What Do You Mean By Socialist?

 Stéphane Hessel

Stéphane Hessel

Countless times over the years, I’ve asked people exactly what they mean when they call someone a socialist. Invariably there follows a long moment of silence that culminates in an unintelligible and inarticulate reply, demonstrating beyond a doubt that the person trying to answer the question had never given it much thought. They’d learned, as I did growing up, that you didn’t really need to know what socialism is, it was just bad—no, evil—all bound up with Communism, the Iron Curtain, and duck-and-cover drills under one’s schoolroom desk.

Dictionaries typically describe socialism as the means of production being owned collectively or controlled by the state. Capitalism is defined as a system in which the means of production are owned and controlled by individuals or corporations. Not exactly a clear divide of good and evil, as both imply advantage and disadvantage, depending on the type of organization, the desired outcome, and the character of the owners or managers. Taking this comparison further, one could conclude that these two competing systems can exist, and do in fact exist, more as a matter of degree than by absolute differences.

The U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security Administration are overt examples of socialistic organizations, and so are the Armed Forces. The Post Office aims to earn its keep, even though its universal delivery service makes profitability unlikely. Social Security has capitalistic aspects in that the amount paid in affects the payout. Military organizations can be bureaucratically dysfunctional, but they seldom get the bad rap attributed to the Post Office; they are more frequently referred to in a heroic sense. Yet, with only a fraction of what we spend on the military, a subsidy for the Post Office could radically promote commerce by making the shipment of small goods much more affordable. Instead, the Post Office has to cut back. As a further illustration, we’ve seen how adept the Wall Street financial sector can be at capitalizing profits and socializing losses.

One of the greatest fears frequently expressed about socialism and government control is the creeping spread of bureaucracy. My experience suggests this is a legitimate concern because of the restraints we apply to government organizations. It is often the case that government agencies are given little room for exercising commonsense judgment when circumstances require exceptions beyond their charter. Bureaucracy in government is partly due to operational restrictions resulting from compromises negotiated between political parties with sharp ideological differences, but most large private organizations suffer bureaucracy as well.

I have worked for three major oil companies, a pipeline consortium, and a big city police department, and I’ve served as a U.S Marine. In all of these workplaces, I experienced bureaucracy primarily from inattention to details. Look around your own workplace and you will find plenty of things that people do, not because they are productive, but simply because that is how they have gotten into a habit of doing them. Bureaucracy is a virus-like entity that will fill any organizational vacuum where accountability is absent. To keep it from taking hold requires constant housekeeping. If you run up against a brain-dead form of bureaucracy in government, relief can sometimes be found through contacting a legislative office, but if the problem is with a private company, say an insurance company, you will likely need a lawyer and deep pockets.

Another fear often expressed is that socialistic enterprises result in a loss of incentive. Again, I suspect there is some truth to this notion, but nowhere near as much as is commonly thought. For example, one of the biggest fallacies of contemporary economics, and right-wing propaganda in particular, is that a progressive income tax is counterproductive because it dampens incentive. This simply is not true, and yet it is repeated as gospel truth ad nauseam. Some of the greatest periods of growth in America have occurred during times with extraordinarily high taxes. By comparison, taxes today are historically low, and we are in a deep recession.

What all of this boils down to politically is public versus private and the assumption that one is good beyond reproach and the other is evil beyond redemption. The virtue of private enterprise has been championed for so long and so loud in America that we have, in effect, drowned out common sense when it comes to attending to matters of the common good requiring a communal effort. Psychologically, public versus private amounts to us versus them, because we readily exclude those who do not belong to our respective identity groups as deserving of anything we might be forced to share.

The word socialism can stop arguments dead in their tracks without further discussion. This nonsensical behavior is the primary reason our middle class is in danger of disappearing, not simply because of a global economic crisis, but because we are too afraid to act as if what we have and hold in common is more important than greed.

There are numerous examples of democracies that are more socialistic than we are, with measurable indices of quality of life far better than ours, and yet we do little to make improvements in our lives if doing so requires a collective effort. Instead, we make vociferous claims about our being the greatest country on earth. We talk the talk, we just don’t walk it. A middle-class society is a purposeful effort. How can we be the greatest country on earth when we are way down the list on quality of healthcare, even as we spend more money on healthcare per capita than anyone else?

At every opportunity, champions of everything private over everything public hype freedom as the ultimate benefit of their system. Indeed it is true that many people earning Wal-Mart wages are free to quit and go to work at Target or McDonald’s. Alternatively, of course, they could start their own Google or Microsoft. It’s true they are free to do this, just as it’s true that rich people can sleep under a bridge if they want to. Now, if this line of reasoning seems flippant, try telling that to the millions of people desperately looking for work today, many with advanced college degrees.

Socialism and all things socialistic have been touted as the epitome of evil for as long as I can remember. Now nearing 70, I found it interesting and insightful to read Stéphane Hessel’s Time for Outrage, and to learn that during the Second World War, before the Cold War fervor began in earnest about the evils of everything social, people like Hessel were fighting the same battle that continues today to ensure the economic rights of people over privatized greed.

Hessel is 93. He was a member of the French Resistance, was captured by the Germans, and sent to a Buchenwald concentration camp. While waiting to be executed, he managed to exchange identification with a prisoner who had died in the camp. He escaped and after the war became a diplomat. When he says that today we need to fight more than ever for the rights of the common man and that we should strive not be known as a nation wary of immigrants, I believe he knows what he is talking about.

Hessel calls our attention to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms:

  • freedom of speech,
  • freedom of worship,
  • freedom from want, and
  • reedom from fear.

I find it deeply ironic that the fourth has been used so effectively to keep the populace confused about the third.

Go back further to 1910, and here is Theodore Roosevelt making a speech in Kansas, quoting Abraham Lincoln from yet another half-century before: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much higher consideration.” Roosevelt said that if he had made this claim instead of Lincoln, he would be denounced as a Communist. As you read this, keep in mind that Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican, as was Lincoln.

So we’ve been fighting this battle for more than 150 years. Look where we are today: Wall Street capital is off the charts in superiority to labor. Fox Business Network recently made the claim that the Muppets are Communists; Karl Rove’s group is trying to smear senate candidate Elizabeth Warren as Wall Street’s best Marxist friend; and President Obama can’t even get his nominee approved to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because there is obviously a group benefit implied by the agency. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says that the agency itself is like “something out of the Stalinist Era.”

When will this nonsense end? What happened to the U.S. economy due to deregulation is more like something out of the Stalinist Era. What will it take to get over the hysteria of the frightened rich and their vanguard of protective legislators and lobbyists, so that we can gain some semblance of equity for labor?

What will it take to get the working people who continuously fall for right-wing propaganda and vote Republican to wake up to the reality that they are being made fools of by people who do not even respect them?

Ask yourself this question: What would be the result today and tomorrow if the private company you work for switched to government control, or the reverse, if you work for the government? No doubt, changes would occur in either direction, but I think they would be measurable in matters of economic degree and not in terms of good and evil. Would you act differently at work? Would your work ethic change? Do you think your coworkers would behave differently?

When I picture the oil companies I have worked for in the past as being owned by the government, I can imagine some significant changes and some clear benefits. I believe that the dedicated employees I’ve worked with over the years would continue taking pride in their work and that the same work ethic that guides their behavior today would prevail. Politically, however, we might be able to keep the companies from being looted from the top with executive bonuses in the stratosphere that amount to quid pro quo treatment between the executives and their board of directors.

Should the country need more oil in this scenario, the government could be called upon to drill on leases that it owns but has let sit idle, waiting for the price of oil to go up. Sure, profit is important, but is it really more important than national security? Is profit more important than avoiding drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, where the risk outweighs the public benefit? More important than assisting in a global effort to wean the world of its dependency on fossil fuels? I suggest these possibilities not to recommend that we nationalize the oil industry, but rather that we apply reason to these matters and stop the hysteria over things that require a group effort.

Cold War paranoia conditioned millions of people to recoil in trepidation at the mere mention of a word: In America the word is socialism, in Russia it is capitalism. The stigma in both countries for a large segment of the population is such that these words are still radioactive, and it keeps commonsense solutions to major problems off the table. In America the fallout from this mania has resulted in a hatred for government that borders on cultural insanity.

There is a conservative mantra that says the government doesn’t produce anything, but if they owned an oil company, would that still be true? I don’t think so, and if you pay close attention, you may notice that the majority of people who shout the loudest about the government not producing anything of value get their paychecks from Uncle Sam.

Charles Hayes

I have always thought of myself as a capitalist and still do, but, in my view, we have enabled an irrational fear of socialism, leveraged by the Cold War, to traumatize average citizens into the position that the only way to keep themselves free is to allow rich people to hold all of the money. It used to make sense in a fuzzy sort of way, but it doesn’t any more. Like Stéphane Hessel says, it’s “time for outrage.”

Charles Hayes

Published by the LA Progressive on January 8, 2012
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About Charles D. Hayes

Author and publisher Charles D. Hayes is a self-taught philosopher and an impassioned advocate for lifelong learning. At age 17, he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Marines. After four years of duty, he became a police officer in Dallas, Texas, and later he moved to Alaska, where he has worked for more than 35 years in the oil industry. In 1987, Hayes founded Autodidactic Press, “committed to lifelong learning as the lifeblood of democracy and the key to living life to its fullest.”
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