Thursday, February 25, 2021

Rectification of Names: Socialism


I know I shouldn't bother at a time like this, but no. None of these things should be called "socialism". This probably came from a kind-hearted and justice-loving person, but it uses a worthless, nonsensical rightwing pollution of the word "socialism", according to which the word means or probably means "giving cash for nothing to people who probably don't deserve it". That is not what it is supposed to mean.

At its narrowest, in the definition you probably learned in middle school, socialism is the name of a concept in political economy, of a kind of developmental midpoint between ideals of "capitalism" and "communism", 

  • the "capitalist" imaginary being the world in which all economic activity is performed by individuals—capitalists living off the buying and selling and rent of various things they own, property, debts, corporate shares, and the like, and workers who have nothing to sell but their labor—carrying on like an enormous anthill or machine for value creation, with no outside interference from (for example) a state,
  • the "socialist" imaginary being the world in which the state, taken over by members of a vanguard workers' party, has seized all the property, debts, corporate shares, and the like, from the capitalists and administers it all really well, so that all the workers, instead of being left to penury and starvation, get paid a fair wage and have lots of time off to cultivate themselves morally, spiritually, and intellectually, and
  • the "communist" imaginary being the world from which ownership has simply disappeared, leaving everybody to work just for the love of working and share the fruits of their labor with their friends and neighbors, forever and ever.

Note that this idea is no less unrealistic than the ideas of Milton Friedman (in which completely ejecting the state from economic management will turn the inequities of the anthill into its own kind of utopia where justice reigns automatically, dispensed by the marketplace magic, through the blind faith of the population), and a typical economist's idea, shaving off all the messy details of actual human life in favor of the cleanliness and beauty of a model. And the reality of socialist practice within the narrow definition has often meant a system that isn't administered well at all and makes things considerably worse (though as I always say don't forget those great industry-nationalizing nations France and Singapore), as bad as the outcome of an attempt at a pure market economy (Somalia or fictional Mahagonny).

Which is why I'm calling them "imaginaries", in a critical-sociology noun that I'm just trying to learn how to use. Because they have little to do with reality, which makes their usefulness questionable.

A broader and more useful concept is an older one, older than capitalism really, dating at least to the late 14th century and the activities of Father John Ball, who was hanged, drawn, and quartered in the presence of King Richard II at St. Albans, Kent, in 1381, for preaching, to the combatants in Wat Tyler's rebellion, that the division of the English into classes was contrary to the will of God:

"When Adam dalf, and Eve span, who was thanne a gentilman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and... servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord"

Not, you see, that property should not exist, as in the communist model, but that it shouldn't be concentrated in the hands of one set of people and excluded from the other set, that it should be more equitably distributed across the society, socialized; not that everybody should be a serf but that everybody should be a lord, on a very modest scale—if not by the violent expedients Ball advocated,

"uprooting the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future"

then by some more comfortable method like politics (which, contrary to Clausewitz, is war continued by other means, not the other way around). 

That is all you really need to understand about socialism, in my opinion, common to Owenites, Fourierians, St-Simonists, Proudhonists and Marxists, Craftsmen and Wobblies, Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats, and all the microfactions that have come up since the 14th century in their fissiparous frenzy: the world should not be divided between those who live on sweat and those who live on rent, but everybody deserves a bit of both, and redistribution through politics is how it should be done.

So giving stuff to poor people to keep them alive, or even feeling pretty good, as the Levite civil service was tasked with doing according to the constitutions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, isn't socialism, though it can be a very good thing and necessary, in default of socialism, and I'm not in any way against it. It's charity

Even an increased minimum wage doesn't give its recipients a chance to own income-generating property.or shares in the stock market. These expedients, necessary as they are, are not empowering except indirectly (food stamps and Section 8 housing can help you get your kid through college but only as long as the gentry lets it keep flowing). Socialism should give people a share in what we used to call "the means of production"; it should be aimed at giving you autonomy.

And needless to say giving stuff to bankers and fuel merchants and megafarmers isn't socialism either. That's more like bribery. 

Socialism is state-owned industry and services (including public education and public healthcare and public transportation and public policing and firefighting and libraries and military procurement, of course) and co-ops, profit-sharing, codetermination, union-owned enterprises, savings bonds for everybody, home-purchasing assistance, and social insurance (as opposed to the charitable dole). Can we please stop using the word as a synonym for "liberalism"?

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

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