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Socialism yes.

Socialism dead? An idea whose time it never was, a "project" of elitist intellectuals ending the century as ideological trash? Not quite so fast. Permit me, as one who consistently opposed the Soviet perversion of socialism, to say a few words over the body of this fallen dream.

I know the failure of the Soviet experiment has left the impression that socialism itself has been tried, and that it failed. It is not much good to mutter, "Yes, but it wasn't my kind of socialism," or, "It wasn't really socialism." It was sold to the world as socialism, and public opinion bought it. All socialists suffered in consequence.

But why should socialists give up their dreams? Think of the Christians, who practiced torture, burned heretics, engaged in the killing of "witches," expelled and hounded Jews, and gave their blessing to slavery and war (not to mention capitalism). What Christian leader would say there is no hope for Christianity in the future because the message of Jesus, the "experiment" he launched, has been so distorted?

We know communism failed in the Soviet Union, but look at the United States. Our unemployment rate has been rising by about 1 per cent a decade since 1950. When I was at UCLA about forty years ago, our economics courses taught that for the labor force to be "mobile," we had to have an unemployment rate of 3 per cent. That was one of the reasons I became a socialist; it seemed like an awful lot of people out of work just to keep the work force "mobile" and disciplined. But the figure has gone up: Today we not only have an unemployment rate of about 7 per cent, but our economists would be happy if that were an accurate statistic. Actual unemployment is substantially higher because people have given up looking and are not counted as unemployed, and many Americans are in the "underground" economy, paid "off the books" for a variety of reasons. Many economists believe the true unemployment rate is well above 10 per cent.

And what kind of employment? In the past fifteen years, we have seen a startling shift downward in the living standards of most Americans, including, for the first time, "middle-class" Americans. While the rich have, indeed, gotten a great deal richer, it isn't just the poor who have gotten poorer; everyone except the rich has suffered a decline in real income. People are being forced out of productive work where wages had been high (steel production, for example) into service industries where wages are low (fast-food service, for example). The number of Americans who subsist on food stamps, or who have lost their medical coverage, or their homes, or who are actually living on the street (or in their cars) is higher than it has been since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The Los Angeles "riots" after the Rodney King verdict were not about race but about class, as some Federal officials admitted at the time. People were hungry. A friend of mine reported seeing neighbors going back and forth from a store that had children's supplies, taking boxes of diapers or food.

But we have also seen a sharp increase in racial tensions in the urban areas--not just tension between black and white, but also tension among groups in the minority; Latino and Asian populations in conflict with each other or with the African-American population.

Our capitalism has, in the past fifteen years, failed to provide jobs, housing, and medical care for an increasing number of our people. The men who run this country can trot out academics to explain how well-off we are. Certainly most of America is in far better shape than the former Soviet bloc. But given the fact that the American experiment in capitalism suffered very little from the two world wars that devastated Europe, the reality here is grim for too many of our people--and with no economic excuse. If the homeless on our streets, the beggars who wordlessly shake their cups asking for change, were victims of some war or natural disaster that had demolished much of our industrial base, that would be one thing. But this social breakdown comes at the end of a century when war did not directly touch this country and when the capitalist experiment faced few constraints.

It is time to try something different. Capitalism is a system of enormous energy. It has a remarkable ability to mobilize productive forces. It is flexible and inventive. But it contains what Karl Marx called "contradictions," one of which is that the free market inevitability becomes less free, property becomes concentrated in fewer hands, the means of production become more highly centralized and collectivized.

On those points, Marx was correct. A free market is one that anyone can enter with a little help from his or her friends. But I doubt there is a single reader of The Progressive who is in a position to start a daily newspaper, a steel mill, or an airline. Those are enterprises that require enormous amounts of capital--far more than any combination of ordinary people can supply. Thus, as capitalism develops, more and more capital is required by anyone who seeks to enter the market, and the market becomes less and less "free." Competition continues, but usually not in terms of price; style, packaging, and advertising are decisive. Profit margins are artificially protected because the market has ceased to be free.

One area in which capitalism may be superior to socialism is its ability to generate "new things," some of which are quite useful. While I doubt that we need thirty-seven colors of toothbrushes, I don't believe socialism would so swiftly have developed such advanced electronics that persons of even modest means could afford a television set. (Consider the humble digital wrist watch which, for a few dollars, gives to any person a timepiece whose accuracy would have been available in 1950 only to those of great wealth.)

Many socialists have underestimated the desire of people for variety, a desire that is human, not merely a result of capitalist advertising. To some socialists, it is enough that every citizen have a good gray dress or pair of pants, and a good gray blouse or work shirt, and good gray shoes. But people like variety and color, and socialists must take that human desire into account. So we must have a socialism in which the market plays some role, so that "central planners" can't impose a single model or a single color.

I support forms of socialism that are organized from below and involve workers in owning and running local factories--forms that involve setting up councils in which consumers and workers decide where plants should be located, what should be produced, and at what price.

Socialists have made several errors. First, we relied too much on the assumption that if the "State" took over a factory, the result would be socialism. It wasn't. It only shifted the employer confronting the worker from a private to a governmental bureaucracy. It did not lead to an increase of worker democracy. "State ownership" of the means of production is not at all the same as social ownership, which involves the workers and the community.

Second, socialists have too often spoken as if our job was simply to seize the wealth of the handful of multimillionaires and parcel it out to the poor. But distributive socialism would involve very marginal increases in anyone's wealth; we might be a few dollars richer for a year, but that is all. That is not what socialism is about. It must be about finding effective ways of organizing production and distribution of useful goods in a democratic way.

Third, we tended to think that everything could be planned--that the market played no role that couldn't be met by rational planning. However, as capitalists know, the best of planning can go hay-wire--and capitalists plan far more carefully than we may think, using market surveys, computer models, and other sophisticated techniques.

There are problems, of course, with allowing the "market" to determine all of our decisions. The "market" may have little demand for decent low-cost housing. People may want it most urgently, but a "market economy" supplies what people have money for, not what they want or need. Capitalist economists concede the free market cannot provide low-cost housing--construction costs are too high for a profit. But the society as a whole can afford low-cost housing because if we don't pay for it with a tax subsidy, we end up paying in other ways--through increased costs of police, prison, and welfare services.

Socialists have not always fully understood there is no such thing as a free lunch.

There is never enough money to do all the things we want done. That is just as true of us as a society as it is for us as individuals. Sometimes the choices are luxurious--I may not have enough money to choose both a new car and a new television set. Sometimes the choices are terrible--Cubans must choose today between medical care and new housing, between education and decent buses. But rich or poor, there are always choices.

The socialist wants those choices made democratically, by as many people as possible. Socialism is not about destroying the wealthy but about empowering the poor. The society we are out to build is one which would stress relative economic equality.

Capitalism has failed us on at least three counts. First, it is built on the assumption that "things are in the saddle and ride mankind." We are cogs in the corporate wheel, disenfranchised when it comes to such major decisions as whether a factory should leave our town--or be built there. Our communities have been polluted without consulting us. The cost of repairing the damage to the environment has been passed along to the consumer because there was no "profit" to be had in pollution controls. (In the old Soviet bloc, there was no civil society able to protest destruction of the environment. Planning, because it was centralized and not community-based, left no one to watch out for damage to the environment. We learned that simply removing "private profit" from production does not solve such problems.)

Second, because all basic economic decisions are based on what turns a profit for a sector of the economy, capitalists have not been concerned about the "profit" of the overall society. How do we weigh the shifting of a plant to Mexico, with the sharp increase in unemployment payments (a social cost to the whole society, not paid by the plant that moved), against the cost of saying that the plant should be worker-owned and controlled and might well accept a much lower net profit if it meant the jobs stay in town? (The logic of the capitalist investor is inflexible--if a million dollars is drawing 5 per cent return at one place and a possible 15 per cent at another, the investor will shift the million dollars to maximize the profit. Yet that decision, so easily made by picking up a phone and calling the broker, can have a devastating impact on human beings. Socialism seeks to give to human life something of the value the investor gives to his or her money.)

Third, capitalism has undermined our democracy. (Granted, there has never been a "Golden Age" for our democracy, haunted from its early days by the Alien and Sedition Acts--and by the vastly larger fact of slavery.) For democracy to work, the "ordinary" citizen must be able to hold informed views and act on them. There was a time when dissenting publications (such as this one) would have had to confront the occasional mob because publishing truth at odds with the Government posed a threat. Today, however, the fact that The Progressive is published is offered as one proof of how "democratic" our society is, though in reality it is terribly difficult for any of us to be fully informed when so many vital decisions are made by such secret and quasi-secret agencies as the CIA.

Watergate was important not because it was the first time a governing party got caught committing illegal acts but because we had a brief glimpse of something more fearful than the Watergate burglary--an entire secret government. We have reached a point where we have our democracy, including the right to express ourselves freely, while they make the decisions, carry them out, and then manipulate the mass media to construct the needed supportive opinion. What I'm trying to get at is the problem we face when simply telling the truth is no longer a potent weapon against the ruling class.

Some Marxists once argued that "political democracy" was not so important as "economic democracy," but such thinking was sloppy, confusing "economic democracy" with having a job. A man in prison has a job (and food, housing, and shelter), yet no one would argue he is free. Economic democracy consists of far more than making sure people aren't hungry.

It is true that almost all of us who are socialists--certainly those of us who are Marxists--get impatient with a middle-class emphasis on morality and civil liberties, as if those could be separated from the economic reality. Something is wrong if our definition of freedom grants you the right to tell the President to go to hell but lets you be fired if you agitate for a union in your shop. Democracy must mean the full range of civil liberties. (Radicals who call for laws to suppress speech they don't like never seem to understand those laws will be used against them sooner or later.) Full freedom of speech, religion, press, conscience--the socialist does not want to diminish this but add to it. Democracy must also mean a voice in your workplace, some sense of daily involvement in the decisions which affect you, not just a routine vote every two years.

Finally, while in a political sense "socialism is not on the agenda"--there seems no prospect of making it a reality in the immediate future--it will never be on the agenda if we abandon the vision and surrender to a planet controlled by competing corporate structures. For socialism to become a reality, we must wage a political struggle for power, and a far deeper struggle than the one we see every four years, for the struggle for socialism isn't about changing which party fills offices in Washington, D.C., but changing who has economic power. It would substitute for the present ruling class, which is a small minority, a government broadly based from the community up, more concerned about diffusing power than concentrating it.

Yes, there would be enormous problems with buying out the huge corporations and shifting ownership and control to regions and communities. (Probably there would be full compensation for stock bought and low taxes on investors who had little money--but confiscatory taxes on those who would be receiving millions from the buyout of such corporate giants as GM, IBM, and AT&T.) Some enterprises--banking, transportation, communications--are best operated centrally. For socialism to become workable, it must target the major corporations. Socialism should not even try to socialize small business; on the contrary, a healthy society would have a range of ownership patterns, including co-ops and small enterprises.

Socialism would strive to build a society that emphasizes cooperation rather than competition. In all of our history, most people have only been means to someone else's end. Socialism is an effort to make every human being an end in himself or herself.

Michael Harrington pointed out that the issue was not whether we would "collectivize the means of production"--capitalism has already collectivized them. They are privately owned, yes, but collectivized, and the only question is whether they remain in private hands. If they do, virtually all serious political decisions, including decisions about peace and war and about the fate of the environment, will rest in the hands of self-interested boards of directors. If we, the broader public, socially own and democratically control these massive concentrations of power, we can make the decisions that are now out of our hands.

Capitalism didn't create all human problems, and socialism can't solve all human problems. But moving toward a democratic socialist society is one step toward the discovery of what a human society might actually be. Socialism is not about a more efficient society at the economic level, but about a more fully human society. If capitalism were not a history in which wars and depressions were as much a part of the record as economic innovation and a sharp increase in the living standard, the issue of searching for alternatives would hardly arise. But as we approach the end of this century, during which a vast range of approaches has been used to "tame" capitalism, it is time to try the alternative of democratic socialism.

The Soviet experience showed us the limits of a command economy. The American experience has shown us the limits of a capitalist economy, in which the major decisions are made on the basis of what will benefit the smallest sector of the population, and in which that small sector of the population, by maintaining control over the political process, has stunted democracy.
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Title Annotation:American politics; What's Left?
Author:McReynolds, David
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:Kidnapped by 'La Migra.' (U.S. Immigration and Naturalization forced deportations of undocumented children of legally-residing parents)
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