Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

If you want to define a socialist agenda, you might begin by defining yourself against the anti-socialist agenda of our present right-wing ideologies. The "socialism" is the expansion of federal authority in the twentieth century that made the United States into a modern state capable of managing an industrial economy, performing on the world stage as a great power, and securing liberty and justice for all. In "Rolling Back the Twentieth Century," The Nation, May 12, 2003, William Greider used "socialist" only twice. Once was to quote Grover Norquist, "You're looking at the history of the country for the first 120 years, up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over." It is the socialism that what I call the "Libertarian Right" will roll back.

"Liberal" and "conservative" are meaningless here. The polarization between libertarian and socialist. Where libertarian means anarchy and socialist means government.

What, then, is the dreaded socialism? In his speech to the Republican Convention in 1964 which launched his political career, Ronald Reagan said, "Last February 19 [1964] at the University of Minnesota, Norman Thomas, six-time candidate for President on the Socialist Party ticket, said, 'If Barry Goldwater became President, he would stop the advance of socialism in the United States.' I think that's exactly what he will do."

The four major policy goals advanced by Thomas's Socialist Party were:
1) Collective bargaining for labor.
2) The basic provisions of the original Social Security Act (which included unemployment insurance and workman's compensation).
3) The forty hour work week (enacted in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and upheld by the Supreme Court in US v. Darby (1941)).
4) National health insurance.
The first three of these were achieved in the New Deal. There is still a majority public clamor for the fourth.

Reagan had the next twenty-five years, the last eight as president, to stop and reverse Thomas's socialism. We heard no more about it. We are all socialists now.

Norquist has said elsewhere that "labor unions were created by government." The driving force of the Libertarian Right is the political cynicism that we can have no collective political action, no public trust. Law does not protect. It only oppresses. There are no real problems. There are only closet Stalinist bureaucrats who invent problems so they can expand their power to regulate, control and oppress free sovereign individuals. Norquist is the very personification of the political cynicism.

G. Gordon Liddy is a more articulate voice. In his interview with Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarick, January 25, 2005, Liddy explained: "The way they [the Founders] attempted to guard against the tendency [of a central government] to grow and become tyrannical was twofold. One was to say, the only powers this new central government will have are the ones specifically enumerated herein, everything else is reserved to the states and to the people. Then there was the Second Amendment which was designed so that the people would remain armed so that if once again the central government became tyrannical the people would have the means to overthrow it and free themselves."

The federal government has been exercising unenumerated powers since day one. The present tyranny is the socialism--but, we can still have national conscription, a civic obligation, mind you, which is nowhere enumerated in the Constitution. Contradictions abound.

I came to understand the Libertarian Right studying the gun lobby, whose vision Liddy embraces. The cynical, malignant political, social vision of the gun rights ideologies directly parallels the cynical, malignant vision of competitive, unregulated free market capitalism. The Libertarian Right's golden age of political liberty was robber-baron capitalism. Greider puts it at about 1900 for us. It would be today in Ehrenreich and Fletcher's "authoritarian capitalism" in China--or a few other places even worse.

The gun lobby vision has gained a small but ultimately meaningless foothold on the federal judiciary embraced by the same judges who will stop and reverse the advance of the dreaded socialism; but almost completely without notice and completely without public discourse and consciousness about what is really at work--political pandering to a malignant constituency. It is all part of the same story. Norquist is on the NRA's national board.

Lenin's State and Revolution (August, 1917), the last Marxist-Leninist tract before there was Marxism in power, was mostly a diatribe against social democracy, where the capitalist state protects not just capitalist property but expands to protect workers rights, basic civil liberties, the environment, consumers. Lenin repeatedly refers to the "armed masses," the gun lobby vision, who will give us a new order. That utopian vision gave us Stalinism. Is Davos's vision next? Europeans took social democracy further, but the dreaded "socialism" is our American version. We learned in the twentieth century that regulated capitalism works when based on constructive civic values and properly regulated within a viable, responsive "governing order" (Greider's words).

Your contributors lament the absence of a vision. They advocate "solidarity," "democratic planning," "action from below." The campaign rhetoric was "hope," "change," and "unity." These have to take place within the present political order. The Libertarian Right spent tens of millions sniffing around Bill Clinton's undershorts to discredit politically a popular Democratic Party president who might impose a socialist agenda on America. They have been at work for seventy years. They will not go away. Defining and defeating the Libertarian Right's anarchic, malignant vision does not define a new vision, but it is a start towards recasting civic values.

Ernest McGill

College Park, MD

Apr 6 2009 - 8:57am

Web Letter

There is nothing wrong with socialism, there is nothing wrong with capitalism, there is nothing wrong with any ism and yet none of these systems will resolve our problems in the long run.

When we are done with black-and-white thinking, with left and right, with definitions, with the endless vomiting of minds that are only outward focused, we will be able to heal the planet.

There are no political or social or economic solutions ultimately, without human beings growing up; otherwise, we just exchange one set of problems for another.

There are human solutions to human problems, not socialist or capitalist solutions.

Chris Johnson

Los Angeles, CA

Apr 3 2009 - 2:39pm

Web Letter

In the national conversation, such as it is, that's been going on since the emergence of our new president, the word "socialism" has been used extensively, courtesy of "Joe the Plumber." And in some sense I think it has been helpful--to clarify who and what people stand for.

In other ways, it's an epithet for some, a badge of honor for others. To me it's nonsense. I don't know what a socialist is. In this article, Barbara Ehrenreich & Bill Fletcher Jr. proudly declare themselves socialists, but exactly what does that mean?

Lenin and Stalin were socialists (Soviet). Hitler was a socialist (a National Socialist). Mussolini was a socialist (Fascism is a form of socialism). And Bernie Sanders is a socialist (Democratic Socialist). Evidently Ehrenreich and Fletcher are too.

What exactly do all these people have in common? Almost nothing--really, do Sanders and Hitler have anything in common? Of course not--well, almost nothing. The one thing all of these folks believe or believed in: An abiding faith in the State.

Hitler and Stalin and Lenin were pathological; of course, Mao was the worst. The socialism of Mitterrand and Sanders has, again, nothing to do with this murderousness. But faith in the state does have to do with curbing freedom.

Recently, the Federal Government took over General Motors and Obama actually fired the CEO. The treasury secretary is now thinking of taking over other corporations and running them (as it already has done with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac--another conversation important to have).

These are moves that reek of socialism, and of course, fascism. It's interesting about the lexicon: What exactly is socialism? A prominent French fascist intellectual, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, wrote a disquisition he titled "Fascist Socialism."

Yet, the originator of Fascism, Benito Mussolini, said the following: “Socialism is a fraud, a comedy, a phantom, a blackmail.”

Another Il Duce quote of interest: “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power”

In the article by Ehrenreich and Fletcher, they term China an "authoritarian capitalism" (or close to it), but it is of course not that at all. It is a capitalistic socialism, as oxymoronic as that might be. Think doubleplusungood.

The think that pair fail to understand is that capitalism isn't about money, it's about freedom. The "State" is necessary--we all need to have roads and bridges and air traffic controllers, and so forth. Otherwise, we might as well be hunter-gatherers. No capital, no capitalism. But it need not be intrusive or as expansive as the aforementioned plain left-liberals (Sanders, Mitterrand), nor the extremist socialists (Lenin, Stalin), seem to want.

Justice Marshall once wrote: "The power to tax is the power to destroy." Yes, capitalists are wary of that. To have an overarching state, it must find resources, and that comes from taxation. We all need to contribute of course, that's not really a question, but for the most absurd of anarchists or libertarians. (I recommend Max Stirner's The Ego and Its Own--a great book, which in my foolish youth I stole from a library as an act of ironic stupidity.)

So, as blathering and rambling as the previous paragraphs may be, we come to the gist--as much as socialism may be a faded and uncertain term, it can be brought down to a kernel: an abiding faith in the State to "invest," leading to confiscatory policies. Again we all have to pay taxes (except if one wants to serve in the Obama administration), to make sure we have a society worth living in. Wealth confiscation is another matter entirely, but the socialist needs a source of wealth for his public welfare state largesse.

It certainly is distinct from those who believe in doing really what they want to do, not what the State tells them to--even now we're being told what kind of light bulbs to buy. How much a person can have as a salary a year. What sort of prayer is allowed. For the left--suppress conservative radio. For the right--suppress Larry Flynt and his grotesques.

Some have called for a "radical middle" or an "extreme centrism." I've actually heard both terms, and they are on their face rather silly. Centrism means baseline--no change, no policies, just steam ahead.

Socialism, to the extent it exists as a political force, whether it be Obama or some other, is a one way ticket to poverty. The Road to Serfdom, as some might say.

James Saxon

Washington, DC

Apr 3 2009 - 12:04pm

Web Letter

Ehrenreich & Fletcher have made many important points about the need to replace capitalism with democratic socialism. If we are to solve problems of war, crisis and a sick planet caused by capitalism, we need to act and create a democratic, healthy, sustainable new society out of the crumbling mess we have today.

But the conclusion they reach,implying that such a movement doesn't exist, is wrong. What is lacking is a political expression, and only access to the mass media and political arena is the answer.

Ehrenreich laments that there is no attainable path to go from critique and vision to the next step: an actual way to change. But we do--it's through a unified, visible, new, clear, democratic socialist political party. She's right, there is no "one big party," no one big movement. But we know that!

What she fails to acknowledge is another invisible reality: the hundreds of fragmented, small groups and hundreds of thousands of people across the country ready to join that movement once it begins. For example, our own website www.PeopleForANewSociety.org shows we can use the political process to elect Congresspeople to end legal barriers to cooperative ownership. It shows a workable bicameral governance model (community- and worksite-based) that would give direct, democratic management throughout society, provide for democratic decision-making on what we need & want, what we produce &o; how, our workday, our schools, healthcare, transportation modes, energy and environment. No profit. It shows not only the model, but--yes, Ms. Ehrenreich--how to get there. Use the political process at the grassroots level to elect representatives to enact legislation and make ours a truly democratic "ownership society."

I loved much of the article's clarity on the need for democratic socialism, but we need more: truly historic & constructive clarion call from Ms. Ehrenreich. Recreating the Correspondence Committees of the First American Revolution, she and the powerful voices around us can help ignite a new movement by taking the next critical step: use the mass-media forum at The Nation and elswhere to organize around the country and help us create that "new party." This is where she let us down.

An authentic, grassroots "Yes We Can"will begin an exciting and necessary new era. Its time for creative boldness:call a meeting. Ms. Ehrenreich, The Nation can help achieve what you write about. Take a cue from Hollywood; in this case "call it and they will come."

Daniel Curtis

N. Falmouth Village, MA

Apr 2 2009 - 8:15am

Web Letter

Plan A for "Rising to the Occasion:" Digital Democracy.

As the authors conclude, organization is the key to transforming our society. In fact, this is precisely what has led capitalism to be so successful--through corporate lobbyists, capitalism has essentially organized its effort to influence legislation produced by the House and Senate. As a result, representative democracy is alive and well in the United States, but the entities being represented are corporations and not average citizens.

One way to reduce corporate influence on our democratic institutions is to digitize democracy. In a digital democracy, we could give every citizen a voice in the process of legislation by requiring US Representatives to poll their constituents on bills scheduled for a vote and publish the results. This way we could see how well our representatives are representing us.

For example: Poll results for HR 1424, Troubled Assets Relief Program. The People say: nay (32 percent vs. 68 percent); the House votes: Yea (51 percent vs. 49 percent).

To be clear, the House should have the last word; direct democracy is not a solution to our problems. A voice given to citizens in the process of legislation would be non-binding, and merely an opinion. But even so, digital democracy is a solution that would allow for participation by millions of citizens and at the same time allow the efforts of those fighting injustice to be connected.

In sum, this could be a plan--making the will of the people visible on House bills. As long as the enemy remains invisible, rallying citizens to a cause will be impossible. But if it turns out that the we the people are all able to see quite clearly that our will is continually being ignored by our representatives in Washington, DC, then and only then might we have the makings of a mass movement on our hands.

Pablo del Real

Auroras Voice<br />Delray Beach, FL

Mar 27 2009 - 9:03am

Web Letter

While I enjoyed reading this series of articles and appreciate the analysis, I don't see any plans resulting from this analysis. Social interaction is a complicated process that does not easily adjust to to sudden change, either to the right or left. We are now going through a counter-revolutionary move toward globalization, which seeks to make everyone a wage slave of multinational business interests. This new world order seeks to destroy any social protective legislation that has evolved with nation/states. In the US, they cannot officially destroy the Constitution and the state, but they can destroy its economic base, by using deficit spending for corporate welfare. Further, they can send American industries and jobs to countries with low wages. They break down borders with "free trade" treaties. They encourage excessive use of credit, instead of savings. Low interest rates do not make saving viable, and encourage speculation. Our pensions go to Wall Street through 401(k)s. They seek to destroy national representative government and replace it with the WTO or the IMF. Has globalization made you feel safe and economically secure? Or were you better off with a national economy that could be regulated and controlled?

Globalization is currently in a death spiral toward a worldwide depression. Revolution and counter-revolution does not tell you how to govern. Do you have a plan?

Pervis James Casey

Riverside, CA

Mar 26 2009 - 4:51pm

Web Letter

I feel we are falling victims to the media frenzy labeling Obama a socialist.

The president's stimulus package to the corporate elite has no provisions for the working class. Instead of wasting our energy and keeping our focus on how much bonuses are given to the chosen few, we should question our government on how many jobs were they able to save by intervening and saving these large institutions. Wouldn't make more sense to worry about the majority? A central element in every true socialist government is to guarantee employment to the majority of people.

Not only we have failed to prevent massive layoffs, companies that receive government aid or gain large contracts from various government agencies choose to relocate thousands of jobs to India and elsewhere in the midst of this unprecedented financial and most importantly social crisis.

As the fear of becoming unemployed grows, companies exploit the remaining workers even more. Long hours, even weekends, no overtime pay and cut vacation time is becoming the norm.

Are we entering a new era of "slavery"? Instead of targeting an ethic group to exploit, corporations are after the middle class--or whatever is left of it.

Nicholas Ntovas

New York, NY

Mar 26 2009 - 2:03pm

Web Letter

In regards to the question about what will the future model look like...Well, the central theme as we know it of socialism is participatory! Maybe we should revisit the efforts of Tom Hayden and company from the '60s Students for a Democratic Society and the SDS Manifesto explaining participatory democracy. It would sure fit in as a successful model of governance in a world like today in such transition, turmoil and opportunity.

I applaud the SDS for its unintentional foresight into the twenty-first century--after all, the global environment we live in today is very similar to that of the 1960s. War, poverty, hard economic times and progressive minds challenging the models of old and questioning the ethics we operate under as a nation... we are in the perfect climate to change the old ways of corporate ownership and greed; advance towards social change, equality and a recognition of what humanity is capable of!

Dennis Begany

Boston, MA

Mar 25 2009 - 9:14am

Web Letter

Ten short essays on socialism in The Nation and on thenation.com, yet not one of them mentions human population growth, which is the single most important factor underlying our present predicament. The thoughtful and deservedly respected contributors make no mention of the fact that, for example, when Marx published the first volume of Capital in 1867 the world population was about 1.3 billion and in 1932 it was about 2 billion, whereas today it is 6.7 billion. This is a big deal and it is central to understanding what we should do next.

The reason it is a big deal is that rapid human population growth favors capitalism and breeds inequality by making it possible for a few individuals to become disgustingly and pointlessly wealthy from the desperation of others. The economic law of supply and demand works for people as well as goods. If there are more people than can be comfortably supported by the environment, a condition that has existed in many parts of the world for millennia and is now becoming universal, the value of people decreases because there is an excess of supply. This situation enables one person (the capitalist) to obtain the labor of other people at rates that are at or even below the wages needed for survival. Workers have little or no bargaining power and the capitalist can become rich while others suffer and die. Workers fight among themselves and kill each other in their desperation.

Capitalism benefits from population growth in three ways: (1) ever-increasing misery of the work force, which lowers wages and thereby reduces costs (i.e., increases profits); (2) more consumers every year, which permits unlimited expansion of business despite environmental limits, which assures the impoverishment of future generations; and (3) devaluation of people, which cannot be owned, relative to things (e.g., land, petroleum, machines), which can be. This last circumstance allows the capitalist to become richer even if he carries on no business at all but merely holds property.

What today's "socialists," at least as represented by The Nation's essayists, apparently fail to grasp is that further population growth on a base of an already oversized (from an environmental sustainability point of view) human population means that socialism is much less likely to happen simply because the current situation inherently favors capitalism. In contrast, with a stable or declining human population, the value of things drops while the value of people (at least the healthy working people) increases. This impedes capitalism and fosters socialism or a similar political economy based on cooperation and unforced exchange of labor for money. Corollaries are that (1) democracy is increased because people can exercise their rights rather than having to trade them for economic security; (2) gaps in income and wealth are based on differences in individual skills and natural endowments rather than power achieved through accumulation and manipulation of wealth, making these gaps much smaller (e.g., a factor of maybe five times rather than several hundred times as is the case today); and (3) the cost of property and goods drops relative to human wages, increasing human welfare whether you have socialism or any other system.

My conclusion is that for socialism to prevail, encouragement of small families and free access to all forms of contraceptive technology should be integral parts of any socialist program. This policy should be pursued in every country in the world, not just poor countries, because the rich countries consume and pollute far more per capita than the poor. Education about the dangers of unrestrained growth of Earth's human population and how it diminishes the welfare of individual people now and in the future should be a key component of socialist doctrine and practice. Failure to include a population plank in the socialist platform will make the job of bringing about socialism harder every year, until it finally becomes impossible. Even places that achieve some form of socialism are likely to slip backward if socialism does not produce rising welfare. Then will come the inevitable calls for "tougher" measures against slackers, troublemakers and "useless" people, leading inexorably to fascism, militarism, and ultimately anarchy. Somalia, Myanmar, and Russia are examples of what much of the world will be like if population is not stabilized, and indeed decreased, very soon.

Haydon Rochester Jr.

Onancock, VA

Mar 22 2009 - 8:39am

Web Letter

The article asks many questions. It begins with the distinction between the left and right. That lefties for the most part think that people given the opportunity are basically good. The right is cynical and also corrupt. The foundation of the plan, any plan is the ballot box. We can use common sense and creativity for the rest. If we stick to our basic principles and morals the rest will flow naturally.

Greed brought us here; now it will save us? Big business and the affluent have corrupted the system and society to their benefit. The Republicans are corrupt, the Democrats are just less so. The last president that actually put poverty on the agenda was LBJ. Why is that?

One of the major reasons we're in the current crisis is that wages have remained stagnant while productivity has risen, as well as debt. The foundation of prosperity is people's purchasing power. We currently have the greatest concentration of wealth since the Great Depression. Back then 1 percent of the people owned 36 percent of the wealth. Currently that 1 percent own 38 percent of the wealth. It stands to reason that the markets could lose 90 percent, the same as in the Depression. In the '50s and '60s our GDP was in the 4 percent range; the top tax rate was near 90 percent. During the booming Clinton years it was an anemic 2 to 3 percent growth. The top tax rate was 39.6 percent. The rise of debt has fueled consumer demand since the '70s. You can't build a fair system on debt. The shift of tax burden to those that can to those who cannot afford is corruption.

We need to help homeowners, not Wall Street. We need to buy 60 percent of GM and Ford and give the stock to workers and help them with legacy costs. Single-payer would help. Do the same with other big companies in distress. Raise the minimum wage to $7.50, then raise it $1 a year until it reaches $10 per hour. Raise the salaries of government employees by 10 percent. Also reduce the trade deficit sharply by fixing the dollar exchange rate to the currencies of China, Japan, and the euro zone. Without this measure, all other measures will have limited success.

S. Stojanov

Syracuse, NY

Mar 20 2009 - 9:34am