Simple Socialism

Johnny and I were standing outside the tennis courts in Forsythe Park watching some of the regulars try to revive their backhands and discussing Obama’s win. I asked him if he was excited.

“Why? Because a black man is president?”

“Um, yeah.” Duh.

He shook his head. “Just because I’m black don’t mean I’m impressed.” Then he leaned in as if he was fearful of being overheard even though there was no one around except the players who had enough on their hands discovering top spin. “I’m a socialist,” he said in a near-whisper. “You know what that is?”

We’d been talking politics all summer but he’d never said the word before. “I’ve heard of it,” I said non-commitally. “What is it?”

“It means taking care of people. Socialism is people first.”

Over at Slouching Toward Organia, Organian began a discussion of socialism by very sensibly defining her terms. “What I Mean by ‘Socialism’” lays out the classic, fundamental economic definition very well but I must say I like Johnny’s definition better. In a comment I said:

[T]he definition above is the commonly accepted depiction of Communism, while the commonly accepted definition of socialism has come to resemble what you call “European Democratic Socialism”. Might there be some good reason to accept these definitions rather than go back to Square One?

I was thinking of Johnny when I wrote that.

Political or economic movements/philosophies/policies should ultimately have as their goal the welfare of the people – all the people, not just a select few. Socialism has always seemed to me the best way to achieve that. Her definition is neatly put and couldn’t be clearer.

Socialism, as I envision it, is an economic system under which all natural resources, as well as all means of producing goods and commodities (above the scale of individual artisanship), and of organizing the delivery of services, would be owned and managed by a democratically-run government for the benefit of the society as a whole. The government, in turn, would take full responsibility for meeting everyone’s fundamental needs – food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, transportation, a healthy ecosystem, access to cultural and recreational resources – at the highest level possible.Rational planning, not competition for profit, would drive the allocation of resources, with the goal of meeting the needs of society as a whole. Maximum use of technology – intelligently designed and environmentally sustainable – would ensure that human drudgery could be continually reduced over time. Advances in productivity would be used to reduce the length of the work week and raise the standard of living for everyone, not to enrich a small elite.

That definition certainly encompasses what both Johnny and I have in mind.

But the problem with socialism for those of us who have looked at it has never really been in defining it. Its greatest flaw is its reliance on decision-making by citizens, most of whom, at least in America, seem notoriously disinterested in making any decisions at all, while the rest want to make as few as they can get away with. Socialism demands heavy participation by the majority of a nation’s citizens. But even that isn’t enough. They need to be knowledgable, educated (not necessarily the same thing), have a fund of common sense, and a solid connection to their communities.

In response to some commenters to her first post, Organian deals with the issue of human behaviour, especially greed, in a follow-up post, “More on Socialism and Human Behavior“. The negative aspects of human behaviour is the problem many critics harp on but Organian’s answer is deft and to the point.

[G]reed is in fact a common – perhaps the prevailing – motivator of economic behavior in the society we live in now, i.e., global capitalism as it exists in the developed world. But I would argue that it is not inherent in human behavior.  Rather, it arises as a reaction to scarcity – real or perceived, absolute or relative, actual or possible – and to the emphasis on competition and the promotion of individual self-interest that are the core principles of free market capitalism.In societies where there is abundance (or at least perceived abundance), and the culture emphasizes mutual cooperation in the interest of the group as a whole, there is no reason why greed and competition would play anything more than a marginal role, if any, in human motivations and interactions. For an interesting analogue in the primate world, take a look at the difference between the social behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos.


In a society in which people are absolutely assured that their fundamental needs, and those of their family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors will be met without question, this insecurity, and the greed it produces, will fade away, and people will no longer feel the need to amass as much money and as many possessions as possible in order to bolster their sense of self-worth and provide for an uncertain future. When workplaces and other social institutions are administered with the goal of meeting human needs through cooperation and teamwork, people will no longer feel the need to compete with one another in destructive ways. Instead, people will derive satisfaction and pleasure primarily from contributing to their society through creative and fulfilling work.

Maybe, but while behaviour is malleable and depends on circumstances, just as she says, the circumstances in the US preclude a preponderance of the population acquiring the skills needed even to envision a socialist democracy, much less bring one about or participate in its maintenance. For that reason I, many years ago and with great reluctance, reached the conclusion that for the foreseeable future, the best we could hope for in America is what Organian calls “European Democratic Socialism” and describes, accurately I’m afraid, as little more than “a kinder, gentler capitalism”.

Given the alternative as we have experienced it for 30 years and especially for the last 8 as capitalism ran amok, I’d take it. Gladly.

Still, there is no inherent reason, not behaviour or our so-called “innate nature”, why a socialist society would not work. Indeed, many have and for very long periods of time. Most were brought down by outside forces far stronger than they could defend against and armed with weapons they didn’t expect and knew nothing about. But for as long as they lasted they were stable, hospitable, and peaceful. From the outside, in the case of those that were studied, they even appeared to be happy, a condition that could, of course, not be allowed to continue since it was a “threat”, to our self-image if nothing more.

Organian seems to be aiming at clearing the ground for an eventual discussion around realistically creating a socialist democracy in America, a discussion which the Bush Era makes almost inevitable and maybe even important. I’d urge you to read what she’s written and join in. If there’s any way it can be done, it might be our only way out of repeating Bush every century or so and we owe it to our grandkids to do everything we can think of to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Personally, I don’t think it can be done. There are too many shitheads and greedos who define America as a country where you have the right to make as much $$$ as you can get your grubby fingers on. They’re loud, they’re bullies, and they’ll threaten to kill you if you disagree with them. Still, I’m willing to listen.

2 responses to “Simple Socialism

  1. In societies where there is abundance (or at least perceived abundance), and the culture emphasizes mutual cooperation in the interest of the group as a whole, there is no reason why greed and competition would play anything more than a marginal role, if any, in human motivations and interactions.

    I don’t know. The people who organized the latest economic collapse certainly knew no scarcity in their lives – they just wanted more to keep score. I fell into the trap the other day when I was talking to my daughter about school. We were talking about the value of good grades and how that’s how you demonstrate your worth to employers, grad schools, etc. As she left the room, she asked, half to herself, what happened after one left school and there were no grades. I happened to have the statement from a modest bank account I manage for her. I picked up the envelope (she had no idea what was in it) and waved it at her back saying, “This is how they grade you when you grow up.” I didn’t even know I was saying it until I heard myself, and, of course, was appalled when I did, but the obvious truth is there. Although I agree that freedom from fear is a big part of combating social ills, no amount of comfort is going to stop people from wanting more as long as wealth is the yardstick by which we are judged. Fix that problem and we’ll be getting somewhere.

    • I think you put your finger on the key difference: in successful socialist societies the individual is NOT being measured by wealth, certainly not by wealth exclusively. The first step is to wean people away from thinking in Social Darwinist, conservative, me-first-fuck-the-community terms and guide them toward thinking in terms of the “commonwealth” – an old word but rich in meaning, history, and emotional resonance. The question is, how do you reawaken that spirit in a populace that’s been trained to believe fervently in the opposite for two generations?

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