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Socialism Does Work
notes from the apartment above the meth lab
Socialism, for Marx, is a society which permits the actualization of man's essence, by overcoming his alienation. It is nothing less than creating the conditions for the truly free, rational, active and independent man; it is the fulfillment of the prophetic aim: the destruction of the idols.
—Eric Fromm, Marx's Concept of Man
Real socialism doesn’t work, a member of the notorious Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) says. That’s interesting, because the top ten highest ranking countries on the Social Progress Index all qualify as socialist countries by Marx’s own conception of socialism. Canada, a socialist country, has a higher literacy rate and life expectancy, spends less per capita on health care, has a lower debt to GDP ratio, lower income disparity and lower violent crime rates than the United States. The data tell us that real socialism does work yet America remains obstinate in the claim about its failure. Why?
What is socialism? Do we even know if we’re all talking about the same thing when we use that word? The word socialism has become synonymous with an economy and society organised around social ownership and so, in the vernacular when we hear the word socialist we often think communist. In fact, economist Jeffrey Sachs says, and I quite agree, “terms like socialism are too big, too loaded, too poorly defined to be a very useful starting point.” Sachs and many others make a distinction between socialist and social democracy, with socialist denoting social ownership of the means of production. This distinction seems semantical, and unnecessary if we can delineate with precision what we mean when we use those words socialist and socialism.
What if we could see socialism as a spectrum, with ownership of the means of production as an extreme, such that the qualifier real of real socialism adds no meaning, only conflates socialism with that rather dull view of Marx as the muse of despots like the deranged Stalin? The unhelpful conflation of statism with socialism obscures the truth about the possibilities of socialism for Americans. Socialism does work, that it produces more resilient societies equipped to handle crises seems clear from the global experience with Covid-19 containment.
Whilst Americans received a single payment of $1200 from their government for Covid-19 relief, the CERB program delivered $2000/month to Canadians affected by Covid-19 from April to July and before the Feds transitioned recipients onto an updated, Covid-19-responsive employment insurance program. Fundamentally, I see socialism as decreasing alienation and facilitating the most agency and choice at the individual level—overregulation and under-regulation each oppress the individual in their own way, and so do not achieve these objectives.
In Canada, the conservative opposition and the conservative media whinge about the high cost of CERB and play the game of alternative facts in order to stigmatise recipients and over-emphasise the high fiscal cost of Covid-19 initiatives. However primary care providers on the ground such as nurse practitioners, social workers and general practitioners will tell you their patients have expressed relief at having CERB, which has provided a buffer against the looming uncertainty of living life in a global pandemic. Recipients will tell you the same thing—the year has felt difficult and inflicted many hardships upon Canadians and CERB has helped mitigate this hardship—it would be impossible to measure quantitatively the value of this measure in terms of its contribution to the stabilising of Canadian society.
A responsive and compassionate government earns the trust of the people it serves, the immediate measures taken in the spring diminished the intensity of the population’s fear response, thereby mitigating the chaos which inevitably ensues from a collective of amygdalas driving the bus. The amygdala, an almond-shaped nucleus in the midbrain responsible for fear, anger, and aggression, executes the flight or fight response and when the amygdala rules it renders the prefrontal cortex and rational thought inaccessible. Put simply, when the amygdala rules, reason does not, aggression does.
Let’s get back to defining socialism—what, specifically, do I mean by that word socialist? The word social refers to living with others and describes companionship and community—humans are social and interdependent creatures. We exist as individual nervous systems in coregulation with other individual nervous systems—this describes the human condition in the matrix we call society. Socialism, then, can mean a system in which the individual has access to the most choices to achieve her purpose and reach her fullest potential. It means a society in which people can live and work—not live to work or work to live. Doesn’t this sound a lot like compassion, which means suffer together? Socialism need not mean statism, and yet socialism requires a degree of trust in the state vis a vis collection and redistribution of tax revenue. A socialist society does not consume the individual in the larger machinations of production and consumption, or state, religious, or oligarchic supremacy.
Economists and political scientists often use the term mixed economy to describe such a system. I believe a truly compassionate society requires us to balance regulation with free market capitalism. Sachs himself admits that all successful societies have a degree of regulation—the issue becomes where to draw the line. A vessel with no structure and boundary has no capacity to contain anything and this holds true in societies. Regulations provide freedom. And this is where the IDW intellectuals would shake their heads in disagreement, despite the fact that many Americans on the ground wish Canada would open the border so they could come on through to buy our cheaper Insulin, and despite America being the only G8 country that ranks in the top 20 for gun deaths.
The IDW has made a sport of blaming Marx for the brutality of Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao—a most intellectually impotent and disingenuous attribution. Marx is responsible for public education and health care, he is not responsible for the brutalities of deranged tyrants who misinterpreted his work. If we’re blaming Marx for the 94 million deaths caused by communism, then are we blaming Henry Ford for every death a car has caused, and are we blaming Tim Berners-Lee for fake news and cyber crime, and are we blaming Einstein for Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We’re clearly not, and so dogmatic political belief, not reason, drives the deliberate and lazy misrepresentation of Marx, and hence socialism. Still the question remains why? What lies behind these dogmatic, almost superstitious beliefs about socialism? Answer: a culture predicated upon individualism and cynical mistrust.
In his recent piece for Rolling Stone magazine, anthropologist Wade Davis describes the essence of American thought:
The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirm — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.
Essentially, extreme individualism and the associated mistrust of government interference underlie America’s dogmatic superstition of socialism. In fact, a Norwegian School of Economics study found Americans and Norwegians differed significantly in their conception of fairness despite assigning equal value to efficiency—American tolerance of inequality far exceeds that of Norwegian society. (Almås et al., 2016, pp24-5) I observe that Americans seem to hate each other more than they love themselves collectively as a nation of human beings. The aggression and violence with which they police the world they also inflict upon one another. Incredulously, even despite what they knew about Donald Trump a frightening number of Americans said they would vote for him because of their dislike for Biden and Harris.
Similarly in 2016, hatred rather than values seemed to drive voters to elect their 45th POTUS. Trump has destabilised global politics, divided his nation, stirred hatred and shown an alarming disrespect for the constitution and the office of president. However many Americans still felt prepared to choose Donald Trump—who does not love his country—over his opponent, purely based upon political superstition. This is America, where the residents of a small town would rather shut down their public swimming pool than end racial segregation and allow black people to swim publicly. The pool closed and the property was sold to a third party who filled the pool with cement. This is America, intractable in its hatred, mistrust, and mercilessness.
Yet—wait. Hold up. This is not America. I remember a different America from my childhood—one with friendly people who would not hesitate to stop what they’re doing to help you, one where the portion sizes are bigger than any young Desi Canadian girl could imagine, a generous America, in which generosity felt like American glory, a form of worship to a higher purpose. What happened to that America? Where did that America go to—that one who blessed the world with Vincent Harding, a black civil rights leader who urged Americans to critique injustice, but to always end on the side of hope and love … to remember there is an America that has never been and yet must be. I feel as though, over the past two decades, in the aftermath of 9/11 in particular, I have watched America as it dragged [itself] down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. MLK predicted this in his Riverside Speech.
If a matrix of human beings cannot agree on fundamental basic human rights such as universal access to health care and affordable medication, and the right not to get shot at school, if they cannot enjoin to promote a greater good then the individuals in that society are not free, they are alienated. An alienated people do not have agency. America isn’t a democracy so much as it’s an oligarchy—alienation powers oligarchies. Can America become the beloved community the civil rights leaders of the 1960s envisioned? Is this vision of America still possible in a post-Trump world?
As the world holds its collective breath and watches the Biden team begin to prepare its transition, I wonder how much change we can reasonably expect from America going forward. I have watched the so-called cultural revolution play out this summer across America in the form of riots, protests, and the destruction of monuments, thinking to myself—the only revolution which America needs right now is a compassion revolution, a movement predicated upon sincerity and seeking to spread not hatred, and not sentimental emotional bosh, but fierce, demanding, and disciplined love. What if America could see socialism as an opportunity and not a slur?
Almås, I., Cappelen, A., & Tungodden, B. (2016, November 15). Cutthroat Capitalism Versus Cuddly Socialism: Are Americans More Meritocratic and Efficiency-Seeking than Scandinavians? NNH Dept of Economics Discussion Paper, 2016(18), 1-47. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2879358
Davis, W. (2020, August 6). Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era. The Rolling Stome. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/
Dubner, S. J. (2020, March 4). Does Anyone Really Know What Socialism Is? Freakonomics. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://freakonomics.com/podcast/socialism/
Pepinsky, T. (2020, 4 27). Social Democracy and Covi-19 Containment. Tom Pepinksy. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://tompepinsky.com/2020/04/27/social-democracy-and-covid-19-containment/
The Social Progress Imperative. (2020, September 10). Social Progress Index. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.socialprogress.org/index/global/results
Todd, L. (2020, November 19). No, 800,000 ineligible Canadians did not receive the CERB. Dead For Tax Reasons. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://deadfortaxreasons.wordpress.com/2020/11/19/no-800000-ineligible-canadians-did-not-receive-the-cerb/