common folk and delay the decay?
That, to me, is the question.
This is a great question and one that ties in well with some other thoughts I’ve had and reading I’ve done recently while working on a series about common myths regarding socialism. I think there’s actually several articles (maybe even books) that could written on this question branching out in all kinds of different directions. I’ve actually struggled a bit over the last couple of weeks with how best to organize this article to focus on a few key points I’d like to make summarizing my own thoughts on this question.
First, I’d like to draw attention to a common assumption that I think many people make when thinking about these issues, and that is assuming that capitalism is one and the same as democracy, and in contrast, socialism is one and the same with dictatorial oppression. In fact, economic systems (i.e. capitalism and socialism) are a separate concept from political systems. I address this in more detail in Economic Systems vs. Political Systems. There are democratic capitalist states, as well as authoritarian capitalist ones. There of course have been authoritarian socialist countries, as well as democratic ones and everything in between. Capitalism itself is no guarantee of democracy and in fact, I would argue, has demonstrated a propensity to take forms that often subvert it. While socialism is of course by no means impervious to subversion as well (Stalin being the most obvious example), I have come to realize that in many ways, socialism—at least in its un-subverted form—stands a good chance to preserve freedoms and even to increase democratic participation in the decisions and affairs that affect all citizens, especially decisions relating to their ‘material conditions’ (which is socialist ‘lingo’ that refers to the resources needed for a decent quality of life: food, clean water, shelter, medicine, etc.).
We All Want Similar Things
In addition to his question above, my dad also expressed the thought that perhaps even ideas that seem “diametrically opposed” in fact have some common interests or at least hope to achieve something of the same end. This is something I’ve certainly noticed as well and it’s interesting to me how many self-avowed capitalists and libertarians I’ve talked to suggest ways to fix some of the issues in our current system that—I’m sure they would be shocked to learn—are actually very similar to what the Bolsheviks were seeking to implement. For example, I think many capitalists would agree that bureaucratic careerism needs to be addressed. I’ve heard many people say things like, “There should be a rule that ensures elected leaders can’t earn more from being a bureaucrat than other workers”, and “Normal folks should form co-ops or something to manage their own affairs. We know more about how to do our jobs than clueless politicians in Washington!”. I’m not sure they realize that these are essentially some of the very ideas proposed by none other than Vladimir Lenin to fight against bureaucratism, which included:
- All officials, managers, etc., to be elected by the workers’ organisations, with direct right of recall.
- All officials to receive the same wages as a skilled worker.
- Popular participation in all administrative duties; direct management and control by Soviets. (”When everybody is a bureaucrat, nobody is a bureaucrat.”) 
This I think, surprises many Americans (including myself) who have historically been led to view socialism as some sort of evil, sinister cult started by Karl Marx that was designed to enslave people and implement authoritarian control over the population. The original intent couldn’t be further from the truth. When the socialists organized in Russia to build a party that would eventually be instrumental in toppling the Tsarist regime, they did so to throw off the shackles of a horribly-oppressive and autocratic system. Yes, they sought to seize power, but not for themselves. Rather, the intent was to give the power to democratic councils composed of workers, peasants, and soldiers and their elected leaders—called ‘soviets’ (which means ‘council’ in Russian). The American Revolution sought to do much the same thing in terms of breaking free from the rule of a monarch and allowing the people to govern themselves. Although there are key fundamental differences between the American Revolution and the Russian Revolution (mainly regarding the role of private property—or lack thereof—in the new countries each was trying to form), both were seeking to improve conditions and overthrow regimes that did not allow most citizens to have much if any say in their affairs. In this regard, I certainly agree with my dad’s point that the vast majority of people have similar desires; to be able to take care of their family’s needs, to have freedom and autonomy in their decision and affairs, and to hopefully live a meaningful life before passing the baton to the next generation. The common hope is that these future generations inherit a situation that is at least on par with ours, and getting better, not worse. This requires effective guards against the ‘decay’ of corruption in order to, “Resist having their rights and individual powers stripped from them,” as the original question poses.
Even if the proponents of capitalism and socialism have similar goals (i.e. good quality of life, preservation of freedom, rights, etc.), the fundamental difference between the two economic systems is the role of private property. Under capitalism, the establishment and ownership of private property is preserved, and regarded as a ‘right’ (if you can afford it of course), whereas socialism seeks to reduce or eliminate the private ownership of property, opting ideally to democratize it instead. For example, under capitalism, a citizen has the ‘right’ to own the land a drinking well is on, and to do with it as they see fit, regardless of whoever else might depend on that resource for their livelihood. Under socialism, the land the drinking well is on is publicly held, and all citizens who rely on the well for water have the ‘right’ to have a say in how it is used and managed.
This fundamental difference regarding the role of private property in society (or lack thereof) also leads to different definitions of common terms bantered around like ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’. In the US, citizens have rights. We’ve gone through some contentious periods in our history trying to figure out if some of these rights should extend to all people, or just white males (voting, and owning property for example), but at the present time, let’s assume that—in theory—all US Citizens have the right to free speech, to bear arms, to vote, and to own private property—among some others. If you ask Americans what ‘freedom’ is, you’ll get a bunch of different answers: freedom is doing what you want, freedom from oppression, freedom from tyranny, freedom to choose the job you want, freedom to say what you want, etc.
In actuality, we live under a byzantine set of laws and rules, and have more people in our prisons than any other country (including China). You can sort of do what you want within reason, as long as it’s not against any of the laws. You also can’t simply do what you want on other people’s property—and this includes that of your employer. Although workers have won increased protections and some gains over the years through various labor movements, the vast majority of workplaces are run and managed by private owners. Your right to vote does not extend to your workplace. You really don’t have freedom of speech at work. Sure, you can say whatever you want about the boss or owners, but you’ll most likely lose your job in retaliation if they don’t like it, and they might even drag you into a lawsuit over it, as your freedom of speech does not exempt you from libel laws. You can choose to quit your job, and your job can fire you, and that’s about the extent of your ‘rights’ at work—where most people spend the majority of their time, trying to make a living. Think about this: the one place you spend most of your time, in order to acquire the necessities you need for life (i.e. shelter, food) is the one place all of those ‘rights’ under capitalism don’t really extend. You typically also have no say in how the profits from your labor are used or allocated by your private employer. You effectively suspend most of your rights and freedoms when you agree to enter into a contract to sell your labor in exchange for a wage, and promise to do as your told. Your private employer then pays you a wage that is typically much less than the value you actually generated for them, and they pocket the rest as profit. This profit allows your employer to expand, to buy or push out smaller competitors, and to increase their wealth disproportionately to the amount you’re able to increase yours. After all, you’re merely a worker, and have to be one because chances are, you don’t own much—if any—private capital yourself.
The Nature of Capitalism
I understand the desire and need to empower common people to resist the ‘chipping away’ of their power. However, I’m increasingly unconvinced that private ownership of capital resources is effectively accomplishing this. In fact, I fear it’s exacerbating the very conditions that give rise to ‘power-hungry people’. Rather than being a check on unfettered nefarious ambitions of power, one of the great contradictions of capitalism is that it enables it. The wealth that flows from the private ownership of the ‘commanding heights’ (more socialist lingo meaning key industries and resources that everyone relies on, critical to society: think infrastructure, utilities, powerplants, healthcare, agriculture, etc.) of the economy empowers those owners to exercise increasing control over the governance and affairs of the country, as well as restricting access to the resources under their control. And remember, none of this control over an expanding sphere of influence is democratic under capitalism. It’s as private as private can be. No citizen gets to vote on what ‘mom and pop’ shop Amazon puts out of business next, or where their next headquarters will be located, or what portion of the company’s profit is re-invested back into maintaining public roads they increasingly fill with delivery vans, or what percentage of it will be used by Jeff Bezos to build rockets. A large corporation like Amazon owned by one man (Bezos) holds more wealth and owns more assets than many of the world’s smaller countries—yet this ‘country’ of a corporation is an absolute and complete dictatorship.
Wealth is power. This is the ‘golden rule’: Those that have the gold, rule! Never has this been more true than under capitalism. Although yes, there are still elections in the US and yes, we go through the motions of deciding what ‘bought-and-paid-for’ career bureaucrat/politician is the lesser of two evils to vote for, the real strings are pulled by those who can afford the lobbyists, lawyers, and big campaign contributions that ensure that those in government—regardless of who’s elected or what party they represent—do the bidding of those that are able to write the biggest checks, and that’s if the wealthy even bother to go through ‘official’ channels at all. Frequently, back door deals are done to circumvent what remaining checks and balances haven’t been eroded and in the worst case, the wealthy have an almost-infinite ‘war chest’ for legal fees so they can just litigate their way out of any hot water they do manage to land in. Obviously, Jeff Bezos is going to be much more capable of influencing and moving government policies in directions he wants, as opposed to your average non-billionaire. Under capitalism, the ‘free market’ tends to extend to government as well. Those with the most money are going to have the most clout, and can also threaten all kinds of other actions if they don’t get their way, like cutting jobs in particular state, or moving their operations to a different country altogether. Rather than representing the common people and the greater societal good, government under capitalism gradually becomes a weapon/tool in the hands of the top victors to further increase their wealth and power.
When I point out examples of privately-owned capital that have ballooned in size to exert huge influence on the government and its policies for its own interests, people often say things like, “Oh, but we don’t have real capitalism in the US,” or “The US has the Federal Reserve, which is not capitalism,” or, “These problems are all due to big government! We need to go back to ‘pure’ capitalism!” Then, there’s my favorite: “Well, all these problems are due to socialism! It’s all the welfare and stuff!” People also conflate wealthy billionaire capitalists with some sort of ‘socialist conspiracy’. Say what you want about the likes of George Soros, but he in no way, shape, or form is a socialist. He’s a wealthy capitalist, who made his fortune through the private ownership of capital resources. Wealthy billionaires very well might be conspiring to consolidate power and engage in shadowy plots of intrigue, but this is to be expected when you have individuals with this much wealth (and power). Billionaires plotting to take over the world has absolutely nothing to do with socialism, and everything to do with the sort of ‘power-hungry’ behavior capitalism inevitably breeds through massive concentration of wealth in private hands. Even the Federal Reserve—which is actually a cabal of private banking interests—is a product of private wealth accrued through ownership of capital, with nothing to do with socialism. I think people blame some of the negative things they’re seeing and experiencing in our country under the current system on socialism, when really these are the consequences and inevitable results of a capitalist system in its late stages. Welfare in the US gets a bad rap too, and rightfully so. However, it’s important to point out that welfare—as implemented in the US—are programs of a government ultimately established to preserve the interests of private capital. Rather than a truly socialistic approach, where all capital would be publicly held and democratically managed with resources allocated rationally based on need, our current welfare system is based on putting the burden of supporting poor people squarely on the middle class and the not-quite-as-poor.
The real economic potential to meaningfully improve the material conditions for all in society remains out of the equation, locked away as the profits from privately-held capital in offshore bank accounts. However, when private capital gets into a bind, like in 2008, or during the more recent market failures due to COVID-19, then the same middle class and ‘not-quite-as-poor’ are used to bailout the large businesses with publicly-funded bailouts. So, the ‘common people’ are shouldering the ‘welfare’ burden to deal with the poverty and consequences of capitalism which privately-held capital is largely not contributing to due to the virtual 0% tax rate it enjoys. But, when big private capital falters, it’s also on the same ‘common people’ to give them welfare (i.e. bailouts) too. Just to be clear, this arrangement is absolutely not socialism. I know some would argue it’s not ‘true’ capitalism either, but I don’t know what that makes it. A dysfunctional mess of cronyism, perhaps? Capitalism run amok? Whatever it is, it’s absolutely not socialism.
Thoughts On ‘Pure’ Capitalism
I'm also not convinced that a return to ‘true’ or ‘pure’ capitalism as some libertarian-types advocate for is the solution. I think it is capitalism’s inherent nature to eventually concentrate wealth ‘towards the top’. It effectively is a wealth-redistribution scheme—it just distributes it up rather than down or across. A lot of people seem to think that if we just go back to good ol’ little ‘mom and pop’ shops and keep things from getting ‘too big’, then that might be the answer. But what do you do when one of these businesses starts to grow and becomes a monopoly? Even most capitalists will admit that a government is needed to break up monopolies. But now you’re playing ‘whack-a-mole’ with companies and we’ve seen that many monopolies broken up under capitalism eventually wind up coalescing again, like the ‘baby bells’, and this runs afoul of the idea that government shouldn’t interfere with the markets.
The truth is—as I see it anyways—that the ‘free’ market is a competitive game. The very laws of capitalism dictate that you must be focused on growth, or else you will get eaten by someone else who is. Anyone who’s ever played an excruciating game of monopoly knows that there can only be one player at the end of the game holding everything while everyone else is broke (if you even make it to to the end without someone flipping the board ). I went on a harbor tour of Boston a few year ago, and the guide on the boat explained the importance of checking your lobster traps frequently. He told us that if you leave lobsters in a trap too long, eventually you’ll end up with just one really big, mean lobster who’s managed to eat all of the rest. I think this is a good analogy of capitalism. It forces people to act like lobsters stuck in a trap.
Besides starting evil socialist cults (as joked about previously), what Karl Marx actually did was engage in exhaustive research on the way capitalism worked in his day and write extensively on it. He documented the ‘contradictions of capitalism’, and how it inherently ends up working against its own interests by destroying the very livelihoods of so many of the workers on which ‘the few’ at the top depend on to vacuum up disproportionate amounts of wealth. I believe that egregious wealth inequality is the long term (and inevitable) effect of capitalism—’pure’ or not.
A Young Country?
My dad's point about the USA’s age and how it compares to other countries got me curious, so I did some searching on the internet and found this interesting graphic:
While the USA is a young country, it’s actually considered the oldest standing democracy (although there is some finagling here depending on how you define ‘democracy’ and factor in things like when universal suffrage was granted). Either way, it’s actually an older country than many of the more modern European democracies that were formed after WWII. While this is a prestigious title, it actually doesn’t bode well as an example of capitalism’s ability to keep ‘power-hungry’ forces in check. Because of its status of ‘oldest democracy’, and its determination to adhere to an American brand of capitalism, it also serves as a case study in the effects of these policies over a greater length of time than many other capitalist democracies. When you look at income/wealth inequality, the US certainly has a wider chasm between the wealthy and the poor compared to most other democracies. One way to measure wealth inequality is the Gini index/ratio/coefficient, where a value of 0 expresses perfect equality, and a value of 1 (or 100%) represents maximal inequality. The US has a relatively high Gini index when compared to some of these other democracies—especially the Scandinavian ones. For example, the US’s Gini index is around 41% while Denmark’s is nearly 29% and Norway’s is about 27%.
I think this shows that over time, capitalism drives wealth inequality—at least it certainly has in the USA. I’ve heard many of the arguments in defense of ‘trickle down’ economics along the lines of, “a rising tide floats all boats,” but if that were true, then why are more and more people finding it harder to make ends meet as time goes on rather than easier? A rising tide may float all boats, but the wealth distribution in the US looks more like a tsunami wave, and a tsunami wave capsizes most of the boats and destroys virtually everything in its path. What we’re seeing now in the US is egregious wealth inequality after two centuries of capitalism. According to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, 1% of families in the USA hold about 40% of all wealth, while the bottom 90% hold less than ¼. This trend is also mirrored around the world.
The Rise of the Strongmen
Another disturbing wordlwide trend, is the rise of the ‘strongman’ ruler. If long-term capitalism truly fostered strong, vibrant democracies that protected personal rights and freedoms, then you would expect to see the quality of democracies and the protections of rights and civil liberties improving as capitalism spread all over the world. Actually, we’re experiencing almost the opposite. Authoritarian rulers are climbing to power and further enriching themselves in the process. Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, and even Xi Jinping in China are all examples of autocratic ‘strongmen’ who scoff at the notion of civil rights and liberties in favor of authoritarian control. In the case of China, that country has been gradually embracing market reforms and increasing the role of capitalism in its economy. But rather than granting more rights and freedoms to its people, capitalism’s increasing influence has been coupled with the increasing authoritarian power of Xi Jinping. In Hungary—a former communist country that is now a capitalist one— Viktor Orbán has been gradually dismantling democracy, much to the dismay of its fellow EU member countries. So, I personally don’t see a strong correlation between capitalism and the preservation of democratic rights and freedoms. If anything, it seems to be giving rise to plutocracy (government by the wealthy) and kleptocracy (rule by thieves).
Perhaps capitalism could be effective in preserving the power within the people, but I personally think this would only work as long as all people held about an equal amount of capital/wealth (and thus power). This would mean doing something akin to ‘redistributing’ the capital/land/wealth in order to divvy it up equally (apparently not a popular idea in the USA, at least among those holding onto most of it). Also, I fear this state of equilibrium wouldn’t remain for long either once the gladiatorial combat of the capitalist ‘market’ commenced. Eventually, you’d start to see wealth being vacuumed up to the top once more—and with it, the power. As the top grows in power, the ‘common’ people or ‘little guys’ lose theirs, and thus we end up with a system that’s actually antithetical to democracy, or at least with a powerful group of individuals with a strong incentive to work against it.
My (long-winded) Answer
The key question my father asked was, “What form of government gives common people the most power to resist having their rights and individual powers stripped from them?” My answer: One that gives all people an equal voice and provides the most democratic participation in all matters that affect them, including matters of how material resources and products of their labor are distributed and used. Two issues I see with our current arrangement are:
- Democracy does not actually extend to decisions of how a significant portion of capital is put to use. Rather, these decisions are made by an elite caste of wealthy individuals that hold the majority of the capital
- Disproportionate levels of wealth (and the ownership of the capital to generate it) results in disproportionate representation. Even in a supposedly-democratic system, private owners of large swathes of capital and wealth will always have the ability to marginalize the voice and rights of others who do not have such resources at their disposal.
The second point above could be addressed by enacting measures that lessen the speed at which wealth inequality grows. This typically involves progressive taxation schemes that places the highest tax burden on the wealthiest businesses and individuals, like in Norway for example which scores much better than the US in terms of wealth inequality as mentioned previously. More similar levels of wealth across a capitalist society, I believe, translates into more similar levels of power (and thus less chance of one or a handful of actors being able to overpower the others). Common people are empowered through ownership of capital resources, and this very well might be an effective defense against ‘power-hungry’ interests depriving common people of their rights if—and this is a huge if—everyone held about the same amount of capital resources. That to me is ‘the catch’. In practice, the competitive nature of capitalism—it’s very essence—ensures that there will eventually be winners and losers, and as the economic winners capture more of the pie, they seize more of the power. If we acknowledge that the ownership of private property (i.e. capital resources) is an exercise in empowerment and a display of one’s power, then we also need to realize that those owning the most of it will obviously hold the most power. As a continually-shrinking group of people ‘win’ control of a continually-growing lion’s share of the resources society needs to function, wealth becomes concentrated among these ‘winners’, along with power. Voila! This system of private ownership of capital, supposedly meant to hedge against ‘power-hungry’ people/organizations, has created the optimal conditions to give birth to exactly that.
Measures like increasingly-higher taxation for the increasingly wealthy do help to at least slow this disparity in wealth/power, but the high levels of taxation and government intervention involved to keep certain entities from ‘growing out of control’ have proven to be incredibly unpopular suggestions here in the US, mainly because it goes against the ideas of ‘trickle down’ economics and the ‘laissez faire’ (i.e. ‘hands off’) approach which discourages any sort of government intervention in the market (including taxation). It seems to me that we’re living through the actual long-term consequences of these ‘trickle down’ policies every day in real life. We see all of the problems this system creates around us—the shrinking middle class, the growing poverty—and we even complain about how people are losing their rights, power, freedom, liberties etc. Yet, we seem completely unwilling to let go of this flawed belief in ‘trickle down’ economics, or to even question it. Of course, I personally believe that the interests at top that benefit the most from this ‘trickle down’ arrangement spend a lot of money to fund loud voices in the media to tell people that this is a good system, and that it should even be defended! Well, of course the people benefiting from it the most want us to believe that. I’m not surprised to hear the 1% waxing eloquent about the glories of capitalism, or to see those benefiting the most from it creating ‘think tanks’ to disseminate ideas in its defense all across the media. It’s not surprising that the entities that benefit the most from this arrangement wish to preserve it—that’s nothing new. What I would find far more compelling, however, would be think tanks or radio shows hosted by the bottom 1%—or even the bottom 30%—singing the praises of the system in which they find themselves struggling in. But that, I’m just not hearing or seeing. Increasingly, the consensus among common people who can no longer afford to own even a little property in order to preserve their power, is that this system is no longer working for the ‘rest of us’.
If laissez-faire capitalism isn’t living up to its promises, and a more heavily-regulated and taxed flavor like that of Norway is unpalatable to Americans, where does that leave us? What other options do we have? Well, there is another way—a third option—but so far it’s been maligned and disregarded as even more untenable than Norway-style progressive taxation. However, maybe it’s time to re-consider socialism—actual socialism. By that, I don’t mean ‘vote for the Democrat’ socialism. The Democratic Party in the US does not represent socialism, and is ultimately just another tool in the pocket of the billionaire ruling class—which it represents—along with the Republican Party. The US really only has 1 party: the billionaire capitalist party, which comes in 2 flavors. Rather than having an actual voice in the matters that affect them, Americans are presented with a choice of bad options. We get to pick what pile of poop presented to us stinks less, and we are told this is ‘democracy’. But we really don’t have much real input, say, or voice in the formulation of the ‘choices’ we’re presented with in the first place. These ‘choices’ are mostly curated by the ‘winners’ of capitalism (i.e. the ‘elites’ or whatever you want to call them) to ensure neither one deviates too far from their interests. Furthermore, we really have little to no say in the administration of the resources we all rely on—which are mostly under private control—used to extract profits for ‘the few’. Rather than business and industry working to meet the needs of society, society is now coerced into complying with the demands of the business and industry owners. This inevitably means doing the thing that makes the most profit for them, regardless of the interests of the ‘common people’. The ‘third option’ that socialism proposes is to democratize capital resources, by placing them under public ownership. Instead of industries being used to enrich the few, they would be used to benefit society, and would be managed by the people who know the most about how to work them—the workers.
A lot of the dysfunction I’ve noticed working in various jobs (including the military) seems to stem from rigid ‘top-down’ management environments where the people actually doing the work at the bottom have very little—if any—say in the decisions being made ‘up top’ that affect them. This results in systems where people under it become demoralized, and disenfranchised from the results of their efforts/labor. We’ve all heard the stories about dysfunction in the Soviet Union resulting from absurdly bureaucratic ‘top-down’ management But, have you worked for a private American corporation lately or spoken to anyone who has? True, factory workers in the USSR may have been uninspired to meet the quotas dictated to them from on high, but I guarantee that there are plenty of uninspired workers in America too. They know that the majority of the hard work they do does not benefit them or their fellow workers, but rather, wealthy private interests.
The socialist solution is to nationalize the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, and to extend democracy to the allocation of the critical resources, services, and products these industries make. Rather servicing profit, they would service society. Ultimately, the goal is to de-emphasize the role of private capital in society. I know many people might view this as ‘taking property away’ from the factory owners and such. I completely understand this. However, the intent is not merely to ‘take property away’ to give to someone else, but to place it under democratic ownership of all, where everyone has an actual voice and say in how it is used to benefit society. In actuality, this is a restoration of freedom and rights—an extension of democracy. Democracy could then extend to matters perhaps of the most critical importance to society: that of ‘material conditions’. Currently, our ‘democratic’ society does not acknowledge this right. It refuses to acknowledge many basic human needs as ‘rights’, but merely as commodities that one must buy on a market (if you can afford it) so that private owners can extract wealth from these needs. For example, rather than having a right to healthcare in this country, a private hospital reserves the right to extort your pain for their gain—you’re likely to pay whatever they or the insurance company demands in order to save your life or that of your child.
Socialism is actually about increasing rights and freedoms, not taking them away. I think the most obvious example where the ‘taking property away’ vs. ‘restoring rights’ debate played out was with slavery. When the US sought to end slavery, some argued that granting slaves freedom would deprive the owners of their property. Freeing this property would be theft! This debate eventually led to war before it was settled. Ending the private ownership of other humans as property was not about ‘taking property away from owners’. It was about restoring freedom to people who never should have had it taken from them in the first place! It was about liberating humans from being owned and traded as commodities in markets. Perhaps it’s now time to consider liberating other types of privately-held property essential to life from the clutches of the profit motive.
Earlier, I mentioned the expression, “When everybody is a bureaucrat, nobody is a bureaucrat.” In addition to that, I might add: If everybody owns the property, nobody owns the property. That’s the proposal. Capitalism’s idea to preserve the power common people have is to enshrine it in private property, then allow them to own it and use it for their own enrichment. Socialism’s idea is to do away with the notion of private property altogether, and instead grant everyone democratic rights to participate in how this property is used. It’s about restoring things to the public domain that arguably should have never been seized as private property in the first place. With private property out of the picture, the inherent problem of those who amass the most of it also amassing the power becomes a moot point.
Of course, the unfortunate reality—and the thing that makes this a very difficult case to argue—is that there aren’t many obvious examples of this entirely-democratic socialist state. Many point to the USSR’s collapse as ‘proof’ that “socialism just doesn’t work,” but I think that is a drastic oversimplification of what actually happened in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union actually began with a historically-significant feat (the toppling of a powerful, autocratic Tsarist regime by ‘common people’). In its early form, the USSR was highly democratic, relying on councils of ‘common people’ to make decisions and manage their affairs. The intent was for citizens to have broad rights. But, the early USSR—already suffering from WWI—was beleaguered by yet more war. 21 foreign powers invaded it in an attempt to restore capitalism and private property. Conditions and resources were limited and poor. The Red Army was victorious in repelling the ‘White Army’ composed of foreign forces and their domestic sympathizers, but this left the Soviet Union in an even more isolated state. Stalin rose to power, and the USSR took the form of an autocratic bureaucracy rather than the much more democratic form originally envisioned. It is often referred to as a ‘deformed workers state’. There’s also much analysis on how and why someone like Stalin was able to rise to power in the first place (which is far too long this article), but clearly, there are other factors and ways people can rise to power besides mere accrual of wealth.
I realize that socialism alone doesn’t entirely answer the question of how best to keep the rights of ‘common people’ from being trampled on, although I do think decreasing wealth inequality and eliminating the system that helps create it would go a long way. However, the elimination of private property alone would not guarantee that nefarious forces wouldn’t try to subvert democracy and the rights of others. There are aspects of this question my dad poses which I admittedly am not sure about. I do not know all of the other measures that would need to be in place to guard against criminal elements, corruption, and bad actors. I obviously don’t have all of the answers. I do think socialism offers perhaps a better answer in many ways, but I’m not so naive as to think it will magically solve all of society’s issues overnight. Some seem to think the ‘free market’ alone (and if only left alone) will magically solve all issues. I think that’s pretty naive though too.
Chile under the democratically-elected socialist Salvadore Allende was an example of a country that was interested in increasing democratic participation in the economy and protecting the rights of citizens. Unfortunately, Augusto Pinochet and his military junta took power in a coup which put an end to the democratic government in 1973. There are other examples of societies attempting socialistic democratic self-management, like Revolutionary Catalonia around the time period of the Spanish Civil War. However, it too was militarily defeated by the forces of fascism, which gave rise to the Francisco Franco dictatorship over Spain. Communities in Greece after WWII were also attempting democratic self-management devoid of private property. However, like in Spain, these were crushed during the Greek Civil War.
It seems that many of these fledgling socialist societies that could have gone on to become the shining example of truly democratic socialism, were invaded or defeated militarily for even attempting such a thing. This is tragic and unfortunate, and I realize that this in itself could be used as an argument against socialism—something like, “See, socialism can’t even defend itself”. However, becoming a victim to coups and invasions backed by capitalist/imperialist superpowers like the US or Great Britain in my opinion is not a ‘flaw’ of socialism, but more so an example of the true nature of capitalism’s willingness to resort to violence to maintain its dominance. And remember, socialism has defeated invading forces before. The USSR did it (multiple times), and they did so with very little resources in the face of overwhelming odds, so it is possible. Not only did the USSR repel the White Army and the Nazis, they went on to rapidly develop and even beat the US into space, which is a pretty remarkable achievement considering the extent of the ruin it rose from after WWII and despite its backwardness, especially under Stalin. If you look at how rapidly the USSR developed to go from a nation of poor peasants to one launching satellites and humans into orbit in a relatively brief period of time using a planned economy, it’s rather remarkable.
Speaking of rockets, I think they provide a good analogy. If one rocket fails, does that mean all other attempts to launch one will fail too? With that attitude, no one would have made it into space. People generally accept that when attempting to make scientific or technological progress, there absolutely will be failures to learn from. We wouldn’t get anywhere if we said, “See! Rockets will never work. Let’s not bother,” the first time one failed to launch. I think the same could be said about socialism. True, the USSR model ultimately didn’t last. But, maybe we need to adjust some parameters and try again rather than throwing the idea away completely. To be fair, the US model is on pretty shaky ground lately too, and many in the former Soviet countries admit that conditions were actually better in many ways than what they’re experiencing now under various forms of corrupt capitalism. In the grand scheme of history, US capitalism puttering on under strain for a mere 30 years longer than USSR-style socialism is trivial. We don’t really look back at civilizations from around 500 B.C. and get too hung up trying to differentiate which one fell within 30 years of another.
Unless we do something drastic and begin considering radical solutions to fix our society, it could be that historians a thousand years from now (if we manage not to destroy our species or the planet by then) say, “… and then the two superpowers of the US and USSR both collapsed around the turn of the 21st century.”
↩︎ I think in the quest to get ‘smart’ phones to do everything, they do nothing well. In exchange for being able to run a byzantine array of mostly-pointless apps, the complexity of these devices is such that they freeze, crash, are left susceptible to hacks, have worse battery life, and struggle with the one thing you would think they would excel at being called ‘phones’—placing and receiving voice calls. They don’t even do that well, and calls are still—in 2020—a garbled mess that frequently drop. My device struggles, freezes and crashes trying to open 140 byte text messages, and seems to have a propensity for delivering them in a confusing order, if they even get delivered at all. Honestly, the call and messaging experience was far superior on the simple, yet solid Nokia 8210 I had in high school. I miss that thing. It never crashed, froze, or got stuck trying to update and the build-quality was virtually indestructible. Now we’ve all got these exploding, fragile glass mirrors in our pockets.
↩︎ This is discussed in much more depth in Bureaucratism or Workers’ Power by Ted Grant and Roger Silverman. This article goes into more detail about how the system of soviets (or councils) in Russia—which was intended to be a highly-democratic form of workers’ control—devolved into Stalinism and bureaucratism.
↩︎ Quite possibly the worst board game in the world. It’s not even that fun as a game! Why did people decide to make this real life? Another fun fact about Monopoly: It was actually created by Elizabeth Magie—a follower of Henry George—to demonstrate various economic realities about the private ownership of land. ‘Georgists’ advocated for a land value tax to reduce the inequality that arises from the private ownership of land. So really, the game was designed to be more of a political statement and simulation of sorts, rather than an actually-enjoyable game.
↩︎ These figures come from the table on this page. Vox has also an in-depth article that goes into more details. One thing to note from the Vox article is that although the US has a much higher income inequality than the Scandinavian countries, some economists and researchers argue that ‘upward mobility’ (aka “The Great Gatsby Curve”) is what really counts and that the US still (arguably) has better social mobility than most countries with lower Gina index scores. However, social mobility or not, I still believe that extreme wealth inequality is harmful to democracy, and incentivizes ‘power-hungry’ behavior.
↩︎ I talk more about this in my article Economic Systems vs. Political Systems. One quote I used in that article that is relevant here as well is this one from Stevin Klein. Even Adam Smith—regarded as the ‘father’ of American capitalism—warned that, “the merchants and wealthy design policies so that their own interests are protected, no matter how egregious the effect is on others.”
↩︎ An example of such ‘think tanks’ is the CATO Institute which creates sites like humanprogress.org which aim to push capitalist and libertarian ideas (particularly advocating for small government), and attempt to portray how good capitalism is for the world and how much ‘progress’ humanity has made because of it. What’s interesting to me is that the CATO Institue is backed and funded by the Koch brothers, who made their wealth in the oil industry. Of course wealthy billionaires like them have a vested interest in getting people to embrace a system that has enriched them, and to oppose taxation of the wealthy. This is essentially ‘billionaire propoganda’. Another one is the Mises institute , which pushes ‘laissez faire liberalism’ and Austrian Economics, a tenant of which is very limited government. What’s peculiar about this one is that many of the people affiliated with this ‘think tank’ according to sourcewatch.org are individuals who have made fortunes working as lobbyists for the tobacco industry. Many other related ‘projects’ they’re involved in seem to masquerade as ‘think tanks’, but are really just thinly-veiled lobbying efforts against government regulation and taxation in general, especially policies and regulations that affect the… tobacco industry. This is also an example of how the wealthy under capitalism use their clout to mold public opinion and influence government policy in ways that benefit them. Of course tobacco billionaires don’t want a government that makes pesky regulations that tell them that they have to put warnings on their products, and can’t sell to children. Of course oil billionaires don’t want something like the EPA in existence, putting limits on how much their refineries can pollute the air and water of the communities they’re in. That cuts into their profit margins after all.
Industry was stifled by a monolithic hierarchy. Every decision had to run the gauntlet of committees within each ministry, from brigade, shop, department, firm, trust, chief committee, Ministry, Economic Council, to the Council of Ministers of the USSR. Every official at each rung of the ladder was understandably afraid to take any initiative for which he might be blamed, and he passed the buck on to his superior. The tiniest problems took months to solve and there was a wasteful duplication and imbalance between the Ministries. The plan nevertheless achieved tremendous results. Society was developed, but at three times the cost under capitalism.
The lunacy of “collectivisation overnight” held agriculture back. Even when the tractors were at last produced, so little attention had been given to raising the cultural level of the peasants correspondingly that tractors that had run out of petrol were left to rust in the fields while applications were sent up for new ones!
↩︎ When people hear ‘nationalize’, they often say, “Oh sure, hand it to the government. They’ll just screw it up!” Well, yes of course this government would! The current government in the US is set up to serve the interests of private capital. These interests have little interest in seeing public, democratically-run enterprises succeed. Nationalization doesn’t mean ‘give it to the current US government’, it means putting the industry in the hands of the workers. Ideally, the government should be in the hands of the workers and ‘common people’ too. We’re led to believe that it already is, but it is not. For ‘nationalization’ to truly work, we would also need a new form of government that truly represents the people, and has a vested interest in nationalized industries to succeed.